Jacobean Prose: Themes, Characteristics & Prose Writers


During the mid-17th century or rather, the Age of Milton, the development of prose took place. In spite of the influence of the civil war, the prose output was ample & excellent in kind.

There was a notable development in sermon writing; pamphlets were abundant; & history, politics, philosophy etc. kinds were well represented. There was a remarkable development in the prose style.

The prose of this age was cultivated in a style, very different from Elizabethan & 16th-century prose. The prose writers used a grand style that Bacon & Hooker never guessed. It was loose in structure, over-coloured & elaborate. The writers freely used Latin words of classical construction.

Despite some drawbacks, the prose of this period has many qualities. It has a freshness of form. It was the period of biography, autobiography, history & personal essays.

The prose of this age possesses a strongly religious & philosophical character. The important prose writers of this age were Robert Burton, Sir Thomas Browne, Taylor, Fuller & John Milton.

The Baroque Style

Every past age in England had, in some terms, advanced literature from antiquity to modernity. But the Age of Milton does not seem to have advanced English prose from the antiquity of prose of the Elizabethan age towards the ideal of simplicity, comprehensibility & lucidity.

Although some important writers of the Jacobean age kept themselves away from the ornateness of prose, the Gothic style of Elizabethans influenced a large proportion of prose writers of the Milton age.

As a consequence, plain prose, set by Bacon & the character writers was forgotten & a baroque style was cultivated in the age of Milton.

Prose of Browne

Sir Thomas Browne, the greatest prose-writer of the century, exhibited the qualities of quaintness, learning, meditation & humour. He was a physician by profession, with a deep interest in religion.

As a thinker & writer, he had a love of investigating the physical truths. He wanted to remove errors in all the fields of learning & divinity, but he himself indulged in such errors.

He was one of the most learnt men of his age. His main works are: “Religio Medici”, “Vulgar Errors”, “A Letter to a Friend”, “Christian”, “Moral Vulgar Errors” etc.

Prose of Anglicans

The prose of the age of Milton is remarkable for its pronounced religious slant. The secular interest of the Jacobean period seems to have yielded considerable place to religious interests. Among the Anglicans, the important prose writers were George Herbert, Jeremy Taylor etc.

Most of them wrote sermons. The last name was the most distinguished of all of them. His most famous work was “Holy Living & Holy Dying” Like Browne; he is occupied with the thought of human morality. Like him again, he is not afraid of death. In his view, death is nothing but a middle point between the two lives.

Prose of Puritans

The Puritan camp was dominated by Milton. As compared to the prose works of the Anglicans, those of Puritans are marked by violence & lack good taste.

Milton from the age of 31-50 wrote a number of pamphlets (a thin book with only a few pages, which give information or an opinion about something) on political themes. His prose is ornate, too highly Latinized & has the quality of high seriousness & sincerity.

Prose of Philosophers

The prose of Thomas Hobbes rises above all political & religious controversies. He was the secretary of Bacon. His most important work is The “Leviathan”. It sets forth his totalitarian, materialistic & rationalist philosophy.

James Harrington in his Utopian work “Oceania” controverts the views of Hobbes favouring absolute monarchy. But he & others lacked the lucidity & exactness as possessed by Hobbes.

Prose of Eccentrics

Lastly, we come across some “eccentrics” who wrote about the middle of the 17th century. Fuller was one of those eccentrics. He was an Anglican clergyman & wrote the “Church History of Britain” & “History of Worthies of England”. Fuller’s prose is somewhat quaint but has the elements of wit, even the wit of metaphysical type.

The Authorised Version of the Bible

The greatest work of this age is the translation of the English Bible. There is something more than mere translation. It is the original literature itself. The translations of the Bible in English are made by different persons at different times.

But the “Authorized Version” came into existence as a result of a conference called by King James-I to consider the demands of more aggressive Puritans for a proper English diction of the Bible.

The version was called “authorized” because the translation had been made under the sanction of the king to make a new version.

The effect of the “Authorized Version” on the development of the English style, particularly on English prose was immense. Many phrases & expressions used in the Authorized Version become a common part of English speech.