In compiling this list of late English Renaissance Literature from 1603-1660, we continue to present the picks and remarks from our experts on Medieval and Early Modern literature, David E. Miller and Adam. For more about these literature lovers, see English Renaissance Literature I here, and Middle Ages English Literature (Medieval): 1066-1485, here.
I, MJ, also have many favorites among this rich list of great literature from the Renaissance, so you will also find some “MJ” comments here too.
English Renaissance Literature is covered in two different pages on our site:
II: Jacobian-Puritan-Early Seventeenth Century, 1603-1660, THIS PAGE
Free Online Sources of Renaissance Literature:
Enjoy this tour of great and famous English literature of the Renaissance. Thanks, David and Adam, for sharing your expertise and love of literature!
Significant Historical Dates:
1603-1625: James on the throne, known as “Jacobean” era.
1605: Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament is foiled, Guy Fawkes apprehended; Cervantes publishes Don Quixote.
1611: King James Bible published.
1616: Shakespeare dies.
1617: Ben Jonson named first poet laureate of England.
1620: American Pilgrims sail for America in the Mayflower and land at Plymouth Rock.
1630: Large Group of Puritans led by John Winthrop sails for America.
1642: English Civil War between Royalists and Puritans begins; Puritan Parliament bans the theater.
1649: Puritan Parliament sentences Charles I to death; Charles I beheaded.
1660: Charles II restored to English throne after years of rule by Puritan-dominated Parliament.
English Renaissance Literature II: Jacobean / Early Seventeenth Century, 1603-1660
The Bible (King James Version), 1611; David’s pick
“The Renaissance was a time marked by an incredible amount of translation from other languages into English—pagan literature from antiquity, Greek philosophy, Roman history, and contemporaneous works of poetry and prose from continental Europe.
“One of the largest undertakings, however, occurred during the reign of King James I (1603-1625). A new translation of the Bible, called The King James Version, began in 1604 and was completed in 1611 by a team of 47 scholars under the sponsorship of the king himself.
“This was not the first translation of the scriptures into English. There had been many inspired by the Protestant Reformation. However, the King James Version has had the most lasting impact on the English language.
“Admired for its grand, dignified, Latinate style, the King James Version was conceived primarily for the serious occasions of public reading. Many phrases familiar to us today have their origins in the Renaissance idiom, such as ‘Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you…’ or ‘I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth much fruit…’
“You’ll encounter some of the most memorable lines from the King James Bible in Genesis, Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Isaiah, the Gospels, Acts, Romans, and Revelations.”
Ben Jonson, Dramas: Volpone, 1606; The Alchemist, 1610; Bartholomew Fair, 1614; Poems from Epigrams, 1616: “To My Book,” “On My First Son,” “On Gut,” “To Penshurst,” “Song: To Celia”
“As England’s unofficial poet laureate, Ben Jonson is now credited with inventing the vocation of the professional author. It might be unusual to think of a time when authors weren’t supposed to have published works, but during the Renaissance the circulation of a single manuscript among a small, elite coterie was more esteemed than having one’s poetry and plays in print.
“Therefore, in 1616, when Jonson published his own Works, he was doing something very strange indeed. But unlike any other writer in the seventeenth century, Jonson produced outstanding works in all the literary genres of the time—plays, court masques, poetry, and prose.
“Jonson’s poetry inspired the poets of Charles I’s court who are now known posthumously as the ‘Sons of Ben.’ I recommend reading ‘To My Book,’ ‘On My First Son,’ ‘On Gut,’ ‘To Penshurst,’ and ‘Song: To Celia.’ His best plays are the city comedies Volpone (1605-6) and The Alchemist (1610), each of which make great use of the stage as a physical space and as an idea in the abstract.”
“One of my professors said that Christopher Marlowe focuses on huge personalities and sweeping histories and says everything’s meaningless, whereas Jonson focuses on everyday things and says everything’s meaningless. Very helpful distinction between the two Renaissance playwrights!
