The Age of the Baroque and Enlightenment 1600-1800: Literature

Arts and Humanities Through the Eras. Editor: Edward I Bleiberg, et al. Volume 5. Detroit: Gale, 2005.

English Literature in the Early Seventeenth Century

A Century of Greatness

At the beginning of the sixteenth century as the New Learning of the Renaissance made inroads into England, few signs were present of the enormous flowering that was soon to occur in the country’s language and literature. For much of the later Middle Ages, England had remained one of Europe’s more isolated backwaters, and its language, although raised to a level of high art in the late-medieval works of Chaucer and other authors, was still quite different from the rich and malleable literary forms that were to be deployed by Shakespeare and his Elizabethan contemporaries. During the course of the sixteenth century the world of international politics as well as the circumstances of religion helped to propel England into the ranks of important European powers. If the country’s status flagged distinctly behind Habsburg Spain, Elizabeth I still managed to challenge that power by besting the Spanish Armada in 1588, as well as her rival Philip II. And while English power on the international scene may not have approached that of France under the Valois and Bourbon monarchies, the Elizabethan age still witnessed relative peace and security at the same time as France, the Netherlands, and other parts of Europe were suffering religious wars. During this era of relative stability England’s theater and its literature witnessed unprecedented development, development that continued in the years following Elizabeth’s death in 1603 despite the worsening political and religious climate in the country. The Elizabethan era witnessed the plays of Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593), William Shakespeare (1564-1616), Thomas Kyd (1558-1594), and a distinguished lineage of lesser lights that cultivated a broad audience for the theater in England. It witnessed the creation of The Faerie Queene of Edmund Spenser (c. 1552-1599) and the works of a number of poets of high achievement. The period also nourished the development of many poets and playwrights, like Ben Jonson (1572-1637), whose careers lay more in the Stuart age that followed it, than in the reign of Elizabeth I. And although the accession of James I, the Stuart king of Scotland, to the English throne in 1603 brought an end to the relative domestic tranquility of Elizabeth’s later years, there was no sudden decrease in the outpouring of literature in the early seventeenth century. The reign of James I, for example, continued to be an era of uninterrupted and steady achievement, even if disputes over religion soon bubbled up and combined with angry debates over the respective rights and prerogatives of Parliament and the Crown. The first signs of the new tensions occurred soon after the arrival of James I (r. 1603-1625) in England. As James journeyed from Scotland to London he was presented with the Millenary Petition, a series of requests for greater reforms in the Church of England, from English Puritans. Yet in the conference he convened to consider these requests at Hampton Court Palace several months later, the king rejected most of these demands, thus laying the foundations for the beginning of an alienation between the king and his Puritan subjects that grew worse over time. The unearthing of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, an abortive plan allegedly masterminded by Catholics to blow up the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, brought determined persecution of the country’s Catholic minority, too. In the years that followed, James and his son and successor Charles I (r. 1625-1649) wrangled persistently with the country’s ruling elites, insisting upon, but never effectively establishing, their ability to levy taxes without parliamentary consent and to rule like Continental absolutist monarchs. Despite these troubles—troubles that ultimately led to the outbreak of the English Civil Wars of the 1640s and to Charles I’s execution in 1649—the early Stuart period was a time of continued literary achievement. These accomplishments can be seen in the vitality of the London stage as well as in the poetry and prose of the era.

The Authorized Version of the Bible

One distinctive note of relative unanimity in the otherwise troubled waters of religion and politics in the early Stuart era involved the preparation and acceptance of a new translation of the Bible into English, a work that was completed with the publication of the so-called Authorized Version of 1611. This text, long known in North America merely as the King James Version, was the culmination of efforts the king had sanctioned at the Hampton Court Conference of 1604, the body of church and political figures convened to consider the Puritans’ Millenary Petition, as well as other issues in the Church of England. The resulting text became perhaps the single-most important work of English prose, helping to establish a cadence and metaphorical sensibility that made deep inroads into the literature of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and which persisted in the centuries beyond. Although Puritans had supported the idea of a new English Bible, James I soon granted the program his enthusiastic aid. To complete this enormous task, 54 translators were eventually asked to serve on six different translation teams, two centered in London and another two each at the universities of Cambridge and Oxford. Each team compiled its translations and then subsequently submitted them to a central oversight committee for approval. In completing their work, the translators of the Authorized Version did not create an entirely new translation, but instead relied on many of the earlier English Bibles published in the sixteenth century. They consulted, in other words, the “Bishops’ Bible,” an edition of the book that had been first printed for England’s churches in 1568, and which was subsequently made compulsory throughout the Church of England. At the same time they relied on the so-called Geneva Bible of 1560, a work very much favored by Puritans because of the explicit Calvinist-inspired commentary that ran alongside the text. Two other sources were the somewhat earlier translations of Miles Coverdale, as well as that of William Tyndale. Tyndale’s early sixteenth-century translation, while incomplete, showed great erudition in its rendering of the text into English, and its influence continued to be decisive in many cases in the Authorized Version, although the Genevan Bible’s influence was also vital. Royal edict expressly forbade the translators from including any of the Genevan version’s Calvinist commentary, a sign that James, like Elizabeth before him, intended to steer the Church of England on a middle course between more radical forms of Protestantism and Catholicism.

Success of the King James Bible

The resulting text may not have pleased all quarters in the embattled Church of England when it appeared in 1611, and many Puritan congregations continued to rely on the Geneva Bible for years to come. But the translation pleased enough of the fractious Church of England that it soon became the common version of the Bible in the country’s churches. Although titled an “Authorized Version,” no royal edict ever required its usage. Still, it became the accepted version of the Bible, not only in England, but in Scotland as well, a country with a very different kind of reformed church and an English language very different from the southern portion of the island. In this way King James’s version provided important ties of continuity between these various parts of the English-speaking world, and as England became a colonial power, the text was carried to the far corners of the world. In this process it helped to forge a common literary heritage among peoples that might otherwise have been vastly separated by linguistic differences. And although the Authorized Version eventually was replaced in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by a series of revisions, it continued to define the ways in which most English-speaking peoples perceive the Bible as a sacred text. For this reason, the King James version continues to be embraced even now as the authoritative translation of the Bible by many conservative Protestant sects in England, America, and throughout the world.

Religious Literature and Sermons

If the King James version of the Bible struck a chord of unusual unanimity in the divided England of the early seventeenth century, other disputes of the era concerning religion soon became the stuff from which new literary forms were crafted. The seventeenth-century English church produced an enormous outpouring of printed sermons and devotional literature, written both by Puritans of all stripes and by Anglicans committed to its middle path between Catholicism and Protestantism. To publish a printed book in Elizabethan and Stuart England, the state required that texts be submitted to the Stationer’s Guild, a medieval institution charged since the mid-sixteenth century with the task of administering an apparatus of inspection and censorship. Of course, authors and printers sometimes printed works without submitting them to these official channels, but the penalties for refusing to do so were great. In 1620, half of all works recorded in the Stationers’ Guild’s records were religious in nature, and this portion consisted of polemical tracts defending one’s doctrine or point of view about reforms in the church, devotional books, and sermons. One issue that divided Puritans from committed Anglicans—that is, avid supporters of the Church of England’s settlement—centered on the preaching of sermons. For many Puritan divines, preaching was an obligation that was to be conducted extemporaneously so that the minister might reveal the Word of God through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Printed prayers, like those of the church’s Book of Common Prayer, as well as the written sermons used by committed Church of England ministers, assaulted the sensibilities of determined Puritans, since they seemed an attempt to hem in and limit the very power of the Word of God and the Holy Spirit. Committed Puritans who relied on an extemporaneous delivery in church, though, were often careful to record their words following their sermons and to prepare printed editions of their texts. The competition between Anglicans and Puritans, moreover, sustained a constant outpouring of devotional works as both Puritans and committed Anglicans aimed to convince readers of the correctness of their respective positions concerning the church and the Christian life. On the Puritan side, men like Richard Baxter (1615-1691) composed fine devotional texts, best-sellers like his The Saint’s Everlasting Rest (1650), which were consumed in numerous editions. And while Puritan churchmen like Baxter attacked supporters of the Church of England as promoters of an arid, spiritless formalism, the evidence suggests that they were not such easy targets.

