The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century
by C. F. Main
textbook pages 468–484

There are seven groups in English society
1. The Great, who live profusely.
2. The Rich, who live very plentifully.
3. The Middle Sort, who live well.
4. Th Working Trades, who labor hard, but feel no want.
5. The Country People, Farmers, etc., who fare indifferently.
6. The Poor, that fare hard.
7. The Miserable, that really pinch and suffer want.
                                                                                    —Daniel Defoe

From 1660 to 1800, people from England and Europe were pouring into North America. These eager voyagers not only sought freedom from religious and political persecution; they also saw money to be made in the American continent’s rich lands and forests—in furs, tobacco, and logs for British sailing ships. They also began transporting Africans for use as slave labor in the Americas. In 1775, these Colonies rebelled against British rule and eventually won their freedom. The United States was a raw, vigorous, brand-new nation. 

Across the Atlantic, things were very different. In 1660, England was utterly exhausted by nearly twenty years of civil war. By 1700, it had lived through a devastating plague and a fire that left more than two thirds of Londoners homeless. By the middle of the eighteenth century, however, England had settled into a period of calm and order, at least among the upper classes. Despite the loss of the American Colonies, the reinvigorated British military forces established new settlements around the globe. And though life for many was wretched, the middle class grew. Throughout this long period in a very old nation with tastes much more refined than raw, British men and women also produced many brilliant works of philosophy, art, and literature.

This long period of time in England—from 1660 to 1800—has been given several labels: the Augustan Age, the Neoclassical period, the Enlightenment, and the Age of Reason. Each of these labels applies to some characteristics of these 140 years, but none applies to all. 

In contrast to the vital Colonies of North America, England was exhausted by war and disease in 1660. But by the end of the eighteenth century, England had transformed itself.

Augustan and Neoclassical: Comparisons with Rome

Many people liked to find similarities between England in this period and ancient Rome, especially during the reign of the emperor Octavian (63 B.C.–A.D. 14). When he became emperor, Octavian was given the high-sounding name Augustus,  meaning “the exalted one.” Augustus restored peace and order to Rome after Julius Caesar’s assassination. Similarly, the Stuart monarchs of England restored peace and order to England after the civil wars that led up to the execution of King Charles I in 1649, and that continued even after the king was dead. 

The people of both Rome and England were weary of war, suspicious of revolutionaries and radicals, and ready to settle down, make money, and enjoy life. The Roman Senate had hailed Augustus as the second founder of Rome; in 1660, the English people brought back the son of Charles I from his exile in France, crowned him as King Charles II, and hailed him as their savior. As a warning to revolutionaries, they dug up the corpse of Oliver Cromwell, who had ruled England between Charles I and Charles II, and cut off its head. The monarchy was restored without shedding a drop of blood. 

In this age, many English writers consciously modeled their works on the old Latin classics, which they had studied in school and university. These writings that imitate Latin works were called neoclassical—“new classical.” The classics, it was generally agreed, were valuable because they represented what was permanent and universal in human experience. All educated people knew the Latin classics better than they knew their own English literature.

With the restoration of the king, England likened itself to Augustan Rome: Both had entered a period of calm and order after an era of political turmoil.

Reason and Enlightenment: Asking “How?”

Labels like the “Age of Reason” and the “Enlightenment” reveal how people were gradually changing their view of themselves and the world. For instance, Shakespeare, the greatest writer of the Renaissance, expressed a commonly held view when he described the unusual events that preceded the assassination of Julius Caesar—“a tempest dropping fire” and “blue lightning.” These unnatural events, says a character in the play Julius Caesar, are “instruments of fear and warning.” For centuries people had believed that before a great public disaster like the assassination of a ruler, the earth and sky gave warnings. People believed that unusual events such as earthquakes, comets, and even babies born with malformations had some kind of meaning, and that they were sent as punishment for past misdoings or as warning of future troubles. People did not ask, “How did this unusual event take place?” but “Why did this unusual event take place, and what does it mean?”

Gradually, during the Enlightenment, people stopped asking “Why?” questions and started asking “How?” questions, and the answers to those questions—about everything from the workings of the human body to the laws of the universe—became much less frightening and superstitious. 

For instance, the astronomer Edmond Halley (1656–1742) took the terror out of celestial phenomena by calculating when they were going to occur. He computed, with “immense labor,” he said, the orbit of the comet that still bears his name. He predicted it would appear in 1758, 1834, 1910, and 1986—and it did. And how did he know it would reappear at seventy-six-year intervals? Because that was the time it took to complete its orbit. Such a reasonable, mathematical explanation made no connection at all between the comet and human affairs. 

