There was a strict religious supervision of literary and moral standards by the Puritans. The general mood in Literature was dark and there was a lack of political stability. The spirit of Renaissance and high Elizabethan standards was declining, despite the fact that King James I was himself a very learned man with a keen interest in literature. There was an expansion of prose whereas the output of poetry (except Milton) declined. Theatres (drama) were closed altogether.
Also known as “Late Renaissance”, the Puritan literature had a modern spirit based on observation, systematic analysis of facts, feelings, and ideas. Followed the true spirit of science. English became the language for storing facts, and the literature included translations, science and learning, human behaviour and psychology, religious writings, travel writing, geography, pamphlets on education, knowledge, wisdom, culture etc. Shakespeare and John Milton continued writing. After the death of Shakespeare, biographies became popular which were unknown in 16th century. (Perhaps people learnt from losing facts about Shakespeare’s life)
It was the age of Independence and Individualism – a response to the ongoing political and social turbulence in society, and the personal opinions mattered. There was a rise of prose through essays and pamphlets. The age was influenced by the colonial voyages, travels around the globe – new discoveries were being made about other cultures and the worlds in Asia and Africa. Intellectual. Translations, science and learning, religious writings, histories, maps, pamphlets on education, knowledge, wisdom, culture, social conditions, government, politics, law, health etc.
An Excerpt from English Literature by William J. Long:
The age produced many writers, a few immortal books, and one of the world’s great literary leaders. The literature of the age is extremely diverse in character, and the diversity is due to the breaking up of the ideals of political and religious unity. This literature differs from that of the preceding age in three marked ways:
1. It has no unity of spirit, as in the days of Elizabeth, resulting from the patriotic enthusiasm of all classes.
2. In contrast with the hopefulness and vigour of Elizabethan writings, much of the literature of this period is sombre in character; it saddens rather than inspire us.
3. It has lost the romantic impulse of youth, and become critical and intellectual; it makes us think, rather than feel deeply.
The Meta Physical Poets:
Meta (after) –After the Physical – Dealt with questions that can’t be explained through science. Pondered over the “nature of reality”. For example: Does God exist? Is there a difference between the way things appear to us and the way they really are? Is everything that happens already predetermined? Is consciousness limited to the brain?
This group of poets includes John Donne, Herbert, Waller, Denham, Cowley, Vaughan, Davenant, Marvell, and Crashaw. They were men of learning and they liked to show it. Looked for supernatural/mystical resemblances among unlike things (conceits). It appears that they wanted to say what had never been said before. Believed in originality of thought. Analyzed their feelings and experience and came up with highly intellectualized poetry.
Just like Shakespeare is known as the greatest dramatist in English language, John Milton is considered the greatest Poet. He is known by his epic Paradise Lost, based on the Bible, which is the only epic worth the name written by an English Poet. Milton devoted his prime years as a poet in the struggle against Charles I during the Civil War. He served as the secretary to Cromwell.
Paradise Lost – 12 book structure. Central purpose: showing how man’s first disobedience brought sin and death to the world – and then the divine work of redemption. A philosophical debate between free human will and choice – the moral consequences of disobedience – the “fall” of Adam from a divine to a human condition.