English Poetry in the Seventeenth Century Analysis


ph_0111201666-Donne.jpg John Donne Published by Salem Press, Inc.

A question that can be asked of any century’s poetry is whether it owes its character to “forces”—nonliterary developments to which the poets respond more or less sensitively—or whether, on the other hand, the practice of innovative and influential poets mainly determines the poetry of the period. Clearly, great poets do not always shape the literature of their century, as the cases of the twin giants of seventeenth century England, William Shakespeare and John Milton, indicate. What Ben Jonson wrote of Shakespeare is true of both: They are “not of an age, but for all time!” John Donne and John Dryden, however, are poets who seem to have stamped their personalities on much of the poetry of their own and succeeding generations.

John Donne and John Dryden

John Donne (1572-1631) turned twenty-nine in the year 1601. John Dryden (1631-1700), busy to the last, died at the end of the century. Thus a century brimming with good poetry may be said to begin with Donne and end with Dryden. On most library shelves, Donne and Dryden are both literally and figuratively neighbors. If not the shaper of poetry in the first half of the century, Donne stands at least as its representative poet, while Dryden, born only a few months after Donne died in 1631, probably has an even more secure claim to the same position in the final decades of the century. They may indeed have determined the poetic climate; certainly they serve as barometers on which modern readers can see that climate registered. The distinctive differences between the writings of the two men testify to the diversity of seventeenth century poetry and to the likelihood that powerful forces for change were at work in the interim.

The differences are apparent even when—perhaps particularly when—roughly similar types of poems (and parallels between the two are inevitably rough) are chosen. Donne wrote two sequences of religious sonnets. One begins:

Thou hast made me, and shall thy work decay?Repair me now, for now mine end doth haste,I run to death, and death meets me as fast,And all my...

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The Elizabethan heritage

The Renaissance came to England late. Sixteenth century Italian poetry is dotted with famous names—Ludovico Ariosto, Pietro Bembo, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Torquato Tasso—and French poets distinguished themselves throughout the century, Pierre de Ronsard and the Pléiade group overshadowing others of whom today’s readers would hear much more but for that brilliant constellation of poets. The Elizabethan poets’ debt to these older literatures, particularly to that created by their French elders and contemporaries, has been well documented.

After the appearance of The Shepheardes Calender (1579) by Edmund Spenser (c. 1552-1599), English poetry came on with a rush, while the post-Renaissance Baroque movement was already rising on the European continent. By 1600, both Spenser and Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586) were dead, but many of their contemporaries from the 1550’s and 1560’s worked on, with many of their brightest achievements still ahead. As relief from the earlier but continuing Elizabethan tradition of ponderous, prosaic moralizing exemplified by the incessantly reprinted and expanded A Mirror for Magistrates (1555, 1559, 1563), the poets of later Elizabethan decades favored pastorals, love sonnets, mythological narratives, and of course songs and the verse drama.

As part of the last wave of poets to come of age under Elizabeth, Donne and Jonson might have been expected to rebel against their elders. Fifteen years or so of hobnobbing with Hobbinol (poet Gabriel Harvey, c. 1545-1630) and other literary shepherds and of agonizing with woebegone Petrarchan lovers over their unattainable or recalcitrant golden ladies goaded the new generation into staking out new territory. The sweetness and naïveté of much Elizabethan verse cloyed their literary taste buds. The serious side of Elizabethan endeavor ran wearyingly to themes of transience and mutability. There was room for more realism and sophistication, and new forms and conventions.

Donne responded by parodying the ideal Petrarchan mistress in his paean to indiscriminate love, “I can love both fair and brown,” meanwhile...

