History of Literature





The Beginnings of Literature. Myths and Legends

Classical Myth

Myth and Mystery


Hebrew literature

Ancient Greek literature

Ancient Greek literature. Greek theatre

Ancient Greek literature. Philosophical prose

Latin (Roman) literature

Latin (Roman) Literature. The Silver Age

Latin (Roman) Literature. Renaissance

Modern Italian Literature

The Middle Ages Literature

The Middle Ages. Elizabethan England

The Restoration

The Rise of the Novel

Cervantes and Spanish literature

The Enlightenment


Classicism and Naturalism

The 19th century - Prose

The 20th century - Modernism

The 20th century - The Political Novel

The Enlightenment


The Enlightenment

Montesquieu "Persian Letters"

Jean-Jacques Rousseau "Confessions" BOOK I-VI, BOOK VII-XII

Voltaire "Candide"  Illustrations Jean-Michel Moreau le Jeune  "Age of Louis XIV"

Denis Diderot "Rameau's Nephew"

Alexander Pope  PART I. "The Rape of the Lock"  Illustration by Aubrey Beardsley, PART II. "An Essay on Man"

John Gay  "The Beggar's Opera"

James Thomson

Samuel Johnson  PART I "Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia",  PART II-III "LIVES OF THE POETS"

Oliver Goldsmith 
"She Stoops to Conquer"

Thomas Gray
William Cowper
James Boswell

Robert Burns  "Poems & Songs"  

Henry Mackenzie
James Macpherson

Anicet-Charles-Gabriel Lemonnier
Lecture de la tragédie de l'orphelin de la Chine de Voltaire dans le salon de madame Geoffrin


'The Enlightenment' is the term that describes the philosophical movement in the 18th century in which great emphasis was placed on the power of human reason, and traditional religion and politics were critically reviewed. Its roots ran deep and spread themselves widely, but major branches can be traced to the 'scientific revolution' of the late 17th century, to the classi­cal writers of Louis XIV's France, to the thought of Blaise Pascal and to the philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650), who placed the reasoning human being firmly at the centre of the universe: 'I think therefore I am'. The Enlightenment encouraged innovation and experiment (even Tristram Shandy is its product), and politically it laid the ideological basis for
the American and French Revolutions.



The term enlightenment originally came from the German Aufkldrung, and the 'age of reason'
was not, of course, an exclusively French phenomenon, but an international movement.

Some of the leading thinkers were German (Kant), or Scottish (Hume), for example, and the
French philosophes saw themselves as the heirs of Bacon, Galileo, Leibnitz, Newton and Locke,
as well as of fellow Frenchmen such as, pre-eminently, Descartes.







Montesquieu "Persian Letters"

The Baron de Montesquieu (1689-1775) published his Persian Letters in 1721, a highly satirical view of the autocratic French state as seen by Persian visitors, but his greatest work was the Spirit of the Laws (1748). It compared the French Constitution unfavourably with the English, where power was more broadly spread, and was an important influence on the framers of the U.S. Constitution. The oldest of the leading philosophes, Montesquieu was a kind of forerunner for the three leading figures, Rousseau, Voltaire and Diderot.


Jean-Jacques Rousseau "Confessions" BOOK I-VI, BOOK VII-XII

An orphan of Swiss Protestant background, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712—78) was the Enlightenment's wild card. A wanderer, erratic (he quarrelled with almost everybody) and unstable (he died insane), his intellectual bril­liance was breathtaking. Best known for the political theories, notably the doctrine of the general will, expressed in the Social Contract (1762), in the same year he published Emile, a treatise on education in narrative form.

It would be hard to exaggerate the influence of these works on later generations.
Rousseau believed that natural man — the 'noble savage' -had been perverted by society; he emphasized individual liberty and the inward life. Unlike the other philosophes, he did not believe that art and science, or material progress, contributed to the improvement of human beings, rather that they had corrupted them. He did not share the common faith in the power of reason, and in many ways he had more m common with the later Romantics than with the thinking of the Englightenment. Of Rousseau's other writings, most memorable are his Confessions, a uniquely candid autobiography published after his death, in which Rousseau in his last years struggled to come to terms with his own extraordinary self.


