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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

VIII. The Court Poets

§ 1. The Lives and Writings of the Court Poets as a Protest against the Puritan Domination

THE CAREER of the Court Poets is an episode not merely in the history of literature but in the history of manners. In their lives as in their art, they were an outspoken protest against the domination of the puritans. Whatever their predecessors in their stern morality had disdained, they pursued with a rare fervency of spirit. The chief end of their ambition was to catch pleasure on the wing, and they gave to pleasure a liberal interpretation. Gallantry was not enough for them. No courtier could hope to win the approval of his sovereign who had not given proof of his “wit,” who had not publicly burned incense before the muse of frivolity. So it came about that, in Sedley’s phrase, “every fop wrote songs,” that few refrained from libelling their friends in satire, and that a freedom in written, as in spoken, speech matched the prevailing freedom of thought and conduct.

The court, in brief, cherished an ideal hitherto strange to English austerity. It no longer took a keen interest in rival policies. The bitter conflict of the civil war, followed by the domination of Oliver, had obscured the spark of patriotism which burned only in a few loyal hearts. The king and his courtiers were determined to amuse themselves. They had learned in Paris how to temper their magnificence with wit and politesse, and, in the glamour of beauty and courage, they forgot the long, dark days when all the decorative arts of life had been banished, when even the smile of irony was deemed a disgrace. Charles II, a monarch to whom most things were easy save wisdom, led the band of revellers, preferred the ribaldry of Buckhurst and Sedley to the grave advice of Arlington, sauntered away his days in the society of his mistresses, and delighted in satire, even though it was directed against himself. It was a golden age, truly, in which life seemed desirable for its own sake, and in which nobody thought of its drearier purpose. Les plus honnêtes gens du monde, says St. Évremond, ce sont les Français qui pensent, et les Anglais qui parlent. And at Whitehall, which he graced by his presence for many years, he might have encountered them both.