Previous page Page 4 of 6 Next page
Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
Middle Ages
16th century
17th century
     Ben Jonson
     Metaphysical poets
     Milton the young poet
     Milton the polemicist
     Paradise Lost
     Samuel Pepys
     The Pilgrim's Progress

18th century
Early 19th century

Bookmark and Share
Ben Jonson: 1606-1616

Ben Jonson, almost as prolific in his works for the stage as Shakespeare, achieves his most distinctive voice in two satirical comedies based on an interplay of characters seen as types. In the earlier of the two, Volpone (1606), the characters are even given the Italian names of animals to point up their supposed natures.

Volpone (the fox) pretends to be dying so as to extract gifts from people expecting an inheritance. Mosca (the fly) acts as his accomplice. A lawyer, Voltore (the vulture), hovers around the supposed death bed. A feeble old man, Corbaccio (the crow), is willing to disinherit his son for his own benefit. And a self-righteous Corvino (the raven) offers his wife to satisfy Volpone's lust.


Tricks played on the gullible also provide the comedy in The Alchemist (1610). Subtle, a confidence trickster pretending to be an alchemist, promises his victims whatever they most desire.

A grossly self-indulgent hedonist, Sir Epicure Mammon, and two fanatical puritans, Ananias and Tribulation Wholesome, turn out to share the same longing - to possess the philosopher's stone, with which they will turn base metal into gold. By contrast a simple tobacconist, Drugger, wants nothing more than a design for his shop that will bring in customers. Kastril, an oaf up from the country, is mainly interested in discovering the fashionable way of being quarrelsome.


These two plays succeed partly because of the farcical opportunities available as the tricksters struggle to keep their various victims separate and happy. But they also benefit from the vividly realistic detail which gives life to Jonson's verse.

His sharp eye for the everyday scene, and for the amusing quirks of people's behaviour, even enables him to make a viable play out of Bartholomew Fair (1614). It has little to hold it together except the context of the famous fair itself. The plot consists only of the adventures and mishaps which befall different groups of visitors.


While writing his comedies for the public theatres, Jonson also provides masques for amateur performance at the court of James I. His first, The Masque of Blackness in 1605, is specifically written to accomodate the longing of James's queen, Anne of Denmark, to appear in the role of a black African.

A quarrelsome and touchy man, frequently in trouble with the authorities, Jonson is unusual for his time in insisting on the dignity of the craft of playwright. Whereas Shakespeare shows little interest in the survival of the text of his plays, Jonson arranges for his own works to be published in a splendid folio edition of 1616. Three years later, as if taking the point, Oxford university honours him with a degree as master of arts.


England's Metaphysical poets: 17th century

The term Metaphysical has been applied, with no very good reason, to a group of English poets of the early 17th century who share a love of intellectual ingenuity, literary allusion and paradox, and who use language, images and rhythms of a kind not conventionally 'poetic' to startle the reader into thought.

In the 17th and 18th century the term usually implies hostility to what is perceived as these poets' perverse complexity. In the 20th century, after their merits are championed by T.S. Eliot and others, it becomes one of approval.


The earliest of the group (by a generation and more) is John Donne, whose wide range of themes stretches from erotic delights (Love's Progress, or To his Mistress Going to Bed) to the power of a holy sonnet such as the one on death (beginning 'Death be not proud' and ending 'Death, thou shalt die').

Donne becomes dean of St Paul's in 1621. An unscrupulous collector of pluralist church appointments, he is nevertheless a most persuasive preacher. A passage written during a serious illness uses a powerful and frequently quoted sequence of images to involve all humanity: 'No man is an island, entire of itself; ... and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.'


George Herbert, an aristocrat whose mother is a friend and patron of Donne, chooses a quieter life than his somewhat worldly predecessor and settles eventually for an insignificant country parish. He writes only devotional poems. Published just after his death in a single volume, The Temple (1633), they convey a mood of simple piety transcending subtle torments of spiritual conflict.

Several other poets of the period write within a roughly similar idiom, which can be said to share Metaphysical characteristics. One in particular stands out - Andrew Marvell, a generation younger again than Herbert.


In his own lifetime Marvell is known as a minor public figure, linked with prominent leaders during the Commonwealth. He acts as tutor in the families of both Fairfax and Cromwell, and from 1657 serves with Milton in Cromwell's department for foreign affairs.

