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Site last updated
26 June, 2013
Outlines of English and American Literature
Secondary Writers
by Long, William J.


Puritan and Cavalier Verse

The numerous minor poets of this period are often arranged in groups, but any true classification is impossible since there was no unity among them. Each was a law unto himself, and the result was to emphasize personal oddity or eccentricity. It would seem that in writing of love, the common theme of poets, Puritan and Cavalier must alike speak the common language of the heart; but that is precisely what they did not do. With them love was no longer a passion, or even a fashion, but any fantastic conceit that might decorate a rime. Thus, Suckling habitually made love a joke:

  Why so pale and wan, fond lover,
    Prithee why so pale?
  Will, when looking well wont move her,
    Looking ill prevail?
    Prithee why so pale?


Crashaw turned from his religious poems to sing of love in a way to appeal to the Transcendentalists, of a later age:

  Whoe'er she be,
  That not impossible she
  That shall command my heart and me.


And Donne must search out some odd notion from natural (or unnatural) history, making love a spider that turns the wine of life into poison; or from mechanics, comparing lovers to a pair of dividers:

  If they be two, they are two so
    As stiff twin compasses are two:
  Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show
    To move, but doth if the other do.


Several of these poets, commonly grouped in a class which includes Donne, Herbert, Cowley, Crashaw, and others famous in their day, received the name of metaphysical poets, not because of their profound thought, but because of their eccentric style and queer figures of speech. Of all this group George Herbert (1593-1633) is the sanest and the sweetest. His chief work, The Temple, is a collection of poems celebrating the beauty of holiness, the sacraments, the Church, the experiences of the Christian life. Some of these poems are ingenious conceits, and deserve the derisive name of "metaphysical" which Dr. Johnson flung at them; but others, such as "Virtue," "The Pulley," "Love" and "The Collar," are the expression of a beautiful and saintly soul, speaking of the deep things of God; and speaking so quietly withal that one is apt to miss the intensity that lurks even in his calmest verses. Note in these opening and closing stanzas of "Virtue" the restraint of the one, the hidden glow of the other:

  Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright,
    The bridal of the earth and sky!
  The dew shall weep thy fall to-night;
    For thou must die.

  Only a sweet and virtuous soul,
    Like seasoned timber, never gives;
  But, though the whole world turn to coal,
    Then chiefly lives.


Cavalier Poets

In contrast with the disciplined Puritan spirit of Herbert is the gayety of another group, called the Cavalier poets, among whom are Carew, Suckling and Lovelace. They reflect clearly the spirit of the Royalists who followed King Charles with a devotion worthy of a better master. Robert Herrick (1591-1674) is the best known of this group, and his only book, Hesperides and Noble Numbers (1648), reflects the two elements found in most of the minor poetry of the age; namely, Cavalier gayety and Puritan seriousness. In the first part of the book are some graceful verses celebrating the light loves of the Cavaliers and the fleeting joys of country life:

  I sing of brooks, of blossoms, birds and bowers,
  Of April, May, of June and July flowers;
  I sing of Maypoles, hock-carts, wassails, wakes,
  Of bridegrooms, brides, and of their bridal cakes.


In Noble Numbers such poems as "Thanksgiving," "A True Lent," "Litany," and the child's "Ode on the Birth of Our Saviour" reflect the better side of the Cavalier, who can be serious without pulling a long face, who goes to his devotions cheerfully, and who retains even in his religion what Andrew Lang calls a spirit of unregenerate happiness.

Butler's Hudibras

Samuel Butler (1612-1680) may also be classed with the Cavalier poets, though in truth he stands alone in this age, a master of doggerel rime and of ferocious satire. His chief work, Hudibras, a grotesque caricature of Puritanism, appeared in 1663, when the restored king and his favorites were shamelessly plundering the government. The poem (probably suggested by Don Quixote) relates a rambling story of the adventures of Sir Hudibras, a sniveling Puritan knight, and his squire Ralpho. Its doggerel style may be inferred from the following:

  Besides, 'tis known he could speak Greek
  As naturally as pigs squeak;
  That Latin was no more difficle
  Than to a blackbird 'tis to whistle:
  Being rich in both, he never scanted
  His bounty unto such as wanted.


Such was the stuff that the Royalists quoted to each other as wit; and the wit was so dear to king and courtiers that they carried copies of Hudibras around in their pockets. The poem was enormously popular in its day, and some of its best lines are still quoted; but the selections we now meet give but a faint idea of the general scurrility of a work which amused England in the days when the Puritan's fanaticism was keenly remembered, his struggle for liberty quite forgotten.

Prose Writers

Of the hundreds of prose works that appeared in Puritan times very few are now known even by name. Their controversial fires are sunk to ashes; even the causes that produced or fanned them are forgotten. Meanwhile we cherish a few books that speak not of strife but of peace and charity.

Thomas Browne (1605-1682) was a physician, vastly learned in a day when he and other doctors gravely prescribed herbs or bloodsuckers for witchcraft; but he was less interested in his profession than in what was then called modern science. His most famous work is Religio Medici (Religion of a Physician, 1642), a beautiful book, cherished by those who know it as one of the greatest prose works in the language. His Urn Burial is even more remarkable for its subtle thought and condensed expression; but its charm, like that of the Silent Places, is for the few who can discover and appreciate it.

Isaac Walton (1593-1683), or Isaak, as he always wrote it, was a modest linen merchant who, in the midst of troublous times, kept his serenity of spirit by attending strictly to his own affairs, by reading good books, and by going fishing. His taste for literature is reflected with rare simplicity in his Lives of Donne, Wotton, Hooker, George Herbert and Bishop Sanderson, a series of biographies which are among the earliest and sweetest in our language. Their charm lies partly in their refined style, but more largely in their revelation of character; for Walton chose men of gentle spirit for his subjects, men who were like himself in cherishing the still depths of life rather than its noisy shallows, and wrote of them with the understanding of perfect sympathy. Wordsworth expressed his appreciation of the work in a noble sonnet beginning:

  There are no colours in the fairest sky
  So fair as these. The feather whence the pen
  Was shaped that traced the lives of these good men
  Dropped from an angel's wing.


Walton's love of fishing, and of all the lore of trout brooks and spring meadows that fishing implies, found expression in The Compleat Angler, or Contemplative Man's Recreation (1653). This is a series of conversations in which an angler convinces his friends that fishing is not merely the sport of catching fish, but an art that men are born to, like the art of poetry. Even such a hard-hearted matter as impaling a minnow for bait becomes poetical, for this is the fashion of it: "Put your hook in at his mouth, and out at his gills, and do it as if you loved him." It is enough to say of this old work, the classic of its kind, that it deserves all the honor which the tribe of anglers have given it, and that you could hardly find a better book to fall asleep over after a day's fishing.

Evelyn and Pepys

No such gentle, human, lovable books were produced in Restoration times. The most famous prose works of the period are the diaries of John Evelyn and Samuel Pepys. The former was a gentleman, and his Diary is an interesting chronicle of matters large and small from 1641 to 1697. Pepys, though he became Secretary of the Admiralty and President of the Royal Society, was a gossip, a chatterbox, with an eye that loved to peek into closets and a tongue that ran to slander. His Diary, covering the period from 1660 to 1669, is a keen but malicious exposition of private and public life during the Restoration.

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