The Augustan age: 1700–1750
The late 17th, early 18th century (1689–1750) in English literature is known as the Augustan Age. Writers at this time “greatly admired their Roman counterparts, imitated their works and frequently drew parallels between” contemporary world and the age of the Roman emperor Augustus (27 AD – BC 14) (see Augustan literature (ancient Rome) ). Some of the major writers in this period were John Dryden (1631–1700), Jonathan Swift (1667–1745), William Congreve, (1670–1729), Joseph Addison (1672–1719), Richard Steele (1672–1729), Alexander Pope (1688–1744), Henry Fielding (1707–54), Samuel Johnson (1709–84).
The “invention of British literature”
The Union of the Parliaments of Scotland and England in 1707 to form a single Kingdom of Great Britain and the creation of a joint state by the Acts of Union had little impact on the literature of England nor on national consciousness among English writers. The situation in Scotland was different: the desire to maintain a cultural identity while partaking of the advantages offered by the English literary market and English literary standard language led to what has been described as the “invention of British literature” by Scottish writers. English writers, if they considered Britain at all, tended to assume it was merely England writ large; Scottish writers were more clearly aware of the new state as a “cultural amalgam comprising more than just England”. James Thomson‘s “Rule Britannia!” is an example of the Scottish championing of this new national and literary identity. With the invention of British literature came the development of the first British novels, in contrast to the English novel of the 18th century which continued to deal with England and English concerns rather than exploring the changed political, social and literary environment. Tobias Smollett (1721–71) was a Scottish pioneer of the British novel, exploring the prejudices inherent within the new social structure of Britain through comic picaresque novels. His The Adventures of Roderick Random (1748) is the first major novel written in English to have a Scotsman as hero, and the multinational voices represented in the narrative confront Anglocentric prejudices only two years after the Battle of Culloden. The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771) brings together characters from the extremes of Britain to question how cultural and linguistic differences can be accommodated within the new British identity, and influenced Charles Dickens. Richard Cumberland wrote patriotic comedies depicting characters taken from the “outskirts of the empire,” and intended to vindicate the good elements of the Scots, Irish, and colonials from English prejudice. His most popular play, “The West Indian” (1771) was performed in North America and the West Indies. It was the first English language play known to have been staged in Jersey (on 5 May 1792).; Boden translated it into German, and Goethe acted in it at the Weimar court.
Prose, including the novel
In prose, the earlier part of the period was overshadowed by the development of the English essay. Joseph Addison and Richard Steele‘s The Spectator established the form of the British periodical essay, inventing the pose of the detached observer of human life who can meditate upon the world without advocating any specific changes in it. Periodical essays bloomed into journalistic writings; such as Samuel Johnson‘s “Reports of the Debates of the Senate of Lilliput”, titled to disguise the actual proceeding of parliament as it was illegal for any Parliamentary Reports to be reproduced in print. However, this was also the time when the English novel, first emerging in the Restoration, developed into a major art form. Daniel Defoe turned from journalism and writing criminal lives for the press to writing fictional criminal lives with Roxana and Moll Flanders.
Edward Cave created the first general-interest magazine in 1731 with The Gentleman’s Magazine. He was the first to use the term “magazine” on the analogy of a military storehouse of varied material. The Daily Courant, first published on 11 March 1702 in Fleet Street, was the first British daily newspaper. The News Letter is one of Northern Ireland’s main daily newspapers and is the oldest English language general daily newspaper still in publication in the world, having first been printed in 1737. The Press and Journal is a daily regional newspaper serving the northern counties of Scotland including the cities of Aberdeen and Inverness. Established in 1747, it is Scotland’s oldest daily newspaper. (see also History of British newspapers)
The English pictorial satirist and editorial cartoonist William Hogarth (1697–1764) has been credited with pioneering Western sequential art. His work ranged fromrealistic portraiture to comic strip-like series of pictures called “modern moral subjects”. Much of his work satirises contemporary politics and customs.
