Dr. K’s Admittedly Incomplete Guide to Restoration and 18th Century Literature
(Page numbers refer to the Longman Anthology
but some may have changed in the new edition so use the table of contents for
Boldfaced words are important--either authors and works to know or terms to look up in the Handbook for English Majors
Coming out of the Renaissance/Early Modern Period, Englishmen (and women) felt a sense of self-confidence. Their military power was basically strong (if you don’t count the naval harassment of the Low Countries), the monarchy was strong (if you don’t count the fact that Charles II had a number of bastards but his only legitimate heir, his brother James, was Catholic), and the economy was strong (if you don’t count the fact that stock speculation was falsely inflating fortunes at an incredible rate and that the social/cultural gap between those who had inherited money and land (Tories) and those who had acquired it through trade (Whigs) was accelerating). All of this is going to have a significant influence on literature and literary taste so it’s important to think about it.
If the Early Modern period modeled itself on classical Greece, then this period, which we call the Neoclassic Period in literature, modeled itself on Rome—particularly the Rome of the early first century, when Cicero, Virgil, Horace, and Juvenal were writing. (The Great Fire of London gave them a chance to rebuild London in the Neoclassical style and they did.) Classical ideals of taste, polish, and rationality received more emphasis than did emotion or creativity. Another name for this time period is the Age of Reason because of the emphasis on logic, argumentation, and decorum. The literature produced is often realistic, satirical, or overtly didactic; politics, morals and mores, and ethical conduct are frequent subjects. Forms are as controlled as the style of expression—this is the age of the heroic couplet, of the ode, and of the formal satire. It is the first great age of prose in English literature, and is noteworthy particularly for the rise of the essay and of the novel as major literary forms. Writers thought of themselves as being shapers of character, taste, and values, and took quite seriously their jobs of improving the minds of their readers.
In this spirit of Enlightenment we find Restoration and 18th Century Literature (the Augustan period and the age of Johnson). It is characterized by several movements First, a new, rational scientific approach to inquiry fostered by the Royal Society and its leading members, including Sprat, Hooke, Aubrey, and some guy obsessed with falling apples: ah, yes, Newton. It’s important to realize how comprehensive a movement this is: by focusing people’s attention on the kinds of inquiry that were conducted, the rigorousness and exactness required by research, the need to report results objectively and thoroughly, and the emphasis on logical, rational, describable processes, the Royal Society changed how we look at the world forever. Basically, they made us aware of the importance both of method and evidence, and the need for strict logical conclusions. Important passages in this section include Sprat’s description of the value of plain writing (1089) and the rational qualities of Englishmen (1089); Hooke’s delineation of the scientific method for conducting any kind of research (1094 ff.); and the beginnings of fact-based biography. We see the Royal Society’s influence, too, in the daily writings of rather ordinary men, like Samuel Pepys; his Diary (1065 ff.) shows the Society’s influence in how a person reacted to the significant events of his life and times--that "God is in the details," as a later wit would remark. Note how like Aubrey he notes the details of his life, how like Hooke he scrupulously examines cause and effect, and how like Sprat he values plain speaking, in Cromwell’s words, "warts and all." And, as is so common in the period, his chief subject of study was himself—see the wonderful paragraph in Longman about the importance of self-reckoning just before the section break on p. 1056. The notion of the empirical Eye—the gaze trained to objective, rational scrutiny and telling the truth, warts and all—is a legacy of this period.
Second, the side we will focus on is the side that emphasizes logic and order, and particularly concordia discors--the imposition of order on something that is inherently disorderly. One carryover of the Royal Society perspective is that the 18th century was a time when men believed that they could make everything in creation, and even God Himself, obey the rules of logic and order. They thought they could use mathematics, science, and empirical observation to understand and explain God’s creation and then recreate His actions in new works of beauty. (This to them was an act of faith in God, not a substitution for God.) They were great believers in imposed form--in artifice--that is, the creation (facere) of something beautiful or skillful (ars, artis). Today, at the turn of the millennium, we tend to look down on what is artificial; in the 18th century, artificial was the height of achievement, since it meant that some human being had imposed shape, order, design, logic, etc., on something that had previously lacked it. This was improving the world, imitating the actions of the Clockmaker God, and therefore was a Good Thing. That’s why wit is so important in the period: it was to impose human genius on nature, or as Pope says in The Essay on Criticism, "True wit is Nature to advantage dressed, / What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed." There was an emphasis in literature and other arts on imitation, symmetry, balance, and form--it’s the age of the Baroque, but also of classical imitations (remember Doric, Ionic, Corinthian?) and of easy grace and beauty. Craftsmen like Chippendale, Adam, and Capability Brown are most admired; Bach, Handel, Haydn, and eventually Mozart will rule music. Decorum, discipline, and order are the hallmarks. This is an age of controlled sprezzatura. The courtier side of Sir Philip Sidney's personality would have loved it.
Time won’t let us look at a great deal of 18th century and Restoration writing; it’s a pity we haven’t time for great writers like Dryden or the great 18th century dramatic plays like The Man of Mode or The Beggar’s Opera. Early novelists like Defoe and Aphra Behn show us both male and female perspectives on this world, and cynics like the Earl of Rochester show us the dark side beneath all this rococo fluff. I encourage you to sample their works to get a feel for these important perspectives on this period. The Longman Anthology’s overview (1041-64) is superb. (See notes here.)
