The Early Stuarts, 1603-1660

By Godfrey Davies | Go to book overview

XV
LITERATURE

THE years 1603-60 correspond to no one literary period, for two-thirds of them fall within the period 1580-1642 which historians of the drama loosely call the Elizabethan age, and the remaining third does not contain all the age of Milton. The plan of this series reserves Shakespeare for the preceding volume, but it must not be forgotten that the tragedies, in which his genius reached its supreme height, belong to the reign of James I, and he was influential throughout the years under discussion. Milton, however, is too much the creation of the puritan revolution to be omitted even though his most exalted epics were published later than 1660. Nevertheless, even leaving out the life of Shakespeare, the first half of the seventeenth century has many claims to distinction in literary history. The two greatest publications in English literature fell within its limits--the King James Version of the Bible and the first folio of Shakespeare. The finest comedies of Ben Jonson, and the plays usually assigned to Beaumont and Fletcher jointly, were first performed in the reign of James I. Apart from Milton and Donne and, perhaps, Herrick, the poets were not of the same calibre as the dramatists, but each managed to produce a few gems that have escaped oblivion. The prose was even more notable than the verse, for then appeared Bacon Advancement of Learning, the Novum Organum, and the later editions of his Essays, and Burton Anatomy of Melancholy. Furthermore it is fitting that the reign of the only learned English king in modern times should be memorable for its scholars. Then England stood at the head of European learning, and a great scholar like Casaubon was glad to find refuge and a spiritual home in the land of his adoption. There he met a kindred spirit in Lancelot Andrewes, whose knowledge of sacred literature was as profound as his own. Coke established for himself a unique position in legal history, and Selden was scarcely less eminent in several fields. Among historians and antiquaries were such giants of erudition as Camden, Spelman, Dugdale, and Prynne; among political thinkers, Hobbes and Harrington. In addition the

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