After the Restoration in 1660, when Charles II came to the throne, there was a complete repudiation of the Puritan ideals and way of living. In English literature the period from 1660 to 1700 is called the period of Restoration, because monarchy was restored in England, and Charles II, the son of Charles I who had been defeated and beheaded, came back to England from his exile in France and became the King.
It is called the Age of Dryden, because Dryden was the dominating and most representative literary figure of the Age. As the Puritans who were previously controlling the country, and were supervising her literary and moral and social standards, were finally defeated, a reaction was launched against whatever they held sacred. All restraints and discipline were thrown to the winds, and a wave of licentiousness and frivolity swept the country. Charles II and his followers who had enjoyed a gay life in France during their exile, did their best to introduce that type of foppery and looseness in England also. They renounced old ideals and demanded that English poetry and drama should follow the style to which they had become accustomed in the gaiety of Paris. Instead of having Shakespeare and the Elizabethans as their models, the poets and dramatists of the Restoration period began to imitate French writers and especially their vices.
The result was that the old Elizabethan spirit with its patriotism, its love of adventure and romance, its creative vigour, and the Puritan spirit with its moral discipline and love of liberty, became things of the past. For a time in poetry, drama and prose nothing was produced which could compare satisfactorily with the great achievements of the Elizabethans, of Milton, and even of minor writers of the Puritan age. But then the writers of the period began to evolve something that was characteristic of the times and they made two important contributions to English literature in the form of realism and a tendency to preciseness.
In the beginning realism took an ugly shape, because the writers painted the real pictures of the corrupt society and court. They were more concerned with vices rather than with virtues. The result was a coarse and inferior type of literature. Later this tendency to realism became more wholesome, and the writers tried to portray realistically human life as they found it—its good as well as bad side, its internal as well as external shape.
The tendency to preciseness which ultimately became the chief characteristic of the Restoration period, made a lasting contribution to English literature. It emphasised directness and simplicity of expression, and counteracted the tendency of exaggeration and extravagance which was encouraged during the Elizabethan and the Puritan ages. Instead of using grandiloquent phrases, involved sentences full of Latin quotations and classical allusions, the Restoration writers, under the influence of French writers, gave emphasis to reasoning rather than romantic fancy, and evolved an exact, precise way of writing, consisting of short, clear-cut sentences without any unnecessary word. The Royal Society, which was established during this period enjoined on all its members to use ‘a close, naked, natural way of speaking and writing, as near the mathematical plainness as they can”. Dryden accepted this rule for his prose, and for his poetry adopted the easiest type of verse-form—the heroic couplet. Under his guidance, the English writers evolved a style—precise, formal and elegant—which is called the classical style, and which dominated English literature for more than a century.
(a) Restoration Poetry
John Dryden (1631-1700). The Restoration poetry was mostly satirical, realistic and written in the heroic couplet, of which Dryden was the supreme master. He was the dominating figure of the Restoration period, and he made his mark in the fields of poetry, drama and prose. In the field of poetry he was, in fact, the only poet worth mentioning. In his youth he came under the influence of Cowley, and his early poetry has the characteristic conceits and exaggerations of the metaphysical school. But in his later years he emancipated himself from the false taste and artificial style of the metaphysical writers, and wrote in a clear and forceful style which laid the foundation of the classical school of poetry in England.
The poetry of Dryden can be conveniently divided under three heads—Political Satires, Doctrinal Poems and The Fables. Of his political satires, Absolem and Achitophel and The Medal are well-known. In Absolem and Achitophel, which is one of the greatest political satires in the English language, Dryden defended the King against the Earl of Shaftesbury who is represented as Achitophel. It contains powerful character studies of Shaftesbury and of the Duke of Buckingham who is represented as Zimri. The Medal is another satirical poem full of invective against Shaftesbury and MacFlecknoe. It also contains a scathing personal attack on Thomas Shadwell who was once a friend of Dryden.
