Topics so far –
14. The Age of Classicism
15. The Transition Age
16. The Romantic Age
The Age of Classicism – 1702 to 1740
The literary career of Pope forms the axis of this age. One might therefore consider it as roughly ending a few years before his death, about 1740. From 1702 to 1740 there reigns the relative unity of a literary age. Its general traits originate in those of the Restoration, which they continue, accentuate and also in reaction modify.
The Classical School of Poetry: Pope
Alexander Pope was, like Dryden after 1685, a Catholic, and therefore an outsider in the Protestant-dominated society of the early eighteenth century. The two men were, however, of totally different generations and background. Pope was 12 when Dryden died, and was suffering from the spinal disease which left him deformed and sickly for the rest of his life.
Pope had, in common with Dryden, considerable success in translating Greek and Latin classics – especially Homer – into English, and also prepared a noted, if flawed, edition of Shakespeare, in 1725. But he never engaged in serious political, philosophical, and religious debate on the scale that Dryden achieved. Perhaps because of his poor health, Pope was something of a recluse, but he was very involved in high society, and took sides on most of the political issues of his day. His satires are full of savage invective against real or imagined enemies. Pope’s sphere was social and intellectual. The Rape of the Lock (1712–14), written when he was in his mid-twenties, is the essence of the mock heroic. It makes a family quarrel, over a lock of hair, into the subject of a playful poem full of paradoxes and witty observations on the self-regarding world it depicts, as the stolen lock is transported to the heavens to become a new star. ‘Fair tresses man’s imperial race insnare’ makes Belinda’s hair an
attractive trap for all mankind – a linking of the trivial with the apparently serious, which is Pope’s most frequent device in puncturing his targets’ self-importance.
The Dunciad (1726, expanded in 1743) is Pope’s best-known satire. It is again mock heroic in style, and, like Dryden’s MacFlecknoe some fifty years before, it is an attack on the author’s literary rivals, critics, and enemies. Pope groups them together as the general enemy ‘Dulness’, which gradually takes over the world, and reduces it to chaos and darkness.
Pope’s intentions in his writing were wide-ranging. His Moral Essays from the 1730s, his An Epistle to Doctor Arbuthnot (1735), his An Essay on Man (1733–34), and the early Essay on Criticism (1711) explore the whole question of man’s place in the universe, and his moral and social responsibilities in the world.
A little learning is a dangerous thing. (Essay on Criticism)
True wit is nature to advantage dressed,
What oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed.
(Essay on Criticism)
True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learned to dance.
’Tis not enough no harshness gives offence,
The sound must seem an echo to the sense.
(Essay on Criticism)
Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is man.
(An Essay on Man)
The Imitations of Horace (1733–38) raises issues of political neutrality, partisanship and moral satire, and as such are a key text of the Augustan age. The conclusion of An Essay on Man, ‘Whatever is, is right’, may seem sadly banal; but a great many of Pope’s lines are among the most memorable and quotable from English poetry. His technical ability and wit, although firmly based in the neoclassical spirit of the time, raised Pope’s achievement to considerable heights.
Pope in Literary Context
Pope and Neoclassicism: Pope, particularly in An Essay on Criticism and ‘‘Epistle to Arbuthnot,’’ contributed to neoclassicism, or the resurgence in ancient ideals in art and literature—particularly the ideals of ancient Greece and Rome. For Pope, the core truth is whatever has lasted longest across many generations of readers; thus we should look to ancient literature for truth. In the epics of Homer, for example, the ethics of heroism, loyalty, and leadership are as true now as they were then. In addition, the balanced and symmetrical structures of classical literature and architecture represent values of reason and coherence that Pope says should remain central to all modern arts.
Comic Satire: Pope used his great knowledge of and respect for classical literature to write mock-epics that poked fun at the elite. Essentially Pope believed the upper class possessed an exaggerated sense of its own importance. He also made fun of hack writers, comparing their shoddy work with timeless stories of the past. Pope is credited for proclaiming, ‘‘Praise undeserved is satire in disguise.’’
Pope and Proverbs: Pope’s style and personal philosophies have become part of the English language. For example, ‘‘A little learning is a dang’rous thing’’ comes from An Essay on Criticism, as does ‘‘To err is human, to forgive, divine.’’ Other well-known sayings from An Essay on Criticism include ‘‘For fools rush in where angels fear to tread’’ and ‘‘Hope springs eternal.’’
