17th Century Literature Essay Examples

Women Writers of the Seventeenth Century

The following entry provides historical and critical commentary on English-language women's writing and feminist thought during the seventeenth century.

Seventeenth-century England witnessed a surge in literary activity by women, despite the restrictive gender roles of the time. Unlike women's literature of the middle ages and renaissance, which is predominantly devotional, seventeenth-century writings by women treat a variety of secular subjects through such forms as drama, fiction, and autobiography. Modern feminist thought also finds its roots in seventeenth-century polemical writings and activities by women, many of which have only recently received significant scholarly attention.

The English Civil Wars contributed to the expansion of women's roles in many areas, including an increase of publishing activity; and many women began to perceive themselves for the first time as part of a larger social group, inherently equal to men, but subjected to discrimination that restricted their opportunities. Modern feminism stems from this philosophy, which was a significant departure from the traditional conception of women as isolated individuals whose fates were predetermined solely by their biological status as the "weaker sex." Critics view the seventeenth century as a time of increasing, although highly ambiguous, female social awareness. The exclusion of women from universities and academic societies, for example, was regarded by early feminists as an instrument of social repression, but protests most often hinged on the argument that equal education for women would enhance their abilities as wives and mothers, rather than as scholars or professionals. Restricted access to education undoubtedly thwarted the potential achievements of women writers, since the seventeenth-century education of girls focused largely on domestic skills in the service of religion, wifehood, and motherhood, rather than development of intellectual and artistic abilities. It was quite common, for example, for women to be taught to read the Bible, but not to write. In rare instances, girls received a more extensive private education from friends or relatives, but this was the exception.

In addition to barriers to education, women writers encountered the obstacle of public condemnation of their efforts. Only certain nonthreatening literary forms were considered socially appropriate for women, such as polite and pious verse, or translations, which were generally viewed as far removed from the "serious" literature dominated by men. Women who addressed original themes with an original voice risked being labelled as immoral, or even insane. Seventeenth-century women nevertheless played a significant role in the evolution of each of the literary genres. They contributed in particular to the development of the novel, partly because the relative newness of prose fiction meant that there were few rigid rules concerning form, allowing many literate women to attempt works with little or no artistic training. Domestic subjects, however, were not yet considered valid material for fiction, which posed a difficulty for women who were excluded from the types of experiences necessary to handle such popular forms as the picaresque novel or guild tale. The pastoral romance, therefore, became the chosen form of many early women writers of fiction, such as Mary Wroth. Biography was another viable and socially legitimate genre for women, with the most common biographies by women being records of their husband's lives or chronicles of family histories. Critics have observed that many of these biographical and autobiographical writings are characterized by a lack of realism associated with the restricted treatment of domestic subjects—in some cases, events that dominated the lives of authors, such as childbirth and motherhood, are given only brief, superficial references. Seventeenth-century women also made notable contributions to drama. Aphra Behn, for example, shocked some audiences with her candid treatment of arranged marriages and adulterous relationships in several successful plays. Generally viewed with more tolerance than fiction writers or dramatists, women poets expanded popular poetic forms and techniques to accommodate a feminine perspective. Mary Wroth, for example, transformed the traditional Petrarchan conceit of woman as love object into an expression of a woman's love for a man in her sonnet sequence Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, while Aemilia Lanyer created a feminine recasting of Christ's Passion in Salve deus rex judaeorum.


The earlier seventeenth century, construed as the period extending roughly from the beginning of James I's reign to the restoration of Charles II, witnessed an unparalleled poetic achievement in England. This achievement flourished in part because of the specific transitions England underwent in the period. The institutions upon which the society rested were challenged, which led to unprecedented opportunity for experiment in politics as in poetry. But most of the poetic institutions were in place even before this period began emerging from the tremendous dramatic and non dramatic achievements of the 1590s and they continued beyond the restoration producing the consummate example of Renaissance epic in English, Milton's Paradise Lost (1667), well after the "Renaissance" had ended.

To say, however, that these conditions persisted beyond their logical terminus is, in a way, to impose an arbitrary historical scheme retroactively, to engage in the convenient fictions of "periodizing." Since such deductive reasoning remains an inevitability in approaching a primary text (even with the best of intentions, in the quest to be "historical"), I hope to cull the presuppositions I bring together to inform a larger narrative of literary history as inductively as possible. Consequently, I propose to engage the specific intersections of four thematic categories with three theoretical concerns. While overlapping between topics will inexorably obscure the integrity of each topic, this process should enable a greater comprehension of both the discrete category and the larger concern.

