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Seventeenth-Century Prose: A Study in Transitions

The prose of the seventeenth-century is notable for its extreme variety. Although seventeenth-century prose texts vary greatly in mood, tone, focus, and style, each expresses the desire for absolute and unqualified truth. Both the individuality and the search for truth expressed in these texts are correlated with the possibilities, discoveries, and disappointments of the time in which they were produced. It was an age of extreme transition, and, within their works, each of the major seventeenth-century prose authors echoed that uncertainty and change.

This prose reflects the progression to the modern age, from medieval paradigms to newer patterns of thought. The knowledge derived from science and inductive reasoning (as opposed to deductive reasoning, which derives knowledge from experience) was rapidly spreading, creating uncertainty and confusion among those who were accustomed to deriving knowledge from either absolute authority or personal experience. This transformation from deductive to inductive reasoning created the milieu in which seventeenth-century prose authors worked. These authors, to varying degrees, were interested in this new form of reasoning, yet still expressed a longing for a new form of absolute truth. Many were of two minds: they made assertions supported by the knowledge derived from the scientific method, but felt compelled to justify their assertions with references to, for example, a revered individual or event from religion or classical culture. Theirs is a literature in which the old and the new coexist, chronicling an age of extreme transition.

The three primary principles of seventeenth-century prose, as dictated by tradition, were copia (an abundance of rhetorical expression), a reliance on authority, and the doctrine of imitation. Communication was the ultimate goal of these authors, specifically a form of communication that existed on an exalted spiritual level, one in which they hoped to find absolute truth. The citation of and imitation of authors from previous generations are closely related practices in the history of English prose, and this history is reflected in seventeenth-century prose texts.

Nicholas Breton perhaps best illustrates the role of the seventeenth-century prose author. Well-versed in the literary forms and customs of the Elizabethan age, he evolved into a prose writer at the beginning the seventeenth-century. His primary work, Fantastics, displays the qualities and traits of both Elizabethan literature and newer forms of prose. The “months” in Breton’s work, serve, as he writes, “for a perpetual prognostication” (19), and illustrate the pastoral concerns of his time. His writing is unrestrained in tone but constrained by form. Each month ends with Breton’s summation of the qualities of the month, a compact version of his previous copia. Breton’s months are personified with characteristics that illustrate both their metaphorical and literal qualities. For example, March is the “servant of nature and the schoolmaster of art” (20) and July is a “profitable season, the laborer’s gain and the rich man’s wealth” (21). These characteristics reflected both Breton’s Elizabethan style and the newer forms of prose. His work is perhaps the most unrestrained of these prose writers.

Francis Bacon also occupies a transitional place in English prose. He is a symbol of the greatness of Elizabethan intellect and the foremost promoter of the scientific attitude that ascended in the seventeenth-century. Much of his work, including that which deals with non-scientific matters, promotes inductive reasoning.

Many of Bacon’s statements are platitudes, such as “the vices of authority are chiefly four: delays, corruption, roughness, and facility” (44). His statements, even when somewhat vague (“so virtue in ambition is violent, in authority settled and calm” (45)) reflect a complex and effective prose style that sets him apart from Breton. Bacon’s is not the work of free-association or random reflection; rather, it is the literary manifestation of the inductive method. For example, in Novum Organum, Bacon explains that “[the inductive method] arrives at the most general axioms last of all. This is the true way, but as yet untried” (55). He uses this method of reasoning in his own work, arriving lastly at the general conclusion that “there is taken for the material of philosophy either a great deal out of a few things, or very little out of many things” (57). His prose is the intellectual answer to Breton’s pastoral meditations. Ultimately, Bacon helped to provide a bridge to the new scientific age.

John Donne, the great poet of the seventeenth-century, provided the voice of religious intellect in his prose. His prose is immediate, direct, and powerful, and it contains skillfully subtle musings on intellect and the human condition, including a passionate contemplation of man’s relation to God in the universe. Similar to Breton and Bacon in his quest for an overarching and undeniable truth, Donne, in his search for divine authority, is as honest as he is fervent.