Voltaire "Candide"  Illustrations Jean-Michel Moreau le Jeune  "Age of Louis XIV"

It is hard to imagine two people more dissimi­lar than Rousseau and Francois Marie Arouet, known as Voltaire (1694-1778). A gentleman of great wit and polish, rational, well-balanced — in another age he would have been the perfect courtier. But as a free-thinker and a devastating critic of the ancien regime, his ideas earned him the hostility of Church and State, resulting m a prison term, a period of exile m England and long-term exclusion from Paris. From 1750 until they quarrelled in 1753, he was closely associated as adviser and friend with Frederick the Great, the 'enlightened despot' of Prussia. He spent his later years, for safety, at Ferney just inside the border from Switzerland.

The great universal genius of the Enlightenment,
Voltaire was a staggeringly productive writer, who earned contemporary fame primarily as a playwright, though he is best known for his philosophical and satirical works, in various forms, and as a historian. His Philosophical Letters (1734) celebrated his belief in political and religious liberty, and he summed up his ideas with characteristic wit and clarity in his Philosophical Dictionary (1764). His greatest work in modern eyes, however, is Candide (1759), a philosophical tale (a genre that Voltaire invented), whose hero puts up with a series of misfortunes on the basis of the ironic motto that All is for the best m the best of all possible worlds', but eventually becomes disillusioned, concluding that the world is beyond hope and the only solution is to stay at home and 'cultivate our garden".


Denis Diderot "Rameau's Nephew"

Denis Diderot (1713—84) was another poly­math, whose early work was translations from English (Diderot was perfectly fluent in several languages), essays on various sub|ects (an attack on religion landed him in prison) and plays for the new, bourgeois theatre. He origi­nated and, against the opposition of the government and other obstacles, brought to a conclusion over more than twenty years the single greatest product of the Enlightenment, the famous Encyclopedia, published in 35 volumes from 1751. A genial man as well as a determined and industrious one, Diderot secured contributions from his fellow philosophes, including Voltaire and Rousseau, who wrote on music as well as other subjects.

The work began as a translation of the Cyclopedia of Ephraim Chambers (no relation to the modern firm), but developed into some­thing far greater, aiming to cover all human knowledge and coming very close to achieving such an ambitious aim.
Diderot was a ratio­nalist and a materialist, and also the son of a tradesman - one of the most remarkable features of the Encyclopedia is its coverage of contemporary technology, with detailed engravings. Diderot's numerous other writings included Ramean's Nephew (first published much later in a German translation by Goethe), a witty and satirical novel or dialogue now generally considered his masterpiece, and Jacques le Fataliste (not published until 1796) which was influenced by Sterne.



'True ease in writing comes from art, not chance, As those move easiest who have learn'd to dance.' The heroic couplet, effectively exploited by Dryden and made famous by Pope, proved to be an appropri­ate verse form for the age of reason, being clear, simple and ordered. It was not, however, the only kind of poetry being written, nor - in spite of Pope's famous statement that 'The proper study of mankind is man' - were 18th-century poets exclusively concerned with human society and institutions. The countryside was coming into vogue, long before the Romantics, and there was a common preoccupation with death and graveyards.



Alexander Pope  PART I. "The Rape of the Lock"  Illustration by Aubrey Beardsley, PART II. "An Essay on Man"

The death of Alexander Pope from Museus, a threnody by William Mason. Diana holds the dying Pope,
and John Milton, Edmund Spenser, and Geoffrey Chaucer prepare to welcome him to heaven.

