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HISTORY OF ENGLISH LITERATURE
 
 


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A new Augustan Age: 1702-1714

Literary life in England flourishes so impressively in the early years of the 18th century that contemporaries draw parallels with the heyday of Virgil, Horace and Ovid at the time of the emperor Augustus. The new Augustan Age becomes identified with the reign of Queen Anne (1702-14), though the spirit of the age extends well beyond her death.

The oldest of the Augustan authors, Jonathan Swift, first makes his mark in 1704 with The Battle of the Books and A Tale of a Tub. These two tracts, respectively about literary theory and religious discord, reveal that there is a new prose writer on the scene with lethal satirical powers.
 









The tone of oblique irony which Swift makes his own is evident even in the title of his 1708 attack on fashionable trends in religious circles - An Argument to prove that the Abolishing of Christianity in England, may as Things now stand, be attended with some Inconveniences.

In the following year, 1709, a new periodical brings a gentler brand of humour and irony hot off the presses, three times a week, straight into London's fashionable coffee houses. The Tatler, founded by Richard Steele with frequent contributions from his friend Joseph Addison, turns the relaxed and informal essay into a new journalistic art form. In 1711 Steele and Addison replace the Tatler with the daily Spectator.
 







The same year sees the debut of the youngest and most brilliant of this set of writers. Unlike the others, Alexander Pope devotes himself almost exclusively to poetry, becoming a master in the use of rhymed heroic couplets for the purposes of wit. In 1711 he shows his paces with the brilliant Essay on Criticism (the source of many frequently quoted phrases, such as 'Fools rush in where angels fear to tread'). He follows this in 1712 with a miniature masterpiece of mock heroic, The Rape of the Lock.

In Windsor Forest (1713) Pope seals the Augustan theme, using the poem to praise Queen Anne's reign just as Virgil celebrated that of Augustus.
 







Pope is so much in tune with the spirit of his age that he is able, in his mid-twenties, to persuade the British aristocracy to subscribe in large numbers to his proposed translation of Homer's Iliad into heroic couplets.

The work appears in six volumes between 1715 and 1720, to be followed by the Odyssey (1725-6). The two projects bring Pope some 10,000, enabling him to move into a grand riverside villa in Twickenham. This is just half a century after Milton receives 10 for Paradise Lost.
 







The weapon of these authors is wit, waspish in tone - as is seen in The Dunciad (1728), Pope's attack on his many literary enemies. The most savage in his use of wit is undoubtedly Swift. His Modest Proposal, in 1729, highlights poverty in Ireland by suggesting that it would be far better for everybody if, instead of being allowed to starve, these unfortunate Irish babies were fattened up and eaten.

Yet, astonishingly, a book of 1726 by Swift, almost equally savage in its satirical intentions, becomes one of the world's best loved stories - by virtue simply of its imaginative brilliance. It tells the story of a ship's surgeon, Lemuel Gulliver.
 






Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver's Travels: 1719-1726

Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe, has a genius for journalism in an age before newspapers exist which can accomodate his kind of material. He travels widely as a semi-secret political agent, gathering material of use to those who pay him. In 1712 he founds, and writes almost single-handed, a thrice-weekly periodical, the Review, which lasts only a year. But it is his instinct for what would now be called feature articles which mark him out as the archetypal journalist.

A good example is the blend of investigative and imaginative skills which lead him to research surviving documents of the Great Plague and then to blend them in a convincing fictional Journal of the Plague Year (1722).
 









Another work which could run week after week in a modern newspaper is his immensely informative Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain, published in three volumes in 1724-7. But his instinctive nose for a good story is best seen in his response to the predicament of Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish sailor who survives for five years as a castaway on a Pacific island before being discovered in 1709.

Just as the plague documents stimulated a fictional journal, this real-life drama now prompts Defoe to undertake the imagined autobiography of another such castaway, Robinson Crusoe (1719).
 







