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Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
The cradle of writing
The eastern heritage
The western heritage
Greek drama
Greek history
Greek philosophy
Augustus and patronage
4th - 8th century
8th - 11th century
12th - 13th century
The Italian awakening
The path to Chaucer
17th century
18th century
Late 18th century
     Johnson and Boswell
     Scottish Enlightenment
     Macpherson and Chatterton
     Watchmakers' sons
     Jean-Jacques Rousseau
     Decline and Fall
     Goethe and Schiller
     Sturm und Drang
     Young Werther

18th - 19th century
To be completed

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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.


Watchmakers' sons: 18th century

A favourite image of God, in the rational 18th century, is that of a divine watchmaker who has fitted together the intricate machinery of the universe. It is a pleasant historical irony that two French authors of great influence in the final decades of this most reasonable century are offspring of the watchmaking trade.

The influence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (son of a watchmaker of Geneva) is exerted through dreaming of a better society than contemporary privilege-ridden France. That of Beaumarchais (son of a watchmaker of Paris) derives more directly from his brilliant mockery of those privileges.


Jean-Jacques Rousseau: 1742-1778

Rousseau, unlike Voltaire, is a late starter in terms of literary fame, and he writes his most influential works in a relatively short space of time. He is thirty when he arrives in Paris in 1742, hoping to win fortune and fame with a new system of musical notation. It brings him into the circle of the philosophes, for Diderot invites him to contribute articles on music for the Encyclopédie.

Before these articles are printed, Rousseau wins himself a controversial reputation with his Discours of 1750 - in which he argues, contrary to prevailing fashion, that recent progress in the sciences and arts has had a corrupting effect on public morality.


The Discours is the first of several works which bring Rousseau wide fame and in which he tackles the central themes of the Enlightenment in a manner markedly different from that of the more conventional philosophes.

His two most significant books appear in 1762 and result in an order for Rousseau's arrest, causing him to spend the next few years outside France. Émile is a tract on the ideal education of a boy. It offends the authorities because religion plays only a small part in it, and the Christian religion none at all. (The book's emphasis on the importance of exercise, cold baths and the avoidance of feather beds cannot be seen as grounds for arrest.)


The distinguishing feature of Émile is an insistence on developing the natural and emotional side of the child, in place of the intellectual training which derives from books. In this change of emphasis Rousseau reveals himself as a pivotal figure in the transition from the Enlightenment to the next prevailing intellectual fashion, that of the Romantic movement.

A similar shift underlies the other work of 1762, Du Contrat Social (Of The Social Contract), in which Rousseau exposes the ills of modern society not by directly attacking them, as the philosophes would, but by imagining a different and better kind of community.


Rousseau's utopia is similar to a Greek city-state without the slaves. It has a romantic appeal in class-ridden 18th-century France because its theme is the importance of the individual, without whose consent (in a social contract) no society can function. The magnificent opening sentence encapsulates this appeal ('Man was born free, and everywhere he is in chains'). It also betrays the world of the dreamer, for only in the most fanciful sense is the hunter-gatherer in a primitive tribe free.

Rousseau rounds off the image of the early romantic with Les Confessions, an autobiograpy published after his death in which he presents himself in unsparing - and perhaps often exaggerated - psychological detail.


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.'


Goethe and Schiller: 1771-1832

In Goethe and Schiller Germany produces two writers at the forefront of European literature at a turning point of profound significance in cultural history. Their versatility (particularly Goethe's) and their willingness to respond to the many conflicting strands of contemporary thought make them seminal figures.

The first movement in which they both feature prominently is the early stirring of German romanticism known as Sturm und Drang.


By the 1790s both men are much influenced by the revival of interest in the achievements of classical Greece (resulting from the pioneering work of Winckelmann). For eleven years they become close colleagues in the movement known as Weimar classicism.

Goethe, long outliving Schiller and reaching a ripe old age, achieves a unique status as the last generalist before the era of inevitable specialization. He turns his hand successfully to every form of literary endeavour but is himself even more interested in his scientific enquiries, particularly in the fields of evolution and light. Typical of the baffling breadth of Goethe's interests is his last great sprawling work, the second part of Faust.


Sturm und Drang: 1771-1782

The phrase Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) is the title of a wild and extravagant drama by Friedrich Klinger, first performed in 1776. Its mood is typical of a fashion among young writers in Germany during the 1770s. Critics have subsequently adopted the title as the ideal name for the entire school. Storm and stress are the ingredients with which these writers challenge the calm certainties of 18th-century rationalism.

The first significant success in the new style is the play which brings Goethe fame throughout Germany - Götz von Berlichingen mit der eisernen Hand (Götz von Berlichingen with the iron hand), written between 1771 and 1773 and first performed in Berlin in 1774.


Based on the buccaneering autobiography of a real character of the 16th century, Goethe's play presents Götz as a hero fighting for natural rights against the repressive and corrupt bishop of Bamberg. His last words, as he dies, are Freiheit! Freiheit! (Freedom, Freedom).

Three years later, in 1777, the 18-year-old Friedrich Schiller, a resentful student in a military academy, begins writing an even wilder play, Die Ra:uber (The Robbers), which can be seen as the final fling of Sturm und Drang. Schiller borrows money to publish the play privately in 1781. It causes a sensation when it is performed at Mannheim in 1782.


