Topics so far –
15. The Age of Transition
16. The Romantic Age
The Age of Transition
Outline to the Age of Transition
1. The Poetry of Sentiment
James Thomson, William Collins, Thomas Gray, Oliver Goldsmith, William Shenstone, Charles Churchill
2. The Novel of Sentiment
Samuel Richardson, Oliver Goldsmith, Laurence Sterne
3. The Realistic Novel
4. The Revival of Comedy in Theatre
R. B. Sheridan
David Hume, William Robertson, James Boswell, Edward Gibbon
6. Prose Writers
Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, William Paley, The Earl of Chesterfield, William Godwin, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, James Macpherson, Thomas Percy, Thomas Chatterton
7. Other Novelists
8. The Novel of Terror & The Pre-Romantic Novel
Horace Walpole, Mrs. Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Gregory Lewis, Frances Burney, Jane Austen
9. Pre-Romantic Poetry
William Cowper, Robert Burns & William Blake
The Age of Transition
The eighteenth century is marked by the progressive advent of a new inspiration. Just as the invasion of sentimentalism transforms the moral life, so the literature is transformed by the gradual appearance of themes based on sentiment, which come to take their place besides classical motives.
The Poetry of Sentiment
James Thomson: His Winter was afterward quadrupled in size by including the other three seasons, and became The Seasons (1730). It is a blank-verse poem, and consists of a long series of descriptive passages dealing with natural scenes, mainly those with which he was familiar during his youth on the Scottish Border. There is a great deal of padding, and the style is often marked by clumsy expressions; yet on the whole the treatment is exhilarating, full of concentrated observation and joy in the face of nature. Above all, it is real nature, obtained from the living sky and air, and not from books; and, coming when it did, the poem exerted a strong counter-influence against the artificial school of poetry.
Thomson also wrote Liberty, a gigantic poem in blank verse, intolerably dull. It had no success. As Johnson says, "The praises of Liberty were condemned to harbor spiders, and to gather dust." In the last year of his life he published The Castle of Indolence, which is even more remarkable than The Seasons. The poem is written in Spenserian stanzas, and in the true Spenserian fashion it gives a description of a lotus-land into which world-weary souls are invited to withdraw. The work is imitative, and so cannot claim to be of the highest class, but it is an imitation of the rarest merit. For languid suggestiveness, in dulcet and harmonious versification, and for subtly woven vowel music it need not shirk comparison with the best of Spenser himself. Yet the likeness is confined to similarity of tone and technique; Thomson's sentiments are too commonplace to merit comparison with the more profound thought and philosophy which underlie Spenser's work.
Thomson also wrote some dramas, including one bad tragedy, Sophonisba (1729); and in collaboration with Mallet he produced the masque Alfred (1740), which happens to contain the song Ride, Britannia.
William Collins: His Persian Eclogues (1742) are in the conventional style of Pope, and though they profess to deal with Persian scenes and characters the Oriental" setting shows no special information or inspiration. The book that gives him his place in literature is his Odes (1746), a small octavo volume of fifty-two pages. The work is a collection of odes to Pity, Fear, Simplicity, and kindred abstract subjects? Some of the odes are over-weighted with the cumbrous, creaking machinery of the Pindaric; but the best of them, especially the Ode to Evening (done in unrhymed verse), are instinct with a sweet tenderness, a subdued and shadowy pathos, and a magical enchantment of phrase. In the same book two short elegies, one beginning "How sleep the brave" and the other on James Thomson ("In yonder grave a Druid lies"), are captivating with their misty lights and murmuring echoes of melancholy.' In the finest work of Collins, with his eager and wistful searching, with what Johnson morosely called his "flights of imagination which pass the bounds of nature," we are ushered over the threshold of romance.
Thomas Gray: His first poem was the Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College (1747), which contained gloomy moralizings on the approaching fate of those "little victims," the schoolboys. Then, after years of revision and excision, appeared the famous Elegy written in a Country Churchyard (1751). This poem was smooth and graceful; it contained familiar sentiments turned into admirable, quotable phrases; and so, while it was agreeably familiar, it was fresh enough to be attractive. Its popularity has been maintained to the present day. His Pindaric Odes (1757) were unsuccessful, being criticized for their obscurity. The Bard and The Progress of Poesy, the two Pindaric odes in the book, certainly require some elucidation, especially to readers not familiar with history and literature.
OLIVER GOLDSMITH: (1728-74) As another typical example of the transition poet we take Goldsmith. Much of Goldsmith's early life is obscure, and our knowledge of it rests upon his own unsupported and hardly reliable evidence. He was probably bom at Pallas, a small village in County Longford, in Ireland, and he was the son of the poor but admirable curate of the village. His father, the village, and various local features are duly registered, and unduly idealized, in the poem The Deserted Village.
Though his poetical production is not large, it is notable. His first poem, The Traveller (1764), deals with his wanderings through Europe. The poem, about four hundred lines in length, is written in the heroic couplet, and is a series of descriptions and criticisms of the places and peoples of which he had experience. His only other poem of any length is The Deserted Village (1770). In this poem, as he deals with the memories of his youth, the pathetic note is more freely expressed. His natural descriptions have charm and genuine feeling; but his remedies for the agricultural depression of Ireland are innocently empty of the slightest practical value.
His Drama. Goldsmith wrote two prose comedies, both of which rank high among their class. The first, called The Good-natur'd Man (1768), is not so good as the second, She Stoops to Conquer (1773).
The prose is of astonishing range and volume. Among his works of fiction we find The Citizen of the World (1759), a series of imaginary letters from a Chinaman, whose comments on English society are both simple and shrewd. This series was contributed to The Public Ledger, a popular magazine. He wrote many 'other essays in the manner of Addison, almost as well done as those. of Addison. His other important work of fiction is his novel The Vicar of Wakefield (1766), which is in the first rank of the eighteenth-century novels. The plot of the novel is simple, though sometimes inconsistent, the characters are human and attractive, and the book has all the Goldsmith qualities of humour and pathos.
William Shenstone: (1714-63) His published works consist chiefly of odes, elegies, and what he called Levities, or Pieces of Humour (often dreary enough), and The Schoolmistress (1742). His poems are largely pastoral, but they are by no means the artificial pastoral of Pope. He studies nature himself, and does not derive his notions from books. In this matter he. Resembles Cowper. The Schoolmistress, which by a notable advance is written in the Spenserian stanza, deals in rather a sentimental fashion with the teacher in his first school; it is sympathetic in treatment, and in style is an interesting example of the transition.
Charles Churchill: (1731-64). Churchill lives in literature as a satirist of trenchant force and sustained vigour. Though his work lacks constructional skill, his use of both the octosyllabic and decasyllabic couplet has a greater freedom and strength than were common in his day. He has something of the energy and verve of Dryden, his acknowledged master. His wit is amusing, and his satirical portraits are firmly, if not memorably, drawn. The work which established his reputation was The Rosciad (1761), a slashing attack on the leading figures of the contemporary stage, and it was followed by a series of political satires, of which the best is The Prophecy of Famine (1763), where he attacked the Scots, a race for whom he had an intense dislike.
The Novel of Sentiment
SAMUEL RICHARDSON: He is considered the originator of the modern English novel and has also been called the first dramatic novelist as well as the first of the eighteenth century ‘‘sentimental’’ writers. He introduced tragedy to the novel form and substituted social embarrassment for tragic conflict, thus developing the first novel of manners.
