History of Literature

English literature



The Old English period

The early Middle English period

The later Middle English and early Renaissance periods

The Renaissance period: 1550–1660

Elizabethan and early Stuart drama

Effect of religion and science on early Stuart prose

The Restoration

The 18th century

The 18th century. The novel

The Romantic period

The later Romantics

The Post-Romantic and Victorian eras

Late Victorian literature

The 20th century. The Modernist revolution

The literature of World War I and the interwar period

Literature after 1945. Fiction. Poetry

Literature after 1945. Drama. The 21st century



English literature


The later Romantics


Percy Bysshe Shelley  "Prometheus Unbound"
William Godwin
John Keats  "The Eve of St. Agnes"
John Clare
Thomas Lovell Beddoes
George Darley

Thomas Hood
Felicia Hemans
Henry Brooke
Charles Lamb
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley  "Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus"
James Hogg
Thomas Holcroft
Mary Wollstonecraft

Elizabeth Inchbald
Maria Edgeworth

Jane Austen  "Pride and Prejudice" 
Thomas Love Peacock
Sir Walter Scott, 1st Baronet 
William Hazlitt
Mary Russell Mitford
Thomas De Quincey 
"Confessions of an English Opium-Eater"
William Cobbett
Richard Brinsley Sheridan  "School for Scandal"   Illustrations by Hugh Thompson
Richard Cumberland
George Colman the Younger
Jeremy Bentham



The later Romantics:

Shelley, Keats, and Byron

The poets of the next generation shared their predecessors’ passion for liberty (now set in a new perspective by the Napoleonic Wars) and were in a position to learn from their experiments.
Percy Bysshe Shelley in particular was deeply interested in politics, coming early under the spell of the anarchist views of William Godwin, whose Enquiry Concerning Political Justice had appeared in 1793. Shelley’s revolutionary ardour caused him to claim in his critical essay A Defence of Poetry (1821, published 1840) that “the most unfailing herald, companion, and follower of the awakening of a great people to work a beneficial change in opinion or institution, is poetry,” and that poets are “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” This fervour burns throughout the early Queen Mab (1813), the long Laon and Cythna (retitled The Revolt of Islam, 1818), and the lyrical drama Prometheus Unbound (1820). Shelley saw himself at once as poet and prophet, as the fine Ode to the West Wind (1819) makes clear. Despite his grasp of practical politics, however, it is a mistake to look for concreteness in his poetry, where his concern is with subtleties of perception and with the underlying forces of nature: his most characteristic images are of sky and weather, of lights and fires. His poetic stance invites the reader to respond with similar outgoing aspiration. It adheres to the Rousseauistic belief in an underlying spirit in individuals, one truer to human nature itself than the behaviour evinced and approved by society. In that sense his material is transcendental and cosmic and his expression thoroughly appropriate. Possessed of great technical brilliance, he is, at his best, a poet of excitement and power.


Percy Bysshe Shelley

"Prometheus Unbound"

English poet

born Aug. 4, 1792, Field Place, near Horsham, Sussex, Eng.
died July 8, 1822, at sea off Livorno, Tuscany [Italy]

English Romantic poet whose passionate search for personal love and social justice was gradually channeled from overt actions into poems that rank with the greatest in the English language.

Shelley was the heir to rich estates acquired by his grandfather, Bysshe (pronounced “Bish”) Shelley. Timothy Shelley, the poet’s father, was a weak, conventional man who was caught between an overbearing father and a rebellious son. The young Shelley was educated at Syon House Academy (1802–04) and then at Eton (1804–10), where he resisted physical and mental bullying by indulging in imaginative escapism and literary pranks. Between the spring of 1810 and that of 1811, he published two Gothic novels and two volumes of juvenile verse. In the fall of 1810 Shelley entered University College, Oxford, where he enlisted his fellow student Thomas Jefferson Hogg as a disciple. But in March 1811, University College expelled both Shelley and Hogg for refusing to admit Shelley’s authorship of The Necessity of Atheism. Hogg submitted to his family, but Shelley refused to apologize to his.

Late in August 1811, Shelley eloped with Harriet Westbrook, the younger daughter of a London tavern owner; by marrying her, he betrayed the acquisitive plans of his grandfather and father, who tried to starve him into submission but only drove the strong-willed youth to rebel against the established order. Early in 1812, Shelley, Harriet, and her older sister Eliza Westbrook went to Dublin, where Shelley circulated pamphlets advocating political rights for Roman Catholics, autonomy for Ireland, and freethinking ideals. The couple traveled to Lynmouth, Devon, where Shelley issued more political pamphlets, and then to North Wales, where they spent almost six months in 1812–13.

Lack of money finally drove Shelley to moneylenders in London, where in 1813 he issued Queen Mab, his first major poem—a nine-canto mixture of blank verse and lyric measures that attacks the evils of the past and present (commerce, war, the eating of meat, the church, monarchy, and marriage) but ends with resplendent hopes for humanity when freed from these vices. In June 1813 Harriet Shelley gave birth to their daughter Ianthe, but a year later Shelley fell in love with Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, daughter of William Godwin and his first wife, née Mary Wollstonecraft. Against Godwin’s objections, Shelley and Mary Godwin eloped to France on July 27, 1814, taking with them Mary’s stepsister Jane (later “Claire”) Clairmont. Following travels through France, Switzerland, and Germany, they returned to London, where they were shunned by the Godwins and most other friends. Shelley dodged creditors until the birth of his son Charles (born to Harriet, November 30, 1814), his grandfather’s death (January 1815), and provisions of Sir Bysshe’s will forced Sir Timothy to pay Shelley’s debts and grant him an annual income.

Settling near Windsor Great Park in 1815, Shelley read the classics with Hogg and another friend, Thomas Love Peacock. He also wrote Alastor; or The Spirit of Solitude, a blank-verse poem, published with shorter poems in 1816, that warns idealists (like Shelley himself) not to abandon “sweet human love” and social improvement for the vain pursuit of evanescent dreams. By mid-May 1816, Shelley, Mary, and Claire Clairmont hurried to Geneva to intercept Lord Byron, with whom Claire had begun an affair. During this memorable summer, Shelley composed the poems “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” and “Mont Blanc,” and Mary began her novel Frankenstein. Shelley’s party returned to England in September, settling in Bath. Late in the year, Harriet Shelley drowned herself in London, and on December 30, 1816, Shelley and Mary were married with the Godwins’ blessing. But a Chancery Court decision declared Shelley unfit to raise Ianthe and Charles (his children by Harriet), who were placed in foster care at his expense.

In March 1817 the Shelleys settled near Peacock at Marlow, where Shelley wrote his twelve-canto romance-epic Laon and Cythna; or, The Revolution of the Golden City and Mary Shelley finished Frankenstein. They compiled History of a Six Weeks’ Tour jointly from the letters and journals of their trips to Switzerland, concluding with “Mont Blanc.” In November, Laon and Cythna was suppressed by its printer and publisher, who feared that Shelley’s idealized tale of a peaceful national revolution, bloodily suppressed by a league of king and priests, violated the laws against blasphemous libel. After revisions, it was reissued in 1818 as The Revolt of Islam.

Because Shelley’s health suffered from the climate and his financial obligations outran his resources, the Shelleys and Claire Clairmont went to Italy, where Byron was residing. They reached Milan in April 1818 and proceeded to Pisa and Leghorn (Livorno). That summer, at Bagni di Lucca, Shelley translated Plato’s Symposium and wrote his own essay “On Love.” He also completed a modest poem entitled Rosalind and Helen, in which he imagines his destiny in the poet-reformer “Lionel,” who—imprisoned for radical activity—dies young after his release.

Thus far, Shelley’s literary career had been politically oriented. Queen Mab, the early poems first published in 1964 as The Esdaile Notebook, Laon and Cythna, and most of his prose works were devoted to reforming society; and even Alastor, Rosalind and Helen, and the personal lyrics voiced the concerns of an idealistic reformer who is disappointed or persecuted by an unreceptive society. But in Italy, far from the daily irritations of British politics, Shelley deepened his understanding of art and literature and, unable to reshape the world to conform to his vision, he concentrated on embodying his ideals within his poems. His aim became, as he wrote in “Ode to the West Wind,” to make his words “Ashes and sparks” as from “an unextinguished hearth,” thereby transforming subsequent generations and, through them, the world. Later, as he became estranged from Mary Shelley, he portrayed even love in terms of aspiration, rather than fulfillment: “The desire of the moth for the star,/ Of the night for the morrow,/ The devotion to something afar/ From the sphere of our sorrow.”

In August 1818, Shelley and Byron again met in Venice; the Shelleys remained there or at Este through October 1818. During their stay, little Clara Shelley (b. 1817) became ill and died. In “Lines Written Among the Euganean Hills” (published with Rosalind and Helen), Shelley writes how visions arising from the beautiful landscape seen from a hill near Este had revived him from despair to hopes for the political regeneration of Italy, thus transforming the scene into “a green isle. . . / In the deep wide sea of Misery.” He also began Julian and Maddalo—in which Byron (“Maddalo”) and Shelley debate human nature and destiny—and drafted Act I of Prometheus Unbound. In November 1818 the Shelleys traveled through Rome to Naples, where they remained until the end of February 1819.

Settling next at Rome, Shelley continued Prometheus Unbound and outlined The Cenci, a tragedy on the Elizabethan model based on a case of incestuous rape and patricide in sixteenth-century Rome. He completed this drama during the summer of 1819 near Leghorn, where the Shelleys fled in June after their other child, William Shelley (b. 1816), died from malaria. Shelley himself terms The Cenci “a sad reality,” contrasting it with earlier “visions . . . of the beautiful and just.” Memorable characters, classic five-act structure, powerful and evocative language, and moral ambiguities still make The Cenci theatrically effective. Even so, it is a less notable achievement than Prometheus Unbound: A Lyrical Drama, which Shelley completed at Florence in the autumn of 1819, near the birth of Percy Florence Shelley, Mary Shelley’s only surviving child. Both plays appeared about 1820.

In Prometheus Shelley inverts the plot of a lost play by Aeschylus in a poetic masterpiece that combines supple blank verse with a variety of complex lyric measures. In Act I, Prometheus, tortured on Jupiter’s orders for having given mankind the gift of moral freedom, recalls his earlier curse of Jupiter and forgives him (“I wish no living thing to suffer pain”). By eschewing revenge, Prometheus, who embodies the moral will, can be reunited with his beloved Asia, a spiritual ideal transcending humanity; her love prevents him from becoming another tyrant when Jupiter is overthrown by the mysterious power known as Demogorgon. Act II traces Asia’s awakening and journey toward Prometheus, beginning with her descent into the depths of nature to confront and question Demogorgon. Act III depicts the overthrow of Jupiter and the union of Asia and Prometheus, who—leaving Jupiter’s throne vacant—retreat to a cave from which they influence the world through ideals embodied in the creative arts. The end of the act describes the renovation of both human society and the natural world. Act IV opens with joyful lyrics by spirits who describe the benevolent transformation of the human consciousness that has occurred. Next, other spirits hymn the beatitude of humanity and nature in this new millennial age; and finally, Demogorgon returns to tell all creatures that, should the fragile state of grace be lost, they can restore their moral freedom through these “spells”:

To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;

To forgive wrongs darker than Death or Night;

To defy Power which seems Omnipotent;

To love, and bear; to hope, till Hope creates

From its own wreck the thing it contemplates. . .

Prometheus Unbound, which was the keystone of Shelley’s poetic achievement, was written after he had been chastened by “sad reality” but before he began to fear that he had failed to reach an audience. Published with it were some of the poet’s finest and most hopeful shorter poems, including “Ode to Liberty,” “Ode to the West Wind,” “The Cloud,” and “To a Sky-Lark.”

While completing Prometheus Unbound and The Cenci, Shelley reacted to news of the Peterloo Massacre (August 1819) in England by writing The Masque of Anarchy and several radical songs that he hoped would rouse the British people to active but nonviolent political protest. Later in 1819 he sent to England Peter Bell the Third, which joins literary satire of William Wordsworth’s Peter Bell to attacks on corruptions in British society, and he drafted A Philosophical View of Reform, his longest (though incomplete) prose work, urging moderate reform to prevent a bloody revolution that might lead to new tyranny. Too radical to be published during Shelley’s lifetime, The Masque of Anarchy appeared after the reformist elections of 1832, Peter Bell the Third and the political ballads in 1839–40, and A Philosophical View of Reform not until 1920.

After moving to Pisa in 1820, Shelley was stung by hostile reviews into expressing his hopes more guardedly. His “Letter to Maria Gisborne” in heroic couplets and “The Witch of Atlas” in ottava rima (both 1820; published 1824) combine the mythopoeic mode of Prometheus Unbound with the urbane self-irony that had emerged in Peter Bell the Third, showing Shelley’s awareness that his ideals might seem naive to others. Late that year, Oedipus Tyrannus; or, Swellfoot the Tyrant, his satirical drama on the trial for adultery of Caroline (estranged wife of King George IV), appeared anonymously but was quickly suppressed. In 1821, however, Shelley reasserted his uncompromising idealism. Epipsychidion (in couplets) mythologizes his infatuation with Teresa (“Emilia”) Viviani, a convent-bound young admirer, into a Dantesque fable of how human desire can be fulfilled through art. His essay A Defence of Poetry (published 1840) eloquently declares that the poet creates humane values and imagines the forms that shape the social order: thus each mind recreates its own private universe, and “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the World.” Adonais, a pastoral elegy in Spenserian stanzas, commemorates the death of John Keats by declaring that, while we “decay/ Like corpses in a charnel,” the creative spirit of Adonais, despite his physical death, “has outsoared the shadow of our night.”

The One remains, the many change

and pass;

Heaven’s light forever shines, Earth’s

shadows fly;

Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,

Stains the white radiance of Eternity,

Until Death tramples it to fragments.

The verse drama Hellas (published 1822) celebrates the Greek revolution against Turkish rule and reiterates the political message of Laon and Cythna—that the struggle for human liberty can be neither totally defeated nor fully realized, since the ideal is greater than its earthly embodiments.

After Byron’s arrival in Pisa late in 1821, Shelley, inhibited by his presence, completed only a series of urbane, yet longing lyrics—most addressed to Jane Williams—during the early months of 1822. He began the drama “Charles the First,” but soon abandoned it. After the Shelleys and Edward and Jane Williams moved to Lerici, Shelley began “The Triumph of Life,” a dark fragment on which he was at work until he sailed to Leghorn to welcome his friend Leigh Hunt, who had arrived to edit a periodical called The Liberal. Shelley and Edward Williams drowned on July 8, 1822, when their boat sank during the stormy return voyage to Lerici.

Mary Shelley faithfully collected her late husband’s unpublished writings, and by 1840, aided by Hunt and others, she had disseminated his fame and most of his writings. The careful study of Shelley’s publications and manuscripts has since elucidated his deep learning, clear thought, and subtle artistry. Shelley was a passionate idealist and consummate artist who, while developing rational themes within traditional poetic forms, stretched language to its limits in articulating both personal desire and social altruism.

Donald H. Reiman

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Engraving by George J. Stodart, after a monument by Henry Weekes



William Godwin

born March 3, 1756, Wisbech, Isle of Ely, Cambridgeshire, Eng.
died April 7, 1836, London

social philosopher, political journalist, and religious dissenter who anticipated the English Romantic literary movement with his writings advancing atheism, anarchism, and personal freedom.

Godwin’s idealistic liberalism was based on the principle of the absolute sovereignty and competence of reason to determine right choice. An optimist regarding man’s future perfectibility, he combined cultural determinism with a doctrine of extreme individualism. The object of his principal work, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, and Its Influence on General Virtue and Happiness (1793), was to reject conventional government by demonstrating the corrupting evil and tyranny inherent in its power of manipulation. He proposed in its place small self-subsisting communities. He argued that social institutions fail because they impose on man generalized thought categories and preconceived ideas, which make it impossible to see things as they are.

