English Literature

 

V   THE RESTORATION PERIOD AND THE 18TH CENTURY

This period extends from 1660, the year Charles II was restored to the throne, until about 1789. The prevailing characteristic of the literature of the Renaissance had been its reliance on poetic inspiration or what today might be called imagination. The inspired conceptions of Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Milton, the true originality of Spenser, and the daring poetic style of Donne all support this generalization. Furthermore, although nearly all these poets had been far more bound by formal and stylistic conventions than modern poets are, they had developed a large variety of forms and of rich or exuberant styles into which individual poetic expression might fit. In the succeeding period, however, writers reacted against both the imaginative flights and the ornate or startling styles and forms of the previous era. The quality of the later age is suggested by its writers’ admiration for Ben Jonson and his disciples; the transparent and apparently effortless poetic medium of the “school of Ben,” along with its emphasis on good taste, moderation, and the Greek and Latin classics as models, appealed profoundly to the new generation.

Thus, the restoration of Charles II ushered in a literature characterized by reason, moderation, good taste, deft management, and simplicity. The historical parallel between the early imperialism of Rome and the restored English monarchy, both of which had replaced republican institutions, was not lost on the ruling and learned classes. Their appreciation of the literature of the time of the Roman emperor Augustus led to a widespread acceptance of the new English literature and encouraged a grandeur of tone in the poetry of the period, the later phase of which is often referred to as Augustan. In addition, the ideals of impartial investigation and scientific experimentation promulgated by the newly founded Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge (established in 1662) were influential in the development of clear and simple prose as an instrument of rational communication.

Finally, the great philosophical and political treatises of the time emphasize rationalism. Even in the earlier 17th century, Francis Bacon had moved in this direction by advocating reasoning and scientific investigation in Advancement of Learning (1605) and The New Atlantis (1627). Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), by John Locke, is the product of a belief in experience as the exclusive basis of knowledge, a view pushed to its logical extreme in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748) by David Hume. Locke himself continued to profess faith in divine revelation, but this residual belief was weakened among the similarly rationalist Deists, who tended to base religion on what reason could find in the world God had created around humans.

In political thought, the arbitrary acceptance of the monarch’s divine right to rule (a conception popular in the Renaissance) had so nearly succumbed to skeptical criticism that Thomas Hobbes in his Leviathan (1651) found it necessary to defend the idea of political absolutism with a rationally conceived sanction. According to him, the monarch should rule not by divine right but by an original and indissoluble social contract in order to secure universal peace and material gratification. Similarly rationalistic, but opposed to this rigorous subordination of all organs of the state to central control, were Locke’s two Treatises on Government (1690), in which he stated that the authority of the governor is derived from the always revocable consent of the governed and that the people’s welfare is the only proper object of that authority.

Perhaps the greatest historical work in English is The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (6 volumes, 1776-1788), by Edward Gibbon. Notable for its stately, balanced style, it is permeated with rationalistic skepticism and distrust of emotion, particularly religious emotion.

The successive stages of literary taste during the period of the Restoration and the 18th century are conveniently referred to as the ages of Dryden, Pope, and Johnson, after the three great literary figures who, one after another, carried on the so-called classical tradition in literature. The age as a whole is sometimes called the Augustan age, or the classical or neoclassical period.

A   Age of Dryden

The poetry of John Dryden possesses a grandeur, force, and fullness of tone that were eagerly received by readers still having something in common with the Elizabethans. At the same time, however, his poetry set the tone of the new age in achieving a new clarity and in establishing a self-limiting, somewhat impersonal canon of moderation and good taste. His polished heroic couplet (a unit of two rhyming lines of iambic pentameter, generally end-stopped), which he inherited from less accomplished predecessors and then developed, became the dominant form in the composition of longer poems.

In a number of critical works Dryden defined the stylistic restraint, compression, clarity, and common sense that he exemplified in his own poetry and that he showed to be lacking in much of the poetry of the preceding age, particularly in the exuberant and mechanically complex metaphorical wit of the older metaphysical school. His reputation rests primarily on satire. This form became the dominant poetic genre of the age, both because of the religious and political factionalism of the times and because mocking denunciation of the ludicrousness or rascality of the opposition comes naturally to an age with so strong a public sense of norms of behavior. Absalom and Achitophel (1681-1682) and Mac Flecknoe (1682) are the most remarkable of Dryden’s political satires. Among his other poetic works are noteworthy translations of Roman satirists and of the works of Virgil, and the Pindaric ode “Alexander’s Feast,” a tour de force of varied cadences, which was published in 1697.

