Literature of the English Enlightenment: Courage to Use Your Own Reason
Our newest Timeline and Reading List features literature from the English Enlightenment. Lasting from 1660 to the late 1700s, the era often referred to as “The Long Century” is an incredibly rich period, not only for innovations in literature, but also for developments in philosophy, science, mathematics, and political thought. Historians and students of culture find a common quest over these years to apply human reason to ultimate questions.
This “long 18th century” has been given many names: The Age of Reason, The Age of Enlightenment, The Age of Individualism, and The Age of Empiricism.
In much of the literature of the era, writers did not just document their own times, but sought for general truths that applied to people at all times, everywhere.
What made people tick, and especially, how can we formulate those truisms?
Much literature focused on moral questions: what values are right, true, good, and everlasting? Who on the public scene, especially writers and politicians, are following them and who is breaking them, and what are the consequences? Based on these values that are good for people and good for society as a whole, how do we judge our politicians, writers, and dramatists in light of these truths?
Join us for a look at some background information on the literature of this era that can help readers understand and enjoy it. For an overview of the culture, authors, themes, and major works of this prolific and seminal era, click the “Continue Reading” link under the London river view painting. To skip the overview and go directly to the Restoration and 18th Century Timeline, or to any specific section of it, use the links just above “Continue Reading.”
The blue link will skip the rest of this background article and go directly to the Timeline and Reading List.
To read more of this background post, click “Continue Reading” button just below.
What is the Enlightenment?
In this era, thinkers placed a new primacy on the importance of human reason and direct, logical, orderly investigation to discover truth. The History Channel tells us, “In his essay ‘What Is Enlightenment?’ (1784), the German philosopher Immanuel Kant summed up the era’s motto in the following terms: ‘Dare to know! Have courage to use your own reason!’
Encyclopedia Britannica explains, “Central to Enlightenment thought were the use and celebration of reason, the power by which humans understand the universe and improve their own condition. The goals of rational humanity were considered to be knowledge, freedom, and happiness.”
In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), John Locke argued against the Platonic idea that people are born with innate knowledge about the world. Rather, he argued that people can know only what they experience through the senses or through simple reflection from comparing and categorizing these experiences. In his view, we are each born into the world as a tabula rasa, a blank slate.
Locke’s ideas helped to encourage thinking people to turn away from consulting old traditions to explain what is true. Instead, they were encouraged to investigate the world directly and to reason anew about their findings.
The commissioning of the Royal Society by Charles II fit perfectly with this new temper to investigate the world. The Royal Society began as an organization of “Natural Philosophers,” or gentlemen scientists who were experimenting, investigating, and reasoning in new ways about how the world worked. The Royal Society published scientific and mathematical work by people as diverse as Isaac Newton on mathematics and Benjamin Franklin on electricity.
The introduction on the Royal Society website explains their motto “Nullius in verba,” which also elucidates the temper of the age:
The very first ‘learned society’ meeting on 28 November 1660 followed a lecture at Gresham College by Christopher Wren. Joined by other leading polymaths including Robert Boyle and John Wilkins, the group soon received royal approval, and from 1663 it would be known as ‘The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge’.
The Royal Society’s motto ‘Nullius in verba’ is taken to mean ‘take nobody’s word for it’. It is an expression of the determination of Fellows to withstand the domination of authority and to verify all statements by an appeal to facts determined by experiment.”
Empiricism v. Innate Knowledge
Most of the great writers acknowledged the importance of relying on experience, of looking to Nature (always with a capital “N”) to discover truth. However, writers as far apart in years as Swift and Johnson would agree there were limits to what empiricism could establish about moral truths. Many writers urged people to rely on their inner faith and religious traditions to understand questions of right and wrong.
Some writers might agree that ultimate truths about the nature of God, spirit, and morality could indeed be observed throughout nature, distilled through sense and observation. But they might also argue that truths of faith and morality were beyond simple empiricism to establish. Jonathan Swift, for instance, argued for the importance of divine revelation, a certain kind of innate knowledge, to apprehend God and moral truths.*
*(See KALLICH, MARTIN. “Three Ways of Looking at a Horse: Jonathan Swift’s ‘Voyage to the Houyhnhnms’ Again.” Criticism, vol. 2, no. 2, 1960, pp. 107–124. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23090915. Accessed 17 Feb. 2021)
Sentiment and the Age of Sensibility
By the middle of this period, this belief in the importance of inner guidance lead to a celebration of “Sensibility,” the idea that morals and ethics came not from the application of rules but from the inner feelings of a good and wholesome heart. The ability to feel deeply is the most important indicator of a good moral being.
