The Age

Historical Background
Renaissance Period: (1550-1660)
Known as the period of "Rebirth of Learning” the Renaissance had its origins in the 14th century and slowly came to its highest point in the 15th century. The Renaissance ended the Middle Ages and introduced the modern age. After the Roman Empire fell apart and was conquered by the barbaric  tribes, a great number of Latin and Greek manuscripts were either lost or misplaced. In the 14th  and 15th centuries, they were finally rediscovered and reproduced using the printing press which had been recently invented around the year 1420. These classics set forth a movement of worship for classical philosophy which started in Italy, reached France and finally swept England. The dissemination of these new ideas was aided by the swift growth of trade in Europe and in the New World, thus communication between countries and cultures was at its strongest. 
The ancient Greeks and Romans believed that life was not a tortuous and painful journey to a better life after death, as it had been considered in the Middle Ages, but, a beautiful and exciting end in itself. They believed that the world was not merely where humans were to be disciplined for life after death, but also a place where people could demonstrate their impressive creative faculties. Those who took up this human-oriented point of view were known as Humanists. Humanists dealt with all issues of human interest. They read Greek and Latin and were polyglots. They could play their own songs on the lute; they participated in a variety of physical activities and sports. Moreover, they were up-to-date on the philosophical and theological trends of their time as well as being aware of developments in the natural philosophy of science. One of the best known of the Italian Renaissance artists, Leonardo Da Vinci, thought himself a scientist as well as an artist when he stated that the artist is the person uniquely qualified to reproduce scientific knowledge authentically.
The period in which the English medieval baron, knight, serf and the Catholic churchmen lost their dominant position in society and the national government agent, the well-to-do urban merchant, the Protestant reformer and the scholar gained a new social respectability, bears the name of Queen Elizabeth 1 for several reasons. Not only did she rule longer than any of the other Tudors, but the tremendous political, religious, economic, and intellectual changes that had been in the making under her father and grandfather finally came to a climax during her reign and resulted in what came to be called the finest flowering of the arts in all English history. Elizabeth received a Renaissance education and read widely in the Greek and Latin classics. Thus becoming a great patron of the arts, gathering around her the best writers of her day. Elizabeth can be considered the greatest of the Tudor monarchs for when she came to the throne, England was dangerously close to falling apart under the pressures and dangers from within and from without the country, but Elizabeth met these dangers with a high statesmanship that brought the country safely through stormy times.

The men of the Renaissance inhabited an intelligible world constructed by a rational mind. The English Renaissance insisted on the moral nature of man where the Italian had been more concerned with his intellectual nature. They believed that the initial divine gift poetry was necessary, but they did not think it is sufficient: a poet must study and think; not merely surrender to sensations; for the evidence of divine interests in the world lay in its order and measure, in its essential reasonableness, and in man's liberty of choice. Whatever the circumstances in which men preferred to talk and write poetry, they were in these early years of queen Elizabeth's reign ambitious to make English poetry rival the poetry of Italy even to emulate the poetry of Greece and Rome. 

The Renaissance period in British literature spans the years 1500 to1660 and is usually divided into five subsections: Early Tudor, Elizabethan, Puritan which is also divided into Jacobean and Caroline, Commonwealth (or Puritan Interregnum). 

Early Tudor Period: (1500-1558)
The Early Tudor period is the first phase of the Renaissance period. This period is known for its poetry and nonfiction prose. English literature's first dramatic comedy, Ralph Roister Doister, was first performed in 1553.

Elizabethan Age: (1558-1603)
The Elizabethan era is the period associated with Queen Elizabeth I's reign (1558–1603) and is often considered to be the golden age. In a tradition of literature remarkable for its exacting and brilliant achievements, the Elizabethan and early Stuart periods have been said to represent the most brilliant century of all. (The reign of Elizabeth first began in 1558 and ended with her death in 1603; she was succeeded by the Stuart king James VI of Scotland, who took the title James first of England as well. English literature of his reign as James first, from 1603 to 1625, is properly called Jacobean.) These years produced a gallery of authors of genius, some of whom have never been surpassed, and conferred on scores of lesser talents the enviable ability to write with fluency, imagination, and verve. From one point of view, this sudden renaissance looks radiant, confident, heroic—and belated, but all the more dazzling for its belatedness. Yet, from another point of view, this was a time of unusually traumatic strain, in which English society underwent massive disruptions that transformed it on every front and decisively affected the life of every individual. In the brief, intense moment in which England assimilated the European Renaissance, the circumstances that made the assimilation possible were already disintegrating and calling into question the newly won certainties, as well as the older truths that they were dislodging. This doubleness, of new possibilities and new doubts simultaneously apprehended, gives the literature its unrivaled intensity. Major poets of this period were Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser's, William Shakespeare, Thomas Kyd.