At the age of fifty-one, Richardson began writing what would become his first novel, Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (1740). This work was the result of a commission he undertook at the request of two booksellers, Charles Rivington and John Osborn. Both Rivington and Osborn felt that a collection of model letters to be used by people with little formal education would be a prosperous venture, and they proposed the idea to Richardson, who enthusiastically accepted. Two years later the volume was published. While he was writing this work, Richardson elaborated on a story he had heard about the attempted seduction of a young servant girl by her aristocratic master. She held her ground, and the master was so impressed with her virtue that he fell in love with her and proposed an honest marriage. The result was Pamela, and Richardson began his career as a novelist. Pamela was a huge success and became the best-selling novel in Britain and created a sensation throughout Europe.
Another Epistolary Novel, Another Tragic Heroine: Richardson extended the novel with a sequel volume in 1741 but fell ill again in 1742. Few outside his close circle of friends knew that he was writing a new novel that would dwarf Pamela in size, popularity, and literary influence. Richardson tested some of his ideas in a remarkable series of letters with his friends, many of them women, but he remained stubborn about the controversial tragic plan of his masterwork. The first volumes of Clarissa appeared in 1747, the last ones in 1748, and substantially different second and third editions were complete by 1751.
A Virtuous Male Hero: Richardson began his third novel, The History of Sir Charles Grandison, around 1750. The story is about how a good man, in love with two deserving women, balances questions of loyalty and honor. Richardson also addresses several social issues of the time relating to changing concepts of male virtue, including the ethics of dueling and the nature of masculine sentimentality. While also popular in the period—Jane Austen said it was her favorite novel—literary history has not valued Sir Charles Grandison as much as Pamela or Clarissa, mainly because of its lack of a compelling dramatic situation and psychologically complex characters.
Richardson builds upon the existing genre of the romance—love stories often featuring forced marriages, abductions, and sometimes rape. But in Clarissa especially, Richardson replaces the idealism of the romance with both the realism of interpersonal relationships and near-perfect Christian virtue. Clarissa and Lovelace are among the very first modern fictional characters with a full capacity for change and self-analysis. Clarissa and Pamela are among the first characters in English fiction who develop slowly, rather than changing suddenly due to an altering experience.
The Longest Novel in English: Clarissa is the longest novel in English—a fact loved by some readers, tolerated by most, and mocked by others. Like the works of James Joyce and Marcel Proust, Clarissa is meant for those who like reading, and it also is a work that demands rereading.
Class Struggles: The plots of Richardson’s novels demonstrate the engagement of literature and culture in the middle of the eighteenth century. Richardson is unique among the many early novelists who build their romance plots around themes of class struggle. The struggle of gender stereotypes in Pamela and Clarissa serve as a parallel to the class struggles of the middle class asserting its emerging powers against the manipulations of the old aristocratic order. Pamela, a servant girl, converts the decadent Mr. B. to her more Puritanical strain of working-class virtue. Clarissa exhibits the new conflict between the middleclass gentry, rising by colonial trade and coal mining, and the old nobility. While Lovelace represents the worst abuses of aristocratic power, the Harlowe family represents the vulgarity and selfish materialism of the rising middle class. Only the hero and the heroine transcend the limitations of their class and time.
By the early twentieth century, he was largely neglected, but in 1957, Ian Watt’s influential book The Rise of the Novel helped restore the reputation of Richardson’s novels with an enthusiastic appreciation of their realism and form.
It should be noted that Richardson’s reception history is bound up in a tight knot with Henry Fielding’s. Fielding wrote a parody of Pamela called Shamela, mocking what he saw as the heroine’s moral hypocrisy. Fielding’s much more ambitious novel Joseph Andrews also begins as a parody of Pamela, and the title character is supposedly her brother. While Fielding did have some kind things to say about Clarissa, and Richardson helped to finance a trip to Lisbon that Fielding took for his health, the two spent most of their writing careers in a bitter public rivalry. Clarissa earned immediate and lasting respect throughout Europe, sometimes bringing readers such as Denis Diderot to say in a eulogy for Richardson,
‘‘O Richardson! . . .Who is it who will dare to wrest away one line from your sublime works? . . . Centuries, make haste to run and bring with you the honors which are due to Richardson!’’
Clarissa was popular in England, but it was remarkably so in France and Germany, where many imitations and influenced novels were produced well into the nineteenth century, including Laclos’s Dangerous Liaisons.
Note: Epistolary novels have a unique relationship with their readers. Without a narrator, characters speak for themselves, often describing events as they are occurring, and the reader is left to decide which of the competing viewpoints is best. Other works that use the epistolary method include:
The Color Purple (1983), a novel by Alice Walker. This work implements a modern take on the epistolary novel. Set in 1930s Georgia, Walker addresses the challenges, injustices, and triumphs that African American women faced in pre–civil rights America.
Les Liaisons danger uses (Dangerous Liaisons) (1782), a novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. Directly influenced by Clarissa, Laclos created a novel of letters between the vain libertine Valmont and his partner/competitor, the Marquise de Mereuil, as they plot the sexual conquest and humiliation of several prominent and innocent young women.
Dracula (1897), a novel by Bram Stoker. This Gothic vampire story uses journal entries, letters, newspaper clippings, a ship’s log, and phonograph recordings to advance the narrative. Epistolary novels have a unique relationship with their readers.
OLIVER GOLDSMITH: [Extended Analysis] The Value of Sentimental Comedy: In the eighteenth century, English literature had turned increasingly toward sentimentalism as a reaction against what was perceived to be the immorality of Restoration-period literature.
The Citizen of the World (1762)
The Vicar of Wakefield (1766)
The Good-Natur’d Man (1768)
The Deserted Village (1770)
She Stoops to Conquer (1771)
Enduring Popularity of The Vicar of Wakefield: Unable to reconcile their varied interpretations of The Vicar of Wakefield, readers have been interested in the work for more than two hundred years, and it has become a standard text in the study of the English novel. Similarly, although literary commentators continue to debate Goldsmith’s intent in writing She Stoops to Conquer; or The Mistakes of a Night: A Comedy, audiences unconcerned with possible shades of authorial intent continue to enjoy the play as an entertaining theatrical comedy.
Goldsmith’s works relied on a comic spirit to satirize human folly. Here are some other works with a similar approach:
The Misanthrope (1666), a play by Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (a.k.a. Moliere). This play points out the flaws all humans possess while directly satirizing the hypocrisies of the French aristocracy.
Anti-Matrimony (1910), a play by Percy MacKaye Wycherley. This play satirizes some of the moral folly and intellectual pretensions of the early twentieth century.
27 Heaven (2007), a play by Ian Halperin and author Todd Shapiro. This play is a rock musical that satirizes contemporary popular culture by depicting conversations among four rock icons who died at age 27.
LAURENCE STERNE: Laurence Sterne’s enduring reputation as an author rests upon two works, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1760–1767) and A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy (1768), both of which were written and published during the last nine years of his life. During that time he was the recipient of excessive praise and the target of scathing criticism, heralded as a second François Rabelais, Miguel de Cervantes, or Jonathan Swift, but also condemned as an immoral hypocrite.
Literary Celebrity Sterne was forty-six when the initial volumes of Tristram Shandy were published, and his fictional alter-ego Tristram vowed to produce two additional volumes each year for the remainder of his life. Although the novel received mixed reviews, readers of the time elevated both the book and its author to a phenomenal status of celebrity. A short while after the publication of Tristram Shandy, Sterne happened to be in London and found himself the center of a following that included aristocrats, members of fashionable society, and leading figures in the arts.
