The Eighteenth Century

The Eighteenth Century

William Hogarth, from Marriage a la Mode


 Before we launch into a discussion of this era, I think one of its chief writers, Alexander Pope, sums up the essential philosophy of this age best when he argues this, from “An Essay on Man” 

All nature is but art, unknown to thee;
All chance, direction which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good . . .
 Lines 289-292 from “An Essay on Manby Alexander Pope 

  • Think about the essential philosophy behind those lines.  What view of the world is this author, Alexander Pope, taking here? 
  • What does it mean to say that “all nature is but art,” or “all chance [is] direction which thou canst not see…”?  One hint: this is a fundamentally reassuring view of the world, isn’t it?  
The age is called, among other things, the “Age of Enlightenment” — a rather self-flattering name, don’t you think?  However, this really is an age that deserves to be a bit self-praising.  It was an age devoted to science and scientific discovery (read more about the foundation of the Royal Society, an English academy devoted to the study of sciences, including particularly alchemy, the mother of modern chemistry — a topic pursued by Newton and Boyle, among others) and about the re-rediscovery of the classics, those works of ancient Greece and Rome. 
In the Middle Ages, and indeed in much of the Renaissance, the reason for things, the “why things are the way they are” were almost entirely dealt with as matters of religious faith. In the Age of Enlightenment, the profound enthusiasm and energy of this period largely comes from the belief that they were on the verge of understanding the science behind it all, the reasons why.  It’s no surprise, then, that reason, natural law, and wit are qualities highly valued in this period.What we’ll see when we turn to the literature is a fascination with two things, both essentially scientific in nature.  First, we’ll see a fascination with recording life as it is, a trend we’ll see in the development of the brand-new literary form called the “novel” and in the proliferation of journals, newspapers, diaries, letters, personal histories and people’s random observations of the life around them — what amounts, in fact, to eighteenth-century blogs. 

Background Reading 

 Please note that all readings refer to pages in your text, The Language of Literature, unless otherwise noted.  

  • Please read pp. 516-524 in your text for a general overview of the era.
  • Please read this helpful background article on the “Great Fire” of London, 1666.
  • Please read the background information on Samuel Pepys, p. 533
  • Please read the background information on Alexander Pope, p. 539, and this helpful article on Pope’s “Essay on Criticism.”
  • Please read about 18th-century nonfiction on pp. 546-547
  • Please read about “The Spectator,” an 18th-century blog, p.548.
  • Please read the brief description of Lord Chesterfield, p. 565.
  • Please read the overview of satire, pp. 584-585.
  • Please read the brief biography of Jonathan Swift, pp. 586-590 and this brief article on the history of Ireland.

Eighteenth-Century Literature  

* NOTE: Before we read the selection from “An Essay on Criticism,” it is crucial that you understand Pope’s project here: of differentiating good from bad poetry, clichés from original thought, effective composition from ineffective.  To that end, we will do two important pieces of groundwork: 

 1. Please find and write a short (3/4-page) analysis of a piece of writing you consider, personally, to be an example of bad writing.  I don’t mean “bad” as in, “It’s about boats and I don’t really like boats, so I don’t want to read this; therefore, it must be bad,” or, “It’s by Milton and I didn’t understand a stinkin’ word of it, so it must be bad.”  (If you don’t understand it, it may or may not be bad: you can’t tell!  That’s like your mom condemning a swift-speaking rap artist because she can’t decipher the lyrics.  Not fair, right?)  

No, what I’m talking about is literature that fails to persuade, fails to “sing,” fails to move.  Characters don’t “feel real.”  Dialogue doesn’t “sound real.”  Situations don’t “feel real” even in the fictional sense where we’re willing to suspend disbelief.  

Your job is to pick a particularly telling passage from this piece of writing and explain HOW COME it’s “bad.” Why doesn’t a character “feel real”?  Why doesn’t the dialogue “sound real”?  In other words, your job is to say, “THIS reason is why THIS piece of literature really stinks.”  Give us examples, of course, which you pick apart and explain.  Take us with you on your journey into the inferno of “bad.”  Yes, yes, we know everyone’s opinion is different.  Hooray!  What is YOUR opinion, and why do you have it?  

2. Please read the following stanza from a poem by A.E. Houseman:  

  • With rue my heart is laden
  •  For golden friends I had
  •  For many a rose-lipped maiden 
  • For many a lightfoot lad. 

His actual second stanza is ONE of the two choices below.  Which one is it?  And why?  What qualities distinguish one from another? 

 Choice 1                                                                                        Choice 2 

  •  By brooks that murmur softly                                   By brooks too broad for leaping
  •  The lightfoot boys are laid;                                         The lightfoot boys are laid;
  •  The rose-lipped girls are sleeping                             The rose-lipped girls are sleeping
  •  In many a misty glade.                                                In fields where roses fade.

Adapted from an exercise in Western Wind: An Introduction to Poetry (4th Ed.) by John Frederick Nims and David Mason. 

 **NOTE: Jonathan Swift  – For those of you who think the eighteenth century isn’t lively enough, Swift should be a hailed as a welcome champion of the nonboring.  His satires — particularly “Description of a City Shower” and “A Lady’s Dressing-Room” could be downright nasty (as well as funny), but fair warning: Swift is not shy about going for the gross-out.  F0r an interesting poetry fight, read Swift’s “A Lady’s Dressing Room” and Lady Mary Wortley Montague’s scathing smackdown.  NOTE: You’ll notice I have provided no helpful links.  Why?  Well, this is an optional suggestion, for one, and secondly, the language and subject matter are not appropriate for all audiences

Assorted Questions 

 For many scholars, Alexander Pope’s writing represents the epitome of 18th-century poetry.  What are some signal features of Pope’s style that define the poetry of the Enlightenment? 

  • What is Pope’s typical meter?  His typical rhyme scheme?
  • What about Pope’s syntax?  How does his syntax compare to, for example, Milton’s?  Whose is easier to understand?
  • Pope is notable for his use of parallelism and antitheses.  Why do these choices “go along with” his typical style?
  • Big question: Why are Pope’s stylistic choices perfectly appropriate  for an era which valued logic, reason, and the inherent rules of Nature?

Resources for the Media-Minded 

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