History of the English literature
The basic features and characteristic features of the English literature as its chronological development. The best representatives of prose and poetry, dramatic art of different epoch and directions. Subjects of products of modern English authors.
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The enthusiasm prompted by Defoe's best novels demonstrated the growing readership for innovative prose narrative. Samuel Richardson, a prosperous London printer, was the next major author to respond to the challenge. His Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (1740, with a less-happy sequel in 1741), using (like all Richardson's novels) the epistolary form, tells a story of an employer's attempted seduction of a young servant woman, her subsequent victimization, and her eventual reward in virtuous marriage with the penitent exploiter. Its moral tone is self-consciously rigorous and proved highly controversial. It was a publishing sensation, not only selling in large numbers but also provoking parodies and imitations, attacks and eulogies. As well as being popular, it was the first such work of prose fiction to aspire to respectability, indeed moral seriousness. For contemporaries, the so-called “rise of the novel” began here. The strength of Pamela was its exploitation of what Richardson was to call “writing to the moment”: the capturing in the texture of her letters the fluctuations of the heroine's consciousness as she faces her ordeal. Pamela herself is the writer of almost all the letters, and the technical limitations of the epistolary form are strongly felt, though Richardson's ingenuity works hard to mitigate them. But Pamela's frank speaking about the abuses of masculine and gentry power sounds the skeptical note more radically developed in Richardson's masterpiece, Clarissa; or, The History of a Young Lady (1747-48), which has a just claim to being considered the greatest of all English tragic novels. Clarissa uses multiple narrators and develops a profoundly suggestive interplay of opposed voices. At its centre is the taxing soul debate and eventually mortal combat between the aggressive, brilliantly improvisatorial libertine Lovelace and the beleaguered Clarissa, maltreated and abandoned by her family but sternly loyal to her own inner sense of probity. The tragic consummation that grows from this involves an astonishingly ruthless testing of the psychological natures of the two leading characters. Even in its own day, Clarissa was widely accepted as having demonstrated the potential profundity, moral or psychological, of the novel. It was admired and imitated throughout Europe. After such intensities, Richardson's final novel, The History of Sir Charles Grandison (1753-54), is perhaps inevitably a less ambitious, cooler work, but its blending of serious moral discussion and a comic ending ensured it an influence on his successors, especially Jane Austen.
Henry Fielding turned to novel writing after a successful period as a dramatist, during which his most popular work had been in burlesque forms. Sir Robert Walpole's Licensing Act of 1737, introduced to restrict political satire on the stage, pushed Fielding to look to other genres. He also turned to journalism, of which he wrote a great deal, much of it political. His entry into prose fiction had something in common with the burlesque mode of much of his drama.
An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews (1741), a travesty of Richardson's Pamela, transforms the latter's heroine into a predatory fortune hunter who cold-bloodedly lures her booby master into matrimony. Fielding continued his quarrel with Richardson in The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews (1742), which also uses Pamela as a starting point but which, developing a momentum of its own, soon outgrows any narrow parodic intent. His hostility to Richardson's sexual ethic notwithstanding, Fielding was happy to build, with a calm and smiling sophistication, on the growing respect for the novel to which his antagonist had so substantially contributed. In Joseph Andrews and The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749), Fielding openly brought to bear upon his chosen form a battery of devices from more traditionally reputable modes (including epic poetry, painting, and the drama). This is accompanied by a flamboyant development of authorial presence. Fielding the narrator buttonholes the reader repeatedly, airs critical and ethical questions for the reader's delectation, and urbanely discusses the artifice upon which his fiction depends. In the deeply original Tom Jones especially, this assists in developing a distinctive atmosphere of self-confident magnanimity and candid optimism. His fiction, however, can also cope with a darker range of experience. The Life of Mr. Jonathan Wild the Great (1743), for instance, uses a mock-heroic idiom to explore a derisive parallel between the criminal underworld and England's political elite, and
Amelia (1751) probes with sombre precision images of captivity and situations of taxing moral paradox.
Tobias Smollett had no desire to rival Fielding as a formal innovator, and today he seems the less audacious innovator. His novels consequently tend to be rather ragged assemblings of disparate incidents. But, although uneven in performance, all of them include extended passages of real force and idiosyncrasy. His freest writing is expended on grotesque portraiture in which the human is reduced to fiercely energetic automatism. Smollett can also be a stunning reporter of the contemporary scene, whether the subject be a naval battle or the gathering of the decrepit at a spa. His touch is least happy when, complying too facilely with the gathering cult of sensibility, he indulges in rote-learned displays of emotionalism and good-heartedness. His most sustainedly invigorating work can perhaps be found in The Adventures of Roderick Random (1748), The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle (1751), and (an altogether more interesting encounter with the dialects of sensibility) The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771). The last was his only epistolary novel and perhaps the outstanding use of this form for comic purposes.
