THE CHAPTERS that make up this book have grown out of the study I made before the war, as a Research Scholar of Downing College, Cambridge, of Cowley and his representative significance in mid-seventeenth-century literary history. Although twelve years have separated the first drafting of this part of the book from the completion of the whole, I think that certain consistent themes run through it and that one of the patterns discernible in seventeenth- century poetry emerges. This pattern may be described as the evolution of wit, especially as it manifests itself in the social tone of the poets, from. the age of Donne to that of Dryden and the Augustans. I am particularly concerned with the transition, of which Cowley is the great example. I have not, however, thought it necessary to write a separate chapter on Wailer and Denham and the beginnings of Neo-Classicism. This is well-explored territory, and i have preferred to keep to the less-known marches and show routes which lead in from the Metaphysicals. I feel that the Neo- Classic reaction against the Metaphysicals has received, as a reaction, plenty of attention from Johnson onwards; a recent American study, Donne to Dryden: the Revolt against the Metaphysicals, by R. L. Sharpe, exemplifies the traditional point of view. He amasses much interesting material but, I am sure, misinterprets it. I have tried to indicate that a more gradual and less straightforward development took place. Dryden did not merely reject the conceit; he adapted and used it.
This book is offered as an essay in literary criticism, an attempt to describe as objectively as possible what a group of seventeenth- century poets mean, separately and as a group, to one twentieth- century reader. For such a study historical knowledge of many kinds is essential both for explanation and as a negative check -- to prevent one attributing to the poet meanings and ideas which could not possibly be in his work -- but though I think that the appreciation of the spirit of seventeenth-century civilization in its many phases