Home  »  library  »  course  »  Lectures on the World’s Best Literature: English Literature: VI. The Augustan Age (1700–1790)

C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.
G. R. Lomer, ed. The Student’s Course in Literature.

Lectures on the World’s Best Literature: English Literature: VI. The Augustan Age (1700–1790)

By Gerhard Richard Lomer (1882–1970)


THE PERIOD to which we now come and which covers roughly nearly the whole of the eighteenth century is variously called the Age of Queen Anne, the Age of Pope, the Augustan Age, the Classical Period, or merely the Eighteenth Century. Whatever name is used, however, the fundamental characteristics of the time remain the same. It is a period of the ascendency of Reason, of the rule of the Intellect in literature. The great passions of the Elizabethans had died out and the turbulence of Romanticism had not yet begun to make itself felt. Goodness and warmth of heart were replaced by polish of manner and by brilliance of expression. It was the age, par excellence, of “Wit”—and wit of a destructive and unsocial nature, strongly contrasted with the broad good-humored toleration of Chaucer or the deep sympathetic comprehension of Shakespeare.

Each age has its outstanding characteristic which dwarfs the other aspects of the time. It is perhaps not unjust to say that the most obvious trait in English national life at the death of Swift, and that trait which makes this period one of the least constructive in the history of English literature, was cynicism. This was an age that lacked ideals. It had no vision and no poet’s dream. It had no soul.

But if the period has been described as rotten to the core, it had a life that possessed a superficial color and attractiveness. It was a picturesque age; and picturesqueness has always had its devotees. Certainly the life of London had its charm, and it is a charm which we cannot easily pass by. It calls to us from the coffee-house in the undying pages of Steele and Addison, with their echoes of immortal talk and the memory of the goodly company of Sir Roger de Coverley and his fellow-clubmen; it catches our eye in the pages of the diaries of the day where the self-satisfied but likable Mr. Pepys in his new plum-colored waistcoat struts with his wife in her new brocade; it captivates us at the tea-table or in the boudoir, where the mock-heroic nymphs and heroes of an unheroic age turn aside the darts of love with the flirt of a bejewelled fan or a lace handkerchief. It is an age of candlelight rather than of sunshine, of satin instead of homespun, of snuff instead of the fragrant wayside flower.

This age was not one, however, that could comprehend the poetry of sunburned toil in the open. We must wait until we come to Burns before we can find an understanding of the field-mouse, the daisy, or the cotter’s Saturday night. The restoration of the Stuart dynasty had not been an unmixed benefit to English society. It had come at a moment when a certain part of English society had too long been repressed by the sternness of the Puritan régime. The pendulum now swung in the other direction, and the weight of court manners added to the momentum. The reaction which was introduced can hardly be said to have been a salutary one. The reigns of the first three Georges substituted for the French elasticity of moral conscience and vicious picturesqueness a Teutonic coarseness of morality which had not even imagination to make it pleasing nor delicacy to give it manners. Small wonder then, if the Early Victorians reacted violently and sought the conservative extreme of prudery.

Both the intellectual and the social life of the century were affected. The old theological beliefs were giving way under the effective criticism of philosophic concepts which men like Voltaire in France and Hume in England were directing at human thought. The Established Church had become the instrument of aristocracy, and preferment was a matter of patronage. Orthodox worship had so failed in its function that Bunyan felt himself called to lead spiritual pilgrims through the slough of despond of English life to the Celestial City, and Whitfield and the Wesleys began to infuse new spiritual vitality into the common people.

Where there is no vision, the people perish; and the case is not otherwise with literature. Upon one who reads only the fashionable fiction or drama of that day, the conviction is gradually forced that apparently all the men and women are engrossed in the royal game of seduction and that the men usually win. The middle name of any gallant of the time might have been Juan or Lothario. Even the genial Goldsmith must add this last indignity to the sufferings of his beloved Vicar, upon whom outrageous fate and a too-simple mind heap misfortunes that by contrast make Job seem almost to dwell in comfort. It strikes us as a marked indication of how taste changes that these books were regarded in their day as aids to virtuous living. To-day ‘Tom Jones’ has been barred from at least one public library as unfit for general reading, and books which in the eighteenth century were read aloud in the family circle to combine edification with amusement are now frequently relegated to the obscurity of the attic or to the innocuous altitude of shelves that children cannot reach.