At ev’ry word a reputation dies
(Alexander Pope, The Rape of the Lock)
Criticism, or writing about books and their authors, is as old as writing itself. It is thus hardly surprising that the century which saw the greatest expansion in writing and reading should also see the arrival of the professional critic. Critical essays on theory and form, such as Dryden’s Of Dramatic Poesy (1668), or satirical views of the literary world, such as Swift’s The Battle of the Books (1697; published 1704 – the battle is between ancient and modern, or between classical and contemporary literature), draw lines between older and newer styles and modes of writing. This is criticism as an aid to the definition and aims of literature. Under the influence of the French writer Nicholas Boileau’s Art Poétique (1674), criticism in the Augustan age established canons of taste and defined principles of composition and criticism.
This mix of scientific rigour and subjective reaction has remained constant through succeeding generations. Criticism changes almost as much as literature varies, if more slowly, but it can exert very strong influences. And no critic is ever right, at least for any longer than the critical fashion lasts. What is of interest is how much critical writing is of continuing value and influence.
The Criticism of Manners: Satire, Comedy, Memoirs – Ambrose Philips, Mary Wortley Montagu, John Arbuthnot, Swift
Ambrose Philips: He was a friend of Pope until his Pastorals appeared with Pope's in Tonson's Miscellany (1709). Stung by the praise lavished on Philips, the latter published a skilfully satirical 'eulogy' of his poems which mercilessly exposed their shortcomings. The quarrel which followed led Pope to immortalize Philips in The Dunciad and others of his works. Philips obtained several posts under the Government, and passed a happy and prosperous life. He wrote three tragedies, the best of which is The Distressed Mother (1712). He produced a fair amount of prose for the periodicals, and his miscellaneous verse, of a light and agreeable kind, was popular in its day. His poetry was called 'namby-pamby,' from his Christian name; and the word has survived in its general application.
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu: Famous in her day for her masculine force of character, was the eldest daughter of the Duke of Kingston. In 1712 she married Edward Wortley Montagu, and moved in the highest literary and social circles. In 1716 her husband was appointed ambassador at Constantinople, and while she was in the East she corresponded regularly with many friends, both literary and personal. She is the precursor of the great letter-writers of the later portion of the century. Her Letters are written shrewdly and sensibly, often with a frankness that is a little staggering. She had a vivid interest in her world, and she can communicate her interest to her reader.
John Arbuthnot: He became acquainted with Pope and Swift. His writings are chiefly political, and include the Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus (1709), which, though published (1741) in the works of Pope, is thought to be his; The History of John Bull (1712 or 1713), ridiculing the war-policy of the Whigs; and The Art of Political Lying (1712).
Arbuthnot writes with wit and vivacity, and with many pointed allusions. At his best he somewhat resembles Swift, though he lacks the great devouring flame of the latter's personality.
Jonathan Swift: Swift is the foremost prose satirist in the English language. His greatest satire, Gulliver’s Travels (1726), is alternately described as an attack on humanity and a clear-eyed assessment of human strengths and weaknesses. In addition to his work as a satirist, Swift was also an accomplished minor poet, a master of political journalism, a prominent political figure, and one of the most distinguished leaders of the Anglican church in Ireland. For these reasons he is considered one of the representative figures of his age.
In England, Swift secured a position as secretary to Sir William Temple, a scholar and former member of Parliament engaged in writing his memoirs. Except for two trips to Ireland, Swift remained in Temple’s employ and lived at his home, Moor Park, until Temple’s death in 1699. During this period, Swift read widely, was introduced to many prominent individuals in Temple’s circle, and began a career in the Anglican church, an ambition thwarted by Temple’s inaction in obtaining Swift a promised preferment in the church.
Around this time, he met Esther Johnson, stepdaughter of Temple’s steward. ‘‘Stella,’’ as Swift nicknamed her, became an intimate, lifelong confidante to Swift. Despite rumors to the contrary, their relationship remained platonic; Swift’s correspondence with he was later collected in The Journal to Stella (1963).