Thus by the mid-1700s, Henry Fielding’s novel Tom Jones depicts all his villains as cold, calculating, and hypocritical, while its hero, Tom, is warm-hearted and extremely empathetic. Tom is prone to acting too impulsively at the start of the tale, which made him look bad to the morally sententious, the hypocritical folk who care only about appearances. But even as a lad, Tom is truly kind, loving and warm-hearted, thus a fitting hero for the Age of Sensibility, when it is the state of the heart that provides the true measure of a man. Writers such as Oliver Goldsmith, Laurence Sterne, and Fanny Burney celebrated sentiment and sensibility.
Wicked Wit, Satire, and Sex
Is it starting to sound like 18th Century literature is too preachy, full of boring, sententious abstractions? Actually, not at all!
Reading literature in this era may take a bit of hard going in the beginning, since readers today are not used to the more formal style and balanced, elegant language that these writers favored. But once a little practice clears that obstacle, readers will find much 18th Century literature is great fun to read. In the humor found both in drama and in the new form of fiction, the novel, we encounter all kinds of both admirable and laughable people, observed straight from the streets of the city or the fields and manor houses of the country. Eighteenth century literature offers satire, arch comedy, wit, and the most elegant insults ever written.
A lot of this bawdiness and good humor can be found in Restoration Drama. The Puritans had closed down the theaters in 1642, but with the Restoration in 1660, Charles II opened the theaters again. Audiences flocked to the theater to see and to be seen, and to enjoy the witty banter and double-entendres flying back and forth on the stage. For more on Restoration drama, go to the Restoration Literature section on the 18th Century timeline.
The ending of Puritan rule and the return of Charles II to the throne in 1660 began a long period of stability and increasing wealth in Britain. But this relative stability was accompanied by intense political wrangling and debate as power began shifting from the crown and ancient landed interests, represented by the Tories, to the rising Whig faction, representing the new moneyed interests, favoring free trade, expansion of the vote, and constitutional checks on the power of the monarch.
Writers plunged into the fray, or were invited to join in, using their writing talents to support their political side. Satire was a pervasive and fitting mode of writing to fit the times.
Many of the writers we celebrate today were Tories who supported royal prerogatives and landed interests against the Whigs, who seemed to these traditionalists to reject stabilizing conventions and dignified cultural standards. Some writers used their works to satirize the powerful prime minister Robert Walpole, who controlled Parliament for 20 years, engaging in political deal-making that some writers saw as bribery, and worse.
Jonathan Swift, for instance, satirized Walpole and English government in Gulliver’s Travels. His friend, Jonathan Gay, also targeted Walpole in his popular The Beggar’s Opera as the double-dealing adulterer character Peachum. Audiences recognized this from the play’s first performance. There is a story that Walpole responded to this take-down by attending a performance in person and then calling loudly for an encore at the end.
Political Faction and Social Division
For all that writers plunged into the controversies of the day, Jonathan Swift bemoaned that the “Spirit of Faction” had so divided people, describing pervasive distrust of each other as a systemic problem. Sadly, many 21st century readers might find this description familiar, thus finding much in common with these writers from a much earlier time:
How has this Spirit of Faction mingled it self with the Mass of the People, changed their Nature and Manners, and the very Genius of the Nation? Broke all Laws of Charity, Neighbourhood, Alliance and Hospitality; destroyed all Ties of Friendship, and divided Families against themselves? And no wonder it should be so, when in order to find out the Character of a Person; instead of enquiring whether he be a Man of Virtue, Honour, Piety, Wit or good Sense, or Learning; the modern Question is only, whether he be a Whig or a Tory, under which terms all good and ill Qualities are included.
One bone of contention between political factions was religion. Many Tories who supported the monarch wanted to keep the Anglican Church as the principal faith in England, maintaining the old prohibitions against Catholics and Dissenters (Protestants who disagreed with some Anglican doctrines), keeping in place laws that prohibited anyone but Anglicans from holding office or attending a university. Whigs tended to favor more openness, allowing non-Anglicans to participate in government and higher education. Many political arguments of the day involved this issue.
Great Changes: Development and Urbanization
In spite of political wrangling, the overall stability of England during these years enabled great growth, increase in wealth, and inventions in science, manufacturing, and agriculture.
Great growth of population led to an influx of country people into cities. According to the British Library, “The population of Britain grew rapidly during this period, from around five million people in 1700 to nearly nine million by 1801. Many people left the countryside in order to seek out new job opportunities in nearby towns and cities. Others arrived from further afield: from rural areas in Ireland, Scotland and Wales, for example, and from across large areas of Europe.”