The daily life of the eighteenth century throws light upon the literature of the time. If the novels are little more than novels of roguery, somewhat gilded and delicately perfumed, it is because the people of the day are themselves rogues, though charming and well-groomed and with a veneer of fine manner which at first glance deceives the inexpert. Gambling is one of the commonest amusements of a day in which even a minister of Parliament keeps a faro bank and in which entire well-known families have a concerted system for cheating at cards. Drunkenness is a fashionable accomplishment rather than a vice, and even Pitt is reported to have seen two Speakers in the House. The aristocracy of the day delighted in bull-fights, in cock-fights, and in prize-fights. The men who could not themselves fight obtained a keen, if vicarious, delight from a spectacle that was but the proof of their own degradation. The story of the valetudinarian bed-ridden noble who had a cock-fight staged in his bedroom is one that is only too sad a commentary upon those who sat in the seats of the mighty. One must not forget, however, that the middle class, with its more restricted opportunities and with less of the ennui of unemployment, kept the main current of English life steady and quietly progressive. We shall see that as the life of the cities became more and more exhausted, the life of the country began to assert itself towards the end of this period in the movement known as Naturalism, which was the harbinger of the great romantic outburst that indicated the renaissance of English literary life.

It was the city, however, and particularly London which at this day was the centre of literary activity. But it was a London very different from that which we know. The streets were both filthy and precarious. Gin made men brutal and quarrelsome. Robbery and murder were frequent. The lawless bands of “Mohawks” terrorized whole sections of London town. In 1751 we find Horace Walpole writing that “one is forced to travel, even at noon, as if one were going to battle.” It was an age of petty crime. On one day alone seventeen persons were executed in London. It was also an age of notorious criminals, and though the echo of such names as Dick Turpin, Jack Shepherd, Jonathan Wild, and McLean of St. James Street, is drowned by the noise of the exploits of the automobile bandit and the high-financier of to-day, they made their picturesque contribution to criminal literature in the illiterate “ballads” and histories of the day. If the nurseries of that age were responsible for the character of the aristocrats, we need hardly be surprised that the prisons were the schools in which most of the criminals of the time perfected their training. Men, women, and children were imprisoned together, and, in a moral atmosphere in which every better impulse soon suffocated, they smoked, drank, and gambled in rooms that reeked with filth and swarmed with vermin. We have to wait until the Victorian Age for the public consciousness to become awake to these conditions and for the public conscience to be aroused by them.

Hogarth’s prints reveal to us all the tawdry gentility, the ugly superficiality of his age. Willingly would we believe them to be gross exaggeration, did not history and literature vouch for the truth of the testimony of their sister art. But we turn aside from the “Rake’s Progress” through the art of the day only to find the rake continuing his miserable course through social life, upon the stage, and in the novels of the time. It is only when we come to Thomas Gray that we begin to hear “the short and simple annals of the poor,” and that we begin to hope for the new era when men will think less of “the boast of heraldry, the pomp of power” and will begin to understand and preach that

  • “The pith of sense, an’ pride o’ worth
  • Are higher rank than a’ that.”
  • But such a conception of the wideness and depth of human nature and of human ideals does not come until the Romantic Movement begins the next great revolution in English letters.

    Though it was not a moral or a sympathetic age, the eighteenth century had nevertheless certain qualities of intellect which had their part in the development of English literature. Its contribution of great poetry is small, partly because it lacked that unselfconsciousness, that entire forgetfulness of the individual, that quality of free surrender to a deep emotion or a high ideal which has always characterized great poetry; partly because its ear was not yet tuned to those finer, subtler, and loftier melodies of which English speech is susceptible. The ear which can listen to the continual flow of the heroic couplet and which feels no burst of impatience at its terse, epigrammatic monotony is not the ear that could imagine the unheard melodies of the singers of the age to come. They who loved “nature methodized,” who made conservatism an ideal and conformity a passion, would have small use for “things unattempted yet” in the rhythmic speech of passion.

    It is in prose, therefore, that we must look for the chief literary excellence of the age. Reason, clear thinking, elegance of expression, and worldly wisdom—all these the eighteenth century had, and all these are included in the term “Wit” which compactly describes both the ideal of the age and its standard of criticism.

    At their worst the critics of the time are finicky, meticulous, intolerant; at their best, they are clear and accurate in their thought, and direct and polished in their expression. It was not, like Shakespeare’s day, a period of emotion, but it was an age of reason. Lucid and logical thought these writers had because they were untroubled by the great disturbing passions that are the adventures of the soul, and lucid and logical thought came to be more desired than the fine frenzy of inspiration. Sophistication, finish, polish, the ability to turn into a fine phrase “what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed,” the readiness to produce “le mot juste” with all the precise nonchalance of the literary prestidigitator—these were the qualities in which the writers of the day delighted to exercise themselves.