Within his meditations, Donne plays the role of teacher without being overly pedantic or didactic. In these works, he illustrates the limitations which prevent humans from having true communion with God, “so doth fear insinuate itself in every action or passion of the mind” (63), and remarks that “my strength is from God, who possesses and distributes infinitely” (63). God is favored as much as man is devalued, “[a]s a man cannot flatter God nor overpraise him, so a man cannot injure man nor undervalue him” (66). It is impossible for Donne to ignore how the beauty of life contrasts with his impending mortality. Others who have died have “the correction due to [him] and paid the debt [he] owe[s]” (67). For Donne, this is not a death to be dreaded, regardless of life’s beauty, because “if man knew the gain of death, the ease of death, he would solicit, he would provoke death to assist him by any hand which he might use” (68). In other words, in Donne’s opinion, death is not to be feared because it brings humans closer to God.

These meditations, along with the rest of Donne’s prose, are both Ciceronian and Anti-Ciceronian, representing a unique voice that exemplifies not only the essence of the period, but also the substance of the man himself. His method of writing reflects the refinement of and the qualities of classic rhetoric, yet is also characteristic of seventeenth-century prose: heavy in metaphors, complex in its structure, and serious in its tone.

In contrast to Donne’s frequently solemn mood, yet just as representative of his time, are Ben Jonson and his works of lyricism and comical drama. Within his writing, Jonson represents a new emphasis on classical tradition and heritage, one which would play a significant role in the next century’s Restoration literature. Often called the “prophet of classicism” (116), his prose is filled with fierce, almost menacing proclamations of the state of poetry in society as he saw it, “when we shall hear those things commended and cried up for the best writings which a man would hardly vouchsafe to wrap any wholesome drug in” (118).

Jonson’s philosophy, expressed in Timber, is an uncompromising one: regarding poets and men in general, he believes that “there is no doctrine will do good where nature is wanting” (119), a statement smacking of both predestination and Jonson’s personal dissatisfaction. Society’s admiration of “bad” poetry and writing is menacing because “vice becomes a precedent” (119), and because poets who engage in imitation will emulate not the great writers, but those whom Jonson views as inferior.

The manner in which these assertions are expressed is a testament to Jonson’s prowess with a lyrical form that is confined by the limitations of prose style. His statements are as poetic as they are instructive and moralizing, his technique reflects his desire for a revival of classicism, and he served as a prophet for the subsequent literary age.

Robert Burton, in contrast to the authors previously discussed, led a simple and seemingly uninteresting life, and wrote primarily upon the subject of melancholy, speculating as to its causes, remedies, and ramifications. His work is based around the pseudonym under which it was published, “Democritus Junior”, referencing Democritus, the “laughing philosopher” (131). Burton’s style, within The Anatomy of Melancholy, is anti-Ciceronian in its aversion to formalism and regularity. His is a prose filled with powerful and ostensibly random sentences that reflect the author’s own explorations, questions, and insights.

His work is carefully constructed and utilizes a persona who feels great guilt at his inability to remedy all the pain that he sees in the world. Burton admits that he wrote his treatise on and study of melancholy in order to “[be] busy to avoid melancholy” (136), and set out to provide an analysis as to the cause of this depression. Ultimately, he fails to answer the question of why we “spend our days in unprofitable questions and disputations” (143). Burton sees himself as being “by my profession a divine and by mine inclination a physician” (143), yet knows that his work is only so powerful, and advises future readers that they will not find the cure for their melancholy in his work, advising them “warily to peruse [this] tract” (144).

Burton believes that this melancholy would be ameliorated if humans “would attempt no more than what they can bear”, which would, he argues, help them to “lead contented lives” (149). His search ends without a definitive answer, yet it is his journey that illustrates the notability of the work. He allows us, through his dense and precise prose, to see science and inductive reasoning at work.

Similar in his study of human nature, but vastly different in his form, Sir Thomas Overbury’s character sketches had a profound influence on the growth and development of the character genre of the seventeenth-century. Even though some of these sketches have since been found to be the work of other authors, Overbury is significant for his contribution to the development of and redefining of an ancient genre. His notorious sketches contributed a great deal to the form’s repute and acceptance.