Pope’s Essay on Criticism (1241-47; this is an excerpt!) sets out the rules of artifice, and attempts to cultivate his fellow human beings’ taste by presenting dictums that show how human judgment may be shaped and refined. He recommends deep study ("A little learning is a dang’rous thing") and an eye to the whole ("the joint force and full result of all") but also reminds us to see the details. It’s probably the one work of 18th century lit you really have to know backwards and forwards, since it is a guide to all the rest of the things you will read. You can also see how he works out his critical vision in Windsor Forest (2493-2504), both to see his praise of artifice in the taming of the forest, and to see his vision of Britain bringing civilization to the rest of the world (which, being non-British, is of course wild and pagan and ought to be grateful to the British). This colonialist viewpoint was widely held in Pope’s time; it is the great age of voyages, discovery, and mapping--making all the world fit a carefully-designed viewpoint. Pope even goes so far as to apply the logical method to man’s relationship with God in his verse epistle An Essay on Man. In his attempt to ‘vindicate the ways of God to Man"--that is, to explain God’s works rationally--he states his case that Man is as perfect as he is going to be, "His knowledge measured to his state and place, / His time a moment, and a point his space." Moreover, the person who tries to change his state and place is as impious as Satan and the rebel angels: "And who but wishes to invert the laws / Of ORDER, sins against th’ Eternal Cause." (Notice that this is a rare instance where Pope abandons the end-stopped rhyme of the heroic couplet, his favorite verse device; he even abandons the caesura here.) He emphasizes the Great Chain of Being (line 237 ff), a Renaissance idea much embraced in the 18th century.
Pope’s view of man as essential perfectible was not universally held. Indeed, Pope’s great friend, Jonathan Swift, was a misanthrope who felt just the opposite. Swift had reason to be bitter; although highly intelligent and talented, his abilities were constantly shunted aside by the political trimmings of his time. As a result, he turned to the other great 18th century vehicle for social commentary, satire, to try to highlight the shortcomings of his fellow men. We see this in pseudo-travel literature like Gulliver’s Travels, where an enlightened Briton gradually realizes how limited his education and worldview are (with a wonderful slap at the antics of the Royal Academy on the island of Laputa) and that Britons, not the Lilliputians or Houhynhms or Brobdinagians, are really the uncivilized savages. And we see it in his rational political satire, the greatest piece of which is A Modest Proposal (1231-37), where in one short pamphlet he destroys the kinds of "rational" politics exemplified by pieces like Petty’s Political Arithmetic (1237-1238). Even in a set piece like A Description of a City Shower or Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift (probably the funniest poem of the 18th century), his misanthropic suspicions of the ability of humans to bring order and ‘civilization’ to a chaotic world shine through.
But in this age of optimism and science, it was more Pope’s views than Swift’s that held sway. Part of this was due to a phenomenon brought on by the confluence of cheaper publishing methods and broader rates of literacy: periodical publication. This is the great age of newspapers. The writers of these periodicals saw their jobs as not only to inform but also to enlighten; they focused not only on news, but also on matters of taste, morality, and even politics. Because their papers were so widely read and shared, they had a range of influence not often seen again in one section of the media. They took the responsibility seriously, and invented a number of literary forms that enabled them to carry out their mission: serial publication, characters, and even devices like the question-and-answer essay. Among the major players are The London Gazette (still published as a part of the London Times); The Daily Courant , the first major daily independent paper; The Craftsman, which popularized political commentary; The Athenian Mercury, which was a cross between Sixty Minutes and The National Enquirer; and above all, Addison & Steele’s The Tatler and The Spectator, and Elizabeth Hayward’s answer to them both, The Female Spectator. These works set out guidelines for viewing social change (most were pro-Whig), morality (most were deeply conservative and patriarchal), and taste (most were trying to inculcate highbrow precepts into lowbrow audiences). In creating a popular appetite for prose, too, they were instrumental in creating the climate for the explosion in prose fiction and the subsequent schizophrenic split between poetry (what highbrows and sissies read) and prose (what real people read).
And yet, some of the most deeply felt and deeply respected work of the 18th century returns to poetry. Writers like Samuel Johnson were much admired for their work in prose (see his Ramblers #s 4 & 5; the Idler #84; his literary criticism of Shakespeare; the wonderfully sarcastic Letter to Lord Chesterfield; and especially the majestic Preface to the Dictionary, but they were equally remarked for their graceful, formal poetry. Johnson’s two greatest poems are On the Death of Dr. Robert Levet, which praises an obscure man who lived humbly and helped the poor in almost perfect realization of An Essay on Man, and The Vanity of Human Wishes, perhaps the quintessential realization of how hard it is to do what Pope told people to do. (Lines 159-60 and 221-22 are frequently quoted, as are the lines in the last verse paragraph, beginning with line 343.) Many readers, in fact, prefer Johnson to Pope for just this reason: Johnson is more explicit about how difficult it is to be human.
And then there’s Thomas Gray. Possibly the most private of all writers, and the one most allergic to fame, he wrote what is probably the most famous poem in all English school history, The Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. While it (like the companion Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College, and the playful Ode on the Death of a Favorite Cat, sum up much of the 18th century passion for disciple and decorum, they also prefigure the Romantic movement and the new passion for exploring one’s inner thoughts and feelings. They mark the move to the age of sensibility that will mark Austen and the early Romantics. Churchyard is still memorized and recited by generations of British schoolchildren; its celebration of the ordinary, of the lives of "mute inglorious Miltons," have made it a cultural touchstone for Britons and one of the most quoted (and misquoted) works of English literature.