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Early Modern Period

The Early Modern Period is a period in European literature that came before the development of the novel in the 18th century. 

This period came after Medieval and Renaissance literature. The Early Modern Period lasted from 1550 to 1750, ending with the Age of Enlightenment. This period is also defined by plays for the entertainment of the general public, street performers in Italy in France creating com media dell’arte, and the publication of the first novel, Done Quixote de la Mancha. 

early modern period

Early Modern Period Definition 

The Early Modern Period is defined as the period before the development of the modern novel during the 18th century.

The period includes the work of authors like Christopher Marlow, William Shakespeare, George Herbert, and John Milton. It is often defined as the period during which the focus transitioned from the long, epic poem to the modern novel. 

Early Modern Period Timeline

Explore the timeline of the early modern period, which spans from 1545 – 1700:


Catholic Reformation


Religious wars in France, Germany, and Britain


Christopher Marlowe’s first play published


Shakespeare’s plays are published


Scientific Revolution


Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes is published


Reign of King Charles I in England


John Donne publishes The Flea


Reign of King Louis XIV in France


Paradise Lost’ by John Milton is published


Enlightenment begins

Examples Early Modern Period Literature 

Holy Sonnet 14 by John Donne

This well-loved early modern period sonnet, also known as ‘Batter my heart,’ is one of Donne’s best religious poems. It is directed at God and asks him to take hold of the speaker. This poem is part of a series of nineteen poems, which are most commonly referred to as Divine Meditations.

Here are a few lines from the piece: 

Batter my heart, three-personed God, for you

As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;

That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend

Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

I, like an usurped town, to another due,

Labour to admit you, but Oh, to no end.

Batter my heart’ expresses the speaker’s desire for God to take hold of him by force and use him for God’s will. The poem uses deeply spiritual and physical images. The main themes of the poem are love, religion, and violence.

Read more John Donne poems

Sonnet 130 by William Shakespeare 

Within the lines of this famous sonnet, Shakespeare satirizes the traditional praising one’s lover’s features and comparing them to beautiful things. He tells his lover that their features are “nothing like the sun.” They are far superior to the variety of images one might be compared to. The sonnet is written in the traditional form that is now associated with the poet’s name—the Shakespearean sonnet. This means that it uses fourteen lines, following a rhyme scheme of ABABCDCDEFEFGG. It also uses iambic pentameter. Here are a few lines from the poem: 

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;

Coral is far more red, than her lips red:

If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;

If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.

I have seen roses damasked, red and white,

But no such roses see I in her cheeks;

The poet is suggesting that those who compare their lovers to nature are not describing them as they are but idealizing them. He’s hinting that he loves his mistress in a way that other poets and writers throughout the centuries do not love their partners. 

Explore more William Shakespeare poems

Virtue by George Herbert 

This is a spiritual poem, similar to many that Herbert wrote throughout his life. It stresses the need to keep a virtuous soul. Herbert creates a contrast between earthly things and a virtuous soul to make his point. It’s a fairly short poem that lands on a central message— sweet things are prone to decay. Virtue is the thing that keeps the spirit alive. Here is the first stanza

Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright,

The bridal of the earth and sky;

The dew shall weep thy fall to-night,

For thou must die.

The speaker talks about how one must nurture the soul in order to elevate it and gain immortality. One of the most powerful images is that of the rose, which has its roots in death, the poet says. 

Discover more George Herbert poems


Why is the early modern period significant? 

The period is an important transitional period between medieval and Renaissance literature and the period of the modern novel, beginning in the 18th century. The period includes the work of some of the greatest writers of all time.

When did early modern literature start?

The period began around the mid-1500s when the Tudor Dynasty came into control in England. It ended in 1750 with the Age of Enlightenment

What is modern literature?

Modern literature originated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and is defined by experimental genres. Including, symbolism, formalism, absurdism, and more. Individualism was one of the primary drivers of the period.

Related Literary Terms 

  • American Renaissance: a period of literature that lasted from 1830 to the beginning of the Civil War, around 1861.
  • Edwardian Period: officially lasted from 1901 to 1910, including the reign of King Edward VII. However, the period is often stretched to include the start of World War One.
  • Elizabethan Era: a literary period that lasted through the years of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, from 1558 to 1603.
  • Enlightenment: a period from the late 17th century through the 18th century, in which scientific ideas flourished throughout Western Europe, England, and the colonies in America.
  • Jacobean Age: a period in English and Scottish history, from 1603-1625. It corresponds with the reign of James VI of Scotland.

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