Anglican Devotional Literature

Throughout the seventeenth century committed Anglicans produced a steady flow of religious and devotional literature that aimed to inspire “holiness” among readers. The Anglican attitude toward Christian piety, although quite different from the highly defined and often theologically sophisticated and systematic treatments of Puritan divines, was no less firmly Christian in its outlook. Committed Anglicans sought to present images of the Christian life and its cycle of sin, forgiveness, death, and resurrection in ways that stirred the faithful to repentance and amendment of their lives. In the hands of its most urgent supporters, men like Archbishop William Laud (1573-1645) who became an enthusiastic persecutor of Puritans in the reign of Charles I, such calls to holiness earned for Anglicanism an enduring image of intolerance. Yet the Church of England also nourished many authors in the early seventeenth century that ably defended its positions, and who created an enduring literature of religious devotion that has continued to elicit admiration across the centuries. Among these figures, the works of Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667), Henry Vaughan (1621-1695), and Thomas Traherne (1637-1674) provided majestic, yet profound defenses of the principles of Anglicanism at a troubled point in the church’s history. Although these figures’ works are rarely read today outside the ranks of literary specialists, the period also produced John Donne (1573-1631) and George Herbert (1593-1633), who are still considered as authors and poets of the first rank, and who used their eloquence to defend the Anglican settlement. Donne has long had a perennial appeal, in part, because his works encapsulated the religious and philosophical dilemmas of his age in ways that elevated these concerns into timeless meditations on the human spirit and its discontents.


The circumstances of Donne’s life were redolent with the disputes and controversies that the Reformation continued to inspire in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century England. Born into a prominent Catholic family, he was schooled at home by Catholic teachers before entering Oxford and perhaps somewhat later Cambridge. Prevented from taking a degree because of his Catholicism, he seems to have traveled for a time throughout Europe before renouncing his faith and becoming a member of the Church of England in 1593. His religious zeal in these early years, though, was overshadowed by a taste for adventure, and in the late 1590s Donne even sailed on several voyages with the adventurer Sir Walter Raleigh. He participated in the sack Raleigh’s forces staged of Cadiz harbor in Spain in 1596 and he traveled the following year with the same force to the Azores in search of Spanish booty. Returning home from these adventures, he began to rise in the world of politics as a private secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, an important man of state affairs in Elizabethan England. Eventually, he was elected to Parliament through Egerton’s graces, but in 1601 a disastrous secret marriage to Ann More, Egerton’s wife’s niece, cut short his political career. He was imprisoned for a time, and spent the years that followed trying unsuccessfully to rehabilitate his reputation. His clandestine, unsanctioned marriage made him unsuited for public political life, and for almost fifteen years he and his wife lived off the patronage of friends and associates. Eventually, James I suggested he undertake a career in the church rather than in public affairs, and in 1615 he was ordained a priest and received a clerical appointment from the king. James forced Cambridge University to grant Donne a Doctor of Divinity degree, and with these credentials in hand, he began to acquire a series of positions in the church in London. Eventually, he rose to become dean of St. Paul’s cathedral, and in that capacity he became one of the most influential preachers of the seventeenth century. His style both in his poetry—which he wrote almost exclusively for private amusement rather than public consumption—and in his sermons was notable for abandoning the “soft, melting phrases” preferred by Elizabethan authors. In place of that elegant and light style, Donne preferred a dramatic, deeply intellectual language that was often filled with forceful turns of phrase that lamented and yet gloried in the death and resurrection of the human spirit. As a preacher, his abilities to create metaphors and turn phrases that encapsulated the spiritual dilemmas of the era earned him an enormous following among Londoners, and at the same time exemplified the possibilities that might exist in Anglican piety. For generations, the intensely intellectual, philosophical, and metaphysical cast of Donne’s writing has been summed up in his Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1624), the author’s own considerable reflections on his sickness and attendant death. That work, filled with an astute understanding of the many shades of fear and longing that attend approaching death, includes the immortal refrains “No man is an island” and “never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.” Yet in the body of poetry and sermons that Donne left behind, and which was edited and published by his son after his death, the author’s works present a diverse range of prose and poetry, much of it difficult to understand, yet rewarding to those that have tried to plumb its considerable intellectual range and depth. Donne’s example soon inspired a number of poets and authors that followed.

The Metaphysical Poets

In the late eighteenth century Samuel Johnson coined the phrase “metaphysical poets” to describe John Donne and a school of poets that had imitated that poet’s difficult, yet forceful style. Others had already noted a “metaphysical” strain in Donne’s work and in the poetry of early seventeenth-century England, a strain that had become less popular during the Restoration era of the later century, as authors had come to favor a clearer, less mysterious style. In truth, none of the figures that have been described as “metaphysical poets” in the early seventeenth century—including George Herbert (1593-1633), Richard Crashaw, (1613-1649), and Henry Vaughan (1621-1695), among others—were properly concerned with the subject of metaphysics, at that time a branch of natural philosophy that treated the underlying or hidden properties of things observed in the natural world. Nor do many of the poets sometimes connected to this so-called Metaphysical School seem to share much, beyond the use of certain literary conceits and a taste for ironic and often highly paradoxical treatments of their subjects. Yet the notion of an early seventeenth-century group of Metaphysical poets has endured, in part, because of the serious, religious themes treated in many of these figures’ works—themes that differed dramatically from the secular, often worldly poetry written at the time by a group equally long identified as the “Cavaliers.” In the works of the foremost practitioners of the “metaphysical style”—Donne, Herbert, Crashaw, and Vaughan—certain underlying structural similarities do seem to exist. One of these similarities is in their frequent recourse to emblematic modes of expression. Emblems were symbolic pictures that often contained a motto. They had first appeared in the Renaissance as a popular pastime, and books of emblems had figured prominently in courtly and aristocratic culture since at least the early sixteenth century. In Baldassare Castiglione’s classic work, The Book of the Courtier (1528), for instance, the cultivated circle whose conversations are recorded in the work spend their evenings unraveling the mysteries encapsulated in emblems. In the decades that followed, emblems appeared throughout Europe on many elements of material culture. Artists inserted them into fresco cycles, or they became popular symbols incised onto jewelry. Sometimes they were even reproduced on dinnerware, so that cultivated, humanistically educated men and women might decode their meanings between the courses at banquets. Even as they grew more popular, though, the sensibilities that surrounded their consumption underwent changes—changes that were, in part, sponsored by St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises and other sixteenth-century works that advocated a thorough and disciplined contemplation on visual stimuli in the “mind’s eye” to enhance one’s personal meditations. Emblems, once the preserve of a cultivated society anxious to demonstrate its knowledge of iconography and literary traditions, now came to circulate in books that were prized by devout Catholics, Puritans, and Anglicans alike as an aid to religious devotion. In books of emblems the emblem itself now came to be represented with three components: a motto that encapsulated the emblem’s meaning, a symbolic picture that represented it, and a poem that commented upon its deeper significances. Works like these were self-consciously difficult, and they called upon the viewer’s senses to decode the hidden underlying meanings that lay in the emblem’s symbolic language. They both required and rewarded those who used their wits and erudition to unlock their many encoded significances. This same highly visual and symbolic sense is to be found in the difficult poems of Donne and his friend, George Herbert, and it also played a role in Herbert’s admirers, Richard Crashaw and Henry Vaughan. While the concerns of these so-called “metaphysical poets” differed, and their style was extremely varied, there were thus certain common links in their works that were rooted in the devotional climate of their age.

The Cavaliers

Different sensibilities of style and content can be seen in a second, albeit equally artificial group of poets from the early Stuart period who have by long tradition been identified as the Cavaliers. Generally, this term was applied to all those who supported Charles I during the Civil Wars of the 1640s. Yet in literature it has long been granted to the poetry of figures like Thomas Carew (1594/1595-1640), Richard Lovelace (1618-1657/1658), Sir John Suckling (1609-1642), Robert Herrick (1591-1674), and Edmund Waller (1606-1687). The first three of these figures were courtiers in Charles I’s circle, and did not live to see the Restoration of the monarchy under Charles II. Edmund Waller and Robert Herrick, by contrast, lived through the Civil Wars and came to see their fortunes rise again during the Restoration. Thomas Carew, the elder statesman of the group, served Charles I in the Bishops’ War of 1639, an engagement precipitated by the Crown’s disastrous plan to establish bishops in Presbyterian Scotland. One year later, Carew’s career as a royalist was cut short by death, perhaps occasioned by the exertions of his military endeavors. In contrast to the seriousness and high moral tone observed in many of the “metaphysicals,” Carew’s poems were altogether lighter and less problematic, and like other Cavalier poets, they often reveal an easy attitude toward sex and morality. Although he wrote a poem in praise of John Donne, his own style seems to have owed more to the witticisms of Ben Jonson, an English Renaissance poet and dramatist, than to the serious moral tone promoted at the time by Anglican holiness. Above all the members in the group, he seems to have been an excellent literary craftsman with an often-meticulous attention to detail in his poems, a quality for which another Cavalier, Sir John Suckling, criticized him as if he were a pedant. Of the remaining figures, Edmund Waller was long among the most admired, and his poems continued to elicit admiration from critics throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The great John Dryden (1631-1700) credited Waller’s poetry with ushering in England’s “Augustan Age,” and among the specific qualities that he admired in it was a great “sweetness.” Today, the sophisticated simplicity of his works continues to be much admired, although unfortunately only among specialists in English literature; Waller has long since ceased to be a household name. Born to a wealthy family, he increased his fortune by several skillful marriages, and when he entered Parliament in the 1620s, he was originally a member of the opposition. During the 1630s, he switched sides to become a royalist, but when he led an unsuccessful plot to seize London from Puritan forces in 1643, he was banished for a time from the country before being reconciled to the Puritan Commonwealth and rising to prominence again under Charles II after 1660. By contrast, Robert Herrick was the only member of the “Cavaliers” that never served at court. Granted a rural living in the Church of England as a reward for military service to the Crown, he lived out his days away from London, in considerably quieter circumstances—that is, as a country parson in a remote corner of Devon in the southwest of England. Although he originally detested the countryside, he came to admire the rural folkways of his parishioners, in part, because he abhorred the ways in which Puritans were attempting to suppress country people’s traditional customs. His works were like all of those of the so-called Cavalier group: witty, graceful, sophisticated, and laced with a touch of “devil-may-care.”

