The earlier seventeenth century, and especially the period of the English Revolution (1640–60), was a time of intense ferment in all areas of life — religion, science, politics, domestic relations, culture. That ferment was reflected in the literature of the era, which also registered a heightened focus on and analysis of the self and the personal life. However, little of this seems in evidence in the elaborate frontispiece to Michael Drayton's long "chorographical" poem on the landscape, regions, and local history of Great Britain (1612), which appeared in the first years of the reign of the Stuart king James I (1603–1625). The frontispiece appears to represent a peaceful, prosperous, triumphant Britain, with England, Scotland, and Wales united, patriarchy and monarchy firmly established, and the nation serving as the great theme for lofty literary celebration. Albion (the Roman name for Britain) is a young and beautiful virgin wearing as cloak a map featuring rivers, trees, mountains, churches, towns; she carries a scepter and holds a cornucopia, symbol of plenty. Ships on the horizon signify exploration, trade, and garnering the riches of the sea. In the four corners stand four conquerors whose descendants ruled over Britain: the legendary Brutus, Julius Caesar, Hengist the Saxon, and the Norman William the Conqueror, "whose line yet rules," as Drayton's introductory poem states.
Yet this frontispiece also registers some of the tensions, conflicts, and redefinitions evident in the literature of the period and explored more directly in the topics and texts in this portion of the NTO Web site. It is Albion herself, not King James, who is seated in the center holding the emblems of sovereignty; her male conquerors stand to the side, and their smaller size and their number suggest something unstable in monarchy and patriarchy. Albion's robe with its multiplicity of regional features, as well as the "Poly" of the title, suggests forces pulling against national unity. Also, Poly-Olbion had no successors: instead of a celebration of the nation in the vein of Spenser's Faerie Queene or Poly-Olbion itself, the great seventeenth-century heroic poem, Paradise Lost, treats the Fall of Man and its tragic consequences, "all our woe."
The first topic here, "Gender, Family, Household: Seventeenth-Century Norms and Controversies," provides important religious, legal, and domestic advice texts through which to explore cultural assumptions about gender roles and the patriarchal family. It also invites attention to how those assumptions are modified or challenged in the practices of actual families and households; in tracts on transgressive subjects (cross-dressing, women speaking in church, divorce); in women's texts asserting women's worth, talents, and rights; and especially in the upheavals of the English Revolution.
"Paradise Lost in Context," the second topic for this period, surrounds that radically revisionist epic with texts that invite readers to examine how it engages with the interpretative traditions surrounding the Genesis story, how it uses classical myth, how it challenges orthodox notions of Edenic innocence, and how it is positioned within but also against the epic tradition from Homer to Virgil to Du Bartas. The protagonists here are not martial heroes but a domestic couple who must, both before and after their Fall, deal with questions hotly contested in the seventeenth century but also perennial: how to build a good marital relationship; how to think about science, astronomy, and the nature of things; what constitutes tyranny, servitude, and liberty; what history teaches; how to meet the daily challenges of love, work, education, change, temptation, and deceptive rhetoric; how to reconcile free will and divine providence; and how to understand and respond to God's ways.
[Click on image to enlarge] The third topic, "Civil Wars of Ideas: Seventeenth-Century Politics, Religion, and Culture," provides an opportunity to explore, through political and polemical treatises and striking images, some of the issues and conflicts that led to civil war and the overthrow of monarchical government (1642–60). These include royal absolutism vs. parliamentary or popular sovereignty, monarchy vs. republicanism, Puritanism vs. Anglicanism, church ritual and ornament vs. iconoclasm, toleration vs. religious uniformity, and controversies over court masques and Sunday sports. The climax to all this was the highly dramatic trial and execution of King Charles I (January 1649), a cataclysmic event that sent shock waves through courts, hierarchical institutions, and traditionalists everywhere; this event is presented here through contemporary accounts and graphic images.
* After more than four decades on the throne, Elizabeth I died in 1603. James VI of Scotland succeeded her,
becoming James I and establishing the Stuart dynasty.
* Political and religious tensions intensified under James’s son, Charles I, who succeeded to the throne in 1625.
* As ideas changed, so did the conditions of their dissemination.
* In the early seventeenth century, John Donne, Ben Jonson, and George Herbert led the shift towards “new” poetic genres.