Defoe imagines in extraordinary detail the practical difficulties involved in building a house and a boat, in domesticating the local animals, and in coping with unwelcome neighbours. This is a cannibal island. The native whom Crusoe rescues from their clutches on a Friday becomes his faithful servant, Man Friday.

Defoe's interests seem to lie mainly in the theme of man's creation of society from primitive conditions, but meanwhile he almost unwittingly writes a gripping adventure story of survival. Robinson Crusoe is avidly read as such by all succeeding generations - and has a good claim to be considered the first English novel.
 







Seven years later another book appears which immediately becomes one of the world's most popular stories, and again seems to do so for reasons not quite intended by its author. Jonathan Swift, a man inspired by savage indignation at the ways of the world, writes Gulliver's Travels (1726) as a satire in which human behaviour is viewed from four revealing angles.

When Gulliver arrives in Liliput, he observes with patronising condescension the habits of its tiny inhabitants. But in Brobdingnag, a land of giants, he is the midget. When he proudly tells the king about European manners, he is surprised at the royal reaction. The king says that humans sound like 'little odious Vermin'.
 







Gulliver's next stop, the flying island of Laputa, is run by philosophers and scientists (as Plato might have wished); predictably they make a mess of things. Finally Gulliver visits a land ruled by intelligent horses (the Houyhnhnms, Swift's version of whinnying). The hooligans here are brutal and oafish beasts in human shape, the Yahoos.

Once again the sheer vitality of the author's imagination transcends his immediate purpose. Of the millions who enjoy Gulliver's fantastic adventures, few are primarily aware of Swift's harshly satirical intentions.
 






The English novel: 1740-1749

During a quarter of a century, from 1740, the novel makes great advances in England, with notable achievements in several different styles.

Defoe has laid a foundation with Robinson Crusoe, and has followed this up with The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders in 1722. Moll's story is more like a conventional novel than that of Robinson Crusoe, being set in the real world of low-life London and the plantations of Virginia. It is full of vitality and incident, but it is basically - as the title states - a sequence of fortunes and misfortunes for the heroine. Crusoe had his isolation to give focus to the story. Moll has only her vivacious character. Of plot, in the normal sense, there is little.
 









This lack of focus is fully answered by Samuel Richardson, a novelist of much greater influence in his own time than today. Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740) tells the story of Pamela Andrews trying to ward off the sexual advances of the young man of the house in which she is a maid. The narrative develops in the form of letters - most of them written by Pamela herself.

The ability to unfold a plot through correspondence, spinning out the detail and viewing events from several different angles, is the pioneering discovery of Richardson. He takes it to much greater length in Clarissa (7 vols, 1747-8), a novel of more than a million words and the longest in the English language.
 







Pamela has a somewhat unconvincing happy ending. Clarissa, an altogether darker account of a relationship between two upper-class characters, ends in disaster for both. This account of pyschological warfare between the sexes is much read throughout Europe. The brilliantly savage erotic novel by Laclos, Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1782), can be seen as a direct descendant.

A more cheerful offshoot of Richardson's efforts is the first novel by Henry Fielding, a magistrate in London's Bow Street court with an intimate knowledge of the city's low life. Offended by the sentimental unreality of Pamela, he writes Joseph Andrews (1742) - the story of Pamela's brother, who is a minor character in Richardson's book.
 







Fielding finds virtue not in respectability (the ultimate yardstick in Pamela) but in the warm-hearted honesty of a group of ordinary and often unfortunate characters, in particular the absent-minded Parson Adams. His plot, loose and picaresque though it is in many respects, has its own logic and consistency.

The ingredients pioneered in Joseph Andrews are deployed by Fielding with even greater success in Tom Jones (1749). The adventures in a vividly wicked world of the lusty but honest Tom, and the survival against all the odds of his love for Sophia Western, provide a novel of romance and adventure which has kept its power ever since - as is evident in its several incarnations on film.
 