The Black Sheep of Eighteenth Century Literature: Tristram Shandy is an unusual work by the literary standards of any period, but it particularly stands out in the century that saw the birth and early development of the realistic novel. While such novels as Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, and Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones display their authors’ attempts to make prose fiction a means for depicting contemporary life, Sterne demonstrates in Tristram Shandy aspirations of an entirely different kind. His characters, although profoundly human, are also profoundly odd and do not have the significant connections with their society held by characters in the great realistic novels of the time; his style is one of cultivated spontaneity and unpredictability, a series of digressions as opposed to the progressive movement of events common in the works of Sterne’s contemporaries; and, perhaps most conspicuously, his narrator is concerned with relating his ‘‘Life and Opinions’’ rather than the more usual ‘‘Life and Adventures’’ of the eighteenth-century bildungsroman (coming-of-age tale), making the novel largely a plotless discourse on an encyclopedic array of subjects. Sterne’s other major work, A Sentimental Journey, is a nonfiction memoir that conveys much the same sensibility as the fictional Tristram Shandy. An account of Sterne’s travels in France and Italy, this memoir has as its central concern the subjective side of the author’s experiences rather than the objective rendering of people and places, which is the more usual concern of the travel writer.
Note: The bildungsroman traces the growth and development of a single character, often from youth to old age. Tristram Shandy is just one classic bildungsroman story; here are some others.
Pamela (1740), a novel by Samuel Richardson. The first epistolary novel—that is, a novel told through a series of letters—this tale follows a young maid who resists her master’s advances until he agrees to marry her. The success of the book led to many more such epistolary tales throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Tom Jones (1749), by Henry Fielding. After writing two parodies of Pamela, Fielding tried his hand at novelwriting (at the time a new form of storytelling); the resulting tale, which follows a boy in his growth to a successful young man, stands as one of the classics of eighteenth-century literature.
The Catcher in the Rye (1951), a novel by J. D. Salinger. This controversial tale of teenage discontent is an account by Holden Caulfield of life following his expulsion from a prep school at the age of sixteen.
Into the Wild (1996), a nonfiction work by Jon Krakauer. This book is an ultimately tragic account of a freespirited, nature-loving young man who leaves his life and family behind in search of his own identity.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001), a film by Chris Columbus. Based on the first book of the bestselling Harry Potter series of novels by J. K. Rowling, this introductory tale follows young Harry as he begins his adventures at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
The Realistic Novel
HENRY FIELDING: The English novel as we recognize it today was shaped in large part by Henry Fielding’s three major novels. But if he had never written a novel, Fielding would have a place in literary history as being for a time one of England’s most popular comic playwrights. And if he had never written a play, Fielding would have a place in political history as an influential journalist and essayist. And if he had never written anything at all, Fielding would still have a place in British history as a reforming judge and the originator of London’s first effective police force. It has often been said that if one could choose only one book from which to learn about England during the eighteenth century, that book should be Fielding’s novel—often regarded as the first novel in English letters—Tom Jones.
Fielding’s first play, Love in Several Masques, premiered in 1728, and for the next seven years Fielding was active as a playwright and theater manager. He specialized in comedies, farces, and satires, the best of which is probably Tom Thumb (1730). Two political satires, Pasquin (1736) and The Historical Register for the Year 1736 (1737), so infuriated the government of the powerful Prime Minister Robert Walpole that all London theaters, except two protected by royal patent, were ordered closed by the Licensing Act of 1737. Fielding’s career as a playwright was over, along with the theatrical careers of many others. Fielding then turned to the study of the law. He continued to oppose the Walpole government by editing a political journal, The Champion (1739–1740), the first of four journals for which he wrote over his lifetime.
The Dialectical Development of the Novel: Against Richardson In 1740, the morally earnest novelist Samuel Richardson published Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded, the story of a servant girl who preserves her virtue against the sexual advances of her aristocratic employer, who later proposes a proper marriage to her. The book was an immediate success. Fielding thought the work was the very essence of moral hypocrisy, and he could not resist spoofing this in an unsigned novella, An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews (1741). Recent critics have noted with chagrin that the success of fiction like Fielding’s and Richardson’s was achieved at precisely the moment of the Great Irish Famine of 1740–41. A critical consensus is emerging that the success of this new art form was related to English readers’ need to distance themselves from the suffering of their neighbors in Ireland, which was at the time an English colony. While 10 percent of the Irish population was starving to death, the new novels were offering moral instruction and convulsive laughter to an ever more appreciative London readership.
Continuing the attack on Richardson, Fielding wrote a bogus sequel to Pamela, giving the heroine a younger brother who likewise resists the sexual advances of his aristocratic lady employer. The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews (1742) begins with the extended joke of the sexual double standard—female virginity being valued so much more than male chastity—but it soon outgrows its satiric origins and becomes a fully developed novel in its own right. Fielding’s preface is a manifesto for the developing genre of the novel.
Fielding’s law practice was not prospering, and the moderate income from Joseph Andrews was not sufficient to provide for his wife and children. Consequently he gathered for publication as Miscellanies (three volumes, 1743) some earlier works, including The History of the Life of the Late Mr. Jonathan Wild, the Great, a savagely ironic account of a notorious London thief whom he equated with all ‘‘great men,’’ Robert Walpole in particular.
The death of his beloved wife, Charlotte, was such a shock to Fielding that his friends feared for his sanity. Yet, during these years, Fielding was creating one of the world’s enduring masterpieces of good humor and convivial optimism, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749).
Fielding’s experiences as judge gave a more serious tone to his last novel, Amelia (1752). The sufferings of the heroine and her irresponsible husband are used to expose flaws in the civil and military institutions of the period. Sick with jaundice, dropsy, and gout, and worn out by overwork, Fielding resigned his post as magistrate and sailed to Lisbon, Portugal, to recuperate. He made his journey the subject of his last work, The Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon, which was published posthumously (1755). Fielding died in Lisbon on October 8, 1754.
Journals: The early eighteenth century was a great age for journalism and essay writing. Increasing literacy rates, an unquenchable thirst for novelty, and a constantly contentious political climate resulted in dozens of journals and newspapers appearing seemingly overnight. Fielding produced three journals in his lifetime in the model of the Tatler and the Spectator, the influential journals of cultural commentary published by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele. Fielding’s journals featured more politics, however, like the journals of Daniel Defoe.
The Rise of the Novel: Many critics consider Tom Jones to be the first novel in English. Novels are long fictional stories that feature ordinary people—sometimes in everyday situations and sometimes in extraordinary circumstances.
The novel emerged as a popular literary genre in the eighteenth century as literacy rates rose, printing costs dropped, and the middle class swelled. A new population of readers emerged, and these people appreciated fiction with which they could identify.
Reimagining the Picaresque: For his novels, Fielding drew heavily upon the inspiration and structure of Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote (1605). In Joseph Andrews, Fielding recasts the brave, idealistic, but absentminded hero of Don Quixote into the figure of Parson Adams. In Tom Jones, Fielding borrows the now familiar formula of the hero-with-bumbling-sidekick from Don Quixote and his squire Sancho Panza, recasting them as the heroic Tom and the naive country bumpkin Benjamin Partridge. Fielding also borrows the on-the-road structure of episodic adventures from Don Quixote known in the Spanish literary tradition as the ‘‘picaresque.’’ In many of these episodes, Fielding draws upon his experience as a successful comic dramatist to create scenes remarkable for their comic timing, sharply drawn characterizations, and complex interweaving of plot and subplots.
