Landscape and Property in Seventeenth-Century Poetry

Andrew McRae


The vogue for rural poetry in seventeenth-century England is an established fact of literary history. In a vital cultural movement, stimulated by continental developments in landscape painting and coloured by traditions of pastoral literature, poets consistently represented their native countryside as an untroubled site of rural pleasures. But the poetic celebrations of the land were in fact forged out of a period of accelerated social and economic change in rural England. Rapid increases in rates of population and inflation, throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, placed intensifying pressures on both the land and the vast majority of the English people still directly dependent upon it. As contemporary farmers, social commentators and poets sought to comprehend these often confusing processes, they formulated rival discourses of rural order, which articulated widely divergent values at a time when agrarian practice was inexorably being wrenched towards capitalism. Traditional codes of moral economies were confronted by a new ethos of 'improvement'; the myth of organic community within the manorial estate was ruptured by the relentless market forces of economic competition; and the doctrine that a landlord is a mere steward of God's bounty gave way in the face of an emergent conception of absolute property in land. In the early seventeenth century, as English poets discovered their native landscape, the meaning of rural England had never before been so problematic.

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