Toward the end of this period, Swift wrote his first great satires, A Tale of a Tub and The Battle of the Books. Both were completed by 1699 but were not published until 1704 under the title A Tale of a Tub, Written for the Universal Improvement of Mankind, to which is Added an Account of a Battel between the Antient and Modern Books in St. James’s Library. Framed by a history of the Christian church, A Tale satirized contemporary literary and scholarly pedants as well as the dissenters and Roman Catholics who opposed the Anglican church, an institution to which Swift would be devoted during his entire career.
The Protestant control of England under Oliver Cromwell had resulted in an attempt by the government to impose the stringent, unpopular beliefs of Puritanism on the English populace. Swift detested such tyranny and sought to prevent it through his writings. The Battle of the Books was written in defense of Temple. A controversial debate was being waged over the respective merits of ancient versus modern learning, with Temple supporting the position that the literature of the Greek and Roman civilizations was far superior to any modern creations. Swift addressed Temple’s detractors with an allegorical satire that depicted the victory of those who supported the ancient texts. Although inspired by topical controversies, both A Tale and The Battle are brilliant satires with many universal implications regarding the nature and follies of aesthetics, religious belief, scholasticism, and education.
When Temple died in 1699, Swift was left without position or prospects. He returned to Ireland, where he occupied a series of church posts from 1699 to 1710. During this period he wrote an increasing number of satirical essays on behalf of the ruling Whig party, whose policies limiting the power of the crown and increasing that of Parliament, as well as restricting Roman Catholics from political office, Swift staunchly endorsed. In these pamphlets, Swift developed the device that marked much of his later satire: using a literary persona to express ironically absurd opinions. When the Whig administration fell in 1709, Swift shifted his support to the Tory government, which, while supporting a strong crown unlike the Whigs, adamantly supported the Anglican Church. For the next five years, Swift served as the chief Tory political writer, editing the journal The Examiner and composing political pamphlets, poetry, and prose. Swift’s change of party has led some critics to characterize him as a cynical opportunist, but others contend that his conversion reflected more of a change in the parties’ philosophies than in Swift’s own views.
The ‘‘Travells’’ On August 14, 1725, Jonathan Swift wrote to his friend Charles Ford: ‘‘I have finished my Travells, and I am now transcribing them; they are admirable Things, and will wonderfully mend the World.’’ Gulliver’s Travels challenged his readers’ smug assumptions about the superiority of their political and social institutions as well as their assurance that as rational animals they occupied a privileged position in the world. Universally considered Swift’s greatest work of this period, Gulliver’s Travels (published as Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts; by Lemuel Gulliver), depicts one man’s journeys to several strange and unusual lands. Written over a period of several years, some scholars believe that the novel had its origins during Swift’s years as a political agitator, when he was part of a group of prominent Tory writers known as the Scriblerus Club. The group, which included Alexander Pope, John Gay, and John Arbuthnot, collaborated on several satires, including The Scriblerus Papers. They also planned a satire called The Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus, which was to include several imaginary voyages. Many believe that Gulliver’s Travels was inspired by this work. Although the novel was published anonymously, Swift’s authorship was widely suspected. The book was an immediate success.
Other works of literature considered to be exemplars of scathing satire include:
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), a novel by Mark Twain. Told through the eyes of an innocent abroad, Twain’s greatest novel is an indictment of many entrenched ideas and prejudices, particularly racism.
Catch-22 (1961), a novel by Joseph Heller. Considered one of the greatest literary works of the twentieth century, this tale set during World War II turns nearly every
moral and logical convention on its head: ‘‘the only way to survive such an insane system is to be insane oneself.’’
Babbitt (1922), a novel by Sinclair Lewis. Lewis’s first novel, it quickly earned a place as a classic satire of American culture, particularly middle-class conformity.
Advent of Middle Class Literature: Defoe, Steele and Addison
Daniel Defoe: Defoe has been called the father of both the novel and modern journalism. In his novels, Defoe combined elements of spiritual autobiography, allegory, and so called ‘‘rogue biography’’ with stylistic techniques including dialogue, setting, symbolism, characterization, and, most importantly, irony to fashion some of the first realistic narratives in English fiction. With this combination, Defoe popularized the novel among a growing middleclass readership. In journalism, he pioneered the lead article, investigative reporting, advice and gossip columns, letters to the editor, human interest features, background articles, and foreign-news analysis.
