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British Literature from 1660 to Today: Enlightenment

Early Seventeenth Century

The earlier seventeenth century, and especially the period of the English Revolution (1640–60), was a time of intense ferment in all areas of life — religion, science, politics, domestic relations, culture. That ferment was reflected in the literature of the era, which also registered a heightened focus on and analysis of the self and the personal life. However, little of this seems in evidence in the elaborate frontispiece to Michael Drayton's long "chorographical" poem on the landscape, regions, and local history of Great Britain (1612), which appeared in the first years of the reign of the Stuart king James I (1603–1625). The frontispiece appears to represent a peaceful, prosperous, triumphant Britain, with England, Scotland, and Wales united, patriarchy and monarchy firmly established, and the nation serving as the great theme for lofty literary celebration. Albion (the Roman name for Britain) is a young and beautiful virgin wearing as cloak a map featuring rivers, trees, mountains, churches, towns; she carries a scepter and holds a cornucopia, symbol of plenty. Ships on the horizon signify exploration, trade, and garnering the riches of the sea. In the four corners stand four conquerors whose descendants ruled over Britain: the legendary Brutus, Julius Caesar, Hengist the Saxon, and the Norman William the Conqueror, "whose line yet rules," as Drayton's introductory poem states.

Yet this frontispiece also registers some of the tensions, conflicts, and redefinitions evident in the literature of the period and explored more directly in the topics and texts in this portion of the NTO Web site. It is Albion herself, not King James, who is seated in the center holding the emblems of sovereignty; her male conquerors stand to the side, and their smaller size and their number suggest something unstable in monarchy and patriarchy. Albion's robe with its multiplicity of regional features, as well as the "Poly" of the title, suggests forces pulling against national unity. Also, Poly-Olbion had no successors: instead of a celebration of the nation in the vein of Spenser's Faerie Queene or Poly-Olbion itself, the great seventeenth-century heroic poem, Paradise Lost, treats the Fall of Man and its tragic consequences, "all our woe."

The first topic here, "Gender, Family, Household: Seventeenth-Century Norms and Controversies," provides important religious, legal, and domestic advice texts through which to explore cultural assumptions about gender roles and the patriarchal family. It also invites attention to how those assumptions are modified or challenged in the practices of actual families and households; in tracts on transgressive subjects (cross-dressing, women speaking in church, divorce); in women's texts asserting women's worth, talents, and rights; and especially in the upheavals of the English Revolution.

[Click on image to enlarge]"Paradise Lost in Context," the second topic for this period, surrounds that radically revisionist epic with texts that invite readers to examine how it engages with the interpretative traditions surrounding the Genesis story, how it uses classical myth, how it challenges orthodox notions of Edenic innocence, and how it is positioned within but also against the epic tradition from Homer to Virgil to Du Bartas. The protagonists here are not martial heroes but a domestic couple who must, both before and after their Fall, deal with questions hotly contested in the seventeenth century but also perennial: how to build a good marital relationship; how to think about science, astronomy, and the nature of things; what constitutes tyranny, servitude, and liberty; what history teaches; how to meet the daily challenges of love, work, education, change, temptation, and deceptive rhetoric; how to reconcile free will and divine providence; and how to understand and respond to God's ways.

[Click on image to enlarge]The third topic, "Civil Wars of Ideas: Seventeenth-Century Politics, Religion, and Culture," provides an opportunity to explore, through political and polemical treatises and striking images, some of the issues and conflicts that led to civil war and the overthrow of monarchical government (1642–60). These include royal absolutism vs. parliamentary or popular sovereignty, monarchy vs. republicanism, Puritanism vs. Anglicanism, church ritual and ornament vs. iconoclasm, toleration vs. religious uniformity, and controversies over court masques and Sunday sports. The climax to all this was the highly dramatic trial and execution of King Charles I (January 1649), a cataclysmic event that sent shock waves through courts, hierarchical institutions, and traditionalists everywhere; this event is presented here through contemporary accounts and graphic images.

