Whatever comes up! Prof. Ron McFarland guides readers through 17th century England

Future literary researchers Natalie Rose and Kaiden secretly plot against the world alongside grandfather Ron McFarland (the one with the T-shirt that reads: "In my novel I am plotting against you"). Photo via Ron McFarland.

It’s the verbs, man, the verbs!

One of the things I liked about your background is that you covered a period of English history that I’ve taken a strong interest in, specifically the 17th century. Your doctoral thesis was on the poet Thomas Traherne, a priest whose literary writing seems almost counter to what I’ve always pictured the Cavalier period to promote. And again, John Donne also captured your interest when you started to express yourself poetically. What drew you to this period – or was it only the poets that caught your interest?

I started out at Brevard Junior College as a biology major with hopes of going into bacteriology, but chemistry and I did not mix (we did not form a compound, as it were), and I seriously considered majoring in history, and in fact I’ve accumulated enough credits in odds and ends of history courses (Middle East, Latin America, Florida, Renaissance & Reformation, Scientific Renaissance, etc.) to equal a major. But I shifted to English with the notion that when I got to Florida State I could complete the degree and be required to take only one advanced course in poetry. Given the choice of Geoffrey Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, or John Milton (Florida State University had a very traditional curriculum back then), I opted for Chaucer. Well, I had a great prof and really got into it, and the next course I took was in Romantic poets, and I had another great prof for that, so great that I took his grad course on the subject and was planning to write my MA thesis on Lord Byron. My longtime girlfriend (2.5 years) had just dumped me (wise move on her part), and I was feeling very Byronic, which is to say very sorry for myself, full of Weltschmerz and all that.

I then took a 17th-century course from a teacher who came out of retirement and who was not very inspiring at all, and ironically enough, I found myself loving the poetry of Donne, George Herbert, Robert Herrick, Andrew Marvell, et al. Not so much Milton, though, at the time—that came later, when I went to the University of Illinois and studied under a major Miltonist, Arthur E. Barker. However, Donne was the best—a challenge in some ways—but I admire his dramatic sense and what has been called his “metaphysical” wit. Moving from poets like  William Wordsworth, John Keats (who doesn’t love his work?), Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, et al. to Donne constituted almost a leap of faith, from the passionate toward the cerebral, from feelings to wit.


Of course, Donne is renowned for such works as his “Death be not proud” sonnet (1609) and his comparison of the earthy aspects of lovemaking with the mixing of the blood of two victims in his poem “The Flea,” as well as delivering his own death sermon. Certainly his writing appeared to draw inspiration from a wide range of interests. How has his dramatic flair affected your own poetry?

An interesting book on Donne’s composition is Patrick Cruttwell’s “The Shakespearean Moment and Its Place in the Poetry of the 17th Century” (1955), if I remember correctly—has to do with his sense of drama, and of dramatic immediacy in his poems. “For godsake hold your tongue and let me love!” begins one of them—a modern version would substitute “shut your mouth” for “hold your tongue.”

Some of the so-called Elegies are terrific for establishing a sense of staging, in a way. One begins “Once, and but once, found in thy company, / And all they supposed escapes are blamed on me” (we’d say “escapades” for “escapes”) and everything just falls apart—suspicious parents, bribed servants, etc.

So, the drive attracts me, the predominance of present tense, the sprightly verbs, the DISinclination toward rich imagery (a la Keats) or even metaphor, all that attracts me. “BUsy OLD FOOL unRUly SUN, WHY dost thou THUS throughWINdows and through CURtains CALL on US?” That’s the stress we hear. I don’t have the poems on hand just now, but as you can see, the words do come to me readily enough (although I may be misquoting in places).

I think his best Holy Sonnet is the one that goes, “Batter my heart, three—personed God, for you / As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend. / That I may rise and stand, break, blow, bend / Your force to make me new.” It’s the verbs, man, the verbs! You know, I think I did quote these lines accurately—have long admired them, including the way they balance off each other. I do go on.

Here’s another twist. When I was teaching at Sam Houston State College and working on my first book, a reader-rhetoric for freshman composition, I applied to a handful of PhD programs with the notion that if I got a good offer from one of these two or three, I’d specialize in American Literature, or if from those two or three, I’d go into 17th century British literature. The good offer came from University of Illinois, so I predestined myself (good Presbyterian that I had been) to go in that direction. For some dumb reason, I applied instead in American Studies at Brown, so although I was accepted into that program, they did not have money to send my way. Had I applied there in American Lit, out of the English Department, I’d likely have gotten a teaching assistantship of the sort I landed at Illinois. And who knows what would’ve happened then?

