The Puritan Age (1600-1660) Summary & Analysis

The Puritan Age
The Puritan Age

The Puritan Age

The Literature of the Seventeenth Century may be divided into two periods—The Puritan Age or the Age of Milton (1600-1660), which is further divided into the Jacobean and Caroline periods after the names of the ruled James I and Charles I, who rules from 1603 to 1625 and 1625 to 1649 respectively; and the Restoration Period or the Age of Dryden (1660-1700).

The Seventeenth Century was marked by the decline of the Renaissance spirit, and the writers either imitated the great masters of the Elizabethan period or followed new paths. We no longer find great imaginative writers of the stature of Shakespeare, Spenser, and Sidney. There is a marked change in temperament which may be called essentially modern. Though during the Elizabethan period, the new spirit of the Renaissance had broken away with the medieval times and started a new modern development it was in the seventeenth century that this task of breaking away with the past was completely accomplished, and the modern spirit, in the fullest sense of the term, came into being. This spirit may be defined as the spirit of observation and preoccupation with details, and systematic analysis of facts, feelings, and ideas. In other words, it was the spirit of science popularized by such great men as Newton, Bacon, and Descartes. In the field of literature this spirit manifested itself in the form of criticism, which in England is the creation of the Seventeenth Century. During the Sixteenth Century England expanded in all directions; in the Seventeenth Century people took stock of what had been acquired. They also analyzed, classified, and systematized it. For the first time the writers began using the English language as a vehicle for storing and conveying facts.

One very important and significant feature of this new spirit of observation and analysis was the popularisation of the art of biography which was unknown during the Sixteenth Century. Thus whereas we have no recorded information about the life of such an eminent dramatist as Shakespeare, in the seventeenth century many authors like Fuller and Aubrey laboriously collected and chronicled the smallest facts about the great men of their day, or of the immediate past. The autobiography also came in the wake of biography, and later on, the keeping of diaries and writing of journals became popular, for example Pepy’s Diary and Fox’s Journal. All these new literary developments were meant to meet the growing demand for analysis of the feelings and the intimate thoughts and sensations of real men and women.

This newly awakened taste in realism manifested itself also in the ‘Character’, which was a brief descriptive essay on a contemporary type like a tobacco-seller, or an old shoe-maker. In drama the portrayal of the foibles of the fashionable contemporary society took a prominent place. In satire, it was not the common faults of the people who were ridiculed, but actual men belonging to opposite political and religious groups. The readers who also had become critical demanded facts from the authors so that they might judge and take sides in controversial matters.

The Seventeenth Century up to 1660 was dominated by Puritanism and it may be called the Puritan Age or the Age of Milton who was the noblest representative of the Puritan spirit. Broadly speaking, the Puritan movement in literature may be considered as the second and greater Renaissance, marked by the rebirth of the moral nature of man which followed the intellectual awakening of Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Though the Renaissance brought with it culture, it was mostly sensuous and pagan, and it needed some sort of moral sobriety and profundity which were contributed by the Puritan movement. Moreover, during the Renaissance period despotism was still the order of the day, and in politics and religion unscrupulousness and fanaticism were rampant. The Puritan movement stood for liberty of the people from the shackles of the despotic ruler as well as the introduction of morality and high ideals in politics. Thus it had two objects—personal righteousness and civil and religious liberty. In other words, it aimed at making men honest and free.

Though during the Restoration period the Puritans began to be looked down upon as narrow-minded, gloomy dogmatists, who were against all sorts of recreations and amusements, in fact they were not so. Moreover, though they were profoundly religious, they did not form a separate religious sect. It would be a grave travesty of facts if we call Milton and Cromwell, who fought for the liberty of the people against the tyrannical rule of Charles I, as narrow-minded fanatics. They were the real champions of liberty and stood for toleration.

The name Puritan was at first given to those who advocated certain changes in the form of worship of the reformed English Church under Elizabeth. As King Charles I and his councilors, as well as some of the clergymen with Bishop Laud as their leader, were opposed to this movement, Puritanism in course of time became a national movement against the tyrannical rule of the King, and stood for the liberty of the people. Of course the extremists among Puritans were fanatics and stern, and the long, protracted struggle against despotism made even the milder ones hard and narrow. So when Charles I was defeated and beheaded in 1649 and Puritanism came out triumphant with the establishment of the Commonwealth under Cromwell, severe laws passed. Many simple modes of recreation and amusement were banned, and an austere standard of living was imposed on an unwilling people. But when we criticize the Puritan for his restrictions on simple and innocent pleasures of life, we should not forget that it was the same very Puritan who fought for liberty and justice, and who through self-discipline and austere way of living overthrew despotism and made the life and property of the people of England safe from the tyranny of rulers.

