Eighteenth-Century Literature

The Eighteenth Century in England is called the Classical Age or the Augustan Age in literature. It is also called the Age of Good Sense or the Age of Reason. Though Dryden belonged to the seventeenth century, he is also included in the Classical or Augustan Age, as during his time the characteristics of his age had manifested themselves and he himself represented them to a great extent. Other great literary figures who dominated this age successively were Pope and Dr. Johnson, and so the Classical Age is divided into three distinct periods—the Ages of Dryden, Pope and Dr. Johnson. In this chapter which is devoted to the eighteenth-century literature in England, we will deal with the Ages of Pope and Johnson. The Age of Dryden has already been dealt with in the preceding chapter, entitled “The Restoration Period.”

The Eighteenth Century is called the Classical Age in English literature on account of three reasons. In the first place, the term ‘classic’, refers in general, applies to writers of the highest rank in any nation. This term was first applied to the works of the great Greek and Roman writers, like Homer and Virgil. As the writers of the eighteenth century in England tried to follow the simple and noble methods of the great ancient writers, they began to be called Classical writers. In the second place, in every national literature there is a period when a large number of writers produce works of great merit; such a period is often called the Classical Period or Age. For example, the reign of Augustus is called the Classical Age of Rome; and the Age of Dante is called the Classical Age of Italian literature. As during the eighteenth century in England there was an abundance of literary productions, the critics named it the Classical Age in English literature. In the third place, during this period the English writers rebelled against the exaggerated and fantastic style of writing prevalent during the Elizabethan and Puritan ages, and they demanded that poetry, drama and prose should follow exact rules. In this they were influenced by French writers, especially by Boileau and Rapin, who insisted on precise methods of writing poetry, and who professed to have discovered their rules in the classics of Horace and Aristotle. The eighteenth century is called the Classical Age, because the writers followed the ‘classicism’ of the ancient writers, which was taken in a narrow sense to imply fine polish and external elegance. But as the eighteenth century writers in England followed the ancient classical writers only in their external performance, and lacked their sublimity and grandeur, their classicism is called pseudo-classicism i.,e., a false or sham classicism.
As the term Classical Age is, therefore, too dignified for writers of the eighteenth century in England, who imitated only the outward trapping of the ancient classical writers, and could not get at their inner spirit, this age is preferably called the Augustan Age. This term was chosen by the writers of the eighteenth century themselves, who saw in Pope, Addison, Swift, Johnson and Burke the modern parallels to Horace, Virgil, Cicero, and other brilliant writers who made Roman literature famous during the reign of Emperor Augustus. Of course, to term this as the Augustan Age is also not justified because the writers of this period could not compare favourable with those of the Augustan Age in Latin literature. But these terms—the Classical Age and the Augustan Age-have become current, and so this age is generally called by these terms.
The eighteenth century is also called the Age of Reason or the Age of Good Sense, because the people thought that they could stand on their own legs and be guided in the conduct of their affairs by the light of their own reason unclouded by respect for Ancient precedent. They began to think that undue respect for authority of the Ancients was a great source of error, and therefore in every matter man should apply his own reason and commonsense. Even in literature where the prespect for classical art forms and the rules for writing in those forms gave the defenders of the Ancients a decided advantages, critics could declare that the validity of the rules of art was derived from Reason rather than from Ancient Authority. Though in the seventeenth century Sir Thomas Browne who stood against Ancient Authority in secular matters, declared that in religion “haggard and unreclaimed Reason must stoop unto the lure of Faith”. John Locke, the great philosopher, had opined that there was no war between Faith and Reason. He declared in An Essay Concerning Humane Understanding (1690), “Faith is nothing but a firm assent of the mind; which if it be regulated as is our duty, cannot be afforded to anything but upon good reason; and so cannot be opposite to it.”