An experiment of a radical and seminal kind is Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy (1759-67), which, drawing on a tradition of learned wit from Erasmus and Rabelais to Burton and Swift, provides a brilliant comic critique of the progress of the English novel to date. It was published in five separate installments over the course of some eight years and has an open-endedness all its own. The part-by-part publication also enabled Sterne to manipulate public responses and even to make the reception of one volume the subject matter for satire in a later volume. The focus of attention is shifted from the fortunes of the hero himself to the nature of his family, environment, and heredity, and dealings within that family offer repeated images of human unrelatedness and disconnection. Tristram, the narrator, is isolated in his own privacy and doubts how much, if anything, he can know certainly even about himself. Sterne is explicit about the influence of Lockean psychology on his writing, and the book, fascinated with the fictive energies of the imagination, is filled with characters reinventing or mythologizing the conditions of their own lives. It also draws zestful stimulus from a concern with the limitations of language, both verbal and visual, and teases an intricate drama out of
Tristram's imagining of, and playing to, the reader's likely responses.
Sterne's A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy (1768) similarly defies conventional expectations of what a travel book might be. An apparently random collection of scattered experiences, it mingles affecting vignettes with episodes in a heartier, comic mode, but coherence of imagination is secured by the delicate insistence with which Sterne ponders how the impulses of sentimental and erotic feeling are psychologically interdependent. It was a powerful influence on later, less-ironic sentimental writing. In Sterne's wake it was common for works of fiction to include the declaration “A Sentimental Novel” on their title pages.
The work of these five giants was accompanied by experiments from a number of other novelists. Sarah Fielding, for instance, Henry's sister, wrote penetratingly and gravely about friendship in The Adventures of David Simple (1744, with a sequel in 1753). Charlotte Lennox in The Female Quixote (1752) and Richard Graves in The Spiritual Quixote (1773) responded inventively to the influence of Miguel de Cervantes, also discernible in the writing of Fielding, Smollett, and Sterne. Cervantes's influence was much increased by a series of translations of his Don Quixote, including Smollett's of 1755. This particular work of fiction had become an honorary work of English literature. John Cleland's Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (known as Fanny Hill; 1748-49) chose a more contentious path; in his charting of a young girl's sexual initiation, he experiments with minutely detailed ways of describing the physiology of intercourse. In emphatic contrast, Henry Mackenzie's The Man of Feeling (1771) offers an extremist and rarefied version of the sentimental hero, while Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1765) playfully initiated the vogue for Gothic fiction. William Beckford's Vathek (1786), Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), and Matthew Lewis's The Monk (1796) are among the more distinctive of its successors. But the most engaging and thoughtful minor novelist of the period is Fanny Burney, who was also an evocative and self-revelatory diarist and letter writer. Her first novel, Evelina (1778), best shows Burney's satirical talents. Written in letters, it charts the fortunes and misfortunes of an ingenuous heroine encountering the delights and dangers of Georgian London for the first time. Of Burney's novels, Evelina and Camilla (1796) in particular handle with independence of invention and emotional insight the theme of a young woman negotiating her first encounters with a dangerous social world.
Poets and poetry after Pope
Eighteenth-century poetry after Pope produced nothing that can compete with achievements on the scale of Clarissa and Tristram Shandy, but much that was vital was accomplished. William Collins's Odes on Several Descriptive and Allegoric Subjects (1747), for instance, displays great technical ingenuity and a resonant insistence on the imagination and the passions as poetry's true realm. The odes also mine vigorously the potentiality of personification as a medium for poetic expression. In “An Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard” (1751), Thomas Gray revisited the terrain of such recent poems as Thomas Parnell's Night-Piece on Death (1722) and Robert Blair's The Grave (1743) and discovered a tensely humane eloquence far beyond his predecessors' powers. In later odes, particularly The Progress of Poesy (1757), Gray successfully sought close imitation of the original Pindaric form, even emulating Greek rhythms in English, while developing ambitious ideas about cultural continuity and renewal. Gray's fascination with the potency of primitive art (as evidenced in another great ode, The Bard, 1757) is part of a larger movement of taste, of which the contemporary enthusiasm for James Macpherson's alleged translations of Ossian (1760-63) is a further indicator.
Another eclectically learned and energetically experimental poet is Christopher Smart, whose renown rests largely on two poems. Jubilate Agno (written during confinement in various asylums between 1758/59 and 1763 but not published until 1939) is composed in free verse and experiments with applying the antiphonal principles of Hebrew poetry to English. A Song to David (1763) is a rhapsodic hymn of praise, blending enormous linguistic vitality with elaborate structural patterning. Both contain encyclopaedic gatherings of recondite and occult lore, numerous passages of which modern scholarship has yet to explicate satisfactorily, but the poetry is continually energized by minute alterations of tone, startling conjunctions of material, and a unique alertness to the mystery of the commonplace. Smart was also a superb writer of hymns, a talent in which his major contemporary rival was William Cowper in his Olney Hymns (1779). Both are worthy successors to the richly inventive work of Isaac Watts in the first half of the century. Elsewhere, Cowper can write with buoyant humour and satiric relaxation, as when, for instance, he wryly observes from the safety of rural seclusion the evils of town life.
But some of his most characterful poetry emerges from a painfully intense experience of withdrawal and isolation. His rooted Calvinism caused him periods of acute despair when he could see no hope of admission to salvation, a mood chronicled with grim precision in his masterly short poem “The Castaway” (written 1799). His most extended achievement is The Task (1785), an extraordinary fusion of disparate interests, working calmly toward religious praise and pious acceptance.
