English Literature of the Enlightenment
This extremely rich period of English literature is covered on our timeline in three sections. Scroll down for all eras, or click an index link, just below, to go directly to a particular section.
To learn more about the cultural background, authors, and styles from this era, read this post:
Reading Resources—Find Free Texts Online:
Restoration Literature: 1660-1700
Significant Historical Dates:
1660: Charles II restored to the throne. Reopening of theaters; women begin acting in women’s parts.
1665-66: Great Plague of London.
1666: Great Fire destroys city of London.
1668: John Dryden becomes the first Poet Laureate.
1672: Charles II issues Declaration of Indulgence to decriminalize Catholicism and Dissenters.
1673: Test Act requires office holders to swear Allegiance to Anglicanism.
1678: Popish Plot—a hoax that inflames anti-Catholic feeling.
1685: Charles II dies; James II, Catholic brother, assumes throne.
1688-89: Glorious Revolution. Catholic James II exiled and succeed by Protestant daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange. (English people who continue loyalty to James II and his son Charles Edward called “Jacobites.” Some continue to engage in plots of rebellion.)
1690: John Locke publishes “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.”
1695: Licensing Act expires, ending censorship of the press.
English Literature 1660-1700: Major Authors and Highlights
John Dryden. “A Song for St. Cecelia’s Day,” 1687; “Alexander’s Feast,” 1697; “Mack Flecknoe,” 1682.
Dryden was a significant Restoration writer. As England’s first official Poet Laureate, he wrote plays, verses, and essays that comment on every important event of his day. In addition, he played a huge role in formation of literary taste and poets’ reputations through his criticism in verse, and by editing anthologies of contemporary poems he considered worthy.
The first two works in this reading list were poems written to be performed to music at the London Musical Society annual concert, held in celebration of St. Cecelia. St. Cecelia was a Roman saint regarded as patroness of music and supposed inventor of the organ. Both poems are lovely and thoughtful considerations of the power of music and other arts, both to evoke emotion and to motivate people’s actions.
I especially like “Alexander’s Feast.” This poem creates a scene of Alexander the Great sitting at a feast celebrating a victory over the Persians. Dryden describes flautist and lute player Timotheus playing before Alexander. His music alone evokes a series of different powerful emotions within Alexander.
“Mack Flecknoe.” If you want to know how to insult someone thoroughly and elegantly, “Mack Flecknoe” can show you a thing or two. This very funny mock heroic poem makes fun of a second-rate dramatist Thomas Shadwell, who annoyed Dryden by continuing to insist that he was the true heir of the late great Ben Jonson. Not at all, says Dryden in this poem; Shadwell is actually the true son of Flecknoe, one of the greatest hacks and cliched writers of the time. The poem wittily describes the dying Flecknoe anointing Shadwell as his one true heir, with a well-placed dig in every couplet. Enjoy!
If you are a history buff, you might also take on “Absalom and Achitophel,” 1681, in which Dryden discusses the struggles of Charles II to maintain control of the succession to the throne in favor of his brother James against the pretensions of his illegitimate son the Duke of Monmouth, championed by the new Whig party of the Earl of Shaftesbury, Parliament, and the City of London.
The situation of a son threatening to usurp his own father’s throne brought to Dryden’s mind the biblical story of Absalom, who rebelled against his father, King David. In this poem Dryden attempted to support the rights of Charles while allowing for the just quarrels of his opponents, a delicate task that most serious readers say he achieved. Use an edited edition with notes and read up on your Restoration history before you begin, so all the references make sense.
See also Marriage a la mode, 1673, below in Restoration Comedies.
Samuel Pepys, “The Great Fire” from The Diary [of London] 1660-1669.
Samuel Pepys (pronounced “Peeps”) was the son of a tailor who was helped to a Cambridge education, eventually becoming a successful Secretary of the Admiralty (in the Navy). A lifelong Londoner, he loved every aspect of its culture, especially the nightlife and beautiful ladies.
If you are interested in Restoration cultural history, you can pick and choose any of the over 1.3 million words he wrote about all the details of his life in London, from big events to mundane details to intimate domestic situations.
At least check out the entries for September 1-3, 1666. These describe the Great Fire that decimated four-fifths of the central city. Find the diary entries here at Pepysdiary.com. If you like, you can go to this site’s main page every day to see an entry that was written on today’s calendar date.
With the Puritans out of power as of 1660, theaters were allowed to open again. Charles II granted licenses to two theater companies and specified that, unlike in Shakespeare’s day, women’s roles should be played by women rather than by adolescent boys.
Restoration Comedy was replete with smart witty dialogue, bawdy humor, clever rakes and the ladies they pursued, both those who had “lost their honor” (their virginity) and those who were still trying to maintain it. Libertine men seduce, then cast off, their mistresses. Ladies thwart unacceptable men who want to marry them for their money while pretending not to lure the men they really care for. Hypocritical friends swear loyalty in one scene and betray behind the back in the next one.
In Restoration Comedies, characters are not celebrated for simple virtues like kindness, courage, or morality, but rather for their ability to survive and thrive in the social realm. Admired most are qualities like beauty, grace, charm, cleverness, and above all, wit. In dialogue, sex and double entendre of all sorts abound.
