English Literature in the Early Seventeenth Century

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English Literature in the Early Seventeenth Century

A Century of Greatness.

At the beginning of the sixteenth century as the New Learning of the Renaissance made inroads into England, few signs were present of the enormous flowering that was soon to occur in the country's language and literature. For much of the later Middle Ages, England had remained one of Europe's more isolated backwaters, and its language, although raised to a level of high art in the late-medieval works of Chaucer and other authors, was still quite different from the rich and malleable literary forms that were to be deployed by Shakespeare and his Elizabethan contemporaries. During the course of the sixteenth century the world of international politics as well as the circumstances of religion helped to propel England into the ranks of important European powers. If the country's status flagged distinctly behind Habsburg Spain, Elizabeth I still managed to challenge that power by besting the Spanish Armada in 1588, as well as her rival Philip II. And while English power on the international scene may not have approached that of France under the Valois and Bourbon monarchies, the Elizabethan age still witnessed relative peace and security at the same time as France, the Netherlands, and other parts of Europe were suffering religious wars. During this era of relative stability England's theater and its literature witnessed unprecedented development, development that continued in the years following Elizabeth's death in 1603 despite the worsening political and religious climate in the country. The Elizabethan era witnessed the plays of Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593), William Shakespeare (1564–1616), Thomas Kyd (1558–1594), and a distinguished lineage of lesser lights that cultivated a broad audience for the theater in England. It witnessed the creation of The Faerie Queene of Edmund Spenser (c. 1552–1599) and the works of a number of poets of high achievement. The period also nourished the development of many poets and playwrights, like Ben Jonson (1572–1637), whose careers lay more in the Stuart age that followed it, than in the reign of Elizabeth I. And although the accession of James I, the Stuart king of Scotland, to the English throne in 1603 brought an end to the relative domestic tranquility of Elizabeth's later years, there was no sudden decrease in the outpouring of literature in the early seventeenth century. The reign of James I, for example, continued to be an era of uninterrupted and steady achievement, even if disputes over religion soon bubbled up and combined with angry debates over the respective rights and prerogatives of Parliament and the Crown. The first signs of the new tensions occurred soon after the arrival of James I (r. 1603–1625) in England. As James journeyed from Scotland to London he was presented with the Millenary Petition, a series of requests for greater reforms in the Church of England, from English Puritans. Yet in the conference he convened to consider these requests at Hampton Court Palace several months later, the king rejected most of these demands, thus laying the foundations for the beginning of an alienation between the king and his Puritan subjects that grew worse over time. The unearthing of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, an abortive plan allegedly masterminded by Catholics to blow up the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, brought determined persecution of the country's Catholic minority, too. In the years that followed, James and his son and successor Charles I (r. 1625–1649) wrangled persistently with the country's ruling elites, insisting upon, but never effectively establishing, their ability to levy taxes without parliamentary consent and to rule like Continental absolutist monarchs. Despite these troubles—troubles that ultimately led to the outbreak of the English Civil Wars of the 1640s and to Charles I's execution in 1649—the early Stuart period was a time of continued literary achievement. These accomplishments can be seen in the vitality of the London stage as well as in the poetry and prose of the era.

The Authorized Version of the Bible.

