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In contrast to the religious assurance and unquestioning faith of the Puritans, we find a freer and more daring use of reason by men who place the critical judgment and common sense above enthusiasm or imagination; and it was only natural that literature, which in its most vital interests is always a record of contemporary life, should have reflected this change in the temper of the nation, and, during the next one hundred years, have been profoundly influenced by it in both subjectmatter and form.
The most obvious characteristic of the period of the Restoration is its lowered moral tone. The Puritan had attempted a splendid but impossible task-and
ad failed. He had set up a fixed pattern of righteousness, lofty indeed, but formal, uncompromising, and severe, and had thought to compel men to come up to his standard. He had made "Merrie England" a dismal England; he had forbidden dancing, and made Christmas a fast-day; he had dreamed that because he was virtuous there should "be no more cakes and ale." Then came the day of reckoning. There was something of the healthy savage still in the race. They had been pent in, and hectored, and drilled through a long session, but now school was out, and the reign of the schoolmasters was over. What wonder, then, that joyful crowds greeted the King when he landed at Dover; that his journey to London was a triumphal progress through shouting multitudes; that the bells were set ringing, and the flags flying,—the King had come to enjoy his own again, and his people were in the right mood to enjoy it with him.
But this legitimate pleasure soon went to the extreme of license. The May-poles were set up again; the Puritan Sabbath was disregarded; the brutal sport of bear
baiting revived. The somber dress, solemn face, and scriptural phrase of the Puritan had become detestable and ridiculous in men's eyes; and many a gay Cavalier, despising this as mere hypocrisy, took pains to show by the openness of his vices that he at least was no hypocrite. King Charles, known as "The Merry Monarch," witty, good-humored, and gifted with an easy charm of manner, was a selfish voluptuary, without shame, patriotism, or honor; and his Court, following his example, was a center of evil influences which corrupted society and defiled literature. Extravagant balls and entertainments, cards, intrigue, and debauchery were the business of the Court. The needs of the government and the nation were neglected. It was an age
"When love was all an easy Monarch's care;
Among the upper classes of society, the sense of honor, national and personal, had decayed; and it was unfortunately with the interests of those classes that literature in the last half of the seventeenth century was almost wholly concerned. Gay, dissolute courtiers wrote lyrics, which, although not without lightness and lyrical charm, often show only too clearly the moral depravity of the time. The King was a patron of the drama; and the theaters, which had been practically shut for nearly eighteen years, were soon crowded with fashionable audiences, willing, and even demanding, to be amused with licentious plays. Yet we must remember that there were some who were not swept away with the current, and that the work of Puritanism was not altogether undone. It was after the Restoration that Milton, standing apart from the riot of London, produced his greatest poems; that Isaak Walton wrote his life of
George Herbert (1670), and John Bunyan his Pilgrim's Progress (1678-1684). Such men, however, belonged to an older generation, and represented a kind of writing which was rapidly passing out of favor.
The French Influence and the Reign of Common Sense. There were other important characteristics of the literature of the Restoration than its lax morality. To understand the state of England after the Restoration, we must realize that it was not merely a time of reaction from Puritanic restraints, but a time when the higher energies of the nation were temporarily exhausted. Ever since the influence of the Renaissance first stirred the depths of the English nature, and enabled it for the first time to express its full force in literature, ever since then the nation had been living under the strain of strong excitement and heroic endeavor. There had been something large and heroic in the Elizabethan Age; the nation had poured out its strength in great achievements; in literature, it had shown a lavish creative energy; and, following hard upon the age of Shakespeare and the Armada, there had come years no less intense and exacting, of religious ardor and civil conflict, of warring principles and of high ideals. The Restoration found England emotionally exhausted; men had grown suspicious of great emotions; they doubted the wisdom of sacrificing comfort to lofty aims; their temper was cold, worldly, and prosaic, and they forsook enthusiasm for reason and "good sense." Right or wrong, Charles I gave his life for a principle; Charles II, believing in the same principle, did not think it worth the sacrifice of his comforts, and preferred to make any base concession rather than to "start out on his travels again."
Now this hard, prosaic temper is apparent in the
altered style of writing, and in the prevailing theories of literary art. As a great creative and imaginative period had come to an end, men turned instinctively to literary criticism; inspiration was failing and they naturally began to insist upon a greater attention to what they conceived to be the rules of art. Many felt that the English poets of the past, however great their genius, had fallen short of excellence because they neglected, through ignorance or indifference, the rules of composition. One noted critic of the day ridiculed Shakespeare's tragedies and sneered at Paradise Lost. There was a feeling that the literature of Shakespeare and Milton needed to be reformed; that the imagination of those poets should have been restrained, and their literary form made more correct. To Pope, the poetry of Cowley and other writers of conceits was
"One glaring Chaos and wild heap of wit."
Following the example of the French critics and the traditions of Ben Jonson's standards of art, the poets and critics of the time made a close study of the classics. Horace, Vergil, and Juvenal became the great literary models; to them even such distinguished writers as Dryden and Pope turned for examples, precedents, and rules. Poetry became largely imitative in manner, and mechanical in construction. In the time of Pope, riming dictionaries and books of rules were published in large numbers and sold in every bookshop, although even the classics might have taught the writers of the time that poets were born and not made. Moreover, although the genius of the age was essentially critical, the judgments pronounced in the name of criticism, and the rules laid down, were in many instances strangely onesided and inconclusive.
The results of all this may be briefly stated. English literature during the age of Dryden and of Pope was dominated by classical or pseudo-classical standards. The writers of the time chose occasional or matter-offact subjects. Dryden, for example, wrote poems on the death of Oliver Cromwell, on the return of the King to the throne, on the great events of the year 1666 the War with Holland, the Great Fire of London. Both Dryden and Pope composed satires on the politics and poets of the day. Theological argument and critical and philosophical essays were cast in poetic form. Purely imaginative works such as Spenser's Faerie Queene or Shakespeare's Tempest were discredited because they were considered extravagant and incorrect. For the most part, writers followed the advice of a French critic who urged poets to leave glittering rhapsodies to the Italians, and endeavor always to write with "good sense." In short the age of Dryden and of Pope was an age of prose rather than of poetry. England could boast of many keen, vigorous, masculine minds, possessed of a solid understanding, but few capable of seeing, feeling, and recording the everlasting poetry of things.
In style, likewise, the writers of the time followed the rules laid down by the French and Latin critics. Their ideals were those of order and restraint in the use of words; they banished the warmer, more highly colored style for one more controlled and severe. Their aim was to be clear, precise, well-balanced, and moderate, and in this they may be said to have succeeded. They gave to English prose a style which, by its strength, simplicity, and directness, was admirably adapted for all ordinary everyday needs. And similarly by their handling of the heroic couplet they gave to English
The heroic couplet is a verse-scheme consisting of two rimed