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Index by Period

17th Century
(1600 - 1699)

  Milton, thou shouldst be living at this hour.
     England hath need of thee: she is a fen
     Of stagnant waters; altar, sword, and pen,
  Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
  Have forfeited their ancient English dower
    Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
    Oh! raise us up, return to us again,
  And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.

                   Wordsworth, "Sonnet on Milton"

Historical Outline

The period from the accession of Charles I in 1625 to the Revolution of 1688 was filled with a mighty struggle over the question whether king or Commons should be supreme in England. On this question the English people were divided into two main parties. On one side were the Royalists, or Cavaliers, who upheld the monarch with his theory of the divine right of kings; on the other were the Puritans, or Independents, who stood for the rights of the individual man and for the liberties of Parliament and people. The latter party was at first very small; it had appeared in the days of Langland and Wyclif, and had been persecuted by Elizabeth; but persecution served only to increase its numbers and determination. Though the Puritans were never a majority in England, they soon ruled the land with a firmness it had not known since the days of William the Conqueror. They were primarily men of conscience, and no institution can stand before strong men whose conscience says the institution is wrong. That is why the degenerate theaters were not reformed but abolished; that is why the theory of the divine right of kings was shattered as by a thunderbolt when King Charles was sent to the block for treason against his country.

The struggle reached a climax in the Civil War of 1642, which ended in a Puritan victory. As a result of that war, England was for a brief period a commonwealth, disciplined at home and respected abroad, through the genius and vigor and tyranny of Oliver Cromwell. When Cromwell died (1658) there was no man in England strong enough to take his place, and two years later "Prince Charlie," who had long been an exile, was recalled to the throne as Charles II of England. He had learned nothing from his father's fate or his own experience, and proceeded by all evil ways to warrant this "Epitaph," which his favorite, Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, pinned on the door of his bedchamber:

      Here lies our Sovereign Lord the King,
        Whose word no man relies on,
      Who never said a foolish thing,
        Nor ever did a wise one.

The next twenty years are of such disgrace and national weakness that the historian hesitates to write about them. It was called the period of the Restoration, which meant, in effect, the restoration of all that was objectionable in monarchy. Another crisis came in the Revolution of 1688, when the country, aroused by the attempt of James II to establish another despotism in Church and state, invited Prince William of Orange (husband of the king's daughter Mary) to the English throne. That revolution meant three things: the supremacy of Parliament, the beginning of modern England, and the final triumph of the principle of political liberty for which the Puritan had fought and suffered hardship for a hundred years.

Typical Writers

Among the writers of the period three men stand out prominently, and such was the confusion of the times that in the whole range of our literature it would be difficult to find three others who differ more widely in spirit or method. Milton represents the scholarship, the culture of the Renaissance, combined with the moral earnestness of the Puritan. Bunyan, a poor tinker and lay preacher, reflects the tremendous spiritual ferment among the common people. And Dryden, the cool, calculating author who made a business of writing, regards the Renaissance and Puritanism as both things of the past. He lives in the present, aims to give readers what they like, follows the French critics of the period who advocate writing by rule, and popularizes that cold, formal, precise style which, under the assumed name of classicism, is to dominate English poetry during the following century.

The Cavaliers (1625 - 1649)
An early seventeenth-century movement, whose proponents were also called the “Tribe of Ben”, because of their admiration for Ben Jonson. Their strength was the short lyric poem, and a favourite theme was carpe diem, "seize the day".

The Metaphysical Poets (1590 - 1650)
The term metaphysical was applied to a style of 17th Century poetry first by John Dryden and later by Dr. Samuel Johnson. While the poetry is widely varied (the metaphysicals are not a thematic or even a structural school), there are some common characteristics including, most importantly, the highly intellectual and often abstruse imagery involved.

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John Bunyan
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John Dryden
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Thomas Traherne
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