English Literature in the Early Eighteenth Century

views updated

English Literature in the Early Eighteenth Century

Changing Attitudes.

At the end of the seventeenth century changes in attitudes in England began to pave the way for the development of political journalism on the one hand and for the rise of the novel-reading society of the eighteenth century on the other. The forces that produced these changes were interrelated, but complex. In the final quarter of the seventeenth century Isaac Newton and other leaders of the Scientific Revolution pioneered the notion of a mechanical universe that was governed by unalterable laws and which was held together by the attraction and repulsion of gravity. In the writings of political philosophers like John Locke (1632–1704), this notion of a world governed by fundamental natural laws and by the balance of opposing forces within the commonwealth soon influenced political philosophy. Through his many writings on politics, Locke explored issues concerning good and bad government, trying to unlock the keys that produced the greatest happiness, prosperity, and liberty in states. Although Locke had been born into a Puritan family, his works displayed little of the distrust for human nature that had long been characteristic of the Calvinist tradition. Instead he argued that the mind was at birth a tabula rasa, a blank slate upon which good and bad experiences left their residue. His political writings which argued for limited government and a degree of religious toleration for dissenting Protestants came to be an important force in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, that bloodless political transformation that deposed King James II and replaced him with the co-regents William and Mary. Locke's works continued to be avidly read throughout the eighteenth century, and their arguments for limited government were avidly discussed by numerous political philosophers, not only in England, but in Continental Europe and the American colonies. The defenses that Locke fashioned for governments that protected citizens' property rights and their individual freedoms inspired the philosophies of the European Enlightenment, a movement that aimed to institute an "Age of Reason." And in America much of Locke's political philosophy came to be reflected in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. In England, the ideas of Newton, Locke, and other early Enlightenment thinkers soon produced great political ferment and discussion, leading to the rise of a society that hungered for newspapers and journalistic commentary, an industry that provided an outlet for some of the most creative minds of the period.

The Rise of Journalism.

London's first newspaper had appeared in the 1660s in tandem with the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy, but that paper, the Gazette, had functioned largely as a government organ of information. Parliament's passage of the Licensing Act in 1662 prohibited all publishing unless texts were submitted for licensing before being printed, a provision that, in fact, militated against the development of other newspapers because by the time that a journal might have wended its way through a maze of censors, its news would have been old. In 1695 the Licensing Act lapsed, and there was generally little will in Parliament to renew its provisions because, by this time, the Stationer's Guild that controlled the licensing process was widely seen as corrupt. It notoriously used its privileges merely to wrest as much money in fees as it could from printers and authors. But while the practice of licensing texts disappeared in England, government censorship did not. In the years that followed, the English government continued to subject the press to restrictions, but through different means. It often prosecuted those that published offending texts through the law of Seditious Libel. This change helps to explain the great flowering of political journalism and the English press generally that occurred in London in the years after 1700. Unlike the earlier licensing requirements, prosecutions for Seditious Libel occurred only after an author and printer had published an offending text. In the days, even months before government forces mobilized to punish offenders, thousands of texts could be profitably sold. Thus both printers and authors began to take their chances, testing the limits of the system, and often profitably making use of the very fact that an author's previous works had been banned. Such was the case with Daniel Defoe (1660–1731), the most famous of eighteenth-century journalists who prospered under the new system. Defoe had already achieved considerable success on the London scene by poking fun both at religious dissenters who occasionally conformed to the Church of England's laws so that they might hold government offices and at High Church Anglicans, who vigorously argued that strong measures be taken to punish dissenters. In 1702, he stepped a bit too far, though, in the direction of mocking the High Church party. In December of that year he published a satirical tract, The Shortest Way with Dissenters, a work that appeared to many to be an actual pamphlet written by a High Church Anglican. Defoe argued that the best way to deal with dissenters was to hang them all. Some of his language appeared to draw upon the works of Henry Sacheverell, then the ruling bishop of Oxford and a noted extremist in defense of the Church of England's prerogatives. A furor soon erupted; some argued that the tract was, in fact, genuine, while others recognized it as a satire and tried to unearth who had written it. When the author's identity came to light, his opponents cried for blood for having "put one over on his readers," and a summons was issued for Defoe's arrest. By this time, though, Defoe had already gone into hiding, although he was later caught, tried, and convicted, and on three occasions he was pilloried before regaining his freedom. For a time, his personal finances lay in ruin as a result of his political misfortunes.

