The eighteenth century, says Legouis in A Short History of English Literature, “viewed as a whole has a distinctive character.” It was “the classical age” in English literature, and, as such, held and practised some basic principles concerning life and literature. Even then one should avoid sweeping generalizations/The temptation to generalize-the eighteenth century particularly-is hard to overcome.
“Few centuries,” says George Sherburn in A Literary History of. England edited by Albert C. Baugh, “have with more facility been reduced to a formula tHan the eighteenth….Few centuries, to be sure, have demonstrated more unity of character than superficially considered the eighteenth seems to have possessed.” However, it is fallacious to believe that there is a clear cleavage between the seventeenth century and the eighteenth. Observes Sherburn: “The ideas of the later seventeenth century continue into the eighteenth.” At any rate, in the eighteenth century there was the completion of the reaction against Elizabethan romanticism. This reaction had started in the seventeenth century with Denham, Waller, and Dryden. Pope and his contemporaries stood on the other extreme to Elizabethan romanticists and ushered in “the age of prose and reason,” as Matthew Arnold characterises the eighteenth century. Now, let us see how and how far the eighteenth century was “an age of prose and reason.”
Dominance of Reason:
Pope and his followers give much importance to reason in their modes of thinking and expressing. Reason may variously manifest itself as good sense, rationalism, intellect, wit or just dry logicism, but it is definitely against all excessive emotionalism, sentimentalism, extravagance, eccentricity, lack of realism, escapism, and even imagination. It is easy to see that in the eighteenth century reason was exalted to a shibboleth. Cazamian maintains: “The true source and the real quality of English classicism are of a psychological nature. Its ideal, its characteristics, its method, all resolve themselves into a general searching after rationality.” This search which started in the age of Dryden culminated in the age of Pope. Cazamian maintains in this connexion: “One may say that the age of Pope lives more fully, more spontaneously, at the pitch of that dominant intellectuality, which during the preceding age was chiefly an irresistible impulse, a kind of contagious intoxication.” This reign of reason and common sense continued into the middle of the century when new ideas and voices appeared, and the precursors of the English romantics of the nineteenth century appeared on the scene. All the important writers of the age-Swift, Pope, and Dr. Johnson—glorified reason both in their literary and critical work and, conversely, made unreason and bad sense the recurring targets of their satire. Swift in the fourth book of Gulliver’s Travels, for example, chastises Yahoos for being creatures of impulse, without reason or common sense. On the other hand, Houyhnhnms are glorified as tenacious adherents of these qualities. The satire on Yahoos is. by implication, a satire on the human beings who resemble them so closely. Thus the fourth book is the most terrible satire on human lack of good sense and reason.
Imitation of the Ancients:
This glorification of reason also- manifests itself in the form of the stress laid on the imitation of the “ancients,” that is, the Greek and Roman writers of antiquity. It was thought contrary to reason to be led by. one’s own impulses and eccentricities and to devise one’s own idiom for expression. Too much of subjectivity was considered irrational. It was believed that a man should cultivate unrefined and “natural” taste by subjecting it to the influence of classical writers. Much stress was laid on controlling and disciplining one’s heady feelings and wild imagination and the personal way of expression with the help of the study of the classics. We find in this century many translations and adaptations of the classics as also their “imitations,” not to speak of their rich echoes in most works of the century. The eighteenth century-particularly its first half-is also called the classical age of English literature on account of two reasons which W. H. Hudson enumerates as follows:
(i) “…the poets and critics of this age believed that the works of the writers of classical antiquity (really of the Latin writers), presented the best of models and the ultimate standards of literary taste.”
(ii) “…like these Latin writers they had little faith in the promptings and guidance of individual genius, and much in laws and rules imposed by the authority of the past.”
In 1700 Walsh wrote to Pope: “The best of the modern poets in all languages are those that have nearest copied the ancients.” Swift in The Battle of the Books showed the supremacy of the ancients over all the succeeding writers. Walsh’s expression copied the ancients should not lead one to believe that eighteenth-century writers were no more than copyists and as such are open to the charge of plagiarism. What they copied was only the good taste and reason of the ancients. Well did Pope observe: “Those who say our thoughts are not our own because they resemble the Ancients’ may as well say our Faces are not our own because they are like our Fathers.” Thus the ancients were to be respected as guides and models, not as tyrants. Among the ancients the most respected were the Latin writers of the Age of Augustus and among them, too, particularly Virgil and Horace. The one reason why this age is called the Augustan age is this. However, the English “ancients” like Chaucer and Spenser were not respected. Addison in his critical poem Account of the Greatest English Poets observes about The Faerie Queene :
…. But now the mystic tale mat pleased of yore
Can charm an understanding age no more.
Chaucer is dismissed as a “rude barbarian” who tries in vain to make the readers laugh with his jests in “unpolished strain.” Thomas Rymer savagely criticised Shakespeare.
“First Follow Nature”:
A. R. Humphreys observes: “Basically, the critical injunction which gained the widest, indeed, almost universal, acceptance was the call to “follow Nature”. In the famous lines from Pope’s Essay oh Criticism advice is tendered to writers:
First follow Nature, and your judgement frame
By her just standard, which is still the same :
Unerring Nature, still divinely bright,
One clear unchanged, and universal light,
Life, force, and beauty, must to all impart,
At once the source, and end, and test of Art.
