Lodge was the least boisterous of the noisy group of learned wits who, with Greene and Marlowe at their head, invaded London from the universities during the close of Elizabeth's reign. He began to write as early as 1580, and was among the first who adopted the style invented by Lyly in his Euphues; but it was not until Greene had successfully composed several romances in this manner that Lodge came forward and surpassed both Greene and Lyly in his lovely fantastic pastoral of Rosalynde, composed under a tropical sky, as the author sailed with Captain Clarke between the Canaries and the Azores. During the next ten years Lodge was very prolific, closing this part of his career with the Margarite of America, an Arcadian romance, so named because the poet was in Patagonia when he wrote it. By this or soon after, all the young men of genius with whom he had associated were dead, and Lodge retired from literary life, and settled down as a physician. He lived on almost to the birth of Dryden; but his place as a poet is among the immediate followers of Spenser and precursors of Shakespeare.
In some respects Lodge is superior to most of the lyrical poets of his time. He is certainly the best of the Euphuists, and no one rivalled him in the creation of a dreamy scene, "out of space, out of time," when the loves and jousts of an ideal chivalry could be pleasantly tempered by the tending of sheep. His romances, with their frequent interludes of fine verse, are delightful reading, although the action flags, and there is simply no attempt at characterization. A very courtly and knightly spirit of morality perfumes the stately sentences, laden with learned allusion and flowing imagery; the lovers are devoted beyond belief, the knights are braver, the shepherds wiser, the nymphs more lovely and more flinty-hearted than tongue can tell; the courteous amorous couples file down the long arcades of the enchanted forest, and find the madrigal that Rosader or the hapless Arsinous has fastened to the balsam tree, or else they gather round the alabaster tomb of one who died for love, and read the sonnet that his own hand has engraved there. This languid elegant literature was of great service in refining both the language and the manners of the people. There was something false no doubt in the excessive delicacy of the sentiment, something trivial in the balanced rhythm and polish of the style; but both were excessively pretty, and both made possible the pastoral and lyrical tenderness of the next half-century. Among all the Elizabethans, no one borrowed his inspiration more directly from the Italians than Lodge; he was fortunately unaware of the existence of Marini, but the influence of Sannazaro and of the school of Tasso is strongly marked in his writings.
As a satirist Lodge is weak and tame; as a dramatist he is wholly without skill; as a writer of romances we have seen that he is charming, but thoroughly artificial. It is by his lyrical poetry that he preserves a living place in literature. His best odes and madrigals rank with the finest work of that rich age. In short pieces of an erotic or contemplative character he throws aside all his habitual languor, and surprises the reader, who has been toiling somewhat wearily through the forest of Arden, by the brilliance and rapidity of his verse, by the elan of his passion, and by the bright turn of his fancy. In his best songs Lodge shows a command over the more sumptuous and splendid parts of language, that reminds the reader of Marlowe's gift in tragedy; and of all the Elizabethans Lodge is the one who most frequently recalls Shelley so mind. His passion in the Rosalynde has a little of the transcendental and ethereal character of the Epipsychidion, while now and again there are phrases so curiously like Shelley's own, that we are tempted to believe that the rare quartos of Lodge must have passed through the later poet's hands. One such example is the
A Turtle sate upon a leafless tree,
Mourning her absent fere,
with its curious resemblance to
A widow bird sate mourning for her love
Upon a wintry bough.
The sonnets of Lodge are gorgeous in language, but lax in construction; he did not understand the art of concentrating and sustaining his fancy in a sonnet; but the volume entitled Phillis contains many beautiful fragments and irregular pieces, tending more or less to the sonnet form. His epics of Scilla's Metamorphosis and Elstred are rambling pieces in the six-line stanza, produced rather in consequence of the success of Venus and Adonis than out of any genuine desire to tell a classical story. In each poem the action is neglected, and the tale, such as it is, is smothered under a shower of courtly, flowery fancies. A poem "in commendation of a solitary life," is one of Lodge's most admirable pieces, but is too long to be given here, and does not lend itself to quotation. He was a poet of fine genius, fervent, harmonious, and florid; but he was too sympathetic or not strong enough to resist the current of contemporary taste, running swiftly towards conceit.