The two great doctrinal poems of Dryden are Religio Laici and The Hind and the Panther. These poems are neither religious nor devotional, but theological and controversial. The first was written when Dryden was a Protestant, and it defends the Anglican Church. The second written when Dryden had become a Catholic, vehemently defends Catholicism. They, therefore, show Dryden’s power and skill of defending any position he took up, and his mastery in presenting an argument in verse.
The Fables, which were written during the last years of Dryden’s life, show no decrease in his poetic power. Written in the form of a narrative, they entitle Dryden to rank among the best story-tellers in verse in England. The Palamon and Arcite, which is based on Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale, gives us an opportunity of comparing the method and art of a fourteenth century poet with one belonging to the seventeenth century. Of the many miscellaneous poems of Dryden, Annus Mirabilis is a fine example of his sustained narrative power. His Alexander’s Feast is one of the best odes in the English language.
The poetry of Dryden possess all the characteristics of the Restoration period and is therefore thoroughly representative of that age. It does not have the poetic glow, the spiritual fervour, the moral loftiness and philosophical depth which were sadly lacking in the Restoration period. But it has the formalism, the intellectual precision, the argumentative skill and realism which were the main characteristics of that age. Though Dryden does not reach great poetic heights, yet here and there he gives us passages of wonderful strength and eloquence. His reputation lies in his being great as a satirist and reasoner in verse. In fact in these two capacities he is still the greatest master in English literature. Dryden’s greatest contribution to English poetry was his skilful use of the heroic couplet, which became the accepted measure of serious English poetry for many years.
(b) Restoration Drama
In 1642 the theatres were closed by the authority of the parliament which was dominated by Puritans and so no good plays were written from 1642 till the Restoration (coming back of monarchy in England with the accession of Charles II to the throne) in 1660 when the theatres were re-opened. The drama in England after 1660, called the Restoration drama, showed entirely new trends on account of the long break with the past. Moreover, it was greatly affected by the spirit of the new age which was deficient in poetic feeling, imagination and emotional approach to life, but laid emphasis on prose as the medium of expression, and intellectual, realistic and critical approach to life and its problems. As the common people still under the influence of Puritanism had no love for the theatres, the dramatists had to cater to the taste of the aristocratic class which was highly fashionable, frivolous, cynical and sophisticated. The result was that unlike the Elizabethan drama which had a mass appeal, had its roots in the life of the common people and could be legitimately called the national drama, the Restoration drama had none of these characteristics. Its appeal was confined to the upper strata of society whose taste was aristocratic, and among which the prevailing fashions and etiquettes were foreign and extravagant.
As imagination and poetic feelings were regarded as ‘vulgar enthusiasm’ by the dictators of the social life. But as ‘actual life’ meant the life of the aristocratic class only, the plays of this period do not give us a picture of the whole nation. The most popular form of drama was the Comedy of Manners which portrayed the sophisticated life of the dominant class of society—its gaiety, foppery, insolence and intrigue. Thus the basis of the Restoration drama was very narrow. The general tone of this drama was most aptly described by Shelley:
Comedy loses its ideal universality: wit succeeds humour; we laugh from self-complacency and triumph; instead of pleasure, malignity, sarcasm and contempt, succeed to sympathetic merriment; we hardly laugh, but we smile. Obscenity, which is ever blasphemy against the divine beauty of life, becomes, from the very veil which it assumes, more active if less disgusting; it is a monster for which the corruption of society for ever brings forth new food, which it devours in secret.
These new trends in comedy are seen in Dryden’s Wild Gallant (1663), Etheredge’s (1635-1691) The Comical Revenge or Love in a Tub (1664), Wycherley’s The Country Wife and The Plain Dealer, and the plays of Vanbrugh and Farquhar. But the most gifted among all the Restoration dramatist was William Congreve (1670-1720) who wrote all his best plays he was thirty years of age. He well-known comedies are Love for Love (1695) and The Way of the World (1700).
