Topics so far –
12. Shakespeare’s Successors
13. Restoration Period in Literature
12. Shakespeare’s Successors
[DRAMA, PROSE & POETRY under Charles I & The Commonwealth Period]
Drama under Charles I & The Commonwealth Period
The playwrights of whom we still have to speak belong to the reign of Charles I and should therefore have place in the next book of this history. But they are so entangled with their predecessors that they cannot easily be separated from them. To study them is to continue the earlier subject. It therefore seems bet to pursue the study of the dram uninterrupted until the theatres were closed.
Philip Massinger – The playwright who, after Fletcher, dominated the stage by the number and quality of his plays, had long worked with him as a subordinate. Massinger was a composite of Fletcher and Johnson.
Massinger began his career as a collaborator with older, better-known dramatists, and especially with Fletcher, whose influence over him was strong. Among his best-known plays are his comedies, A New Way to Pay Old Debts and The City Madam, and his tragedies, the Duke of Milaine and The Unnatural Combat. His finest qualities are the fluency and vitality of his blank verse, the clarity and strength of his plot construction, and his fine theatre sense. His characters (with one or two notable exceptions, like Sir Giles Overreach in A New Way to Pay Old Debts, and Luke Frugal in The City Madam) are usually types rather than individuals, and in situation, theatrical device, and characterization, he has a fondness for repetition which is a serious weakness. The shallow, boldly drawn characters often place too great a strain upon our credulity--his villains are villainous, and his women shameless, to an incredible degree. Predominantly serious in temper, Massinger often deals with the political issues of his day. He seems to lack real humour, and the comic garb can sit rather uneasily upon him. Philip Massinger’s A New Way to Pay Old Debts (1625–26) remained one of the most popular social comedies for more than two hundred years. The theme of class superiority (the upper class, and the rising mercantile middle class) begins to be popular here, and will assume greater and greater prominence in the literature of the eighteenth century.
With characters like Greedy and Frank Wellborn, Massinger’s play brings the city comedy (here set near Nottingham) to new heights; in Sir Giles Overreach – ‘a cruel extortioner’ – it created one of the great comic roles.
John Ford – His drama is influenced by Burton’s famous Anatomy of Melancholy. In his nature Ford had a morbid twist which gave him a strange liking for the horrible and the unnatural. His plays are unequal in quality; but the most powerful of them are prevented from being revolting by their real tragic force and their high literary aims. In The Broken Heart (published 1633) he harrows the reader's feelings almost beyond endurance, while Tis Pity She's a Whore of the same year is a grim story of unhallowed passion; his Perkin Warbeck (1634), a historical tragedy, is reckoned to be among the best historical drama outside of Shakespeare; and in The Witch of Edmonton (soon after 1621) he collaborated with Dekker, Rowley, and others to produce a powerful domestic drama. Others of the sixteen plays attributed to him are The Lover's Melancholy (1628), Love's Sacrifice (1633), and The Fancies, Chast and Noble (1638).
James Shirley – Lamb calls him ‘the last of a great race’. Shirley’s tragedies The Cardinal (1641) and The Traitor (1631) tackle religious and political themes. He wrote his Narcissus inspired by Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis. He had the satisfaction of witnessing the Restoration and the revival of his plays, but he died in the Fire of London in 1666. The Cardinal, which Shirley himself esteemed as his masterpiece, is in the class of tragedies of bloodshed and horror and connected with Webster’s Duchess of Malfi.
Glapthorne and Brome – Henry Glapthorne wrote several plays of which the best, Argalus and Parthenia is borrowed from Arcadia.
Richard Brome was first the servant and then the friend of Ben Jonson, who affectionately called him his son. Brome has his master’s realism and gives numerous sketches of London life. He is also the disciple of Dekker, who likewise calls him son, and he alternates romantic comedy with comedy of manners. His most successful works are comic – A Jovial Crew or The Merry Beggars (1641) and The City Wit or The Woman wears the Breeches. These works show that, despite Puritan opposition, the theatre continued to be a lively art-form right up until the theatres were closed in 1642.
