There are several landmarks in the study of British/English literature. The latest of these is a 3-volume set published by Cambridge University Press. Covering the period 1557-1714 in an expansive 1,165 pages, a host of experts have come together to produce a comprehensive look at what may be regarded as the defining times of our heritage.

Each book contains 20 chapters, and each is divided in these broad categories of transition: generic, ideological, cultural and local. This approach common to all the books makes it possible for a researcher to read either chronologically across the categories, or across all categories in one of the three time frames.

In a work of this scope it will be natural for any reader to focus on his or her own area of interest, but I would urge everyone (after they have satiated themselves on the abundant offerings in their own field of study) to read the other chapters as well. While the experience may not be transformative, it will certainly hold revelations. In this review I can naturally only give my impressions on a few of the 60 chapters, all of which I read; certainly the scholarly level is high throughout, so one must give credit to the editors of each book, as I have listed at the conclusion.

What strikes one first are the range of dates given for the authors of each volume to consider. Students of English history may be puzzled about both the start and end dates, a matter tackled head on at the outset of volume 1. “The dates in our title can be understood as earnest, ironic, and paradoxical,” write the co-editors. “They at once signal the importance of specific moments in literary and cultural history and simultaneously undermine the stability of those dates as meaningful indicators…We understand history, then, not only in relation to form, but as one of the forms that distinctively creates early modern English literature.”

The book opens with a look at sonnets, warning us that the terms ‘sonnet cycle’ and ‘sonnet sequence’ were invented in the 19th century to impose some order on the collections of poems written three centuries earlier. Though informative, I did not find anything about ‘riddling sonnets,’ such as those written on the Continent; perhaps that form of sonnet was absent in Britain. The second chapter, on romantic tales, reminds us that texts we regard as classics were not always viewed in a favourable light. In the 1590s, for example, the Bishop of London railed against the work of Edmund Spenser. “The sin of this land and age…is to commit idolatry,” specifically identifying such poems as Arcadia and Orlando Furioso as culprits.

A chapter on court masques is delightful. A description of one masque performed for King James I in 1608 says the masquers wore costumes “so exceeding in riches that the throne whereon they sat seemed to me a mine of light struck from their jewels and their garments.” As a single masque could cost more than an average person earned in a lifetime, this was not likely an exaggeration! The populace had to read about masques and pageants since they were not invited; this went to the extreme in 1604 when a writer described a masque where “all men’s eyes were presently turned to the north” as they awaited the king. After long speeches, the writer admitted that “his Majesty not making his entrance according to expectation,” the entire pageant was cancelled. But totally lacking in contrition to those who just realized they were reading about a non-event, the author implores one to “imagine that poets and painters set out the beauty of the great triumphant day.” Even ghost pageants were to be envied! Another author who examines court masques denigrates them in stark terms, stating they are “the enemy of self-awareness, self-control, and humility…we can regard them as distortions of the language of classical philosophy in the service of the personality-cult of the doomed and incompetent Stuart monarchy.”

I found the chapter on translating ancient rhetoric to early modern literature to be crucial for understanding how people of this time, such as Shakespeare, wrote.  “The powerful myth of the virtuous orator-civilizer saturates sixteenth century texts of all kinds.” A study of the “ideology of humanism” as this is termed saw many texts that created what we think of as Elizabethan prose; such books or manuscripts as Model of Poesy (1599), The Garden of Eloquence (1577) and The Arte of Rhetoric (1560). I wish the chapter had been longer to explore this further; the 1550 book A Treatise of Schemes and Tropes is merely mentioned.

A chapter of romance states it is “broader than a genre, romance is a mode that manifests itself in every genre (prose, poetry, drama).” Due to their heavily allusive nature, “Romance is in a sense about books and reading.” In other words, one can’t read a 16th century romance without being reminded of the ancient and medieval ones that preceded it since they used the same narrative structures. Who was reading romances? Men at the time offered negative portrayals of romance, which supposedly appealed to women “because it is prurient and sensational, not serious or lofty.” But as historians we see another aspect. The first English product of the “new technology of text” in the 1470s were tales of romance. “As new readers, women are at the leading edge of print culture’s expansion in the 16th and 17th centuries.”

One of the authors resuscitates from oblivion the 16th century poet Thomas Sternhold. His “often total excision” from a discussion of poets of that age has skewed the canonical approach to a study of poetry by regarding him only as a writer of psalms. In fact, these psalms, meant to be sung before King Edward VI, are “central influences on English poetry.”

Finally, regarding the first volume, I note a chapter largely written about George Buchanan. His inclusion here emphasises why this series is about “British” rather than “English” literature. Buchanan was Scottish, and a close associate of King James (first king of both Scotland and England). While the tragedies of Shakespeare get all the attention now, Buchanan’s tragedies embodied ancient Greek tragic precedent like no one else. His particular engagement with Euripides makes this chapter one of great importance for understanding how playwrights handled political concerns in the early modern period.

Volume 2 includes a study of erotic verse of the 1630s and 40s, which “reach their logical conclusion in the still shockingly frank verse of the Earl of Rochester.” The author of this chapter gives us a glimpse into the world of Robert Herrick whose “work has been more admired than studied.” His poem To the Virgins is described as not only his “most famous poem, it is also arguably one of the most famous poems ever written.” It may seem odd that a vicar would write erotic poetry, but this study concludes To the Virgins is actually pastoral advice. Another chapter quotes a London bookdealer of 1660 as stating poetry “is of late too much corrupted in the praise of Cupid and Venus.” He regarded poetry in general, including the 1645 Poems by Milton, as among the “least useful” of his stock of books (divinity topped the list of most useful)! This chapter, rather than disparaging books of poetry, engagingly studies them as a “highly adaptable art form.” Milton himself, writing about Shakespeare’s Folio, referred to it as both invaluable and not valued. “A true poet,” the author of this chapter states, “can no more be limited to a book than the Spirit can be limited to place.” This launches a fascinating exploration of Milton’s view, who thus believed the value of a reforming poet’s words could be found “beyond the printed page,” with the view of Humphrey Moseley, who “helped found the concept that printed books could accurately reflect poets’ achievements.”