Though lively and rife with opportunity for the fortunate, 18th Century cities were grimy, noisome places with bad living conditions for the poor who crowded into them. This led many writers of the day to contrast city with country life, writing sentimentally of the cleaner and more wholesome way of life in the country, an option for the working poor that seemed to be fading.
Before 1695, the Licensing Act had controlled what writers could publish by requiring government approval for each work. But in 1695, this act expired and was not renewed, encouraging an explosion of political writing, and indeed, of writing of all kinds.
Political journalism was developed by people like Daniel Defoe through his work on his Review from 1704-13. More reviews and magazines came on the market to discuss not only politics but cultural topics of all sorts. Addison and Steele became famous for their Tatler and Spectator, aimed at the rising middle classes who wanted to learn about culture and correct, polite behavior as they moved up in the world. Other publications employed poor “Grub Street” writers living in London who struggled to make a living by writing short essays and doing other literary hack work. The Gentleman’s Magazine, founded in 1731 by Edward Cave, was one of Samuel Johnson’s first employers when he arrived, young and poor, in London.
Development of the Novel for a New Kind of Reader
An increase in literacy led to a demand for reading that suited the tastes of a wide range of people. Writers like Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding stepped in to lay the foundations of the novel form as we know it today.
The new emphasis on empiricism and individualism underlay the efforts of novelists to inject more everyday reality into their storytelling. By 1750, Samuel Johnson could see this trend clearly, describing how 18th century fiction had turned away from tales of the fantastical to focus on details of the everyday:
“The works of fiction with which the present generation seems more particularly delighted are such as exhibit life in its true state, diversified only by accidents that daily happen in the world, and influenced by passions and qualities which are really to be found in conversing with mankind.”
–Samuel Johnson, 1750
For a great example, take a look at this article for more about Daniel Defoe’s contribution to fictional realism in his innovative novels Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders.
Samuel Richardson created intense, fairly realistic psychological portraits of his characters in his Pamela, even more so in Clarissa, epistolary novels that tell the story wholly through personal letters written by each character. Tobias Smollett used the epistolary (personal letter) format for humor and satire in Humphrey Clinker, which relates the travels of wealthy squire Matthew Bramble and his various relatives around Great Britain. Humor results when the different characters describe each stop on the trip from their own very different perspectives.
Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones applies a slightly different story-telling method, though no less focused on realistic people whom readers might actually meet. As a former dramatist, Fielding created many theatrical scenes throughout the telling of Tom’s story, each rich in humor and dramatic irony. Unlike Defoe and Richardson, who let their characters tell the story wholly in first person, Fielding creates a charming and chatty third person narrator who comments directly to readers between scenes, discussing any ideas to which the story, or his way of telling it, may give rise.
Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, silly, sentimental, ironic, yet thoughtful, also makes his narrator a strong focus. Though the narrator is a fictional character, unlike Fielding’s third person voice, Sterne’s Tristram has control of the entire fiction by basically demurring from telling any real story at all. The narrator announces the work will be the story of his own life, but by the end of the novel has reached only the age of 4 years old, having spent the narrative talking about his father, his uncle, and any idea at all that happened to come into his mind.
Making the narrator itself into a prominent feature was a technique that would continue to flourish in many great novels of the 19th century.
While novelists were breaking from tradition, poets were finding ways to incorporate traditional literary forms into their fresh work.
Most all poets of the age had an enduring affection and veneration for the classics, especially the Greek poet Homer, and Roman poets Horace, Virgil, and Juvenal. Poets imitated the different genres or types of ancient Greek and Latin poetry, in particular the Epic, Pindaric and Horatian Odes, Georgics, and Satires.
Epics were long narrative poems relating heroic actions. Pindaric Odes were formal poems written as if for performance on the stage, praising high actions and endorsing cultural values. They have two stanzas that mirror each other in length and meter (strophe and antistrophe), followed by an “epode” section to conclude the poem. The epode section’s lines and meter are different from the those of the strophe and antistrophe.
Horatian Odes could be more personal or reflective than Pindaric odes, and generally had 2-4 line stanzas with a consistent meter and line length throughout the poem.
Georgics were poems that celebrated country life and that could even contain a didactic or instructional element, imparting wisdom to farmers on how to plant crops or tend flocks or manage orchards. “Cyder” by John Phillips, 1708, is an example. (I wonder if today’s farmers would be willing to consult a poem for agricultural advice? )
Milton Led the Way
Besides the ancient classic writers, the other great model for most poets of this era was John Milton. Beginning with Dryden, admiration for Milton’s work, particularly Paradise Lost, was profound. They admired its grandeur, its formal balanced iambic lines, its solemn metaphors and classical literary references, and the epic sweep of its subject matter, nothing less than an effort to depict how God created man and woman, and how their story led to conditions in the world.