There was also a significant number of inventive and sometimes popular women poets in the period. “Literary ladies” were often celebrated and sometimes became respected public figures. Their poetic ventures were encouraged by the growth in publishing generally and, in particular, by the invention of magazines and literary journals. Many of the leading women poets of the period first published in the Gentleman's Magazine.
The most notable woman poet of the early 18th century is probably Lady Mary Montagu, who still composed for manuscript circulation rather than publication. She also wrote, in letters, her sparkling Embassy to Constantinople (often called Turkish Letters), published posthumously in 1763. Notable female poets later in the century include Mary Leapor, a Northhamptonshire kitchen servant who was also a witty verse satirist, celebrated by contemporaries only after her early death. Much admired in their own lifetimes were Anna Seward and Hannah More, both of whom wrote much miscellaneous prose as well as poetry, and Charlotte Smith, whose sonnets were hugely popular in the 1780s.
The 1780s brought publishing success to Robert Burns for his Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1786). Drawing on the precedents of Allan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson, Burns demonstrated how Scottish idioms and ballad modes could lend a new vitality to the language of poetry. Although born a poor tenant farmer's son, Burns had made himself well versed in English literary traditions, and his innovations were fully premeditated. His range is wide, from uninhibitedly passionate love songs to sardonic satires on moral and religious hypocrisy, of which the monologue Holy Willie's Prayer (written 1785) is an outstanding example. His work bears the imprint of the revolutionary decades in which he wrote, and recurrent in much of it are a joyful hymning of freedom, both individual and national, and an instinctive belief in the possibility of a new social order.
Two other major poets, both of whom also achieved distinction in an impressive array of nondramatic modes, demand attention: Goldsmith and Johnson. Oliver Goldsmith's contemporary fame as a poet rested chiefly on The Traveller (1764), The Deserted Village (1770), and the incomplete Retaliation (1774). The last, published 15 days after his own death, is a dazzling series of character portraits in the form of mock epitaphs on a group of his closest acquaintances. The Traveller, a philosophical comparison of the differing national cultures of western Europe and the degrees of happiness their citizens enjoy, is narrated by a restless wanderer whose heart yet yearns after his own native land, where his brother still dwells. In The Deserted Village the experience is one of enforced exile, as an idealized village community is ruthlessly broken up in the interests of landed power. A comparable story of a rural idyll destroyed (though this time narrative artifice allows its eventual restoration) is at the centre of his greatly popular novel, The Vicar of Wakefield (1766). He was also a deft and energetic practitioner of the periodical essay, contributing to at least eight journals between 1759 and 1773. His Citizen of the World, a series of essays originally published in The Public Ledger in 1760-61, uses the device of a Chinese traveler whose letters home comment tolerantly but shrewdly on his English experiences. He also produced two stage comedies, one of which, She Stoops to Conquer (1773), is one of the few incontrovertible masterpieces of the theatre after the death of Farquhar in 1707.
Johnson's poetry and prose
Goldsmith belonged to the circle of a writer of still ampler range and outstanding intellect, Samuel Johnson. Pope recognized Johnson's poetic promise as it was exhibited in London (1738), an invigorating reworking of Juvenal's third satire as a castigation of the decadence of contemporary Britain. Johnson's finest poem, The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749), also takes its cue from Juvenal, this time his 10th satire. It is a tragic meditation on the pitiful spectacle of human unfulfillment, yet it ends with an urgent prayer of Christian hope.
But, great poet though he was, the lion's share of Johnson's formidable energies was expended on prose and on editorial work. From his early years in London, he lived by his pen and gave himself unstintingly to satisfy the booksellers' demands. Yet he managed to sustain a remarkable coherence of ethical ambition and personal presence throughout his voluminous labours. His twice-weekly essays for The Rambler (1750-52), for instance, consistently show his powers at their fullest stretch, handling an impressive array of literary and moral topics with a scrupulous intellectual gravity and attentiveness. Many of the preoccupations of The Vanity of Human Wishes and the Rambler essays reappear in
Rasselas (1759), which catalogues with profound resource the vulnerability of human philosophies of life to humiliation at the hands of life itself. Johnson's forensic brilliance can be seen in his relentless review of Soame Jenyns's Free Inquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil (1757), which caustically dissects the latter's complacent attitude to human suffering, and his analytic capacities are evidenced at their height in the successful completion of two major projects, his innovative Dictionary of the English Language (1755) and the great edition of Shakespeare's plays (1765). The former of these is in some ways his greatest work of literary criticism, for it displays the uses of words by means of illustrations culled from the best writing in English. The latter played a major part in the establishment of Shakespeare as the linchpin of a national literary canon. It should be noted, however, that Johnson's was but the most critically inspired of a series of major Shakespeare editions in the 18th century. These include editions by Nicholas Rowe (1709), Pope (1725), Lewis Theobald (1734), Sir Thomas Hanmer (1744), and William Warburton (1747). Others, by Edward Capell (1768), George Steevens (1773), and Edmund Malone (1790), would follow. Johnson was but one of those helping to form a national literature.
