A question that can be asked of any century’s poetry is whether it owes its character to “forces”—nonliterary developments to which the poets respond more or less sensitively—or whether, on the other hand, the practice of innovative and influential poets mainly determines the poetry of the period. Clearly, great poets do not always shape the literature of their century, as the cases of the twin giants of seventeenth century England, William Shakespeare and John Milton, indicate. What Ben Jonson wrote of Shakespeare is true of both: They are “not of an age, but for all time!” John Donne and John Dryden, however, are poets who seem to have stamped their personalities on much of the poetry of their own and succeeding generations.
John Donne and John Dryden
John Donne (1572-1631) turned twenty-nine in the year 1601. John Dryden (1631-1700), busy to the last, died at the end of the century. Thus a century brimming with good poetry may be said to begin with Donne and end with Dryden. On most library shelves, Donne and Dryden are both literally and figuratively neighbors. If not the shaper of poetry in the first half of the century, Donne stands at least as its representative poet, while Dryden, born only a few months after Donne died in 1631, probably has an even more secure claim to the same position in the final decades of the century. They may indeed have determined the poetic climate; certainly they serve as barometers on which modern readers can see that climate registered. The distinctive differences be-tween the writings of the two men testify to the diversity of seventeenth century poetry and to the likelihood that powerful forces for change were at work in the interim.
The differences are apparent even when—perhaps particularly when—roughly similar types of poems (and parallels between the two are inevitably rough) are chosen. Donne wrote two sequences of religious sonnets. One begins:
Thou hast made me, and shall thy work decay?
Repair me now, for now mine end doth haste,
I run to death, and death meets me as fast, A
nd all my pleasures are like yesterday.
Dryden is known for two longer religious poems, one of which, Religio Laici (1682), begins: “Dim as the borrowed beams of moons and stars/ To lonely, weary, wand’ring travelers,/ Is Reason to the soul. . . .” A long list of contrasts might be drawn up, most of which would hold true of entire poems and, for that matter, of the works of the two poets generally.
Donne addresses God directly, for example, and even ventures to command him, while neither in his opening nor anywhere else in 456 lines does Dryden apostrophize his maker, although several times he refers circumspectly to “God,” “Godhead,” or “Omnipotence.” Donne not only personifies but also personalizes the abstraction death, which “runs fast” and “meets” the speaker. Dryden’s chief abstraction, Reason, is grand but “dim,” and another that he introduces soon thereafter, Religion, though described as “bright,” remains inanimate. Donne’s sonnet has an immediate, even urgent, quality; Dryden sets out in a more deliberate and measured way, as if any necessary relation-ships will be established in due time. Donne achieves that immediacy through a plain, simple vocabulary, thirty-one of his first thirty-five words having only one syllable. Although there are no striking irregularities after the first line, rhetorical stresses govern the rhythm. Dryden’s diction is also simple, but there are more polysyllables, and their arrangement, as in “lonely, weary, wand’ring travelers,” creates a smoother, more regular cadence.
In other ways, the poems elicit different responses. Donne is paradoxical. The reader senses in his third line that rigorous demands are being made on him. What does “I run to death” mean exactly? How can that be? Why is death said to do the same? Such questions have answers, no doubt, but the reader anticipates that he will have to work for them, that he must stay alert and get involved. Dryden, on the other hand, begins by making a statement that can be accepted without any particular mental activity (which is not necessarily to say that it should be, or is intended to be, so accepted). Whereas the person setting out to read Donne suspects that obscurities may lie ahead, the beginner at Dryden finds nothing to raise such expectations. (The reader will hardly be surprised to find Dryden saying, near the end of the poem: “Thus have I made my own opinions clear.”)
Samplers of other poems by the two poets reveal similar contrasts right from the be-ginning. Frequently, in Donne’s poems, a speaker is addressing someone or some-thing—God, a woman, a friend, a rival, the sun—in a tone that is often abrupt, questioning, or imperious. The poems are often dramatic in the sense of implying a situation and a relationship. They make demands, both on the addressee and the reader, who is present in somewhat the same way as an audience in a theater. Dryden was a dramatist, and a highly successful one, but he seems to have reserved drama for his plays. In his poems, he is inclined to begin, as in Religio Laici, with statements, often in the form of generalizations: “All human things are subject to decay.” “From harmony, from heavenly harmony,/ This universal frame began.” “How blest is he who leads a country life.” While not condescending to his readers, Dryden is much more likely to go on to tell them something—something clear, measured, plausible.
The Elizabethan Heritage
The Renaissance came to England late. Sixteenth century Italian poetry is dotted with famous names—Ludovico Ariosto, Pietro Bembo, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Tor-quato Tasso—and French poets distinguished themselves throughout the century, Pierre de Ronsard and the Pléiade group overshadowing others of whom today’s readers would hear much more but for that brilliant constellation of poets. The Elizabethan poets’ debt to these older literatures, particularly to that created by their French elders and contemporaries, has been well documented. After the appearance of The Shepheardes Calender (1579) by Edmund Spenser (c.1552-1599), English poetry came on with a rush, while the post-Renaissance Baroque movement was already rising on the European continent. By 1600, both Spenser and Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586) were dead, but many of their contemporaries from the1550’s and 1560’s worked on, with many of their brightest achievements still ahead. As relief from the earlier but continuing Elizabethan tradition of ponderous, prosaic moralizing exemplified by the incessantly reprinted and expanded A Mirror for Magistrates (1555, 1559, 1563), the poets of later Elizabethan decades favored pastorals, love son-nets, mythological narratives, and of course songs and the verse drama.
As part of the last wave of poets to come of age under Elizabeth, Donne and Jonson might have been expected to rebel against their elders. Fifteen years or so of hobnobbing with Hobbinol (poet Gabriel Harvey, c. 1545-1630) and other literary shepherds and of agonizing with woebegone Petrarchan lovers over their unattainable or recalcitrant golden ladies goaded the new generation into staking out new territory. The sweetness and naïveté of much Elizabethan verse cloyed their literary taste buds. The serious side of Elizabethan endeavor ran wearyingly to themes of transience and mutability. There was room for more realism and sophistication, and new forms and conventions.
