Brief History of English Literature
A BRIEF HISTORY OF ENGLISH LITERATURE:
Beowulf to Keats
Alliterative verse: 8th – 14th century
The story of English literature begins with the Germanic tradition of the Anglo-Saxon settlers. Beowulf stands at its head.
This epic poem of the 8th century is in Anglo-Saxon, now more usually described as Old English. It is incomprehensible to a reader familiar only with modern English. Even so, there is a continuous linguistic development between the two. The most significant turning point, from about 1100, is the development of Middle English – differing from Old English in the addition of a French vocabulary after the Norman conquest. French and Germanic influences subsequently compete for the mainstream role in English literature.
The French poetic tradition inclines to lines of a regular metrical length, usually linked by rhyme into couplets or stanzas. German poetry depends more on rhythm and stress, with repeated consonants (alliteration) to bind the phrases. Elegant or subtle rhymes have a courtly flavour. The hammer blows of alliteration are a type of verbal athleticism more likely to draw applause in a hall full of warriors.
Both traditions achieve a magnificent flowering in England in the late 14th century, towards the end of the Middle English period. Piers Plowman and Sir Gawain are masterpieces which look back to Old English. By contrastChaucer, a poet of the court, ushers in a new era of English literature.
Piers Plowman and Sir Gawain: 14th century
Of these two great English alliterative poems, the second is entirely anonymous and the first virtually so. The narrator ofPiers Plowmancalls himself Will; occasional references in the text suggest that his name may be Langland. Nothing else, apart from this poem, is known of him.
Piers Plowmanexists in three versions, the longest amounting to more than 7000 lines. It is considered probable that all three are by the same author. If so he spends some twenty years, from about 1367, adjusting and refining his epic creation.
Piers the ploughman is one of a group of characters searching for Christian truth in the complex setting of a dream. Though mainly a spiritual quest, the work also has a political element. It contains sharply observed details of a corrupt and materialistic age (Wycliffe is among Langland’s English contemporaries).
Where Piers Plowman is tough and gritty, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight(dating from the same period) is more polished in its manner and more courtly in its content. The characters derive partly from Arthurian legend.
A mysterious green knight arrives one Christmas at the court of King Arthur. He invites any knight to strike him with an axe and to receive the blow back a year later. Gawain accepts the challenge. He cuts off the head of the green knight, who rides away with it.
The rest of the poem concerns Gawain, a year later, at the green knight’s castle. In a tale of love (for the green knight’s wife) and subsequent deceit, Gawain emerges with little honour. The green knight spares his life but sends him home to Arthur’s court wearing the wife’s girdle as a badge of shame.
Geoffrey Chaucer at court: 1367-1400
In 1367 one of four new ‘yeomen of the chamber’ in the household of Edward III is Geoffrey Chaucer, then aged about twenty-seven. The young man’s wife, Philippa, is already a lady-in-waiting to the queen.
A few years later Chaucer becomes one of the king’s esquires, with duties which include entertaining the court with stories and music. There can rarely have been a more inspired appointment. Chaucer’s poems are designed to be read aloud, in the first instance by himself. Their range, from high romance to bawdy comedy, is well calculated to hold the listeners spellbound. Courtly circles in England are his first audience.
Chaucer’s public career is one of almost unbroken success in two consecutive reigns. He undertakes diplomatic missions abroad on behalf of the king; he is given administrative posts, such as controlling the customs, which bring lodgings and handsome stipends. Even occasional disasters (such as being robbed twice in four days in 1390 and losing £20 of Richard II’s money) do him no lasting harm.
A measure of Chaucer’s skill as a courtier is that during the 1390s, when he is in the employment of Richard II, he also receives gifts at Christmas from Richard’s rival, Bolingbroke.
When Bolingbroke unseats Richard II in 1399, taking his place on the throne as Henry IV, Chaucer combines diplomacy and wit to secure his position. Having lost his royal appointments, he reminds the new king of his predicament in a poem entitled ‘The Complaint of Chaucer to his Empty Purse’. The last line of each verse begs the purse to ‘be heavy again, or else must I die’. Henry IV hears the message. The court poet is given a new annuity.
Henry is certainly aware that he is keeping in his royal circle a poet of great distinction. Chaucer’s reputation is such that, when he dies in the following year, he is granted the very unusual honour – for a commoner – of being buried in Westminster abbey.
and Criseyde: 1385
Chaucer’s first masterpiece is his subtle account of the wooing of Criseyde by Troilus, with the active encouragement of Criseyde’s uncle Pandarus. The tender joys of their love affair are followed by Criseyde’s betrayal and Troilus’s death in battle.
Chaucer adapts to his own purposes the more conventionally dramatic account of this legendary affair written some fifty years earlier by Boccaccio(probably read by Chaucer when on a mission to Florence in 1373). His own very long poem (8239 lines) is written in the early 1380s and is complete by 1385.
Chaucer’s tone is delicate, subtle, oblique – though this does not prevent him from introducing and gently satirising many vivid details of life at court, as he guides the reader through the long psychological intrigue by which Pandarus eventually delivers Troilus into Criseyde’s bed.
The charm and detail of the poem, giving an intimate glimpse of a courtly world, is akin to the delightful miniatures which illustrate books of hours of this period in the style known asInternational Gothic. Yet this delicacy is only one side of Chaucer’s abundant talent – as he soon proves in The Canterbury Tales.
The Canterbury Tales: 1387-1400
Collections of tales are a favourite literary convention of the 14th century. Boccaccio’s Decameron is the best-known example before Chaucer’s time, but Chaucer inThe Canterbury Tales outshines his predecessors. He does so in the range and vitality of the stories in his collection, from the courtly tone of ‘The Knight’s Tale’ to the rough and often obscene humour of those known technically as fabliaux.
He does so also in the detail and humour of the framework holding the stories together. His account of the pilgrims as they ride from London to Canterbury, with their constant bickering and rivalry, amounts to a comic masterpiece in its own right.
The pilgrims, thirty of them including Chaucer himself, gather one spring day at the Tabard in Southwark. The host of the inn, Harry Bailly, is a real contemporary of Chaucer’s (his name features in historical records). He will act as their guide on the route to Canterbury and he proposes that they pass the time on their journey by telling stories. Each pilgrim is to tell two on the way out and two on the way back. Whoever is judged to have told the best tale will have a free supper at the Tabard on their return.
Of this ambitious total of 120 stories, Chaucer completes only 24 by the time of his death. Even so the collection amounts to some 17,000 lines – mainly of rhyming verse, but with some passages of prose.
The pilgrims represent all sections of society from gentry to humble craftsmen (the only absentees are the labouring poor, unable to afford a pilgrimage of this kind). There are respectable people from the various classes – such as the knight, the parson and the yeoman – but the emphasis falls mainly on characters who are pretentious, scurrilous, mendacious, avaricious or lecherous.
The pilgrims are vividly described, one by one, in Chaucer’sPrologue. The relationships between them evolve in the linking passages between the tales, as Harry Bailly arranges who shall speak next.
The pilgrims for the most part tell tales closely related to their station in life or to their personal character. Sometimes the anecdotes even reflect mutual animosities. The miller gives a scurrilously comic account of a carpenter being cuckolded. Everyone laughs heartily except the reeve, who began his career as a carpenter. The reeve gets his own back with an equally outrageous tale of the seduction of a miller’s wife and daughter.
But the pilgrim who has most delighted six centuries of readers is the five-times-married Wife of Bath, taking a lusty pleasure in her own appetites and richly scorning the ideals of celibacy.
Edmund Spenser, who has the greatest lyric gift of any English poet in the two centuries since Chaucer, is a graduate of Cambridge and by inclination a humanist pedant. His inspiration comes largely from a desire to rival his classical and Renaissance predecessors.
His first important work,The Shepheardes Calendar(1579), consists of twelve eclogues – a form deriving from Virgil but imitated by many subsequent writers. With one for each month of the calendar, Spenser’s eclogues cover a wide range of subjects in many metres and styles of poetry. But they are skilfully held together to form a convincing single poem within the pastoral framework.
Just as Virgil moved on from the pastoral themes of theEclogues andGeorgics to the patriotic epic of the Aeneid, so Spenser progresses toThe Faerie Queene. In undertaking this ambitious project (he states in a letter to Walter Raleigh in 1590), his models have been ancient and modern poets alike –Homer andVirgil, Ariostoand Tasso.