It is mainly on account of his remarkable style that Congreve is put at the head of the Restoration drama. No English dramatist has even written such fine prose for the stage as Congreve did. He balances, polishes and sharpens his sentences until they shine like chiselled instruments for an electrical experiment, through which passes the current in the shape of his incisive and scintillating wit. As the plays of Congreve reflect the fashions and foibles of the upper classes whose moral standards had become lax, they do not have a universal appeal, but as social documents their value is very great. Moreover, though these comedies were subjected to a very severe criticism by the Romantics like Shelley and Lamb, they are now again in great demand and there is a revival of interest in Restoration comedy.
In tragedy, the Restoration period specialised in Heroic Tragedy, which dealt with themes of epic magnitude. The heroes and heroines possessed superhuman qualities. The purpose of this tragedy was didactic—to inculcate virtues in the shape of bravery and conjugal love. It was written in the ‘heroic couplet’ in accordance with the heroic convention derived from France that ‘heroic metre’ should be used in such plays. In it declamation took the place of natural dialogue. Moreover, it was characterised by bombast, exaggeration and sensational effects wherever possible. As it was not based on the observations of life, there was no realistic characterisation, and it inevitably ended happily, and virtue was always rewarded.
The chief protagonist and writer of heroic tragedy was Dryden. Under his leadership the heroic tragedy dominated the stage from 1660 to 1678. His first experiment in this type of drama was his play Tyrannic love, and in The Conquest of Granada he brought it to its culminating point. But then a severe condemnation of this grand manner of writing tragedy was started by certain critics and playwrights, of which Dryden was the main target. It has its effect on Dryden who in his next play Aurangzeb exercised greater restraint and decorum, and in the Prologue to this play he admitted the superiority of Shakespeare’s method, and his own weariness of using the heroic couplet which is unfit to describe human passions adequately: He confesses that he:
Grows weary of his long-loved mistress Rhyme,
Passions too fierce to be in fetters bound,
And Nature flies him like enchanted ground;
What verse can do, he has performed in this
Which he presumes the most correct of his;
But spite of all his pride, a secret shame
Invades his breast at Shakespeare’s sacred name.
Dryden’s altered attitude is seen more clearly in his next play All for Love (1678). Thus he writes in the preface: “In my style I have professed to imitate Shakespeare; which that I might perform more freely, I have disencumbered myself from rhyme.” He shifts his ground from the typical heroic tragedy in this play, drops rhyme and questions the validity of the unities of time, place and action in the conditions of the English stage. He also gives up the literary rules observed by French dramatists and follows the laws of drama formulated by the great dramatists of England. Another important way in which Dryden turns himself away from the conventions of the heroic tragedy, is that he does not give a happy ending to this play.
(c) Restoration Prose
The Restoration period was deficient in poetry and drama, but in prose it holds its head much higher. Of course, it cannot be said that the Restoration prose enjoys absolute supremacy in English literature, because on account of the fall of poetic power, lack of inspiration, preference of the merely practical and prosaic subjects and approach to life, it could not reach those heights which it attained in the preceding period in the hands of Milton and Browne, or in the succeeding ages in the hands of Lamb, Hazlitt, Ruskin and Carlyle. But it has to be admitted that it was during the Restoration period that English prose was developed as a medium for expressing clearly and precisely average ideas and feelings about miscellaneous matters for which prose is really meant. For the first time a prose style was evolved which could be used for plain narrative, argumentative exposition of intricate subjects, and the handling of practical business. The elaborate Elizabethan prose was unsuited to telling a plain story. The epigrammatic style of Bacon, the grandiloquent prose of Milton and the dreamy harmonies of Browne could not be adapted to scientific, historical, political and philosophical writings, and, above all, to novel-writing. Thus with the change in the temper of the people, a new type of prose, as was developed in the Restoration period, was essential.
As in the fields of poetry and drama, Dryden was the chief leader and practitioner of the new prose. In his greatest critical work Essay of Dramatic Poesy, Dryden presented a model of the new prose, which was completely different from the prose of Bacon, Milton and Browne. He wrote in a plain, simple and exact style, free from all exaggerations. His Fables and the Preface to them are fine examples of the prose style which Dryden was introducing. This style is, in fact, the most admirably suited to strictly prosaic purposes—correct but not tame, easy but not slipshod, forcible but not unnatural, eloquent but not declamatory, graceful but not lacking in vigour. Of course, it does not have charm and an atmosphere which we associate with imaginative writing, but Dryden never professed to provide that also. On the whole, for general purposes, for which prose medium is required, the style of Dryden is the most suitable.