The English novel: 1759-1766

The most original novel of the 18th century, and one of the most chaotically endearing books of any age, is published from 1759 by a clergyman on the staff of the cathedral in York. It is Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy.

Told as Tristram's autogiography, the book begins - logically but unconventionally - with the scene at his conception. Thereafter, in a series of looping digressions interrupted with sudden surprises (such as a page of solid black in mourning for poor Yorick), Sterne dwells upon a small number of quite ordinary characters who come vividly alive thanks to their minor obsessions and eccentricities. We are well into Vol. 3 before the author is born. Slightly before that event he at last has a moment to write his Preface.
 









Sterne's blend of fantasy and mock-learning owes much to Rabelais, but he adds an easy playfulness, a friendly teasing of the reader, which his contemporaries find immediately attractive. The success of the first two volumes in 1759 is so great that Sterne is able to retire to a quiet curacy in north Yorkshire. Tristram Shandy could go on for ever, but the story ends in the middle of nowhere after Vol. 7 (1767), merely because that is where its author stops writing.

Tristram Shandy - with its amused interest in the relationship between writer and reader, and in the nature of narrative - seems two centuries ahead of its time, resembling a modern demolition of the very idea of the novel.
 







The next English novel to retain a devoted readership through the centuries is, by contrast, firmly in the mainstream of fiction. Oliver Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield (1766) tells the story of a simple and good-hearted vicar who puts up stoically with a series of disasters, mainly brought upon him by the vagaries of his children, until he eventually emerges unscathed.

The events are more melodramatic than those which drive the plots of Jane Austen, but Goldsmith's unaffected prose and gentle irony prefigure later advances in the English novel. Between them, the experiments in English fiction in the mid-18th century make almost anything possible.
 






Johnson and Boswell: 1755-1791

'Lexicographer: a writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.'

That definition appears in the Dictionary of the English Language by Samuel Johnson, published in 1755. Its heavyweight solemnity, enlivened by the joke at its centre, is the quality which has made Dr Johnson England's best-loved literary character. His cast of mind is known now not from his own voluminous writings but from the devoted account written by his young friend James Boswell and published in 1791 as The Life of Samuel Johnson.
 









Boswell meets Johnson in London in 1763 and keeps in touch on his annual visit from Edinburgh, where he is employed as a lawyer. Boswell is a man fascinated by conversation (as is revealed in his own extremely vivid journals), and in Johnson he has met the heavyweight champion of this particular art. From early in their friendship he conceives the plan of writing the great man's life, and begins to note down his views and remarks.

It is evident from Boswell's pages that Johnson, like Falstaff, is alarming as well as witty. As Goldsmith observes in Boswell's pages: 'There is no arguing with Johnson; for when his pistol misses fire, he knocks you down with the butt end of it.'
 







Boswell's literary efforts on behalf of his friend mean that more of Johnson's curmudgeonly opinions are remembered and affectionately quoted than those of any other Englishman.

A frequent butt is Boswell's own country. 'Sir, let me tell you, the noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road that leads him to England'. As it happens this prejudice is particularly inappropriate in Johnson's lifetime when Edinburgh, in particular, is enjoying a period of creativity known subsequently as the Scottish Enlightenment. But vigorous opinions of Johnson's kind transcend small local realities.
 







Johnson, the devoted Londoner, has little interest in travelling. Asked by Boswell whether the famous Giant's Causeway would not be worth seeing, he replies: 'Worth seeing? yes; but not worth going to see.'

Even so, Boswell does somehow persuade the reluctant tourist to accompany him on a journey north in 1773 - recorded by Johnson in A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775), and by Boswell in Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1785). This is a region of particular topical interest, for the Celtic fringe of Britain has suddenly become famous as the home of the poet Ossian. His newly discovered epic work excites all Europe - except, almost alone on the issue, Samuel Johnson.
 