John Day – wrote amusing comedies, The Isle of Gulls, Law Tricks, and Humour out of Breath, which are inspired by Shakespeare. Day’s most original work is The Parliament of Bees, a fantastic production which is in the nature of a masque, or rather like a series of eclogues.
Note: The plays of Massinger sustain the expiring spirit of the great Elizabethans; those of Ford follow the tragical school of Webster and Tourneur.
The great flourishing of drama as a popular form in the 1590s left an enormous number of plays, and a generation of playwrights who are major writers but who have been overshadowed by the ever-present figure of William Shakespeare.
The distinction between tragedy and comedy, in writers other than Shakespeare, becomes more and more distinct during the first twenty-five years of the seventeenth century. The world of Jacobean tragedy is a dark world of corruption, perversion, blood and passion. The world of comedy is more localised, ‘city comedy’, based on the city of London and its people, with their obsessions, above all, with money and sex.
The major figures in Jacobean drama (Shakespeare and Ben Jonson aside) are Thomas Middleton, John Webster, Thomas Dekker, Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher (usually in collaboration), Thomas Heywood, and Philip Massinger. In the Caroline period (after the accession of Charles I in 1625) – although Jonson was still writing – the most significant (tragic) dramatist was John Ford.
Dramatic production was suddenly checked in 1642. After the playhouses had struggled for existence against the Puritans for three-quarters of a century, it was to the Puritans that victory finally fell. The war had been declared against the stage. Gosson was writing his School of Abuse in 1579. In 1583, the Puritan Philip Stubbs renewed the attack much more vigorously with his Anatomy of Abuses, in which he claimed Biblical support for his condemnation of the drama. His book provoked many replies from Lodge, Nashe, Field, Gager, Heywood and others. Five years later, a pendant to it was supplied by the famous Histriomastix of William Prynne (1632).
Many things combined to oppress the drama at this time. Chief among these were the civil disturbances and the strong opposition of the Puritans. In temper the age was not dramatic. It is curious to note that Milton's greatest work, which in the Elizabethan age would probably have been dramatic in form, took on the shape of the epic. The actual dramatic work of the period was small and unimportant; and the unequal struggle was terminated by the closing of the theatres in 1642.
Some reason for the Puritans’ objections to the ‘immorality’ of the stage can be found in the highly charged passions displayed, for instance, in John Webster’s The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi (both between 1609 and 1613), tragedies which raise the themes of blood, lust and intrigue to new heights of poetry and violence. It is this rich mixture of shocking themes and vivid language which characterises Jacobean tragedy, and gives it an intensity which no other age has repeated in English drama.
Puritanism does not simply represent opposition to theatrical activity and similar pursuits. Several dramatists, most notably Middleton, identified themselves with Puritan beliefs, although not in an extremist way. Puritan thought aimed, in its most literal sense, to purify and simplify the spiritual mindset of the time: only later did the extreme of revolution become an option.
The result of extreme Puritan moralistic pressure was that, in 1642, the Long Parliament put an end to theatrical performances. The closure of the theatres brought to an end the greatest period of English drama. Never again was drama to be the most popular literary genre or such a vital forum for the discussion of the major themes of the age.
Prose under Charles I & the Commonwealth Period
The previously expansive development of literature was restricted and thought was concentrated on a single book – The Bible. The fact that the dominant figure is that of the great Puritan poet Milton favours this view. In exchange for the liberty it partly lost, it acquired a seriousness, a severe dignity.
1. Religious Prose: This period has been called 'the Golden Age of the English pulpit.' No doubt the violent religious strife of the time has much to do with the great flow of sermon writing, which is marked with eloquence, learning, and strong argument. In addition to Jeremy Taylor and Fuller, already mentioned, we may notice Robert South who writes rather more briefly and simply than the rest, Isaac Barrow learned and copious, and Richard Baxter a Nonconformist, whose The Saints' Everlasting Rest (1649) has survived all his preachings.
2. Philosophical Works: On the moral side there are the works of Sir Thomas Browne; on the political those of Hobbes; and on the religious side the books of John Hales (1584-1656). Works of this type show a growing knowledge and advancing scholarship, joined sometimes to quaint conceits and artless credulity.