“In drama, Jonson excelled largely at comedy, unlike Shakespeare, who could do it all, from comedy to tragedy to history. Reading Shakespeare and Jonson side by side made me realize how much romantic relationships interest Shakespeare, more so than Jonson. Jonson seems to have a more consistently pessimistic view of people than Shakespeare. But like Shakespeare, he’s also very funny.”
John Donne, from Songs and Sonnets, 1633 (written earlier): “The Sun Rising,” “The Canonization,” The Bait,” “The Flea,” “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” Elegy 19,” “To His Mistress Going to Bed,” from Holy Sonnets, 1633 (written earlier): 1, 5, 10, and 14. (David’s picks).
“If you want to read poetry that is weird, arresting, and at times profane, then John Donne is for you. As a young man, Jack Donne was a rake, spirited lover, and penned lyrics that were both shockingly erotic and incorporated strange metaphors known as ‘conceits.’
“It may be hard to believe that this same young man would later become Dr. Donne, the dean of St. Paul’s, going on to write brilliant sermons and devotional poetry that earned him national distinction. Erotic poems like ‘The Sun Rising’ and “Elegy 19: To His Mistress Going to Bed’ make a great contrast when read alongside his stirring Holy Sonnets, the most famous of which are Sonnets 1, 5, 10, and 14.”
“I think Jonson famously said of Donne that he deserved hanging for ‘not keeping of accent’ (that is, for not keeping an even meter in his poems). By the way, Jonson also remarked of Spenser that he ‘writ no language.’”
I love reading John Donne’s poetry, and Adam’s remark puts me in mind of one of the reasons why: Donne’s restless intellect kept him from sticking too closely to any pre-set form or accepted cultural concept; his poems are always pushing and pulling against both meter and common ideas.
Thus, whether focused on love or religion, Donne’s poetry is startling, witty, intense, and smart. I like being in touch with a smart and original mind. Several poems on David’s list are among my top 100 favorite poems ever, including “The Sun Rising” and Holy Sonnet 14, “Batter My Heart, three-person’d God.”
In addition to David’s list, I strongly recommend reading “Meditation XVII from Devotions on Emergent Occasions” (1624), which includes this famous passage:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
Other Donne poems I love include “Song: Go and Catch a Falling Star” and “The Good Morrow.”
(Click here for more on how and why Donne experimented with meter in his devotional poems, by Roz Kaveney.)
Mary Wroth, Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, 1621 (David’s pick)
“When Virginia Woolf remarked in ‘A Room of One’s Own’ (1929) that ‘it would have been impossible, completely and entirely, for any woman to have written the plays of Shakespeare in the age of Shakespeare,’ she insisted perhaps too strongly that the Renaissance was only an age of men’s writing.
“Recent scholarship has uncovered, and in some cases, rediscovered many women writers during the Renaissance period. Writers like Mary Herbert, Elizabeth Carey, Amelia Lanyer, Katherine Phillips, and Lady Elinor Davies are now found in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century anthologies of literature, and their respective works taught alongside Shakespeare, Donne, and Milton.
“I think the strongest female voice of the period is Mary Wroth. Her father, Sir Robert Sidney, was a poet, and both her uncle Sir Philip Sidney, and her Aunt Mary (Sidney) Herbert, were poets and literary patrons. It is no surprise that a person from such an eminent literary family would be the first woman to write a sonnet sequence in English.
“Clearly inspired by her uncle Sir Philip Sidney’s poetry, Pamphilia to Amphilanthus is a sequence of poems written from a woman who is ‘all-loving’ to a man who is a ‘lover of two.’ Though inspired by Sidney, Pamphilia and Amphilanthus is nonetheless impressive in its own right for its technical virtuosity.
“It also exhibits a fresh and engaging reversal of Petrarchan roles; instead of a lovelorn man expressing longing for a woman, in these poems, a woman articulates her desire and the man becomes the desired one.”
