The purpose of this collection of new writing is to make it easier and more pleasurable to read English poetry of the first part of the seventeenth century. The term Companion carries its usual implications; we would be your associates in the process of exploring an extraordinarily varied and accomplished period of the English literary tradition.
The poets who constitute the subjects of the second part of this book may seem decidedly unvaried. All are male; most were born into the gentry class or more prosperous echelons of London society; nearly all were educated at Oxford or Cambridge, the only English universities of the time; many were associated in some way with the courts of James I or Charles I or both, and were beneficiaries of royal patronage. They are heirs to a common literary and cultural inheritance. Yet despite these shared characteristics their writings are very diverse. In part, such differences reflect abilities and temperament. But they reflect, too, the fissured and changing nature of the English cultural establishment and the opening up, in extraordinary fashion, of the scope and range of English poetry, and particularly of non-narrative poetry.
The poetic idiom of all these poets, even the young Milton, is primarily lyric; poems, typically, are short, indeed sometimes very short. Telling a story, however heroic or elevated, rarely attracts these writers. Their poems are intense in expression and often in sentiment, the distilled spirit, the hard liquor of the English literary tradition. Devotional poetry comes of age, engaging a range of religious belief and sensibility, from incipient puritanism through the mainstream of the Church of England to Catholicism, and from a rationalist sort of faith, through a range of piety, to mystical experience. I Political verse finds a new role as the ground slips away beneath the old hierarchical assumptions. Panegyric becomes suffused with nostalgia or tinged with criticism; blame as well as praise enters the poet's repertoire; the certainties of the declarative and epideictic modes are joined by the expression of doubts and the rationalization of and ratiocination about profound changes in the political order. Love poetry was the finest achievement of the high Elizabethan poets. Spenser, Sidney, and Shakespeare have qualities rarely found in Jacobean and Caroline verse. But the poets from Donne, through Carew and Lovelace, to Marvell have qualities of their own, reflecting new continental influences, admitting a fresh union of literary impulse and sexual excitement, incorporating a new intellectualism and a new libertinism with impulses towards both elegance and depth of expression. Love poetry develops to carry a new freight of cultural and even political values. Robert Herrick coined the phrase 'Time's trans-shifting', aptly capturing the spirit of his own age; the poets this volume celebrates deeply reflect the Assuring and the mutations of the cultural milieu they inhabited.
I had wondered how best to organize the volume. My original inclination was to begin with the chapters on individual poets and to conclude with the more general chapters on larger aspects of context, moving from the specific to the general. I was persuaded to do otherwise by the argument that all the contributors probably believe that the experience of reading one poet is deeply enriched by an awareness of the cultural, political, economic, and literary system within which that individual worked. Hence the present ordering. How should you use the book? Certainly it is a volume that may be dipped into for individual guidance on an author or an aspect of context. The essays are self-contained. Each addresses a discrete topic. None is premissed on the content of another, and they may be read in your own order of choosing. But the value of the volume, I should like to maintain, is greater than the sum of the parts. Taken together, they provide a thorough grounding in understanding the cultural phenomenon of English poetry from Donne to Marvell. Moreover, in terms of critical method and theory, they represent a cross-section of the most fruitful approaches to the study of the English literary renaissance of the last twenty-five years.
Finally, a note on the editions quoted and cited. In the case of a number of writers several alternative editions are available, and contributors were encouraged to select, quote from, and refer to whichever seemed to them most appropriate for their purposes. Titles, however, have been modernized both in the text of the essays and in the index to the volume.
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