It has been claimed that Godwin’s works laid the foundations for the mutually contradictory doctrines of communism and anarchy. In fact their germ, though undeveloped, is to be found in two separate elements in his thinking. He advocated neither the abolition nor the “communalization” of property; property was to be held, a sacred trust, at the disposal of him whose need was greatest. His most powerful personal belief was that “everything understood by the term co-operation is in some sense an evil,” from which proceeded his most influential anarchic doctrines.

Among his other writings are The Enquirer (1797), a collection of essays; Of Population (1820), a reply to Thomas Malthus’s writings on the subject; Thoughts on Man: His Nature, Production, and Discoveries (1831); and his widely acclaimed ideological novel, Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794).

Godwin was married in 1797 to Mary Wollstonecraft, who was the mother of his daughter Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.


The Eve of Saint Agnes by Arthur Hughes

John Keats, by contrast, was a poet so sensuous and physically specific that his early work, such as Endymion (1818), could produce an over-luxuriant, cloying effect. As the program set out in his early poem Sleep and Poetry shows, however, Keats was determined to discipline himself: even before February 1820, when he first began to cough blood, he may have known that he had not long to live, and he devoted himself to the expression of his vision with feverish intensity. He experimented with many kinds of poems: Isabella (published 1820), an adaptation of a tale by Giovanni Boccaccio, is a tour de force of craftsmanship in its attempt to reproduce a medieval atmosphere and at the same time a poem involved in contemporary politics. His epic fragment Hyperion (begun in 1818 and abandoned, published 1820; later begun again and published posthumously as The Fall of Hyperion in 1856) has a new spareness of imagery, but Keats soon found the style too Miltonic and decided to give himself up to what he called “other sensations.” Some of these “other sensations” are found in the poems of 1819, Keats’s annus mirabilis: The Eve of St. Agnes and the great odes To a Nightingale, On a Grecian Urn, and To Autumn. These, with the Hyperion poems, represent the summit of Keats’s achievement, showing what has been called “the disciplining of sensation into symbolic meaning,” the complex themes being handled with a concrete richness of detail. His superb letters show the full range of the intelligence at work in his poetry.


John Keats

"The Eve of St. Agnes"


born October 31, 1795, London, England
died February 23, 1821, Rome, Papal States [Italy]

English Romantic lyric poet who devoted his short life to the perfection of a poetry marked by vivid imagery, great sensuous appeal, and an attempt to express a philosophy through classical legend.

The son of a livery-stable manager, John Keats received relatively little formal education. His father died in 1804, and his mother remarried almost immediately. Throughout his life Keats had close emotional ties to his sister, Fanny, and his two brothers, George and Tom. After the breakup of their mother’s second marriage, the Keats children lived with their widowed grandmother at Edmonton, Middlesex. John attended a school at Enfield, two miles away, that was run by John Clarke, whose son Charles Cowden Clarke did much to encourage Keats’s literary aspirations. At school Keats was noted as a pugnacious lad and was decidedly “not literary,” but in 1809 he began to read voraciously. After the death of the Keats children’s mother in 1810, their grandmother put the children’s affairs into the hands of a guardian, Richard Abbey. At Abbey’s instigation John Keats was apprenticed to a surgeon at Edmonton in 1811. He broke off his apprenticeship in 1814 and went to live in London, where he worked as a dresser, or junior house surgeon, at Guy’s and St. Thomas’ hospitals. His literary interests had crystallized by this time, and after 1817 he devoted himself entirely to poetry. From then until his early death, the story of his life is largely the story of the poetry he wrote.

Early works
Charles Cowden Clarke had introduced the young Keats to the poetry of Edmund Spenser and the Elizabethans, and these were his earliest models. His first mature poem is the sonnet On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer (1816), which was inspired by his excited reading of George Chapman’s classic 17th-century translation of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Clarke also introduced Keats to the journalist and contemporary poet Leigh Hunt, and Keats made friends in Hunt’s circle with the young poet John Hamilton Reynolds and with the painter Benjamin Haydon. Keats’s first book, Poems, was published in March 1817 and was written largely under “Huntian” influence. This is evident in the relaxed and rambling sentiments evinced and in Keats’s use of a loose form of the heroic couplet and light rhymes. The most interesting poem in this volume is Sleep and Poetry, the middle section of which contains a prophetic view of Keats’s own poetical progress. He sees himself as, at present, plunged in the delighted contemplation of sensuous natural beauty but realizes that he must leave this for an understanding of “the agony and strife of human hearts.” Otherwise the volume is remarkable only for some delicate natural observation and some obvious Spenserian influences.

In 1817 Keats left London briefly for a trip to the Isle of Wight and Canterbury and began work on Endymion, his first long poem. On his return to London he moved into lodgings in Hampstead with his brothers. Endymion appeared in 1818. This work is divided into four 1,000-line sections, and its verse is composed in loose rhymed couplets. The poem narrates a version of the Greek legend of the moon goddess Diana’s (or Cynthia’s) love for Endymion, a mortal shepherd, but Keats puts the emphasis on Endymion’s love for Diana rather than on hers for him. Keats transformed the tale to express the widespread Romantic theme of the attempt to find in actuality an ideal love that has been glimpsed heretofore only in imaginative longings. This theme is realized through fantastic and discursive adventures and through sensuous and luxuriant description. In his wanderings in quest of Diana, Endymion is guilty of an apparent infidelity to his visionary moon goddess and falls in love with an earthly maiden to whom he is attracted by human sympathy. But in the end Diana and the earthly maiden turn out to be one and the same. The poem equates Endymion’s original romantic ardour with a more universal quest for a self-destroying transcendence in which he might achieve a blissful personal unity with all creation. Keats, however, was dissatisfied with the poem as soon as it was finished.

Personal crisis
In the summer of 1818 Keats went on a walking tour in the Lake District (of northern England) and Scotland with his friend Charles Brown, and his exposure and overexertions on that trip brought on the first symptoms of the tuberculosis of which he was to die. On his return to London a brutal criticism of his early poems appeared in Blackwood’s Magazine, followed by a similar attack on Endymion in the Quarterly Review. Contrary to later assertions, Keats met these reviews with a calm assertion of his own talents, and he went on steadily writing poetry. But there were family troubles. Keats’s brother Tom had been suffering from tuberculosis for some time, and in the autumn of 1818 the poet nursed him through his last illness. About the same time, he met Fanny Brawne, a near neighbour in Hampstead, with whom he soon fell hopelessly and tragically in love. The relation with Fanny had a decisive effect on Keats’s development. She seems to have been an unexceptional young woman, of firm and generous character, and kindly disposed toward Keats. But he expected more, perhaps more than anyone could give, as is evident from his overwrought letters. Both his uncertain material situation and his failing health in any case made it impossible for their relationship to run a normal course. After Tom’s death (George had already gone to America), Keats moved into Wentworth Place with Brown; and in April 1819 Brawne and her mother became his next-door neighbours. About October 1819 Keats became engaged to Fanny.

The year 1819
Keats had written Isabella, an adaptation of the story of the Pot of Basil in Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, in 1817–18, soon after the completion of Endymion, and again he was dissatisfied with his work. It was during the year 1819 that all his greatest poetry was written—Lamia, The Eve of St. Agnes, the great odes (On Indolence, On a Grecian Urn, To Psyche, To a Nightingale, On Melancholy, and To Autumn), and the two versions of Hyperion. This poetry was composed under the strain of illness and his growing love for Brawne; and it is an astonishing body of work, marked by careful and considered development, technical, emotional, and intellectual. Isabella, which Keats himself called “a weak-sided poem,” contains some of the emotional weaknesses of Endymion; but The Eve of St. Agnes may be considered the perfect culmination of Keats’s earlier poetic style. Written in the first flush of his meeting with Brawne, it conveys an atmosphere of passion and excitement in its description of the elopement of a pair of youthful lovers. Written in Spenserian stanzas, the poem presents its theme with unrivaled delicacy but displays no marked intellectual advance over Keats’s earlier efforts. Lamia is another narrative poem and is a deliberate attempt to reform some of the technical weaknesses of Endymion. Keats makes use in this poem of a far tighter and more disciplined couplet, a firmer tone, and more controlled description.

The odes are Keats’s most distinctive poetic achievement. They are essentially lyrical meditations on some object or quality that prompts the poet to confront the conflicting impulses of his inner being and to reflect upon his own longings and their relations to the wider world around him. All the odes were composed between March and June 1819 except To Autumn, which is from September. The internal debates in the odes centre on the dichotomy of eternal, transcendent ideals and the transience and change of the physical world. This subject was forced upon Keats by the painful death of his brother and his own failing health, and the odes highlight his struggle for self-awareness and certainty through the liberating powers of his imagination. In the Ode to a Nightingale a visionary happiness in communing with the nightingale and its song is contrasted with the dead weight of human grief and sickness, and the transience of youth and beauty—strongly brought home to Keats in recent months by his brother’s death. The song of the nightingale is seen as a symbol of art that outlasts the individual’s mortal life. This theme is taken up more distinctly in the Ode on a Grecian Urn. The figures of the lovers depicted on the Greek urn become for him the symbol of an enduring but unconsummated passion that subtly belies the poem’s celebrated conclusion, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” The Ode on Melancholy recognizes that sadness is the inevitable concomitant of human passion and happiness; the transience of joy and desire is an inevitable aspect of the natural process. But the rich, slow movement of this and the other odes suggests an enjoyment of such intensity and depth that it makes the moment eternal. The Ode to Autumn is essentially the record of such an experience. Autumn is seen not as a time of decay but as a season of complete ripeness and fulfillment, a pause in time when everything has reached fruition, and the question of transience is hardly raised. These poems, with their rich and exquisitely sensuous detail and their meditative depth, are among the greatest achievements of Romantic poetry. With them should be mentioned the ballad La Belle Dame sans merci, of about the same time, which reveals the obverse and destructive side of the idyllic love seen in The Eve of St. Agnes.

Keats’s fragmentary poetic epic, Hyperion, exists in two versions, the second being a revision of the first with the addition of a long prologue in a new style, which makes it into a different poem. Hyperion was begun in the autumn of 1818, and all that there is of the first version was finished by April 1819. In September Keats wrote to Reynolds that he had given up Hyperion, but he appears to have continued working on the revised edition, The Fall of Hyperion, during the autumn of 1819. The two versions of Hyperion cover the period of Keats’s most intense experience, both poetical and personal. The poem is his last attempt, in the face of increasing illness and frustrated love, to come to terms with the conflict between absolute value and mortal decay that appears in other forms in his earlier poetry. The epic’s subject is the supersession of the earlier Greek gods, the Titans, by the later Olympian gods. Keats’s desire to write something unlike the luxuriant wandering of Endymion is clear, and he thus consciously attempts to emulate the epic loftiness of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. The poem opens with the Titans already fallen, like Milton’s fallen angels, and Hyperion, the sun god, is their one hope of further resistance, like Milton’s Satan. There are numerous Miltonisms of style, but these are subdued in the revised version, as Keats felt unhappy with them; and the basis of the writing is revealed after all as a more austere and disciplined version of Keats’s own manner. There is not enough of the narrative to make its ultimate direction clear; but it seems that the poem’s hero was to be the young Apollo, the god of poetry. So, as Endymion was an allegory of the fate of the lover of beauty in the world, Hyperion was perhaps to be an allegory of the poet as creator. Certainly this theme is taken up explicitly in the new prologue to the second version.

The second version of Hyperion is one of the most remarkable pieces of writing in Keats’s work; the blank verse has a new energy and rapidity, and the vision is presented with a spare grandeur, rising to its height in the epiphany of the goddess Moneta, who reveals to the dreamer the function of the poet in the world. It is his duty to separate himself from the mere dreamer and to share in the sufferings of humankind. The theme is not new to Keats—it appears in his earliest poetry—but it is here realized far more intensely. Yet with the threat of approaching death upon him, Keats could not advance any further in the direction that he foresaw as the right one, and the poem remains a fragment.

Last years
There is no more to record of Keats’s poetic career. The poems Isabella, Lamia, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Hyperion and the odes were all published in the famous 1820 volume, the one that gives the true measure of his powers. It appeared in July, by which time Keats was evidently doomed. He had been increasingly ill throughout 1819, and by the beginning of 1820 the evidence of tuberculosis was clear. He realized that it was his death warrant, and from that time sustained work became impossible. His friends Brown, the Hunts, and Brawne and her mother nursed him assiduously through the year. Percy Bysshe Shelley, hearing of his condition, wrote offering him hospitality in Pisa; but Keats did not accept. When Keats was ordered south for the winter, Joseph Severn undertook to accompany him to Rome. They sailed in September 1820, and from Naples they went to Rome, where in early December Keats had a relapse. Faithfully tended by Severn to the last, he died in Rome.

The prime authority both for Keats’s life and for his poetical development is to be found in his letters. This correspondence with his brothers and sister, with his close friends, and with Fanny Brawne gives the most intimate picture of the admirable integrity of Keats’s personal character and enables the reader to follow closely the development of his thought about poetry—his own and that of others.

His letters evince a profound thoughtfulness combined with a quick, sensitive, undidactic critical response. Spontaneous, informal, deeply thought, and deeply felt, these are among the best letters written by any English poet. Apart from their interest as a commentary on his work, they have the right to independent literary status.

It is impossible to say how much has been lost by Keats’s early death. His reputation grew steadily throughout the 19th century, though as late as the 1840s the Pre-Raphaelite painter William Holman could refer to him as “this little-known poet.” His influence is found everywhere in the decorative Romantic verse of the Victorian Age, from the early work of Alfred Tennyson onward. His general emotional temper and the minute delicacy of his natural observation were greatly admired by the Pre-Raphaelites, who both echoed his poetry in their own and illustrated it in their paintings. Keats’s 19th-century followers on the whole valued the more superficial aspects of his work; and it has been largely left for the 20th century to realize the full range of his technical and intellectual achievement.

Algernon Charles Swinburne’s biography of John Keats appeared in the ninth edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica (see Britannica Classic: John Keats).

Graham Goulder Hough

George Gordon, Lord Byron
, who differed from Shelley and Keats in themes and manner, was at one with them in reflecting their shift toward “Mediterranean” topics. Having thrown down the gauntlet in his early poem English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809), in which he directed particular scorn at poets of sensibility and declared his own allegiance to Milton, Dryden, and Pope, he developed a poetry of dash and flair, in many cases with a striking hero. His two longest poems, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812–18) and Don Juan (1819–24), his masterpiece, provided alternative personae for himself, the one a bitter and melancholy exile among the historic sites of Europe, the other a picaresque adventurer enjoying a series of amorous adventures. The gloomy and misanthropic vein was further mined in dramatic poems such as Manfred (1817) and Cain (1821), which helped to secure his reputation in Europe, but he is now remembered best for witty, ironic, and less portentous writings, such as Beppo (1818), in which he first used the ottava rima form. The easy, nonchalant, biting style developed there became a formidable device in Don Juan and in his satire on Southey, The Vision of Judgment (1822).


George Gordon, Lord Byron

"Don Juan"




born January 22, 1788, London, England
died April 19, 1824, Missolonghi, Greece

British Romantic poet and satirist whose poetry and personality captured the imagination of Europe. Renowned as the “gloomy egoist” of his autobiographical poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812–18) in the 19th century, he is now more generally esteemed for the satiric realism of Don Juan (1819–24).