In the literature of the Puritan Age we find the same confusion as we find in religion and politics. The medieval standards of chivalry, the impossible loves, and romances which we find in Spenser and Sidney, have completely disappeared. As there were no fixed literary standards, imitations of older poets and exaggeration of the ‘metaphysical’ poets replaced the original, dignified, and highly imaginative compositions of the Elizabethan writers. The literary achievements of this so-called gloomy age are not of a high order, but it had the honor of producing one solitary master of verse whose work would shed luster on any age or people—John Milton, who was the noblest and indomitable representative of the Puritan spirit to which he gave a loftiest and enduring expression.

(a)  Puritan Poetry

The Puritan poetry also called the Jacobean and Caroline Poetry during the reigns of James I and Charles I respectively, can be divided into three parts –(i) Poetry of the School of Spenser; (ii) Poetry of the Metaphysical School; (iii) Poetry of the Cavalier Poets.

(i)  The School of Spenser

The Spenserians were the followers of Spenser. Despite the changing conditions and literary tastes which resulted in a reaction against the diffuse, flamboyant, Italianate poetry which Spenser and Sidney had made fashionable during the sixteenth century, they preferred to follow Spenser and considered him as their master.

The most thorough-going disciples of Spenser during the reign of James I were Phineas Fletcher (1582-1648) and Giles Fletcher (1583-1623). They were both priests and Fellows of Cambridge University. Phineas Fletcher wrote several Spenserian pastorals and allegories. His most ambitious poem The Purple Island portrays in a minutely detailed allegory the physical and mental constitution of man, the struggle between Temperance and his foes, the will of man, and Satan. Though the poem follows the allegorical pattern of The Faerie Queene, it does not lift us to the realm of pure romance as does Spenser’s masterpiece, and at times the strain of the allegory becomes too unbearable.

Giles Fletcher was more lyrical and mystical than his brother, and he also made a happier choice of subjects. His Christ’s Victory and Triumph in Heaven and Earth over and after Death (1610), which is an allegorical narrative describing in a lyrical strain the Atonement, Temptation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Christ, is a link between the religious poetry of Spenser and Milton. It is written in a flamboyant, diffuse style of Spenser, but its ethical aspect is in keeping with the seventeenth-century theology which considered man as a puny creature in the divine scheme of salvation.

Other poets who wrote under the influence of Spenser were William Browne (1590-1645). George Wither (1588-1667) and William Drummond (1585-1649).

Browne’s important poetical work is Britannia’s Pastorals which shows all the characteristics of Elizabethan pastoral poetry. It is inspired by Spenser’s Faerie Queene and Sidney’s Arcadia as it combines allegory with satire. It is a story of wooing and adventure, of the nymphs who change into streams and flowers. It also sings the praise of virtue and poets and dead and living.

The same didactic tone and lyrical strain are noticed in the poetry of George Wither. His best-known poems are The Shepherd’s Hunting a series of personal eulogies; Fidella an heroic epistle of over twelve hundred lines; and Fair Virtue, the Mistress of Philarete, a sustained and detailed lyrical eulogy of an ideal woman. Most of Wither’s poetry is pastoral which is used by him to convey his personal experience. He writes in an easy, and homely style free from conceits. He often dwells on the charms of nature and consolation provided by songs. In his later years Wither wrote didactic and satirical verse, which earned for him the title of “our English Juvenal”.

Drummond who was a Scottish poet wrote several pastorals, sonnets, songs, elegies, and religious poems. His poetry is the product of a scholar of refined nature, high imaginative faculty, and musical ear. His indebtedness to Spenser, Sidney, and Shakespeare in the matter of fine phraseology is quite obvious. The greatest and original quality of all his poetry is the sweetness and musical evolution in which he has few rivals even among the Elizabethan lyricists. His well-known poems are Tears on the Death of Maliades (an elegy), Sonnets, Flowers of Sion, and Pastorals.

