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Overview of 18th Century Poetry

Updated on February 25, 2013

The literature appearing between 1660 and 1785 divides conveniently into three shorter periods of about 40 years each. The first period, known as Restoration literature, extends from 1660 to the death of Dryden in 1700. It is characterized by an effort to bring new refinement to English literature according to sound critical principles of what is fitting and right. The second period, known as the Augustan Age, ended with the deaths of Pope in 1744 and Swift in 1745. This age extended the efforts of Restoration literature to a wider circle of readers, with special satirical attention to what is unfitting and wrong. The third period, known as “the Age of Johnson”, concluded with the death of Samuel Johnson in 1784. This period confronted the old principles with revolutionary ideas that would come to the forefront in the Romantic movement of the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century.

There are historical occurrences that separate these periods of literature in the eighteenth century: conflicts in leadership, politics, religion, publication, and common culture reflect literature. For example, we mark the first period of eighteenth century literature with 1660, the year Charles II was restored to the English crown. Two major poetical works that emerge from this event that we read in class was Annus Mirabilis by John Dryden – Dryden was named a poet laureate in1668 and a Historiographer Royal in 1670, he also was a supporter of Charles II - and Paradise Lost by John Milton – Milton was a puritan commonwealth supporter and supported Oliver Cromwell. Between 1689 and 1707 sparked another change with the Glorious Revolution and the Act of Union; these major historical events lead right into the poetic works of the Augustan Age with poets such as Swift, Pope, and Gay. After the deaths of Pope and Swift in 1744-45, we see the emergence of new literary themes and modes which results in poetry losing the status of being the standard of literature to prose. The forerunners of this micro-movement were Samuel Johnson, Lawrence Sterne, and the economic innovator Adam Smith, up until Johnson’s death in 1784, which by then, Wordsworth and Coleridge were beginning the Romantic Movement and English monarchy feared an uprising similar to the French Revolution across the channel.

Beginning with the Restoration Literature, 1660-1700, John Dryden brought England a combination of cosmopolitan outlook on the latest European trends with the richness and variety he admired in Chaucer and Shakespeare. In most of the important contemporary forms – occasional verse, comedy, tragedy, heroic play, ode, satire, translation, and critical essay – both of his example and his precepts influenced others. As a Royalist, he used his abilities as a poet to encourage support for the king. He wrote in particular verse forms because they added dignity to his subject matter. He often chose to write in iambic pentameter, and rhyming in pairs. Dryden particularly mastered the heroic couplet. In class this semester, we read Dryden’s Annus Mirabilis, which follows this format; it is a poem that is used almost as a campaigning speech in support of Charles II. It is labeled as a ‘Historical Poem’ as well; it contains rich context surrounding the year 1667, the ‘Year of Miracles’. Ironically, however, it was a year of incredible tragedy for Great Britain. England was losing a naval war against the Dutch, the Great Fire raged in London’s city center for seven days straight, and the Black Plague festered across the island.

Even though the period’s primary writer, Dryden - who wrote in a simple, clear, and polished style - John Milton’s poetry may be the model of Restoration literature. Milton’s writings contain all the classical genres, such as the epic, which were enjoyed alongside new modes of expression. We see this evidently in Paradise Lost, widely regarded as the greatest English epic. In essence, Restoration literature reflects a return to classical roots and the appeal of the court life. The heroic ideal and its accompanying literary forms remained in vogue.

Continuing into the second period of eighteenth century literature known as the Augustan Age came satirical writings stemming from Tory rationalism and traditionalism. Although classical genres did not drop out of vogue completely, much lighter modes of expression became progressively more popular with the increasingly literate public. Newspapers and journals enjoyed immense success, catering to the tastes and interests of the middle class. The novel form also emerged out of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, which struck a major turning point in popular genres, and the standard of literature, eventually taking poetry out of the spotlight.

Poetry that emerged from John Swift, Alexander Pope, and John Gay consolidated and popularized the social graces of the Restoration literature; determined to preserve good sense and civilized values, they turned their wit against fanaticism and innovation. They wrote deeply conservative but also playful; their finest works often cast a strange light on modern times by viewing them through the screen of classical myths and forms. Together – Swift, Pope, and Gay – wrote their works in a private club. Ultimately, their effort to popularize and enforce high literary and social values was set against the new mass and multiplicity of writings that responded more spontaneously to the expanding commercial and financial possibilities of print. In Alexander Pope’s The Dunciad, we see Pope’s resistance to ‘Grub Street Poets’ or simply poets who wrote horrible poetry only to make a living. However, the satirical poetry that emerged from these poets is not the limits of what the Augustan Age produced. Eventually, we see a few different major themes of poetry that appear in urbanism, pastorals, and Georgic poetry.