Donne responded by parodying the ideal Petrarchan mistress in his paean to indiscriminate love, “I can love both fair and brown,” meanwhile reserving that standard vehicle for love laments, the sonnet, for religious purposes. Jonson refused to write son-nets at all, coolly praised a goddess named Celia, and claimed, with some exaggeration, that he did not write of love. As mythologizers, Elizabethans were accustomed to plunder from Ovid and the Ovidians, but Donne did not conduct his raids on the Metamorphoses (c. 8c.e.; English translation, 1567), with its wistful accounts of lovers vanished into foliage and feathers; instead, he concentrated on Ovid’s saucy prescriptions for both love-making and love-breaking in the Amores (c. 20 b.c.e.; English translation, c. 1597), Arsamatoria (c. 2b.c.e.; Art of Love, 1612), and Remedia amoris (before 8c.e.; Cure for Love, 1600). Later (or perhaps just alternatively) he drew on the pre-Petrarchan traditions, including Platonism and Scholasticism, to write of love as a refining and exalting experience. As for Jonson, where the Elizabethans were amply decorous, he tended to be blunt and epigrammatic. More rigorously than Donne, he rejected the medieval trappings that clung to Elizabethan poetry.
Neither man, however, made anything like a clean break with Elizabethan values. In satirizing Petrarchan conventions, Donne was only continuing a tendency implicit in the Petrarchan mode almost from its beginning, Shakespeare already preceding him in English poetry in his sonnet “My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun.” The man most responsible for the English sonnet-writing mania, Sidney, had, in his Astrophel and Stella (1591) suggested all sorts of latent possibilities for the deployment of wit that the Elizabethans had barely begun to exploit. Elizabethan moral earnestness awaited poets who could bring fresh resources to its expression. The student of the drama can hardly escape the conclusion that Donne owed something of his penchant for dramatizing love and religious conflict to the fact that he grew up in London at a time of flourishing theatrical activity, when even writers deficient in dramatic talent strove to turn outplays. Jonson must have learned much about friendship from Sidney’s Arcadia (1590,1593, 1598), the fourth book of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596), and other romances of the sort before turning this subject to account in poetic forms more congenial to him. Again, Jonson’s distinctive contribution to song writing depended on his good fortune in maturing at a time when music was everywhere in the air, as Willa McClung Evans showed in Ben Jonson and Elizabethan Music (1929). In short, Elizabethan influences on these Jacobean poets were very far from exclusively negative ones.
Seventeenth century developments originating with Donne and Jonson have absorbed much of the attention of literary students, but the Spenserian tradition must not be underrated. As its master, Edmund Spenser, was a many-faceted poet, the tradition is a rich and diverse one. Michael Drayton carried his adaptations of Spenserian pastoral to the verge of the new century’s fourth decade. The greatest English poet after Shakespeare found in The Faerie Queene the best model for his own epic. Some poets imitated Spenser’s idealism, some his sensuous and even sensual music, some his achievement in romantic narrative, and some his demanding stanza. No one like Spenser wrote in the seventeenth century, but the rays of his genius shone over the century and long after-ward. The twentieth century emphasis on Donne and the Metaphysical poets has had the unfortunate effect of obscuring the illumination that Spenser furnished generations of respectful and admiring followers.
In few European countries was there such a concentration of talent and creative energy as in Renaissance London. England had no city to rival it in size or cultural pretensions, and to the city or to the court came all aspiring writers and all ambitious men. Literary associations blossomed easily in its square mile, as did rivalries and jealousies. Although London did not boast a university, many of its creative men came to know one another in school. Beginning in the last quarter of the sixteenth century, for example, and extending over the next seventy years, the roster of poets who attended just one school, Westminster, includes Jonson, Richard Corbett, Giles Fletcher, Henry King, George Herbert, William Strode, Thomas Randolph, William Cartwright, Abraham Cowley, and Dryden. Half of these men later gravitated to one Cambridge college, Trinity. A similar list of poets who claimed residence at London’s Inns of Court might be made. It is likely that the richness of late Elizabethan and seventeenth century English poetry owes much to the cross-fertilization that is almost inevitable when virtually all of the poets of any given time know one another more or less intimately. Although poets have always come together for mutual support and stimulation, in the seventeenth century, the poets who did so were not beleaguered minorities without status in the intellectual world or insulated coteries intent on defending the purity of their theory and practice against one another. Poets constituted something of a brotherhood—although brothers are known to fight—and not a school or club where narrowness can prevail along with good manners.
Realizing the essentially close relationships among poets whose work scholars tend to classify and mark off from one another, modern commentators on seventeenth century poetry have emphasized the common heritage and shared concerns of writers once assumed to be disparate and even antagonistic. It is well to recall this shared heritage and common cause when distinguishing—as criticism must distinguish—among individual achievements and ascertainable poetic movements.
The Metaphysical School
After Sir Herbert Grierson’s edition of Donne’s poems in 1912, critics spent some decades attempting to define and delineate “Metaphysical poetry.” T. S. Eliot, in a 1921 essay, lent his prestige to the endeavor, and such studies as George Williamson’s The Donne Tradition (1930), Joan Bennett’s Four Metaphysical Poets (1934), J. B. Leishman’s Metaphysical Poets (1934), Helen C. White’s The Metaphysical Poets (1936), and Rosemond Tuve’s Elizabethan and Metaphysical Imagery (1947) refined readers’ understanding of the movement but created such a vogue that the term “metaphysical” came to acquire a bewildering variety of applications and connotations, with the understandable result that some critics, including Leishman, came to view it with suspicion. Nevertheless, it remains useful for the purpose of designating the kind of poetry written by Donne, Herbert, Richard Crashaw, Henry Vaughan, Thomas Traherne, Andrew Marvell (at least some of the time), and a considerable number of other seventeenth century poets, including the American, Edward Taylor. The earlier tendency to call these poets a “school” has also fallen into disrepute because the term suggests a much more formal and schematic set of relationships than existed among these poets. Douglas Bush, in his valuable contribution to the Oxford History of English Literature series, English Literature in the Earlier Seventeenth Century, 1600-1660 (1962), refers to the Metaphysicals after Donne as his “successors,” while Joseph H. Summers prefers another designation, as the title of his 1970 study, The Heirs of Donne and Jonson, indicates.
Because the bulk of English Metaphysical poetry after Donne tends to be religious, it has been studied profitably under extra literary rubrics, especially by Louis L. Martz as The Poetry of Meditation (1954), in which the author demonstrates how many distinctive features of such poetry derive from the Christian art of meditation, especially from such manuals of Catholic devotion as Saint Ignatius of Loyola’s Ejercicios espirituales (1548; The Spiritual Exercises, 1736) and Saint Francis de Sales’s An Introduction to the Devout Life (c. 1608). Barbara Kiefer Lewalski has argued for the importance of Protestant devotional literature in her Protestant Poetics and the Seventeenth Century Religious Lyric (1979). Donne and some of his followers have been profitably studied as poets of wit, a classification that connects them with Jonson and the Jonsonians, in later books by Leishman (The Monarch of Wit, 1951) and Williamson (The Proper Wit of Poetry, 1961), as well as in the aforementioned book by Summers.