The English novel has generally been seen as beginning with Daniel Defoe‘s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Moll Flanders (1722), though John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) and Aphra Behn‘s, Oroonoko (1688) are also contenders, while earlier works such as Sir Thomas Malory‘s Morte d’Arthur, and even the “Prologue” to Geoffrey Chaucer‘s Canterbury Tales have been suggested. The rise of the novel as an important literary genre is generally associated with the growth of the middle class in England. Other major 18th-century British novelists are Samuel Richardson (1689–1761), author of the epistolary novels Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740) and Clarissa (1747–48); Henry Fielding (1707–54), who wrote Joseph Andrews (1742) and The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749).
Anglo-Irish literature achieved an ambiguous independence in the 18th century with the emergence of writers such as Jonathan Swift, whose important early novel Gulliver’s Travels (1726, amended 1735) is both a satire of human nature, as well as a parody of travellers’ tales like Robinson Crusoe.
Drama in the Augustan age
Although documented history of Irish theatre began at least as early as 1601, the earliest Irish dramatists of note were William Congreve (1670–1729), one of the most interesting writers ofRestoration comedies and author of The Way of the World (1700) and playwright, George Farquhar (?1677–1707), The Recruiting Officer (1706). Anglo-Irish drama in the 18th century also includes Charles Macklin (?1699–1797), and Arthur Murphy (1727–1805).
The age of Augustan drama was brought to an end by the censorship established by the Licensing Act 1737. After 1737, authors with strong political or philosophical points to make would no longer turn to the stage as their first hope of making a living, and novels began to have dramatic structures involving only normal human beings, as the stage was closed off for serious authors. Prior to the Licensing Act 1737, theatre was the first choice for most wits. After it, the novel was.
Poetry in the Augustan age
The most outstanding poet of the age is Alexander Pope (1688–1744), whose major works include: The Rape of the Lock (1712; enlarged in 1714); a translation of the Iliad (1715–20); a translation of the Odyssey (1725–26); The Dunciad (1728; 1743). Since his death, Pope has been in a constant state of re-evaluation. His high artifice, strict prosody, and, at times, the sheer cruelty of his satire were an object of derision for the Romantic poets, and it was not until the 1930s that his reputation was revived. Pope is now considered the dominant poetic voice of his century, a model of prosodic elegance, biting wit, and an enduring, demanding moral force. The Rape of the Lock and The Dunciad are masterpieces of the mock-epic genre.
Ellis Wynne‘s Gweledigaetheu y Bardd Cwsc (‘Visions of the Sleeping Bard’), first published in London in 1703, is regarded as a Welsh language classic. It is generally said that no better model exists of such ‘pure’ idiomatic Welsh, before writers had become influenced by English style and method.
A mover in the classical revival of Welsh literature in the 18th century was Lewis Morris, one of the founders in 1751 of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, a Welsh literary society in London—at that time the most important centre of Welsh publishing. He set out to counter the trend among patrons of Welsh literature to turn towards English culture. A writer himself, he circulated prose and poetry in Welsh composed by himself and, to the extent they were satirical, influenced by Swift. He attempted to recreate a classic school of Welsh poetry with his support for Goronwy Owen and other Augustans. Goronwy Owen, when young, had written poetry in Welsh and Latin and returned to the classical tradition in 1751 with the intention of establishing new ideals for Welsh poetry: no longer fawning on patrons but adopting the manner of Horace to express Christian behaviour. His plans for a Miltonic epic were never achieved, but influenced the aims of eisteddfodau competitions through the 19th century.
In the Scots-speaking areas of Ulster there was traditionally a considerable demand for the work of Scottish poets, often in locally printed editions. These included Alexander Montgomerie‘s The Cherrie and the Slae in 1700, over a decade later an edition of poems by Sir David Lindsay, and nine printings of Allan Ramsay‘s The Gentle shepherd between 1743 and 1793.
The Habbie stanza was developed as a Scottish poetic form.
