Most people teaching the seventeenth century will have noticed that (undergraduate) students do not always know well the political, social, and literary background against which authors were writing at the time. Published in Continuum’s “Introductions to British Literature and Culture” series, Jim Daems’s Seventeenth-Century Literature and Culture offers a highly welcome, comprehensive first introduction to the century under discussion, conveniently defined by the author as lasting from 1603 to 1688. The two main parts of the book – at about 50 pages each of almost equal length – present the cultural background and the literature of the seventeenth century. Both sections are divided into smaller units, allowing Daems to address a wide range of topics, if at times rather cursorily. Some parts, such as the section on visual arts and architecture, offer little more than short encyclopedic portrayals of major figures. Other parts in the culture section provide readers with basic information about political, religious, and related developments during the century. Yet other parts offer more substantial insights into the cultural workings of the period, as when Daems discusses the importance of censorship rules for the various literary genres or the interdependencies between royalist sentiment and festivities grown out of popular culture and folklore. The emphasis on the various ways that culture and literature influenced each other is one of the strengths of Daems’s book.
Daems’s book presents seventeenth-century literature as marked by major changes. He divides the literature section of the book into the three main genres, opting thus for a formal discussion of literary texts. In the poetry part, Daems discusses the Metaphysicals’ turn away from the tradition of Petrarchan sonnets as deriving in part from changing social and political circumstances. The section on libertine lyric takes a more thematic approach; the subchapters on devotional, occasional, and epic verse emphasize the role of formal developments at the time. In his discussion of satire and its critical and ideological engagement with the aesthetic and social context of the period, Daems shows that seventeenth-century poetry reflects the period’s radical departures from Renaissance and Elizabethan traditions.
The century’s radical revolutions are shown to have left their marks on the theatrical styles as well. Daems discusses subgenres such as comedy, tragedy or the heroic play in the context of chosen examples. In particular, Dryden’s role as an influential commentator on dramatic form receives its due. Daems then shows that the impact of “economic forces” led many playwrights to present marriage as a commodity and as a potential terrain of immoral behavior (67). Jeremy Collier’s attack on this theatrical immorality, unfortunately, falls outside the book’s frame for the seventeenth century, leaving Restoration comedy somewhat hanging in mid air. (The omission is even more regrettable in light of the fact that Daems does occasionally venture outside his chosen temporal frame, as in his discussions of James I’s Basilicon Doron of 1599.) In his insightful sections on the masque and on Interregnum theatre, Daems presents the literary tradition as closely related to the political and social reality from which it develops. Of particular importance is the connection, as Daems points out, between the 1642 ban on theatrical performances and the corresponding politicization of the genre. The resulting shift to print publications of theatrical texts further added to the political nature of theatre; and of literature in general, as one might add.
In his section on prose, Daems covers a wide terrain of literary production: character writing, essay, newsbooks, women’s prose, devotional tracts, and prose romance. In particular, the section on the newsbooks, which focuses on their rise in the wake of changing censorship rules and on their status as publications that include a range of different writing styles, shows just how flexible literary genres were at the time. The discussion of prose romance, despite its significant contribution to the rise of the eighteenth-century novel, is limited to two pages and barely moves beyond mentioning a number of influential texts by Margaret Cavendish and Aphra Behn. Indeed, as with any (shorter) book, one could easily take issue with the selection of texts discussed. In Daems’s case, the frequency with which reference is made to Charles I’s Eikon Basilike (1649), discussed over almost three pages under its own subheading, sits oddly next to the fact that a publication of such lasting influence as Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler (1653) is not mentioned at all and that Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) is treated in only one sentence. Even in light of the traditional emphasis placed on seventeenth-century poetry and drama, this relative marginalization of prose texts seems not entirely justified.
A number of features at the back of the book add to its value as a classroom text. A substantial section offers a survey of the critical response to seventeenth-century literature from its contemporary critics to the present. In another part, the author suggests various methodological approaches for current research on seventeenth-century literature, such as Feminism, New Historicism, or Post-Colonial Theory. Daems discusses significant publications in the context of the respective approaches, pointing students in a number of potentially productive directions; the wonderful list of annotated titles for further reading serves a similar purpose. The concluding section of the book, entitled “Resources for Independent Study,” includes a detailed chronology of the whole century and a glossary with key terms for discussion of seventeenth-century literature. In light of all these user-friendly features of the book, Daems’s monograph can be highly recommended as a set text for any survey course dealing with the seventeenth century. Its lucid language and clear organization will provide students with a very good first introduction to this literary period.
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