Milton and the Puritan Commonwealth

The execution of Charles I by Parliament in January of 1649 signaled a sudden end to the Cavaliers’ musings, and although certain poets like Waller and Herrick continued to write in this vein following the restoration of the monarchy, the decisive Puritan victory quieted such voices for a time. During the Puritan Commonwealth, many Royalist supporters were forced to flee England before returning, or like Herrick, to exist on the gifts of their friends before taking up the life they had enjoyed during the war. During the Puritan Commonwealth devotional works, religious polemics, and sensational prophecies continued to pour from England’s presses, although there was little market in the heated religious climate of the 1650s for the kind of gracious and elegant poetry once championed by Cavalier society. One of the figures that continued to fuel the anxious political debates of the period was John Milton (1608-1674), who early in life had trained to be a Puritan minister, but until the 1640s had spent much of his time studying and perfecting his skills as a poet. During the Civil Wars Milton first became embroiled in the battle between Puritans and Royalists when he published a number of pamphlets attacking the episcopacy. With the establishment of the Commonwealth, he continued his activities as a propagandist for the Puritan cause, although he also served as a secretary to the Council of State. Increasingly blind, he nevertheless continued to support the cause, publishing one tract so vehement in defending the Puritan cause that it was burnt in ceremonial bonfires in several French cities. As the Commonwealth began to flounder in the months following the death of its Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell, Milton tried to rally support for the increasingly unpopular government, again by serving as a pamphleteer. With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, though, he was forced into hiding, eventually arrested, and after a short imprisonment, he was fined and released. His political career now in ruins, Milton retired to his home in London where he began to write his masterpieces, Paradise Lost (1667) and Paradise Regained (1671). Both works still rank among some of the most challenging reading in the English language, filled as they are with a complex syntax, abstruse vocabulary, numerous difficult classical allusions, and a complicated epic style. Despite their Puritan religious orthodoxy, the two monumental poems present Milton’s breadth of learning and the complexities of his opinion. In Paradise Lost the author tells the story of man’s fall from grace in the Garden of Eden, and presents one of the most sympathetic portraits of Satan ever recorded in the Western tradition. Milton treats him in the manner of a tragic hero, whose fatal flaw lies in the perversions of sin. Although the story of the Fall recorded in Genesis was well known to Milton’s readers, and had long been given a host of literary treatments, the poems still manage to possess considerable originality and breadth of imagination. It is for this reason that their author has long been lauded as the English poet whose powers rank second only to William Shakespeare. Yet the crowning achievements of Milton’s career as a literary figure were intricately embroiled in the harsh political realities of the seventeenth-century state. Had it not been for Milton’s banishment from public life because of his complicity in the Puritan Commonwealth, his great life work might never have been completed.

French Literature in the Seventeenth Century

Increasing Refinement

In France, the beginning of the seventeenth century marked a distinctive break from the legacy of warfare and domestic religious violence that had punctuated the concluding forty years of the sixteenth century. To achieve this respite, Henri IV had converted from Protestantism to Catholicism in 1595, and three years later he promulgated the Edict of Nantes, the royal decree that granted a limited religious toleration to the country’s Huguenots (French Protestants). Religious controversy did not disappear from France’s internal politics. In 1610, Henri was assassinated by a Catholic religious zealot, but the peace that he fashioned proved to be longstanding, lasting until Louis XIV revoked the edict in 1685, and forced French Protestants either to convert to Catholicism or to emigrate from the country. In the roughly three generations between these two dates, the distinctive patterns of French absolutism came to influence society and culture throughout the country. During these years royal patronage of the arts was organized around academies, the descendants of which have often persisted in France until modern times. Literary culture was greatly affected by the foundation of the Académie Française, an institution that Cardinal Richelieu organized in the 1630s to establish standards of usage and rhetoric in the language. It soon became a powerful organ for shaping literary French and the drama in the country, yet its rise to prominence had been prepared by an increasing refinement of rhetoric championed at court and among learned elites in France from the late sixteenth century.

D’urfé and Malherbe

In the works of Honoré D’Urfé (1567-1625) and François de Malherbe (1555-1628) this quest for an elegant style can be seen. D’Urfé was from southern France, near Lyons, where his family’s château had long served as a center of elite culture and learning. In his youth, Honoré received a humanist-influenced education from the Jesuits, and after living through the dismal years of the Wars of Religion, he devoted his energies to the composition of a monumental work of pastoral fiction, L’Astrée. The pastoral was a literary tradition that had become increasingly popular in Spain and Italy in the later Renaissance; it often treated the conversations and innocent activities of shepherds and shepherdesses and was usually set in a beautiful and idyllic environment. The pastoral form inspired paintings, poetry, and prose, and works like this were also among the first texts to be set to music in early operas. In his search for a new style, D’Urfé came to be affected by these earlier usages of the pastoral, although he greatly expanded the scope of his fiction to encompass an enormous length and presentation of detail. His title derived from the ancient goddess of justice, Astraea, who, mythology taught, was the last of all the deities to abandon earth at the conclusion of the Golden Age. In writing his work, D’Urfé chose this figure to underscore the return to peace, prosperity, and justice he and other French aristocrats hoped might follow Henri IV’s Edict of Nantes. L’Astrée was published in five separate volumes in the years between 1607 and 1627; eventually it grew to be a 5,000-page epic. Although his plot was often artificial, his elegant style and psychological insight hinted at the great literary resurgence that was soon to begin in France. At the same time, L’Astrée did not inspire other pastoral works, although its influence could be seen in a new longing for a sophisticated and beautiful style. François de Malherbe was one of the most important French authors to satisfy this growing desire, through his many classically inspired poems. Malherbe was a provincial, a native of Normandy, who eventually rose to become Henri IV’s resident poet. Fueled with a powerful sense of what was correct in language, as well as a desire to purge courtly writing and conversation of colloquialism and dialect, Malherbe’s own poems were widely imitated by members of the court and by Parisian educated society. He gathered around him a group of disciples, and imparted to them his personal vision of how French poetry should be written. In the year before his death he published an edition of his poetry, Collection of the Most Beautiful Verses of Messieurs de Malherbe, that made his teaching evident to his readers. His works would scarcely be called great art today, but they did rely on a vastly simplified vocabulary that was austere and classically inspired, even as he used the metrical Alexandrine verse, which consisted of a line of twelve syllables. Prompted by Malherbe’s influence, other authors began to adopt Alexandrine verse, and it soon became the dominant form for French poetry used in the country’s many seventeenth-century dramatic tragedies. Malherbe demonstrated the possibilities that reposed in this verse style; prompted by the forceful example of his advocacy of his own art, he helped to establish a grand and austere literary classicism.