Johnson's last years produced much political writing (including the humanely resonant Thoughts on the Late Transactions Respecting Falkland's Islands, 1771); the socially and historically alert Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, 1775; and the consummate Lives of the Poets, 1779-81. The latter was the climax of 40 years' writing of poetic biographies, including the multifaceted An Account of the Life of Mr. Richard Savage (1744). These last lives, covering the period from Cowley to the generation of Gray, show Johnson's mastery of the biographer's art of selection and emphasis and (together with the preface and notes to his Shakespeare edition) contain the most provocative critical writing of the century. Although his allegiances lay with Neoclassical assumptions about poetic form and language, his capacity for improvisatory responsiveness to practice that lay outside the prevailing decorums should not be underrated. His final faith, however, in his own creative practice as in his criticism, was that the greatest art eschews unnecessary particulars and aims toward carefully pondered and ambitious generalization. The same creed was eloquently expounded by another member of the Johnson circle, Sir Joshua Reynolds, in his 15 Discourses (delivered to the Royal Academy between 1769 and 1790, but first published collectively in 1797).
The other prime source of Johnson's fame, his reputation as a conversationalist of epic genius, rests on the detailed testimony of contemporary memorialists including Burney, Hester Lynch Piozzi, and Sir John Hawkins. But the key text is James Boswell's magisterial Life of Samuel Johnson (1791). This combines in unique measure a deep respect for its subject's ethical probity and resourceful intellect with a far from inevitably complimentary eye for the telling details of his personal habits and deportment. Boswell manifests rich dramatic talent and a precise ear for conversational rhythms in his re-creation and orchestration of the debates that lie at the heart of this great biography. Another dimension of Boswell's literary talent came to light in the 1920s and '30s when two separate hoards of unpublished manuscripts were discovered. In these he is his own subject of study. The 18th century had not previously produced much autobiographical writing of the first rank, though the actor and playwright Colley Cibber's flamboyant Apology for the Life of Mr. Colley Cibber (1740) and Cowper's sombre Memoir (written about 1766, first published in 1816) are two notable exceptions. But the drama of Boswell's self-observations has a richer texture than either of these. In the London Journal especially (covering 1762-63, first published in 1950), he records the processes of his dealings with others and of his own self-imaginings with a sometimes unnerving frankness and a tough willingness to ask difficult questions of himself.
Boswell narrated his experiences at the same time as, or shortly after, they occurred. Edward Gibbon, on the other hand, taking full advantage of hindsight, left in manuscript at his death six autobiographical fragments, all having much ground in common, but each telling a subtly different version of his life. Though he was in many ways invincibly more reticent than Boswell, Gibbon's successive explorations of his own history yet form a movingly resolute effort to see the truth clearly. These writings were undertaken after the completion of the great work of his life, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-88). He brought to the latter an untiring dedication in the gathering and assimilation of knowledge, an especial alertness to evidence of human fallibility and failure, and a powerful ordering intelligence supported by a delicate sense of aesthetic coherence. His central theme--that the destruction of the Roman Empire was the joint triumph of barbarism and Christianity--is sustained with formidable ironic resource.
The Romantic period
The nature of Romanticism
As a term to cover the most distinctive writers who flourished in the last years of the 18th century and the first decades of the 19th, “Romantic” is indispensable but also a little misleading: there was no self-styled “Romantic movement” at the time, and the great writers of the period did not call themselves Romantics. Not until August Wilhelm von Schlegel's Vienna lectures of 1808-09 was a clear distinction established between the “organic,” “plastic” qualities of Romantic art and the “mechanical” character of Classicism.
Many of the age's foremost writers thought that something new was happening in the world's affairs, nevertheless. William Blake's affirmation in 1793 that “a new heaven is begun” was matched a generation later by Percy Bysshe Shelley's “The world's great age begins anew.” “These, these will give the world another heart, / And other pulses,” wrote John Keats, referring to Leigh Hunt and William Wordsworth. Fresh ideals came to the fore; in particular, the ideal of freedom, long cherished in England, was being extended to every range of human endeavour. As that ideal swept through Europe, it became natural to believe that the age of tyrants might soon end.
The most notable feature of the poetry of the time is the new role of individual thought and personal feeling. Where the main trend of 18th-century poetics had been to praise the general, to see the poet as a spokesman of society addressing a cultivated and homogeneous audience and having as his end the conveyance of “truth,” the Romantics found the source of poetry in the particular, unique experience. Blake's marginal comment on Sir Joshua Reynolds's Discourses expresses the position with characteristic vehemence: “To Generalize is to be an Idiot. To Particularize is the alone Distinction of Merit.” The poet was seen as an individual distinguished from his fellows by the intensity of his perceptions, taking as his basic subject matter the workings of his own mind. Poetry was regarded as conveying its own truth; sincerity was the criterion by which it was to be judged.