3. Historical Works: In this class Clarendon's and Fuller's works stand pre-eminent. The development of the history will be noticed in a future chapter (see p. 280).
4. Miscellaneous Prose: In this large and varied group may be included the pamphlets of Milton, Hobbes, Fuller, and many more; the attractive books of Izaac Walton whose The Compleat Angler (1653) is the classic of its kind; the interesting Resolves, short miscellaneous essays, of Owen Felltham; and the Familiar Letters (1645), an early type of essay-journalism, of James Howell.
Sir Thomas Browne may be taken as representative of the best prose-writers of the period. Almost alone among his contemporaries, Browne seems to have been unaffected by the commotions of the time. His prose works, produced during some of the hottest years of civil contention, are tranquilly oblivious of unrest. His books are only five in number, are individually small in size, and are of great and almost uniform merit. Religio Medici, his confession of faith, is a curious mixture of religious faith and scientific scepticism; Pseudodoxia Epidemica, or Vulgar Errors (1646), sharing the same mental inconsistency, resembles the work of Burton in its out-of-the-way learning; Hydriotaphia: Urne Buriall (1658), commonly considered to be his masterpiece, contains reflections on human mortality induced by the discovery of some ancient funeral urns; The Garden of Cyrus (1658) is a treatise on the quincunx. A last work, Christian Morals, was published after his death.
Jeremy Taylor is the most prominent literary divine of the period. A learned, voluble, and impressive preacher, Taylor carried the same qualities into his prose works, which consisted of tracts, sermons, and theological books. His most popular works, in addition to his collections of sermons, were The Liberty of Prophesying, (1647), Holy Living (1650), and Holy Dying (1651).
Richard Baxter was the most prolific of the prose-writers, whose Saints’ Everlasting Rest is a classic of religious literature and whose Relique is an inexhaustible mine of information on the ecclesiastical history of the period. The title Mere Christianity, a phrase used by the seventeenth-century clergyman Richard Baxter, was meant to evoke the core of Christian belief system and, as well, the common intellectual issues faced by everyday believers or inquirers into the Christian faith.
Fuller and Walton – Fuller is witty and pointed in his prose. He wrote The Church History of Britain, and his book The Holy State and the Profane State and the Worthies of England are most read. Fuller received various appointments, and by his witty sermons attracted the notice of Charles I. During the Civil War he was a chaplain to the Royalist forces; but when his side was defeated he made his peace with the Parliamentary party and was permitted to carry on his literary labours. He died the year after the Restoration.
Fuller had an original and penetrating mind, a wit apt for caustic comment, and an industry that remained unimpaired till the end of his life. His literary works are therefore of great interest and value. His serious historical books include The History of the Holy War (1639), dealing with the Crusades, and The Church History of Britain.
Izaak Walton – was the parishioner and humble friend of Donne, Drayton and Jonson. He is a delightful biographer. To his life of Donne he added those of Henry Wotton, Richard Hooker and George Herbert, all of which were collected in one volume in 1670. His The Compleat Angler (1653) is the classic of its kind, in which he is trying to recall songs which once had pleased him.
Bunyan & Clarendon
John Bunyan is recognized as a master of allegorical prose, and his art is often compared in conception and technique to that of John Milton and Edmund Spenser. Although he wrote
nearly fifty works, he is chiefly remembered for The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come (1678), which, translated into numerous foreign languages and dialects, has long endured as a classic in world literature.
His autobiographical memoir, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (1666), is concerned with life events only as they relate to his own spiritual experience.
Bunyan’s first published work, Some Gospel-Truths Opened (1656), was an attack on the Quakers for their reliance on inner light rather than on the strict interpretation of Scripture.