Metaphysical Poets: George Herbert, “The Altar,” “Easter Wings,” and “Prayer (I); Henry Vaughn, “A Song to Amoret”; Richard Crashaw’s “The Flaming Heart.” (David’s Picks).
“Inspired by the poetry of John Donne, these lyricists primarily wrote love and devotional poetry, marked by its wit and its use of strange and original conceits.
George Herbert, from The Temple (1633): “The Altar,” “Redemption,” “Easter,” “Easter Wings,” “Virtue,” “The Pulley,” “Love (3), “Discipline.” (MJ’s Picks)
Several of gentle George Herbert’s works are among my all-time favorite poems. Herbert was an Anglican clergyman, who prepared for a career in the court and town among sophisticated people, but ended up serving a small country parish. The poems in The Temple express the many sides of his relationship with God, both love and struggle.
Herbert wrote in a variety of forms, even in a variety of shapes on the page; the poems seem simple on the surface and often read like little allegories with characters like Time, Love, and Death. But most poems have a clever twist that deepens the meaning and renders the situation quite poignant. I urge you to give them a try.
For more on Herbert, check out this post that compares him to another devotional poet who wrote two centuries later, Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Cavalier Poets: Robert Herrick’s “Delight in Disorder” and “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time”; Thomas Carew’s (pronounced Carrey) “A Rapture”; Sir John Suckling’s “Song” and “Out Upon It”; Richard Lovelace’s “To Lucasta, Going to the Wars” and “To Althea, from Prison”; and Edmund Waller’s “The Story of Pheobus and Daphne Applied” and “Song.” (David’s picks).
“The Cavalier Poets were lyric poets who wrote frothy and elegant love poetry during the reign of Charles I (1625-49). Like Ben Jonson (who was a considerable influence on them), they abandoned the sonnet form for the twelve-liner and other lyric forms. The list above is a good sampling of cavalier poetry.”
John Milton, Paradise Lost, 1667/1674, David’s pick
Note: A great source for reading Milton’s works free online: Dartmouth’s The John Milton Reading Room
“If the sixteenth century is the age of Shakespeare, then the seventeenth century is the age of Milton, whose Paradise Lost is the supreme achievement of that era.
“Milton began by writing poetry in the 1630s before participating in the so-called pamphlet wars in the 1640s, speaking in favor of such controversial subjects as companionate marriage (‘Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce,’ 1643), the freedom of the press (‘Areopagitica,’ 1644), and the regicide of Charles I (‘The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates,’ 1649).
“Milton’s early poetry includes ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’ (1629), the companion poems ‘L’Allegro’ and ‘Il Penseroso’ (1631), a drama in verse called Comus; or, A Masque Presented at Ludlow Castle (1634), and his much-celebrated pastoral elegy ‘Lycidas’ (1637).
“During his time, Milton revived many sixteenth-century genres (like the pastoral, the sonnet, and the epic), many of which had fallen out of favor in the seventeenth century. As for the sonnet form, Milton was able to put it to new uses other than detailing the drama of unrequited love and intense devotion.
“Instead, Milton wrote sonnets praising his political heroes (‘To The Lord General Cromwell, May 1652,’ 1694), exposing horrendous injustices of his day (‘On the Late Massacre of the Piedmont,’ 1673), and exploring deeply private topics like life as a widower (‘Methought I Saw My Late Espoused Saint,’ 1673).
“In Paradise Lost Milton regained the epic form. Called the ‘story of all things,’ Milton retells the opening books of Genesis but with a difference. He makes intelligible characters, worlds, and situations of which most could never imagine.
“Satan is presented to us sympathetically as the tragic hero of the poem, his face physically altered by the deep marks of God’s lightning from the war in heaven. But he is nonetheless obdurate pride incarnate. In Adam and Eve, we have a portrait of domestic bliss and devotion. They are naive, curious, their minds easily excitable, perhaps totally unprepared to face a foe like Satan.