Natural phenomena were increasingly explained by scientific observation as people began to ask how things happened in the natural world.

The Birth of Modern English Prose: Stripping Down

In 1662, to answer questions about the universe, King Charles II chartered a group of philosophers: the Royal Society of London for the Promotion of Natural Knowledge. Among other things, its members called for a kind of writing that was precise, exact, and not decorated with the elaborate metaphors or odd allusions of their predecessors. Above all, these new scientists wanted to shorten the endless sentences of their predecessors. And so in this age was born what we think of as  modern English prose. 

While the Royal Society affected the course of English prose, the “founder and first true master” of modern English prose was John Dryden (1631–1700), an all-around man of letters. Because of his influence, the era in which Dryden lived is often referred to as the “age of Dryden.” In the Essay of Dramatic Poesy (1668), a major critical work, Dryden sought to “vindicate the honor of our English writers.” He also wrote comedies, as well as the best tragedy of the day, All for Love (1677), a neoclassical version of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. Among Dryden’s achievements in poetry were perfecting the technique of English poetry, regularizing meter, and making diction precise. He was a master of explaining ideas, of reasoning in verse. Dryden set the standards that most of the poets of the next century aspired to. 

Under the influence of the Royal Society and John Dryden, English prose became more precise, exact, and plain.

Changes in Religion: More Questions

The new scientific and rational explanations of phenomena gradually began to affect some people’s religious views. If comets were not sent by God to warn people, perhaps God didn’t interfere at all in human affairs. Perhaps the universe was like an immense piece of clockwork, set in motion by a Creator who more or less withdrew from this perfect mechanism and let it run by itself. Such a view, part of a complex of ideas known as Deism, could make people feel self-satisfied and complacent, especially if they believed, as Alexander Pope noted in his long poem Essay on Man (Collection 6), that “Whatever is, is right.” Some philosophers even argued that “In this best of all possible worlds, . . . all is for the best”—a view that the French writer Voltaire ridiculed in his novel Candide (1759). (See Collection 6.) But, other than a tiny minority of “enlightened” rationalists and materialists, most people, including great philosophers and scientists like Sir Isaac Newton (1642–1727) and John Locke (1632–1704), remained religious. Christianity in its various forms continued to exercise an undiminished power over almost all Europeans in this period, just as it had in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

The new science influenced religion: A movement called Deism viewed the universe as a perfect mechanism, which God had built and left to run on its own. 

Religion and Politics: Repression of Minority Sects

Religion determined people’s politics in this period. Charles II reestablished the Anglican Church as the official church of the country, which it continues to be in England to this day. (In the United States, this denomination is called the Episcopal Church.) With the approval of Parliament, the king attempted to outlaw all the various Puritan and Independent sects—dozens of them, all happily disagreeing among themselves—that had caused so much uproar during the preceding thirty years. Persecution of these various sects continued throughout the eighteenth century. 

When Charles II reestablished the Anglican Church as the official church of the country, other sects were outlawed and persecuted.

The Bloodless Revolution: Protestants from Now On

Charles II had a number of illegitimate children, but no legal heir. When he died in 1685, he was succeeded by his brother James II, a practicing Roman Catholic. Most English people were utterly opposed to James. After all, it was widely believed that Roman Catholics had not only set fire to London and caused other disasters, but were actively plotting to hand the country over to the pope. When James’s queen produced a little boy—a Catholic heir—pressure on the royal family became so great that, in 1688, they suddenly fled to France. Thus, the so-called Glorious (bloodless) Revolution (1688) was accomplished. James II was succeeded by his Protestant daughter, Mary, and her Dutch husband, William of Orange. Ever since, the rulers of England have been, at least in name, Anglicans. 

During the “Glorious Revolution,” Charles’s Roman Catholic successor was forced into exile, and Protestant rule resumed with the ascension of William of Orange and Mary to the throne.

The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century 

After the reestablishment of the monarchy, these major events occurred in the arts and sciences:

    • With King Charles II’s return to the throne and a period of increased stability, writers drew on the “new classical” style of
Roman, Greek, and Latin models.

    • Thinkers in this Age of Reason emphasized logic, scientific observation, and factual explanation. These rational explanations affected some people’s religious views. 