    At the same time they cultivated a snobbish intolerance for what seemed to them vulgar, crude, homely, unrestrained, middle-class, or boorish. On the continent the attempt had been made, first informally in the salons and then with great dignity in the French Academy, to standardize the language of France, to codify speech, to organize it almost according to class distinctions. In England, Johnson by the publication of his ‘Dictionary’ did for his generation what Chaucer, in a different way, had done for his day, and the literary circles that met in the coffee-houses and the literary dictators who had their little day, however else they disagreed, all combined to make the English language an efficient instrument for the clear expression of accurate thought on a somewhat restricted group of subjects.

    The London coffee-house was one of the ultimate results of Tudor exploration. The use of coffee, tea, chocolate, and tobacco grew in popularity until they became a sort of national institution. They had been to the Elizabethans part and parcel of the wonders of distant lands. To the Londoner of the eighteenth century they became necessities. The coffee-house firmly established itself in the masculine social life of the day. It was a club with a moderate fee; it provided congenial company; and the aroma of coffee and the fumes of tobacco combined to make wit and reason vie with one another in a congenial society which was elastic enough to include the academic and the bohemian. It has been stated that by the first decade of the eighteenth century there were almost three thousand coffee-houses in the city of London, and a French traveler who visited the country at this time says that in the coffee-houses “you have all manner of news; you have a good fire, where you may sit as long as you please; you have a dish of coffee, you meet your friends for the transaction of business, and all for a penny, if you don’t care to spend more.”

    In the literary gatherings and in the discussions that inevitably sprang up in such half-professional, half-artistic groups, the rôle of leader was assumed by the stoutest intellect or the loudest tongue. Dryden, Pope, Johnson, and many others held the throne in succession in this little kingdom of English letters, and therein developed independence of thought, dogmatism of opinion, and even arrogance of speech.

    As time went on, men of like taste congregated in certain coffee-houses—a fact of which Steele made use in the advertisement in the first number of ‘The Tatler’ (April 12, 1709):

  • “All accounts of gallantry, pleasure, and entertainment shall be under the article of White’s Chocolate-house; poetry, under that of Will’s Coffee-house; learning, under the title of Grecian; foreign and domestic news you will have from Saint-James’s Coffee-house; and what else I have to offer on any other subject shall be dated from my own apartment.”
  • If the “Bards of Passion and of Mirth” who met at the Mermaid Tavern or who had been the guests of Ben Jonson longed once more to
  • “Meet at those lyric feasts,
  • Made at the Sun,
  • The Dog, the Triple Tun,”
  • no less did the beaux and Boswells of Pope’s and Johnson’s day enjoy talking or listening at their ease at the Mitre or whatever inn chanced to please their fancy.

    Poetry of Pope

    The outstanding poet of this period and the one whose name is sometimes used to describe it is Alexander Pope (1688–1744). He sums up in his work all the characteristics of the period. The superficial glitter and high polish of his poetry are the expression in literature of the fine manners and the elaborate dress of the day. There is little of the subjective note in his work, little analysis of emotion, little interest in the deeper affairs of the heart or in the permanent ideals of life. His poetry is dominated by what has been called the tyranny of the epithet. The exact word, the appropriate phrase, the apt allusion—all of these are ideals thought worthy of striving for. The form of verse at first popular and then universally demanded is that known as the heroic couplet, which, from its very structure, lends itself to the terse expression of the epigram and to clear incisiveness of expression. The former richness of the Elizabethan imagination now degenerates into an elaborate and artificial fancy. The prevalent ideal of “good sense” puts a ban on the so-called extravagance of romantic feeling. Everything must conform to rules; literature is classified; it develops a theory of criticism; it is dominated by the laws of a superficial and uninspired pseudo-classicism; the forms of humanistic poetry are imitated; the classics are adapted; high sounding odes are elaborately constructed. But chief of all there is satire, which in no age in England has reached such a height of effectiveness, such skill of expression, such bitterness of personal vituperation. Leaving aside Pope’s translations and imitations, we find in ‘The Rape of the Lock’ (1712) the epitome of the age with its superficial comedy of manners and its delight in mock-heroic epic. The pseudo-classical machinery, the elaborate combat over the most trivial of offenses, the rather sneering disdain of society—these stand out clearly in this masterpiece of artificiality. Pope’s personal spite is clearly rampant in ‘The Dunciad’ (1728), which is an excellent example of the prevalent bad taste of the day.