Everywhere in the islands there is talk of Fingal, a supposed poem by Ossian discovered and translated by James Macpherson and published in 1762. Johnson tells Boswell that he considers it 'as great an imposition as ever the world was troubled with'. When Johnson's views become public, in his book of 1775, Macpherson demands a retraction and gets the reply: 'What shall I retract? I thought your book an imposture from the beginning, I think it upon yet surer reasons an imposture still.'

Johnson's critical sense makes his Lives of the Poets (1779-81) a valuable work even today. And on the Ossian issue he is ahead of the best minds in Scotland. Even Hume and Adam Smith are at first taken in by the poem.
 






The Scottish Enlightenment: 1748-1785

During the second half of the 18th century Scotland is in the forefront of intellectual and scientific developments. The movement known now as the Scottish Enlightenment has much in common with the broader Enlightenment, in its emphasis on rational processes and the potential of scientific research. This Scottish version is mainly of interest for the concentration of achievement within a small region. The people involved are in the university departments and laboratories of Edinburgh and Glasgow.

The founding figure can be said to be the philosopher David Hume. He publishes his most significant work, A Treatise on Human Nature, early in his life, in 1739-40, but it receives little attention at the time.
 









Hume travels during much of the 1740s, becoming better known only after he settles in Edinburgh in 1751. His treatise is now published again in three more accessible parts (An Essay concerning Human Understanding 1748, An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals 1751, A Dissertation on the Passions 1757). His Political Discourses of 1752 give him a wider reputation, being translated into French.

At this time he becomes a close friend of Adam Smith, who as yet is a primarily a moral philosopher - making his name in 1759 with The Theory of Moral Sentiments. His great work of political economy, The Wealth of Nations, is still nearly two decades in the future.
 







Hume and Smith are the intellectual leaders of this Scottish movement, but they have distinguished colleagues in scientific research. In 1756 Joseph Black, a lecturer in chemistry in Glasgow, publishes a paper which demonstrates the existence of carbon dioxide. Five years later Black discovers the principle of latent heat. By that time he has befriended a Glasgow laboratory technician, James Watt, who also has an enquiring mind and an interest in heat.

Meanwhile in Edinburgh a 'Society of Gentleman in Scotland' has been formed to emulate the great publishing achievement of the continental Enlightenment, Diderot's Encyclopédie which has been appearing in parts since 1751.
 







The gentlemen in Scotland produce between 1768 and 1771 the first edition of a dictionary of the arts and sciences under the title Encyclopaedia Britannica. Unlike its French predecessor, it has been revised and reissued ever since.

While the Encyclopaedia Britannica is coming off the presses, a retired doctor in Edinburgh has been studying the local rock strata. In 1785 James Hutton reads a paper on this unusual topic to the newly founded Royal Society of Edinburgh. His approach breaks new ground. Hutton is the pioneer of scientific geology, one of the main contributions of the Scottish Enlightenment to the field of human enquiry.
 






Macpherson and Chatterton: 1760-1777


In the late 1750s James Macpherson, a Scottish schoolmaster, begins travelling in the Highlands and islands to collect Gaelic manuscripts and oral accounts of traditional Celtic literature. The result is a collection of supposed translations of ancient texts, published in 1760 as Fragments of Ancient Poetry Collected in the Highlands of Scotland and Translated from the Gaelic or Erse Language.

Macpherson follows this in 1762 with a much more ambitious publication, an entire epic poem by the semi-legendary Irish poet Oisin, supposed son of the Celtic warrior hero Finn McCool.
 










Transferred by Macpherson to Scotland, the pair become Ossian and Fingal - and the poem itself is published as Fingal, an Ancient Epic Poem composed by Ossian. This is rapturously received as a romantic relic from the Middle Ages, with only a few dissenting voices such as Dr Johnson's.

It is later proved to be almost entirely Macpherson's own book, with a few scraps of ancient ballads inserted here and there, but its success has another significance. The Celtic twilight imagined in Ossian's name chimes perfectly with a new longing for something more mysterious than the rationalism of the Enlightenment.
 