(ii)       The Poets of the Metaphysical School

The metaphysical poets were John Donne, Herrick, Thomas Carew, Richard Crashaw, Henry Vaughan, George Herbert, and Lord Herbert of Cherbury. The leader of this school was Donne. They are called the metaphysical poets not because they are highly philosophical, but because their poetry is full of conceits, exaggerations, quibbling about the meanings of words, display of learning and far-fetched similes and metaphors. It was Dr. Johnson who in his essay on Abraham Cowley in his Lives of the Poets used the term ‘metaphysical’. There he wrote:

“About the beginning of the seventeenth century appeared a race of writers that may be termed the metaphysical poets. The metaphysical poets were men of learning, and to show their learning was their whole endeavor: but, unluckily resolving to show it in rhyme, instead of writing poetry, they only wrote verses and very often such verses as stood the trial of the finger better than of the ear; for the modulation was so imperfect that they were only found to be verses by counting the syllables.”

Though Dr. Johnson was prejudiced against the Metaphysical school of poets, and the above statement is full of exaggeration, yet he pointed out the salient characteristics of this school. One important feature of metaphysical school which Dr. Johnson mentioned was their “discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike.” Moreover, he was right when he further remarked that the Metaphysical poets were perversely strange and strained: ‘The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together; nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions… Their wish was only to say what had never been saying before”.

Dr. Johnson, however, did not fail to notice that beneath the superficial novelty of the metaphysical poets lay fundamental originality:

“If they frequently threw away their wit upon false conceits, they likewise sometimes struck out unexpected truth; if the conceits were far-fetched, they were often worth the carriage. To write on their plan, it was at least necessary to read and think, No man could be born a metaphysical poet, nor assume to the dignity of a writer, by descriptions copied from descriptions, by imitations borrowed from imitations, by traditional imagery, and volubility of syllables.”

The metaphysical poets were honest, original thinkers. They tried to analyze their feelings and experience—even the experience of love. They were also aware of life and were concerned with death, burial descent into hell, etc. Though they hoped for immortality, they were obsessed with the consciousness of mortality which was often expressed in a mood of mawkish disgust.

John Donne (1537-1631), the leader of the Metaphysical school of poets, had a very chequered career until be became the Dean of St. Paul. Though his main work was to deliver religious sermons, he wrote poetry of a very high order. His best-known works are The Progress of the Soul; An Anatomy of the World, an elegy; and Epithalamium. His poetry can be divided into three parts: (1) Amorous (2) Metaphysical (3) Satirical. In his amorous lyrics which include his earliest work, he broke away from the Petrarchan model so popular among the Elizabethan poets and expressed the experience of love realistically. His metaphysical and satirical works which form a major portion of his poetry were written in later years. The Progress of the Soul and Metempsychosis, in which Donne pursues the passage of the soul through various transmigrations, including those of a bird and fish, is a fine illustration of his metaphysical poetry. A good illustration of his satire is his fourth satire describing the character of a bore. They were written in a rhymed couplet and influenced both Dryden and Pope.

Donne has often been compared to Browning on account of his metrical roughness, obscurity, ardent imagination, taste for metaphysics, and unexpected divergence into sweet and delightful music. But there is one important difference between Donne and Browning. Donne is a poet of wit while Browning is a poet of ardent passion. Donne deliberately broke away from the Elizabethan tradition of the smooth sweetness of verse and introduced a harsh and staccato method. His influence on the contemporary poets was far from being desirable because whereas they imitated his harshness, they could not come up to the level of his original thought and sharp wit. Like Browning, Donne has no sympathy for the reader who cannot follow his keen and incisive thought, while his poetry is most difficult to understand because of its careless versification and excessive terseness.

Thus with Donne, the Elizabethan poetry with its mellifluousness, and richly observant imagination, came to an end, and Caroline poetry with its harshness and deeply reflective imagination began. Though Shakespeare and Spenser still exerted some influence on the poets, yet Donne’s influence was more dominant.

Robert Herrick (1591-1674) wrote amorous as well as religious verse, but it is on account of the poems of the former type—love poems, for which he is famous. He has much in common with the Elizabethan songwriters, but on account of his pensive fantasy, and a meditative strain especially in his religious verse, Herrick is included in the metaphysical school of Donne.

Thomas Carew (1598-1639), on whom the influence of Donne was stronger, was the finest lyric writer of his age. Though he lacks the spontaneity and freshness of Herrick, he is superior to him in fine workmanship. Moreover, though possessing the strength and vitality of Donne’s verse, Carew’s verse is neither rugged nor obscure as that of the master. His Persuasions of Love is a fine piece of rhythmic cadence and harmony.

Richard Crashaw (1613?-1649) possessed a temperament different from that of Herrick or Carew. He was a fundamentally religious poet, and his best work is The Flaming Heart. Though less imaginative than Herrick, and intellectually inferior to Carew, at times Crashaw reaches the heights of rare excellence in his poetry.

