The eighteenth century saw unprecedented growth of literature and the arts in Europe and America. Britain during this time period also enjoyed prolonged periods of civil peace that stood in sharp contrast to the bloody and protracted civil and international conflicts that lasted throughout the 17th century. Furthermore, as the rising middle classes increasingly sought both education and leisure entertainment, the marketplace for artistic production swelled dramatically. One of the most critical elements of the 18th century was the increasing availability of printed material, both for readers and authors. The period was markedly more generally educated than the centuries before. Education was less confined to the upper classes than it had been in centuries, and consequently contributions to science, philosophy, economics, and literature came from all parts of the newly United Kingdom. It was the first time when literacy and a library were all that stood between a person and education.
The first half of the century has often been aptly described as the Age of Reason, the Augustan Age and the Neo-classical Age. The very description of this period as Augustan throws light on the prosperity and growth of this period, drawing a direct parallel to the affluent era of Latin literature during the reign of Augustus and in the process, claiming a similar Golden Age of English literature and arts. It was an “age of reason” in that it was an age that accepted clear, rational methods as superior to tradition.
The period saw the development and growth of a new attitude towards life and more importantly towards the role of nature around us. Rationalism, as an ideology, gained importance and influenced literary works to a large extent. Rationalism as a philosophical doctrine, asserts that reason and factual analysis, rather than faith, dogma or religious teaching should determine the truth. Such a philosophy provided stability and order to the society and was hence considered as a welcoming change from the chaos that Europe had recently experienced. The Age of Reason, hence, emphasized on the importance to perceive life in a scientific and detached manner. It rejected emotion or fashionable belief and stressed on a more rational, logical and scientific attitude towards life. The discoveries of Isaac Newton, the rationalism of Rene Descartes, the skepticism of Pierre Bayle, the pantheism of Benedict de Spinoza, and the empiricism of Francis Bacon and John Locke fostered the belief in natural law and universal order and the confidence in human reason that spread to influence all of 18th-century society. These philosophers variously attacked spiritual and scientific authority, dogmatism, intolerance, censorship, and economic and social restraints. They considered the state the proper and rational instrument of progress. A rational and scientific approach to religious, social, political, and economic issues promoted a secular view of the world and a general sense of progress and perfectibility.
18th century English poetry was political, satirical, and marked by the central philosophical problem of whether the individual or society took precedence as the subject of verse. Both the form and content of Augustan verse typically emphasize rationality, coherence, restraint, discipline, and logic. Augustan poets use traditional forms to explore clearly defined “general truths”: their subject was frequently “Man” and “Nature” and their poetry a demonstration of the orderly and logical arrangement of the universe and the place of “Man” and “Nature” within it. For the Augustans, “Nature” was not a wild, untamed force. It was instead a logical and understandable hierarchy. It thus made manifest the orderliness of the universe and the omnipotence of God. The Augustans found in “Nature” infinite hierarchal systems, all of which reflected the general order of the universe. The rational reader, Augustan poetry argues, can learn important lessons by reading the hierarchal systems in nature correctly. Although human understanding is, by definition, limited and imperfect, for the Augustans, it could begin to understand the larger order of the universe by contemplating the smaller systems which could be found everywhere in “Nature.” The task of the Augustan poet, therefore, was to create poetry that reflected and meditated on this hierarchal order so that the reader would be able to contemplate and understand it.
The heroic couplet (rhymed iambic pentameter) was one of the most popular verse forms of this era. Its regularity enabled the poet to demonstrate his or her skill in fulfilling the formal demands of rhyme and meter in surprising and witty ways. The poet’s skill – and the reader’s pleasure – lay in the creative fulfillment of the demands of form. In this regard, then, the formal regularity of Augustan verse reflected the universe it claimed to describe: it respected the boundaries of tradition and order and also demonstrated the infinite variety of the natural world. “Nature” might initially seem chaotic to the untrained reader, but Augustan poetry claimed to offer perpetual demonstrations of its inherent regularity.
