History of English Literature
English Literature, literature produced in England, from the introduction of Old English by the Anglo-Saxons in the 5th century to the present. The works of those Irish and Scottish authors who are closely identified with English life and letters are also considered part of English literature
This period extends from about 450 to 1066, the year of the Norman-French conquest of England. The Germanic tribes from Europe who overran England in the 5th century, after the Roman withdrawal, brought with them the Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, language, which is the basis of Modern English. They brought also a specific poetic tradition, the formal character of which remained surprisingly constant until the termination of their rule by the Norman-French invaders six centuries later.
Much of Old English poetry was probably intended to be chanted, with harp accompaniment, by the Anglo-Saxon scop, or bard. Often bold and strong, but also mournful and elegiac in spirit, this poetry emphasizes the sorrow and ultimate futility of life and the helplessness of humans before the power of fate. Almost all this poetry is composed without rhyme, in a characteristic line, or verse, of four stressed syllables alternating with an indeterminate number of unstressed ones. This line strikes strangely on ears habituated to the usual modern pattern, in which the rhythmical unit, or foot, theoretically consists of a constant number (either one or two) of unaccented syllables that always precede or follow any stressed syllable. Another unfamiliar but equally striking feature in the formal character of Old English poetry is structural alliteration, or the use of syllables beginning with similar sounds in two or three of the stresses in each line.
All these qualities of form and spirit are exemplified in the epic poem Beowulf written in the 8th century. Beginning and ending with the funeral of a great king, and composed against a background of impending disaster, it describes the exploits of a Scandinavian cultural hero, Beowulf, in destroying the monster Grendel, Grendel's mother, and a fire-breathing dragon. In these sequences Beowulf is shown not only as a glorious hero but as a savior of the people. The Old Germanic virtue of mutual loyalty between leader and followers is evoked effectively and touchingly in the aged Beowulf's sacrifice of his life and in the reproaches heaped on the retainers who desert him in this climactic battle. The extraordinary artistry with which fragments of other heroic tales are incorporated to illumine the main action, and with which the whole plot is reduced to symmetry, has only recently been fully recognized.
Another feature of Beowulf is the weakening of the sense of the ultimate power of arbitrary fate. The injection of the Christian idea of dependence on a just God is evident. That feature is typical of other Old English literature, for almost all of what survives was preserved by monastic copyists. Most of it was actually composed by religious writers after the early conversion of the people from their faith in the older Germanic divinities.
Sacred legend and story were reduced to verse in poems resembling Beowulf in form. At first such verse was rendered in the somewhat simple, stark style of the poems of Caedmon, a humble man of the late 7th century who was described by the historian and theologian Saint Bede the Venerable as having received the gift of song from God. Later the same type of subject matter was treated in the more ornate language of the Anglo-Saxon poet Cynewulf and his school. The best of their productions is probably the passionate “Dream of the Rood.”
In addition to these religious compositions, Old English poets produced a number of more or less lyrical poems of shorter length, which do not contain specific Christian doctrine and which evoke the Anglo-Saxon sense of the harshness of circumstance and the sadness of the human lot. “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer” are among the most beautiful of this group of Old English poems.
Prose in Old English is represented by a large number of religious works. The imposing scholarship of monasteries in northern England in the late 7th century reached its peak in the Latin work Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 731) by Bede. The great educational effort of Alfred, king of the West Saxons, in the 9th century produced an Old English translation of this important historical work and of many others, including De Consolatione Philosophiae (The Consolation of Philosophy), by Boethius. This was a significant work of largely Platonic philosophy easily adaptable to Christian thought, and it has had great influence on English literature.
III. Middle English Period
Extending from 1066 to 1485, this period is noted for the extensive influence of French literature on native English forms and themes. From the Norman-French conquest of England in 1066 until the 14th century, French largely replaced English in ordinary literary composition, and Latin maintained its role as the language of learned works. By the 14th century, when English again became the chosen language of the ruling classes, it had lost much of the Old English inflectional system, had undergone certain sound changes, and had acquired the characteristic it still possesses of freely taking into the native stock numbers of foreign words, in this case French and Latin ones. Thus, the various dialects of Middle English spoken in the 14th century were similar to Modern English and can be read without great difficulty today.
The Middle English literature of the 14th and 15th centuries is much more diversified than the previous Old English literature. A variety of French and even Italian elements influenced Middle English literature, especially in southern England. In addition, different regional styles were maintained, for literature and learning had not yet been centralized. For these reasons, as well as because of the vigorous and uneven growth of national life, the Middle English period contains a wealth of literary monuments not easily classified.
In the north and west, poems continued to be written in forms very like the Old English alliterative, four-stress lines. Of these poems, The Vision of William Concerning Piers the Plowman, better known as Piers Plowman, is the most significant. Now thought to be by William Langland, it is a long, impassioned work in the form of dream visions (a favorite literary device of the day), protesting the plight of the poor, the avarice of the powerful, and the sinfulness of all people. The emphasis, however, is placed on a Christian vision of the life of activity, of the life of unity with God, and of the synthesis of these two under the rule of a purified church. As such, despite various faults, it bears comparison with the other great Christian visionary poem, La divina commedia (The Divine Comedy), by Dante. For both, the watchwords are heavenly love and love operative in this world.
A second and shorter alliterative vision poem, The Pearl, written in northwest England in about 1370, is similarly doctrinal, but its tone is ecstatic, and it is far more deliberately artistic. Apparently an elegy for the death of a small girl (although widely varying religious allegorical interpretations have been suggested for it), the poem describes the exalted state of childlike innocence in heaven and the need for all souls to become as children to enter the pearly gates of the New Jerusalem. The work ends with an impressive vision of heaven, from which the dreamer awakes. In general, poetry and prose expressing a mystical longing for, and union with, the deity is a common feature of the late Middle Ages, particularly in northern England.
