Poetry[edit | edit source]

Main article: Restoration poetry

The Restoration was an age of poetry. Not only was poetry the most popular form of literature, but it was also the most significant form of literature, as poems affected political events and immediately reflected the times. It was, to its own people, an age dominated only by the king, and not by any single genius. Throughout the period, lyric, ariel, historical, and epic poetry were developed.

The English epic[edit | edit source]

Even without the introduction of Neo-classical criticism, English poets were aware that they had no national epic. Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene was well known, but England, unlike France with The Song of Roland or Spain with the Cantar de Mio Cid or, most of all, Italy with the Aeneid, had no epic poem of national origins. Several poets attempted to supply this void.

File:William Davenant.jpg

Sir William Davenant, operator of the first playhouse opened after the Restoration, was also a playwright and an epic poet.

Sir William Davenant was the first Restoration poet to attempt an epic. His unfinished Gondibert was of epic length, and it was admired by Hobbes.[1] However, it also used the ballad form, and other poets, as well as critics, were very quick to condemn this rhyme scheme as unflattering and unheroic (Dryden Epic). The prefaces to Gondibert show the struggle for a formal epic structure, as well as how the early Restoration saw themselves in relation to Classical literature.

Although today he is studied separately from the Restoration period, John Milton's Paradise Lost was published during that time. Milton no less than Davenant wished to write the English epic, and chose blank verse as his form. Milton rejected the cause of English exceptionalism: his Paradise Lost seeks to tell the story of all mankind, and his pride is in Christianity rather than Englishness.

Significantly, Milton began with an attempt at writing an epic on King Arthur, for that was the matter of English national founding. While Milton rejected that subject, in the end, others made the attempt. Richard Blackmore wrote both a Prince Arthur and King Arthur. Both attempts were long, soporific, and failed both critically and popularly. Indeed, the poetry was so slow that the author became known as "Never-ending Blackmore" (see Alexander Pope's lambasting of Blackmore in The Dunciad).

The Restoration period ended without an English epic. Beowulf may now be called the English epic, but the work was unknown to Restoration authors, and Old English was incomprehensible to them.

Poetry, verse, and odes[edit | edit source]

Lyric poetry, in which the poet speaks of his or her own feelings in the first person and expresses a mood, was not especially common in the Restoration period. Poets expressed their points of view in other forms, usually public or formally disguised poetic forms such as odes, pastoral poetry, and ariel verse. One of the characteristics of the period is its devaluation of individual sentiment and psychology in favour of public utterance and philosophy. The sorts of lyric poetry found later in the Churchyard Poets would, in the Restoration, only exist as pastorals.

Formally, the Restoration period had a preferred rhyme scheme. Rhyming couplets in iambic pentameter was by far the most popular structure for poetry of all types. Neo-Classicism meant that poets attempted adaptations of Classical meters, but the rhyming couplet in iambic pentameter held a near monopoly. According to Dryden ("Preface to The Conquest of Grenada"), the rhyming couplet in iambic pentameter has the right restraint and dignity for a lofty subject, and its rhyme allowed for a complete, coherent statement to be made. Dryden was struggling with the issue of what later critics in the Augustan period would call "decorum": the fitness of form to subject (q.v. Dryden Epic). It is the same struggle that Davenant faced in his Gondibert. Dryden's solution was a closed couplet in iambic pentameter that would have a minimum of enjambment. This form was called the "heroic couplet," because it was suitable for heroic subjects. Additionally, the age also developed the mock-heroic couplet. After 1672 and Samuel Butler's Hudibras, iambic tetrameter couplets with unusual or unexpected rhymes became known as Hudibrastic verse. It was a formal parody of heroic verse, and it was primarily used for satire. Jonathan Swift would use the Hudibrastic form almost exclusively for his poetry.

Although Dryden's reputation is greater today, contemporaries saw the 1670s and 1680s as the age of courtier poets in general, and Edmund Waller was as praised as any. Dryden, Rochester, Buckingham, and Dorset dominated verse, and all were attached to the court of Charles. Aphra Behn, Matthew Prior, and Robert Gould, by contrast, were outsiders who were profoundly royalist. The court poets follow no one particular style, except that they all show sexual awareness, a willingness to satirise, and a dependence upon wit to dominate their opponents. Each of these poets wrote for the stage as well as the page. Of these, Behn, Dryden, Rochester, and Gould deserve some separate mention.