Henry Vaughan (1622-1695), though a mystic like Crashaw, was equally at home in sacred as well as secular verse. Though lacking the vigor of Crashaw, Vaughan is more uniform and clear, tranquil, and deep.

George Herbert (1593-1633) is the most widely read of all the poets belonging to the metaphysical school, except, of course, Donne. This is due to the clarity of his expression and the transparency of his conceits. In his religious verse there is simplicity as well as natural earnestness. Mixed with the didactic strain there is also a current of quaint humor in his poetry.

Lord Herbert of Cherbury is inferior as a verse writer to his brother George Herbert, but he is best remembered as the author of an autobiography. Moreover, he was the first poet to use the metre which was made famous by Tennyson in Memoriam.

Other poets who are also included in the group of Metaphysicals are Abraham Cowley (1618-1667), Andrew Marvel (1621-1672), and Edmund Waller (1606-1687). Cowley is famous for his ‘Pindaric Odes’, which influenced English poetry throughout the eighteenth century. Marvel is famous for his loyal friendship with Milton, and because his poetry shows the conflict between the two schools of Spenser and Donne. Waller was the first to use the ‘closed’ couplet which dominated English poetry for the next century.

The Metaphysical poets show the spiritual and moral fervor of the Puritans as well as the frank amorous tendency of the Elizabethans. Sometimes like the Elizabethans they sing of making the best of life as it lasts—Gather ye Rosebuds while ye may; and at other times they seek more permanent comfort in the delight of spiritual experience.

(iii)  The Cavalier Poets

Whereas the metaphysical poets followed the lead of Donne, the cavalier poets followed Ben Jonson. Jonson followed the classical method in his poetry as in his drama. He imitated Horace by writing, like him, satires, elegies, epistles, and complimentary verses. But though his verse possesses classical dignity and good sense, it does not have its grace and ease. His lyrics and songs also differ from those of Shakespeare. Whereas Shakespeare’s songs are pastoral, popular, and ‘artless’, Jonson’s are sophisticated, particularised, and have intellectual and emotional rationality.

Like the ‘metaphysical’, the label ‘Cavalier’ is not correct, because a ‘Cavalier’ means a royalist—one who fought on the side of the king during the Civil War. The followers of Ben Jonson were not all royalists, but this label once used has stuck to them. Moreover, there is not much difference between the Cavalier and Metaphysical poets. Some Cavalier poets like Carew, Suckling, and Lovelace were also disciples of Donne. Even some typical poems, Donne and Ben Jonson are very much alike. These are, therefore, not two distinct schools, but they represented two groups of poets who followed two different masters—Donne and Ben Jonson. Poets of both the schools, of course, turned away from the long, Old-fashioned works of the Spenserians, and concentrated their efforts on short poems and lyrics dealing with the themes of love of a woman and the love or fear of God. The Cavalier poets normally wrote about trivial subjects, while the Metaphysical poets wrote generally about serious subjects.

The important Cavalier poets were Herrick, Lovelace, Suckling, and Carew. Though they wrote generally in a lighter vein, yet they could not completely escape the tremendous seriousness of Puritanism. We have already dealt with Carew and Herrick among the metaphysical group of poets. Sir John Suckling (1609-1642), a courtier of Charles I, wrote poetry because it was considered a gentleman’s accomplishment in those days. Most of his poems are trivial; written in doggerel verse. Sir Richard Lovelace (1618-1658) was another follower of King Charles I. His volume of love lyrics—Lucasta—are on a higher plane than Suckling’s work, and some of his poems like “To Lucasta’, and “To Althea, from Prison’, have won a secure place in English poetry.

(iv)  John Milton (1608-1674)

Milton was the greatest poet of the Puritan age, and he stands head and shoulders above all his contemporaries. Though he completely identified himself with Puritanism, he possessed such a strong personality that he cannot be taken to represent anyone but himself. Paying a just tribute to the dominating personality of Milton, Wordsworth wrote the famous line:

     Their soul was like a star and dwelt apart.

Though Milton praised Spenser, Shakespeare, and Ben Jonson as poets, he was different from them all. We do not find the exuberance of Spenser in his poetry. Unlike Shakespeare Milton is superbly egoistic. In his verse, which is harmonious and musical, we find no trace of the harshness of Ben Jonson. In all his poetry, Milton sings about himself and his lofty soul. Being a deeply religious man and also endowed with the artistic merit of a high degree, he combined in himself the spirits of the Renaissance and the Reformation. In fact no other English poet was so profoundly religious and so much an artist.