French Academy

Malherbe died before the foundation of the French Academy in 1634. Conceived by Richelieu, the academy was charged with the task of standardizing literary French. Soon after its foundation, though, its members were drawn into a controversy over Pierre Corneille’s Le Cid. Richelieu and others had found the play morally troubling, although audiences admired Corneille’s elevated verse. In an effort to put the controversy to rest, Richelieu referred the play to the members of the Académie Française, who agreed with Richelieu that the play’s plot was wanting, even though they argued that it was filled with much good poetry. This was one of the few times, though, that the academy intervened in a matter of taste or moral judgment. Its charge was instead to work for the standardization of the French language, and to this end it began work on a comprehensive dictionary of the French language that was finally published in 1694. The number of scholars and literary figures who gained admittance into the French Academy was soon limited to forty members, who became known as “the immortals.” Quite a large percentage of these figures also wrote literary criticism and theory in the course of the seventeenth century, much of which supported the development of French classicism. Claude Favre de Vaugelas (1585-1650), for instance, wrote an important text, Remarks on the French Language (1647), which recorded the forms of French used in aristocratic and polite societies. Vaugelas had understood that the forms of spoken and written languages changed over time as a reaction to changing circumstances. Yet Cardinal Richelieu and the most conservative members of the French Academy desired to establish an unchanging style, and so the observance of Vaugelas’ rules could, in the hands of mediocre stylists, lead to much slavish imitation. Vaugelas’ work, in other words, soon became known as the “bible of usage.” Two other works produced by members of the Academy were also influential in supporting the rise of French literary classicism: the Poétique (Poetics) of La Mesnardière (1639) and Abbé d’Aubignac’s Pratique du théâtre (Practice of Theater; 1657). Both advocated the use of classical forms and verse, but their influence was generally superseded by that of Jean Chapelain (1595-1674), a member of the Academy who played much the same role that Malherbe had in the first quarter of the seventeenth century. It was Chapelain who was asked to write the Academy’s equivocating pronouncements about Corneille’s play Le Cid. But generally, Chapelain played the role of literary arbiter in court circles from the 1630s onward, much as Malherbe had done a generation earlier. More accepting of deviations from his own rules than Malherbe, Chapelain nevertheless constructed many theories that were fundamental in the development of classicism. He promoted these views in articles, short tracts, and through his voluminous correspondence. Under the influence of Louis XIV’s chief minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Chapelain was eventually entrusted with naming those French authors that should be honored with royal pensions, and in the practice of his office he engendered significant hatred from many literary figures. His own verse was far from magnificent, but as a literary arbiter he had few equals in mid-seventeenth-century France.

The Novel

The elevated discussions of the Academy and its attempts to foster an austere classicism in French literature did not, at the same time, dampen enthusiasm for creative fiction. French readers of the mid-century evidenced a pronounced taste for novels, and the variety of texts that the country’s authors produced is remarkable. Like D’Urfé’s L’Astrée, many works of French fiction at the time were long and complex, but in the course of the seventeenth century they evidenced a preference for ancient rather than pastoral themes, or for comic, picaresque subjects. Among the many novelists the country produced at the time, Madeleine de Scudéry (1607-1701) was among the most widely read. Scudéry was the younger sister of a prominent French dramatist, who moved to Paris when she was quite young and soon captivated the city’s most prominent literary salon, the circle surrounding the figure of the Marquise de Rambouillet. When Scudéry was 35, she published her first novel, Ibrahim or the Illustrious Bassa (1642). Other contributions followed, and her novels often grew to enormous lengths. Scudéry was a master of the genre of the roman à clef, a form in which the ancient characters that are depicted are in reality thinly-disguised references to men of affairs and prominent socialites in one’s own day. Part of the excitement that reposed in Scudéry’s fictions thus rested on the attempt to unearth or decode just who was being depicted as whom, and while many members of French polite society admired her work, she was criticized by others at the same time. By contrast, Cyrano de Bergerac’s two novels, A Comic History of the States and Empires of the Moon and A Comic History of the States and Empires of the Sun were only published after his death. They tell of imaginary journeys to the moon and sun, and anticipate the quite later development of science fiction. Their purpose was to poke fun at religion and de Bergerac’s contemporaries’ reliance on traditional wisdom, rather than the insights offered by the new science. In place of such conservatism, de Bergerac advocated a kind of freewheeling materialism, a philosophy that he had derived from his own study of mathematics and the libertine or anti-absolutist political theory of the age. Where de Bergerac’s works were literally set in another world, those of Paul Scarron (1610-1660) were very much located in contemporary, this-worldly circumstances. Scarron was a major figure in the French theater of the time, producing a series of comedies that were popular before the arrival of Corneille, Molière, and Racine on the Paris scene. In his three-volume The Comic Novel (1651-1659) Scarron parodied the lives of the members of a theatrical troupe in a way that was very much influenced by the picaresque novel tradition of sixteenth-century Spain. Those works’ central characters were often vagrants or members of society’s downtrodden, and authors used the form to spin fantastic webs of adventure. Scarron’s comic works reveal a lighter side of French seventeenth-century literature than that being written by the elegant arbiters of taste in the French Academy. His wife, Françoise d’Aubigné, also played a major role in the aristocratic world of the seventeenth century, eventually becoming in the years following her husband’s death the king’s mistress and then secret wife. This position placed the pious Madame de Maintenon, as she became known at court, in a unique vantage point to influence the king’s tastes in drama and literature.

The Honest Man

Another genre of French literature that played an increasingly important role in the second half of the century treated the qualities men should display to participate in the life of court and aristocratic society generally. These works examining the “honest man” became particularly vital in the years following the Fronde, a series of revolts of nobles and Parisian councillors that had erupted in the years between 1648 and 1653. Eventually, these rebellions were brutally repressed, but not without producing significant fear among those in the royal government. At the time at which they began, the young king Louis XIV was only five years old. During the course of these disturbances Louis and his mother, Anne of Austria, were forced to flee the capital. In their exile from Paris, they even slept in a stable, and so the Fronde’s disturbances left a lifelong impression on the king. In the years that followed, Louis XIV and his officials worked to domesticate the French nobility, eventually building the palace of Versailles and developing an intricate courtly etiquette that became a powerful means of disarming the class. They also sought to redirect the once bellicose spirit of the old French “nobility of the sword,” those who descended from the medieval warrior nobles of the Middle Ages. Louis’ government, in other words, championed an aristocratic ideal based on the concept of service to the king, rather than the demonstration of military prowess. In this regard the new genre of works about the qualities of the “honest man” reflects these changing realities. Works that treated the qualities of the “honest man” usually celebrated the virtues that were prized in the new “nobility of the robe,” those who from the sixteenth century had received their noble titles as a reward for serving the king. The honest man was expected, like the behaviors recommended in earlier Renaissance conduct books, to master the arts of fine living, good conversation, and social refinement. François de La Rochefoucauld (1613-1680) was one of the earlier figures that wrote a book in this vein. He had been a leader in the Fronde, but in the years that followed its disastrous conclusion, he devoted himself to a literary career, eventually publishing in 1665 his famous Maximes, which were short epigrams on matters of morality and truth. In these writings he celebrated self-preservation and self-interest as the only true source for moral action. Less suspicious and distrustful attitudes are to be found in other authors that turned to these themes, including Antoine Gombaud’s On True Honesty, which celebrated the cult of “honest living” with its refinement and social graces as the true “art of living.” In a similar vein one of the most famous of those who helped to define the “honest man” was Charles Saint-Évremond (1613/1614-1703). Like the sixteenth-century essayist Montaigne, Saint-Évremond’s counsels included an emphasis on epicurean enjoyment of the good things the world had to offer, even as he similarly pleaded for religious toleration.

La Fayette and Sévigné

Two of the greatest prose masters of seventeenth-century French were women: Madame de La Fayette (1634-1693) and Madame de Sévigné (1626-1696). Both were aristocrats who were prominent in the salon life of later seventeenth-century Paris. Madame de La Fayette was a friend of the noble François de la Rochefoucauld, and together the two of them formed a literary circle that encouraged a restrained and commanding classical style. La Fayette became an author, and her masterpiece, The Princess of Cleves (1678), was first published anonymously. It is generally recognized as the finest French historical novel of the time. Set in the mid-sixteenth century, its plot revolves around the efforts of a young aristocratic wife to suppress her passion for another man. The illicit couple’s love remains unrequited, a fact that provided La Fayette with a springboard for examining the passions and their psychological effects, a central preoccupation of many of the French authors of the age. By contrast, Madame de Sévigné did not devote her efforts to the writing of fiction. Instead she compiled a voluminous correspondence that is one of the remarkable literary artifacts of the age. A member of fashionable Parisian society for most of her life, she became an astute letter writer after her beloved daughter’s marriage. In the years following their separation the two exchanged almost 1,700 letters. They are generally informal and newsy, but they show a keen and discerning mind that was aware of all the best literary canons of the day. Although they are not formal in the manner of much Baroque state and diplomatic correspondence, they were nevertheless carefully crafted with a fine eye and ear for eliciting the best responses of those that read them. Above all, they show modern readers a letter writer who must also have been an astute conversationalist since, much like the conventions of salon speech, they ramble elegantly from one topic to another.

Religious Writing

In the final decades of the seventeenth century, new moral influences at Versailles’ court led to a resurgence of religious and moralistic writing. Indeed much of French writing in the seventeenth century had been religious in tone, as elsewhere in Europe. The seventeenth century had opened with the great devotional works of François de Sales (1567-1622) and others who argued for a reform in the church and the amendment of individual lives. At mid-century the controversies between Jesuits and Jansenists had resulted in a steady outpouring of polemical tracts and satirical works like Blaise Pascal’s famous Provincial Letters. Yet after 1680 a change in the tone in the literary circles surrounding King Louis XIV is also evident. In these years the king increasingly fell under the influence of his mistress, and later wife, Madame de Maintenon, an uncompromising moralist long credited with encouraging Louis to revoke the Edict of Nantes and to take other actions to uphold French Catholicism. At court, once gay theatrical comedies disappeared in favor of the new serious and “morally uplifting” operas of Jean-Baptiste Lully. Balls and other festivities disappeared, and many at court dedicated themselves to the devotional life. Among the great writers who took up this charge to moral perfection, Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627-1704) had perhaps the broadest influence. Eventually, he rose to become a bishop, but in his mid-life he was also one of the ablest preachers in France, and in the years he spent preaching in Paris, he exercised a hold over his audience’s imaginations similar to that of the great John Donne in England. In his later years as an important churchman, Bossuet intervened in a number of controversies, a fact that has often continued to mar his reputation. In his literary works, though, he produced a body of work that has consistently been lauded for its elevated style and good taste.

