The seventeenth century gave us the first published poems from America, the elaborate conceits and scientific flavour of metaphysical poetry, some classic English epic poems, and the birth of the new, orderly, ‘neoclassical’ poetry that would continue into the following century. Below, we select ten of the most emblematic – and greatest – seventeenth-century poems, and offer a brief introduction to each.
John Donne, ‘A Hymn to God the Father’. This is one of John Donne’s most famous religious poems. As the Donne scholar P. M. Oliver observed, what makes Donne’s poem unusual and innovative is that Donne has written a hymn that does not set out to praise God so much as engage him in a debate. What’s more, unlike his earlier poems – probably composed towards the end of the previous century – Donne’s later religious lyrics, written some time during the early seventeenth century, swap the bedroom for the pulpit, but do so with the same feisty and direct manner of address.
Lady Mary Wroth, Sonnet 37 from Pamphilia to Amphilanthus. The sixteenth century was the great century for the sonnet sequence in English literature; Anne Locke’s A Meditation of a Penitent Sinner from the 1560s was the first English sonnet sequence, but it was relatively short. Lady Mary Wroth (1587-c.1652) was the first Englishwoman to write a substantial sonnet sequence. Not only that, but she was admired by her contemporaries, including the hard-to-please Ben Jonson. This poem reflects the blackest moods of depression, with the speaker wishing to join with the night, since they both embody darkness and are natural partners for each other. The poem might be compared to Sidney’s own Sonnet 99 from Astrophil and Stella; it does, however, stand up on its own as a fine poem in its own right.
Night, welcome art thou to my minde distrest,
Darke, heauy, sad, yet not more sad then I:
Neuer could’st thou find fitter company
For thine owne humour, then I thus opprest…
George Herbert, ‘Prayer (I)’. In 1633, as he lay dying, the Anglican priest George Herbert sent a pile of manuscript poems to a friend, instructing him to publish them if he thought them any good, or else burn them. Happily, Herbert’s friend thought them publishable, and the result was The Temple, published shortly after Herbert’s death. The posthumous collection established Herbert as one of the leading devotional writers in English literature of the seventeenth century. George Herbert offers in ‘Prayer’ a series of synonyms or definitions for the act of prayer, and what it means to the worshipper: the ‘church’s banquet’ suggests Holy Communion, an intimate connection with God; since angels live forever, an ‘angels’ age’ is another way of saying ‘eternity’; ‘God’s breath in man returning to his birth’ refers to the moment in Genesis when God breathed life into Adam, the first man, thus returning modern man to ‘his birth’ as a species, when Adam was created. Prayer is the ‘soul in paraphrase’ because when we pray we put into words the often deep and complex emotions surging through our soul; and prayer is the ‘heart in pilgrimage’ because it is part of man’s journey towards God, an ongoing process of living as a good Christian.
Robert Herrick, ‘To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time’. The poem’s message is straightforward: Herrick is addressing ‘the virgins’. This provides another clue as to what he is driving at. Like Andrew Marvell’s seduction lyric ‘To His Coy Mistress’ (see below), Herrick is advising the virgins to ‘make much of time’ by enjoying themselves before their youth and beauty fade. And yet encouraging a load of young people who haven’t had sex yet has never been couched in such delightful verse as Herrick deploys here. There were quite a few carpe diem or ‘seize the day’ poems written in the seventeenth century, and this is one of the greatest.
Richard Lovelace, ‘To Althea, from Prison’.
Stone Walls do not a Prison make,
Nor Iron bars a Cage;
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for an Hermitage…
Richard Lovelace (1617-57) was a leading Cavalier poet, and an Englishman who supported, and fought for, King Charles I during the Civil War. ‘To Althea, from Prison’ is one of his most famous poems; it certainly contains his most famous lines. It’s a fine example of the mid-seventeenth-century lyric which reflects the turbulent times in which Lovelace lived and shines a light on a key moment in English history, which would end with the king’s crown – and his life – both being forfeit.
Andrew Marvell, ‘To His Coy Mistress’. This is another fine example of metaphysical poetry. Marvell (1621-78), addressing his sweetheart, says that the woman’s reluctance to have sex with him would be fine, if life wasn’t so short. But such a plan is a fantasy, because in reality, our time on Earth is short. Marvell says that, in light of what he’s just said, the only sensible thing to do is to enjoy themselves and go to bed together – while they still can. The poem is famous for its enigmatic reference to the poet’s ‘vegetable love’ – which has, perhaps inevitably, been interpreted as a sexual innuendo, and gives us a nice example of the metaphysical poets’ love of unusual metaphors.
John Milton, Paradise Lost. Probably the greatest epic poem in the English language, Paradise Lost (1667) was not Milton’s first attempt at an epic: as a teenager, Milton began writing an epic poem in Latin about the Gunpowder Plot; but in quintum novembris remained unfinished. Instead, his defining work would be this 12-book poem in blank verse about the Fall of Man, taking in Satan’s fall from Heaven, his founding of Pandemonium (the capital of Hell – whence we get the word in use to this day), and his subsequent temptation of Eve in the Garden of Eden.
Anne Bradstreet, ‘The Author to Her Book’. Anne Bradstreet (1612-72) was the first person – male or female – from the New World or America to have a volume of poems published. This poem was directly inspired by the news that Bradstreet’s poems had been published in England as The Tenth Muse, by her brother-in-law … supposedly without her consent. Bradstreet laments the fact that her ‘ill-formed’ verses have seen the light of day and blushes and cringes at them, but this may partly be female modesty. Bradstreet also claims the volume as her ‘child’, casting herself as the mother – if not the midwife – to the book. The poem offers a fascinating insight into seventeenth-century female authorship.
Aphra Behn, ‘The Disappointment’. A small subgenre of poems in the late seventeenth century was the ‘imperfect enjoyment’ poem, named after a poem by John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. This was Behn’s response to Rochester’s poem, which uses the same basic setup – a man seducing a woman into bed with him, only to discover that he cannot ‘perform’ – but throws the focus more onto the woman’s reaction.
John Dryden, ‘Annus Mirabilis’. John Dryden (1631-1700) ushered in the neoclassical style of English poetry, which is characterised by a return to the order and values (including a love of the epic) which we find in classical literature of ancient Greece and Rome. In this early poem, Dryden describes the ‘year of wonders’, 1666, when the Dutch fleet sailed up the Thames and the Great Fire of London broke out. An important seventeenth-century poem about a key moment in England’s history.
Discover more classic poetry with our selection of the best classic epic poems, these short poems by female poets, and our pick of the best short love poems in English. We also recommend the excellent anthology The Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse: 1509-1659 (Penguin Classics).