The Puritan Age in English Literature: Characteristics, Writers & Their Works

Historical Background

After the death of James I in 1625, the new monarch Charles I took religious persecution to a new level. He was asked by the Parliament to sign the petition of rights but he continued to show open disregard for Parliament and the people.

He also suffered unsuccessful foreign expeditions to France etc. After the Civil War in 1642, there was a division into the Cavaliers or Royalists (Clergy, nobility etc, those in favour of the King) and Roundheads or Parliamentarians (middle class etc those were in favour of the Parliament).

The Civil War helped the Puritans to set up the Commonwealth. Oliver Cromwell was able to galvanize a military dictatorship during Protectorate up until 1660 when Monarchy was restored.

Puritans came to American land in search of religious freedom from the Anglican Church or the High Church and the persecution of the Puritans under the King and Queen of the time.

The first Puritan or Pilgrim settlement is at Plymouth. The Puritans had a huge cultural and political role in crystallizing the American life. There imported notions regarding religion and Enlightenment form the bedrock of new settlement culture.

The prominent writers of the age are William Bradford, John Winthrop, Edward Taylor etc. William Bradford wrote extensively about Puritan life in terms of honest and hard working folks.

He celebrated the heroism of the simple or ordinary people. John Winthrop also described the various enterprises of the Puritan life with spirituality being the ultimate objective.

In routine life, there were activities like governance, trading and farming. The most prominent writer of the age in England was John Milton with works like “Paradise Lost” and “Paradise Regained”.

Some other works are John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress”, Walton’s “Complete Angler” and Sir Thomas Browne’s “Religio Medici”.

Puritan Age Characteristics

Here are the main characteristics of the literature of the age:


First person narratives were commonplace in the writing of Puritan age especially in the forms of journals and diaries. There were personal accounts of early American colonists depicting tales of travelling to the new lands, immigration, and everyday struggle.

These acted as the bequest to be handed down the generations to come in the future. As many American settlers had left their families back in England, the letter also became a popular form of writing.

The main genres of writing included religious sermons, historical narrative, personal journals and poetry.

Puritan Age Literature Themes

  • The common themes include religious and political idealism. There is also an insistence on practicalism and pragmatism of day-to-day life.
  • The religious discourse emphasizes the concept of predestination and the inevitability of sin and a strong sense of guilt and shame.
  • There is heavy usage of symbolism, especially, from the religious scripture.
  • The age is known for the heavy influence of Biblical text, for example, the Old Testament and books like the book of Jeremiah.
  • The genre, known as ‘Jeremiads’, was split into three portions.
  • The first extolled the faith of the past generations, the second denigrated the sins of the present age and the third make appeals for repentance and contrition.
  • There was an influence of natural phenomena like earthquakes, fires, floods etc as the people of the age were interested in learning about nature and the signs of God’s design in nature.
  • Other thematic works included the idea of reformation or regeneration. Unity and free choice and order were also topical manifestations.
  • The concept of a struggle between the World and spirituality was also explored.
  • As most families visited the Church and attended religious sermons, the writing itself reflects the Biblical style of construction. There was also demonization of the native Indians who were described as followers of Satanism.

Writing Style

The writing style of the Puritan Age was predominantly plain with simple sentences and language. Metaphorical constructions were in limited use and excessive ornamentation or dramatic appeals were discouraged.

Symbolism from scripture was used to make the sermons etc impactful. The main motive was, to tell the truth of Godly existence in a commonly understandable form. Therefore, the use of Greek mythology or forms of classical literature was avoided.

Use of fictional elements was limited to the extent of blasphemy. Puritans believed that literature should not be used for entertainment. It must be used in the service of religious discourse.

Puritan writers like Anne Bradstreet and John Winthrop wrote extensively about spirituality. They shared their own spiritual journeys. The aim was to popularize the Puritan beliefs and impose their vision a new social order. They wanted to motivate by creating an allusion to that ideal society.

Among these works, there is Winthrop’s “Model of Christian Charity,” which was actually a sermon and used the popular metaphor “City Upon a Hill” in Abella Covenant. It is still referenced by many American politicians.

Puritan Poetry

Poets of Puritan Age used sonnets especially the likes of Anne Bradstreet (considered to be the first American poet) etc. This was a continuation of the sonnet writing in the Elizabethan age and the works of Shakespeare etc.

The Author to Her Book” by Anne Bradstreet is an excellent example of such sonnets. Bradstreet used a very European poetic style and avoided getting into squabbles with the criticism of the clergy at the time.

With the beginning of the Restoration period (after the monarchy was re-established in 1660), poets like John Dryden etc brought some creativity back to Puritan poetry.

Read further analysis of the age on this site.

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