Daniel Defoe (1660–1731) Daniel Defoe produced his most important works during the Augustan Age, named for its writers who consciously attempted to emulate the work of the original Augustan writers, such as Vergil and Horace. He is also among those responsible for the creation of the English novel. Over the course of his lifetime, he worked as a journalist, pamphleteer, and essayist, writing as a social commentator for the merchant class. Defoe’s work is a hallmark of the neoclassical age. It was didactic as well as intellectual in nature. Defoe wrote as effortlessly on the subjects of politics, religion, and economics as he did fiction and employed the use of several neoclassical conventions, including the satire and the epic.
Scholars estimate that Defoe’s birth occurred sometime in 1660, the year that marked the beginning of the neoclassical age. He was born to James Foe, a tradesman and merchant, and Alice Foe; it is unclear why Daniel added the “De.” Though his father was reasonably successful, he could not send his son to the best schools, as he was a Dissenter, which was a religious group that did not conform to the Church of England. In his adult life, Defoe would work as a businessman in land speculation, the import business, as an inventor, and in other endeavors.
During Defoe’s life, England was politically driven by the monarchy and the Anglican Church, and, like his father, Defoe was a Dissenter and found need to defend his faith. Defoe participated in several rebellions, and, after a show of support during the Glorious Revolution, was honored with several positions, serving William of Orange from 1689 to 1702.
Defoe’s religious beliefs are what prompted many of his writings, including several political pieces and pamphlets and some satirical poetry. It was The Shortest-Way with Dissenters; or, Proposals for the Establishment of the Church, a satire written in support of religious freedom, that earned him fame in 1702. In reaction to the work, Defoe found himself charged with libel, fined, and imprisoned until Robert Harley secured his release in 1703 in exchange for his services as a pamphleteer and undercover public propagandist for the government, which continued for roughly ten years.
A Review of the Affairs of France, with Observations on Transactions at Home, was a triweekly journal Defoe created in 1704. Though he likely felt obligated to lean his review in favor of the government, his employer, it was still an essential vehicle of expression for the writer at the time. In the journal, Defoe offered his views on a variety of topics, including politics, economics, morality, and religion. His reporting techniques, social commentary, advice columns, and other features made A Review of the Affairs of France, with Observations on Transactions at Home a model publication for journalism today.
The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner, better known today as Robinson Crusoe, was published in 1719. It was his first novel and is his most recognized. Defoe is also responsible for writing several other novels including Moll Flanders, Colonel Jack, and Roxana, all of which are still in publication.
Defoe died April 26, 1731, in Moorfields, London, England.
John Dryden (1631–1700) John Dryden, a champion of the Restoration Age, was an amazing writer whose versatility has rarely been matched and whose works managed to change the course of English literary history. He produced a wide variety of literature, including satires, comedies, tragedies, lyric poetry, farces, translations, literary criticism, political poetry, and essays. Identified by some scholars as England’s first verse satirist, Dryden’s development of the verse...
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satire and use of the heroic couplet would be carried on by a new generation of writers for an entire century following his death.
He was born in 1631 in Aldwinkle, Northamptonshire, England. He grew up the son of Erasmus Dryden and Mary Pickering, land-owning gentry, and was well schooled in the classics, first attending Westminster School and then Trinity College, Cambridge, starting in 1650. Dryden won recognition for his poetry throughout his school career, winning prizes for various poems. He eventually earned a bachelor of arts in 1654, the same year his father died.
A year after his graduation, he left Trinity and eventually obtained a position in London working as some sort of civil servant under Oliver Cromwell. His first poem of any significance was in reaction to Cromwell’s death, entitled “Heroique Stanzas to the Glorious Memory of Cromwell,” in 1659. Several poems followed, but his first lengthy poetic work was “Annus Mirabilis.” The poem consisted of 304 quatrains (four-line stanzas) documenting English history, covering a recent war, plague, and the Great Fire. Mac Flecknoe, published in 1682, was his first notable satire.
