English Poetry in the Eighteenth Century Analysis

The Dominance of Alexander Pope

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The eighteenth century in Britain saw the blossoming of seventeenth century poetic modes and the sprouting of modes that would blossom into Romanticism. It was an age of reason and sentiment, of political turbulence, of growing colonialism and wealth, of beautiful landscapes and parks, of gin addiction and Evangelicalism, of a burgeoning middle class and growing respect for middle-class values, of increasing literacy and decreasing dependence on patronage, and of cantankerous Tories and complacent Whigs. As England became the center of world commerce and power, so, too, it became the center of literary achievement.

John Dryden died in 1700, but his death signaled no dramatic change in poetic style. Poets walked in his footsteps, moving away from Metaphysical conceits—from the style of those poets who glittered “Like twinkling Stars the Miscellanies o’er”—to search for smoothness and a new style of thinking. Symptomatic of the eighteenth century’s passion for order and regularization was the tinkering by Alexander Pope (1688-1744) with the poetry of John Donne: He made Donne’s numbers flow melodiously and corrected his versification. Heroic couplets and lampoons and political satires such as Dryden’s were written throughout the century. Common Restoration subjects such as the imperious mistress and the cacophony of critics continued to be used.

Dryden named William Congreve (1670-1729) his poetical successor, but Pope was his true heir. From the appearance of his Pastorals in 1709 until William Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads in 1798, Pope dominated poetry. His influence, for example, pervades Robert Dodsley’s Collection of Poems, by Several Hands (1748), and it is evident in William Mason’s Museaus (1747), in the half dozen other poems concerned chiefly with Pope, and in the many others that refer respectfully to him. If the poets of the latter part of the century did not imitate him, they at least grudgingly admired him while...

(The entire section is 822 words.)

Epics and mock-epics

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The most popular genres were epic, ode, satire, elegy, epistle, and song. To show their fealty to Homer and Vergil, nearly every eighteenth century poet at least thought of writing an epic. Pope, for one, was planning an epic on Brutus when he died. None of the plans for writing epics or the epics that were written brought forth anything but sour fruit (Aaron Hill’s biblical epic Gideon, 1749, is a prime example); however, the mock-epic form in this possibly nonheroic age brought forth delicious fruit, including Pope’s The Rape of the Lock (1712, 1714) and The Dunciad (1728-1743).


(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Eighteenth century poets had more success writing odes than they did writing epics. In the early years of the century, poets looked to Pindar or to Horace as models for writing odes. They used Pindaric odes for exalted subjects and Horatian odes for various urbane, personal, and meditative themes. In the seventeenth century, Abraham Cowley had popularized irregularities in the Pindaric odes; after Congreve denounced them in his A Pindarique Ode on the Victorious Progress of Her Majesties Arms (1706), most poets knew the duty of Pindaric regularity but still preferred the laxness of Cowley’s form. Thomas Gray (1716-1771) was an important exception: He wrote two Pindaric odes—“The Bard” and “The Progress of Poesy”—in rigidly correct form.

In the second quarter of the century, a new type of ode appeared, inspired by Milton’s “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso.” The “descriptive and allegorical ode” centered around a personified abstraction, such as pity or simplicity, and treated it in a descriptive or pictorial way. Collins and the Warton brothers did much to popularize this mode in the 1740’s.


(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The eighteenth century was, of course, the golden age of satire. Satirists such as Jonathan Swift and Pope attacked the frivolity of polite society, the corruption of politics, and false values in all the arts. The aim of satire, as Pope explained it, was not wanton destruction: Satire “heals with Morals what it hurts with Wit.” Satirists, he claimed, nourished the state, promoting its virtue and providing it everlasting fame.

