History of Literature





The Beginnings of Literature. Myths and Legends

Classical Myth

Myth and Mystery


Hebrew literature

Ancient Greek literature

Ancient Greek literature. Greek theatre

Ancient Greek literature. Philosophical prose

Latin (Roman) literature

Latin (Roman) Literature. The Silver Age

Latin (Roman) Literature. Renaissance

Modern Italian Literature

The Middle Ages Literature

The Middle Ages. Elizabethan England

The Restoration

The Rise of the Novel

Cervantes and Spanish literature

The Enlightenment


Classicism and Naturalism

The 19th century - Prose

The 20th century - Modernism

The 20th century - The Political Novel

The Restoration

The Restoration
John Donne "Songs and Sonnets", "Elegies"

George Herbert
Edward Herbert of Cherbury
Andrew Marvell
Henry Vaughan
Thomas Traherne
Abraham Cowley

John Milton "Paradise Lost"
BOOK 7, BOOK 8, BOOK 9,  BOOK 10, BOOK 11, BOOK 12
Illustrations by G.Dore, J.Martin, H.Fuseli

John Bunyan "The Pilgrim's Progress"  PART 1, PART 2, PART 3, PART 4, PART 5
Illustrations by George Woolliscraft, Frederick Rhead, & Louis Rhead

Sir Thomas Browne
Izaak Walton
John Aubrey
Charles Cotton
Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux

Pierre Corneille "The Cid"

Jean Racine "Phèdre"
Illustration by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson

"Tartuffe Or, the Hypocrite"
"The Misanthrope"
"The Impostures of Scapin"
"The Imaginary Invalid"

Marie-Madeleine, comtesse de La Fayette

François de La Rochefoucauld "Reflections; or Sentences and Moral Maxims"

Blaise Pascal
John Dryden
Thomas Otway
William Wycherley
Sir John Vanbrugh
George Farquhar

William Congreve "Love for Love", "The Way of the World"

Jeremy Collier

Alexandre Cabanel. Phèdre

The Restoration

Literary periods do not necessarily coincide with political ones. The extraordinary flowering of Elizabethan drama did not coincide with the reign of Elizabeth: many of the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries were actually written in the reign of James I (1603-25).

As with so many other periods of artistic innovation, the golden age of Elizabethan poetry and drama began uncertainly, as writers found their way gradually and experimentally to a new conception of literature; it flourished for a generation and, again gradually, having surmounted the creative peak declined into mannerism, even (some critics would say) into decadence.

In prose, the glories of Shakespearean English shone most brilliantly in the King James Version of the Bible, a project completed between 1603 and 1611 (faster than any such project would be today). Numerous attempts have been made to produce a more accurate version and one more appropriate to modern times. None has replaced what is called the Authorized Version in the affections of the English people.

Rembrandt. The Return of the Prodigal Son, 1636


The metaphysical poets were a recognizable group, sharing common characteristics, but they were not a close-knit school and the term was not applied to them until later. Broadly, they can be seen as having reacted against the honeyed smoothness of Spencer and the earlier Elizabethans. They approached the world in a rational manner, while simultaneously exhibiting strong feelings; they employed striking, sometimes unlikely, images and sophisticated stylistic devices. Results are sometimes beautiful, sometimes rather odd.


John Donne
"Songs and Sonnets", "Elegies"

The greatest of the metaphysical poets was Donne (? 1572—1631), a Londoner by birth, son of a prosperous tradesman and grandson of the playwright
Thomas Heywood. Gifted and handsome, he was brought up a Roman Catholic and had a varied career as a soldier and an M.P. before ruining his prospects by marrying a minor in 1601. After some difficult years, both materially and mentally (severe depressions, religious doubts), he was ordained in the Church of England, a sound move professionally, although there is no doubt of his increasingly profound religious spirituality. An outstanding preacher, he became Dean of St Paul's in 1621.

