Overview of Literature

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The Seventeenth Century: An Age of Genius.

It is difficult to summarize the achievements of European literature in the Baroque and classical eras, because they are at one and the same time enormous and yet enormously varied. From the benefit of hindsight, though, the years following 1600 witnessed some fundamental changes that were to shape the greatest literature of the age. The examples of Italy, long the inspiration for the Renaissance's greatest literary innovations, declined in importance as a source of emulation for Europeans in the Baroque era. Although great literature continued to be produced in Italy, much of the efforts of Italian authors in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries found an outlet in new artistic forms like the opera, where authors were kept busily employed writing libretti for the country's insatiable appetites for musical dramas. The years around 1600 were for Spain a Golden Age, and in the decades that followed one Renaissance form of literature popular in that country, the picaresque novel, came to be widely read and imitated throughout Europe. Although Spain's dominance over European fashion was profound in the early seventeenth century, it proved to be short-lived. By the 1640s the country's costly involvements in international wars—much of it motivated by the zeal to re-impose Catholic uniformity on Europe—had led to bankruptcy and a retreat from the international scene. By the second half of the seventeenth century, Spain's artistic and literary influence in Europe was decidedly on the wane. In a larger sense, though, the country's involvement in religious controversies was symptomatic of the era, and in the seventeenth century many European authors became involved in the working out of religious and moral dilemmas that the sixteenth-century Reformation and Counter-Reformation had produced. In every country in Northern Europe, religious debates produced a flood of tracts and pamphlets, as well as more enduring poetry and prose that spoke to the doctrinal dilemmas of the age. In England, the controversies between Puritans and Anglicans produced the great but enigmatic poetry and devotional texts of figures like the Anglican John Donne and the highly entertaining sermons of the Puritan Jeremy Taylor. In France, the dispute between Jansenists and Jesuits was similarly creative, inspiring a flood of devotional works by which each side tried to sway readers to the rectitude of their position. Among the great literary products this competition produced was Blaise Pascal's immortal Provincial Letters (1757), a work that satirically and successfully mocked the legalistic hairsplitting of the Jesuits, and which by virtue of the brilliance of the prose it presented, survived to influence later generations of writers. In Germany, a similar dynamic is evident. Although most of the writers that contributed to the country's first "national" literature were Protestants, German presses continued to churn out a host of devotional and polemical literature that spoke to the religious sensibilities of the age.

The Impact of Drama.

Literary endeavor was only rarely a life's work in seventeenth-century Europe. The great works that survive from the period were not written in pursuit of royalties, as in the modern world, but rather to present an author's point of view, to entertain, or to satisfy the demands of aristocratic patrons. Many who wrote in the period did not publish their works; their literary creations, in other words, often circulated among friends and associates in manuscript form. Often, it was only after an author's death that editions of his or her major works were printed. The stipulations of copyright were just beginning to be worked out in the period, and as a result, publishing a successful work of poetry or prose did not assure one's fortunes. Still, the press was steadily becoming a medium for presenting one's ideas and literary accomplishments, but it nevertheless competed against the far more important role that the theater had as a source of support for authors. In England, Spain, and somewhat later in France, the theater was the most lucrative way in which authors might employ their talents. Writing for the stage offered authors the possibility of benefiting from a popular production, since in most cases theatrical companies divided the profits from a successful play with their writers. Such a situation was well suited to provide a career path for men of relatively humble status to ascend the social ladder. In seventeenth-century London, for instance, William Shakespeare was just one of several successful playwrights who sprang from modest origins. Later in the century, the largely "self-taught" Puritan John Bunyan used his literary talents to promote his dissenting views and as a significant source of income. But while the seventeenth century presents numerous cases of such seemingly "self-made" men, literary achievement continued to be strongly linked to social class and the educational benefits it often provided. In both France and England, seventeenth-century royal courts supported many "literary wits," figures that often made their way in these enclaves by virtue of their connections and the ability to write a passable verse. From the Renaissance, Europe's cultured courts had inherited a high sense of the mission of the poet, and court life offered a number of occasions that called for the poet's skills to lend literary immortality, depth, and grandeur to its rituals.

National Styles and Ancients and Moderns.