Note: Fielding’s Jonathan Wild, Joseph Andrews, and Tom Jones are influenced by the ‘‘picaresque’’—a Spanish genre about the adventures of a trickster or rogue hero, traveling from place to place, getting into trouble with authority figures, and escaping by use of his cleverness and charm. Below are some works about tricksters, as well as about clashes between urban or industrial and rural or agricultural lifetsyles.
Gulliver’s Travels (1726), a novel by Jonathan Swift. Gulliver is more gullible than roguish, but he travels to several remote islands discovering little people, huge people, and talking horses. Gulliver gets himself into trouble by maintaining his English ‘‘common sense’’ values in places with very different assumptions and traditions—the vehicle for Swift’s often bitter satire.
Firefly (2002), a television series created by Joss Whedon. In the twenty-sixth century, a group of smugglers—led by a former sergeant from the losing side of a galactic war—journey across the galaxy and find trouble wherever they go, but always manage to stay one step ahead of the peacekeepers, bounty hunters, and criminals trying to track them down.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), a novel by Mark Twain. In this picaresque novel about a trip on a raft down the Mississippi River, Twain shows what is great and enduring about life in the South, but Huck also encounters all the forces of racism, corruption, and greed that mark a turn of the corner in Southern life on the eve of the Civil War.
The Revival of Comedy in Theatre
R. B. SHERIDAN: Irish author Richard Brinsley Sheridan was both a dramatist and a statesman. He is best known for his contribution to the revival of the English Restoration comedy of manners, which depicts the amorous intrigues of wealthy society. His most popular comedies, The Rivals (1775) and The School for Scandal (1777), display his talent for sparkling dialogue and farce. Like other writers of the genre, Sheridan satirized society, though his dramas reflect gentle morality and sentimentality.
First Success as Playwright: Success for Sheridan began with The Rivals in 1775. Initially, the performance of the play failed because of miscasting and the play’s excessive length. Undaunted by the poor reception, Sheridan recast several roles, abbreviated sections of the play, and reopened it ten days later to a unanimously positive response. The success of The Rivals derived from the use of one of comedy’s oldest devices: the satirizing of manners. The favorable reception of The Rivals led immediately to other opportunities for Sheridan. At Covent Garden on May 2, 1775, his two-act farce St. Patrick’s Day; or, The Scheming Lieutenant appeared and earned for itself a minor place in the afterpiece repertoire. The farce contains many of the elements of The Rivals: idiosyncratic but essentially good-natured characters, scenes of disguise and of revelation, quick, verbal strokes, and a farcical starring role rich in numerous assumed disguises for the principal male actor.
In 1779, Sheridan produced his last successful work, The Critic; or, Tragedy Rehearsed. His last play was Pizarro (1799). A historical drama, Pizarro met with popular acclaim but was soon forgotten. Critics today consider it a disappointing conclusion to Sheridan’s theatrical career.
Note: Sheridan was adept at using the ‘‘reversal of fortune’’ plot line to comic effect. Here are some other works that contain the reversal-of-fortune plot, sometimes known as peripeteia:
Great Expectations (1860–1861), a novel by Charles Dickens. Things change for the poor orphan Pip when he learns of a large fortune coming his way.
The Little Princess (1905), a novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett. A young girl whose father has died in the jungle grows up in poverty, until one day she realizes she is the lost heir to a vast fortune.
Reversal of Fortune (1990), a film by Barbet Schroeder. In this movie based on the true events surrounding husband and wife Claus and Sunny von Bu¨ low, a large fortune is to be gained if a lawyer can wrangle the appeal.
Trading Places (1983), a film directed by John Landis. In this Academy Award–nominated comedy, two wealthy brothers make a bet on whether or not a poor man will be affected by instant wealth.
DAVID HUME (1711-76). Born and educated at Edinburgh, Hume first distinguished himself as a philosopher, publishing A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40) and Essays, Moral and Political (1741 and 1742). Later he turned to historical work, writing The History of England, in six volumes, which appeared between the years 1754 and 1761. At first the work was coldly received, for it traversed the popular Whig notions, but in time the book raised Hume to the position of the leading historian of the day. He died in the same year that witnessed the issue of the first volume of The Decline and Fall. As a historian Hume makes no pretence at profound research, so that his work has little permanent value as history.
William Robertson (1721-93). Robertson also was a Scot, being born in the county of Midlothian. After leaving the university he entered the Scottish Church. He had an active and successful career as a historian, producing among other works The History of Scotland during the Reigns of Queen Mary and of James VI until his Accession to the Crown of England ( 759), The History of Charles V (1769), and The History of America (1771).
JAMES BOSWELL (1740-95) was born in Edinburgh of a good Scottish family. He studied law, but his chief delight was the pursuit of great men, whose acquaintance he greedily cultivated.
He lives in literature by his supreme effort, The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), which ranks as one of the best biographies in existence. Boswell sought and obtained Johnson's friendships endured any humiliation for the sake of improving it; and for twenty-one years, by means of an astonishing amount of patience, pertinacity, and sheer thick-skinned imperviousness to slight and insult, obtained an intimate personal knowledge of Johnson's life and habits. Boswell has suffered at the hands of Macaulay, who has pictured him as being a knavish buffoon. No doubt he had glaring faults; but on the other hand he had great native shrewdness, a vigorous memory, a methodical and tireless industry which made him note down and preserve many details of priceless value, and a natural genius for seizing upon points of supreme literary importance. All these gifts combine to make his book a masterpiece.
EDWARD GIBBON: (His first projected book, A History of Switzerland (1770), was never finished. Then appeared the first volume of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776). At nearly regular intervals of two years each of the other five volumes was produced, the last appearing in 1788. His Autobiography, which contains valuable material concerning his life, is his only other work of any importance] and it is written with all his usual elegance and suave, ironic humour. (To most judges The Decline and Fall ranks as one of the greatest of historical works, and is a worthy example of what a history ought to be. In time it covers more than a thousand years, and in scope it includes all the nations of Europe.
EDMUND BURKE (1729-97): The considerable sum of Burke's achievement can for the sake of convenience be divided into two groups: his purely philosophical writings, and his political pamphlets and speeches.
(a) His philosophical writings, which comprise the smaller division of his product, were composed in the earlier portion of his career. A Vindication of Natural Society (1756) is a parody of the style and ideas of Bolingbroke, and, though it possesses much ingenuity, it has not much importance as an original work. A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1756) is his most considerable attempt at philosophy. As philosophy the book is only middling, for its theory and many of its examples are questionable, but it has the sumptuous dressing of Burke's language and style.