The framework of the poem is an allegory in praise of the Faerie Queene or Gloriana (Elizabeth I), in whose interests the Red Cross knight (the Anglican church) fights to protect the virgin Una (the true religion) against the wiles of many hostile characters including the deceitful Duessa (variously the Roman Catholic church or Mary Queen of Scots).
It is evident from these details that the poem is deeply rooted in national politics of the late 16th century, and many of its allusions must have been of far greater interest to contemporary readers than to any generation since. Spenser himself is a close witness of the struggles of the time. From 1580 he is employed in the English government of Ireland. In 1588 he becomes an ‘undertaker’ in the firstElizabethan plantation, receiving the forfeited Irish estate of Kilcolman Castle.
Here he is visited in 1589 by Walter Raleigh, who is so impressed by Spenser’s readings fromThe Faerie Queene that he persuades the poet to accompany him to London in the hope of interesting the real queen in it.
Publication of the first three books in 1590 is followed by Elizabeth’s awarding the poet, in 1591, a pension of £50 a year. Spenser’s original scheme is for twelve books, each consisting of an adventure on behalf of Gloriana by one of her knights. In the event he completes only six, the second group of three being published in 1596.
Spenser, spinning his elaborate allegory in rural Ireland, stands at the end of a long and retrospective poetic tradition – though others will soon develop less archaic versions of the epic (as inParadise Lost). Meanwhile something much newer and more popular is taking place in London. When Spenser is there in 1590, ChristopherMarlowe is the new excitement in the city’s theatres.
The theatres built in London in the quarter century from 1576 are a notable example of a contribution made by architecture to literature. In previous decades there have been performances of primitive and rumbustious English plays in the courtyards of various London inns, with the audience standing in the yard itself or on the open galleries around the yard giving on to the upper rooms. These are ramshackle settings for what are no doubt fairly ramshackle performances.
In 1576 an actor, James Burbage, builds a permanent playhouse in Shoreditch – just outside the city of London to the north, so as not to require the permission of the puritanical city magistrates.
Burbage gives his building the obvious name, so long as it is the only one of its kind. He calls it the Theatre. It follows the architectural form of an inn yard, with galleries enclosing a yard open to the sky. At one end a stage projects beneath a pavilion-like roof.
In such a setting, custom-built, writers, actors and audience can begin to concentrate on dramatic pleasures. A second playhouse, the Curtain, rises close to the Theatre in 1577. A third, the Rose, opens in 1587 on the south bank of the Thames in the area known as Bankside. In that year one of these three theatres puts on a play which reveals how far English playwrights have progressed in a very short while –Tamburlaine, by ChristopherMarlowe.
In about 1594 a fourth theatre, the Swan, is built close to the Hope. There are now two theatres to the north of the city and two south of the river. But soon the balance shifts decisively to Bankside.
James Burbage, builder of the original Theatre, dies in 1597. Two years later his two sons dismantle the building and carry the timber over the river to Bankside, where they use it as the basis for a theatre with a new name – the Globe. This name resounds in English theatrical history for two good reasons. It is where Richard, one of the Burbage brothers, develops into one of the first great actors of the English stage. And it is where many ofShakespeare‘s plays are first presented.
The structure of the Globe and the other London theatres has a significant influence on English drama at its greatest period, because of the audiences which these buildings accomodate. Ordinary Londoners, the groundlings, stand in the open pit to watch plays for a penny. Others pay a second penny to climb to a hard seat in the upper gallery. A third penny gives access to the two lower galleries and a seat with a cushion. A few places in the first gallery, to left and right of the stage, are reserved for gentlemen who can afford a shilling, or twelve pennies.
This is a cross-section of nearly all the people of London, and the audience is vast – with four theatres giving regular performances in a small city.
It has been calculated that during Shakespeare’s time one Londoner in eight goes to the theatre each week. A city of 160,000 people is providing a weekly audience of about 21,000. There is only one comparable example of such a high level of attendance at places of entertainment – in cinemas in the 1930s.
The range of Shakespeare’s audience is reflected in the plays, which can accomodate vulgar comedy and the heights of tragic poetry. The occasional performances in the Athenian drama festivals must have had something of this efffect, involving much of the community in a shared artistic experience. In Elizabethan and Jacobean London it happens almost every night.
The year 1564 sees the birth of two poets, Marlowe and Shakespeare, who between them launch the English theatre into the three decades of its greatest glory. Marlowe makes his mark first, in a meteoric six years (from 1587) in which his life and his writings are equally dramatic.
From his time as a student at Cambridge Marlowe seems to have been involved in the Elizabethan secret service. This dangerous work, combined with a fiery disposition, brings him into frequent clashes with the authorities. He is in prison in 1589 after a street fight. He is deported from the Netherlands in 1592 for the possession of forged gold coins. He is arrested for some unknown reason in London in 1593. And twelve days later he is murdered.
Marlowe is killed in a Deptford tavern by one of a group of colleagues with whom he has spent the day. The official explanation is a row over the tavern bill, but it is possible that the event relates to his secret service activities. What is certain is that when he dies, short of his thirtieth birthday, he is already an extremely popular playwright with the London audience.
Marlowe’s first play, acted with great success in 1587, is an event of profound significance in the story of English theatre.Tamburlainethe Greatintroduces the supple and swaggering strain of blank verse which becomes the medium for all the glories of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama.
Marlowe’s Tamburlaine is a character who revels in the power which his conquests bring him, and the verse conveys brilliantly his sense of excitement. Rich words trip off his tongue, relished for their own sakes, in a manner which becomes characteristic of much English poetry. When Tamburlaine defeats the emperor of Persia, and imagines his moment of triumph, even the strange names of his three colleagues are pressed into service to add to the rich brew:
‘Is it not passing brave to be a king, Techelles?
Usumcasane and Theridamas,
Is it not passing brave to be a king,
And ride in triumph through Persepolis?’
Tamburlaine is so popular that Marlowe adds a second part, staged in 1588. In the remaining five years of his life his plays includeThe Jew of Malta(a melodrama of revenge, in which the Jew indulges in an orgy of killing after his money has been confiscated),Doctor Faustus(inspired by a recent biography ofFaust, and setting the pattern for later treatments of the subject) andEdward II (the first play to dramatise English history as a conflict between real characters, and the predecessor of Shakespeare’s great achievements in this genre).
In the first three of these plays the title role is taken by Edward Alleyn, Marlowe’s leading actor and the great rival of Shakespeare’sBurbage.
The dates of the plays afterTamburlaine are uncertain, and the texts ofDoctor Faustusand The Jew of Malta have reached us in very corrupted versions because they are first printed years after Marlowe’s death.
What is certain is that when Shakespeare arrives in London, in about 1590, the London stage belongs above all to Marlowe. By the time of Marlowe’s death three years later only one of Shakespeare’s undeniable masterpieces,Richard III, has been produced (with Burbage as the villainous hero). It would be hard to predict at this stage which of the two talented 29-year-olds is the greater geniu
The life of Shakespeare: 1564-1616
The mysterious death of Marlowe, the Cambridge graduate, and the brilliant subsequent career of Shakespeare, the grammar-school boy from Stratford, have caused some to speculate that his secret service activities make it prudent for Marlowe to vanish from the scene – and that he uses the name of a lesser man, Shakespeare, to continue his stage career. Others, similarly inclined to conspiracy theories, have convinced themselves that Shakespeare’s plays are the work of the statesman and essayist Francis Bacon.
Snobbery rather than scholarship seems to underpin such arguments. Their proponents find it hard to accept that the unknown boy from Stratford should have created the crowning achievement of English literature.
The truth is that William Shakespeare is not such an unknown figure, and the education provided in England’s grammar schools of the time is among the best available. Shakespeare’s baptism is recorded in Stratford-upon-Avon on 26 April 1564 (this is only three days after St George’s Day, making possible the tradition that England’s national poet is born, most fortunately, on England’s national saint’s day).
Shakespeare’s father, John, is a leading citizen of the town and for a while a justice of the peace. It is a safe assumption (though there is no evidence) that Shakespeare is educated at Stratford’s grammar school.
In 1582, at the age of eighteen, Shakespeare marries Anne Hathaway. Their first child, Susanna, is baptized in 1583, followed by twins, Hamnet and Judith, in 1585.
