It’s surprisingly common for elements of early-modern literature to seem particularly well-suited to a new moment. When people ask why I am fascinated by the English Civil War but so little other literature of war, I find myself thinking it’s because of the striking relevance it strikes with the modern age as we know it.
I’ll be thy Champion to defend
Thy person from all these dangers and harms;
No Army’s so sure as a real friend,
Nor castle defends like a lover’s arms.
But if I can’t daunt ’em,
By valour and might
Your face shall enchant ’em,
For beauty can fight.
There’s no armour can men free
From the naked pow’r of such beauties as thee.
Alexander Brome, from To his Mistres affrighted in the wars (1661)
The English Civil War and its preceding events sparked a printing revolution as well as a constitutional one. A temporary breakdown in censorship meant that more began to pivot on the consequences of writing. The development of the public and private spheres, the fracture of the body-politic, and the gradual formation of party politics are all inherently fascinating.
The literature of c. 1640-1660 shows an appealing level of wit and imagination. It can certainly seem self-indulgent, but the motifs of defeat, withdrawal, casuistry and purpose are all embraced with craft.
The literature of this age has its aggression and its defiance. It ranges from the subtle to the outrageous. Cromwell’s enemies thought nothing of targeting his wife to undermine his leadership. There’s a ruthlessness to the pen that matches that of the sword.
Somehow, the seventeenth century adapts so well to our modern sensibilities.
We can still find ways of delivering new meaning to Shakespeare through modernity. We find precursors in seventeenth-century England of the ‘revolution’ still taking place around the world. We find early instances of corruption, scandals surrounding MPs’ expenses, hypocrisy, and the cult of celebrity. We find reaction to print, the media and the profession of writing in new realms of public and private, just as we do today.
Our world is closely retracing an exciting period of the past, and what writers had to say back then still speaks strongly for us today.
But outside of that, the wits of early modernity are enriched with a flair and fantasy that somehow transcend their age. Re-watching the Doctor Who two-part finale this weekend (The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang), this diffident poem from Cavalier poet Alexander Brome came to mind, and I cannot think of anything more fitting to grace the scene.