One distinctive note of relative unanimity in the otherwise troubled waters of religion and politics in the early Stuart era involved the preparation and acceptance of a new translation of the Bible into English, a work that was completed with the publication of the so-called Authorized Version of 1611. This text, long known in North America merely as the King James Version, was the culmination of efforts the king had sanctioned at the Hampton Court Conference of 1604, the body of church and political figures convened to consider the Puritans' Millenary Petition, as well as other issues in the Church of England. The resulting text became perhaps the single-most important work of English prose, helping to establish a cadence and metaphorical sensibility that made deep inroads into the literature of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and which persisted in the centuries beyond. Although Puritans had supported the idea of a new English Bible, James I soon granted the program his enthusiastic aid. To complete this enormous task, 54 translators were eventually asked to serve on six different translation teams, two centered in London and another two each at the universities of Cambridge and Oxford. Each team compiled its translations and then subsequently submitted them to a central oversight committee for approval. In completing their work, the translators of the Authorized Version did not create an entirely new translation, but instead relied on many of the earlier English Bibles published in the sixteenth century. They consulted, in other words, the "Bishops' Bible," an edition of the book that had been first printed for England's churches in 1568, and which was subsequently made compulsory throughout the Church of England. At the same time they relied on the so-called Geneva Bible of 1560, a work very much favored by Puritans because of the explicit Calvinist-inspired commentary that ran alongside the text. Two other sources were the somewhat earlier translations of Miles Coverdale, as well as that of William Tyndale. Tyndale's early sixteenth-century translation, while incomplete, showed great erudition in its rendering of the text into English, and its influence continued to be decisive in many cases in the Authorized Version, although the Genevan Bible's influence was also vital. Royal edict expressly forbade the translators from including any of the Genevan version's Calvinist commentary, a sign that James, like Elizabeth before him, intended to steer the Church of England on a middle course between more radical forms of Protestantism and Catholicism.

Success of the King James Bible.

The resulting text may not have pleased all quarters in the embattled Church of England when it appeared in 1611, and many Puritan congregations continued to rely on the Geneva Bible for years to come. But the translation pleased enough of the fractious Church of England that it soon became the common version of the Bible in the country's churches. Although titled an "Authorized Version," no royal edict ever required its usage. Still, it became the accepted version of the Bible, not only in England, but in Scotland as well, a country with a very different kind of reformed church and an English language very different from the southern portion of the island. In this way King James's version provided important ties of continuity between these various parts of the English-speaking world, and as England became a colonial power, the text was carried to the far corners of the world. In this process it helped to forge a common literary heritage among peoples that might otherwise have been vastly separated by linguistic differences. And although the Authorized Version eventually was replaced in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by a series of revisions, it continued to define the ways in which most English-speaking peoples perceive the Bible as a sacred text. For this reason, the King James version continues to be embraced even now as the authoritative translation of the Bible by many conservative Protestant sects in England, America, and throughout the world.

Religious Literature and Sermons.

If the King James version of the Bible struck a chord of unusual unanimity in the divided England of the early seventeenth century, other disputes of the era concerning religion soon became the stuff from which new literary forms were crafted. The seventeenth-century English church produced an enormous outpouring of printed sermons and devotional literature, written both by Puritans of all stripes and by Anglicans committed to its middle path between Catholicism and Protestantism. To publish a printed book in Elizabethan and Stuart England, the state required that texts be submitted to the Stationer's Guild, a medieval institution charged since the mid-sixteenth century with the task of administering an apparatus of inspection and censorship. Of course, authors and printers sometimes printed works without submitting them to these official channels, but the penalties for refusing to do so were great. In 1620, half of all works recorded in the Stationers' Guild's records were religious in nature, and this portion consisted of polemical tracts defending one's doctrine or point of view about reforms in the church, devotional books, and sermons. One issue that divided Puritans from committed Anglicans—that is, avid supporters of the Church of England's settlement—centered on the preaching of sermons. For many Puritan divines, preaching was an obligation that was to be conducted extemporaneously so that the minister might reveal the Word of God through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Printed prayers, like those of the church's Book of Common Prayer, as well as the written sermons used by committed Church of England ministers, assaulted the sensibilities of determined Puritans, since they seemed an attempt to hem in and limit the very power of the Word of God and the Holy Spirit. Committed Puritans who relied on an extemporaneous delivery in church, though, were often careful to record their words following their sermons and to prepare printed editions of their texts. The competition between Anglicans and Puritans, moreover, sustained a constant outpouring of devotional works as both Puritans and committed Anglicans aimed to convince readers of the correctness of their respective positions concerning the church and the Christian life. On the Puritan side, men like Richard Baxter (1615–1691) composed fine devotional texts, best-sellers like his The Saint's Everlasting Rest (1650), which were consumed in numerous editions. And while Puritan churchmen like Baxter attacked supporters of the Church of England as promoters of an arid, spiritless formalism, the evidence suggests that they were not such easy targets.

