Special thanks to Eastern's own Catherine Allegretti for writing this introduction!
The Long 18th Century/Neo-Classical Period began in 1660 with the return of Charles II to the throne. He brought the monarchy back to England, ended much of the political turmoil and chaos, and restored the established church. Charles II also returned theatre to England, allowing women to act and establishing indoor acting areas. When Charles’ son James took the throne he attempted to establish a Catholic dynasty within England and claimed the right to make his own laws, moves that prompted the Glorious Revolution in 1688 when William and Mary took power. Both Queen Anne and the Hanoverian line of Georges brought prosperity to England. In 1707, under Queen Anne’s rule, England and Scotland united into one sovereign state of Great Britain. In the years following this unity, Great Britain became an economic and industrial power. The aftermath of chaotic political disruptions and damaging religious divisions created an increased focus on the study of man’s relationships. Satire became popular during this time with its emergence both in novels and plays.
The first 40 years of this period are often referred to as the Restoration period. Although the Restoration signified a more stable political and religious environment, it still inspired works about the previous instability. John Milton had served in Parliament and the Commonwealth of England, working under Oliver Cromwell. When Charles II was restored to the throne, Milton was pardoned. Milton wrote largely about the religious inconstancy at the time and is most well known for his piece Paradise Lost (1667). This epic poem, a long narrative about a heroic journey, is written in blank verse and chronicles the biblical story of the fall of man. It is separated into twelve sections and has two narratives, one following Satan’s rebellion and the other showing Adam and Eve and their eventual fall from the Garden of Eden. One of Milton’s earlier works, Lycidas (1637) is also a significant piece as it is one of the first definitive pastoral elegies, works that are about both death and rural life.
John Dryden dominated much of English culture during the 17th century, working as a poet, translator, literary critic, and playwright. Dryden was a master of all genres, but his earlier work was typically occasional poems, written for particular occasions that usually celebrated a person or event in England. His most famous of this type is “Annus Mirabilis” (1667), which discusses England’s successes of the year including the naval victory over the Dutch and the ability to carry on after the Great Fire. He was also well known for his works in heroic drama, a genre that he created. Dryden gave this genre three rules: the verse style must be in heroic couplets, rhyming couplets in iambic pentameter, there must be a focus on love, honor, and freedom, and the lead character must be strong and dominating. His play All for Love (1678) encompasses the latter two elements and is considered one of his finest examples of the genre. Many consider this play an imitation of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra as both focus on the love and tragedy between the hero and heroine. Dryden also wrote a lot of satirical works, a popular style during this time. His two most famous are Absalom and Achitophel (1681) and Mac Flecknoe (1681). Absalom and Achitophel is a political satire that directly parallels politics in England. The Earl of Shaftesbury attempted to prevent the legitimate son of King Charles II from taking the throne due to James’ Catholicism. Instead, he offered Charles’ illegitimate son as a suitable heir. The Whigs supported a parliamentary bill that would have allowed this to happen. Dryden did not agree with the Whigs’ actions and paralleled this rebellion with the biblical revolt of Absalom against his father, David. Mac Flecknoe is a mock-heroic satire targeting Thomas Shadwell, an English poet and playwright of the time. Dryden and Shadwell had several religious and literary disagreements, leading to Dryden satirizing him in several of his works. In this poem, he describes him as the heir to a kingdom, with his defining characteristic being dullness.
After the restoration of Charles II many religious groups were forced into silence. Since many had openly preached against Charles I, they were now suppressed. John Bunyan stands out as one of the more vocal and successful religious writers of the period. His preaching led to jail time, but this did not stop his religious writing and during his lifetime he was able to publish two popular pieces. The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) is a Christian allegory, which typically contain hidden moral meanings. It is one of the more significant religious works in English literature and had a profound influence on later centuries of writers. Bunyan’s protagonist, Christian, searches for redemption by visiting a spiritual guide named Evangelist. On his journey to salvation, he is tempted several times to give up his faith, but through Christ’s love he is able to overcome. Part II of Bunyan’s work tells the story of Christian’s wife, Christiana’s, journey to the Celestial City. Bunyan’s other well-known piece is Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (1666), a spiritual autobiography written during Bunyan’s prison sentence.
Once the theatre re-opened in 1660, English drama was able to thrive once again. Many of the comedies of this time draw from aristocratic life and are sexually explicit in nature. The use of the rake, who was a womanizing character, was a staple in all of these plays. Notable plays of this type include: Dryden’s Marriage a la Mode (1672), Wycherley’s The Country Wife (1675), Etherege’s Man of Mode (1676), Behn’s The Rover (1677), and Congreve’s The Way of the World (1700). Most significant among these authors was Aphra Behn, who was the period’s first professional female playwright.
AGE OF REASON
The period from 1700-1750 is often referred to as the Augustan Age. Literature of this time reflected the worldwide Age of Enlightenment and Reason. This was a time of the celebration of the human mind and all the progress humanity had made. Additionally, the Age of Reason brought increased emphasis on a rational and scientific approach to the issues of the time. The literature of this period is largely political and secular.