There is then a gap of several years in the documentary record of Shakespeare’s life, but he is involved in the London theatre – as an actor trying his hand also as a playwright – by at least 1592, when he is attacked as an ‘upstart crow’ in a polemical pamphlet by Robert Greeene. In 1593 he publishes a poem,Venus and Adonis, following it in 1594 with The Rape of Lucrece. Meanwhile he has had performed the three parts ofHenry VI and, probably in the winter of 1592,Richard III.
The London theatres are closed for fear of the plague during 1592 and 1593 apart from brief midwinter seasons, but in 1594 things return to normal and Shakespeare’s career accelerates. He is now a leading member of London’s most successful company, run by the Burbage family at the Theatre. Patronage at court gives them at first the title of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. On the accession of James I in 1603 they are granted direct royal favour, after which they are known as the King’s Men.
Shakespeare’s share in the profits of this company, operating fromthe Globe on Bankside from 1599, makes him a wealthy man. Most of the subsequent documentary references relate to purchases in his home town of Stratford.
In 1597 Shakespeare pays £60 for a large house and garden, New Place in Chapel Street. By 1602 he has enough money to purchase an estate of 107 acres just outside Stratford, and he continues over the next few years to make investments in and around the town. In about 1610 he begins to spend less time in London and more in New Place, where he dies in 1616. He is buried in the chancel of the Stratford parish church.
Shakespeare has shown little interest in publishing his plays, for like others of his time he probably regards them as scripts for performance rather than literature. After his death two of his colleagues, John Heminge and Henry Condell, gather the texts of thirty-six plays which they publish in 1623 in the edition known now as the First Folio.
The plays before1601
By 1600 Shakespeare has conclusively demonstrated his genius in every kind of play except tragedy. In dramatizing English history he has progressed from the fumbling beginnings of the three parts ofHenry VI (1590-92) to the magnificent melodrama ofRichard III(1592), the subtle character study ofRichard II (1595), the jingoistic glories of Henry V(1600) and, most successful of all, the superb pair of plays about Henry IV and his wayward son Prince Hal.
Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 (1597-8) present a rich panorama of English life, from court and battlefield to tavern and rustic retreat. They also introduce, in Falstaff, the most rounded and unforgettable comic character in English literature.
Meanwhile Shakespeare has developed a sweet and delicate strain of romantic poetry, seen first in the tragic romance of Romeo and Juliet (1595) and then in the comic romances A Midsummer Night’s Dream(1596) and As You Like It (1599). And he has shown his skill in a more knock-about vein of comedy, withThe Taming of the Shrew (1593) andThe Merry Wives of Windsor(1600).
All these dates are approximate, to within a year or two, because there is in most cases no firm evidence of the date of first production.
After 1600 there is one more play which combines broad comedy (in the antics of Toby Belch and Andrew Aguecheek) and enchantingly romantic poetry (as in the very first line, ‘If music be the food of love, play on’). This is Twelfth Night, and its first production possibly occurs less than a week into 1601. There is evidence that Shakespeare probably writes it as part of the festivities for Twelfth Night (or January 6) at Elizabeth’s court in this particular year.
In general, though, Shakespeare’s palette darkens with the new century. The next few years see some much less sunny comedies and his four great tragedies.
Tragedies and dark comedies: 1601-1608
Shakespeare’s first attempt at full-scale tragedy, in 1601, brings to the stage a character, Hamlet, whose nature and weaknesses have prompted more discussion than any other Shakespearean creation. His prevailing characteristics of self-doubt and self-dramatization hardly seem promising material for a tragic hero, but Shakespeare uses them to create an intensely personal drama. Each opportunity for action prompts the young prince to indulge in another soul-searching soliloquy, each missed opportunity makes disaster more inevitable.
Othello is the next of the major tragedies, in about 1603, with the ‘green-eyed monster’ jealousy now the driving force on the path to destruction.
King Lear, in about 1605, is the most elemental of the tragedies, with the old king’s sanity buffeted by storms upon an open heath as much as by his treatment at the hands of his unfeeling daughters.Macbeth, a year or so later, makes guilt itself the stuff of tragedy after ruthless ambition has set events upon their course.
These plays are tragic in that each has a central character whose actions drive the events and whose flaws make the conclusion unavoidable. Others written during these years may not be tragedies in this fullest sense, but they have a bitter flavour far removed from comedy. An example is Troilus and Cressida(1602), with its caustic view of the world enunciated by Thersites.
Even the plays of this period which are literally comedies, in the simple sense that they end happily, are in mood closer to tragedy. Examples are All’s Well that Ends Well (1603) andMeasure for Measure (1604).
In the years afterMacbethShakespeare tackles two Roman themes. InAntony and Cleopatra (1607) the facts of history carry his two famous lovers to their tragic fates. In Coriolanus(1608) it is the arrogance of the central character which creates the drama – resolved only when his duty as a son, in response to the pleading of his aged mother, results in his own death.
The last plays: 1608-1611
Shakespeare’s last four plays, beginning withPericles, Prince of Tyre in about 1608, share a pattern of rupture, retirement, renewal and reconciliation. Rather like the natural rhythm of winter, followed by hibernation and emergence into spring, the plots begin with violently evil deeds. The good characters somehow escape to safety and a new life, often with a new identity. Years pass and children grow up, until eventually all is resolved.
In Pericles the events supposedly occur in ancient Tyre. InCymbeline (1609) the tormented family is that of the historicCunobelin, king of a Celtic British tribe. The Winter’s Tale (1611), set in undefined classical times, takes place in the kingdoms of Sicily and Bohemia.
The Tempest (also 1611) is set in a much more suitable context for any story of this kind, half real and half magic: ‘The scene, an uninhabited island’. For the past twelve years the island has been home to a victim of political skulduggery – Prospero, duke of Milan, accompanied by his young daughter Miranda. They share the place with a subhuman inhabitant, Caliban, and a spirit who has been trapped here, Ariel.
Since this is an island, and Prospero has magic powers, shipwreck provides an easy way of delivering the evil characters who were responsible for Prospero’s exile.
With their arrival, the ingredients are in place for a fantasy playing on many of life’s most significant contrasts. The ways of the world, both good and bad, are seen in a fresh light through the innocent eyes of Miranda, to whom everything is new. The benevolent wisdom of Prospero outwits the scheming wiles of his opponents. Drunken crew members have a natural affinity with the discontented Caliban. And the island, as a magical place, can spring its own surprises.
At the end of the play, when Prospero has brought the main characters together in reconciliation, he renounces his magic powers in a farewell epilogue.
Prospero’s final speech has often been seen as Shakespeare’s own farewell to his theatrical career, relinquishing the magic with which he has conjured so many stories and characters into life on the stage.
It may be so. But he is part author of one more play,Henry VIII(1613), and an event during one of its performances certainly puts the seal on his retirement. A spark from a stage cannon sets fire to the thatched roof of the Globe, which burns to the ground. The theatre is rebuilt, reopening in 1614 with a tiled roof. But the event is likely to confirm Shakespeare in his full-time withdrawal to his properties in Stratford, where he dies in 1616.
The sonnets: 1595-1598
If Shakespeare had written not a single play, he would still rank among England’s leading poets because of the 154 sonnets which he writes during the 1590s (they are not published until 1609). The beauty of the individual sonnets, many of them among the best loved poems in the English language, is enhanced by the mysterious personal relationships of which they give tantalizing hints.
The volume of 1609 is dedicated ‘to the onlie begetter of these insuing sonnets Mr W.H.’ Many of the sonnets are addressed to a young man, and the assumption that the loved one is himself W.H. has prompted endless speculation as to who he might be. William Herbert (earl of Pembroke) and Henry Wriothesley (earl of Southampton) have been leading contenders.
In the early poems (1-17) the poet urges the young man to achieve immortality by marrying and having children, but nos 18-25 suggest that he will be immortal anyway through these sonnets addressed to him (as indeed, in his anonymous way, he has proved). The poems up to 126 dwell on the relationship with the young man, sometimes offering pained hints that he is being unfaithful with a woman.
