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

  • 0:05 200 Years of Literature
  • 1:33 The Renaissance
  • 4:07 Caroline/Interregnum/R…
  • 8:54 Neoclassicism
  • 11:24 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stacy Redd

Stacy has taught college English and has a master's degree in literature.

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.

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