We are ready to embark on an adventure through a turbulent time in British history: the 17th and 18th centuries. I have chosen to describe this period with the term &#x201C;Neoclassical&#x201D; because of its return to classical themes in literature, music, architecture, and art, but you will hear it classified just as often by other terms. It&#x2019;s hard to pin down because of its variety, as you will see.
The major political and societal events that impacted the literature and writers of this time period are the Decline of the Renaissance, the Restoration of the Monarchy, the Glorious Revolution, and a tremendous growth in the amount of reading and education available.
While the Renaissance did not end exactly in 1660, we use this date because of the events that followed English Civil War and Charles II&#x2019;s return from exile in France. Following the death of King James I, whom you will remember from our study of Macbeth, his son Charles became king. Charles was remote and autocratic, meaning he believed he had absolute power. He was fairly self-destructive, too. By the time Charles became king, the Puritans, the same group who would later colonize New England, had risen to prominence and their parliamentary party had gained power. English politics are different from American politics in that an entire party is voted in as in charge. Right now, for example, it&#x2019;s the Labour Party, and Gordon Brown is both Prime Minister of England and leader of his party.
The Puritans&#x2019; party, led by Oliver Cromwell, was pitted against the king&#x2019;s party, the Royalists, in an English Civil War by 1642.
Oliver Cromwell is now considered one of the foremost military and political strategists of his time. The end result of this Civil War was that Charles was beheaded, the monarchy was abolished, and first the Parliament and then Oliver Cromwell himself ruled England. Cromwell is considered a dictator, and perhaps if he had not been so unpopular and controversial&#x2014;he remains controversial to this day&#x2014;perhaps England would not have brought back their monarchy, and perhaps it might today be a republic like France. One item that might interest you about Cromwell, if you didn&#x2019;t know it, is that he encouraged the Jews to return to England. Jews had been banished from England in 1290 by Edward I, and they had been gone for over 350 years when Cromwell invited them back. Another weird fact about Cromwell&#x2014;the English were so angry with him that 3 years after he died of malaria, they dug him up, hanged him, and beheaded him. I guess they felt cheated by not being able to execute him when he was alive, so they carried it out after he died.
After Cromwell died, his son ruled as Lord Protector of England for just 9 months before the monarchy was restored, and Charles II, the son of Charles I, was invited to occupy the throne. England was exhausted by nearly 20 years of civil war. They must have believed that returning to the way things were before it all started would bring a measure of peace. After the Restoration, the Church of England, which had been ousted for a time by Cromwell&#x2019;s Puritans, regained power. Puritans had disapproved of theater and closed the theaters, but after Cromwell&#x2019;s government was overthrown, the theaters came back. However, there was a backlash against Puritans and other groups of religious dissenters, such as Quakers, and as a result, many of these groups emigrated to America and other countries, such as the Netherlands, and their descendants would later found the United States.
When Charles II died in 1685 without a legitimate heir, his brother James became king. James, however, was Roman Catholic, and at this point, England had been a Protestant nation for over 100 years. When he produced a legitimate heir, folks in England became worried. What if this meant a return to a Catholic England? The English feared they would be dominated by Rome, so Protestant political leaders moved quickly to name James&#x2019;s daughter Mary as queen. Mary&#x2019;s husband William of Orange, who was Dutch, attacked England and forced James to flee. And you think your family has problems. Parliament invited William and Mary to rule jointly over England, which they did. You have probably heard of the College of William and Mary in Virginia, which was founded while William and Mary ruled England. Because not a single drop of blood was shed in this revolution, it has been called &#x201C;the Glorious Revolution.&#x201D; The Protestant succession to the throne was now secure. Mary&#x2019;s sister Anne would become queen after William died, and a law was enacted to ensure that no Catholic could inherit the throne of England. This law is still in effect.
As the 18th century progressed, more and more writers would concern themselves with the middle class and their concerns rather than the upper class. These concerns included thrift, work, domestic relations, and social respectability. Journalism is born during this time period as writers begin reporting on contemporary social and political events. They also called for improvements in the public&#x2019;s manners and morals. The rise of journalism was reflected in the variety of newspapers available to the English reader. Today a city might have one or two large daily papers, whose revenues come primarily from advertising. During this era, cities such as London had a range of newspapers, each with its own agenda or point of view. Many had a circulation of no more than 300,000 copies, and their revenues came primarily from the purchase price. Almost all of the great 18th century British writers wrote for newspapers from time to time.
Other literary forms, such as the novel, also found an eager audience in the middle classes, especially among women. There is some disagreement over who wrote the first novel, but many believe that the first novel was Daniel Defoe&#x2019;s book Robinson Crusoe, published in 1719.
In the 1670&#x2019;s, it&#x2019;s estimated that only about 22% of women were literate (meaning they could read and write their own names). By the 1690&#x2019;s, this figure had risen to 48%. Literacy depended on your line of work. Virtually all merchants were literate, but only about 71% of sailors, 65% of butchers, and 60% of carpenters had the most basic reading and writing skills.
The period from 1660-1800 has been given several names: the Augustan Age, the Neoclassical Period, the Enlightenment, and the Age of Reason. Each of these labels applies to some of the characteristics of the time period, but none of them applies to all.
People likened this time period to Ancient Rome, especially during the reign of the Roman emporer Octavian, who was given the name Augustus, which means &#x201C;exalted one.&#x201D; Augustus Caesar had restored peace and order to Rome after the assassination of Julius Caesar. People compared Augustus Caesar and his peaceful reign to that of the Stuart monarchs of England after the civil war and execution of Charles I. Charles II was hailed as England&#x2019;s savior after a long period of war. The English were suspicious of revolutionaries and radicals after what they&#x2019;d been through in the civil war and Cromwell. They were ready to settle down, make money, and enjoy life.