Eighteenth century poetry has been accused of monotony and weak feeling. The zeal of the satirists for truth and virtue, however, blazes through many lines, and the warmth of their compassion for the poor, the sick, the mistreated, and the aged glows through many others. Pope, in the Moral Essays (1731-1735), for example, pities the ancient belles of court: “See how the World its Veterans rewards!/ A Youth of Frolicks, an old Age of Cards.” The age, particularly the state under the administration of Sir Robert Walpole, may not have been as black as the satirists painted it—it was an age of increasing wealth and progress—but the satirists were obsessed by the precariousness of intellect and of civilization, by the threat of fools and bores and pedants, by the fear of universal darkness burying all. In a world where human intellect alone keeps society from the disintegration caused by unthinking enthusiasts and passionate pig heads, dullness is morally objectionable—an aspect of vice. Satirists thus became moral crusaders for truth, virtue, and intelligence. They believed in an ancient state of purity which humans could not re-create; humans could, however, “relume the ancient light” (in Pope’s words) for the future.


(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Elegies in Latin and Greek were composed in elegiac couplets rather than the hexameter lines of the epic and the pastoral. Donne wrote amatory elegies in the seventeenth century, but by the eighteenth century, elegies were meditative pieces, often about death. Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1751), said by some to be the best poem of the eighteenth century, is an elegy for all “average” and obscure men. It achieves the ideals of its day in its attempt to work in universal terms and in its purity and harmony of diction; it approaches Romanticism in its placid melancholy and rustic setting. In “Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady” (1717), the other important elegy of the eighteenth century and one of the only works of Pope that the Romantics could tolerate, Pope laments the mortality of a young suicide victim and his own mortality, stressing the threats to human feeling and the glory of its intensity.


(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The epistle, or verse letter, an important form in the seventeenth century, reached its height in the epistles of Pope in the 1740’s, and continued to be popular until the end of the nineteenth century. Horace provided the classical model for the verse epistle. The familiar form of the epistle allowed poets to seem to speak sincerely and intimately to a close friend while addressing the public about general issues. Almost all epistles were written in heroic couplets, began in a rather rambling way, and finally came to a point about halfway through the poem. Charles Churchill’s Epistle to William Hogarth (1763), for example, begins with a miscellaneous discussion of satire. The effect of this structure is comic and optimistic: Order is brought out of disorder.

Lyric poetry

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Lyric poets used the song to achieve brevity and, at times, elegance. Songs were collected and written throughout the period, but the greatest of the songwriters—Robert Burns (1759-1796)—came at the end. He not only composed his own songs but also reconstituted and invigorated old Scottish songs, turning a drinking song into “Auld Lang Syne” and a disreputable ballad into “John Anderson My Jo.”


(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Other popular genres included the epigram, the fable, and verse criticism. The tradition of the epigram, modeled on Martial and on Horace, began in the Renaissance and appealed to the eighteenth century because of its conciseness and the opportunity it provided to display wit. The average epigram was at most six lines long, beginning with something to arouse curiosity or anticipation and closing with humor or surprise. Common topics included love and the characters of people, though some epigrams were obscene. A specialized form of the epigram was the epitaph, which several poets composed for themselves. John Gay’s epitaph reads: “Life is a jest, and all things show it/ I thought so once; but now I know it,” and Swift’s Latin epitaph, roughly translated, says that he is now gone where bitter indignation no longer lacerates his heart.


(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The fables of the eighteenth century demonstrate the ability of Augustan writers to enrich and vary a genre. The favorite form for the fables was the iambic tetrameter couplet. Gay wrote the best English fables (1727-1738), though Swift, Bernard Mandeville, Prior, Christopher Smart, Cowper, Beattie, and Johnson also wrote them. Far from being childlike, Gay’s Fables (1727, 1738) expressed a disillusioned cynicism toward humankind, particularly emphasizing foolish human pride. No English fable, however, could measure up to those written in France by Jean de La Fontaine in the seventeenth century.

Poetry, patronage, and politics

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Eighteenth century poets generally came from good families in much reduced circumstances. Prior, Swift, and Johnson fit this generalization, though Pope was the son of a wealthy linen draper. Poets still sought patrons, praising their parks and estates, but more and more their writings at least partially supported them. Prior, for example, apparently netted four thousand guineas from his Poems on Several Occasions (1707, 1709). The audience for literature was growing, thanks in large measure to the graduates of charity schools and the newly founded grammar schools. Political preferment also proved lucrative for poets. Addison served as undersecretary of state and later secretary to the lord-lieutenant of Ireland, and Burns collected excise taxes. Johnson’s letter to Lord Chesterfield on his tardy recognition of the Dictionary of the English Language (1755) is said to have given the final blow to patronage, though the letter was not printed until near the end of the century.

