The poetry of the mid- seventeenth century is unavoidably the product of social, intellectual, and personal crisis and change. Apart from a few unassailable figures who represent a continuing and strengthening poetic tradition, it was until recently one of the least studied phases of poetry written in the British islands, and yet, paradoxically, one which speaks eloquently and in satisfyingly diverse voices to the late twentieth-century reader.
The first part of this preface sets out the kinds of reasons which have determined the selection of texts for this book. It also discusses some of the difficulties of trying to pack some representation of a period of unparalleled richness and diversity into a generous, but finite, anthology. This first section also should serve to welcome and reassure the reader by offering maps for the exploration of the selection of poems. The most important element in this is to stress that the anthology is not attempting to be rebarbative, strange, other: much of the point of its diversity is to enrich the context of the most familiar poems of the time, and to present them freshly in at least an attempted replica of their original settings.
The second part of this preface explores the ways in which the canon of mid- seventeenth-century poetry has been shaped. This is not just a catalogue of the sometimes arbitrary decisions of the publisher and the academic: it involves ideas of history and historiography, for this has long been recognized as the period where literature and events are more visibly interwound than at any other time in the history of the British islands. This section will argue that historical fiction itself has played a key part in forming ideas of this period of war and revolution, influencing the choices of anthologists and editors who have made their own 'historical fictions' of the Civil War.
This anthology represents something of a fresh start. Editors, however much they think they may be examining a body of past writing afresh and without prejudice, cannot avoid bringing with them the agenda and anxieties of their own times. To pretend otherwise would be to engage in self-deception and in public fraud. But an attempt has been made not only to look over what might be called the old canon of mid-seventeenth-century poetry, but also to look, as if for the first time, at disparate and divergent voices. One of the most important things about the period of transition and upheaval with which this book deals is that those divergent voices become increasingly public and articulate.