Students of literature continue to be intrigued by the word “metaphysical,” however, and by the challenge of pinpointing its essential denotation. One of the most distinctive traits of this poetry is the Metaphysical conceit, an image that, as its name suggests, is in-tended to convey an idea rather than a sensory quality. The conceit, as exemplified by Donne’s comparison of the quality of two lovers’ devotion to the draftsman’s compass in A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning, or the pulley image in Herbert’s poem of that title used to express the speaker’s sense of the relationship between God and humans, is likely to be ingenious, unexpected, and apparently unpromising; the poet is inclined to develop it at considerable length (Donne uses three stanzas for his compass conceit, while Herbert builds his whole poem on the pulley image) and in a number of particulars; and the result, often arrived at through argumentation, justifies the seeming incongruity of the image. An interesting comparison between Donne’s imagery and that of Shakespeare has been made by Cleanth Brooks (in The Well Wrought Urn, 1947) with the view of demonstrating the use of similar conceits by Shakespeare, who is never thought of as a Metaphysical.
Describers of Metaphysical poetry have most often cited a cluster of traits, no one of which differentiates this mode from others. Metaphysical poems are often dramatic, colloquial in diction and rhythm, and set forth in intricate and varied forms with respect to line lengths, rhyme schemes, and stanzaic configurations. Whether dealing with sexual or religious love, Metaphysical love poems develop the psychological aspects of loving that are always implicit, sometimes explicit in the Petrarchan tradition. Sexual, Platonic, and religious love are frequently explored in terms seemingly more appropriate to one of the other types. Thus Donne assures God that he will never be “chaste, except you ravish me,” and a lady that “all shall approve/ Us canonized for love.” Crashaw can refer to a mistress as a “divine idea” in a “shrine of crystal flesh,” and, in another poem, to God as a rival lover of Saint Teresa.
The chief trait of Metaphysical poetry in the eyes of Earl Miner (The Metaphysical Mode from Donne to Cowley, 1969) is its “private mode.” He considers the most distinctive aspect of the love or religious experience in this poetry to be its individual and private character. Either because the poet senses a breakdown of social bonds or be-cause these bonds threaten the integrity of private experience, the Metaphysical poet is in self-conscious retreat from the social realm. Thus Donne’s love poems often evoke third parties only to banish them as early as the first line: “For God’s sake, hold your tongue, and let me love.” The earlier Metaphysicals, however, are familiar with the world that they reject, and its immanence contributes to the dramatic quality in their poetry. In later poets such as Vaughan and Traherne, the interfering world has receded; as a result the dramatic tension largely disappears.
Metaphysical poetry’s reputed taste for the obscure and the “far-fetched” has been overemphasized by critics from Dryden to the twentieth century. That it is intellectual and that its allusions are likely to necessitate numerous glosses for modern readers there can be little doubt. The ideal audience for Metaphysical poetry was small and select. To pre-Restoration readers, however, the poems probably did not seem especially difficult. It is simply that Renaissance learning was replaced by a different learning. As the century waned, a gap widened between the old and new learning; as a result Dryden had more difficulty reading Donne than do modern readers, who enjoy the benefit of modern scholars’ recovery of much of that older learning. The continuing popularity of Metaphysical poetry demonstrates readers’ continuing willingness to absorb glosses without which the richness of the poetry is lost.
European Metaphysical Poetry (1961), an anthology by Frank J. Warnke with a long critical introduction, presents French, German, Spanish, Dutch, and Italian texts of selected poems with facing verse translations. The volume includes a number of poems analogous to the works of Donne and his followers and distinguishes between the Metaphysical and Baroque traditions, although clearly they overlap.
Metaphysical Poets in the New World
A Mexican nun, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648-1695), rivals Taylor (c. 1645-1729), who came to America in 1668, as the first Metaphysical poet of the New World. Like Crashaw, Sor Juana writes emotional, sexually charged religious verse, but also like him, she was a keen student of theology and something of an intellectual. In Taylor, the Metaphysical manner and a Puritan religious outlook produced a body of poetry unique in the American colonies or elsewhere. The influence of Richard Baxter’s famous book The Saints’ Everlasting Rest (1692) is heavier on Taylor than on any other Metaphysical poet, and many of his poems are cast as meditations. The language is that of a man who lived and worked on the late seventeenth century American frontier, cut off from the society of the learned and the artistic. Even his conceits, such as the one on which he bases “Huswifery”—“Make me, O Lord, thy spinning wheel complete”—have a homely, rough-hewn air.
Religious Poetry and Other Trends
Finally, the seventeenth century produced a body of poetry not usually classified as Metaphysical but having some affinities with that tradition. Much of it is religious. Emblem poetry, best exemplified by Francis Quarles (1592-1644), was a mixed-media art including a print that depicted a scene of religious or moral significance, a biblical quotation, a related poem, another quotation, and, in most cases, a concluding epigram. The engravings in emblem books are frequently more interesting than the poems, but the form seems to have made its mark on Spenser, Shakespeare, and several of the Metaphysical poets, notably Herbert and Crashaw. Herbert’s great book The Temple (1633) contains several poems that, arranged to form figures, become in effect emblems of their subject matter. Another poet, Henry More, in his fondness for allegory and the Spenserian stanza points to one large influence, but often reminds the reader of the Metaphysicals in his choice and handling of imagery, even though his work is more justly charged with obscurity than theirs. At the same time, More is one of the few seventeenth century poets who is known to have studied René Descartes and to have been directly influenced by the Cartesian dualism of mind and matter. If, as Basil Willey hasargued in The Seventeenth Century Background (1934), Cartesian thought undermined confidence in the “truth” of poetry, it is in More that one should be able to read the signs of the decline, but More seems as sure of the truth of his poetical utterances as of his Divine Dialogues (1668) in prose. Other Metaphysically tinged poetry will be considered part of the mid-century transition below.
From a twentieth century perspective Ben Jonson (1573-1637) was overshadowed by Shakespeare as a playwright and by Donne as a lyric and reflective poet, but his importance in his time is difficult to overestimate. Before his time, England had produced classical scholars who edited texts, produced grammars and other educational tools, and wrote significant prose. Not until Jonson, however, did an Englishman combine classical learning with great poetic ability. Jonson’s interpretation of the classical heritage, which involved (besides the drama) imitations of such distinctly classical forms as the epigram, ode, and verse epistle; the translation into verse of Horace’s Ars poetica (c. 17 b.c.e.; The Art of Poetry) and the employment of poetry as an ethical, civilizing influence not only enriched poetry but also defined classicism itself for generations of Englishmen. Even present-day classicists are likely to conceive of its essential spirit as comprising such virtues as simplicity, clarity, symmetry, detachment, and restraint, al-though such qualities are hardly the hallmarks of Euripides, Pindar, Ovid, and any number of other Greek and Roman poets. Jonsonian classicism proved to be a timely anti-dote to Elizabethan verbosity and extravagance, however, and generated some of the best poetry of the seventeenth century.