The emphasis on feeling--seen perhaps at its finest in the poems of Robert Burns--was in some ways a continuation of the earlier “cult of sensibility”; and it is worth remembering that Alexander Pope praised his father as having known no language but the language of the heart. But feeling had begun to receive particular emphasis and is found in most of the Romantic definitions of poetry. Wordsworth called poetry “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling,” and in 1833 John Stuart Mill defined poetry as “feeling itself, employing thought only as the medium of its utterance.” It followed that the best poetry was that in which the greatest intensity of feeling was expressed, and hence a new importance was attached to the lyric. Another key quality of Romantic writing was its shift from the mimetic, or imitative, assumptions of the Neoclassical era to a new stress on imagination. Samuel Taylor Coleridge saw the imagination as the supreme poetic quality, a quasi-divine creative force that made the poet a godlike being. Samuel Johnson had seen the components of poetry as “invention, imagination and judgement,” but Blake wrote: “One Power alone makes a Poet: Imagination, the Divine Vision.” The poets of this period accordingly placed great emphasis on the workings of the unconscious mind, on dreams and reveries, on the supernatural, and on the childlike or primitive view of the world, this last being regarded as valuable because its clarity and intensity had not been overlaid by the restrictions of civilized “reason.” Rousseau's sentimental conception of the “noble savage” was often invoked, and often by those who were ignorant that the phrase is Dryden's or that the type was adumbrated in the “poor Indian” of Pope's An Essay on Man. A further sign of the diminished stress placed on judgment is the Romantic attitude to form: if poetry must be spontaneous, sincere, intense, it should be fashioned primarily according to the dictates of the creative imagination. Wordsworth advised a young poet, “You feel strongly; trust to those feelings, and your poem will take its shape and proportions as a tree does from the vital principle that actuates it.” This organic view of poetry is opposed to the classical theory of “genres,” each with its own linguistic decorum; and it led to the feeling that poetic sublimity was unattainable except in short passages.
Hand in hand with the new conception of poetry and the insistence on a new subject matter went a demand for new ways of writing. Wordsworth and his followers, particularly Keats, found the prevailing poetic diction of the late 18th century stale and stilted, or “gaudy and inane,” and totally unsuited to the expression of their perceptions. It could not be, for them, the language of feeling, and Wordsworth accordingly sought to bring the language of poetry back to that of common speech. Wordsworth's own diction, however, often differs from his theory. Nevertheless, when he published his preface to Lyrical Ballads in 1800, the time was ripe for a change: the flexible diction of earlier 18th-century poetry had hardened into a merely conventional language.
Blake, Wordsworth, and Coleridge
Useful as it is to trace the common elements in Romantic poetry, there was little conformity among the poets themselves. It is misleading to read the poetry of the first Romantics as if it had been written primarily to express their feelings. Their concern was rather to change the intellectual climate of the age. William Blake had been dissatisfied since boyhood with the current state of poetry and what he considered the irreligious drabness of contemporary thought. His early development of a protective shield of mocking humour with which to face a world in which science had become trifling and art inconsequential is visible in the satirical An Island in the Moon (written c. 1784-85); he then took the bolder step of setting aside sophistication in the visionary Songs of Innocence (1789). His desire for renewal encouraged him to view the outbreak of the French Revolution as a momentous event. In works such as The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790-93) and Songs of Experience (1794), he attacked the hypocrisies of the age and the impersonal cruelties resulting from the dominance of analytic reason in contemporary thought. As it became clear that the ideals of the Revolution were not likely to be realized in his time, he renewed his efforts to revise his contemporaries' view of the universe and to construct a new mythology centred not in the God of the Bible but in Urizen, a repressive figure of reason and law whom he believed to be the deity actually worshipped by his contemporaries. The story of Urizen's rise was set out in The First Book of Urizen (1794) and then, more ambitiously, in the unfinished manuscript Vala (later redrafted as The Four Zoas), written from about 1796 to about 1807.
Blake developed these ideas in the visionary narratives of Milton (1804-08) and Jerusalem (1804-20). Here, still using his own mythological characters, he portrayed the imaginative artist as the hero of society and suggested the possibility of redemption from the fallen (or Urizenic) condition.
William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, meanwhile, were also exploring the implications of the French Revolution. Wordsworth, who lived in France in 1791-92 and fathered an illegitimate child there, was distressed when, soon after his return, Britain declared war on the republic, dividing his allegiance. For the rest of his career, he was to brood on those events, trying to develop a view of humanity that would be faithful to his twin sense of the pathos of individual human fates and the unrealized potentialities in humanity as a whole. The first factor emerges in his early manuscript poems “The Ruined Cottage” and “The Pedlar” (both to form part of the later Excursion); the second was developed from 1797, when he and his sister, Dorothy, with whom he was living in the west of England, were in close contact with Coleridge. Stirred simultaneously by Dorothy's immediacy of feeling, manifested everywhere in her Journals (written 1798-1803, published 1897), and by Coleridge's imaginative and speculative genius, he produced the poems collected in Lyrical Ballads (1798). The volume began with Coleridge's “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” continued with poems displaying delight in the powers of nature and the humane instincts of ordinary people, and concluded with the meditative “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” Wordsworth's attempt to set out his mature faith in nature and humanity.
His investigation of the relationship between nature and the human mind continued in the long autobiographical poem addressed to Coleridge and later titled The Prelude (1798-99 in two books; 1804 in five books; 1805 in 13 books; revised continuously and published posthumously, 1850). Here he traced the value for a poet of having been a child “fostered alike by beauty and by fear” by an upbringing in sublime surroundings. The Prelude constitutes the most significant English expression of the Romantic discovery of the self as a topic for art and literature. The poem also makes much of the work of memory, a theme explored as well in the “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” In poems such as “Michael” and “The Brothers,” by contrast, written for the second volume of Lyrical Ballads (1800), Wordsworth dwelt on the pathos and potentialities of ordinary lives.