Milton was a great scholar of classical as well as Hebrew literature. He was also a child of the Renaissance and a great humanist. As an artist he may be called the last Elizabethan. From his young days he began to look upon poetry as a serious business of life; and he made up his mind to dedicate himself to it, and, in course of time, write a poem “which the world would not let die.”

Milton’s early poetry is lyrical. The important poems of the early period are The Hymn on the Nativity (1629); L’Allegro, Il Penseroso (1632); Lycidas (1637); and Comus (1934). The Hymn, written when Milton was only twenty-one, shows that his lyrical genius was already highly developed. The complementary poems, L’Allego and Il Penseroso are full of very pleasing descriptions of rural scenes and recreations in Spring and Autumn. L’Allegro represents the poet in a gay and merry mood and it paints an idealized picture of rustic life from dawn to dusk. Il Penseroso is written in serious and meditative strain. In it the poet praises the passive joys of the contemplative life. The poet extols the pensive thoughts of a recluse who spends his days contemplating the calmer beauties of nature. In these two poems, the lyrical genius of Milton is at its best.

Lycidas is a pastoral elegy and it is the greatest of its type in English literature. It was written to mourn the death of Milton’s friend, Edward King, but it also contains serious criticism of contemporary religion and politics.

Comus marks the development of Milton’s mind from the merely pastoral and idyllic to the more serious and purposive tendency. The Puritanic element antagonistic to the prevailing looseness in religion and politics becomes more prominent. But despite its serious and didactic strain, it retains the lyrical tone which is so characteristic of Milton’s early poetry.

Besides these poems a few great sonnets such as When the Assault was intended to the City, also belong to Milton’s early period. Full of deeply-felt emotions, these sonnets are among the noblest in the English language, and they bridge the gulf between the lyrical tone of Milton’s early poetry and the deeply moral and didactic tone of his later poetry.

When the Civil War broke out in 1642, Milton threw himself, heart and soul, into the struggle against King Charles I. He devoted the best years of his life, when his poetical powers were at their peak, to this national movement. Finding himself unfit to fight as a soldier he became the Latin Secretary to Cromwell. This work he continued to do till 1649 when Charles I was defeated and Commonwealth was proclaimed under Cromwell. But when he returned to poetry to accomplish the ideal he had in his mind, Milton found himself completely blind. Moreover, after the death of Cromwell and the coming of Charles II to the throne, Milton became friendless. His wife and daughters turned against him. But undaunted by all these misfortunes, Milton girded up his loins and wrote his greatest poetical works—Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes.

“The subject-matter of Paradise Lost consists of the casting out from Heaven of the fallen angels, their planning of revenge in Hell, Satan’s flight, Man’s temptation and fall from grace, and the promise of redemption. Against this vast background, Milton projects his philosophy of the purposes of human existence, and attempts “to justify the ways of God to men.” On account of the richness and profusion of its imagery, descriptions of strange lands and seas, and the use of strange geographical, names, Paradise Lost is called the last great Elizabethan poem. But its perfectly organized design, its firm outlines and Latinised diction make it essentially a product of the neoclassical or the Augustan period in English Literature. In Paradise Lost the most prominent is the figure of Satan who possesses the qualities of Milton himself, and who represents the indomitable heroism of the Puritans against Charles I.

What though the field be lost?
All is not lost; the unconquerable will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield
And what is else, not to be overcome.

It is written in blank verse of the Elizabethan dramatist, but it is hardened and strengthened to suit the requirements of an epic poet.

Paradise Regained which deals with the subject of Temptation in the Wilderness is written, unlike Paradise Lost, in the form of discussion and not action. Not so sublime as Paradise Lost, It has a quieter atmosphere, but it does not betray a decline in poetic power. The mood of the poet has become different. The central figure is Christ, having the Puritanic austere and stoic qualities rather than the tenderness which is generally associated with him.

In Samson Agonistes Milton deals with an ancient Hebrew legend of Samson, the mighty champion of Israel, now blind and scorned, working as a slave among Philistines. This tragedy, which is written on the Greek model, is charged with the tremendous personality of Milton himself, who in the character of the blind giant, Samson, surrounded by enemies, projects his own unfortunate experience in the reign of Charles II.

Eyeless in Gaza at the Mill with slaves.

The magnificent lyrics in this tragedy, which express the heroic faith of the long-suffering Puritans, represent the summit of technical excellence achieved by Milton.