 Life and career
Byron was the son of the handsome and profligate Captain John “Mad Jack” Byron and his second wife, Catherine Gordon, a Scots heiress. After her husband had squandered most of her fortune, Mrs. Byron took her infant son to Aberdeen, Scotland, where they lived in lodgings on a meagre income; the captain died in France in 1791. George Gordon Byron had been born with a clubfoot and early developed an extreme sensitivity to his lameness. In 1798, at age 10, he unexpectedly inherited the title and estates of his great-uncle William, the 5th Baron Byron. His mother proudly took him to England, where the boy fell in love with the ghostly halls and spacious ruins of Newstead Abbey, which had been presented to the Byrons by Henry VIII. After living at Newstead for a while, Byron was sent to school in London, and in 1801 he went to Harrow, one of England’s most prestigious schools. In 1803 he fell in love with his distant cousin, Mary Chaworth, who was older and already engaged, and when she rejected him she became the symbol for Byron of idealized and unattainable love. He probably met Augusta Byron, his half sister from his father’s first marriage, that same year.

In 1805 Byron entered Trinity College, Cambridge, where he piled up debts at an alarming rate and indulged in the conventional vices of undergraduates there. The signs of his incipient sexual ambivalence became more pronounced in what he later described as “a violent, though pure, love and passion” for a young chorister, John Edleston. Despite Byron’s strong attachment to boys, often idealized as in the case of Edleston, his attachment to women throughout his life is sufficient indication of the strength of his heterosexual drive. In 1806 Byron had his early poems privately printed in a volume entitled Fugitive Pieces, and that same year he formed at Trinity what was to be a close, lifelong friendship with John Cam Hobhouse, who stirred his interest in liberal Whiggism.

Byron’s first published volume of poetry, Hours of Idleness, appeared in 1807. A sarcastic critique of the book in The Edinburgh Review provoked his retaliation in 1809 with a couplet satire, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, in which he attacked the contemporary literary scene. This work gained him his first recognition.

On reaching his majority in 1809, Byron took his seat in the House of Lords, and then embarked with Hobhouse on a grand tour. They sailed to Lisbon, crossed Spain, and proceeded by Gibraltar and Malta to Greece, where they ventured inland to Ioánnina and to Tepelene in Albania. In Greece Byron began Childe Harolde’s Pilgrimage, which he continued in Athens. In March 1810 he sailed with Hobhouse for Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey), visited the site of Troy, and swam the Hellespont (present-day Dardanelles) in imitation of Leander. Byron’s sojourn in Greece made a lasting impression on him. The Greeks’ free and open frankness contrasted strongly with English reserve and hypocrisy and served to broaden his views of men and manners. He delighted in the sunshine and the moral tolerance of the people.

Byron arrived back in London in July 1811, and his mother died before he could reach her at Newstead. In February 1812 he made his first speech in the House of Lords, a humanitarian plea opposing harsh Tory measures against riotous Nottingham weavers. At the beginning of March, the first two cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage were published by John Murray, and Byron “woke to find himself famous.” The poem describes the travels and reflections of a young man who, disillusioned with a life of pleasure and revelry, looks for distraction in foreign lands. Besides furnishing a travelogue of Byron’s own wanderings through the Mediterranean, the first two cantos express the melancholy and disillusionment felt by a generation weary of the wars of the post-Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras. In the poem Byron reflects upon the vanity of ambition, the transitory nature of pleasure, and the futility of the search for perfection in the course of a “pilgrimage” through Portugal, Spain, Albania, and Greece. In the wake of Childe Harold’s enormous popularity, Byron was lionized in Whig society. The handsome poet was swept into a liaison with the passionate and eccentric Lady Caroline Lamb, and the scandal of an elopement was barely prevented by his friend Hobhouse. She was succeeded as his lover by Lady Oxford, who encouraged Byron’s radicalism.

During the summer of 1813, Byron apparently entered into intimate relations with his half sister Augusta, now married to Colonel George Leigh. He then carried on a flirtation with Lady Frances Webster as a diversion from this dangerous liaison. The agitations of these two love affairs and the sense of mingled guilt and exultation they aroused in Byron are reflected in the series of gloomy and remorseful Oriental verse tales he wrote at this time: The Giaour (1813); The Bride of Abydos (1813); The Corsair (1814), which sold 10,000 copies on the day of publication; and Lara (1814).

Seeking to escape his love affairs in marriage, Byron proposed in September 1814 to Anne Isabella (Annabella) Milbanke. The marriage took place in January 1815, and Lady Byron gave birth to a daughter, Augusta Ada, in December 1815. From the start the marriage was doomed by the gulf between Byron and his unimaginative and humorless wife; and in January 1816 Annabella left Byron to live with her parents, amid swirling rumours centring on his relations with Augusta Leigh and his bisexuality. The couple obtained a legal separation. Wounded by the general moral indignation directed at him, Byron went abroad in April 1816, never to return to England.

Byron sailed up the Rhine River into Switzerland and settled at Geneva, near Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Godwin, who had eloped, and Godwin’s stepdaughter by a second marriage, Claire Clairmont, with whom Byron had begun an affair in England. In Geneva he wrote the third canto of Childe Harold (1816), which follows Harold from Belgium up the Rhine River to Switzerland. It memorably evokes the historical associations of each place Harold visits, giving pictures of the Battle of Waterloo (whose site Byron visited), of Napoleon and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and of the Swiss mountains and lakes, in verse that expresses both the most aspiring and most melancholy moods. A visit to the Bernese Oberland provided the scenery for the Faustian poetic drama Manfred (1817), whose protagonist reflects Byron’s own brooding sense of guilt and the wider frustrations of the Romantic spirit doomed by the reflection that man is “half dust, half deity, alike unfit to sink or soar.”

At the end of the summer the Shelley party left for England, where Claire gave birth to Byron’s illegitimate daughter Allegra in January 1817. In October Byron and Hobhouse departed for Italy. They stopped in Venice, where Byron enjoyed the relaxed customs and morals of the Italians and carried on a love affair with Marianna Segati, his landlord’s wife. In May he joined Hobhouse in Rome, gathering impressions that he recorded in a fourth canto of Childe Harold (1818). He also wrote Beppo, a poem in ottava rima that satirically contrasts Italian with English manners in the story of a Venetian menage-à-trois. Back in Venice, Margarita Cogni, a baker’s wife, replaced Segati as his mistress, and his descriptions of the vagaries of this “gentle tigress” are among the most entertaining passages in his letters describing life in Italy. The sale of Newstead Abbey in the autumn of 1818 for £94,500 cleared Byron of his debts, which had risen to £34,000, and left him with a generous income.

In the light, mock-heroic style of Beppo Byron found the form in which he would write his greatest poem, Don Juan, a satire in the form of a picaresque verse tale. The first two cantos of Don Juan were begun in 1818 and published in July 1819. Byron transformed the legendary libertine Don Juan into an unsophisticated, innocent young man who, though he delightedly succumbs to the beautiful women who pursue him, remains a rational norm against which to view the absurdities and irrationalities of the world. Upon being sent abroad by his mother from his native Sevilla (Seville), Juan survives a shipwreck en route and is cast up on a Greek island, whence he is sold into slavery in Constantinople. He escapes to the Russian army, participates gallantly in the Russians’ siege of Ismail, and is sent to St. Petersburg, where he wins the favour of the empress Catherine the Great and is sent by her on a diplomatic mission to England. The poem’s story, however, remains merely a peg on which Byron could hang a witty and satirical social commentary. His most consistent targets are, first, the hypocrisy and cant underlying various social and sexual conventions, and, second, the vain ambitions and pretenses of poets, lovers, generals, rulers, and humanity in general. Don Juan remains unfinished; Byron completed 16 cantos and had begun the 17th before his own illness and death. In Don Juan he was able to free himself from the excessive melancholy of Childe Harold and reveal other sides of his character and personality—his satiric wit and his unique view of the comic rather than the tragic discrepancy between reality and appearance.

Shelley and other visitors in 1818 found Byron grown fat, with hair long and turning gray, looking older than his years, and sunk in sexual promiscuity. But a chance meeting with Countess Teresa Gamba Guiccioli, who was only 19 years old and married to a man nearly three times her age, reenergized Byron and changed the course of his life. Byron followed her to Ravenna, and she later accompanied him back to Venice. Byron returned to Ravenna in January 1820 as Teresa’s cavalier servente (gentleman-in-waiting) and won the friendship of her father and brother, Counts Ruggero and Pietro Gamba, who initiated him into the secret society of the Carbonari and its revolutionary aims to free Italy from Austrian rule. In Ravenna Byron wrote The Prophecy of Dante; cantos III, IV, and V of Don Juan; the poetic dramas Marino Faliero, Sardanapalus, The Two Foscari, and Cain (all published in 1821); and a satire on the poet Robert Southey, The Vision of Judgment, which contains a devastating parody of that poet laureate’s fulsome eulogy of King George III.

Byron arrived in Pisa in November 1821, having followed Teresa and the Counts Gamba there after the latter had been expelled from Ravenna for taking part in an abortive uprising. He left his daughter Allegra, who had been sent to him by her mother, to be educated in a convent near Ravenna, where she died the following April. In Pisa Byron again became associated with Shelley, and in early summer of 1822 Byron went to Leghorn (Livorno), where he rented a villa not far from the sea. There in July the poet and essayist Leigh Hunt arrived from England to help Shelley and Byron edit a radical journal, The Liberal. Byron returned to Pisa and housed Hunt and his family in his villa. Despite the drowning of Shelley on July 8, the periodical went forward, and its first number contained The Vision of Judgment. At the end of September Byron moved to Genoa, where Teresa’s family had found asylum.

Byron’s interest in the periodical gradually waned, but he continued to support Hunt and to give manuscripts to The Liberal. After a quarrel with his publisher, John Murray, Byron gave all his later work, including cantos VI to XVI of Don Juan (1823–24), to Leigh Hunt’s brother John, publisher of The Liberal.

By this time Byron was in search of new adventure. In April 1823 he agreed to act as agent of the London Committee, which had been formed to aid the Greeks in their struggle for independence from the Turks. In July 1823 Byron left Genoa for Cephalonia. He sent £4,000 of his own money to prepare the Greek fleet for sea service and then sailed for Missolonghi on December 29 to join Prince Aléxandros Mavrokordátos, leader of the forces in western Greece.

Byron made efforts to unite the various Greek factions and took personal command of a brigade of Souliot soldiers, reputedly the bravest of the Greeks. But a serious illness in February 1824 weakened him, and in April he contracted the fever from which he died at Missolonghi on April 19. Deeply mourned, he became a symbol of disinterested patriotism and a Greek national hero. His body was brought back to England and, refused burial in Westminster Abbey, was placed in the family vault near Newstead. Ironically, 145 years after his death, a memorial to Byron was finally placed on the floor of the Abbey.

Lord Byron’s writings are more patently autobiographic than even those of his fellow self-revealing Romantics. Upon close examination, however, the paradox of his complex character can be resolved into understandable elements. Byron early became aware of reality’s imperfections, but the skepticism and cynicism bred of his disillusionment coexisted with a lifelong propensity to seek ideal perfection in all of life’s experiences. Consequently, he alternated between deep-seated melancholy and humorous mockery in his reaction to the disparity between real life and his unattainable ideals. The melancholy of Childe Harold and the satiric realism of Don Juan are thus two sides of the same coin: the former runs the gamut of the moods of Romantic despair in reaction to life’s imperfections, while the latter exhibits the humorous irony attending the unmasking of the hypocritical facade of reality.

Byron was initially diverted from his satiric-realistic bent by the success of Childe Harold. He followed this up with the Oriental tales, which reflected the gloomy moods of self-analysis and disenchantment of his years of fame. In Manfred and the third and fourth cantos of Childe Harold he projected the brooding remorse and despair that followed the debacle of his ambitions and love affairs in England. But gradually the relaxed and freer life in Italy opened up again the satiric vein, and he found his forte in the mock-heroic style of Italian verse satire. The ottava rima form, which Byron used in Beppo and Don Juan, was easily adaptable to the digressive commentary, and its final couplet was ideally suited to the deflation of sentimental pretensions:

Alas! for Juan and Haidée! they were

So loving and so lovely—till then never,

Excepting our first parents, such a pair

Had run the risk of being damn’d for ever;

And Haidée, being devout as well as fair

Had, doubtless, heard about the Stygian river,

And hell and purgatory—but forgot

Just in the very crisis she should not.

Byron’s plays are not as highly regarded as his poetry. He provided Manfred, Cain, and the historical dramas with characters whose exalted rhetoric is replete with Byronic philosophy and self-confession, but these plays are truly successful only insofar as their protagonists reflect aspects of Byron’s own personality.

Byron was a superb letter writer, conversational, witty, and relaxed, and the 20th-century publication of many previously unknown letters has further enhanced his literary reputation. Whether dealing with love or poetry, he cuts through to the heart of the matter with admirable incisiveness, and his apt and amusing turns of phrase make even his business letters fascinating.

Byron showed only that facet of his many-sided nature that was most congenial to each of his friends. To Hobhouse he was the facetious companion, humorous, cynical, and realistic, while to Edleston, and to most women, he could be tender, melancholy, and idealistic. But this weakness was also Byron’s strength. His chameleon-like character was engendered not by hypocrisy but by sympathy and adaptability, for the side he showed was a real if only partial revelation of his true self. And this mobility of character permitted him to savour and to record the mood and thought of the moment with a sensitivity denied to those tied to the conventions of consistency.

Leslie A. Marchand

Lord Byron on his deathbed as depicted by Joseph-Denis Odevaere c.1826


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.


John Clare

born July 13, 1793, Helpston, near Peterborough, Northamptonshire, Eng.
died May 20, 1864, Northampton, Northamptonshire

English peasant poet of the Romantic school.

Clare was the son of a labourer and began work on local farms at the age of seven. Though he had limited access to books, his poetic gift, which revealed itself early, was nourished by his parents’ store of folk ballads. Clare was an energetic autodidact, and his first verses were much influenced by the Scottish poet James Thomson. Early disappointment in love—for Mary Joyce, the daughter of a prosperous farmer—made a lasting impression on him.

In 1820 his first book, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, was published and created a stir. Clare visited London, where he enjoyed a brief season of celebrity in fashionable circles. He made some lasting friends, among them Charles Lamb, and admirers raised an annuity for him. That same year he married Martha Turner, the daughter of a neighbouring farmer, the “Patty of the Vale” of his poems. From then on he encountered increasing misfortune. His second volume of poems, The Village Minstrel (1821), attracted little attention. His third, The Shepherd’s Calendar; with Village Stories, and Other Poems (1827), though containing better poetry, met with the same fate. His annuity was not enough to support his family of seven children and his dependent father, so he supplemented his income as a field labourer and tenant farmer. Poverty and drink took their toll on his health. His last book, The Rural Muse (1835), though praised by critics, again sold poorly; the fashion for peasant poets had passed. Clare began to suffer from fears and delusions. In 1837, through the agency of his publisher, he was placed in a private asylum at High Beech, Epping, where he remained for four years. Improved in health and driven by homesickness, he escaped in July 1841. He walked the 80 miles to Northborough, penniless, eating grass by the roadside to stay his hunger. He left a moving account in prose of that journey, addressed to his imaginary wife “Mary Clare.” At the end of 1841 he was certified insane. He spent the final 23 years of his life at St. Andrew’s Asylum, Northampton, writing, with strangely unquenched lyric impulse, some of his best poetry.

His rediscovery in the 20th century was begun by Arthur Symons’s selection of 1908, a process continued by Edward Thomas and Edmund Blunden at a date when World War I had revived the earlier enthusiasm for a poetry of directly apprehended rustic experience.



