English Literature's Reflection of 17th Century Society

Updated on August 28, 2013
"Milton Dictates the Lost Paradise to his Three Daughters" painting by Eugene Delacroix 1826
"Milton Dictates the Lost Paradise to his Three Daughters" painting by Eugene Delacroix 1826 | Source

The 17th century marked a shift from an age of faith to an age of reason. Literature represents the turbulence in society, religion, and the monarchy of this period. Life for the English people changed as religious controversy and civil war shook the nation. These issues reformulated the role of individuals in society, perspectives of faith, and social structures in England. Writers of this period offer their own philosophies as proof of the issues and influenced the masses. Specific examples of authors of this period who present English issues and perspectives in their works are John Donne and John Milton. Common themes among these two authors are love, religion, and political views.

Major Events in 17th Century England

The Reformation

The Reformation began in the 16th century as religion in England experienced an upheaval. The difficulty of combining church and state created hostility with the people. People were imprisoned for practicing faiths beyond that sanctioned by the government. Still the Protestant church of England was perceived by the people of England as becoming increasingly similar to the Catholic church. Creation of religious sects, such as Puritans, Separationists, and Presbyterians created rifts among the people and intolerance by the government. In addition to the problems of tied religion and state was the shift in monarchy and combined religious tensions.

King James I painted by Daniel Mytens 1621
King James I painted by Daniel Mytens 1621 | Source

Changes in Monarchy

With the death of Queen Elizabeth James I took over the monarchy. King James I commissioned the translation of the Bible to reduce diversity in the Biblical stories seen prior to the King James version (Vance, n.d.). James I ruled with autocracy and believed that his position was divinely appointed (Greenblatt & Abrams, 2006). The people did not love King James as they did Queen Elizabeth. After 22 years King James I died and was succeeded by his son Charles I. Charles follows his father’s example of divine rule, and disregards Parliament taxing at will. The new king further ignites the hostility of the people by marrying a Catholic woman. Civil War breaks out in 1642 (Greenwich Royal Observatory, 2011).

The Civil War

The English Civil War was fought by the Parliamentarians and the Royalists. The Royalists supported the monarchy. The Parliamentarians fought against the Royalists who believed that the monarchy had ultimate rule by right of divinity. King Charles was eventually put on trial, found to have behaved treasonously, and beheaded (History Learning Site, 2013).

"Galileo Facing the Roman Inquisition" painting by Christiano Banti
"Galileo Facing the Roman Inquisition" painting by Christiano Banti | Source

Advances in Science

Despite the turbulence of the monarchy, religious differences, and civil war the 17th century was a time of exploration, expansion of science, and reflection of individualism and personal perspectives. Francis Bacon offered his philosophy on using scientific reasoning, observation, and experimentation to form conclusions (Lambert, n.d.). The works of Copernicus, Galileo, and Isaac Newton were now becoming widely accepted. These new ideas and scientific discoveries changed how people viewed themselves and the world around them. Education became more widely available, art and science flourished, and focus shifted from life of work and social place to a more individualistic society.

John Donne
John Donne | Source

John Donne


John Donne was born to a prominent Catholic family, but his father died when he was only four. He was schooled by Jesuits and continued on through college but was not issued a degree upon graduation because he refused to pledge the Oath of Supremacy which recognizes Henry VIII as head of the church (Luminarium, 2007). His brother was imprisoned for harboring a Catholic priest and died of a fever while in jail causing Donne to question his religious beliefs. Donne secretly married Anne More, the niece of Lady Egerton. The marriage caused Donne to be fired from his post and thrown in jail by More’s father. Eventually Donne reconciled with More’s family. He reluctantly went into the ministry in 1607, and went on to write many works with themes of religion and relationships (Luminarium, 2007). Among Donne’s most famous works is “Holy Sonnets.”

“Holy Sonnets”

Donne’s poems the “Holy Sonnets” have also been called the “Divine Sonnets.” These poems are written in the form of Petrarch Sonnets, which originated in the 14th century (Schmoop University Inc., 2013). The “Holy Sonnets” are made up of 19 poems dealing with themes of love and religion. They are examples of metaphysical poetry. Donne deals with issues of religion and mortality in this poem, such as in sonnet 10 “Death, be not proud, though some have called thee might and dreadful, for thou art not so; for those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow die not” (Donne, 2006, p. 623, 10:1-4). Another prominent metaphysical poet of the 17th century was John Milton.

John Milton


Milton was born in London to a middle-class family. He was educated at Christ’s College and Cambridge preparing to enter the clergy (Academy of American Poets, 2013). Milton decided against becoming a minister and instead began life as a poet. Milton married three times. He was quite active in politics and favored the Parliamentarian movement in the English Civil War. He wrote many political pamphlets and his famous work “Paradise Lost” offers interpretations of Biblical works, religion, and political forces in England.