Before I enumerate the categories into which, I believe, all the poets on my list can be organized, I'll explain the theoretical concerns that will order my approaches to these categories. The first theoretical concern, broadly conceived, is represented by the dyad structure and epistemology. By beginning with structure, I intend to demonstrate how an intimate knowledge of the intrinsic forms of a work of art contribute to (and indeed govern) the work's modes of meaning. To say this is not to reduce or oversimplify the concerns that a poet's sense of intrinsic form engages: the form of the content always relates to the epistemological concerns of the writer. In choosing the word "epistemology," I indicate the period's interest in its own new and inherited forms of knowledge, specifically religious, scientific, and classical.

The second theoretical concern meets the first on many levels. Politics and genre the two terms that best represent this next concern are historically entwined in every period, but especially so in a period in which the education of the young depends so heavily upon the study of rhetoric. That is to say, in literature, genre is a code communicative of many complex operations of the poet's mind, not the least of which is the possibility for political engagement. From epigram to epic, the poetry of seventeenth century England is majestically topical, although staunchly resistant to exclusively topical interpretation.

But poems, it must be said, do not undertake anything poets do. Indeed, the poets who communicate by means of genres have intentions, and these intentions are historical events, just as the occasions for which they are written are historical events. Hence, my third theoretical concern is with authorship and gender. This dyad marks the point where history becomes theory and theory history. More specifically, the period saw a great increase in the number of poets writing, poets from a wider range of classes and inclusive of both genders. In short, the emergence of the status of the "professional" author in the period an eventuality occasioned by the increased commercial potential of printed poetry collections, and in some instances occasioned in distinct opposition to the vicissitudes of print culture opened the way for a richer, more various poetry. In many ways, this process was the most distinguishing feature of the age, producing the conditions in which its greatest poets flourished.

These theoretical concerns, broadly delineated, will be applied to the poets on my list, who are organized under the rubric of four thematic categories. These categories of necessity will be even broader in conception, more inclusive, which itself strikes me as a move toward better understanding the period in its own terms. This is not, however, to conform to the older conceptions of "Cavalier" and "Metaphysical," to the schools of Donne and Jonson. For such a conception of the period is not only misleading, but radically inaccurate when one considers the extent to which these poets share integral forms, features, concerns, and even addressees. In place of the familiar binarisms, I propose to categorize the poets who should fall into more than one of these categories as 1) classical, political, secular, occasional; 2) sacred; 3) love; 4) epistemic (i.e., scientific, technological, psychological, topographical, "country house"). Of course, these thematic categories will be challenged by the works themselves, particularly by the greater works, which inexorably challenge us in our attempts to quantify or qualify their theoretical concerns or thematic strains.


Fulke Greville (1554-1628)
— "Elegy on the Death of Sidney" (1586?)
— Selections from Caelica (1633)
XXXVIII ("Caelica, I overnight was finely used")
LV ("Cynthia, because your horns look diverse ways")
LV1("All my senses like beacons' flame")
LXXX ("Clear spirits, which in images set forth")
LXXXII ("You that seeke what Life is in Death")
LXXXVII ("When as man's life, the light of human lust")
XCVI ("in those years, when our sense, desire and wit")
XCVII ("Eternal Truth, almighty, infinite")
XCVIII ("Wrapp'd up, O Lord, in man's degeneration")
XCIX ("Down in the depth of mine iniquity")
C ("In night when colors all to black are cast")
CII ('"The Serpent, Sin, by showing human lust") GUNN p. 131
CIX ("Sion lies waste, and thy Jerusalem")
Aemilia Lanyer (1569-1645)
— Selections from Salve deus rex Judaeorum (1611)
"The Description of Cooke ham"
"To the Lady Arabella"
John Donne (1572 1631)
Songs and Sonnets (1663 pub.)
Divine Poems (1607-9 writ.; 1633 pub.)
The Anniversaries (I An 1611; comp. ed. 1612)

Ben Jonson (?1572 1637)
Epigrams (1616 F)
The Forest (1616 F)
The Underwood (1640 W)

Lady Mary Wroth (c. 1586-c.1652)
— Selections from Pamphilia to Amphilanthus (1613-1621 [pub. with Urania])
Sonnet 6 ("O strive nott still to heape disdaine on mee") ROB p.88
Sonnet 14 ("Am I thus conquer'd? have I lost the powers") ROB p.94
Sonnet 22 ("Like to the Indians, scorched with the sunne") ROB p.99
Sonnet 23 ("When every one to pleasing pastime hies") ROB p.99
Song 4 ("Sweetest love returne againe") ROB p.100
Robert Herrick (1591-1674)
— Selections from Hesperides (1648)
"The Argument of His Book" (H 1)
"Another [to His Book]" (H 5)
"When He Would Have His Verses Read" (H-8)
"His Request to Julia" (H-59) 5.
"To the King, Upon His Coming with His Army into the West" (H-77)
"Delight in Disorder" (H-83)
"Dean bourne, a Rude River in Devon, By Which Sometimes He Lived" (H-86)
"Corinna's Going A Maying" (H-178)
"The Lily in a Crystal" (H-193)
"To Live Merrily, and to Trust to Good Verses" (H-201)
"To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time" (H-208)
"His Poetry His Pillar" (H-211)
"Art above Nature: To Julia" (H-560)
"His Return to London" (H-713)
"The Pillar of Fame" (H-1129)
Henry King (1592-1669)
— Selections from Poems (1657)
"An Exequy to His Matchless Never to be Forgotten Friend"
"Sic Vita"
George Herbert (1593 1633)
— The Temple (1633)