All of these elements make for sparkling comedy and great repartee, along with lots of dramatic irony and plot twists, all giving audiences a fun evening at the theater. Machinations of the characters are enjoyable to watch, and the witty dialogue is very funny.
Personally, though, I find it a little disheartening to read Restoration Comedies because they present such a worldly and satirical view of human nature. In this world, no one means what they say; almost no marriage is happy; almost no one is to be trusted. Of course these negative qualities could be taken as critiques not of humanity as a whole, but merely of Court values and behaviors.
Also on the plus side for the Restoration Comedy: these plays suggest that 18th century marriage was a bad bargain for most women, who spend their time in most of them devising stratagems to level the playing field with the men who pursue or possess them. By the end of the 1600s, this recurring theatrical theme may have helped enlarge the conversation about how to make marriage more equal for both men and women.
For more on Restoration Comedy, see this introductory article.
Famous Restoration Comedies
John Dryden, Marriage A La Mode, 1673.
This play features a double plot, contrasting an idealized love relationship between two noble and simple-hearted young people, Leonidas and Palmyra, with a sillier plot suggesting how the false glamour desire and courtly intrigue leads to mistakes in love relationships, as Rhodofil and Palamede start affairs with each other’s beloveds, Doralice and Melantha.
William Wycherley, The Country Wife, 1675.
A satirical comment on the state of love in the world of the court, The Country Wife features the libertine character Harry Horner, who has a clever stratagem for seduction: he gets his doctor to spread the rumor that Horner is impotent, so men are not afraid to leave their wives alone with Horner. Enter from the country the character Jack Pinchwife, a doddering old fool who has married a pretty, young, lusty wench who likes the look of Horner when she meets him at the play. Neither has heard the rumor about Horner; will Jack be able to bed the fair country wife in spite of Pinchwife’s jealousy?
The play also has an entertaining subplot: Alethea is set to marry Mr. Sparkish for worldly comfort, not for love. Enter Horner’s friend Harcourt, who falls for Alethea and wins her heart right in front of Sparkish, who misses the implications of all his double entendres.
George Etherege The Man of Mode, or Sir Fopling Flutter, 1676
In this play, Dorimont, in the starring role as rake (a sophisticated playboy), finally meets the woman who makes him want to reform: the beautiful, smart, witty, and satirical Harriet Woodville, a young heiress. Unfortunately for Dorimont, there are obstacles. Harriet is under control of her old lovelorn aunt, Lady Woodville, whom Dorimont must pretend to court in order to get at Harriet. Also, his two past mistresses are still around to cause trouble. Sir Fopling Flutter, a character newly arrived in town is desperate to become the most fashionable man at court; Fopling provides much satirical humor and another subplot.
Aphra Behn, The Rover, 1677
Aphra Behn, said to be England’s first professional writer, wrote this Restoration Comedy from a woman’s perspective, featuring a group of engaging young women who vocally reject the roles expected of young women of the time. Florinda wants to marry Belvile, a dashing English colonel, whereas her father wants her to marry an old rich man while her brother wants her to marry his best friend. Her sister Hellena is intended to become a nun, but she seems much more interested in love and sex.
The libertine Rover Willmore captures the heart of prostitute Angelica, but ends up captured by the enchanting Hellena. This bold group of young women and a rowdy group of young men all end up mingling in disguise at the Carnival in Naples. Hilarity, drunkenness, fights, and mistaken identities ensue. In this play I particularly enjoy the lively Hellena character.
The Rover was not much acted after the Restoration, if at all, until it was revived in the late 20th century at the Williamstown Theater Festival in New York in 1987. Take a look at this review of the play, which featured Christopher Reeve in the role of Rover.
William Congreve, The Way of the World ,1700.
Congreve’s plotline in this comedy seemed too complicated to be well-received by audiences in its time, but today’s critics often point to this play as the most brilliant and polished Restoration Comedy. It is well worth reading for the extremely witty and surprisingly honest interchanges between the play’s hero Mirabell, a reformed rake, and the heroine Millamant, a virtuous young heiress, a polished wit and lovely coquette who is attracted, in spite of herself, to Mirabell.
Of course there is an obstacle to their marriage: Millamant’s aunt Lady Wishfort controls half her fortune, and she hates Mirabell for having pretended to court her in order to get close to Millamant. There are other villains in the plot who have it in for Mirabell, specifically Fainall, who had been tricked into marrying Mirabell’s former mistress, and Fainall’s current mistress, Mrs. Marwood, who thwarts Mirabell’s romance with Millamant because she secretly wants to marry him herself. It all seems to come right in the end, but not before Congreve gives his characters much dialogue that goes a little deeper into the realities and values of love and marriage than some other Restoration Comedies might do.
John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress, 1677.
The subject matter of The Pilgrim’s Progress is about as far is it could be from the standard topics of Restoration Comedy. Written by Dissenting Baptist preacher John Bunyan during his long years of imprisonment for refusing to stop his unauthorized preaching outside the Anglican Church, Pilgrim’s Progress is probably the most famous allegory written in English. An allegory is a narrative in which the characters, events, and physical objects represent ideas that can be applied in other settings and circumstances outside those within the narrative.