All Jonson’s favorite classical forms had been practiced in the sixteenth century, though often in an eclectic and self-indulgent way. Jonson showed that the discipline of strict classicism could be liberating. Bush has pointed out that his imitations of Martial not only capture the temper of the greatest Roman epigrammatist better than did any of his predecessors, but also display more originality than earlier poems in this genre. Al-though not a great love poet, Jonson wrote a series of song lyrics that are models of their type, one of them, “Drink to me only with thine eyes” being familiar to millions of people who know nothing of classicism or of Jonson himself. His verse letter “To Penshurst,” though initially unexciting to a reader accustomed to Donne’s pyrotechnics, achieves an unobtrusive but unforgettable effect. When, at the end, he contrasts the Sidney family mansion with other houses—“their lords have built, but thy lord dwell”—he has accomplished a tribute worth all the fulsome compliments that Elizabethans heaped on their benefactors. It was through his study of Horace, a quiet bastion of civility in the noisy Roman Empire, that Jonson was able to produce such an effect.
Like Donne, Jonson not only wrote fine poems but inspired others of a high order as well. Robert Herrick (1591-1674), to whom Jonson was “Saint Ben,” sometimes approached his master in the art of epigram and sometimes exceeded him in the writing of cool, elegant lyrics. Poets such as Edmund Waller (1606-1687) who reached the heights only infrequently probably could not have done so at all without Jonson’s example (and occasionally Donne’s also). The delicacy of Waller’s “Go, lovely rose” is an inheritance of the Tribe of Ben. If the same poet’s Penshurst poems fall short of Jonson’s, Marvell’s “Upon Appleton House” is both marvelously original and indebted to Jonson. William Alexander McClung, in The Country House in English Renaissance Poetry (1977), has shown how the poets after Jonson were able to set forth both an ideal of environment and an ideal of virtue through their reflection in a house.
Neither Jonson nor his followers necessarily came by their Horatian restraint and moderation naturally. As a young man, Jonson flashed the same hot temper that many another Elizabethans did not bother to control. In 1598, he plunged a rapier six inches into the side of a fellow actor named Gabriel Spencer, killing him instantly. He escaped with a branding on the thumb by pleading benefit of clergy—a dubious privilege possible for an educated man in or out of holy orders. Pen in hand, however, he modeled his work on that of Horace, who counseled, and perhaps practiced, moderation as a “golden mean.” Horace did not prevent Jonson from lashing out verbally at his critics from time to time, but the Roman poet probably saved the impetuous Jonson from many a poetical gaucherie.
Many of Jonson’s followers were political conservatives, advocates of royal supremacy and others who had most to fear from the intransigent Puritans, whose power grew steadily throughout the first half of the century until they forced Charles I from his throne and, in 1649, beheaded him for treason. Thus Jonsonian classicists overlapped, but did not subsume, the Cavalier lyric poets, who celebrated the not particularly Horatian virtues of war, chivalry, and loyalty to the monarchy. Just as paradoxically, the great classicist of the generation after Jonson turned out to be Latin secretary of Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth, the militant Puritan Milton.
At their best, the Jonsonians wrote graceful and civilized lyrics reflecting a philosophy that was, in the best sense of the term, Epicurean. Like the Elizabethans, they were attracted to the theme of human mortality, but whereas the earlier poets had responded to the inevitability of decline and death with lugubrious melancholy, the Tribe of Ben had imbibed Horace’s advice: carpe diem, or “seize the day.” They wrote the most beautiful lyrics on this theme ever written in English: Herrick’s “To Daffodils,” “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time,” and “Corinna’s going A-Maying,” Waller’s “Go, lovely rose,” and Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress.”
Another subject dear to the heart of Jonsonians was one relatively rare in previous (and many later) eras: children. Jonson wrote, with deep feeling yet immense restraint, of the deaths of two children. “On My First Daughter” does not repeat the personal pro-noun of the title, although the reader learns that her name was Mary. The parents, how-ever, are referred to in the third person, only the final phrase, “cover lightly, gentle earth!” betraying the speaker’s involvement in the child’s demise. An even finer poem,“ On My First Son,” has only six couplets and yet achieves enormous poignancy through the most economical means. Jonson could have expressed his love no more forcefully than by saying: “Here doth lie/ Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.” The lesson he draws is more Horatian than Christian: “For whose sake, henceforth, all his vows be such/ As what he loves may never like too much.” Although Jonson wrote a few religious lyrics, it seems to be the classical legacy that he cherished most deeply.
Among those who gathered with Jonson at the Mermaid Tavern, Corbett also wrote of family members, including one poem “To His Son, Vincent” in which he characteristically sets forth moderate wishes for his offspring, “not too much wealth, nor wit,” and on the positive side, the graces of his mother, friends, peace, and innocence at the last. Among the poets who wrote poems about other people’s children was William Cart-wright, who expressed wishes for a friend’s newborn son, and Herrick, who penned two short epitaphs and two graces for children to recite at meals. Obviously the range of childhood poems in the seventeenth century is very narrow, even if Traherne’s mystical poems “Shadows in the Water,” “Innocence,” and others are included. Even so, that children figure in poetry at all is an indication that Jonson’s disciples do not consider commonplace subjects beneath their notice.
As might be expected of admirers of Horace and Martial, Jonsonians favored shortlines and short stanzas, though without the intricacy and irregularity often seen in Meta-physical lyrics. They often wrote in couplets, though the form known as the heroic couplet does not appear much before mid-century and does not become important until the age of Dryden. The couplets mirror the unassuming quality of so much early English classicism but commonly betray careful craftsmanship. The diction is rather plain, the metaphors few, and not often unusual. The words and images are carefully chosen, however, with an eye to precision and euphony. The tone is tender and affectionate to-ward friends and loved ones, sarcastic toward those who, like fools, deserve it. There are few high flights, but neither are Jonsonian lapses likely to be very gross. Speech, Jonson wrote, in Timber: Or, Discoveries Made upon Men and Matter (1641) is “the instrument of society.” Furthermore, “words are the people’s.” The poet is someone who uses the people’s resources for the people’s good.
