The middle of the seventeenth century witnessed a change to come over the spirit of English literature. This change is due to no mere fluctuation of literary fashion, but is deeply rooted in the life of the time. The age of the Renascence was an age of spiritual and material expansion, Englishmen realized for the first time their solidarity as a nation; and released suddenly from Continental struggles, especially from the dread of Spanish supremacy, they found an outlet for their excited emotion in drama and song.
But the emotional fervor was too high-pitched to last. Already in the early years of the seventeenth century its splendid exuberance had degenerated into extravagance and violence. The lofty idealism that had steadied the venturesome bark of Elizabethan posse was growing attenuated and the great minds in the closing years of the age, like Bacon and Milton, reflecting their writings the dawn of fresh interests.
The purification of civic and political life emerges more and more into the forefront. Shakespeare and Ben Johnson stand aloof from the political problems of the hour. Bacon and Milton are active politicians no less than great writers; but until the Restoration the full significance of the change is not realized. It meets us first of all in the later poems of Abraham Cowley and in the polished verse of Edmund Waller and Sir John Denham, it frankly and unmistakably proclaims itself a new note in our literature with the coming of Dryden.
Increasingly during the seventeenth century were men’s thoughts directed to problems of civic and national life. The wild speculative interests and imaginative fervor of the Renascence, gave place to a practical application of these ideals to actual existence; and naturally enough literature itself became involved with the problems of practical politics.
France no less than England shared in this reaction from Romanticism, this enthusiasm for affairs rather than ideas, and at this juncture political conditions connected with the Restoration brought the influence of France into special contact with English life and letters.
The horrors of the Plague that darkened the careless gaiety of Restoration London, and the Great Fire that led to the transformation of its architecture under Wren, are reflected in the literature of the time.