(b)  Jacobean and Caroline Drama

After Shakespeare the drama in England suffered and a decline during the reigns of James I and Charles I. The heights reached by Shakespeare could not be kept by later dramatists, and drama in the hands of Beaumont and Fletcher and others became, what may be called, ‘decadent’. In other words, the real spirit of the Elizabethan drama disappeared, and only the outward show and trappings remained. For example, sentiment took the place of character; eloquent and moving speeches, instead of being subservient to the revelation of the fine shades of character, became important in themselves; dreadful deeds were described not to throw light on the working of the human heart as was done by Shakespeare, but to produce a rhetorical effect on the audience. Moreover, instead of fortitude and courage, and sterner qualities, which were held in high esteem by the Elizabethan dramatists, resignation to fate expressed in the form of broken accents of pathos and woe, became the main characteristics of the hero. Whereas Shakespeare and other Elizabethan dramatists took delight in action and the emotions associated with it, the Jacobean and Caroline dramatists gave expression to passive suffering and lack of mental and physical vigor. Moreover, whereas the Elizabethan dramatists were sometimes, coarse and showed bad taste, these later dramatists were positively and deliberately indecent. Instead of devoting all their capacity to fully illuminating the subject in hand, they made it as an instrument of exercising their power of rhetoric and pedantry. Thus in the hands of these dramatists of the inferior type the romantic drama which had achieved great heights during the Elizabethan period, suffered a terrible decline, and when the Puritans closed the theatres in 1642, it died a natural death.

The greatest dramatist of the Jacobean period was Ben Jonson who has already been dealt with in the Renaissance Period, as much of his work belongs to it. The other dramatists of the Jacobean and Caroline periods are John Marston (1575-1634); Thomas Dekker (1570-1632); Thomas Heywood (1575-1650); Thomas Middleton (1580-1627); Cyril Tourneur (1575-1626); John Webster (1575-1625?); John Fletcher (1579-1625); Francis Beaumont (1584-1616); Philip Massinger (1583-1640); John Ford (1586-1639); and James Shirley (1596-1666).

John Marston wrote in a violent and extravagant style. His melodramas Antonia and Mellida and Antonia’s Revenge are full of forceful and impressive passages. In The Malcontent, The Dutch Courtezan, and Parasitaster, or Fawne, Marston criticized the society ironically and lyrically. His best play is Eastward Hoe, an admirable comedy of manners, which portrays realistically the life of a tradesman, the inner life of a middle-class household, the simple honesty of some, and the vanity of others.

Thomas Dekker, unlike Marston, was gentle and free from coarseness and cynicism. Some of his plays possess grace and freshness which are not to be found even in the plays of Ben Jonson. He is more of a popular dramatist than any of his contemporaries, and he is at his best when portraying scenes from life, and describing living people with an irresistible touch of romanticism. The gayest of his comedies is The Shoemaker’s Holiday, in which the hero, Simon Eyre, a jovial London shoemaker, and his shrewish wife are vividly described. In Old Fortunates Dekker’s poetical powers are seen at their best. The scene in which the goddess Fortune appears with her train of crowned beggars and kings in chains is full of grandeur. His best-known work, however, is The Honest Whore, in which the character of an honest courtesan is beautifully portrayed. The most original character in the play is her old father, Orlando Friscoboldo, a rough diamond. This play is characterized by liveliness, pure sentiments, and poetry.

Thomas Heywood resembles very much Dekker in his gentleness and good temper. He wrote a large number of plays—two hundred and twenty—of which only twenty-four are extant. Most of his plays deal with the life of the cities. In The Four Prentices of London, with the Conquest of Jerusalemhe flatters the citizens of London. The same note appears in his Edward VI, The Troubles of Queen Elizabeth, and The Fair Maid of the Exchange. In the Fair Maid of the West, which is written in a patriotic vein, sea adventures and the life of an English port are described in a lively fashion. His best-known play is A Woman Kilde with Kindness, a domestic tragedy written in a simple form, in which he gives us a gentle picture of a happy home destroyed by the wife’s treachery, the husband’s suffering and his banishment of his wife, her remorse and agony, and death at the moment when the husband has forgiven her. Instead of the spirit of vengeance as generally prevails in such domestic plays, it is free from any harshness and vindictiveness. In The English Traveller we find the same generosity and kindliness. On account of his instinctive goodness and wide piety, Heywood was called by Lamb as a “sort of prose Shakespeare.”