The imprisonment is the central event of his later career: It was at once a martyrdom that he seems to have sought and a liberation from outward concerns that inspired him to write literary works. Once the Stuart monarchy had been reestablished in 1660 under Charles II, it was illegal for anyone to preach who was not an ordained clergyman in the Church of England. Bunyan spent most of the next twelve years in Bedford Jail because he would not give up preaching, although the confinement was not difficult and he was out on parole on several occasions. In 1672, the political situation changed when Charles II issued a Declaration of Indulgence that allowed for greater religious freedom. Except for a six-month return to prison in 1677, Bunyan was relatively free to travel and preach, which he did with immense energy and good will. Bunyan’s principal fictional works were published during this post-imprisonment period and included the two parts of The Pilgrim’s Progress in 1678 and 1684, The Life and Death of Mr. Badman in 1680, and The Holy War in 1682.
Clarendon: Clarendon's History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England, which was not published till 1704, is largely the record of his own personal experiences and opinions.
Hobbes & Harrington
Hobbes was an English philosopher, whose treatise Leviathan (1651) is a fundamental work of political theory. He argued that information from our senses is the basis of all knowledge, not intuition or spiritual revelation. In his controversial Leviathan (1651), human nature is portrayed as essentially selfish.
The strongest reply to Hobbes’s Leviathan was from the pen of the Puritan James Harrington who in his Oceana, proposed a republican Utopia in opposition to the absolute monarchy advocated by Hobbes.
Note: Machiavelli has been called the founder of empirical (observation-based) political science, having a noticeable influence on the philosophies of Thomas Hobbes and Francis Bacon.
Poetry under Charles I & the Commonwealth Period
At the death of James I in 1625, Spenser’s influence was almost exhausted, surviving only in Milton. It was Ben Jonson and especially John Donne who now had disciples and imitators. The poets of the middle seventeenth century fall into two main groups, separated by the differences which make the history of this troubled period. There are first the secular poets, all in the Royalist ranks and therefore known as the Cavaliers, and secondly there are religious poets, subdivided into the Anglicans and the Puritans.
Thomas Traherne: The poetry of Thomas Traherne is, more than any other poetry of the seventeenth century, poetry of joy. He anticipates Christopher Smart in his celebration of creation, and has even been compared to the nineteenth-century American poet Walt Whitman for his unconventional, exuberant verse forms. His poems were not published until after his death, some in Christian Ethics (1675), more in Centuries in 1699 and, through the good luck of his notebook being found in the 1890s, Poetical Works in 1903 and Select Meditations in 1908.
The sixteenth century saw the development of a brand of verse known as Metaphysical poetry, a forerunner of existentialism. Some of the better-known Metaphysical works include:
Ignatius His Conclave (1611), a poem by John Donne. The man perhaps most closely associated with the Metaphysical movement (a label, incidentally, that was only applied in retrospect), Donne, like Marvell, was not above mixing politics and poetry, as in this anti-Catholic polemic that mocks the Jesuit order and name-checks several prominent scientists of the day, including Nicolaus Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, and Galileo Galilei.
The Temple (1633), a poetry collection by George Herbert. An Anglican priest, Herbert concerned himself mostly with religious themes in his poems—several have been turned into hymns. Nearly all of his poetry is contained in this volume.
Silex Scintillans (1655), a poetry collection by Henry Vaughan. Like Herbert, Vaughan was a Welsh poet, but his poetry initially focused more on the natural world and its beauty. After he met Herbert, however, he experienced a religious conversion and produced this volume of ‘‘sacred poems,’’ becoming a noted and respected poet in the process.
Although Donne was far too much of an individual for any succeeding poet to resemble him very closely, his influence is strongly felt in both the courtly and religious poetry of the following generation, and the 'metaphysical' school embraces such names as George Herbert, Richard Crashaw, Henry Vaughan, Robert Herrick, Thomas Carew and, in some respects the finest of all of them, Andrew Marvell. Yet all of these, while reflecting directly or indirectly the influence of Donne, differ in many important respects from their great predecessor.
Thomas Carew: Thomas Carew (pronounced Carey) wrote many lyrics and songs, though with a rather more cynical tone than those of his friend, Sir John Suckling. He is first noted for an elegy to John Donne and for one of the best-known masques of the 1630s, Coelum Britannicum, performed with settings by Inigo Jones in 1634. Carew’s Poems of 1640, the year of his death, range from the erotic to the satirical, and express passion vividly, as in Mediocrity in Love Rejected. His Poems (1640) show his undoubted lyrical ability. The pieces are influenced by Donne and Jonson, but they have a character of their own.