The Scottish Gaelic Enlightenment figure Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair compiled the first secular book in Scottish Gaelic to be printed: Leabhar a Theagasc Ainminnin (1741), a Gaelic-English glossary. The second secular book in Scottish Gaelic to be published was his poetry collection Ais-Eiridh na Sean Chánoin Albannaich (The Resurrection of the Ancient Scottish Language). His lexicography and poetry was informed by his study of old Gaelic manuscripts, an antiquarian interest which also influenced the orthography he employed. As an observer of the natural world of Scotland and a Jacobite rebel, Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair was the most overtly nationalist poet in Gaelic of the 18th century. His Ais-Eiridh na Sean Chánoin Albannaich was reported to have been burned in public by the hangman in Edinburgh. He was influenced by James Thomson’s The Seasons as well as by Gaelic “village poets” such as Iain Mac Fhearchair (John MacCodrum). As part of the oral literature of the Highlands, few of the works of such village poets were published at the time, although some have been collected since.
Scottish Gaelic poets produced laments on the Jacobite defeats of 1715 and 1745. Mairghread nighean Lachlainn and Catriona Nic Fhearghais are among woman poets who reflected on the crushing effects on traditional Gaelic culture of the aftermath of the Jacobite uprisings. A consequent sense of desolation pervaded the works of Scottish Gaelic writers such as Dughall Bochanan which mirrored many of the themes of the graveyard poets writing in England. A legacy of Jacobite verse was later compiled (and adapted) by James Hogg in his Jacobite Reliques (1819).
The first printed Jèrriais literature appears in the first newspapers following the introduction of the printing press at the end of the 18th century. The earliest identified dated example of printed poetry in Jèrriais is a fragment by Matchi L’Gé (Matthew Le Geyt 1777–1849) dated 1795.
The roots of Romanticism: 1750–1798
The second half of the 18th century is sometimes called the “Age of Johnson”. Samuel Johnson (1709–1784), often referred to as Dr Johnson, was an English author who made lasting contributions to English literature as a poet, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor and lexicographer. Johnson has been described as “arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history”. He is also the subject of “the most famous single work of biographical art in the whole of literature”: James Boswell‘s Life of Samuel Johnson (1791). His early works include the poems “London” and “his most impressive poem” “The Vanity of Human Wishes” (1749). Both poems are modelled on Juvenal‘s satires. After nine years of work, Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language was published in 1755; it had a far-reaching effect on Modern English and has been described as “one of the greatest single achievements of scholarship.” This work brought Johnson popularity and success. Until the completion of the Oxford English Dictionary 150 years later, Johnson’s was viewed as the pre-eminent British dictionary. His later works included essays, an influential annotated edition of William Shakespeare’s plays (1765), and the widely read tale Rasselas (1759). In 1763, he befriended James Boswell, with whom he later travelled to Scotland; Johnson described their travels in A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1786). Towards the end of his life, he produced the massive and influential Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (1779–81), a collection of biographies and evaluations of 17th- and 18th-century poets. Through works such as the “Dictionary, his edition of Shakespeare, and his Lives of the Poets in particular, he helped invent what we now call English Literature”.
The second half of the 18th century saw the emergence of three major Irish authors Oliver Goldsmith (1728–1774), Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751–1816) and Laurence Sterne (1713–68). Goldsmith settled in London in 1756, where he published the novel The Vicar of Wakefield (1766), a pastoral poem The Deserted Village (1770) and two plays, The Good-Natur’d Man 1768 and She Stoops to Conquer 1773. This latter was a huge success and is still regularly revived. Sheridan was born in Dublin into a family with a strong literary and theatrical tradition. The family moved to England in the 1750s. His first play, The Rivals 1775, was performed at Covent Garden and was an instant success. He went on to become the most significant London playwright of the late 18th century with plays like The School for Scandal and The Critic. Both Goldsmith and Sheridan reacted against the sentimental comedy of the 18th-century theatre, writing plays closer to the style of Restoration comedy. Sterne published his famous novel Tristram Shandy in parts between 1759 and 1767.