B. Tales of Chivalry and Adventure
A third alliterative poem, supposedly by the same anonymous author who wrote The Pearl, is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (late 1300s), a romance, or tale, of knightly adventure and love, of the general medieval type introduced by the French. Most English romances were drawn, as this one apparently was, from French sources. Most of these sources are concerned with the knights of King Arthur (see Arthurian Legend) and seem to go back in turn to Celtic tales of great antiquity. In Sir Gawain, against a background of chivalric gallantry, the tale is told of the knight's resistance to the blandishments of another man's beautiful wife.
Two other important, nonalliterative verse romances form part of the work of Geoffrey Chaucer. These are the psychologically penetrating Troilus and Criseyde (1385?), a tale of the fatal course of a noble love, laid in Homeric Troy and based on Il filostrato, a romance by the 14th-century Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio; and The Knight's Tale (1382?; later included in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales), also based on Boccaccio. Immersed in court life and charged with various governmental duties that carried him as far as Italy, Chaucer yet found time to translate French and Latin works, to write under French influence several secular vision poems of a semiallegorical nature (The Book of the Duchess, The House of Fame, The Parliament of Fowls) and, above all, to compose The Canterbury Tales (probably after 1387). This latter work consists of 24 stories or parts of stories (mostly in verse in almost all the medieval genres) recounted by Chaucer through the mouths and in the several manners of a group of pilgrims bound for Canterbury Cathedral, who were representative of most of the classes of medieval England. Characterized by an extraordinary sense of life and fertility of invention, these narratives range from The Knight's Tale to sometimes indelicate but remarkable tales of low life, and they concern a host of subjects: religious innocence, married chastity, villainous hypocrisy, female volubility—all illumined by great humor. With extraordinary artistry the stories are made to characterize their tellers.
D. Arthurian Legends
In the 15th century a number of poets were obviously influenced by Chaucer but, in general, medieval literary themes and styles were exhausted during this period. Sir Thomas Malory stands out for his great work, Le morte d'Arthur (The Death of Arthur, 1469-1470), which carried on the tradition of Arthurian romance, from French sources, in English prose of remarkable vividness and vitality. He loosely tied together stories of various knights of the Round Table, but most memorably of Arthur himself, of Galahad, and of the guilty love of Lancelot and Arthur's queen, Guinevere. Despite the great variety of incident and the complications of plot in his work, the dominant theme is the need to sacrifice individual desire for the sake of national unity and religious salvation, the latter of which is envisioned in terms of the dreamlike but intense mystical symbolism of the Holy Grail.
IV. The Renaissance
A golden age of English literature commenced in 1485 and lasted until 1660. Malory's Le morte d'Arthur was among the first works to be printed by William Caxton, who introduced the printing press to England in 1476. From that time on, readership was vastly multiplied. The growth of the middle class, the continuing development of trade, the new character and thoroughness of education for laypeople and not only clergy, the centralization of power and of much intellectual life in the court of the Tudor and Stuart monarchs, and the widening horizons of exploration gave a fundamental new impetus and direction to literature. The new literature nevertheless did not fully flourish until the last 20 years of the 1500s, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Literary development in the earlier part of the 16th century was weakened by the diversion of intellectual energies to the polemics of the religious struggle between the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England, a product of the Reformation.
The English part in the European movement known as humanism also belongs to this time. Humanism encouraged greater care in the study of the literature of classical antiquity and reformed education in such a way as to make literary expression of paramount importance for the cultured person. Literary style, in part modeled on that of the ancients, soon became a self-conscious preoccupation of English poets and prose writers. Thus, the richness and metaphorical profusion of style at the end of the century indirectly owed much to the educational force of this movement. The most immediate effect of humanism lay, however, in the dissemination of the cultivated, clear, and sensible attitude of its classically educated adherents, who rejected medieval theological misteaching and superstition. Of these writers, Sir Thomas More is the most remarkable. His Latin prose narrative Utopia (1516) satirizes the irrationality of inherited assumptions about private property and money and follows Plato in deploring the failure of kings to make use of the wisdom of philosophers. More's book describes a distant nation organized on purely reasonable principles and named Utopia (Greek for “nowhere”).
A. Renaissance Poetry
The poetry of the earlier part of the 16th century is generally less important, with the exception of the work of John Skelton, which exhibits a curious combination of medieval and Renaissance influences. The two greatest innovators of the new, rich style of Renaissance poetry in the last quarter of the 16th century were Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser, both humanistically educated Elizabethan courtiers.
Sidney, universally recognized as the model Renaissance nobleman, outwardly polished as well as inwardly conscientious, inaugurated the vogue of the sonnet cycle in his Astrophel and Stella (written 1582?; published 1591). In this work, in the elaborate and highly metaphorical style of the earlier Italian sonnet, he celebrated his idealized love for Penelope Devereux, the daughter of Walter Devereux, 1st earl of Essex. These lyrics profess to see in her an ideal of womanhood that in the Platonic manner leads to a perception of the good, the true, and the beautiful and consequently of the divine. This idealization of the beloved remained a favored motif in much of the poetry and drama of the late 16th century; it had its roots not only in Platonism but also in the Platonic speculations of humanism and in the chivalric idealization of love in medieval romance.
The greatest monument to that idealism, broadened to include all features of the moral life, is Spenser's uncompleted Faerie Queene (Books I-III, 1590; Books IV-VI, 1596), the most famous work of the period. In each of its completed six books it depicts the activities of a hero that point toward the ideal form of a particular virtue, and at the same time it looks forward to the marriage of Arthur, who is a combination of all the virtues, and Gloriana, who is the ideal form of womanhood and the embodiment of Queen Elizabeth. It is entirely typical of the impulse of the Renaissance in England that in this work Spenser tried to create out of the inherited English elements of Arthurian romance and an archaic, partly medieval style a noble epic that would make the national literature the equal of those of ancient Greece and Rome and of Renaissance Italy. His effort in this respect corresponded to the new demands expressed by Sidney in the critical essay The Defence of Poesie, originally Apologie for Poetrie (written 1583?; posthumously published 1595). Spenser's conception of his role no doubt conformed to Sidney's general description of the poet as the inspired voice of God revealing examples of morally perfect actions in an aesthetically ideal world such as mere reality can never provide, and with a graphic and concrete conviction that mere philosophy can never achieve. The poetic and narrative qualities of The Faerie Queene suffer to a degree from the various theoretical requirements that Spenser forced the work to meet.