“We encounter others as well: Uriel, regent of the Sun; the haughty warrior, Gabriel; Michael, the commander of God’s army; and Raphael, whom God sends to instruct Adam and Eve in the mysteries of his kingdom. Milton wrote Paradise Lost to ‘justify the ways of God to men.’ He conceived of his project as an epic to end all epics, its purpose to represent our original and natural state as free people, even after the fall.”
Advice for Reading Paradise Lost
“Although dense, learned, and highly allusive, Paradise Lost is easy to take in strides. And Milton does help his reader by providing summaries at the beginning of each book. To get a feel for the epic, start by reading Books 1 and 2, which introduces the reader to Satan and the other fallen angels as they build a parliament in hell, called Pandemonium (one of many words Milton coined), and plot their revenge against God.
Next, read Book 4 where you’ll meet Adam and Eve, and which ends with a fascinating confrontation between Satan and the archangel Gabriel. The War in heaven, which precedes the creation of the Garden of Eden, is recounted in Book 6 and is absolutely spectacular. Book 9 is the climax: it contains Satan’s moment of tragic recognition and his successful temptation of Eve.
If you enjoy Paradise Lost you can read its sequel, Paradise Regained (1671), about Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness as well as Milton’s final work, Samson Agonistes (1671), a drama in verse about the story of the biblical judge, Samson.
Andrew Marvell, “To His Coy Mistress,” “Damon the Mower,” “The Mower’s Song,” “The Garden” (all written ca. 1650-52). (MJ Picks).
Andrew Marvell was a friend of Milton’s, mostly sympathetic to the Puritan cause. Educated at Cambridge, he worked in a variety of capacities, including private tutor, joint secretary of Latin along with Milton for Cromwell’s government, and later, a Member of Parliament.
Marvell’s poems, which I find lovely to read, often present debates between aspects of human life that are hard to reconcile. “To His Coy Mistress” is a famous seduction poem, in which the speaker tries to persuade the lady, who prefers a long courtship, to succumb more quickly by arguing that time is passing so fast that age or death could overtake them before their love is consummated.
“Damon the Mower” and “The Mower’s Song” lament the pain of unrequited love. Both poems focus on a mower going about his work while suffering and philosophizing on his unsuccessful love for Juliana.
In “The Garden,” Marvell switches gears to meditate on what peace can be found when people turn from their drive to achieve and simply spend time in a garden: “How could such sweet and wholesome hours / Be reckoned but with herbs and flowers?”
Marvell’s poems offer many examples in the pastoral genre, which was popular throughout the Renaissance. Pastorals often paint pretty, make-believe situation featuring shepherds and shepherdesses living a quiet and beautiful life in the country, where life is so much simpler and elemental than in the town or court.
Shepherds engage in singing or piping contests or attempt to seduce shepherdesses; writers may speak through the shepherds to make sly or satirical comments on current affairs at court while they engage in playful banter. Renaissance readers, enmeshed in political struggles within their city or lives at court, were captivated by a world that seemed prettier and simpler than their own.
“The pastoral genre (and Marvell wrote in others, of course) seems particularly important in the Renaissance, perhaps because the age was interested in drawing a line between itself and a classical past. [The Pastoral was a popular genre in ancient Rome, with the poet Virgil as a major practitioner.] “The pastoral is highly mannered, something the seventeenth century sometimes seems to love.”
Make a selection from our list and enjoy Reading the Renaissance!
Renaissance Part I: Tudor-Sixteenth Century, 1485-1603
17th Century English Landscape by Jacques d’Arthois [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons
King James, English School, Unknown painter. [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons
Ben Jonson painting After Abraham van Blijenberch [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
Lady Mary Wroth Attributed to John de Critz [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
John Milton. By Unknown 17th century artist [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons