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Seventeenth Century Verse and Prose - Alan Rudrum

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Author: Alan Rudrum / Genre: Classic Literature

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      12.01.2006 15:31
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      The Broadview Anthology of Seventeenth Century Verse and Prose, ed. by Alan Rudrum et al

      The Broadview Anthology of Seventeenth-Century Verse & Prose, to give its full title, is a bulky 1300-page volume that falls a little short of being A4. Its pages are filled, as the comprehensive title indicates, with writings from across the seventeenth century from over 100 authors, not exclusively English, boasting a greater proportion of women writers than has been seen before.

      The 17th century is a very interesting period of English history, although really that’s to be expected considering it lasted for a hundred years and was relatively recent as far as centuries go. It’s sometimes hard to contemplate progress within a time frame like this, and to be honest the fastidious adherence to writings between 1600 and 1699 doesn’t help the matter: they’re not having any of that 1599 or 1700 rubbish here. At least it gives the book some guidelines, and allows the keen reader to see the development from Renaissance to Restoration (with a bit of revolution in-between), and a noticeable development in Early Modern English.

      As is customary for literary anthologies, the works are arranged in order of the writer’s year of birth, beginning with John Chamberlain (1553-1627) and ending with Elizabeth Singer Rowe, pen-name ‘Philomela’ (1674-1737). This arrangement is hugely helpful in keeping the changing historical context in mind, and seeing the influence exerted on later authors, but is perhaps a little flawed due to the ages at which the writers start writing. The only way to avoid this discrepancy would be to arrange each specific work in order of publication, skipping between authors all the time, and this would be a lot less useful. To aid those searching for specific works, the anthology has two indexes: the first is an index of first lines, the second an alphabetical list of authors by surname.

      The anthology’s prime goal is to make available works of poetry and prose from the 17th century that are of historical and literary interest, with the specific bent of excluding those that can be commonly found elsewhere. This is most obvious in the omission of Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, one of the most famous and important works of the century, but one that exists in a wide variety of affordable forms elsewhere. It’s also quite easy to see which authors are more influential than others, as a quick browse of the contents pages sees recognisable names being devoted a far greater amount of space than their less remarkable contemporaries, as should be the case.

      All spelling and grammar has been ‘modernized’ (as the American editors put it), which will anger purists, but makes it a lot easier to read poets like Donne and Herbert without being distracted by extraneous eeees. Unfortunately, this is also likely to bring unnecessary 21st century subconscious anti-American feelings to the fore as Donne’s ‘The Canonization’ gets the z treatment. I don’t really mind though, I was brought up on 80s cartoons: I think zs are cool.

      This book features nothing on the historical context of the time outside the comprehensive biographies that introduce each author, meaning that companion volumes will be needed to fully appreciate the position of the more politically-minded works. All this is done deliberately and wisely, although I think the biographies themselves could do with providing a little more information about the authors outside their texts: flatly stating some of their political views would be a bit of a time-saver.

      The bulky Broadview anthologies are designed with University studies in mind, and as such they can rely on the judgement of course tutors in selecting the relevant authors and works to study. As you may have guessed, I’m studying 17th century literature and this book forms just under half of the selected reading across two terms. It would be useful for anyone with an interest in literature from the century, but it would have to be quite a large interest – and remember that this excludes some longer popular works and doesn’t feature any plays or masques.

      Some notable poets and authors included in the anthology:

      Francis Bacon – writer of The Essays, commonly seen as laying the foundation for the century’s prose writing style, as well as detailing Bacon’s influential views on science and the search for knowledge

      John Donne – founder of what would be later termed ‘the metaphysical poets,’ the randy promiscuous lover who later became priest of St. Paul’s produced some of England’s most memorable poetry

      Ben Jonson – chiefly a writer of plays and masques, Jonson’s Cavalier poetry (a bit of a misleading categorisation, as he died before the civil war) contrasts perfectly with Donne’s extravagant Renaissance verse by being almost completely plain. It’s fortunate that their birthdays were so close that Rudrum and the other editors could place these men side by side.