Anglican Devotional Literature.

Throughout the seventeenth century committed Anglicans produced a steady flow of religious and devotional literature that aimed to inspire "holiness" among readers. The Anglican attitude toward Christian piety, although quite different from the highly defined and often theologically sophisticated and systematic treatments of Puritan divines, was no less firmly Christian in its outlook. Committed Anglicans sought to present images of the Christian life and its cycle of sin, forgiveness, death, and resurrection in ways that stirred the faithful to repentance and amendment of their lives. In the hands of its most urgent supporters, men like Archbishop William Laud (1573–1645) who became an enthusiastic persecutor of Puritans in the reign of Charles I, such calls to holiness earned for Anglicanism an enduring image of intolerance. Yet the Church of England also nourished many authors in the early seventeenth century that ably defended its positions, and who created an enduring literature of religious devotion that has continued to elicit admiration across the centuries. Among these figures, the works of Jeremy Taylor (1613–1667), Henry Vaughan (1621–1695), and Thomas Traherne (1637–1674) provided majestic, yet profound defenses of the principles of Anglicanism at a troubled point in the church's history. Although these figures' works are rarely read today outside the ranks of literary specialists, the period also produced John Donne (1573–1631) and George Herbert (1593–1633), who are still considered as authors and poets of the first rank, and who used their eloquence to defend the Anglican settlement. Donne has long had a perennial appeal, in part, because his works encapsulated the religious and philosophical dilemmas of his age in ways that elevated these concerns into timeless meditations on the human spirit and its discontents.


The circumstances of Donne's life were redolent with the disputes and controversies that the Reformation continued to inspire in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century England. Born into a prominent Catholic family, he was schooled at home by Catholic teachers before entering Oxford and perhaps somewhat later Cambridge. Prevented from taking a degree because of his Catholicism, he seems to have traveled for a time throughout Europe before renouncing his faith and becoming a member of the Church of England in 1593. His religious zeal in these early years, though, was overshadowed by a taste for adventure, and in the late 1590s Donne even sailed on several voyages with the adventurer Sir Walter Raleigh. He participated in the sack Raleigh's forces staged of Cadiz harbor in Spain in 1596 and he traveled the following year with the same force to the Azores in search of Spanish booty. Returning home from these adventures, he began to rise in the world of politics as a private secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, an important man of state affairs in Elizabethan England. Eventually, he was elected to Parliament through Egerton's graces, but in 1601 a disastrous secret marriage to Ann More, Egerton's wife's niece, cut short his political career. He was imprisoned for a time, and spent the years that followed trying unsuccessfully to rehabilitate his reputation. His clandestine, unsanctioned marriage made him unsuited for public political life, and for almost fifteen years he and his wife lived off the patronage of friends and associates. Eventually, James I suggested he undertake a career in the church rather than in public affairs, and in 1615 he was ordained a priest and received a clerical appointment from the king. James forced Cambridge University to grant Donne a Doctor of Divinity degree, and with these credentials in hand, he began to acquire a series of positions in the church in London. Eventually, he rose to become dean of St. Paul's cathedral, and in that capacity he became one of the most influential preachers of the seventeenth century. His style both in his poetry—which he wrote almost exclusively for private amusement rather than public consumption—and in his sermons was notable for abandoning the "soft, melting phrases" preferred by Elizabethan authors. In place of that elegant and light style, Donne preferred a dramatic, deeply intellectual language that was often filled with forceful turns of phrase that lamented and yet gloried in the death and resurrection of the human spirit. As a preacher, his abilities to create metaphors and turn phrases that encapsulated the spiritual dilemmas of the era earned him an enormous following among Londoners, and at the same time exemplified the possibilities that might exist in Anglican piety. For generations, the intensely intellectual, philosophical, and metaphysical cast of Donne's writing has been summed up in his Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1624), the author's own considerable reflections on his sickness and attendant death. That work, filled with an astute understanding of the many shades of fear and longing that attend approaching death, includes the immortal refrains "No man is an island" and "never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee." Yet in the body of poetry and sermons that Donne left behind, and which was edited and published by his son after his death, the author's works present a diverse range of prose and poetry, much of it difficult to understand, yet rewarding to those that have tried to plumb its considerable intellectual range and depth. Donne's example soon inspired a number of poets and authors that followed.