Alexander Pope dominated the entire Augustan age’s poetry. His lines were repeated often enough to lend quite a few cliches and proverbs to modern English usage. The literary circle around Pope considered Homer preeminent among the ancient poets and concluded that the writer who imitates Homer is also describing nature. It is with this reasoning that Pope articulates in his Essay on Criticism:
Thos rules of old discovered, not devised
Are nature still but nature methodized.
The more general movement, carried forward only with struggle between poets, was the same as was present in the novel: the invention of the subjective self as a worthy topic, the emergence of a priority on individual psychology, against the insistence on all acts of art being performance and public gesture designed for the benefit of society at large. Underneath this large banner raged multiple individual battles. The other development, one seemingly agreed upon by both sides, was a gradual expropriation and reinvention of all the Classical forms of poetry. Every genre of poetry was recast, reconsidered, and used to serve new functions. Ode, ballad, elegy, satire, parody, song, and lyric poetry would all be adapted from their older uses.
Like in verse, the tight heroic couplet was common; essay and satire emerged as a dominant genre in prose. The works of Dryden, Swift, Addison and John Gay and many of their contemporaries exhibit an order of clarity and decorum that were formulated in the major critical documents of the age- Dryden’s Essay of Dramatic Poesy and Pope’s Essay on Criticism. These works insisted that nature’ is the true model and standard of writing.
The Age of Reason featured the rapid development of the novel, an explosion in satire, the mutation of drama from political satire into melodrama, and an evolution toward poetry of personal exploration. An arch, ironic pose, full of nuance, and a superficial air of dignified calm that hid sharp criticisms beneath marked the satires of the age.
Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) was the first major novel of the new century. Defoe took the actual life and, from that, generated a fictional life, satisfying an essentially journalistic market with his fiction. In the 1720s, Defoe interviewed famed criminals and produced accounts of their lives. In particular, he investigated Jack Sheppard and Jonathan Wild and wrote True Accounts of the former’s escapes (and fate) and the latter’s life.
Satire was present in all genres during the Augustan period. Perhaps primarily, satire was a part of political and religious debate. Every significant politician and political act had satires to attack it. Satire, both in prose, drama, and poetry, was the genre that attracted the most energetic and voluminous writing. The satires produced during the Augustan period were occasionally gentle and non-specificcommentaries on the comically flawed human conditionbut they were at least as frequently specific critiques of specific policies, actions, and persons.
A single name overshadows all others in 18th-century prose satire: Jonathan Swift. Swift wrote poetry as well as prose, and his satires range over all topics. Critically, Swift’s satire marked the development of prose parody away from simple satire or burlesque. A burlesque or lampoon in prose would imitate a despised author and quickly move to reductio ad absurdum by having the victim say things coarse or idiotic. On the other hand, other satires would argue against a habit, practice, or policy by making fun of its reach or composition or methods. What Swift did was to combine parody, with its imitation of form and style of another, and satire in prose. Swift’s works would pretend to speak in the voice of an opponent and imitate the style of the opponent and have the parodic work itself be the satire. Swift’s first major satire was A Tale of a Tub, which introduced an ancients/moderns division that would serve as a distinction between the old and new conception of value. The “moderns” sought trade, empirical science, the individual’s reason above the society’s, while the “ancients” believed in inherent and immanent value of birth, and the society over the individual’s determinations of the good. In Swift’s satire, the moderns come out looking insane and proud of their insanity, and dismissive of the value of history. In Swift’s most significant satire, Gulliver’s Travels (1726), autobiography, allegory, and philosophy mix together in the travels. Thematically, Gulliver’s Travels is a critique of human vanity, of pride. Particularly after Swift’s success, parodic satire had an attraction for authors throughout the 18th century Long prose satires like Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) had a central character who goes through adventures and may (or may not) learn lessons
In satire, Pope achieved two of the greatest poetic satires of all time in the Augustan period. The Rape of the Lock was a gentle mock-heroic. Pope applies Virgil’s heroic and epic structure to this work. The structure of the comparison forces Pope to invent mythological forces to overlook the struggle, and so he creates an epic battle, complete with a mythology of sylphs and metempsychosis, over a game of Ombre, leading to a fiendish appropriation of the lock of hair. Finally, a deux ex machina appears and the lock of hair experiences an apotheosis. To some degree, Pope was adapting Jonathan Swift’s habit, in A Tale of a Tub, of pretending that metaphors were literal truths, and he was inventing a mythos to go with the everyday.
