Lecture 10 History of English Literature

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  • Lecture 10
  • History of English Literature
  • COMSATS Virtual Islamabad

Outline of the lecture

  • The 18th century literature
  • Division of Age
  • Novel in 18th century (Introduction)
  • Drama in 18th century (Introduction)
  • The age of Pope
    • Poetry
    • Prose
    • Eminent figures during this age


  • Classical Age or the Augustan Age in literature.
  • the Age of Good Sense or the Age of Reason.
  • Though Dryden belonged to the seventeenth century, he is also included in the Classical or Augustan Age, as during his time the characteristics of his age had manifested themselves and he himself represented them to a great extent. Other great literary figures who dominated this age successively were Pope and Dr. Johnson.. 


  • The Classical Age is divided into three distinct periods—
    • The Ages of Dryden
    • The age of Pope
    • The Age of Dr. Johnson

The 18th Century Literature

  • The Eighteenth Century is called the Classical Age in English literature on account of three reasons.
  • In the first place, the term ‘classic’, refers in general, applies to writers of the highest rank in any nation. This term was first applied to the works of the great Greek and Roman writers, like Homer and Virgil.
  • As the writers of the eighteenth century in England tried to follow the simple and noble methods of the great ancient writers, they began to be called Classical writers.


  • In the second place, in every national literature there is a period when a large number of writers produce works of great merit; such a period is often called the Classical Period or Age. For example, the reign of Augustus is called the Classical Age of Rome; and the Age of Dante is called the Classical Age of Italian literature. As during the eighteenth century in England there was an abundance of literary productions, the critics named it the Classical Age in English literature.


  • In the third place, during this period the English writers rebelled against the exaggerated and fantastic style of writing prevalent during the Elizabethan and Puritan ages, and they demanded that poetry, drama and prose should follow exact rules. In this they were influenced by French writers, especially by Boileau and Rapin, who insisted on precise methods of writing poetry, and who professed to have discovered their rules in the classics of Horace and Aristotle.
  • The eighteenth century is called the Classical Age, because the writers followed the ‘classicism’ of the ancient writers, which was taken in a narrow sense to imply fine polish and external elegance. 


  • As the eighteenth century writers in England followed the ancient classical writers only in their external performance, and lacked their sublimate and grandeur, their classicism is called pseudo-classicism i.e. a false or sham classicism.

Age of Reason

  • The eighteenth century is also called the Age of Reason or the Age of Good Sense, because the people thought that they could stand on their own legs and be guided in the conduct of their affairs by the light of their own reason unclouded by respect for Ancient precedent.


  • They began to think that undue respect for authority of the Ancients was a great source of error, and therefore in every matter man should apply his own reason and commonsense. Even in literature where the prespect for classical art forms and the rules for writing in those forms gave the defenders of the Ancients a decided advantages, critics could declare that the validity of the rules of art was derived from Reason rather than from Ancient Authority.


  • Realism and Precision
    • They are found in their excellent form in the poetry of Pope, who perfected the heroic couplet, and in the prose of Addison who developed it into a clear, precise and elegant form of expression. 


  • The third characteristic of this age was the development of satire as a form of literature, which resulted from the unfortunate union of politics with literature. The wings and the Tories—members of two important political parties which were constantly contending to control the government of the country—used and rewarded the writers for satirising their enemies and undermining their reputation. Moreover, as a satire is concerned mainly with finding fault with the opponents, and is destructive in its intention, it cannot reach the great literary heights

Novel in 18th Century

  • Another important feature of this age was the origin and development of the novel. This new literary form, which gained great popularity in the succeeding ages, and which at present holds the prominent place, was fed and nourished by great masters like Defoe, Richardson, Fielding, Smollet and others who laid its secure foundations. The realism of the age and the development of an excellent prose style greatly helped in the evolution of the novel during the eighteenth century.

