The literature of the era


The 1590s were a tremendously creative time in English literature. It was a first flowering of the English Renaissance. Several theatres opened in London and were supplied with plays by a crop of brilliant dramatists: Thomas Dekker, Christopher Marlowe, and the great William Shakespeare, who straddled the divide between Tudor and Stuart.

At the beginning of the seventeenth century, another group of dramatists emerged: Ben Jonson, John Webster, Thomas Middleton, John Ford, and many others. Some though not all are referred to as the Jacobean dramatists.


Faerie QueeneIn poetry, the last of the great Elizabethans were Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser. Spenser's [3Faerie Queene3] is one of the great English epic poems. John Donne, like Shakespeare, straddles both centuries. Following him came the Metaphysical poets, Ben Jonson, and then the second great epic poet, John Milton, whose [3Paradise Lost3] was not published till 1667.


Though the novel barely existed as such, there were also great prose writers. For example:

  • Francis Bacon on science
  • Thomas Hobbes the philosopher
  • Richard Hooker the theologian-lawyer.

Andrewes' sermons were followed by those of Donne. Jeremy Taylor was another in the growing tradition of Anglican religious writers.

Sir Thomas Browne was another prose writer of some repute, as was Izaak Walton, who wrote on both fishing and poets. Even Sir Walter Raleigh wrote a history of England while in prison. The printing presses were even busier during the period leading to the Civil War, including the production of Milton's greatest prose work, the Areopagitica, the first great defence of free speech in English.

It is an exciting period to study.

An emblem poem

This is one of Herbert's emblem poems. Emblem Books were popular reading at the time, particularly those produced by a minor poet, Francis Quarles.

More on emblems: Each page of an Emblem Book had a woodcut or crude print of a scene or subject. Underneath would be a ‘motto' or sentence suggesting the subject matter of the print. Then would follow a poem which acted as an explanation of the picture, usually a moral or religious explication. An emblem poem is thus an allegorical or symbolicpoem explaining a visual object.

Picture from Alciato's Book of EmblemsThe subjects in Emblem Books would be everyday ones – town or country scenes or objects. The system works well for a poet who wants to teach religious truths through everyday objects. In this way, they are not unlike the parables that Jesus told in the Gospels. They are at the other extreme of Metaphysical poetry to the intellectual and scholarly conceits of John Donne, whose audience would have been well-educated men like himself.

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