Literary histories are supposed to be things of the past. This is especially true of histories of poetry—that most literary of genres—and truer still of poetry of the distant past, like the lyric poetry of the early seventeenth century: the subject of this book. What more can be said? And need anything more be said about Herrick or Donne when there is so much to say today about their “culture”? And to whom is one to speak? To other specialists? To people seeking to enter the profession? To university or college students? To readers who want to know more about poetry in general? To readers and practitioners of contemporary verse who feel the need, say, to know something about Herbert if they wish to understand that most nuanced of his many descendants, Elizabeth Bishop? I raise these as concerns at the outset because they are part of the present climate of literary studies and, tonally at least, are one way of differentiating the present inquiry from previous literary histories and the judgments they contain. But I raise them as questions since the purpose of this study is not to produce another lament that literature has been kidnapped for “other” purposes, but to indicate a belief that, partly in response to the scholarly and critical work produced during the last two decades, the poetry of the earlier seventeenth century—an awkward period designation if there ever was one—continues to be immensely rewarding for those who wish to read not only between the lines but the lines themselves, and who prefer individual poets to overarching themes and genres.
In making this claim, I plead guilty in advance to enjoying thoroughly much of the verse of the period. I would rather have written a line by Marvell than by Marx; and a few poems by Herbert are worth many late nights with Calvin. Of course there is no reason, except for time, to read exclusively, and the appearance in these pages of John Taylor, the Water Poet, serves as a warning that not every bit of verse in the seventeenth century was written with a Jonsonian design to escape the ages. And yet Taylor is such an odd duck, publishing his Works (numbering “three and sixty”) halfway through his literary life, that it’s difficult to refuse him notice for a lifetime of versifying. I do not mean to sound flippant about matters of inclusion or exclusion, although scholars have sometimes been too heated or solemn on this subject. (I regret, rather than applaud,