Home  »  library  »  course  »  Lectures on the World’s Best Literature: English Literature: V. Dryden and the Restoration (1660–1700)

C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.
G. R. Lomer, ed. The Student’s Course in Literature.

Lectures on the World’s Best Literature: English Literature: V. Dryden and the Restoration (1660–1700)

By Gerhard Richard Lomer (1882–1970)

WITH the fall of the short-lived Puritan régime and the return of the Stuarts to the throne of England, a change took place not only in the national and social life of the day, but also in the reflection of that life in literature. The age of Dryden or the Restoration Age, as it is sometimes called, has a temper that is distinct from that of Shakespeare’s day, and an ideal very different from the sobriety of the time of Cromwell. The Elizabethan period was one of extraordinary vitality, of exuberant activity, and of unusual creativeness. It was an age of expansion, a time in which people lived quickly and abundantly. The narrow limits of life in Chaucer’s day had been gradually broadened until they opened on “the spacious times of great Elizabeth.” The great queen’s mariners were seeking those “straunge strondes” and those “ferne halwes” of which Chaucer’s pilgrims may have dreamed; her bold explorers were standing “upon a peak in Darien” whence they caught a Pisgah-glimpse of a new world; and her writers were essaying “things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.”

The half-century that preceded Elizabeth’s death (1603) witnessed indeed a phenomenal blossoming of English life with a quick fruition in every aspect of national activity; the half-century that followed Shakespeare’s death (1616) brings us within the earlier limits of the Restoration Age. The former creative enthusiasm has died; the moral earnestness and the personal probity of the Puritan has held its brief sway; but a reaction was now to follow. The English mind seemed oppressed with a sense of ennui. It was as if the genius of the race had for the moment become exhausted, and as if it had become spiritually depleted after the passion and the excitement of the previous age. This sense of ennui shows itself in a lack of originality in subject-matter and in an inability to create new forms or to imagine new experiences. Attention is centered upon the externals of life. People come to believe that manners make the man, and that style is the whole of literature. Here indeed is a difference from the careless exuberance of Shakespeare’s day. Instead of the boundless creative energy which, careless of form, sought expression at all costs, we have now an age of meticulous care as to style, of conservative prescription of form, of rather heartless wit, cutting, facile, and dazzling at times, full of intellectual keenness, but devoid of real human sympathy. Shakespeare and his fellows had great hearts, and they wrote great poetry and great drama, for they felt deeply and probed to the utmost the experience and the ideals of all sorts and conditions of men. The school of Dryden, on the other hand, had keen minds and wrote with an elegant clarity and incisive wit, but they felt neither broadly nor deeply. The Elizabethan wrote poetry with ease and with gusto, but he labored over his prose. The seventeenth- and eighteenth-century writers felt little of the poetic fervor of the earlier age, and their verse is formal and leaves us cold; but they could write prose, and they have given us such masters of this effective instrument for the clarifying of thought as Dryden, Bunyan, Defoe, Swift, Steele, Addison, Goldsmith, and Johnson—names in their way as honorable and as high in the history of English prose as those of Shakespeare and his fellow-dramatists in their quality.

This keenness of mind and this lack of the deep-hearted sympathy that characterize so many writers of this age had an important influence upon the literature which they produced. Clearness of intellectual perception and coldness of heart are their dominating characteristics, and from these grow two different types of writing in which they excel: criticism and satire. The writer of this age, coming after the creative prodigality of Shakespeare’s time, was, as is usually the case in the history of literature, inclined to examine, to classify, to criticize, to make rules. As Aristotle in his ‘Poetics’ reflected upon the practice of the Athenian dramatists of his day, so Dryden in his ‘Essay of Dramatic Poesy,’ ‘On the Ground of Criticism in Tragedy,’ ‘On Satire,’ ‘On Translated Verse,’ ‘On Heroic Plays,’ and in ‘The Preface to the Fables’ summed up the critical opinion of his day upon the achievement of the last age.

