THE RENAISSANCE PERIOD (1500-1600)
The Renaissance Period in English literature is also known as Elizabethan Period, or the Age of Shakespeare. Renaissance means the revival of learning, and in its broadest sense it is the gradual enlightenment of the human mind after the darkness of the middle Ages. This age advocated humanism, emphasizing man’s concern with himself as an object of contemplation. The Italian writers Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarch started this movement, which shortly spread other countries of Europe. Moreover, revealing writer’s own self became full of interest. Sensitiveness to formal beauty and cultivation of the aesthetic sense lead to the exquisite lyrical poetry of the Elizabethan age.
The poetry of Elizabethan Age opens with Sir Thomas Wyatt and the Earl of Surrey. Another important name is Thomas Sackville. Thomas Sackville, unlike Wyatt and Surrey, is not a cheerful writer, but he is superior to them in poetic technique. Sir Philip Sidney and Spenser made their mark by giving loose rein to their imagination and providing fantastic imagery, which was characteristic of Elizabethan poetry. Shakespeare though outshines with his plays, but his sonnets reach the high water mark of poetic excellence.
THE PURITAN AGE (1600-1660)
Seventeenth century English literature may be divided into two periods the Puritan Age and the Restoration Period. The seventeenth century can be explained as the decline of Renaissance spirit. Breaking away with the past was accomplished, and the modern spirit in the fullest sense of the term came into being. The seventeenth century up to 1660 was dominated by Puritanism. Though the Renaissance brought with it culture, it was mostly sensuous and pagan and it needed some sort of sobriety and profundity, which were contributed by Puritan movement. The Puritan movement stood for liberty of the people from the shackles of the despotic ruler as well as introduction of morality and high ideals in politics. Milton was the greatest poet of the puritan age and he stands head and shoulder above all his contemporaries.
The Puritan poetry also called Jacobean and Caroline can be divided into three parts;
1. Poetry of the school of Spenser
2. Poetry of the metaphysical school
3. Poetry of the cavalier poets
(1) The School of Spenser
The Spenserians were the followers of Spenser. These writers have written pastorals and allegories in the flamboyant and diffuse style of Spenser. However, they were not moving enough to lift us to the realm of romance, as does Spenser’s masterpiece. We find shades of Sidney and Shakespeare present in their work as well.
(2) The poets of the metaphysical school
They are called metaphysical poets not because they are highly philosophical, but because their poetry is full of conceits, exaggerations, display of learning, far-fetched similes and metaphors. The leader of this school was John Donne with the followers like Herrick, Thomas Carew, Richard Crashaw, Henry Vaughan and George Herbert.
(3) Cavalier poets
Cavalier poets followed Ben Johnson who followed classical method in his poetry, and imitated Horace. His verse possessed classical dignity and good sense, but lacked in grace and ease. Important figures of this age are Herrick, Lovelace and Suckling.
THE RESTORATION PERIOD (1660-1700)
In English literature, period from 1660-1700 is called the period of Restoration, because the monarch Charles 2 came back to England from his exile in France and became the king.
Dryden was the prominent figure of this age, so it is also called the age of Dryden. Charles 2 and his followers, who had enjoyed a gay life in France during their exile, did their best to develop that kind of looseness in England also. All restraints and restrictions were thrown to winds. The restoration period began to imitate French writers. The old Elizabethan spirit, with its patriotism, love of adventure, creative vigor, and Puritanism with its moral disciplines and love of liberty became a thing of past. Realism and preciseness became the leading qualities of this age. When the writers painted the real pictures of corrupt society and court, a coarse and inferior type of literature was produced. Gradually the trend changed and both virtue and vice were juxtaposed. In this way, preciseness and directness became the eminent qualities of this age.