"The Temptation and Fall of Eve" by William Blake 1808
"The Temptation and Fall of Eve" by William Blake 1808 | Source

“Paradise Lost”

Milton’s “Paradise Lost” was written in the style of the classic epic recounting the Biblical tale of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace in the Garden of Eden. The story delves into the characters’ personalities and motivations. Milton’s representation of the Devil as the snake in the Garden of Eden offers political views and calls into question Catholic religious beliefs. One particular quote that ties in the political plight of King Charles I and authority in England was offered by the snake “Indeed? Hath God then said that of the fruit Of all these garden trees ye shall not eat, Yet lords declared of all in earth or air?” (Milton, 2006, p. 825, 9:656-658).

Comparison of These Works

The Nature of the Individual

Donne and Milton each find ways to express concepts that embrace the nature of individualism. Both works call into question religion as a means of individual assessment of beliefs. In the past church and state were combined. To question the church was unacceptable and an act seen as traitorous. By the 17th century people were beginning to assess their own individual opinions on religion. Donne and Milton each present religious concepts for interpretation by readers.

The Nature of Society

Each of the poetic works evaluated the role of individuals in society. Milton’s “Paradise Lost” presents an allegory of society. He presents the characters relating to the political difficulties brought about by extreme authority by King Charles I. His story presents questions of society that readers can correlate to 17th century England. Donne’s “Holy Sonnets” present sonnets of sadness and loss, questions of religion and mortality, and love. The sociological ties to religion and relationships are everyday occurrences. Society was at a point of questioning religion during this period, and Donne’s sonnets present this condition.

Theme of Faith

Donne and Milton both present works of religious faith. “Paradise Lost” offers an interpretation of Biblical passages. Milton uses this story to call attention details of faith for readers to reconsider. This was a time of religious questioning, and individuals assessed their beliefs. John Donne’s “Holy Sonnets” also present faith in God while questioning the sadness of death. Donne offers readers ways to use their faith to overcome despair and sorrow while chronicling his own grief.

Painting of Charles with Saint George in an English landscape by Peter Paul Rubens1630
Painting of Charles with Saint George in an English landscape by Peter Paul Rubens1630 | Source

John Donne and John Milton each provide unique literary works that provide insight into life during the 17th century. This was a period of change, individually, politically, socially, scientifically, and religiously. Times of change are often difficult to live through. The turbulence of society and the descent into war reveals this problem. Milton presents his views of society, politics, and religion in his work “Paradise Lost.” Donne offers more personal perspectives in his “Holy Sonnets,” but still calls attention to the prominence of religious turmoil and change of the time. Despite the difficulties this period made way for the age of reason when individuality and science blossomed.


Abrams, M., & Greenblatt, S. (Eds.) (2006). The Norton anthology of English literature:The major authors (8th ed., Vol. A). New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Academy of American Poets. (2013). John Milton. Retrieved from http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/707

Donne, J. (2006). Holy sonnets. The Norton anthology of English literature: The major authors (8th ed., Vol. A). New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Greenwich Royal Observatory. (2011). Royal history: 17th century. Retrieved from http://history-uk.com/time-line/c17th.htm

History Learning Site. (2013). The English civil war. Retrieved from http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/civil_war_england.htm

Lambert, T. (n.d.). 17th century scientists. Retrieved from http://www.localhistories.org/17thcenturyscientists.html

Luminarium. (2007). The life of John Donne. Retrieved from http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/donne/donnebio.htm

Milton, J. (2006). Paradise lost. The Norton anthology of English literature: The major authors (8th ed., Vol. A). New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Schmoop University Inc. (2013). Death, be not proud holy sonnet 10: Rhyme, form, and meter. Retrieved from http://www.shmoop.com/death-be-not-proud-holy-sonnet-10/rhyme-form-eter.html

Vance, L.M. (n.d.). A brief history of the King James Bible. Retrieved from http://www.av1611.org/kjv/kjvhist.html

Questions & Answers


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      • profile image


        18 months ago

        Really usefull for me

      • profile image


        22 months ago

        Good job

      • Coffeequeeen profile image

        Louise Powles 

        3 years ago from Norfolk, England

        That was really interesting to read. Thankyou.

      • profile image

        ashish gupta 

        4 years ago

        It is what ,I exactly want.

      • Anne Harrison profile image

        Anne Harrison 

        4 years ago from Australia

        An interesting article - congratulations on HOTD. I studied Donne at school, yet knew so little of that turbulent period; it is easy to forget that a religious- or scientific - belief could get you thrown in jail. Voted up

      • aesta1 profile image

        Mary Norton 

        5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

        Congratulations. This is so interesting.

      • wordsbyalma profile image


        5 years ago

        I love, love, love history and England during this time period, for the same reason you outlined. It really was a blossoming of the age of scientific reasoning and great literary works. Fantastic job :)

      • thebrownbear profile image


        5 years ago

        Enjoyed the comparison of these works especially the theme of faith. Thank your for sharing this great hub.

      • Kristen Howe profile image

        Kristen Howe 

        5 years ago from Northeast Ohio

        Congrats on HOTD, NANCY! What an informative hub on the two Johns (Milton and Donne.) Voted up!

      • Thelma Alberts profile image

        Thelma Alberts 

        5 years ago from Germany and Philippines

        What an interesting and informative hub! Congratulations on the HOTD!


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