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Poetry from the time of the English Restoration (1660–1689) needs to be understood in the context of what happened in England during the Interregnum period, which came just before the Restoration. This era began with a civil war and brought a great deal of censorship and religious restriction that greatly...

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Poetry from the time of the English Restoration (1660–1689) needs to be understood in the context of what happened in England during the Interregnum period, which came just before the Restoration. This era began with a civil war and brought a great deal of censorship and religious restriction that greatly limited what could be written.

The English Civil War in 1642 came about due to conflict between King Charles I and Parliament. Each side had its own army. The king’s was called the Royalist Army, and Parliament’s was called the New Model Army, led by Oliver Cromwell. The New Model Army defeated the Royal Army in 1645 at the Battle of Nasby. King Charles I was executed in 1649, and Oliver Cromwell was given the title of Lord Protector in 1653. At this time, a radical change took place in England. For a short time, the country was known as a republic and not a monarchy. But under Oliver Cromwell, the very strict religious practices of Puritanism forced many changes onto the daily lives of the people. In fact, some scholars consider Cromwell to have been a military dictator.

Cromwell was a Puritan who insisted on pressing his religious beliefs on the population. He had theaters shut down, and sports, dancing, and other forms of entertainment were forbidden. Both men and women had to dress in somber, black clothing. Christmas celebrations were made illegal. There was a great deal of censorship that limited what could be written. People who broke the rules were severely punished.

As a whole, the Interregnum period was one of unrest, experimentation, and instability in England. The large standing army needed high taxes, there were constant threats of insurrection from Scotland and Ireland, and various conservative and radical religious sects battled to win the hearts and minds of the people.

When Cromwell died in 1658, his son Richard succeeded him but was ultimately forced to abdicate. In 1660, Charles II took the throne, and the period known as the English Restoration began. The monarchy was restored, Parliament reconvened (and miraculously stayed in session until 1679), and the various Puritan rulers were eased away. The Restoration period lasted until 1689, ending with the reign of William and Mary.

During this time, the strict rules of Puritanism faded away, and a good deal of literature began to reflect an attitude of rebellion against Puritanism—although some poetry retained a religious vision, particularly that of John Milton (author of Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes, among other works). Satire and wit were significant features of the poetry of this era.

In general, Restoration poetry had a preferred rhyme scheme: rhyming couplets in iambic pentameter. This form was also called the “heroic couplet,” and it was perfected by John Dryden. Lyrical poetry in which the poet expresses his or her own feelings in the first person was not typical of this era. Odes (a kind of lyrical poetry that addresses and often celebrates a particular subject or person) were popular.

Some Restoration poetry openly rebelled against the restrictions of Puritanism. One particularly extreme example of this feature can be found in the writings of the outrageous John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, who wrote mock odes as well as lascivious poetry that thumbed its nose at Puritanism.

Restoration Poetry

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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

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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 adopt the conventions of eternal vows of love and praise of the lady’s mind rather than her body. Examples include “Love’s Slavery,” by John Sheffield, the earl of Mulgrave (1648-1721); “I cannot change, as others do,” by Sir Carr Scroope (1649-1680); and “Fear not, my Dear, a Flame can never die,” by Sir Charles Sedley (1639-1701). Most, however, advocate the carpe diem philosophy that reflects the attitude of Hobbesian materialism, the age’s licentiousness, and the literary heritage of the Cavalier poets. Written in ballad form or iambic tetrameter couplets, the poems reject the pastoral ideal that dates back to Theocritus and Vergil in favor of more realistic portraits of country life and sex. The title of the earl of Rochester’s “Fair Chloris in a pigsty lay” (1680) indicates the tone that court wits, urban and urbane, took toward the rural. These works similarly reject the sexual innocence of the women presented. Chloris at the end of Rochester’s poem is “innocent and pleased” not because she has refused sex but because she has gratified herself. This or another Chloris in another Rochester poem begins “full of harmless thought” and concludes by having sex with a passing shepherd. The Phyllis of Rochester’s “Mock Song” (1680) declares herself natural, just like the nymphs of Arcadia, but in her case, being natural means, as it did for Restoration wits, having sex with lots of people. “’Can I,’ said she, ’with nature strive?/ Alas I am, alas I am a whore!’”

Restoration lyrics praise the woman (and the man) who is not coy, and offer arguments against delaying sexual pleasure. Rochester, in “Fling this useless Book away” (1697), asks how Phyllis can hope for divine mercy unless she helps “poor mortals in despair” by sleeping with them. In “The Advice” (1672), Rochester urges, “Submit, then, Celia, ere you be reduced,/ For rebels, vanquished once, are vilely used.” Rochester’s “Phyllis, be gentler, I advise” (1680) warns that if the lady remains chaste, she will “Die with the scandal of a whore/ And never know the joy.”