Thomas Lovell Beddoes

born June 30, 1803, Clifton, Somerset, Eng.
died Jan. 26, 1849, Basel, Switz.

poet best known for his haunting dramatic poem Death’s Jest-Book; or, The Fool’s Tragedy.

The son of a distinguished scientist, Beddoes seems early to have acquired, from his father’s dissections and speculations on anatomy and the soul, an obsession with death that was to dominate his life and work. He was educated at Charterhouse, where his passion for the drama became evident and where he nourished his imagination on 18th-century Gothic romances. In 1820 he went to Oxford University, where he wrote his first considerable work, The Bride’s Tragedy (1822), based on the story of a murder committed by an undergraduate. In 1825 he went to Göttingen, Ger., to study anatomy and medicine. There he continued work on Death’s Jest-Book. Friends who read the first version advised revision, and Beddoes’ acceptance of their advice hindered his poetic development: for the rest of his life he was unable to escape from the work or to complete it, and it was eventually published posthumously in 1850.

In Death’s Jest-Book itself, which Beddoes described as an example of “the florid Gothic,” he aimed to use Gothic material to discuss the problems of mortality and immortality.

After trouble with the university authorities, Beddoes left Göttingen, moved to Würzburg (where he received his M.D.), and there involved himself in radical politics. More trouble caused him to leave Germany for Zürich, where his interest in writing English verse waned. In 1840 he had to flee from Switzerland, probably for political reasons, and he never afterward settled in one place for very long. He visited England for the last time in 1846–47. Two years later he committed suicide.



George Darley

born 1795, Dublin, Ire.
died Nov. 23, 1846, London, Eng.

poet and critic little esteemed by his contemporaries but praised by 20th-century writers for his intense evocation, in his unfinished lyrical epic Nepenthe (1835), of a symbolic dreamworld. Long regarded as unreadable, this epic came to be admired in the 20th century for its dream imagery, use of symbolism to reveal inner consciousness, and tumultuous metrical organization.

Darley became a free-lance writer in London in 1821. A perceptive critic, he wrote for the literary London Magazine and other journals, meanwhile publishing a succession of failures. In his own day, Darley’s greatest successes were his mathematical textbooks. Combined with his failure as a creative writer, an incurable stammer sapped his self-confidence, but he kept in touch with his many friends by letter writing, at which he excelled.



Thomas Hood


born May 23, 1799, London
died May 3, 1845, London

English poet, journalist, and humorist whose humanitarian verses, such as “The Song of the Shirt” (1843), served as models for a whole school of social-protest poets, not only in Britain and the United States but in Germany and Russia, where he was widely translated. He also is notable as a writer of comic verse, having originated several durable forms for that genre.

The son of a London bookseller, Hood became a “sort of sub-editor” of the London Magazine (1821–23) during its heyday, when its circle of brilliant contributors included Charles Lamb, Thomas De Quincey, and William Hazlitt. He later went on to edit The Gem, the Comic Annual, and Hood’s Magazine. In 1827 he published a volume of poems strongly influenced by Keats, The Plea of the Midsummer Fairies. Several of the poems in it suggest that Hood might possibly have become a poet of the first rank, and it is known for the touching lyric I Remember, I Remember. However, the success of his amusing Odes and Addresses to Great People (1825), written in collaboration with his brother-in-law, J.H. Reynolds, virtually obliged him to concentrate on humorous writing for the rest of his life. His most considerable comic poem, Miss Kilmansegg and Her Precious Leg, first appeared in the New Monthly Magazine from October 1840 to February 1841. There is something sinister about Hood’s sense of humour, a trait that was to reappear in the “black comedy” of the latter 20th century. His pages are thronged with comic mourners and undertakers, and a corpse is always good for a laugh. He was famous for his punning, which appears at times to be almost a reflex action, serving as a defense against painful emotion. Of his later poems, “The Song of the Shirt,” “The Lay of the Labourer” (1844), and “The Bridge of Sighs” (1844) are moving protests against social evils of the day—sweated labour, unemployment, and the double sexual standard.



Felicia Hemans

born Sept. 25, 1793, Liverpool
died May 16, 1835, Dublin

English poet who owed the immense popularity of her poems to a talent for treating Romantic themes—nature, the picturesque, childhood innocence, travels abroad, liberty, the heroic—with an easy and engaging fluency. Poems (1808), written when she was between 8 and 13, was the first of a series of 24 volumes of verse; from 1816 to 1834 one or more appeared almost every year.

At 19 she married Capt. Alfred Hemans, but they separated seven years later; her prolific output helped to support her five children. She became a literary celebrity, admired by such famous older writers as William Wordsworth and Sir Walter Scott. Often diffuse and sentimental, she has been chiefly remembered for her shorter pieces, notably “The Landing of the Pilgrim Fathers,” “Dirge,” “Casabianca” (“The boy stood on the burning deck”), and The Homes of England (“The stately homes of England”), but was perhaps at her best in her sequence of poems on female experience, Records of Women (1828).



The novel: from the Gothic novel to Austen and Scott


Gothic novel

European Romantic, pseudomedieval fiction having a prevailing atmosphere of mystery and terror. Its heyday was the 1790s, but it underwent frequent revivals in subsequent centuries.

Called Gothic because its imaginative impulse was drawn from medieval buildings and ruins, such novels commonly used such settings as castles or monasteries equipped with subterranean passages, dark battlements, hidden panels, and trapdoors. The vogue was initiated in England by Horace Walpole’s immensely successful Castle of Otranto (1765). His most respectable follower was Ann Radcliffe, whose Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and Italian (1797) are among the best examples of the genre. A more sensational type of Gothic romance exploiting horror and violence flourished in Germany and was introduced to England by Matthew Gregory Lewis with The Monk (1796). Other landmarks of Gothic fiction are William Beckford’s Oriental romance Vathek (1786) and Charles Robert Maturin’s story of an Irish Faust, Melmoth the Wanderer (1820). The classic horror stories Frankenstein (1818), by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, and Dracula (1897), by Bram Stoker, are in the Gothic tradition but introduce the existential nature of humankind as its definitive mystery and terror.

Easy targets for satire, the early Gothic romances died of their own extravagances of plot, but Gothic atmospheric machinery continued to haunt the fiction of such major writers as the Brontë sisters, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and even Dickens in Bleak House and Great Expectations. In the second half of the 20th century, the term was applied to paperback romances having the same kind of themes and trappings similar to the originals.

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.


Henry Brooke

born c. 1703, County Cavan, Ire.
died Oct. 10, 1783, Dublin

Irish novelist and dramatist, best known for The Fool of Quality, one of the outstanding English examples of the novel of sensibility—a novel in which the characters demonstrate a heightened emotional response to events around them. After attending Trinity College, Dublin, Brooke went to London in 1724 to study law. There he became friendly with Alexander Pope; he had already met Jonathan Swift in Ireland.

In 1739 Brooke wrote a celebrated drama, Gustavus Vasa, the Deliverer of His Country, performance of which was forbidden because of the supposition that Sir Robert Walpole, the prime minister, was depicted in the part of the villain. Brooke returned to Ireland, and the play was printed and later performed in Dublin as The Patriot. Brooke’s own patriotic sentiments led to his involvement in the establishment of the influential newspaper The Freeman’s Journal in 1763.

Brooke’s novel, The Fool of Quality (1765–70), is a rambling and digressive narrative centred on the education of an ideal nobleman. Its moral message recommended it to John Wesley, a founder of Methodism, who edited an abridged version in 1780, and, later, to the clergyman–author Charles Kingsley, who published it with an enthusiastic biographical preface in 1859. Brooke’s daughter Charlotte continued the literary tradition in the family, publishing Reliques of Irish Poetry (1789), the first major collection of traditional poems translated from the Irish language.



Charles Lamb

born Feb. 10, 1775, London, Eng.
died Dec. 27, 1834, Edmonton, Middlesex

English essayist and critic, best known for his Essays of Elia (1823–33).

Lamb went to school at Christ’s Hospital, where he studied until 1789. He was a near contemporary there of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and of Leigh Hunt. In 1792 Lamb found employment as a clerk at East India House (the headquarters of the East India Company), remaining there until retirement in 1825. In 1796 Lamb’s sister, Mary, in a fit of madness (which was to prove recurrent) killed their mother. Lamb reacted with courage and loyalty, taking on himself the burden of looking after Mary.

Lamb’s first appearances in print were as a poet, with contributions to collections by Coleridge (1796) and by Charles Lloyd (1798). A Tale of Rosamund Gray, a prose romance, appeared in 1798, and in 1802 he published John Woodvil, a poetic tragedy. “The Old Familiar Faces” (1789) remains his best-known poem, although “On an Infant Dying As Soon As It Was Born” (1828) is his finest poetic achievement.

In 1807 Lamb and his sister published Tales from Shakespear, a retelling of the plays for children, and in 1809 they published Mrs. Leicester’s School, a collection of stories supposedly told by pupils of a school in Hertfordshire. In 1808 Charles published a children’s version of the Odyssey, called The Adventures of Ulysses.

In 1808 Lamb also published Specimens of English Dramatic Poets Who Lived About the Time of Shakespear, a selection of scenes from Elizabethan dramas; it had a considerable influence on the style of 19th-century English verse. Lamb also contributed critical papers on Shakespeare and on William Hogarth to Hunt’s Reflector. Lamb’s criticism often appears in the form of marginalia, reactions, and responses: brief comments, delicately phrased, but hardly ever argued through.

Lamb’s greatest achievements were his remarkable letters and the essays that he wrote under the pseudonym Elia for London Magazine, which was founded in 1820. His style is highly personal and mannered, its function being to “create” and delineate the persona of Elia, and the writing, though sometimes simple, is never plain. The essays conjure up, with humour and sometimes with pathos, old acquaintances; they also recall scenes from childhood and from later life, and they indulge the author’s sense of playfulness and fancy. Beneath their whimsical surface, Lamb’s essays are as much an expression of the Romantic movement as the verse of Coleridge and William Wordsworth. Elia’s love of urban and suburban subject matter, however, points ahead, toward the work of Charles Dickens. The essay On the Artificial Comedy of the Last Century (1822) both helped to revive interest in Restoration comedy and anticipated the assumptions of the Aesthetic movement of the late 19th century. Lamb’s first Elia essays were published separately in 1823; a second series appeared, as The Last Essays of Elia, in 1833.




Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

"Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus"

British author
née Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin
born Aug. 30, 1797, London, Eng.
died Feb. 1, 1851, London

English Romantic novelist best known as the author of Frankenstein.

The only daughter of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, she met the young poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1812 and eloped with him to France in July 1814. The couple were married in 1816, after Shelley’s first wife had committed suicide. After her husband’s death in 1822, she returned to England and devoted herself to publicizing Shelley’s writings and to educating their only surviving child, Percy Florence Shelley. She published her late husband’s Posthumous Poems (1824); she also edited his Poetical Works (1839), with long and invaluable notes, and his prose works. Her Journal is a rich source of Shelley biography, and her letters are an indispensable adjunct.

Mary Shelley’s best-known book is Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818, revised 1831), a text that is part Gothic novel and part philosophical novel; it is also often considered an early example of science fiction. It narrates the dreadful consequences that arise after a scientist has artificially created a human being. (The man-made monster in this novel inspired a similar creature in numerous American horror films.) She wrote several other novels, including Valperga (1823), The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830), Lodore (1835), and Falkner (1837); The Last Man (1826), an account of the future destruction of the human race by a plague, is often ranked as her best work. Her travel book History of a Six Weeks’ Tour (1817) recounts the continental tour she and Shelley took in 1814 following their elopement and then recounts their summer near Geneva in 1816.

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.


James Hogg


baptized Dec. 9, 1770, Ettrick, Selkirkshire, Scot.
died Nov. 21, 1835, Altrive, Yarrow, Selkirkshire

Scottish poet, known as the “Ettrick Shepherd,” who enjoyed a vogue during the ballad revival that accompanied the Romantic movement.

Hogg spent most of his youth and early manhood as a shepherd and was almost entirely self-educated. His talent was discovered early by Sir Walter Scott, to whom he supplied material for Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. Before publishing The Queen’s Wake (1813), a book of poems concerning Mary Stuart, Hogg went in 1810 to Edinburgh, where he met Lord Byron, Robert Southey, and William Wordsworth. Of Hogg’s prolific poetic output, only a few narrative poems and ballads included in the Wake are of lasting value. Among them are “Kilmeny” and “The Witch of Fife.” Probably a more important work is Hogg’s novel The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824), a macabre tale of a psychopath that anticipates the modern psychological thriller.



Thomas Holcroft

born Dec. 10, 1745, London, Eng.
died March 23, 1809, London

English dramatist, novelist, journalist, and actor.

The son of a peddler, Holcroft worked as a stableboy, cobbler, and teacher before he was able to make his living as a writer. He is remembered for his melodrama The Road to Ruin (performed 1792, often revived); his translation of Beaumarchais’s play Le Mariage de Figaro (Paris, 1784) under the title The Follies of a Day (performed 1784), in which Holcroft played the part of Figaro; and his autobiography, edited in 1816 by his friend William Hazlitt. This autobiography tells the story of a life of struggle against adversity and reveals the gentleness and humour that won him the friendship of such leading early Romantic writers as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, and William Godwin.



Mary Wollstonecraft

born April 27, 1759, London, England
died September 10, 1797, London

English writer and passionate advocate of educational and social equality for women.

The daughter of a farmer, Wollstonecraft taught school and worked as a governess, experiences that inspired her views in Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787). In 1788 she began working as a translator for the London publisher James Johnson, who published several of her works, including the novel Mary: A Fiction (1788). Her mature work on woman’s place in society is A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), which calls for women and men to be educated equally.

In 1792 Wollstonecraft left England to observe the French Revolution in Paris, where she lived with an American, Captain Gilbert Imlay. In the spring of 1794 she gave birth to a daughter, Fanny. The following year, distraught over the breakdown of her relationship with Imlay, she attempted suicide.

Wollstonecraft returned to London to work again for Johnson and joined the influential radical group that gathered at his home and that included William Godwin, Thomas Paine, Thomas Holcroft, William Blake, and, after 1793, William Wordsworth. In 1796 she began a liaison with Godwin, and on March 29, 1797, Mary being pregnant, they were married. The marriage was happy but brief; Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin died 11 days after the birth of her second daughter, Mary.

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is one of the trailblazing works of feminism. Published in 1792, Wollstonecraft’s work argued that the educational system of her time deliberately trained women to be frivolous and incapable. She posited that an educational system that allowed girls the same advantages as boys would result in women who would be not only exceptional wives and mothers but also capable workers in many professions. Other early feminists had made similar pleas for improved education for women, but Wollstonecraft’s work was unique in suggesting that the betterment of women’s status be effected through such political change as the radical reform of national educational systems. Such change, she concluded, would benefit all society.

The publication of Vindication caused considerable controversy but failed to bring about any immediate reforms. From the 1840s, however, members of the incipient American and European women’s movements resurrected some of the book’s principles. It was a particular influence on American women’s rights pioneers such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Margaret Fuller.

The life of Mary Wollstonecraft has been the subject of several biographies, beginning with her husband’s Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1798, reissued 2001, in an edition edited by Pamela Clemit and Gina Luria Walker). Those written in the 19th century tended to emphasize the scandalous aspects of her life and not her work. With the renewed interest in women’s rights in the later 20th century, she again became the subject of several books. The Collected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft, assembled by Janet Todd, was published in 2003.




Elizabeth Inchbald

Elizabeth Inchbald (née Simpson) (1753–1821) was an English novelist, actress, and dramatist.

