17th century Literature and Science
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
Elizabethan Literary Legacy
The system of national finance occupies a prominent position in the history of the seventeenth century, since for some three-fourths of the period it is a primary factor in the relations between the Crown and the parliament.
It is at the very root of the constitutional struggle; not because the people were afraid of being tyrannically taxed beyond endurance, not because they grudged money for public purposes, but because they recognised that the control of the purse ultimately entails the control of policy.
But since this constitutional struggle is itself the leading feature of the period to a much greater extent than at any other time in our history, national finance in its connection with that struggle has already been dealt with and requires little further elucidation.
In effect the outcome of the long fight was that the Restoration separated the personal income of the king from the public revenue of the kingdom which had hitherto been identified with it The regular revenue was appropriated to particular objects, while for all other objects additional revenue had to be voted by parliament; and in the course of the reign of Charles II the principle was finally laid down of appropriating the expenditure to the specific object for which the supplies had been granted.
The splendid virility, of the Elizabethan era had displayed itself in an astonishing .individual versatility typified in Walter Raleigh, who was equally fit to play the part of soldier, sailor, courtier, statesman, and man of letters. It was an age in which one man could conceive and depict Falstaff and Lear, Nick Bottom and Hamlet, Rosalind and Cleopatra. Not so were the elements mixed in the age which followed. The abounding delight in the exuberance of life and the appreciation of life's seriousness Paganism and Puritanism, parted company.
Paganism captured the court and Puritanism dominated the country. Puritanism as a force in literature gave to the world of its best in Milton and Bunyan. Paganism achieved nothing higher than the dainty lyrics of Herrick and the brilliant depravity of the Restoration comedy.
Even in the seventeenth century it is true that the world could not be divided into Puritans and Pagans; but at no other period had the two principles been so openly at war; and because they were so openly at war Puritanism assumed an extravagance of austerity, and Paganism an extravagance of wantonness, incompatible with consummate artistic achievement. Only the supreme genius of Milton and Bunyan made them exceptions. Paganism produced no Aristophanes to set against them.
It must be remembered, however, that the borderland between the Elizabethan and the early Stuart literature lies not at the beginning but at the end of the reign of James I; that half of the "Elizabethan" drama was produced after the Union of the Crowns. And even when the generation of Elizabethans had died out, the hostility between Puritanism and Paganism was not by any means fully developed.
The immediate severance was rather that between the intellectual and the emotional, which must unite in the production of the greatest literary work, especially poetry. The pursuit of verbal ingenuities and intellectual subtleties, which had in fact been heralded by the Euphuists, dominated the cultivated taste of the time and produced what a later age chose to call the "metaphysical" poets, at whose head was John Donne.
The deeper feelings of men were concentrating upon religion and the passion for liberty, but they had not yet hardened into fanaticism. Comus is the consummate expression of the Puritanism which was at once spiritual and intellectual neither Roundhead nor Cavalier but characteristic of much that was best among the adherents of both sides when the Civil War broke out.
It was the Civil War itself which taught Milton to identify the Royalists with the Philistines, and to allegorise the struggle of Puritanism in the Samson Agonistes; while the essential unconquerable spirit at the heart of English Puritanism, independent of all the turmoil of war and faction, still found its sublime expression in the Paradise Lost.
Milton and Bunyan
In Milton alone the most intense Puritanism was wedded to the highest intellectuality. Consciously his appeal was to a "fit audience though few." John Bunyan represents the Puritanism which took captive the humble and unlearned through its own essential humility and simplicity.
A man of the people, low born, with no social advantages, uneducated save for an intimate knowledge of the Scriptures and a considerable acquaintance with the controversial literature of Puritanism, John Bunyan followed the old advice of Sir Philip Sidney, "looked in his heart and wrote."
The immortal allegory of the Pilgrim's Progress displays the root quality of Puritanism, not turned arrogant by battling with the Devil, nor harsh by battling with the flesh, nor sour by the world's contempt and persecution. Incidentally it gives a delightfully vivid impression of eternal human types under the conditions of the England of the Restoration. But in the history of literature it stands out peculiarly as the precursor of the English novel which was about to be created by Daniel Defoe.
The reign of King Charles I, the Civil War, and the rule of the Commonwealth were not favourable to literary production, except of a controversial character either political or religious. Pamphleteering flourished, but the lighter forms of writing could only be practised by those who were able to stand aloof altogether from the arena.
Yet such peaceful spirits were to be feared. There is nothing militant in the devotional prose of Jeremy Taylor or the devotional verse of George Herbert, the latter of whom lived to witness only the danger-signals of the storm, not the storm itself. There are few writers dearer to the true book-lover than Sir Thomas Browne, though not every one takes a genuine delight in the Religio Media.
Battles raged and kingdoms fell, but that did not prevent Isaac Walton from practising the most peaceful of recreations and writing the fisherman's supreme classic, while Milton was deserting his diviner muse to produce the Areopagitica, a masterpiece in political prose literature.
