The Age

Restoration Age: (1660-1700)
After the Restoration in 1660, when Charles II came to the throne, there was a complete repudiation of the Puritan ideals and way of living. In English literature the period from 1660 to 1700 is called the period of Restoration, because monarchy was restored in England, and Charles II, the son of Charles I who had been defeated and beheaded, came back to England from his exile in France and became the King.

It is called the Age of Dryden, because Dryden was the dominating and most representative literary figure of the Age. As the Puritans who were previously controlling the country, and were supervising her literary and moral and social standards, were finally defeated, a reaction was launched against whatever they held sacred. All restraints and discipline were thrown to the winds, and a wave of licentiousness and frivolity swept the country. Charles II and his followers who had enjoyed a gay life in France during their exile, did their best to introduce that type of foppery and looseness in England also. They renounced old ideals and demanded that English poetry and drama should follow the style to which they had become accustomed in the gaiety of Paris. Instead of having Shakespeare and the Elizabethans as their models, the poets and dramatists of the Restoration period began to imitate French writers and especially their vices.

The result was that the old Elizabethan spirit with its patriotism, its love of adventure and romance, its creative vigor, and the Puritan spirit with its moral discipline and love of liberty, became things of the past. For a time in poetry, drama and prose nothing was produced which could compare satisfactorily with the great achievements of the Elizabethans, of Milton, and even of minor writers of the Puritan age. But then the writers of the period began to evolve something that was characteristic of the times and they made two important contributions to English literature in the form of realism and a tendency to preciseness.

In the beginning realism took an ugly shape, because the writers painted the real pictures of the corrupt society and court. They were more concerned with vices rather than with virtues. The result was a coarse and inferior type of literature. Later this tendency to realism became more wholesome, and the writers tried to portray realistically human life as they found it—its good as well as bad side, its internal as well as external shape.

The tendency to preciseness which ultimately became the chief characteristic of the Restoration period, made a lasting contribution to English literature. It emphasized directness and simplicity of expression, and counteracted the tendency of exaggeration and extravagance which was encouraged during the Elizabethan and the Puritan ages. Instead of using grandiloquent phrases, involved sentences full of Latin quotations and classical allusions, the Restoration writers, under the influence of French writers, gave emphasis to reasoning rather than romantic fancy, and evolved an exact, precise way of writing, consisting of short, clear-cut sentences without any unnecessary word. The Royal Society, which was established during this period enjoined on all its members to use ‘a close, naked, natural way of speaking and writing, as near the mathematical plainness as they can”. Dryden accepted this rule for his prose, and for his poetry adopted the easiest type of verse-form—the heroic couplet. Under his guidance, the English writers evolved a style—precise, formal and elegant—which is called the classical style, and which dominated English literature for more than a century.

Restoration Poetry
John Dryden (1631-1700). The Restoration poetry was mostly satirical, realistic and written in the heroic couplet, of which Dryden was the supreme master. He was the dominating figure of the Restoration period, and he made his mark in the fields of poetry, drama and prose. In the field of poetry he was, in fact, the only poet worth mentioning. In his youth he came under the influence of Cowley, and his early poetry has the characteristic conceits and exaggerations of the metaphysical school. But in his later years he emancipated himself from the false taste and artificial style of the metaphysical writers, and wrote in a clear and forceful style which laid the foundation of the classical school of poetry in England.

The poetry of Dryden can be conveniently divided under three heads—Political Satires, Doctrinal Poems and The Fables. Of his political satires, Absolem and Achitophel and The Medal are well-known. In Absolem and Achitophel, which is one of the greatest political satires in the English language, Dryden defended the King against the Earl of Shaftesbury who is represented as Achitophel. It contains powerful character studies of Shaftesbury and of the Duke of Buckingham who is represented as Zimri. The Medal is another satirical poem full of invective against Shaftesbury and MacFlecknoe. It also contains a scathing personal attack on Thomas Shadwell who was once a friend of Dryden.