Coleridge's poetic development during these years paralleled Wordsworth's. Having briefly brought together images of nature and the mind in “The Eolian Harp” (1796), he devoted himself to more-public concerns in poems of political and social prophecy, such as “Religious Musings” and “The Destiny of Nations.” Becoming disillusioned in 1798 with his earlier politics, however, and encouraged by Wordsworth, he turned back to the relationship between nature and the human mind. Poems such as “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison,” “The Nightingale,” and “Frost at Midnight” (now sometimes called the “conversation poems” but collected by Coleridge himself as “Meditative Poems in Blank Verse”) combine sensitive descriptions of nature with subtlety of psychological comment.
“Kubla Khan” (1797 or 1798, published 1816), a poem that Coleridge said came to him in “a kind of Reverie,” represented a new kind of exotic writing, which he also exploited in the supernaturalism of “The Ancient Mariner” and the unfinished “Christabel.” After his visit to Germany in 1798-99, he renewed attention to the links between the subtler forces in nature and the human psyche; this attention bore fruit in letters, notebooks, literary criticism, theology, and philosophy. Simultaneously, his poetic output became sporadic. “Dejection: An Ode” (1802), another meditative poem, which first took shape as a verse letter to Sara Hutchinson, Wordsworth's sister-in-law, memorably describes the suspension of his “shaping spirit of Imagination.”
The work of both poets was directed back to national affairs during these years by the rise of Napoleon. In 1802 Wordsworth dedicated a number of sonnets to the patriotic cause. The death in 1805 of his brother John, who was a captain in the merchant navy, was a grim reminder that, while he had been living in retirement as a poet, others had been willing to sacrifice themselves.
From this time the theme of duty was to be prominent in his poetry. His political essay Concerning the Relations of Great Britain, Spain and Portugal…as Affected by the Convention of Cintra (1809) agreed with Coleridge's periodical The Friend (1809-10) in deploring the decline of principle among statesmen. When The Excursion appeared in 1814 (the time of Napoleon's first exile), Wordsworth announced the poem as the central section of a longer projected work, The Recluse, “a philosophical Poem, containing views of Man, Nature, and Society.” The plan was not fulfilled, however, and The Excursion was left to stand in its own right as a poem of moral and religious consolation for those who had been disappointed by the failure of French revolutionary ideals.
Both Wordsworth and Coleridge benefited from the advent in 1811 of the Regency, which brought a renewed interest in the arts. Coleridge's lectures on Shakespeare became fashionable, his play Remorse was briefly produced, and his volume of poems Christabel; Kubla Khan: A Vision; The Pains of Sleep was published in 1816. Biographia Literaria (1817), an account of his own development, combined philosophy and literary criticism in a new way and made an enduring and important contribution to literary theory.
Coleridge settled at Highgate in 1816, and he was sought there as “the most impressive talker of his age” (in the words of the essayist William Hazlitt). His later religious writings made a considerable impact on Victorian readers.
Other poets of the early Romantic period
In his own lifetime, Blake's poetry was scarcely known. Sir Walter Scott, by contrast, was thought of as a major poet for his vigorous and evocative verse narratives The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805) and Marmion (1808). Other verse writers were also highly esteemed. The Elegiac Sonnets (1784) of Charlotte Smith and the Fourteen Sonnets (1789) of William Lisle Bowles were received with enthusiasm by Coleridge. Thomas Campbell is now chiefly remembered for his patriotic lyrics such as “Ye Mariners of England” and “The Battle of Hohenlinden” (1807) and for the critical preface to his Specimens of the British Poets (1819); Samuel Rogers was known for his brilliant table talk (published 1856, after his death, as Recollections of the Table-Talk of Samuel Rogers), as well as for his exquisite but exiguous poetry. Another admired poet of the day was Thomas Moore, whose Irish Melodies began to appear in 1808. His highly coloured narrative Lalla Rookh: An Oriental Romance (1817) and his satirical poetry were also immensely popular. Charlotte Smith was not the only significant woman poet in this period. Helen Maria Williams's Poems (1786), Ann Batten Cristall's Poetical Sketches (1795), Mary Robinson's Sappho and Phaon (1796), and Mary Tighe's Psyche (1805) all contain notable work.
Robert Southey was closely associated with Wordsworth and Coleridge and was looked upon as a prominent member, with them, of the “Lake school” of poetry. His originality is best seen in his ballads and his nine “English Eclogues,” three of which were first published in the 1799 volume of his Poems with a prologue explaining that these verse sketches of contemporary life bore “no resemblance to any poems in our language.” His “Oriental” narrative poems Thalaba the Destroyer (1801) and The Curse of Kehama (1810) were successful in their own time, but his fame is based on his prose work--the Life of Nelson (1813), the History of the Peninsular War (1823-32), and his classic formulation of the children's tale “The Three Bears.”