Marvell's poems are published in 1681, three years after his death. Not until the 20th century are they appreciated, for their subtle and often provocative blending of different levels of perception. In To His Coy Mistress Marvell gives the conventional argument of the seducer (to gather rosebuds while we may) a very much darker complexion: 'The grave's a fine and private place, But none I think do there embrace.'


Milton the young poet: 1632-1638

When the collected plays of Shakespeare are reissued in 1632, in the edition known as the Second Folio, the volume contains an Epitaph on Shakespeare. It is not known how the poem has been chosen for this honour, but it is the first published work of John Milton - famous as yet only in the limited circle of Cambridge, where he is a brilliant student.

Milton's other poems from his student days, not published until 1645, include On the Morning of Christ's Nativity and a linked pair, L'Allegro and Il Penseroso, contrasting the active and the contemplative life.


Two years after his departure from Cambridge, Milton's masque Comus is performed, in 1634, at a grand ceremonial occasion in Ludlow castle. And in 1637 a personal tragedy, linked with Cambridge, prompts the writing and publication of his first major poem.

A fellow student from his college days, Edward King, dies in a shipwreck in the Irish Sea. A volume of elegies is planned in his memory and Milton is asked to contribute. The result is Lycidas, published with the other elegies in 1638. Though written within a formal pastoral convention, the poem is an intensely felt and very personal meditation on mortality (Milton's perhaps as much as Edward King's, who was an acquaintance rather than a close friend).


Milton the polemicist: 1641-1660

To an observer in the 1640s and 1650s these few but distinguished poems would seem to comprise the full and completed career of Milton the poet, for during this period of crisis in English history he devotes himself to issues of more immediate and practical concern.

In the developing conflict between the Anglican monarchy and puritan parliament, Milton's sympathies are on the side of parliament - in whose endeavours he sees the best hope for his own central concern, that of liberty for the individual citizen. From 1641, the date of his first polemical tract, Milton consciously and with regret sets aside poetry in order to 'embark in a troubled sea of noises and hoarse disputes'.


He is by no means slavishly on parliament's side. Indeed the best known of his pamphlets, Areopagitica (an impassioned plea for freedom of the press, published in 1644), is prompted by parliament's decision to continue censorship laws inherited from the days of the Star Chamber.

Nevertheless Milton's political allegiance is clear, and when the Civil War has been won by parliament he himself enters government. In March 1649 he is appointed Latin secretary to Cromwell's council of state. Latin is the international language, so his post means that he is responsible for the administration of foreign affairs.


Milton is also what would nowadays be called the government's spin doctor, a role in which he is presented at once with a difficult task. The royalists publish, on the day of the executed king's burial in 1649, a powerful propaganda volume called Eikon Basilike ('image of a king'). It is a collection of meditations and prayers, supposedly written by the martyred Charles I when held in captivity by parliament. Milton responds with Eikonoklastes ('image breaker'), but he can do little to dent the power and immediacy of the opposing volume.

Milton keeps his job until the end of the Commonwealth, in 1660. He has been blind since 1652, but talented assistants (including Marvell) are at his side.


Paradise Lost: 1667

Milton's lack of personal skill in politics is evident from the timing of his last polemical pamphlet. In 1660, the year of the Restoration and just two months before the return of Charles II to London, he publishes The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth.

From his close association with the leading regicides, Milton is in real danger in the early months of the restored monarchy. He goes into hiding when a warrant is posted for his arrest. In the event he is allowed both his life and his liberty - perhaps because his blindness makes him harmless. The change proves immensely beneficial, in the fourteen years of life left to him. He now devotes himself fully to a task which is already under way.


There is evidence that from early in his life Milton has had in mind a grand project on a biblical theme. Since 1658 he has been dictating an epic poem which states in its opening lines that its subject is 'man's first disobedience', and its purpose 'to justify the ways of God to man'.

Paradise Lost (or, in its early draft title, Adam Unparadized) uses the first three chapters of Genesis as the springboard on which Milton builds mighty edifices describing the fall of Satan and his rebel angels, the struggle between them and the archangels, the promise of redemption through Christ, the innocence and temptation of Adam and Eve, and their expulsion from paradise.


The writing of this great work by the blind poet provides one of the most evocative scenes of English literary history. Milton usually composes his soaring lines during the night and keeps them in his head until the next day. When he is ready 'to be milked', he dictates (often with a leg sprawled over the arm of his chair) to various scribes, including two nephews and one of his daughters.

