The 17th century was a time of great religious and political conflict in England and religious themes were particularly important. The end of the century saw the subordination of literature of political ends, and the success of great verse satirists. The Restoration drama, in spite of being quite different from the Elizabethan, was alive and popular. The 17th century was characterised by a great emphasis on order and rules. The influence of the classical tradition led to a love of moderation, decorum, and good taste, coupled with a respect for intelligence and dignity. Very appropriately the first half of the century was called the “Neoclassical Period”, or the “Augustan Age”, referring to great literary output during the reign of the Emperor Augustus. Another name for the same period is also “The Age of Reason”, because the writers tended to reject imagination and exalted reasen: they wished to understand, not to imagine. Prose became increasingly important. The period saw a great development of the essay and the birth of the novel, which provided reading material for a rapidly expanding public. In the early 17th century, although there were poets who continued to follow the smooth and elegant tradition of the Elizabethans, others – the Metaphysical Poets – attempted a more serious, argumentative type of poetry. They wrote intellectual poems, full of clever twists of language and conceits, and their startling imagery was based on allusions to religion, philosophy, geography, and nearly at the branches of learning. The most famous of them was John Donne (1572-1631). His poems deal with both secular and religious themes, and reveal the lively imagination, the erudition, and the boldness in the use of unusual imagery that make him so interesting even today.
The 17th century saw the powerful presence of a literary giant, John Milton, second only to Shakespeare as a poet. He had a very important role in political and religious life of his time, and his poetry was very much influenced by the historical events of his days. His most important work, Paradise Lost, is an epic poem in balnk verse, based on the Bible: it begins with the Fall of the rebel angels, and continues with the temptation of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the garden of Eden. Many critics have written that Satan is, in fact, the real hero of Paradise Lost for his indomitable spirit; a very important aspect of the poem is the dramatic conflict within the human division between good and evil.
During the period of Restoration, poetry rejected the conceits of the metaphysical poets in favour of a more clear and polished language. Moreover, the increasing interest in political events often led writers to riducule party rivals, thus starting the great age of sartirical writing. The chief verse satirist of the century was John Dryden (1631-1700), the master of the long satirical poem in heroic couplets. His chief poem is Absalom and Achitophel (1581), an attack against the Earl of Shaftesbury who supported the claim to the throne of the king’s illegimate son in place of James II. Dryden also wrote remarkable Pindaric odes – modelled on the choric songs of Greek drama; the most famous of them is song for St Cecilia’s Day (1687).
In an age which cultivated the intellectual side of man’s nature and the control of the passions and the istincts, poetry had to express universal truths rather than personal emotion, and great emphasis was laid on formal perfection. The Augustan age saw the triumph of the so-called poetic diction, the main aspects of which were: the use of elevated and poetical words like “nymph”, “slumber, or “woe”, archaic and Latinate words which conferred dignity and created an elevated tone, stock adjective-noun combination, like “fair-fields”, cooling breeze” etc, and periphrasis, aimed at avoiding the direct mention of common, everyday things. The normal English word order was often inverted.
Alexander Pope (1688-1744) was the greatest poet of the age, and the perfection of his writing has never been equalled in English poetry. He is best remembered for a brillant mock-heroic poem, The Rape of the Lock (1712-1714), based on a quarrel between two families resulting from a gentleman’s clipping a lock of a young lady’s hair. From the middle of the century a number of poets began to abandon the Neoclassical norms and the limiting couplet verse form, and bridged the gap between the school of Pope and the great Romantic poets of the first decades of the 19th century. These transition poets are also called the “elegiac poets”: Edward Young, William Collins, and Thomas Gray, author of the famous Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. They began to turn to the picturesque aspects of nature, melancholy emotions, rural people, and to medieval architecture and poetry. Romanticism was on the way.