If she is the woman to whom the final sequence of sonnets is addressed, then her identify has stimulated as much fruitless research as that of W.H. Famous only as the dark lady of the sonnets, she is dark physically, dark in the turmoil she creates for her lover, and dark now in escaping the limelight
Ben Jonson: 1606-1616
Ben Jonson, almost as prolific in his works for the stage as Shakespeare, achieves his most distinctive voice in two satirical comedies based on an interplay of characters seen as types. In the earlier of the two,Volpone (1606), the characters are even given the Italian names of animals to point up their supposed natures.
Volpone (the fox) pretends to be dying so as to extract gifts from people expecting an inheritance. Mosca (the fly) acts as his accomplice. A lawyer, Voltore (the vulture), hovers around the supposed death bed. A feeble old man, Corbaccio (the crow), is willing to disinherit his son for his own benefit. And a self-righteous Corvino (the raven) offers his wife to satisfy Volpone’s lust.
Tricks played on the gullible also provide the comedy in The Alchemist (1610). Subtle, a confidence trickster pretending to be an alchemist, promises his victims whatever they most desire.
A grossly self-indulgent hedonist, Sir Epicure Mammon, and two fanatical puritans, Ananias and Tribulation Wholesome, turn out to share the same longing – to possess the philosopher’s stone, with which they will turn base metal into gold. By contrast a simple tobacconist, Drugger, wants nothing more than a design for his shop that will bring in customers. Kastril, an oaf up from the country, is mainly interested in discovering the fashionable way of being quarrelsome.
These two plays succeed partly because of the farcical opportunities available as the tricksters struggle to keep their various victims separate and happy. But they also benefit from the vividly realistic detail which gives life to Jonson’s verse.
His sharp eye for the everyday scene, and for the amusing quirks of people’s behaviour, even enables him to make a viable play out ofBartholomew Fair(1614). It has little to hold it together except the context of the famous fair itself. The plot consists only of the adventures and mishaps which befall different groups of visitors.
While writing his comedies for the public theatres, Jonson also providesmasques for amateur performance at the court of James I. His first, The Masque of Blackness in 1605, is specifically written to accomodate the longing of James’s queen, Anne of Denmark, to appear in the role of a black African.
A quarrelsome and touchy man, frequently in trouble with the authorities, Jonson is unusual for his time in insisting on the dignity of the craft of playwright. Whereas Shakespeare shows little interest in the survival of the text of his plays, Jonson arranges for his own works to be published in a splendid folio edition of 1616. Three years later, as if taking the point, Oxford university honours him with a degree as master of arts.
England’s Metaphysical poets: 17th century
The term Metaphysical has been applied, with no very good reason, to a group of English poets of the early 17th century who share a love of intellectual ingenuity, literary allusion and paradox, and who use language, images and rhythms of a kind not conventionally ‘poetic’ to startle the reader into thought.
In the 17th and 18th century the term usually implies hostility to what is perceived as these poets’ perverse complexity. In the 20th century, after their merits are championed by T.S. Eliot and others, it becomes one of approval.
The earliest of the group (by a generation and more) is John Donne, whose wide range of themes stretches from erotic delights (Love’s Progress, or To his Mistress Going to Bed) to the power of a holy sonnet such as the one on death (beginning ‘Death be not proud’ and ending ‘Death, thou shalt die’).
Donne becomes dean of St Paul’s in 1621. An unscrupulous collector of pluralist church appointments, he is nevertheless a most persuasive preacher. A passage written during a serious illness uses a powerful and frequently quoted sequence of images to involve all humanity: ‘No man is an island, entire of itself; … and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’
George Herbert, an aristocrat whose mother is a friend and patron of Donne, chooses a quieter life than his somewhat worldly predecessor and settles eventually for an insignificant country parish. He writes only devotional poems. Published just after his death in a single volume,The Temple(1633), they convey a mood of simple piety transcending subtle torments of spiritual conflict.
Several other poets of the period write within a roughly similar idiom, which can be said to share Metaphysical characteristics. One in particular stands out – Andrew Marvell, a generation younger again than Herbert.
In his own lifetime Marvell is known as a minor public figure, linked with prominent leaders during the Commonwealth. He acts as tutor in the families of both Fairfax andCromwell, and from 1657 serves with Milton in Cromwell’s department for foreign affairs.
Marvell’s poems are published in 1681, three years after his death. Not until the 20th century are they appreciated, for their subtle and often provocative blending of different levels of perception. In To His Coy MistressMarvell gives the conventional argument of the seducer (to gather rosebuds while we may) a very much darker complexion: ‘The grave’s a fine and private place, But none I think do there embrace.’
Milton the young poet: 1632-1638
When the collected plays of Shakespeare are reissued in 1632, in the edition known as the Second Folio, the volume contains an Epitaph on Shakespeare. It is not known how the poem has been chosen for this honour, but it is the first published work of John Milton – famous as yet only in the limited circle of Cambridge, where he is a brilliant student.
Milton’s other poems from his student days, not published until 1645, include On the Morning of Christ’s Nativityand a linked pair,L’Allegro and Il Penseroso, contrasting the active and the contemplative life.
Two years after his departure from Cambridge, Milton’s masqueComus is performed, in 1634, at a grand ceremonial occasion in Ludlow castle. And in 1637 a personal tragedy, linked with Cambridge, prompts the writing and publication of his first major poem.
A fellow student from his college days, Edward King, dies in a shipwreck in the Irish Sea. A volume of elegies is planned in his memory and Milton is asked to contribute. The result is Lycidas, published with the other elegies in 1638. Though written within a formal pastoral convention, the poem is an intensely felt and very personal meditation on mortality (Milton’s perhaps as much as Edward King’s, who was an acquaintance rather than a close friend).
Milton the polemicist: 1641-1660
To an observer in the 1640s and 1650s these few but distinguished poems would seem to comprise the full and completed career of Milton the poet, for during this period of crisis in English history he devotes himself to issues of more immediate and practical concern.
In the developing conflict between the Anglicanmonarchy and puritan parliament, Milton’s sympathies are on the side of parliament – in whose endeavours he sees the best hope for his own central concern, that of liberty for the individual citizen. From 1641, the date of his first polemical tract, Milton consciously and with regret sets aside poetry in order to ’embark in a troubled sea of noises and hoarse disputes’.
He is by no means slavishly on parliament’s side. Indeed the best known of his pamphlets,Areopagitica (an impassioned plea for freedom of the press, published in 1644), is prompted by parliament’s decision to continue censorship laws inherited from the days of the Star Chamber.
Nevertheless Milton’s political allegiance is clear, and when the Civil War has been won by parliament he himself enters government. In March 1649 he is appointed Latin secretary toCromwell‘s council of state. Latin is the international language, so his post means that he is responsible for the administration of foreign affairs.
Milton is also what would nowadays be called the government’s spin doctor, a role in which he is presented at once with a difficult task. The royalists publish, on the day of the executed king’s burial in 1649, a powerful propaganda volume calledEikon Basilike(‘image of a king’). It is a collection of meditations and prayers, supposedly written by the martyredCharles I when held in captivity by parliament. Milton responds withEikonoklastes(‘image breaker’), but he can do little to dent the power and immediacy of the opposing volume.
Milton keeps his job until the end of the Commonwealth, in 1660. He has been blind since 1652, but talented assistants (includingMarvell) are at his side.
Paradise Lost: 1667
Milton’s lack of personal skill in politics is evident from the timing of his last polemical pamphlet. In 1660, the year of the Restorationand just two months before the return of Charles II to London, he publishes The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth.
From his close association with the leadingregicides, Milton is in real danger in the early months of the restored monarchy. He goes into hiding when a warrant is posted for his arrest. In the event he is allowed both his life and his liberty – perhaps because his blindness makes him harmless. The change proves immensely beneficial, in the fourteen years of life left to him. He now devotes himself fully to a task which is already under way.
There is evidence that from early in his life Milton has had in mind a grand project on a biblical theme. Since 1658 he has been dictating an epic poem which states in its opening lines that its subject is ‘man’s first disobedience’, and its purpose ‘to justify the ways of God to man’.
Paradise Lost (or, in its early draft title, Adam Unparadized) uses the first three chapters ofGenesis as the springboard on which Milton builds mighty edifices describing the fall of Satan and his rebel angels, the struggle between them and the archangels, the promise of redemption through Christ, the innocence and temptation of Adam and Eve, and their expulsion from paradise.
