There are three historical events which influenced the life& literature of the age of Dryden. (1) The restoration of Charles II to the English throne in 1660. (2) The religious & political controversies and Popish Plot. (3) The Golden Revolution of the year 1688.
The Restoration of Charles II brought revolutionin English literature.The Puritan regime of Oliver Cromwell hadbeen too severe.It had suppressed too many natural pleasures.Now, released from restraint, society abandonedthe decencies of life and reverence for lowitself, and plunged into excesses more unnaturalthan had been the restrains of Puritanism.
It seems as if “England lay sick of a fever”. The king was athorough rake ( man who lives immoral life) had a numberof mistresses and numerous illegitimate children.This immorality and levity (humorous attitude) of the ageis reflected in its literature, specially in the Drama.The plays of Dryden, the most representative poet of theperiod, reflect this immorality and coarseness of life in anample measure.
Of the king and his followers it is difficult to writetemperately. (Self restraintly).Most of the dramatic literature of the time is atrocious(terrible) and we can understand it only as we rememberthe character of the court & society for which it waswritten. Unspeakably (terribly) vile( extremely disgusting)in his private life, the king had no positive patriotism, nosense of responsibility to his country for even his publicacts.He gave high offices to blackguards(rascal, scoundrel)stole from the exchequer (country’s or person’s supply ofmoney) like a common thief, played off Catholics andProtestants against each other, disregarding his pledges (Solemn promise) to both similar, broke his solemn treatywith Dutch & with his own ministers, and betrayed hiscountry for French money to spend on his own pleasures.
The great Plague & Fire that followed were popularlyregarded as suitable punishments for the sins of profligate& selfish king. Practically the whole London was burnt andcountless died of plague, thousands fled from London tocountryside.While London was burning and the people weresuffering, the king and his nobles kept up theircelebrations. They roamed the streets abducting andseducing the women of peace loving citizens.
Another important feature of the era is the bitterness ofpolitical & religious passions. The age witnessed the rise ofthe two political parties, The Whigs & The Tories.The Whigs who sought to limit the royal power in theinterests of the people and the parliament.The Tories, who supported the ‘Divine Right’ theory of kingThe religious controversies were even more bitter. Thesupporters of Puritans were persecuted (victimized). Thenation was predominantly Protestant, and the Catholicslabored under a number of disabilities. They weresuspected, had to pay taxes, and were not allowed to holdany office under the Clown. This intense hatred for theCatholics colors all the writings of the time.
The religion of the king himself was suspected, and hisbrother James was declared a Papist a roam Catholic. AsCharles II had no legitimate child and heir, it was certainthat his brother James, a Catholic, would succeed to thethrone.Therefore the attempts were made to exclude him from thethrone and to replace him by the Duke of Monmouth, thefavorite, though illegitimate, son of Charles II. Thiscontroversy directly led to the so called Popish Plot swornto Titus Oates.
James II ascended to the throne in 1685. By variousintrigues and underhand means he tried to establishCatholism in the country. By his misrule he made himselfentirely unpopular within four years. The nation as a wholerose against him.The bloodless Revolution of 1688, which called theProtestant William and Mary of Orange to thethrone, indicates that the country was restored once againto health and sanity after the fever of immorality andcorruption from which it had suffered since theRestorations.
In the literature of the Restoration we note a suddenbreaking away from old standards, just as society brokeaway from the restrains of Puritanism.Many literary men had been driven out of England withCharles and his court.On their return they renounced old ideals and demandedthat English poetry & drama should follow the style towhich they had become accustomed in the gayety of Paris.We read with astonishment in Peppy’s Diary (1660 – 1669)that he has been o see a play called Midsummer Night’sDream, but that he will never go again to hearShakespeare, ‘for it is the most insipid (dull, unexciting)ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life”.
Since Shakespeare and the Elizabethanswere no longer interesting, literary menbegan to imitate the French writers, withwhose works they had just grown familiar;and here begins so – called period of Frenchinfluence.