Like later 18th century poets, Milton possessed great classical learning. His work had many classic references to the Ancient writers that later poets admired.
Though Paradise Lost was published in 1667, shortly after the Restoration, we placed his work in the later Renaissance Period, the Jacobean, because much of his work was published then, and his work springs from Renaissance ideas. Take a look at this timeline page for more about Milton.
Favored Poetic Form: Heroic Couplets and Formal Language
By far the most dominant form of poetry in the 18th Century was the Heroic Couplet. Just as Dryden’s translation of Virgil’s Aeneid was written in Heroic Couplets, as was Pope’s later translation of The Iliad, so were most serious poems of the era.
Heroic couplets consist of two rhyming lines of iambic pentameter (10 syllables alternating unstressed and stressed syllables). Heroic couples are usually “end-stopped”—that is, they finish a whole phrase or sentence by the end of a line. This structure lends an elegant formality to a poem, allowing balanced comparison and contrast within each pair of lines. Poets used this structure for expression of deep thought or fine-tuned wit. Heroic Couplets also have natural pauses, or caesurae, within each line, again giving the poet an opportunity to balance and contrast one end of a line with the other end of it.
In addition to the formal structure of the couplet, most poets adopted Latinate vocabulary and word order, which might put the verb in front of the subject, or hold it until the very end of the sentence instead of next to the subject. These syntactic patterns, not common in natural English speech, came to seem like a special poetic diction.
A great example of deft use of Heroic Couplets can be found in Pope’s “Rape of the Lock,” which describes a party of eminent families meeting at Hampton Court, a royal palace in the country just outside of London:
Here thou, great Anna [the Queen]! Whom three realms obey,
Dost sometimes counsel take—and sometimes tea.
Hither the heroes and the nymphs resort,
To taste awhile the pleasures of a court;
In various talk the instructive hours they passed,
Who gave the ball, or paid the visit last;
One speaks the glory of the British Queen,
And one describes a charming Indian screen;
A third interprets motions, looks, and eyes;
At every word a reputation dies. (Canto 3. ll. 7-16) –Alexander Pope, “The Rape of the Lock”
Notice how Pope uses the balanced form of each line in the poem to make ironic comparisons. These contrasts packed into a single line or two make us laugh and undercut the grandiosity of the people Pope is describing. For instance, sometimes the Queen goes to Hampton Court Palace to take counsel (sounds important and dignified)—but mostly she just drinks tea. The young lady visitors are said to spend “instructive hours,” but really they are just gossiping, learning the latest scandalous things people are saying about their acquaintances.
The Rise of Literary Criticism
We began this exploration of the 18th Century by noting that writers were concerned with finding general truths, observations that would apply to people everywhere at every time. It’s not surprising, then, that many writers inquired how these eternal truths should be applied to literature.
What, they asked, makes good literature? What is the basis for praise? They were interested in articulating the rules for good writing, and wrote both many essays and poems on this topic all through this era. Addison and Steele published reviews and journalistic criticism of the latest literary works. Dryden’s “Essay on Dramatic Poesy,” Pope’s poems “The Dunciad” and “An Essay on Criticism,” and Johnson’s “Preface to Shakespeare” and “Lives of the Poets” are all major examples of works that enumerate what makes bad literature bad, and great literature great.
As noted above, all the writers admired classical models. Here, Dryden, early in the field, led the way. In “The author’s Apology for Heroic Poetry and Heroic License,” 1667, he argues against those who say that poets should stick to plain, straightforward language. He makes the argument by appealing to Virgil and Horace as authorities:
“Virgil and Horace, the severest writers of the severest age, have made frequent use of the hardest metaphors and of the strongest hyperboles; an in this case the best authority is the best argument, for generally to have pleased, and through all ages, must bear the force of universal tradition.” –John Dryden, 1667
Dryden argues that the elaborate literary tropes and figures of speech that have been defined since ancient times are pleasing not because they are fancy and clever, but because they have been shown to provoke passion and pleasure in the human psyche. Directly from human nature “have sprung the tropes and figures, for which they wanted a name who first practiced them and succeeded in them. Thus I grant you that the knowledge of Nature was the original rule, and that all poets ought to study her, as well as Aristotle and Horace, her interpreters.”
Pope: “Nature Methodized”
Later, Pope would take up Dryden’s insistence that good rules for writing are not just arbitrary, but have a basis in Nature itself.