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London brotherhood

In few European countries was there such a concentration of talent and creative energy as in Renaissance London. England had no city to rival it in size or cultural pretensions, and to the city or to the court came all aspiring writers and all ambitious men. Literary associations blossomed easily in its square mile, as did rivalries and jealousies. Although London did not boast a university, many of its creative men came to know one another in school. Beginning in the last quarter of the sixteenth century, for example, and extending over the next seventy years, the roster of poets who attended just one school, Westminster, includes Jonson, Richard Corbett, Giles Fletcher, Henry King, George Herbert, William Strode, Thomas Randolph, William Cartwright, Abraham Cowley, and Dryden. Half of these men later gravitated to one Cambridge college, Trinity. A similar list of poets who claimed residence at London’s Inns of Court might be made. It is likely that the richness of late Elizabethan and seventeenth century English poetry owes much to the cross-fertilization that is almost inevitable when virtually all of the poets of any given time know one another more or less intimately. Although poets have always come together for mutual support and stimulation, in the seventeenth century, the poets who did so were not beleaguered minorities without status in the intellectual world or insulated coteries intent on defending the purity of their theory and practice against one another. Poets constituted something of a brotherhood—although brothers are known to fight—and not a school or club where narrowness can prevail along with good manners.

Realizing the essentially close relationships among poets whose work scholars tend to classify and mark off from one another, modern commentators on seventeenth century poetry have emphasized the common heritage and shared concerns of writers once assumed to be disparate and even antagonistic. It is well to recall this shared heritage and common cause when distinguishing—as criticism must distinguish—among individual achievements and ascertainable poetic movements.

The Metaphysical school

After Sir Herbert Grierson’s edition of Donne’s poems in 1912, critics spent some decades attempting to define and delineate “Metaphysical poetry.” T. S. Eliot, in a 1921 essay, lent his prestige to the endeavor, and such studies as George Williamson’s The Donne Tradition (1930), Joan Bennett’s Four Metaphysical Poets (1934), J. B. Leishman’s Metaphysical Poets (1934), Helen C. White’s The Metaphysical Poets (1936), and Rosemond Tuve’s Elizabethan and Metaphysical Imagery (1947) refined readers’ understanding of the movement but created such a vogue that the term “metaphysical” came to acquire a bewildering variety of applications and connotations, with the understandable result that some critics, including Leishman, came to view it with suspicion. Nevertheless, it remains useful for the purpose of designating the kind of poetry written by Donne, Herbert, Richard Crashaw, Henry Vaughan, Thomas Traherne, Andrew Marvell (at least some of the time), and a considerable number of other seventeenth century poets, including the American, Edward Taylor. The earlier tendency to call these poets a “school” has also fallen into disrepute because the term suggests a much more formal and schematic set of relationships than existed among these poets. Douglas Bush, in his valuable contribution to the Oxford History of English Literature series, English Literature in the Earlier Seventeenth Century, 1600-1660 (1962), refers to the Metaphysicals after Donne as his “successors,” while Joseph H. Summers prefers another designation, as the title of his 1970 study, The Heirs of Donne and Jonson, indicates.

Because the bulk of English Metaphysical poetry after Donne tends to be religious, it has been studied profitably under extraliterary rubrics, especially by Louis L. Martz as The Poetry of Meditation (1954), in which the author demonstrates how many distinctive features of such poetry derive from the Christian art of meditation, especially from such manuals of Catholic devotion as Saint Ignatius of Loyola’s Ejercicios espirituales (1548; The Spiritual Exercises, 1736) and Saint Francis de Sales’s An Introduction to the Devout Life (c. 1608). More recently, Barbara Kiefer Lewalski has argued for the importance of Protestant devotional literature in her Protestant Poetics and the Seventeenth Century Religious Lyric (1979). Donne and some of his followers have been profitably studied as poets of wit, a classification that connects them with Jonson and the Jonsonians, in later books by Leishman (The Monarch of Wit, 1951) and...

