Restoration Age (1660–1700)
Restoration literature includes both Paradise Lost and the Earl of Rochester’s Sodom, the sexual comedy of The Country Wife and the moral wisdom of Pilgrim’s Progress. It saw Locke’s “Two Treatises on Government”, the founding of the Royal Society, the experiments and the holy meditations of Robert Boyle, the hysterical attacks on theatres from Jeremy Collier, the pioneering of literary criticism from Dryden, and the first newspapers. The official break in literary culture caused by censorship and radically moralist standards under Cromwell’s Puritan regime created a gap in literary tradition, allowing a seemingly fresh start for all forms of literature after the Restoration. During the Interregnum, the royalist forces attached to the court of Charles I went into exile with the twenty-year-old Charles II. The nobility who traveled with Charles II was therefore lodged for over a decade in the midst of the continent’s literary scene.
John Milton, one of the greatest English poets, wrote at this time of religious flux and political upheaval. Milton is best known for his epic poem Paradise Lost (1671). His other important poems include L’Allegro, 1631, Il Penseroso 1634, Comus (a masque), 1638 and Lycidas. Milton’s poetry and prose reflect deep personal convictions, a passion for freedom and self-determination, and the urgent issues and political turbulence of his day. His celebrated “Areopagitica”, written in condemnation of pre-publication censorship, is among history’s most influential and impassioned defenses of free speech and freedom of the press.
The largest and most important poetic form of the era was satire. In general, publication of satire was done anonymously, as there were great dangers in being associated with a satire.John Dryden (1631–1700) was an influential English poet, literary critic, translator, and playwright who dominated the literary life of Restoration England to such a point that the period came to be known in literary circles as the Age of Dryden. He established the heroic couplet as a standard form of English poetry. Dryden’s greatest achievements were in satiric verse in works like the mock-heroic MacFlecknoe (1682).Alexander Pope (1688–1744) was heavily influenced by Dryden, and often borrowed from him; other writers in the 18th century were equally influenced by both Dryden and Pope.
The prose in the Restoration period is dominated by Christian religious writing, but the Restoration also saw the beginnings of two genres that would dominate later periods, fiction and journalism. Religious writing often strayed into political and economic writing; just as political and economic writing implied or directly addressed religion. The Restoration was also the time when John Locke wrote many of his philosophical works. His “Two Treatises on Government”, which later inspired the thinkers in the American Revolution. The Restoration moderated most of the more strident sectarian writing, but radicalism persisted after the Restoration. Puritan authors such as John Milton were forced to retire from public life or adapt, and those authors who had preached against monarchy and who had participated directly in the regicide of Charles I were partially suppressed. Consequently, violent writings were forced underground, and many of those who had served in the Interregnum attenuated their positions in the Restoration. John Bunyan stands out beyond other religious authors of the period. Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegory of personal salvation and a guide to the Christian life.
During the Restoration period, the most common manner of getting news would have been a broadsheet publication. A single, large sheet of paper might have a written, usually partisan, account of an event.
It is impossible to satisfactorily date the beginning of the novel in English. However, long fiction and fictional biographies began to distinguish themselves from other forms in England during the Restoration period. An existing tradition of Romance fiction in France and Spain was popular in England. One of the most significant figures in the rise of the novel in the Restoration period is Aphra Behn, author of Oroonoko (1688), who was not only the first professional female novelist, but she may be among the first professional novelists of either sex in England.
As soon as the previous Puritan regime’s ban on public stage representations was lifted, the drama recreated itself quickly and abundantly. The most famous plays of the early Restoration period are the unsentimental or “hard” comedies of John Dryden, William Wycherley, and George Etherege, which reflect the atmosphere at court, and celebrate an aristocratic macho lifestyle of unremitting sexual intrigue and conquest. After a sharp drop in both quality and quantity in the 1680s, the mid-1690s saw a brief second flowering of the drama, especially comedy. Comedies like William Congreve’s The Way of the World (1700), and John Vanbrugh’s The Relapse (1696) and The Provoked Wife (1697) were “softer” and more middle-class in ethos, very different from the aristocratic extravaganza twenty years earlier, and aimed at a wider audience.