(b) His political works are by far his most substantial claim to fame. In variety, breadth of view, and illuminating power of vision they are unsurpassed in the language. They fall, broadly, into two groups, the speeches and the pamphlets. It is in the former that Burke's artistry and power are at their best. The greatest of them, his speeches On American Taxation (1774) and on Conciliation with the Colonies (1775), are passionate in their pleading and conviction, rich in rhetorical effect, and brilliant in their marshalling of material and in the statesmanlike insight which underlies their arguments. Burke was always at his best when deeply moved, and the rights of the American colonists gave him a subject worthy of his mettle. His speeches during the trial of Warren Hastings (1788-94), though they lack the discerning judgment of his American speeches, are also of a high level. He certainly does less than justice to the motives of Hastings, but the speeches show all his usual power and elan. Of his best known pamphlets, the first to be produced was Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents (1770), a resounding attack on the Tory Government then in power, which, though it falls below his other pamphlets as political thinking, shows all his peculiar qualities of style and method. Then, between 1790 and 1797, appeared a number of pamphlets, of which Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), A Letter to a Noble Lord (1795), and Letters on a Regicide Peace (1797) are the most noteworthy. All three show some falling away from the level reached in his great speeches, perhaps because, as pamphlets, they lacked the stimulus of an immediate audience. Reflections on the Revolution in France, a fierce challenge to the atheistical, revolutionary ideas of the Jacobins, is a fine exposition of his own principles, and, though it lacks something of the architectural skill of his American speeches, it has many fine passages of moving eloquence. A Letter to a Noble Lord, in which Burke defends his right to receive a state pension, is a masterpiece of irony, but Letters on a Regicide Peace is marred by an almost hysterical anger, which impairs much of the judgment and breadth of vision for which he is so renowned.
ADAM SMITH (1723-90). This author was born at Kirkcaldy, in Fifeshire, and completed his education at Glasgow and Oxford. In 1751 he was appointed professor at Glasgow University. He issued his famous book The Wealth of Nations in 1776. In the history of economics the work is epoch-making, for it lays the foundations of modern economic theory. In the history of literature it is noteworthy because it is another example of that spirit of research and inquiry that was abroad at this time, playing havoc with literary convention as well as with many other ideas. The book is also a worthy example of the use of a plain businesslike style in the development of theories of far-reaching importance.
WILLIAM PALEY (1743-1805) may be taken as the typical theological writer of the age. He was a brilliant Cambridge scholar, and obtained high offices in the Church, finally becoming an archdeacon. His chief books are Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (1785), Horoe Paulina: (1790) and A View of the Evidences of Christianity (1794). His style is lively and attractive, and he possessed much vigour of character and intellect.
The Earl of Chesterfield (1694-1773) was of the famous Stanhope family. In his day he was an illustrious wit and man of fashion, and held high political offices. He is an example of the aristocratic amateur in literature, and he wrote elegant articles for the fashionable journals, such as The World. His Letters to his Son, which were published in 1774, shortly after his death, caused a great flutter. They appeared diabolically cynical and immoral, and as such they were denounced by Johnson. No doubt they affect the tired cynicism of the man of the world, but that does not prevent them from being keen.and clever, and underneath their bored indifference to morality they reveal a shrewd judgment of men and manners.
WILLIAM GODWIN (1756-1836) is a prominent example of the revolutionary man of letters of the time. He was the son of a dissenting minister, and intended to follow the same profession, but very soon drifted away from it. He then devoted himself to the pursuit of letters, in which he developed his extreme views on religion, politics, sociology, and other important themes. His Political Justice (1793) was deeply tinged with revolutionary ideas, and had a great effect on many young and ardent spirits of the age, including Shelley. His novel Caleb Williams (1794) was a dressing of the same theories in the garb of fiction. Godwin is worth notice because he reveals the spread of the revolutionary doctrines that were so strongly opposed by Burke.
JEAN-JACQUES ROUSSEAU (1712–1778): Rousseau was a French Enlightenment philosopher who influenced the French Revolution and the development of romanticism.
Note: Some of the major influences on Marx’s thought include social thinkers of the Enlightenment, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau; earlier political economists, notably Smith and Ricardo; Hegel, from whom Marx borrowed his dialectical method; Ludwig Feuerbach, who challenged the Christian assumptions in Hegel’s thought; and the French socialist-anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who attacked the concept of private property. Some scholars have detected the influence of classical Greek thinkers such as Aristotle on Marx’s relentless rationality. One more influence not to be ignored is that of Friedrich Engels, a notable author himself, who had already written The Condition of the Working Class in England (1844) before joining forces with Marx.
James Macpherson (1736-96). [Ossian] This writer was born at Kingussie, in the county of Inverness, and was educated for the Church. He never became a regular ninister, for at the age of twenty he was producing bad poetry, and soon after he definitely adopted a literary career. He travelled in the Highlands of Scotland and abroad, settled in London (1766), and meddled in the politics of the time. Then he entered Parliament, realized a handsome fortune, and died in his native county. After producing some worthless verse in the conventional fashion, in 1760 he issued something very different. It was called Fragments of Ancient Poetry collected in the Highlands of Scotland, and translated from the Gaelic or Erse language. The work received a large share of attention, and a subscription was raised to allow him to travel in the Highlands to glean further specimens of native poetry.
The fruits of this were seen in Fingal (1762) and Temora (1763) Macpherson declared that the books were his translations of the poems of an ancient Celtic bard called Ossian. Immediately a violent dispute broke out, many people (including Johnson) alleging that the books were the original compositions of Macpherson himself. The truth is that he gave substance to a large mass of misty Gaelic tradition, and cast the stories into his peculiar prose style. The controversy hardly matters to us here. What matters is that the tales deal largely with the romantic adventures of a mythical hero called Fingal. They include striking descriptions of wild nature, and they are cast in a rhythmic and melodious prose that is meant to reproduce the original Gaelic poetical measure. As an essay in the Romantic method these works are of very high value.
Thomas Percy (1729-1811), was another ballad-writer who, in addition to collecting the Reliques (1765), composed ballads of his own, such as The Friar of Orders Grey.
Thomas Chatterton: Chatterton's Bristowe Tragedie has much of the fire and sombreness of the old ballads. The brevity and pathos of Chatterton's career have invested it with a fame peculiar in our literature. He is held up as the martyr of genius, sacrificed by the callousness of the public. His fate, however, was largely due to his own vanity and recklessness, and his genius has perhaps been overrated. In 1768, while still at Bristol, he issued a collection of poems which seemed archaic in style and spelling. These, he said, he had found in an ancient chest lodged in a church in Bristol; and he further stated that most of them had been written by a monk of the fifteenth century, by name Thomas Rowley. The collection received the name of The Rowley Poems, and includes several ballads, one of which is The Battle of Hastings, and some descriptive and lyrical pieces, such as the Song to AElla. A slight knowledge of Middle English reveals that they are forgeries thinly disguised with antique spelling and phraseology; but, especially after their author's death, they gained much currency, and had some influence on their time. There is much rubbish in the poems, but in detached passages there is real beauty, along with a marvellous precocity of thought.
Robert Fergusson: Fergusson is chiefly notable as the forerunner of Burns, who was generous in his praise of the earlier poet. His best poems are short descriptive pieces dealing with Scottish life, such as The King's Birthday in Edinburgh, To the Tron-Kirk Bell, and The Farmer's Ingle. This last poem perhaps suggested Burns's The Cotter's Saturday Night. Fergusson gives clear and accurate descriptions, and his use of the vernacular Scots tongue is vigorous and natural, thus providing Burns with a model for his best style.
Tobias Smollett (1721-71). Smollett was a Scotsman, being born in Dumbartonshire. Though he came of a good family, from an early age he had to work for a living. He was apprenticed to a surgeon, and, becoming a surgeon's mate on board a man-of-war, saw some fighting and much of the world. He thus stored up abundant raw material for the novels that were to'follow. When he published The Adventures of Roderick Random (1748) the book was so successful that he settled in London; and the remainder of his life is mainly the chronicle of his works. Roderick Random is an example of the 'picaresque' novel: the hero is a roving dog, of little honesty and considerable roguery; he traverses many lands, undergoing many tricks of fortune, both good and bad. The story lacks symmetry, but it is nearly always lively, though frequently coarse, and the minor characters, such as the seaman Tom Bowling, are of considerable interest. His other novels are The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle (1751), The Adventures of Ferdinand, Count Fathom (1753), The Adventures of Sir Launcelot Greaves (1762), and The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771). The later books follow the plan of the firs'- with some fidelity. Most of the characters are disreputable; the plots are as a rule formless narratives of travel and adventure; and a coarse and brutal humour is present all through. Smollett, however, brings variety into his novels by the endless shifting of the scenes, which cover many portions of the globe, by his wide knowledge and acute perception of local manners and customs, and by his use of a plain and vigorous narrative style.