Daughter of John Simpson , head of a Roman Catholic Suffolk farming family. Elizabeth was educated with her sisters at home. At the age of 19 she went to London in order to act. Young and alone, she was apparently the victim of sexual harassment. In 1772 she agreed to marry the actor Joseph Inchbald (1735–1779), possibly at least partially for protection. The marriage was reported to have had difficulties. For four years the couple toured Scotland with West Digges's theatre company, a demanding life. In 1776 they moved to Liverpool and Inchbald met actors Sarah Siddons and her brother John Philip Kemble, both of whom became important friends. The Inchbalds subsequently moved to Canterbury and Yorkshire. After Joseph Inchbald's death in 1779, Inchbald continued to act for several years, in Dublin, London, and elsewhere. Her acting career, while only moderately successful, spanned seventeen years and she appeared in many classical roles, as well as in new plays such as Hannah Cowley's The Belle's Strategem.

Between 1784 and 1805 she had nineteen of her comedies, sentimental dramas, and farces (many of which were translations from the French) performed at London theatres. Eighteen of her plays were published, though she wrote several more; the exact number is in dispute though most recent commentators claim between 21 and 23. Her two novels have been frequently reprinted. She also did considerable editorial and critical work. A four-volume autobiography was destroyed before her death upon the advice of her confessor, but she left some of her diaries. The latter are currently held at the Folger Shakespeare Library and an edition was recently published.

Her play Lovers' Vows (1798) was featured by Jane Austen in her novel Mansfield Park.

A political radical and friend of William Godwin and Thomas Holcroft, her political beliefs can more easily be found in her novels than in her plays due to the constrictive environment of the patent theatres of Georgian London. "Inchbald's life was marked by tensions between, on the one hand, political radicalism, a passionate nature evidently attracted to a number of her admirers, and a love of independence, and on the other hand, a desire for social respectability and a strong sense of the emotional attraction of authority figures".

In recent decades Inchbald has been the subject of increasing critical interest, particularly among scholars interested in women's writing.



Maria Edgeworth

born Jan. 1, 1767, Blackbourton, Oxfordshire, Eng.
died May 22, 1849, Edgeworthstown, Ire.

Anglo-Irish writer, known for her children’s stories and for her novels of Irish life.

She lived in England until 1782, when the family went to Edgeworthstown, County Longford, in midwestern Ireland, where Maria, then 15 and the eldest daughter, assisted her father in managing his estate. In this way she acquired the knowledge of rural economy and of the Irish peasantry that was to be the backbone of her novels. Domestic life at Edgeworthstown was busy and happy. Encouraged by her father, Maria began her writing in the common sitting room, where the 21 other children in the family provided material and audience for her stories. She published them in 1796 as The Parent’s Assistant. Even the intrusive moralizing, attributed to her father’s editing, does not wholly suppress their vitality, and the children who appear in them, especially the impetuous Rosamond, are the first real children in English literature since Shakespeare.

Her first novel, Castle Rackrent (1800), written without her father’s interference, reveals her gift for social observation, character sketch, and authentic dialogue and is free from lengthy lecturing. It established the genre of the “regional novel,” and its influence was enormous; Sir Walter Scott acknowledged his debt to Edgeworth in writing Waverley. Her next work, Belinda (1801), a society novel unfortunately marred by her father’s insistence on a happy ending, was particularly admired by Jane Austen.

Edgeworth never married. She had a wide acquaintance in literary and scientific circles. Between 1809 and 1812 she published her Tales of Fashionable Life in six volumes. They include one of her best novels, The Absentee, which focused attention on a great contemporary abuse in Irish society: absentee English landowning.

Before her father’s death in 1817 she published three more novels, two of them, Patronage (1814) and Ormond (1817), of considerable power. After 1817 she wrote less. She completed her father’s Memoirs (1820) and devoted herself to the estate. She enjoyed a European reputation and exchanged cordial visits with Scott. Her last years were saddened by the Irish famine of 1846, during which she worked for the relief of stricken peasants.

The feminist movement of the 1960s led to the reprinting of her Moral Tales for Young People, 5 vol. (1801) and Letters for Literary Ladies (1795) in the 1970s. Her novels continued to be regularly reprinted in the 20th century.




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.



Jane Austen

"Pride and Prejudice"   PART I, PART II

English novelist

born Dec. 16, 1775, Steventon, Hampshire, Eng.
died July 18, 1817, Winchester, Hampshire

English writer who first gave the novel its distinctly modern character through her treatment of ordinary people in everyday life. Austen created the comedy of manners of middle-class life in the England of her time in her novels, Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1815), and Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (published posthumously, 1817).

Jane Austen was born in the Hampshire village of Steventon, where her father, the Reverend George Austen, was rector. She was the second daughter and seventh child in a family of eight: six boys and two girls. Her closest companion throughout her life was her elder sister, Cassandra, who also remained unmarried. Their father was a scholar who encouraged the love of learning in his children. His wife, Cassandra (née Leigh), was a woman of ready wit, famed for her impromptu verses and stories. The great family amusement was acting.

Jane Austen’s lively and affectionate family circle provided a stimulating context for her writing. Moreover, her experience was carried far beyond Steventon rectory by an extensive network of relationships by blood and friendship. It was this world—of the minor landed gentry and the country clergy, in the village, the neighbourhood, and the country town, with occasional visits to Bath and to London—that she was to use in the settings, characters, and subject matter of her novels.

Her earliest-known writings date from about 1787, and between then and 1793 she wrote a large body of material that has survived in three manuscript notebooks: Volume the First, Volume the Second, and Volume the Third. These contain plays, verses, short novels, and other prose and show Austen engaged in the parody of existing literary forms, notably sentimental fiction. Her passage to a more serious view of life from the exuberant high spirits and extravagances of her earliest writings is evident in Lady Susan, a short novel-in-letters written about 1793–94 (and not published until 1871). This portrait of a woman bent on the exercise of her own powerful mind and personality to the point of social self-destruction is, in effect, a study of frustration and of woman’s fate in a society that has no use for woman’s stronger, more “masculine,” talents.

In 1802 it seems likely that Jane agreed to marry Harris Bigg-Wither, the 21-year-old heir of a Hampshire family, but the next morning changed her mind. There are also a number of mutually contradictory stories connecting her with someone with whom she fell in love but who died very soon after. Since Austen’s novels are so deeply concerned with love and marriage, there is some point in attempting to establish the facts of these relationships. Unfortunately, the evidence is unsatisfactory and incomplete. Cassandra was a jealous guardian of her sister’s private life, and after Jane’s death she censored the surviving letters, destroying many and cutting up others. But Jane Austen’s own novels provide indisputable evidence that their author understood the experience of love and of love disappointed.

The earliest of her novels, Sense and Sensibility, was begun about 1795 as a novel-in-letters called “Elinor and Marianne,” after its heroines. Between October 1796 and August 1797 Austen completed the first version of Pride and Prejudice, then called “First Impressions.” In 1797 her father wrote to offer it to a London publisher for publication, but the offer was declined. Northanger Abbey, the last of the early novels, was written about 1798 or 1799, probably under the title “Susan.” In 1803 the manuscript of “Susan” was sold to the publisher Richard Crosby for £10. He took it for immediate publication, but, although it was advertised, unaccountably it never appeared.

Up to this time the tenor of life at Steventon rectory had been propitious for Jane Austen’s growth as a novelist. This stable environment ended in 1801, however, when George Austen, then aged 70, retired to Bath with his wife and daughters. For eight years Jane had to put up with a succession of temporary lodgings or visits to relatives, in Bath, London, Clifton, Warwickshire, and, finally, Southampton, where the three women lived from 1805 to 1809. In 1804 Jane began The Watsons but soon abandoned it. In 1804 her dearest friend, Mrs. Anne Lefroy, died suddenly, and in January 1805 her father died in Bath.

Eventually, in 1809, Jane’s brother Edward was able to provide his mother and sisters with a large cottage in the village of Chawton, within his Hampshire estate, not far from Steventon. The prospect of settling at Chawton had already given Jane Austen a renewed sense of purpose, and she began to prepare Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice for publication. She was encouraged by her brother Henry, who acted as go-between with her publishers. She was probably also prompted by her need for money. Two years later Thomas Egerton agreed to publish Sense and Sensibility, which came out, anonymously, in November 1811. Both of the leading reviews, the Critical Review and the Quarterly Review, welcomed its blend of instruction and amusement. Meanwhile, in 1811 Austen had begun Mansfield Park, which was finished in 1813 and published in 1814. By then she was an established (though anonymous) author; Egerton had published Pride and Prejudice in January 1813, and later that year there were second editions of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. Pride and Prejudice seems to have been the fashionable novel of its season. Between January 1814 and March 1815 she wrote Emma, which appeared in December 1815. In 1816 there was a second edition of Mansfield Park, published, like Emma, by Lord Byron’s publisher, John Murray. Persuasion (written August 1815–August 1816) was published posthumously, with Northanger Abbey, in December 1817.

The years after 1811 seem to have been the most rewarding of her life. She had the satisfaction of seeing her work in print and well reviewed and of knowing that the novels were widely read. They were so much enjoyed by the Prince Regent (later George IV) that he had a set in each of his residences; and Emma, at a discreet royal command, was “respectfully dedicated” to him. The reviewers praised the novels for their morality and entertainment, admired the character drawing, and welcomed the homely realism as a refreshing change from the romantic melodrama then in vogue.

For the last 18 months of her life, she was busy writing. Early in 1816, at the onset of her fatal illness, she set down the burlesque Plan of a Novel, According to Hints from Various Quarters (first published in 1871). Until August 1816 she was occupied with Persuasion, and she looked again at the manuscript of “Susan” (Northanger Abbey).

In January 1817 she began Sanditon, a robust and self-mocking satire on health resorts and invalidism. This novel remained unfinished owing to Austen’s declining health. She supposed that she was suffering from bile, but the symptoms make possible a modern clinical assessment that she was suffering from Addison’s disease. Her condition fluctuated, but in April she made her will, and in May she was taken to Winchester to be under the care of an expert surgeon. She died on July 18, and six days later she was buried in Winchester Cathedral.

Her authorship was announced to the world at large by her brother Henry, who supervised the publication of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. There was no recognition at the time that regency England had lost its keenest observer and sharpest analyst; no understanding that a miniaturist (as she maintained that she was and as she was then seen), a “merely domestic” novelist, could be seriously concerned with the nature of society and the quality of its culture; no grasp of Jane Austen as a historian of the emergence of regency society into the modern world. During her lifetime there had been a solitary response in any way adequate to the nature of her achievement: Sir Walter Scott’s review of Emma in the Quarterly Review for March 1816, where he hailed this “nameless author” as a masterful exponent of “the modern novel” in the new realist tradition. After her death, there was for long only one significant essay, the review of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion in the Quarterly for January 1821 by the theologian Richard Whately. Together, Scott’s and Whately’s essays provided the foundation for serious criticism of Jane Austen: their insights were appropriated by critics throughout the 19th century.

Jane Austen’s three early novels form a distinct group in which a strong element of literary satire accompanies the comic depiction of character and society.

Sense and Sensibility tells the story of the impoverished Dashwood sisters. Marianne is the heroine of “sensibility”—i.e., of openness and enthusiasm. She becomes infatuated with the attractive John Willoughby, who seems to be a romantic lover but is in reality an unscrupulous fortune hunter. He deserts her for an heiress, leaving her to learn a dose of “sense” in a wholly unromantic marriage with a staid and settled bachelor, Colonel Brandon, who is 20 years her senior. By contrast, Marianne’s older sister, Elinor, is the guiding light of “sense,” or prudence and discretion, whose constancy toward her lover, Edward Ferrars, is rewarded by her marriage to him after some distressing vicissitudes.

Pride and Prejudice describes the clash between Elizabeth Bennet, the daughter of a country gentleman, and Fitzwilliam Darcy, a rich and aristocratic landowner. Although Austen shows them intrigued by each other, she reverses the convention of “first impressions”: “pride” of rank and fortune and “prejudice” against Elizabeth’s inferiority of family hold Darcy aloof; while Elizabeth is equally fired both by the “pride” of self-respect and by “prejudice” against Darcy’s snobbery. Ultimately, they come together in love and self-understanding. The intelligent and high-spirited Elizabeth was Jane Austen’s own favourite among all her heroines and is one of the most engaging in English literature.

Northanger Abbey combines a satire on conventional novels of polite society with one on Gothic tales of terror. Catherine Morland, the unspoiled daughter of a country parson, is the innocent abroad who gains worldly wisdom: first in the fashionable society of Bath and then at Northanger Abbey itself, where she learns not to interpret the world through her reading of Gothic thrillers. Her mentor and guide is the self-assured and gently ironic Henry Tilney, her husband-to-be.

In the three novels of Jane Austen’s maturity, the literary satire, though still present, is more subdued and is subordinated to the comedy of character and society.

In its tone and discussion of religion and religious duty, Mansfield Park is the most serious of Austen’s novels. The heroine, Fanny Price, is a self-effacing and unregarded cousin cared for by the Bertram family in their country house. Fanny emerges as a true heroine whose moral strength eventually wins her complete acceptance in the Bertram family and marriage to Edmund Bertram himself, after that family’s disastrous involvement with the meretricious and loose-living Crawfords.

Of all Austen’s novels, Emma is the most consistently comic in tone. It centres on Emma Woodhouse, a wealthy, pretty, self-satisfied young woman who indulges herself with meddlesome and unsuccessful attempts at matchmaking among her friends and neighbours. After a series of humiliating errors, a chastened Emma finds her destiny in marriage to the mature and protective George Knightley, a neighbouring squire who had been her mentor and friend.

Persuasion tells the story of a second chance, the reawakening of love between Anne Elliot and Captain Frederick Wentworth, whom seven years earlier she had been persuaded not to marry. Now Wentworth returns from the Napoleonic Wars with prize money and the social acceptability of naval rank; he is an eligible suitor acceptable to Anne’s snobbish father and his circle, and Anne discovers the continuing strength of her love for him.

Although the birth of the English novel is to be seen in the first half of the 18th century in the work of Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, and Henry Fielding, it is with Jane Austen that the novel takes on its distinctively modern character in the realistic treatment of unremarkable people in the unremarkable situations of everyday life. In her six novels—Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Northanger Abbey, and Persuasion—Austen created the comedy of manners of middle-class life in the England of her time, revealing the possibilities of “domestic” literature. Her repeated fable of a young woman’s voyage to self-discovery on the passage through love to marriage focuses upon easily recognizable aspects of life. It is this concentration upon character and personality and upon the tensions between her heroines and their society that relates her novels more closely to the modern world than to the traditions of the 18th century. It is this modernity, together with the wit, realism, and timelessness of her prose style; her shrewd, amused sympathy; and the satisfaction to be found in stories so skillfully told, in novels so beautifully constructed, that helps to explain her continuing appeal for readers of all kinds. Modern critics remain fascinated by the commanding structure and organization of the novels, by the triumphs of technique that enable the writer to lay bare the tragicomedy of existence in stories of which the events and settings are apparently so ordinary and so circumscribed.

Brian C. Southam


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).


Thomas Love Peacock


born Oct. 18, 1785, Weymouth, Dorset, Eng.
died Jan. 23, 1866, Lower Halliford, Middlesex

English author who satirized the intellectual tendencies of his day in novels in which conversation predominates over character or plot. His best verse is interspersed in his novels.

Peacock met Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1812, and the two became such close friends that Shelley made Peacock executor of his will. Peacock spent several months near the Shelleys at Great Marlow in 1817, a period of great importance to his development as a writer. The ideas that lie behind many of the witty dialogues in his books probably found their origin in the conversation of Shelley and his friends. Peacock’s essay The Four Ages of Poetry (1820) provoked Shelley’s famous Defence of Poetry (written 1821, published 1840).

