The 18th century

Augustan Satire

In Restoration London, the court was not very important. Wealthy citizens now began to meet in coffee houses, where they did business and exchanged reports of the latest news. The wealthy were now involved in the search for profit, although with their new wealth they tended to buy country estates and titles. The “wit” with which young men like Donne had tried to impress powerful courtiers a century before was now applied in daily conversation to impress one’s colleagues. The dominant tone was satire because almost every aspect of traditional society had become fragile and uncertain, while there was much corruption.

The name “Augustan Age” given to the early 18th century reflects the sense of new beginnings and increased prosperity that marked the first years of the Roman Empire, (Augustus was the first Roman emperor) although England very precisely had no Augustus ruling it with dictatorial powers. Instead it had a new Horace (great Augustan poet of satire) in Alexander Pope. His writing reflects the intense tensions that were at work in him and the society of his time, between tra
dition and innovation. In Parliament these tensions were shown in the division between “Tories” and “Whigs” as political “parties” began to evolve.

One element of conflict was the difference between “town” and “country.” The older nobility owned land in the “shires” and lived as gentry without needing much money; the newly rich and dynamic class lived in the towns and cities. Their money was invested to make more money. The values of the Tory countryside were conservative, nostalgic for the past, royalist and Anglican. The Whigs represented the radical new ways of urban capitalism, many were “non-conformist” (Presbyterian), not nostalgic but rather upstart and forward-looking.

The disappearance of the court as a focus of power and the rising importance of the House of Commons, led to a massive increase in the power of “public opinion” and this in turn was reflected by increasing public debate of every issue and policy. The growth of the influence of the press went hand in had with a realization that journalism was not always reponsible, that the “news” reported was not always true. Many of the Augustan concerns sprang from a sense that truth was becoming the victim of modern finance. Their desire was therefore to educate people through their writings to think clearly and wisely, so that they could distinguish the folly and falsehood of modern society from what was of real value.

The Augustans were people of sharp intelligence who had been deeply influenced by the developments in philosophy of the previous 100 years, beginning with Galileo, Montaigne and Descartes. In England, Francis Bacon was followed by Thomas Hobbes (author of Leviathan) and the extremes of Hobbes’s materialism provoked the work of John Locke and George Berkeley. This latter, born in Ireland, was close to the Augustans. At the same time, science (known as natural philosophy) was developing, with Isaac Newton the crowning glory. His Principia Mathematica was published in 1687, the Opticks in 1704, and his message of the universal harmony sustaining the universe underlies the optimism of the 18th century’s Rationalism and Enlightenment.

Alexander Pope (1688-1744)

    Pope’s family was Catholic and as a result were obliged to live outside of London after the events of 1688. He had a tutor but mostly studied alone. He spent much of his adult life in Twickenham, up the Thames from London. In his childhood he contracted a disease which left him stunted, deformed and hunch-backed, although his head grew to the normal size and his face was of striking beauty. The double handicap of Catholicism and physical deformity meant that he was cruelly treated in many ways and he came to value immensely the people who gave him their friendship. His closest companion in youth was Jonathan Swift, who then went to Ireland and later wrote “Gulliver’s Travels.”

Pope’s talents as a poet were accompanied by a sharp desire to chastise folly. He made his money by translating Homer into classically dignified “heroic couplets” (the most popular kind of verse since Denham and Dryden); he made his enemies in many ways, and wrote poems to vindicate himself. The tone of his poems is always calm, reasonable, detached, but the satire is sharp and sometimes extreme.

    In his youth, Pope established his reputation with his Essay on Criticism (1711) and The Rape of the Lock (a mock heroic poem on a stolen lock of hair). After the Homer translations were done, the Illiad in 1720, the Odyssey in 1726, he edited Shakespeare. In later years, following Horace, he wrote a number of epistles; An Essay on Man (1733-4) is a philosophical poem in four epistles, which were published separately. The first three were anonymous, and critics habitually hostile to Pope acclaimed them, only to be made to look foolish when the last was published with the poet’s name.
From Epistle 2

Know, then, thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is man.
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the stoic's pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a god, or beast;
In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reasoning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much:
Chaos of thought and passion, all confused;
Still by himself abused, or disabused;
Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

The four Moral Essays (1731-5) include an Epistle Of the knowledge and Characters of Men and the Epistle on Women. At the same time he published a number of splendid, free translations of the Satires of Horace, transposing them to contemporary London. The Dunciad is perhaps his fiercest satire, a mock-epic that expanded until its final form was published in 1743.

Sensibility before Romanticism

    Pope and the other Augustans sometimes seem utterly intellectual and skeptical; yet their sense of irony, their awareness of the contradictions that co-exist within the apparent harmonies of classicism, underlie the birth of the novel and its development at least as far as Jane Austen. At the same time, Pope was strongly interested in landscape gardening, the expoitation of the natural within the artificial, and in this he was not alone. The Augustan age was marked by a growing interest in the “picturesque” that was slowly to develop into a taste for the “Gothic” which begins to be visible in the mid-18th century’s taste for medieval ruins. Before Romanticism, among the earliest novels we find a number of “Gothic novels” set in the middle ages or in medieval buildings.

