The beginning of the Tudor dynasty coincided with the first dissemination of printed matter. William Caxton’s press was established in 1476, only nine years before the beginning of Henry VII’s reign. Caxton’s achievement encouraged writing of all kinds and also influenced the standardization of the English language. The early Tudor period, particularly the reign of Henry VIII, was marked by a break with the Roman Catholic Church and a weakening of feudal ties, which brought about a vast increase in the power of the monarchy.
Stronger political relationships with the Continent were also developed, increasing England’s exposure to Renaissance culture. Humanism became the most important force in English literary and intellectual life, both in its narrow sensethe study and imitation of the Latin classicsand in its broad sensethe affirmation of the secular, in addition to the otherworldly, concerns of people. These forces produced during the reign (1558-1603) of Elizabeth I one of the most fruitful eras in literary history.
The energy of England’s writers matched that of its mariners and merchants. Accounts by men such as Richard Hakluyt, Samuel Purchas, and Sir Walter Raleigh were eagerly read. The activities and literature of the Elizabethans reflected a new nationalism, which expressed itself also in the works of chroniclers (John Stow, Raphael Holinshed, and others), historians, and translators and even in political and religious tracts. A myriad of new genres, themes, and ideas were incorporated into English literature.
Italian poetic forms, especially the sonnet, became models for English poets. Sir Thomas Wyatt was the most successful sonneteer among early Tudor poets, and was, with Henry Howard, earl of Surrey, a seminal influence. Tottel’s Miscellany (1557) was the first and most popular of many collections of experimental poetry by different, often anonymous, hands. A common goal of these poets was to make English as flexible a poetic instrument as Italian. Among the more prominent of this group were Thomas Churchyard, George Gascoigne, and Edward de Vere, earl of Oxford.
An ambitious and influential work was A Mirror for Magistrates (1559), a historical verse narrative by several poets that updated the medieval view of history and the morals to be drawn from it. The poet who best synthesized the ideas and tendencies of the English Renaissance was Edmund Spenser. His unfinished epic poem The Faerie Queen (1596) is a treasure house of romance, allegory, adventure, Neoplatonic ideas, patriotism, and Protestant morality, all presented in a variety of literary styles.
The ideal English Renaissance man was Sir Philip Sidneyscholar, poet, critic, courtier, diplomat, and soldierwho died in battle at the age of 32. His best poetry is contained in the sonnet sequence Astrophel and Stella (1591) and his Defence of Poesie is among the most important works of literary criticism in the tradition. Many others in a historical era when poetic talents were highly valued, were skilled poets. Important late Tudor sonneteers include Spenser and Shakespeare, Michael Drayton, Samuel Daniel, and Fulke Greville.
More versatile even than Sidney was Sir Walter Raleighpoet, historian, courtier, explorer, and soldierwho wrote strong, spare poetry. Early Tudor drama owed much to both medieval morality plays and classical models. Ralph Roister Doister (c. 1545) by Nicholas Udall and Gammer Gurton’s Needle (c. 1552) are considered the first English comedies, combining elements of classical Roman comedy with native burlesque. During the late 16th and early 17th cent. , drama flourished in England as never before or since.
It came of age with the work of the University Wits, whose sophisticated plays set the course of Renaissance drama and paved the way for Shakespeare. The Wits included John Lyly, famed for the highly artificial and much imitated prose work Euphues (1578); Robert Greene, the first to write romantic comedy; the versatile Thomas Lodge and Thomas Nashe; Thomas Kyd, who popularized neo-Senecan tragedy; and Christopher Marlowe, the greatest dramatist of the group. Focusing on heroes whose very greatness leads to their downfall, Marlowe wrote in blank verse with a rhetorical brilliance and eloquence superbly equal to the demands of high drama.
William Shakespeare, of course, fulfilled the promise of the Elizabethan age. His history plays, comedies, and tragedies set a standard never again equaled, and he is universally regarded as the greatest dramatist and one of the greatest poets of all time. The Jacobean Era, Cromwell, and the Restoration Elizabethan literature generally reflects the exuberant self-confidence of a nation expanding its powers, increasing its wealth, and thus keeping at bay its serious social and religious problems.
Disillusion and pessimism followed, however, during the unstable reign of James I (1603-25). The 17th cent. was to be a time of great upheavalrevolution and regicide, restoration of the monarchy, and, finally, the victory of Parliament, landed Protestantism, and the moneyed interests. Jacobean literature begins with the drama, including some of Shakespeare’s greatest, and darkest, plays. The dominant literary figure of James’s reign was Ben Jonson, whose varied and dramatic works followed classical models and were enriched by his worldly, peculiarly English wit.
His satiric dramas, notably the great Volpone (1606), all take a cynical view of human nature. Also cynical were the horrific revenge tragedies of John Ford, Thomas Middleton, Cyril Tourneur, and John Webster (the best poet of this grim genre). Novelty was in great demand, and the possibilities of plot and genre were exploited almost to exhaustion. Still, many excellent plays were written by men such as George Chapman, the masters of comedy Thomas Dekker and Philip Massinger, and the team of Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher.