The subtitle of Pilgrim’s Progress explains what Bunyan’s allegory is about: “From This World to That Which Is to Come: Delivered under the Similitude of a Dream.” The main character is Christian, who represents an ordinary man who becomes convinced God will condemn him as a sinner. Inspired by the man named Evangelist, he sets out on a difficult journey to reach the Celestial City, where God dwells and will welcome all penitent souls.
He meets many obstacles on the way that represent emotional and spiritual perils in the life of a Christian. One famous obstacle is The Slough of Despond, a swamp of discouragement into which he falls while walking heedless on the path. Much later on the journey, he passes through Vanity Fair. Vanity Fair displays every worldly value as precious and tempting, but Christian knows such worldly goods and achievements are only distractions from true eternal values.
Christians for generations read this book to gain wisdom and support as they sought to walk a godly path. Louisa May Alcott enshrined it as the favorite book of her Little Women, depicting the four sisters forming a Pilgrim’s Club to encourage each other to live up to their Christian values.
You can read a copy of Pilgrim’s Progress here, at the Gutenberg Project site.
Aphra Behn, The Rover, 1677 (see Restoration Comedies above); Oroonoko, 1688
The first English woman to make a living by writing, Aphra Behn has caught more current readers’ attention since the beginning of the 21st century. In her book blog in The Guardian, Belinda Webb says Behn is a Restoration combination of Dorothy Parker and Mae West. That alone makes her intriguing. A further endorsement comes from Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own, where she wrote, “All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.”
Socializing easily in both Court and intellectual circles of her time, Mrs. Behn was known as witty and intelligent, but poor. Needing to make a living, she wrote every genre, from plays to poetry to fiction, becoming the first professional English woman writer. Her works are witty and clever, often melodramatic, and full of romance that was sexually frank for its day. Her works depict women as well as men suffering and acting upon extremes of love and sexual attraction.
Oroonoko is of interest today for multiple reasons. It is the story of a Black African prince, almost godlike in his physical strength and prowess in battle, as well as in his refined intelligence, moral feeling, and extreme loving devotion to his chosen mate, Imoinda. Behn’s melodramatic tale begins with the story of how Oroonoko falls in love and then loses his mate, then narrates how he is captured and sold into slavery in Surinam, then a West Indian colony of England.
Behn tells in detail how Oroonoko wins the high opinion of the white slave owners by his intelligence and moral delicacy. But impatient for his freedom, he attempts escape, then is captured and tortured, ultimately to death.
Over the years, Oroonoko seems to have awoken many readers to the horrors of the institution of slavery, as suggested by this quote from poem written by Hannah More, an anti-slavery activist, in 1788, a hundred years after Oroonoko’s publication.
For no fictitious ills these numbers flow,
But living anguish, and substantial woe;
No individual griefs my bosom melt,
For millions feel what Oroonoko felt:
Fired by no single wrongs, the countless host
I mourn, by rapine dragged from Afric’s coast.
Augustan Age: 1700-1750
This era is often named the Augustan Age after a period in Roman history when Augustus Caesar ruled. It was a rich era for Rome when the arts flourished. Horace, Virgil, and Ovid, favorite models for 18th century poets, were writing at this time.
Significant Historical Dates:
1702: Death of William III. Succeeded by Anne, Protestant daughter of James II.
1707: Act of Union with Scotland.
1710: Tories take power.
1714: Death of Queen Anne. George I, great-grandson of James I, is first Hanoverian king. Whigs assume power over Tories.
1720: South Sea bubble investment scheme collapses.
1721: Robert Walpole comes to power.
1727: George I dies. George II succeeds.
1737: Licensing Act censors the stage.
1742: Handel’s Messiah has first performance, in Dublin.
1746: Charles Edward Stuart’s defeat at Culloden; ends Jacobite Rebellion.
English Literature of the Augustan Age, 1700-1750: Major Authors and Highlights:
Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism, 1711; The Rape of the Lock, 1712; An Essay on Man, Epistle 1 and Epistle II, lines 1-18, 1734.
Alexander Pope is a towering figure in the literary world during this period, among the most famous writers of his day. He became allied with other writers like Swift and Gay, all championing traditional values based on reason, learning, and good taste. These values seemed to these writers to deteriorate as moneyed interests gained political power over Royal, traditional Anglican, and landed ones.
Like many other writers of his time, Pope honored the Classics, particularly Horace, Virgil, and Homer, adapting classical form and style to English poetry. As a Catholic, he was not allowed to go to college or obtain a government position. Instead, he was one of the first English writers to make a living solely through literature, his first commercial success being a popular translation of The Iliad.
The Rape of the Lock. Long poems in carefully balanced meter might not seem like your preferred reading, but if you give Pope’s poetry a try, I think you will be pleasantly surprised at its clarity, humor, wisdom, and pointed satire. The Rape of the Lock is about an incident that started a feud between two families, when the son of one family, without permission, cut a lock of hair from a daughter of the other family as a keepsake. Pope’s poem retells this incident in “mock heroic” style, where the people in the story are attended by miniscule gods and sprites who try to guard or influence their actions. Pope pokes fun by elevating mundane rituals into heroic actions, for instance when he describes Belinda’s getting dressed to go out as a heroine preparing for battle.