With the exception of Comus the great masterpieces of Puritan literature were actually produced after the Restoration. But the voices which prevailed were not those of Puritans. Milton was the survivor of an age of idealists, when men fought for causes with a splendid devotion, however antagonistic the causes themselves might be; when they were ready to die for "Church and King" or for "the Houses and the Word." The old ideals had shattered themselves.
The Restoration Era
The new age which had dawned was materialist and cynical. The past age had been too much in earnest to be clever and witty; the new age was supremely clever and witty, being no longer in earnest. Therefore its tragedy was insincere, stilted, and unconvincing. Its comedy was brilliant, but it was not merely non-moral and irresponsible; it assumed in its reaction against Puritanism that virtue is redeemed from being contemptible only when circumstances render it comic.
And the note of the Restoration prevailed through the Revolution; the claims of decency remained in abeyance, so far as polite society was concerned, until the seventeenth century had passed. Milton, as we have said, belongs to the earlier age.
Besides Bunyan's, the one other great literary name of the era is that of John Dryden, whose work practically covers the period from the Restoration to the end of the century. As befits the times in which he lived, Dryden's supreme achievement was in the field of satire. His political pieces Absalom and Achitophel and the Hind and the Panther are unsurpassed in their kind. But satire is essentially intellectual, appealing to the intelligent critical judgment, the taste of the audience.
If the poet's function is to express his own sense of beauty, what the Greeks meant by the phrase which we translate as "the beautiful," and to arouse the perception of it in others, the satirist is not a poet, since he is mainly concerned with denouncing and exposing the antithesis of the beautiful. Satire is the natural product of materialist conditions.
The Growth of Science
Such conditions, on the other hand, are rather favourable to scientific inquiry, though they are by no means necessary to it. The era of the Restoration and the Revolution was one during which England achieved far more distinction in natural science and in the literature of Rationalism than in the literature of imagination and emotion.
But the scientific movement had its birth at a much earlier date, in the reign of James I, when Harvey was demonstrating the theory of the circulation of the blood and Bacon was formulating afresh the whole system of scientific thought. Living political problems inspired speculative inquiry into the bases of the political structure and the organisation of society.
Hobbes and the Social Contract
Advocates of parliamentary control began to assert that kings were nothing more than the chief magistrates of the states over which they ruled. Advocates of Absolutism discovered that they ruled by right divine, which it was profanity to question.
Thomas Hobbes, the disciple and sometime secretary of Francis Bacon, recognised in politics a branch of the universal science conceived by his master; and being himself a convinced Absolutist; he endeavoured to discover a basis for Absolutism more satisfying to the reason than the theory of Divine Right. He evolved his own peculiar doctrine of the Social Contract, promulgated in the work which he called Leviathan.
Mankind being by nature in a condition of war, every man against every other man, the warring units discovered that each of them could profit more, individually, by acting in consort with others for mutual assistance. But the individual had no guarantee that his consorts would not play him false; some coercive power was required Hence men entered into a contract with each other to recognise and enforce the supreme authority of some one person or body of persons.
Here was the nucleus of the state, the whole body of persons who entered into the contract which was ipso facto binding upon all persons born under the contract. But it was not a contract between the ruler and the ruled, but between the ruled among themselves; a contract from which they could not free themselves without dissolving society altogether.
Society therefore has no rights as against the ruler; the ruler has obligations, but in respect of them he is responsible to himself and the Almighty and to no one else. But the doctrine of Thomas Hobbes, published in the early years of the Commonwealth, was by no means to the taste of the clerical royalism of the day, since it uncompromisingly subjected religion to the authority of the absolute ruler of the state.
On the other hand, the theory of the Social Contract was appropriated and modified by the Constitutionalists, and was formulated by John Locke in his Theory of Civil Government, the text-book of the Revolution Whigs. The king was bound by the contract, being himself a party to it in the primary constitution of society.
If he broke his part of the contract, the other parties to it were released from their obligation, not of recognising a supreme authority, but of continuing to regard him personally as the seat of that authority, of which the ultimate sanction was the will of the society, as a whole. The names of Hobbes and Locke, widely though they differ, stand at the head of the peculiarly English school of moral and political philosophy.
But the highest distinction was reserved for the leaders of English progress in natural science, one of whom stands second to none, whether in English or in European records. The discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton in the field of physics revolutionised men's knowledge of the Univer Not Darwin himself effected so fundamental a change in the imaginative conception of an infinite creation, apart from the vast practical bearings of the new knowledge.
Perhaps the most creditable trait in the character of Charles II was his genuine interest in scientific inquiry. To Charles we owe the foundation of the Royal Society; and beside the supreme name of Isaac Newton stand those of the astronomer Flamsteed, of Boyle the father of modern chemistry, and of Ray the founder of the science of zoology.
This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's views may be controversial by modern standards, particularly his attitudes towards other cultures and races, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.