We find it difficult with Romantic conceptions of poetry still dominant to imagine the problems that faced the Elizabethans nearly four hundred years ago. They had no long and continuing tradition of poetry, no vast body of poems of every kind to assure them that English was one of the outstanding literatures of the world. There had been one great poet, Chaucer, whom they read and admired, but whose vocabulary was obsolete, and whose lines they could not scan. The Elizabethans wished to create a national literature, as the Italians had done, as the French they had not only to write the poetry but first of all to fashion the medium in which to write it. Their patron's ambition made them seek a European fame for English poetry. They have better poetic manners than the Romantics if they have designs upon us, yet they take care not to make them palpable. Elizabethans were not intent upon explorations of the subconscious; they were trying to produce beautiful objects of a particular kind. Their poetry was based on alert observation of the human pageant; it was, as Aristotle had said it should be, an imitation of life-but an ideal imitation, for "Nature's world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden." Furthermore, these poets always considered the reader because they always imagined quite clearly and practically for whom they were writing. Romantic poets believed that they were writing for mankind that they were blowing trumpets to an earth which was unawakened. Elizabethan poets would have considered Wordsworth's intention absurd, and Shelley's ill-mannered. They wrote for people who wished to read their poetry, the Romantics for mankind, who did not. The Romantics seem often to have written with the naive illusion of adolescents who suppose that the world cares about the state of their souls. 

Much of the Elizabethan poetry was private poetry written for an audience to be counted on the fingers.   Therefore, the concept of decorum, the most important in Elizabethan criticism, is natural to poets who have an audience clearly before their imaginations. 

The two greatest innovators of the new rich style of Renaissance poetry in the last Quarter of the 16th century were Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser, both humanistically educated Elizabethan courtiers. Furthermore, two other poetic tendencies became visible toward the end of the 16th and in the early part of the 17th centuries. The first tendency is exemplified by the poetry of John Donne while the other by the so-called metaphysical poets like Andrew Marvel. Andrew Marvel wrote metaphysical poetry of great power and fluency, but he also responded to other influences. The involved metaphysical style remained fashionable until late in the seventeenth Century. 

The second late Renaissance poetic tendency was in reaction to the Spenserian lushness and to verbal gymnastics of the metaphysical poets. Best represented by the accomplished poetry of Ben Johnson and his school, it reveals a classically pure and restrained style which gave the direction for the poetic development of the succeeding period.  

The last great poet of the English Renaissance was the puritan writer John Milton who has at his command a thorough classical education. Although he adhered to Sidney's and Spenser's notions of the inspired role of the poet as the lofty instructor of humanity, he rejected the fantastic machinery, involving classical mythology and knighthood of the Faerie Queen. With grand simplicity, he narrated in Paradise lost the machinations of Satan leading to the fall of Adam and Eve from the state of innocence, and he performed the task in such a way as to "justify the ways of God to man" and to express the central Christian truths of freedom, sin, and redemption as he conceived them. 

The School of Spenser
The Spenserians were the followers of Spenser. In spite of 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 a number of 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 to unbearable.

Giles Fletcher was more lyrical and mystical than his brother, and he also made a happier choice of subjects. His Christ’s Victorie 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 obviously 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 of 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 eulogues; 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 a number of 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.

Decorum: is the fitting of the style to the matter, or the fitting of a speech in a play or novel to the character who speak, or the suiting of the manner of a poem to the occasion for which it is written, or to the person to whom it is addressed. 