Drama in 18th Century

  • The eighteenth century was deficient in drama, because the old Puritanic prejudice against the theatre continued, and the court also withdrew its patronage. Goldsmith and Sheridan were the only writers who produced plays having literary merit.

Division of Age

  • The Age of Pope
  • The Age of Johnson

The Age of Pope (1700-1744)

  • The earlier part of the eighteenth century or the Augustan Age in English literature is called the Age of Pope, because Pope was the dominating figure in that period.
  • Though there were a number of other important writers like Addison and Swift, but Pope was the only one who devoted himself completely to literature.

(a)  Poetry

  • It was the Classical school of poetry which dominated the poetry of the Age of Pope. During this age the people were disgusted with the profligacy and frivolity of the Restoration period, and they insisted upon those elementary decencies of life and conduct which were looked at with contempt by the preceding generation.

The poets had no sympathy for the fanaticism and religious zeal of the Puritans who were out to ban even the most innocent means of recreation.

  • The poets had no sympathy for the fanaticism and religious zeal of the Puritans who were out to ban even the most innocent means of recreation.
  • So they wanted to follow the middle path in everything and steer clear of the emotional as well as moral excesses.
  • They insisted on the role of intelligence in everything. The poets of this period are deficient on the side of emotion and imagination.
  • Conti.

In the second place, the poets of this age are more interested in the town, and the ‘cultural’ society. They have no sympathy for the humbler aspects of life—the life of the villagers, the shepherds; and no love for nature, the beautiful flowers, the songs of birds, and landscape as we find in the poets of the Romantic period. Though they preached a virtuous life, they would not display any feeling which smacked of enthusiasm and earnestness.

  • In the second place, the poets of this age are more interested in the town, and the ‘cultural’ society. They have no sympathy for the humbler aspects of life—the life of the villagers, the shepherds; and no love for nature, the beautiful flowers, the songs of birds, and landscape as we find in the poets of the Romantic period. Though they preached a virtuous life, they would not display any feeling which smacked of enthusiasm and earnestness.
  • Conti.


  • Naturally they had no regard for the great poets of the human heart—Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton.
  • They had no attachment for the Middle Ages and their tales of chivalry, adventure and visionary idealism. Spenser, therefore, did not find favour with them.


  • Prose being the prominent medium of expression, the rules of exactness, precision and clarity, which were insisted in the writing of prose, also began to be applied to poetry. It was demanded of the poet to say all that he had to say in a plain simple and clear language. The result was that the quality of suggestiveness which adds so much to the beauty and worth of poetry was sadly lacking in the poetry of this age. The meaning of poetry was all on the surface, and there was nothing which required deep study and varied interpretation.

Alexandar Pope (1688-1744).

  • Pope is considered as the greatest poet of the Classical period.
  • Being a Catholic he had to labour under various restrictions.
  • He was highly intellectual, extremely ambitious and capable of tremendous industry. These qualities brought him to the front rank of men of letters, and during his lifetime he was looked upon as a model poet.


  • The main quality of Pope’s poetry is its correctness.
  • It was at the age of twenty-three that he published his Essay on Criticism (1711) and since then till the end of his life he enjoyed progidious reputation.
  • In this essay Pope insists on following the rules discovered by the Ancients, because they are in harmony with Nature:
  • Those rules of old discovered, not devised Are Nature still, but Nature methodised.

The Rape of the Lock by Pope

  • Pope’s next work, The Rape of the Lock, is in some ways his masterpiece. It is ‘mock heroic’ poem in which he celebrated the theme of the stealth, by Lord Petre of lock of hair from the head of Miss Arabella. Though the poem is written in a jest and deals with a very insignificant event, it is given the form of an epic, investing this frivolous event with mock seriousness and dignity.