An Essay on Criticism. Even a brief foray into An Essay on Criticism conveys the qualities Pope, and most of his fellows, admire in literature: poetry should be composed by rule—following a particular form and meter—but the rules should all be based on the patterns and forms in Nature: “Those rules of old discovered, not devised, / Are Nature still, but Nature methodized” (Part I.88-89).
An Essay on Man. This later, more philosophical work discusses the strange position between God and beast in which people find themselves. The excerpt in this list ends with these lines, which sum up Pope’s observation about Man’s curious position within Creation:
Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled;
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!
–Pope, An Essay on Man, Epistle II, lines 15-18
Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels, 1721.
Jonathan Swift was an important and respected writer of his day, a friend of Pope, a Tory loyal to the Royals, and a staunch supporter of the Church and religious principles. His most frequent writing mode is satirical, painting a fairly critical view of personkind. His narrow view of humanity is certainly on display in the famous Gulliver’s Travels.
Though now often presented as a children’s story, readers of Swift’s day perceived immediately that Gulliver’s Travels was anything but a child’s tale. In fact it was a pointed satire against the wily, rising Whig Prime Minister Robert Walpole, as well as an excoriating critique of political and religious follies of Swift’s time. If you want to unravel all of those while reading, I recommend you get a good, edited edition with notes.
Even without knowing those references, Gulliver’s Travels is really fun to read, as we follow salt-of-the earth adventurer Lemuel Gulliver on four different voyages to strange lands. In one land, where everyone else is tiny, he is a physical giant; in another, where everyone else is huge, his is miniscule. In another land, impractical scientist-types hover in the sky over an island, doing pointless investigations and issuing impractical laws to the people they rule. In a fourth land, ruled by rational talking horses, Gulliver finds himself physically akin to the barbaric Yahoos, ape-like animalistic humans.
In each land, Gulliver observes a different basis for justifying the rule of others, whether of physical might, claimed moral superiority, dedication to scientific discovery, or placid rationality. All of these adventures give readers a radically different perspective to assess human character; on the whole, the picture is not flattering.
Though Gulliver prefers the company and rule of the rational but emotionally cold horses, it’s not clear that Swift would say the same. Swift doesn’t seem to give any human overmuch credit, suggesting the limit of any kind of claim to moral superiority over others. Perhaps he is showing that basic human decency and common sense is the best basis for social order.
Read it yourself and see what you think Swift is saying.
John Gay, The Beggar’s Opera, 1728.
John Gay was another companion of famous writers Swift and Pope who held similar political views, loyal to the crown and dismayed at the apparently corrupt ascension of Whig politicians like Robert Walpole, who seemed to win political power by exploiting money and greed. The Beggar’s Opera was a new thing at the time but was immediately acclaimed: a satire of the lavish Italian opera, very popular during these years. Instead of high-born beautifully dressed characters who sing elaborate passionate arias found in Italian opera, Gay’s characters are lowborn thieves, killers, and criminals who sing clever songs to popular tunes. In operas, characters dialogue in “recitative,” half-spoken and half-sung words; in The Beggar’s Opera, characters just talk normally in working class accents.
Gay satirizes Whig politician Robert Walpole as the character Peachum, a double-dealing crook who works with thieves to fence their goods, but then turns the less profitable ones in to the authorities for money. Gay also borrows from a real incident about two famous opera divas whose rivalry once led them to come to blows on the stage. In The Beggar’s Opera, these singers are redrawn as young lowborn Polly Peachum and Lucy Lockit, who quarrel over the notorious but gallant highwayman MacHeath.
Though Gay wrote his work to comment directly on eroding social values he observed in his own time, readers over the years continue to see the play as an apt picture of the corruption they observe in their own societies. Wherever the poorest criminals are punished while the rich criminals remain free, even honored in the highest echelons of society, The Beggar’s Opera seems relevant. Two hundred years later, Brecht and Weill adapted Gay’s work for their famous “Threepenny Opera” as a comment on corruption in 1920s Germany.
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, “The Lover: A Ballad” 1747; “Epistle from Mrs. Yonge to her Husband” 1724.
Daughter of a wealthy Whig peer, the intellectual Lady Mary Wortley Montagu taught herself Latin as a teen, a rare accomplishment for a woman of the 18th century. She is known today for her letter writing, but as a poet, she can hold her own with the famous men poets of the day. Her poems are polished and full of barbative wit, arguing in a worldly and amusing way for women’s right to respect and equal say in their destinies, including their sexual lives.
“The Lover: A Ballad” takes a frequent theme from the popular male libertine poets of the day: disappointment when they can’t perform in bed. But this poem relates this situation from the woman’s point of view.
“Epistle from Mrs. Yonge to her Husband” addresses a real situation. Mrs. Yonge had an affair and was sued for divorce by her husband, losing most of the money she brought to the marriage. The poem points out that her husband had affairs as well, so why is the woman punished differently from men for the same behavior?