The Metaphysical Poets.

In the late eighteenth century Samuel Johnson coined the phrase "metaphysical poets" to describe John Donne and a school of poets that had imitated that poet's difficult, yet forceful style. Others had already noted a "metaphysical" strain in Donne's work and in the poetry of early seventeenth-century England, a strain that had become less popular during the Restoration era of the later century, as authors had come to favor a clearer, less mysterious style. In truth, none of the figures that have been described as "metaphysical poets" in the early seventeenth century—including George Herbert (1593–1633), Richard Crashaw, (1613–1649), and Henry Vaughan (1621–1695), among others—were properly concerned with the subject of metaphysics, at that time a branch of natural philosophy that treated the underlying or hidden properties of things observed in the natural world. Nor do many of the poets sometimes connected to this so-called Metaphysical School seem to share much, beyond the use of certain literary conceits and a taste for ironic and often highly paradoxical treatments of their subjects. Yet the notion of an early seventeenth-century group of Metaphysical poets has endured, in part, because of the serious, religious themes treated in many of these figures' works—themes that differed dramatically from the secular, often worldly poetry written at the time by a group equally long identified as the "Cavaliers." In the works of the foremost practitioners of the "metaphysical style"—Donne, Herbert, Crashaw, and Vaughan—certain underlying structural similarities do seem to exist. One of these similarities is in their frequent recourse to emblematic modes of expression. Emblems were symbolic pictures that often contained a motto. They had first appeared in the Renaissance as a popular pastime, and books of emblems had figured prominently in courtly and aristocratic culture since at least the early sixteenth century. In Baldassare Castiglione's classic work, The Book of the Courtier (1528), for instance, the cultivated circle whose conversations are recorded in the work spend their evenings unraveling the mysteries encapsulated in emblems. In the decades that followed, emblems appeared throughout Europe on many elements of material culture. Artists inserted them into fresco cycles, or they became popular symbols incised onto jewelry. Sometimes they were even reproduced on dinnerware, so that cultivated, humanistically educated men and women might decode their meanings between the courses at banquets. Even as they grew more popular, though, the sensibilities that surrounded their consumption underwent changes—changes that were, in part, sponsored by St. Ignatius of Loyola's Spiritual Exercises and other sixteenth-century works that advocated a thorough and disciplined contemplation on visual stimuli in the "mind's eye" to enhance one's personal meditations. Emblems, once the preserve of a cultivated society anxious to demonstrate its knowledge of iconography and literary traditions, now came to circulate in books that were prized by devout Catholics, Puritans, and Anglicans alike as an aid to religious devotion. In books of emblems the emblem itself now came to be represented with three components: a motto that encapsulated the emblem's meaning, a symbolic picture that represented it, and a poem that commented upon its deeper significances. Works like these were self-consciously difficult, and they called upon the viewer's senses to decode the hidden underlying meanings that lay in the emblem's symbolic language. They both required and rewarded those who used their wits and erudition to unlock their many encoded significances. This same highly visual and symbolic sense is to be found in the difficult poems of Donne and his friend, George Herbert, and it also played a role in Herbert's admirers, Richard Crashaw and Henry Vaughan. While the concerns of these so-called "metaphysical poets" differed, and their style was extremely varied, there were thus certain common links in their works that were rooted in the devotional climate of their age.

