Shaping the Culture – The Literary Legacy of Puritanism in English Life

English Literature
Exactly why has England produced such a feast of literature? Why does literature, plays, novels, books, poetry, journalism remain England’s primary artistic expression?

While acknowledging the massive influence of British creativity in the rock and pop scene since the 1960’s, it is still literature that is the primary artistic bestowal of the Brits to the English speaking world.

Jeremy Paxman, BBC journalist and author, in his brilliant and fascinating study of ‘the English’ suggests it was the impact of the Reformation which was then diligently applied, as we have seen already, by the Puritans that led to this phenomena.

Replacing the visual with the written word
He writes,
‘If this was the moment when the English cultural tradition cut itself off from the rest of Europe, you could not find a more striking signal of the new direction in which English creativity was to turn than the tearing down of altar screens and their replacement in many churches by bare boards listing the ten commandments.

Here, literally, was the replacement of the visual by the verbal…The English not only came to a new way of appreciating the Word, they came to an appreciation of words.

We cannot know whether there would ever have been an English Titian, Raphael of Michelangelo. But we are sure that the Reformation and its aftermath threw up William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, John Donne, John Bunyan and John Milton.

The literary tradition that followed them has become the most sustained and distinguished in the western world…the English certainly became a people obsessed with words…

The contrast [between their relative lack of English enthusiasm for great classical composers like Handel and Elgar] with the English love of words could not be starker.

It shows itself in the absurdly over-productive British publishing business, which turns our 100,000 new books a year – more than the entire American publishing industry.’ (Jeremy Paxman, ‘The English, A Portrait of a People’, Penguin, p.109, 110)

The Puritans in a very direct way influenced English culture around the preaching, teaching and reading of the gospel. And, at least in some measure, we have them to thank for the rich literary heritage England enjoys.

Read the next post, ‘Puritan Priorities – a Passion for Souls’

© 2009 Lex Loizides


2 thoughts on “Shaping the Culture – The Literary Legacy of Puritanism in English Life

  1. Scott March 13, 2009 / 12:13 pm

    Interesting post, Lex, once again. Britain has certainly led the way in English Literature over the centuries, but, interestingly, the legacy is being deconstructed: Most of the well-known contemporary literature awards are being won by writers from countries other than the UK- the Booker Prize is a good example- but then, this may reflect an interest in different cultures and experiences amongst the readership. But you are right- literature is definitely associated with the whole English culture. On another note: Artists like Turner and Gainsborough added to global culture, and brilliant men such as Christopher Wren and geniuses from other disciplines made Britain what it was a hundred years ago: The centre of cultural life. Now, not so much!
    But, then, post is about the impact literature and culture had on those who went out from Britain to share the gospel, ultimately. What happened between than and now??

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