*From The Norton Anthology of English Literature

Age of Reason

The Enlightenment 
The Age of Reason 
The Neo-Classical Era 

      -  This period goes by the names "the Enlightenment," "the Age of Reason," and "the Neo-Classical Age."

       - There was a great turning away from religion as primary way of life.

       - People had been caught up in religious schism and sometimes outright warfare from 1534, the year Henry VIII split away from the Catholic church, until the Glorious Revolution of 1589.  England now turned its attention to politics and scientific/logical analysis & reason.

       - belief had been based on authority; restoration brought the scientific method.

       - scientific method - beliefs should be proven through repeated experiments.  Until now, one was to trust the pronouncements of some authority.  In religion, you accepted the dictates of the church; in science, you would turn to a recognized authority like Aristotle, Ptolemy, etc.  Your own experience could mislead you.  The Wife of Bath trusted experience over authority, but she was wrong to do so.  In this era, she would be right.

  • Copernicus & Galileo trusted their own experience, their observations of the stars, over the authority of Ptolemy.  They concluded that the world circled the sun rather than the other way around.

    Newton discovered the laws of gravity, motion, & created a new branch of mathematics - calculus.

A valid experiment would be repeatable.  Thus others who turned telescopes toward the skies should observe the same things Copernicus & Galileo did.

       - people wanted proof; did not want to accept an idea as true just because some person of authority said.

       - British Constitution changed when Charles II took the throne; he realized (unlike his father who believed in Divine Right of Kings) that Parliament ruled

       - parties and political factions became stable and more permanent

            - Tories : King's party; conservative & Anglican

            - Whigs : represented $ from rising middle class; Puritans (Protestant Revolution had economical effect) 


We can divide the era into three sub-periods. 

  1. 1660-1700 Restoration Literature
  2. Dryden was the main literary figure of this period.  He wrote in the modes popular in that time - verse, comedy, tragedy, hero plays, ode, satire, translation, & critical essay.  The style of the time is less ornate than before, with a more plain, straightforward approach. 
  3. 1700-1745 The Augustan period
  4. The literature of this era is "chiefly a literature of wit, concerned with civilizatino and social relationships, and consequently, it is critical and in some degree moral or satiric" (Abrams 832).  It is called the Augustan period because the golden era of Roman writing was under the Emperor Augustus.  This period tried to emulate the earlier one.   
  5. 1745-1785 The Samuel Johnson period
  6. This was a period of intense prose writing.  Earlier periods had tended to produce great poetry, but not great poetry so much. 

Enlightenment Terms

Theology- the study of god

Humanist- the study of humans

Deists- believe god did not interfere, the watch is the universe

Orderly State- great state of being (chain- going to god)

King- enforcers rules of god 

Mid Seventeenth Century

British Literature through the Ages

Genesis 1-3, King James Version

Excerpt on Psalm 8 and Milton's Paradise Lost

Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock

The Rape of the Lock   Lines 1136-1154


Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal

A Modest Proposal

Historical Notes

  • (1049) ~ He has a beneficial idea acquired from an American.  It turnes out that he is proposing cannibalism.  He is using irony to make people see the logical conclusion to their attitudes toward the Irish.
  • (1050) ~ let’s you know who he’s really attacking – landlords. They have devoured the Irish.  He computes in very dispassionate terms the costs & benefits of eating babies.  Only in places like this does he let his anger show through.  Such cracks is the facade are necessary, or people will think the satirist is really making such a proposal.
  • Problem is in Ireland. 17th Century, Cromwell invaded because they were Catholic and England Protestant. Obtained surface control.  After the Glorious Revolution, William of Orange quelled a rebellion.  This is why the Catholic Irish hate orange.
  • Landowners were in England; exploited all profits, leaving little money for Irish
  • Whigs also took advantage of cheap labor.
  • (1049 & 1052) ~ women compared to cattle ("constant breeders." Hint that he is not serious.
  • (1049)  His Proposal. ~ 20,000 babes would be preserved. Other 100,000 would be sold for meat. Baby skin could be used to make fine gloves.  Of course, he doesn't really want this to happen, but in the 20th century, the Germans did make gloves, lampshades, etc., with the skins of their victims.
  • (1052-1053) ~ This is his actual proposal. He has in mind several steps to take that would relieve the suffering of the Irish.  Rest of story is to show British upper class the damage they are causing.
  • (1054)  He claims to have no personal interest in profiting from his proposal - his children are too old to be sold as food.  Obviously, the real meaning is that he doesn't have to worry about his children being eaten, so he does have an interest in the proposal.