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Metaphysical poets in the New World

A Mexican nun, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648-1695), rivals Taylor (c. 1645-1729), who came to America in 1668, as the first Metaphysical poet of the New World. Like Crashaw, Sor Juana writes emotional, sexually charged religious verse, but also like him, she was a keen student of theology and something of an intellectual. In Taylor, the Metaphysical manner and a Puritan religious outlook produced a body of poetry unique in the American colonies or elsewhere. The influence of Richard Baxter’s famous book The Saints’ Everlasting Rest (1692) is heavier on Taylor than on any other Metaphysical poet, and many of his poems are cast as meditations. The language is that of a man who lived and worked on the late seventeenth...

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Religious poetry and other trends

Finally, the seventeenth century produced a body of poetry not usually classified as Metaphysical but having some affinities with that tradition. Much of it is religious. Emblem poetry, best exemplified by Francis Quarles (1592-1644), was a mixed-media art including a print that depicted a scene of religious or moral significance, a biblical quotation, a related poem, another quotation, and, in most cases, a concluding epigram. The engravings in emblem books are frequently more interesting than the poems, but the form seems to have made its mark on Spenser, Shakespeare, and several of the Metaphysical poets, notably Herbert and Crashaw. Herbert’s great book The Temple (1633) contains several poems that, arranged to form...

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Baroque poetry

Probably because it arose as a reaction against a Renaissance classicism that had no parallel in England before Jonson, the Baroque movement, beginning around 1580 and continuing for the better part of a century, had few manifestations in English poetry. First applied to architecture and later to sculpture and painting, the term described in particular the style of certain sixteenth century Venetian painters, particularly Jacopo Robusti Tintoretto, and of those, such as El Greco, who were influenced by the Venetians. The Baroque disdained formal beauty and placidity in favor of asymmetrical composition, rich color, energy, and even contortion.

Applied to prose style, “baroque” signifies the revolt against full and...

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Mid-century transition

To argue for too neat a mid-century transition between the earlier classical, Metaphysical, and Baroque styles, on the one hand, and the neoclassical age on the other, is perhaps to betray an obsession with the neoclassical virtue of symmetry, but in a number of ways the mid-century marks a turning point. England’s only interregnum straddles the century’s midpoint, while on the Continent the Thirty Years’ War came to an end with the treaties of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Both of these political events involved poetry and poets, the English Civil War more strikingly. The continental wars, insofar as they involved Protestant-Catholic clashes, represented nothing new, but they exhibited several modern features. Because...

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Poetry and the scientific revolution

Of the nonliterary forces on seventeenth century poets, the New Science may well have been the most uniformly pervasive throughout the Western world. Whereas social, political, and even religious developments varied considerably in nature and scope, the scientists were busy discovering laws that applied everywhere and affected the prevailing worldview impartially. Some artists and thinkers discovered the New Science and pondered its implications before others, but no poet could fall very many decades behind the vanguard and continue to be taken seriously. The modern reader of, say, C. S. Lewis’s The Discarded Image (1964) and E. M. W. Tillyard’s The Elizabethan World Picture (1943) observes that the...

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Neoclassicism from 1660 to 1700

By the Restoration, the poets had turned their attention primarily to public and social themes. The comedy of this period has given readers the impression of a licentious age determined to bury the memory of Puritanistic domination and live as fast and loose an existence as possible. Such behavior could not have characterized more than a tiny percentage of the people of later Stuart England. It was an age struggling for order through compromise. Wit might entertain, but life required sober judgment.

The classical tradition survived the New Science better than did the Metaphysical. It did not aspire to compete with science in the realm beyond everyday human and social experience. The Jonsonian tradition of short lyric...

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(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Baker, David J. Between Nations: Shakespeare, Spenser, Marvell, and the Question of Britain. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1997. Fusing historiography and literary criticism, this book places Renaissance England and its literature at a meeting of English, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh histories.

Barbour, Reid. English Epicures and Stoics: Ancient Legacies in Early Stuart Culture. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998. Part of the Massachusetts Studies in Early Modern Culture series. Portrays the intricate dialectical influence of the ancient Greek philosophies of Epicureanism and Stoicism on seventeenth...

(The entire section is 815 words.)