The political and social climate of England during the first half of the 17th century was one of curiosity, uncertainty and dissent. The English Civil wars (1642-1651) constituted nine years of brutal conflict that would have a profound and lasting effect on the nation1. This conflict was not only realised on the battlefield; it was also espoused in the writing of the period. In this essay I shall argue that literature was at the epicentre of the English revolution, showing how it both reflected the turbulence of the era but also inspired and encouraged political and theological dissent. I shall begin by introducing the conditions of writing in the period and how changes to these conditions allowed a transformation of genre and a dissemination of revolutionary new ideas into society. I intend to highlight the close relationship between genre and society during the period, with references to Lovelace’s poem Song. To Lucasta, going to the warres, Milton’s Paradise Lost and Sonnet 16 2,3 ,4. I shall then continue by showing that the consequences of the crisis and revolution are profoundly prevalent long after the Restoration of 1660 and literature was at the epicentre of this, embodying the political and theological uncertainty of post-civil war society. In order to illustrate this point I shall again draw upon Paradise Lost and also Philips’ Upon the double Murther of K.CHARLES I 5.
Prior to 1640, all publication was subject to royal censorship. This effectively suffocated any dissent against the tyrannical rule of Charles I and dramatically limited the publishing output. However, as the tumultuous political atmosphere of the early 1640s resulted in the collapse of the machinery of royal censorship and press regulation, an explosion of publication ensued; lay preachers, budding political theorists and ambitious writers of ‘pure literature’ we all able to present their work to a growing public audience. It was in effect a democratisation of the availability of print6. Literature became one of the first democratising spheres, foreshadowing and perhaps enabling the political crisis and subsequent democratisation.
The clergy worried about the bad effects of printed book circulation, because reading encouraged dissent and private opinions, whereas a preached sermon kept the congregation in the thrall of the preacher. These effects were certainly felt in the religious sphere, with various groups such as the Ranters and the Quakers attempting to redefine the meaning of scripture. However, parallels can also be drawn within the political and social sphere. The collapse of a central publishing authority allowed a variety of political views to be distributed via pamphlets and works of rhetoric. As Worden explains, ‘The pen, renaissance writers knew, was for public use’ and consequently literature and writing became catalysts for the political crisis and the revolution that followed7.
In his book ‘Literature and Revolution in England 1640-1660’ Nigel Smith emphasises the connection between the two realms of text and society as genre:
You are your genres, in so far as genre is a refraction of identity and a means through literary structure of exploring potentials and acknowledging limitations in relation to the world8.
Indeed, English society and literary genres during the crisis and revolution are deeply connected. Certain limitations on artistic expression fuelled a shift into more rhetorical and openly political forms. 1642 saw the closing down of the theatres, which pushed the theatrical to become poets and journalists. This resulted in an outpouring of new forms of writing such as newspapers and pamphlets, in order to meet the social demand for news, in a time of turbulent domestic affairs9. Autobiographies, such as John Bunyan’s works were also popular during the…