    Pope’s essays—The ‘Essay on Criticism’ (1711), the ‘Essay on Man’ (1732), and the ‘Moral Essays’ (1731–1735)—help us to form a higher regard for the work of a man who had more intellect than sympathy. The first of these shows clearly the influence of Horace and of Boileau. The Ancients are held up as models; excellence of style or manner of expression is the one thing to be desired; “Nature” is to be followed, but a Nature that is an artificial creation of man. The ‘Essay on Man’ shows the influence of Bolingbroke and is full of neatly turned epigrams in which a superficial and often contradictory philosophy finds brilliant poetical expression.

    Reading Recommended

  • 1664–1721Matthew Prior
  • 1681–1765Edward Young
  • 1685–1732John Gay
  • 1688–1744Alexander Pope
  • 1700–1748James Thomson
  • 1714–1763William Shenstone
  • 1721–1770Mark Akenside
  • Prose

    No age shows perhaps so marked a development of prose in such a variety of phases as does the eighteenth century. The prose of the Elizabethan period was an elaborate and cumbersome instrument which the writer had not yet learned to manage with ease. The Elizabethans were living too vividly and too quickly to be critical of life. Their imagination found comfort in Arcadia where no canons of reason and no requirements of probability spoiled the careless day. When we come, however, to the prose of the eighteenth century we find a clear-cut criticism of life and an insistence on testing experience by the laws of reason. The human understanding is made the subject of deep inquiry, and man and nature are compressed into the narrow limits of the epigram.

    If it is an age in which the romantic imagination flags and in which the deeper emotions have no scope for expression, it is nevertheless a time when English prose is made more manageable, when its former clumsiness disappears, when it develops a colloquial ease of expression and a simplicity of direct speech which had hitherto been unknown.

    Chief among the simple and pleasing prose writers of the earlier eighteenth century are Sir Richard Steele (1672–1729) and Joseph Addison (1672–1719) who, in a sense, may be called the fathers of the modern periodical. In ‘The Tatler’ (1709–1711), and in ‘The Spectator’ (1711–1714), they produced a new kind of prose. It had a good-humored toleration of the foibles of the fashionable Londoners; it was entirely devoid of the preciosity and the pedantry of the earlier writers; and by its inimitable skill in portraiture, it has, in the person of Sir Roger de Coverley, given a friend to every reader of English literature. The work of these two men is significant as putting the breath of life into the “characters” of Hall, Overbury, and Earle, and as preparing the way for the more elaborate character analysis of Richardson, Fielding, Smollett, and Sterne.

    Daniel Defoe (1661?–1731) is one of the most prolific but most elusive figures of the age. The uncertainty, the romance, and the diversity of his personal experiences almost rival those of many of his characters. A realist par excellence, he is at the same time one of the fathers of modern journalism and of the modern novel. Besides ‘Robinson Crusoe’ (1719), which is known over the whole of Europe and the English-speaking world, his realism in such picaresque novels as ‘Moll Flanders’ and ‘Jonathan Wild’ sets him in the forefront of early English novelists. In vitality of action and in verisimilitude of detail he is unsurpassed.

    Jonathan Swift (1667–1745) is also a master of realism and of effective prose. But to this mastery he adds a unique command of blasting invective and of brutal satire unequaled by any other English writer. Though, with a sarcasm which his contemporaries entirely missed, in ‘A Modest Proposal’ (1729) he suggests that the poor of Ireland deliberately raise children for food, and in ‘The Battle of the Books’ (1697) he pits the Ancients and the Moderns against one another, and in ‘The Tale of a Tub’ (1698) he mocks the Roman Catholic faith in a way which shocked even the tolerant taste of his own day, it is in ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ (1726) that he reaches a height of savage invective against human ideals and foibles which has never been surpassed. In the land of the Lilliputians, by reducing everything to a small scale, Swift impresses the reader with the triviality of human experience; by magnifying everything to a gigantic scale in the country of the Brobdignagians he forces on us the unwilling realization of the crudeness and the unutterable coarseness of certain phases of life. In the flying island of Laputa, he gives us a kind of perversion of Bacon’s ‘New Atlantis’ and an unscrupulous satire upon education; but it is in the country of the Houyhnhnhms that the utter bitterness and unconquerable loathing which he feels for humanity at large expresses itself in the most uncompromising terms. Here the “sæva indignatio” which lacerated Swift’s spirit throughout his whole life shows itself in its most destructive form.