Technically, Alexander Pope (1688—1744) was one of the greatest of English poets (and one of the most quotable). His sensitive and elegant Pastorals were written at the age of 16, and he was only 31 when the publication of his collected works established him firmly as the greatest contemporary figure in English literature. Though he did not have the vision of a Milton or the passion of a Wordsworth, he had a penetrating moral sense and a commitment to the pursuit of perfection, evident m his 'Essay on Man' (1733). Не was at his best as a satirist, and 'The Rape of the Lock' (I712) is his most sparkling work in the comic vein. The title refers to an incident in society in which a young gentleman cut off a lock of hair from a lady he admired. The incident caused an absurd, but serious, quarrel. Pope treated it in hilarious, mock-heroic style, which only made matters worse! Apart from his uncompleted magnum opus of which the 'Essay on Man' formed the first part. Pope's greatest work was his translation of Homer which, though more Pope than Homer, was still a huge achievement and made Pope perhaps the first English writer other than dramatists able to live - and in some style - on the profits from his pen.

Pope's health was fragile from childhood, he was almost a dwarf (4ft 6in), wore a corset to support his spine and needed help dressing. These circumstances may help to explain his reputation for antagonizing friends and perhaps his capacity for writing some of the most vitriolic invective in literature. In the Romantic period. Pope fell from favour, and he has only been again appreciated at his true worth in the 20th century.

Oliver Goldsmith  "She Stoops to Conquer"


The heroic couplet was also employed by Samuel Johnson, by
John Gay and by Goldsmith. Gay (1685-1732), however, is best known for his evergreen musical play "The Beggar's Opera", which followed up Swift's suggestion for a 'Newgate [prison] pastoral'. Gay writing the lyrics which were set to the tunes of popular contemporary ballads. First performed in 1728, it is said to have been the most successful play ever presented in London up to that time. Since 1928 it has taken on new life in the form of the Brecht-Weill adaptation, The Threepenny Opera.

The Anglo-Irish
Oliver Goldsmith (died 1774) was blessed with immense natural talents that were never quite fulfilled, perhaps because, in spite of a large and varied output, there was a certain indolence about him. Apart from the two poems, 'The Traveller' and 'The Deserted Village', based on childhood memo­ries of Ireland, he was the author of a famous comedy;
"She Stoops to Conquer", frequently revived, and a memorable novel, still read, The Vicar of Wakefield.

James Thomson (1700—48) preferred blank verse for his four-part The Seasons, which exemplified the theme of Nature, always present in English literature and now becoming more evident, though Thomson himself has never been quite as popular as he was in his own time. Nature was generally preferred in orderly garb. People were becoming interested in landscapes and views, and the improvement m roads and carriages meant that it was possible for the well-off to view and admire their parklands in comfort. Others, however, found the countryside encouraged more melancholy thoughts.

Of the so-called 'churchyard school' of poets, outstanding was
Thomas Gray (1716-71), whose 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard' is one of the most familiar poems in the language. Gloom, depression and thoughts of death represent the dark side of the Age of Reason. The funniest poem of the era, the rollicking 'John Gilpin' was written by William Cowper (1731-1800) while he was suffering intense mental torment. But Cowper's masterpiece is The Task (1785), which was writ­ten when that struggle was largely won, thanks partly to Cowper's intense interest in quotidian detail overpowering metaphysical gloom. His description of rural scenes is in simple, unpre­tentious language, signifying the change from the formal, classical style of Pope and his contemporaries to the more intimate style of the Romantics.

William Hogarth A Scene from the Beggar's Opera


'All nature is but art unknown to thee:
All chance, direction which thou canst not see:
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good;
And, spite of pride, in erring reason's spite.
One truth is clear, "Whatever IS, is RIGHT."'

Pope, An Essay on Man, Epistle i, 289,



The period from the late 17th to mid-18th century, roughly from Dryden to Johnson, is sometimes called the Augustan Age, in complimentary refer­ence to the reign of the Emperor Augustus, the golden age of Classical Roman art and literature. It is characterized by elegance of style, precision, orderliness, good sense and a dislike of extremes, a classic example being Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-88). The term was occasionally used by contemporaries: Goldsmith wrote an essay on 'The Augustan Age in England', but the presiding genius of English literature in the 18th century was Samuel Johnson (1709-84).


