Baroque Literature in England: Writers & Characteristics

Instructor: Laura Foist

Laura has a Masters of Science in Food Science and Human Nutrition and has taught college Science.

In this lesson we will learn about Baroque Literature, and particularly the English Baroque writers such as John Milton and the Metaphysical Poets (such as George Herbert).

The Baroque Period

'Of Man's First Disobedience, and the Fruit Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast Brought Death into the World, and all our woe, With loss of Eden, till one greater Man Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat' (Paradise Lost, John Milton) This is the first sentence from Milton's epic poem 'Paradise Lost', which could possibly be the most popular piece of Baroque Literature.

In general, Baroque literature refers to literature during the late 16th century and into the early 18th century. Typically, it heavily uses literary techniques such as metaphors, symbols, and hyperbole. During this period, the Roman Catholic Church is heavily regulating the literature and art that is produced so religious themes are also popular. It appears between the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods.

As with Baroque Art, Baroque Literature was full of religious symbolism and was larger than life and very detailed
Assumption of the Virgin

During the Baroque period in England, the Metaphysical poets were particularly popular, and they share many characteristics with Baroque literature. Baroque writers include John Milton, John Donne, and George Herbert. Although Shakespeare wrote his plays during this period (from about 1592 until he died in 1616), he is typically thought of as a Renaissance writer; although he does share some Baroque characteristics such as similes and metaphors, but not the religious themes.

Metaphysical Poets

Metaphysical poems are a complex metaphor. Take for example George Herbert's poem 'The World':

Love built a stately house, where Fortune came, And spinning fancies, she was heard to say That her fine cobwebs did support the frame, Whereas they were supported by the same; But Wisdom quickly swept them all away.

The Pleasure came, who, liking not the fashion, Began to make balconies, terraces, Till she had weakened all by alteration; But revered laws, and many a proclomation Reformed all at length with menaces.

Then entered Sin, and with that sycamore Whose leaves first sheltered man from drought and dew, Working and winding slily evermore, The inward walls and summers cleft and tore; But Grace shored these, and cut that as it grew.

Then Sin combined with Death in a firm band, To raze the building to the very floor; Which they effected, non could them withstand; But Love and Grace took Glory by the hand, And built a braver palace than before.

Herbert looks at the building of a house, but in this poem, it isn't people building the house. Instead we have Love, Fortune, Wisdom, Pleasure, Sin, Grace, Death, and Glory all working together in this house. Love builds a very basic house, and Fortune lives there, Wisdom helps clean up the house. Pleasure kept adding to the house in such a way which weakened the foundations.

Now that the foundations are weak, Sin comes in and starts to tear down the walls, but Grace is able to stop Sin from completely tearing down this house. But then Death comes and in combination with Sin: they are able to completely tear down this house which Love had built. But when Love, Grace, and Glory combine, they build a house even better than before, even a palace.

We can see here that this is a beautiful metaphor where the house represents our life and the world. It also has some deeply religious themes, as was common during the Baroque period. These types of poems were common in England during the Baroque period.

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