Eighteenth Century

The Restoration and the 18th Century

The period between 1660 and 1785 was a time of amazing expansion for England — or for "Great Britain," as the nation came to be called after an Act of Union in 1707 joined Scotland to England and Wales. Britain became a world power, an empire on which the sun never set. But it also changed internally. The world seemed different in 1785. A sense of new, expanding possibilities — as well as modern problems — transformed the daily life of the British people, and offered them fresh ways of thinking about their relations to nature and to each other. Hence literature had to adapt to circumstances for which there was no precedent. The topics in this Restoration and Eighteenth Century section of Norton Topics Online review crucial departures from the past — alterations that have helped to shape our own world.

[Click on image to enlarge]One lasting change was a shift in population from the country to the town. "A Day in Eighteenth-Century London" shows the variety of diversions available to city-dwellers. At the same time, it reveals how far the life of the city, where every daily newspaper brought new sources of interest, had moved from traditional values. Formerly the tastes of the court had dominated the arts. In the film Shakespeare in Love, when Queen Elizabeth's nod decides by itself the issue of what can be allowed on the stage, the exaggeration reflects an underlying truth: the monarch stands for the nation. But the eighteenth century witnessed a turn from palaces to pleasure gardens that were open to anyone with the price of admission. New standards of taste were set by what the people of London wanted, and art joined with commerce to satisfy those desires. Artist William Hogarth made his living not, as earlier painters had done, through portraits of royal and noble patrons, but by selling his prints to a large and appreciative public. London itself — its beauty and horror, its ever-changing moods — became a favorite subject of writers.

[Click on image to enlarge]The sense that everything was changing was also sparked by a revolution in science. In earlier periods, the universe had often seemed a small place, less than six thousand years old, where a single sun moved about the earth, the center of the cosmos. Now time and space exploded, the microscope and telescope opened new fields of vision, and the "plurality of worlds," as this topic is called, became a doctrine endlessly repeated. The authority of Aristotle and Ptolemy was broken; their systems could not explain what Galileo and Kepler saw in the heavens or what Hooke and Leeuwenhoek saw in the eye of a fly. As discoveries multiplied, it became clear that the moderns knew things of which the ancients had been ignorant. This challenge to received opinion was thrilling as well as disturbing. In Paradise Lost, Book 8, the angel Raphael warns Adam to think about what concerns him, not to dream about other worlds. Yet, despite the warning voiced by Milton through Raphael, many later writers found the new science inspiring. It gave them new images to conjure with and new possibilities of fact and fiction to explore.

[Click on image to enlarge]Meanwhile, other explorers roamed the earth, where they discovered hitherto unknown countries and ways of life. These encounters with other peoples often proved vicious. The trade and conquests that made European powers like Spain and Portugal immensely rich also brought the scourge of racism and colonial exploitation. In the eighteenth century, Britain's expansion into an empire was fueled by slavery and the slave trade, a source of profit that belied the national self-image as a haven of liberty and turned British people against one another. Rising prosperity at home had been built on inhumanity across the seas. This topic, "Slavery and the Slave Trade in Britain," looks at the experiences of African slaves as well as at British reactions to their suffering and cries for freedom. At the end of the eighteenth century, as many writers joined the abolitionist campaign, a new humanitarian ideal was forged. The modern world invented by the eighteenth century brought suffering along with progress. We still live with its legacies today.

*From The Norton's Anthology of English Literature