Probably because it arose as a reaction against a Renaissance classicism that had no parallel in England before Jonson, the Baroque movement, beginning around 1580 and continuing for the better part of a century, had few manifestations in English poetry. First applied to architecture and later to sculpture and painting, the term described in particular the style of certain sixteenth century Venetian painters, particularly Jacopo Robusti Tintoretto, and of those, such as El Greco, who were influenced by the Venetians. The Baroque disdained formal beauty and placidity in favor of asymmetrical composition, rich color, energy, and even contortion.
Applied to prose style, “baroque” signifies the revolt against full and rounded Ciceronian elegance, a tendency to place the main sentence element first, the avoidance of symmetry by varying the form and length of constructions, and a greater autonomy for subordinate constructions, which tend to follow the main sentence element. English had developed a Ciceronian prose style, but a recognizably anti-Ciceronian prose arose in the seventeenth century, notably in such works as Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) and Sir Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici (1642).
In poetry, the Baroque has some affinities with the Metaphysical, but the differences are suggested by the adjectives used to describe the Baroque: “ornate,” “sensuous,” “pictorial,” and “emotional.” The Baroque is more likely to reject logic and reason ,which are useful to Metaphysical poets of an argumentative bent. In his European Metaphysical Poetry, Frank J. Warnke distinguishes between a Baroque inclination to use contrast and antithesis for the purpose of separating opposites and a Metaphysical preference for paradox and synthesis to produce a fusion of opposites. The Baroque was cultivated chiefly—not exclusively—by Roman Catholics as an expression of the Counter-Reformation spirit; it stands in contrast to the austerity of much northern European Protestant art.
The only English poets commonly associated with the Baroque are Fletcher and Crashaw (c. 1612-1649). Although Crashaw left more than four hundred poems, he is best known for his Saint Teresa poems, especially his florid “Upon the book and picture of the seraphical Saint Teresa” called “The Flaming Heart.” The poem blazes to a finish in a series of oaths that illustrate the Baroque manner:
By thy large draughts of intellectual day,
And by thy thirsts of love more large than they;
By all thy brim-filled bowls of fierce desire
By thy last morning’s draught of liquid fire. . . .
By these and other oaths he asked to be emptied of self and enabled to imitate her example. It is no surprise to learn that Crashaw lived for some years on the Continent, that he renounced his Anglican priesthood to become a Roman Catholic, and that he died in Italy.
Fletcher (c. 1585-1623), on the other hand, stands as a caution against too facile generalizations. He is best known for his devotional poem, Christ Victorie, and Triumph in Heaven, and Earth, Over, and After Death (1610). He remained English and Anglican, and although his poetry reminds some readers of the baroque pioneer Guillaume du Bartas, he usually causes readers of Spenser to think of The Faerie Queene. The case of Fletcher underlines the fact that English writers of the earlier seventeenth century felt no compulsion to wage war with the Renaissance, since its greatest nondramatic poet, far from being a doctrinaire classicist, synthesized elements classical, medieval, and Renaissance.
The Baroque style in poetry, as in the visual arts, contained more than the usual number of the seeds of decadence. Baroque poets were liable to grotesqueness, obscurity, melodrama, and triviality. Its excesses no doubt helped pave the way for the later neo-classical resurgence. Again by analogy with architecture, some literary historians have seen the Baroque also leading to the rococo, understood as a fussy, over decorative, playful style that nevertheless might serve a serious purpose for a neoclassicist engaged in playful satire. The most obvious example in English literature, Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock (1712), comes early in the eighteenth century.
To argue for too neat a mid-century transition between the earlier classical, Metaphysical, and Baroque styles, on the one hand, and the neoclassical age on the other, is perhaps to betray an obsession with the neoclassical virtue of symmetry, but in a number of ways the mid-century marks a turning point. England’s only interregnum straddles the century’s midpoint, while on the Continent the Thirty Years’ War came to an end with the treaties of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Both of these political events involved poetry and poets, the English Civil War more strikingly. The continental wars, insofar as they involved Protestant-Catholic clashes, represented nothing new, but they exhibited several modern features. Because they involved most European states in one way or another and required a general congress of nations to achieve even temporary peace, these conflicts augured the modern situation, in which local conflicts can trigger unforeseen large-scale involvement. Armorers preparing soldiers for battle had to devise protection against traditional weapons such as the sword and also new ones such as the pistol; the latter were often used as a kind of last resort, as clubs, or thrown at enemies more often than they were fired. All over Europe men were getting a preview of the mass destruction they could expect in future wars. The necessity of compromise and toleration—never before recognized as virtues—was beginning to dawn. More and more it seemed essential that reason and judgment, not passion and force, reign.
England had embarked on its internal war in 1642. The Puritans, who had already succeeded in closing London’s theaters, alarmed conservative Englishmen by closing down the monarchy itself. The execution of Charles I and the proclamation of the Commonwealth in 1649 culminated nearly a decade of violence that had driven Sir John Denham, Sir William Davenant, and Thomas Hobbes, among others, into exile, and the Cavalier poet Richard Lovelace into prison, where he penned several immortal poems. The political transition ended in 1660. Young Dryden wrote Astraea Redux (1660), an elaborate poetic tribute to a great event: the return of Charles II, son of the executed king, in glory. The adjustments made by all the former belligerents signal a new era. The next revolution, in 1688, despite ingredients seemingly as volatile as those which had precipitated the mid-century war, was not bloody.
Miner (The Metaphysical Mode from Donne to Cowley) has referred to the decade between 1645 and 1655 as a “microcosm” of the century as a whole. Certainly it was a productive time for poets. In only the first half of that decade appeared Waller’s Poems (1645), Sir John Suckling’s Fragmenta Aurea (1646), Crashaw’s Steps to the Temple (1646, 1648), Herrick’s Hesperides: Or, The Works Both Humane and Divine of Robert Herrick, Esq. (1648), Lovelace’s Lucasta: Epodes, Odes, Sonnets, Songs, &c. to Which Is Added Aramantha, a Pastorall (1649), and Vaughan’s Silex Scintillans (parts 1 and 2,1650, 1655), all studded with still familiar anthology favorites. Although Marvell’s posthumous poems are difficult to date, at least some of his best are presumed to have been written in the early 1650’s, as were a number of the finest of Milton’s sonnets, while Paradise Lost (1667, 1674) was evolving in Milton’s imagination. Miner’s point, however, is that the poets at work at this time are difficult to classify as Cavalier, Puritan, Metaphysical, or neoclassical. The distinctive earlier voices—those of Donne and Jonson and Herbert—had been stilled, and the most distinctive later one had not yet d-veloped. The teenage Dryden’s notorious foray into Metaphysical imagery in his 1649poem “Upon the Death of the Lord Hastings,” where Hastings’s smallpox blisters are compared to “rosebuds stuck in the lily-skin about,” and where “Each little pimple had a tear in it/ To wail the fault its rising did commit,” presages the great neoclassicist only in its use of rhymed pentameter couplets—and those are not yet particularly “heroic.”