    It is with relief that we turn to the more attractive figures of Samuel Johnson (1709–1784) and his amusing and immortal satellite, James Boswell (1740–1795). A great personality and a many-sided writer, Johnson is a poet, a lexicographer, a journalist, a novelist, a biographer, and a critic, leaving the impress of his versatile and striking personality upon nearly every phase of the literature and life of his day. Like so many of the other great figures of this time, Johnson showed to best advantage in conversation, and the odd scraps which the faithful Boswell has preserved give us a fair idea of what the attraction and the brilliance of his literary court must have been. For it was a brilliant circle that gathered about this patriarch of letters. Sir Joshua Reynolds, the famous painter of portraits, was there; and Edmund Burke, whom now we remember as much for his æsthetics as for his political writings; and Edward Gibbon, whose ‘Decline and Fall’ still remains a monument of erudition; and David Garrick, himself no mean author, the great innovator of the passionate school of acting, in whose company at Drury Lane were to be found the famous Mistress Cibber and Peg Woffington; and last but not least the genial, versatile, and bohemian Oliver Goldsmith.

    Reading Recommended

  • 1661?–1731Daniel Defoe
  • 1667–1735John Arbuthnot
  • 1667–1745Jonathan Swift
  • 1672–1729Sir Richard Steele
  • 1672–1719Joseph Addison
  • 1685–1753George Berkeley
  • 1689–1762Lady Mary Wortley Montagu
  • 1694–1773Philip Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield
  • 1709–1784Samuel Johnson
  • 1711–1776David Hume
  • 1720–1793Gilbert White
  • 1723–1790Adam Smith
  • 1730?–1774Oliver Goldsmith
  • 1729–1797Edmund Burke
  • 1737–1794Edward Gibbon
  • 1740–1795James Boswell
  • 1741–1820Arthur Young
  • The Drama

    After the reopening of the theatres on the return of the Stuarts in 1660, Shakespeare suffered at the hands of people whose ideal was expressed in the freedom and coarseness of the Restoration drama. He was also severely criticised for his violation of the unities and for his fondness for combining tragedy and comedy. This criticism of Shakespeare was aided very largely by the opinion of Voltaire in France who went so far as to say that ‘Hamlet’ seemed to him like the work of a drunken savage. It is not unnatural, therefore, that Shakespeare’s plays were unscrupulously altered for the stage, nor is it surprising that people who regarded artificiality and life as synonymous should have played the great character parts in the costume and manner of their own day. It was due to Macklin, Garrick, and Mrs. Siddons that Shakespeare eventually received the consideration which he deserved.

    The licentiousness of the Restoration drama of Dryden’s age degenerated into a sentimental comedy which was much influenced by the prose writing of Rousseau and Richardson. It was in a reaction against the tears and sentimentalities of such dramatists that Goldsmith (1730?–1774) wrote ‘She Stoops to Conquer’ (1773), and Sheridan (1751–1816), ‘The School for Scandal’ (1777), both of which plays embodied enough dramatic genius to keep them alive even to the’ present day.

    Reading Recommended

  • 1730?–1774Oliver Goldsmith
  • 1751–1816Richard Brinsley Sheridan
  • The Novel

    Just as the drama was the outstanding literary form of the Elizabethan age, so the novel was the great contribution of the eighteenth century to English literature. The part which the novelists of this day play in the history of fiction is significant both retrospectively and prospectively, for, looking backward, we can see that all the elements of fiction were potentially there long before Richardson in ‘Pamela’ gave us the first real English novel in 1740; and, glancing ahead toward the great writers of fiction who were to come in the Victorian age and in the twentieth century, we can see in the work of Richardson, Fielding, and Smollett all the possibilities of the high achievement of their successors.