It was widely assumed during the eighteenth century that since every man is competent to decide, by reference to his own reason, on any point of natural or moral philosophy, every man becomes his own philosopher. So the need of the expert or specialist vanishes. Moreover, as all men were assumed to be equally endowed with the power of reasoning, it followed that when they reasoned on any given premises they must reach the same conclusion. That conclusion was believed to have universal value and direct appeal to everyone belonging to any race or age. Moreover, it should be the conclusion reached by earlier generation since reason must work the same way in every period of history. When Pope said of wit that it is “Nature to advantage dress’d, what oft was thought but n’er so well express’d,” and when Dr. Johnson remarked about Gray’s Elegy that “it abounds with images which find a mirror in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo”, they were simply giving the literary application of this belief that the highest type of art is that which can be understood immediately, which has the widest appeal, which is free from the expression of personal idiosyncrasy, and which deals with what is general and universal rather than with what is individual and particular.
This was the temper of the eighteenth century. If it is called The Age of Reason or The Age of Good Sense, it is because in this age it was assumed that in reasoning power all men are and have always been equal. It was an age which took a legitimate pride in modern discoveries based upon observation and reason, and which delighted to reflect that those discoveries had confirmed the ancient beliefs that there is an order and harmony in the universe, that it is worked on rational principles, that each created thing has its allowed position and moved in its appointed spheres. It was, in short, an age which implicitly believed in the Biblical saying: “God saw everything that He had made, and behold it was very good.”
Now let us consider the literary characteristics of this age. In the previous ages which we have dealt with, it were the poetical works which were given prominence. Now, for the first time in the history of English literature, prose occupies the front position. As it was the age of social, political religious and literary controversies in which the prominent writers took an active part, and a large number of pamphlets, journals and magazines were brought out in order to cater to the growing need of the masses who had begun to read and take interest in these controversial matters, poetry was considered inadequate for such a task, and hence there was a rapid development of prose. In fact the prose writers of this age excel the poets in every respect. The graceful and elegant prose of Addison’s essays, the terse style of Swift’s satires, the artistic perfection of Fielding’s novels, the sonorous eloquence of Gibbon’s history, and the oratorical style of Burke, have no equal in the poetical works of the age. In fact, poetry also had become prosaic, because it was no longer used for lofty and sublime purposes, but, like prose, its subject-matter had become criticism, satire, controversy and it was also written in the form of the essay which was the common literary from: Poetry became polished, witty and artificial, but it lacked fire, fine feelings, enthusiasm, the poetic glow of Elizabethan Age and the moral earnestness of Puritanism. In fact, it became more interested in the portrayal of actual life, and distrusted inspiration and imagination. The chief literary glory of the age was, therefore, not poetry, but prose which in the hands of great writers developed into an excellent medium capable of expressing clearly every human interest and emotion.
The two main characteristics of the Restoration period—Realism and Precision—were carried to further perfection during the eighteenth century. They are found in their excellent form in the poetry of Pope, who perfected the heroic couplet, and in the prose of Addison who developed it into a clear, precise and elegant form of expression. The third characteristic of this age was the development of satire as a form of literature, which resulted from the unfortunate union of politics with literature. The wings and the Tories—members of two important political parties which were constantly contending to control the government of the country—used and rewarded the writers for satirising their enemies and undermining their reputation. Moreover, as a satire is concerned mainly with finding fault with the opponents, and is destructive in its intention, it cannot reach the great literary heights. Thus the literature of the age, which is mainly satirical cannot be favourably compared with great literature. One feels that these writers could have done better if they had kept themselves clear of the topical controversies, and had devoted their energies to matters of universal import.
Another important feature of this age was the origin and development of the novel. This new literary form, which gained great popularity in the succeeding ages, and which at present holds the prominent place, was fed and nourished by great masters like Defoe, Richardson, Fielding, Smollet and others who laid its secure foundations. The realism of the age and the development of an excellent prose style greatly helped in the evolution of the novel during the eighteenth century.
The eighteenth century was deficient in drama, because the old Puritanic prejudice against the theatre continued, and the court also withdrew its patronage. Goldsmith and Sheridan were the only writers who produced plays having literary merit.
Another important thing which is to be considered with regard to the eighteenth century literature is that it was only during the early part of it—the Age of Pope, that the classical rules and ideals reigned supreme. In the later part of it—the Age of Johnson—cracks began to appear in the edifice of classicism, in the form of revolts against its ideals, and a revival of the Romantic tendency which was characteristic of the Elizabethan period.
As the eighteenth century is a long period, it will be dealt with in different chapters entitled—The Age of Pope, The Age of Johnson, Eighteenth Century Novel and Eighteenth Century Drama.
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