Die Räuber tells the story of two sons of a nobleman. The evil younger son schemes to disinherit his brother and then systematically torments his father. The good son, reacting against unjust rejection by his father, joins a robber band and is implicated in appalling crimes. When his brother is finally unmasked, and his father found naked in a dungeon, the good son's evil deeds prevent his returning to normal life.

This family triangle is a more extreme version of Gloucester and his sons in King Lear, and Shakespeare is one of the strong influences on the Sturm und Drang generation. The first collection of his plays in German is published in 1762-6.


Another powerful influence also comes from Britain. It is the forged poems, attributed to the Celtic bard Ossian, which are published in 1760-63 and are widely greeted as an inspiring glimpse of the authentic spirit of the Middle Ages. The revival of interest in Gothic architecture also plays its part. Goethe, when a student in Strasbourg in 1770-71, is particularly impressed by the beauty of the city's cathedral.

Finally, there is a revolutionary voice from France which inspires these young German poets in their reaction against convention and conformity. They instinctively respond to Jean-Jacques Rousseau's message that the heart is wiser than the head, and the man of feeling superior to the man of intellect.


Young Werther: 1774

The influence of Rousseau, the man of feeling, is particularly strong in the book which brings Goethe a European reputation. Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther) has an immediate success in 1774. Like many first novels, it has strong autobiographical elements.

In 1772 Goethe lives for some months in Wetzlar, where he falls in love with the 19-year-old Lotte Buff. She is already engaged, but her fiancé very tolerantly allows the tormented poet to share their social life as an informal trio. Just after Goethe's departure from Wetzlar, a friend - in love with a married woman - shoots himself. This tragedy too is directly reflected in Werther.


Werther, an exceptionally sensitive young man, arrives in spring in a new town (as Goethe did) and is bowled over by the beauty of his new environment - and soon by the beauty of Lotte (the name in the novel as well as in real life).

The triangular friendship continues through the summer, mingling joy and torment, until Werther tears himself away in the autumn. But he cannot resist returning in the following spring. After a while, overwhelmed by the hopelessness of his position, he shoots himself with the fiancé's revolver.


Young Werther's almost morbid introspection, heightened by extreme sensibility and made irresistibly convincing by Goethe's genius, captures the mood of a young generation increasingly inclined to a romantic view of the world. Werther's favourite clothes (blue jacket, yellow breeches) immediately become the fashion. So too, in a few unfortunate cases, does his fate. Several suicides seem to imitate the book. One woman, in 1777, even drowns herself near Goethe's house with a copy of the novel in her pocket.

A reader less enthusiastic than the majority is Lotte's fiancé, now her husband. On publication of Werther he breaks off contact with Goethe, ending the triangle which until then has continued in correspondence.


Beaumarchais: 1775-1784

One of the theatre's most engaging characters bursts upon the stage in 1775 in a light comedy which is immediately a great success. Figaro, or Le Barbier de Séville (The Barber of Seville), is witty and street-wise in a manner very similar to his creator, Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais.

Beaumarchais' life begins with ingenuity and intrigue. At the age of nineteen, in 1751, he invents a new escapement for watches (watch-making being his father's trade). Another watchmaker attempts to steal the new idea. Beaumarchais' skilful conduct in the resulting litigation brings him the attention and patronage of the court.


For the rest of his life, until his death in 1799, Beaumarchais leads a dramatic and often dangerous existence as an entrepreneur and then as a secret agent on behalf of the French government. He is so busy with his schemes that his main love, the theatre, seems almost a sideline. But with the first appearance of Figaro, in 1775, he suddenly becomes France's leading dramatist.

Figaro uses his manipulative skills in The Barber of Seville to help the count Almaviva in his amorous pursuit of Rosine. The comic opportunities derive from the frantic efforts of Rosine's guardian, Bartholo (a crusty old doctor with designs on her himself), to keep the girl away from the attentions of any possible rival.


The success of these characters' first light-hearted appearance before the public prompts Beaumarchais to revisit them in a much darker comedy. By the time of Le Mariage de Figaro the count and Rosine have been married a few years. The count is tired of her and is intent on seducing her maid, Suzanne. But Suzanne is engaged to Figaro, now in the count's employment.

The clash of interest between Figaro and his master is developed on the suface in the traditions of light comedy or even farce, with much use of hasty concealment and mistaken identity. But underlying the fun is a more threatening theme. The count behaves with the arrogance of the old feudal world. Figaro protests with the vigour of something new.


In a long soliloquy in the final act Figaro muses about his rival the count and finds him a Man of little worth, apart from the benefit of the silver spoon in his mouth when he was born. Not surprisingly, when the play is first scheduled for production in 1781, the king bans it. He relents in 1784, when it is performed with great and immediate success - just five years before the outbreak of the French Revolution. Napoleon later describes the play as 'the revolution in action'.

Beaumarchais is fortunate that his two great comedies are transformed, by Rossini and Mozart, into two superb operas. Figaro would have lived in prose alone. But with such arias to his name, he has proved irrepressible.


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