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The full text of the 1912 book A History of the British Nation by AD Innes
 
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History > History of Britain Book > Georgian > 18th century Literature
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18th century Literature

From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912


Henry Fielding, by Hogarth, from the 1772 edition of Fielding\'s \'Works\'
Henry Fielding, by Hogarth, from the 1772 edition of Fielding's 'Works'

John Dryden died in the year 1700. Samuel Johnson died in 1784. The date of Johnson's first notable publication was 1738, a few years before the death of two of the most prominent literary figures of the previous period, Pope and Swift, the survivors of a literary circle which had once included Addison. Johnson's own circle after 1761 included Burke and Goldsmith, and touched Sheridan. This list of names suggests the characteristics of the whole period; in the whole number there is only one, Edmund Burke, who was not essentially a man of his century - whose work was not an expression of its conventions. As concerns literary form, these were the men who themselves set the conventions which lesser men followed; but the literary form was itself the finished expression of the moral and intellectual spirit of the age. Within a few years of Johnson's death an entirely new spirit had manifested itself, and the canons which had guided or had been laid down by the writers of the eighteenth century were entirely discarded.

The Augustan Age
Poetry, a great critic has said, is a "criticism of life"; the poetry in which an age expresses itself affords at any rate a conclusive criterion of the way in which that age looked upon life. The predomin­ance of the lyrical over the rhetorical implies the pre­dominance of the emotional over the rational, and vice versa. Until Johnson was dead, rhetorical poetry held the field throughout the eighteenth century; the era produced only one lyrical poet of importance, William Collins, though Pope was the most consummate master of the art which claims a purely intellectual appreciation.

The Restoration in the seventeenth century brought with it a revolt of the intellectuals against the tyranny of moral strenuousness - not merely the sour rigidity of the narrowest Puritanism but the emotional intensity which had produced a Milton and a Cromwell. In its first emancipation it flung aside morality altogether. Then came a reaction, when it was realised that there was no essential antagonism between the moral and the intellectual. Under the serene guidance of Addison, decency again became "the mode," and Pope, in finely polished couplets, stereotyped the somewhat superficial philosophy of cultured common-sense.

The morality which could be expressed in epigrams reigned supreme, even while immorality which could shelter behind epigrammatic formulae was rampant. But the criteria applied were those of the intelligence, not those of the heart; the emotions, except as playthings appropriate to the boudoir, were at a discount. Where there is no enthusiasm there can be no lyrical poetry, and the Augustan Age knew not enthusiasm.

It called itself Augustan not inappropriately, for it had much in common with the age of the first Roman emperor, an imitative age with little in it that was spontaneous; an artificial age; on the surface graceful, refined, and polite, below the veneer barbarically gross, and at heart earthy and materialistic. Literature took possession of what was best in it, and that best has a unique charm, an attraction of its own, but it is something very different from the best of the Elizabethans with their vivid and all-pervading vitality, of the Puritans with their fervour of righteousness, or of the new spirit which burst into life with the dying' century.

The materialism was at its worst in the second quarter ot the century; but it continued dominant even while a sturdier morality, deeply rooted, more akin in its nature to Puritanism, was making progress; while Samuel Johnson by force of character more than of intellect was gradually achieving a supremacy among English men of letters; while the Great Commoner in the political world, Wesley in the religious world, were breathing life into the dry bones. The breed of English men of action had not worn itself out, but the reviving national capacity for enthusiasm, faith, and loyalty was not to bear full fruit until a later generation.

In such an age, then, it was impossible that lyrical poetry should flourish In England. Collins stood by himself, while Gray's Odes have little if at all more of the lyrical quality than those of Dryden or Pope. In Scotland song still lived, for Scotland was still emotional, still capable of enthusiasm, or there would have been no "Forty Five." But even in Scotland the song which was spontaneous was also anonymous. And as the repression of the deeper emotions was destructive of song, so also it was destructive of the higher drama which involves the dramatic insteadof lyrical expression of the deeper emotions. Tragedy, instead of depicting human passion, was unreal, conventional, and rhe­torical. But the very conditions which were ill adapted for tragedy were perfectly compatible with the development of a prose comedy which is of its nature concerned with the light and superficial aspects of life; and in their own delightful kind, towards the close of our period, the comedies of two Irishmen, Goldsmith and Sheridan, are unsurpassed; just as at an earlier stage Pope's Rape of the Lock was a quite perfect piece of irresponsible daintiness.

18th century prose
The eighteenth century, however, if it was not a great age of poetry, was great in prose, and in other realms of prose than that of theatrical comedy. At its outset the short essay was almost perfected by Steele and Addison in the pages of the Toiler and the Spectator. Pamphleteering was elevated into a fine art by Defoe and Swift. Defoe, in a series of works unmatched in their realism from the Journal of the Plague to Robinson Crusoe, created the English Novel; and Swift made the travels of Gulliver to Lilliput and Brobdingnag almost as convincing as the adventures of Crusoe himself. Addison's creation of Sir Roger de Coverley reveals an aspect of English life which shows that the general materialism was still far from being universal, and gives the first promise of the English novel of character.

The first novels
About the time when Johnson was first shouldering his way into the London world of letters, the novel of sentimental respectability was given its vogue by Samuel Richardson's Pamela, which helped at least to inspire Henry Fielding to the production of Joseph Andrews as a sort of antidote to Richardson's mawkishness. Richardson wrote for ladies, Fielding did not. Richardson was a moralist and a sentimentalist, Fielding was neither. But it was Fielding who, like Defoe, held the mirror up to nature and painted life as he saw it in the middle of the eighteenth century, with the robust and virile humour and fidelity which made Scott and Thackeray regard him as the father of the novel.

Of the same school, though with an exaggerated coarseness, was Tobias Smol­lett; with these two names is associated that of Lawrence Sterne, whose exquisite humour was counterbalanced by a sort of refined indecency much more corrupting than the audacity of Fielding or the grossness of Smollett; and Goldsmith gave Sir Roger de Coverley a companion in the "Man in Black" of the Citizen of the World, and produced an exquisite novel of real life which was neither mawkish nor coarse in the Vicar of Wakefield.

The contributions of Scotland and Ireland
Before 1760 Ireland and Scotland had taken their share in the production of English literature. Swift and Steele were both born in Dublin. Smollett was a Scot, and so were such minor lights as James Thomson, the authof of The Seasons, and John Home, whose tragedy of Douglas was received with enthusiastic if evanescent applause. Hardly recognised as yet, but destined to be far more influential, was the work of the Scotsman David Hume, whose importance in the history of moral and metaphysical speculation can hardly be over-estimated, while his History of England, though in many respects untrustworthy, gives him a place in the front rank of English historians. In the realm of philosophy Hume, himself an audacious and original thinker, was almost equalled in originality and importance by his predecessor, George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne.

And after 1760 the prominence of Scots and Irishmen increased. In the lighter walks of literature the achievement of Goldsmith and Sheridan has already been noted. If Johnson, the greatest literary figure of the time, was English through and through, his biography, the acknowledged master­piece of its kind, was the work of the Scot Boswell. Burke, the Irishman, was the greatest political thinker of the day, unless we except the Scot Adam Smith, whose great work the Wealth of Nations raised political economy, which had hitherto been little more than empirical, into an acknowledged science, and revolutionised the prevalent ideas on the subject. But though Hume as a historian was surpassed by another Scot, William Robertson, the acknowledged supremacy in that field belongs to the Englishman Gibbon, whose Decline and Fall of the Roman Empirt stands by itself without a rival.



This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's point of view may not be currently accepted by modern historians, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.

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