The two great doctrinal poems of Dryden are Religio Laici and The Hind and the Panther. These poems are neither religious nor devotional, but theological and controversial. The first was written when Dryden was a Protestant, and it defends the Anglican Church. The second written when Dryden had become a Catholic, vehemently defends Catholicism. They, therefore, show Dryden’s power and skill of defending any position he took up, and his mastery in presenting an argument in verse.

The Fables, which were written during the last years of Dryden’s life, show no decrease in his poetic power. Written in the form of a narrative, they entitle Dryden to rank among the best story-tellers in verse in England. The Palamon and Arcite, which is based on Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale, gives us an opportunity of comparing the method and art of a fourteenth century poet with one belonging to the seventeenth century. Of the many miscellaneous poems of Dryden, Annus Mirabilis is a fine example of his sustained narrative power. His Alexander’s Feast is one of the best odes in the English language.

The poetry of Dryden possess all the characteristics of the Restoration period and is therefore thoroughly representative of that age. It does not have the poetic glow, the spiritual fervor, the moral loftiness and philosophical depth which were sadly lacking in the Restoration period. But it has the formalism, the intellectual precision, the argumentative skill and realism which were the main characteristics of that age. Though Dryden does not reach great poetic heights, yet here and there he gives us passages of wonderful strength and eloquence. His reputation lies in his being great as a satirist and reasoner in verse. In fact in these two capacities he is still the greatest master in English literature. Dryden’s greatest contribution to English poetry was his skilful use of the heroic couplet, which became the accepted measure of serious English poetry for many years.

Augustan Age: (1700-1745)
The original Augustan Age was the brilliant literary period of Virgil, Horace and Ovid under the Roman emperor Augustus. The eighteenth century in English literature has been called the Augustan Age, the Neoclassical Age, and the Age of Reason. The term 'the Augustan Age' comes from the self-conscious imitation of the original Augustan writers, Virgil and Horace, by many of the writers of the period. Specifically, the Augustan Age was the period after the Restoration era to the death of Alexander Pope (1690 - 1744). The major writers of the age were Pope and John Dryden in poetry, and Jonathan Swift and Joseph Addison in prose. Dryden forms the link between Restoration and Augustan literature; although he wrote ribald comedies in the Restoration vein, his verse satires were highly admired by the generation of poets who followed him, and his writings on literature were very much in a neoclassical spirit. But more than any other it is the name of Alexander Pope which is associated with the epoch known as the Augustan Age, despite the fact that other writers such as Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe had a more lasting influence. This is partly a result of the politics of naming inherent in literary history: many of the early forms of prose narrative common at this time did not fit into a literary era which defined itself as neoclassic. The literature of this period which conformed to Pope's aesthetic principles (and could thus qualify as being 'Augustan') is distinguished by its striving for harmony and precision, its urbanity, and its imitation of classical models such as Homer, Cicero, Virgil, and Horace, for example in the work of the minor poet Matthew Prior. In verse, the tight heroic couplet was common, and in prose essay and satire were the predominant forms. Any facile definition of this period would be misleading, however; as important as it was, the neoclassicist impulse was only one strain in the literature of the first half of the eighteenth century. But its representatives were the defining voices in literary circles, and as a result it is often some aspect of 'neoclassicism' which is used to describe the era.

The works of Dryden, Pope, Swift, Addison and John Gay, as well as many of their contemporaries, exhibit qualities of order, clarity, and stylistic decorum that were formulated in the major critical documents of the age: Dryden's An Essay of Dramatic Poesy (1668), and Pope's Essay on Criticism (1711). These works, forming the basis for modern English literary criticism, insist that 'nature' is the true model and standard of writing. This 'nature' of the Augustans, however, was not the wild, spiritual nature the romantic poets would later idealize, but nature as derived from classical theory: a rational and comprehensible moral order in the universe, demonstrating God's providential design. The literary circle around Pope considered Homer preeminent among ancient poets in his descriptions of nature, and concluded in a circuitous feat of logic that the writer who 'imitates' Homer is also describing nature. From this follows the rules inductively based on the classics that Pope articulated in his Essay on Criticism:

Those rules of old discovered, not devised,
Are nature still, but nature methodized.