Overbury’s sketches rely on generalities to make their points, but do so effectively, as they portray character types, not individual personalities. Stereotypes are key, and Overbury often uses sophisticated phrasing to illustrate simplistic judgments: for example, about “A Good Woman”, Overbury says that “she is much within, and frames outward things to her mind, not her mind to them” (197). In contrast, the profiles of “A Courtier” and “An Amorist” rely instead on outward qualities: the Courtier is subtly demeaned for “put[ting] more confidence in his words than meaning, and more in his pronunciation than his words” (197), and the Amorist is “translated out of a man into folly” (198).

Many of sketches are dated and make little sense to modern readers; however, some are general enough to remain familiar to us today. In “An Old Man”, for example, Overbury portrays a man whose “speech is much, though little to the purpose” (198). Overbury’s female characters are often treated more harshly in terms of their internal “defects”, while his male characters, in general, are reprimanded for their external flaws. Overbury’s biases are reflected in his writing, yet it is, overall, lyrical and precise work that is significant for its role in the rejuvenation of and development of the character sketch format.

Thomas Hobbes, known primarily for his philosophical treatises, also foresaw the mood and style of the Restoration. His is a prose of assurance, brevity, and clarity, subtly tinged with sarcasm, satire, and astute humor. In contrast to some of the earlier authors of the seventeenth-century, especially Bacon, Hobbes was a fanatical materialist, and held a much harsher view of human nature and the constitution of the state. Hobbes’ view, as expressed in the Leviathan, is that humans in a theoretical state of nature are utterly self-serving and covetous, in a constant and perpetual state of war. Hobbes believed that the “social covenant” was established in order to ameliorate this situation of strife. This is a “covenant” by which people agree to give their power to one or more persons designated to rule the state. Such a contract requires all individuals to comply unhesitatingly with this absolute political and social authority. As Hobbes explained, “such augmentation of dominion over men, being necessary to a man’s conservation, it ought to be allowed him” (207).

Although his severe view of human nature was somewhat out of touch with his contemporaries, his prose, in its clarity and search for absolute truth, is reflective of the society in which he lived.

Also holding to the Royalist vision was Sir Thomas Browne. An indefatigable follower of antiquated ways of thinking, Browne was the “man of God” to Hobbes’s atheist. Browne’s Religio Medici, written in an attempt to clarify his own feelings about God, depicted both his religious and his royalist principles. Browne’s prose style provided a suitable framework for his intellectual inquiries. Religio Medici is a firm assertion of Browne’s personality, both in its declaration of his views and as a discourse on charity and composure. It exhibits similarities to the prose of Bacon and other authors, yet it stands out as one of the final noteworthy expressions of the traditional paradigm of the Renaissance and the Middle Ages.

John Evelyn’s prose diaries, in contrast, reflect his interest in the burgeoning field of scientific experimentation. He is considered to be one of the chief diarists of the seventeenth-century. His style is somewhat impersonal, consisting mostly of objective observations and records of his professional activities. Similarly, his tone is formal, reserved, and dispassionate. Evelyn’s diaries offer a precise account of a refined seventeenth-century life.

One significant event in this life was the Great Fire of London. In his account of this event, Evelyn interjects rare glimpses of personal opinion and passion: “God grant mine eyes may never behold the like, who now saw above 10,000 houses all in one flame!” (484). He describes a London ravaged first by the Plague and then by the Great Fire as “a resemblance of Sodom, or the last day” (484). This fire seemed to cement Evelyn’s view of the ultimate powerlessness of man against certain forces of God and nature.

In his work, Evelyn also describes the lives and deaths of certain famous personages of his lifetime. He says that Monmouth, at his death, “professed great sorrow, and so died without any apparent fear” (487) and provides a harrowing account of the removal of the King from his royal tomb and his subsequent hanging on the gallows. Evelyn responds to this by remarking, “This day—O stupendous and inscrutable judgments of God!” (482). Similarly, Evelyn recounts news he has heard from the American colonies of “the universal increase of witches in New England” (488). Altogether, Evelyn’s diaries provide a detailed, if impersonal, glimpse into his life. These diaries are a truly valuable piece of seventeenth-century prose.