This developing mood of romantic medievalism (less frivolous than Horace Walpole's self-indulgence at Strawberry Hill) is given another boost in 1765 with the publication of Thomas Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. This contains genuine medieval ballads, mainly taken from a single surviving manuscript. In many cases they are somewhat over-restored by Percy, as an editor, but this is a trivial detail in the developing mood of the time.

Both Ossian and Percy are read with avid interest by a brilliant and lonely boy in Bristol, now in his early teens. Thomas Chatterton lives his own imaginative life in the late Middle Ages.
 







Chatterton invents a 15th-century poet, Thomas Rowley, and sets him among historical Bristol characters of the period. He writes Rowley's poems for him, and forges documents and correspondence relating to his life. These are sufficiently convincing to deceive various local antiquaries. Horace Walpole at first accepts as authentic a treatise by Rowley on painting which Chatterton sends him (The Ryse of Peyncteynge yn Englande).

In March 1769 Chatterton has a supposed early medieval work (Ethelgar. A Saxon poem) accepted by the Town and Country Magazine. Two months later the same periodical publishes one of his Rowley poems.
 







In April 1770 Chatterton moves to London to seek his fortune. But no one in the capital city pays much attention. In August, in a garret, the 17-year-old boy takes arsenic and dies.

Seven years later a volume of the Rowley poems is published in London, assumed by the publisher to be by the 16th-century author. For many years argument rages as to whether these poems are by Rowley or Chatterton. Unlike Macpherson's forgeries, those believing them to be Chatterton's see in them a fresh and original talent. Called by Wordsworth 'the marvellous Boy, The sleepless Soul that perished in his pride', Chatterton becomes a powerful influence in early romanticism.
 






Decline and Fall: 1764-1788

The most famous work of history by an English author has a precisely pinpointed moment of inspiration. Edward Gibbon later describes the day: 'It was at Rome, on the 15th of October, 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefoot friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind.'

The eventual offspring of that moment is The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published between 1776 and 1778. The six volumes cover a vast sweep of European history from the 2nd centuryto the fall of Constantinople in 1453.
 









Decline and Fall is an act of enquiring nostalgia by a classicist of the rational 18th century who looks back to the Roman world, a society which he finds in so many ways admirable, and wonders why, where and when everything went wrong. He discovers, as he must have suspected he would on that day in 1764, that the barefoot friars and their superstitious colleagues during the medieval centuries are to blame for the long process which he describes in a typically challenging phrase as 'the triumph of barbarism and religion'.

Paradoxically, Gibbon writes a great work on the Middle Ages at the very time when the period's merits are most undervalued by scholars such as himself.
 







His book is an immediate success when the first volume is published in 1776 - partly because some of his comments on Christianity provoke controversy, but above all due to the elegant irony of his prose and his ability to rise to the grand historic moment.

The full orchestra plays in long rolling cadences when Gibbon describes an event such as the crusaders in 1204 sacking Constantinople. But a new character (in this case Rienzo) may be introduced with a simple and challenging sentence; 'In a quarter of the city which was inhabited only by mechanics and Jews, the marriage of an innkeeper and a washerwoman produced the future deliverer of Rome.' Gibbon's readers have found this blend irresistible.
 







At the end Gibbon brings his work full circle. His story ends with two events of the 15th century, the fall of Constantinople to the Turks and the return of the papacy to Rome. Renaissance Rome, with papal encouragement, rediscovers and takes pains to restore the glories of classical Rome. By the time of Gibbon's visit the city is the destination of every Grand Tourist.

Gibbon states with some satisfaction in his conclusion: 'The monuments of ancient Rome have been elucidated by the diligence of the antiquarian; and the footsteps of heroes, the relics not of superstition but of empire, are devoutly visited by a new race of pilgrims from the remote, and once savage, countries of the north.'
 







This History is as yet incomplete.
 






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