The bulk of Dryden’s work was in drama. By means of it, following the new mode of living of the professional literary man, he could derive his support from a large public rather than from private patrons. In his heroic tragedies The Conquest of Granada (1670) and All for Love; or, The World Well Lost (1678), a rewriting of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra in the new taste, Dryden showed a different and not always satisfying side of his talent and exemplified the dominant quality of all Restoration tragedy. In order to achieve splendor and surprise on the stage, he sacrificed reality of characterization and consistency in motivation for sensual display in exotic locales and extravagance in plot and situation, presented in a style verging on the bombastic. The affinities of this kind of drama are with Beaumont and Fletcher rather than with the great Elizabethan age; and the indirect influence of Ben Jonson is apparent also, for these two men were Jonson’s disciples. Probably the best example of this genre of tragedy was produced by Thomas Otway, whose Venice Preserved (1682) avoids the worst excesses to which this form is liable and also possesses considerable tenderness and sensibility. By this time, however, the vogue of heroic tragedy was coming to an end; the style already had been successfully parodied in The Rehearsal (1671), by George Villiers, 2nd duke of Buckingham, and his collaborators.

The comedy of the time is much more successful than the tragedy. It is derived directly from the comedies of Ben Jonson but tries for more refinement while displaying less strength. In a cool, satiric spirit, it criticizes middle-class ambition and other variations from the courtly social norm, of which the canons are aristocratic good taste and good sense, rarely conventional morality. In the eyes of succeeding generations, the chief defects of Restoration comedy are its reduction of sentiment and emotion to silliness and its frequent amorality. Reaction against this type of comedy, known as the comedy of manners, already had developed by the time that its greatest practitioner, William Congreve, was displaying his subtle artistry in Love For Love (1695) and The Way of the World (1700).

Just as Dryden’s poetry defined the tone of his time, so too did his easy, informal, clear prose style, notably in his Essay of Dramatic Poesie (1668) and in various prefaces to his plays and translations. Noteworthy prose of a rather different nature was produced by two other figures of the age, Samuel Pepys and John Bunyan. The appetite of the period for life at all levels, but particularly for the life of the senses, is suggested by the secret diary of Samuel Pepys, a high official of the Admiralty Office. This extraordinary work, valuable as it is as a document of contemporary taste, has much to say of the private, unheroic life and longings of people of all times. A figure in stronger contrast to Pepys could hardly be imagined than John Bunyan, a Puritan preacher, completely alien to the aristocratic and professional world of letters. Bunyan wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come (1st part published in 1678; 2nd part, 1684) and The Life and Death of Mr. Badman (1680), two rough-hewn, moving, allegorical narratives of the human journey at the level of the fundamental verities of life, death, and religion. The first of these is now a literary classic, but in spite of the penetrating characterization and vitality of both works, they initially attained popularity only among artisans, merchants, and the poor.

B   Age of Pope

In the age of Alexander Pope (dated from about the death of Dryden in 1700 to Pope’s death in 1744), the classical spirit in English literature reached its highest point, and at the same time other forces became manifest. Dryden’s poetry had achieved grandeur, amplitude, and sublimity within a particular definition of good taste and good sense and under the tutelage of the Roman and Greek classics. To the poetry of Pope this characterization applies even more stringently. More than any other English poet, he submitted himself to the requirement that the expressive force of poetic genius should issue forth only in a formulation as reasonable, lucid, balanced, compressed, final, and perfect as the power of human reason can make it. Pope did not have Dryden’s majesty. Perhaps, given his predilection for correctness of detail, he could not have had it. Also, the readers of succeeding times have concluded that the dictates of reason do not all converge on only one poetic formula, just as the heroic couplet, which Pope brought to final perfection, is not necessarily the most generally suitable of English poetic forms. Nevertheless, the ease, harmony, and grace of Pope’s poetic line are still impressive, and his quality of precise but never labored expression of thought remains unequaled.

