Restoration Poetry

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Last Updated on August 21, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 593

The Restoration is the period in English history between 1660 and 1689, beginning with the return of Charles II to the throne. The poetry of this period is characterized by aspects of realism and reason, with authors building upon the concept of the satire and modernizing the field of poetry through their advancements. This period acts as a transition between the metaphysical poetry of an earlier period and the Augustan poetry characteristic of the eighteenth century. The two most prominent poets of the Restoration were John Milton (1608–1674) and John Dryden (1631–1700).

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Milton had already established himself as the greatest lyrical poet of the later Renaissance with his first collection of poetry, Poems of Mr. John Milton, Both English and Latin (1645). During the Restoration, he composed what are commonly regarded as his three masterpieces: Paradise Lost (first published in 1667 and revised in 1674), Paradise Regain’d (1671), and Samson Agonistes (1671)—the former two being epic poems, while the latter is a dramatic one.

It is difficult to overestimate Milton’s greatness. Combining powerful moral tenor with a brilliant profusion of poetical expression, as evidenced in the above three masterpieces especially, he transformed the very character of subsequent English poetry.

An extreme Protestant and a staunch Republican, Milton was against the overall spirit of the Restoration—with its demands for secularization, playful libertinage, and political intrigues.

In contrast, Dryden thoroughly belonged to his epoch. As a poet, he largely reflected the ideals of equipoise, sense, and responsibility before society, which were particularly meaningful to the mores of the Restoration.

Restoration literature’s reaction to the strict puritanical limitations of the former regime expressed itself most vividly in amatory verse and pastoral dialogues by Charles Sedley; satires by Charles Sackville, Earl of Dorset; parodies and epigrams by John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester; and occasional verses, pamphlets, lampoons, and satires by George Villiers, second Duke of Buckingham. Poet and satirist Samuel Butler bitterly mocked puritanism in his long poem Hudibras.

Marked with the spirit of skepticism, Restoration poetry was equally opposed to both the creative imagination of the Renaissance and Puritan rejection of earthly pleasures.

The main peculiarity of this epoch’s poetry is its pervasive employment of the heroic couplet. This form was not new, as it had been used since Chaucer, but Dryden perfected it. The only novelty in the use of form was the so-called pseudo-Pindaric, or irregular ode. It was introduced by Abraham Cowley, who sought to imitate Pindar without copying the ode’s structure (strophe, antistrophe, epode). Thus, each strophe had its own meter, which allowed greater irregularity in line length and rhyming. Dryden used this form in his odes To the Pious Memory of the Accomplished Young Lady Mrs. Anne Killigrew and Alexander's Feast, or the Power of Music.

Poetical inspiration during the Restoration usually entailed events of political life. Dryden wrote poems about the war with Holland and the fire of London in the spirit of Virgil. Cowley lauded the establishment of the Royal Society. Butler, however, derided this event in The Elephant in the Moon. The peculiarity of Restoration satire was that its object was particular persons or political parties rather than vice as a whole. For example, Dryden, in his Absalom and Achitophel, scorned Whig leaders.

A great contribution of Restoration literature was poetical translation. Again, the most prominent in this arena was Dryden. He translated Ovid, Theocritus, Lucretius, Horace, Juvenal, Persius, and Homer, as well as Chaucer and Boccaccio. These translations were characterized by a loose treatment of the original text and references to individuals and events of the contemporary epoch.

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