Drama continued to flourish until the closing of the theaters at the onset of the English Revolution in 1642. The foremost poets of the Jacobean era, Ben Jonson and John Donne, are regarded as the originators of two diverse poetic traditionsthe Cavalier and the metaphysical (see Cavalier poets and metaphysical poets). Jonson and Donne shared not only a common fund of literary resources, but also a dryness of wit and precision of expression. Donne’s poetry is distinctive for its passionate intellection, Jonson’s for its classicism and urbane guidance of passion.
Although George Herbert and Donne were the principal metaphysical poets, the meditative religious poets Henry Vaughan and Thomas Traherne were also influenced by Donne, as were Abraham Cowley and Richard Crashaw. The greatest of the Cavalier poets was the sensuously lyrical Robert Herrick. Such other Cavaliers as Thomas Carew, Sir John Suckling, and Richard Lovelace were lyricists in the elegant Jonsonian tradition, though their lyricism turned political during the English Revolution. Although ranked with the metaphysical poets, the highly individual Andrew Marvell partook of the traditions of both Donne and Jonson.
Among the leading prose writers of the Jacobean period were the translators who produced the classic King James Version of the Bible (1611) and the divines Lancelot Andrewes, Jeremy Taylor, and John Donne. The work of Francis Bacon helped shape philosophical and scientific method. Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) offers a varied, virtually encyclopedic view of the moral and intellectual preoccupations of the 17th cent. Like Burton, Sir Thomas Browne sought to reconcile the mysteries of religion with the newer mysteries of science.
Izaak Walton, author of The Compleat Angler (1653), produced a number of graceful biographies of prominent writers. Thomas Hobbes wrote the most influential political treatise of the age, Leviathan (1651). The Jacobean era’s most fiery and eloquent author of political tracts (many in defense of Cromwell’s government, of which he was a member) was also one of the greatest of all English poets, John Milton. His Paradise Lost (1667) is a Christian epic of encompassing scope. In Milton the literary and philosophical heritage of the Renaissance merged with Protestant political and moral conviction.
With the restoration of the English monarchy in the person of Charles II, literary tastes widened. The lifting of Puritan restrictions and the reassembling of the court led to a relaxation of restraints, both moral and stylistic, embodied in such figures as the Earl of Rochester. Restoration comedy reveals both the influence of French farce (the English court spent its exile in France) and of Jacobean comedy. It generously fed the public’s appetite for broad satire, high style, and a licentiousness that justified the worst Puritan imaginings.
Such dramatists as Sir George Etherege, William Wycherley, and William Congreve created superbly polished high comedy. Sparkling but not quite so brilliant were the plays of George Farquhar, Thomas Shadwell, and Sir John Vanbrugh. John Dryden began as a playwright but became the foremost poet and critic of his time. His greatest works are satirical narrative poems, notably Absalom and Achitophel (1681), in which prominent contemporary figures are unmistakably and devastatingly portrayed. Another satiric poet of the period was Samuel Butler, whose Hudibras (1663) satirizes Puritanism together with all the intellectual pretensions of the time.
During the Restoration Puritanism or, more generally, the Dissenting tradition, remained vital. The most important Dissenting literary work was John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1675), an allegorical prose narrative that is considered a forerunner of the novel. Lively and illuminating glimpses of Restoration manners and mores are provided by the diaries of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn. The Eighteenth Century The Glorious Revolution of 1688 firmly established a Protestant monarchy together with effective rule by Parliament.
The new science of the time, Newtonian physics, reinforced the belief that everything, including human conduct, is guided by a rational order. Moderation and common sense became intellectual values as well as standards of behavior. These values achieved their highest literary expression in the poetry of Alexander Pope. Popeneoclassicist, wit, and master of the heroic coupletwas critical of human foibles but generally confident that order and happiness in human affairs were attainable if excesses were eschewed and rational dictates heeded.
The brilliant prose satirist Jonathan Swift was not so sanguine. His “savage indignation” resulted in devastating attacks on his age in A Tale of a Tub (1704), Gulliver’s Travels (1726), and A Modest Proposal (1729). Middle-class tastes were reflected in the growth of periodicals and newspapers, the best of which were the Tatler and the Spectator produced by Joseph Addison and Sir Richard Steele. The novels of Daniel Defoe, the first modern novels in English, owe much to the techniques of journalism.
They also illustrate the virtues of merchant adventure vital to the rising middle class. Indeed, the novel was to become the literary form most responsive to middle-class needs and interests. The 18th cent. was the age of town life with its coffeehouses and clubs. One of the most famous of the latter was the Scriblerus Club, whose members included Pope, Swift, and John Gay (author of The Beggar’s Opera). Its purpose was to defend and uphold high literary standards against the rising tide of middle-class values and tastes.
Letters were a popular form of polite literature. Pope, Swift, Horace Walpole, and Thomas Gray were masters of the form, and letters make up the chief literary output of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Lord Chesterfield. The novels of Samuel Richardson, including the influential Clarissa (1747), were written in epistolary form. With the work of Richardson, Fanny Burney, Henry Fielding, Tobias Smollett, and Laurence Sterne the English novel flourished. Probably the most celebrated literary circle in history was the one dominated by Samuel Johnson.