    As a form of prose writing, the novel holds a peculiar interest for the critic and the craftsman. It has been said that “the peculiar virtue of the novel, as a form of art, is that it has no conventions imposed upon it,” and that the law of the novel “is that the novelist shall never for a moment write about anything that does not interest him.” This statement of the essence of prose fiction gives us a hint towards an explanation of the broad scope which fiction has in subject-matter and the comparative freedom of technique which it enjoys in contrast to some of the more restricted forms of prose writing. For there is practically no limit to the variety of theme or to the combination of characters or to the complexity of emotions and motives which have found in the novel their most natural expression. This acute analysis which has just been quoted suggests also where to find the key to the perennial interest which fiction has always had for the so-called general reader. The freedom of technique and the variety of subject appeal to a very large number of readers who might be repelled by the restriction and finish of a sonnet, or bored by the personalia or comparative aridity of the essay. Furthermore, the contagious interest of the author in the fictitious child of his brain or in the social problem in which his characters are caught as in a net quickly spreads to the reader and induces in him a dramatic and sympathetic identification of himself with character or situation in such a way as to give him the delight or the wonder which comes from a new and growing experience.

    As one looks at the course of literary history one seems to find therein a not entirely haphazard rotation of literary forms. The epic gives way to the romance and the romance to the drama, and the drama to fiction, but back of all these lies the fundamental inspiration to literature—human action, and its motives. Action when expressed in literature becomes narrative, and the earliest forms of literature grow out of story-telling. The novel, therefore, has a high ancestry and a long line of precursors. Far back in the ages we find Eastern tales ranging through all the gamut from simplicity to sophistication, and having in themselves an important influence upon European literature. Later on, we come upon Greek romances, mediæval “romans,” pastoral stories in which the brutality of real life is softened by a sentimental glamour, picaresque tales in which what was once the glory of the chivalric age is reduced to the absurdity of a burlesque, and lastly such immortal collections as Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales,’ Boccaccio’s ‘Decameron,’ and Painter’s ‘Palace of Pleasure.’

    In all of these we find, in embryo at least, the three fundamental interests of the novel: action, character, and idea. The whole course of English fiction consists merely in developing one or other of these three elements until its utmost possibilities are revealed. If we follow the development of interest in action, we find ourselves inevitably led to a story like ‘Robinson Crusoe,’ and the jump thence is not long to the numerous romantic stories of adventure which have been produced in uncalculated quantities since that time. If we follow the line of development of character, we find ourselves passing the interesting though abbreviated sketches of Hall, Overbury, and Earle, stopping for an enchanted moment with Sir Roger de Coverley, following with breathless interest the autobiographical experiences of Bunyan and Defoe, until we lose ourselves in the manifold adventures of the eighteenth-century novel. In the same way, tracing the influence of an idea upon fiction, beginning perhaps with More’s ‘Utopia,’ or Bacon’s ‘New Atlantis,’ or Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress,’ we find ourselves started on that line of development which leads inevitably to the didactic novel of the Victorian age or the sociological fiction of to-day.

    The eighteenth-century novel, while it is to a certain extent moral in intent and not seldom satirical in method, escapes the religious heaviness of ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ or the unsocial bitterness of ‘Gulliver’s Travels.’ It is primarily interested in real human beings, not in states of the soul or pathological exaggerations of human failings; and if to the readers of the present day the characters of Richardson and his fellows seem at times to savor of artificiality, it is because of the simplicity of narrative technique of these authors in an experimental age, rather than from any lack of wide knowledge of human nature or want of sympathy with the omnipresent foibles of characters that are intensely human. One must grant to the modern taste that these early novels seem cumbersome and slow moving, that they lack somewhat in what we now conceive to be the restraint of good taste, and are too prone to adorn their tales with a moral that at times seems offensively obvious. Later novels, however, really do nothing but develop the general field marked out by these pioneers; and the sentimental interest in character which Dickens displays or the power of good-humored satire which plays through the pages of Thackeray can both be traced back to a generous source in the novel of the eighteenth century.

