The 18th century is known as The Age of Enlightenment or The Age of reason, to stress the rational trend of the period and the attitude according to which reason and judgement should be the guiding principles for human activities . It saw the birth of a new literary movement: Neoclassicism or Rationalism. This movement was greatly influenced by the ideas of John Locke and Isaac Newton. The importance of Newton is clearly seen in the epitaph written by Alexander Pope: “Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night; God said,’ Let Newton be! ‘And all was light”. In his Principia Matematica the scientist showed that the universe was governed by mechanical principles and exact laws rather than by divine ones as it was believed before. He left little place for God and we may say that he destroyed the traditional religious view of the world making God subject to the laws of science. Newton was elected President of the Royal Society, an association of learned man who wanted to promote scientific studies and to try new methods of experiment. Thanks to the research, new discoveries that religion seemed unable to explain, were made and Science became the new authority. It was believed that science and reason would have improved man’s condition turning him into a social being who would conform to the rules of civilised life. Reason , the most important man’s ability, enabled him not only to think but also to act correctly. Man, the only living creature to have it, became important for his power of observation more than for his power of feelings. Reason became the criterion of everything: what could be justified by reason was right and what could not be justified or proved by reason was false and rejected.
Every thing was regulated by reason, nature too. People were attracted by a ‘reasoned Nature‘, as the one we can find in parks or gardens, a nature that reflected order and harmony. To follow nature meant to represent the world as it was, to obey reason. Rationalism, stressing out the importance of reason and observation, started the beginning of the scientific thought and freed man from ignorance. Enlightenment thinkers mostly tended to atheism. They believed that principles should only be accepted on the basis of reason and not on the authority of sacred texts and tradition. In this Age of reason both government and the king had to justify themselves rationally. The belief that the king ruled by Divine Right was questioned. The king and the government ruled by the agreement of the people, by contract which they had to respect.
The importance of reason was also influential in the literature of the time and English literary standards were reformed. The artistic creation, like science, had to follow exact rules and was to be based on reason. The writers modelled much of their works on Classical writers and referred to ancient Greece and Rome using subjects from classical mythology and history. All that brought to the birth of a new movement known as Neoclassicism. The reform was helped by the French writer Nicolas Boileau , who published a book, Art Poetique , which provided the key idea of neoclassicism: in good art inspiration must be controlled by judgement. He listed the rules of good writing: writing should be clear, balanced, ordered, elegant and eloquent. Neoclassicism provided the basis for the Augustan school of writing which dominated the 18th century literature.
The Augustans were so called because they compared their period to that of the Emperor Augustus in ancient Rome, a period of political stability, splendour and tranquillity. They wanted this period of stability to last and attacked everything which threatened to upset it. They thought that ancient art was superior to modern one and often imitated the great Roman classical authors: Vergil, Ovid, Titus Livius and Horace. The Augustans believed that their duty was not to try to be original but to re-express universal truths about mankind. Their Age was characterized by the spirit of the Enlightenment which implied a new way of thinking characterized by philosophical, scientific and rational spirit. As to the contents, they mostly used classical subjects and focused on man in society seen, not as an individual, but as an important piece of a perfect whole, a piece of a perfect mosaic. The artist was seen as he who had to express his knowledge of the world in a rational and objective way. He should not allow his own emotions and prejudices to influence his writing. In order to achieve objectivity , the writer had to write clearly and to use a precise and correct language, a language that all readers had to understand. The language they adopted was the poetic diction, an artificial language which used uncommon and learned words, Latinate and periphrasis. Samuel Johnson published his famous Dictionary and helped to understand the meaning of words. As far as style the authors were allowed to use “wit”, that is attractiveness, clever invention and humour.
Towards the middle of the century there was a reaction against rationalism and writers focused their attention on the individual and on the people’s feelings. This new interest found its expression in a new prose form, the Novel https://rosariomariocapalbo.wordpress.com/2014/01/16/the-18th-century-novelde-foe-swift-richardson-fielding-sterne/. As far as poetry, we have to say that Augustan poetry was of secondary importance and continued the restoration trend for satire and mock-heroic poems written in heroic couplet in which a trivial subject was treated with the seriousness of epic for comic effect. The most important representative was Alexander Pope and his finest work was The Rape of the Lock, telling about a quarrel between two aristocrat families because of a trivial incident: Lord Petre had cut a lock of hair of Miss Arabella Fermor and that action was considered as an insult. Pope wrote it to ridicule the narcissistic attitude of the aristocracy.In the second half of the century new trends started to emerge and the heroic couplet lost its dominant position.
THE TRANSITION AGE
The Age of Neoclassicism was followed by a transitional period also known as Pre-Romanticism. It developed during the last decades of the 18th century. There was a reaction against classicism and reason and a search for new models of poetry taken no longer from ancient Rome and Greece but from the Middle Ages. The period was greatly affected by the French Revolution, the American Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. They provided literature with new themes which began to develop side by side with the old ones. First of all there was a new interest towards the poor and the children, who lived at the margin of society during the Augustan Age. Satire and realism were respectively replaced by sentimentalism and imagination, paving the way to the flourishing of Romanticism. The Age preserved its main features with its emphasis on reason, precision, order, clarity and harmony, but some other features appeared in opposition to them: interest in country life, new way of seeing Nature, different role of Art, new themes based on feelings and so on.
Poetry was no longer concerned with “wit” but with simple feelings and nature. Poetry was pervaded by a melancholic tone and was often associated with meditation on Death. This kind of poetry was remembered as Graveyard Poetry. The poets of the Graveyard Group were melancholic and seek for solitude. Their thoughts were directed towards Death, or the fear of Death, suicide and graves. The settings of their poems were often medieval ruins, caverns, coffins and skeletons. The most important poet of the group was Thomas Gray and his most famous poem was Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, based on the concept of the levelling power of Death. Other poets were Edward Young and Robert Blair, both church ministers. The Graveyard poets influenced the Gothic Novel and the Ossian Poetry which became very popular literary forms especially among they who were unsatisfied with classical novel and poetry and looked for Gothicism, a mixture of both medieval features(ruins, ancient castle and so on) and supernatural. Both poems and novels of this kind were melodramatic, full of horrors and supernatural and set in a medieval context. The most famous Gothic Novels were Frankenstein by Mary Shelley and The Castle of Otranto by Walpole.