The Cavalier Poets
John Suckling: Suckling was the cavalier of the romances and the Restoration plays --gay, generous, and witty. His poems largely reflect these characteristics. As a poet he has great ability, but he is usually the elegant amateur, disdaining serious and sustained labour. Some of his poems, such- as the Ballad upon a Wedding and Why so Pale and Wan, Fond Lover? show the tricksy elegance that is his chief attraction.
Richard Lovelace: When the Civil War broke out he was imprisoned by the Roundheads, and, being liberated on parole, could do little actively to assist Charles. His volume Lucasta (1649) contains the best of his shorter pieces, which had appeared at different times previously. His best-known lyrics, such as To Althea, from Prison and To Lucasta, going to the Wars, are simple and sincere, and free from the cynicism of his day, but most of his poems are careless in workmanship, full of affected wit and gallantry, and often rendered obscure by extravagant and grotesque conceits.
John Cleveland: The startling 'metaphysical' quality of the works of many of the poets of this age is revealed at its worst in the works of John Cleveland (1613-58), whose more violent efforts came to be known as 'Clevelandisms.' The following is a mild example of his manner:
The flowers, called out of their beds,
Start and raise up their drowsy heads;
And he that for their colour seeks,
May find it vaulting in her cheeks,
Lord Herbert of Cherbury is remembered for his revealing Autobiography. He is the elder brother of the devotional poet George Herbert. Herbert also wrote historical works, including The Expedition to the Isle of Rhé (Eng. trans., 1860) and The Life and Raigne of King Henry the Eighth (1649). Occasional Verses (1665) shows him to have been a talented and original poet as well.
Robert Herrick is recognized as one of the most accomplished English poets of his age. Scholars and critics are gradually appreciating the achievement represented by his only book, Hesperides; or, The Works Both Humane and Divine (1648).While some of his individual poems, such as ‘‘To the Virgins toMake Much of Time,’’ ‘‘Upon Julia’s Clothes,’’ and ‘‘Corinna’s Going a-Maying,’’ are among the most popular of all time, recent examinations of his Hesperides as a whole have begun to reveal a Herrick whose sensibility is complex, subtle, and coherent.
Herrick became one of several ‘‘sons of Ben’’ who had notable literary careers themselves. Others include Thomas Carew, Sir John Suckling, and Richard Lovelace. This group, sometimes called the Cavalier Poets by scholars, carried on Jonson’s revival of classical poetic styles.
Shortly after Hesperides was published, Charles I was removed from the throne by the victorious Independents led by Cromwell. The king was executed in 1649, and Cromwell ruled England as a commonwealth until he died in 1648. Cromwell’s son Richard succeeded him, but his rule was even more unpopular than his father’s, and Parliament invited the return of the monarchy in 1660. The year of the Restoration, Herrick personally petitioned to be returned to his former vicarage. Charles II, the son and heir of Charles I, granted his petition and sent him back to Dean Prior in 1662, where he served until his death at the end of harvest season in October 1674.
Note: Herrick’s ‘‘To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time’’ could be the most famous ‘‘carpe diem’’ poem in the English language. Here are other verses expressing, or questioning, the same universal theme:
‘‘Mignonne, allons voir si la rose’’ (1553), a poem by Pierre de Ronsard. This French poet famously compares his reluctant lover’s beauty to a flower destined to droop and wither.
‘‘The Passionate Shepherd to His Love’’ (c. 1590), a poem by Christopher Marlowe. A famous English pastoral love poem with romantic ideals as straightforward as its meter: ‘‘Come live with me and be my love.’’
‘‘Song to Celia’’ (1607), a poem by Ben Jonson. A brief seduction poem from the literary patriarch of the Cavaliers: ‘‘‘Tis no sin love’s fruit to steal; / But the sweet theft to reveal.’’
