The Seventeenth Century

Darkness Visible

Typically, though, rather serious poetic types inhabited the 17th century, and at the head of their sombre table was the blind master, Milton. Spenser, in Milton’s thinking, had chosen the wrong subject matter for his epic. He himself abandoned the idea of writing an Arthurian epic and wrote, or rather dictated, a Christian epic instead: Paradise Lost (10 book version1667; 12 books 1674). Spenser had written in a kind of ersatz non-language drawing heavily on Chaucerian French-sounding words and neologisms to set himself apart from or rather above his peers. Milton – possessed of a similar sense of God-given purpose - wrote without rhyme and with a grandiloquent style that is not by any means to everyone’s taste but certainly suits the Biblical subject matter and epic similes that litter descriptions of Satan and the underworld as well as the lush beauty of Eden. Unlovely though the Latinate language Milton used was, it served its purpose. Few poets if any until David Jones (see The Anathemata (1952)) and Ezra Pound (The Cantos (1917-)) in the 20th century would veer so far from ‘natural’ English style and vocabulary again. In both the verse drama Samson Agonistes and Paradise Regained (both 1671), Milton sustained the idea that style needed to suit subject matter in gravity.

John Dryden, the first official poet laureate (and also a playwright of note), writing contemporaneously with Milton veered between staid and humourless celebrations of events (Annus Mirabilis (1667) etc.) and wickedly witty condemnations of rivals (in Absalom and Achitophel (1681) and MacFlecknoe (1682) to name just two). Certainly, Dryden took himself too seriously, but he was not alone among poets in this tendency at the time, and his venomous genius retains its power where his plays – popular at the time – have not (with the notable exception of All for Love (1678)). This was a time when intolerance and backbiting, both social and political, was at the heart of public poetry. However, Dryden’s work did not depend entirely upon his not inconsiderable venom for his peers. He wrote excellent and well-respected translations of, among others, Homer, Ovid, certain Tales from Chaucer and all of Virgil.

  By PanEris using Melati.

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