    • Literary tastes turned to wit and satire to expose excesses and moral corruption.

    • In journalism, the periodical essay developed, commenting on public manners and values. 

    • To satisfy the reading tastes of a developing middle class, writers began to experiment with long fictional narratives called novels.

    • Theaters closed by the Puritans reopened, and female actors were now included on the stage; drama during the Restoration was witty, bawdy, and cynical. 

    • By the end of the period, the excesses of the rich and the onset of industrialization turned people’s taste to an appreciation of nature and simplicity.

Addicted to the Theater 

For more than twenty years, while the Puritans held power, the theaters in England were closed. During the exile of the royal court in France, Charles had become addicted to theatergoing, so one of the first things he did after regaining his throne was to repeal the ban on play performances, imposed in 1642. 

Charles and his brother James patronized companies of actors. Boys and men no longer acted the female roles. The new theater had real actresses, like the famous Nell Gwyn, and the new plays emphasized the sexual relations of men and women in very unsentimental and unromantic ways. The great, witty comedies produced during this period (such as William Wycherly’s The Country Wife and William Congreve’s The Way of the World ) reflected the life of the rich and leisured people of that time—the Frenchified, pleasure-loving upper classes—and their servants and hangers-on. In addition to dramatists, a large number of prose and verse writers, many of them Dissenters, did not cater to the tastes of sophisticated people but wrote solely for ordinary readers. 

Upon his return from France, Charles II reopened the London theaters. For the first time, female actors acted in the witty, urbane comedies written by Restoration dramatists.

The Age of Satire: Attacks on Immorality and Bad Taste 

Today, Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift are regarded as the most accomplished literary artists of the early eighteenth century. And though their era became known as the “age of Pope,” both men had a profound influence on succeeding writers. During their own lifetimes, however, Pope and Swift were frequently out of harmony with the values of the age, and both often criticized it severely. 

Although Pope addressed his works exclusively to the educated and leisured classes, he also attacked the members of these classes for their immorality and their bad taste, two failings that were usually associated in Pope’s mind. Pope loved order, discipline, and craftsmanship; both he and Swift were appalled by the squalor and shoddiness—in art, manners, and morals— that underlay the polished surfaces of Augustan life. This violent and filthy underside of eighteenth-century life is illustrated in the paintings and engravings of William Hogarth (1697–1764). Swift shared many of Pope’s attitudes and ideals, and in his exposure of the mean and sordid in human behavior, Swift’s works resemble Hogarth’s art. Neither Swift nor Pope felt smug or satisfied with the world, as many English people did. Both writers deplored the corrupt politics of the time and the growing commercialism and materialism of the English people. 

Pope and Swift both used satire to expose the moral corruption and crass commercialism of eighteenth-century England.

Journalism: A New Profession 

In contrast with Swift and Pope and their aristocratic values, a writer named Daniel Defoe (1660–1731) stood for values that we think of as being middle class: thrift, prudence, industry, and respectability. Defoe had no interest in polished manners and social poise. Swift and Pope looked down their noses at him. “Defoe has written a vast many things,” Pope once said, “and none bad, though none excellent.” 

Defoe, like the essayists Joseph Addison and Sir Richard Steele, followed a new profession: journalism. Eighteenth-century journalists did not merely describe contemporary political and social matters; they also saw themselves as reformers of public manners and morals. Journalists today—using both print and video—still see themselves in reformer roles. 

As the middle class grew, journalists—and the reforms they advocated—became increasingly important.

Public Poetry: Conceived in Wit

Today when we think of great poetry, we think of great lyrics: the sonnets of Shakespeare, Keats, and Wordsworth, the religious poems of Donne and Eliot, the private poems of Emily Dickinson, and the lyrics of such twentieth-century poets as William Butler Yeats, Robert Frost, and Elizabeth Bishop. These poets reveal in their poems their innermost thoughts and feelings, their honest and original responses to life. “Genuine poetry,” said Matthew Arnold, a nineteenth-century poet and critic, “is conceived and composed in the soul.” 

Later critics like Matthew Arnold put down the poetry of people such as Alexander Pope because, he said, it was conceived and composed in their “wits”—that is, in their minds, not their souls. But these so-called Augustan poets did not define poetry in Arnold’s way and so should not be judged by his standards. They had no desire to expose their souls; they thought of poetry as having a public rather than a private function. 