By 1663, Dryden had also begun to write his plays. His first was The Wild Gallant, followed by The Rival Ladies, and then The Indian Queen, The Indian Emperour. He wrote a critical piece entitled Of Dramatick Poesie: An Essay, published in 1668, which was a precursor to future dramatic works. Subsequent companion pieces were published in 1668, A Defence of an Essay of Dramatick Poesie, and in 1672, Of Heroique Playes. Both were written in response to the criticisms of Sir Robert Howard, who took issue with some of Dryden’s theatrical conventions.
Of Heroique Playes betrays his strong interest in writing an original epic, as does his Discourse Concerning the Original and Progress of Satire (1692). Although Dryden found no time to realize his epic, other essential works would follow.
By 1668, Dryden is England’s leading playwright and, shortly after the restoration of Charles II to the throne, is appointed poet laureate. Throughout the remainder of his life, Dryden would continue to produce critical works in response to the ever-changing nature of literary form. In addition, he would produce some of his finest poetry, including “To the Memory of Mr. Oldham” in 1684, and pieces that experimented with the beast fable. On May 1, 1700, he died and was buried in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey.
Samuel Johnson (1709–1784) Though the Age of Johnson marked the end of Neoclassicism, Samuel Johnson is still considered a major author of the era. Johnson was a man of many talents, including those of lexicographer, translator, journalist/essayist, travel writer, biographer, editor, and critic. He injected into the neoclassical age his own energy and enthusiasm, an appreciation of nature and the country life, and an ever-widening range of intellectual interests.
Born to Michael and Sarah Ford Johnson in 1709 at Lichfield in Staffordshire, Johnson spent most of his early childhood coping with illness. Poor financial circumstances left his family in a state of unrest. Despite a troubled childhood, Johnson demonstrated a keen intellect during his time at Lichfield Grammar School. He then attended Stourbridge Grammar School and would eventually work there.
The first poem Johnson wrote was “On a Daffodil, the First Flower the Author Had Seen That Year” in 1724. Most of his work at Stourbridge was translations of specific books of the Iliad. He also wrote several poems; works demonstrating his talents through his experimentation with poetic conventions and his use of diction as well as rhythm. In 1728, Johnson attended Pembroke College, Oxford. There, as throughout the rest of his career, Johnson demonstrated a natural ability for writing poetry with incredible speed as well as precision.
His first attempt at writing professionally came when he moved to London in 1737 in an effort to complete and promote his blank-verse tragedy Irene. Johnson eventually began writing for Gentleman’s Magazine, producing poetry of light verse as well as Latin and Greek epigrams. Johnson turned to a popular contemporary poetic form—the imitation— to attempt to create his first independent piece. The art of imitation allowed the author to exercise creative freedom as he translated the original compositions of others. Johnson chose the Latin poet Juvenal and imitated his Satura III, writing on urban life in London. London: A Poem, in Imitation of the Third Satire of Juvenal was published in May of 1738. He then published One Thousand Seven Hundred and Thirty Eight, a second imitation, just a few days later. The success of these poems led to subsequent renderings of Juvenal’s works and a steady stream of poetry from Johnson to follow.
Johnson would spend the next fifteen to twenty years working as a hack writer and journalist. He continued writing reviews, translations, and articles for Gentlemen’s Magazine through the mid 1740s. Much of his work, at this time, was prose, although he did revise several poems, including “The Young Author,” “Ode to Friendship,” and “To Laura,” which were published in the magazine in 1743 along with Latin translations like The Vanity of the Human Wishes and Satura X.
During the latter part of his life, Johnson earned an honorary master of arts degree at Oxford (1755) for the Dictionary of English Language. In 1765, Trinity College, Dublin, also presented him with an honorary doctor of laws degree. By the time of Johnson’s death, on December 13, 1784, he had earned his place in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey, near the foot of Shakespeare’s monument. Not only recognized as being a master of heroic-couplet verse among critics, Johnson is also recognized for his great contributions to the age, ranked with Pope and Dryden as masters of the form. His work and views would pave the way to English Romanticism.
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