Donne's poetry, mostly published after his death, strongly influenced Sir John Suckling (1609-41) and the lyric poets loosely grouped as the 'Cavalier poets'. Donne's work falls into two: the earlier secular poems, especially on the subject of love (he was one of the first and greatest erotic poets), and the later religious works. The former, especially
"Songs and Sonnets", are more popular and easier to follow. Donne knew his ground, none better, on love, but his religious poems reflected his own uncertainties. Donne's ingenious rhetorical devices, puns, paradoxes and intellectual tricks, can have a dizzying effect, though at other times they are exhilarating. He was a poet of flashes: he wrote a good deal of indifferent verse, and good and bad are often found in the same poem. But Donne is one of those writers a few of whose poems are familiar to almost everyone.

"Come live with me and be my love,
And we will some new pleasures prove
Of golden sands, and crystal brooks,
With silken lines, and silver hooks."

Donne, "The Bait".

William Blake
"...And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die!"

Holy Sonnet X
by John Donne


George Herbert

Edward Herbert of Cherbury


There are parallels between Donne and George Herbert (1593-1633), a gifted young man, ambitious for advancement at court and briefly an M.P. In about 1625, his life changed, perhaps initially due to changing political circumstances, but also to the powerful strivings of his soul against his diminishing ambition for worldly success. He spent the last three years of his life as rector of a Wiltshire parish, earning a remarkable reputation for his humble devotion to pastoral duties. Before his death he sent his poems to a friend, Nicholas Ferrar, suggesting he either burn them or publish them. Ferrar chose to publish.

's reputation rests on the collection The Temple, reflecting 'the many spiritual conflicts that have passed between God and my soul'. Their simple piety, enhanced by clear, forceful expression and arresting imagery, had a strong appeal to Puritans especially. He was out of favour in the worldly 18th century but revived by Coleridge and the Romantics.

Herbert's elder brother was Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1583-1648), poet, philosopher and diplomat, who has been called the 'father' of English Deism as a result of the principles of natural religion he described in De Veritate.


Andrew Marvell

Overall, the work of
Andrew Marvell (1621-78) is a good illustration of the variety of verse forms in the 17th century, but in his own time Marvell was known almost exclusively as a political and religious satirist. His pastoral poetry ("The Garden", "The Nymph Complaining for the Death of Her Fawn"), for which he is chiefly remembered today, was little considered until the 19th century. Marvell's political sympathies lay with Parliament and Cromwell, but he survived the restoration of the monarchy (1660), retaining his seat as M.P. for his native Hull and becoming a ferocious critic of the government of Charles II. His closely observed lyric poetry is clearly influenced by Donne, though his style is smoother. The erotic "To His Coy Mistress" is probably his most famous poem.

Of the lesser metaphysical poets, the best were
Henry Vaughan (1621-95) and Thomas Traherne (1637—74). Vaughan is remembered chiefly for the contemplative verse, written in rural Wales, of Silex Scintdlans. He was deeply influenced by Herbert, though more visionary in style. Traherne held a living in Herefordshire. He was hardly known until the present century, when his delight in the natural world, combined with his deep religious sensitivity, established him as one of the finest minor poets of his time.

Abraham Cowley (1618-67), a qualified physician and possibly a Royalist spy under the Commonwealth, is also usually classed as a metaphysical poet, though not all of his work is in that vein. His love poems in The Mistress, in the style of Donne, and odes following Pindar are scholarly and rather difficult. At one time he was honoured most for his essays, notably "On Myself", in the manner of Montaigne.


Milton is the greatest English poet after Shakespeare and similarly dominates his era,
the mid-17th century.
It was a turbulent period of strong passions and internecine violence,
yet it encompassed some of the finest lyric poets:
Richard Lovelace, author of the famous couplet

"I could not love thee, Dear, so much,
Loved I not honour more"
(from "To Lucasta");
Robert Herrick, considered by many contemporaries a finer poet than Milton himself;
and Edmund Waller, a pioneer of the heroic couplet.
The religious and political divisions of the time naturally
coloured most contemporary literature, not least
the work of Milton himself.