Ancients and Moderns

At the end of the seventeenth century one debate that began in and around the French Academy was to spread far beyond France’s borders. Disputes similar to this seventeenth-century battle between the “ancients” and the “moderns” had occurred throughout Europe since the Renaissance, with literary figures and critics weighing the relative merits of “contemporary” or “modern” literature when judged against the testimony of Antiquity. In France the debate that flared up on these themes at the end of the seventeenth century—the so-called “Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns”—did not produce any decisive victory for either side. In this controversy, figures like Nicolas Boileau (1636-1711) supported imitation of the works of ancient authors as the only true path to sure and certain literary excellence. To these essentially conservative sentiments, Charles Perrault (1628-1703) answered with his Parallels of the Ancients and Moderns (1688-1697), a work that assured its readers that as human history progressed the mind of man expanded and grew. Thus Perrault argued contemporary literature might even surpass that of the ancient world. These two entries in the battle encouraged incessant pamphleteering by other French literary figures. One consequence of this otherwise pointless intellectual battle was important for the future. In downplaying the received canons of ancient literature, Perrault and his party provided an idea that was to be fruitfully expanded upon by eighteenth-century Enlightenment authors: their notion of progress and the steady expansion of the human mind. Thus this dispute over the relative merits of ancients and moderns helped to prepare the way for the Enlightenment’s rich and innovative literary climate, a climate that argued that works written on contemporary, realistic and even “middle-class” themes might be as morally instructive and purposeful as the elevated concerns of ancient mythology and poetry.

Baroque Literature in Germany

Political And Religious Conflict

Unlike France and England, which were unified states ruled by monarchs, Germany remained a loose confederation of more than 300 semi-autonomous states in the early-modern era. The Reformation and Counter-Reformation had cut deep fissures into the political system of the region during the sixteenth century, and controversies over religion persisted in the early seventeenth century. Both Protestants and Catholics longed for a day in which a single, unitary faith might be reestablished in the country, and the tensions that competition between these confessions produced eventually boiled over in the dismal conflict known as the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). That clash, waged in several major stages during its seemingly unending history, ultimately did little to resolve the longstanding problems that had made religion the central issue in German society since the 1520s. At its conclusion, Calvinism, once an illegal religion in the country, was permitted, but the principle cujus regio, eiuis religio or “he who rules, his religion,” was upheld, leaving the rulers of Germany’s individual states free to determine the religions of their subjects. The war thus helped to confirm the political disunity of the Germanies until the nineteenth century, and its legal formulations enhanced the tendency already present in politics for territorial rulers to become more and more like absolutist princes. In the generations following its conclusion, many German rulers looked westward toward France, and the cultural brilliance of Versailles provided a consistent source for their emulation. At the same time the outcome of the Thirty Years’ War also strengthened the positions of the largest states in the empire—Austria, Brandenburg, the Rhineland Palatinate, Baden-Württemberg, and Bavaria—over and against the smaller ones. Although the number of Germany’s independent territories remained large throughout the period, the individual policies of many states now came to be overshadowed by the political aims and maneuvers of the most powerful territories in the region, a situation that anticipated the great dominance that Prussia and Austria achieved in German politics during the eighteenth century. In England, these religious tensions, and eventual civil war, had done little to dampen the development of vigorous literary debates. So, too, in Germany, the seventeenth century produced a wealth of new religious literature, poetry, and fiction. But while some of these writings spoke to the dismal political and religious realities of the period, others were relatively unaffected by the problems of the age. And despite the Thirty Years’ War’s devastations, Germany’s national literature continued to develop apace throughout the century.

German Language

Against the backdrop of political squabbling, Germany’s language was also undergoing many significant changes. Linguistic diversity had always been a major fact of German life, with many different dialects being spoken throughout the country. At the end of the Middle Ages, several attempts had been made to foster a more unified written language, first at the court of Charles IV in Prague during the so-called “Golden Age” in the mid-fourteenth century, and later under the Habsburg emperors of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, when a chancery or legal form of the language had been developed and its use pioneered throughout the country. These literary forms of German were distinctly different from the modes of expression that the country’s sixteenth-century religious reformers and religious pamphleteers used in the Reformation, even as the Middle English of Chaucer is distinctly foreign when compared against the language used in Elizabethan times. The quest for a common literary form of German continued throughout the sixteenth century, but it came increasingly to be dominated, not by the flow of religious polemic, but by the course of discussion in the country’s universities. By the end of the sixteenth century Germany’s intellectuals continued to be trained in Latin-speaking universities, although the Latin they used had itself undergone great transformations in the course of the sixteenth century. Throughout the Middle Ages the Latin used in the church and universities had been transformed, so that by 1400 it had become a distinctly different language from that which had been spoken and written in ancient Rome. In the course of the fifteenth century, Italian humanists had revived the language’s ancient grammatical structures and style, and this Neo-Latin eventually spread throughout Europe. In the sixteenth century great Neo-Latin stylists like Desiderius Erasmus and Michel de Montaigne were able to speak and write a form of the language that mirrored the ancient language, and their efforts were widely imitated among later sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century intellectuals. In Germany, those who received a university education continued to produce poetry and prose in Latin, rather than in their native languages in the seventeenth century. Yet their very experiments with the study of Neo-Latin helped to enrich the usages and style of German. As many began to compose in their native tongue, they decried the paucity of vocabulary and literary devices to convey their subtle arguments. And so, in the course of the seventeenth century, Germany’s greatest literary figures set themselves to the task of developing a native literary mode of expression that could rival the sophistication they sensed existed in the Neo-Latin idiom.

The “Fruit-Bringing” Society

The “Fruit-Bringing” Society (in German, Fruchtbringende Gesellschaft) was perhaps the most important of the many experiments in which German authors tried to create a literary form of German equal to that of other languages, particularly Neo-Latin. Founded in 1617 under the patronage of Prince Ludwig of Anhalt-Köthen, its aim was to imitate the great academies that had been founded in Florence and other Renaissance centers in the century and half before. Its membership was distinctly aristocratic from the first, and its purpose had several interrelated aims. First, the “Fruit-Bringing” Society desired to cultivate an elegant literary form of German that would make use of the best rhetorical skills. Beyond this, its members longed to purify their language of usages that were not Germanic in origin and to create a pattern of verse writing that was appropriate to the sound and syntax of their language. The efforts of the “Fruit-Bringing” Society were soon aided by the publication of the poems of Martin Opitz, the first great literary figure of the German Baroque era. In 1624, Opitz published his Book of German Poetry, a work that established standards that were to persist in German verse writing over the coming century. Opitz’s poems demonstrated the great clarity that could be achieved in German poetry that relied on clear rhyme schemes. He recommended, for instance, the Alexandrine or twelve-syllable line for the writing of epics and the use of iambic pentameter for sonnets. But his work also included examples of how the best poems of writers in other languages might be successfully rendered into German, and this part of his focus soon inspired poets to undertake a host of new translations. Opitz also recommended the office of the poet to his readers as one of “divine” significance. Poetry, he argued, derived from divine inspiration, and thus it contained within its lines an encoded or “hidden” theology. It was the poet’s task, therefore, not merely to represent reality, but to present an image of what might or should be. The poet, in other words, should make the beautiful appear even more so, even as he castigated ugliness in terms more grotesque than it was in actuality. For his own efforts in the art, the German emperor named him Poet Laureate in 1625, and two years later, raised Opitz and his descendants to noble status. In 1629, he was named a member of the “Fruit-Bringing Society,” but by this time numerous other “literary societies” were already forming in Germany’s major cities. Usually composed of members of the aristocracy, these societies pursued the same end as the original “Fruit-Bringing Society”: to foster an elegant German literary style that would be the equal of other languages. In the years that followed, numerous poets throughout the German-speaking world took up the task that Martin Opitz had set down for them. They eagerly translated prose and poetic works from other languages into German, even as they experimented with applying the insights that they attained from these endeavors to fashioning a new literary idiom.

