- ENGLISH CIVIL WARS (1641-1645, 1648-1649) between the King (Charles I and Charles II, Stuart Kings who overestimated the power of the Monarchy) and the Parliament (led by Oliver Cromwell), a confrontation which also had economic and religious overtones (Puritans against the Church of England, urban traders against rural land-owners).
- After a protectorate, the Monarchy was restored with James II in 1660 (“the Restoration”). His attempt to reintroduce Roman Catholicism led to his deposition with the “Glorious Revolution” (1688), which established that the king could only rule with the Parliament’s consent. A compromise was reached between the fanatical republicanism of the Puritans and the fanatical absolutism of the two ill-fated Stuarts.
- 1707: The Acts of Union created the Kingdom of Great Britain (England and Scotland, previously only common monarchs). Queen Anne became the new Queen and the Parliament of Great Britain was created. This is the beginning of the British Empire and the Industrial Revolution.
- Independence of the USA (1776). British-American wars.
The main characteristic of the literature of this period may be summed up in the phrase “From the head, not the heart”. If the literature from the past had been passionate and seen from the point of view of the imagination, the Restoration and the Enlightenment brought about a period governed by reason. The 18th century in particular is the AGE OF ENLIGHTENMENT (or “Augustan Age”, “Neoclassicism” or “Age of Reason”), a period dominated by a rational and scientific approach to religious, social, political, and economic issues that promoted a secular view of the world and a general sense of progress and perfectibility. Led by the philosophers who were inspired by the discoveries of the previous century (Newton) and the writings of Descartes, John Locke (1632-1704) and Francis Bacon (1561-1626), as well as the example of France, the Encyclopedia and Diderot.
The theatres were closed by the Puritans in 1642 and destroyed a tradition that could never be really recovered. DRAMAS continued to be written and played (following Classical examples, influenced by French writers) but they never reached the literary value of the past. Some important dramatists of the late 18th century were Oliver Goldsmith (1730-1774) and Richard Sheridan (1751-1816).
The most important POETS of this period were (in chronological order):
JOHN MILTON (1608-1674): Poet, polemicist and politician. The first great literary personality of England. Author of Paradise Lost (1667), a blank-verse epic poem about man’s fall from grace in the Garden of Eden. Artificial, grandiose style.
JOHN DRYDEN (1631-1700). Poet, satirist and critic. Precursor of the Enlightenment (emphasis on the head rather than the heart).
ALEXANDER POPE (1688-1744). The most important poet of the 18th century. The Rape of the Lock (1712). Mock-heroic poem.
PROSE is the most important literary form of this period. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) was a “Man of letters”, a man whose personality dominates the century. Essayist, critic, lexicographer, author of the Dictionary of the English Language (1755). John Bunyan (1628-1688) wrote Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) in the Restoration period.. A Christian (Puritan). allegory The story of a character named Christian travelling to the Eternal City. John Locke (1632-1704) and Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) were philosophers and political theorists of great influence. Hobbes wrote. Leviathan (1651, “Man is a wolf to man”).
Jonathan Swift (1667-1745). Born in Ireland, probably the best satirist of the English language. Gulliver’s Travels (1726): a great satire of human condition, four books—recounting four voyages to mostly-fictional exotic lands—each with a different theme, but all attempting to deflate human pride. “A Modest Proposal”, an ironic proposal to solve the problems of Ireland by feeding Irish children to the English landlords. Probably the best prose-writer of the century.
But from a literary point of view, the most important development of the 18th century was the phenomenon called “THE RISE OF THE NOVEL”, the emergence of the novel as a literary form in English. Some of its best performers were:
Daniel Defoe (1659-1731). A journalist. Robinson Crusoe (1719), considered by some as the first novel in English. Based on real facts.
Samuel Richardson (1689-1761). Sentimental novels. Pamela (1740), Clarissa (1748). Written in the epistolary form.
Henry Fielding (1707-1754). Comic novels, influenced by picaresque. Tom Jones (1749), Joseph Andrews (1742), written "in imitation of the manner of Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote". Shamela (1741) was a parody of Pamela.
Lawrence Sterne (1713-1768). Irish-born. Tristram Shandy (1759). Comic, metafictional novel. The book is apparently Tristram's narration of his life story. But it is one of the central jokes of the novel that he cannot explain anything simply, that he must make explanatory diversions to add context and colour to his tale, to the extent that we do not even reach Tristram's own birth until Volume III. A precursor of post-modernism and contemporary sensibilities.
The Gothic novel also started at this time, with writers like Ann Radcliffe (1764-1822) and Horace Walpole (1717-1797) who wrote The Castle of Otranto (1764). They were full of mystery and emotion and they anticipated the Romantic spirit.