Augustan poets would write not merely a poem, but a particular kind of poem. They would decide in advance the kind of poem, much as a carpenter decides on the kind of chair to make. The best Augustan poems are like things artfully made for a particular purpose, usually a public purpose. Many of the popular kinds of poetry were inherited from classical antiquity. 

If, for instance, a grand person such as a general or a titled lady died, the poets would celebrate that dead person in elegies, the appropriate kind of poem for the occasion. Augustan elegies did not tell the truth about a dead person, even if the truth could be determined; rather, they said the very best things that the poet could think of saying.

At the opposite extreme, a poet might decide that a certain type of behavior, or even a certain conspicuous person, should be exposed to public ridicule. The poet would then write a satire, a kind of writing that does not make a just and balanced judgment of people and their behavior but rather says the worst things about them that the poet can think of saying. 

Another important kind of poem was the ode—an ambitious, often pompous poetic utterance expressing a public emotion, like the jubilation felt after a great naval victory.

Regardless of its kind, every poem had to be carefully and artificially constructed; every poem had to be dressed in exact meter and rhyme. Poems were not to sound like spontaneous and impromptu utterances, just as people were not to appear in public except in fancy dress. Those who could afford it adorned themselves with vast wigs, ribboned and jeweled clothing, and red shoes with high heels. People’s movements were dignified and stately in public. Nothing was what we would today call natural—neither dress nor manners nor poetry. 

Poetry of the period was not private, intimate, or spontaneous; rather, it was highly artificial and carefully crafted for public occasions.

The First English Novels

By the mid–eighteenth century, people were writing—and others, including women, were eagerly buying (or borrowing)—long fictional narratives called novels (“something new”). These novels, which were a development of the middle class, were often broad and comical—the adventures, for example, of a handsome ne’er-do-well or lower-class beauty, frequently recounted in endless episodes or through a series of letters. Authorities disagree as to whether Robinson Crusoe and Defoe’s other fictional narratives are true novels, but many agree that the novel began either with Defoe or with the writers of the next generation. 

The novels of one of the most prominent eighteenth-century novelists, Henry Fielding (1707–1754), are literally crammed with rough and rowdy incidents, and though Fielding does manage to make his characters seem good, they are never soft or sentimental. Fielding’s rollicking novel Tom Jones has even been made into an Oscar-winning movie, proof that his high-spirited characters are still fresh and funny today. Samuel Richardson (1689–1761) was perhaps the first novelist to explore in great detail the emotional life of his characters, especially his heroines (in Pamela and Clarissa). The novels of Laurence Sterne (1713–1768) are experimental and whimsical—and still unique despite the efforts of many imitators to copy them. All these novels tell us something of what life at this time was like. They also help us understand the humor and disappointments of human experience in all ages. 

Novels, so named because they were “new,” became popular during the mid-eighteenth century. Women were among the most eager readers.

The Commanding Figure of Johnson

Along with all the other labels given to parts of this long period in English history, some people refer to the last part of the eighteenth century as the “age of Johnson.” Even today, Samuel Johnson remains a commanding figure who speaks with authority about many of the things that matter to men and women. Johnson’s views of humanity were conservative and traditional. He criticized the popular belief in progress (the belief that things are getting better and better) and the assumption that men and women are naturally good (that is, the notion that if society is reformed, people will automatically do what is right). 

The commanding figure at the end of the eighteenth century was Dr. Samuel Johnson, a man of conservative and traditional beliefs. He questioned the optimistic assumption that the future would be better than the past.

Searching for a Simpler Life

By the time of Johnson’s death in 1784, the world was changing in disturbing and profound ways. The Industrial Revolution was turning English cities and towns into filthy, smoky slums. Across the English Channel, the French were about to murder a king and set their whole society on a different political course. The eighteenth century was closing, and—just as at the end of the twentieth century, people sensed that a new era was about to begin—people in England knew that the age of elegance, taste, philosophy, and reason was over.

As a reflection of all this change, writers were developing new interests. Appalled at the industrial blight, they were turning to external nature and writing about the effect of the natural landscape on the human psyche. Disgusted with the excessive focus on the upper classes and “good taste,” they were looking back at the past and searching out the simple poems and songs composed by nameless, uneducated folk poets. They were even becoming interested in the literary possibilities of the humble life and were trying to enter into the consciousness of the poor and simple. Nothing could be less Augustan than these tendencies. In short, a new literary age was already beginning during the lifetime of the last great representative of the older age. 

At the end of the century, as industrialization mushroomed, writers returned to nature and folk themes for inspiration.


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