The Poetry of the Commonwealth
• Jacobean Period: reign of King James I
• Caroline Period: reign of Charles I (162549)
• Commonwealth Period (Interregnum):
• Restoration of Charles II in 1660
Cultural background
• Transition from absolute monarchy to
constitutional monarchy
• Continuance of courtly literature in the
Jacobean and Caroline periods
• Puritan Revolution: 1642-1660
Movements in literature
• Metaphysical Poets: John Donne, George
Herbert, Richard Crashaw, Henry
Vaughan, Andrew Marvell
• Cavalier Poets: Ben Jonson and his
followers (Richard Herrick, Richard
Lovelace, Edmund Waller, Sir John
Denham). The Sons of Ben.
• Puritans: Andrew Marvell, John Milton
Forms of Literature
• Theatre:
– imitators of Shakespeare (Webster, Ford, Middleton,
– Variety of comedies and masques by Ben Jonson
– Theatres closed during the Puritan Revolution
• Sonnet:
– gradually goes out of fashion in the Jacobean period;
Donne used it for religious purposes, and Milton for
political purposes
• New forms and genres:
– Heroic couplets, verse satires, essays, biographies
John Donne
‘Jack Donne’
John Donne
‘Dr. Donne’
• ‘The proportion of the
world disfigured is.’
Donne’s poetics
• Radical break from Petrarchan tradition: ‘Donne
has purged English poetry of pedantic weeds’,
he has replaced ‘servile imitation’ with ‘fresh
invention’’ (Carew)
• Displays his own ingenuity and presents a world
in which everything is held together by secret
analogies: ‘John Donne is the first poet in the
world, in some things.’ (Jonson)
• Distorts traditional rhythmic and stanza patterns:
‘Donne, for not keeping accents, deserved
hanging.’ (Jonson)
The Metaphysical school
• Not a ‘school’: no organised group but strong
influence of Donne’s style on a generation of
poets before 1660
• Not ‘metaphysical’: ‘it is not philosophical poetry
in any real sense, although it uses the concepts
and vocabulary of philosophy’ (Bewley)
• Main features: colloquial language; the poem
takes the form of a philosophical argument with
another person; brings in a range of discordant
images (Gray)
Related terms
• Conceit (concetto): ‘a figure of speech that establishes
an elaborate parallel between two seemingly dissimilar
or remote objects or ideas’ (Gray)
– Petrarchan: emotional; the subject is compared extensively to an
object (love is war)
– Metaphysical: intellectual; striking analogies between two
dissimilar things (a flea is a marriage bed)
• Wit: ‘intellect’, ‘intelligence’, ‘creative intelligence’;
describes Donne’s poetic style, which combines ideas in
an ‘unexpected, paradoxical, and intellectually
challenging and pleasing manner’ (Gray)
Songs and Sonnets (1593-1602)
• Sonnet: here: a synonym for ‘love lyric’
• Addressed to flesh and bone women;
consummated love as opposed to Platonic love:
‘Donne holds Platonic love to be a lure... With
what insidious arguments would he persuade his
love to give herself to him entirely!’ (Legouis)
• Using and subverting Elizabethan clichés: ‘It
seemed to me as if...the world was filled with
broken fragments of systems and...Donne
merely picked up, like a magpie, various shining
fragments.’ (T.S. Eliot)
Holy Sonnets (1633-35)
• 19 religious sonnets, written in the last
years of his life
• English sonnet form
• Same combination of passion and
intellectual argument as in the love poems
but the passion is more complex: hope
and anguish, fear and repentance
George Herbert
Herbert’s poetics
• The Temple: a collection of religious poems
• Contest between secular wit and religious
• Spiritual struggle rather than auto-biographical
sincerity, as in Donne
• Emblematic objects: the human body is a church
• Remarkable variety of stanza forms, including
pattern poems: ‘Easter Wings’
MS page of
‘Easter Wings’
Richard Crashaw
Crashaw’s poetics
• Steps to the Temple (1646): a homage to
• Sensuous images describe religious
• Catholicism: Baroque mannerism;
Secentismo, Gongorism
Henry Vaughan
Andrew Marvell (1621-1678)
Marvell’s poetics
• Metaphysical wit and Classical proportion
• Milton’s influence: Christian Humanism,
• Wit is bound up with strong moral sense
• Love of nature put to moral purpose
Ben Jonson
Jonson’s poetics
• Shakespeare’s friend, rival playwright and
fellow actor
• Poet Laureate; literary dictator;
professional writer
• Classicist and Renaissance Humanist: ‘a
perfect playwright’
• Comedies of humours: eccentricities of our ruling
passions ridiculed; Every Man in His Humour (1598)
• Classical tragedies: derived from Tacitus, Juvenal,
Seneca; Sejanus (1610), Catiline (1611)
• Satiric comedies: based on Terence and Plautus;
Volpone (1606), The Alchemist (1610)
• Masques: for courtly entertainment, symbolic plays with
visual variety and rich costumes; Masque of Blackness
(1605), Masque of Queens (1609)
• Poetry: occasional poems, elegies, compliments,
dedications, songs, epigrams
• The Work of Benjamin Jonson (1616)
John Milton
Milton’s poetics
• Christian Humanism: eloquence, fluency in
languages, visiting famous literary figures
abroad, conscious preparation for poetry
• Puritanism: Latin Secretary for Cromwell’s
Council of State; defence of the Commonwealth; imprisonment
• Renaissance: rich and decorated language,
references to Classical literature, ambition of
epic poetry
• Reformation: christian morality, puritan religion,
justifying the case of the Commonwealth
• -1640: education and potic apprenticeship,
pastoral elegies, L’Allegro and Il Penseroso
(1631), Lycidas (1637)
• 1640-1660: public involvement, sonnets and
occasional poems; political, philosophical and
religious prose: Doctrine and Discipline of
Divorce (1643) Aeropagitica (1644), A Treatise
of Civil Power (1659), etc.
• 1660-: mature period, epic poems; Paradise
Lost (1667), Paradise Regained (1671), Samson
Agonistes (1671)
• 24 sonnets between 1630-58: five in
Italian, the rest in English
• A variety of occasions: public and private,
but no love sonnets; not a sequence
• Form: Petrarchan structure but avoiding
end-stopped lines and ignoring the volta.
Paradise Lost (1667)
• A religiuos poem: the Fall, Original Sin, and the
adventures of Satan
• A heroic poem: heroic energy of Satan, an epic battle;
spiritual heroism; refusal of obedience to God’s authority
• A political poem: an allegory for the case of the Puritan
Revolution, a rebellion against the monarchy
• Aim: ‘justifying the ways of God to men’, but also: the
dignity of the human condition
• A great synthesis of contemporary western culture
. . .