In a number of other lyrical and narrative works Sidney and Spenser displayed the ornate, somewhat florid, highly figured style characteristic of a great deal of Elizabethan poetic expression; but two other poetic tendencies became visible toward the end of the 16th and in the early part of the 17th centuries. The first tendency is exemplified by the poetry of John Donne and the other so-called metaphysical poets, which carried the metaphorical style to heights of daring complexity and ingenuity. This often paradoxical style was used for a variety of poetic purposes, ranging from complex emotional attitudes to the simple inducement of admiration for its own virtuosity. Among the most important of Donne's followers, George Herbert is distinguished for his carefully constructed religious lyrics, which strive to express with personal humility the emotions appropriate to all true Christians. Other members of the metaphysical school are Henry Vaughan, a follower of Herbert, and Richard Crashaw, who was influenced by Continental Catholic mysticism. Andrew Marvell wrote metaphysical poetry of great power and fluency, but he also responded to other influences. The involved metaphysical style remained fashionable until late in the 17th century.
The second late Renaissance poetic tendency was in reaction to the sometimes flamboyant lushness of the Spenserians and to the sometimes tortuous verbal gymnastics of the metaphysical poets. Best represented by the accomplished poetry of Ben Jonson and his school, it reveals a classically pure and restrained style that had strong influence on late figures such as Robert Herrick and the other Cavalier poets and gave the direction for the poetic development of the succeeding neoclassical period.
The last great poet of the English Renaissance was the Puritan writer John Milton, who, having at his command a thorough classical education and the benefit of the preceding half century of experimentation in the various schools of English poetry, approached with greater maturity than Spenser the task of writing a great English epic. Although he adhered to Sidney's and Spenser's notions of the inspired role of the poet as the lofty instructor of humanity, he rejected the fantastic and miscellaneous machinery, involving classical mythology and medieval knighthood, of The Faerie Queene in favor of the central Christian and biblical tradition. With grand simplicity and poetic power Milton narrated in Paradise Lost (1667) the machinations of Satan leading to the fall of Adam and Eve from the state of innocence; and he performed the task in such a way as to “justify the ways of God to man” and to express the central Christian truths of freedom, sin, and redemption as he conceived them. His other poems, such as the elegy Lycidas (1637), Paradise Regained (1671), and the classically patterned tragedy Samson Agonistes (1671), similarly reveal astonishing poetic power and grace under the control of a profound mind.
B. Renaissance Drama and Prose
The poetry of the English Renaissance between 1580 and 1660 was the result of a remarkable outburst of energy. It is, however, the drama of roughly the same period that stands highest in popular estimation. The works of its greatest representative, William Shakespeare, have achieved worldwide renown. In the previous Middle English period there had been, within the church, a gradual broadening of dramatic representation of such doctrinally important events as the angel's announcement of the resurrection to the women at the tomb of Christ. Ultimately, performances of religious drama had become the province of the craft guilds, and the entire Christian story, from the creation of the world to the last judgment, had been reenacted for secular audiences. The Renaissance drama proper rose from this late medieval base by a number of transitional stages ending about 1580. A large number of comedies, tragedies, and examples of intermediate types were produced for London theaters between that year and 1642, when the London theaters were closed by order of the Puritan Parliament. Like so much nondramatic literature of the Renaissance, most of these plays were written in an elaborate verse style and under the influence of classical examples, but the popular taste, to which drama was especially susceptible, required a flamboyance and sensationalism largely alien to the spirit of Greek and Roman literature. Only the Roman tragedian Lucius Annaeus Seneca could provide a model for the earliest popular tragedy of blood and revenge, The Spanish Tragedy (1589?) of Thomas Kyd. Kyd's skillfully managed, complicated, but sensational plot influenced in turn later, psychologically more sophisticated revenge tragedies, among them Shakespeare's Hamlet. Christopher Marlowe began the tradition of the chronicle play, about the fatal deeds of kings and potentates, a few years later with the tragedies Tamburlaine the Great, Part I (1587), and Edward II (1592?). Marlowe's plays, such as The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus (1588?) and The Jew of Malta (1589?), are remarkable primarily for their daring depictions of world-shattering characters who strive to go beyond the normal human limitations as the Christian medieval ethos had conceived them. These works are written in a poetic style worthy in many ways of comparison to Shakespeare's.
Elizabethan tragedy and comedy alike reached their true flowering in Shakespeare's works. Beyond his art, his rich style, and his complex plots, all of which surpass by far the work of other Elizabethan dramatists in the same field, and beyond his unrivaled projection of character, Shakespeare's compassionate understanding of the human lot has perpetuated his greatness and made him the representative figure of English literature for the whole world. His comedies, of which perhaps the best are As You Like It (1599?) and Twelfth Night (1600?), depict the endearing as well as the ridiculous sides of human nature. His great tragedies—Hamlet (1601?), Othello (1604?), King Lear (1605?), Macbeth (1606?), and Antony and Cleopatra (1606?)—look deeply into the springs of action in the human soul. His earlier dark tragedies were imitated in style and feeling by the tragedian John Webster in The White Devil (1612) and The Duchess of Malfi (1613-1614). In Shakespeare's last plays, the so-called dramatic romances, including The Tempest (1611?), he sets a mood of quiet acceptance and ultimate reconciliation that was a fitting close for his literary career. These plays, by virtue of their mysterious, exotic atmosphere and their quick, surprising alternations of bad and good fortune, come close also to the tone of the drama of the succeeding age.