Such a procedure was rendered easy and natural by the conditions of literary life in his time. Literature was no longer merely the polite occupation of scholars, the occasional diversion of a dilettante nobility, or the ill-paid trade of the dramatic hack. Literature was well on the way to become a profession, and a profession worthy of respect and even of official recognition by a government quick to recognize a new and adaptable servant. The system of patronage in vogue from Chaucer’s time down to Johnson’s declaration of independence in his letter to the Earl of Chesterfield was to disappear gradually as the new conditions rendered the writer financially independent. The uncertain political life of the day and the rapid decadence of social restraints gave to the writer who possessed a keen eye and a caustic wit an unusual opportunity to become a power. From this day we can date the rise of the Fourth Estate. Public and private life were lax, licentious, and even openly scandalous. The staid and sober middle class was shocked at the unprincipled freedom of the court and of the nobility. Only one who is intimately familiar with the scenes of the Restoration drama or has wandered through the novels of the next age will realize to what an extent the Puritan ideals have given way to a looseness of manners which has made this period a blot on the national life of England.

To be a satirist three things are necessary: a keen and facile wit, an utter lack of human sympathy or idealism, and a victim. All of these the Restoration Age, with a sort of perverse generosity, supplied. Satire was not only a ready weapon for the settlement of a private grudge but it also soon became a recognized instrument of political partisanship in an age which took a keen delight in all the possibilities of libel. It is difficult for us nowadays to realize the extremes to which the poor taste of the day went or the utterly unscrupulous character of the literary attacks which were made upon a personal enemy, upon a public character, or upon a believer in a different religion. With the passing of a crude taste for invective and religious intolerance, this kind of writing has lost much of its meaning and its interest, and the modern reader finds himself easily satisfied with very little of it. The bitterness of personal criticism, the unscrupulousness of personal grudge or party vituperation, the vitriolic intensity of ill-feeling, the scurrility of anonymous attack, and the violent extremes of utterly inconsiderate invective have fortunately since that day been crushed by the enactment of libel laws, by the improvement of national life, and by the gradual elevation of popular taste.

There are other reasons, however, for remembering the age of Dryden besides the cold superficiality of its criticism or the heartless bitterness of its personal satire. The period is one in which English prose is perfected as an instrument of effective expression, and it is memorable as preparing the way for the development of the novel and for the beginnings of English journalism.

The poetry of the time, when it is not satirically critical or openly fulsome, is inclined to the superficial expression of what is taken to be emotion, or to the gallant exploitation of a sentimentality which is the nearest that the writer can come to real feeling. The Daphnes and Chloes to whom the heartless amorist pays his dubious poetic vows are unreal creatures in an unreal age. One feels that this poetry, polished though it is and remarkable at times for the apt phrase, has no great depth and produces upon us none of that illusion of reality which we feel in the lyrics of Shakespeare or of Ben Jonson. The cavalier poets do to a certain extent carry on the tradition of the Elizabethan lyrists, but the fire is burnt out and the warmth of human affection has somehow become cooled.

Chronological Table

  • 1660Restoration of the Stuarts: Charles II. becomes king.
  • 1660Great fire in London.
  • 1667Fall of Clarendon
  • 1673Test Act passed.
  • 1677Princess Mary marries William of Orange.
  • 1679Habeas Corpus Act passed.
  • 1682William Penn establishes a colony at Philadelphia.
  • 1683Rye House plot to assassinate the king.
  • 1685James II. becomes king.
  • 1688William of Orange lands in England.
  • 1689William III. and Mary II. become the sovereigns. Bill of Rights passed.
  • 1692Witches persecuted in Salem.
  • 1694Bank of England founded.
  • 1701By the Act of Settlement, the English Crown goes to Sophia of Hanover and her descendants. War of Spanish Succession begins.
  • Reading Recommended

  • 1612–1680Samuel Butler
  • 1620–1706John Evelyn
  • 1621–1678Andrew Marvell
  • 1631–1700John Dryden
  • 1632–1704John Locke
  • 1633–1703Samuel Pepys
  • 1642–1727Sir Isaac Newton