Restoration Poetry Analysis

Restoration Poetry

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The Restoration period (1660-1700) takes its name from the return of Charles II to the throne of Great Britain after that nation’s experiment with republican government. As an indication of the illegitimacy of the Commonwealth, Charles II’s reign was dated from 1649, when his father, Charles I, was executed, rather than 1660, the year he assumed power. Just as official records recognize no break between reigns, so poetry in the latter part of the seventeenth century is in many ways continuous with what preceded it. Jacobean and Caroline poets such as Ben Jonson (1573-1637), Robert Herrick (1591-1674), and Sir John Suckling (1609-1642) remained influential. The two most important Restoration poets, John Dryden (1631-1700) and John Milton (1608-1674), began their careers before 1660. While the Metaphysical impulse of John Donne and George Herbert was largely spent by the time Charles II came to the throne, the Greco-Roman classics still served as models and ideals. Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667, 1674) is Vergilian, and Dryden’s satires owe much to Juvenal, some of whose works Dryden translated. Nonetheless, during the forty years of the Restoration period, new verse forms emerged, older genres flourished and changed, and writers penned some of the greatest English poems ever written.

The lyric

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Print culture had not yet developed, as it would in the next century, to the point where it would allow a writer to earn a living by his or, less frequently, her pen. Indeed, in 1660, print was still regarded as less prestigious than manuscript, the form in which poetry largely circulated. The poems of Andrew Marvell (1621-1678) were not published in book form until 1681, three years after his death. Most of the poetry of the John Wilmot, earl of Rochester (1647-1680), was not printed until after his death in 1680. The same is true for the works of Katherine Philips (1632-1664) and Anne Killigrew (1660-1685). The profession of letters remained much as it had been in the time of Augustus Caesar, when writers hoped that their work would secure them patronage.

In this literary environment, the aristocracy and gentry had the advantage not only of education but also of the leisure to compose. Alexander Pope (1688-1744) characterized the poets of the Restoration as “the mob of gentlemen who wrote with ease.” A coterie of fourteen of these men close to Charles II contributed significantly to the poetic output of the period, writing more than five hundred songs, satires, prologues, and other occasional verse. Following Roman and Cavalier models, they addressed love poems to Phyllis, Chloris, Aurelia, Celia, Corinna, Daphne, Sylvia, Urania, and other such pastoral names, behind which may or may not have lurked real women. In 1671, Charles Sackville, earl of Dorset (1638-1706), one of these court wits, complained, “Methinks the poor town has been troubled too long,/ With Phillis and Chloris in every song.” Sackville devoted his verses here to the praises of Bess Morris, a well-known prostitute.

Sackville’s mocking of the pastoral mode was characteristic of the age. Some Restoration lyrics...

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(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The period from 1660 to 1798, sometimes extended to 1832, known as the long eighteenth century, is the age of satire. The genre traces its roots at least as far back as the fifth century b.c.e. comic playwright Aristophanes, although the models for Restoration writers are primarily the Augustan Horace and the early second century c.e. Juvenal. English precedents include the sixteenth century John Skelton, John Marston, and Thomas Nashe. After 1660, however, the popularity of this literary form soared. Coffeehouses, the first of which opened in London in 1652, provided a venue for the circulation of personal lampoons and more general attacks. The rise of the political parties Whigs and Tories in about 1680 prompted partisan poetical broadsides and pamphlets, which could easily be rushed into print to meet the demands of the moment. In 1679, the Licensing Act temporarily lapsed, making satire safer. Even after the law was renewed in 1685, it was less strict, and the number of master printers in London was no longer limited. The act expired in 1695, not to be renewed. Satire in the Restoration was popular culture, not necessarily high art, although it might rise to that level in the hands of a writer such as Dryden. It focused on individuals and current affairs, doing what Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) referred to as “paying court to temporary prejudices” in Life of Cowley (1779). The aim of such works was as much to display the wit of the writer as to point out the perfidy of the person or cause attacked.

Court ladies provided targets for often-anonymous lampoons. The anonymous “A Panegyric on Nelly” (1681) is, despite its title, an attack on royal mistress Nell Gwyn. So is Etherege’s “Madame Nelly’s Complaint” (c. 1682). “Lais Senior: A Pindarick” and “A Satyr which the king took out of his Pocket” both criticize the duchess of Cleveland, another of Charles II’s lovers. One of Rochester’s songs begins, “Quoth the Duchess of Cleveland to counselor Knight,/ ’I’d fain have a prick, knew I how to come by’t’” (1680). “The Royal Buss” is directed against the duchess of Portsmouth, yet another royal lover. “Portsmouth’s Looking Glass” (c. 1679) portrays the duchess of Portland as the true ruler of England. “A Faithful catalogue of our Most Eminent Ninnies” (1683) assails both the duchess of Cleveland and the duchess of Portland, as does the earl of Mulgrave’s “Essay on Satyr” (pr. 1721).