Thomas Carew (?1594-1640)
— Selections from Poems (1640; 1651)
"An Elegy upon the Death of Dr. Donne, Dean of St. Paul's" (1633)
"In Answer of an Elegiacal Letter upon the death of the King of Sweden from Aurelian Townshend" (1633)
"To My Friend, G.N., From Wrest" (1640)
"To Saxham" (1640)
"A Rapture" (1640)
Edmund Waller (1606-1687)
— Selections from Poems (1645, 1664, 1668, 1686)
"Upon Ben Jonson" (1638)
"At Penshurst [1]" ("Had Sacharissa...") (1645)
"At Penshurst (2j" ("While in the park I sing...") (1645)
"Song (Go, lovely rose!)" (1645)
"On St. James's Park, As Lately Improved by His Majesty" (1661)
"Of English Verse" (1668)
"Of the Last Verses in the Book" (1686)
Sir Richard Fanshawe (1608-1666)
— From Il Pastor Fido (1648): "An Ode Upon occasion of His Majesties Proclamation in the yeare 1630. Commanding the Gentry to reside upon their Estates in the Country"

John Milton (1608-1674)
Poems (1645)
— Additional shorter poems (1673) & uncollected lyrics (1694)
Paradise Lost (1667; 74)
Paradise Regained (1671)
Samson Agonistes (1671 tog. w/ PR)

Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672)
— Selections from Several Poems, 2nd ed. (Boston, 1678)
"A Dialogue Between Old England and New: Concerning Their Present Troubles, Anno. 1642"
"The Author to Her Book"
"To My Dear and loving Husband" — From the Andover MSS. (pub. 1867): "Upon the Burning of our House July 10, 1666"

Richard Crashaw (?1612/13-1649)
— "Upon Bishop Andrewes's Picture before His Sermons" (1631) F 502
— "Wishes: To His (Supposed) Mistress" (1641)
— From Steps to the Temple (1646; enlarged 1648)
"Upon the Body of Our Blessed Lord, Naked and Bloody"
"The Weeper"
"A Hymn to the Name and Honour of the Admirable Saint Teresa" — From Carmen Deo Nostro (Paris, 1652): "A Letter from Mr Crashaw to the Countess of Denbigh, Against Irresoloution and Delay in Matters of Religion"

Sir John Denham (1615-1669)
— From Poems and Translations (1668): Cooper's Hill ("pirated" 1642; "authorized" 1655; 1668)

Abraham Cowley (1618-1667)
— Selections from The Mistress (1647)
"Written in the Juice of Lemmon" #5
"The Wish" #19
"The Thief" #21 — Selections from Miscellenies (1656)
"The Motto"
"The Grasshopper"
"Ode: Of Wit" — From Pindarique Odes (1656): "To Mr. Hobbes"
— From Verses Written on Several Occasions (1668): "To the Royal Society" (pub. 1667; collected 1668)

Richard Lovelace (1618-1656 or 1657)
— Selections from Lucasta (1649)
"Song: To Lucasta, Going beyond the Seas"
"Song: To Lucasta, Going to the Wars"
"The Grasshopper. Ode. To My Noble Friend, Mr Charles Cotton"
"Gratiana Dancing and Singing"
"To Lucasta. From Prison. An Epode"
"To Althea, from Prison: Song" — Selections from Lucasta Posthume (1659 60)
"To Lucasta" ("Like to the sentinel stars...")
"A Mock Song"
Lucy Hutchinson (1620-post 1675)
— "Verses Written By Mrs. Hutchinson In the Small Book Containing Her Own Life, and Most Probably Composed by Her During Her Husband's Retirement from Public Business to His Seat at Owthorpe" (comp. c.1660 3) FOW 587; GREER