The sentimental novel or the novel of sensibility is a genre which developed during the second half of the 18th century. It celebrates the emotional and intellectual concepts of sentiment, sentimentalism, and sensibility. Sentimentalism, which is to be distinguished from sensibility, was a fashion in both poetry and prose fiction beginning in the eighteenth century in reaction to the rationalism of the Augustan Age. Sentimental novels relied on emotional response, both from their readers and characters. They feature scenes of distress and tenderness, and the plot is arranged to advance emotions rather than action. The result is a valorisation of “fine feeling,” displaying the characters as a model for refined, sensitive emotional effect. The ability to display feelings was thought to show character and experience, and to shape social life and relations. Among the most famous sentimental novels in English are Samuel Richardson‘s Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740), Oliver Goldsmith‘s Vicar of Wakefield (1766), Laurence Sterne‘s Tristram Shandy (1759–67), Sentimental Journey (1768), Henry Brooke‘s The Fool of Quality (1765–70), Henry Mackenzie‘s The Man of Feeling (1771) and Maria Edgeworth‘s Castle Rackrent (1800).
Another novel genre also developed in this period. In 1778, Frances Burney (1752–1840) wrote Evelina, one of the first novels of manners. Social behaviour in public and private settings accounts for much of the plot of Evelina. This is mirrored in other novels that were particularly popular at the beginning of the 19th century, especially those of Jane Austen. Fanny Burney’s novels’ indeed “were enjoyed and admired by Jane Austen“.
The period of intellectual and scientific accomplishments in Scotland in the latter part of the 18th century has been called the Scottish Enlightenment. Important early works were David Hume‘s (1711–76) Treatise on Human Nature (1738) and Essays, Moral and Political (1741). Adam Smith (1723–90) was another important philosopher in Scotland at this time, author of the first modern work of economics, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776). Smith is cited as the “father of modern economics” and is still among the most influential thinkers in the field of economics today. Scottish Common Sense Realism is another important school of philosophy that originated in the ideas of Scottish philosophers Thomas Reid (1710–96), Adam Ferguson (1723–1816) and Dugald Stewart (1753–1828) during the 18th-century Scottish Enlightenment. Scottish philosophy was dominated by Scottish Common Sense Realism, which shared some characteristics with Romanticism, and it would be a major influence on the development of one of the most important offshoots of Romanticism in New England, Transcendentalism, particularly in the writing of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–82).
The Encyclopædia Britannica was first published between 1768 and 1771 in Edinburgh. In part, it was conceived in reaction to the French Encyclopédie of Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert (published 1751–1772), which had been inspired by Chambers’s Cyclopaedia (first edition 1728). The Britannica was primarily a Scottish enterprise; it is one of the most enduring legacies of the Scottish Enlightenment.
The demand for the works of Scottish poets in the Scots-speaking areas of Ulster continued in the second half of the 18th century with nine printings of Allan Ramsay‘s The Gentle shepherd between 1743 and 1793, and an edition of Robert Burns‘ poetry in 1787, the same year as the Edinburgh edition, followed by reprints in 1789, 1793 and 1800. Among other Scottish poets published in Ulster were James Hogg and Robert Tannahill. In 1780, Dumfries poet John Maynemakes note of pranks at Halloween; “What fearfu’ pranks ensue!”, as well as the supernatural associated with the night, “Bogies” (ghosts). Robert Burns’ 1785 poem Halloween is recited by Scots at Halloween, and Burns was influenced by Mayne’s composition.
Some 60 to 70 volumes of Ulster rhyming weaver poetry were published between 1750 and 1850, the peak being in the decades 1810 to 1840. These weaver poets, such as James Orr (1770–1816), looked to Scotland for their cultural and literary models and were not simple imitators but clearly inheritors of the same literary tradition following the same poetic and orthographic practices; it is not always immediately possible to distinguish traditional Scots writing from Scotland and Ulster.