Thomas Middleton, like Dekker and Heywood, wrote about the city of London. But instead flattering the citizens, he criticized and ridiculed their follies like Ben Jonson. He is mainly the writer of comedies dealing with the seamy side of London life, and the best-known of them are Michaelmas Terms; A Trick to Catch the Old One, A Mad World, My Masters, Your Five Gallants, A Chaste Maid in Cheapside. They are full of swindlers and dupes. The dramatist shows a keen observation of real-life and admirable dexterity in presenting it. In his later years Middleton turned to tragedy. Women beware Women deals with the scandalous crimes of the Italian courtesan Bianca Capello. Some tragedies or romantic dramas as A Faire Quarrel, The Changeling, and The Spanish Gipsie, were written by Middleton in collaboration with the actor William Rowley.

Cyril Tourneur wrote mostly melodramas full of crimes and torture. His two gloomy dramas are The Revenge Tragedies, and The Atheist’s Tragedie, which, written in a clear and rapid style, have an intense dramatic effect.

John Webster wrote several plays, some in collaboration with others. His best-known plays are The White Devil or Vittoria Corombona and the Duchess of Malfi which are full of physical horrors. In the former play the crimes of the Italian beauty Vittoria Accorambona are described most fascinatingly. The Duchess of Malfi is the tragedy of the young widowed duchess who is driven to madness and death by her two brothers because she has married her steward Antonio. The play is full of pathos and touches of fine poetry. Though a melodrama full of horror and unbearable suffering, it has been raised to a lofty plane by the truly poetic gift of the dramatist who has a knack of coining unforgettable phrases.

John Fletcher wrote a few plays which made him famous. He then exploited his reputation to the fullest extent by organizing a kind of workshop in which he wrote plays more rapidly in collaboration with other dramatists to meet the growing demand. The plays which he wrote in collaboration with Francis Beaumont are the comedies such as The Scornful Ladie and The Knight of the Burning Pestle; tragi-comedies like Philaster; pure tragedies such as The Maides Tragedy and A King and no King. The Knight of the Burning Pestle is the gayest and liveliest comedy of that time and it has such freshness that it seems to have been written only yesterday. Philaster and The Maides Tragedy are written in a Shakespearean style, but they have more outward charm than real merit.

Fletcher alone wrote several plays of which the best known are The Tragedies of Valentinian, The Tragedie of Bonduca, The Loyal Subject, The Humorous Lieutenant. His Monsieur Thomas and The Wild Goose Chase are fine comedies.

Philip Massinger wrote tragedies as Thierry and Theodoret and The False One; comedies as The Little French Lawyer, The Spanish Curate, and The Beggar’s Bush, in collaboration with Fletcher. Massinger combined his intellectualism with Fletcher’s lively ease. It was Massinger who dominated the stage after Fletcher. He wrote thirty-seven plays of which eighteen are extant. In his comedies we find the exaggerations or eccentricities which are the characteristics of Ben Jonson. In his tragedies we notice the romanticism of Fletcher. But the most individual quality of Massinger’s plays is that they are plays of ideas, and he loves to stage oratorical debates and long pleadings before tribunals. His best comedies are A New Way to Pay Old Debts, The City Madam, and The Guardian; his important serious plays are The Fatal Dowry, The Duke of Maine, The Unnatural Combat. The Main of Honour, The Bond-Man, The Renegado, The Roman Actor, and The Picture. Of all these A New Way to Pay Old Debts is his most successful play, in which the chief character, the usurer, Sir Charles Overreach reminds us of Ben Jonson’s Volpone. All the plays of Massinger show careful workmanship, though a great deterioration had crept in the art of drama at the time when he was writing. When not inspired he becomes monotonous, but he is always a conscientious writer.

John Ford, who was the contemporary of Massinger, collaborated with various dramatists. He was a true poet, but a fatalist, melancholy, and gloomy person. Besides the historical play, Perkin Warbeck, he wrote The Lover’s Melancholy, ‘Tis Pity Shee’s a Whore, The Broken Heart and Love’s Sacrifice, all of which show skillful handling of emotions and grace of style. His decadent attitude is seen in the delight he takes in depicting suffering, but he occupies a high place as an artist.

James Shirley, who as Lamb called him, ‘the last of a great race’, though a prolific writer, shows no originality. His best comedies are The Traitor, The Cardinall, The Wedding, Changes, Hyde Park, The Gamester, and The Lady of Pleasure, which realistically represents the contemporary manners, modes, and literary styles. He also wrote tragi-comedies or romantic comedies, such as Young Admirall, The Opportunities, and The Imposture. In all these Shirley continued the tradition formed by Fletcher, Tourneur, and Webster, but he broke no new ground.