The Novel of Terror & The Pre-Romantic Novel
Horace Walpole (1717-97). Walpole was the son of Sir Robert Walpole, the famous Whig minister. He touched upon several kinds of literature, his letters being among the best of their kind. His one novel, The Castle of Otranto (1764), is of importance, for it was the first of the productions of a large school (sometimes called the 'terror school') of novelists who dealt with the grisly and; supernatural as their subject. Walpole's novel, which he published almost furtively, saying that it was a translation of a sixteenth century Italian work, described a ghostly castle, in which we have walking skeletons, pictures that move out of their frames, and other blood-curdling incidents. The ghostly machinery is often cumbrous, but the work is creditably done, and as a return to the romantic elements of mystery and fear the book is noteworthy.
Mrs Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823). This lady was the most popular of the terror novelists, and published quite a large number of books that followed a fairly regular plan. Among such were her A Sicilian Romance (1790), The Romance of the Forest (1791), and the most popular of them all, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). Her stories took on almost a uniform plot, involving mysterious manuscripts, haunted castles, clanking chains, and cloaked and saturnine strangers. At the end of all the horrors Mrs Radcliffe rather spoils the effect by giving away the secrets of them, and revealing the fact that the terrors were only illusions after all. Nowadays the novels appear tame, but they showed the way to a large number of other writers, for they were fresh to the public of their time.
Other Terror Novelists. (a) William Beckford (1759-1844). The one novel now associated with Beckford's name is Vathek (1786). Beckford, who was a man of immense wealth and crazy habits, drew largely upon The Arabian Nights for material for the book. The central figure of the novel is a colossal creature, something like a vampire in disposition, who preys upon mankind and finally meets his doom with suitable impressiveness. Beckford had a wild, almost staggering, magnificence of imagination, and his story has been described as the best oriental tale in English.
Matthew Gregory Lewis (1775-1818). Lewis is perhaps the crudest of the terror school, and only one book of his, The Monk (1795), is worth recording. Lewis, who is lavish with his horrors, does not try to explain them. His imagination is grimmer and fiercer than that of arty of the other writers of the same class, and his book is probably the 'creepiest' of its kind.
Frances Burney (1752-1840), whose married name was Madame D'Arblay, is an important figure in the history of the novel. The first of the women novelists, she departed from the preaching morality of Richardson and the extravagances of the horror school to create the novel of domestic life. Her four novels are Evelina (1778), Cecilia (1782), Camilla (1796), and The Wanderer (1814), but her fame rests on the first two. These are written with a fine simplicity of style, and show her to possess a considerable narrative faculty and a great zest for life. Johnson, whose friend ship she enjoyed, called her a "character-monger," a tribute to her large gallery of striking portraits, the best of which are convincing and amusing caricatures of the Dickensian type. Her observation of life was keen and close, and her descriptions of society are in a delightfully satirical vein, in many ways like that of Jane Austen. Evelina is additionally interesting in that it reverts to the epistolary method of Richardson. Her last two novels lack the lightness of touch of the two best; the influence of Dr Johnson upon her style was not a happy one. Fanny Burney's letters and Diary are cleverly satirical and informative pictures of the society life of her day, and the latter in particular exhibits clearly the keen observation of manners, and the eye for a character, which are to be seen in her best novels.
Sense and Sensibility (1811)
Pride and Prejudice (1813)
Mansfield Park (1814)
Northanger Abbey (1818)
An Age of Revolution: One aspect of Austen’s work that has intrigued readers and critics is the surprising lack of mention of the revolutionary and tumultuous world events that marked the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in her novels. Austen was born just one year before the beginning of the American Revolution, an event of momentous importance in British and world history. She was a teenager when the French Revolution began, and must certainly have followed the anti-aristocratic actions of the French revolutionaries with interest and concern. By the first decade of the nineteenth century, almost every European power, including Britain, was locked in a desperate struggle with France’s self-appointed—and seemingly unstoppable—Emperor Napoleon. Only after Napoleon overextended himself by invading Russia in 1812 did his fortunes sour and the tide turn in favor of Britain and its allies. Austen lived through a period of social and political upheaval unlike any other in history, but Austen chose to place her stories in a local context into which the events of the world seemed not to intrude. It seems that personal, social, and artistic considerations likely influenced Austen to avoid even fictional commentary on world events.
Sense and Sensibility appeared in 1811; however, early editions did not include Austen’s name, only that the book had been written by ‘‘A Lady.’’ The novel was well received and the print run sold out by 1813. Not only did her success please her, but the money Austen earned from Sense and Sensibility afforded her a certain independence. Pride and Prejudice, published in 1813, was an immediate success, garnering more favorable reviews. Mansfield Park failed to impress the critics, but had popular success, outselling any of Austen’s other novels during her lifetime.
Excited by her success (which was recognized by public figures such as the Prince Regent who was said to have kept a set of her books at each of his residences), Austen kept working. In 1815 she published Emma, a book about a matchmaking heroine who is unlucky in love, and began work on Persuasion, a mature novel about a woman who gets a second chance.
Note: Jane Austen’s novels often pit spirited heroines against men in a ‘‘battle of the sexes.’’ This theme has been explored in other works of fiction, including:
Gone With the Wind (1939), by Margaret Mitchell. This epic novel follows vivacious Scarlett O’Hara as she survives the Civil War—and a roller-coaster relationship with the dashing Rhett Butler.
Working Girl (1988), a film directed by Mike Nichols, tells the story of a young woman’s tooth-and-nail climb to corporate success in New York.
Star Wars (1977), a film directed by George Lucas, pits insensitive Han Solo against the feisty Princess Leia in a space-opera setting.
I Love Lucy (1951-1957), a TV series created by Desi Arnaz, features Lucille Ball’s humor as a foil to herhusband’s plans and performances.
Marriage and Social Rank: In Austen’s fiction, marriage is the ultimate goal and the primary source of conflict. Ironically, Austen was a spinster throughout her life, but she saw firsthand the perils of relying on a male relative for financial support. Since women at the time were not allowed to own property and there were no lucrative professions for women, women had to rely on family members and marry as soon as possible in order to live comfortably. This created the ‘‘marriage of convenience,’’ in which a woman would marry for money or social standing. However, Austen, who herself turned down a man who was not her intellectual equal, stands firmly on the side of love in marriage. While secondary characters often enter into matches of convenience, Austen’s heroines wait for love.
Battle of the Sexes: Austen specializes in strong, humorous female characters. Though her female characters are often flawed, they are placed in contrast to male characters who are immoral, silly, conniving, or otherwise threaten their happiness. For example, Mansfield Park’s Fanny Price must fend off the advances of Henry Crawford, a playboy she cannot love. Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice must endure the attentions of Mr. Collins, a ridiculous cleric who tries to win her hand, and has her happiness threatened by Wickham, a dashing but immoral suitor who eventually elopes with her sister. While men often threaten women’s social position and future happiness, they also provide entertainment and moral support. The lively exchanges between Elizabeth Bennet and William Darcy are among literature’s most entertaining and humorous dialogues, and readers will not soon forget such sympathetic male characters as Captain Wentworth of Persuasion and Mr. Knightley in Emma.