While at UI, I took a rather awful course in 17th-century prose, one of those things where you pretty much went off on your own and did your own thing, but I learned a lot in the process, and I learned even more when the first 400-level course I was assigned to teach at the University of Idaho, my first semester here (fall of 1970), was 17th-century prose. I do very much enjoy Sir Francis Bacon’s “Essays” to this day and have long been a huge admirer of Sir Thomas Browne’s “Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial”(1658)  – one of the truly great treatises on death. I should probably enjoy Milton’s prose more than I do, and the same can be said for Izaak Walton’s “The Compleat Angler” (1653).


Although I never could get the attraction of a book on fishing, it seems that Walton was rather a strong influence on the 17th century. Indeed, the period had its share of literary influencers. Was it because of the Civil Wars that swept the British Isles in the middle of the century, or was it an after-effect of Shakespeare, or did it have to do with some other reason?

The old emerita prof I had for 17th-century at FSU divided the course between pre-war and post-war writers, but significantly those writing prior to 1640 or so tend to be the major ones. Another and better way to deal with it is to divide the Puritans (mostly John Milton) from the Cavaliers, with Andrew Marvell straddling the fence. I’ve always liked to think that Donne as a Londoner was a frequenter of Shakespeare’s plays. Ben Jonson, also a strong lyric poet, is usually regarded as #2 after The Bard, and a very different kind of poet from Donne—he was more in the Herrick tradition (Robert Herrick penned a notable poem entitled “My Cavalier” and was definitely of the kings’ men, as were Richard Lovelace and Sir John Suckling).

Who’s the second best Puritan writer after Milton? Aha! Darned hard to say. Donne bestrode the era, wrote most of his best stuff when Elizabeth was on the throne, but it was James who “set him up” to become the Dean of St. Paul’s and the acknowledged best “sermoneer” of his day, which is known as “The Golden Age of the English Sermon.” And in fact, they are generally quite readable even today.

It’s often proposed that the general prosperity, rise of capitalism and the middle class and all that under Elizabeth were major contributors to what made it what it was. When I taught the course, I usually invested way too much time in establishing the backgrounds, but as I’ve said, I’ve always been a historian at heart.


History, of course, is where the story is at. I’d think it rather difficult to get a sense of the written word of the era without knowing what all went on in the background. The writers from before the moment Charles raised the royal standard at Nottingham in 1642 were as you suggested the greatest of the era, but was there a similar change in the quality of writers that followed the Glorious Revolution in 1689?

Well, there was a major shift in what is sometimes called “sensibility,” what with John Dryden as poet laureate, who amped up the heroic couplet, which became the “standard” verse form of the Neoclassic period with Alexander Pope and others. What Donne accomplished, I’ve always thought, was the magic of the so-called “complex stanza.” His poems known as the Songs and Sonnets feature an array of nonce forms that will vary wildly in line length and rhyme scheme. In a single 8- or 10-line stanza, for instance, you might find line lengths varying from dimeter to hexameter with a rhyming pattern that might go: abbacdcdee (and it can get much more complex). The challenge, though, is to replicate that sort of complexity in the next 3 or 4 stanzas! The heroic couplet was so appropriately suited to the urge for harmony, balance and parallelism, etc.–the rhetoric of the new Age of Reason.


What’s the most important thing to know about the 17th century, in terms of the literary evolution of the English language?

Well, the usual and I suppose correct answer is the treasure trove of new words coming into general use due to exploration of the New World, with its new commodities like tobacco (which James despised—wrote a pamphlet entitled “A Counterblast To Tobacco”), the Scientific Renaissance (William Harvey’s treatise of the circulation of the blood, Sir Francis Bacon as “Father of the Empirical Method” or of “Modern Science,” Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei—Milton visited him when Galileo was an old man)–it was known as the “New Philosophy,” as in one of Donne’s poems: “The New Philosophy puts all in doubt, / The element of first is quite put out . . .”)–he seems to have feared it, as many did. There was a strong end-times sense as the 16th century ended.

It was also an era of experimentation with sentence style, as I learned when I took a not very good course on 17th-century prose at the Univ. of Illinois. I don’t think anyone has ever adequately accounted for Shakespeare’s remarkable range of diction, which is one reason why so many want to think of him as a composite writer, or as “really” Christopher Marlowe (quite ridiculous) or maybe Sir Walter Raleigh, or, or, or . . .


What is your personal theory of Shakespeare? Was his body of work a composite or did it all come from just him?

Naw, I’m sufficiently a Romanticist (still) to believe in Individual Genius, the autonomous self (at least up to a point—although the concept of the “socially constructed self” is intriguing). In some ways, the great genius of Goethe is even more fascinating (or daunting). There’s a mineral named Goethite in his honor, as he was a noted mineralogist (Minister of Mines), student of optics (composed a noted piece on theory of color, I believe), and student of anatomy (a piece the maxillary bone or some such). Taught “The Sorrows of Young Werther” (1774) a few years back and have taught various translations of “Faust” (1808) over the years. Many don’t even know of his “Part 2” (1832).