In the first half of the century, poets aligned themselves according to politics. Addison and Whigs such as Ambrose Philips reigned at Button’s coffeehouse. The Tories—Swift, Gay, Thomas Parnell, Pope, and John Arbuthnot—formed the Scriblerus Club and met at Arbuthnot’s apartments in St. James’s Palace. Parnell and Gay both worked closely with Pope and yet remained independent: Parnell published his Miltonic poems chiefly in miscellanies, and Gay became the king of burlesque. Barbs flew back and forth between the Whig and Tory parties, the deadliest of which was Pope’s portrait of Addison in Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot (1735).

Humor and satire

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Though there undoubtedly was venom in these attacks, there was also a good measure of humor written in the early decades of the century. Gay was a chief contributor with Wine (1708), a burlesque of Milton and John Philips’s Cyder (1708) and Trivia: Or, The Art of Walking the Streets of London (1716). Swift, Lady Mary Wortley-Montagu, and others helped to popularize “town eclogues.” The most delightfully imaginative and amusing of the exposés of society was Pope’s mock-heroic The Rape of the Lock, with its sylphs and gnomes and diminution of Homeric epic. The Rape of the Lock is much more complicated than Dryden’s Mac Flecknoe: Or, A Satyre upon the True-Blew-Protestant Poet, T. S. (1682): Pope reveals the confusion of moral values in society in such catalogs as “Puffs, Powder, Patches, Bibles, Billet-doux.” Pope simultaneously laughs at the foibles of society and warns of the fragility of beauty.

Most poets wrote in heroic couplets, a pair of rhyming pentameter lines. In Shakespeare’s time, couplets closed sonnets or scenes in blank verse dramas; in the later seventeenth century, couplets were adapted to correspond to the elegiac couplet of classical verse and to the heroic, unrhymed Greek and Latin hexameter. Pope was the master of the heroic couplet; he knew how to build two or three couplets, each technically closed, into a unified, easy period. Throughout the century, poets in England and America tried to equal his artistry. By the end of the century, poets such as Cowper still attempted heroic couplets, but with little success. Cowper could achieve the Horatian simplicity admired in the eighteenth century, but his verses lacked Horatian polish and piquancy.

Even in the early part of the century, however, poets such as Swift and Prior ignored heroic couplets in favor of tetrameter couplets. Prior criticized the heroic couplet, complaining that it cuts off the Sense at the end of every first Line, which must always rhime to the next following, and consequently produces too frequent an Identity in the Sound, and brings every Couplet to the Point of an Epigram.

Short poems and irregular meters, on the whole, were not highly regarded.

The nature of humankind

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

After the 1640’s, England’s civil war left deep scars that lasted well into the eighteenth century. Religious and political factions still strained the country, and the atmosphere was at once one of compromise and tolerance and one of skepticism. It was a time when writers questioned and strove to understand the nature of humanity, human limitations, and the limitations that must be set on human passions. Answers to these questions differed significantly: Some optimistic moralists believed in the essential goodness of humankind, some satirists and cynics bemoaned humanity’s incorrigible pride, which would forever keep people from the truth, and some realists insisted that humanity and the world must be accepted as they are,...

(The entire section is 629 words.)