D. Late Renaissance and 17th Century
The most influential figure in shaping the immediate future course of English drama was Ben Jonson. His carefully plotted comedies, satirizing with inimitable verve and imagination various departures from the norm of good sense and moderation, are written in a more sober and careful style than are those of most Elizabethan and early 17th-century dramatists. Those qualities, indeed, define the character of most later Restoration comedy. The best of Jonson's comedies are Volpone (1606) and The Alchemist (1610). Professing themselves his disciples, the dramatists Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher collaborated on a number of so-called tragicomedies (for example, Philaster, 1610?) in which morally dubious situations, surprising reversals of fortune, and sentimentality combine with hollow rhetoric.
The outstanding prose works of the Renaissance are not so numerous as those of later ages, but the great translation of the Bible, called the King James Bible, or Authorized Version, published in 1611, is significant because it was the culmination of two centuries of effort to produce the best English translation of the original texts, and also because its vocabulary, imagery, and rhythms have influenced writers of English in all lands ever since. Similarly sonorous and stately is the prose of Sir Thomas Browne, the physician and semiscientific investigator. His reduction of worldly phenomena to symbols of mystical truth is best seen in Religio Medici (Religion of a Doctor), probably written in 1635.
V. The Restoration Period and the 18th Century
This period extends from 1660, the year Charles II was restored to the throne, until about 1789. The prevailing characteristic of the literature of the Renaissance had been its reliance on poetic inspiration or what today might be called imagination. The inspired conceptions of Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Milton, the true originality of Spenser, and the daring poetic style of Donne all support this generalization. Furthermore, although nearly all these poets had been far more bound by formal and stylistic conventions than modern poets are, they had developed a large variety of forms and of rich or exuberant styles into which individual poetic expression might fit. In the succeeding period, however, writers reacted against both the imaginative flights and the ornate or startling styles and forms of the previous era. The quality of the later age is suggested by its writers' admiration for Ben Jonson and his disciples; the transparent and apparently effortless poetic medium of the “school of Ben,” along with its emphasis on good taste, moderation, and the Greek and Latin classics as models, appealed profoundly to the new generation.
Thus, the restoration of Charles II ushered in a literature characterized by reason, moderation, good taste, deft management, and simplicity. The historical parallel between the early imperialism of Rome and the restored English monarchy, both of which had replaced republican institutions, was not lost on the ruling and learned classes. Their appreciation of the literature of the time of the Roman emperor Augustus led to a widespread acceptance of the new English literature and encouraged a grandeur of tone in the poetry of the period, the later phase of which is often referred to as Augustan. In addition, the ideals of impartial investigation and scientific experimentation promulgated by the newly founded Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge (established in 1662) were influential in the development of clear and simple prose as an instrument of rational communication.
Finally, the great philosophical and political treatises of the time emphasize rationalism. Even in the earlier 17th century, Francis Bacon had moved in this direction by advocating reasoning and scientific investigation in Advancement of Learning (1605) and The New Atlantis (1627). Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), by John Locke, is the product of a belief in experience as the exclusive basis of knowledge, a view pushed to its logical extreme in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748) by David Hume. Locke himself continued to profess faith in divine revelation, but this residual belief was weakened among the similarly rationalist Deists, who tended to base religion on what reason could find in the world God had created around humans.
In political thought, the arbitrary acceptance of the monarch's divine right to rule (a conception popular in the Renaissance) had so nearly succumbed to skeptical criticism that Thomas Hobbes in his Leviathan (1651) found it necessary to defend the idea of political absolutism with a rationally conceived sanction. According to him, the monarch should rule not by divine right but by an original and indissoluble social contract in order to secure universal peace and material gratification. Similarly rationalistic, but opposed to this rigorous subordination of all organs of the state to central control, were Locke's two Treatises on Government (1690), in which he stated that the authority of the governor is derived from the always revocable consent of the governed and that the people's welfare is the only proper object of that authority.
Perhaps the greatest historical work in English is The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (6 volumes, 1776-1788), by Edward Gibbon. Notable for its stately, balanced style, it is permeated with rationalistic skepticism and distrust of emotion, particularly religious emotion.
The successive stages of literary taste during the period of the Restoration and the 18th century are conveniently referred to as the ages of Dryden, Pope, and Johnson, after the three great literary figures who, one after another, carried on the so-called classical tradition in literature. The age as a whole is sometimes called the Augustan age, or the classical or neoclassical period.
A. Age of Dryden
The poetry of John Dryden possesses a grandeur, force, and fullness of tone that were eagerly received by readers still having something in common with the Elizabethans. At the same time, however, his poetry set the tone of the new age in achieving a new clarity and in establishing a self-limiting, somewhat impersonal canon of moderation and good taste. His polished heroic couplet (a unit of two rhyming lines of iambic pentameter, generally end-stopped), which he inherited from less accomplished predecessors and then developed, became the dominant form in the composition of longer poems.
In a number of critical works Dryden defined the stylistic restraint, compression, clarity, and common sense that he exemplified in his own poetry and that he showed to be lacking in much of the poetry of the preceding age, particularly in the exuberant and mechanically complex metaphorical wit of the older metaphysical school. His reputation rests primarily on satire. This form became the dominant poetic genre of the age, both because of the religious and political factionalism of the times and because mocking denunciation of the ludicrousness or rascality of the opposition comes naturally to an age with so strong a public sense of norms of behavior. Absalom and Achitophel (1681-1682) and Mac Flecknoe (1682) are the most remarkable of Dryden's political satires. Among his other poetic works are noteworthy translations of Roman satirists and of the works of Virgil, and the Pindaric ode “Alexander's Feast,” a tour de force of varied cadences, which was published in 1697.