It included Joshua Reynolds, David Garrick, Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith, and James Boswell, whose biography of Johnson is a classic of the genre. Other great master prose writers of the period were the historian Edward Gibbon and the philosopher David Hume. Dr. Johnson, who carried the arts of criticism and conversation to new heights, both typified and helped to form mid-18th-century views of life, literature, and conduct. The drama of the 18th cent. failed to match that of the Restoration.
But Oliver Goldsmith and Richard Brinsley Sheridan rose above the prevalent “weeping comedy”whose sentimentalism infected every literary genre of the periodto achieve polished comedy in the Restoration tradition. Among the prominent poets of the 18th cent. were James Thomson, who wrote in The Seasons (1726) of nature as it reflected the Newtonian concept of order and beauty, and Edward Young, whose Night Thoughts (1742) combined melancholy and Christian apologetics. Anticipations of romanticism can be seen in the odes of William Collins, the poems of Thomas Gray, and the Scots lyrics of Robert Burns.
The work of William Blake, the first great romantic poet, began late in the 18th cent. Blake is unique: poet, artist, artisan, revolutionist, and visionary prophet. In prose fiction, departures from social realism are evident in the Gothic romances of Horace Walpole, Anne Radcliffe, “Monk” Lewis, Charles Maturin, and others. These works catered to a growing interest in medievalism, northern antiquities, ballads, folklore, chivalry, and romance, also exploited in two masterpieces of forgerythe Ossian poems of James Macpherson and the “medieval” Rowley poems of Thomas Chatterton.
The Romantic Period At the turn of the century, fired by ideas of personal and political liberty and of the energy and sublimity of the natural world, artists and intellectuals sought to break the bonds of 18th-century convention. Although the works of Jean Jacques Rousseau and William Godwin had great influence, the French Revolution and its aftermath had the strongest impact of all. In England initial support for the Revolution was primarily utopian and idealist, and when the French failed to live up to expectations, most English intellectuals renounced the Revolution.
However, the romantic vision had taken forms other than political, and these developed apace. In Lyrical Ballads (1798 and 1800), a watershed in literary history, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge presented and illustrated a liberating aesthetic: poetry should express, in genuine language, experience as filtered through personal emotion and imagination; the truest experience was to be found in nature. The concept of the Sublime strengthened this turn to nature, because in wild countrysides the power of the sublime could be felt most immediately.
Wordsworth’s romanticism is probably most fully realized in his great autobiographical poem, “The Prelude” (1805-50). In search of sublime moments, romantic poets wrote about the marvelous and supernatural, the exotic, and the medieval. But they also found beauty in the lives of simple rural people and aspects of the everyday world. The second generation of romantic poets included John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and George Gordon, Lord Byron. In Keats’s great odes, intellectual and emotional sensibility merge in language of great power and beauty.
Shelley, who combined soaring lyricism with an apocalyptic political vision, sought more extreme effects and occasionally achieved them, as in his great drama Prometheus Unbound (1820). His wife, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, wrote the greatest of the Gothic romances, Frankenstein (1818). Lord Byron was the prototypical romantic hero, the envy and scandal of the age. He has been continually identified with his own characters, particularly the rebellious, irreverent, erotically inclined Don Juan. Byron invested the romantic lyric with a rationalist irony.
Minor romantic poets include Robert Southeybest-remembered today for his story “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”Leigh Hunt, Thomas Moore, and Walter Savage Landor. The romantic era was also rich in literary criticism and other nonfictional prose. Coleridge proposed an influential theory of literature in his Biographia Literaria (1817). William Godwin and his wife, Mary Wollstonecraft, wrote ground-breaking books on human, and women’s, rights. William Hazlitt, who never forsook political radicalism, wrote brilliant and astute literary criticism.
The master of the personal essay was Charles Lamb, whereas Thomas De Quincey was master of the personal confession. The periodicals Edinburgh Review and Blackwood’s Magazine, in which leading writers were published throughout the century, were major forums of controversy, political as well as literary. Although the great novelist Jane Austen wrote during the romantic era, her work defies classification. With insight, grace, and irony she delineated human relationships within the context of English country life.
Sir Walter Scott, Scottish nationalist and romantic, made the genre of the historical novel widely popular. Other novelists of the period were Maria Edgeworth, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and Thomas Love Peacock, the latter noted for his eccentric novels satirizing the romantics. The Victorian Age The Reform Bill of 1832 gave the middle class the political power it needed to consolidateand to holdthe economic position it had already achieved. Industry and commerce burgeoned.
While the affluence of the middle class increased, the lower classes, thrown off their land and into the cities to form the great urban working class, lived ever more wretchedly. The social changes were so swift and brutal that Godwinian utopianism rapidly gave way to attempts either to justify the new economic and urban conditions, or to change them. The intellectuals and artists of the age had to deal in some way with the upheavals in society, the obvious inequities of abundance for a few and squalor for many, and, emanating from the throne of Queen Victoria (1837-1901), an emphasis on public rectitude and moral propriety.