Restoration Poetry

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

As a movement covering nearly three decades in British history, the Restoration period was marked by works from numerous significant poets who contributed to this new era in literature. Three of the best-known Restoration poets are John Dryden, Samuel Butler, and John Milton, all of whom created unique and revolutionary works of poetry during the time period.

John Dryden (1631–1700)

Dryden’s poems are perhaps more representative of the Restoration era than any others. He was one of the pioneers of the political satire, a poetic form popular during the Classical period that was subsequently revived by poets and academics during the Restoration. Modern readers of Dryden’s satires, such as Ashley Marshall, have asserted that—unlike Samuel Butler’s—Dryden’s satires had less to do with high moral ideals and more to do with his personal and political situation.

Such an assertion is given weight by Dryden’s most successful satirical work, Absalom and Achitophel, which portrays a decidedly anti-populist message in favor of the Stuarts and of absolute monarchy more generally. After the fall of King James II and the accession of the Protestant William of Orange, Dryden found himself politically isolated and at the mercy of his enemies, and he was obliged to moderate his satirical impulses. Though he criticized William’s regime, he did so by means of veiled metaphor—as with the play Aphitryon of 1690, wherein Dryden criticizes the nature of arbitrary power as wielded by one individual (ironically, given his staunchly pro-monarchist leanings under the Stuart regime).

Samuel Butler (1613–1680)

Butler served under Sir Samuel Luke, a colonel in the Parliamentary army, during the English Civil War, and the fanaticism of his fellow soldiers contributed to his becoming a passionate royalist and religious rationalist who valued the stability of the Church and the State in a time of religious and political change. Like Dryden, Butler made use of satire to espouse anti-Puritan sentiment. This use of satire was an artistic habit which earned him acclaim in the courts of Charles II and James II. His most successful work, Hudibras, was a favorite of King Charles. This mock epic seeks to portray the absurdity of Puritan philosophy in terms of its characters—who are shown to be fanatical yet false in their Puritan principles—and also in its form, particularly its use of so-called “burlesque” rhyming couplets as a means of perverting its otherwise conventional iambic tetrameter. The poem is credited as the first satire to focus on ideas as opposed to personalities.

John Milton (1608–1674)

Some critics are uneasy with the classification of Milton as a Restoration poet. They assert that, with the dissolution of the Commonwealth republic in which Milton had been especially politically active, the poet retreated within himself, abandoning politics for a life of introspection. However, critics such as Clay Daniel have argued the opposite, insisting that Milton’s poetry and prose retained their political flavor under the Stuart regime. Certainly, some of his most provocative works (such as Paradise Lost), dealing with topics as unfashionable as individual freedom and political disobedience, were produced during the forty years of the Restoration.

Milton continued to uphold his Puritanical views in the changing times, and he subsequently became rather unpopular. Nonetheless, his works have retained cultural currency in a way that the works of his contemporaries, Dryden and Butler, have not. A potential reason for this is that Milton was a political as well as a religious radical whose work was often censored because of its populist leanings. In particular, his “State Letters” (or “Literae”), which was published after his death and outside of English jurisdiction, expressed his commitments to civil liberty—commitments which perhaps make him a more appealing read for modern people.

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