Literature of the English Revolution Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Literature of the English Revolution

The English Revolution, also known as the Puritan Revolution and the English Civil War, officially began in 1642 with the onset of military action between King Charles I and his supporters, and the forces rallied by the Puritan Parliament. Yet the political upheaval and religious schisms which contributed to the revolution were underway long before 1642. The causes of the English Revolution are hotly debated among historians, but some agree that a combination of the struggle for power between parliament and the crown and the religious divisions between Anglicans and Puritans were the most potent forces behind the developing crisis. Political and religious pamphlets were produced in abundance during the mid-1600s. Religious sermons, often highly political in nature, were also preached and sometimes printed during this time, and, like the practice of pamphleteering, attempted to sway public opinion. Additionally, much of the poetry of this time period was focussed on the topical religious issues, issues which many maintain fueled the fire of the Revolution.

Critics such as Nicholas Tyacke (1973) stress that the revolution of the mid-1640s was already brewing in the 1620s. Tyacke notes that the Calvinism and Puritanism of England was threatened by the rise of Arminianism, the belief in God's universal grace, and in the free will of all men to obtain salvation. Calvinists and Puritans believed that salvation was predestined, that men were divided into the classes of the Elect and the Reprobate. As the House of Commons gained power in the 1640s, it wore an increasingly Puritan face, whereas King Charles I surrounded himself with Anglicans and Arminians. Stuart E. Prall (1968) also surveys the troubles of the early 1600s, demonstrating how James I, Charles's father, had failed to understand the role and power of Parliament, and had championed the cause of royal sovereignty. Prall notes that with the ascension of Charles came an increasing reliance of the crown on the Bishop of London, and therefore an increase in both political and religious tensions. These tensions exploded with armed conflict in 1642, continued for several years with the Puritans being lead by Oliver Cromwell, and lasted until the execution of Charles I in 1649. The Puritan Parliament then abolished monarchy, the House of Lords, and the Anglican Church and declared England a Commonwealth. England was ruled by Cromwell as Lord Protector until his death in 1658, after which his son Richard attempted to fill Cromwell's role. Richard was unable to do so, and following the dissolution of the Puritan Parliament in 1660, a newly elected Parliament restored the monarchy and offered the crown to Charles I's exiled son, Charles II. Thus began the Restoration.

The religious and political issues which fueled the Revolution also inspired the writers of pamphlets. William Haller (1934) describes the pamphlets of revolutionary England as being inspired by the concept of liberty, and argues that the doctrine of liberty was developed during these years and on the pages of pamphlets. Haller argues that liberty was first understood in religious terms, as men of this time conceived of organized society as a religious body with which the state was closely involved. While not the first to extoll the virtues and need for liberty, John Milton, Haller notes, wrote, in addition to his many pamphlets, the finest expression of this aspiration for liberty with his Areopagitica (1644). Some pamphlet writers supported Parliament and attacked the crown, others defended the various religious sects or asked for religious tolerance, and some even abused Parliament. While Haller stresses the importance of liberty to the pamphleteers and to the Revolution, William Lamont (1986) maintains that liberty was not the concern, not the cause or the inspiration of the Revolution. Lamont discusses several crises of the English Revolution, in which revolutionaries were not concerned with liberty, but rather with the role of bishops within the government. Most advocated stricter godly control, argues Lamont, not freedom. One of the most popular pamphleteers was William Prynne, who Lamont describes as Parliament's official apologist. In addition to Prynne's parliamentary favor, Lamont states that Prynne wrote pamphlets that were widely read among English citizens, and which demonstrate the religious consensus advocating control, not freedom. Lamont concludes that the goal of liberty may have been an unintended consequence of the activities of revolutionary Puritans, but that freedom was not their rallying cry.

It was not unheard of for pamphleteers to be arrested for their writing against the crown, or against the bishops. William Prynne was arrested in 1637 for just such an attack, notes D. H. Pennington (1970). Godfrey Davies (1939) argues that such censure was the reason for the use of the pulpit to convey political messages. In examining both ways in which political sermons influenced public opinion, as well as the crown's effort to control such preaching, Davies notes that one preacher, Henry Burton, whose sermon attacked the bishops, was punished alongside William Prynne in 1637.

Like most English people during the early and mid-1600s, including pamphleteers, preachers, and politicians, poets of this time focused heavily on religious themes. Douglas Bush (1945) surveys some of the poetry of the mid-1600s, and demonstrates the influence of the religious beliefs of poets such as George Herbert, Richard Crashaw, and Henry Vaughn, on their work. Bush notes, for example, the influence of the Bible on Herbert's poetry, and the fact that although Crashaw's father was a Puritan clergyman, he himself rebuffed Puritanism and focuses on Catholic themes and imagery in his poetry. William Lamont and Sybil Oldfield (1975) comment on the sheer obsessiveness of the recurrent subject of religion in the poetry of this time. In addition to this obsession, Lamont and Old-field note that many concerns revealed in mid-seventeenth century literature are relevant today. They argue that while the power held by Anglican bishops may no longer be an issue, we still ask ourselves: what is a just society? How is it to be realized? and Can mutually exclusive ideologies possibly be tolerated within one society?