The writing of this great work by the blind poet provides one of the most evocative scenes of English literary history. Milton usually composes his soaring lines during the night and keeps them in his head until the next day. When he is ready ‘to be milked’, he dictates (often with a leg sprawled over the arm of his chair) to various scribes, including two nephews and one of his daughters.
The poem is published in 1667 (earning its author £10), and is followed in 1671 by Paradise Regained (a briefer work, centred on Christ resisting Satan in the desert to undo the harm of Adam and Eve succumbing to him) andSamson Agonistes(a poetic drama, treating the final days of Samson with the intensity of Greek tragedy).
At some time during the last weeks of 1659 a 26-year-old Londoner buys himself a handsome leather-bound volume with all its pages blank. He senses that the new decade will be an interesting one in politics (and, he hopes, in his own career). He intends to record it in a diary.
On 1 January 1660 he begins his first entry: ‘Lords day. This morning (we lying lately in the garret) I rose, put on my suit with great skirts, having not lately worn any other clothes but them.’ He goes on to describe the sermon which he hears in church and his midday meal at home: ‘My wife dressed the remains of a turkey, and in the doing of it she burned her hand.’
Samuel Pepys has launched into the great adventure of recording the minutiae of his daily life. The experiment lasts nine years (until trouble with his eyes brings it to an end), and it bequeaths to the world perhaps the greatest of all diaries.
The word ‘diary’, in the sense of a personal record, only comes into use in the 17th century. Almost immediately there are two outstanding examples in the journals of Pepys and of John Evelyn. They are very different. Evelyn keeps a spasmodic account of events, mainly of a public kind, over a span of seven decades. Pepys, in a greater number of words, records everything which takes his fancy during just nine years.
Pepys is fortunate that the 1660s in London are so eventful. In starting the diary he anticipates interesting developments as the country adjusts to the ending of the Commonwealth and, as it turns out, to the restoration of the monarchy. But no one can anticipate two of the most newsworthy events in London’s history, the Great Plague and the Great Fire, which Pepys is able to record in fascinating detail (see Plague and Fire).
The description on 4 September 1666 of himself and Sir William Penn, together digging a hole in the garden to preserve their wine and parmesan cheese from the advancing flames, makes an extraordinarily vivid historical vignette. The fire stops short of their treasure.
Pepys’s genius as a diarist is that he records everything which interests him. The diary is for himself and about himself (it is not published, even in abbreviated form, until 1825). His concerns, to the delight of modern readers, frequently centre on his sexual exploits. We even share with him the anticipation. He records on 19 December 1664 that he feels a little guilty, lying in bed with his wife, because his mind keeps running on what he hopes to do tomorrow with the wife of a certain Bagwell. The next day we learn that he has succeeded.
Pepys even lapses into foreign doggerel in case his wife reads the diary. ‘Et ego did baiser her bouche.’ But can Mrs Pepys really not work out that her husband has kissed someone on the mouth?
The Pilgrim’s Progress: 1678
The persecution ofNonconformistscauses one of England’s best loved works of literature to be written. In many households in the 18th century there is only one book other than the Bible. It is The Pilgrim’s Progress, much of it probably written when its author John Bunyan is in Bedford gaol.
His offence, in the harsh Anglican reaction of the 1660s, is merely to preach without a licence – meaning outside the authorized confines of the Church of England. Bunyan is a leading member of a community of Baptists in Bedford. Committed to the county gaol in 1661, he remains there for eleven years until released in 1672 as a result of Charles II’s Declaration of Indulgence.
Bunyan’s spiritual autobiography,Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, is published during his years in gaol (in 1666). It gives him an added literary reputation when he returns to his preaching during the 1670s. This perhaps encourages him to undertake (or maybe just to complete) a more popular work when he finds himself back in Bedford gaol for another spell of six months in 1677.
The Pilgrim’s Progress from this world, to that which is to comeis published in 1678, followed by a second part in 1684. In a sense it covers the same territory as his autobiography, telling of a guilt-ridden quest for salvation. But the material is now given fictional form.
The immediate popularity of The Pilgrim’s Progressin solemn English households is easy to understand. While unmistakably an improving religious work, it has the excitement of a folk tale and the rich characters of a novel.
In Part 1 the pilgrim, Christian, sets off with his burden of sins upon his back to make his way to the Celestial City. His path takes him through the Slough of Despond, past the tempting delights of Vanity Fair, and into temporary imprisonment by Giant Despair in Doubting Castle. In Part 2 Christian is followed on the journey by his wife, Christiana, with their children. Every virtuous family in England can identify with these characters and their adventures.
A new Augustan Age: 1702-1714
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 emperorAugustus. 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 withThe 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. TheTatler, founded by Richard Steele with frequent contributions from his friend Joseph Addison, turns the relaxed and informal essayinto 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 asVirgil 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 theOdyssey (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 afterMilton 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: 1719-1726
Daniel Defoe, the author ofRobinson Crusoe, has a genius for journalism in an age beforenewspapersexist 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 theGreat Plagueand then to blend them in a convincing fictional Journal of the Plague Year(1722).
Another work which could run week after week in a modern newspaper is his immensely informative Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain, published in three volumes in 1724-7. But his instinctive nose for a good story is best seen in his response to the predicament of Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish sailor who survives for five years as a castaway on a Pacific island before being discovered in 1709.
Just as the plague documents stimulated a fictional journal, this real-life drama now prompts Defoe to undertake the imagined autobiography of another such castaway,Robinson Crusoe(1719).
Defoe imagines in extraordinary detail the practical difficulties involved in building a house and a boat, in domesticating the local animals, and in coping with unwelcome neighbours. This is a cannibal island. The native whom Crusoe rescues from their clutches on a Friday becomes his faithful servant, Man Friday.
Defoe’s interests seem to lie mainly in the theme of man’s creation of society from primitive conditions, but meanwhile he almost unwittingly writes a gripping adventure story of survival. Robinson Crusoe is avidly read as such by all succeeding generations – and has a good claim to be considered the first English novel.
Seven years later another book appears which immediately becomes one of the world’s most popular stories, and again seems to do so for reasons not quite intended by its author. JonathanSwift, a man inspired by savage indignation at the ways of the world, writes Gulliver’s Travels (1726) as a satire in which human behaviour is viewed from four revealing angles.
When Gulliver arrives in Liliput, he observes with patronising condescension the habits of its tiny inhabitants. But in Brobdingnag, a land of giants, he is the midget. When he proudly tells the king about European manners, he is surprised at the royal reaction. The king says that humans sound like ‘little odious Vermin’.
Gulliver’s next stop, the flying island of Laputa, is run by philosophers and scientists (asPlato might have wished); predictably they make a mess of things. Finally Gulliver visits a land ruled by intelligent horses (the Houyhnhnms, Swift’s version of whinnying). The hooligans here are brutal and oafish beasts in human shape, the Yahoos.
Once again the sheer vitality of the author’s imagination transcends his immediate purpose. Of the millions who enjoy Gulliver’s fantastic adventures, few are primarily aware of Swift’s harshly satirical intentions.
The English novel: 1740-1749
During a quarter of a century, from 1740, the novel makes great advances in England, with notable achievements in several different styles.
Defoe has laid a foundation withRobinson Crusoe, and has followed this up with The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders in 1722. Moll’s story is more like a conventional novel than that of Robinson Crusoe, being set in the real world of low-life London and the plantations of Virginia. It is full of vitality and incident, but it is basically – as the title states – a sequence of fortunes and misfortunes for the heroine. Crusoe had his isolation to give focus to the story. Moll has only her vivacious character. Of plot, in the normal sense, there is little.
This lack of focus is fully answered by Samuel Richardson, a novelist of much greater influence in his own time than today.Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740) tells the story of Pamela Andrews trying to ward off the sexual advances of the young man of the house in which she is a maid. The narrative develops in the form of letters – most of them written by Pamela herself.
The ability to unfold a plot through correspondence, spinning out the detail and viewing events from several different angles, is the pioneering discovery of Richardson. He takes it to much greater length in Clarissa (7 vols, 1747-8), a novel of more than a million words and the longest in the English language.
Pamela has a somewhat unconvincing happy ending.Clarissa, an altogether darker account of a relationship between two upper-class characters, ends in disaster for both. This account of pyschological warfare between the sexes is much read throughout Europe. The brilliantly savage erotic novel by Laclos, Les Liaisons Dangereuses(1782), can be seen as a direct descendant.
