Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 750
Restoration-era literature is defined by a variety of voices. Some Restoration poetry is a celebration of the return of the monarchy and aristocracy; some is an enthusiastic, sensual, and passionate reaction to the restoration of the theater; some shows the despair of the Puritans who found themselves overthrown after several years in power; and some is marked by the surging popularity of journalism.
A favorite member of Charles II's court was Thomas Shadwell, who eventually became poet laureate of England. Shadwell wrote numerous poems, and his plays are examples of the "comedy of manners" style of theater that became popular during the Restoration. His writing was appreciated for its bawdy humor and accurate portrayals of contemporary manners. Here is the entirety of one of his poems, titled "Dear Pretty Youth":
Dear pretty youth, unveil your eyes,How can you sleep when I am by?Were I with you all night to be,Methinks I could from sleep be free.Alas, my dear, you're cold as stone:You must no longer lie alone.But be with me my dear, and I in each armWill hug you close and keep you warm.
In this poem, Shadwell exhibits aspects of the sexual freedom of the Restoration, which was in stark contrast to the conservative preferences of the Puritans. The poem's tone is more lighthearted than writing of the previous period tended to be, and it tells of a romantic encounter with a lover. Shadwell’s poetry is lyrical and was often set to music and sung. Shadwell himself often recited his poetry aloud in court and to his friends.
Another poet and courtier of Charles II was John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. Wilmot was well respected as an intelligent and witty poet. He lived a rakish life and died of venereal disease at the age of 33. Much of his poetry is filled with explicit sexual imagery, and it is small wonder his works were later suppressed during the buttoned-down Victorian era. The following is an excerpt from his poem "The Imperfect Enjoyment":
Naked she lay, clasped in my longing arms,I filled with love, and she all over charms;Both equally inspired with eager fire,Melting through kindness, flaming in desire.With arms, legs, lips close clinging to embrace,She clips me to her breast, and sucks me to her face.
Wilmot's poetry is a perfect example of the Restoration's occasionally extreme counterreaction to the "spiritual authoritarianism" of the previous Puritan-dominated era. In fact, Wilmot grew up in a Puritan household, and while he did not share his mother's strict religious beliefs, he seems to have inherited her strong will. By the age of thirteen, a friend described how he had "grown debauched" at the private school he was sent to. Wilmot later became the lover of the famous Restoration actress Nell Gwyn, and he was a favorite of King Charles II throughout his short but active life.
One of the most notable poets and playwrights of the Restoration was John Dryden, who became the first poet laureate of England in 1668. His play Secret Love, or the Maiden Queen exemplifies several defining qualities of Restoration theater.
For example, one of the most popular stage conventions at the time was the "gay couple," a pair of witty, antagonistic lovers who, though secretly attracted to one another, hold one another at arm's length and verbally spar for most of the play—until they grudgingly reveal their love for one another at the climax. Dryden wrote Secret Love , which premiered in 1667, in a mix of prose, rhymed verse, and blank verse. The...
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following is a conversation between the battling lovers Florimel and Celamon:
Celamon: But dost thou know what it is to be an old Maid?Florimel: No, nor hope I shan't these twenty years.Celamon: But when that time comes, in the first place thou wilt be condemned to tell Stories, how many men thou mightest have had; and none believe thee: Then thou growest froward, and impudently weariest all thy Friends to sollicite Man for thee.Florimel: Away with your old Common-place wit: I am resolved to grow fat and look young till forty, and then slip out of the world with the first wrinkle, and the reputation of five and twenty.
This type of verbal repartee between lovers, rife with sharp wit and romantic foreplay, mocks all restraint and glories in shocking and thrilling the audience. The social and sexual freedom of the Restoration is fully embodied in these enjoyable comedies.