The graveyard poets were a number of pre-Romantic English poets, writing in the 1740s and later, whose works are characterised by their gloomy meditations on mortality, “skulls and coffins, epitaphs and worms” in the context of the graveyard. To this was added, by later practitioners, a feeling for the ‘sublime’ and uncanny, and an interest in ancient English poetic forms and folk poetry. They are often considered precursors of the Gothic genre. The poets include;Thomas Gray (1716–71), whose Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1751) is “the best known product of this kind of sensibility”; William Cowper (1731–1800); Christopher Smart (1722–71); Thomas Chatterton (1752–70); Robert Blair (1699–1746), author of The Grave (1743), “which celebrates the horror of death”; and Edward Young (1683–1765), whose The Complaint, or Night Thoughts on Life, Death and Immortality (1742–45), is another “noted example of the graveyard genre”. Other precursors of Romanticism are the poets James Thomson (1700–48) and James Macpherson (1736–96), the Gothic novel and thenovel of sensibility. Significant foreign influences were the Germans Goethe, Schiller and August Wilhelm Schlegel and French philosopher and writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–78). Edmund Burke‘s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) is another important influence. The changing landscape, brought about by the industrial and agricultural revolutions, with the expansion of the city and depopulation of the countryside, was another influences on the growth of the Romantic movement in Britain. The poor condition of workers, the new class conflicts and the pollution of the environment, led to a reaction against urbanism and industrialisation and a new emphasis on the beauty and value of nature.
Also foreshadowing Romanticism was Gothic fiction, in works such as Horace Walpole‘s 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto. The Gothic fiction genre combines elements of horror and romance. The pioneering gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe introduced the brooding figure of the gothic villain which later developed into the Byronic hero. Her most popular and influential work, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), is frequently cited as the archetypal Gothic novel. Vathek (1786) by William Beckford, and The Monk(1796) by Matthew Lewis, were other notable early works in both the gothic and horror genres. Iolo Morganwg, founder of the Gorsedd, first came to public notice in 1789 when he produced Barddoniaeth Dafydd ab Gwilym, a collection of the poetry of the 14th-century Dafydd ap Gwilym. Included in this edition was a large number of previously unknown poems by Dafydd that he claimed to have discovered; these poems are regarded as Williams’ first literary forgeries. In 1794 he published some of his own poetry, which was later collected in the two-volume Poems, Lyric and Pastoral. Essentially his only genuine work, it proved quite popular.
Although William Williams Pantycelyn was claimed by Saunders Lewis as the first poet of the Romantic movement, and Iolo Morganwg’s antiquarian enthusiasms fed an appetite elsewhere for Romantic ideas, a true movement of Romanticism in Welsh literature only developed in the 19th century when it overlapped with Aestheticism.
James Macpherson (1736–96) was the first Scottish poet to gain an international reputation. Claiming to have found poetry written by the ancient bard Ossian, he published translations that acquired international popularity, being proclaimed as a Celtic equivalent of the Classical epics. Fingal, written in 1762, was speedily translated into many European languages, and its appreciation of natural beauty and treatment of the ancient legend has been credited more than any single work with bringing about the Romantic movement in European, and especially in German literature, through its influence on Johann Gottfried von Herder and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. It was also popularised in France by figures that included Napoleon. Eventually it became clear that the poems were not direct translations from the Gaelic, but flowery adaptations made to suit the aesthetic expectations of his audience. Both Robert Burns (1759–96) and Walter Scott (1771–1832) were highly influenced by the Ossian cycle.
Robert Burns (1759–1796) was a pioneer of the Romantic movement, and after his death he became a cultural icon in Scotland. As well as writing poems, Burns also collected folk songs from across Scotland, often revising or adapting them. His Poems, chiefly in the Scottish Dialect was published in 1786. Among poems and songs of Burns that remain well known across the world are, “Auld Lang Syne”; “A Red, Red Rose“; “A Man’s A Man for A’ That“; “To a Louse“; “To a Mouse“; “The Battle of Sherramuir“; “Tam o’ Shanter” and “Ae Fond Kiss“.
The importance of translation in spreading the influence of English literature to other cultures of the islands can be exemplified by the abridged Manx version of Paradise Lost by John Milton published in 1796 by Thomas Christian. The influence also went the other way as Romanticism discovered inspiration in the literatures and legends of the Celtic countries of the islands. The Ossian hoax typifies the growth of this interest.