The poem is published in 1667 (earning its author 10), and is followed in 1671 by Paradise Regained (a briefer work, centred on Christ resisting Satan in the desert to undo the harm of Adam and Eve succumbing to him) and Samson Agonistes (a poetic drama, treating the final days of Samson with the intensity of Greek tragedy).


Pepys: 1660-1669

At some time during the last weeks of 1659 a 26-year-old Londoner buys himself a handsome leather-bound volume with all its pages blank. He senses that the new decade will be an interesting one in politics (and, he hopes, in his own career). He intends to record it in a diary.

On 1 January 1660 he begins his first entry: 'Lords day. This morning (we lying lately in the garret) I rose, put on my suit with great skirts, having not lately worn any other clothes but them.' He goes on to describe the sermon which he hears in church and his midday meal at home: 'My wife dressed the remains of a turkey, and in the doing of it she burned her hand.'


Samuel Pepys has launched into the great adventure of recording the minutiae of his daily life. The experiment lasts nine years (until trouble with his eyes brings it to an end), and it bequeaths to the world perhaps the greatest of all diaries.

The word 'diary', in the sense of a personal record, only comes into use in the 17th century. Almost immediately there are two outstanding examples in the journals of Pepys and of John Evelyn. They are very different. Evelyn keeps a spasmodic account of events, mainly of a public kind, over a span of seven decades. Pepys, in a greater number of words, records everything which takes his fancy during just nine years.


Pepys is fortunate that the 1660s in London are so eventful. In starting the diary he anticipates interesting developments as the country adjusts to the ending of the Commonwealth and, as it turns out, to the restoration of the monarchy. But no one can anticipate two of the most newsworthy events in London's history, the Great Plague and the Great Fire, which Pepys is able to record in fascinating detail (see Plague and Fire).

The description on 4 September 1666 of himself and Sir William Penn, together digging a hole in the garden to preserve their wine and parmesan cheese from the advancing flames, makes an extraordinarily vivid historical vignette. The fire stops short of their treasure.


Pepys's genius as a diarist is that he records everything which interests him. The diary is for himself and about himself (it is not published, even in abbreviated form, until 1825). His concerns, to the delight of modern readers, frequently centre on his sexual exploits. We even share with him the anticipation. He records on 19 December 1664 that he feels a little guilty, lying in bed with his wife, because his mind keeps running on what he hopes to do tomorrow with the wife of a certain Bagwell. The next day we learn that he has succeeded.

Pepys even lapses into foreign doggerel in case his wife reads the diary. 'Et ego did baiser her bouche.' But can Mrs Pepys really not work out that her husband has kissed someone on the mouth?


The Pilgrim's Progress: 1678

The persecution of Nonconformists causes one of England's best loved works of literature to be written. In many households in the 18th century there is only one book other than the Bible. It is The Pilgrim's Progress, much of it probably written when its author John Bunyan is in Bedford gaol.

His offence, in the harsh Anglican reaction of the 1660s, is merely to preach without a licence - meaning outside the authorized confines of the Church of England. Bunyan is a leading member of a community of Baptists in Bedford. Committed to the county gaol in 1661, he remains there for eleven years until released in 1672 as a result of Charles II's Declaration of Indulgence.


Bunyan's spiritual autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, is published during his years in gaol (in 1666). It gives him an added literary reputation when he returns to his preaching during the 1670s. This perhaps encourages him to undertake (or maybe just to complete) a more popular work when he finds himself back in Bedford gaol for another spell of six months in 1677.

The Pilgrim's Progress from this world, to that which is to come is published in 1678, followed by a second part in 1684. In a sense it covers the same territory as his autobiography, telling of a guilt-ridden quest for salvation. But the material is now given fictional form.


The immediate popularity of The Pilgrim's Progress in solemn English households is easy to understand. While unmistakably an improving religious work, it has the excitement of a folk tale and the rich characters of a novel.

In Part 1 the pilgrim, Christian, sets off with his burden of sins upon his back to make his way to the Celestial City. His path takes him through the Slough of Despond, past the tempting delights of Vanity Fair, and into temporary imprisonment by Giant Despair in Doubting Castle. In Part 2 Christian is followed on the journey by his wife, Christiana, with their children. Every virtuous family in England can identify with these characters and their adventures.


Previous page Page 4 of 6 Next page