* Many leading poets were staunch royalists, or Cavaliers, who suffered heavily in the war years. Yet two of the best writers of the period, John Milton and Andrew Marvell, sided with the republic.
After more than four decades on the throne, Elizabeth I died in 1603. James VI of Scotland succeeded her without the attempted coups that many had feared. Writers jubilantly noted that the new ruler had literary inclinations. Yet both in his literary works and on the throne James expounded authoritarian theories of kingship that seemed incompatible with the English tradition of "mixed" government. Kings, James believed, derived their power from God rather than from the people. James was notorious for his financial heedlessness, and his disturbing tendency to bestow high office on good-looking male favorites. The period had complex attitudes to same-sex relationships, and James’s susceptibility to lovely, expensive youths was seen as more a political than a moral calamity. Yet James was successful in keeping England out of European wars, and encouraging colonial projects in the New World and economic growth at home. The most important religious event of James’s reign was a newly commissioned translation of the Bible.
Political and religious tensions intensified under James’s son, Charles I, who succeeded to the throne in 1625. Between 1629 and 1638, Charles attempted to rule without Parliament. Charles married the French princess Henrietta Maria, who promoted a conversion back to Catholicism. The appointment of William Laud as the archbishop of Canterbury further alienated Puritans, as Laud aligned the doctrine and ceremonies of the English church with Roman Catholicism. In 1642 a Civil War broke out between the king’s forces and armies loyal to the House of Commons. The conflict ended with Charles’s defeat and beheading in 1649. In the 1650s, as “Lord Protector,” Oliver Cromwell wielded power nearly as autocratically as Charles had done. In 1660, Parliament invited the old king’s son, Charles II, home from exile. Yet the twenty-year period between 1640 and 1660 had seen the emergence of concepts that would remain central to bourgeois thought for centuries to come: religious toleration, separation of church and state, freedom from press censorship, and popular sovereignty. Among the more radical voices to emerge in the period were those of Roger Williams, who advocated religious toleration, the Leveller, John Lilburne, who advocated universal male suffrage, and the Digger, Gerrard Winstanley, who advocated Christian communism.
Early seventeenth-century writers such as John Donne, Ben Jonson, and Robert Burton inherited a system of knowledge founded on analogy, order, and hierarchy. In this system, a monarch was like God, the ruler of the universe, and also like a father, the head of the family. Yet this conceptual system was beginning to crumble in the face of the scientific and empirical approach to knowledge advocated by Francis Bacon. William Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of blood and Galileo’s demonstration that the earth revolved around the sun disrupted long-held certainties. As ideas changed, so did the conditions of their dissemination. Although elite poets like John Donne often preferred to circulate their works in manuscript, the printing of all kinds of literary works was becoming more common. Printers and acting companies were obliged to submit works to the censor before public presentation, and those who flouted the censorship laws were subject to heavy punishment. Since overt criticism or satire of the great was dangerous, political writing before the Civil War was apt to be oblique and allegorical.
In the early seventeenth century, John Donne, Ben Jonson, and George Herbert led the shift towards “new” poetic genres. These included classical elegy and satire, epigram, verse epistle, meditative religious lyric, and the country-house poem. Jonson distinguished himself as an acute observer of urban manners. He mentored a group of younger poets, including Herrick and Carew, known as the Tribe or Sons of Ben. Donne’s poetry concerns itself not with a crowded social panorama, but with a dyad—the speaker and either a woman, or God. Donne delights in making the overlap between sexual and religious love seem new and shocking, and he has been regarded as a founder of “Metaphysical” poetry. Among the “Metaphysical poets” Herbert, with his complex religious sensibility wedded to great artistic sensibility, had a profound influence on younger poets like Crashaw and Vaughan. The reigns of the first two Stuart kings also marked the entry of women in some numbers into authorship and publication.
The Civil War was disastrous for the English theater, with the closure of the playhouses in 1642. Many leading poets were staunch royalists, or Cavaliers, who suffered heavily in the war years. Yet two of the best writers of the period, John Milton and Andrew Marvell, sided with the republic. Marvell’s conflictual world-view is unmistakably a product of the Civil War decades. Milton’s loyalty to the revolution remained unwavering despite his disillusion when it failed to realize his ideals. The revolutionary era also gave new impetus to women’s writing on both sides of the political divide.
* Adapted from: Norton Anthology of English Literature