Pope’s “Nature” was not the “Nature” of the romantics like Wordsworth and Coleridge. The Augustans were not much interested in forests, flowers, trees, birds, etc. which inspired poets like Wordsworth. Nor did Pope and his contemporaries mean by “Nature” that Nature which, td use the words of Louis I. Bredvold, “Sir Isaac Newton had recently interpreted in terms of mathematical physics, in his Principia Mathematica (1687); they could hardly have gone to physics for a literary standard, and they were moreover weH aware that their concept of Nature antedated Newtefffeyienturies.” For them Nature indicated, what Bredvohtxalls, “a rational and intelligible -moral order in theliniverse, according to which the various experiences of mankind could be confidently and properly vahled.” Nature to them meant, in the words of A. R. Humphreys, “the moral course of the world or as ideal truth by which art should be guided.” Man’s subjective feelings were thus discreditediand sacrificed to “tne laws of Nature.” As Basil Willey observes in The Nineteenth-Century Background, “the individual mind was carefully ruled out of the whole scheme.” Even in the field of religion, reason and Nature ruled the roost. This was the age of the spread of natural religion or Deism which believed in the existence of God but disbelieved in any revealed religion, not excepting Christianity. People were also talking about,”natural morality.” The doctrines of the reason-loving Deists were repudiated by orthodox theologists, not passionately but with reason.
This eighteenth-century emphasis on Nature often took the form of the emphasis on the “rules” formulated by the ancients. These rules were supposed to be of universal applicability. Nature was the criterion of propriety, and the rules of the ancients were to be respected as they, in the words of Pope, “are Nature still but Nature methodised.” And further,
Nature like liberty, is but restrained
By the same laws which first herself ordained.
The tendency to adhere to the rules went against the eccentricities and irrationalities of individual genius. The eighteenth century was. infact, an age of formalism in ai! spheres-literature architecture, gardening, and even social etiquette. A critic maintains: ‘Just as a gentleman might not act naturally (that is, in accordance with his impulses), but must follow exact rules in doffing his hat, or addressing a lady, or entering a room, or offering his snuff-box to a friend, so the writers of this age lost individuality and became formal and artificial.”
Against Enthusiasm and Imagination:
The adoration of reason naturally implied a keen distrust of enthusiasm and imagination which could lead a man to -ludicrous extremes. EighteeBtitcentufyliterature is, onsequently, devoid of the enthusiasm, elemental passion, mysterious suggestiveness, and heady imagination which characterize romantic literature. These romantic characteristics were discredited as they led one to violate Nature. If a writer abandoned himself to emotions or impulses, or let his imagination run away uncontrolled, the result could be disastrous for his writing. Sir Richard Blackmore observed in his “Essay on Epick Poetry” (in -Essays upon Various Subjects) that the writers of old romances “were seized with an irregular Poetic phrenzy, and having Decency and Probability in Contempt, fill’d the world with endless Absurdities.” Swift in “Letter to a Young Clergyman” expresses his distrust of the passionate eloquence of a particular preacher. “I do not see,” says he, “how this talent of moving the passions can be of any great use towards directing Ghristian men in the conduct of their lives.” In Section IX of Tale of a Tub he scarifies the Puritan enthusiasm by representing it as wind. Likewise the Earl of Shaftesbury in his Letter Concerning Enthusiasm (1708) lashes, religious enthusiasm and fanaticism.
The eighteenth century was doubtlessly an age of great prose, but not of great poetry. When Matthew Arnold-calls it an age of prose, he suggests that even the poetry of the period was of the nature of prose, or versified prose. It:is he who observed that Dryden and Pope are the-classics not of our poetry but of prose. Among the greatest prose writers of the age are Addison, Steele, and Swift. They took English prose from the antiquity of Burton, Browne, and others to the balance, clarity, and simplicity of the modern times. They made prose functional, using it not for impressing but enlightening the reader. In the field of prose the reaction against romantic extravagance and involvedness, started by Dryden, was brought to a logical conclusion by the prose writers of the age of Queen Anne mentioned above.
In poetry, however, the age has not to show much excellence. Imagination and passion came to be^replaoed by the ideals of clearness, perspecuity, and beauty of expression. These ideals appear to some as the ideals of good prose, not good poetry. Regularity, order, and artistic control are certaintly desirable but no substitutes for poetic talent or inspiration. One may be tempted to ask with Roy Campbell: “They use snaffle and the curb, all right. But where’s the bloody horse?” Comparing the poetry and prose of the eighteenth century, Long observes: “Now for the first time we must chronicle the triumph of English prose. A multitude of practical interests arising from the new social and political conditions demanded expression not simply in books, but more especially in pamphlets, magazines, and newspapers. Poetry was inadequate for such a task: hence the development of prose, of the ‘unfettered word’ as Dante calls it-a development which astonishes us by its rapidity and excellence. The graceful elegance of Addison’s essays, the terse vigour of Swift’s satires, the artistic finish of Fielding’s novels, the sonorous eloquence of Gibbon’s history and of Burke’s orations-these have no parallel in the poetry of the age. Indeed, poetry itself became prosaic in this respect, and it was used not for the creative works of imagination but for essays, for satire, for criticism-for exactly the same practical ends as was prose. The poetry of the first half of the century, as typified by the work of Pope, is polished and witty enough, but artificial; it lacks fire, fine feeling, enthusiasm, the glow of the Elizabethan Age and the moral earnestness of Puritanism. In a word, it interests us as a study of life, rather than delights or inspires us by its appeal to the imagination. The variety and excellence of prose works, and the development of a serviceable prose style, which had been begun by Dryden, until it served to express clearly every human interest and emotion,-these are the chief literary glories of the eighteenth century.”