    Chronology of the Development of Fiction

  • 2–6 centuriesGreek romances
  • 14–15 centuriesItalian and Spanish pastoral romances
  • 1333Boccaccio: ‘Decameron’
  • c. 1375‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’
  • 1385–1400Chaucer: ‘Canterbury Tales’
  • 1485Malory’s ‘Morte d’Arthur’ printed by Caxton
  • 1516Sir Thomas More: ‘Utopia’
  • 1566William Painter: ‘Palace of Pleasure’
  • 1578–1580John Lyly: ‘Euphues’
  • 1580Sir Philip Sidney: ‘Arcadia’
  • 1589–1596Edmund Spenser: ‘Faerie Queene’
  • 1590Thomas Lodge: ‘Rosalynde’
  • 1594Thomas Nash: ‘The Unfortunate Traveller, or The Life of Jack Wilton’
  • 1627Francis Bacon: ‘New Atlantis’
  • 1678Bunyan: ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’
  • 1682Bunyan: ‘Life and Death of Mr. Badman’
  • 1709‘The Tatler’
  • 1711‘The Spectator’
  • 1719Defoe: ‘Robinson Crusoe’
  • 1726Swift: ‘Gulliver’s Travels’
  • 1740Richardson: ‘Pamela.’ The first real English novel.
  • 1742Fielding: ‘Joseph Andrews’
  • 1743Fielding: ‘Jonathan Wild’
  • 1748Richardson: ‘Clarissa Harlowe’
    Smollett: ‘Roderick Random’
  • 1749Fielding: ‘Tom Jones’
  • 1751Fielding: ‘Amelia’
    Smollett: ‘Peregrine Pickle’
  • 1753Smollett: ‘Ferdinand Count Fathom’
    Richardson: ‘Sir Charles Grandison’
  • 1759Johnson: ‘Rasselas’
  • 1760–7Sterne: ‘Tristram Shandy’
  • 1762Smollett: ‘Sir Launcelot Greaves’
  • 1764Walpole: ‘Castle of Otranto’
  • 1766Goldsmith: ‘Vicar of Wakefield’
  • 1768Sterne: ‘Sentimental Journey’
  • 1771Smollett: ‘Humphrey Clinker’
    Mackenzie: ‘The Man of Feeling’
  • 1778Frances Burney: ‘Evelina’
  • 1782Frances Burney: ‘Cecilia’
  • 1786Beckford: ‘Vathek’
  • 1794Godwin: ‘Caleb Williams’
    Anne Radcliffe: ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’
  • 1795M. G. Lewis: ‘The Monk’
  • 1797Jane Austen: ‘Sense and Sensibility’ (pub. 1811)
    Jane Austen: ‘Pride and Prejudice’ (pub. 1813)
  • 1798Jane Austen: ‘Northanger Abbey’ (pub. 1817)
  • 1818Mary Godwin Shelley: ‘Frankenstein’
    T. L. Peacock: ‘Nightmare Abbey’
  • 1820C. R. Maturin: ‘Melmoth the Wanderer’
  • 1831T. L. Peacock: ‘Crochet Castle’
  • Reading Recommended

    Naturalism: A Transition

    The period that is roughly described under the term Naturalism is one of transition from the Classical or Augustan age to the period of Romanticism which begins at the end of the eighteenth century and produces a revolution in English poetry that is contemporary with the political changes taking place south of the English Channel. It is a time of transition from the authority of literary dictators, such as Dryden, Pope, and Johnson, to the freedom of individual expression which one encounters in the poetry of Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, and Byron. Between these two ages, looked at from a sufficient perspective, the contrast is striking enough; but in this period of transition the domination of the old is still to be clearly seen and the beginnings of the new régime are only faintly to be recognized at first.

    The significance of the new movement will perhaps be more clearly seen if one summarizes briefly the dominant characteristics of the age which was passing away. It was above all the heyday of didacticism when a moral was still believed to adorn a tale and when edification and poetry went hand in hand, though one may suspect that it was a desire on the part of the poet to impose his own ideas on others that inspired him rather than any ideal of the ultimate good which his readers would derive. It was also an age of superficial emotion in which people mistook sentimentality for real sentiment and when the “passions” were much celebrated in poetry and seldom really felt. It was a time in which the fashionable life of the day imposed itself with all the rigor of convention upon the actions and thoughts of narrow-minded men. To do “the thing,” to set the fashion or to ape it, to be scrupulously exact in matters of dress and deportment, and to follow the looseness of morals of the leaders of society, became the ideal of lesser men and reflected itself in the curiously artificial poetry of the day. In literature, the ideal took its color from the life which it reflected: restriction of form, exactness of expression, polish of verse—these were above all things sought after, and, by the great majority of small poets of the day, were accomplished with considerable success. What was done within the narrow circle of their view was done well, but they little understood and never appreciated what lay beyond. Living within the confines of London Town, they seemed to have their gaze hemmed in by the walls that surrounded them, and the open country looked very far away. Mountains were but obstacles, and the Alps, which were to inspire so much of the poetry of Byron, seemed but the inconvenient obstacles which a hostile nature placed between the vineyards of France and the sunny slopes of Italy.