Besides these there were several minor dramatists, but the drama suffered a serious setback when the theatres were closed in 1642 by the order of the Parliament controlled by the Puritans. They were opened only after eighteen years later at the Restoration.

(c)  Jacobean and Caroline Prose

This period was rich in prose. The great prose writers were Bacon, Burton, Milton, Sir Thomas Browne, Jeremy Tayler, and Clarendon. English prose which had been formed into a harmonious and pliable instrument by the Elizabethans, began to be used in various ways, as narrative as well as a vehicle for philosophical speculation and scientific knowledge. For the first time the great scholars began to write in English rather than Latin. The greatest single influence which enriched the English prose was the Authorised Version of the Bible (English translation of the Bible), which was the result of the efforts of scholars who wrote in a forceful, simple, and pure Anglo-Saxon tongue avoiding all that was rough, foreign and affected. So the Bible became the supreme example of earlier English prose-style—simple, plain, and natural. As it was read by the people in general, its influence was all-pervasive.

Francis Bacon (1561-1628). Bacon belongs both to the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. He was a lawyer possessing great intellectual gifts. Ben Jonson wrote of him, ‘no man ever coughed or turned aside from him without a loss”. As a prose-writer he is the master of the aphoristic style. He has the knack of compressing his wisdom in epigrams which contain the quintessence of his rich experience of life in a most concentrated form. His style is clear, lucid but terse and that is why one has to make an effort to understand his meaning. It lacks spaciousness, ease, and rhythm. The reader has always to be alert because each sentence is packed with meaning.

Bacon is best known for his Essays, in which he has given his views about the art of managing men and getting on successfully in life. They may be considered as a kind of manual for statesmen and princes. The tone of the essay is that of a worldly man who wants to secure material success and prosperity. That is why their moral standard is not high.

Besides the Essays, Bacon wrote Henry VII the first piece of scientific history in the English language; and The Advancement of Learning which is a brilliant popular exposition of the cause of scientific investigation. Though Bacon himself did not make any great scientific discovery, he popularized science through his writings. On account of his being the intellectual giant of his time, he is credited with the authorship of the plays of Shakespeare.

Robert Burton (1577-1640) is known for his The Anatomy of Melancholy, which is a book of its type in the English language. In it he has analyzed human melancholy, described its effect, and prescribed its cure. But more than that the book deals with all the ills that flesh is heir to, and the author draws his material from writers, ancient as well as modern. It is written in a straightforward, simple and vigorous style, which at times is marked with rhythm and beauty.

The Puritan Age
The Puritan Age

Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682) belonged entirely to a different category. With him the manner of writing is more important than the substance. He is, therefore, the first deliberate stylist in the English language, the forerunner of Charles Lamb and Stevenson. Being a physician with a flair for writing, he wrote Religio Medici in which he set down his beliefs and thoughts, the religion of the medical man. In this book, which is written in an amusing, personal style, the conflict between the author’s intellect and his religious beliefs, gives it a peculiar charm. Every sentence has the stamp of Browne’s individuality. His other important prose work is Hydriotaphia or The Urn Burial, in which meditating on time and antiquity Browne reaches the heights of rhetorical splendor. He is greater as an artist than a thinker, and his prose is highly complex in its structure and almost poetic in the richness of language.

Other writers of his period, who were, like Browne, the masters of rhetorical prose, were Milton, Jeremy Taylor, and Clarendon. Most of Milton’s prose writings are concerned with the questions at issue between the Parliament and the King. Being the champion of freedom in every form, he wrote a forceful tract On the Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, in which he strongly advocated the right to divorce. His most famous prose work is Areopagitica which was occasioned by a parliamentary order for submitting the press to censorship. Here Milton vehemently criticized the bureaucratic control over genius. Though as a pamphleteer Milton at times indulges in downright abuse, and he lacks humor and lightness of touch, yet there is that inherent sublimity in his prose writings, which we associate with him as a poet and man. When he touches a noble thought, the wings of his imagination lift him to majestic heights.

Opposed to Milton, the greatest writer in the parliamentary struggle was the Earl of Clarendon (1609-1674). His prose is stately, and he always writes with a rather offensive bias, as we find in his History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England.

Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667), a bishop, made himself famous by his literary sermons. On account of the gentle charm of his language, the richness of his images, and his profoundly human imagination, Taylor is considered as one of the masters of English eloquence. His best prose famous book of devotion among English men and women.

Thus during this period we find English prose developing into a grandiloquent and rich instrument capable of expressing all types of ideas—scientific, religious, philosophic, poetic, and personal.

The Puritan Age The Puritan Age The Puritan Age The Puritan Age