Multiplication of Newspapers.

Defoe's case reveals the great dangers that lay in London's developing world of political journalism. Just as writing for the theater could be dangerous in Elizabethan or early Stuart times, the annals of eighteenth-century journalism are filled with cases of those who, like Defoe, fell afoul of the law. But while these decisive punishments sometimes made journalists personally more cautious in the years after they had occurred, they did little to discourage others from following in their footsteps. England's developing political journalism could be a lucrative career. The early eighteenth century was a time of relative political instability in the country, with frequent changes in government during the reign of Queen Anne (1702–1714), and the political disputes of these years consequently created a market for news about politics. Other celebrated cases similar to Defoe's also nourished a market for newspapers, political tracts, and commentary on contemporary developments. Where London had a handful of newspapers in 1700, this number continued to grow in the first half of the century, and many new journals came to be centered in the city's Fleet Street, long the heart of English newspaper publication. With the establishment of regular coach services up and down the length of Britain in the early eighteenth century, London newspapers came also to be transported to far-flung points of the island, inspiring the foundation of journals and papers in other provincial cities that reprinted the "news" recently arrived from the capital together with information about local events. In London, the vigorous climate of political journalism nourished some of the greatest writers of the age. Among the many distinguished authors who wrote for London's newspapers and journals were the poet Alexander Pope (1688–1744); the churchman and satirist Jonathan Swift (1667–1745); and the playwright and poet John Gay (1685–1732).

Alexander Pope.

Although he suffered great physical and emotional hardships throughout his life, Alexander Pope was able to rise above these challenges to become, like John Dryden, the defining poet of his age. Born to mature Catholic parents, he grew up in London before his family moved to Hammersmith, then a village west of the city. His father had been a wealthy merchant of linen, who was forced to retire from his profession by the passage of anti-Catholic laws during the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Despite that deprivation, the family remained prosperous, and when Pope was just twelve his father purchased an imposing estate and land in the forests outside London. Although he attended a school open to Catholic boys for a time, he was soon expelled for writing a satirical verse about another student, and priests provided much of his subsequent education. When he was still a child, Pope developed an infection of the bone that left him crippled in adulthood. As a result, he never grew past the height of four feet, six inches, and much of his life was spent wracked with pain. Eventually, he needed to wear braces in order to stand upright. Both his debility and his Catholicism became defining features of his character, with his life assuming the character of an almost heroic struggle to achieve recognition. During the 1710s, Pope spent some time writing for the London journal, The Spectator, a literary magazine that was edited by the great essayists Sir Richard Steele and Joseph Addison. Unlike the other London periodicals of the day, The Spectator generally steered clear of partisan politics, although its outlook was seen by many as mildly Whig—that is, favoring the authority of Parliament over the monarch. The journal was fashioned as if it was written by a fictional society known as the "Spectator Club," and in this format those who contributed poetry or prose to the periodical were free to write on any subject they chose, so long as they made their contributions fit with the fiction. From the time of the publication of these early pieces, Pope acquired the reputation for being the greatest English poet of his day, the heir to Dryden. Although he spoke on political issues from time to time, he was more concerned with developing a theory of aesthetics in his poetry and essays. Ugly things repulsed Pope, and he was consequently a lover of all the arts, visual as well as literary. He was not only a practicing poet, but a capable amateur painter as well. His published works promoted the idea that the poet's mission was to inspire his audience with an ideal of what might be accomplished in an orderly, well-run society that prized beauty. As a consequence of these aesthetic ideals, Pope was a harsh taskmaster over his own writing; he frequently subjected his poems to revision, thus there are variant versions of many of the poems.