Landscape and philosophical discourse

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

While Pope inherited satire and heroic couplets from Dryden, there was another poetic movement in the eighteenth century whose ancestors were Milton, reflective poetry, and blank verse. Poets increasingly used landscape as material for their poetry and wedded it to philosophical discourse. Thomson’s The Seasons was both the crowning effort of this movement and a stimulus to its further development. Thomson patterned Autumn (1730) and Winter (1726) on the chronological progress of the season and Summer (1727) on the events of a typical day. The passages alternate between description and meditation, with description being the most innovative. Thomson excelled in the presentation of exuberant motion and tightly packed detail. Pope and Philips had written lovely pastorals earlier in the century, and Gay incorporated much folklore and the sights and sounds of the country in his Rural Sports (1713) and The Shepherd’s Week (1714); but Thomson’s work differed sharply from the pastoral in its description of nature for its own sake, with human incidents as background rather than nature as background for human drama. The Seasons started a tradition of descriptive poetry, which at its extreme became a love of what Shenstone called “odd picturesque description.” The descriptive poem usurped the place of the epic as the most honored poetic form, and Thomson was invested as the preeminent English poet of nature until Wordsworth succeeded him.

Thomson has been accused of having an overly latinate style with false ornamentation. His strength lies in his minute observation of nature, in his almost scientific curiosity. A professed deist, Thomson saw in nature a revelation of the attributes of God; other deists, and even the more orthodox, upheld him in this belief. The scientist in Thomson admired the orderliness of the mathematical universe. Like Pope, Thomson insisted on intelligence and reason; he believed that a study of nature frees people from superstition and ignorance. He, too, reflected on the wants and miseries of human life.

Didactic poetry

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Encouraged by The Seasons and An Essay on Man, many poets began to write in a moralizing, didactic manner, including William Somerville (The Chace, 1735), Henry Brooke (Universal Beauty, 1735), Mark Akenside (The Pleasures of the Imagination, 1744), and Young (Night-Thoughts). Akenside’s The Pleasures of the Imagination, based on Addison’s discussion of the same subject in The Spectator, insists on the interconnection of truth, goodness, and beauty. Akenside’s training in religion, philosophy, science, and art is evident throughout the poem, which is more a document for a historian of ideas than for an appreciator of poetic beauty.


(The entire section is 184 words.)

Sensibility and melancholy

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Another important movement in the literature of England and the Continent in the first half of the eighteenth century has been named “sensibility.” By this is meant an exquisite sensitiveness to the beautiful and the good, a sensitiveness that induces melancholy or sorrow. All that is noble and generous in human conduct was thought to have its source in this exquisite sensitivity, and nature assisted as a moral tonic to the human heart. The pensive mood, even though it induced melancholy, also induced pleasure because it freed the emotions and the imagination from the conventions of civilization and from the vanity and corruption of humankind. Milton’s “Il Penseroso” partly influenced this new mode, and Richard Steele...

(The entire section is 247 words.)


(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Brunström, Conrad. William Cowper: Religion, Satire, Society. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 2004. A re-assessment of Cowper, emphasizing his attempt to reconcile the idea of retirement into rural life with his own version of social responsibility. Torn between these extremes, Cowper symbolizes a conflict that was not uncommon among eighteenth century intellectuals. Bibliographical references and index.

Fairer, David. English Poetry of the Eighteenth Century, 1700-1789. Annotated edition. Harlow, Essex, England: Longman, 2003. Discusses a variety of topics, ranging from ways of feeling, such as the search for...

(The entire section is 685 words.)

From society to the individual

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The latter half of the century produced no English poet equal to Pope, but it did produce a large number of important writers and did serve as a transition period from concentration on society as the preserver of the best in humanity to concentration on the nobility and potential of the individual. The beautiful city of Bath was built in the classical style, and the Adam brothers designed and built new streets and squares in Edinburgh. Advances were made in the art of writing history because men had come to believe with Pope that the “proper study of mankind is man.” Shaftesbury’s doctrine of humanity’s natural goodness coupled with materialistic rationalism had led to optimistic political programs based on the...

(The entire section is 692 words.)


(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

In addition to the fertile soil found in humble, everyday life, poets found new material in the Middle Ages, in castles and ruins and anything “Gothic.” The Frenchman Paul Henri Mallet and his work Northern Antiquities (1770) did more than any other individual to set Europe ablaze with enthusiasm for ancient Germanic mythology and the medieval manners and customs of the North. In England, Horace Walpole built his monument to Gothicism, Strawberry Hill. Thomas Warton, the elder, wrote “A Runic Ode,” and Thomas Warton, the younger, wrote three volumes on the history of English poetry from the twelfth to the close of the sixteenth century (1774-1781). Pope earlier in the century had chronicled love pangs in an...