John Milton
"Paradise Lost"

The career of
John Milton (1608-74) falls into three periods. As a young man, financially independent, he was something of a dilettante, pursuing his own, extensive, studies (he failed to take his degree at Cambridge), visiting Italy, and writing some superb poems. The finest of them were "L'Allegro" and "II Penseroso", the volume-length Lycidas, the masque Comus, and several sonnets. The second period began with the onset of the Civil Wars when he became a propagandist, attacking the established Church in a series of pamphlets. His unfortunate marriage prompted him to argue for easier divorce, his experience as a teacher led to Of Education, which recommends a decidedly rigorous regime, but his most notable work in prose was Areopagitica (1644), a sterling defence of the freedom of the press. Otherwise, his pamphleteering in favour of Parliament and Cromwell tended to be unattractively strident, though it earned him a job in government (Andrew Marvell was one of his assistants). By 1651 he was blind - his sonnet on this subject ("When I consider how my light is spent...") is one of his finest short poems - though he continued his indefatigable defence of Cromwell and the Commonwealth.


John Milton

"Paradise Lost"

BOOK 7, BOOK 8, BOOK 9,  BOOK 10, BOOK 11, BOOK 12

Illustrations by G.Dore, J.Martin, H.Fuseli

After the Restoration (1660),
Milton was blind, ageing and in disgrace. His greatest work now began. "Paradise Lost" was the result of Milton's long-eherished ambition to write a great epic. The twelve books (originally ten) of blank verse were probably written in 1658-63 and published in 1667, Milton receiving an advance of £5. The aim of "Paradise Lost", as the poet explains, is 'to justify the ways of God to men'. It opens with the expulsion of Satan from Heaven and ends with the Fall of Man and the promise of future redemption through Jesus. The hero is Adam, the 'villain' Satan, though as many readers have remarked, Satan is almost too interesting as a character. Immensely long, it is a work of continually sustained intellectual imagination backed by prodigious learning, of glorious, inimitable verse and an unrivalled ear for language. As a work of Christian art, it stands with Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel vault.

Paradise Regained (published 1671) is a kind of sequel, shorter (six books), the language rich, but less exalted. The theme is again temptation - of Jesus by Satan. Samson Agonistes is a tragedy on the Greek model relating the last days of Samson, "eyeless in Gaza". It was not meant to be performed, but sometimes has been, and it provided the subject of one of Handel's finest oratorios.



John Bunyan
"The Pilgrim's Progress"  PART 1, PART 2, PART 3, PART 4, PART 5
Illustrations by George Woolliscraft, Frederick Rhead, & Louis Rhead

John Bunyan (1628-88) was a Puritan of a different stamp: son of a tinker and largely self-educated, he fought for Parliament in the Civil War and became a Nonconformist preacher, as a result of which he spent several years in prison. His religious allegory "The Pilgrim's Progress", the simple man's search for truth, has a universal appeal resulting from its folklore quality, and the names of places and people encountered by the pilgrim (Vanity Fair, Doubting Castle, Giant Despair) have entered the language.

Two interesting figures on the other side of the political/religious divide were
Sir Thomas Browne (1605-82) and Izaak Walton (1593-1683). Browne was a Norwich physician, best known for a religious work Religio Medici, though his Vulgar Errors, an attempt to correct quaint misconceptions (e.g. that elephants have no knees) is more amusing reading. So is his correspondence with other literary figures, such as the great 17th-century gossip and connoisseur of trivia, John Aubrey (author of Brief Lives).

The avuncular
Izaak Walton was a friend and biographer of Donne and also wrote the life of George Herbert, as well as assorted bishops, but he is best remembered for The Compleat Angler, first published in 1653 and never out of print since. Written in the form of a dialogue, it is a loving invocation of the English countryside (a marked feature of much contemporary poetry), as seen from the river bank, and subtly seems to equate angling with Anglicanism. It was not the first book about fishing, and on technique Walton was not an outstanding expert (later additions included a section on fly fishing, which Walton knew very little about, by Charles Cotton), but it has a uniquely sympathetic flavour.

"Him the Almighty Power
Hurled headlong flaming from th' ethereal sky
With hideous ruin and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In adamantine chains and. penal fire
Who durst defy th' Omnipotent to arms."

Milton, Paradise Lost, bk. 1, 1. 44.