The bulk of Dryden's work was in drama. By means of it, following the new mode of living of the professional literary man, he could derive his support from a large public rather than from private patrons. In his heroic tragedies The Conquest of Granada (1670) and All for Love; or, The World Well Lost (1678), a rewriting of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra in the new taste, Dryden showed a different and not always satisfying side of his talent and exemplified the dominant quality of all Restoration tragedy. In order to achieve splendor and surprise on the stage, he sacrificed reality of characterization and consistency in motivation for sensual display in exotic locales and extravagance in plot and situation, presented in a style verging on the bombastic. The affinities of this kind of drama are with Beaumont and Fletcher rather than with the great Elizabethan age; and the indirect influence of Ben Jonson is apparent also, for these two men were Jonson's disciples. Probably the best example of this genre of tragedy was produced by Thomas Otway, whose Venice Preserved (1682) avoids the worst excesses to which this form is liable and also possesses considerable tenderness and sensibility. By this time, however, the vogue of heroic tragedy was coming to an end; the style already had been successfully parodied in The Rehearsal (1671), by George Villiers, 2nd duke of Buckingham, and his collaborators.
The comedy of the time is much more successful than the tragedy. It is derived directly from the comedies of Ben Jonson but tries for more refinement while displaying less strength. In a cool, satiric spirit, it criticizes middle-class ambition and other variations from the courtly social norm, of which the canons are aristocratic good taste and good sense, rarely conventional morality. In the eyes of succeeding generations, the chief defects of Restoration comedy are its reduction of sentiment and emotion to silliness and its frequent amorality. Reaction against this type of comedy, known as the comedy of manners, already had developed by the time that its greatest practitioner, William Congreve, was displaying his subtle artistry in Love For Love (1695) and The Way of the World (1700).
Just as Dryden's poetry defined the tone of his time, so too did his easy, informal, clear prose style, notably in his Essay of Dramatic Poesie (1668) and in various prefaces to his plays and translations. Noteworthy prose of a rather different nature was produced by two other figures of the age, Samuel Pepys and John Bunyan. The appetite of the period for life at all levels, but particularly for the life of the senses, is suggested by the secret diary of Samuel Pepys, a high official of the Admiralty Office. This extraordinary work, valuable as it is as a document of contemporary taste, has much to say of the private, unheroic life and longings of people of all times. A figure in stronger contrast to Pepys could hardly be imagined than John Bunyan, a Puritan preacher, completely alien to the aristocratic and professional world of letters. Bunyan wrote The Pilgrim's Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come (1st part published in 1678; 2nd part, 1684) and The Life and Death of Mr. Badman (1680), two rough-hewn, moving, allegorical narratives of the human journey at the level of the fundamental verities of life, death, and religion. The first of these is now a literary classic, but in spite of the penetrating characterization and vitality of both works, they initially attained popularity only among artisans, merchants, and the poor.
B. Age of Pope
In the age of Alexander Pope (dated from about the death of Dryden in 1700 to Pope's death in 1744), the classical spirit in English literature reached its highest point, and at the same time other forces became manifest. Dryden's poetry had achieved grandeur, amplitude, and sublimity within a particular definition of good taste and good sense and under the tutelage of the Roman and Greek classics. To the poetry of Pope this characterization applies even more stringently. More than any other English poet, he submitted himself to the requirement that the expressive force of poetic genius should issue forth only in a formulation as reasonable, lucid, balanced, compressed, final, and perfect as the power of human reason can make it. Pope did not have Dryden's majesty. Perhaps, given his predilection for correctness of detail, he could not have had it. Also, the readers of succeeding times have concluded that the dictates of reason do not all converge on only one poetic formula, just as the heroic couplet, which Pope brought to final perfection, is not necessarily the most generally suitable of English poetic forms. Nevertheless, the ease, harmony, and grace of Pope's poetic line are still impressive, and his quality of precise but never labored expression of thought remains unequaled.
Pope's reputation rests in large part on his satires, but his didactic bent led him to formulate in verse An Essay on Criticism (1711) and An Essay on Man (1732-1734). The former attempts to show that poetry must be modeled on nature; but his conception of nature, a traditional one shared by all his contemporaries, differs from that of succeeding generations. For Pope, nature meant the rules that right reason has discovered to be immanent in all things, so that what the experience of reasonable minds through the ages has shown to be the greatest poetry—namely, that of classical antiquity—provides a perfect model for modern times. A similar conservatism reappears in An Essay on Man, which concludes with the much debated generalization that “Whatever is, is right.”
Pope's brilliant satiric masterpiece, The Rape of the Lock (1712; revised edition 1714), makes an epic theme of a trifling drawing-room episode: the contention arising from a young lord's having covertly snipped a lock of hair from a young lady's head. His most sustained satire, The Dunciad (1728; final version 1743), follows Dryden's Mac Flecknoe in its elegantly pointed, often malicious but always high-spirited mockery of the literary dullards who were Pope's enemies.
Like Dryden, Pope made translations of classical works, notably of the Iliad, which was a great popular and financial success. His edition of Shakespeare's works bears witness to a range of taste not usually ascribed to him.
It is only natural that the 18th-century preoccupation with the power of reason and good sense should have produced a large number of works in the more sober medium of prose. Jonathan Swift, who was, like Pope, a Tory conservative for the latter half of his life and a satirist, wrote a number of mordantly satirical prose narratives in which a profound and despairing perception of human stupidities and evil are in contrast with the social criticism of his great contemporaries. Swift's Tale of a Tub (1704) reduces the quarrels among three important religious divisions of his day to an allegory of three disreputable brothers. His generous anger on behalf of the poor of Ireland produced “A Modest Proposal” (1729), in which, with horrifying mock seriousness, he proposed that the children of the poor should be raised for slaughter as food for the rich. His best-known work, Gulliver's Travels (1726), purports to be a ship doctor's account of his voyages into strange places, but in reality it is a castigation of the human race. The accounts of Gulliver's first two voyages are often read as a children's book. The last part abandons, however, delicate fancy and unmasks the selfish and sick bestiality of humanity in the guise of the so-called Yahoos, who are the savage and improvident servants of a race of apparently reasonable and noble horses, called Houyhnhnms. This work, like all of Swift's, is written in a prose of unrivaled lucidity, energy, and polemical skill.