‘‘To His Coy Mistress’’ (c. 1680), a poem by AndrewMarvell. A strong carpe diem argument is presented in a courtly seduction poem featuring the lines: ‘‘Had we but world enough, and time, / This coyness, lady, were no crime.’’
‘‘Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night’’ (1943), by Dylan Thomas. This lament upon mortality, Thomas’s most famous poem, urges the reader to ‘‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light.’’
George Herbert: George Herbert was a seventeenth-century English poet best known for writing intensely devotional verse using simple, direct speech. Although considered a metaphysical poet, alongside John Donne and Andrew Marvell, Herbert avoided secular love lyrics in favor of sincere, holy worship. His best-known work, The Temple: Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations (1633), is admired as a profound exploration of humanity’s relationship with God.
Two of Herbert’s most anthologized poems are ‘‘The Altar’’ and ‘‘Easter Wings,’’ shape poems—also called figure poems—in which the poem is written or printed in a shape that reflects the subject of the poem.
Other well-known shape poems include:
Calligrams (1918), poems by Guillaume Apollinaire. With the publication of this work, which is composed of complex shape poems, Apollinaire coined the word calligram to describe literature in which words are assembled to form an object.
Come to My Party, and Other Shape Poems (2004), a children’s poetry collection by Heidi Roemer. Springtime rain, ocean waves on a summer day, Halloween pumpkins, snow-covered hills—the poems in this book celebrate the shapes one can find in each season.
Types of Shapes (1991), a poetry collection by John Hollander. Some playful, others artistic, these poems show that form can enhance meaning in poetry.
Richard Crashaw: His best work is in Steps to the Temple (1646) and much of it was reprinted with valuable additions in Carmen Deo Nostra (1652). In many ways Crashaw is not metaphysical: his poems reveal no complexity of mind, no conflict or tension: the manner is not colloquial, and the images are pictorial rather than intellectual, lacking the homeliness of Donne and Herbert. At the same time he has the metaphysical fondness for the striking conceit, which, in him, often becomes fantastic. His poetry is notable for its fire and fervour, and the impetus which it derives from his religious excitement and exaltation.
Henry Vaughan: Vaughan's love-poems, though they are often prettily and sometimes beautifully phrased, are inferior to his religious pieces, especially those in Silex Scintillans. His religious fervour is nobly imaginative, and strikes out lines and ideas of astonishing strength and beauty. His regard for nature, moreover, has a closeness and penetration that sometimes (for example, in The Retreat) suggest Wordsworth.
Andrew Marvell: One of the last of the seventeenth-century Metaphysical poets, Andrew Marvell is noted for intellectual, allusive poetry that is rich in metaphor and conceit. The poems generally thought to be his best, such as ‘‘To His Coy Mistress’’ and ‘‘The Garden’’—both first published in Miscellaneous Poems (1681)—are characterized by complexity and ambiguous morality, which critics believe both define his talent and account for his appeal.
Political poems, such as ‘‘An Horatian Ode Upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland’’ and ‘‘Upon Appleton House,’’ have prompted much critical debate due to their ambiguity.
Abraham Cowley: In the Civil War he warmly supported the King; followed the royal family into exile, where he performed valuable services; returned to England at the Restoration; and for the remainder of his life composed books in retirement. Cowley, even more than Pope and Macaulay, is the great example of the infant prodigy. When he was ten he wrote a long epical romance, Pyramus and Thisbe (1628), and two years later produced an even longer poem called Constantia and Philetus (1630). All through his life he was active in the production of many kinds of work--poems, plays, essays, and histories. His best-known poem was The Davideis (published 1656), a rather dreary epic on King David, in heroic couplets. Other poems were The Mistress (1647), a collection of love-poems, and the Pindarique Odes, which are a curious hybrid between the early freedom of the Elizabethans and the classicism of the later generation. His prose works included his Essays and Discourse by way of Vision concerning the Government of Oliver Cromwell (1661).