Fiction in the Augustan Age
Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe , 1719; Journal of the Plague Year, 1722;_Moll Flanders, 1722.
See this post to learn about Defoe’s contribution to Realism in Fiction.
Daniel Defoe was an endlessly inventive author and entrepreneur, dabbling in business enterprises, doing a stint as a spy for the government, writing pamphlets (he was even thrown in jail for a time for something he wrote), and starting a unique genre of political journalism in his Review, which reported on current affairs 2-3 times every week. He is remembered as writer who could cater to the growing middle class English readership amidst a new media explosion. More women, business people, clerks, and upper servants had skills and enough leisure to read, and Defoe kept evolving new kinds of things for them to read.
Robinson Crusoe. With Robinson Crusoe, Defoe sought to capitalize on the popular memoir genre by writing a fiction as if it were a real memoir. He succeeded so well that Crusoe’s first readers thought Crusoe was a real person. Read it to enjoy how Defoe deploys detail to build up a real-feeling experience of a man trying to survive in an unfamiliar world.
Journal of the Plague Year is a combination of fiction and real-life reporting. The plague occurred when Defoe was only four years old, but he had an uncle who lived through it. He interviewed him along with others who were there, and investigated other documents on the plague year as well. This account is written as if he were an eyewitness; it is fiction based on fact.
Moll Flanders. Lovers of novels, myself included, owe a debt to Defoe for inventing so many features of the genre that was to flower so abundantly in the 19th century. See “Defoe and the Invention of Realism in the Novel” to learn how Moll Flanders showcases Defoe’s evolution in writing technique, beginning with pure narrative that mimics real-life memoir, and gradually adding more drama and scene painting, gesturing toward more depth in character development.
In the end, though, read Moll Flanders for more than just technique; Moll is a fun and memorable character, a pickpocket with a heart of gold, who leads an adventurous life moving up and down through many sectors of 18th Century society.
Samuel Richardson, Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, 1740; Clarissa Harlowe: Or, The History of a Young Lady, 1748.
Before becoming a famous novelist, Richardson was a well-regarded printer and bookseller. His popular “epistolary” novels, in which a story is told through a series of letters, became significant to literary history in demonstrating how intimately a fictional narrative could portray the inner psyche of its characters. His innovations began when he was commissioned to write a book of sample letters to help less educated readers learn the proper forms of letter-writing.
Pamela. Eventually Richardson began carrying on a story from one letter to another, the tale of a young upper servant girl writing to her parents about how her male employer was trying to seduce her. This emotional story told in letters became the novel Pamela. Very popular in its day, its readers thrilled to Pamela’s emotional and harrowing tale of how she manages to keep her virtue, falls in love with her would-be seducer, and eventually marries him.
Pamela was not universally acclaimed, however; many critics pointed out that though the tale was meant as moral, the undertones seemed rather lewd. Furthermore, Pamela could be viewed not as virtuous but as a manipulator, playing her cards right to catch a rich man. Henry Fielding wrote Shamela as a humorous response, recasting Pamela’s role from this viewpoint, and later Joseph Andrews, about a young footman whose virtue is attacked by Lady Booby, a reversal of the situation in Pamela.
Clarissa . I don’t expect that many of today’s readers will make the effort to read the vast and weighty Clarissa. I don’t blame them—the current Penguin edition of the book is over 1500 pages long!
However, I have read it and can testify that they are 1500 rather astonishing pages. I have never read any other novel that gets so intimately into the heads and lives of its characters. Indeed, I can think of no other novelist who has actually become his own characters to the extent that Richardson has. Therefore I say this:
I dare you to read it! I dare you to read at least some of it.
This epistolary novel (told completely in the form of letters written to intimate friends) focuses on the story of a lovely and innocent young woman, Clarissa Harlowe, and her attempted seduction by rich libertine Robert Lovelace. Clarissa writes letters back and forth to her best friend Anna Howe, and Lovelace writes to his friend and fellow playboy John Belford.
Clarissa is attracted to Lovelace; she accepts what she believes is his honorable help to escape from a loveless marriage her parents have arranged to a nasty old man. But accepting his offer to convey her to a safe place merely gets her out of the frying pan into the fire, because now she is at his mercy.
In her letters to Anna, she discusses at length all her struggles and reasons for resisting his advances, and Anna returns with lively advice and shrewd perceptions about Clarissa’s blind spots about herself. Lovelace discusses his strategies and reasons to seduce Clarissa with his fellow libertine Belford. But as the pages wend on, all the characters develop and evolve with great subtlety and detail.
The novel provides readers a truly unique total submersion experience. It has also shown later writers how fictional characters can assume the dimensions and contradictions inherit in actual living psyches.
Henry Fielding, Tom Jones, 1749.
Henry Fielding as 18th Century novelist is Samuel Richardson’s foil. Where Richardson is earnest, Fielding is playful; where Richardson is didactic, Fielding is satiric; where Richardson is melodramatic, Fielding is sentimental. Fielding is just a lot of fun, but he does indeed have serious points to make, and uses plenty of words to make them.