In “An Essay on Criticism,” Pope put it this way:
“Those rules of old discovered, not devised,
Are Nature still, but Nature methodized;
Nature, like liberty, is but restrained
By the same laws which first herself ordained.”
(“An Essay on Criticism,” Part I. ll.88-91) —Alexander Pope
Similar to the 18th Century preference for gardens that were orderly and manicured, 18th Century poets preferred poetry that had rule and order. However, these rules, they insisted, were themselves based in Nature, “discovered, not devised” and part of the natural order.
18th Century Women Writers
Women of the 18th century could not attend universities and were discouraged from becoming learned, but that did not stop many women from pursuing intellectual studies or even, in a few cases, making a living through writing.
Three writers often called “The Fair Triumvirate of Wit” are known today for writing “Amatory Fiction,” melodramatic eroticized fictions that were progenitors of Defoe’s work, of epistolary fiction, and of the modern love story (today’s popular romance form). Eliza Haywood, Delarivier Manley, and Aphra Behn all made a living by writing.
Aphra Behn was especially prolific. She wrote not only fiction but poetry and drama as well, including a very successful play, “The Rover,” as well as a moving account of the horrors of slavery called Oroonoko.
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, the daughter of a wealthy Whig peer, defied convention by teaching herself Latin and marrying for love. She is well-known as a great letter-writer but was also a poet. Another Montagu, Elizabeth, founded the Blue Stockings society, an organization for intellectual women that also had some famous male members, including Samuel Johnson. This organization encouraged discussion of serious intellectual topics among women and literary men who were inclined to join them. Two other women writers of the era, abolitionist and poet Hannah More and novelist Fanny Burney, were members of the Blue Stockings Society. Fanny Burney’s fiction was to become a model for Jane Austen’s great novels.
A Rich and Earnest Age
Restoration and 18th Century English literature is indeed full of wit, humor, grace, and laughter, but it is essentially a serious and earnest age. Writers throughout the “Long Century” strove above all to discover what is essentially true about human life, to distill moral truths by applying Reason to Nature through Experience, and to convey these ideas in crystal clear, balanced, and elegant phrasing.
The opening of Samuel Johnson’s famous poem “The Vanity of Human Wishes” is an excellent example of all these qualities. Here in the first ten lines he lays out his thesis for the whole poem: no matter where we look, we will find that most all the things people wish and strive for don’t really matter, because all will disappear in the end:
Let Observation with extensive View,
Survey Mankind from China to Peru;
Remark each anxious Toil, each eager Strife,
And watch the busy scenes of crouded Life;
Then say how Hope and Fear, Desire and Hate,
O’erspread with Snares the clouded Maze of Fate,
Where Wav’ring Man, betray’d by vent’rous Pride,
To tread the dreary Paths without a Guide;
As treach’rous Phantoms in the Mist delude,
Shuns fancied Ills, or chases airy Good. (ll.1-10)
—Samuel Johnson, “The Vanity of Human Wishes”
Great Rewards for Readers
The dense, meaningful richness of large ideas in 18th Century writing can make it challenging to read. Every few lines, we need to stop and think for a bit to fully appreciate the ideas that are so elegantly and efficiently conveyed.
The upside to this density? Reading even a few lines of the greatest 18th Century works rewards us richly–perhaps with surprise, or laughter, or a gratifying sting of irony, or new knowledge, or kinship of mind. These works may pose a challenge to our usual ways of thinking, but there is always reward for effort.
Even if readers take in only portions of these great works, readers will never waste their time exploring the great works of the Long 18th Century.
LEARN MORE: Join us over on our Literary Timeline for Descriptions and Recommendations of the greatest works of the Restoration and the 18th Century. This page contains much more information about authors and works from this era. There are also quite a few more images from this era to enjoy.
Dare to use your Reason!
John Dryden Family. By Jonathan Richardson, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Imaginary London Scene. Museum of London, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Jonathan Swift. Charles Jervas, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
London Map. Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Samuel Richardson Family. See Credits on this article.
Young John Milton. See Credits on this article.
Gentleman’s Magazine first issue. Uploader. Magazine published by Edmund Cave, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Hampton Court in 1600s. Hendrick Danckerts, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Alexander Pope. ByJonathan Richardson, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Mary Jane is a longtime literature lover who lived in the Cincinnati area for many years, then in central Louisiana for three years (what a treat!), teaching literature classes at universities in both locations. Now back in the Cincinnati area, she pampers her grandchildren, experiments with cooking, and visits art museums as often as possible.