      George Herbert – Herbert’s consistently Christian poetry deals with varying themes but always turns them into a celebration of God by the climax, and as such may not impress non-Christians to the same extent, not that this would have been a concern for this man, who died age 40.

      John Milton – Puritan revolutionary and notorious free thinker, Milton’s contribution is vast enough to be divided specifically here into poetry and prose. His famous pamphlet Areopagitica, criticising overly strict censorship laws, is included here among a very limited range of his poetry including some of his sonnets. Not an exceptional reference point for Milton, but there are plenty of those out there.

      Andrew Marvell – switching back and forth between Catholicism and Protestantism, and from a Royalist supporter to one of Cromwell’s MPs, Marvell’s varied nature comes through in his lyric poetry. A close friend of Milton from the 1650s onwards, it was probably Marvell who protected him from those Restoration men who fancied hanging, drawing and quartering followers of Cromwell.

      Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle – the inclusion of Cavendish seems to be one of the book’s selling points, a figure who many feel has been overlooked over the centuries. Her Utopian prose writing ‘The Blazing World’ isn’t included here, controversially lauded by some as the first work of science fiction (take that, Wells!), but her stubborn pride in publishing her own works under her own name, as a woman in a patriarchal century, makes the resulting effects of her works much greater than the sum of their words. But this was really accomplished by…

      Aphra Behn – the most recognised woman author of the century, Behn comes in at the final quarter with her radical stories of female sexuality, lust, seduction, incest, rape – all manner of shocking subjects. Especially for a woman, whew. Behn is most famous for her plays, which aren’t included here.

      This Broadview anthology is pricey and bulky, but in the end the reader has to rely on the selections of its editors, which are likely to change year to year according to the blurb’s own admission of ‘the breadth of seventeenth-century studies in recent decades.’ My personal approach was, controversially, not to buy the book at all, instead checking it briefly in libraries and opting to read the original collections of the poets studied (I don’t mean the first editions, obviously. If I can’t comfortably afford a £30 anthology, what would I be doing with a library of 17th century folios?)

      In this way I feel I’m emulating Milton in his stand against the Royalists. And by borrowing the anthology over the Christmas holiday I feel I am emulating his somewhat contradictory and otherwise confusing depiction of rebels and conformists by admitting that it’s quite a good book after all. I’m your biggest fan John, you blind dead Puritan.

      The key thing readers should keep in mind when reading this text is that the 17th century produced a whole load of very good and important plays too, but I can’t fault the anthology on sticking fanatically to the rules of its title.

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    • Product Details

      The publication of The Broadview Anthology of Seventeenth-Century Verse and Prose is a literary event; this comprehensive volume is the first anthology of the period to reflect the breadth of seventeenth-century studies in recent decades. Over one hundred writers are included, from John Chamberlain at the beginning of the century to Elisabeth Singer Rowe at its end. There are generous selections from the work of all major writers, and a representation of the work of virtually every writer of significance. The work of women writers figures prominently, with extensive selections not only from canonical writers such as Behn and Bradstreet, but also from other writers (such as Katherine Philips and Margaret Cavendish) who have been receiving considerable scholarly attention in recent years. The anthology is broadly inclusive, with writing from America as well as from the British Isles. Memoirs, letters, political texts, travel writing, prophetic literature, street ballads, and pamphlet literature are all here, as is a full representation of the literary poetry and prose of the period, including the poetry of Jonson; the prose of Bacon; the metaphysical poetry of Donne, Herbert, Marvell, and others; the lyric verse of Herrick; and substantial selections from the poetry and prose of Milton and Dryden. (While Samson Agonistes is included in its entirety, Milton’s epic poems have been excluded, in order to allow space for other works not so readily accessible elsewhere.) The editors have included complete works wherever possible. A headnote by the editors introduces each author, and each selection has been newly annotated.