'The Enlightenment' is the term that describes the
philosophical movement in the 18th century in which great
emphasis was placed on the power of human reason, and
traditional religion and politics were critically reviewed. Its
roots ran deep and spread themselves widely, but major branches
can be traced to the 'scientific revolution' of the late 17th
century, to the classical writers of Louis XIV's France, to the
thought of Blaise Pascal and to the philosopher
(1596-1650), who placed the reasoning human being firmly at the
centre of the universe: 'I think therefore I am'. The
Enlightenment encouraged innovation and experiment (even
Tristram Shandy is its product), and politically it laid the
ideological basis for
the American and French Revolutions.
The term enlightenment originally came from
the German Aufkldrung, and the 'age of reason'
was not, of course, an exclusively French
phenomenon, but an international movement.
Some of the leading thinkers were German
(Kant), or Scottish (Hume), for example, and the
French philosophes saw themselves as the heirs
as well as of fellow Frenchmen such as,
Baron de Montesquieu (1689-1775) published his Persian
Letters in 1721, a highly satirical view of the autocratic
French state as seen by Persian visitors, but his greatest work
was the Spirit of the Laws (1748). It compared the French
Constitution unfavourably with the English, where power was more
broadly spread, and was an important influence on the framers of
the U.S. Constitution. The oldest of the leading philosophes,
Montesquieu was a kind of forerunner for the three leading
An orphan of Swiss Protestant background,
(1712—78) was the Enlightenment's wild card. A wanderer, erratic
(he quarrelled with almost everybody) and unstable (he died
insane), his intellectual brilliance was breathtaking. Best
known for the political theories, notably the doctrine of the
general will, expressed in the Social Contract (1762), in the
same year he published Emile, a treatise on education in
It would be hard to exaggerate the influence of these works on
Rousseau believed that natural man — the
'noble savage' -had been perverted by society; he emphasized
individual liberty and the inward life. Unlike the other
philosophes, he did not believe that art and science, or
material progress, contributed to the improvement of human
beings, rather that they had corrupted them. He did not share
the common faith in the power of reason, and in many ways he had
more m common with the later Romantics than with the thinking of
the Englightenment. Of
Rousseau's other writings, most memorable
are his Confessions, a uniquely candid autobiography published
after his death, in which Rousseau in his last years struggled
to come to terms with his own extraordinary self.
Jean-Michel Moreau le Jeune
"Age of Louis XIV"
It is hard to imagine two people more dissimilar than
and Francois Marie Arouet, known as
Voltaire (1694-1778). A
gentleman of great wit and polish, rational, well-balanced — in
another age he would have been the perfect courtier. But as a
free-thinker and a devastating critic of the ancien regime, his
ideas earned him the hostility of Church and State, resulting m
a prison term, a period of exile m England and long-term
exclusion from Paris. From 1750 until they quarrelled in 1753,
he was closely associated as adviser and friend with Frederick
the Great, the 'enlightened despot' of Prussia. He spent his
later years, for safety, at Ferney just inside the border from
The great universal genius of the Enlightenment,
Voltaire was a
staggeringly productive writer, who earned contemporary fame
primarily as a playwright, though he is best known for his
philosophical and satirical works, in various forms, and as a
historian. His Philosophical Letters (1734) celebrated his
belief in political and religious liberty, and he summed up his
ideas with characteristic wit and clarity in his Philosophical
Dictionary (1764). His greatest work in modern eyes, however, is
Candide (1759), a philosophical tale (a genre that
invented), whose hero puts up with a series of misfortunes on
the basis of the ironic motto that All is for the best m the
best of all possible worlds', but eventually becomes
disillusioned, concluding that the world is beyond hope and the
only solution is to stay at home and 'cultivate our garden".
Denis Diderot (1713—84) was another polymath, whose early work
was translations from English (Diderot was perfectly fluent in
several languages), essays on various sub|ects (an attack on
religion landed him in prison) and plays for the new, bourgeois
theatre. He originated and, against the opposition of the
government and other obstacles, brought to a conclusion over
more than twenty years the single greatest product of the
Enlightenment, the famous Encyclopedia, published in 35 volumes
from 1751. A genial man as well as a determined and industrious
Diderot secured contributions from his fellow philosophes,
Rousseau, who wrote on music as well as
The work began as a translation of the
Cyclopedia of Ephraim Chambers (no relation to the modern firm),
but developed into something far greater, aiming to cover all
human knowledge and coming very close to achieving such an
was a rationalist and a materialist, and
also the son of a tradesman - one of the most remarkable
features of the Encyclopedia is its coverage of contemporary
technology, with detailed engravings.
