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Mannerism is a hard-to-define term that’s loosely applied to literature and more commonly used in regard to visual arts. When it comes to poetry, it refers to elaborate, particularly clever, and highly poetic work.

Mannerism is sometimes used to define the elaborate conceits used in sonnets and the work of Metaphysical poets and is other times applied more abstractly to literature that’s ornate in nature.

Conceits in Elizabethan sonnets and in the work of authors like John Donne are the best, easiest to recognize examples of the Mannerist style. But, readers can find Mannerist qualities in Spanish and Italian literature and even in the modern period of English writing. 

Mannerism definition and examples

Mannerism Definition

Mannerism is a term used to describe ornate, clever, and highly poetic literary work. In these poems, authors often used new, sometimes dark, metaphors, contended with spiritual concerns, featured aspects of virtue and morality, and utilized other qualities that allowed the poet to confuse the real with the fictional. 

Often, Mannerism is used as a term to define the period between the Renaissance and the Baroque. It developed in the 100 years between 1520 and 1620. 

Mannerism Characteristics in Literature

  • The contrast of the unreal with the real. 
  • Introduction of strange, unusual elements within literature and art.
  • Focus on spiritual concerns and mortality. 
  • Use of complex conceits. 
  • Emphasis on ornate and highly poetic writing.

Examples of Mannerism in Poetry 

Sonnet 108 by William Shakespeare 

Shakespeare is one of the few authors commonly cited as writing within the Mannerist style or period. His ‘Sonnet 108,’ also known as ‘What’s in the brain that ink may character,’ is an interesting example. Shakespeare uses clever figurative language to depict the speaker’s love for the Fair Youth as unchanging, despite the ravages of old age. In these first lines, the speaker complains that there is so much more for him to write about his love, despite what he’s already created. 

What’s in the brain that ink may character

Which hath not figured to thee my true spirit?

What’s new to speak, what now to register,

That may express my love, or thy dear merit?

Nothing, sweet boy; but yet, like prayers divine,

I must each day say o’er the very same;

The poet uses elaborate language and poetic diction while speaking to and about the mysterious “Fair Youth.” 

Read more William Shakespeare poems

Holy Sonnet 14 by John Donne 

‘Holy Sonnet 14,’ or ‘Batter my Heart’ is one of the Metaphysical poet’s best-known works. The poem is directed at God and asks him to take hold of the speaker. His “Divine Sonnets” or “Holy Sonnets” are all religious in nature. Specifically, they speak on mortality, divine love, and divine judgment. The poem begins with: 

Batter my heart, three-personed God, for you

As yet, but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;

That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend

Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

I, like an usurped town, to another due,

Labour to admit you, but Oh, to no end.

Donne uses the pattern commonly associated with Shakespeare’s works throughout this poem, known today as a Shakespearean or Elizabethan sonnet. Another great example of the elements of mannerism comes from A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.’ 

Throughout this poem, the poet’s speaker uses a clever conceit to compare his relationship to a compass. He writes, “Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show / To move, but doth, if the other do.”

Explore more John Donne poems.

Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto 

‘Orlando Furioso’ is an epic poem that first appeared in 1516 but was not completed until 1532. The story is a chivalric romance that also tells the story of Roland’s death (from Chanson de Roland). 

Within this important literary work, readers can find a mix of realism and fantasy, one of the several attributes that have been defined as “Mannerist.” There are sorcerers, gigantic monsters, a flying horse, a hippogriff, and more within the poem. Here is a quote as translated to English by William Stewart Rose: 



  And from those ancient days my story bring,

  When Moors from Afric passed in hostile fleet,

  And ravaged France, with Agramant their king,

The long poem (one of the longest in European literature) is also written in ottava rima and follows a rhyme scheme of ABABABCC, lasting for forty-six cantos (a total of 38,736 lines).

Mannerism and Visual Arts

In the realm of visual arts, the term “Mannerism” refers to a style of painting, sculpture, and more. The movement emerged during the later years of the High Renaissance, and, as it is in literature, it is commonly considered a bridge between Renaissance art and the Baroque period. Early Mannerism is known for its “anti-Renaissance” style, while High Mannerism is more intricate and intellectual in nature. Some of the most important Mannerist artists include Michelangelo, Tintoretto, El Greco, Paulo Veronese, and Correggio. 

The art of this period was defined by a focus on artificiality alongside reality. This meant depicting the figure in unusual ways and utilizing strange, bizarre, and new elements within painting and sculpture. High Renaissance perspective was flattened and changed, allowing a new, unreal perspective to reign within painting. 


What is mannerism literature?

In literature, Mannerism refers to work that is elaborate, ornate, and particularly clever. Often, the term is strictly applied to work created between 1520 and 1620. But, some literary scholars have utilized the term regarding work from any period that demonstrates these characteristics.

What are the characteristics of Mannerism?

In literature, three characteristics of Mannerism include a focus on spiritual concerns, clever turns of phrase, and the introduction of new juxtapositions between real and fantasy elements. In art, Mannerism describes a particular style of painting and sculpture in which human bodies are elongated, twisted, and posed in unrealistic positions. Artists also flattened the traditional Renaissance perspective and included bizarre new images within the traditional subject matter.

What does Baroque mean in history?

The term “Baroque” comes from the French word meaning “irregularly shaped.” It is used to describe an extravagant style of art that followed the Renaissance period and is characterized by highly ornate ornamentation. 

What is an example of Mannerism in literature?

In literature, the complex and beautiful conceits of Metaphysical poets like John Donne are often cited as one of the best examples of this particular style of writing. William Shakespeare’s Elizabethan sonnets are another example. 

Related Literary Terms 

  • Augustan Age: a period during the first half of the 18th century in England. Poets during this period created verse inspired by authors like Virgil and Ovid.
  • Baroque: used to define a literary period that began in the 1500s and lasted through the 1700s in Europe.
  • Cavalier Poets: a group of writers from the 17th century in England. They are generally defined by their class and the fact that they originated from that who supported Charles I during the English Civil War.
  • Elizabethan Era: a literary period that lasted through the years of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, from 1558 to 1603.
  • Georgian Poetry: a poetic movement in England that lasted from 1910 to 1936 during the reign of George V.

Other Resources 

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