Writers did not spare each other. Rochester’s “An Allusion to Horace” (1675) catalogues the faults of the leading authors of the period, particularly Dryden, although it praises Rochester’s friends. In his “Preface to All for Love” (1678), Dryden responded by claiming that “An Allusion” was the work of a hack pretending to be Rochester. Sackville’s “The Duel” (1687) takes as its target the two minor poets Philip, Lord Wharton, and Robert Wolseley. After Edward Howard published The British Princes (1669), he became the subject of at least eight lampoons by various court wits. Rochester and Scroope exchanged a series of verse attacks. Rochester and Etherege also undertook a verse battle with the earl of Mulgrave, whom they designated as Bajazet for his promiscuity, a name that stuck. Rochester also satirized him as “My Lord All-Pride” (1679).

One of the best contributions to the poetomachia of the period is Dryden’s Mac Flecknoe: Or, A Satyre upon the True-Blew-Protestant Poet, T. S. (1682), directed against Thomas Shadwell. In this 217-line mock-heroic poem in iambic pentameter, Dryden presents Shadwell as heir to the throne of dullness that had...

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(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The greatest poem written in the Restoration period is Milton’s Paradise Lost, which can rival the finest work of any era. Unlike so much of the poetry of the period, Milton’s epic rejects the heroic couplet, so named because of its frequent use in the heroic tragedies of the time. In a note prefixed to Paradise Lost, Milton observed that Homer and Vergil shunned rhyme, which, he claimed, had been introduced “to set off wretched matter and lame metre.” He linked unrhymed verse to “ancient liberty” and rhyme to “troublesome and modern bondage,” indicating that his choice of blank verse was political as well as aesthetic. His line is typically iambic pentameter, though he sometimes adds an extra syllable. For further variety, he introduces the occasional trochee or anapest and varies the placement of the caesura, the mid-line pause. To elevate his diction, he uses Latinate syntax and language, such as “arborous,” “concoctive,” “conflagrant,” “myrrhine,” “plenipotent.”

Milton had long been contemplating an epic, but the English Civil War and Commonwealth drew him into public affairs. Ironically, only the defeat of his political hopes provided him the leisure to make his greatest contribution to his country. Political defeat also provided him with his subject. F. J. C. Hearnshaw wrote in English History in Contemporary Poetry (1912), “Paradise Lost is not only the epic of the Fall of Man, it is also the epic of the ruin of the cause of...

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(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The Ladies’ Calling (1673), attributed to Richard Allestree, lists women’s accomplishments, beginning with “ornamental improvements which become their quality as Writing, Needle works, Languages, Music or the like.” Pope’s “mob of gentlemen who wrote with ease” was matched by a fair number of women writers, including the first to earn a living by her quill, Aphra Behn (1640-1689), though her income derives mainly from her plays rather than her poetry. Like their male counterparts, most women circulated their verse in manuscript. Dorothy Osborne, herself an intelligent and articulate women, wrote in 1653 that Margaret Cavendish, duchess of Newcastle (1623-1673), must be “a little distracted” to have her...

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(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Though best remembered for its witty comedies, the Restoration produced a substantial body of enduring poetry, including Milton’s epics and Dryden’s satires, translations, and odes for Saint Cecilia’s day, in which language imitates musical instruments. The second of these poems, “Alexander’s Feast,” was set to music by Georg Handel. The period purified the iambic pentameter couplet, but it also popularized blank verse, not only because of Milton but also through the blank-verse tragedies of Dryden and others. Its satires and classical imitations and translations inspired the leading poets on the eighteenth century: Pope, Johnson, and Jonathan Swift. The period also saw the entrance of women into the literary marketplace, a movement that would subsequently accelerate. In his Life of Dryden (1781), Johnson wrote, “What was said of Rome, adorned by Augustus, may be applied by an easy metaphor to English poetry embellished by Dryden, lateritiam invenit, marmoream reliquit, he found it brick, and he left it marble.” This assessment might aptly be extended to the contribution of all Restoration poets to the edifice of English verse.


(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Jack, Ian. Augustan Satire: Intention and Idiom in English Poetry, 1660-1750. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1952. Includes chapters on Hudibras, Mac Flecknoe, and Absalom and Achitophel.

Miner, Earl. The Restoration Mode from Milton to Dryden. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1974. A survey of the period’s poetry; emphasizes the contributions of Samuel Butler, John Milton, and John Dryden.

Parfitt, George. English Poetry of the Seventeenth Century. London: Longman, 1985. The poems in this anthology are arranged by genre, such as the lyric and epic, and span the entire century.

Prescott, Sarah, and David E. Shuttleton, eds. Women and Poetry, 1660-1750. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Part 1 provides essays on such individual poets as Aphra Behn and Anne Killigrew. Part 2 deals with the social, economic, and literary contexts in which women wrote, and part 3 looks at literary models, political concerns, and working-class female poets.

Wilson, John Harold. The Court Wits of the Restoration. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1948. A study of the work of Pope’s “mob of gentlemen who wrote with ease,” with chapters on their contributions to lyric poetry, satire, and drama.