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Index by Period

18th Century
(1700 - 1799)

  In words, as fashions, the same rule will hold:
  Alike fantastic if too new or old.
  Be not the first by whom the new are tried,
  Nor yet the last to lay the old aside.

                  Pope, "An Essay on Criticism"


History of the Period

The most striking political feature of the times was the rise of constitutional and party government. The Revolution of 1688, which banished the Stuarts, had settled the king question by making Parliament supreme in England, but not all Englishmen were content with the settlement. No sooner were the people in control of the government than they divided into hostile parties: the liberal Whigs, who were determined to safeguard popular liberty, and the conservative Tories, with tender memories of kingcraft, who would leave as much authority as possible in the royal hands. On the extreme of Toryism was a third party of zealots, called the Jacobites, who aimed to bring the Stuarts back to the throne, and who for fifty years filled Britain with plots and rebellion. The literature of the age was at times dominated by the interests of these contending factions.

The two main parties were so well balanced that power shifted easily from one to the other. To overturn a Tory or a Whig cabinet only a few votes were necessary, and to influence such votes London was flooded with pamphlets. Even before the great newspapers appeared, the press had become a mighty power in England, and any writer with a talent for argument or satire was almost certain to be hired by party leaders. Addison, Steele, Defoe, Swift,--most of the great writers of the age were, on occasion, the willing servants of the Whigs or Tories. So the new politician replaced the old nobleman as a patron of letters.

Social Life

Another feature of the age was the rapid development of social life. In earlier ages the typical Englishman had lived much by himself; his home was his castle, and in it he developed his intense individualism; but in the first half of the eighteenth century some three thousand public coffeehouses and a large number of private clubs appeared in London alone; and the sociability of which these clubs were an expression was typical of all English cities. Meanwhile country life was in sore need of refinement.

The influence of this social life on literature was inevitable. Nearly all writers frequented the coffeehouses, and matters discussed there became subjects of literature; hence the enormous amount of eighteenth-century writing devoted to transient affairs, to politics, fashions, gossip. Moreover, as the club leaders set the fashion in manners or dress, in the correct way of taking snuff or of wearing wigs and ruffles, so the literary leaders emphasized formality or correctness of style, and to write prose like Addison, or verse like Pope, became the ambition of aspiring young authors.

There are certain books of the period (seldom studied amongst its masterpieces) which are the best possible expression of its thought and manners. The Letters of Lord Chesterfield, for example, especially those written to his son, are more significant, and more readable, than anything produced by Johnson. Even better are the Memoirs of Horace Walpole, and his gossipy Letters, of which Thackeray wrote:

        "Fiddles sing all through them; wax lights, fine dresses,
        fine jokes, fine plate, fine equipages glitter and sparkle;
        never was such a brilliant, smirking Vanity Fair as that
        through which he leads us."


Spread of Empire

Two other significant features of the age were the large part played by England in Continental wars, and the rapid expansion of the British empire. These Continental wars, which have ever since influenced British policy, seem to have originated (aside from the important matter of self-interest) in a double motive: to prevent any one nation from gaining overwhelming superiority by force of arms, and to save the smaller "buffer" states from being absorbed by their powerful neighbors. Thus the War of the Spanish Succession (1711) prevented the union of the French and Spanish monarchies, and preserved the smaller states of Holland and Germany. As Addison then wrote, at least half truthfully:

      'T is Britain's care to watch o'er Europe's fate,
      And hold in balance each contending state:
      To threaten bold, presumptuous kings with war,
      And answer her afflicted neighbors' prayer. [1]


[Footnote [1]: From Addison's Address to Liberty, in his poetical "Letter to Lord Halifax."]

The expansion of the empire, on the whole the most marvelous feature of English history, received a tremendous impetus in this age when India, Australia and the greater part of North America were added to the British dominions, and when Captain Cook opened the way for a belt of colonies around the whole world.

The influence of the last-named movement hardly appears in the books which we ordinarily read as typical of the age. There are other books, however, which one may well read for his own unhampered enjoyment: such expansive books as Hawkesworth's Voyages (1773), corresponding to Hakluyt's famous record of Elizabethan exploration, and especially the Voyages of Captain Cook, [Footnote: The first of Cook's fateful voyages appears in Hawkesworth's collection. The second was recorded by Cook himself (1777), and the third by Cook and Captain King (1784). See Synge, Captain Cook's Voyages Around the World (London, 1897).] which take us from the drawing-room chatter of politics or fashion or criticism into a world of adventure and great achievement. In such works, which make no profession of literary style, we feel the lure of the sea and of lands beyond the horizon, which is as the mighty background of English literature from Anglo-Saxon times to the present day.

It is difficult to summarize the literature of this age, or to group such antagonistic writers as Swift and Addison, Pope and Burns, Defoe and Johnson, Goldsmith and Fielding, with any fine discrimination. It is simply for convenience, therefore, that we study eighteenth-century writings in three main divisions: the reign of so-called classicism, the revival of romantic poetry, and the beginnings of the modern novel. As a whole, it is an age of prose rather than of poetry, and in this respect it differs from all preceding ages of English literature.

Authors Related Articles
Joseph Addison
Anna LŠtitia Barbauld
Robert Burns
Philip Dormer Stanhope (Lord Chesterfield)
John Clare
William Cowper
Daniel Defoe
Henry Fielding
David Garrick
John Gay
Oliver Goldsmith
Thomas Gray
Samuel Johnson
Junius
Charles Lamb
Alexander Pope
Matthew Prior
Sir Walter Scott
Sir Richard Steele
Jonathan Swift
The English Language in the 18th Century
Eighteenth-Century Classicism
The Historians
The Revival of Romantic Poetry
Minor Poets of Romanticism
The Early English Novel
Influence of the Early Novels
Summary
Bibliography


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