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Introduction to 17th- and 18th-Century Literature: Major Authors and Works

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  1. 0:05 200 Years of Literature
  2. 1:33 The Renaissance
  3. 4:07 Caroline/Interregnum/Restoration
  4. 8:54 Neoclassicism
  5. 11:24 Lesson Summary
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Taught by

Stacy Redd

A lot can happen in 200 years, as you'll see on our lesson that introduces you to British literature of the 17th and 18th centuries. Go from Shakespeare to the invention of the novel to the introduction of a prominent dictionary in our video below!

200 Years of Literature

Two hundred years of literature - no big deal, right? As you might have guessed, during the 17th and 18th centuries, a whole lot happened in the world of English lit. It would be impossible to cover everything that went down in this intro lesson, but we're going to take a quick tour of the broad movements that defined these two centuries of the written word in the U.K.

If you, like me, struggle with what '17th century' means as far as what the years actually were, 17th century: 1600s; 18th century: 1700s. I mix those up all the time; let's just put that out there right now.

Basically, this period of English literature can be broken down into three smaller eras, each of which has their own little sub-eras, so take these designations loosely. It's not like they're set in stone, but they're just meant to give a sense of context. So, today we're going to be looking at:

  1. The Renaissance - or really, the back end of it. The early 17th century is also known as the 'Jacobean era' in England.
  2. The Caroline, Interregnum and Restoration periods that filled up the latter half of the 17th century. By the way, these names basically just refer to what was going on politically at the time. ('Caroline' is the Latin word for 'Charles,' and King Charles I had an on-again/off-again relationship with the throne during this time.)
  3. The Neoclassicism of the 18th century. The first half of this century is also known as the 'Augustan era'.

So, alright, let's dive right in!

The Renaissance

William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare

We're not going to spend a whole lot of time on the Renaissance since we've already got a few lessons covering that period and its main authors in detail. But we can't rightly talk about the 17th century of British literature without mentioning William Shakespeare, the biggest name in the field. He's the big daddy - the big cheese. He wrote plays and poems that were immensely popular, and we've got videos that cover a lot of them. Some of the most important pieces that he wrote are the stand-outs, like Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet. If you study literature, he's often the figure to which all other writers are compared - so, totally important guy.

Of course, he wasn't the only writer to make a name for himself in the early 17th century. There was also his frenemy, Ben Jonson, a fellow dramatist and poet. Jonson's most famous for satirical stage productions that illuminated human flaws via darkly comedic plots. Some famous Ben Jonson works include - and this one, I say 'Vol-pone', I've heard 'Vol-poh-nay', you call Volpone what you will, The Alchemist and Bartholomew Fair. Jonson was also known for his masques, or elaborate stage plays produced in the royal court, kind of like the ancient version of a Lady Gaga concert.

One other important part of literary culture in the early 17th century was the appearance of metaphysical poets, like John Donne. These poets were extremely clever and crafty with their words, but they also really meditate on some heavy subjects, like 'What is religion?' and 'What is love?' Their poetry is marked by their intricate phrasing and extended metaphors; if it helps, you can think of them as poetic show-offs; although that shouldn't detract from the fact that they were often talking about really important things.

Before we moving on from the Renaissance, let's just mention a couple other cultural landmarks from that time. A little bit prior to the 17th century, the printing press kicked into high gear in England, and this allowed literature to be mass-produced for the first time, and that's huge - so it's not just available to the elite. One of the biggest beneficiaries of the printing press was the Bible. In particular, the King James Bible was completed in 1611; this was more or less the definitive English-language Bible and a massively important piece of literature at the time. The Bible's influence is everywhere in English literature; it's almost impossible to overstate how influential it is.

Famous Ben Jonson works
Ben Jonson

Also, other disciplines, like the sciences, really began to jell during this period, and that was led by major thinkers and essayists, like Francis Bacon, whose work brought about the scientific method - which hopefully you're familiar with from science classes. So, we owe a lot to Bacon.

Caroline/Interregnum/Restoration

A lot of the trends from the late Renaissance continued into the latter part of the 17th century, known as the Caroline, Interregnum and Restoration periods. For example, metaphysical poetry kept going and got one of its most famous practitioners in someone named Andrew Marvell, whose poem 'To His Coy Mistress' is really one of the most celebrated in our language. You might be familiar with the opening couplet of 'To His Coy Mistress.' It goes:

Had we but world enough, and time,

This coyness, Lady, were no crime.

He's basically saying, hey, we don't have forever, but let's get together while we can - so, he's smooth. It's a great poem; you should really check it out.

Another important thing to remember here is Restoration literature, particularly Restoration comedy, is so-named because it's what resulted after King Charles II was restored to the English throne after almost two decades of boring Puritan rule. Restoration comedy is marked by its incredible sexual explicitness; it would even make some modern audiences blush. This was also the first time in history that there were female actors (or you know, 'actresses') and female playwrights. The times, they were a-changing. We've got a whole lesson on Restoration comedy you can watch if you want to learn more about this crazy time in English theatrical history, and I recommend you do.

