But thou art gone, and thy strict lawes will be
Too hard for Libertines in Poetrie.
Thomas Carew, “An Elegie upon the death of the Dean of Pauls, Dr. John Donne”
For most readers of seventeenth-century verse, Caroline poetry immediately conjures up a set of adjectives, and almost all have to do with some aspect of courtly artifice: precious (containing echoes of the French “précieuse” to denote the literary and intellectual fashions that arrived from France with Charles I’s bride, Henrietta Maria); decorative (to suggest concern with surface detail, like the flow of a gown); conservative, even effete in its celebration of the king and the ceremonialism of the English church as it emerged under Archbishop Laud. Caroline poetry, we learn, is pre-eminently graceful and lyrical, conceived at a moment in history when singing and “musing” kept especially close company, but not a poetry of great intellectual substance. The Romantic critic, William Hazlitt, gave this view a conveniently precise formulation when he located Caroline verse within a larger narrative recording the decline and fall of English poetry from the Renaissance to the late eighteenth century. Poetry written under Elizabeth, Hazlitt urged, was a poetry of the “imagination.” Poetry written in the time of Charles, he noted, invoking the other half of a dialectic nearly sacred to the Romantics, was a poetry of “fancy.” And for Hazlitt, the slide only continued, through the “wit” of the Restoration to the “mere common places” of the eighteenth century. 1
Fewer readers today would overtly subscribe to Hazlitt’s general scheme, although influential versions can still be found even among recent literary historians. 2 The presence of Milton alone must give us pause, we are often reminded, to say nothing about either Herbert, whose Temple (1633) was published while Charles was on the throne, or Marvell, who began as a late Caroline. But other than a zealous Puritan perhaps—a not insignificant “other” as Caroline England especially came to understand—who would want to deny