A more cheerful offshoot of Richardson’s efforts is the first novel by Henry Fielding, a magistrate in London’s Bow Street court with an intimate knowledge of the city’s low life. Offended by the sentimental unreality ofPamela, he writesJoseph Andrews(1742) – the story of Pamela’s brother, who is a minor character in Richardson’s book.
Fielding finds virtue not in respectability (the ultimate yardstick in Pamela) but in the warm-hearted honesty of a group of ordinary and often unfortunate characters, in particular the absent-minded Parson Adams. His plot, loose and picaresque though it is in many respects, has its own logic and consistency.
The ingredients pioneered inJoseph Andrewsare deployed by Fielding with even greater success inTom Jones(1749). The adventures in a vividly wicked world of the lusty but honest Tom, and the survival against all the odds of his love for Sophia Western, provide a novel of romance and adventure which has kept its power ever since – as is evident in its several incarnations on film.
The English novel: 1759-1766
The most original novel of the 18th century, and one of the most chaotically endearing books of any age, is published from 1759 by a clergyman on the staff of the cathedral in York. It is Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy.
Told as Tristram’s autogiography, the book begins – logically but unconventionally – with the scene at his conception. Thereafter, in a series of looping digressions interrupted with sudden surprises (such as a page of solid black in mourning for poor Yorick), Sterne dwells upon a small number of quite ordinary characters who come vividly alive thanks to their minor obsessions and eccentricities. We are well into Vol. 3 before the author is born. Slightly before that event he at last has a moment to write his Preface.
Sterne’s blend of fantasy and mock-learning owes much to Rabelais, but he adds an easy playfulness, a friendly teasing of the reader, which his contemporaries find immediately attractive. The success of the first two volumes in 1759 is so great that Sterne is able to retire to a quiet curacy in north Yorkshire.Tristram Shandycould go on for ever, but the story ends in the middle of nowhere after Vol. 7 (1767), merely because that is where its author stops writing.
Tristram Shandy – with its amused interest in the relationship between writer and reader, and in the nature of narrative – seems two centuries ahead of its time, resembling a modern demolition of the very idea of the novel.
The next English novel to retain a devoted readership through the centuries is, by contrast, firmly in the mainstream of fiction. Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield(1766) tells the story of a simple and good-hearted vicar who puts up stoically with a series of disasters, mainly brought upon him by the vagaries of his children, until he eventually emerges unscathed.
The events are more melodramatic than those which drive the plots of Jane Austen, but Goldsmith’s unaffected prose and gentle irony prefigure later advances in the English novel. Between them, the experiments in English fiction in the mid-18th century make almost anything possible.
Johnson and Boswell: 1755-1791
‘Lexicographer: a writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.’
That definition appears in theDictionary of the English Languageby Samuel Johnson, published in 1755. Its heavyweight solemnity, enlivened by the joke at its centre, is the quality which has made Dr Johnson England’s best-loved literary character. His cast of mind is known now not from his own voluminous writings but from the devoted account written by his young friend James Boswell and published in 1791 as The Life of Samuel Johnson.
Boswell meets Johnson in London in 1763 and keeps in touch on his annual visit from Edinburgh, where he is employed as a lawyer. Boswell is a man fascinated by conversation (as is revealed in his own extremely vivid journals), and in Johnson he has met the heavyweight champion of this particular art. From early in their friendship he conceives the plan of writing the great man’s life, and begins to note down his views and remarks.
It is evident from Boswell’s pages that Johnson, like Falstaff, is alarming as well as witty. As Goldsmith observes in Boswell’s pages: ‘There is no arguing with Johnson; for when his pistol misses fire, he knocks you down with the butt end of it.’
Boswell’s literary efforts on behalf of his friend mean that more of Johnson’s curmudgeonly opinions are remembered and affectionately quoted than those of any other Englishman.
A frequent butt is Boswell’s own country. ‘Sir, let me tell you, the noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road that leads him to England’. As it happens this prejudice is particularly inappropriate in Johnson’s lifetime when Edinburgh, in particular, is enjoying a period of creativity known subsequently as the Scottish Enlightenment. But vigorous opinions of Johnson’s kind transcend small local realities.
Johnson, the devoted Londoner, has little interest in travelling. Asked by Boswell whether the famous Giant’s Causeway would not be worth seeing, he replies: ‘Worth seeing? yes; but not worth going to see.’
Even so, Boswell does somehow persuade the reluctant tourist to accompany him on a journey north in 1773 – recorded by Johnson in A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775), and by Boswell inJournal of a Tour to the Hebrides(1785). This is a region of particular topical interest, for the Celtic fringe of Britain has suddenly become famous as the home of the poetOssian. His newly discovered epic work excites all Europe – except, almost alone on the issue, Samuel Johnson.
Everywhere in the islands there is talk of Fingal, a supposed poem by Ossian discovered and translated by JamesMacpherson and published in 1762. Johnson tells Boswell that he considers it ‘as great an imposition as ever the world was troubled with’. When Johnson’s views become public, in his book of 1775, Macpherson demands a retraction and gets the reply: ‘What shall I retract? I thought your book an imposture from the beginning, I think it upon yet surer reasons an imposture still.’
Johnson’s critical sense makes hisLives of the Poets(1779-81) a valuable work even today. And on the Ossian issue he is ahead of the best minds in Scotland. Even Hume and Adam Smith are at first taken in by the poem.
The Scottish Enlightenment: 1748-1785
During the second half of the 18th century Scotland is in the forefront of intellectual and scientific developments. The movement known now as the Scottish Enlightenment has much in common with the broaderEnlightenment, in its emphasis on rational processes and the potential of scientific research. This Scottish version is mainly of interest for the concentration of achievement within a small region. The people involved are in the university departments and laboratories of Edinburgh and Glasgow.
The founding figure can be said to be the philosopher David Hume. He publishes his most significant work, A Treatise on Human Nature, early in his life, in 1739-40, but it receives little attention at the time.
Hume travels during much of the 1740s, becoming better known only after he settles in Edinburgh in 1751. His treatise is now published again in three more accessible parts (An Essay concerning Human Understanding1748, An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals1751, A Dissertation on the Passions1757). His Political Discourses of 1752 give him a wider reputation, being translated into French.
At this time he becomes a close friend of Adam Smith, who as yet is a primarily a moral philosopher – making his name in 1759 with The Theory of Moral Sentiments. His great work of political economy,The Wealth of Nations, is still nearly two decades in the future.
Hume and Smith are the intellectual leaders of this Scottish movement, but they have distinguished colleagues in scientific research. In 1756 Joseph Black, a lecturer in chemistry in Glasgow, publishes a paper which demonstrates the existence of carbon dioxide. Five years later Black discovers the principle of latent heat. By that time he has befriended a Glasgow laboratory technician, James Watt, who also has an enquiring mind and an interest in heat.
Meanwhile in Edinburgh a ‘Society of Gentleman in Scotland’ has been formed to emulate the great publishing achievement of the continental Enlightenment, Diderot’sEncyclopédiewhich has been appearing in parts since 1751.
The gentlemen in Scotland produce between 1768 and 1771 the first edition of a dictionary of the arts and sciences under the titleEncyclopaedia Britannica. Unlike its French predecessor, it has been revised and reissued ever since.
While theEncyclopaedia Britannica is coming off the presses, a retired doctor in Edinburgh has been studying the local rock strata. In 1785 James Hutton reads a paper on this unusual topic to the newly founded Royal Society of Edinburgh. His approach breaks new ground. Hutton is the pioneer of scientific geology, one of the main contributions of the Scottish Enlightenment to the field of human enquiry.
Macpherson and Chatterton: 1760-1777
In the late 1750s James Macpherson, a Scottish schoolmaster, begins travelling in the Highlands and islands to collectGaelicmanuscripts and oral accounts of traditional Celtic literature. The result is a collection of supposed translations of ancient texts, published in 1760 as Fragments of Ancient Poetry Collected in the Highlands of Scotland and Translated from the Gaelic or Erse Language.
Macpherson follows this in 1762 with a much more ambitious publication, an entire epic poem by the semi-legendary Irish poet Oisin, supposed son of the Celtic warrior hero Finn McCool.