Persecution, Plague, and Fire: Defoe was born sometime in 1660, the youngest of three children, to James and Alice Foe in the parish of St. Giles Cripplegate, just north of the old center of London. The year 1660 also marked the restoration of the monarchy in England. King Charles I had been executed in 1649, and the British monarchy was abolished. The English king was considered head of the Anglican Church, so the execution of Charles I had religious meaning as well.
In 1697 he published his first important work, Essay upon Projects, and four years later made his name known with his long poem The True-Born Englishman, his effort to counter a growing English xenophobia, or hatred of foreigners. This poem, which satirized the prejudices of his fellow countrymen and called the English a race of mongrels, sold more copies in a single day than any other poem in English history. It was about this time that Daniel Foe began calling himself Defoe. In 1702’s The Shortest Way with Dissenters, Defoe wrote anonymously in the voice of those who would further limit the rights of Dissenters, exaggerating their positions in an attempt to make them appear absurd. Unfortunately, Defoe’s satire was grossly misunderstood.
Working for Secretary of State Robert Harley for a fee of two hundred pounds a year, Defoe founded the Review of the Affairs of France, with Observations on Transactions at Home in 1704 and continued writing it for over nine years. That the paper promoted Harley’s views—pro-Anglican, anti-Dissenter, against foreign entanglements—did not seem to bother Defoe, who had the ability to write from different perspectives. He produced the journal two to three times per week for almost a decade, laying it to rest in June of 1713.
Robinson Crusoe: Defoe’s lasting fame for most readers lies with the book that he published in 1719, The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner, better known to modern readers simply as Robinson Crusoe. Defoe had long been developing the tools of his trade: point of view, dialogue, characterization, and a sense of scene.
Employing the form of a travel biography, the work tells the story of a man marooned on a Caribbean island. He quickly followed it with The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Serious Reflections during the Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1720).
Like all great creative works, Robinson Crusoe lends itself to myriad interpretations: as an allegorical representation of the British Empire, an attack on economic individualism and capitalism, a further installment in the author’s spiritual biography, and as a lightly veiled allegory of Defoe’s own life. Most importantly, however, is the fact that the novel was read widely by Defoe’s contemporaries in England. It was the first work to become popular among the middle and even lower classes, who could identify with Crusoe’s adventures.
1722–1724: In 1722, Defoe published Moll Flanders as well as Journal of the Plague Year and Colonel Jack. He was not content, however, with this achievement, but interspersed the fiction with several nonfiction books of history and social and religious manners. Another fictional biography, Moll Flanders is told by Moll herself to a rather embarrassed editor who cleans up her language. In its pages, Defoe was able to use the criminals and prostitutes he had rubbed shoulders with during his time in hiding and in jail.
Colonel Jack, another biographical novel, is set in the underworld of thieves and pickpockets, and traces Jack’s fortunes as he tries to succeed through honest work. A Fortunate Mistress (1724), better known as Roxana, the last of Defoe’s novels, introduces Defoe’s first introspective narrator, foreshadowing the psychological novels that would someday follow. Many critics claim Roxana to be Defoe’s most complex and artistic work, though it has not retained the same popularity as has Robinson Crusoe or Moll Flanders.
A Journal of the Plague Year is a historical novel set during the London Plague of 1665 and 1666. The novel is narrated by one ‘‘H. F.,’’ a man likely modeled on he was born, but he suffered from gout and kidney stones. Defoe died in hiding on April 26, 1731. Obituaries of the day spoke of Defoe’s varied writing abilities and his promotion of civic and religious freedom, but none mentioned that he was the author of either Robinson Crusoe or Moll Flanders.
Rogue Biography: Not considered quite decent in its day, Moll Flanders was nonetheless popular with the reading public. As with Charles Dickens in his novel Oliver Twist, Defoe brings the criminal element vibrantly to life within its pages. Its form is an extension of what was known as rogue biography. Naturalistic novels such as E´mile Zola’s Nana (1880) and Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900) opened up the possibilities of a critical evaluation of Moll Flanders, just as the relaxed moral standards of the 1960s made possible the republication of John Cleland’s Fanny Hill (1749), which was influenced by Defoe’s work.