Writers at this time modeled their works after the Latin classics, which they studied in school and university. These writings that imitated the Latin works were called &#x201C;neoclassical&#x201D;&#x2014;which means &#x201C;new classical.&#x201D; The classics, they generally agreed, were valuable because they represented what was permanent and universal in the human experience. All educated people knew the Latin classics better than they knew their own English literature.
Labels like the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment reveal how people were gradually changing their view of themselves and the world. People were beginning to question long-held beliefs about how the world worked. Instead of asking &#x201C;Why did this unusual event take place, and what does it mean?&#x201D; they began asking &#x201C;How did this unusual event take place?&#x201D; Science explained many of the mysteries that had long plagued humanity, from how the human body works to how the universe works.
People began asking more questions about religion, too. These new scientific and rational explanations for natural phenomena affected some people&#x2019;s religious views. If, for example, God didn&#x2019;t send comets as warnings but they instead followed an orbit around the sun, perhaps God didn&#x2019;t interfere at all in human affairs. Maybe the universe was like an enormous piece of clockwork set in motion by a Creator who more or less withdrew from this mechanism and let it run by itself. This view became known as deism, and this image of God as a divine watchmaker became an important philosophy during this era. Some even argued that it was rational to believe that if God could make the world a better place, he would do so; therefore, we must live in the best of all possible worlds. The majority of people in this time, including most philosophers and scientists (aside from a few &#x201C;enlightened&#x201D; rationalists), remained religious. Christianity in its various forms continued to exercise an undiminished power over almost all Europeans, just as it had in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
We call these writers metaphysical poets because they were concerned with the metaphysical: abstract reasoning. These poets&#x2019; work is characterized by the use of complex and elaborate images or conceits, typically using an intellectual form of argumentation to express emotional states. In other words, they tried to rationalize emotion.
Conceits are elaborate extended metaphors commonly used by metaphysical poets. Metaphysical poetry is also marked by its startling and unexpected imagery and its philosophical and religious speculations, irregular meter, and witty wordplay.
Milton gets his own slide because he is that important.
Milton was born into a middle class family, the son of a composer and musician. He was tutored at home and began the equivalent of high school at the age of 13. He mastered Greek, Latin, and Hebrew as well as several of the modern European languages.
He himself was a poet, author, and civil servant for the Commonwealth of England, the government under Oliver Cromwell. He wrote a treatise defending the execution of Charles I. He was invited by Oliver Cromwell to be Secretary of State for Foreign Tongues, meaning he translated official documents into Latin and wrote in defense of the new government. He lost his eyesight while he was occupying this position.
As you can imagine, because of this work, when the monarchy was restored he fell on hard times. He was imprisoned and stripped of his property.
He is perhaps best known for Paradise Lost, an epic poem about the war he imagined took place in heaven when Lucifer rebelled and was cast down into Hell as Satan and man&#x2019;s subsequent fall and ejection from Eden. Scholars believe Paradise Lost to be the best epic in English. He is also well known for his sonnets.
Sir John Suckling appears on this list because he&#x2019;s difficult to classify as wholly metaphysical or wholly cavalier.
The Cavalier poets were Royalists, or supporters of Charles I. The Puritans led by Cromwell detested the Cavalier poets&#x2019; lifestyle and religion and mocked them by using the term cavalier. The term actually refers to a cavalry soldier, but it came to mean a courtier&#x2014;a person associated with kissing up to the king. You may also know the term is used today to describe someone who doesn&#x2019;t take responsibility or treats subjects too lightly. For example, &#x201C;The students was cavalier about studying for her tests until she noticed she was failing the class.&#x201D;
In contrast to the metaphysical poets, the cavalier poets tended toward more light styles and secular subjects. A common theme in their work was &#x201C;carpe diem,&#x201D; or &#x201C;seize the day.&#x201D;
For lack of a better term, I will call the group of writers who emerged in the 18th century during the Age of Reason or Enlightenment the Rationalists.
They are not so much united in theme, genre, or subject matter as the metaphysical poets or cavalier poets.
Satire was used by both Swift and Pope to criticize society. However, Swift chose essays and novels to express his ideas, while Pope was a poet.
Gray was considered England&#x2019;s foremost lyric poet. Many believe Gray to be a forerunner of the Romantic poets who would follow at the end of the 18th century and would go on to dominate the 19th century. His &#x201C;Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard&#x201D; was admired even by his critics, such as Ben Jonson, for its universal appeal to feelings that he believed almost everyone felt. An elegy is a poem that mourns the death of a person or laments something lost.
Neoclassical and Restoration England
The 17th and 18th Centuries
Cavalier Poets, the
Restoration, the Age
of Reason, and the
POLITICS AND SOCIETY
The Decline of the
The Glorious Revolution
The Growth of Reading
The Return of Charles II to Whitehall in 1660, Alfred Barron Clay
RENAISSANCE IN DECLINE
Charles I (1625-1649)
English Civil War
Charles I of England
Charles II, 1660
Church of England
Charles II of England
THE GLORIOUS REVOLUTION
James II, 1685-1688
William and Mary
James II of England
READING AND EDUCATION
Middle class concerns
The novel invented
Literacy among women
Scene from Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
Augustan Age: Return to Classical Rome?
Neoclassical Period: Writing like the Latin Classics
Enlightenment: The Rise of Science
Age of Reason: The Divine Watchmaker
Famous poets: Conceits
John Donne Imagery
George Herbert Philosophical and
Sir John Suckling
Poet, author, civil servant
for Commonwealth of
England (supporter of
Paradise Lost, sonnets
Famous Poets: Supporters of Charles I
Light in style
Secular in subject
Sir John Suckling
Jonathan Swift, Alexander
Pope, Thomas Gray