Pope’s reputation rests in large part on his satires, but his didactic bent led him to formulate in verse An Essay on Criticism (1711) and An Essay on Man (1732-1734). The former attempts to show that poetry must be modeled on nature; but his conception of nature, a traditional one shared by all his contemporaries, differs from that of succeeding generations. For Pope, nature meant the rules that right reason has discovered to be immanent in all things, so that what the experience of reasonable minds through the ages has shown to be the greatest poetry—namely, that of classical antiquity—provides a perfect model for modern times. A similar conservatism reappears in An Essay on Man, which concludes with the much debated generalization that “Whatever is, is right.”

Pope’s brilliant satiric masterpiece, The Rape of the Lock (1712; revised edition 1714), makes an epic theme of a trifling drawing-room episode: the contention arising from a young lord’s having covertly snipped a lock of hair from a young lady’s head. His most sustained satire, The Dunciad (1728; final version 1743), follows Dryden’s Mac Flecknoe in its elegantly pointed, often malicious but always high-spirited mockery of the literary dullards who were Pope’s enemies.

Like Dryden, Pope made translations of classical works, notably of the Iliad, which was a great popular and financial success. His edition of Shakespeare’s works bears witness to a range of taste not usually ascribed to him.

It is only natural that the 18th-century preoccupation with the power of reason and good sense should have produced a large number of works in the more sober medium of prose. Jonathan Swift, who was, like Pope, a Tory conservative for the latter half of his life and a satirist, wrote a number of mordantly satirical prose narratives in which a profound and despairing perception of human stupidities and evil are in contrast with the social criticism of his great contemporaries. Swift’s Tale of a Tub (1704) reduces the quarrels among three important religious divisions of his day to an allegory of three disreputable brothers. His generous anger on behalf of the poor of Ireland produced “A Modest Proposal” (1729), in which, with horrifying mock seriousness, he proposed that the children of the poor should be raised for slaughter as food for the rich. His best-known work, Gulliver’s Travels (1726), purports to be a ship doctor’s account of his voyages into strange places, but in reality it is a castigation of the human race. The accounts of Gulliver’s first two voyages are often read as a children’s book. The last part abandons, however, delicate fancy and unmasks the selfish and sick bestiality of humanity in the guise of the so-called Yahoos, who are the savage and improvident servants of a race of apparently reasonable and noble horses, called Houyhnhnms. This work, like all of Swift’s, is written in a prose of unrivaled lucidity, energy, and polemical skill.

Similarly noteworthy for the quality of their prose are the Spectator papers (1711-1712; 1714), written mainly by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele. Published daily, these essays, like many others, corresponded to the newly felt need of the day for popular journalism, but their enlightened comment and their criticism of contemporary society separate them from the mass of similar publications. The main intent of Addison and Steele may be defined in their own words: “To enliven morality with wit, and to temper wit with morality.” In a series of informal, conversational essays describing the activities of various ideal representatives of social groups, such as the Tory country squire Sir Roger de Coverley and the Whig merchant Sir Andrew Freeport, Addison and Steele salvaged and united some of the best sides of the contemporary English character. The lightly borne, free-and-easy manners of the court and the older landed classes should, according to these papers, exist side by side with the industry, uprightness, and deeply felt morality of the newly rich city merchants. The amorality associated with the one and the stubborn narrowness of the other should disappear. The emphasis on public decorum and individual rectitude and on sympathy with one’s fellow beings in the Spectator papers is a measure of their distance from the cool indifference and frequent licentiousness of much Restoration literature, particularly comedy, although the purpose of both was to represent reason, moderation, and common sense.

A quite different kind of journalism is represented by the work of the middle-class adventurer, hack writer, and political agent Daniel Defoe. Separated from the life of the upper classes and their erudite writers, as Bunyan had been before him, he produced, among many pieces of commissioned writing, a series of purportedly true but actually fictitious memoirs and confessions. The first of these, and the greatest, is Robinson Crusoe (1719), which reports the life and adventures of a shipwrecked sailor.