Samuel Johnson 

"Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia"

By popular convention, Johnson is called 'Dr Johnson' though his doctorate was honorary, awarded by his old university, Oxford, in 1775. Modern critics would like to stop this habit, but it is probably too late. Anyway, it suits him.

He was born in Lichfield, son of a bookseller who died in 1731 leaving his family penniless.
Johnson worked as a school teacher in the Midlands and in 1735 married a widow nearly twice his age. It proved a successful marriage. After an attempt to found their own school in Lichfield, they moved to London in 1737, bring­ing with them a former pupil, David Garrick, soon to become the greatest actor of the age. Johnson, who had already clone some provincial journalism, found a useful patron in Edward Cave, proprietor of The Gentleman's Magazine, for which he wrote a profusion of verses, essays and political pieces. From 1747 he worked sporadically on his Dictionary of the English Language. His poem, 'The Vanity of Human Wishes', his longest and best, was published in 1749 and his tragedy Irene, written years earlier, was staged by the loyal Garrick in the same year (it has rarely been staged since).



Backed by Cave, in 1752 Johnson started a twice-weekly periodical, The Rambler. It ran for two years and was almost entirely written, anonymously, by Johnson himself, an extraor­dinary workload. But writers were ill-paid, and Johnson barely scraped a living, in spite of his industry. The Dictionary was published in 1755, but Johnson was fully occupied writing articles, essays and reviews for a variety of journals, as well as biographies. In 1759, his Prince of Abyssinia, later known as Rasselas and usually categorized as a 'philosophical romance', was published. It demonstrated, with kindly wisdom, that no human occupa­tion is a recipe for happiness. He wrote it in the evenings, allegedly in a week, to pay for his mother's funeral and pay off his debts. A government pension of £300 a year, awarded in 1762, cased his circumstances somewhat. In 1765 he published his edition of Shakespeare's plays, with its long and intelligent preface.

Johnson had many friends and in 1764 he and the painter Joshua Reynolds (first presi­dent of the Royal Academy) founded their literary club, which met in a London tavern. Among those who attended were Garrick, the politicians Charles James Fox and Edmund Burke, Goldsmith, Sheridan and a young Scottish lawyer, James Boswell. Johnson was a humane and affectionate man and he was also a writer who talked as well as (perhaps better than) he wrote. He was the dominant figure on the literary scene, and his opinions - always intelligent, often dogmatic - were eagerly sought on every subject. At Boswell's sugges­tion, they undertook a journey together to the Western Isles of Scotland in 1773, only a generation after the terrible destruction of Culloden. Johnson was then sixty-four and they both wrote fascinating accounts of their travels in the Highlands. Johnson's last major work was his Lives of the Poets (1781), 52 biographies displaying great learning, sympa­thy and characteristically provocative opinions.


Johnson was a great literary scholar, a fine writer and an excellent critic, as well as a fasci­nating and likable man. However, the great reputation he enjoys to this day is due in no small part to the famous biography by his friend and admirer, James Boswell, probably the greatest biography in English literature, and published seven years after Johnson's death. Boswell collected data for years, having gained Johnson's approval for the project after the great man had read (in manuscript) Boswell's account of their journey to the Hebrides. Boswell's methods were in fact those recommended by Johnson in a piece on the subject in The Rambler; his legal training encouraged accuracy (few errors have been found in the account of Johnson's life before Boswell knew him) and, most important, he had a remarkable ability to get the best out of his subject in conversation. Johnson, who expressed lively opinions on everything, is one of the most quoted figures in literature -thanks largely to Boswell's work.