Fielding began his writing career as a playwright; that ended when a play too bluntly satirized Robert Walpole, the powerful Whig Prime Minister. Walpole oversaw passage of a new Licensing Act, which required plays to be approved by the Lord Chamberlain before production. Fielding, on the wrong political team, was out. To make a living, he turned to writing fiction.
Tom Jones, together with Richardson’s work, helped define the two poles the novel genre was to become in future times. While Richardson’s fiction is intense and psychological, told through intimate letters, Fielding’s Tom Jones is built with dramatic scenes, both comic and sentimental, all told by a friendly, chatty omniscient narrator. With not infrequent pauses to address the reader directly, especially to discuss how a story should be told and how readers should judge it, Fielding’s narrator tells the amusing story of a young illegitimate boy adopted by rich, kind Squire Allworthy.
Adoptee Tom is a kind-hearted, impulsive person who always stands up for the underdog and hates to turn down a lady, so to speak. (He doesn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings!) Fielding celebrates Tom for his “sensibility” and true kindness of heart, but shows how he needs to learn to act with more discretion, reason, and forethought.
Helping Tom to learn this wisdom is his great adoration for Sophia Western (a lovely virtuous girl representing a kind of Wisdom Goddess). Following Tom’s tale is a lot of fun, but there are many more comic characters, both villains and heroes, who convey Fielding’s views on current 18th century society along with what qualities of character are eternally valuable.
Age of Johnson and “Sensibility” 1750-1789
Significant Historical Dates:
1757: Indian Provinces of Bengal pass into British control after Battle of Plassey
1760: George II dies. George III becomes King.
1771: Opening of Britain’s first cotton mill.
1772: Slavery effectively outlawed in England
1774: Methodist founder John Wesley publishes “Thoughts on Slavery,” with moral arguments against it
1776: American rebellion/”War for Independence” (depending on what side you’re on)
James Watt produces steam engines.
1780: Gordon Riots (for rights of workers) in London.
1789: French Revolution.
English Literature in the Age of Johnson, 1750-1789: Major Authors and Highlights:
Samuel Johnson, Quotes and Excerpts from anything that he wrote; or, try these: “The Vanity of Human Wishes,” 1749; Quotes and excerpts from A Dictionary of the English Language, 1755; “The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia,” 1759; scan the “Preface to Shakespeare, 1765,” “On Idleness” from Idler, 1758; “On Fiction,” from The Rambler, 1750; any verses dedicated to “Stella.”
Johnson is a writer who towers over the 18th Century; living as he did toward the end of the era, and writing in so many genres with reasoned criticism about every important topic, he can almost be taken as a commentator on the entire era. His writing is dense, not because it is muddy or hard to understand, but because every single sentence is so packed with meaning. I seldom make quick progress through his texts, not because they are obtuse or unclear, but because I keep pausing to think over the sentence I have just finished reading.
For that reason, I think best way to get acquainted with Johnson is just to read a page of his most magnificent quotations! Here is a sample from a great webpage to start exploring the wit and wisdom of Samuel Johnson:
“I hate mankind, for I think myself one of the best of them, and I know how bad I am.”
“A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it.”
“I never desire to converse with a man who has written more than he has read.”
“Whoever thinks of going to bed before twelve o’clock is a scoundrel.”
Dictionary of the English Language, 1755.
After enjoying some great quips and quotations, go on to sample the most famous dictionary ever written. Though not the first dictionary written in the English language, Johnson innovated many scholarly aspects adopted by most dictionaries to come, such as providing quotations that showed words in use and how their meanings changed over time.
According to the British Library, “the comparable French Dictionnaire had taken 55 years to compile and required the dedication of 40 scholars.”
By contrast, Johnson’s Dictionary took him only about eight years to research and write, with the aid of six clerks to help with copying. This work is a towering achievement by a genius of the English language.
You wouldn’t think a dictionary would be fun to read, but it is! The easiest way is to explore excerpts. Start here with this article by Paul Anthony Jones writing on Mental Floss about funny definitions from the dictionary.
You can also browse this website, where the whole of Johnson’s dictionary can be found online!
“The Vanity of Human Wishes.” Take this in next, an elegant, serene, and readable poem about the things humans think they want vs. the things that really matter.
After that, for a view of his tenets of what made great literature, read his thought-provoking “Preface to Shakespeare,” or just some excerpts from it. You can also try this abridged online version by Jack Lynch.
Want more? The next move could be to “The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia,” a philosophical tale in which a young prince, born into a perfect society that is walled-off from the rest of the world, longs to see and explore the world outside. This is the story of his thoughts and efforts, what he learns from this quest, and what eternal truths about life he discovers.
If you want more Johnson, but something a little lighter, just flip through any of the essays from his essay collection “The Idler,” such as “On Idleness,” or from his own magazine “The Rambler.” Anyone interested in the development of fiction and novel in the era should read “On Fiction.”
I am also fond of all the verses he wrote to women, many of them dedicated to “Stella,” such as “An Evening Ode: To Stella,” or “The Natural Beauty, to Stella.”