C   Age of Johnson

The age of Samuel Johnson, from 1744 to about 1784, was a time of changing literary ideals. The developed classicism and literary conservatism associated with Johnson fought a rearguard action against the cult of sentiment and feeling associated in various ways with the harbingers of the coming age of romanticism. Johnson composed poetry that continued the traditions and forms of Pope, but he is best known as a prose writer and as an extraordinarily gifted conversationalist and literary arbiter in the cultivated urban life of his time. His conservatism and sturdy common sense are what might be expected given his intellectual tradition, but his individual quality has little to do with literary tendencies. His curiously lovable and upright personality, along with his intellectual preeminence and idiosyncrasies, have been preserved in the most famous of English biographies, the Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), by James Boswell, a Scottish writer with an appetite for literary celebrities.

Johnson worked his way up from poverty by honest literary labors, among which was his Dictionary of the English Language (1755). A great success, it was the first such work prepared according to modern standards of lexicography. Like Addison and Steele, Johnson produced a series of journalistic essays, The Rambler (1750-1752), but because of their somewhat pedantic style and Latinate vocabulary, they lack the easy informality of the Spectator papers and serve to accentuate the opposition between his neoclassical formality and the succeeding romantic ideal of heart-to-heart communication. Johnson’s philosophical tale Rasselas (1759), of which the moral is that “human life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed,” is reminiscent of Swift (as well as of his contemporary the French writer Voltaire in his tale Candide) in its perception of the vanity of human wishes. For all his pessimism, however, the amazing detail, independence, and intellectual facility of Johnson’s critical biographies of English poets since 1600 (Lives of the Poets, 1779-1781), written in his old age, show what critical discrimination and intellectual integrity can accomplish.

Johnson’s friend Oliver Goldsmith was a curious mixture of the old and the new. His novel The Vicar of Wakefield (1766) begins with dry humor but passes quickly into tearful calamity. His poem The Deserted Village (1770) is in form reminiscent of Pope, but in the tenderness of its sympathy for the lower classes it foreshadows the romantic age. In such plays as She Stoops to Conquer (1773) Goldsmith, like the younger Richard Sheridan in his School for Scandal (1777), demonstrated an older tradition of satirical quality and artistic adroitness that was to be anathema to a younger generation.

The signs of this newer feeling, which resulted in romanticism, can be traced in the poetry of William Cowper and of Thomas Gray. The cultivation of a pensive and melancholy sensibility and the interruption of the rule of the heroic couplet, as in Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1751), hint at the period to come, as does Gray’s interest in medieval, nonclassical literature. New interests are even more obvious in the highly original poetry of the self-educated artist and engraver William Blake. His work consists in part of simple, almost childlike lyrics (Songs of Innocence, 1789), as well as of powerful but lengthy and obscure declarations of a new mythological vision of life (The Book of Thel, 1789). All Blake’s poetry expresses a revolt against the ideal of reason (which he considered destructive to life) and advocates the life of feeling—but in a more vital and assertive sense than is the case with the other previously mentioned preromantics. Similarly robust and passionate are the lyrics of the Scottish poet Robert Burns, which are characterized by his use of regional Scottish vernacular. The simplicity, forcefulness, and powerful emotion of the ancient ballads of the Scottish-English border region, as revealed in Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765), by Bishop Thomas Percy, were likewise influential in the development of romanticism.

Among writers of the novel—a newly popular form in this period—an advocate of sentiment and simple, innocent feelings had already appeared in the person of Samuel Richardson. In his sentimental novel Clarissa (1747-1748), the plight of an innocent girl, seduced and destroyed by her suitor, is represented through lengthy letters interchanged among the characters. This device permits an unprecedented revelation of motives and feelings. Richardson’s contemporary Henry Fielding evinced his connection with the earlier satirical spirit in his novel Joseph Andrews (1742), which parodies Richardson’s other novel of virtue besieged, Pamela (1740). Fielding’s greatest novel, Tom Jones (1749), reveals a robust and healthy spirit of good sense and comedy, in which well-intentioned vigor wins out over excessive hypocrisy. Fielding’s contemporary, the Scottish-born Tobias Smollett, wrote a number of novels of picaresque adventure, the last and probably best of which is Humphry Clinker (1771). The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-1767), the masterpiece of another great British novelist of the century, Laurence Sterne, indulges in the new cult of sentiment, but by reason of its cast of eccentric characters and the skilled weaving of the most extraordinary behavior into the depiction of their personalities, this novel lies outside the usual historical categories.