The Baroque Style Matures

The impact of Opitz and Germany’s new literary societies did not produce a single unified style in the later seventeenth century, but instead a multiplicity of paths that points to the essential creativity of the period. Generally, the forces that led to the development of a “High Baroque” literary style, though, were Protestant, and were most in evidence in the Lutheran cities of the country. One stylistic direction was taken by the Protestants Georg Philipp Harsdörffer (1607-1658), Philipp von Zesen (1619-1689), and Andreas Gryphius (1616-1664). Harsdörffer was a native Nuremberger who traveled widely throughout Europe in his youth and eventually joined the “Fruit-Bringing Society.” In 1644, he helped to write the Pegnitz Pastoral, a collection of poems intended to inaugurate the new “Order of the Flowers on the Pegnitz,” the “Pegnitz” being the river that runs through the center of Nuremberg. That society came to be an important literary force in the second half of the seventeenth century. The fondness for an elaborate musical style was also echoed in the literary society, “The German-Minded Brotherhood,” that Philipp von Zesen founded in 1643 at Hamburg. Unusual for his time, Zesen was able to support himself solely through his poetry and other literary activities. He translated French works and wrote The Adriatic Rosemund, one of the first great novels in the German language to deal with the theme of love and the role of religious differences in keeping a couple apart, soon to be a perennial theme. Like Martin Opitz, Philipp von Zesen was eventually raised to noble status for these efforts. The final figure, Andreas Gryphius, is today recognized as one of the greatest literary figures in the history of the German language. Unlike Zesen or Harsdörffer, Gryphius grew up in relative isolation from the great literary societies of the day. He was a Lutheran who was born in the east in Silesia; after studying in the Netherlands, he eventually became an attorney. Although his verse shares the same tendency toward literary flower as Zesen and Harsdörffer, it rises above the merely decorative through its persistent lament about harsh fortune. Gryphius’s life was spent in the regions that were devastated by the Thirty Years’ War, and in his poetry he continually expresses sentiments and themes that speak to its destruction. All life is transitory, filled with vanity. Human existence is governed by an unalterable fate, to which the only appropriate human response is to remain steadfast and courageous and to hold onto one’s faith. Constancy and fortitude, two popular Baroque themes that were often personified as goddesses, constantly recur in Gryphius’ somber works.


By the second half of the seventeenth century, Germany’s vigorous literary climate, with its numerous literary societies, had produced not only a number of native poets, but many translations of prose works from French, Italian, and Spanish. One figure that was affected by this literary resurgence was Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen (c. 1621-1678), an author that had an almost “larger-than-life” existence. Grimmelshausen was an outsider on the literary scene. He was not an aristocrat or a university-educated wit in the manner of many of those that participated in Germany’s new literary societies. He grew up in humbler circumstances, and his literary endeavors were not recognized until centuries later because he published his greatest work, the novel The Adventures of Simplicissimus (1688-1689), anonymously. It was not until the nineteenth century that his authorship was firmly established. Born a Lutheran, he was captured at the age of fourteen in the conflicts of the Thirty Years’ War. Later he served in the Catholic forces of the imperial army before becoming a caretaker for a noble. In that capacity he ran an inn, sold horses, and was even a tax collector. When it came to light that he had embezzled funds, he was forced from these positions. Later he became an assistant to a physician, helping to manage his interests, before returning to tavern keeping and even becoming a bailiff in his final years. At this time, too, he converted from Lutheranism to Catholicism. Through all these constant shifts in profession, Grimmelshausen had continued to write, and he had published several satires in the late 1650s. His great masterpiece, though, was The Adventures of Simplicissimus, a work that was widely translated and became a best-seller in many parts of Europe. Simplicissimus is modeled on the Spanish picaresque novels of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The central character of the same name is, as in those earlier works, a lowborn child who becomes a vagrant through the chaos unleashed by the Thirty Years’ War. The work was filled with coarse, black humor as well as an eye for creating memorable characters. Of the many works written in seventeenth-century Germany, it is the only prose work that is still widely read today, a testimony to the universality of its author’s vision and his critique of the barbarities of war.


Perhaps the most influential writer of the seventeenth century in Germany was unaffected by the great debates over the direction that the language’s style should take. Jakob Böhme (1575-1624), a Lutheran, had, like Andreas Gryphius, been born in the eastern empire, near the town of Görlitz. In 1594 or 1595, Böhme moved to Görlitz where he became a shoemaker, and in the months that followed his arrival he had a profound religious conversion experience, an experience prompted by the local preacher. He later reported that in the space of a few minutes he had received certainty of his salvation. These mystical experiences did not prompt a great outpouring of devotional prose at first. He produced a few minor tracts broadcasting his mystical insights, but Böhme was largely unschooled, and so he set himself to studying the “major” authors of the Christian tradition, the mystics of the German past, as well as certain sixteenth-century authors like the physician Paracelsus, whose ideas tended toward the abstruse and metaphysical. Shortly before his death, Böhme published the results of his studies in a number of works that seems to have consumed all his efforts during the last five years of his life. He may have been aided in these efforts by the gifts of friends that freed him from his occupation as a cobbler. But between 1619 and 1624 he produced thirty tracts and books that were to have a profound effect on the generations that followed. Böhme’s theology promoted God as a great abyss, a profound nothingness that was, at the same time, the ground of all being. Out of these depths, a creative force struggles to be set free, but as it does great problems arise in the world because of the human spirit’s opposition to the divinity. Böhme himself claimed to be a prophet, and during his own life he attracted a following. In the decades following his death, his ideas traveled, inspiring groups of “Boehmites” in the Netherlands and other German regions. His ideas were also read in England where they affected the Quakers, even as they also were avidly read and studied by the Lutheran Pietists in the later seventeenth century in Germany. Later, Immanuel Kant and Georg William Friedrich Hegel also read his works and incorporated some of his psychological insights into their philosophies. Thereafter, the deeply mystical strains of his ideas continued to return to influence later German thinkers, among them Friedrich Nietzsche and Karl Schopenhauer.

Restoration Literature in England

The Cavaliers’ Resurgence

The reestablishment of the monarchy that occurred in 1660 had profound implications for English literature. In the years following the execution of Charles I many of the figures that had surrounded the royal court had been forced into exile or hiding, but with the restoration of the throne to Charles’ son, Charles II, royal and aristocratic patronage networks were quickly revived. The new king hoped to follow a tolerant path, although the Cavalier party that soon dominated Parliament clearly had other plans. In the first few years of Charles’ reign, the passage of a series of draconian measures—measures that eventually became known as the Clarendon Code—subjected Puritans, Presbyterians, and other English dissenters to a steady barrage of persecution, a reality that led to the great literary inventions of John Bunyan, George Fox, and other dissenting authors. At the same time, the royal court quickly moved to revive the theater in London, and although the plays that were performed there in the quarter century of Charles’ reign were staged before audiences considerably smaller than those of the Elizabethan and early Stuart era, the Restoration stage still managed to produce a number of playwrights of considerable merit. Like the Cavalier poets that had preceded the Civil Wars, these playwrights expressed a propensity for light themes. Few of the playwrights that had been active in the early Stuart period survived to write for the stage under Charles II. The great dramatists of the period—men like William Davenant, John Dryden, William Congreve, Sir John Vanbrugh, and the woman Aphra Behn—now entertained London’s aristocratic and wealthy merchant society with a steady stream of “comedy of manners,” works that poked fun at the foibles and conventions of aristocratic society. Many of the figures that wrote for the stage were also poets and authors of considerable merit, although since the late seventeenth century the reputation of the Restoration stage for sexual license and ribaldry has tended to overshadow their non-dramatic writing. While poetry continued to be a popular genre, the later Stuart period also saw the first emergence of a number of new genres that became even more important in the eighteenth century that followed. During the Restoration period the first newspapers emerged in London and other English cities, and although their circulation was initially quite small, they eventually provided a source of employment for many writers in the years following 1700 as political journalism became an increasingly important part of London’s literary scene. A deepening interest in history, biography, and autobiography can also be seen in the period, both in the printing of new works and in the keeping of numerous private journals. The most famous of these, Samuel Pepys’ Diary, dating from the 1660s, provides an unparalleled view on the London scene. Finally, fictional works began in this era to attract the attentions both of authors and readers. The word “novel,” in fact, began to appear to describe works treating forbidden romances and intrigues. By the end of the seventeenth century the expanding audiences for such fictions prepared the way for the great works of Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, and many others that entertained eighteenth-century readers. In all these ways, then, the Restoration era displays the development of a progressively more diverse literary marketplace.