Andrew Marvell (1621-1678)
— Selections from Miscellaneous Poems (F, 1681)
Upon Appleton House
"An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell's Return from Ireland"
"The Coronet"
"The Garden"
"To His Coy Mistress"
"The Definition of Love"
"On a Drop of Dew"
"The Mower against Gardens"
"Damon the Mower"
"The Mower to the Glowworms"
"The Mower's Song"
"On Mr. Milton's Paradise Lost"
"A Poem on the Death of His Late Highness the Lord Protector"
The Last Instructions to a Painter
Henry Vaughan (1621/2-1695)
— Selections from Silex Scintillans (Silex I, 1650)
"The World (1)"
"The Retreat"
"The Morning watch"
"The British Church"
"Vanity of Spirit" — Selections from Silex ll (1655)
"The Waterfall"
"Abel's Blood"
"The Proffer"
"The Night"
"The Book"
Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (1623 1673)
— Selections from Poems, and fancies (1653)
"Of Many Worlds in this World" NOR p.479
"A Dialogue betwixt Man, and Nature" NOR p.480
"Similizing the Sea to Meadowes, and Pastures, the Marriners to Shepheards, the Mast to a May pole, Fishes to Beasts" NOR p.482
"Of Stars" FOW p. 631
"A Landscape" FOW p. 633
John Dryden (1631-1700)
— "Heroic Stanzas Consecrated to ...Oliver [Cromwell]" (1659)
Astraea Redux (1660)
Annus Mirabilis (1666)
— "On Milton" (1688)

Katherine Philips (1632-1664)
— Selections from Poems (1667)
"On the 3. of September, 1651" NOR p.171
"To the Excellent Mrs Anne Owen, upon Her Receiving the Name of Lucasia, and Adoption into Our Society. 28 December 1651" FOW p.696
"Friendship's Mystery, To My Dearest Lucasid NOR p.517
"Friendship in Embleme, on the Seal. To my dearest Lucasia" N 518
"To My Excellent Lucasia, on our Friendship" NOR p.521
"Orinda to Lucasia" FOW p.698
"An Answer to another perswading a Lady to Marriage" N p.378
"Upon the graving of her Name upon a Tree in Barnelmas" N p.483
Thomas Traheme (1637-1674)
— Selections from the Dobel MS (collected 1670?; pub. 1903)
"The Salutation"
"The Preparative"
"The Rapture"


Bush, Douglas
— English Literature in the Earlier Seventeenth Century, 2nd ed. (Oxford: OUP, 1962).

Carey, John
— John Donne: Life, Mind, and Art (New York: Oxford UP, 1981).

Corns, Thomas, ed.
— The Cambridge Companion to English Poetry, Donne to Marvell (Cambridge: CUP, 1993).

Fish, Stanley E.
— Surprised By Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost (New York: St. Martin's, 1967).
— Self Consuming Artifacts: The Experience of Seventeenth Century Literature (Berkeley & Los Angeles: U of California P, 1972).
— The Living Temple: George Herbert and Catechizing (Berkeley & Los Angeles: U of California P, 1978).

Goldberg, Jonathan
— Desiring Women Writing: English Renaissance Examples (Stanford UP, 1997).

Hammond, Gerald
— Fleeting Things: English Poets arid Poems, 1616 1660 (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1990).

Harvey, Elizabeth D. and Katherine Eisaman Maus, eds.
— Soliciting Interpretation: Literary Theory and Seventeenth Century English Poetry (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1990).

Kerrigan, William
— The Sacred Complex: The Psychogenesis of Paradise Lost (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1983).

Kerrigan, William and Gordon Braden
— The Idea of the Renaissance (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1989).

Lewalski, Barbara K.
— Writing Women in Jacobean England (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993).
— Protestant Poetics and the Seventeenth Century Religious Lyric (Princeton: PUP, 1979).
— Paradise Lost and the Rhetoric of Literary Forms (Princeton: PUP, 1985).

Martz, Louis L.
— The Poetry of Meditation: A Study in English Religious Literature of the Seventeenth Century, rev. ed. (New Haven: Yale UP, 1962).

McClung, W.A.
— The Country House Tradition in English Renaissance Poetry (Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1977).

Norbrook, David
— Poetry and Politics in the English Renaissance (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984).
— "Preface" and "Introduction," The Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse, 1509-1659 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1992).

Patterson, Annabel
— Censorship and Interpretation: The Conditions of Writing and Reading in Early Modern England (Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1984).

Post, Jonathan F. S.
— "Substance and Style: An Introduction to The Temple," George Herbert Journal 18: l &2 (1994 95): 1 28.

Riggs, David
— Ben Jonson: A Life (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1989).

Rogers, John
— The Matter of Revolution: Science, Poetry, and Politics in the Age of Milton (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1996).

Smith, Nigel
— Literature & Revolution in England, 1640-1660 (New Haven: Yale UP, 1994).

Tayler, Edward W.
— Donne's Idea of a Woman: Structure and Meaning in The Anniversaries (New York: Columbia UP, 1991).
— Milton's Poetry: Its Development in Time (Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP, 1979).
— "Introduction," Literary Criticism of 17th Century England, ed. E.W. Tayler (New York: Knopf, 1967), pp. 3-32.

Tuve, Rosemond
— Elizabethan and Metaphysical Imagery (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1947).

Wall, Wendy
— The Imprint of Gender: Authorship and Publication in the English Renaissance (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1993).

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