The interest in Celtic bards such as the supposed Ossian inspired a reaction in England that saw Shakespeare being termed “the Bard” or the “Bard of Avon”. The 1769 Shakespeare Jubilee was an example of what was derisively called bardolatry as Shakespeare was held up as an example of transcendent genius, the ideal of the Romantic poet.
Romanticism was an artistic, literary, and intellectual movement that originated in Europe toward the end of the 18th century. Various dates are given for the Romantic period in British literature, but here the publishing of Lyrical Ballads in 1798 is taken as the beginning, and the crowning of Queen Victoria in 1837 as its end, even though, for example, William Wordsworth lived until 1850 and William Blake published before 1798. The writers of this period, however, “did not think of themselves as ‘Romantics’ “, and the term was first used by critics of the Victorian period.
The Romantic period was one of major social change in England, because of the depopulation of the countryside and the rapid development of overcrowded industrial cities, that took place in the period roughly between 1750 and 1850. The movement of so many people in England was the result of two forces: the Agricultural Revolution, that involved the Enclosure of the land, drove workers off the land, and the Industrial Revolution which provided them employment, “in the factories and mills, operated by machines driven by steam-power“. Indeed, Romanticism may be seen in part as a reaction to the Industrial Revolution, though it was also a revolt against aristocratic social and political norms of the Age of Enlightenment, as well a reaction against the scientific rationalisation of nature. The French Revolution was an especially important influence on the political thinking of many of the Romantic poets.
The landscape is often prominent in the poetry of this period, so that it the Romantics, especially perhaps Wordsworth, are often described as ‘nature poets’. However, the longer Romantic ‘nature poems’ have a wider concern because they are usually meditations on “an emotional problem or personal crisis”.
The poet, painter, and printmaker William Blake (1757–1827) was one of the first of the English Romantic poets. Largely disconnected from the major streams of the literature of the time, Blake was generally unrecognised during his lifetime, but is now considered a seminal figure in the history of both the poetry and visual arts of the Romantic Age. Considered mad by contemporaries for his idiosyncratic views, Blake is held in high regard by later critics for his expressiveness and creativity, and for the philosophical and mystical undercurrents within his work. Among his most important works are Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1794) “and profound and difficult ‘prophecies’ ” such as Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793), The First Book of Urizen (1794), Milton (1804–?11), and “Jerusalem: the Emanation of the Giant Albion” (1804–?20).
After Blake, among the earliest Romantics were the Lake Poets, a small group of friends, including William Wordsworth (1770–1850), Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834), Robert Southey (1774–1843) and journalist Thomas de Quincey (1785–1859). However, at the time Walter Scott (1771–1832) was the most famous poet. Scott achieved immediate success with his long narrative poem The Lay of the Last Minstrel in 1805, followed by the full epic poem Marmion in 1808. Both were set in the distant Scottish past.
The early Romantic Poets brought a new emotionalism and introspection, and their emergence is marked by the first romantic manifesto in English literature, the “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads (1798). In it Wordsworth discusses what he sees as the elements of a new type of poetry, one based on the “real language of men” and which avoids the poetic diction of much 18th-century poetry. Here, Wordsworth gives his famous definition of poetry, as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions recollected in tranquility” which “takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” The poems in Lyrical Ballads were mostly by Wordsworth, although Coleridge contributed the long “Rime of the Ancient Mariner“, a tragic ballad about the survival of one sailor through a series of supernatural events on his voyage through the south seas which involves the slaying of an albatross. Coleridge is also especially remembered for “Kubla Khan“, “Frost at Midnight“, “Dejection: an Ode”, “Christabel” and his major prose work Biographia Literaria. His critical work, especially on Shakespeare, was highly influential, and he helped introduce German idealist philosophy to English-speaking culture. Coleridge and Wordsworth, along with Thomas Carlyle, were a major influence, through Emerson, on American transcendentalism. Among Wordsworth’s most important poems, are “Michael“, “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey“, “Resolution and Independence“, “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” and the long, autobiographical, epic The Prelude. The Prelude was begun in 1799 but published posthumously in 1850.