John Aubrey, in his Brief Lives, takes observation to the next level, to the developing genre of biography. Aubrey’s engaging chronicles of human lives made him a significant and influential figure in seventeenth-century literature. His stories are full of fables, gossip, and important details, written in a clear and engaging style that brings his subjects to life. For example, Aubrey’s biography of Sir Francis Bacon not only gives him due praise, but also offers a fascinating anecdote about the cause of Bacon’s death. Speaking in a personal and intimate style, Aubrey says that he was told by Hobbes that Bacon’s death was caused by “trying an experiment” (492) in which Bacon stuffed a hen with snow, which subsequently caused Bacon to freeze to death.

Aubrey, in his biography of Hobbes, provides significant details about Hobbes’s early life. For example, Aubrey says that Hobbes “had even then a contemplative melancholiness” (495). Aubrey also gives amusing anecdotes about Hobbes, such as “[Hobbes] was wont to draw lines on his thigh and multiply and divide” (495). Similarly, in his biographical sketch of George Herbert, Aubrey provides witty asides, such as, “his marriage, I suppose, hastened his death” (496). Aubrey’s prose is almost conversational in tone, and more accessible than the works of many of the aforementioned authors. His work is remembered for its contribution to the biographical tradition.

By moving from a conversational and anecdotal style to a rigid, formulaic, and religious one, John Bunyan created what is possibly the most widely read book in the history of English literature, The Pilgrim’s Progress. His primary influence, in both style and content, was the Bible, yet romances of chivalry and popular religious prayer books also played a part in shaping his work.

The Pilgrim’s Progress has often been called the first of the English novels because of its endurance, narrative style, and singularity. Yet Bunyon’s motivations were more religious and instructive than literary; as such, he used allegory much more than did later English novelists. The Pilgrim’s Progress deals with the inadequacy and incapacity of humans in the face of God and the inability of humankind to achieve salvation or communion with God through any labors or devices of their own. His prose is honest, sincere, serious, and full of allusions to various myths and archetypes.

Christian, the protagonist of The Pilgrim’s Progress, realizes that he is in a damned world and is willing to do anything in order to find out what he must “do to be saved” (503). Abandoning his home and family, he sets out, at the direction of the Evangelist, to Heaven, encountering various obstacles and challenges along the way. This tale is an allegory in every sense of the word, and its didactic nature and glaringly obvious symbolism can be forgiven in the face of its determination and passion.

Each of these authors, although they differed greatly in style, method, and subject matter, expressed, through their respective works, a desire for absolute truth during a period of tumultuous change. Many furthered the development of their genres, while others promoted scientific inquiry and new manners and paradigms of thought. Some did neither, instead choosing to passionately defend the older ways of thinking. Regardless, each author contributed something profound and important to the development of seventeenth-century prose style.


Works Cited:

Aubrey, John. “From: Brief Lives.” Warnke and Witherspoon 490-500. Print.

Bacon, Francis. “From: Essays or Counsels, Civil and Moral.” Warnke and Witherspoon 40-50. Print.

Bacon, Francis. “From: Novum Organum.” Warnke and Witherspoon 55-57. Print.

Breton, Nicholas. “From: Fantastics: Serving For a Perpetual Prognostication.” Warnke andWitherspoon 19-23. Print.

Browne, Sir Thomas. “From: Religio Medici.” Warnke and Witherspoon 334-349. Print.

Bunyan, John. “From: The Pilgrim’s Progress.” Warnke and Witherspoon 503-539. Print.

Burton, Robert. “From: The Anatomy of Melancholy.” Warnke and Witherspoon 132-195. Print.

Donne, John. “From: Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions.” Warnke and Witherspoon 60-69. Print.

Evelyn, John. “From: The Diary of John Evelyn.” Warnke and Witherspoon 479-488. Print.

Hobbes, Thomas. “From: Leviathan.” Warnke and Witherspoon 205-211. Print.

Jonson, Ben. “From: Timbur.” Warnke and Witherspoon 118-126. Print.

Overbury, Sir Thomas. “From: Sir Thomas Overbury His Wife…New News and Divers More Characters.” Warnke and Witherspoon 197-203. Print.

Warnke, Frank J., and Alexander M. Witherspoon, eds. Seventeenth-Century Prose and Poetry. 2nd ed. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983. Print.

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