John Dryden

Dryden was prolific; and he was often accused of plagiarism. Both before and after his Laureateship, he wrote public odes. He attempted the Jacobean pastoral along the lines of Walter Raleigh and Philip Sidney, but his greatest successes and fame came from his attempts at apologetics for the restored court and the Established Church. His Absalom and Achitophel and Religio Laici both served the King directly by making controversial royal actions seem reasonable. He also pioneered the mock-heroic. Although Samuel Butler had invented the mock-heroic in English with Hudibras (written during the Interregnum but published in the Restoration), Dryden's MacFlecknoe set up the satirical parody. Dryden was himself not of noble blood, and he was never awarded the honours that he had been promised by the King (nor was he repaid the loans he had made to the King), but he did as much as any peer to serve Charles II. Even when James II came to the throne and Roman Catholicism was on the rise, Dryden attempted to serve the court, and his The Hind and the Panther praised the Roman church above all others. After that point, Dryden suffered for his conversions, and he was the victim of many satires.

The Earl of Rochester, famous as the model rake. Not long before his death.

Buckingham wrote some court poetry, but he, like Dorset, was a patron of poetry more than a poet. Rochester, meanwhile, was a prolix and outrageous poet. Rochester's poetry is almost always sexually frank and is frequently political. Inasmuch as the Restoration came after the Interregnum, the very sexual explicitness of Rochester's verse was a political statement and a thumb in the eye of Puritans. His poetry often assumes a lyric pose, as he pretends to write in sadness over his own impotence ("The Disabled Debauchee") or sexual conquests, but most of Rochester's poetry is a parody of an existing, Classically-authorised form. He has a mock topographical poem ("Ramble in St James Park", which is about the dangers of darkness for a man intent on copulation and the historical compulsion of that plot of ground as a place for fornication), several mock odes ("To Signore Dildo," concerning the public burning of a crate of "contraband" from France on the London docks), and mock pastorals. Rochester's interest was in inversion, disruption, and the superiority of wit as much as it was in hedonism. Rochester's venality led to an early death, and he was later frequently invoked as the exemplar of a Restoration rake.

Aphra Behn, the first professional female novelist in English.[2]

Aphra Behn modelled the rake Willmore in her play The Rover on Rochester;[3] and while she was best known publicly for her drama (in the 1670s, only Dryden's plays were staged more often than hers), Behn wrote a great deal of poetry that would be the basis of her later reputation. Edward Bysshe would include numerous quotations from her verse in his Art of English Poetry (1702).[4] While her poetry was occasionally sexually frank, it was never as graphic or intentionally lurid and titillating as Rochester's. Rather, her poetry was, like the court's ethos, playful and honest about sexual desire. One of the most remarkable aspects of Behn's success in court poetry, however, is that Behn was herself a commoner. She had no more relation to peers than Dryden, and possibly quite a bit less. As a woman, a commoner, and Kentish, she is remarkable for her success in moving in the same circles as the King himself. As Janet Todd and others have shown, she was likely a spy for the Royalist side during the Interregnum. She was certainly a spy for Charles II in the Second Anglo-Dutch War, but found her services unrewarded (in fact, she may have spent time in debtor's prison) and turned to writing to support herself.[5] Her ability to write poetry that stands among the best of the age gives some lie to the notion that the Restoration was an age of female illiteracy and verse composed and read only by peers.


Title page to Robert Gould's 1690 Love Given O'er, the "Satire on Woman"

If Behn is a curious exception to the rule of noble verse, Robert Gould breaks that rule altogether. Gould was born of a common family and orphaned at the age of thirteen. He had no schooling at all and worked as a domestic servant, first as a footman and then, probably, in the pantry. However, he was attached to the Earl of Dorset's household, and Gould somehow learned to read and write, as well as possibly to read and write Latin. In the 1680s and 1690s, Gould's poetry was very popular. He attempted to write odes for money, but his great success came with Love Given O'er, or A Satyr Upon ... Woman in 1692. It was a partial adaptation of a satire by Juvenal, but with an immense amount of explicit invective against women. The misogyny in this poem is some of the harshest and most visceral in English poetry: the poem sold out all editions. Gould also wrote a Satyr on the Play House (reprinted in Montagu Sommers's The London Stage) with detailed descriptions of the actions and actors involved in the Restoration stage. He followed the success of Love Given O'er with a series of misogynistic poems, all of which have specific, graphic, and witty denunciations of female behaviour. His poetry has "virgin" brides who, upon their wedding nights, have "the straight gate so wide/ It's been leapt by all mankind," noblewomen who have money but prefer to pay the coachman with oral sex, and noblewomen having sex in their coaches and having the cobblestones heighten their pleasures. Gould's career was brief, but his success was not a novelty of subliterary misogyny. After Dryden's conversion to Roman Catholicism, Gould even engaged in a poison pen battle with the Laureate. His "Jack Squab" (the Laureate getting paid with squab as well as sack and implying that Dryden would sell his soul for a dinner) attacked Dryden's faithlessness viciously, and Dryden and his friends replied. That a footman even could conduct a verse war is remarkable. That he did so without, apparently, any prompting from his patron is astonishing.