Diderot's numerous other
writings included Ramean's Nephew (first published much later in
a German translation by
Goethe), a witty and satirical novel or
dialogue now generally considered his masterpiece, and Jacques
le Fataliste (not published until 1796) which was influenced by
POPE AND HIS CONTEMPORARIES
'True ease in writing comes from art, not chance, As those
move easiest who have learn'd to dance.' The heroic couplet,
effectively exploited by
Dryden and made famous by
to be an appropriate verse form for the age of reason, being
clear, simple and ordered. It was not, however, the only kind of
poetry being written, nor - in spite of
Pope's famous statement
that 'The proper study of mankind is man' - were 18th-century
poets exclusively concerned with human society and institutions.
The countryside was coming into vogue, long before the
Romantics, and there was a common preoccupation
with death and graveyards.
of the Lock"
Illustration by Aubrey
The death of Alexander Pope from Museus, a threnody by William Mason.
Diana holds the dying Pope,
and John Milton,
Edmund Spenser, and Geoffrey Chaucer prepare to welcome him to heaven.
Alexander Pope (1688—1744) was one
of the greatest of English poets (and one of the most quotable).
His sensitive and elegant Pastorals were written at the age of 16, and he was
only 31 when the publication of his collected works established
him firmly as the greatest contemporary figure in English
literature. Though he did not have the vision of a Milton or the
passion of a Wordsworth, he had a penetrating moral sense and a
commitment to the pursuit of perfection, evident m his 'Essay on
Man' (1733). Не was at his best as a satirist, and 'The Rape of
the Lock' (I712) is his most sparkling work in the comic vein.
The title refers to an incident in society in which a young
gentleman cut off a lock of hair from a lady he admired. The
incident caused an absurd, but serious, quarrel.
it in hilarious, mock-heroic style, which only made matters
worse! Apart from his uncompleted magnum opus of which the
'Essay on Man' formed the first part.
Pope's greatest work was
his translation of
Homer which, though more
still a huge achievement and made Pope perhaps the first English
writer other than dramatists able to live - and in some style -
on the profits from his pen.
Pope's health was fragile from childhood, he was almost a dwarf
(4ft 6in), wore a corset to support his spine and needed help
dressing. These circumstances may help to explain his
reputation for antagonizing friends and perhaps his capacity for
writing some of the most vitriolic invective in literature. In
the Romantic period. Pope fell from favour, and he has only been
again appreciated at his true worth in the 20th century.
"She Stoops to Conquer"
The heroic couplet was also employed by
Samuel Johnson, by
John Gay and by
Goldsmith. Gay (1685-1732), however, is best known
for his evergreen musical play
"The Beggar's Opera", which
Swift's suggestion for a 'Newgate [prison]
pastoral'. Gay writing the lyrics which were set to the tunes of
popular contemporary ballads. First performed in 1728, it is
said to have been the most successful play ever presented in
London up to that time. Since 1928 it has taken on new life in
the form of the Brecht-Weill adaptation, The Threepenny Opera.
Oliver Goldsmith (died 1774) was blessed with
immense natural talents that were never quite fulfilled, perhaps
because, in spite of a large and varied output, there was a
certain indolence about him. Apart from the two poems, 'The Traveller' and 'The Deserted Village', based on childhood
memories of Ireland, he was the author of a famous comedy;
"She Stoops to Conquer", frequently revived, and a memorable novel,
still read, The Vicar of Wakefield.
James Thomson (1700—48) preferred blank verse for his four-part
The Seasons, which exemplified the theme of Nature, always
present in English literature and now becoming more evident,
Thomson himself has never been quite as popular as he was
in his own time. Nature was generally preferred in orderly garb.
People were becoming interested in landscapes and views, and the
improvement m roads and carriages meant that it was possible for
the well-off to view and admire their parklands in comfort.
Others, however, found the countryside encouraged more
Of the so-called 'churchyard school' of poets, outstanding was
Thomas Gray (1716-71), whose 'Elegy Written in a Country
Churchyard' is one of the most familiar poems in the language.
Gloom, depression and thoughts of death represent the dark side
of the Age of Reason. The funniest poem of the era, the
rollicking 'John Gilpin' was written by
(1731-1800) while he was suffering intense mental torment. But
Cowper's masterpiece is The Task (1785), which was written when
that struggle was largely won, thanks partly to
interest in quotidian detail overpowering metaphysical gloom.