Transferred by Macpherson to Scotland, the pair become Ossian and Fingal – and the poem itself is published asFingal, an Ancient Epic Poem composed by Ossian. This is rapturously received as a romantic relic from the Middle Ages, with only a few dissenting voices such as Dr Johnson‘s.
It is later proved to be almost entirely Macpherson’s own book, with a few scraps of ancient ballads inserted here and there, but its success has another significance. The Celtic twilight imagined in Ossian’s name chimes perfectly with a new longing for something more mysterious than the rationalism of theEnlightenment.
This developing mood of romantic medievalism (less frivolous than Horace Walpole’s self-indulgence at Strawberry Hill) is given another boost in 1765 with the publication of Thomas Percy’sReliques of Ancient English Poetry. This contains genuine medieval ballads, mainly taken from a single surviving manuscript. In many cases they are somewhat over-restored by Percy, as an editor, but this is a trivial detail in the developing mood of the time.
Both Ossian and Percy are read with avid interest by a brilliant and lonely boy in Bristol, now in his early teens. Thomas Chatterton lives his own imaginative life in the late Middle Ages.
Chatterton invents a 15th-century poet, Thomas Rowley, and sets him among historical Bristol characters of the period. He writes Rowley’s poems for him, and forges documents and correspondence relating to his life. These are sufficiently convincing to deceive various local antiquaries. Horace Walpole at first accepts as authentic a treatise by Rowley on painting which Chatterton sends him (The Ryse of Peyncteynge yn Englande).
In March 1769 Chatterton has a supposed early medieval work (Ethelgar. A Saxon poem) accepted by the Town and Country Magazine. Two months later the same periodical publishes one of his Rowley poems.
In April 1770 Chatterton moves to London to seek his fortune. But no one in the capital city pays much attention. In August, in a garret, the 17-year-old boy takes arsenic and dies.
Seven years later a volume of the Rowley poems is published in London, assumed by the publisher to be by the 16th-century author. For many years argument rages as to whether these poems are by Rowley or Chatterton. Unlike Macpherson’s forgeries, those believing them to be Chatterton’s see in them a fresh and original talent. Called by Wordsworth ‘the marvellous Boy, The sleepless Soul that perished in his pride’, Chatterton becomes a powerful influence in early romanticism.
Decline and Fall: 1764-1788
The most famous work of history by an English author has a precisely pinpointed moment of inspiration. Edward Gibbon later describes the day: ‘It was at Rome, on the 15th of October, 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefoot friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind.’
The eventual offspring of that moment is The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published between 1776 and 1778. The six volumes cover a vast sweep of European history from the 2nd centuryto the fall of Constantinople in 1453.
Decline and Fall is an act of enquiring nostalgia by a classicist of the rational 18th century who looks back to the Roman world, a society which he finds in so many ways admirable, and wonders why, where and when everything went wrong. He discovers, as he must have suspected he would on that day in 1764, that the barefoot friars and their superstitious colleagues during the medieval centuries are to blame for the long process which he describes in a typically challenging phrase as ‘the triumph of barbarism and religion’.
Paradoxically, Gibbon writes a great work on the Middle Ages at the very time when the period’s merits are most undervalued by scholars such as himself.
His book is an immediate success when the first volume is published in 1776 – partly because some of his comments on Christianity provoke controversy, but above all due to the elegant irony of his prose and his ability to rise to the grand historic moment.
The full orchestra plays in long rolling cadences when Gibbon describes an event such as the crusaders in 1204 sacking Constantinople. But a new character (in this case Rienzo) may be introduced with a simple and challenging sentence; ‘In a quarter of the city which was inhabited only by mechanics and Jews, the marriage of an innkeeper and a washerwoman produced the future deliverer of Rome.’ Gibbon’s readers have found this blend irresistible.
At the end Gibbon brings his work full circle. His story ends with two events of the 15th century, the fall of Constantinople to the Turks and the return of the papacy to Rome. Renaissance Rome, with papal encouragement, rediscovers and takes pains to restore the glories of classical Rome. By the time of Gibbon’s visit the city is the destination of every Grand Tourist.
Gibbon states with some satisfaction in his conclusion: ‘The monuments of ancient Rome have been elucidated by the diligence of the antiquarian; and the footsteps of heroes, the relics not of superstition but of empire, are devoutly visited by a new race of pilgrims from the remote, and once savage, countries of the north.’
This page by Adrian Lashmore-Davies
Rapid social and political change in late eighteenth-century Europe is accompanied by a shift from faith in reason to an emphasis on the senses, feelings, and imagination, and an interest in untamed nature. Romantic Literature, an artistic and philosophical movement typified by its emphasis on inspiration, subjectivity, and the primacy of the individual, seeks to come to terms with this changing environment.
The first generation of Romantic authors, Blake, Wordsworth, and Coleridge, inspired by the revolutionary overthrow of old regimes in America and France, attempt to articulate a new demotic language expressive of the primary human feelings as found in the ‘language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society’. In doing so, they fashion exciting revolutionary theories of their own, partly in reaction against the neo-classicism of Augustan literature.
Revolution and reaction,1789-98
William Blake, the first of the Romantic authors, a self-taught engraver and visionary poet, publishesSongs of Innocence in 1789. Drawing on biblical tradition, the poetry of John Milton, Bunyan, Dante, andNonconformistliterature, Blake voices his fervent belief in spiritual and political liberty. Short lyrical poems with hand-coloured plates including titles such as ‘The Little Girl Lost’ and ‘The Little Girl Found’, express Blake’s prophetic sense of the trials of precarious innocence in a world of adult corruption and cruelty.
In the following year, Blake publishes The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, a prose work written as a rejection of Emanuel Swedenborg’s theological views. Arranged as a collection of aphorisms, it explores Blake’s ideas about contraries, ‘Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate’, which he claims are necessary to human existence, and without which there is ‘no progression’.The Marriageincludes the provoking statement that Milton, in writing with such energy and verve about devils and Hell in Paradise Lost, was ‘a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it’. Blake ends this collection with the apocalyptic ‘Song of Liberty’, calling for the revolutionary overthrow of all tyrannies.
In 1795 Blake further explores the theme of man’s divided nature by extending hisSongs of Innocence, adding parallel ‘Songs of Experience’ to emphasise theTwo Contrary States of the Human Soul: the interlocking of innocence and experience, vitality and repression, desire and guilt. The ‘Songs of Experience’ include the celebrated poem, The Tyger:
Tyger, Tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?.
The topic of childhood innocence in a fallen world is also a feature of the Lake poets, Wordsworth and Coleridge, in their innovative use of the ballad tradition inLyrical Ballads(1798). Poems such as ‘We are Seven’ and ‘Anecdote for Fathers’, written in a simple – some said puerile – style, celebrate the knowingness of a child’s-eye view. The preface to theLyrical Balladsprovides a manifesto for the burgeoning Romantic movement, declaring the incidents and situations of ‘low and rustic life’, rendered in the language ‘really used by men’, to be the proper subject of poetry. Here the ‘essential passions of the heart’ are more readily identifiable, claims Wordsworth, than in the metropolis. The collection included landmark poems such as The Rime of the Ancient Marinerand Tintern Abbey.
The Rime of the Ancient Marinerplays out struggles in Coleridge’s own psyche. An aged mariner having returned from a sea voyage unburdens his soul to a man going to a wedding, describing how he shot an albatross flying above his ship after which a curse fell on the ship. As a mark of the mariner’s guilt, the dead albatross was hung about his neck. Mysteriously, all of the crew died except the mariner who returned home safely, but he is for evermore condemned to wander from land to land and teach love to ‘Both man and bird and beast’.
Kubla Khan(composed 1797; first published 1816) famously incorporates its own creation myth. Coleridge claimed that it was a mere fragment of a much greater piece recovered upon waking from an opium-induced sleep. Upon waking he was aware of having composed two or three hundred lines of the poem whilst asleep, and immediately began to set these down on paper. Before finishing he was disturbed by an unidentified ‘person…from Porlock’; when he afterwards attempted to recall the remainder he found that he had forgotten everything.
One of the most remarkable features of Romantic poetry is the extent to which the consciousness of the poet is centre stage. In 1798-9 Wordsworth writes The Prelude, a two-book version of the long philosophical poem finally published in full only in 1850. Originally conceived as a preamble to a greater work,The Recluse, thePreludedescribes the ‘Growth of a Poet’s Mind’.