That particular form, the end-stopped couplet with its potential for balance, antithesis, and memorable precision, was being hammered out in the 1640’s by such poets as Waller, Denham, and John Cleveland (otherwise remembered chiefly as a decadent Metaphysical) in a series of spirited anti-Puritan satires. The latter’s 1642 poem, “Cooper’s Hill,” now faded, looks forward to the Augustan Age with its blend of Horatian and Vergilian sentiments, its lofty abstractions, and its skillful handling of rhythm. The pentameter couplet was as old as Geoffrey Chaucer, but as a distinct unit, sometimes virtually a stanza in itself, it was capable of generating quite different effects. Detach-able, quotable, suited for uttering the common wisdom, the great truths apparent to all, item bodied the neoclassical concept of wit, which was variously defined from this period on, but most memorably (because so well-expressed in a couplet, of course) by Pope in1711: “True wit is nature to advantage dressed,/ What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.”
At the very middle of the century appeared a work by a man whose profession was neither poet nor critic but whose terse genealogy of a poem marks off the distance be-tween the ages of Donne and Dryden. Hobbes was responding to remarks on epic made by Davenant in the preface to his fragmentary heroic poem Gondibert (1651) when he wrote:
Time and education beget experience; experience begets memory; memory begets judgment and fancy; judgment begets the strength and structure, and fancy begets the ornaments of a poem.
It is impossible to imagine Donne countenancing the splitting asunder of “structure” and “ornaments,” or for that matter acknowledging “ornaments” at all—for where were they in his poetry?
The following year, 1651, saw the publication of Hobbes’s magnum opus, the Leviathan. There he made explicit what his answer to Davenant had implied: “In a good poem. . . both judgment and fancy are required: but the fancy must be more eminent.” In other words, “ornament” is more important than “structure.” To be sure, Hobbes was only stating succinctly a view that had already surfaced in Francis Bacon’s philosophy: Poetry is make-believe (“feigned history,” as Bacon put it in The Advancement of Learning back in 1605) and has nothing to do with truth. This reproach becomes more damning when seen in the context of the linguistic theories set forth elsewhere by Hobbes and by the Royal Society of London in the following decade.
Another work of the mid-century marks a beginning rather than a transition. In 1650, The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America was published in London. Supposedly the manuscript had been spirited across the Atlantic without its author’s consent. It was the first book of poems by an American woman, Anne Bradstreet. Discounting the doggerel of such works of piety as The Bay Psalm Book (1640), it was in fact the first book of poems by any American. More than two hundred years would pass before another woman poet would do as well as Bradstreet, who, twenty years earlier, as a teenage bride, had emigrated to Massachusetts.
Poetry and the Scientific Revolution
Of the nonliterary forces on seventeenth century poets, the New Science may well have been the most uniformly pervasive throughout the Western world. Whereas social, political, and even religious developments varied considerably in nature and scope, the scientists were busy discovering laws that applied everywhere and affected the prevailing worldview impartially. Some artists and thinkers discovered the New Science and pondered its implications before others, but no poet could fall very many decades behind the vanguard and continue to be taken seriously. The modern reader of, say, C. S. Lewis’s The Discarded Image (1964) and E. M. W. Tillyard’s The Elizabethan World Picture (1943) observes that the Elizabethan “picture” had not changed substantially from the medieval “image” described by Lewis. Between 1600 and 1700, however, the world view of educated people changed more dramatically than in any previous century. Early in the century Donne signaled his awareness of science’s challenge to the old certitudes about the world. By Dryden’s maturity, the new learning had rendered the Elizabethan brand of erudition disreputable and its literary imagination largely incomprehensible.
In The Breaking of the Circle (1960), Marjorie Hope Nicolson uses a popular medieval symbol, the circle of perfection, to demonstrate the effect of the New Science on the poets’ perception of their world. The universe was a circle; so was Earth and the human head. The circle was God’s perfect form, unending like himself, and all its manifestations shared in the perfection. It was easy—one might almost say “natural”—for Donne to begin one of his sonnets: “I am a little world made cunningly.” Significantly, Donne did not say that he was like a little world. Not only did he use a metaphor instead of a simile, but also he used the metaphor confident that he was expressing a truth. In another sonnet, Shakespeare refers to his soul as “the center of my sinful earth.” Two thousand years earlier, Aristotle had said that “to make metaphors well is to perceive likeness,”and this judgment still stood firm. Already, however, a succession of thinkers from Nicolaus Copernicus in 1543 to Sir Isaac Newton in 1687 were at work breaking up the circle of perfection.
A special irony attaches to the contribution of Copernicus, a pious Roman Catholic who took the concept of the circle of perfection for granted when he set forth his helio-centric theory of the solar system. His insight was to see the Sun, not Earth, as the center of God’s operations in the visible world. To him, it was perfectly obvious that God would impart perfect circular motion to the planets. Unfortunately his new model provided even less accurate predictability of planetary motions than the old geocentric theory that it was intended to replace. Thus he had to invent an ingenious system of subordinate circles—“eccentrics” and “epicycles”—to account for the discrepancies between the simple version of his model and his observations of what actually went on in the heavens. Thus, although his heliocentric theory incurred condemnation by Protestant and Catholic alike, his cumbersome model did not attract many adherents, and for decades intelligent people remained ignorant of his theory and its implications.
Two contemporaries of Donne changed all that. In 1609, Galileo built a telescope; by the next year, he was systematically examining not just the solar system but other suns beyond it. Johann Kepler discovered, virtually at the same time, the elliptical orbit of Mars. He did this by breaking the old habit—his own as well as humankind’s—of regarding physical events as symbols of divine mysteries, and thereby swept Copernicus’s eccentrics and epicycles into a rubbish heap. When Donne wrote An Anatomy of the World: The First Anniversary, in 1611, he showed his familiarity with the new astronomy:
And new philosophy calls all in doubt,
The element of fire is quite put out;
The sun is lost, and the earth, and no man’s wit
Can well direct him where to look for it.