His description of rural scenes is in simple, unpretentious
language, signifying the change from the formal, classical style
of Pope and his contemporaries to the more intimate style of the
William Hogarth A Scene from the Beggar's Opera
'All nature is but art unknown to thee:
All chance, direction which thou canst not see:
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good;
And, spite of pride, in erring reason's spite.
One truth is clear, "Whatever IS, is RIGHT."'
Pope, An Essay on Man, Epistle i, 289,
The period from the late 17th to mid-18th century, roughly
from Dryden to
Johnson, is sometimes called the Augustan Age, in
complimentary reference to the reign of the Emperor Augustus,
the golden age of Classical Roman art and literature. It is
characterized by elegance of style, precision, orderliness, good
sense and a dislike of extremes, a classic example being
Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-88). The
term was occasionally used by contemporaries:
Goldsmith wrote an
essay on 'The Augustan Age in England', but the presiding genius
of English literature in the 18th century was
Prince of Abyssinia"
OF THE POETS"
By popular convention,
Johnson is called 'Dr Johnson' though his
doctorate was honorary, awarded by his old university, Oxford,
in 1775. Modern critics would like to stop this habit, but it is
probably too late. Anyway, it suits him.
He was born in Lichfield, son of a bookseller who died in 1731 leaving his
Johnson worked as a school teacher in the
Midlands and in 1735 married a widow nearly twice his age. It
proved a successful marriage. After an attempt to found their
own school in Lichfield, they moved to London in 1737, bringing
with them a former pupil, David Garrick, soon to become the
greatest actor of the age.
Johnson, who had already clone some
provincial journalism, found a useful patron in Edward Cave,
proprietor of The Gentleman's Magazine, for which he wrote a
profusion of verses, essays and political pieces. From 1747 he
worked sporadically on his Dictionary of the English Language. His poem, 'The Vanity of Human Wishes', his
longest and best, was published in 1749 and his tragedy Irene,
written years earlier, was staged by the loyal Garrick in the
same year (it has rarely been staged since).
MAN OF LETTERS
Backed by Cave, in 1752
Johnson started a twice-weekly
periodical, The Rambler. It ran for two years and was almost
entirely written, anonymously, by Johnson himself, an
extraordinary workload. But writers were ill-paid, and Johnson
barely scraped a living, in spite of his industry. The
Dictionary was published in 1755, but
Johnson was fully occupied
writing articles, essays and reviews for a variety of journals,
as well as biographies. In 1759, his Prince of Abyssinia, later
known as Rasselas and usually categorized as a 'philosophical
romance', was published. It demonstrated, with kindly wisdom,
that no human occupation is a recipe for happiness. He wrote it
in the evenings, allegedly in a week, to pay for his mother's
funeral and pay off his debts. A government pension of £300 a
year, awarded in 1762, cased his circumstances somewhat. In 1765
he published his edition of Shakespeare's plays, with its long
and intelligent preface.
Johnson had many friends and in 1764 he and the painter Joshua
Reynolds (first president of the Royal Academy) founded their
literary club, which met in a London tavern. Among those who
attended were Garrick, the politicians Charles James Fox and
Sheridan and a young Scottish lawyer,
Johnson was a humane and affectionate man and he
was also a writer who talked as well as (perhaps better than) he
wrote. He was the dominant figure on the literary scene, and his
opinions - always intelligent, often dogmatic - were eagerly
sought on every subject. At Boswell's suggestion, they
undertook a journey together to the Western Isles of Scotland in
1773, only a generation after the terrible destruction of
Johnson was then sixty-four and they both wrote
fascinating accounts of their travels in the Highlands.
Johnson's last major work was his Lives of the Poets (1781), 52
biographies displaying great learning, sympathy and
characteristically provocative opinions.
Johnson was a great literary scholar, a fine writer and an
excellent critic, as well as a fascinating and likable man.
However, the great reputation he enjoys to this day is due in no
small part to the famous biography by his friend and admirer,
James Boswell, probably the greatest biography in English
literature, and published seven years after
Boswell collected data for years, having gained
approval for the project after the great man had read (in
Boswell's account of their journey to the Hebrides.