In “Out upon it!” (1659), Suckling’s speaker announces that he has loved three whole days, and he may love another three if the weather holds. Restoration wits cannot promise that much constancy. “If I, by miracle, can be/ This livelong Minute true to thee,/ ’Tis all that Heaven allows,” Rochester writes in “Love and Life” (1677). The title of his “Against Constancy” (1676) summarizes the attitude of that piece and many others. In “Persuasion to Love,” Sir George Etherege (c. 1635-1691) acknowledges, “It may be we within this hour/ May lose those joys we now do taste.” As these examples show, the Restoration lyric is polished, witty, and realistic.


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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 been held by the Irish author Richard Flecknoe (d. 1678). Dryden’s poem abounds in literary allusions to the classics, the Bible, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Shadwell’s own works. Shadwell promises to support dullness and to make no treaty with sense or wit.

This poem was published without Dryden’s permission in an effort to capitalize not on a literary but on a political controversy. Charles II had no legitimate offspring to inherit the throne, making his Roman Catholic brother James, duke of York, his heir. Some Protestants wanted Charles to legitimize James, duke of Monmouth, the king’s illegitimate son, whom Charles II liked but was not prepared to name as his successor. Parliament twice voted to exclude James from the throne; twice the king rejected this measure. Leading the opposition to James were the Whig earl of Shaftesbury and the duke of Buckingham. In 1681, Charles II imprisoned Shaftesbury in the Tower of London and charged him with treason. The case came before a grand jury in November, 1681. To influence the decision, Dryden anonymously published Absalom and Achitophel (1681, 1682), a skillful blending of the heroic and the satiric in skillfully modulated iambic pentameter rhymed couplets.

Dryden had to tread carefully, since the king loved Monmouth, and the political crisis was not yet resolved. He therefore imagined that David/Charles II ends the rebellion before it begins, so that, unlike in the biblical story, no fighting occurs and Absalom survives. Lacking action, the poem derives its energy from a series of brilliant character sketches in which the leading political figures of 1681 are thinly veiled as David’s contemporaries. Shaftesbury is Achitophel; Buckingham appears as Zimri; Titus Oates, who invented the Popish Plot, is Corah; the duke of Ormond, supporter of the king, is Barzillai. Dryden acknowledged the virtues of his opponents. Achitophel is “Sagacious, bold, and turbulent of wit.” This sketch includes the well-known line, “Great wits are sure to madness near allied,” an example of the aphoristic quality of Dryden’s verse. Monmouth is “Unblamed of life (ambition set aside),/ Not stained with cruelty, nor puffed with pride.”

After a grand jury acquitted Shaftesbury in November, 1681, his supporters produced a medal to celebrate his release. Dryden again criticized Shaftesbury in The Medall: A Satyre Against Sedition (1682), and Shadwell, a leading Whig poet, retorted with The Medal of John Bayes (1682), the “Bayes” a reference to Dryden’s post as poet laureate. This poetic feud encouraged a printer to release Mac Flecknoe. Another political poem of the period, the Sackville’s “Opinion of the Whigs and Tories,” criticizes both the Whig duke of Monmouth and the Tory duke of York. Henry Savile’s “Advice to a Painter to draw the Duke by” (wr. 1673) condemns the duke of York’s Catholicism. Rochester’s song about the duchess of Cleveland ends by mocking the prominent courtiers John Churchill and Henry Jermyn.

Although much Restoration satire is directed against individuals, some was more general. The most popular example of such writing is Hudibras (1663, 1664, 1678), by Samuel Butler (1612-1680). The poem is written in iambic tetrameter couplets. The jog-trot rhythm and frequent double rhymes contribute to the humor: “Twice I/vici,” “ecclesiastic/a stick,” “duty/show tie,” “discourse/whiskers,” and “or drunk/for Punk.” Butler claimed that only the poem’s eponymous Presbyterian hero and his partner, the Independent (Congregationalist) Ralph, were based on real people. The Puritan Sir Samuel Luke has been a popular choice for the model of Hudibras, though John Wilders in his 1967 Clarendon Press edition of the work questions this choice.

Butler began writing his poem toward the end of the Interregnum and starts the action in 1647-1648. Published in the early years of the Restoration, the work owes much of its popularity to its ridicule of the defeated Puritans. Butler’s mock-epic uses the opposite method from Dryden’s Mac Flecknoe. Whereas Dryden elevates the low to make it absurd, Butler debases the heroic, taking as his model Miguel de Cervantes’s El ingenioso hidalgo don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615; The History of the Valorous and Wittie Knight-Errant, Don Quixote of the Mancha, 1612-1620; better known as Don Quixote de la Mancha). Hudibras’s great battle in part 1 is fought against a bear-baiting crowd, and the knight is defeated by Trulla, a woman whose name aptly describes her. Characters include a bearward, butcher, tinker, cobbler, and clown rather than the nobles of true epic. Hudibras’s durance vile (imprisonment) involves being placed in the stocks, the punishment for lower-class criminals. Hudibras and Ralph appear as hypocritical and violent; their words and actions undercut their pious protestations.