(The entire section is 353 words.)


(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Concurrent with the interest in medievalism came the reawakening interest in the ballad. Popular ballads in the first half of the century include Henry Carey’s Sally in Our Alley, Gay’s ’Twas When the Seas Were Roaring (1715) and the ballads in his The Beggar’s Opera (1728), and Henry Fielding’s Roast Beef of Old England (1731). Even Swift’s two saints found broadside ballads plastered on the walls of the cottage of Baucis and Philemon. Many of the ballad songs are narratives. Allan Ramsay, an important publisher of ancient Scottish ballads, modernized and “improved” the texts. In America, many complaints against the British took the form of ballads.

Considered a...

(The entire section is 318 words.)


(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The same yearnings that the eighteenth century felt for native poetry and nature stimulated the glorification of the “noble savage.” Particularly in the latter half of the century, writers expressed longing for a “return to Nature” and brought primitivism into vogue. They contrasted the innocent child of the wilderness with the selfish adult of artificial civilization. Urban life and civilization departed from the “natural.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the greatest European supporter of the “Return to Nature,” believed that nature had originally made people good and happy but that civilization had made them criminal and miserable. Poets such as Cowper escaped to the countryside for tranquillity, and in those times nature...

(The entire section is 149 words.)

Children’s poetry

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The spread of education and the longing for innocence produced another new literary form, literature for children. Before the eighteenth century, poets wrote about children, particularly about their deaths, in hopes of parental patronage, but few poems were written for children. At the beginning of the century, Isaac Watts wrote Divine and Moral Songs for Children (1715) and at the end of the century Blake wrote Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1794) specifically for children. Blake did not condescend to children or indulge in humorous play to amuse the adults who read to children. His verses are childlike but never childish. Other writers for children include Philips and Prior. Philips, a writer of...

(The entire section is 148 words.)


(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Another new flowering in the eighteenth century was hymn writing. As more and more sects formed in opposition to established churches, new music for worship had to be created. In the first part of the century, Watts was one of the best and most scholarly of the Dissenting writers. His hymns, including “God our help in ages past,” expressed the popular view that the universe displays the Almighty’s hand. With fresh and independent critical ideas, Watts believed that the cultivation of faith can elevate poetry. Watts’s hymns and others in the early part of the century tended to be “congregational” in point of view.

In Germany, pietism revived and left its traces in the sphere of religious poetry. The main...

(The entire section is 403 words.)

Progress poems

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The two best poets of the new belief in secular progress were Collins and Thomas Gray. Both accomplished scholars, they expressed their poetic ideals of liberty and simplicity in historical surveys or “progress poems.” Collins excelled in writing odes: His “Ode to Evening” is particularly beautiful in its delicate “dying fall” of cadence. His “Ode Written in the Beginning of the Year 1746” has a delicate and pensive melody. Emotional apostrophes fill Collins’s work, making it more exclamatory than reflective and making it less warm and personal. He chiefly appeals with his curious, ornate fantasies and his creation of dim and dreamlike effects.

Even though Gray and Collins resembled each other in...

(The entire section is 1666 words.)

Toward Romanticism

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The most significant event of the end of the eighteenth century was, of course, the French Revolution. In German literature, it was regarded as a warning about the problem of liberty. In English literature, it kindled enthusiasm in poets, but their celebratory poetry did not sparkle. Cowper and Burns saw in the revolution a declaration of the worth of all people, a manifesto of the political rights of the people. Beyond this, the revolution generated a millennial movement in English thought and life. Blake was the greatest of the millennial prophets, imagining a day when a new Jerusalem would arise in England after the reconciliation of Urizen (reason) with Los (imagination) and Luvah (passion).

The classical myths were...

(The entire section is 317 words.)