The King James Bible was completed in 1611.
King James Bible

However, in the later half of the 17th century, some of the biggest splashes were being made by three guys who were all conveniently named John, and we're going to talk about each of them. We've got:

  • John Milton
  • John Dryden
  • John Bunyan

Of the three, I'd say John Milton is the big one; you've probably heard his name before. When it comes to English lit, he's usually placed as the second most important writer, after Shakespeare, so he was a big deal. Again, we've got a whole lesson on Milton if you want to know more about him, but here are the basics: He was a noted essayist, poet and dramatist who produced popular but controversial work leading up to and during the Puritan regime (during which he actually held a political office). Exemplifying his work from that period is an essay called 'Areopagitica' (you can read it on the screen; that's not a word I'm familiar with). It's a 1644 tract about the dangers of censorship that helped develop the concept of freedom of the press. So, that's huge.

But what he's probably most known for, and what you've probably heard in conjunction with Milton's name, is the poem Paradise Lost from 1667. It's a Homeric-style epic that dramatizes the story of Satan's rebellion from God and the fall of Man. Maybe that doesn't sound that appealing but it's a kickin' poem. You should really check it out. It's one of the most celebrated works of literature in the English language; it's long - it's over 10,000 lines long, but it's really worth the investment of time. It's fascinating and also another huge influence on literature.

But let's not neglect the other Johns. As important as John Milton was to long-form poetry, John Dryden was also the most celebrated poet of his age, to the point that some literary circles referred to Restoration England as 'the Age of Dryden.' While you may or may not have heard of his individual works, he racked up a couple accomplishments that are really hard to ignore. First, he was the first guy to formally hold the position of England's 'poet laureate' - so, good on him. Second, he established the heroic couplet as the dominant form of English verse. For an example of a heroic couplet, take these two lines from Mac Flecknoe, his celebrated satire:

All human things are subject to decay,

And when fate summons, monarchs must obey

So basically, heroic couplets are just pairs of rhyming lines in iambic pentameter. You can see this used all throughout English literature, from John Keats to Alexander Pope to even modern pop music (which some might consider literature - not me, but some). Anyway, Dryden's influence is hard to downplay; there are heroic couplets everywhere.

Last, we'll talk about John Bunyan, one of those Puritans we mentioned earlier - who is not Paul Bunyan, no matter what I say. Bunyan wrote one of the major examples of religious literature, The Pilgrim's Progress, in 1678. This is a lengthy allegory in which the lead character, conveniently named Christian, tries to make his way through the world while fending off characters like Beelzebub, Lord Hate-good and Atheist. This may not be the most subtle piece of work ever written, but it was incredibly popular and has never gone out of print since its release. It's also one of the most prototypical examples of the early novel. It's over 100,000 words and split into two parts with no chapter breaks, so it's not quite the literary form we know yet, but that will come quickly. We have a video on The Pilgrim's Progress if you want to learn about it in more detail.

Neoclassicism

One of the most defining features of 18th-century British literature is the rise of the novel. During this time, authors like Daniel Defoe (who wrote Robinson Crusoe) and Jonathan Swift (who wrote Gulliver's Travels) began to write in the lengthy, chapter-divided form that today we consider the standard for consuming literature. Obviously, though, this standardization wasn't always the case. What happened? Well, in addition to writers like Bunyan, Defoe and Swift paving the way (all three had serious successes with their works), the Licensing Act of 1737 encouraged more controversial thinkers, who would typically write plays to fire up the masses, to instead turn to novels. This was a huge act of censorship that neutered drama for some time in England, but it ended up working out okay for people who enjoy reading novels, like myself.

Besides novels, poetry was still going strong in the 18th century. One of the major figures working in the form was one of my favorites, Alexander Pope, a noted satirist and classicist who produced popular works, like The Rape of the Lock and The Dunciad, mock epics that scrutinized what he saw as the failings of his time by casting them in a very serious, heroic light a la Milton or Homer. Really funny guy; his stuff is great. Check out Pope.

One other important literary figure of the time is Samuel Johnson, a celebrated essayist, poet and critic who helped define and push the boundaries of English literature with his work - like an influential annotated edition of Shakespeare's plays and, most importantly, one of the first major dictionaries, simply titled A Dictionary of the English Language. Who needs something fancier? In fact, until the famed Oxford English Dictionary was published in 1895, Johnson's was the preferred dictionary of choice among writers and scholars. So, that's a really impressive contribution.

A few other aspects of 18th-century literary culture began to look quite a bit like our own. Also, in the mid-1700s, writer John Newberry made children's literature a popular thing or a real thing that people took seriously. (You may be familiar with the children's literature award now named after him, the Newberry Medal.) Finally, during this period an illustrator named William Hogarth pioneered sequential art - what we now refer to today as comics or graphic novels. Although in his time this much more resembled political cartoons or newspaper strips than the graphic novels you may think of today, like Maus or Persepolis.

Lesson Summary

So that's 200 years of literature condensed down into just a few minutes. Of course, there's a whole lot I wasn't able to cover, and there are a lot of lessons to help fill in the gaps, but let's just do a basic recap. We divided these 200 years into three major periods:

  1. The Renaissance, which really started in the 16th century and took up roughly the first third of the 17th, depending on who you're talking to. During this period, writers like Shakespeare, Ben Jonson and John Donne left their marks, particularly in the worlds of theater and poetry.
  2. The Caroline, Interregnum and Restoration eras - Those took up roughly the remainder of the 17th century and saw important work from the three Johns: Milton, Dryden and Bunyan.
  3. And finally, the Neoclassical period that took up much of the 18th century. This was marked in large part by the rise of the novel and featured luminary creators such as Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson, the guy who created the first English-language dictionary.

And that, my friends, is 200 years of literature in a nutshell.

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