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Contexts and Comparisons Chapter 5 - Renaissance Literature 


The Jacobean period was a specifically English manifestation of the last stages of the Renaissance, the hundred years between 1580-1680, an era also known in Europe as the Age of the Baroque. The period witnessed widespread anxiety, insecurity, and militarism. For example, Martin Luther's Protestantism, which emphasized personal faith and direct communication with God, ironically catalyzed secular warfare and internal strife. The pillaging and continuous violence between Protestants and Catholics for over a century reduced men and women to mistrusting creatures who no longer had faith in the permanence of their own worldly existence. Seventeenth-century men and women, wracked by war--the worst being the bloody Thirty Years War, 1618-48--and also by sporadic but widespread plagues, began to retreat from the material world.

This re-evaluation of material reality evolved from the Catholic Counter-Reformation. To win back lapsed Catholics and to strengthen the convictions of still active Church members, the Catholic Church announced its intention at the Council of Trent (1545-64) to shape and direct all culture: art, painting, architecture, literature, and so on. In the countries of Southern Europe, this dictum meant almost complete suppression of free thought and an intensification of censorship laws. It is no wonder that in Portugal, Spain, Italy, and to a slightly reduced degree, in France, the Counter-Reformation was nearly perfectly successful. In fact, the number of Protestants in these countries remains minimal even today.

The Council of Trent demanded that art serve religious and highly moral values, insisting that this life is only temporal, a dream. Not surprisingly, then, much literature and art drastically changed after the Council. No longer did the classical penchant for logic and reason hold favor with the writer; no longer did the creative person feel firmly rooted in this world; nor did the writer have any great desires to imitate it. While the artists of the Baroque never really forgot the Renaissance perception of the concrete world, they complicated its treatment.

In painting, for instance, the individual portrait and "lowly" still life flourished. Ordinary people and ordinary things--fruits, household objects, hunting equipment--were painted against dark or neutral backgrounds and were presented to the observer as if this subject matter came from nowhere, or from somewhere mysterious, perhaps divine. By forcing the observer to contemplate the concrete as an example of some exalted creation, these paintings would then begin to suggest the infinite.

The Baroque sensibility, however, was not entirely spiritual. Constantly challenging the nature of reality can be a playful as well as an anxious exercise. Painters enjoyed trying to fool the observer into thinking a two-dimensional flat surface was really sculptural in depth; this technique, which requires great facility, is called trompe l'oeil, a French phrase meaning "cheat the eye."

In literature, the reach for metaphoric richness led to a fascination with extreme comparisons called conceits.(1) In England, the so-called Metaphysical poets contemplated religious subjects, but they also wrote love poetry that strained so hard for adequate comparisons that the conceited metaphor was a source of amusement, or wit, a favorite term of the age. When the poet Andrew Marvell (1621-1678) wrote "To His Coy Mistress," a seduction poem, he combined the morbid and the sensual with typically Baroque wit. Assuring the lady he pursues that he knows she deserves eternity in which to make up her mind about giving in to his advances, he reminds her nevertheless that time is flying:

But at my back I always hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found;
Nor, in thy marble vault shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long-preserved virginity,
And your quaint ashes turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust:
The grave's a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.

Marvell's sardonic tone here catches the skepticism inherent in the Baroque approach to truth. This skepticism sounds a familiar chord and is not unlike the feelings expressed by writers in the twentieth century. Baroque literature, which can be deeply pessimistic, often fixes on the horrors of death and the despair of nothingness. Compare the Petrarchan sonnets written at the birth of the Renaissance with these lines from the sonnet of Luis de Góngora (1561-1627), the most famous poet of the Spanish Baroque:

goza cuello, cabello, labio y frente
antes que lo que fue en tu edad dorada
oro, lilio, clavel, cristal luciente

no solo en plata o viola troncada
se vuelva, mas tu y ello juntamente
en tierra, en humo, en pulvo, en sombra, en nada.
                              ("Mientras por competir con tu cabello")
take pleasure in your forehead, neck, hair, lip
before what had been in your golden age
carnation, lucent crystal, lily, gold

not only silver or plucked violet
become but you and it together turn
into earth, smoke, dust, shadow, nothingness.
                       ("While in a Competition with Your Hair")

Toward the end of the seventeenth century, the Baroque movement had become over-inflated and unengaging. In turn, writers and readers soon tired of the convoluted preciousness, complicated illogicality, profound cynicism, and omnipresent pessimism of the movement. By 1680, the Baroque was essentially over, and a new spirit already was dawning over Europe--that of a new, or Neo-Classicism. John Dryden (1631-1700), considered by some critics to be a poet of the Late Baroque, clearly saw what was happening and insightfully described the changes that were imminent:

Thy wars brought nothing about;
Thy lovers were all untrue
'Tis well an old age is out
And time to begin a new.

    (The Secular Mask)


(1) From the Italian word "conceit" meant "concept" and indicated a comparison that modified a concrete term with an abstract, conceptual term.