Precursor to the Gothic Novel: Journal of the Plague Year developed new fictional ground that would later be taken over by the gothic novel. Defoe’s prose style conveys a sense of gripping immediacy; he frequently works with loose sentences that tend to accumulate in the manner of breathless street gossip and unpremeditated outcome, thus making his Journal a compelling work of art that possesses, as Anthony Burgess has noted, ‘‘the truth of the conscientious and scrupulous historian, but its deeper truth belongs to the creative imagination.’’ Along with Robinson Crusoe, Journal of the Plague Year formed a model for the exploitation of dramatic and sublime scenes in the novel, effects that the gothic novel would later borrow to good effect.
Note: Robinson Crusoe is a meditation on the human condition and an argument for challenging traditional notions about that condition. With this work, Defoe applied and thereby popularized modern realism. Modern realism holds that truth should be discovered at the individual level by verification of the senses.
The following titles represent other modern realist works.
Candide (1759), a novel by Voltaire. This novel parodies German philosopher Gottfried Leibnitz’s philosophy of optimism, which states that since God created the world and God is perfect, everything in the world is ultimately perfect.
Don Quixote (1605), a novel by Miguel de Cervantes. One of the great comic figures of world literature, drawn with realist and humanist techniques, Don Quixote is an idealistic but delusionary knight-errant with an illiterate but loyal squire, Sancho Panza.
Peer Gynt (1867), a play by Henrik Ibsen. This play, originally a long poem, pokes fun at then-emerging trends about getting back to nature and simplicity and asks questions about the nature of identity; the main character longs for freedom in a world that demands commitment.
Gulliver’s Travels (1726), a novel by Jonathan Swift. A political satire in the form of an adventure, this novel examines the question of rationality being the greatest human quality, versus humankind’s inborn urge to sin.
Sir Richard Steele: Steele wrote some prose comedies, the best of which are The Funeral (1701), The Lying Lover (1703), The Tender Husband (1705), and The Conscious Lovers (1722). They follow in general scheme the Restoration comedies, but are without the grossness and impudence of their models. Indeed, Steele's one importance as a dramatist rests on his foundation of the sentimental comedy, avowedly moral and pious in aim and tone. In places his plays are lively, and reflect much of Steele's amiability of temper. His Essays. (It is as a miscellaneous essayist that Steele finds his place in literature.
He was a man fertile in ideas, but he lacked the application that is always so necessary to carry those ideas to fruition Thus he often sowed in order that other men might reap. He started The Tatler in 1709, The Spectator in 1711, and several other short-lived periodicals, such as The Guardian (1713), The Englishman (1713), The Reader (1714), and The Plebeian (1719). After the rupture with Addison the loss of the latter's steadying influence was acutely felt, and nothing that Steele attempted had any stability.
JOSEPH ADDISON: He obtained a travelling scholarship of three hundred pounds a year, and saw much of Europe under favourable conditions. Then the misfortunes of the Whigs in 1703 reduced him to poverty. In 1704, it is said at the instigation of the leaders of the Whigs, he wrote the poem The Campaign, praising the war policy of the Whigs in general and the worthiness of Marlborough in particular. This poem brought him fame and fortune. He obtained many official appointments and pensions, married a dowager countess (1716), and became a Secretary of State (1717). Two years later he died, at the early age of forty-seven.
His Drama: Addison was lucky in his greatest dramatic effort, just as he was lucky in his longest poem. In 1713 he produced the tragedy of Cato, part of which had been in manuscript as early as 1703. It is of little merit, and shows that Addison, whatever his other qualities may be, is no dramatist. It is written in laborious blank verse, in which wooden characters declaim long, dull speeches. But it caught the ear of the political parties, both of which in the course of the play saw pithy references to the inflamed passions of the time. The play had the remarkable run of twenty nights, and was revived with much success. Addison also attempted an opera, Rosamond (1707), which was a failure; and the prose comedy of The Drummer (1715) is said, with some reason, to be his also. If it is, it adds nothing to his reputation.
His Prose. (several political pamphlets are ascribed to Addison, but as a pamphleteer he is not impressive. He lacked the directness of Swift, whose pen was a terror to his opponents. It is in fact almost entirely as an essayist that Addison is justly famed) (These essays began almost casually. On April 12, 1709, Steele published the first number of The Tatler, a periodical that was to appear thrice weekly. Addison, who was a school and college friend of Steele, saw and liked the new publication, and offered his services as a contributor. His offer was accepted, and his first contribution, a semi-political one, appeared in No. 18. Henceforward Addison wrote regularly for the paper, contributing about 42 numbers, which may be compared with Steele's share of about 188. The Tatler finished in January 1711; then in March of the same year Steele began The Spectator, which was issued daily.