The poem records the ebb and flow of Wordsworth’s inner-life, first as a boy at Hawkshead, then in subsequent, expanded versions, his experience at university in Cambridge, time spent in France in 1791 when he became inspired by theFrench Revolution, and his reading and travel; it includes retrospectives on the ‘Love of Nature Leading to Love of Man’, and on ‘Imagination and Taste, How Repaired and Restored’. The Prelude is a ground-breaking psychological epic on a scale with Paradise Lost and is often regarded as Wordsworth’s crowning achievement as a poet.
Jane Austen and the English novel,1802-18
The daughter of a vicar, the Reverend George Austen, Jane Austen extended and questioned the eighteenth-century tradition of the novel of sentiment, and is now regarded as the most important novelist of the Romantic period. Her novels view with an ironic but sympathetic eye upper-middle-class English society. Austen delights in exploring subtle nuances of language and minute turns of phrase.
Her earliest novel,Northanger Abbey, begun in 1798, is sold to a publisher in 1803 but not published until 1818. The heroine of the novel is Catherine Morland, a seventeen-year-old girl addicted to Gothic novels, a literary form that thrived in Britain from the 1790s to the 1820s. Austen comically juxtaposes elements of the Gothic form such as castles and desolate landscapes with the realities of life as normally found ‘in the Midland counties of England’.
In 1811, she publishes Sense and Sensibility. The novel explores the contradictory characters of two sisters, Elinor and Marianne, one the picture of good sense, the other swayed by a giddy and romantic sensibility. The novel examines the psychology of romantic love and the constraints placed upon individual desire by prudence, honour and duty.
In Pride and Prejudice, published in 1813, Austen revises an earlier work, ‘First Impressions’, refused by the publisher in 1797. The novel, the most popular of Austen’s works as well as being her personal favourite, follows the adventures of Elizabeth Bennet. Elizabeth succeeds in winning the dashing Fitzwilliam Darcy, ‘Mr Darcy’, the archetypal romantic hero.Pride and Prejudice makes love its main focus, and is the first of a new sub-genre of the novel, the romance novel. Only two more of her novels were published during her lifetime,Mansfield Park(1814) andEmma (1815).Persuasion was published likeNorthanger Abbey in 1818, the year after her death.
Second-generation Romanticism: Byron, Keats, and the ShelleysIn the first two decades of the nineteenth century, a second generation of Romantic writers emerges, led by Byron, Keats, and Percy Shelley, all of whom were at school when Wordsworth and Coleridge published Lyrical Ballads (1798). The intervening years, between that landmark publication and Byron’s explosion onto the European literary scene with Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage(1812), witness a cooling of revolutionary spirit in Europe. In 1804Napoleon is crowned emperor and in 1814 theBourbon monarchy is restored in France. The younger Romantics, in seeking to redefine Romanticism, challenge the Lake poets. Shelley accuses Wordsworth of betraying the hopes of the Revolution, and Keats questions Wordsworth’s concept of ‘the egotistical sublime’, while Byron regrets that Wordsworth confined his muse to ‘such trifling subjects.’ (Review of Wordsworth’s Poems, Monthly Literary Recreations, 1807.)
George Gordon Byron (often referred to as Lord Byron, being the 6th in that line), publishes his first collection of poems in 1807; unremarkable in terms of quality, they are roundly attacked by reviewers. In 1809, he takes up his seat in the House of Lords then spends the next two years touring Spain, Malta, Greece, and the Levant. During this period the Peninsular War (1807–14), provoked by France’s invasion of Spain and Portugal, forces Britain to take a more active role in the Napoleonic Wars. Whilst the British government sees itself as engaged in a war in defence of liberty against tyranny, Byron considers the British position hypocritical and continues to sympathise with the republican ideals of the French Revolution, even retaining a measure of respect for Napoleon whom he regards as a flawed and misunderstood hero.
Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812–18), an unfinished poem written in Spenserian stanzas, is a meditation on the Peninsular War and on the European crisis in general, and considers wider questions connected with freedom, nature, and heroism. The poem recounts the travels of a misanthropic, self-exiled pilgrim, Childe Harold, the first of the Byronic heroes. The central character has much in common with Byron though he repeatedly denied any identification with Harold. Byron wrote in the Preface that had he proceeded to finish Childe Harold, the protagonist’s character ‘would have deepened’. Indeed, in subsequent poems such as The Corsair, Manfred andDon Juan, Byron returns to the same theme though with little significant development of his hero.
In 1815, after a passionate affair with Lady Caroline Lamb, Byron marries Annabella Milbanke, Lady Melbourne’s niece. The marriage is short-lived and the following year, amid rumours of his incestuous relationship with his half-sister, he separates from his wife and leaves England permanently, spending time with the Shelleys in Geneva. During these years in exile, Byron composes his masterpiece,Don Juan (1819–24). The poem describes the adventures of a gallant young man shipwrecked on a Greek island, and is a powerful critique of social and sexual conventions, as well as criticism of other Romantic writers and of the Duke of Wellington, Napoleon’s vanquisher at Waterloo. Byron died in 1824 of a fever in Missolonghi, where he was giving support to Greek insurgents in their fight for independence.
Percy Bysshe Shelley, a committed atheist and son of a baronet and member of Parliament, was expelled (1811) from Oxford University for writing an antireligious pamphlet, The Necessity of Atheism. In the same year he married Harriet Westbrook, a pupil at the same school as Shelley’s sister, but three years later, in 1814, he abandoned her and their young child to elope with Mary Godwin, the daughter of the atheist philosopher William Godwin and the feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft.
Shelley first comes to public attention as a serious poet in 1813 with the publication of Queen Mab, which imagines a future society founded on principles of free love, atheism, and vegetarianism. In 1816 he publishes a visionary poem, Alastor, or, The Spirit of Solitude. The poem explores the dilemma facing the solitary poet who, in pursuit of his intellectual ideals, attempts to live without human sympathy and dies alone. On a summer visit to Geneva later that year, Shelley and Mary Godwin first meet Byron. In December 1816 Shelley’s estranged wife, Harriet, commits suicide, and shortly after he marries Mary.
With the death in 1817 ofPrincess Charlotte, only child of the Prince of Wales, the succession to the British throne is put in danger. In the same year, Shelley writes a sonnet,Ozymandias, the Greek name for Ramses II. The poem, which was a contribution to the then popular trend of Romantic Orientalism, reflects on the inevitable decline of all leaders. A decayed statue of Ramses bears the legend: ‘”Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” The last three lines of the sonnet make Shelley’s point.
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Whilst on holiday in Leghorn, Shelley composes To a Sky-lark (1820). Written as an ode, a form at which Romantic poets excelled, it celebrates the freedom and intensity of a bird. In 1821, he writes a pastoral elegyAdonais (1821) on the death of his friend, John Keats, from consumption. Shelley would himself be dead within a year, drowned off Leghorn.
Percy Shelley’s summer in Geneva with Mary and Byron in 1816 provided the inspiration for Mary Shelley’s famous novel,Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus(1818). Mary afterwards recounted how one cold and rainy night in June she wrote the novel as part of a ghost-writing competition.Frankenstein is modelled on the classical story of Prometheus who defied the gods by stealing fire from them and created man from clay. In the novel, Victor Frankenstein, a Swiss scientist, manufactures a life-like monster out of corpses, and is later killed by his creation. The book was an overnight success and single-handedly inaugurated the science fiction genre.
John Keats, one of a new group of Romantic writers known pejoratively by Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine as the ‘Cockney School’, first rises to prominence in 1818 having abandoned a career in medicine to dedicate himself to poetry. Endymion(1818), is a four-book poem based on a mythical story about a beautiful young man so beloved by the moon that she descends from the skies every night to be with him. Keats alters the story into a Romantic quest for ideal beauty, by representing the young man as going down to the underworld in search of the moon. In 1818, Keats falls in love with Fanny Brawne. Keats’s letters to Fanny, Shelley and others, are among the most important in literary history.
In Ode on a Grecian Urn(1820), Keats meditates on an image of bucolic bliss portrayed on an Attic vase. He is moved to reflect on the contrast between things eternal and transient. Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu.
The poem contains the immortal lines, in which Keats strives for some equivalence between the two:
Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
Keats died in Rome in 1821. His tombstone bears the line: ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water’