Translations and controversialists[edit | edit source]

Roger L'Estrange (per above) was a significant translator, and he also produced verse translations. Others, such as Richard Blackmore, were admired for their "sentence" (declamation and sentiment) but have not been remembered. Also, Elkannah Settle was, in the Restoration, a lively and promising political satirist, though his reputation has not fared well since his day. After booksellers began hiring authors and sponsoring specific translations, the shops filled quickly with poetry from hirelings. Similarly, as periodical literature began to assert itself as a political force, a number of now anonymous poets produced topical, specifically occasional verse.

The largest and most important form of incunabula of the era was satire. There were great dangers in being associated with satire and its publication was generally done anonymously. To begin with, defamation law cast a wide net, and it was difficult for a satirist to avoid prosecution if he were proven to have written a piece that seemed to criticise a noble. More dangerously, wealthy individuals would often respond to satire by having the suspected poet physically attacked by ruffians. The Earl of Rochester hired such thugs to attack John Dryden suspected of having writtenAn Essay on Satire. A consequence of this anonymity is that a great many poems, some of them of merit, are unpublished and largely unknown. Political satires against The Cabal, against Sunderland's government, and, most especially, against James II's rumoured conversion to Roman Catholicism, are uncollected. However, such poetry was a vital part of the vigorous Restoration scene, and it was an age of energetic and voluminous satire.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  • Dryden, John (originally published in 1667). An Account of the Ensuing Poem, prefixed to Annus Mirabilis, from Project Gutenberg. Prepared from The Poetical Works of John Dryden (1855), in Library Edition of the British Poets edited George Gilfillan, vol. 1. Retrieved 18 June 2005.
  • Dryden, John (originally published in 1670). Of Heroic Plays, an Essay (The preface to The Conquest of Granada), in The Works of John Dryden, Volume 04 (of 18) from Project Gutenberg. Prepared from Walter Scott's edition. Retrieved 18 June 2005.
  • Dryden, John. Discourses on Satire and Epic Poetry, from Project Gutenberg, prepared from the 1888 Cassell & Company edition. This volume contains "A Discourse on the Original and Progress of Satire", prefixed to The Satires of Juvenal, Translated (1692) and "A Discourse on Epic Poetry", prefixed to the translation of Virgil's Aeneid (1697). Retrieved 18 June 2005.
  • Holman, C. Hugh and Harmon, William (eds.) (1986). A Handbook to Literature. New York: Macmillan Publishing.
  • Howe, Elizabeth (1992). The First English Actresses: Women and Drama 1660–1700. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Hume, Robert D. (1976). The Development of English Drama in the Late Seventeenth Century. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Hunt, Leigh (ed.) (1840). The Dramatic Works of Wycherley, Congreve, Vanbrugh and Farquhar.
  • Miller, H. K., G. S. Rousseau and Eric Rothstein, The Augustan Milieu: Essays Presented to Louis A. Landa (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970). ISBN 0-19-811697-7
  • Milhous, Judith (1979). Thomas Betterton and the Management of Lincoln's Inn Fields 1695–1708. Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press.
  • Porter, Roy (2000). The Creation of the Modern World. New York: W. W. Norton. ISBN 0-393-32268-8
  • Roots, Ivan (1966). The Great Rebellion 1642–1660. London: Sutton & Sutton.
  • Rosen, Stanley (1989). The Ancients and the Moderns: Rethinking Modernity. Yale UP.
  • Sloane, Eugene H. Robert Gould: seventeenth century satirist. Philadelphia: U Pennsylvania Press, 1940.
  • Tillotson, Geoffrey and Fussell, Paul (eds.) (1969). Eighteenth-Century English Literature. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Jovanovich.
  • Todd, Janet (2000). The Secret Life of Aphra Behn. London: Pandora Press.
  • Ward, A. W, & Trent, W. P. et al. (1907–21). The Cambridge History of English and American Literature. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons. Retrieved 11 June 2005.

Notes[edit | edit source]

  1. Thompson, A. Hamilton. "Cavalier and Puritan: Writers of the Couplet: Sir William D’Avenant; Gondibert" in Ward and Trent, et al. Retrieved on February 27, 2007.
  2. Todd p. 16.
  3. Willmore may have also been based on Behn's lover John Hoyle. "Behn, Mrs Afra" in The Oxford Companion to English Literature (2000). Ed. Margaret Drabble. Oxford Reference Online (subscription required), Oxford University Press. Retrieved on February 27, 2007.
  4. See online text at UVA
  5. "Behn, Aphra" in Encyclopædia Britannica (2007). Encyclopædia Britannica Online (subscription required). Retrieved on February 27, 2007.

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