Boswell's methods were in fact those recommended by Johnson in a
piece on the subject in The Rambler; his legal training
encouraged accuracy (few errors have been found in the account
Johnson's life before
Boswell knew him) and, most important,
he had a remarkable ability to get the best out of his subject
Johnson, who expressed lively opinions on
everything, is one of the most quoted figures in literature
-thanks largely to
During the 17th century, Scottish writers tended to write
more in English than in Scots, a tendency encouraged by the Act
of Union (1707). On the one hand, the extraordinarily vivid
language of, for example,
Sir Thomas Urquhart (died c.1660), the
Rabelais into Scots, was lost. On the other hand,
some of the finest English prose of the 18th century was written
by Scots (this was the period when Edinburgh gained its
reputation as the 'Athens of the North').
These writers included
Adam Smith, the author of the
seminal work on political economy, The Wealth of Nations (1776);
James Boswell, the biographer of
Johnson; and the novelist
Tobias Smollet. 'Is it not strange', asked
Hume, 'that, at a
time when we have lost our . . . independent Government, . . .
speak a very corrupt Dialect of the Tongue in which we make use
of ... that . . . we shou'd really be the People most
distinguish'd for Literature in Europe?' Two writers in
particular were to spread the fame of Scottish literature far
and wide and at the same time restore national pride and
Robert Burns and
Scotland's national poet,
Robert Burns (1759-96) has become a
cult figure. Communist leaders invariably cite him as their
favourite British poet. His early verse was written in the early'
1780s whilst working a farm at Mossgiel, Ayrshire, with his
brother (and finding time for a vigorous love life). The best
poems, including the famous 'To a Mouse", were published in the
first 1786 edition of Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. It
made him instantly famous, and he went to Edinburgh where he was
lionized by the literati as a rustic genius, the 'Heaven-taught
Although it encouraged his taste for material
enjoyments and provoked a few experiments in a more Augustan'
style, this literary acclaim left him unmoved. His stature was
enhanced by his genial, gregarious good nature and handsome
appearance, but more importantly by his reworking of hundreds of
traditional songs, including 'Auld Lang Syne', 'Ye Banks and
Braes', 'Scots Wha Наe', and dozens of others equally familiar.
Burns was able to buy a farm at Ellisland with his
former paramour, now wife, Jean Armour. Life was still hard, and
Burns joined the Excise Service to raise his income. His support
for the early stages of the French Revolution disconcerted some
admirers, and in 1792 he gave up the farm and moved to Dumfries.
The major work of his last years was his narrative masterpiece,
'Tamn O'Shanter". Rheumatic fever weakened his heart and he
died at 37.
In spite of poverty,
Burns had a sound if basic education. He
was also a voracious reader who knew English and French poetry
intimately, but he acknowledged the influence of Scottish
predecessors, notably the poets Allan Ramsay and Robert
Fergusson. He wrote with equal ease m formal English and in his
native Scots, sometimes shifting from one to the other in the
same poem (e.g. 'The Cotter's Saturday Night'), though some
critics feel that the racy vigour of Scots lends something extra
to his poems - songs, satires, animal poems, letters in verse -
in the vernacular.
His poems in both are notable for
broad-minded tolerance and a strong emphasis on human nature,
good and ill. He gave Scotsmen an attractive image: 'more human
than most, warm-hearted and open-handed to a fault, great
drinkers and lovers and sturdy fighters for freedom and the
rights of man' (Sir Fitzroy Maclean). For Scots everywhere.
Burns Night (25 January, his birthday) is a great festival,
where haggis, neaps and tatties are consumed along with a
patriotic quantity of the national beverage.
Ossian Receiving the Ghosts of Fallen French Heroes
A 'bosom favourite' of
Henry Mackenzie's The Wan of
Feeling (1771), a 'sentimental' novel in both the 18th-century
sense and the more critical modern sense.
Mackenzie was later
the chairman of the group set up to investigate the origins of Fingal, An Ancient
Epic Poem, in Six Books, published by
Macpherson in 1762.
It purported to be a translation of a work
by an ancient Scottish-Irish bard, Ossian.
Macpherson had hinted
at the existence of such an epic in an earlier collection of
Fragments of Ancient Poetry . . . collected by him and
translated from the Gaelic. Ossian had a huge impact, not only
on Scots delighted at this unknown national treasure, but also
throughout Europe, and especially in Germany. But there were
doubts, two formidable sceptics being
David Hume and
Mackenzie's panel confirmed (after
Macpherson's death) that the
work consisted of freely edited Gaelic fragments, plus
Macpherson's own compositions. Nevertheless, it is a truly
remarkable work; the fact that it was proved to be largely a
fake hardly diminished its popularity, and perhaps
fame - and large profits - were after all deserved.