In March 1713 Addison assisted Steele with The Guardian, which' Steele began. It was only a moderate success, and terminated after 175 numbers, Addison contributing 51 In all, we thus have from Addison's pen nearly four hundred essays, which are of nearly uniform length, of almost unvarying excellence of style, and of a wide diversity of subject. They are a faithful reflection of the life of the time viewed with an aloof and dispassionate observation. He set out to be a mild censor of the morals of the age, and most of his compositions deal with topical subjects--fashions, head-dresses, practical jokes, polite conversation. His aim was to point out "those vices which are too trivial for the chastisement of the law, and too fantastical for the cognizance of the pulpit.... All agreed that I should be at liberty to carry the war into what quarters I pleased; provided I continued to combat with criminals in a body, and to assault the vice without hurting the person."
Philosophy and Mysticism: Berkeley & Shaftesbury
George Berkeley: Having taken holy orders, he went to London (1713), and became acquainted with Swift and other wits. He was a man of noble and charitable mind, and interested himself in many worthy schemes. He was appointed a dean, and then was made Bishop of Cloyne in 1734. He was a man of great and enterprising mind, and wrote with much charm on a diversity of scientific, philosophical, and metaphysical subjects.
Among his books are The Principles of Human Knowledge, a notable effort in the study of the human mind that appeared in 1710, Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous (1713), and Alciphron, or The Minute Philosopher (1732). He is among the first, both in time and in quality, of the English philosophers who have dressed their ideas in language of literary distinction. He writes with delightful ease, disdaining ornament or affectation, and his command of gentle irony is capable and sure.
Anthony Ashley Cooper, third Earl of Shaftesbury, is another example of the aristocratic dilettante man of letters. He had little taste for the politics of the time, and aspired to be famous as a great writer. He travelled much, and died at Naples in 1713. His books are written with great care and exactitude, and are pleasant and lucid without being particularly striking. His Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, and Times (1711), though it contains nothing very original or profound, suited the taste of the time and was widely popular.
Poetry: Lady Winchilsea, Watts
Lady Winchilsea (1661-1720). Born in Hampshire, the daughter of Sir William Kingsmill, Anne, Countess of Winchilsea, passed most of her life in London, where she became acquainted with Pope and other literary notables. Some of her poems, which were of importance in their day, are The Spleen (1701), a Pindaric ode; The Prodigy (1706); and Miscellany Poems (1713), containing A Nocturnal Reverie. Wordsworth says, "Now it is remarkable that, excepting the Nocturnal Reverie of Lady Winchilsea, and a passage or two in the Windsor Forest of Pope, the poetry intervening between the publication of the Paradise Lost and The Seasons does not contain a single new image of external nature." This statement is perhaps an exaggeration, but there is no doubt that Lady Winchilsea had the gift of producing smooth and melodious verse, and she had a discerning eye for the beauties of nature. They were, however, the beauties of a garden, rather than those of the wilds.
Isaac Watts (1674–1784): Watts was an English songwriter who penned over seven hundred hymns. He is popularly known as the "Father of English Hymnody.”
Doctrinal Classicism: Johnson
Samuel Johnson (1709-84) Perhaps the best-known and most often-quoted English writer after William Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson ranks as England’s major literary figure of the second half of the eighteenth century. He is remembered as a witty conversationalist who dominated the literary scene of London and the man immortalized by James Boswell in The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791). He was known in his day as the ‘‘Great Cham (sovereign or monarch) of Literature.’’
His Life, Johnson has a faithful chronicler in Boswell, whose Life of Samuel Johnson makes us intimate with its subject to a degree rare in literature. But even the prying zeal of Boswell could not extort many facts regarding the great man's early life. From the obscure position of a publisher's hack he became a poet of some note by the publication of London (1738), which was noticed by Pope; his Dictionary (1747-55) advanced his fame; then somewhat incomprehensibly he appears in the limelight as one of the literary dictators of London, surrounded by a circle of brilliant men.