Other writers, of the period, who came under the influence of Dryden, and wrote in a plain, simple but precise style, were Sir William Temple, John Tillotson and George Saville better known as Viscount Halifax. Another famous writer of the period was Thomas Sprat who is better known for the distinctness with which he put the demand for new prose than for his own writings. Being a man of science himself he published his History of the Royal Society (1667) in which he expressed the public demand for a popularised style free from “this vicious abundance of phrase, this trick of metaphors, this volubility of tongue.” The Society expected from all its members “a close, natural way of speaking—positive expressions, clear senses, a native easiness bringing all things as near the mathematical plainness as they can, and preferring the language of artisans, country men and merchants before that of wits and scholars.”
Though these writers wrote under the influence of Dryden, they also, to a certain extent, helped in the evolution of the new prose style by their own individual approach. That is why the prose of the Restoration period is free from monotony.
John Bunyan (1628-1688). Next to Dryden, Bunyan was the greatest prose-writer of the period. Like Milton, he was imbued with the spirit of Puritanism, and in fact, if Milton is the greatest poet of Puritanism, Bunyan is its greatest story-teller. To him also goes the credit of being the precursor of the English novel. His greatest work is The Pilgrim’s Progress. Just as Milton wrote his Paradise Lost “to justify the ways to God to men”, Bunyan’s aim in The Pilgrim’s Progress was” “to lead men and women into God’s way, the way of salvation, through a simple parable with homely characters and exciting events”. Like Milton, Bunyan was endowed with a highly developed imaginative faculty and artistic instinct. Both were deeply religious, and both, though they distrusted fiction, were the masters of fiction. Paradise Lost and The Pilgrim’s Progress have still survived among thousands of equally fervent religious works of the seventeenth century because both of them are masterpieces of literary art, which instruct as well please even those who have no faith in those instructions.
In The Pilgrim’s Progress, Bunyan has described the pilgrimage of the Christian to the Heavenly City, the trials, tribulations and temptations which he meets in the way in the form of events and characters, who abstract and help him, and his ultimately reaching the goal. It is written in the form of allegory. The style is terse, simple and vivid, and it appeals to the cultured as well as to the unlettered. As Dr. Johnson remarked: “This is the great merit of the book, that the most cultivated man cannot find anything to praise more highly, and the child knows nothing more amusing.” The Pilgrim’s Progress has all the basic requirements of the traditional type of English novel. It has a good story; the characters are interesting and possess individuality and freshness; the conversation is arresting; the descriptions are vivid; the narrative continuously moves towards a definite end, above all, it has a literary style through which the writer’s personality clearly emanates. The Pilgrim’s Progress is a work of superb literary genius, and it is unsurpassed as an example of plain English.
Bunyan’s other works are: Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (1666), a kind of spiritual autobiography; The Holy War, which like The Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegory, but the characters are less alive, and there is less variety; The Life and Death of Mr. Badman (1680) written in the form of a realistic novel, gives a picture of low life, and it is second in value and literary significance to The Pilgrim’s Progress.
The prose of Bunyan shows clearly the influence of the English translation of the Bible (The Authorized Version). He was neither a scholar, nor did he belong to any literary school; all that he knew and learned was derived straight from the English Bible. He was an unlettered country tinker believing in righteousness and in disgust with the corruption and degradation that prevailed all around him. What he wrote came straight from his heart, and he wrote in the language which came natural to him. Thus his works born of moral earnestness and extreme sincerity have acquired true literary significance and wide and enduring popularity. It is quite true to call him the pioneer of the modern novel, because he had the qualities of the great story-teller, deep insight into character, humour, pathos, and the visualising imagination of a dramatic artist.