The 18th Century Literature

Augustan literature (1700–1750)

During the 18th century, literature reflected the worldview of the Age of Enlightenment (or Age of Reason): a rational and scientific approach to religious, social, political, and economic issues that promoted a secular view of the world and a general sense of progress and perfectibility.People were led by the philosophers who were inspired by the discoveries of the previous century by people like Isaac Newton and the writings of Descartes, John Locke, and Francis Bacon. They sought to discover and to act upon universally valid principles governing humanity, nature, and society. They 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. The extreme rationalism and skepticism of the age led naturally to deism and also played a part in bringing the later reaction of romanticism. The Encyclopédie of Denis Diderot epitomized the spirit of the age.

The term Augustan literature derives from authors of the 1720s and 1730s themselves, who responded to a term that George I of England preferred for himself. While George I meant the title to reflect his might, they instead saw in it a reflection of Ancient Rome’s transition from rough and ready literature to highly political and highly polished literature. It is an age of exuberance and scandal of enormous energy and inventiveness and outrage that reflected an era when English, Scottish, and Irish people found themselves in the midst of an expanding economy, lowering barriers to education, and the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution.

Poetry

It was during this time that poet James Thomson (1700–48) produced his melancholy The Seasons (1728–30) and Edward Young (1681–1765) wrote his poem Night Thoughts (1742), though the most outstanding poet of the age is Alexander Pope (1688–1744). It is also the era that saw a serious competition over the proper model for the pastoral. In criticism, poets struggled with a doctrine of decorum, of matching proper words with proper sense and of achieving a diction that matched the gravity of a subject. At the same time, the mock-heroic was at its zenith and Pope’s Rape of the Lock (1712–17) and The Dunciad (1728–43) are still the greatest mock-heroic poems ever written.Pope also translated the Iliad (1715–20) and the Odyssey (1725–26). Since his death, Pope has been in a constant state of re-evaluation.

Drama

Drama in the early part of the period featured the last plays of John Vanbrugh and William Congreve, both of whom carried on the Restoration comedy with some alterations. However, the majority of staging were of lower fares and much more serious and domestic tragedies. George Lillo and Richard Steele both produced highly moral forms of tragedy, where the characters and the concerns of the characters were wholly middle class or working class. This reflected a marked change in the audience for plays, as royal patronage was no longer the important part of theatrical success. Additionally, Colley Cibber and John Rich began to battle each other for greater and greater spectacles to present on stage. The figure of Harlequin was introduced, and pantomime theatre began to be staged. This “low” comedy was quite popular, and the plays became tertiary to the staging. Opera also began to be popular in London, and there was significant literary resistance to this Italian incursion. In 1728 John Gay returned to the playhouse with The Beggar’s Opera. The Licensing Act 1737 brought an abrupt halt to much of the period’s drama, as the theatres were once again brought under state control.

Prose, including the novel

In prose, the earlier part of the period was overshadowed by the development of the English essay. Joseph Addison and Richard Steele’s The Spectator established the form of the British periodical essay. However, this was also the time when the English novel emerged. Daniel Defoe turned from journalism and writing criminal lives for the press to writing fictional criminal lives with Roxana and MollFlanders. He also wrote Robinson Crusoe (1719).

If Addison and Steele were dominant in one type of prose, then Jonathan Swift, author of the satire Gulliver’s Travels was in another. In “A Modest Proposal” and the Drapier Letters, Swift reluctantly defended the Irish people from the predations of colonialism. This provoked riots and arrests, but Swift, who had no love of Irish Roman Catholics, was outraged by the abuses he saw.

An effect of the Licensing Act of 1737 was to cause more than one aspiring playwright to switch over to writing novels. Henry Fielding (1707–54) began to write prose satire and novels after his plays could not pass the censors. In the interim, Samuel Richardson (1689–1761) had produced Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740), and Henry Fielding attacked the absurdity of this novel in, Joseph Andrews (1742) and Shamela. Subsequently, Fielding satirized Richardson’s Clarissa (1748) with Tom Jones (1749). Tobias Smollett (1721–71) elevated the picaresque novel with works such as Roderick Random (1748) and Peregrine Pickle (1751).

 

Age of Sensibility: 1750–1798

This period is also sometimes described as the “Age of Johnson”.Samuel Johnson (1709–1784), often referred to as Dr. Johnson, was an English author who made lasting contributions to English literature as a poet, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor, and lexicographer. Johnson has been described as “arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history”.After nine years of work, Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language was published in 1755, and it had a far-reaching effect on Modern English and has been described as “one of the greatest single achievements of scholarship.”

The second half of the 18th century saw the emergence of three major Irish authors: OliverGoldsmith (1728–1774), Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751–1816) and Laurence Sterne (1713–68). Goldsmith is the author of The Vicar of Wakefield (1766), a pastoral poem “The Deserted Village” (1770) and two plays, The Good-Natur’d Man (1768) and She Stoops to Conquer (1773). Sheridan’s first play, The Rivals (1775), was performed at Covent Garden and was an instant success. He went on to become the most significant London playwright of the late 18th century with a play like The School for Scandal. Both Goldsmith and Sheridan reacted against the sentimental comedy of the 18th-century theatre, writing plays closer to the style of Restoration comedy.

Sterne published his famous novel Tristram Shandy in parts between 1759 and 1767.In 1778, Frances Burney (1752–1840) wrote Evelina, one of the first novels of manners. Fanny Burney’s novels “were enjoyed and admired by Jane Austen”.

Precursors of Romanticism

The Romantic Movement in English literature of the early 19th century has its roots in 18th-century poetry, the Gothic novel and the novel of sensibility.This includes the graveyard poets, from the 1740s and later, whose works are characterized by gloomy meditations on mortality. To this was added, by later practitioners, a feeling for the ‘sublime’ and uncanny, and an interest in ancient English poetic forms and folk poetry.The poets include Thomas Gray (1716–71), “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1751) and Edward Young (1683–1765), “The Complaint”, or “Night Thoughts” on Life, Death and Immortality (1742–45).Other precursors are James Thomson (1700–48) and James Macpherson (1736–96).James Macpherson was the first Scottish poet to gain an international reputation, with his claim to have found poetry written by the ancient bard Ossian.

The sentimental novel or “novel of sensibility” is a genre which developed during the second half of the 18th century. It celebrates the emotional and intellectual concepts of sentiment, sentimentalism, and sensibility. Sentimentalism, which is to be distinguished from sensibility, was a fashion in both poetry and prose fiction which began in the 18th century in reaction to the rationalism of the Augustan Age.Among the most famous sentimental novels in English are Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740), Oliver Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield (1766), Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759–67), and Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling (1771).

Significant foreign influences were the Germans Goethe, Schiller and August Wilhelm Schlegel and French philosopher and writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–78).Edmund Burke’s “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful” (1757) is another important influence.The changing landscape, brought about by the industrial and agricultural revolutions, was another influence on the growth of the Romantic Movement in Britain.

In the late 18th century, Horace Walpole’s 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto created the Gothic fiction genre that combines elements of horror and romance. Ann Radcliffe introduced the brooding figure of the gothic villain which developed into the Byronic hero. Her The Mysteries of Udolpho (1795) is frequently cited as the archetypal Gothic novel.

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