Even before the confirmation of Copernicus’s theory, the greatest literary geniuses of his century raised versions of the great question provoked by the new science. Michel Eyquem de Montaigne put it most simply in his Essais (books 1-2 1580; rev. 1582; books 1-3, 1588; rev. 1595; The Essays, 1603): “What do I know?” The word “essays” signifies “attempts,” and the work can be described as a series of attempts to answer his question. Miguel de Cervantes, setting out with the rather routine literary motive of satirizing a particularly silly type of chivalric romance, stumbled on his theme: the difficulty of distinguishing appearance from reality—even for those who, unlike Don Quixote, are not mad. The second part of Cervantes’s novel, El ingenioso hidalgo don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615; The History of the Valorous and Wittie Knight-Errant, Don Quixote of the Mancha, 1612-1620; better known as Don Quixote de la Mancha), written like the first out of an understandable but pedestrian literary ambition (to reclaim his hero from the clutches of a plagiarist), raises the disturbing possibility that the madman interprets at least some aspects of reality more sensibly than the “sane” people among whom the idealistic Don Quixote was floundering. Shakespeare, having already endorsed the ancient concept of the poet as a divinely inspired madman in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (pr. c. 1595-1596), created, at the very beginning of the new century, a “mad” hero who raises an even more profound question: Can knowledge of the truth, even if attainable (and Hamlet gains the knowledge of the truth that concerns him most—the circumstances of his father’s death—through ghostly intervention),lead to madness and paralysis of the will?
Unlike Eliot’s twentieth century figure of J. Alfred Prufrock, who asks, “Do I dare disturb the universe?,” medieval man did not disturb, and was not disturbed by, the universe. Even the presumed decay of the world from its original golden age did not alarm him, for it was all part of the plan of a wise and loving Creator. In An Anatomy of the World, the decay of the world has become profoundly disturbing, for the very cosmic order itself seems to be coming apart: “’Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone.” Shortly before writing this poem—and perhaps afterward—Donne was able to write poetry of the sort quoted earlier, in which he moves easily from macrocosm to microcosm; but he also recognized that the “new philosophy calls all in doubt.”
Astronomical discoveries were not the only form of knowledge. In 1600, William Gilbert wrote a book on magnetism. He was, like Copernicus, a good sixteenth centuryman and could talk about lodestones as possessing souls; his important discovery, how-ever, was that the earth is a lodestone. In 1628, when William Harvey published his findings on the circulation of the blood, he referred to the heart as the body’s “sovereign” and “inmost home,” but in the process, he taught the world to regard it as a mechanism—a pump. The old worldview was being destroyed quite unintentionally by men whose traditional assumptions often hampered their progress, but whose achievement made it impossible for their own grandchildren to make the same assumptions or to take the old learning seriously. As a result of Robert Boyle’s work, chemistry was banishing alchemy, a subject taken seriously not only by poets but also by the scientists of an earlier day. At century’s end, to talk of a person as a “little world” was mere quaintness, for Harvey had taught everyone to regard the body as one sort of mechanism, while the astronomers insisted that the solar system was another. It was merely idle to make connections between them.
As the scientists focused more clearly on their subjects, the poets’ vision became more blurred. Astronomy is only one such subject area, but it is a particularly useful one for the purpose of demonstrating the change. Around 1582 Sidney’s Astrophel could exclaim: “With how sad steps, O moon, thou climb’st the skies,/ How silently, and with how wan aface.” Astrophel is a disappointed lover, of course, and need not be taken too seriously. What strikes the reader is the ease with which his creator sees parallels between the moon and the earthbound lover. In a more serious context, Herbert addresses a star: “Brightspark, shot from a brighter place/ Where beams surround my Savior’s face.” Herbert al-most surely knew what Galileo had been doing, but his “brighter place” still lay, as it were, beyond the reach of the telescope. In 1650, Vaughan could begin a poem: “I saw Eternity the other night/ Like a great Ring of pure and endless light,/ All calm, as it was bright.” The reader’s first inclination is perhaps to marvel at the facility of the utterance, but is the tone as matter-of-fact as it seems? Might not Donne and Herbert have seen eternity everynight? On second thought one wonders whether the moments of insight are getting rarer. Five years later, Vaughan published “They are all gone into the world of light,” a poem reflecting an awareness of the transience of the heavenly vision:
And yet, as Angels in some brighter dreams
Call the soul, when man doth sleep:
So some strange thoughts transcend our wonted themes,
And into glory peep.
At the end of the poem the speaker begs God to “disperse these mists.” Any reader can verify that in later Metaphysical poetry the view of heaven gets cloudier. Traherne, almost surely writing in the Restoration, sees heaven not through the earthly eye but mystically with a sight often blurred by dream, shadows, and mists. In “My Spirit,” for ex-ample, his soul “saw infinity/ ‘Twas not a sphere, but ‘twas a power/ Invisible.” In Religio Laici, Dryden can see none of this and counsels submission to the Church. By1733, Pope has banished all thought of reading heavenly meanings in the heavens: “The proper study of Mankind is Man”—unless, of course, one happens to be an astronomer.
Neoclassicism from 1660 to 1700
By the Restoration, the poets had turned their attention primarily to public and social themes. The comedy of this period has given readers the impression of a licentious age determined to bury the memory of Puritanistic domination and live as fast and loose an existence as possible. Such behavior could not have characterized more than a tiny percentage of the people of later Stuart England. It was an age struggling for order through compromise. Wit might entertain, but life required sober judgment.
The classical tradition survived the New Science better than did the Metaphysical. Itdid not aspire to compete with science in the realm beyond everyday human and social experience. The Jonsonian tradition of short lyric and reflective poems no longer flourished, but the neoclassicists of the Restoration rediscovered satire and the heroic poem—the latter primarily in the remarkable triad of Miltonic poems published be-tween 1667 and 1671: Paradise Lost (1667, 1674), Paradise Regained (1671), and Samson Agonistes (1671). Horace was not neglected, but the study and translation of the Homeric and Vergilian epics gained in popularity. The time might have been ripe for a great patriotic epic (Milton considered a true Arthurian epic that would rectify the deficiencies of Spenser’s episodic one before he finally settled on the yet nobler idea of justifying God’s way to humans), but whether because Milton’s accomplishment had pre-empted the field or because history as Restoration poets knew it could not be hammered into the Vergilian mold, it was not written.
Instead, Dryden produced something new: a political satire in a heroic style based ona contemporary controversy over the attempt to exclude Charles II’s Roman Catholic brother James from the royal succession. It was a serious matter, laden with danger for the principal in the struggle, for Dryden, and for the nation. He did not use blank verse, as Shakespeare and Milton had in their greatest works, but the heroic couplet, a form that Dryden had been honing for twenty years. The result is a poem of peculiar urgency, yet by virtue of Dryden’s skillful representation of Charles II as the biblical King David and of the earl of Shaftesbury as “false Achitophel,” who attempts to turn Absalom(Charles’s illegitimate son, the duke of Monmouth) against his father, the poem takes on universality. It is by far the most impressive poem of the period: Absalom and Achitophel (1681, 1682).