His Poetry. He wrote little poetry, and none of it, though it has much merit, can be called first-class. His first poem, London (1738), written in the heroic couplet, is of great and sombre power. It depicts the vanities and the sins of city life viewed from the depressing standpoint of an embittered and penurious poet. His only other longish poem is The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749). The poem, in imitation of the Tenth Satire of Juvenal, transfers to the activities of mankind in general the gloomy convictions raised ten years earlier by the spectacle of London.
His Prose. (Johnson's claims to be called a first-rate writer must rest on his prose. His earliest work appeared in Cave's The Gentleman's Magazine, between the years 1738 and 1744. For this periodical he wrote (1741-44) imaginary Parliamentary debates, based on the mere skeletons of facts which he could obtain without attending the House, and elaborated by his own invention) and embellished with his own vigorous style. In 1744 appeared The Life of Savage, his penurious poet friend, who had recently died in gaol. It was later incorporated in The Lives of the Poets and throws much light on Johnson's early hardships and struggles. Greater schemes were now contemplated, but his first move towards his edition of Shakespeare came to nothing owing to the impending appearance of Warburton's edition.
Then, (1747, he began work on his Dictionary of the English Language). This was his greatest contribution to scholarship. It has its weaknesses: it was a poor guide to pronunciation; the etymology was sometimes inaccurate; some quotations lacked dates and references; some definitions were incorrect, some prejudiced, some verbose.
He wrote Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia (1759), in order to pay for his mother's funeral. It was meant to be a philosophical novel, but it is really a number of Rambler essays, strung together through the personality of an inquiring young prince called Rasselas. It is hardly a novel at all; the tale carries little interest, the characters are rudimentary, and there are many long, dull discussions. In the book, however, there are many shrewd comments and much of Johnson's sombre clarity of vision. During this period (1758-60) he was contributing a series of papers, under the title of The Idler, to the Universal Chronicle, or Weekly Gazette. They were lighter in touch and shorter than those of The Rambler.
(Then came Johnson's second truly great work--his fine edition of Shakespeare, published in 1765. Based on a wide reading in Elizabethan literature, the edition offered nothing new in the way of method, but aimed at the restoration of the original, text wherever possible) and the clearing away of the jungle of fanciful conjecture which had led to its corruption.
Johnson's Preface to his Shakespeare is a landmark, not only in Shakespearian scholarship, but in English criticism as a whole. It established firmly his belief that "there is always an appear open from criticism to nature."
His A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775), a travel book, shows the faculty of narrative, and contains passages of great skill. His last work of any consequence was The Lives of the Poets (1777-81), planned as a series of introductions to the works of fifty-two poets. In Johnson's hands the introductions, half biographical, half critical, grew beyond their proposed size, and they are now regarded as criticism of great and permanent values.) The poets dealt with are those of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the period which Johnson found most congenial. He is best when truly in sympathy with his subject, as in the lives of Dryden and Pope, and, though personal antipathies distort his judgments of Milton and Gray, there can be no doubt of his intention to try to be just.
Johnson often used satire to critique modern social and political conditions and to point out the weaknesses in human nature. Here are some other well-known satirical works:
Gulliver’s Travels (1726), a novel by Jonathan Swift. This novel satirizes the foibles of the human condition through a parody of travel writing.
The Devil’s Dictionary (1911), a nonfiction work by Ambrose Bierce. This book gives reinterpretations of English words and terms that are meant to satirize political doubletalk.
The Simpsons (1989–), an animated television series created by Matt Groening. This television show satirizes American culture and society through a parody of middle-class family life.
Mark Akenside (1721-70). Akenside was born at Newcastle, studied medicine at Edinburgh, and graduated at Leyden in 1744. He started practice at Northampton, but did not succeed. Later he had more success in London. He was a well-known character, and is said to have been caricatured by Smollett in Peregrine Pickle. His best political poem is his An Epistle to Curio (1744), which contains some brilliant invective against Pulteney. His best-known book is The Pleasures of the Imagination (1744), a long and rambling blank-verse poem.
The Age of Transition
The Romantic Age
English Literature by Edward Albert [Revised by J. A. Stone]
History of English Literature, by Legouis and Cazamian
The Routledge History of Literature in English: Britain and Ireland, by Ronald Carter and John McRae
Gale’s Contextual Encyclopedia of World Literature