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.)