WILLIAM COWPER: William Cowper was one of the most popular English poets of the eighteenth century and is considered one of the forerunners of Romanticism. His comic ballad ‘‘The Journey of John Gilpin’’ established his literary reputation; his Olney Hymns were incorporated into Evangelical liturgy; and his satires enjoyed widespread popularity. Contemporary critics especially value his correspondence, ranking him among the English language’s finest letter writers. A frail personality hounded by severe depression, he expressed complex psychological currents in his verse.
His mother, Ann Donne Cowper, was a descendant of the Elizabethan poet John Donne. Her death from childbirth complications in 1737 was the first source of William Cowper’s lifelong melancholia, or bouts of depression. The second source came the following year, at Dr. Pitman’s School in Markyate, where Cowper was mercilessly bullied by older boys.
‘‘Delia’’: Cowper recuperated and became a successful student at the Westminster School, following which he was sent to learn the legal profession with a London solicitor named Chapman. While working at Chapman’s office, Cowper frequented the home of his uncle, Ashley Cowper, and three female cousins. By the summer of 1752, he was infatuated with his cousin Theadora. They courted for several years, but her father forbade them to marry. Heartbroken, he penned a sequence of love poems to ‘‘Delia’’; they were released in 1825 as part of Cowper’s second posthumous poetry collection.
Cowper’s Letters: William Cowper’s letters are widely admired, especially those he wrote to William Unwin, Mary’s son, and his cousin Harriot Hesketh, Theadora’s sister. The private audience of these cultivated friends released the sparkling wit, disarming candor, and astute
observations that make his correspondence a unique literary phenomenon. Cowper suffered several more breakdowns in his later years. The lengthy illness and death of his longtime companion Mary Unwin in 1795 sent him into despondency.
Retreat to the Countryside: When he left the hospital in 1765, he lived in Huntingdon as a boarder at the family home of an Evangelical minister, the Reverend Morley Unwin. He was drawn to the maternal figure of Mary Unwin, the minister’s wife. After the sudden death of Rev. Unwin in 1767, Cowper and the rest of the household moved to Olney. Cowper enjoyed the peace of this rural town and began to concentrate on writing, starting with an autobiography (that would be published after his death). He came at once under the influence of the Reverend John Newton, an Evangelical and former slave trader. The two men collaborated on the Olney Hymns (1779), of which the most famous is ‘‘Amazing Grace,’’ written by Newton. Cowper’s lyrics place him in the first rank of English hymnodists; several remain in regular congregational use.
In 1780 a relative of Cowper’s, the Reverend Martin Madan, published a curious treatise named Thelyphthora, an argument for polygamy as a social alternative to prostitution. At John Newton’s urging, Cowper responded with Anti-Thelyphthora (1781), a long poem deftly combining satire with religious fervor. The same combination infused Cowper’s Poems (1782), which became known as the ‘‘Moral Satires.’’ These didactic verses were praised for
their vigor, spontaneity, and hard-hitting enunciation of Evangelical doctrine.
The Task: Cowper’s next volume, The Task (1785), won him universal critical esteem. This five-thousand-line poem, written in a relaxed blank verse, is considered his masterpiece. A broad investigation of man, nature, and society, it is also the first extended autobiographical poem in English. The scope of its satiric and patriotic interests, alongside its explorations of rural and domestic life, make The Task a truly national poem. The public aspects of the poem, however, are interwoven with distinctly personal ones. Cowper extols the skill of the gardener, who represents harmony with nature, and the imagination of the poet, who provides access to beauty and wisdom. Finding joy and peace in the presence of nature, Cowper proclaims, is the touchstone of spiritual wholeness. The Task made Cowper’s a household name for the next few decades. Augmenting his fame, in the same volume, was ‘‘The Journey of John Gilpin,’’ a narrative ballad ostensibly about the adventures of a tailor, but in reality a raucous parody of poetic conventions.
Fear and Fervor: Cowper’s mental illness, and constant fear of God’s wrath, influenced the thematic content of his writing, from his Memoir to his religious poetry. His Olney Hymns describe inward states of conflict, insecurity, and agony in a hostile universe occasionally relieved by a glimmer of hope for salvation. Even light, satirical pieces such as ‘‘The Journey of John Gilpin’’ are touched with melancholy and a sense of man’s inexorable loneliness. Lord David Cecil named his biography of Cowper after a telling image from The Task: ‘‘The Stricken Deer.’’ It is a suitable summation of Cowper’s poetic stance.
Note: William Cowper wrote several lyrics for the Olney Hymns that are still sung regularly in Evangelical congregations. The Christian hymn is among the most enduring of musical forms, as the following titles demonstrate:
‘‘A Mighty Fortress Is Our God’’ (c. 1527), a hymn by Martin Luther. The best-known hymn by the foremost Protestant leader; sometimes called ‘‘The Battle Hymn of the Reformation.’’
‘‘Amazing Grace’’ (1779), a hymn by John Newton. The most famous song of the Olney Hymns and one of the most popular of all Christian hymns.
‘‘Silent Night’’ (c. 1818), a hymn by Josef Mohr; music by Franz Xaver Gruber. One of the most popular Christmas carols; in the original German, ‘‘Stille Nacht.’’
‘‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’’ (c. 1860), a hymn by Wallace (often spelled ‘‘Wallis’’) Willis. An African American spiritual, often sung at English rugby matches.
‘‘In the Upper Room’’ (1947), a hymn by Lucie Campbell. Written by the first woman among the great gospel composers, this song is indelibly associated with the powerful voice of the late gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.
‘‘Auld Lang Syne’’ (1788)
‘‘The Battle of Sherramuir’’ (1790)
‘‘Tam o’ Shanter’’ (1791)
‘‘A Red, Red Rose’’ (1794)
Poet Robert Burns recorded and celebrated aspects of farm life, regional experience, traditional culture, class culture and distinctions, and religious practice and belief in such a way as to transcend the specific nature of his inspiration, becoming finally the national poet of Scotland. Although he did not set out to achieve that designation, he clearly and repeatedly expressed his wish to be called a Scotch bard, to extol his native land in poetry and song.
A Lover of Women and Poetry: While a young man, Burns acquired a reputation for charm and wit and began to indulge in romance. He once attributed the beginnings of his poetry to his sensuality:
‘‘There is certainly some connection between Love and Music and Poetry…
I never had the least thought or inclination of turning poet till I once got heartily in love, and then rhyme and song were, in a manner, the spontaneous language of my heart.’’
Freedom and Love: The topic of freedom—political, religious, personal, and sexual—dominates Burns’s poetry and songs. Burns’s innumerable love poems and songs are acknowledged to be touching expressions of the human experience of love in all its phases: the sexual love of ‘‘The Fornicator,’’ the emotion of ‘‘A Red, Red Rose,’’ and the happiness of a couple grown old together in ‘‘John Anderson, My Jo.’’
Scottish Nationalism Burns’s deep interest in Scotland’s poetic heritage and folkloric tradition resulted in his amending or composing more than three hundred songs, for which he refused payment, maintaining that this labor was rendered in service to Scotland. Each written to an existing tune, the songs are mainly simple yet affecting lyrics of the common concerns of love and life. A great part of Burns’s continuing fame rests on such songs as ‘‘Green Grow the Rashes O’’ and, particularly, ‘‘Auld Lang Syne.’’
