Literary Life in England in the 18th Century

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  • Topic: Novel, Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe
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  • Published : May 10, 2011
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Literary life in England flourishes so impressively in the early years of the 18th century that contemporaries draw parallels with the heyday of Virgil, Horace and Ovid at the time of the emperor Augustus. The new Augustan Age becomes identified with the reign of Queen Anne (1702-14), though the spirit of the age extends well beyond her death.

The oldest of the Augustan authors, Jonathan Swift, first makes his mark in 1704 with The Battle of the Books and A Tale of a Tub. These two tracts, respectively about literary theory and religious discord, reveal that there is a new prose writer on the scene with lethal satirical powers.

The tone of oblique irony which Swift makes his own is evident even in the title of his 1708 attack on fashionable trends in religious circles - An Argument to prove that the Abolishing of Christianity in England, may as Things now stand, be attended with some Inconveniences.

In the following year, 1709, a new periodical brings a gentler brand of humour and irony hot off the presses, three times a week, straight into London's fashionable coffee houses. The Tatler, founded by Richard Steele with frequent contributions from his friend Joseph Addison, turns the relaxed and informal essay into a new journalistic art form. In 1711 Steele and Addison replace the Tatler with the daily Spectator.

The same year sees the debut of the youngest and most brilliant of this set of writers. Unlike the others, Alexander Pope devotes himself almost exclusively to poetry, becoming a master in the use of rhymed heroic couplets for the purposes of wit. In 1711 he shows his paces with the brilliant Essay on Criticism (the source of many frequently quoted phrases, such as 'Fools rush in where angels fear to tread'). He follows this in 1712 with a miniature masterpiece of mock heroic, The Rape of the Lock.

In Windsor Forest (1713) Pope seals the Augustan theme, using the poem to praise Queen Anne's reign just as Virgil celebrated that of Augustus.

Pope is so much in tune with the spirit of his age that he is able, in his mid-twenties, to persuade the British aristocracy to subscribe in large numbers to his proposed translation of Homer's Iliad into heroic couplets.

The work appears in six volumes between 1715 and 1720, to be followed by the Odyssey (1725-6). The two projects bring Pope some £10,000, enabling him to move into a grand riverside villa in Twickenham. This is just half a century after Milton receives £10 for Paradise Lost.

The weapon of these authors is wit, waspish in tone - as is seen in The Dunciad (1728), Pope's attack on his many literary enemies. The most savage in his use of wit is undoubtedly Swift. His Modest Proposal, in 1729, highlights poverty in Ireland by suggesting that it would be far better for everybody if, instead of being allowed to starve, these unfortunate Irish babies were fattened up and eaten.

Yet, astonishingly, a book of 1726 by Swift, almost equally savage in its satirical intentions, becomes one of the world's best loved stories - by virtue simply of its imaginative brilliance. It tells the story of a ship's surgeon, Lemuel Gulliver.

Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver's Travels: AD 1719-1726

Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe, has a genius for journalism in an age before newspapers exist which can accomodate his kind of material. He travels widely as a semi-secret political agent, gathering material of use to those who pay him. In 1712 he founds, and writes almost single-handed, a thrice-weekly periodical, the Review, which lasts only a year. But it is his instinct for what would now be called feature articles which mark him out as the archetypal journalist.

A good example is the blend of investigative and imaginative skills which lead him to research surviving documents of the Great Plague and then to blend them in a convincing fictional Journal of the Plague Year (1722).

Another work which could run week after week in...
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