Butler’s targets transcend the political and religious controversies of the Commonwealth. He mocks lawyers, pedantry (Hudibras has acquired so much learning that he has become a fool), and pretensions of all sorts, including what Butler saw as the absurdities of the new science and the Royal Society. In the third canto of part 2, Hudibras and Ralph visit the astronomer-astrologer Sidrophel. Through his telescope, Sidrophel sees a kite, which he first mistakes for a comet and then for the planet Saturn. Butler returned to this theme in “The Elephant in the Moon” (pr. 1759), in which another astronomer thinks he sees this giant mammal when in fact he is looking at a mouse that has crept into his tube. Other poems on this subject include Bulter’s “Satyr upon the Royal Society” and “Satyr upon the Imperfection and Abuse of Learning.” Butler held no brief for those who had supplanted the Puritans, writing a “Satyr upon the licentious age of Charles the 2d.” The earl of Rochester also penned general satires, including “A Satyr against Reason and Mankind” (1679) and “Upon Nothing” (1679).


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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 the Commonwealth.”

Milton’s epic can be read as an allegory of the failed Puritan revolution, with Satan and his forces as the republicans and God as the ultimately triumphant Stuarts. However, the focus of the poem is on the human, as the first line announces. The Puritan experiment failed not because the Roundheads were impious in rejecting God’s anointed king or because, like Satan, they were too weak to prevail. The revolution failed because the English, like Adam and Eve, were seduced by evil counsel and by their desire for autonomy rather than obedience. At the end of book 9, Adam and Eve “in mutual accusation spent/ The fruitless hours,” a tragic version of the absurd debates between Butler’s Hudibras and Ralph but equally representative of the failure of the various republican factions to concur. The separation of Adam and Eve at the beginning of book 9 provides the opportunity for Satan to seduce Eve and thereby cause Adam’s fall as well.

Human error led to the loss of Eden. Paradise Lost concludes with the theological consolation that in time Christ will defeat Satan. It thus also holds out the possibility of political redemption. Milton had not surrendered his republicanism. Until the final triumph, Adam and Eve and the seventeenth century English could create their own Eden through love. In its final books, Paradise Lost turns away from the public to the private sphere, where Adam and Eve can build a paradise for themselves. Like Vergil’s Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.; English translation, 1553), whose hero serves as Milton’s chief classical model for Adam, Eve, and Christ, Paradise Lost values endurance and suffering over great actions; the greatest triumph is over oneself.

Paradise Regained (1671) picks up this theme. This poem, too, offers hope for a new political Eden: “Soon we shall see our hope, our joy return.” Again, the work emphasizes obedience, patience, and fortitude in suffering. Paradise Regained lacks the drama of Paradise Lost because Satan has no chance against Christ, the poem’s hero not as warrior but as patient sufferer. Glory comes “By deeds of peace, by wisdom eminent,/ By patience, temperance.” This is the role that English men and women need to assume until the second coming of the English republic.


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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 books of poetry printed. Popular female genres were elegies for dead children, husbands, and friends. Women about to die or give birth, then an often-fatal procedure, wrote verse farewells to their husbands. Though much female poetry of the period is religious, secular love was also a common theme.

Behn, who is buried in Westminster Abbey, produced a body of work representative of the poetry of the period. She imitated classical writers, as in “A Paraphrase on Oenone to Paris” (1680), based on Ovid’s Heroides (before 8 c.e.; English translation, 1567). She also produced an imitation of Horace’s Ode 1.5, but whereas the original is addressed to a woman, Behn urges a man not to be so seductive. Behn’s “The Disappointment” was included with the earl of Rochester’s poems in the 1680 collection of his work. The poem resembles Rochester’s “The Imperfect Enjoyment,” which also appears in that volume. Both deal with premature ejaculation, but whereas Rochester focuses on the man’s feelings, Behn examines the woman’s. In “To Alexis in Answer to his Poem against Fruition: Ode” (1684), Behn again explores female attitudes toward love and sex.

The wife of James II, Mary of Modena, attracted a coterie of intelligent, witty women that corresponds to the court wits around Charles II. Among them was the talented Killigrew, a skillful painter and poet. Her Poems (1686) includes thirty pieces, including “On a Picture Painted by her self” She adopts the pastoral convention by depicting chaste nymphs, but then introduces a realistic note at the end of the work by noting that such women exist only in literature.

Another important female poet of the age was Philips, known as the matchless Orinda. A possibly unauthorized edition of her poems appeared in 1664; other editions followed in 1669, 1678, and 1710. She celebrates platonic friendship among women and also used her work to comment on current events. Writing as Galesia, the female form of Galaesus, son of Apollo, Jane Barker (1652-1732) published more than fifty poems in part 1 of Poetical Recreations (1688). She also wrote religious verse under the name Fidelia.


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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.


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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.

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