James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D, excerpts, 1791.
James Boswell was an intimate friend of Samuel Johnson in his later years, not to mention acquainted with most of the famous writers, artists, and thinkers of the era, including Rousseau and Voltaire. In his biography of Johnson, he recounts in detail his many, many meetings with his hero. The work paints a thorough picture not only of Johnson’s life, ideas, and conversation, but of the entire English intellectual scene at the time.
Poetry in the Age of Johnson
William Collins, “Ode to Simplicity,” “Ode to Evening,” and “Ode on Poetical Character,” 1746.
Like most poets of the 18th Century, William Collins followed classical models, as well as Milton, in the form of his poems, but his subject matter was similar to what would preoccupy romantic poets to come later in the 1790s and early 1800s.
Johnson complained that Collins was too fond of the supernatural side of Classical works, populating his poems with nymphs and fairies and the like. But the overall character of the works is serene, peaceful, and simple.
Critics have pointed out that “Ode to Simplicity” is patterned on the form of Milton’s “Nativity Ode.” Collins’s Ode praises the ancient poetry that had been written in the simplest style, before later more elaborate styles came in to vogue. Like Romantic poets to come, he suggests that Nature is the source of true Poetry and inspiration.
Thomas Gray, “Ode on the Death of a Favorite Cat,” 1748; “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, 1751.
“Ode on the Death of a Favorite Cat” is a sweet little poem marking the death of his friend Horace Walpole’s pet. He imagines the cat in human terms and draws a moral from the episode. See this post for more discussion of this work.
“Elegy in a Country Churchyard” is written in somewhat formal, regular meter, but its themes, like those of Collins, presage themes to come from the Romantic poets in the 1790s. This poem celebrates the lives of ordinary working people of the country who live simple lives out of sight of the great city world, “far from the madding crowd.”
This is such a lovely, serene, thoughtful, memorable poem with many famous lines. Two examples: “The paths of glory lead but to the grave,” and “Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, / And waste its sweetness on the desert air.”
If you read no other poem from this era, read this one.
Charles Wesley, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” Come, O thou Traveler Unknown,” “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing.” (ca. 1740s).
In 1739, Charles’s brother John Wesley, an Anglican minister, preached his first open-air sermon to a group of miners near Bristol. Thus began the Methodist movement, which emphasized personal holiness, a personal relationship with God, and outreach to working class people, who were urged to become literate, read the Scripture, improve their lives and behaviors, and become lay leaders among their own circles. This movement was to have a huge influence on the temper of Victorian culture, and helped fuel the success of the abolitionist movement in England.
Charles’s role in this movement was to write hymns. He is thought to have written over 6,500. Some of them, including the ones I list here, are good poems, as well as hymns that explain the essence of the Methodist approach to the Christian faith.
“Love Divine” first appeared in Wesley’s Hymns for those that Seek, and those that Have Redemption (Bristol, 1747). See the downloadable pdf text of this work here. Wikipedia entry has links to words to these hymns and other sources on Charles Wesley.
Oliver Goldsmith, “The Deserted Village,” 1770; She Stoops to Conquer, 1771; The Vicar of Wakefield, 1766 (see description below under “Fiction”).
Goldsmith was a struggling writer from Ireland who became Johnson’s protégé. He was a versatile writer in the sentimental mode, writing poetry, plays, and novels. “The Deserted Village” reminisces about the sweetness and simplicity of life in English agricultural villages.
This way of life was disappearing because of “Enclosure Laws.” These laws allowed estate owners to enclose vast amounts of property that used to be open grazing lands for yeomen farmers. Rich landowners wanted their land unused for grazing in order to preserve hunting fields, and Goldsmith was writing to criticize this practice, which made it impossible for small farmers to earn a living.
She Stoops to Conquer is a piece of post-Restoration theater that is quite different in tone and temper from the Restoration earlier plays. Restoration plays are satirical and witty; She Stoops to Conquer is just fun and silly. There are still pranks and schemes, but no villain looks too evil and it all comes out fine in the end.
William Cowper “Light Shining out of Darkness,” 1773; “The Shrubbery,” 1773; “ “Epitaph on a Hare,” 1785; “The Poplar- Field,” 1785; “On Receipt of My Mother’s Picture,” 1798; “The Castaway,” 1799.
I really love reading William Cowper. His style brought a fresh simplicity to poetry of his day and was popular then, and still well-known now among poetry lovers. His poetry is gentle, winsome, sweet, often melancholy.
Cowper struggled with depression and mental illness over the years, which affected his outlook on life. He was religious, although he struggled with faith and intermittent fears that he was damned. Yet his poetry is often touching and hopeful. To read some, search the listed titles online—texts of the poems listed are easy to find. You may recognize some of the famous lines.
Interesting note: at one time Cowper was friend of John Newton, the reformed slave-trader turned curate; he cooperated with Newton on his substantial hymn collection, Olney Hymns. (Read the whole collection here). This work contains Newton’s very famous hymn “Amazing Grace.”