Blank Verse
In literature, unrhymed poetry, typically in iambic pentameter, and as such, the dominant verse form of English dramatic and narrative poetry since the mid-16th century and the one closest to the rhythms of everyday English speech. Blank verse was adapted by Italian Renaissance writers from classical sources; it became the standard form of such dramatists as Ludovico Ariosto, Torquato Tasso, and Battista Guarini. From Italy blank verse was brought into English literature by the poet Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, who first used it in his translation of Virgil's Aeneid (c.1540). Christopher Marlowe used it for dramatic verse; and Shakespeare transformed blank verse into a supple instrument, uniquely capable of conveying speech rhythms and emotional overtones. According to John Milton, only unrhymed verse could give English the dignity of a classical language. As he explained in the preface to his epic Paradise Lost, one of the greatest of all poems in blank verse: 

The Measure is English Heroic Verse
without Rhyme, as that of Homer in 
Greek, and of Virgil in Latin; Rhyme
 being no necessary Adjunct to true 
Ornament of Poem or good Verse, in
larger Works especially... 

Later English poets such as the 19th-century Romantics William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats employed the form. In the hands of still later poets, Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Robert Browning, for example, and the Americans Edwin Arlington Robinson and Robert Frost, blank verse was employed for less lofty themes, becoming more colloquial in tone. Blank verse has also been extensively used for dramatic poetry in Germany since the 18th century, notably in Nathan der Weise, by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and in the works of Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, Friedrich Von Schiller, and Gerhart Hauptmann. It is also a standard form in Swedish, Russian, and Polish verse drama.

The Sonnet
The most significant literary development during the Elizabethan age came in the area of poetry. Favoring lyric poetry, rather than the narrative poems preferred by the medieval predecessors, the Elizabethan poets perfected the sonnet. A lyric, originally intended as a song to be accompanied by a stringed instrument, it is an expression of personal emotion or mood, either real or imagined. Sixteenth Century lyrics reveal a passionate concern with issues of life and death; happiness and sadness are found together. One of the favorite themes is the notion that by writing poems a person confers immortality on himself and on the people he wrote about. A sonnet is a poem of fourteen lines on a single theme, friendship and love are the favorites. Usually the last two lines contain a change in the direction of the theme. Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets and is considered the best sonneteer of the period.

Puritan Age: (1600-1660)
In this era, England was ruled by Parliament and, Oliver Cromwell and then briefly by his son, Richard, until 1859. Theaters were closed on moral and religious grounds. While drama did not flourish, significant examples of nonfiction prose and poetry were written during this period.

The Puritan Movement may be regarded as a second Renaissance, a rebirth of the moral nature of man following the first Renaissance, intellectual awakening of Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries. Puritanism became a political as well as a moral and religious force. Puritanism had two chief objects: the first was personal righteousness; the second was civil liberty. In other words, it aimed to make men honest and to make them free. During the Puritan role of Cromwell severe laws were passed. Simple pleasures were forbidden, theaters were closed. Puritanism destroyed human culture and sought to confine it within the circumscribed field of its own particular interests. It was fatal both to art and literature. Great literature could not be produced during this period. Milton was an exception. He was the greatest literary genius of this era. In his finest works he combines the moral and religious influences of Puritanism with the generous culture of the Renaissance. 

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 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 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 councillors, 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 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 most lofty and enduring expression.

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 two parts: 

The Jacobean Age: (1603-1625)
The third era of the Renaissance period in British literature defined by the reign of James IThe word "Jacobean" is derived from Jacobus, the Latin form of the English name James. The Jacobean era refers to the period in English and Scottish history that coincides with the reign of King James VI (1567–1625) of Scotland, who also inherited the crown of England in 1603 as James I. The Jacobean era succeeds the Elizabethan Era and precedes the Caroline era, and specifically denotes a style of architecture visual arts, decorative arts, and literature that is predominant of that period.

In literature, some of Shakespeare’s most prominent plays were written in that period (for example,three plays written during James I's reign: The Tempest (1610), King Lear (1603), and Macbeth (1603)). Patronage came not just from James, but from James' wife Anne of Denmark. Also during this period were powerful works by John Webster   Thomas Middleton, John Ford and Ben Johnson. Ben Jonson also contributed to some of the era's best poetry, together with the Cavalier poets and John Donne. In prose the most representative works are found in those of Francis Bacon and the King James Bible.

In 1616 George Chapman completed his monumental translation of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey into English verse, which were the first ever complete translations of either poem, both central to the Western Canon, into the English language. The wildly popular tale of the Trojan War had until then been available to English readers only in Medieval epic retellings such as Caxton’s Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye.

