The Cambridge Modern History: Planned by the Late Lord Acton - Vol. 4

By A. W. Ward; G. W. Prothero et al. | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XXVI.
THE FANTASTIC SCHOOL OF ENGLISH POETRY.

THE Poetry which we call Elizabethan survived at least to the Restoration. Indeed, the dramatic influence of Beaumont and Fletcher lasted for some time after it in romantic plays such as Dryden All for Love. But the decline of that poetry had begun so soon as a change fell upon the conditions which produced it; and signs of that decline and of the poetic reaction which took the form of what is known as the Fantastic Poetry appeared even before the death of Elizabeth. The first and most powerful of the Fantastic Poets was John Donne, who was born about 1573; and, according to Ben Jonson, he wrote all his best pieces before he was twenty-five years old. This is not quite true; but it is true that before the end of the sixteenth century Donne wrote many poems possessing all the characteristics of the new poetry of the seventeenth. He was the chief agent in a poetic revolution, which, though it was far from universal, and though some of its effects were transitory and some injurious, yet deserves to be studied as a part of the history both of society and of literature. The literary changes which it effected were an expression of moral and political changes. The Fantastic Poets were not mere triflers with words and images. Indeed, there have seldom been writers who have tried with more seriousness and honesty to express the truth as they saw it. Much of Donne's poetry may seem preposterously unreal to us; yet he was praised by his contemporaries mainly for his novel realism. Herbert wrote of his religion with a profusion of homely detail which proves that it was the most real and familiar part of his life to him; and even a minor poet like Habington could be moved by the spectacle of a starry night to ideas which seem to us both more modern and more profound than any to be found in any Elizabethan poetry except Shakespeare's. The faults of the Fantastic Poets are many and glaring, but they have a peculiar interest of their own. Their extravagances and incongruities, both of style and of thought, reflect the extravagances and incongruities of an age of transition and revolution, an age violent and uncompromising both in action and in ideas.

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