In France as in England, the language was being refined during the 16th century, notably in the poetry of Ronsard, du Bellay and the other poets of the Pleiade, who laid the foundations of modern French poetry. In the 17th century, as France emerged as the greatest power in Europe under Louis XIV, French literature entered its golden age. With monarchy supreme and Catholic influence predominant, the trend was towards Classicism - the virtues of reason, order, proportion, harmony as laid down by Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux in his seminal Art of Poetry (1674) and upheld by the Academie Francaise, founded by Cardinal Richelieu in 1635.


Pierre Corneille "The Cid"

Pierre Corneille
(1606-84) came from Rouen and was a member of the parlement of Rouen for over 20 years. During that time he also wrote the best of his 32 plays. He is regarded as the founder of French tragedy, but his early plays were mostly comedies, though not without serious content and personal conflict. His major plays, starting with
"The Cid" (1637), are concerned with the conflict between the claims of society - honour, patriotism, politics, religion, etc. - and personal inclinations, notably love. The playwright transmits a powerful moral vision; his heroes, choosing public duty above private satisfaction at great personal cost, nevertheless experience moral growth. Corneille's later plays, like his early comedies, have traditionally been regarded as inferior, though modern criticism puts a higher value on his work as a whole and has reinterpreted some of his plays in a new light.

While Corneille's status as a master of the grand Classical style is undisputed, it must be admitted that his plays have a certain monotony. They have not often been performed in languages other than French.


Jean Racine

Illustration by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson

Racine broke off his dramatic work suddenly, permanently
and without regret, after thirteen years of brilliant achievement.
He became an adroit courtier and a good husband - to a woman
who, according to her son, "did not know what a verse was".

Jean Racine (1639—99), Corneille's contemporary and rival, infused the high Classical style with more passion and has been generally more popular. He was influenced by the Greek concept of fate - his plays are often set in Classical times - which he connected with the belief in human helplessness he derived from the Jansenists, to whom his grandmother (he was an orphan) entrusted his education (Corneille was educated by the Jesuits). Unlike Corneille, Racine's heroes and heroines generally fall victim to their own uncontrollable passions: it was said that Racine portrayed people as they are, Corneille as they ought to be. He was already a well-known literary figure when his first play, La Thebai'de, was produced by his friend Moliere. His greatest plays were written between 1667 (Andromaque) and 1677 (Phedre, his masterpiece), when he overhauled Corneille in public esteem, at least among the younger generation. Nevertheless, in his later years Racine came under fierce attack from rival playwrights, which was in part the cause for his abandonment of the theatre after Phedre, except for a couple of religious plays written for female students.



"Tartuffe Or, the Hypocrite"
"The Misanthrope"
"The Impostures of Scapin"
"The Imaginary Invalid"

Far more influential internationally, especially on Restoration comedy in England, much of which was a pastiche of his work, was the brilliant Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, who adopted the nom de theatre Moliere (1622-73). Actor, director and dramatist, he led a professional touring company for many years before attracting royal approval and a theatre in Paris. Soon hugely popular, not least with the King, he was also fiercely attacked by various vested interests.

In the 30 comedies that he wrote in Paris, Moliere combined virtually all earlier comedie traditions from Plautus to the commedia dell'arte, and showed that comedy, without ceasing to be comic, could also deal with the oddities of human nature on a universal scale. His understanding of contemporary society, owing much to Montaigne (though Moliere's outlook was more optimistic), and in particular his perception of human frailties, was Shakespearean in scope and depth, and his technical gifts — for the flavours of dialect and jargon for instance — were extraordinary. Plays such as Le Tartuffe (1664) and Le Misanthrope (1666) are ageless. Moliere can still pack the house in the West End or even Broadway. Yet 17th-century France was no place for jokers, and Moliere was a seriotis man, worried by his responsibilities and frail in health. Ill, he insisted on going to the theatre because so many people depended on him. He died on stage that same night, playing the leading role. The play was Le Malade Imaginaire.

