Enthusiast in Wit: A Portrait of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester 1647-1680

Enthusiast in Wit: A Portrait of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester 1647-1680

Enthusiast in Wit: A Portrait of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester 1647-1680

Enthusiast in Wit: A Portrait of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester 1647-1680

Excerpt

The seventeenth century in England was an age of experiment and intellectual adventure. It is the gulf that lies between the firm ground of the Middle Ages, which crumbled beneath the blows of Bacon and his successors, and the firm ground of the Enlightenment established by Newton and Locke at the beginning of the eighteenth century. To day we are in a peculiarly favourable position to understand the men of the seventeenth century. We also feel that we have no solid ground beneath our feet. The mechanico-materialistic universe which seemed to our fathers and grandfathers so impregnable is now crumbling away just as the scholastic-medieval universe was crumbling away in the days of Donne and Browne and Glanville. We too must test all things without the help of a universally believed theory of life and the universe. We too must endeavour to find for ourselves a significance in the strange and incomprehensible world that environs us, and orient our lives without the guidance of an agelong tradition. So we can sympathize with the disillusionment of the contemporaries of Hobbes, their experiments in philosophy and religion, and their restless paradoxical lives. The writers of that age, however, have come down to us for the most part in portraits made by critics and biographers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and their features have been popularized as they appeared to the minds of men and women who lived in the reigns of the Hanoverian kings and Queen Victoria. It is a task for criticism now to get behind these conventional pictures and to reinterpret the authors of the seventeenth century in the spirit of an age which is, perhaps, more akin to theirs than to that of our Georgian and Victorian forefathers. This task has been notably achieved already with reference to the metaphysical poets by Sir Herbert Grierson and others, who have established Donne in his proper place as one of the most important and interesting of English poets and have revealed the true quality of such writers as Herbert, Vaughan and Marvell. John Wilmot . . .

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