Another movement that pro-ceded the Age of Reason was the Romantic Movement. It was a movement that revolted against the authority of reason of the Augustan Age. Emphasis on a materialistic and mechanical way of life had led many to believe that reason undermined the emotional aspect of life. Creativity and imagination were discouraged and life’s experiences were reduced to being expressed in terms of matter. All that could not be viewed in terms of matter and mechanism was considered unreal.
Under the Romantic Movement, nature became organic rather than mechanistic. It stressed strong emotion, the individual imagination as a critical authority, which permitted freedom within or even from classical notions of form in art, and overturning of previous social conventions, particularly the position of the aristocracy. There was a strong element of historical and natural inevitability in its ideas, stressing the importance of “nature” in art and language. Romanticism is also noted for its elevation of the achievements of what it perceived as heroic individuals and artists.
The growth of this movement gave rise to the Organistic World View where the dynamics of nature were seen as positive. The most important event in the rise of Romanticism was the French Revolution. To many, the revolution held a promise- a hope of being liberated from all forms of tyranny and the limitless possibilities of human nature. Two of the most prominent poets of the period- Wordsworth and Blake- were exceedingly influenced by the revolution and also wrote many poems under its inspiration:
“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.”
The British poet James Macpherson influenced the early development of Romanticism with the international success of his Ossian cycle of poems published in 1762, inspiring both Goethe and the young Walter Scott.
Romanticism in British literature developed in a different form, mostly associated with the poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose book “Lyrical Ballads” (1798) sought to reject Augustan poetry in favour of more direct speech derived from folk traditions. Both poets were also involved in Utopian social thought in the wake of the French Revolution. The poet and painter William Blake is the most extreme example of the Romantic sensibility in Britain, epitomized by his claim ‘I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s’.
The term ‘Romanticism’ derives ultimately from the fictional romances written during the Middle Ages (“romance” being the medieval term for works in the vernacular Romance languages rather than in Latin). These each involved the episodic adventures of a single individual, though long digressive inner narratives might follow a secondary figure for a time, and they revolved around some central figure: Charlemagne, Alexander the Great and King Arthur were each central figures in such “cycles” of romances, which were notable for their use of magic and focus on personal characteristics of honor and valor, as well as a sense of lofty idealism and a “lost world”.
A precise characterization and a specific description of Romanticism have been objects of intellectual history and literary history for all of the twentieth century without any great measure of consensus emerging. Some scholars see romanticism as completely continuous with the present, some see it as the inaugural moment of modernity, some see it as the beginning of a tradition of resistance to the Enlightenment, and still others date it firmly to the direct aftermath of the French Revolution.
It might be taken to include the rise of individualism, as seen by the cult of the artistic genius that was a prominent feature in the Romantic worship of Shakespeare and in the poetry of Wordsworth, to take only two examples; a new emphasis on common language and the depiction of apparently everyday experiences; and experimentation with new, non-classical artistic forms.
Romanticism also strongly valued the past. Old forms were valued, ruins were sentimentalized as iconic of the action of Nature on the works of man, and mythic and legendary material which would previously have been seen as “low” culture became a common basis for works of “high” art and literature.
Romanticism played an essential role in the national awakening of many Central European peoples lacking their own national states, particularly in Poland, which had recently lost its independence. Revival of ancient myths, customs and traditions by Romanticist poets and painters helped to distinguish their indigenous cultures from those of the dominant nations (Russians, Germans, Austrians, Turks, etc.). Patriotism, revolution and armed struggle for independence also became popular themes in the arts of this period.