Jonson was also an important innovator in the specialized literary sub-genre of the masque, which went through an intense development in the Jacobean era. His name is linked with that of Inigo Jones as co-developers of the literary and visual/technical aspects of this hybrid art. [For Jonson’s masques, see: The Masque of Blackness, The Masque of Queens, etc.] The high costs of these spectacles, however, positioned the Stuarts far from the relative frugality of Elizabeth's reign, and alienated the middle classes and the Puritans with a prospect of waste and self-indulgent excess. Major poets of this period were John Donne, George Chapman, Lady Mary Wroth.

The Caroline Age: (1625-1649)
The Caroline Age marks the period of the English Civil War between the supporters of the King (called Cavaliers) and the supporters of Parliament (called the Roundheads). Literature of this period featured poetry, nonfiction prose, and the Cavalier Poets, who were associated with the court and wrote poems of gallantry and courtship. Major poets of this period were John Milton, George Herbert. Cavalier Poets: Richard Lovelace, Sir John Suckling, Thomas Carew, and Robert Herrick.

The Cavalier poets, a group of English poets associated with Charles I and his exiled son. Most of their work was done between 1637 and 1660. Their poetry embodied the life and culture of upper-class, pre-Commonwealth England. They mixed sophistication with naïveté, elegance with raciness. Writing on the courtly themes of beauty, love, and loyalty, they produced finely finished verses and expressed with wit and directness. The poetry reveals their indebtedness to both Ben Jonson and John Donne. The leading Cavalier poets were Robert Herrick, Richard Lovelace, Sir John Suckling, and Thomas Carew. Cavalier Poetry is an early seventeenth century movement centered mainly on Robert Herrick, Thomas Carew, John Suckling, Richard Lovelace, and Carew. Most of these poets were admirers of Ben Jonson. Cavalier Poetry gets its name from the supporters of King Charles I in the seventeenth century who were at that period called the Cavaliers. They were royalists during the Civil Wars. Cavalier Poetry is different from metaphysical poetry since it does not use complicated metaphors and unrealistic imagery, but prefers a rather straightforward expression. This poetry was erotic and its strength lied in its shortness. Simply, it did not confuse readers with deep meaning and allegory but reflected every thought as they were supposed to be understood along with their motto "Carpe Diem" meaning "seize the day". 

The most common characteristic of Cavalier Poetry is its use of direct language which expresses a highly individualistic personality. In more detail, the Cavaliers, while writing, accept the ideal of the Renaissance Gentleman who is at once a lover, a soldier, witty, a man of affairs, a musician, and a poet, but abandon the notion of his being also a pattern of Christian chivalry. They avoid the subject of religion, apart from making one or two graceful speeches. They attempt no plumbing of the depths of the soul. They treat life cavalierly, indeed, and sometimes they treat poetic convention cavalierly too. In short their features can be succinctly given in the following points:

1. Generally they were intended to entertain rather than instruct.

2. They were influenced by John Donne for his elaborate conceits and meditative tone and influenced by Ben Jonson for his admiration for ancient Greek and Roman poetry.

3. Their style features conversational style based on natural speech patterns.

4. Classical Influence was exercised on these poets in terms of regular rhythmic patterns, carefully structured stanzas and simple but elegant language.

5. Theme of love was popular in their compositions. The love expressed was characterized by idealized love, addressed to imaginary women with classical names, sarcastic commentaries on the pursuit of coy beauties, mistress no longer goddess but woman spoken to and poem more important to poet than woman.

6. Their writing owes something to both styles. They used direct and colloquial language expressive of highly individual personality. They enjoyed the casual, the amateur and the affectionate poem. They did not write religious poetry, nor do they explore the depth of the soul. And finally, they celebrate minor pleasures and sadness of life.

The Cavalier poetry no longer remains on the domain of English literature. They soon disappear from the scene of poetry. Though they flourished during reign of Charles I, they were disgraced when Puritan leader, Oliver Cromwell, became leader. Some fled London; others arrested or imprisoned; while only Herrick lived to see restoration of Monarchy. 

Commonwealth (or Puritan Interregnum): (1649-1658)
In this era, England was ruled by Parliament and, Oliver Cromwell and then briefly by his son, Richard, until 1859. Theaters were closed on moral and religious grounds. While drama did not flourish, significant examples of nonfiction prose and poetry were written during this period. Major poets of this period were John Milton, Andrew Marvell, Henry Vaughan, Edmund Waller, Abraham Cowley, Katherine Philips.