Similarly noteworthy for the quality of their prose are the Spectator papers (1711-1712; 1714), written mainly by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele. Published daily, these essays, like many others, corresponded to the newly felt need of the day for popular journalism, but their enlightened comment and their criticism of contemporary society separate them from the mass of similar publications. The main intent of Addison and Steele may be defined in their own words: “To enliven morality with wit, and to temper wit with morality.” In a series of informal, conversational essays describing the activities of various ideal representatives of social groups, such as the Tory country squire Sir Roger de Coverley and the Whig merchant Sir Andrew Freeport, Addison and Steele salvaged and united some of the best sides of the contemporary English character. The lightly borne, free-and-easy manners of the court and the older landed classes should, according to these papers, exist side by side with the industry, uprightness, and deeply felt morality of the newly rich city merchants. The amorality associated with the one and the stubborn narrowness of the other should disappear. The emphasis on public decorum and individual rectitude and on sympathy with one's fellow beings in the Spectator papers is a measure of their distance from the cool indifference and frequent licentiousness of much Restoration literature, particularly comedy, although the purpose of both was to represent reason, moderation, and common sense.
A quite different kind of journalism is represented by the work of the middle-class adventurer, hack writer, and political agent Daniel Defoe. Separated from the life of the upper classes and their erudite writers, as Bunyan had been before him, he produced, among many pieces of commissioned writing, a series of purportedly true but actually fictitious memoirs and confessions. The first of these, and the greatest, is Robinson Crusoe (1719), which reports the life and adventures of a shipwrecked sailor.
C. Age of Johnson
The age of Samuel Johnson, from 1744 to about 1784, was a time of changing literary ideals. The developed classicism and literary conservatism associated with Johnson fought a rearguard action against the cult of sentiment and feeling associated in various ways with the harbingers of the coming age of romanticism. Johnson composed poetry that continued the traditions and forms of Pope, but he is best known as a prose writer and as an extraordinarily gifted conversationalist and literary arbiter in the cultivated urban life of his time. His conservatism and sturdy common sense are what might be expected given his intellectual tradition, but his individual quality has little to do with literary tendencies. His curiously lovable and upright personality, along with his intellectual preeminence and idiosyncrasies, have been preserved in the most famous of English biographies, the Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), by James Boswell, a Scottish writer with an appetite for literary celebrities.
Johnson worked his way up from poverty by honest literary labors, among which was his Dictionary of the English Language (1755). A great success, it was the first such work prepared according to modern standards of lexicography. Like Addison and Steele, Johnson produced a series of journalistic essays, The Rambler (1750-1752), but because of their somewhat pedantic style and Latinate vocabulary, they lack the easy informality of the Spectator papers and serve to accentuate the opposition between his neoclassical formality and the succeeding romantic ideal of heart-to-heart communication. Johnson's philosophical tale Rasselas (1759), of which the moral is that “human life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed,” is reminiscent of Swift (as well as of his contemporary the French writer Voltaire in his tale Candide) in its perception of the vanity of human wishes. For all his pessimism, however, the amazing detail, independence, and intellectual facility of Johnson's critical biographies of English poets since 1600 (Lives of the Poets, 1779-1781), written in his old age, show what critical discrimination and intellectual integrity can accomplish.
Johnson's friend Oliver Goldsmith was a curious mixture of the old and the new. His novel The Vicar of Wakefield (1766) begins with dry humor but passes quickly into tearful calamity. His poem The Deserted Village (1770) is in form reminiscent of Pope, but in the tenderness of its sympathy for the lower classes it foreshadows the romantic age. In such plays as She Stoops to Conquer (1773) Goldsmith, like the younger Richard Sheridan in his School for Scandal (1777), demonstrated an older tradition of satirical quality and artistic adroitness that was to be anathema to a younger generation.
The signs of this newer feeling, which resulted in romanticism, can be traced in the poetry of William Cowper and of Thomas Gray. The cultivation of a pensive and melancholy sensibility and the interruption of the rule of the heroic couplet, as in Gray's “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1751), hint at the period to come, as does Gray's interest in medieval, nonclassical literature. New interests are even more obvious in the highly original poetry of the self-educated artist and engraver William Blake. His work consists in part of simple, almost childlike lyrics (Songs of Innocence, 1789), as well as of powerful but lengthy and obscure declarations of a new mythological vision of life (The Book of Thel, 1789). All Blake's poetry expresses a revolt against the ideal of reason (which he considered destructive to life) and advocates the life of feeling—but in a more vital and assertive sense than is the case with the other previously mentioned preromantics. Similarly robust and passionate are the lyrics of the Scottish poet Robert Burns, which are characterized by his use of regional Scottish vernacular. The simplicity, forcefulness, and powerful emotion of the ancient ballads of the Scottish-English border region, as revealed in Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765), by Bishop Thomas Percy, were likewise influential in the development of romanticism.
Among writers of the novel—a newly popular form in this period—an advocate of sentiment and simple, innocent feelings had already appeared in the person of Samuel Richardson. In his sentimental novel Clarissa (1747-1748), the plight of a young, innocent girl, destroyed by the man she loves, is represented through lengthy letters interchanged among the characters. This device permits an unprecedented revelation of motives and feelings. Richardson's contemporary Henry Fielding evinced his connection with the earlier satirical spirit in his novel Joseph Andrews (1742), which parodies Richardson's other novel of virtue besieged, Pamela (1740). Fielding's greatest novel, Tom Jones (1749), reveals a robust and healthy spirit of good sense and comedy, in which well-intentioned vigor wins out over excessive hypocrisy. Fielding's contemporary, the Scottish-born Tobias Smollett, wrote a number of novels of picaresque adventure, the last and probably best of which is Humphry Clinker (1771). The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-1767), the masterpiece of another great British novelist of the century, Laurence Sterne, indulges in the new cult of sentiment, but by reason of its cast of eccentric characters and the skilled weaving of the most extraordinary behavior into the depiction of their personalities, this novel lies outside the usual historical categories.