The Cavaliers.

Different sensibilities of style and content can be seen in a second, albeit equally artificial group of poets from the early Stuart period who have by long tradition been identified as the Cavaliers. Generally, this term was applied to all those who supported Charles I during the Civil Wars of the 1640s. Yet in literature it has long been granted to the poetry of figures like Thomas Carew (1594/1595–1640), Richard Lovelace (1618–1657/1658), Sir John Suckling (1609–1642), Robert Herrick (1591–1674), and Edmund Waller (1606–1687). The first three of these figures were courtiers in Charles I's circle, and did not live to see the Restoration of the monarchy under Charles II. Edmund Waller and Robert Herrick, by contrast, lived through the Civil Wars and came to see their fortunes rise again during the Restoration. Thomas Carew, the elder statesman of the group, served Charles I in the Bishops' War of 1639, an engagement precipitated by the Crown's disastrous plan to establish bishops in Presbyterian Scotland. One year later, Carew's career as a royalist was cut short by death, perhaps occasioned by the exertions of his military endeavors. In contrast to the seriousness and high moral tone observed in many of the "metaphysicals," Carew's poems were altogether lighter and less problematic, and like other Cavalier poets, they often reveal an easy attitude toward sex and morality. Although he wrote a poem in praise of John Donne, his own style seems to have owed more to the witticisms of Ben Jonson, an English Renaissance poet and dramatist, than to the serious moral tone promoted at the time by Anglican holiness. Above all the members in the group, he seems to have been an excellent literary craftsman with an often-meticulous attention to detail in his poems, a quality for which another Cavalier, Sir John Suckling, criticized him as if he were a pedant. Of the remaining figures, Edmund Waller was long among the most admired, and his poems continued to elicit admiration from critics throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The great John Dryden (1631–1700) credited Waller's poetry with ushering in England's "Augustan Age," and among the specific qualities that he admired in it was a great "sweetness." Today, the sophisticated simplicity of his works continues to be much admired, although unfortunately only among specialists in English literature; Waller has long since ceased to be a household name. Born to a wealthy family, he increased his fortune by several skillful marriages, and when he entered Parliament in the 1620s, he was originally a member of the opposition. During the 1630s, he switched sides to become a royalist, but when he led an unsuccessful plot to seize London from Puritan forces in 1643, he was banished for a time from the country before being reconciled to the Puritan Commonwealth and rising to prominence again under Charles II after 1660. By contrast, Robert Herrick was the only member of the "Cavaliers" that never served at court. Granted a rural living in the Church of England as a reward for military service to the Crown, he lived out his days away from London, in considerably quieter circumstances—that is, as a country parson in a remote corner of Devon in the southwest of England. Although he originally detested the countryside, he came to admire the rural folkways of his parishioners, in part, because he abhorred the ways in which Puritans were attempting to suppress country people's traditional customs. His works were like all of


introduction: The great poet John Donne was also recognized as one of the most accomplished preachers of seventeenth-century England. His sermons often dealt with the mysteries of death, suffering, and Christian redemption. In contrast to the doctrinally tinged messages of Puritans at the same time, Donne and other Anglicans attempted to stir their audiences to repentance and holiness of life through presenting powerful images, as he does in this famous passage from his Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, texts that were originally delivered in his office as Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral in London.

PERCHANCE he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill, as that he knows not it tolls for him; and perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that. The church is Catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that body which is my head too, and ingrafted into that body whereof I am a member. And when she buries a man, that action concerns me: all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God's hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another. As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come, so this bell calls us all; but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness. There was a contention as far as a suit (in which both piety and dignity, religion and estimation, were mingled), which of the religious orders should ring to prayers first in the morning; and it was determined, that they should ring first that rose earliest. If we understand aright the dignity of this bell that tolls for our evening prayer, we would be glad to make it ours by rising early, in that application, that it might be ours as well as his, whose indeed it is. The bell doth toll for him that thinks it doth; and though it intermit again, yet from that minute that that occasion wrought upon him, he is united to God. Who casts not up his eye to the sun when it rises? but who takes off his eye from a comet when that breaks out? Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings? but who can remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world?