The drama aside, satire is the greatest literary achievement of the Restoration, and it is also the most diverse. From Samuel Butler’s low burlesque of the Puritans in Hudibras (1663, 1664, 1678, parts 1-3) to Dryden’s sustained high style in Absalomand Achitophel, from a butt as small as one undistinguished playwright (Thomas Shadwell in Dryden’s 1682 mock-epic Mac Flecknoe: Or, A Satyre upon the True-Blew-Protestant Poet, T. S.) to one as large as humankind, vain aspirer to the status of rational being (the earl of Rochester’s “A Satire Against Mankind,” printed in 1675),verse satire flourished, providing models for even greater achievements in the first part of the following century. The Renaissance notion of decorum as the delicate adjustment of literary means to ends, of the suitability of the parts to the whole, governed these di-verse attempts at diminishing the wickedness and folly that Restoration poets considered it their duty to expose and correct. Even Hudibras, with its slam-bang tetrameter couplets and quirky rhymes, seems the perfect vehicle for flaying the routed Puritans, and its levels of irony are far more complex than superficial readers suspect. When sat-ire began to invade prose, as it increasingly did in the eighteenth century, its narrative possibilities increased, but it lost subtle effects of rhythm, timing, and rhyme.
Compared with the first sixty years of the century, the Restoration seems a prosaic age. A considerable number of its most accomplished writers—John Bunyan, the diarists Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn, Sir William Temple, John Locke—wrote no poetry worth preserving, and Dryden himself wrote a large proportion of prose. Does the preponderance of prose and satire confirm Eliot’s early charge that a “dissociation of sensibility” had set in by the time of the Restoration? Is it true that writers no longer could fuse thought and feeling, with the consequence that prose was used for conveying truth and poetry for the setting forth of delightful lies?
Hobbes, who had little use for poetry in general, praised the epic as conducive to moral truth, and he admitted that satire can be defended on moral grounds also. The Restoration poets in England were the successors of a classical tradition that emphasized the ethical value of poetry, so they might as plausibly be considered carrying out, on a somewhat larger scale, the dictates of Jonson as those of Hobbes. The Royal Society of London, of which Dryden was a member, was founded in 1662 for “the improving of natural knowledge,” and among its ambitions it numbered the improving of the language by waging war against “tropes” and “figures” and “metaphors.” One cannot imagine Donne having any-thing to do with such an organization, all the more because the Society on principle did not discuss “such subjects as God and the soul.” It is difficult to see how Dryden’s association with it substantiates the charge of dissociated sensibility, however, for there is certainly both thought and feeling together in Absalom and Achitophel, even if it is, like the Royal Society itself, earthbound and relatively unmetaphorical, and, while it is no doubt instructive, generations of readers have taken delight in it also.
One is tempted to offer a different explanation for Restoration writers’ greater attachment to prose and to satire. The reading audience expanded greatly in the seventeenth century, and increasingly it became the business of the writer to satisfy its interests, which for a variety of reasons were political and social. The early Metaphysical writers possessed a very small audience (one another and a few more who shared the same interests); very much the same situation obtained for Jonson and his followers. When the readership increased, poets modified their work accordingly. When Dryden did write of religion, he wrote of it as he and his contemporaries understood it. That Dryden took little delight in Donne’s poetry is clear from his remarks in “A Discourse Concerning the Original and Progress of Satire” (1693):
Donne affects the metaphysics, not only in his amorous verses, where nature only should reign; and perplexes the minds of the fair sex with nice speculations of philosophy, when he should engage their hearts and entertain them with the softnesses of love.
Dryden did not understand Donne’s intentions very well, but he understood his own political intentions very well indeed.
In his own and the century’s final years, Dryden worked primarily at translation, promising in his “Preface to Fables Ancient and Modern” (1700), “if it should please God to give me longer life and moderate health.” He added another provision: “that I meet with those encouragements from the public, which may enable me to proceed in my undertaking with some cheerfulness.” This is the remark of a public figure—a former poet laureate, author of a stream of plays and published books since the 1600’s, a veteran attraction at Will’s Coffee House in London.
Poets had not always expected such encouragements. When Donne died in 1631, only four of his poems had been published. Herbert, Marvell, and Traherne saw few or none of their poems in print. Jonson, on the other hand, had offered his work to the public, even inviting ridicule in 1616 by boldly calling his volume Works. Like Dryden after him, he had developed a healthy sense of audience in his career as a playwright. He had even more reason to fear an unhappy audience than Dryden, for along with John Marston and George Chapman, he had been imprisoned and very nearly mutilated by a gang of Scots retainers of James I whom the trio had outraged by some of their jests in their play Eastward Ho! (pr., pb. 1605). Nevertheless, Jonson promised a translation of Horace’s Ars poetica (c. 17 b.c.e.; The Art of Poetry), with no provisions whatsoever, that same year. The fact that he did not deliver the translation until long afterward does not seem to have had anything to do with readers’ wishes. Jonson usually conveyed the impression that whatever he had to say amounted to nothing less than a golden opportunity for any sensible reader or listener.
Even if one assumes that Dryden’s hope for encouragement may have been only an expression of politeness, that politeness itself signifies a change of relationship with the “public.” Most of the poetry written in the time of Donne and Jonson has the quality of being overheard. It is as if the poet is praying, making love, or rebuking a fool, and the reader has just happened to pass by. If the poem is a verse epistle, the reader experiences the uncomfortable feeling that he is reading someone else’s mail—and quite often that is so. By 1700, the poet seems conscious of producing a document for public inspection and proceeds accordingly, with all the implications—fortunate and unfortunate—of such a procedure. He will not tax the public with too many difficulties, for some of them—too many, perhaps—will not understand. He had better polish his work, and he had better not be dull. He might produce one of those “overheard” lyrics once in a while, but the chances are that they will yield few excellences not imitative of earlier poets whose circumstances favored that type of poem.
The neoclassical sense of audience would continue, as the neoclassical period would continue, for nearly another century—at least in those poets with access to a public. The poet’s public stance would give rise to more fine satire and reflective poems of great majesty and sustained moral power. The knack of lyric would be largely lost, and, when recovered, the lyrics would be romantic. No one would ever write poems like A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning or To His Coy Mistress again.
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