Peacock considered his novels to be “comic romances.” Headlong Hall (1816), the first of his seven novels, already sets the pattern of all of them: characters seated at table, eating and drinking, and embarking on learned and philosophical discussions in which many common opinions of the day are criticized.

In his best-known work, Nightmare Abbey (1818), romantic melancholy is satirized, with the characters Scythrop drawn from Shelley, Mr. Flosky from Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Mr. Cypress from Lord Byron.

Peacock worked most of his life for the East India Company. He was an able administrator, and in 1836 he succeeded James Mill as chief examiner, retiring on a pension in 1856.


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.


Sir Walter Scott, 1st Baronet


Scottish writer

born August 15, 1771, Edinburgh
died September 21, 1832, Abbotsford, Roxburgh, Scotland

Scottish novelist, poet, historian, and biographer who is often considered both the inventor and the greatest practitioner of the historical novel.

Scott’s father was a lawyer and his mother was the daughter of a physician. From his earliest years, Scott was fond of listening to his elderly relatives’ accounts and stories of the Scottish Border, and he soon became a voracious reader of poetry, history, drama, and fairy tales and romances. He had a remarkably retentive memory and astonished visitors by his eager reciting of poetry. His explorations of the neighbouring countryside developed in him both a love of natural beauty and a deep appreciation of the historic struggles of his Scottish forebears.

Scott was educated at the high school at Edinburgh and also for a time at the grammar school at Kelso. In 1786 he was apprenticed to his father as writer to the signet, a Scots equivalent of the English solicitor (attorney). His study and practice of law were somewhat desultory, for his immense youthful energy was diverted into social activities and into miscellaneous readings in Italian, Spanish, French, German, and Latin. After a very deeply felt early disappointment in love, he married, in December 1797, Charlotte Carpenter, of a French royalist family, with whom he lived happily until her death in 1826.

In the mid-1790s Scott became interested in German Romanticism, Gothic novels, and Scottish border ballads. His first published work, The Chase, and William and Helen (1796), was a translation of two ballads by the German Romantic balladeer G.A. Bürger. A poor translation of Goethe’s Götz von Berlichingen followed in 1799. Scott’s interest in border ballads finally bore fruit in his collection of them entitled Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, 3 vol. (1802–03). His attempts to “restore” the orally corrupted versions back to their original compositions sometimes resulted in powerful poems that show a sophisticated Romantic flavour. The work made Scott’s name known to a wide public, and he followed up his first success with a full-length narrative poem, The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805), which ran into many editions. The poem’s clear and vigorous storytelling, Scottish regionalist elements, honest pathos, and vivid evocations of landscape were repeated in further poetic romances, including Marmion (1808), The Lady of the Lake (1810), which was the most successful of these pieces, Rokeby (1813), and The Lord of the Isles (1815).

Scott led a highly active literary and social life during these years. In 1808 his 18-volume edition of the works of John Dryden appeared, followed by his 19-volume edition of Jonathan Swift (1814) and other works. But his finances now took the first of several disastrous turns that were to partly determine the course of his future career. His appointment as sheriff depute of the county of Selkirk in 1799 (a position he was to keep all his life) was a welcome supplement to his income, as was his appointment in 1806 as clerk to the Court of Session in Edinburgh. But he had also become a partner in a printing (and later publishing) firm owned by James Ballantyne and his irresponsible brother John. By 1813 this firm was hovering on the brink of financial disaster, and although Scott saved the company from bankruptcy, from that time onward everything he wrote was done partly in order to make money and pay off the lasting debts he had incurred. Another ruinous expenditure was the country house he was having built at Abbotsford, which he stocked with enormous quantities of antiquarian objects.

By 1813 Scott had begun to tire of narrative poetry, and the greater depth and verve of Lord Byron’s narrative poems threatened to oust him from his position as supreme purveyor of this kind of literary entertainment. In 1813 Scott rediscovered the unfinished manuscript of a novel he had started in 1805, and in the early summer of 1814 he wrote with extraordinary speed almost the whole of his novel, which he titled Waverley. It was one of the rare and happy cases in literary history when something original and powerful was immediately recognized and enjoyed by a large public. A story of the Jacobite rebellion of 1745, it reinterpreted and presented with living force the manners and loyalties of a vanished Scottish Highland society. The book was published anonymously, as were all of the many novels he wrote down to 1827.

In Waverley and succeeding novels Scott’s particular literary gifts could be utilized to their fullest extent. First and foremost, he was a born storyteller who could place a large cast of vivid and varied characters in an exciting and turbulent historical setting. He was also a master of dialogue who felt equally at home with expressive Scottish regional speech and the polished courtesies of knights and aristocrats. His deep knowledge of Scottish history and society and his acute observation of its mores and attitudes enabled him to play the part of a social historian in insightful depictions of the whole range of Scottish society, from beggars and rustics to the middle classes and the professions and on up to the landowning nobility. The attention Scott gave to ordinary people was indeed a marked departure from previous historical novels’ concentration on royalty. His flair for picturesque incidents enabled him to describe with equal vigour both eccentric Highland personalities and the fierce political and religious conflicts that agitated Scotland during the 17th and 18th centuries. Finally, Scott was the master of a rich, ornate, seemingly effortless literary style that blended energy with decorum, lyric beauty with clarity of description.

Scott followed up Waverley with a whole series of historical novels set in Scotland that are now known as the “Waverley” novels. Guy Mannering (1815) and The Antiquary (1816) completed a sort of trilogy covering the period from the 1740s to just after 1800. The first of four series of novels published under the title Tales of My Landlord was composed of The Black Dwarf and the masterpiece Old Mortality (1816). These were followed by the masterpieces Rob Roy (1817) and The Heart of Midlothian (1818), and then by The Bride of Lammermoor and A Legend of Montrose (both 1819). It was only after writing these novels of Scottish history that Scott, driven by the state of his finances and the need to satisfy the public appetite for historical fiction that he himself had created, turned to themes from English history and elsewhere. He thus wrote Ivanhoe (1819), a novel set in 12th-century England and one that remains his most popular book. The Monastery and The Abbot followed in 1820, and The Pirate and The Fortunes of Nigel appeared in 1822. Two more masterpieces were Kenilworth (1821), set in Elizabethan England, and the highly successful Quentin Durward (1823), set in 15th-century France. The best of his later novels are Redgauntlet (1824) and The Talisman (1825), the latter being set in Palestine during the Crusades.

In dealing with the recent past of his native country, Scott was able to find a fictional form in which to express the deep ambiguities of his own feeling for Scotland. On the one hand he welcomed Scotland’s union with England and the commercial progress and modernization that it promised to bring, but on the other he bitterly regretted the loss of Scotland’s independence and the steady decline of its national consciousness and traditions. Novel after novel in the “Waverley” series makes clear that the older, heroic tradition of the Scottish Jacobite clans (supporters of the exiled Stuart king James II and his descendants) had no place in the modern world; the true heroes of Scott’s novels are thus not fighting knights-at-arms but the lawyers, farmers, merchants, and simple people who go about their business oblivious to the claims and emotional ties of a heroic past. Scott became a novelist by bringing his antiquarian and romantic feeling for Scotland’s past into relation with his sense that Scotland’s interests lay with a prudently commercial British future. He welcomed civilization, but he also longed for individual heroic action. It is this ambivalence that gives vigour, tension, and complexity of viewpoint to his best novels.

Scott’s immense earnings in those years contributed to his financial downfall. Eager to own an estate and to act the part of a bountiful laird, he anticipated his income and involved himself in exceedingly complicated and ultimately disastrous financial agreements with his publisher, Archibald Constable, and his agents, the Ballantynes. He and they met almost every new expense with bills discounted on work still to be done; these bills were basically just written promises to pay at a future date. This form of payment was an accepted practice, but the great financial collapse of 1825 caused the four men’s creditors to demand actual and immediate payment in cash. Constable was unable to meet his liabilities and went bankrupt, and he in turn dragged down the Ballantynes and Scott in his wake because their financial interests were inextricably intermingled. Scott assumed personal responsibility for both his and the Ballantynes’ liabilities and thus courageously dedicated himself for the rest of his life to paying off debts amounting to about £120,000.



Discursive prose

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.

The critical discourse of the era was dominated by the Whig quarterly The Edinburgh Review (begun 1802), edited by Francis Jeffrey, and its Tory rivals The Quarterly Review (begun 1809) and the monthly Blackwood’s Magazine (begun 1817). Though their attacks on contemporary writers could be savagely partisan, they set a notable standard of fearless and independent journalism. Similar independence was shown by Leigh Hunt, whose outspoken journalism, particularly in his Examiner (begun 1808), was of wide influence, and by William Cobbett, whose Rural Rides (collected in 1830 from his Political Register) gives a telling picture, in forceful and clear prose, of the English countryside of his day.


William Hazlitt

born April 10, 1778, Maidstone, Kent, Eng.
died Sept. 18, 1830, Soho, London

English writer best known for his humanistic essays. Lacking conscious artistry or literary pretention, his writing is noted for the brilliant intellect it reveals.

Hazlitt’s childhood was spent in Ireland and North America, where his father, a Unitarian preacher, supported the American rebels. The family returned to England when William was nine, settling in Shropshire. At puberty the child became somewhat sullen and unapproachable, tendencies that persisted throughout his life. He read intensively, however, laying the foundation of his learning. Having some difficulty in expressing himself either in conversation or in writing, he turned to painting and in 1802 traveled to Paris to work in the Louvre, though war between England and France compelled his return the following year. His friends, who already included Charles Lamb, William Wordsworth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, encouraged his ambitions as a painter; yet in 1805 he turned to metaphysics and the study of philosophy that had attracted him earlier, publishing his first book, On the Principles of Human Action. In 1808 he married Sarah Stoddart, and the couple went to live at Winterslow on Salisbury Plain, which was to become Hazlitt’s favourite retreat for thinking and writing.

Although he successfully completed several literary projects, by the end of 1811 Hazlitt was penniless. He then gave a course of lectures in philosophy in London and began reporting for the Morning Chronicle, quickly establishing himself as critic, journalist, and essayist. His collected dramatic criticism appeared as A View of the English Stage in 1818. He also contributed to a number of journals, among them Leigh Hunt’s Examiner; this association led to the publication of The Round Table, 2 vol. (1817), 52 essays of which 40 were by Hazlitt. Also in 1817 Hazlitt published his Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays, which met with immediate approval in most quarters. He had, however, become involved in a number of quarrels, often with his friends, resulting from the forcible expression of his views in the journals. At the same time, he made new friends and admirers (among them Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats) and consolidated his reputation as a lecturer, delivering courses On the English Poets (published 1818) and On the English Comic Writers (published 1819), as well as publishing a collection of political essays. His volume entitled Lectures on the Dramatic Literature of the Age of Elizabeth was prepared during 1819, but thereafter he devoted himself to essays for various journals, notably John Scott’s London Magazine.

Hazlitt lived apart from his wife after the end of 1819, and they were divorced in 1822. He fell in love with the daughter of his London landlord, but the affair ended disastrously, and Hazlitt described his suffering in the strange Liber Amoris; or, The New Pygmalion (1823). Even so, many of his best essays were written during this difficult period and were collected in his two most famous books: Table Talk (1821) and The Plain Speaker (1826). Others were afterward edited by his son, William, as Sketches and Essays (1829), Literary Remains (1836), and Winterslow (1850) and by his biographer, P.P. Howe, as New Writings (1925–27). Hazlitt’s other works during this period of prolific output included Sketches of the Principal Picture Galleries in England (1824), with its celebrated essay on the Dulwich gallery.

In April 1824 Hazlitt married a widow named Bridgwater. But the new wife was resented by his son, whom Hazlitt adored, and the couple separated after three years. Part of this second marriage was spent abroad, an experience recorded in Notes of a Journey in France and Italy (1826). In France he began an ambitious but not very successful Life of Napoleon, 4 vol. (1828–30), and in 1825 he published some of his most effective writing in The Spirit of the Age. His last book, Conversations of James Northcote (1830), recorded his long friendship with that eccentric painter.

Hazlitt’s Complete Works, in 13 volumes, appeared in 1902–06, to be reissued, edited by P.P. Howe, in 21 volumes in 1930–34.




Mary Russell Mitford

born Dec. 16, 1787, Alresford, Hampshire, Eng.
died Jan. 10, 1855, Swallowfield, near Reading

dramatist, poet, and essayist, chiefly remembered for her prose sketches of English village life.

She was the only daughter of George Mitford, a dashing, irresponsible character whose extravagance compelled the family, in 1820, to leave their house in Reading (built when Mary, at the age of 10, won £20,000 in a lottery) for a labourer’s cottage in the nearby village of Three Mile Cross. Thereafter, until his death in 1842, his daughter struggled to provide for him and to pay his gambling debts out of her literary earnings.

In 1810 she published Miscellaneous Poems, which was followed by five more volumes of verse, including Watlington Hill (1812) and Dramatic Scenes, Sonnets, and Other Poems (1827). Her narrative poem Christina (1811) was revised by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. She then turned to the theatre, with some success, most notably in the blank-verse tragedies Julian (1823) and Rienzi, the latter of which had 34 performances at London’s Drury Lane in 1828.

Her reputation, however, rests on the sketches, started in The Ladies Magazine (1819), that fill the five volumes of Our Village (1824–32). Based on her observation of life in and around Three Mile Cross, they catch the pleasant atmosphere of the English countryside and the quaintness of village characters. She published a further volume of sketches, Belford Regis, in 1835 and her Recollections of a Literary Life in 1852. Her work helped to establish the format of the realistic domestic novel of provincial life.



Thomas De Quincey

"Confessions of an English Opium-Eater"

born Aug. 15, 1785, Manchester, Lancashire, Eng.
died Dec. 8, 1859, Edinburgh, Scot.

English essayist and critic, best known for his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. De Quincey’s biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge appeared in the eighth edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica (see the Britannica Classic: Samuel Taylor Coleridge).

As a child De Quincey was alienated from his solid, prosperous mercantile family by his sensitivity and precocity. At the age of 17 he ran away to Wales and then lived incognito in London (1802–03). There he formed a friendship with a young prostitute named Ann, who made a lasting impression on him. Reconciled to his family in 1803, he entered Worcester College, Oxford, where he conceived the ambition of becoming “the intellectual benefactor of mankind.” He became widely read in many subjects and eventually would write essays on such subjects as history, biography, economics, psychology, and German metaphysics. While still at college in 1804, he took his first opium to relieve the pain of facial neuralgia. By 1813 he had become “a regular and confirmed opium-eater” (i.e., an opium addict), keeping a decanter of laudanum (tincture of opium) by his elbow and steadily increasing the dose; he remained an addict for the rest of his life.

De Quincey was an early admirer of Lyrical Ballads, and in 1807 he became a close associate of its authors, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He rented Wordsworth’s former home, Dove Cottage at Grasmere, on and off from 1809 to 1833. In 1817 De Quincey married Margaret Simpson, who had already borne him a son. Though he wrote voluminously, he published almost nothing. His financial position as head of a large family went from bad to worse until the appearance of Confessions (1821) in London Magazine made him famous. It was reprinted as a book in 1822.

The avowed purpose of the first version of the Confessions is to warn the reader of the dangers of opium, and it combines the interest of a journalistic exposé of a social evil, told from an insider’s point of view, with a somewhat contradictory picture of the subjective pleasures of drug addiction. The book begins with an autobiographical account of the author’s addiction, describes in detail the euphoric and highly symbolic reveries that he experienced under the drug’s influence, and recounts the horrible nightmares that continued use of the drug eventually produced. The highly poetic and imaginative prose of the Confessions makes it one of the enduring stylistic masterpieces of English literature.

