Reference > Cambridge History > The Age of Dryden > The Court Poets > The Circle of Whitehall
  The Lives and Writings of the Court Poets as a Protest against the Puritan Domination The Pranks of the Wits  

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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

VIII. The Court Poets.

§ 2. The Circle of Whitehall.


Such is one side of the medal. The reverse is less attractive. If it were frivolity whose muse reigned in Whitehall, it was a pompous frivolity. There was very little spontaneous gaiety in the court of the returned king. The intention to be gay was so loudly expressed that it seemed to come from the head rather than from the heart. The sense of relief, the determination to be happy at all costs, suggest that a spice of malice flavoured the joyousness of the courtiers. In what they said and did there was no trace of the golden mean. Their merriment was too often the merriment of constraint. Rochester declares in one of his letters that it wasn’t safe for a man to leave the court, if he didn’t want to be hanged. The exploits set forth in the Mémoires de Gramont are, so to say, conscious of reaction. Their persistent monotony fatigues us who read of them, as perchance they fatigued the courtiers who are their heroes. The king and his friends were too flagrantly industrious in the pursuit of pleasure. Gramont himself was not content to rely upon his own graces for success. He wooed his goddesses with “gloves, pocket looking-glasses, elegant boxes, apricot paste, essences, and other small wares of love.” To be jealous without being in love, to play for stakes so high that they could not be paid without distress, to indulge in practical jokes which had no better excuse than physical infirmity—these are not the marks of happiness. They were the misfortunes of everyone who came within the circle of Whitehall. The manners of the time thus proved the best material for satire and comedy. There was, perhaps, more joy in their contemplation than in their exercise. Pepys, who lived on the fringe of the Court, was gay, because he carried his indomitable gaiety into the simplest affairs of his life. We can believe that there was a flash of genuine gaiety at Epsom, when Nell Gwynn and Buckhurst “kept mery house” there. But the pleasure of Charles II’s court was marred by the inverse of puritanism. It was austere even in its love-making.   3

CONTENTS · VOLUME CONTENTS · INDEX OF ALL CHAPTERS · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
  The Lives and Writings of the Court Poets as a Protest against the Puritan Domination The Pranks of the Wits  
 
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