Another feature of the age left its mark on the developing national literatures of the period: the debates over the rhetoric and style that was best suited to a particular language. By the seventeenth century most of Europe's various languages already possessed centuries of literary usage. During the Renaissance, however, the revival of a pure style of classical Latin, known as Neo-Latin, had enriched Europeans' knowledge of the subtle and complex skills that ancient rhetoric offered. In France, England, and many parts of Europe the reception of humanism—the learning promoted by the Italian Renaissance—had spurred new debates concerning the style and rhetoric that was best suited, not only to Latin writing, but to that in the native, or vernacular language. These debates persisted in the seventeenth century, but they soon expanded, providing the foundation for the establishment of the French Academy in 1634, and the various literary societies that were common throughout Central Europe. England lacked such organized institutions, yet at the same time, the crown's persistent appointment of poet laureates, and its support of literary circles at court, tended all the same to sanction certain kinds of rhetoric and style above others. In France, the discussions of the French Academy, as well as certain literary salons in and around Paris, played a profound role in shaping seventeenth-century French Classicism, a severe yet grand style of writing that was most brilliantly displayed in the verse tragedies of Corneille and Racine, but which left a more general impact on the poetry and prose of the period, too. In Germany, the many literary societies that emulated the country's "Fruit-Bringing Society" led to a literary ferment that failed to produce a single all-encompassing style, but which led to considerable discussion and creativity. Toward the end of the seventeenth century in England, it was the clear and lucid prose and poetry of John Dryden and his circle that predominated among intellectuals throughout the country. This form of expression, often referred to as "Augustan," was notable for its lucid, formal, and relatively unadorned style, and it persisted into the eighteenth century. Considerations about style inevitably led to questions about the relative superiority of contemporary literature when compared against the testimony of the "ancients." Bristling debates often erupted in early-modern states between those who argued that the poetry and prose of ancient Greece and Rome was the only suitable model for emulation, and those who argued that contemporary literary efforts might match and even surpass the culture of Antiquity. This debate, a part of the intellectual landscape of Europe since the early Renaissance, continued to erupt episodically in early-modern Europe. One of its last episodes occurred in France at the end of the seventeenth century within the developing French Academy, and the dispute between French authors soon spread to England and other parts of Europe. In this late embodiment of the debate, many figures argued that literatures and languages evolved and changed over time, and that the literature of the present had been enlarged by the steady accretions that had occurred over the ages. Although such insights did little to quiet the contemporary disputes between "ancients" and "moderns," they provided a bridge to the developing ideas of the Enlightenment. In the eighteenth century that followed, many literary figures advanced new theories for the criticism of literature, and in this way the long-standing tutelage of the ancients that had often been such an important force in fashioning writer's works tended to become less and less important.

Multiplication of Genres.

Despite efforts to develop consistent national styles, Europe's rhetoricians never succeeded in establishing a single, unified literary vision. Indeed, as relative peace and prosperity emerged in Europe at the end of the seventeenth century, a host of new genres of literature became popular. Early forms of the novel—a prolonged, largely invented world of literary fiction—soon became popular in almost all parts of the continent. Spiritual autobiographies, a genre as old as St. Augustine's fifth-century Confessions, became popular reading, and diary and letter writing expanded steadily as well. Both the changing views of the natural world promoted by the Scientific Revolution and of the political order expounded in the works of philosophers like John Locke also produced a flood of new kinds of social commentary and criticism, as writers turned to examine their societies along lines promoted by the seemingly "scientific" models of the age. And finally, a new kind of literary endeavor, journalism, had steadily matured in the course of the seventeenth century. By 1700, it was poised to play an increasingly important role in politics and in the establishing of literary tastes and trends. It was in London, Europe's largest eighteenth-century city, where the forces that sustained this new varied literary marketplace can be seen first exerting their pressures on the public world. Although the city's presses had been tightly controlled during the seventeenth century by the Stuart kings, the laws upholding the traditional organs of censorship lapsed in England in 1695, and were not renewed. In the years that followed, London's Fleet Street became home to Europe's most vigorous center of journalism, and the development of the city's newspapers fed a popular appetite for knowledge of recent events and for commentary on the course of politics. Many of the figures that took advantage of the new commercial possibilities the press offered still continued to fall afoul of British law. Daniel Defoe, for instance, was imprisoned on several occasions for the fiery tracts he printed attacking government policies. But the profits to be made in journalism were too attractive for many to pass up, and the daring that the city's newspaper men often evidenced soon made it difficult for Parliament and the Crown to contain the vigorous debate London's new journalistic culture inspired.

Rise of the Novel.

One of the most distinctive literary genres that emerged from this new culture of information was the eighteenth-century novel, a form of fiction that was in many ways distinct from the older forms of the novel that had circulated in seventeenth-century Europe. Those seventeenth-century forms had often been romans à clef, in which classical stories had been peopled with prominent characters drawn from contemporary life. The popularity of this thinly-veiled form of satirical examination had, in fact, been sustained by a category of aristocratic readers anxious to see how far an author might go in holding up a mirror to present circumstances. Another form, the picaresque novel that had originally appeared in sixteenth-century Spain, had featured lowborn heroes and had followed these characters through a series of exploits and adventures in which they exposed the hypocrisy and venality of aristocratic society. But in early eighteenth-century England, the journalist Daniel Defoe pioneered a new category of seemingly realistic fiction in his Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders, and Roxana. To construct these realistic stories about life in exotic circumstances, Defoe drew upon older genres, including the spiritual autobiographies and confessional narratives that had been popular in later seventeenth-century England. At the same time, he relied upon a new taste for eroticism and a curiosity about "how the other half lived" to create a genre of fiction that steadily grew in popularity. His initial experimentations with the genre laid the groundwork for the great novels of Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding at mid-century, works that had a deep influence, not only in England, but also throughout Europe. As the new form of realistic or, as it is sometimes called, "bourgeois" fiction made its way through the European continent, it often gave voice to the disputes and dilemmas of the Enlightenment. In this process, the novel was raised from a once "light" and even disreputable form of fiction, into an elevated vehicle for discussing the great moral and philosophical problems of the age, a development that paved the way for the great age of Romantic nineteenth-century fiction that was to follow.

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Overview of Literature

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