In 1856 he seized the opportunity provided by the publication of his collected works to rewrite the book that had made him famous. He added some descriptions of opium-inspired dreams that had appeared about 1845 in Blackwood’s Magazine under the title Suspiria de Profundis (“Sighs from the Depths”). But by this time he had lost most of the accounts he had kept of his early opium visions, so he expanded the rather short original version of the Confessions in other ways, adding much autobiographical material on his childhood and his experiences as a youth in London. His literary style in the revised version of the Confessions, however, tends to be difficult, involved, and even verbose.

Among De Quincey’s other autobiographical writings, the so-called Lake Reminiscences (first printed in Tait’s Magazine, 1834–40), which deeply offended Wordsworth and the other Lake poets, remains of great interest, although it is highly subjective, not without malice, and unreliable in matters of detail. As a literary critic De Quincey is best known for his essay “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth” (first printed in the London Magazine, October 1823), a brilliant piece of psychological insight and a classic of Shakespearean criticism.

De Quincey became increasingly solitary and eccentric, especially after his wife’s death in 1837, and he often retreated for long periods into opium dreams. Of the more than 14 volumes of his work, only the original Confessions is a definitive literary expression.



William Cobbett

born March 9, 1763, Farnham, Surrey, Eng.
died June 18, 1835, London

English popular journalist who played an important political role as a champion of traditional rural England against the changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution.

His father was a small farmer and innkeeper. Cobbett’s memories of his early life were pleasant, and, although he moved to London when he was 19, his experiences on the land left their impressions on his life. Cobbett’s careers as a journalist and, for the last three years of his life, as a member of the House of Commons were devoted to restoring his ideal of rural England in a country rapidly being transformed by the Industrial Revolution into the world’s foremost manufacturing nation.

Although he embraced advanced political ideas, Cobbett was at heart not a radical but instead deeply conservative, even reactionary. His object was to use radical means to break the power of what he regarded as a selfish oligarchy and thus establish the earlier England of his imagination. In his England, political parties, the national debt, and the factory system would not exist. Instead, all classes would live in harmony on the land. Despite this seemingly backward-looking viewpoint, Cobbett’s writings were widely read, in part because of his lucid, racy style but mainly because he struck a powerful chord of nostalgia at a time when rapid economic changes and war with France had produced widespread anxiety.

At the age of 21, Cobbett joined the army, in which he eventually rose to the rank of sergeant major. He taught himself English grammar and thus laid the foundation of his future career as a journalist. After serving in Canada, he returned to England in 1791 and charged certain of his former officers with corruption. Although venality was all but general in the army, indeed in the whole of public life, his charges boomeranged when the officers sought to bring countercharges against him. Rather than appear at a court-martial, Cobbett fled to France. Quickly realizing that France in the throes of revolution was no place for an Englishman, he sailed for America, settling in Philadelphia, where he supported himself and his family by teaching English to French émigrés.

An effusive welcome accorded Joseph Priestley by radical republican groups in the United States after the radical scientist had left England in 1794 drew Cobbett into controversy. Convinced that Priestley was a traitor, Cobbett wrote a pamphlet, Observations on the Emigration of Joseph Priestley. It launched his career as a journalist. For the next six years he published enough writings against the spirit and practice of American democracy to fill 12 volumes. His violent journalism won him many enemies and the nickname “Peter Porcupine.” After paying a heavy fine in a libel judgment, Cobbett returned to England in 1800.

The Tory government of William Pitt welcomed Cobbett and offered to subsidize his powerful pen in further publishing ventures. But Cobbett, whose journalism was entirely personal and always incorruptible, rejected the offer and in 1802 started a weekly, Political Register, which he published until his death in 1835. Though the Register at first supported the government, the Treaty of Amiens (1802) with France disgusted him, and he promptly called for a renewal of the war. Cobbett believed that commercial interests were dictating English foreign policy and were responsible for all that was wrong with the country. In 1805 he announced that England was the victim of a “System,” which debauched liberty, undermined the aristocracy and the Church of England, and almost extinguished the gentry. His conviction grew in the following year after he witnessed the widely accepted corruption in parliamentary elections. Cobbett’s career as an orthodox Tory was over. Advocacy of radical measures brought him into an uneasy association with reformers. Cobbett and the radicals could never be close, however, since his goals were so different from theirs.

Cobbett was at his best when condemning specific abuses. He spent two years in jail (1810–12) and paid a fine of £1,000 after denouncing the flogging of militiamen who had protested against unfair deductions from their pay. He also recognized that unrest among the poor was caused by unemployment and hunger and not, as the government had alleged, by a desire to overthrow English society. Cobbett could see no solution to economic distress without a reform of Parliament and reduction of interest on the national debt. In 1816, at the height of his influence, he was able to reach the common man by putting out the Political Register (denounced as Cobbett’s “two-penny trash”) in a cheap edition that avoided the heavy taxes on ordinary newspapers. The government, seeing sedition in even the most moderate proposals for change, repressed dissent, and the following year Cobbett was forced to flee to the United States to avoid arrest.

Renting a farm on Long Island, New York, Cobbett continued to edit and write for the Political Register, which was published by his agents in England. When he returned to England at the end of 1819, his influence had waned and he was insolvent. During the 1820s he supported many causes in an attempt to regain his standing and in the hope that they would lead to the changes in England’s political and economic system that he desired. He unsuccessfully tried to be elected to the House of Commons in 1820 from Coventry and in 1826 from Preston. His famous tours of the countryside began in 1821 and were to lead to his greatest book, Rural Rides, which was an unrivalled picture of the land.

Although he had no love for the Whigs, Cobbett supported the parliamentary Reform Bill of 1832, which, despite its limited nature, he sensed was the best that could be had. In 1830 agricultural labourers in his beloved southern England had rioted in protest against their low wages. Cobbett defended them and as a result was prosecuted in 1831 by a Whig government that was anxious to prove its zeal in moving against “sedition.” Acting as his own counsel, Cobbett confounded his opponents and was set free. Yet, despite this threat of another jail term, he supported his persecutors on the issue of parliamentary reform.

In 1832 Cobbett was elected to Parliament as a member from Oldham. At 69 years of age he found the nocturnal schedule of Parliament an unpleasant contrast to his lifelong preference for early rising and working in the morning. Essentially an individualist and a man of action, he chafed at parliamentary routine. Most members of the House of Commons did not respect him, and Cobbett’s parliamentary career was a failure. The unnatural hours hastened his death, from influenza, in 1835.

Passionate and prejudiced, Cobbett’s prose, full of telling phrases and inspired ridicule, was completely personal. He had no theoretical understanding of the complicated issues about which he wrote. While his views of the ideal society were retrograde, no one could excel him in specific criticisms of corruption and extravagance, harsh laws, low wages, absentee clergymen—indeed, nearly everything that was wrong with England.

John W. Osborne



This was a great era of English theatre, notable for the acting of John Philip Kemble, Sarah Siddons, and, from 1814, the brilliant Edmund Kean. But it was not a great period of playwriting. The exclusive right to perform plays enjoyed by the “Royal” (or “legitimate”) theatres created a damaging split between high and low art forms. The classic repertoire continued to be played but in buildings that had grown too large for subtle staging, and, when commissioning new texts, legitimate theatres were torn between a wish to preserve the blank-verse manner of the great tradition of English tragedy and a need to reflect the more-popular modes of performance developed by their illegitimate rivals.

This problem was less acute in comedy, where prose was the norm and Oliver Goldsmith and Richard Brinsley Sheridan had, in the 1770s, revived the tradition of “laughing comedy.”



Richard Brinsley Sheridan

"School for Scandal"   Illustrations by Hugh Thompson

Irish playwright

baptized Nov. 4, 1751, Dublin, Ire.
died July 7, 1816, London, Eng.

Irish-born playwright, impresario, orator, and Whig politician. His plays, notably The School for Scandal (1777), form a link in the history of the comedy of manners between the end of the 17th century and Oscar Wilde in the 19th century.

Formative years
Sheridan was the third son of Thomas and Frances Sheridan. His grandfather Thomas Sheridan had been a companion and confidant of Jonathan Swift; his father was the author of a pronouncing dictionary and the advocate of a scheme of public education that gave a prominent place to elocution; and his mother gained some fame as a playwright.

The family moved to London, and Sheridan never returned to Ireland. He was educated (1762–68) at Harrow, and in 1770 he moved with his family to Bath. There Sheridan fell in love with Elizabeth Ann Linley (1754–92), whose fine soprano voice delighted audiences at the concerts and festivals conducted by her father, Thomas. In order to avoid the unpleasant attentions of a Welsh squire, Thomas Mathews of Llandaff, she decided to take refuge in a French nunnery. Sheridan accompanied her to Lille in March 1772 but returned to fight two duels that same year with Mathews. Meanwhile, Elizabeth had returned home with her father, and Sheridan was ordered by his father to Waltham Abbey, Essex, to pursue his studies. He was entered at the Middle Temple in April 1773 but after a week broke with his father, gave up a legal career, and married Elizabeth at Marylebone Church, London.

Theatrical career
After his marriage Sheridan turned to the theatre for a livelihood. His comedy The Rivals opened at Covent Garden Theatre, London, in January 1775. It ran an hour longer than was usual, and, because of the offensive nature and poor acting of the character of Sir Lucius O’Trigger, it was hardly a success. Drastically revised and with a new actor as Sir Lucius, its second performance 11 days later won immediate applause. The situations and characters were not entirely new, but Sheridan gave them freshness by his rich wit, and the whole play reveals Sheridan’s remarkable sense of theatrical effect. The play is characteristic of Sheridan’s work in its genial mockery of the affectation displayed by some of the characters. Even the malapropisms that slow down the play give a proper sense of caricature to the character of Mrs. Malaprop.

Some of the play’s success was due to the acting of Lawrence Clinch as Sir Lucius. Sheridan showed his gratitude by writing the amusing little farce St. Patrick’s Day; Or, The Scheming Lieutenant for the benefit performance given for Clinch in May 1775. Another example of his ability to weave an interesting plot from well-worn materials is seen in The Duenna, produced the following November. The characters are generally undeveloped, but the intrigue of the plot and charming lyrics and the music by his father-in-law, Thomas Linley, and his son gave this ballad opera great popularity. Its 75 performances exceeded the 62, a record for that time, credited to John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728), and it is still revived.

Thus, in less than a year Sheridan had brought himself to the forefront of contemporary dramatists. David Garrick, looking for someone to succeed him as manager and proprietor of Drury Lane Theatre, saw in Sheridan a young man with energy, shrewdness, and a real sense of theatre. A successful physician, James Ford, agreed with Garrick’s estimate and increased his investment in the playhouse. In 1776, Sheridan and Linley became partners with Ford in a half-share of Drury Lane Theatre. Two years later they bought the other half from Willoughby Lacy, Garrick’s partner.

In fact, Sheridan’s interest in his theatre soon began to seem rather fitful. Nevertheless, he was responsible for the renewed appreciation of Restoration comedy that followed the revival of the plays of William Congreve at Drury Lane. In February 1777 he brought out his version of Sir John Vanbrugh’s The Relapse (1696) as A Trip to Scarborough, again showing his talent for revision. He gave the rambling plot a neater shape and removed much indelicacy from the dialogue, but the result was disappointing, probably because of the loss of much of the earlier play’s gusto.

What Sheridan learned from the Restoration dramatists can be seen in The School for Scandal, produced at Drury Lane in May 1777. That play earned him the title of “the modern Congreve.” Although resembling Congreve in that its satirical wit is so brilliant and so general that it does not always distinguish one character from another, The School for Scandal does contain two subtle portraits in Joseph Surface and Lady Teazle. There were several Restoration models (e.g., Mrs. Pinchwife in William Wycherley’s The Country-Wife and Miss Hoyden in Vanbrugh’s The Relapse) for the portrayal of a country girl amazed and delighted by the sexual freedom of high society. Sheridan softened his Lady Teazle, however, to suit the more refined taste of his day. The part combined innocence and sophistication and was incomparably acted. The other parts were written with equal care to suit the members of the company, and the whole work was a triumph of intelligence and imaginative calculation. With its spirited ridicule of affectation and pretentiousness, it is often considered the greatest comedy of manners in English.

Sheridan’s flair for stage effect, exquisitely demonstrated in scenes in The School for Scandal, was again demonstrated in his delightful satire on stage conventions, The Critic, which since its first performance in October 1779 has been thought much funnier than its model, The Rehearsal (1671), by George Villiers, the 2nd Duke of Buckingham. Sheridan himself considered the first act to be his finest piece of writing. Although Puff is little more than a type, Sir Fretful Plagiary is not only a caricature of the dramatist Richard Cumberland but also an epitome of the vanity of authors in every age.

Political career
Sheridan continued to adapt plays and to improvise spectacular shows at Drury Lane, but as a succession of acting managers took over the burden of direction his time was increasingly given to politics. His only full-length later play was the artistically worthless but popular patriotic melodrama Pizarro (1799), based on a German play on the conquest of Peru. Sheridan had become member of Parliament for Stafford in September 1780 and was undersecretary for foreign affairs (1782) and secretary to the treasury (1783). Later he was treasurer of the navy (1806–07) and a privy councillor. The rest of his 32 years in Parliament were spent as a member of the minority Whig party in opposition to the governing Tories.

Sheridan’s critical acumen and command over language had full scope in his oratory and were seen at their best in his speeches as manager of the unsuccessful impeachment of Warren Hastings, governor general of India. Sheridan was recognized as one of the most persuasive orators of his time but never achieved greater political influence in Parliament because he was thought to be an unreliable intriguer. Some support for this view is to be found in his behaviour during the regency crisis (1788–89) following the temporary insanity of George III, when Sheridan acted as adviser to the unpopular, self-indulgent prince of Wales (later George IV). He encouraged the prince to think that there would be a great majority for his being regent with all the royal powers simply because he was heir apparent. In the country at large this was seen as a move by Charles James Fox and his friends to take over the government and drive out Prime Minister William Pitt. Sheridan was also distrusted because of his part in the Whigs’ internecine squabbles (1791–93) with Edmund Burke over the latter’s implacable hostility to the French Revolution. He was one of the few members courageous enough openly to defend those who suffered for their support of the French Revolution. Indeed, Sheridan liked taking an individual stand, and, although he supported Fox in urging that the French had a right to choose their own way of government, he broke with Fox once the French became warlike and threatened the security of England. He also came out on the side of the Tory administration when he condemned mutineers who had rebelled against living conditions in the British Navy (1797). Much to Fox’s disgust, Sheridan, although a Whig, gave some support to the Tory administration of Prime Minister Henry Addington, later 1st Viscount Sidmouth (1801–04).

In November 1806, Sheridan succeeded Charles James Fox as member for Westminster—although not, as he had hoped, as leader of the Whigs—but he lost the seat in May 1807. The prince of Wales then returned him as member for the “pocket borough” of Ilchester, but his dependence on the prince’s favour rankled with Sheridan, for they differed in their attitude on Catholic emancipation. Sheridan, who was determined to support emancipation, stood for election as member from Stafford again in 1812, but he could not pay those who had previously supported him as much as they expected and, as a result, was defeated.

Last years
Sheridan’s financial difficulties were largely brought about by his own extravagance and procrastination, as well as by the destruction of Drury Lane Theatre by fire in February 1809. With the loss of his parliamentary seat and his income from the theatre, he became a prey to his many creditors. His last years were beset by these and other worries—his circulatory complaints and the cancer that afflicted his second wife, Esther Jane Ogle. She was the daughter of the dean of Winchester and was married to Sheridan in April 1795, three years after Elizabeth’s death. Pestered by bailiffs to the end, Sheridan made a strong impression on the poet Lord Byron, who wrote a Monody on the Death of the Right Honourable R.B. Sheridan (1816), to be spoken at the rebuilt Drury Lane Theatre.

