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Graham Parry, Soventeenth-Contury Poetry: The Social Context . Dover, New Hampshire: Hutchinson and Co., 1985. 256 pp.; cloth $22.50, paper $11.95. by Sidney Gottlieb Depending upon one'sexpectations, Graham Parry's Seventeenth -Century Poetry: The Social Context may strike the reader as either disappointing or possibly very useful. If one is looking for a fully detailed study of the major seventeenthcentury poets (from Jonson to Marvell) in their social settings, as the book's title and introduction prepare us for, it is difficult not to be somewhat let down by Parry's sketchy, often oddlyfocused analyses. Much of the material he surveys is either familiar to scholars (e.g., millenarianism in Marvell) or presented in broad, over-stated terms that confirm without critically qualifying the commonplace generalities used to describe each poet. A close examination of the full social background, paying attention to, among other subjects, local as well as national history, personal friendships and family relationships, and the almost inevitable tense complexity of seventeenthcentury verse, such that private poems often become public, and poems of praise often become subtly critical and defensive, would help restore these poets to three dimensions for modern readers. But Parry tends to flatten out these figures: for example, he presents a curiously amiable Jonson, without much of a satiric edge and unbelievably well-accommodated to a "rewarding . . . lifetime spent in the service of poetry" (p. 40); and in his discussion of Herbert he never quite gets beyond the picture of an untroubled parson living in the "palmy days of the 1620s and 1630s" (p. 12), a view that would not stand up well to a deeper study of Herbert's life and times. Parry's book suffers even further by comparison with the increasing number of recent books and articles that discuss the social context of seventeenth-century poetry in far greater detail and with much greater subtlety. His analysis of Jonson as a public poet contains some fine general observations but pales alongside Richard Helgerson's chapters on Jonson's 58 BOOK REVIEWS sense of his poetic role in Self-Crowned Laureates and Annabel Patterson's comments on Jonson's adjustments in his lyric voice while writing public poems in Censorship and Interpretation. Parry's stress on Donne's attempts to advertise and sell himself in his verses is important, but his argument lacks the solid grounding in the mechanics of the patronage system of early seventeenth-century England analyzed by Arthur Marotti and others in Patronage in the Renaissance (ed. Guy Fitch Lytle and Stephen Orgel). And the limitations of Parry's treatment of the history of this time period appear that much more pronounced when compared to the literary studies of seventeenth-century writers reprinted in Volume I of The Collected Essays of Christopher Hill. Hill's essays on Vaughan, Milton, Marvell, and Traherne (among others) show that any attempt to study the social context of a writer must be supported by voluminous historical investigation. My point in referring to these other studies is not to bludgeon Parry for not writing a detailed, specialized study: his aim lies elsewhere. But he misses many an opportunity to strengthen and refine his arguments by referring to the work of modern scholars investigating the same subject areas. His discussion of how Milton presents himself asa poet in his 1645 volume of poems, for example, is interesting but fails to build on Louis Martz's impressive essay "The Rising Poet," published as long ago as 1965. British scholars (Parry isa Lecturer at the University of York) often do not make as much of a fetish of secondary sources as American scholars do, and there is something to be said for this manner of escaping many of the pitfalls of pedantry. But in the very least Parry could have directed interested readers to some of these detailed studies in his bibliography, which as it stands now lists only a few general book-length works on each poet. But while this book may not provide scholars with a great deal of specialized information, it may be just the kind of introduction to these poets that will be extremely useful for students. It is accessible and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1931-1192
Print ISSN
0161-7435
Pages
pp. 58-60
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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