    Nature in itself had been part of renaissance literature mainly in pastoral poetry. The first poem to celebrate nature from a new, often Newtonian, perspective was James Thomson’s The Seasons (1726-30). Here we begin to find a new sense of the “sublime” in the evocation of storms. At the same time as Pope was writing in a satirical, often acid tone about the corruptions of urban society, Thomson (who was born and educated in Scotland) was offering readers a completely un-ironic picture of the appearance of the natural countryside through the different seasons, seen reflecting Newton's harmony. Yet his diction is as artificial as that of Pope and later romantics turned against him. The Seasons remained immensely popular and long continued to be published.

In art, the English painters of the 18th century produced a vast number of portraits, corresponding to the wealth of the upper classes. Sir Joshua Reynolds and John Gainsborough were the most famous portrait painters. The carcicatures of William Hogarth were also originally paintings, before being copied as cheap engravings.

    Thomas Gray (1716-1771) lived a very quiet life. As a young man he was at Eton with Horace Walpole, who later became one of the first admirers of “the Gothic” and the author of  The Castle of Otranto (1764), the first Gothic novel. Gray moved to Cambridge in 1742 and began to write poetry. His small number of works include the Elegy printed below (1751), by far the most popular and for almost 2 centuries one of the most popular poems in English. He then wrote The Progress of Poesy and The Bard, both much more intense and “romantic” with a greater sense of the numinous and the sublime. He travelled in the Lake District and Scotland in search of sublime landscpaes and traditional poetry.

Thomas Gray : Elegy written in a Country Churchyard

1.    The Curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
2.    The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea,
3.    The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
4.    And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

5.    Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,
6.    And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
7.    Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
8.    And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds;

9.      Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tow'r
10.    The moping owl does to the moon complain
11.    Of such as, wand'ring near her secret bow'r,
12.    Molest her ancient solitary reign.

13.    Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree's shade,
14.    Where heaves the turf in many a mould'ring heap,
15.    Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
16.    The rude Forefathers of the hamlet sleep.

17.    The breezy call of incense-breathing Morn,
18.    The swallow twitt'ring from the straw-built shed,
19.    The cock's shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,
20.    No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed.

21.    For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,
22.    Or busy housewife ply her evening care:
23.    No children run to lisp their sire's return,
24.    Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share.

25.    Oft did the harvest to their sickle yield,
26.    Their furrow oft the stubborn glebe has broke:
27.    How jocund did they drive their team afield!
28.    How bow'd the woods beneath their sturdy stroke!

29.    Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
30.    Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
31.    Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
32.    The short and simple annals of the poor.

33.    The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow'r,
34.    And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
35.    Awaits alike th' inevitable hour:
36.    The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

37.    Nor you, ye Proud, impute to These the fault,
38.    If Memory o'er their Tomb no Trophies raise,
39.    Where through the long-drawn aisle and fretted vault
40.    The pealing anthem swells the note of praise.

41.    Can storied urn or animated bust
42.    Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
43.    Can Honour's voice provoke the silent dust,
44.    Or Flatt'ry soothe the dull cold ear of death?

45.    Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
46.    Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
47.    Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway'd,
48.    Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre.

49.    But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page
50.    Rich with the spoils of time did ne'er unroll;
51.    Chill Penury repress'd their noble rage,
52.    And froze the genial current of the soul.

53.    Full many a gem of purest ray serene
54.    The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear:
55.    Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
56.    And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

(. . . . . . . ) 

The first novels

(Click here for a full account of the development of the English novel)

(Those bolded remain popular today)

Samuel Richardson  (1689-1761) 1740 Pamela; 1748 Clarissa : The History of a Young Lady; 1749 Sir Charles Grandison
Henry Fielding  (1707-1754) 1742 Joseph Andrews; 1743 Jonathan Wild the Great; 1749 Tom Jones; 1751 Amelia
Tobias Smollett  (1721-1771) 1748 Roderick Random; 1751 Peregrine Pickle; 1771 The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker;
Laurence Sterne  (1713-1768) 1760 The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy; 1768 Sentimental Journey
Oliver Goldsmith  (1728-1774) 1766 The Vicar of Wakefield
Henry Mackenzie  (1745-1831) 1771 The Man of Feeling
Horace Walpole  (1717-1797) 1765 The Castle of Otranto
Frances Burney  1752-1840) 1778 Evelina; 1782 Cecilia; 1796 Camilla
Ann Radcliffe  (1764-1823) 1794 The Mysteries of Udolpho; 1797 The Italian
"Monk" Lewis  (1775-1818) 1796 The Monk
William Godwin  (1756-1836) 1794 Caleb Williams
William Beckford  (1760-1844) 1786 The Caliph Vathek