VI. The Romantic Age
Extending from about 1789 until 1837, the romantic age stressed emotion over reason. One objective of the French Revolution (1789-1799) was to destroy an older tradition that had come to seem artificial, and to assert the liberty, spirit, and heartfelt unity of the human race. To many writers of the romantic age this objective seemed equally appropriate in the field of English letters. In addition, the romantic age in English literature was characterized by the subordination of reason to intuition and passion, the cult of nature much as the word is now understood and not as Pope understood it, the primacy of the individual will over social norms of behavior, the preference for the illusion of immediate experience as opposed to generalized and typical experience, and the interest in what is distant in time and place.
A. The Romantic Poets
The first important expression of romanticism was in the Lyrical Ballads (1798) of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, young men who were aroused to creative activity by the French Revolution; later they became disillusioned with what followed it. The poems of Wordsworth in this volume treat ordinary subjects with a new freshness that imparts a certain radiance to them. On the other hand, Coleridge's main contribution, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” masterfully creates an illusion of reality in relating strange, exotic, or obviously unreal events. These two directions characterize most of the later works of the two poets.
For Wordsworth the great theme remained the world of simple, natural things, in the countryside or among people. He reproduced this world with so close and understanding an eye as to add a hitherto unperceived glory to it. His representation of human nature is similarly simple but revealing. It is at its best, as in “Tintern Abbey” or “Ode on Intimations of Immortality,” when he speaks of the mystical kinship between quiet nature and the human soul and of the spiritual refreshment yielded by humanity's sympathetic contact with the rest of God's creation. Not only is the immediacy of experience in the poetry of Wordsworth opposed to neoclassical notions, but also his poetic style constitutes a rejection of the immediate poetic past. Wordsworth condemned the idea of a specifically poetic language, such as that of neoclassical poetry, and he strove instead for what he considered the more powerful effects of ordinary, everyday language. Coleridge's natural bent, on the other hand, was toward the strange, the exotic, and the mysterious. Unlike Wordsworth, he wrote few poems, and these during a very brief period. In such poems as “Kubla Khan” and “Christabel,” the beauties and horrors of the far distant in time or place are evoked in a style that is neither neoclassical nor simple in Wordsworth's fashion, but that, instead, recalls the splendor and extravagance of the Elizabethans. At the same time Coleridge achieved an immediacy of sensation that suggests the natural although hidden affinity between him and Wordsworth, and their common rejection of the 18th-century spirit in poetry.
Another poet who found delight in the far distant in time was Sir Walter Scott, who, after evincing an early interest in the ancient ballads of his native Scotland, wrote a series of narrative poems glorifying the active virtues of the simple, vigorous life and culture of his land in the Middle Ages, before it had been affected by modern civilization. In such of these poems as The Lady of the Lake (1810) he employed a style of little originality. His work, however, was the more popular among his immediate contemporaries for that very reason, long before the full stature of Wordsworth's more impressive poetry was recognized. Some of Scott's Waverley novels, a series of historical works, have given him a more permanent reputation as a writer of prose.
A second generation of romantic poets remained revolutionary in some sense throughout their poetic careers, unlike Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Scott. George Gordon, Lord Byron, is one of the exemplars of a personality in tragic revolt against society. As in his stormy personal life, so also in such poems as Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812) and Don Juan (1819-1824), this generous but egotistical aristocrat revealed with uneven pathos or with striking irony and cynicism the vagrant feelings and actions of great souls caught in a petty world. Byron's satirical spirit and strong sense of social realism kept him apart from other English romantics; unlike the rest, he proclaimed, for example, a high regard for Pope, whom he sometimes imitated.
The other great poet-revolutionary of the time, Percy Bysshe Shelley, seems much closer to the grandly serious spirit of the other romantics. His most thoughtful poetry expresses his two main ideas, that the external tyranny of rulers, customs, or superstitions is the main enemy, and that inherent human goodness will, sooner or later, eliminate evil from the world and usher in an eternal reign of transcendant love. It is, perhaps, in Prometheus Unbound (1820) that these ideas are most completely expressed, although Shelley's more obvious poetic qualities—the natural correspondence of metrical structure to mood, the power of shaping effective abstractions, and his ethereal idealism—can be studied in a whole range of poems, from “Ode to the West Wind” and “To a Skylark” to the elegy “Adonais,” written for John Keats, the youngest of the great romantics.
More than that of any of the other romantics, Keats's poetry is a response to sensuous impressions. He found neither the time nor the inclination to elaborate a complete moral or social philosophy in his poetry. In such poems as “The Eve of St. Agnes,””Ode on a Grecian Urn,” and “Ode to a Nightingale,” all written about 1819, he showed an unrivaled awareness of immediate sensation and an unequaled ability to reproduce it. Between 1818 and 1821, during the last few years of his short life, this spiritually robust, active, and wonderfully receptive writer produced all his poetry. His work had a more profound influence than that of any other romantic in widening the sensuous realm of poetry for the Victorians later in the century.
B. Romantic Prose
Certain romantic prose parallels the poetry of the period in a number of ways. The evolution of fundamentally new critical principles in literature is the main achievement of Coleridge's Biographia literaria (1817), but like Charles Lamb (Specimens of English Dramatic Poets, 1808) and William Hazlitt (Characters of Shakespeare's Plays, 1817), Coleridge also wrote a large amount of practical criticism, much of which helped to elevate the reputations of Renaissance dramatists and poets neglected in the 18th century. Lamb is famous also for his occasional essays, the Essays of Elia (1823, 1833). An influential romantic experiment in the achievement of a rich poetic quality in prose is the phantasmagoric, impassioned autobiography of Thomas De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821).
VII. The Victorian Era
The Victorian era, from the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1837 until her death in 1901, was an era of several unsettling social developments that forced writers more than ever before to take positions on the immediate issues animating the rest of society. Thus, although romantic forms of expression in poetry and prose continued to dominate English literature throughout much of the century, the attention of many writers was directed, sometimes passionately, to such issues as the growth of English democracy, the education of the masses, the progress of industrial enterprise and the consequent rise of a materialistic philosophy, and the plight of the newly industrialized worker. In addition, the unsettling of religious belief by new advances in science, particularly the theory of evolution and the historical study of the Bible, drew other writers away from the immemorial subjects of literature into considerations of problems of faith and truth.