Although satire had been present during the Restoration, it increased in popularity during the Augustan Age. Writers like Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope helped solidify this as a genre. Swift fought for liberty and justice through his words and later combined this with writing about the economic times of Ireland. In his essay, A Modest Proposal (1729) Swift suggests that the poor in Ireland sell their children as food to the wealthy in order to make money. He satirizes the heartless attitude toward the impoverished as well as mocking the treatment of the Irish by the British. Alexander Pope had a high opinion of man and morality and many of his satires instead focus on the moral and emotional instability of women. His most famous work is The Rape of the Lock (1712), a mock epic that satirizes an aristocratic feud over a lock of hair. Mock epics typically parody the role of a hero and exaggerate heroic qualities to a point of comedy. In this epic, Belinda’s locks are considered an object of beauty that the Baron deeply desires. A battle between Belinda and the Baron ensues, leading to the loss of the lock of the hair when it becomes a star in the sky. Pope also wrote moral essays in verse form, discussing the characters of men and women and the use of riches. His first successful poem was An Essay on Criticism (1711). He wrote about poetry during the time and offers criticism and advice on poetry of the time.
THE 18th CENTURY NOVEL
The 18th century saw some of the first English novels. Women found more success in this period with novels such as Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko (1688), the story of an African slave prince and the tragedy of his love. Frances Burney’s first novel, Evelina (1778), was initially published anonymously, but even after revealing her identity, the novel was a huge success. Burney’s novel accurately portrays the London working-class and shows a comic view of the wealthier class as her title character struggles to understand 18th century conventions and expectations. This epistolary novel, written through a series of letter and documents, was one of the first sentimental novels, which showed signs of the coming wave of Romanticism. Sentimental novels, also referred to as novels of sensibility, emerged as a genre in the second half of the 18th century. This was a reaction against the Age of Reason and focused more on the emotional effect of works. Although this relates to the 19th century period of sentimentality in America, this wave of literature focused less on domesticity and more on moral refinement, tenderness, and the promotion of emotion over reason.
Many of the satirists of the past continued their trend in longer works. Jonathan Swift found success with Gulliver’s Travels (1726), in which he satirized blind devotion, political corruptions, and the nature of humankind. Gulliver travels to Lilliput, Brobdingnag, Laputa, and an unknown land of the Yahoos. Each of these lands symbolizes a different lesson and ideal that Swift meant to satirize. Satire also found a home in literary feuds like the one between Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding. Richardson’s novel Pamela (1740) tells the story of the title character who rebuffs unwanted advances by a landowner master, Mr. B. When she resists the attempts at seduction, her virtue is rewarded with a proper marriage proposal from Mr. B. Fielding, a rival of Richardson, attacked this novel in several of his own including Shamela (1741) and Joseph Andrews (1742). Joseph Andrews is the more popular of the two and focuses on Pamela’s brother as the protagonist. Fielding parallels many of the same events as Richardson’s novel, but strays at the end when Joseph is able to find a wife through love.
Along with Richardson, Daniel Defoe is considered a pioneer of the English novel. His first novel, Robinson Crusoe (1719), is his most well known. Against his father’s wishes, Crusoe decides he wants a life on the sea. During his second voyage his ship is seized and although he escapes, he later finds himself shipwrecked once again. This time he is alone on a tropical island and must build shelter and collect food. After befriending a local who is brought to the island by cannibals, whom he names Friday, he is able to escape from the island and return to England.
AGE OF SENSIBILITY
Often referred to as the “Age of Johnson” in reference to Samuel Johnson’s contributions during this time, the Age of Sensibility encompassed the emotion and tenderness that would become a major theme in the Romantic Period. More significant than this look to the future was the introduction of the dictionary by Samuel Johnson.
Samuel Johnson was a poet, essayist, and lexicographer who made lasting impacts on English literature and language. Johnson admired Shakespeare and his most well known work, other than his dictionary, is his annotated collection of Shakespeare’s plays. After dissatisfaction with the dictionaries of the time, Johnson was contracted to write a more complete version. After nine years, A Dictionary of the English Language (1755) was published with definitions and images to accompany several of the words. Johnson’s work was more detailed than those in the past and although many of his definitions included humor and prejudice, this work was immediately successful and remained the model in Great Britain until the Oxford Dictionary was published over a century later.
The end of the period saw the rise of sentimental novels and a turn away from the industrial ideals that had been popular throughout the 18th century. Emotions, nature, and man as an individual became increasingly important as the French Revolution had profound effects on the culture of England and the literature it produced.
For this introduction I consulted: Robert Barnard’s A Short History of English Literature, Stephen Coote’s The Penguin Short History of English Literature, Andrew Sanders’ The Short Oxford History of English Literature, and The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Major Authors (Vol. 1).