Particularly influential in the literary scene of the early eighteenth century were the two periodical publications by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, The Tattler (1709-11), and The Spectator (1711-12). Both writers are ranked among the minor masters of English prose style and credited with raising the general cultural level of the English middle classes. A typical representative of the post-Restoration mood, Steele was a zealous crusader for morality, and his stated purpose in The Tattler was "to enliven Morality with Wit, and to temper Wit with Morality." With The Spectator, Addison added a further purpose: to introduce the middle-class public to recent developments in philosophy and literature and thus to educate their tastes. The essays are discussions of current events, literature, and gossip often written in a highly ironic and refined style. Addison and Steele helped to popularize the philosophy of John Locke and promote the literary reputation of John Milton, among others. Although these publications each only ran two years, the influence that Addison and Steele had on their contemporaries was enormous, and their essays often amounted to a popularization of the ideas circulating among the intellectuals of the age. With these wide-spread and influential publications, the literary circle revolving around Addison, Steele, Swift and Pope was practically able to dictate the accepted taste in literature during the Augustan Age. In one of his essays for The Spectator, for example, Addison criticized the metaphysical poets for their ambiguity and lack of clear ideas, a critical stance which remained influential until the twentieth century.

The literary criticism of these writers often sought its justification in classical precedents. In the same vein, many of the important genres of this period were adaptations of classical forms: mock epic, translation, and imitation. A large part of Pope's work belongs to this last category, which exemplifies the artificiality of neoclassicism more thoroughly than does any other literary form of the period. In his satires and verse epistles Pope takes on the role of an English Horace, adopting the Roman poet's informal candor and conversational tone, and applying the standards of the original Augustan Age to his own time, even addressing George II satirically as "Augustus." Pope also translated the Iliad and the Odyssey, and, after concluding this demanding task, he embarked on The Dunciad (1728), a biting literary satire.

The Dunciad is a mock epic, a form of satiric writing in which commonplace subjects are described in the elevated, heroic style of classical epic. By parody and deliberate misuse of heroic language and literary convention, the satirist emphasizes the triviality of the subject, which is implicitly being measured against the highest standards of human potential. Among the best-known mock epic poems of this period in addition to The Dunciad are John Dryden's MacFlecknoe (1682), and Pope's The Rape of the Lock (1714). In The Rape of the Lock, often considered one of the highest achievements of mock epic poetry, the heroic action of epic is maintained, but the scale is sharply reduced. The hero's preparation for combat is transposed to a fashionable boat ride up the Thames, and the ensuing battle is a card game. The hero steals the titular lock of hair while the heroine is pouring coffee.

Although the mock epic mode is most commonly found in poetry, its influence was also felt in drama, most notably in John Gay's most famous work, The Beggar's Opera (1728). The Beggar's Opera ludicrously mingles elements of ballad and Italian opera in a satire on Sir Robert Walpole, England's prime minister at the time. The vehicle is opera, but the characters are criminals and prostitutes. Gay's burlesque of opera was an unprecedented stage success and centuries later inspired the German dramatist Bertolt Brecht to write one of his best-known works, Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera, 1928).

One of the most well-known mock epic works in prose from this period is Jonathan Swift's The Battle of the Books (1704), in which the old battle between the ancient and the modern writers is fought out in a library between The Bee and The Spider. Although not a mock epic, the satiric impulse is also the driving force behind Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726), one of the masterpieces of the period. The four parts describe different journeys of Lemuel Gulliver; to Lilliput, where the pompous activities of the diminutive inhabitants is satirized; to Brobdingnag, a land of giants who laugh at Gulliver's tales of the greatness of England; to Laputa and Lagoda, inhabited by quack scientists and philosophers; and to the land of the Houhynhnms, where horses are civilized and men behave like beasts. As a satirist Swift's technique was to create fictional speakers such as Gulliver, who utter sentiments that the intelligent reader should recognize as complacent, egotistical, stupid, or mad. Swift is recognized as a master of understated irony, and his name has become practically synonymous with the type of satire in which outrageous statements are offered in a straight-faced manner.