George Crabbe wrote poetry of another kind: his sensibility, his values, much of his diction, and his heroic couplet verse form belong to the 18th century. He differs from the earlier Augustans, however, in his subject matter, concentrating on realistic, unsentimental accounts of the life of the poor and the middle classes. He shows considerable narrative gifts in his collections of verse tales (in which he anticipates many short-story techniques) and great powers of description. His antipastoral The Village appeared in 1783. After a long silence, he returned to poetry with The Parish Register (1807), The Borough (1810), Tales in Verse (1812), and Tales of the Hall (1819), which gained him great popularity in the early 19th century.
Other poets of the later period
John Clare, a Northamptonshire man of humble background, achieved early success with Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery (1820), The Village Minstrel (1821), and The Shepherd's Calendar (1827). Both his reputation and his mental health collapsed in the late 1830s. He spent the later years of his life in an asylum in Northampton; the poetry he wrote there was rediscovered in the 20th century. His natural simplicity and lucidity of diction, his intent observation, his almost Classical poise, and the unassuming dignity of his attitude to life make him one of the most quietly moving of English poets. Thomas Lovell Beddoes, whose violent imagery and obsession with death and the macabre recall the Jacobean dramatists, represents an imagination at the opposite pole; metrical virtuosity is displayed in the songs and lyrical passages from his over-sensational tragedy Death's Jest-Book (begun 1825; published posthumously, 1850). Another minor writer who found inspiration in the 17th century was George Darley, some of whose songs from Nepenthe (1835) keep their place in anthologies. The comic writer Thomas Hood also wrote poems of social protest, such as “The Song of the Shirt” (1843) and “The Bridge of Sighs,” as well as the graceful Plea of the Midsummer Fairies (1827). Felicia Hemans's best-remembered poem, “Casabianca,” appeared in her volume The Forest Sanctuary (1825). This was followed in 1828 by the more substantial Records of Woman.
The novel: from the Gothic novel to Austen and Scott
The death of Tobias Smollett in 1771 brought an end to the first great period of novel writing in English. Not until the appearance of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility in 1811 and Sir Walter Scott's Waverley in 1814 would there again be works of prose fiction that ranked with the masterpieces of Richardson, Fielding, Sterne, and Smollett.
It is possible to suggest practical reasons for this 40-year partial eclipse. The war with France made paper expensive, causing publishers in the 1790s and early 1800s to prefer short, dense forms, such as poetry. It might also be argued, in more broadly cultural terms, that the comic and realistic qualities of the novel were at odds with the new sensibility of Romanticism. But the problem was always one of quality rather than quantity. Flourishing as a form of entertainment, the novel nevertheless underwent several important developments in this period. One was the invention of the Gothic novel. Another was the appearance of a politically engaged fiction in the years immediately before the French Revolution. A third was the rise of women writers to the prominence that they have held ever since in prose fiction.
The sentimental tradition of Richardson and Sterne persisted until the 1790s with Henry Brooke's The Fool of Quality (1765-70), Henry Mackenzie's The Man of Feeling (1771), and Charles Lamb's A Tale of Rosamund Gray and Old Blind Margaret (1798). Novels of this kind were, however, increasingly mocked in the later years of the 18th century.
The comic realism of Fielding and Smollett continued in a more sporadic way. John Moore gave a cosmopolitan flavour to the worldly wisdom of his predecessors in Zeluco (1786) and Mordaunt (1800). Fanny Burney carried the comic realist manner into the field of female experience with the novels Evelina (1778), Cecilia (1782), and Camilla (1796). Her discovery of the comic and didactic potential of a plot charting a woman's progress from the nursery to the altar would be important for several generations of female novelists.
More striking than these continuations of previous modes, however, was Horace Walpole's invention, in The Castle of Otranto (1764), of what became known as the Gothic novel. Walpole's intention was to “blend” the fantastic plot of “ancient romance” with the realistic characterization of “modern” (or novel) romance. Characters would respond with terror to extraordinary events, and readers would vicariously participate. Walpole's innovation was not significantly imitated until the 1790s, when--perhaps because the violence of the French Revolution created a taste for a correspondingly extreme mode of fiction--a torrent of such works appeared.
The most important writer of these stories was Ann Radcliffe, who distinguished between “terror” and “horror.” Terror “expands the soul” by its use of “uncertainty and obscurity.” Horror, on the other hand, is actual and specific. Radcliffe's own novels, especially The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Italian (1797), were examples of the fiction of terror. Vulnerable heroines, trapped in ruined castles, are terrified by supernatural perils that prove to be illusions.
Matthew Lewis, by contrast, wrote the fiction of horror. In The Monk (1796) the hero commits both murder and incest, and the repugnant details include a woman's imprisonment in a vault full of rotting human corpses. Some later examples of Gothic fiction have more-sophisticated agendas. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) is a novel of ideas that anticipates science fiction. James Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) is a subtle study of religious mania and split personality. Even in its more-vulgar examples, however, Gothic fiction can symbolically address serious political and psychological issues.
By the 1790s, realistic fiction had acquired a polemical role, reflecting the ideas of the French Revolution, though sacrificing much of its comic power in the process. One practitioner of this type of fiction, Robert Bage, is best remembered for Hermsprong; or, Man as He Is Not (1796), in which a “natural” hero rejects the conventions of contemporary society. The radical Thomas Holcroft published two novels, Anna St. Ives (1792) and The Adventures of Hugh Trevor (1794), influenced by the ideas of William Godwin. Godwin himself produced the best example of this political fiction in Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794), borrowing techniques from the Gothic novel to enliven a narrative of social oppression.