One has only to consider for a moment theFrench writers of thisperiod, Pascal, Bossuet, Fenelon, Malherbe, Corneille, Racine, Moliere – all thatbrilliant company which makes the reignof Louis 14th the Elizabethan age of Frenchliterature,- to see how far astray (awayfrom the proper path) the early writers ofthe Restoration went in their wretchedimitation.
When a man take another for hismodel, he should copy virtues not vices;but unfortunately many English writersreversed the rule, copying the vices ofFrench comedy without any of its wit ordelicacy .The poems of Rochester, the plays ofDryden, Wycherley, Congreve, Vanbrugh, and Farquhar, all popular in their days, aremostly unreadable.
Milton’s “Songs of Belial, flown withinsolence (rudeness) and wine”, is a goodexpression of the vile (arrogant) characterof the court writers and of the Londontheaters for thirty years following theRestoration.
Such work can never satisfy a people, whenJeremy Collier, in 1698 published a vigorousattack upon the evil plays and the playwrightsof the day, all London, tired of the coarsenessand excesses of the Restoration, joined theliterary revolution, and the corrupt drama wasdriven from the stage.
With the final rejection of the Restorationdrama we reach a crisis in the history ofour literature. The old Elizabethanspirit, with its patriotism, its creativevigor, its love of romance, and the Puritanspirit with its moral earnestness andindividualism, were both things of thepast; and at first there was nothing to taketheir places.
Dryden, the greatest writer of the age, voiced ageneral complaint when he said that in hisprose and poetry he was “drawing the outlines”of a new art, but had no teacher to instructhim.But literature is a progressive art, and soon thewriters of the age developed two markedtendencies of their own,- The tendency toRealism, and the Tendency to that preciseness& elegance of expression which marks ourliterature for the next hundred years. Secondtendency is Formalism.
In realism – that is, the representation ofmen exactly as they are, the expression ofthe plain, unvarnished (factual, exact)truth without regard to ideals or romance –the tendency was at first thoroughly bad.The early Restoration writers sought topaint realistic pictures of a corrupt courtand society, and as we have suggested, theyemphasized vices, rather than virtues, andgave us coarse, low plays without interestor moral significance.
Like Hobbes, they saw only the externals ofman, his body and appetites, ( desire forfood) not his soul and its ideals; andso, like most realities, they resemble a manlost in the woods, who wanders aimlesslyaround in circles, seeing the confusingtrees but never the whole forest, and whoseldom thinks of climbing the nearest highhill to get his bearings.
The second tendency of the age wastowards directness and simplicity ofexpression, and to this excellent ourliterature is greatly indebted. In both theElizabethan and the Puritan ages thegeneral tendency of writer was towardsextravagance of thought and language.Sentences were often involved, and loadedwith Latin quotations and classicalallusions.
The Restoration writers opposed this vigorously. From Francethey brought back the tendency to regard rather thanromantic fancy, and to use short, clean cut sentences withoutan unnecessary word. We see this French influence in theRoyal Society which had for one of its objects the reform ofEnglish prose by getting rid of its “swelling of style”, andwhich bound all its members to use “a close, naked, naturalway of speaking ……. As near to mathematical plainness asthey can”. Dryden accepted this excellent rule for hisprose, and adopted the heroic couplet, as the next bestthing, for the greater part of his poetry. As he tells us himself, And this unpolished rugged verse I chose As fittest for discourse, and nearest prose.
Another thing which the reader will notewith interest in Restoration literature isthe adoption of the heroic couplet; that istwo iambic pentameter lines which rimetogether, as the most suitable form ofpoetry.Waller who began to use it in 1623, isgenerally regarded as the father of thecouplet, for he is the first poet to use itconsistently in the bulk of his poetry.
These four things, the tendency to vulgarrealism in the drama, a general formalismwhich came from following set rules, thedevelopment of a simpler and more directprose style, and the prevalence of the heroiccouplet in poetry are the main characteristicsof Restoration Literature. They are allexemplified (demonstrate) in the work of oneman, John Dryden.