Similar formalistic sensibilities are to be found in the life of Jonathan Swift, a satirist and poet who was for a time a close associate of Pope and Defoe. The three were members of the Scriblerus Club, a group of Tory wits that met in London during 1713 and 1714. These meetings left their imprint on the style of many of those involved in them. Biting satire came to be one of the common stocks in trade of those that were associated with the Scriblerus Club, although Swift had honed his skills in this regard long before that venture. Born and raised as an Anglo-Irishman, he was educated at Trinity College in Dublin for a time, but was a haphazard student. Eventually, he received a "special degree" and became a tutor in the household of the Surrey gentleman, Sir William Temple. He took an M.A. from Oxford in 1692, and accepted a position in the Irish Protestant church near Belfast, but he soon returned to Temple's service when he became disenchanted with the grinding poverty of his situation. In Temple's service he began to write satire and literary criticism, including A Tale of a Tub and The Battle of the Books. This last work entered into the then common debate in England and France about the relative merits of ancient versus modern literature. Prudently, Swift sided with his patron, Sir William Temple, who had defended the ancients over the efforts of contemporaries. A Tale of a Tub, by contrast, was a biting satire that mocked recent corruptions in religious practices in the figures of three brothers who represent Catholics, Protestants, and Anglicans. Each figure dramatically misreads their father's will, a device that stands for the Bible. In this way Swift relied on a fable to condemn in a lively and exuberant fashion the recent errors of all the Christian faiths. But while Swift could admit that his own Anglican tradition had sometimes erred, he continued throughout his life to evidence the religious views of a Tory—he always supported a High Church policy. He believed that the Church of England should continue to enjoy a privileged position among all the religious institutions of the country, and that laws against dissenters and Catholics should be upheld. In his political leanings, though, Swift often favored the Parliamentary dominance championed by the Whigs. The accession of the German Hanoverian king George I (r. 1714–1727), though, meant that the Tories were soon thrown from power, and because of his religious leanings and his participation in the Scriblerus Club, Swift never again wielded political influence. Instead he became a member of the loyal opposition, writing pamphlets that criticized the Whigs' corrupt exercise of power under George I and George II, and perfecting the art of political satire to the highest level it was perhaps ever to achieve. Among the works that he published in these later years of his life, two in particular stand out for their brilliance: Gulliver's Travels, which was published anonymously in 1726; and A Modest Proposal. The by-now familiar plot and charming narrative that Swift spins in Gulliver's Travels has long obscured the work's biting political attack on the Whig Party and its indictment of many British institutions of his day, including the Royal Society. In A Modest Proposal Swift continued to batter the government through a satirical tract that alleged to be a kind of government paper outlining a plan to raise Irish children for food. Although Swift continued to have a wide readership during his lifetime, the ribaldry and frank sexuality that is present in many of his works, including Gulliver's Travels, meant that they increasingly fell out of favor. As he aged, too, Swift was often accused of insanity, adding to the flagging popularity of his works. By the Victorian era, his great masterpiece, Gulliver's Travels, had been transformed in heavily sanitized editions into a classic intended to be read, not by adults, but by children. In this way knowledge of the topical political commentary Swift had inserted into the work fell out of English readers' view, and the work became merely a good yarn of adventure.


P. R. Backscheider, Daniel Defoe: His Life (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989).

D. D. Blond and W. R. McLeod, Newsletters to Newspapers: Eighteenth-Century Journalism (Morgantown, W. Va.: West Virginia University Press, 1977).

P. Earle, The World of Defoe (New York: Athenaeum, 1977).

D. Fairer, Pope's Imagination (Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1984).

I. Higgins, Swift's Politics: A Study in Disaffection (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

About this article

English Literature in the Early Eighteenth Century

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article