George Crabbe, “The Village,” Book I (1783)
Crabbe’s “The Village” is in part a rejoinder to Goldsmith’s “The Deserted Village.” Crabbe believed Goldsmith’s picture of village life was too rosy and sentimental. Crabbe’s “Village” contrasts the Augustan pastoral view of village life with what he believes to be the hard truths of rural poverty. Find Book I here, or here.
Fiction in the Age of Johnson
Oliver Goldsmith, Vicar of Wakefield, 1766.
I had the pleasure of teaching this sentimental gem several times in my course on The English Novel. It tells the story of simple soul Dr. Primrose, a vicar with a large family that undergoes many vicissitudes. They lose all their money, spoiling the marriage of his oldest son to a beloved girl. His wife leads their girls into vanity and bad company in their new parish. The oldest daughter is seduced by the immoral local nobleman, their house burns down, and Dr. Primrose is imprisoned for debt.
Through all, Dr. Primrose maintains his upright and (some might say) blind faith that God will provide. In the end, everything comes right at the hands of someone they thought was untrustworthy, proving that Dr. Primrose might be faithful but not necessarily perceptive.
The book sounds overly sticky sweet, but it’s not. Many critics have discussed how Goldsmith undercuts the sentiment with gentle irony throughout, lending some complexity to this simple tale.
Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, 1759.
How do I describe Tristram Shandy? I find it a delight to read, though not all of my reading friends agree. To start with, the novel overall is an elaborate joke about, but also a semi-serious exploration of, John Locke’s theories of mind. Sterne wants to examine how people come to be who they are.
The first-person narrator, Shandy himself, sets out to write the story of his life, but he is compelled to constantly interrupt himself to explain some previous chain of events that brought the situation to the point he wishes to describe. Thus by the end of the book, he has described his own life only up to the age of four years old!
What he does describe throughout the work are his progenitors, and all the characters who had input into who Shandy himself was to become. The focus is on his father Walter, a sharp and irritable person, and his Uncle Toby, a gentle and sentimental lover of humanity. A lot of the humor comes from the contrast between these two brothers.
To enjoy this book, you have to just relax and go with the flow, laughing at farcical humor, double-entendres, random philosophical discussion, and even occasional blank pages—just following the mind of a charming and interesting man wherever it happens to go. It is a tour de force; you will either hate it, or, as I do, adore it. Give it a try.
Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto, 1764.
Eighteenth century culture regarded the Middle Ages as largely barbaric until Horace Walpole, son of notorious politician Robert Walpole, became fascinated with its architecture and (as he saw it) mystique. He bought a large country manor house and began to remodel it according to his idea of a Medieval Castle, christening it Strawberry Hill.
One night at Strawberry Hill Walpole had a dream of a giant helmet magically appearing in the grand hall. From that dream sprung this work, The Castle of Otranto, which was to become the very first Gothic novel. The short work tells the tale of how supernatural events interfere with Prince Manfred’s plan to secure ownership of his castle and estate by marrying his son to Princess Isabella. That goes wrong when a huge helmet mysteriously appears to crush Conrad to death. What is going on? Apparently, an old prophecy is magically coming true.
You can read the book here for free to find out what happens:
William Smollett, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, 1771.
William Smollett was one of young Charles Dickens’s favorite writers, and Humphrey Clinker may have been a model for his breakout hit Pickwick Papers. In Clinker, Smollett uses the epistolary technique (story told through letters) to recount the travels around England and Scotland of the family of Squire Matthew Bramble.
The country travelers consist of generous though irritable wealthy squire Bramble, his unmarried man-hungry older sister, her serving maid, his young pretty niece, his college-age nephew, and their servant Humphry Clinker. Smollett produces humor as well as social critique by having each different person recount the same incident from their own personal perspective. Naturally their accounts don’t all agree.
Fanny Burney, Evelina, 1778.
Fanny Burney is an important author to those of us who love Jane Austen, who would be writing about 30 years later. Burney led the way in showing that “nice” women could write for money. Her brand of domestic comedy in Evelina, focusing on a young ingenue’s encounters with high society, provided a model for Austen’s plots and subject matter.
In this novel, a well-cared for orphan country girl Evelina visits the city for the first time along with her aunt who offers to chaperone. She makes multiple etiquette mistakes while meeting young men that she hates, as well as one man she comes to love. Her kindly adopted father has not told her about her true parentage, so she must also navigate the various relatives she meets who want to influence and control her.
The scene and situation of this epistolary novel allows Burney to critique current 18th century culture and mores through an innocent’s eyes. The picture of a culture over-dependent on arbitrary rules that do nothing to stop unsavory people from attempting to control an innocent girl is not 100% flattering.
Hampton Court in mid-1600s. Hendrick Danckerts, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Great Fire of London. Museum of London, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
King Charles II. Jacob de Wet II, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Pilgrim’s Progress illustration. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
St Paul’s clocktower. Public Domain via Wikimedia commons.
Alexander Pope. ByJonathan Richardson, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
London river view. Museum of London, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Samuel Richardson and Family. See Credits on this article.
Samuel Johnson. By Joshua Reynolds, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Graveyard on Isle of Wight. Wikimedia Commons.
Oliver Goldsmith. By Joshua Reynolds, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.