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Background to Literature between 1603 and 1660


1603: Accession of James I, beginning of Stuart dynasty

1605: The Gunpowder Plot, a failed effort by Catholic extremists to blow Parliament and the king

1625: Accession of Charles I

1629: Charles I dissolves Parliament

1640 - 53: Long Parliament called

1642 - 46: First Civil War; theatres closed

1648: Second Civil War; Pride's Purge of Parliament

1649: Trial and execution of Charles I for treason; declaration of republic

1653 - 58: Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector

1658 - 59: Richard Cromwell as Lord Protector

1660: Restoration of Charles II

1665: The Great Plague

1666: The Great Fire

Politics and Religion

- the Stuart kings James I and his son Charles II constantly fought with their Parliaments over taxes, religion, unpopular ministers, parliamentary rights, etc.

- both kings practised royal absolutism, James I wrote two treatises defending the absolute rights of the monarch, The True Law of Free Monarchies (1597) and Basilikon Doran (1598)

- by contrast with Elizabeth's, James's court was disorderly and indecorous, marked by hard drinking, late-night feasting, a craze for hunting, and great extravagance

- the discovery and thwarting of the Gunpowder Plot, in which Catholic conspirators led by Guy Fawkes plotted to blow up the Parliament and seize control of the government, unified Protestants in a wave of anti-Catholicism

- Puritans (extremist Protestants) pressed for more reformation so as to bring the English church into closer conformity with the Presbyterian Church in Geneva established by the Protestant reformer John Calvin

- the Revolution of 1642 could be seen as a natural consequence of the long-term changes in society and economy: the conflict between new capitalist and old feudal modes, the rising power of the country gentry and the urban bourgeoisie, and the demands of these classes for more economic, political, and religious freedom

- the Civil War contributed to the development of liberal concepts of religious toleration, separation of church and state, representative government, popular sovereignty, and republicanism

- the Long Parliament (1640) did not intend to overthrow the king, but to secure the rights of the Parliament in the face of the king's absolutist tendencies, to limit the king's control over the army and the church, and to settle some version of Presbyterianism as the national established church

- in the First Civil War (1642 - 1646) and the brief Second Civil War (1648) Charles I was defeated, the victorious army purged the Parliament of its royalist members and abolished the House of Lords, and the King was brought to trial and executed for treason (1649)

- the Rump Parliament, i.e. the members of the House of Commons who remained after the purge, established a republic, but the state was threatened on all sides, which led to the Protectorate under Oliver and then Richard Cromwell and then to the final restoration of the exiled king Charles II to the throne

Philosophy and Science

- culture kept on to be influenced by various long lasting broad political, religious, and cultural movements: the Reformation, exploration and colonization, the rising bourgeois, the printing press and expansion of literacy, etc.

- brought into opposition old and new ideas about the nature of things:

> the old view of the earth as fixed in the centre of universe with the sun revolving around it, the assumption of perfection above the moon and corruption beneath, the four elements comprising the matter of all things (fire, air, water, earth), the four humours of the body determining temperament (choler, blood, phlegm, melancholy), etc.

> the new challenges of worldview by Bacon's empiricism with emphasis on scientific method, Galileo's construction of the telescope and his astronomy dislodging the earth from its central stable position and sending it revolving around the sun, Gabriel Harvey's discovery of the circulation of the blood, etc.

> while e.g. John Donne kept faithful to the old beliefs, others embraced the new science, e.g. John Milton made complex poetic use of the astronomical controversy in his Paradise Lost (1667)

Literature Promoters

- the court remains an important site of literary activity, especially of the court masque, i.e. a royal entertainment traditionally presented at Christmastide and most often on Twelfth Night (6th January)

- masques portrayed the king as source of all power and splendour in the kingdom, were danced by royal and noble personages, and customarily ended with the masquers unmasking and dancing with other courtiers in a symbolic fusion of the ideal world and the Stuart court

> e.g. Ben Jonson's The Masque of Blackness praises James I as the Sun-King whose power could turned black-skinned people into whites

- beyond the court some noblemen retained their status as local patrons supporting poets and playwrights, especially prominent were the interrelated families of the Sidneys at Penshurst and the Herberts at Wilton

> Ben Jonson's country-house poem "To Penshurst" celebrates the Sidney estate as an alternative ideal to the court, hospitable alike to poets and kings, and his collection of poems The Forest (1616) includes several other poems associated with the Sidney family

- the church promoted some kinds of writing, especially sermons; treatises of devotion, meditation, and instruction; and controversial tracts defending the Protestant faith

> e.g. John Donne and Launcelot Andrews were gifted preachers of the Church of England

- the City of London commissioned Lord Mayors' pageants and other civic entertainments, booksellers contracted for books of domestic advice, devotional treatises, manuals, and tracts of political and religious controversy

- theatres flourished outside the City, as the only sphere in which authors could support themselves by writing

> the city comedy is established as new kind of drama, drawing satirical and comic matter from the life of London, e.g. Ben Jonson's Bartholomew Fair (performed 1614)

Literature Writers

- several prominent Elizabethan genres cease to be practised: long allegorical or mythological narratives, sonnet sequences, and pastoral poems

- other genres rise to prominence: love elegy and satire after the classical models of Ovid and Horace, epigram, verse epistle, dramatic monologue, religious lyrics, and country-house poem

- poetry abandons the formerly favourite stylistic features as nature imagery, florid ornament, and sonorous lyricism in favour of short and very concentrated poems in a colloquial and often witty plain style

> John Donne introduces the metaphysical conceit: his poetry abounds in learned terms and images, witty play with paradoxes and ironies, dramatic language, and interchanging of the vocabulary of sexual and religious love

> Ben Jonson claims a new dignity for the poet when he publishes his masques, plays, and poems as Works (1616), the same title which King James chose for his treatises and poems published earlier in the same year: Jonson's poetry embodies the classical values of decorum, simplicity, restraint, economy, good workmanship, and art

> George Herbert perfects religious verse in The Temple (1633), contemplating the necessity and at the same time impossibility of a Christian poet giving fit and sincere praise to God

> Francis Bacon brings from France to England the familiar essay, adjusting it to present society's accumulated practical wisdom from the point of the man trying to make his way in the world: the final edition of Essays (1625) gives a penetrating insight into the interests, problems, and modes of thought of the ruling class in Jacobean society

> Lady Mary Wroth, the countess of Pembroke (niece of Philip Sidney), represents one of the new voices of women, most of them from the nobility or gentry and all educated above the norm for women of the period: Wroth wrote e.g. the Petrarchan sonnet sequence Pamphilia to Amphilanthus (1621) or the prose romance Urania (1621)

Základní údaje

  • Předmět

    Britská literatura 3.
  • Semestr

    Zimní semestr 2008/09.
  • Přednášející

    David Livingstone.
  • Status

    Povinná přednáška pro III. blok.


Abrams, M. H., ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 7th ed. Vol. 1. New York: Norton, 1999.

Sanders, Andrew. The Short Oxford History of English Literature. New York: Clarendon Press, 1994.


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