The Nature and Graveyard Poets: 

Neoclassicism was not the only literary movement at this time, however. Two schools in poetry rejected many of the precepts of decorum advocated by the neoclassical writers and anticipated several of the themes of Romanticism. The so-called nature poets, for example, treated nature not as an ordered pastoral backdrop, but rather as a grand and sometimes even forbidding entity. They tended to individualize the experience of nature and shun a methodized approach. Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, was a rural poet in an urban era, and the poems of Miscellany Poems by a Lady (1713) were often observations of nature, largely free of neoclassical conventions. Her contemporaries regarded her as little more than a female wit, but she was highly praised by the Romantic poets, particularly William Wordsworth. A further influential poet of this school was James Thomas, whose poetical work The Seasons, which appeared in separate volumes from 1726 to 1730 and beginning with Winter, was the most popular verse of the century. In his treatment of nature, he diverged from the neoclassical writers in many important ways: through sweeping vistas and specific details in contrast to circumscribed, generalized landscapes; exuberance instead of balance; and a fascination with the supernatural and the mysterious, no name just a few.

This last was also the major concern of the poets of the Graveyard School. Foremost among them was Edward Young, whose early verses were in the Augustan tradition. In his most famous work, however, The Complaint: or, Night Thoughts on Life, Death, and Immortality (1742-1745), the melancholy meditations against a backdrop of tombs and death indicate a major departure from the conventions and convictions of the preceding generation. While the neoclassicists regarded melancholia as a weakness, the pervasive mood of The Complaint is a sentimental and pensive contemplation of loss. It was nearly as successful as Thomas's The Seasons, and was translated into a number of major European languages.

Age of Sensibility (Age of Johnson) 1744-1785: 
The Age of Johnson, often referred to as The Age of Sensibility, is the period in English literature that ranged from the middle of the eighteenth century until 1798. Ending the Age of Johnson, the Romantic Period arrived in 1798 with the publication of Lyrical Ballads by poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), poet, critic, and author of fiction, is the namesake for this period in literature. Johnson wielded considerable influence over this era with works that focused on neoclassical aesthetics (the study of natural and artistic beauty with an eye toward the great classical writers). Johnson and his fellow writers placed great emphasis on the values of the Enlightenment which stressed the importance of using knowledge, not faith and superstition, to enlighten others, and led to the expansion of many social, economic, and cultural areas including astronomy, politics, and medicine.

Writers of the Age of Johnson focused on the qualities of intellect, reason, balance, and order. Notable publications of the Age of Johnson include Burke’s A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas on the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), Johnson’s The Rambler (1750-52), and Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield (1766).

One of Johnson’s most lasting legacies is his Dictionary of the English Language (1755). While this huge undertaking of Johnson’s was neither the first dictionary in existence, nor exceptionally unique, it was the most used and admired until the appearance of the Oxford English Dictionary in 1928. One of Johnson’s most fervently held beliefs was that the language of the people should be used in literature, and that a writer should avoid using grammar and vocabulary that did not appeal to the common reader.

While the Age of Johnson and the Age of Sensibility are terms often used interchangeably, Johnson’s age is considered to be the last of the neoclassical eras, while writers in the latter period are famed with an anticipation of the Romantic Period with their focus on the individual and imagination.

The Age of Sensibility is marked by works that focus more directly on anti-classical features of old ballads and new bardic poetry. These writers began to embrace new forms of literary expression formerly avoided by writers of the Age of Johnson such as medieval history and folk literature. Classic prose fiction examples from the Age of Sensibility include Laurence Stern’s Tristram Shandy (1759) and Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling (1771). The poetry of William Collins, William Cowper, Thomas Gray, and Christopher Smart are also attributed to the Age of Sensibility.