The eighteenth-century industrial revolution constituted the achievement of sustained economic growth by improved technologies. Previously, production had been limited. At considerable social cost and dislocation, industrialism produced more goods and services than ever before in human history. This new means of production demanded new kinds of skills, new discipline in work, and a larger labor force. The wealth produced by industrialism upset the political and social structures of the Old Regime. Industrialization undermined traditional communities and, along with the growth of cities, displaced many people. Ultimately, new agricultural techniques and expanding population created pressures on social structures. In addition, as commerce grew (agriculture and industry) more people flocked to already expanding cities. As a result, unsanitary conditions, and pollution skyrocket; yet socializing with others and the availability of goods and services became an effortless endeavor.

Many Augustan poets tackle the joint issue industrialism/urbanism in their writings such as Jonathon Swift’s A Description of the Morning/A Description of a City Shower, Mary Wortley Montagu’s Town Eclogues, andJohn Gay’s Trivia, or The Art of Walking the Streets of London. For example, in John Gay’s Trivia, Gay describes the perils of walking in London in the 1710’s. It is a Georgic poem that advises its readers on how to dress (including what boots to wear), how to avoid falling buildings, pots being thrown out of windows, overflowing gutters, thieves, and carriages that splash mud. He essentially characterizes the city as a negative and dangerous place to dwell. Yet, however trivial and Trivia’s content is, Gay still retains the heroic couplet form with a Horatian satiric manner; the length of the entire poem is approximately 1000 lines, and is divided in three ‘books’.

In response to the rapidly industrializing world, Raymond Williams’ Town and Country argued that the foundation of the ‘pastoral’ lies in the idea that the city was a highly urban, industrialized center that has removed people from the peaceful life in the countryside. However, he states that this is really “a myth functioning as a memory” that literature has created in its representations of the past. As a result, when society evolves and looks back to these representations, it considers its own present as the decline of the simple life of the past. He discusses how the city’s relationship with the country affected the economic and social aspects of the countryside.

The literature produced in opposite of the industrializing city-life, and praised the country-life was pastoral literature. Often times, pastoral literature depicted scenes of herding livestock, open land, seasons and their transitions, and agriculture processes. Although pastoral poetry was developed long before the eighteenth-century with the poetry of Hesiod and was popular throughout the English languages’ history, the formal English pastoral continued to flourish in the eighteenth century. Andrew Marvell’s “Upon Appleton House” was a major eighteenth-century pastoral poem. It was written when Marvell was working as a tutor for Lord Fairfax's daughter Mary, in 1651. The poem is very rich with metaphors that relate to religion, politics and history. Marvell's poem describes a pastoral estate; it moves through the house itself, its history, the gardens, the meadows and other grounds, the woods, the river, his Pupil Mary, and the future. Marvell uses nature as a thread to weave together a poem that centers on the relationship of man and nature. Marvell also continuously compares nature to art and seems to point out that art can never accomplish on purpose what nature can achieve accidentally or spontaneously. Ultimately, all nature, like art, needs to be tamed by man in order to become something beautiful. Otherwise, nature is sublime – mystifying and dangerous.

John Dryden’s 1697 poetic translation of Virgil's Georgics sparked a renewed interest in agricultural poetry and country life amongst the more educated classes during the eighteenth century. In England poets wrote their own Virgilian-styled ‘Georgics’ and country themed pieces with an emphasis on pastoral lifestyle, and an embracement of a happy life on the country estate. Dutch influence on English farming also paved a way for the poem’s rebirth since Roman farming practices still prevailed in Holland. English farmers had a go at imitating what they thought were genuine Virgilian agricultural techniques. Virgilian-style farming manuals finally gave way to agricultural innovations resulted from industrialization; a characteristic of Georgic poetry was to write content as if replicating these farming manuals. They often were outlined as a ‘how to do’ or ‘what to do’ guides.

In 18th Century English poetry, the Georgics are based on husbandry, labor, slaves, and didacticism. Another characteristic of Georgic poetry was to take small matters and elevate them to a national scale. For example, the British oak tree was not simply a ‘tree’, rather it is representative of Great Britain as whole – it is especially symbolic of Britain’s world renowned Royal Navy. Other major Georgic poems in the 18th Century are Philips’s Cyder, Gay’s Rural Sports, Smart’s The Hop Garden, Duck’s Thresher’s Labor, and Collier’s Woman’s Labour.

For example, Gay published Rural Sports, a poem of 443 lines, Georgic-style, in January 1713. Like a Georgic, Rural Sports focuses on rural activities, but in Gay's poetical descriptions of pursuits of pleasure replace traditional Virgilian Georgic descriptions of the labor involved in cultivating the land. Virgil celebrates the life of the farmer as the moral and political basis of national health, whereas Gay praises the leisure that rural living has to offer such as fishing, hunting, and shooting in order to live a healthy life, while at the same time gently mocking the idyll he describes. Rural Sports contains all the components of ideal Augustan poetry: pastoral versus city, labor versus leisure, didactical versus satirical content, while still retaining the heroic forms of Restoration literature.

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