Context

The seventeenth century is divided into three principal historical periods; the pre-civil war/post-Elizabethan period of the Stuarts; the civil war and the Cromwellian Protectorate; the Restoration of the monarchy and the beginning of the recognisably modern social/ political structure of government through factional infighting. There are never any direct and predictable causal relationships between history and literary history, but in the period from the beginning of the seventeenth to the beginning of the eighteenth century a number of correspondences become solidly apparent.

From the 1660s to the 1740s poetic writing was dominated by the generic and functional notion of the public poem. This type could range from the direct engagement with contemporary political issues (the so-called 'poem on affairs of state') to the more discursive 'georgic' mode in which matters such as architecture, dress sense, the sanitary conditions of the streets or the practice of sheep husbandry would function as the subject of all or part of the poetic discourse. Poems about real people and events were of course written before the civil war, but in the post-civil war period poems themselves and writings about poetry began to focus more upon the stylistic and formal conditions that would establish poetry as the literary counterpart to the political or philosophic essay. The events and circumstances that prompted and sustained this change in emphasis were political, social and intellectual. The 1688 bloodless coup, also known as the 'glorious revolution', the 1694 triennial act and the 1716 septenial act ensuring parliamentary elections respectively at three and seven year intervals, the lapse of the licensing act in 1695, creating the opportunity for relative press freedom and the proliferation of pamphleteering; all of these and many other factors, not least being the increase in commercial printers and publishers, established the conditions for the emergence of the new social and cultural phenomenon of the professional writer—often disparagingly referred to as the hack. The hack would not necessarily earn his money from sales of published material. As elections became more frequent the ambition to control parliament became stronger; the party lines hardened and the arena of conflict shifted from private mansions into the open street. Ideas had to be transmitted quickly and persuasively and the poem was just as important a medium for such purposes as the essay. It would be wrong to assume that all of the best known poets of the period (Dryden, Swift and Pope for example) were political puppets and hirelings, but it is certainly the case that their objective of using poetry as an instrument for reflecting and influencing public opinion was partly fuelled by these broader changes in status of the poet and the poem.

The intellectual mood of the period was closely related to its turbulent politics. The Royal Society was founded during the Cromwellian Protectorate and in the succeeding decades established itself as a kind of barometric guide to developments in the key areas of thinking and writing. Its best known and most widely quoted statement of purpose occurs in Thomas Sprat's 1667 History of the Royal Society (and for history we might read manifesto):

The resolution of the Royal Society has been...to reject all amplifications, digressions, and swellings of style; to return back to the primitive purity and shortness, when men, deliver'd so many things almost in an equal number of words. They have extracted from all their members a close, naked, natural way of speaking, positive expressions, clear senses, a native easiness, bringing all things as near the Mathematical plainess as they can, and preferring the language of Artizans, Countrymen, and Merchants, before that of Wits or Scholars (117-18)

Sprat respects the status of language as an arbitrary self-determined medium of representation (words are not things), but his promotion of the language of 'Artizans, Countrymen and Merchants' over that of 'Wits and Scholars' emphasises the need for a matching or unitary correspondence between our chief representative medium and the concrete and verifiable continuum of events and conditions that determine our condition.

Poetry, in establishing itself as a medium for public debate was readily responsive to such terms and objectives, and Dryden in 1677 restates Sprat's proposition as a manifesto for the poetic deployment of wit: 'the definition of wit... is only this: that it is propriety of thoughts and words; or, in other terms, thoughts and words elegantly adapted to the subject'. Or, as Pope later put it,

True wit is nature to advantage dressed

What oft were thought, but ne're so well expressed.

Here we come across the principal distinction between the poetry of this period and the style of the metaphysicals. For the Augustans, the imaginative instinct, that which creates metaphors, is essentially a sorting and cataloguing process by which things and ideas that are already regarded as discrete and separate can be assembled in a manner that reflects their pre-linguistic condition. Thus we find, almost a century later, Johnson objecting to the metaphysical tendency to create correspondences and parallels within language that would change or distort the broadly accepted relations between language and reality: language, including poetic language, was held in the eighteenth century to be a means of clarifying and validating the relation between language and verifiable fact, not as a means of disturbing this balance and shifting the linguistic continuum toward new and unsubstantiated fields of speculation.

We should now move from the general to the particular and the first question to be considered is why the heroic couplet was thought to be the most appropriate vehicle for such ideals and objectives.

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