The period covered in volume 2 saw major transitions, including the first female actor on a public stage and the first operas in England, and the greatest drama of all – the execution of King Charles I in 1649. As early as 1647 royal supporters “proposed that Christ and Charles have similar characters.” After his death, they “described the scene of the king’s death as the performance of tragedy.” The author of this chapter poses a pregnant question, based on Charles’ last utterance. “Had Charles himself invited this tactic by quoting Hamlet’s vengeful father with his final word, “Remember”?”  The exploration of this, resulting what might be thought of as Act 2, where the Monarchy is restored in 1660, makes this a chapter of great moment.

How all this impacted the concept of friendship is most illuminating. An author writes “it is tempting to look for a connection between classical friendship and political allegiance during the English civil wars that does not exist.” The great playwright Ben Jonson “and his poetic heirs would concur that sins against the state are dishonourable and incompatible with the rational dictates of true friendship. But for them, that state is a monarchy, not a republic.” But the trajectory leads to the unexpected: Friendship “ceases to be a contested male prerogative, and in a remarkable turn, friendship itself becomes feminized during the course of the next century.”

The chapter about Scotland in volume 2 is crucial for understanding what it means to be British. King Charles’ attempt to introduce a new prayer book in Scotland in 1637 was met with great resistance. A National Covenant was signed in Edinburgh in 1638 to protect themselves from it. But it had a surprising consequence. By picking Bonnie Prince Charlie as King of Great Britain instead of just King of Scots a century later, the Covenanters tacitly accepted the rule of a pan-British community. “In the harshest of ironies, Scotland finally lost the ability to claim that it had persisted unconquered – the prospect of English domination now became a reality.”

This leads naturally to the topic of volume 3, the “Emergent Nation.” It was turmoil surrounding the last decades of Stuart rule that the British nation as we know it today was forged. How this was expressed in literature is explored here, beginning with the astrologer Isaac Bickerstaff, who came up the idea of a church thermometer. At one end of the thermometer he placed the zealotry of High Church intolerance; at the other end, the insipidity of religious skepticism. It ran thus from top down: Ignorance, Persecution, Wrath, Zeal, Church, Moderation, Lukewarmness, Infidelity, Ignorance. Either extreme ended in ignorance; he believed the safest position was to stay pent up in Church!

In poetry, the ground shifted irrevocably when Milton chose “a Christian rather than a British epic” when he wrote Paradise Lost. “Like the architectural ruins of imperial Rome, the remains of epic largely became building material for new literary projects that revised the genre system.” This is the grand transition explored in volume 3.

Centrepiece of all this was King Charles II, who “was no fool. He was a cultivated, intelligent man, merciful and amiable.” In the words of the Earl of Rochester, he was “The easiest King, and best bred man alive.” How this realist view squares with the popular view of him as a libertine is explored, as is the resentment felt by those who supported his father Charles I. After the Restoration of the monarchy, many felt aggrieved that Charles II was more merciful to his father’s enemies than his friends. The outrage spilled over into plays and poems. This was expressed in satiric forms, to the extent that the great John Dryden established “a role for satire in a new public context,” that had never before existed in England. In a poetic satire of 1681, Dryden wrote that the King “grants the People all they crave,” which proclaims his goodness, but not his wisdom.  The book ends with the death of Queen Anne in 1714, the end of Stuart rule and the beginning of the Georgian kings of the 18th century.

I saw only three typos in this large collection of chapters, all of them in volume 3. On pg. 119, “suppress” should be “to suppress; pg. 322 “glancees” should be “glances; Pg. 380, “month” should be “months.” My apologies to all the authors of chapters I did not name, but including them would have made this review overly ponderous.

An extraordinary survey of 157 years of British literature, when all was in transition, this trilogy is a milestone publishing event. Essential reading for both historians and anyone who wants to understand the literature of today.

Early Modern British Literature in Transition

This trilogy is available from Cambridge University Press for $375

Gathering Force (vol. 1) 1557-1623

Political Turmoil (vol. 2) 1623-1660

Emergent Nation (vol. 3) 1660-1714

Editors: Kristen Poole & Lauren Shohet (v1) Poole is Professor of English Renaissance Literature at Univ. of Delaware and Shohet is Professor of English at Villanova Univ.; Stephen Dobranski (v2) is Professor of Early Modern Literature at Georgia State University; Elizabeth Sauer (v3) is Professor English at Brock University in Canada, and past Pres. of the Milton Society of America.


Photo credit:

Hieronymus Janssens (Flemish, 1624-93). Charles II dancing at a Ball at Court, ca. 1660. Oil on canvas; 140.2 x 213.8 cm. Berkshire: Windsor Castle, RCIN 400525. Source: Royal Collection Trust

King Charles II in 1660

By Dr. Cliff Cunningham

Dr. Cliff Cunningham is a planetary scientist, the acknowledged expert on the 19th century study of asteroids. He is a Research Fellow at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia. He serves as Editor of the History & Cultural Astronomy book series published by Springer; and Associate Editor of the Journal of Astronomical History & Heritage. Asteroid 4276 in space was named in his honour by the International Astronomical Union based in the recommendation of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Dr. Cunningham has written or edited 15 books. His PhD is in the History of Astronomy, and he also holds a BA in Classical Studies.

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