John Dryden

The greatest literary figure of the Restoration was John Dryden (1631-1700), an author who is largely recognized today on the basis of his plays and poetry. In his own time, though, Dryden exercised a significant influence over many different styles of writing in late seventeenth-century England. He was initially a playwright, but he soon circulated in high political circles and received several positions in Charles II’s court, work that took him in his mid-career away from writing for the theater. In 1668, Charles named Dryden England’s Poet Laureate and the following year, Royal Historian. In these years of courtly activity, he continued to write, but he concentrated his efforts on literary criticism, and his works on aesthetics helped to define the English tastes of the age. Around 1680, Dryden also became embroiled in politics, and he wrote a number of polemics in the years that followed for the emerging Tory party. In these years the Tories were coalescing as a distinct group that opposed the plans of some in Parliament to exclude James, the Catholic brother of King Charles II, from the succession. At Charles’ death in 1685, James did succeed to the throne for a time, and Dryden’s career continued to flourish. But the king’s expulsion from the country in 1688 and the calling of his daughter Mary and her husband William from Holland to serve as monarchs in 1689 discredited him. A few years earlier, Dryden himself had converted to Catholicism, and as a result of the change in monarchs, he now lost his court offices. To support himself, he returned to write for the stage, producing some of his finest work in the years after the Glorious Revolution. Eventually, though, he tired of writing for the theater, and in the final years of his life he devoted himself to translating a number of small works from Latin into English. He also translated Vergil, Chaucer, and Boccaccio into the English of his day. His great crowning achievement of these years was the publication of his Fables Ancient and Modern (1700), which was completed and published in the year of his death. Dryden’s translations were not scholarly in the modern sense, but were instead quite freely executed. They amplified and exaggerated certain elements of the original texts he rendered to fit with his own and contemporary tastes, a defining feature of Dryden’s own aesthetics and those of his time. During his career as a playwright, for example, the author had made frequent use of plays and plots drawn from the Elizabethan and early Stuart periods. His adaptation of these plays was never slavishly devoted to the original, but was intended to amplify certain important elements he felt were undeveloped in an earlier author’s dramatic portrayal. So, too, in his translations Dryden intended to pay homage to his sources by rendering older stories to fit the tastes and idiom of contemporary times. These later works of translation were, in fact, quite popular and they helped to define knowledge of many about classical texts in the eighteenth century that followed.

Restoration Style

The changes evident in Dryden’s own poetic and prose style were in many ways emblematic of those that English style generally was undergoing in the Restoration era. In contrast to the early Stuart era, which had favored a literary style that was complex and artful, Dryden’s poetry and prose became altogether plainer and seemingly artless. He worked throughout his career to perfect a style of poetry suitable for public consumption. In his plays there is little of the kind of introspective quality typical of the greatest works of Shakespeare. Instead he concentrated on creating a grand and noble form of expression that seemed to make use of the best elements of Latin style, transferring them into the idiom of English. His prose was easy to read, clear, and logical and seems even today to reflect human speech. This lack of artifice was actually a highly studied quality and a notable feature of the “Augustan Age” of literature that his own poetry, prose, and works of criticism helped to inspire. In his dramas can be witnessed this same persistent change from an early dramatic language that was grand but somewhat artificial to greater naturalness and lucidity. As the first English writer to devote significant attention to writing literary criticism, he helped to fashion a new climate that took literary production seriously. Through his efforts, writing became an endeavor that was subjected to the same kind of scrutiny that was being directed at politics and the natural world at the time.

John Bunyan

Dryden’s life and poetry had been fashioned by the political demands of the Restoration era, and except for two notable poems that praised the authority of the church as a public good, he did not verge into the private devotional realms that had proven so fruitful a source of literary invention for Anglicans and Puritans in the early Stuart era. As England’s Poet Laureate for much of the Restoration era, he prudently avoided such tempestuous waters. Yet elsewhere the continuing controversies of religion were still producing great literary works. Among the many devotional writers of the later Stuart era, John Bunyan (1628-1688) was to cast a long shadow over English readers. His great masterpiece Pilgrim’s Progress continued to be seen as obligatory reading until the late nineteenth century, and only fell out of fashion in the twentieth. An allegory, it is filled with an enormous number of motifs, motifs like “Vanity Fair” and the “Slough of Despond,” that were long alluded to by later writers. Bunyan himself was largely unschooled, a status that he tended to wear as a badge of honor. He was from a small village in Bedfordshire, and served in his youth in the Parliamentary armies. When he returned to his village following the war, he seems to have undergone a conversion experience, and at the beginning of the Restoration era he was arrested for preaching publicly without license. For the next twelve years, he was imprisoned at Bedford, where he devoted his time alternately to writing and to making lace to support his family. During his prison years, he wrote and published Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (1666), his own spiritual autobiography that told of the gradual certainty he had received of his own salvation as well as several other minor works.

Pilgrim’s Progress

Released from prison under a general amnesty given by Charles II to religious dissenters in 1672, Bunyan quickly became a popular preacher in Bedford, where he was appointed pastor of the local non-conformist church. He was briefly imprisoned again in 1676 for six months, but in 1678 he published his Pilgrim’s Progress, a work that became an immediate success. It was reprinted ten times in the decade following its first publication, and the work helped grant its author a national reputation. From this point forward he had many contacts throughout England, and he continued to be a successful author until his death in 1688. To modern readers, Pilgrim’s Progress cannot but help to seem artificial and contrived, since allegory is a literary genre little used in contemporary times. Yet for those who attempt to plumb the depths of Bunyan’s work, it can yield considerable psychological insight. The story relates the journey of Christian and his friends Hopeful and Faithful as they wend their way to the Celestial City. Along the way they suffer numerous setbacks, not only from the reprobate and damned, but from those that seem on the surface to be fellow travelers, that is, members of the Calvinist “elect.” Yet despite these enormous trials, the pilgrims arrive at their final destination, and along the way they have been freed of doubt and their other earthly burdens. In this way Bunyan’s work dealt in a poetic fashion with one of the key dilemmas implicit in Calvinist and Puritan thought: how certainty of salvation could be combined with the doctrines of predestination and election. Even at a time when Puritanism had, by and large, been discredited as a political creed, Bunyan’s work soon became a devotional classic, and in 1680 he wrote a sequel, The Life and Death of Mr. Badman, a work that relates the dismal alternative, that is, the condemnation and ultimate damnation that falls on one who is not a member of the elect. It was not nearly as successful as its predecessor, although it does present a vivid portrayal of evil. In the later years of his life, the author continued to write, and a number of unpublished manuscripts were found in his possession at his death in 1688, a few months before the Catholic King James II was deposed. These were published posthumously in a folio edition in 1690, but the breadth and depth of Bunyan’s opus came to be overshadowed in the years that followed by his two chief masterworks, Pilgrim’s Progress andGrace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners.

Spiritual Autobiography and Diary Writing

Bunyan’s popular spiritual autobiography, Grace Abounding was only one of many such texts to appear in the later seventeenth century. Among other similar works that appeared at the time the Journal of George Fox (1624-1691) was also a particularly influential text. In this work, this early Quaker recorded his successful spiritual quest for certainty of salvation and he narrated the early history of his persecuted movement. Although not published until 1694, Fox’s fashioning of his narrative shows that as a religious leader he was well aware of the value of autobiography for developing his movement. It also reveals a carefully calibrated history of the movement to elicit the maximum degree of admiration for the Quakers from his readers. In it, Fox alleged that he and other Quakers had been committed to the principles of peace and pacifism from their earliest days, when, in reality, these teachings did not become central to the movement until the early Restoration years. The work’s influence helped to establish an identity for later Quakers, but it also inspired a host of imitations. From Fox to the Journals of John Wesley in the late eighteenth century, English writers presented their deepest, most inward thoughts to their readers and to volunteer the circumstances surrounding their religious conversions to satisfy their audience’s taste for devotional narratives. In a very real sense, such accounts played a similar role in Protestant England to the lives of the saints that were read in other Catholic regions of Europe. But not all the lives and autobiographies that appeared in the period were religious in nature. Diary writing generally was a popular pastime, and not every journal that was kept at the time reveals a spiritual nature as tender as that of Bunyan or Fox. One of the most extraordinary of the England’s diarists to record their life experiences at this time was Samuel Pepys (1633-1703), who kept daily records of the events of his life in Restoration London during the 1660s. Aptly described as one of the “best bedside” books in the English language, Pepys’ diary totals over six hefty volumes in its modern edition. It is never boring reading, filled as it is with recollections of the smallest details of living in a major European city at this pivotal point in history. Pepys frequently records his distaste with the lax ethical standards evidenced by Charles II and his court, but he was alternately fascinated and repulsed by their behavior. Capable of overlooking moral failings in those he found possessed of fundamental goodness, Pepys found the lazy and the dull-witted detestable. At the same time, he was a disciplined ascetic, devoted to his business, who liked to kick up his heels almost every night and enjoy London’s pubs and theaters. His record of life in an extraordinary decade of royal renewal remains one of the greatest journals ever written in the English language, even as it continues to provide historians with an indispensable mine of facts. Some of its descriptions, like its recounting of the devastation wrought by the Great Fire of London in 1666, have long provided insight into one of the most crucial events in London’s history. Like the Duc de Saint-Simon’s roughly contemporaneous records of life in the Palace of Versailles, it is one of the great testimonies to the tenor of seventeenth-century life, the product of a society that realized that its own thoughts and feelings about the great events that were being witnessed at the time might one day come to be prized by those who followed.