The historian Thomas Babington Macaulay, in his History of England (5 volumes, 1848-1861) and even more in his Critical and Historical Essays (1843), expressed the complacency of the English middle classes over their new prosperity and growing political power. The clarity and balance of Macaulay's style, which reflects his practical familiarity with parliamentary debate, stands in contrast to the sensitivity and beauty of the prose of John Henry Newman. Newman's main effort, unlike Macaulay's, was to draw people away from the materialism and skepticism of the age back to a purified Christian faith. His most famous work, Apologia pro vita sua (Apology for His Life, 1864), describes with psychological subtlety and charm the basis of his religious opinions and the reasons for his change from the Anglican to the Roman Catholic church.
Similarly alienated by the materialism and commercialism of the period, Thomas Carlyle, another of the great Victorians, advanced a heroic philosophy of work, courage, and the cultivation of the godlike in human beings, by means of which life might recover its true worth and nobility. This view, borrowed in part from German idealist philosophy, Carlyle expressed in a vehement, idiosyncratic style in such works as Sartor resartus (The Tailor Retailored, 1833-1834) and On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841).
Other answers to social problems were presented by two fine Victorian prose writers of a different stamp. The social criticism of the art critic John Ruskin looked to the curing of the ills of industrial society and capitalism as the only path to beauty and vitality in the national life. The escape from social problems into aesthetic hedonism was the contribution of the Oxford scholar Walter Pater.
The three notable poets of the Victorian Age became similarly absorbed in social issues. Beginning as a poet of pure romantic escapism, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, soon moved on to problems of religious faith, social change, and political power, as in “Locksley Hall,” the elegy In Memoriam (1850), and Idylls of the King (1859-1885). All the characteristic moods of his poetry, from brooding splendor to lyrical sweetness, are expressed with smooth technical mastery. His style, as well as his peculiarly English conservatism, stands in some contrast to the intellectuality and bracing harshness of the poetry of Robert Browning. Browning's most important short poems are collected in Dramatic Romances and Lyrics (1841-1846) and Men and Women (1855). Matthew Arnold, the third of these mid-Victorian poets, stands apart from them as a more subtle and balanced thinker; his literary criticism (Essays in Criticism, 1865, 1888) is the most remarkable written in Victorian times. His poetry displays a sorrowful, disillusioned pessimism over the human plight in rapidly changing times (for example, “Dover Beach,” 1867), a pessimism countered, however, by a strong sense of duty. Among a number of lesser poets, Algernon Charles Swinburne showed an escapist aestheticism, somewhat similar to Pater's, in sensuous verse rich in verbal music but somewhat diffuse and pallid in its expression of emotion. The poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the poet, artist, and socialist reformer William Morris were associated with the Pre-Raphaelite movement, the adherents of which hoped to inaugurate a new period of honest craft and spiritual truth in property and painting. Despite the otherworldly or archaic character of their romantic poetry, Morris, at least, found a social purpose in his designs for household objects, which profoundly influenced contemporary taste.
C. The Victorian Novel
The novel gradually became the dominant form in literature during the Victorian Age. A fairly constant accompaniment of this development was the yielding of romanticism to literary realism, the accurate observation of individual problems and social relationships. The close observation of a restricted social milieu in the novels of Jane Austen early in the century (Pride and Prejudice, 1813; Emma, 1816) had been a harbinger of what was to come. The romantic historical novels of Sir Walter Scott, about the same time (Ivanhoe, 1819), typified, however, the spirit against which the realists later were to react. It was only in the Victorian novelists Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray that the new spirit of realism came to the fore. Dickens's novels of contemporary life (Oliver Twist, 1838; David Copperfield, 1849-1850; Great Expectations, 1861; Our Mutual Friend, 1865) exhibit an astonishing ability to create living characters; his graphic exposures of social evils and his powers of caricature and humor have won him a vast readership. Thackeray, on the other hand, indulged less in the sentimentality sometimes found in Dickens's works. He was also capable of greater subtlety of characterization, as his Vanity Fair (1847-1848) shows. Nevertheless, the restriction of concern in Thackeray's novels to middle- and upper-class life, and his lesser creative power, render him second to Dickens in many readers' minds.
Other important figures in the mainstream of the Victorian novel were notable for a variety of reasons. Anthony Trollope was distinguished for his gently ironic surveys of English ecclesiastical and political circles; Emily Brontë, for her penetrating study of passionate character; George Eliot, for her responsible idealism; George Meredith, for a sophisticated, detached, and ironical view of human nature; and Thomas Hardy, for a profoundly pessimistic sense of human subjection to fate and circumstance.
A second and younger group of novelists, many of whom continued their important work into the 20th century, displayed two new tendencies. Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, and Joseph Conrad tried in various ways to restore the spirit of romance to the novel, in part by a choice of exotic locale, in part by articulating their themes through plots of adventure and action. Kipling attained fame also for his verse and for his mastery of the single, concentrated effect in the short story. Another tendency, in a sense an intensification of realism, was common to Arnold Bennett, John Galsworthy, and H. G. Wells. These novelists attempted to represent the life of their time with great accuracy and in a critical, partly propagandistic spirit. Wells's novels, for example, often seem to be sociological investigations of the ills of modern civilization rather than self-contained stories.
D. 19th-Century Drama
The same spirit of social criticism inspired the plays of the Irish-born George Bernard Shaw, who did more than anyone else to awaken the drama from its 19th-century somnolence. In a series of powerful plays that made use of the latest economic and sociological theories, he exposed with enormous satirical skill the sickness and fatuities of individuals and societies in England and the rest of the modern world. Man and Superman (1903), Androcles and the Lion (1913), Heartbreak House (1919), and Back to Methuselah (1921) are notable among his works. His final prescription for a cure, a philosophy of creative evolution by which human beings should in time surpass the biological limit of species, showed him going beyond the limits of sociological realism into visionary writing.