Edmund Waller: Edmund Waller is considered a minor poet within the English canon. He is known less for his poetry than his political activism; specifically, the thwarted royalist conspiracy known as ‘‘Waller’s Plot.’’ In terms of his writing, he is best recognized for ‘‘Go, Lovely Rose’’ (1645), which has been widely anthologized as an excellent example of a Cavalier lyric.
John Denham: is known for his descriptive poem Cooper's Hill (1642). It is the first example in English of a poem devoted to local description, of the Thames Valley scenery round his home at Egham in Surrey. Denham wrote many versions of this poem, reflecting the political and cultural upheavals of the Civil War.
John Milton: English writer John Milton used both his poetry and prose to address issues of religion and politics.
At first unpopular, Milton eventually made a name for himself as a rhetorician and public speaker. While at Cambridge he probably wrote ‘‘L’Allegro,’’ ‘‘Il Penseroso,’’ and ‘‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,’’ three of his earliest great poems in English. Upon graduating in 1632, Milton devoted himself to intense study and writing. To this period scholars assign the composition of some of Milton’s finest nonepic poems, including ‘‘Lycidas’’ (1638).
The purpose of ‘‘Lycidas’’ was twofold: to honor the late Edward King, a former schoolmate at Christ’s College, and to denounce incompetent clergy—a perennial concern of Milton’s. The poem also reveals Milton’s own philosophical ambitions—later undertaken in Paradise Lost—to justify God’s ways to humanity. Many critics consider ‘‘Lycidas’’ the finest short poem in the English language.
In May 1638, Milton embarked on a long journey through Italy. The experience, which he described in Second Defence of the People of England (1654), brought him into contact with the leading men of letters in Florence, Rome, and Naples. Upon his return to England, Milton wrote the Italy-inspired Damon (1640).
With the advent of English Civil War, Milton’s life changed utterly as his attentions shifted from private to public concerns. The English Civil War was a result of the discontent between Charles I and his subjects. Beginning in 1642, armed conflict broke out between the antiroyalist Puritans and Scots and the royalists, who supported the monarchy, and who included the Welsh. Abruptly Milton left off writing poetry for prose, pouring out pamphlets during the early 1640s in which he opposed what he considered rampant episcopal tyranny. He declared his Puritan allegiance in tracts in which he argued the need to purge the Church of England of all vestiges of Roman Catholicism and restore the simplicity of the apostolic (that is, early) church.
In 1644, Milton published Areopagitica, often cited as one of the most compelling arguments for the freedom of the press. During the next few years Milton worked on his History of Britain (1670). With Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell’s execution of King Charles I in 1649, however, Milton entered the political fray with The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1649), an assertion of the right of a people to depose or execute a ruling tyrant. Paradise Lost was published in 1667, an epic poem recounting the biblical story of humanity’s fall from grace. This work and its sequel, Paradise Regained (1671), are celebrated for their consummate artistry and searching consideration of God’s relationship with the human race. Samson Agonistes (1671), a tragedy, appeared in the same volume as Paradise Regained. In 1673, Milton embraced controversy once again with Of True Religion, a short defense of Protestantism.
Epic poems are long narrative poems in an elevated style that usually celebrate heroic achievement and treat themes of historical, national, religious, or legendary significance. They appear in every culture. Here are some other examples of epic poetry.
Omeros (1990), by Derek Walcott. The Nobel Prize–winning poet retells the story of the Odyssey through West Indian eyes. The Caribbean island of St. Lucia reveals itself as a main character, and the poem itself is an epic of the dispossessed.
Paterson (1946–1958), by William Carlos Williams. This five-book serial poem was one of the first to redefine the epic, concerning itself with the city of Paterson, New Jersey, and examining modernization and its effects.
The Ring Cycle (1848–1874), by Richard Wagner. This cycle of four operas by the German composer is based on events from Norse sagas and the Nibelungenlied. The cycle is designed to be performed over the course of four nights, and the full performance takes about fifteen hours.
Restoration Period in Literature
English Literature by Edward Albert [Revised by J. A. Stone]
History of English Literature, by Legouis and Cazamian
The Routledge History of Literature in English: Britain and Ireland, by Ronald Carter and John McRae
Gale’s Contextual Encyclopedia of World Literature