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Literary forms.

During the early eighteenth century, satire pervaded all forms of literature. In narrative prose, the satiric travel book or tale served to mock current events and ideas. (Satire is not a single form but rather an attitude of attack or parody that can inhabit almost any established form of literature.)

The Novel

By the 1740s, however, a new form, the novel, came to dominance. While some novels contained satiric elements, the novel's main function was to develop images of real life, with authentic-seeming characters working their way through the common problems of courtship, marriage or worldly survival, succeeding in ways with which the reader could identify and sympathize. The basic plot of the eighteenth-century novel showed the hero or heroine finding a path through the maze of society's restrictions and demands, hoping to keep his or her integrity along the way. Brevity was not valued; the reader was assumed to have plenty of time to linger over all the circumstantial details and to follow all the turns of an extended plot. While some novels had a single narrator, like the earlier epic poems, many others were told as a series of letters between various correspondents (epistolary novels), yielding multiple points of view and, usually, some lengthy redundancy.


Very little lyric poetry was produced in the first quarter of the century, a time when satiric wit rather than sincere feeling was central. But a reaction developed, beginning with poets of nature who used the landscape as a setting on which to project their emotions. These poets tended to find their models among the medieval and Renaissance poets and in the folk tradition of popular lyrics and ballads. Shakespeare's reputation rose while Dryden's declined. The ballads, elegies, and odes these poets composed looked back with nostalgia and melancholy at the long and, the poets thought, declining history of England.


Lacking court patronage and an elite audience, the drama of the eighteenth century flagged. Theaters remained open, but their staples were the sentimental comedy as well as revivals and revisions of plays from the previous century. In the 1730s, a thriving new satiric drama, epitomized by Gay's Beggar's Opera and by the farces of Fielding, was squelched by the Licensing Act. Interest in theater productions focused on the performance by "great" actors who were admired for their abilities to move the audience to terror or to tears. In the middle of the century, Goldsmith and Sheridan attempted to revive the "laughing comedy," to recapture some of the satirical spirit of the comedy of manners, but their efforts did not initiate a general movement.

Periodical Essay

A new form that developed specifically for the new middle-class readership was the periodical essay. Periodicals and newspapers were not new, but those published during the Restoration contained essentially journalistic material, such as dispatches from European capitals, battle accounts, and biased reports of government activity written to support (or attack) political party interests. The new periodical essay avoided bad news in favor of entertaining discussions of fashions and urban life. Matters of dress, the theater, the street, domestic behavior, and family harmony were explored. This was the first time in English literary history that a publication was written for this particular audience, to cater to their desire for more refined status. Correspondents, real or fictional, sent in requests for help with the everyday problems of life. Good and bad taste in literature, the theater, and art were defined for readers who hoped to gain some polish and urbanity from the hints and recommendations of the essayists. The style of such publications was personal and intimate. The essayist developed a comfortable, fatherly persona, thereby cultivating a loyal readership. The prose was easy, simple, and lucid. Many of the qualities of the novel and its narrator were begun by periodical essayists; they wrote for the same audience.

During the early and middle eighteenth century, the literary life of England was more divided than it had been in any previous century. There were two mainstreams. In the first, respect for the examples and the rules established by ancient Greek and Roman writers dominated the tastes of the conservative elite. The educated upper class read works of wit and sophistication. Satire reached its highest development in this era. Satirists created complex, urbane, and intellectually demanding works in poetry, prose, and drama. This is the era of the heroic couplet, for example, one of the most technically difficult poetic media. The great Tory satirists, Swift, Pope, Gay, and Johnson, amazed and mocked their compatriots with subtle and outrageous depictions of a world gone mad or declining toward chaos. The terms neoclassical and Augustan refer to this stream of literature.

Meanwhile, a more liberal and optimistic literature was developing to appeal to the tastes and interests of the middle class. The growth of the printing and book-selling industries made literature a commodity as well as an art form. Responding to the market, writers adapted their works to a newly literate and newly leisured audience. Discarding or modifying classical forms, they sought to reflect the new emphasis on the spiritual and psychological lives of characters in a real rather than an ideal or heroic world. With faith in the essential goodness and equality of human beings, this literature found its heroes not in the powerful but in the men and women of feeling. New prose forms developed. The drama of this era was in prose, and the periodical essay and the novel made avid readers of those who wanted to understand the manners and morals of the world they lived in. Lyric poetry, neglected in the early part of the century, re-emerged among poets who celebrated the landscape and the influence of nature and who explored the life of the countryside sympathetically.
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Author:McCoy, Kathleen; Harlan, Judith A.V.
Publication:English Literature to 1785
Article Type:Reference Source
Date:Jan 1, 1992
Previous Article:Ancients and moderns.
Next Article:Eighteenth-century (1700 to 1785): Swift, Gay, Pope, Addison and Steele.

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