Other poets in the age of Pope

  • During his age Pope was by far the greatest of all poets.
  • There were a few minor poets—
      • Matthew Prior
      • John Gay, Edward Young
      • Thomas Pernell
      • Lady Winchelsea

Matthew Prior (1664-1721)

    • Who was a diplomat and active politician wrote two long poems: Solomon on the Vanity of The World and Alma or the Progress of the Mind.These are serious poems, but the reputation of Prior rests on ‘light verse’ dealing with trifling matters. He is not merely a light-hearted jester, but a true humanist, with sense of tears as well as laughter as is seen in the “Lines written in the beginning of Mezeraly’sHistory of France’.

John Gay (1685-1732)

  • is the master of vivid description or rural scenes as well of the delights of the town. Like Prior he is full of humour and good temper. As a writer oflyrics, and in the handling of the couplet, he shows considerable technical skill. His best-known works are: --Rural Sports; Trivia, or the Art of Walking the Streets of London; Black-Eyed Susan and some Fables.

Edward Young (1683-1765)

  • Is his Universal Passions showed himself as skilful a satirist as Pope. His best-known work is The Night Thoughts which, written in blank verse, shows considerable technical skill and deep thought.

Thomas Parnell (1679-1718)

  • excelled in translations. His best known works are theThe Night-Piece on Death and Hymn to Contentment, which have a freshness of outlook and metrical skill.

Lady Winchelsea (1660-1725),

  • Though a follower of Pope, showed more sincerity and genuine feeling for nature than any other poet of that age. Her Nocturnal Reveriemay be considered as the pioneer of the nature poetry of the new Romantic age.


  • The poetry of the age of Pope is not of a high order, but it has distinct merits—the finished art of its satires; the creation of a technically beautiful verse; and the clarity and succinctness of its expression.

(b)  Prose of the Age of Pope

  • The great prose writers of the Age of Pope were:
    • Defoe
    • Addison
    • Steele and Swift.
    • The prose of this period exhibits the Classical qualities—clearness, vigour and direct statement.

Daniel Defoe (1661-1731)

  • is the earliest literary journalist in the English language.
  • He wrote on all sorts of subjects—social, political, literary, and brought out about 250 publications. He owes his importance, in literature, however, mainly to his works of fiction which were simply the offshoots of his general journalistic enterprises. As a journalist he was fond of writing about the lives of famous people who had just died, and of notorious adventurers and criminals. At the age of sixty he turned his attention to the writing of prose fiction, and published his first novel—Robinson Cruso—the book by which he is universally known. It was followed by other works of fiction—The Memoirs of a Cavalier, Captain Singleton, Moll Flanders, Colonel Jack, Roxana and Journal of the Plague Year.

Jonathan Swift (1667-1745)

  • was the most powerful and original genius of his age.
  • His best-known work,Gulliver’s Travels, which is a very popular children’s book, is also a bitter attack on contemporary political and social life in particular, and on the meanness and littleness of man in general. 
  • The Tale of a Tub which, like Gulliver’s Travels, exposes the weakness of the main religious beliefs opposed to Protestant religion, is also a satire upon all science and philosophy.
  • His Journal to Stellawhich was written to Esther Johnson whom Swift loved, is not only an excellent commentary on contemporary characters and political events
  • The Battle of Books, in which he championed the cause of the Ancients against the Moderns.

Joseph Addison (1672-1719) and Sir Richard Steele (1672-1729)

  • who worked in collaboration, were the originators of the periodical essay. Steele who was more original led the way by founding The Tatler, the first of the long line of eighteenth century periodical essays.
  • This was followed by the most famous of them The Spectator, is which Addison, who had formerly contributed to Steele’s Tatler, now became the chief partner. It began on March 1, 1711, and ran till December 20, 1714 with a break of about eighteen months.
  • In its complete form it contains 635 essays. Of these Addisonwrote 274 and Steele 240; the remaining 121 were contributed by various friends.

Review of the Lecture

  • 18th century Literature
  • Age of Pope
  • Poetry and prose during the age of Pope
  • Well know writers during this age


  • A Critical History of English Literature by David Daiches
  • A Critical History of English Literature by Dr. Mullik

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