A Rationale for Clusters of "Minor Writers"
It might help if I gave you an explanation of how I came to cluster together Astell, Suckling, Waller and Lovelace on one day, and Finch and Montague on another. They're all generally considered "minor writers" in that great game of "who's the big cheese" played at MLA Conventions, departmental curriculum debates, publishing house strategy meetings, and few other places on earth. To their readers they were famous authors but some did not publish--in previous Norton-eras a neglect to blow one's own trumpet in public was considered lack of talent. But that was before feminist and marxist critics (small letters = not doctrinaire theorists but practical appliers of the method) showed that control of publishing tended to remain in male, nobility-pleasing hands until the 18th-19th century. Also, people started questioning the circumstances under which people from non-aristocratic or testosterone-challenged backgrounds could afford the time to be authors, the tasks of making a living or motherhood and authoring taking so much time from each other. These developments don't even consider the influence of the nearly all-male English departments of the early to mid-twentieth century, and the inevitable cooperation of early women scholars with the male "Good Old Boys Club" that ran departments, conventions, journals, anthology editorial boards, and so on.
Why are they writing as they are? Lady Mary Wortley Montagu will take up in poetic form the issues Astell raises in prose, and yet doesn't have exactly the same attitude toward them--why? Both Montagu and Astell are among the first women writers specifically to take on the norms of courtship and marriage which were beginning to change in ways that profoundly disadvantaged women. (Click here for a short excerpt from Nancy Cott's, "Divorce and the Changing Status of Women in Eighteenth-Century Massachusetts," which explains why husbands were suddenly able to divorce their wives but wives were still almost always unable to divorce their husbands.) The "Cavalier" (royalist) poets, Suckling, Waller, and Loveless seem almost oblivious to the intense interest in marriage that both the female writers show. What are they using poetry to do and how might that be related to their gender, politics, and cultural identity? How might that have helped lead to where we now stand in the still heated public debate about courtship and marriage and everything in between?
Rochester, Dryden, Swift and Prior are all satirists, practitioners of the art of deflating the proud, and convicting the powerful of their crimes. They also take swipes at the relatively powerless and foolish. For each satirist, that means we also have to resurrect their targets so that we can clearly understand why the targets deserved the satire and to appreciate the satire's "point." (One way to detect satire is to feel, emotionally, its "sharp" or "biting" or "pointed" tone in its exaggerated praise of targets' foolish or criminal behavior, or its offering but rejecting rational alternative for the targets' self-inflicted but absurd choices.) How do they differ? Look for their "norms," the standards of value they support either tacitly or overtly. Also, look for the "Horatian" (satire of folly) vs. "Juvenalian" (satire of crime) difference. Finally, social class and cultural surround must be established. In brief, Dryden, Swift and Prior are "commoners" (not nobles) and "City men," residents of the middle-class regions of London and Dublin, and their targets tend to be the middle class and their rival poets. Nevertheless, both Dryden and Swift dared to mount assaults that touched the folly even of pompous nobles, usually by not explicitly naming them and by publishing anonymously, or retreating to manuscript circulation. Rochester is a nobleman and a court poet, and his targets are almost exclusively members of the court, and rival poets (including Milton!). He dared satirize even the king, and once (accidentally, when drunk!) accidentally handed Charles II a satire written about him.
The "materialism," "skepticism," "atheism" and "deism" vocabulary terms belong most strongly with Rochester, but they're also terms relevant to the cultural assumptions of most of these characters. On another note, it's amusing to think that while Milton was writing Paradise Lost, Rochester was getting thrown in the Tower for abducting a beautiful heiress (whom he later married!), and between the publication of Milton's first edition of Paradise Lost (1667) and the second edition (1674), Rochester helped found a loose-knit club of noble roisterers, known as the "Ballers," who generally terrorized the citizens of London and pursued their daughters while conducting open affairs with the wives and mistresses of various nobles. One wonders how he, like those women raising children, had any time to write. Click here for Charles Whibley's measured appraisal of the "Wits" and their reputations in the "Court Poets" chapter of the Cambridge History of English and American Literature (N.Y.: Putnam, 1907-21) on Bartleby.com. Comparisons with hard-drinking, self-destructive modern poets and fiction writers like Dylan Thomas, Anne Sexton, and Malcolm Lowrey, as well as with later rock-and-roll stars, might be instructive. At what point do materialism, skepticism, and the other philosophical supports for a bawdy lifestyle become mere excuses for addictive behavior? Does society need these sharp-tongued clowns to puncture its illusions when hypocrisy rises to certain levels?