Robert Southey (1774–1843) was another of the so-called “Lake Poets“, and Poet Laureate for 30 years from 1813 to his death in 1843. Although his fame has been long eclipsed by that of his contemporaries and friends William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. His most enduring contribution to literary history is perhaps the children’s classic, The Story of the Three Bears, the basis of the original Goldilocks story. Thomas De Quincey (1785–1859) was an English essayist, best known for his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821), an autobiographical account of his laudanum and its effect on his life. William Hazlitt (1778–1830), friend of both Coleridge and Wordsworth, is another important essayist at this time, though today he is best known for his literary criticism, especially Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays (1817–18).
The second generation of Romantic poets includes Lord Byron (1788–1824), Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822) and John Keats (1795–1821). Byron, however, was still influenced by 18th-century satirists and was, perhaps the least ‘romantic’ of the three, preferring “the brilliant wit of Pope to what he called the ‘wrong poetical system’ of his Romantic contemporaries”. Byron achieved enormous fame and influence throughout Europe with works exploiting the violence and drama of their exotic and historical settings. Goethe called Byron “undoubtedly the greatest genius of our century”. However, despite the success of Childe Harold and other works, Byron was forced to leave England for good in 1816 and seek asylum on the Continent, because, among other things, of his alleged incestuous affair with his half-sister Augusta Leigh. Between 1819 and 1824 Byron published his unfinished epic satire Don Juan, which, though initially condemned by the critics, “was much admired by Goethe who translated part of it”.
Though John Keats shared Byron and Shelley’s radical politics, “his best poetry is not political”. but is especially noted for its sensuous music and imagery, along with a concern with material beauty and the transience of life. Among his most famous works are: “The Eve of St Agnes“, “Ode to Psyche“, “La Belle Dame sans Merci“, “Ode to a Nightingale“, “Ode on a Grecian Urn“, “Ode on Melancholy“, “To Autumn” and the incomplete Hyperion, a ‘philosophical’ poem in blank verse, which was “conceived on the model of Milton‘s Paradise Lost “. Keats has always been regarded as a major Romantic “and his stature as a poet has grown steadily through all changes of fashion”. In 1882, Swinburne wrote in the Encyclopædia Britannica that “the Ode to a Nightingale, [is] one of the final masterpieces of human work in all time and for all ages”. More recently critic Helen Vendler stated the odes “are a group of works in which the English language find ultimate embodiment”. Keats’ letters “are among the finest in English” and important “for their discussion of his aesthetic ideas”, including ‘negative capability‘ “.
Percy Shelley, famous for his association with Keats and Byron, was the third major romantic poet of the second generation. Generally regarded as among the finest lyric poets in the English language, Shelley is perhaps best known for poems such as Ozymandias, Ode to the West Wind, To a Skylark, Music, When Soft Voices Die, The Cloud, The Masque of Anarchy and Adonaïs, an elegy written on the death of Keats. Shelley’s early profession of atheism, in the tract “The Necessity of Atheism”, led to his expulsion from Oxford and branded him as a radical agitator and thinker, setting an early pattern of marginalisation and ostracism from the intellectual and political circles of his time. His close circle of admirers, however, included the most progressive thinkers of the day, including his future father-in-law, philosopher William Godwin. A work like Queen Mab (1813) reveal Shelley, “as the direct heir to the French and British revolutionary intellectuals of the 1790s. Shelley became an idol of the next three or four generations of poets, including important Victorian and Pre-Raphaelite poets such as Robert Browning, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Shelley’s influential poem The Masque of Anarchy (1819) calls for nonviolence in protest and political action. It is perhaps the first modern statement of the principle of nonviolent protest. Mahatma Gandhi‘s passive resistance was influenced and inspired by Shelley’s verse, and Gandhi would often quote the poem to vast audiences.