Note: Burns’s use of the Scottish vernacular is one of the most distinctive aspects of his poetry. Other poets have used the same approach in their work:
Barrack-Room Ballads, a poetry collection by Rudyard Kipling. Like Burns, Kipling wrote poetry in a distinctive regional dialect of the British Isles, in this case the Cockney slang of the common British enlisted man.
Lyrics of a Lowly Life, a poetry collection by Paul Laurence Dunbar. Although most of his poems were written in conventional English, Dunbar, an African American poet, was one of the first to write poems in the dialect of Southern black culture, as in this 1896 collection.
The Works of D. H. Lawrence, a collection by D. H. Lawrence. Many of Lawrence’s poems were written in the dialect of his native Nottinghamshire, what critic Ezra Pound called ‘‘the low-life narrative.’’
Songs of Jamaica, a poetry collection by Claude McKay. Published in 1912, these poems were the first published in McKay’s native patois, an English-African hybrid language of the Caribbean islands. McKay would go on to be a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance of black writers and artists during the 1920s.
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793)
Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1794)
The First Book of Urizen (1794)
The Book of Los (1795)
Jerusalem: The Emancipation of the Giant
William Blake was an English poet, engraver, and painter. An imaginative rebel in both his thought and his art, he combined poetic and pictorial genius to explore important issues in politics, religion, and psychology. Considered insane and mostly discounted by his contemporaries, Blake’s reputation as a visionary artist grew after his death.
Fusion of Art and Poetry with New Printing Process: From his early teens on, Blake wrote poems, often setting them to melodies of his own composition. When he was twenty-six, a collection entitled Poetical Sketches was printed with the help of the Reverend and Mrs. Mathew, who held a cultural salon and were patrons of Blake. This volume was the only one of Blake’s poetic works to appear in conventional printed form. He later invented and practiced a new method.
In 1787, Blake moved to Poland Street, where he produced Songs of Innocence (1789) as the first major work in his new process. This book was later complemented by Songs of Experience (1794). The magnificent lyrics in these two collections systematically contrast the unguarded openness of innocence with the cynicism of experience. They are a milestone in the history of the arts, not only because they exhibit originality and high quality but because they are a rare instance of the successful fusion of two art forms by one man.
Age of Revolution Sparks Blake’s Imagination: After a brief period of admiration for the religious thinker Emanuel Swedenborg, Blake produced a disillusioned reaction titled The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790– 1793). In this satire, the ‘‘devils’’ are identified with energy and creative genius, and the ‘‘angels’’ with repression of desire and the oppressive aspects of order and rationality.
Blake had become a political radical and sympathized with the American Revolution and with the French Revolution during its early years. At Poland Street and shortly after his move to Lambeth in 1793, Blake composed and etched short ‘‘prophetic’’ books concerning these events, religious and political repression in general, and the more basic repression of the individual psyche, which he came to see as the root of institutional tyranny. Among these works, all composed between 1793 and 1795, are America, Europe, The Book of Urizen, The Book of Los, The Song of Los, and The Book of Ahania. In these poems, Blake began to work out the powerful mythology he refined in his later and longer ‘‘prophecies.’’ He presented this mythology in his first epic-length poem, The Four Zoas (c. 1795–1803), which was never published.
Felpham Period: Blake spent the years 1800–1803 working in Felpham, Sussex, with William Hayley, a minor poet and man of letters. Hayley tried to push Blake toward more profitable undertakings, such as painting ladies’s fans, but Blake rebelled and returned to London. One result of this conflict was Blake’s long poem Milton (c. 1800–1810). In this work, the spiritual issues involved in his quarrel with Hayley are allegorized. Blake’s larger themes are dramatized through an account of the decision of the poet Milton to renounce the safety of heaven and return to earth to rectify the errors of the Puritan heritage he had fostered.
Picture Books: Blake did not write or draw specifically for children, but he believed that children could read and understand his works. He was opposed to the kind of moralistic writing for children that was done by the clergyman Isaac Watts, whose Divine and Moral Songs for Children, published in 1715, taught readers to be hardworking and avoid idleness and mischief. Blake believed that children—and adults, for that matter—should be allowed the freedom to dream and imagine. His first biographer, Alexander Gilchrist, said in his Life of William Blake: Pictor Ignotus that Blake ‘‘neither wrote nor drew for the many, hardly for the workday men at all, rather for children and angels.’’ He called Blake ‘‘‘a divine child,’ whose playthings were sun, moon, and stars, the heavens and the earth.’’ Children are also the subjects of many of his works. Since Blake also did the illustrations for his writings, some authorities consider his works to be forerunners of the picture-book form.
Revolutionary Politics: The storming of the Bastille in Paris in 1789 and the agonies of the French Revolution sent shock waves through England. Some hoped for a corresponding outbreak of liberty in England while others feared a breakdown of the social order. In much of his writing Blake argues against the monarchy. In his early Tiriel (c. 1789), Blake traces the fall of a tyrannical king. Blake also consistently portrays civilization as chaotic, a direct reflection of the tumultuous times in which he lived.
Politics was surely often the topic of conversation at the publisher Joseph Johnson’s house, where Blake was often invited. There Blake met important literary and political figures such as William Godwin, Joseph Priestly, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Thomas Paine. According to one legend, Blake is even said to have saved Paine’s life by warning him of his impending arrest. Whether or not that is true, it is clear that Blake was familiar with some of the leading radical thinkers of his day. Another product of the radical 1790s is The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Written and etched between 1790 and 1793, Blake’s poem brutally satirizes oppressive authority in church and state. The poem also satirizes the works of Emanuel Swedenborg, the Swedish philosopher whose ideas once attracted Blake’s interests. Blake’s work influenced a diverse assortment of later writers and artists, including Irish poet William Butler Yeats, American poet Allen Ginsberg, children’s book author and artist Maurice Sendak, and songwriter Bob Dylan.
Blake’s Critical Recovery: The publication in 1863 of Alexander Gilchrist’s Life of William Blake: Pictor Ignotus helped save Blake’s works from obscurity and established Blake as a major literary figure. Gilchrist’s biography motivated other studies of Blake, including Swinburne’s 1868 study of Blake’s prophecies. In the early twentieth century, John Sampson’s 1905 edition of The Poetical Works, provided a solid text for serious study of Blake as did A.G.B. Russell’s 1912 catalogue The Engravings of William Blake, which reproduced many engravings. Joseph Wicksteed’s 1910 study, Blake’s Vision of the Book of Job, provided a close analysis of Blake’s designs and helped to demonstrate that Blake’s art should be interpreted in careful detail.
Note: Blake was best known for exploring the role and value of imagination in humanity’s search for truth. Here are some other works that have similar themes:
Lyrical Ballads (1798), by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Lyrical Ballads sought to emphasize personal experience and imagination over abstract language and themes.
A Vision (1937), by William Butler Yeats. Yeats was greatly influenced by Blake and worked to create his own symbolic mythology in this dense and complex treatise.
Howl (1956), by Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg’s seminal work of the Beat Generation lauded the misfits and rebels whose minds, he claimed, were ‘‘destroyed by madness’’ brought on by the constraints of 1950s American social life. Ginsberg was influenced deeply by Blake, even claiming to have had a vision in which Blake’s voice helped him understand the interconnectedness of the universe.
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
16. The Romantic Age