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

source: John Donne, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions (London: Thomas Jones, 1624): 410–416. Spelling modernized by Philip Soergel.

those of the so-called Cavalier group: witty, graceful, sophisticated, and laced with a touch of "devil-may-care."

Milton and the Puritan Commonwealth.

The execution of Charles I by Parliament in January of 1649 signaled a sudden end to the Cavaliers' musings, and although certain poets like Waller and Herrick continued to write in this vein following the restoration of the monarchy, the decisive Puritan victory quieted such voices for a time. During the Puritan Commonwealth, many Royalist supporters were forced to flee England before returning, or like Herrick, to exist on the gifts of their friends before taking up the life they had enjoyed during the war. During the Puritan Commonwealth devotional works, religious polemics, and sensational prophecies continued to pour from England's presses, although there was little market in the heated religious climate of the 1650s for the kind of gracious and elegant poetry once championed by Cavalier society. One of the figures that continued to fuel the anxious political debates of the period was John Milton (1608–1674), who early in life had trained to be a Puritan minister, but until the 1640s had spent much of his time studying and perfecting his skills as a poet. During the Civil Wars Milton first became embroiled in the battle between Puritans and Royalists when he published a number of pamphlets attacking the episcopacy. With the establishment of the Commonwealth, he continued his activities as a propagandist for the Puritan cause, although he also served as a secretary to the Council of State. Increasingly blind, he nevertheless continued to support the cause, publishing one tract so vehement in defending the Puritan cause that it was burnt in ceremonial bonfires in several French cities. As the Commonwealth began to flounder in the months following the death of its Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell, Milton tried to rally support for the increasingly unpopular government, again by serving as a pamphleteer. With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, though, he was forced into hiding, eventually arrested, and after a short imprisonment, he was fined and released. His political career now in ruins, Milton retired to his home in London where he began to write his masterpieces, Paradise Lost (1667) and Paradise Regained (1671). Both works still rank among some of the most challenging reading in the English language, filled as they are with a complex syntax, abstruse vocabulary, numerous difficult classical allusions, and a complicated epic style. Despite their Puritan religious orthodoxy, the two monumental poems present Milton's breadth of learning and the complexities of his opinion. In Paradise Lost the author tells the story of man's fall from grace in the Garden of Eden, and presents one of the most sympathetic portraits of Satan ever recorded in the Western tradition. Milton treats him in the manner of a tragic hero, whose fatal flaw lies in the perversions of sin. Although the story of the Fall recorded in Genesis was well known to Milton's readers, and had long been given a host of literary treatments, the poems still manage to possess considerable originality and breadth of imagination. It is for this reason that their author has long been lauded as the English poet whose powers rank second only to William Shakespeare. Yet the crowning achievements of Milton's career as a literary figure were intricately embroiled in the harsh political realities of the seventeenth-century state. Had it not been for Milton's banishment from public life because of his complicity in the Puritan Commonwealth, his great life work might never have been completed.


R. Barbour, Literature and Religious Culture in Seventeenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

J. Carey, John Donne: Life, Mind and Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981).

S. Fish, Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998).

F. Kermode, John Donne (London: Longman, 1957; reprinted 1971).

S. Lehmberg, Cathedrals Under Siege: Cathedrals in English Society, 1600–1700 (University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996).

A. Nicolson, God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible (New York: Harper Collins, 2003).

G. Parfitt, English Poetry of the Seventeenth Century (London: Longman, 1985).

G. Parry, Seventeenth-Century Poetry: The Social Context (London: Hutchinson, 1985).

H. Vendler, The Poetry of George Herbert (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1975).

see also Religion: The English Civil Wars

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English Literature in the Early Seventeenth Century

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