Corneille and Racine established classical tragedy, Moliere classical comedy, and the classical French novel, the novel of character, was also established by the end of the 17th century, m La Princesse de Cleves by the Marie-Madeleine, comtesse de La Fayette (1634-93). Paris of the 17th century is deftly pictured in the letters of the Comtesse's friend, Mme de Sevigne (1626-96), and human nature and morality are crisply dissected in the Maxims ('Virtues are mainly vices in disguise') of another friend, the François de La Rochefoucauld "Reflections; or Sentences and Moral Maxims" (1613-80).

The Pensees of Blaise Pascal (1623-62), also a remarkably creative scientist, were expressed in luminous prose and dealt with religious questions (among others) with a wit and intelligence far from common in that area during the 17th century.

"M. Jourdain:

"What? When I say, 'Nicole, bring me my slippers,
and give me my night cap',
is that prose?"

Master of Philosophy:

"Yes, sir."

M. Jourdain:

"Well I'm damned! I've been speaking
prose for forty years without even knowing it.""

Moliere, Le Bourgeois Cicntilhomme, II, iv.


The restoration of Charles II to the throne in 1660 was accomplished with remarkable political
smoothness, but in cultural terms it introduced a strong reaction against the stern sobriety of the
Puritan Commonwealth. The theatres reopened and — a sensation - with real actresses. There
was initially a shortage of modern plays, but that was soon rectified. One has the impression
that half the gentlemen at Court were excellent playwrights.

This was an accomplished age:
Locke, Newton and Purcell were all alive in 1660. It considered itself a sophisticated, witty
and enlightened age, but it was also coarse and cynical, characteristics typified by the Royal
Court. It was also, to the delight of posterity, well reported, in particular by England's greatest
John Evelyn and the incomparable Samuel Pepys "The Diary".

Pepys with Lady Batten



John Dryden

The outstanding literary figure of the reign, created Poet Laureate in 1668, was
John Dryden (1631-1700), an instinctive moderate in the vicious controversies of the time, a supporter of the Establishment, who eventually converted to Roman Catholicism. Dryden wrote prolifically in many genres: one criticism of him is that he wrote too much and was insufficiently self-critical, though he was a highly perceptive critic of others' work. To modern tastes, his satirical verse (Absalom and Achitopbel, MacFlecknoe) is most entertaining, and his plays, mostly in heroic couplets, are seldom performed. The best is probably All For Lore in blank verse, a rewrite of Antony and Cleopatra which, though Dryden did not think so, suffers from the comparison.


Contemporary heroic drama, except for, perhaps,
John Dryden and Thomas Otway's Venice Vreserv'd (1682) was second-rate (and amusingly mocked in the Duke of Buckingham's The Rehearsal, 1672). The new comedy, owing much to Moliere who was well-known in translation, was introduced by George Etherege (She Would If She Could, 1668; The Man of Mode, 1676) and William Wycherley (The Country Wife, 1675; The Plain Dealer, 1676). Like other leading exponents of the 'comedy of manners', such as Sir John Vanbrugh (the architect of Blenheim Palace) and George Farquhar, they were fashionable gentlemen writing for a fashionable audience. Plots, and often-confusing subplots, are broadly concerned with conflicts over sex and money, and the machinations of fashionable gentlemen to acquire a rich wife or conceal their adultery. Characters have names like Sir Fopling Flutter, Pinchwife and Loveless. The victor is usually the greatest wit, and the repartee is slick, steely, amoral and often obscene.

William Congreve "Love for Love", "The Way of the World"

The ablest of these playwrights was also more or less the last,
William Congreve (1670-1729), another well-heeled gentleman and lover of the Duchess of Alarlborough. His plays are beautifully constructed and the dialogue is genuinely witty, as well as elegant. The Double Dealer (1693) and "Love for Love" (1695) are still revived, though less often than his undisputed masterpiece, "The Way of the World" (1700).

By that time, Restoration comedy was under attack. In Colley Gibber's Love's Last Shift (1696), the rakish hero is reformed: the play indicates a reaction against moral decadence and points the way to the 'sentimental comedy' of the 18th century. When
Jeremy Collier published his Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage in 1698, Congreve was stung. He published a refutation of Collier, and The Way of the World came down on the side of morality. However, it was not well received and Congreve never wrote another play.


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