During the 17th century, Scottish writers tended to write more in English than in Scots, a tendency encouraged by the Act of Union (1707). On the one hand, the extra­ordinarily vivid language of, for example, Sir Thomas Urquhart (died c.1660), the translator of Rabelais into Scots, was lost. On the other hand, some of the finest English prose of the 18th century was written by Scots (this was the period when Edinburgh gained its reputation as the 'Athens of the North').
These writers included the philosopher David Hume; Adam Smith, the author of the seminal work on political economy, The Wealth of Nations (1776); James Boswell, the biographer of
Johnson; and the novelist Tobias Smollet. 'Is it not strange', asked Hume, 'that, at a time when we have lost our . . . independent Government, . . . speak a very corrupt Dialect of the Tongue in which we make use of ... that . . . we shou'd really be the People most distinguish'd for Literature in Europe?' Two writers in particular were to spread the fame of Scottish literature far and wide and at the same time restore national pride and self-confidence: Robert Burns and Walter Scott.



Robert Burns  "Poems & Songs"   BOOK I, BOOK II

Scotland's national poet, Robert Burns (1759-96) has become a cult figure. Communist leaders invariably cite him as their favourite British poet. His early verse was written in the early' 1780s whilst working a farm at Mossgiel, Ayrshire, with his brother (and finding time for a vigorous love life). The best poems, including the famous 'To a Mouse", were published in the first 1786 edition of Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. It made him instantly famous, and he went to Edinburgh where he was lionized by the literati as a rustic genius, the 'Heaven-taught ploughman'.

Although it encouraged his taste for material enjoyments and provoked a few experiments in a more Augustan' style, this literary acclaim left him unmoved. His stature was enhanced by his genial, gregarious good nature and handsome appearance, but more importantly by his reworking of hundreds of traditional songs, including 'Auld Lang Syne', 'Ye Banks and Braes', 'Scots Wha Наe', and dozens of others equally familiar.

In 1788,
Burns was able to buy a farm at Ellisland with his former paramour, now wife, Jean Armour. Life was still hard, and Burns joined the Excise Service to raise his income. His support for the early stages of the French Revolution discon­certed some admirers, and in 1792 he gave up the farm and moved to Dumfries. The major work of his last years was his narrative master­piece, 'Tamn O'Shanter". Rheumatic fever weak­ened his heart and he died at 37.


In spite of poverty, Burns had a sound if basic education. He was also a voracious reader who knew English and French poetry intimately, but he acknowledged the influence of Scottish predecessors, notably the poets Allan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson. He wrote with equal ease m formal English and in his native Scots, sometimes shifting from one to the other in the same poem (e.g. 'The Cotter's Saturday Night'), though some critics feel that the racy vigour of Scots lends something extra to his poems - songs, satires, animal poems, letters in verse - in the vernacular.

His poems in both are notable for broad-minded tolerance and a strong emphasis on human nature, good and ill. He gave Scotsmen an attractive image: 'more human than most, warm-hearted and open-handed to a fault, great drinkers and lovers and sturdy fighters for freedom and the rights of man' (Sir Fitzroy Maclean). For Scots everywhere. Burns Night (25 January, his birth­day) is a great festival, where haggis, neaps and tatties are consumed along with a patriotic quantity of the national beverage.

Anne-Louis Girodet
Ossian Receiving the Ghosts of Fallen French Heroes


A 'bosom favourite' of Burns was Henry Mackenzie's The Wan of Feeling (1771), a 'sentimental' novel in both the 18th-century sense and the more critical modern sense. Mackenzie was later the chairman of the group set up to investigate the origins of Fingal, An Ancient Epic Poem, in Six Books, published by James Macpherson in 1762.

It purported to be a translation of a work by an ancient Scottish-Irish bard, Ossian.
Macpherson had hinted at the existence of such an epic in an earlier collection of Fragments of Ancient Poetry . . . collected by him and translated from the Gaelic. Ossian had a huge impact, not only on Scots delighted at this unknown national trea­sure, but also throughout Europe, and espec­ially in Germany. But there were doubts, two formidable sceptics being David Hume and Samuel Johnson. Mackenzie's panel confirmed (after Macpherson's death) that the work consisted of freely edited Gaelic fragments, plus Macpherson's own compositions. Never­theless, it is a truly remarkable work; the fact that it was proved to be largely a fake hardly diminished its popularity, and perhaps Macpherson's fame - and large profits - were after all deserved.


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