Assessment. Though best remembered as the author of brilliant comedies of manners, Sheridan was also a significant politician and orator. His genius both as dramatist and politician lay in humorous criticism and the ability to size up situations and relate them effectively. These gifts were often exercised in the House of Commons on other men’s speeches and at Drury Lane Theatre in the revision of other men’s plays. They are seen at their best in The School for Scandal, in which he shaped a plot and dialogue of unusual brilliance from two mediocre draft plays of his own. In person Sheridan was often drunken, moody, and indiscreet, but he possessed great charm and powers of persuasion. As a wit he delivered his sallies against the follies of society with a polish that makes him the natural link in the history of the British comedy of manners between Congreve and Wilde.

Cecil John Layton Price


But despite their attack on it, sentimental comedy remained the dominant mode, persisting in the work of Richard Cumberland (The West Indian, 1771), Hannah Cowley (The Belle’s Stratagem, 1780), Elizabeth Inchbald (I’ll Tell You What, 1785), John O’Keeffe (Wild Oats, 1791), Frederic Reynolds (The Dramatist, 1789), George Colman the Younger (John Bull, 1803), and Thomas Morton (Speed the Plough, 1800). Sentimental drama received a fresh impetus in the 1790s from the work of the German dramatist August von Kotzebue; Inchbald translated his controversial Das Kind Der Liebe (1790) as Lovers’ Vows in 1798.

By the 1780s, sentimental plays were beginning to anticipate what would become the most important dramatic form of the early 19th century: melodrama. Thomas Holcroft’s Seduction (1787) and The Road to Ruin (1792) have something of the moral simplicity, tragicomic plot, and sensationalism of the “mélodrames” of Guilbert de Pixérécourt; Holcroft translated the latter’s Coelina (1800) as A Tale of Mystery in 1802. Using background music to intensify the emotional effect, the form appealed chiefly, but not exclusively, to the working-class audiences of the “illegitimate” theatres. Many early examples, such as Matthew Lewis’s The Castle Spectre (first performance 1797) and J.R. Planché’s The Vampire (1820), were theatrical equivalents of the Gothic novel. But there were also criminal melodramas (Isaac Pocock, The Miller and His Men, 1813), patriotic melodramas (Douglas Jerrold, Black-Eyed Susan, 1829), domestic melodramas (John Howard Payne, Clari, 1823), and even industrial melodramas (John Walker, The Factory Lad, 1832). The energy and narrative force of the form would gradually help to revivify the “legitimate” serious drama, and its basic concerns would persist in the films and television of a later period.

Legitimate drama, performed at patent theatres, is best represented by the work of James Sheridan Knowles, who wrote stiffly neo-Elizabethan verse plays, both tragic and comic (Virginius, 1820; The Hunchback, 1832). The great lyric poets of the era all attempted to write tragedies of this kind, with little success. Coleridge’s Osorio (1797) was produced (as Remorse) at Drury Lane in 1813, and Byron’s Marino Faliero in 1821. Wordsworth’s The Borderers (1797), Keats’s Otho the Great (1819), and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s The Cenci (1819) remained unperformed, though The Cenci has a sustained narrative tension that distinguishes it from the general Romantic tendency to subordinate action to character and produce “closet dramas” (for reading) rather than theatrical texts. The Victorian poet Robert Browning would spend much of his early career writing verse plays for the legitimate theatre (Strafford, 1837; A Blot in the ’Scutcheon, produced in 1843). But after the Theatre Regulation Act of 1843, which abolished the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate drama, demand for this kind of play rapidly disappeared.

Reginald P.C. Mutter
John Bernard Beer
Nicholas Shrimpton


Richard Cumberland


born Feb. 19, 1732, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, Eng.
died May 7, 1811, London

English dramatist whose plays were in tune with the sentimental spirit that became an important literary force during the latter half of the 18th century. He was a master of stagecraft, a good observer of men and manners, but today perhaps is chiefly famous as the model for the character of Sir Fretful Plagiary in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s play The Critic; or a Tragedy Rehearsed.

After leaving Trinity College, Cambridge, Cumberland in 1761 became private secretary to the Earl of Halifax in the Duke of Newcastle’s ministry and later held other government positions. His first success as a dramatist came with The Brothers (1769), a sentimental comedy whose plot is reminiscent of Henry Fielding’s novel Tom Jones, and he continued to write prolifically. The West Indian (1771) was first produced by the great actor-manager David Garrick and held the stage throughout the 18th century. Despite its fantastic plot and crude psychology, a great deal of feeling is extracted from the situations. The Fashionable Lover, another sentimental comedy, achieved success in 1772.

Cumberland, however, hankered after the grand style. He regarded an early tragedy, Tiberius in Capreae, as his masterpiece but could persuade no management to produce it. His serious works (which included an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens) were not successful, with the exception of The Jew (1794) and The Wheel of Fortune (1795). Cumberland was querulous in the face of criticism and quarreled with many famous contemporaries, notably Sheridan and Oliver Goldsmith, both of whom were opposed to sentimentalism in the drama.

The Memoirs of Richard Cumberland Written by Himself (1806–07) is notable for Cumberland’s reminiscences of Garrick and of the theatrical manager Samuel Foote.



George Colman the Younger

born Oct. 21, 1762, London
died Oct. 17, 1836, London

George Colman, known as "the Younger", English dramatist and miscellaneous writer, was the son of George Colman "the Elder".

He passed from Westminster School to Christ Church, Oxford, and King's College, University of Aberdeen, and was finally entered as a student of law at Lincoln's Inn, London. While in Aberdeen he published a poem satirizing Charles James Fox, called The Man of the People; and in 1782 he produced, at his father's playhouse in the Haymarket, his first play, The Female Dramatist, for which Smollett's Roderick Random supplied the materials. It was unanimously condemned, but Two to One (1784) was entirely successful. It was followed by Turk and no Turk (1785), a musical comedy; Inkle and Yarico (1787), an opera; Ways and Means (1788); The Iron Chest (1796), taken from William Godwin's Adventures of Caleb Williams; The Poor Gentleman (1802); John Bull, or an Englishman's Fireside (1803), his most successful piece; The Heir at Law (1808), which enriched the stage with one immortal character, "Dr Pangloss" (borrowed of course from Voltaire's Candide), and numerous other pieces, many of them adapted from the French.

The failing health of the elder Colman obliged him to relinquish the management of the Haymarket theatre in 1789, when the younger George succeeded him, at a yearly salary of £600. On the death of the father the patent was continued to the son; but difficulties arose in his way, he was involved in litigation with Thomas Harris, and was unable to pay the expenses of the performances at the Haymarket. He was forced to take sanctuary within the Rules of the King's Bench. Here he resided for many years continuing to direct the affairs of his theatre. Released at last through the kindness of George IV, who had appointed him exon. of the Yeomen of the Guard, a dignity disposed of by Colman to the highest bidder, he was made examiner of plays by the duke of Montrose, then lord chamberlain. This office, to the disgust of all contemporary dramatists, to whose manuscripts he was as illiberal as he was severe, he held till his death. Although his own productions were open to charges of indecency and profanity, he was so severe a censor of others that he would not pass even such words as "heaven," "providence" or "angel." His comedies are a curious mixture of genuine comic force and sentimentality. A collection of them was published (1827) in Paris, with a life of the author, by JW Lake.

Colman, whose witty conversation made him a favourite, was also the author of a great deal of so-called humorous poetry (mostly coarse, though much of it was popular)--My Night Gown and Slippers (1797), reprinted under the name of Broad Grins, in 1802; and Poetical Vagaries (1812). Some of his writings were published under the assumed name of Arthur Griffinhood of Turnham Green. He died in Brompton, London. He had, as early as 1784, contracted a runaway marriage with an actress, Clara Morris, to whose brother David Morris, he eventually disposed of his share in the Haymarket theatre. Many of the leading parts in his plays were written especially for Mrs Gibbs (née Logan), whom he was said to have secretly married after the death of his first wife.




Jeremy Bentham

British philosopher and economist

born Feb. 15, 1748, London
died June 6, 1832, London

English philosopher, economist, and theoretical jurist, the earliest and chief expounder of Utilitarianism.

Early life and works.
At the age of four, Bentham, the son of an attorney, is said to have read eagerly and to have begun the study of Latin. Much of his childhood was spent happily at his two grandmothers’ country houses. At Westminster School he won a reputation for Greek and Latin verse writing. In 1760 he went to Queen’s College, Oxford, and took his degree in 1763. In November he entered Lincoln’s Inn to study law and took his seat as a student in the King’s Bench division of the High Court, where he listened with rapture to the judgments of Chief Justice Lord Mansfield. In December 1763 he managed to hear Sir William Blackstone lecture at Oxford but said that he immediately detected fallacies that underlay the grandiloquent language of the future judge. He spent his time performing chemical experiments and speculating upon the more theoretical aspects of legal abuses rather than in reading law books. On being called to the bar, he “found a cause or two at nurse for him, which he did his best to put to death,” to the bitter disappointment of his father, who had confidently looked forward to seeing him become lord chancellor.

Bentham’s first book, A Fragment on Government, appeared in 1776. The subtitle, “being an examination of what is delivered, on the subject of government in general, in the introduction to Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries,” indicates the nature of the work. Bentham found the “grand and fundamental” fault of the Commentaries to be Blackstone’s “antipathy to reform.” Bentham’s book, written in a clear and concise style different from that of his later works, may be said to mark the beginning of philosophic radicalism. It is also a very good essay on sovereignty. Lord Shelburne (afterward 1st Marquess of Lansdowne), the statesman, read the book and called upon its author in 1781. Bentham became a frequent guest at Shelburne’s home. At this period Bentham’s mind was much-occupied with writing the work that was later published in French in 1811 by his admirer Étienne Dumont and entitled Théorie des peines et des récompenses. This work eventually appeared in English as The Rationale of Reward (1825) and The Rationale of Punishment (1830). In 1785 Bentham started, by way of Italy and Constantinople, on a visit to his brother, Samuel Bentham, an engineer in the Russian armed forces; and it was in Russia that he wrote his Defence of Usury (published 1787). This, his first essay in economics, presented in the form of a series of letters from Russia, shows him as a disciple of the economist Adam Smith but one who argued that Smith did not follow the logic of his own principles. Bentham held that every man was the best judge of his own advantage, that it was desirable from the public point of view that he should seek it without hindrance, and that there was no reason to limit the application of this doctrine in the matter of lending money at interest. His later works on political economy followed the laissez-faire principle, though with modifications. In the “Manual of Political Economy” he gives a list of what the state should and should not do, the second list being much longer than the first.

Mature works.
Disappointed, after his return to England in 1788, in the hope of making a political career, he settled down to discovering the principles of legislation. The great work on which he had been engaged for many years, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, was published in 1789. In this book he defined the principle of utility as “that property in any object whereby it tends to produce pleasure, good or happiness, or to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil or unhappiness to the party whose interest is considered.” Mankind, he said, was governed by two sovereign motives, pain and pleasure; and the principle of utility recognized this state of affairs. The object of all legislation must be the “greatest happiness of the greatest number.” He deduced from the principle of utility that, since all punishment involves pain and is therefore evil, it ought only to be used “so far as it promises to exclude some greater evil.”

The fame of his writings spread widely and rapidly. Bentham was made a French citizen in 1792, and in later life his advice was respectfully received in several of the states of Europe and America. With many of the leading men of these countries Bentham maintained an active correspondence. The codification of law was one of Bentham’s chief preoccupations, and it was his ambition to be allowed to prepare a code of laws for his own or some foreign country. He was accused of having underestimated both the intrinsic difficulties of the task and the need for diversity of institutions adapted to the tradition and civilization of different countries. Even so, Bentham must be reckoned among the pioneers of prison reform. It is true that the particular scheme that he worked out was bizarre and spoiled by the elaborate detail that he loved. “Morals reformed, health preserved, industry invigorated, instruction diffused” and other similar desiderata would, he thought, be the result if his scheme for a model prison, the “Panopticon,” were to be adopted; and for many years he tried to induce the government to adopt it. His endeavours, however, came to nothing; and though he received £23,000 in compensation in 1813, he lost all faith in the reforming zeal of politicians and officials.

In 1823 he helped to found the Westminster Review to spread the principles of philosophic radicalism. Bentham had been brought up a Tory, but the influence of the political theory of the Enlightenment served to make a democrat of him. As far back as 1809 he had written a tract, A Catechism of Parliamentary Reform, advocating annual elections, equal electoral districts, a wide suffrage, and the secret ballot, which was, however, not published until 1817. He drafted a series of resolutions based on this tract that were introduced in the House of Commons in 1818. A volume of his Constitutional Code, which he did not live to complete, was published in 1830.

After Bentham’s death, in accordance with his directions, his body was dissected in the presence of his friends. The skeleton was then reconstructed, supplied with a wax head to replace the original (which had been mummified), dressed in Bentham’s own clothes and set upright in a glass-fronted case. Both this effigy and the head are preserved in University College, London.

Bentham’s life was a happy one. He gathered around him a group of congenial friends and pupils, such as the philosopher James Mill, father of John Stuart Mill, with whom he could discuss the problems upon which he was engaged. His friends, too, practically rewrote several of his books from the mass of rough though orderly memoranda that Bentham himself prepared. Thus the Rationale of Judicial Evidence, 5 vol. (1827), was put in its finished state by J.S. Mill and the Book of Fallacies (1824) by Peregrine Bingham. The services of Étienne Dumont in recasting as well as translating the works of Bentham were still more important.

Bentham was less a philosopher than a critic of law and of judicial and political institutions. Unfortunately, he was not aware of his limitations. He tried to define what he thought were the basic concepts of ethics, but the majority of his definitions are oversimple or ambiguous or both, and his “felicific calculus,” a method for calculating amounts of happiness, as even his warmest admirers have admitted, cannot be used. As a moralist and psychologist, Bentham has similarly appeared to be inadequate; his arguments, though sometimes elaborate, rest too often on insufficient and ambiguous premises. His analyses of the concepts that men use to describe and explain human behaviour are too simple. He seems to have believed both that man is completely selfish and that everyone ought to promote the greatest happiness, no matter whose. Not even the formula of which he made so much, “the greatest happiness of the greatest number,” possesses a definite meaning.

Given all this, it should be noted that the publication since World War II of Bentham’s previously unknown manuscripts has done much to enhance his reputation as a philosopher of law. His Victorian editor, Sir John Bowring, cut out from Bentham’s work much that was both original and well-argued. The more up-to-date scholarship of such Bentham specialists as Herbert L.A. Hart, J.H. Burns, Frederick Rosen, and Lea Campos-Boralevi has revealed a more rigorous and systematic thinker than the legendary muddled Utilitarian that Bentham appeared to be to earlier generations.

As a critic of institutions Bentham was admirable. In his Rationale of Judicial Evidence he describes the methods that a court should use to get at the truth as quickly as possible; and in the Essay on Political Tactics he describes what he considers the most effective forms of debate for a legislative assembly—an account largely based on the procedure of the House of Commons. In these works and in others Bentham is concerned to discover what makes for efficiency. Though he defines efficiency in terms of happiness, his reader need not do so; or, if he does, he need not think of happiness as Bentham did. Bentham’s assumptions about what makes for happiness are often quite ordinary and sensible; the reader can accept them and still insist that happiness is not to be defined in terms of pleasure and is not to be measured. Whatever is excellent, ingenious, and original in Bentham—and there is a great deal of it—need not depend on the “felicific calculus” and “the greatest happiness of the greatest number.”

John P. Plamenatz




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