Mary Shelley (1797–1851) is remembered as the author of Frankenstein (1818), an important Gothic novel, as well as being an early example of science fiction. The plot of this is said to have come from a waking dream she had, in the company of Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and John Polidori, following a conversation about galvanism and the feasibility of returning a corpse or assembled body parts to life, and on the experiments of the 18th-century natural philosopher and poet Erasmus Darwin, who was said to have animated dead matter. Sitting around a log fire at Byron’s villa, the company also amused themselves by reading German ghost stories, prompting Byron to suggest they each write their own supernatural tale.
Another important poet in this period was John Clare (1793–1864), Clare was the son of a farm labourer, who came to be known for his celebratory representations of the English countryside and his lamentation for the changes taking place in rural England. Between 1820 and 1841 Clare published for collections of poems. His poetry underwent a major re-evaluation in the late 20th century and he is often now considered to be among the most important 19th-century poets. His biographer Jonathan Bate states that Clare was “the greatest labouring-class poet that England has ever produced. No one has ever written more powerfully of nature, of a rural childhood, and of the alienated and unstable self”.
George Crabbe (1754–1832) was an English poet who, during the Romantic period, wrote “closely observed, realistic portraits of rural life […] in the heroic coupletsof the Augustan age“. Lord Byron who was an admirer of Crabbe’s poetry, described him as “nature’s sternest painter, yet the best”. Modern critic Frank Whitehead has said that “Crabbe, in his verse tales in particular, is an important–indeed, a major–poet whose work has been and still is seriously undervalued.” Crabbe’s works include The Village (1783), Poems (1807), The Borough (1810), and his poetry collections Tales (1812) and Tales of the Hall (1819).
Major novelists in this period were the Englishwoman Jane Austen (1775–1817) and the Scotsman Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832), while Gothic fiction of various kinds also flourished. Austen’s works satirise the novels of sensibility of the second half of the 18th century and are part of the transition to 19th-century realism. Her plots, though fundamentally comic, highlight the dependence of women on marriage to secure social standing and economic security. Austen brings to light the hardships women faced, who usually did not inherit money, could not work and where their only chance in life depended on the man they married. She reveals not only the difficulties women faced in her day, but also what was expected of men and of the careers they had to follow. This she does with wit and humour and with endings where all characters, good or bad, receive exactly what they deserve. Austen’s work brought her little personal fame and only a few positive reviews during her lifetime, but the publication in 1869 of her nephew’s A Memoir of Jane Austen introduced her to a wider public, and by the 1940s she had become accepted as a major writer. The second half of the 20th century saw a proliferation of Austen scholarship and the emergence of a Janeite fan culture. Austen’s works include Pride and Prejudice (1813) Sense and Sensibility (1811), Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1815) and Persuasion (1818).
The most important British novelist at the beginning of the early 19th century was Sir Walter Scott, who was not only a highly successful British novelist, but “the greatest single influence on fiction in the 19th century […] [and] a European figure”. Scott’s novel writing career was launched in 1814 with Waverley, often called the first historical novel, and was followed by Ivanhoe. The Waverley Novels, including The Antiquary, Old Mortality, The Heart of Midlothian, and whose subject is Scottish history, are now generally regarded as Scott’s masterpieces. He was one of the most popular novelist of the era and his historical romances inspired a generation of painters, composers, and writers throughout Europe, including Franz Schubert, Felix Mendelssohn and J. M. W. Turner. His novels also inspired many operas, of which the most famous are Lucia di Lammermoor(1835) by Donizetti and Bizet‘s, La jolie fille de Perth, The Fair Maid of Perth (1867). However, Austen is today widely read and the source for films and television series, while Scott is neglected.
Ewen MacLachlan (Gaelic: Eoghan MacLachlainn) (1775–1822) was a Scots poet of this period who translated the first eight books of Homer‘s Iliad into Scottish Gaelic. He also composed and published his own Gaelic Attempts in Verse (1807) and Metrical Effusions (1816), and contributed greatly to the 1828 Gaelic–English Dictionary.