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 arm
Will 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...
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