Women novelists contributed extensively to this ideological debate. Radicals such as Mary Wollstonecraft (Mary, 1788; Maria; or, The Wrongs of Woman, 1798), Elizabeth Inchbald (Nature and Art, 1796), and Mary Hays (Memoirs of Emma Courtney, 1796) celebrated the rights of the individual. Anti-Jacobin novelists such as Jane West (A Gossip's Story, 1796; A Tale of the Times, 1799), Amelia Opie (Adeline Mowbray, 1804), and Mary Brunton (Self-Control, 1811) stressed the dangers of social change. Some writers were more bipartisan, notably Elizabeth Hamilton (Memoirs of Modern Philosophers, 1800) and Maria Edgeworth, whose long, varied, and distinguished career extended from Letters for Literary Ladies (1795) to Helen (1834). Her pioneering regional novel Castle Rackrent (1800), an affectionately comic portrait of life in 18th-century Ireland, influenced the subsequent work of Scott.
Jane Austen stands on the conservative side of this battle of ideas, though in novels that incorporate their anti-Jacobin and anti-Romantic views so subtly into love stories that many readers are unaware of them. Three of her novels--Sense and Sensibility (first published in 1811; originally titled “Elinor and Marianne”),
Pride and Prejudice (1813; originally “First Impressions”), and Northanger Abbey (published posthumously in 1817)--were drafted in the late 1790s. Three more novels--Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1815), and Persuasion (1817, together with Northanger Abbey)--were written between 1811 and 1817. Austen uses, essentially, two standard plots. In one of these a right-minded but neglected heroine is gradually acknowledged to be correct by characters who have previously looked down on her (such as Fanny Price in Mansfield Park and Anne Elliot in Persuasion). In the other an attractive but self-deceived heroine (such as Emma Woodhouse in Emma or Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice) belatedly recovers from her condition of error and is rewarded with the partner she had previously despised or overlooked. On this slight framework, Austen constructs a powerful case for the superiority of the Augustan virtues of common sense, empiricism, and rationality to the new “Romantic” values of imagination, egotism, and subjectivity. With Austen the comic brilliance and exquisite narrative construction of Fielding return to the English novel, in conjunction with a distinctive and deadly irony.
Thomas Love Peacock is another witty novelist who combined an intimate knowledge of Romantic ideas with a satirical attitude toward them, though in comic debates rather than conventional narratives. Headlong Hall (1816), Melincourt (1817), and Nightmare Abbey (1818) are sharp accounts of contemporary intellectual and cultural fashions, as are the two much later fictions in which Peacock reused this successful formula, Crotchet Castle (1831) and Gryll Grange (1860-61).
Sir Walter Scott is the English writer who can in the fullest sense be called a Romantic novelist. After a successful career as a poet, Scott switched to prose fiction in 1814 with the first of the “Waverley novels.” In the first phase of his work as a novelist, Scott wrote about the Scotland of the 17th and 18th centuries, charting its gradual transition from the feudal era into the modern world in a series of vivid human dramas. Waverley (1814), Guy Mannering (1815), The Antiquary (1816), Old Mortality (1816), Rob Roy (1817), and The Heart of Midlothian (1818) are the masterpieces of this period. In a second phase, beginning with Ivanhoe in 1819, Scott turned to stories set in medieval England. Finally, with Quentin Durward in 1823, he added European settings to his historical repertoire. Scott combines a capacity for comic social observation with a Romantic sense of landscape and an epic grandeur, enlarging the scope of the novel in ways that equip it to become the dominant literary form of the later 19th century.
The French Revolution prompted a fierce debate about social and political principles, a debate conducted in impassioned and often eloquent polemical prose. Richard Price's Discourse on the Love of Our Country (1789) was answered by Edmund Burke's conservative Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) and by Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790) and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), the latter of which is an important early statement of feminist issues that gained greater recognition in the next century.
The Romantic emphasis on individualism is reflected in much of the prose of the period, particularly in criticism and the familiar essay. Among the most vigorous writing is that of William Hazlitt, a forthright and subjective critic whose most characteristic work is seen in his collections of lectures On the English Poets (1818) and On the English Comic Writers (1819) and in The Spirit of the Age (1825), a series of valuable portraits of his contemporaries. In The Essays of Elia (1823) and The Last Essays of Elia (1833), Charles Lamb, an even more personal essayist, projects with apparent artlessness a carefully managed portrait of himself--charming, whimsical, witty, sentimental, and nostalgic. As his fine Letters show, however, he could on occasion produce mordant satire. Mary Russell Mitford's Our Village (1832) is another example of the charm and humour of the familiar essay in this period. Thomas De Quincey appealed to the new interest in writing about the self, producing a colourful account of his early experiences in Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821, revised and enlarged in 1856). His unusual gift of evoking states of dream and nightmare is best seen in essays such as “The English Mail Coach” and “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth”; his essay “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts” (1827; extended in 1839 and 1854) is an important anticipation of the Victorian Aesthetic movement. Walter Savage Landor's detached, lapidary style is seen at its best in some brief lyrics and in a series of erudite Imaginary Conversations, which began to appear in 1824.
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