    The new age, however, began what was really to be a renaissance in English literature. It is more significant from the ontological point of view than for what it actually accomplished in the way of inspiration or æsthetics, because it forecasts in no uncertain way the course of development that was to be taken by the Romantic Movement. One of its most important achievements was the realization of the poetic value of simple nature and of the inspiration which could be obtained from a healthy life in the open country. The drawing-room of the age of Pope gives place, then, to the open fields and hillsides of the precursors of romanticism; and the artificial beaux of London society are succeeded by simple peasants, whose fundamental emotions replace the elaborate and artificial sentimentality of the London fop. There remains, however, a tinge of sentimentality in the personal emotion of Goldsmith and even of Burns which is a heritage from the artificial age that still overshadowed their day. In certain instances the emotion that inspires the poets is a rather negative, sad, and weak sentiment which delights in the contemplation of death and which finds satisfaction in such melancholy scenes that the whole group is sometimes known as the “churchyard” poets. Of these Gray in his ‘Elegy in a Country Churchyard’ (1751), and Blair in his ‘The Grave’ (1743) are outstanding examples. Gray’s ‘Elegy’ still has a sort of spurious reputation because of the tiresome iteration of critics that it is the best-known poem in the English language.

    But not all poets of this age sat upon the ground and talked of tombs and epitaphs; it was a time of a gradually growing interest in the remote, of a nascent desire to widen, to vary, and to vivify personal experience. Chatterton felt the charm of the mediæval and is a forerunner of Keats and Scott; Macpherson in his Ossianic poems, and Gray in his Norse and Welsh poems, felt the inspiration of the wild north; Walpole and Mrs. Radcliffe in their Gothic romances exploited the possibilities of the weird and the terrible; Blake in prose and poetry and pictures portrayed the lineaments of the supernatural and of the ecstatic; while the spell of the Orient was diversely acknowledged in the ‘Chinese Letters’ of Goldsmith, the ‘Persian Eclogues’ of Collins, in ‘Vathek’ by Beckford, and in a translation of a Chinese romance by Bishop Percy.

    This was, however, not merely an age in which the confines of poetry were being widened by the discovery of new worlds, but it was also a period in which there is a marked development of poetic technique. The old form required by custom and admired in practice was the heroic couplet; the age of Pope had even dared to criticize the magnificent blank verse of Milton as lacking in form and finish. The poets of transition, however, revived the Spenserian stanza, notably in the ‘School Mistress’ of Shenstone and in ‘The Castle of Indolence’ by Thomson. They experimented with irregular metres of which the odes of Collins and Gray are outstanding examples, exquisite in form. Lastly, the antithesis of classic regularity is to be found in the eccentricity and comparative formlessness of Blake and in the intense reality of his inspiration.

    Such in brief are the main characteristics of this period of transition. It still shows in many respects the restriction of the earlier age; it suffers from the personal limitations of its poets; it does not leave much that is either perfect in form or permanent in appeal. But it does initiate the movement of emancipation from the eighteenth-century literary tyranny, and it does foretell the coming of the romantic dawn with its love of nature, its glorification of liberty, and its splendid belief in the individual.

    Chronological Table (1700–1800)

  • 1701Act of Settlement; House of Hanover begins to reign in England
  • 1702–1714Queen Anne
  • 1704Marlborough wins the battle of Blenheim
  • 1707Union of England and Scotland
  • 1713Peace of Utrecht
  • 1714–1727George I.
  • 1715Death of Louis XIV.
  • 1721–1742Walpole’s Supremacy
  • 1727–1760George II.
  • 1748War of Austrian Succession ends with Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle
  • 1756–1763Seven Years’ War
  • 1759Wolfe captures Quebec
  • 1763Peace of Paris
  • 1765Invention of steam-engine by Watt
  • 1773“Boston Tea Party”
  • 1775Beginning of American Revolution
  • 1776Declaration of American Independence
  • 1785Cartwright invents his spinning-machine
  • 1787Impeachment of Warren Hastings
  • 1789Storming of the Bastille
  • 1793Execution of Louis XVI.
  • 1794Fall of Robespierre
  • 1796Napoleon invades Italy
  • 1798Nelson wins the battle of the Nile
  • 1799Death of Washington
  • Reading Recommended

  • 1686–1758Allan Ramsay
  • 1716–1771Thomas Gray
  • 1721–1759William Collins
  • 1731–1800William Cowper
  • 1736–1796James Macpherson (Ossianic Poetry)
  • 1752–1770Thomas Chatterton
  • 1754–1832George Crabbe
  • 1757–1827William Blake
  • 1759–1796Robert Burns