The Role of Fiction

Another feature of the late seventeenth-century literary world points to the steadily multiplying genres that captivated the age: its fascination for fictions, fictions that alleged to be true. In the eighteenth century this appetite for fiction gave rise to the novel, a long narrative that recounted a completely imagined universe that was avidly consumed by the reading public. Seventeenth-century fictions were often considerably humbler in their aims. One of the most interesting examples that survives from the period is Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, a tragic tale set in the Caribbean colony of Surinam. Behn was notably the first woman in England to support herself through writing for the theater, but her background and education remain a matter of mystery today. Certainly, like Bunyan, she did not have access to the world of high intellectual ideas like contemporary graduates of the universities at Cambridge and Oxford did. But the plays and tales she spun were not without literary merit, and not without knowledge of the world. Like Shakespeare, she seems to have been largely self-taught. She could read and apparently speak French, and her plays were sophisticated enough to keep cultivated London society entertained. But it was in her Oroonoko, a seemingly autobiographical tale that appears to relate her own experiences as a traveler in 1660s Surinam, that her skills as an impassioned storyteller shines. Oroonoko is not a great work of fiction, although its frequently overwrought descriptions of an enslaved African prince and his beautiful lover and bride Imoinda do manage to elicit a degree of pathos in its readers. The work is filled with echoes of other discourses that fascinated Europeans in the centuries that followed. The African slave prince is celebrated in ways that seem to anticipate Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “noble savage,” one of the most important literary motifs of the Enlightenment. In truth, however, Behn’s depiction is largely drawn from ancient Roman literary narratives, something again that points to the broad reading that she must have accomplished before stepping onto the London scene in the late seventeenth century. In Oroonoko Behn also presents one of the first images of northern European society transfixed by the climate and flora of the southern climates, a theme that has continued to play a role in European literature until contemporary times. Behn’s readership may not have been prepared for the elaborate and lengthy novels that were to entertain eighteenth-century English society, but clearly a taste was developing in this world for stories that appeared to present a faithful view of the world, but which nevertheless carried their readers away into alternative times and places. Behn’s Oroonoko was, in other words, an early example of “literary escapism.”

The Glorious Revolution and its Impact on the Literary World

A frank, frequently overt sexuality was one of the hallmarks, not only of Behn’s fictional world, but of the Restoration era in which her fictions appeared. In the disputes that occurred over the English succession during the 1680s, the underlying tensions that had existed in society between a worldly and seemingly amoral court and a country that still possessed many Puritan values continued to seethe just below the surface of society. In the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the English Parliament effectively dismissed the last of the Stuart kings, the Catholic James II, and invited his daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange to assume the roles of dual monarchs. Sensing that the sources of discontent with the later Stuarts ran deeper than just issues about religious toleration or confessional allegiances, Mary and her co-regent soon exerted a conservative influence over the London stage and the capital’s literary world. In this new age the sexual license that had flourished in the London theater and in the fictions of figures like Behn came rather quickly to appear old-fashioned, out-of-synch with the new tenor of the times. Yet the austere, grand rhetoric and English style that had been crafted for the Restoration era by such astute stylists as Dryden and other luminaries of the later Stuart era lived on, and in the eighteenth century they produced a brilliant age of prose fiction.

English Literature in the Early Eighteenth Century

Changing Attitudes

At the end of the seventeenth century changes in attitudes in England began to pave the way for the development of political journalism on the one hand and for the rise of the novel-reading society of the eighteenth century on the other. The forces that produced these changes were interrelated, but complex. In the final quarter of the seventeenth century Isaac Newton and other leaders of the Scientific Revolution pioneered the notion of a mechanical universe that was governed by unalterable laws and which was held together by the attraction and repulsion of gravity. In the writings of political philosophers like John Locke (1632-1704), this notion of a world governed by fundamental natural laws and by the balance of opposing forces within the commonwealth soon influenced political philosophy. Through his many writings on politics, Locke explored issues concerning good and bad government, trying to unlock the keys that produced the greatest happiness, prosperity, and liberty in states. Although Locke had been born into a Puritan family, his works displayed little of the distrust for human nature that had long been characteristic of the Calvinist tradition. Instead he argued that the mind was at birth a tabula rasa, a blank slate upon which good and bad experiences left their residue. His political writings which argued for limited government and a degree of religious toleration for dissenting Protestants came to be an important force in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, that bloodless political transformation that deposed King James II and replaced him with the co-regents William and Mary. Locke’s works continued to be avidly read throughout the eighteenth century, and their arguments for limited government were avidly discussed by numerous political philosophers, not only in England, but in Continental Europe and the American colonies. The defenses that Locke fashioned for governments that protected citizens’ property rights and their individual freedoms inspired the philosophies of the European Enlightenment, a movement that aimed to institute an “Age of Reason.” And in America much of Locke’s political philosophy came to be reflected in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. In England, the ideas of Newton, Locke, and other early Enlightenment thinkers soon produced great political ferment and discussion, leading to the rise of a society that hungered for newspapers and journalistic commentary, an industry that provided an outlet for some of the most creative minds of the period.

The Rise of Journalism

London’s first newspaper had appeared in the 1660s in tandem with the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy, but that paper, the Gazette, had functioned largely as a government organ of information. Parliament’s passage of the Licensing Act in 1662 prohibited all publishing unless texts were submitted for licensing before being printed, a provision that, in fact, militated against the development of other newspapers because by the time that a journal might have wended its way through a maze of censors, its news would have been old. In 1695 the Licensing Act lapsed, and there was generally little will in Parliament to renew its provisions because, by this time, the Stationer’s Guild that controlled the licensing process was widely seen as corrupt. It notoriously used its privileges merely to wrest as much money in fees as it could from printers and authors. But while the practice of licensing texts disappeared in England, government censorship did not. In the years that followed, the English government continued to subject the press to restrictions, but through different means. It often prosecuted those that published offending texts through the law of Seditious Libel. This change helps to explain the great flowering of political journalism and the English press generally that occurred in London in the years after 1700. Unlike the earlier licensing requirements, prosecutions for Seditious Libel occurred only after an author and printer had published an offending text. In the days, even months before government forces mobilized to punish offenders, thousands of texts could be profitably sold. Thus both printers and authors began to take their chances, testing the limits of the system, and often profitably making use of the very fact that an author’s previous works had been banned. Such was the case with Daniel Defoe (1660-1731), the most famous of eighteenth-century journalists who prospered under the new system. Defoe had already achieved considerable success on the London scene by poking fun both at religious dissenters who occasionally conformed to the Church of England’s laws so that they might hold government offices and at High Church Anglicans, who vigorously argued that strong measures be taken to punish dissenters. In 1702, he stepped a bit too far, though, in the direction of mocking the High Church party. In December of that year he published a satirical tract, The Shortest Way with Dissenters, a work that appeared to many to be an actual pamphlet written by a High Church Anglican. Defoe argued that the best way to deal with dissenters was to hang them all. Some of his language appeared to draw upon the works of Henry Sacheverell, then the ruling bishop of Oxford and a noted extremist in defense of the Church of England’s prerogatives. A furor soon erupted; some argued that the tract was, in fact, genuine, while others recognized it as a satire and tried to unearth who had written it. When the author’s identity came to light, his opponents cried for blood for having “put one over on his readers,” and a summons was issued for Defoe’s arrest. By this time, though, Defoe had already gone into hiding, although he was later caught, tried, and convicted, and on three occasions he was pilloried before regaining his freedom. For a time, his personal finances lay in ruin as a result of his political misfortunes.

Multiplication of Newspapers

Defoe’s case reveals the great dangers that lay in London’s developing world of political journalism. Just as writing for the theater could be dangerous in Elizabethan or early Stuart times, the annals of eighteenth-century journalism are filled with cases of those who, like Defoe, fell afoul of the law. But while these decisive punishments sometimes made journalists personally more cautious in the years after they had occurred, they did little to discourage others from following in their footsteps. England’s developing political journalism could be a lucrative career. The early eighteenth century was a time of relative political instability in the country, with frequent changes in government during the reign of Queen Anne (1702-1714), and the political disputes of these years consequently created a market for news about politics. Other celebrated cases similar to Defoe’s also nourished a market for newspapers, political tracts, and commentary on contemporary developments. Where London had a handful of newspapers in 1700, this number continued to grow in the first half of the century, and many new journals came to be centered in the city’s Fleet Street, long the heart of English newspaper publication. With the establishment of regular coach services up and down the length of Britain in the early eighteenth century, London newspapers came also to be transported to far-flung points of the island, inspiring the foundation of journals and papers in other provincial cities that reprinted the “news” recently arrived from the capital together with information about local events. In London, the vigorous climate of political journalism nourished some of the greatest writers of the age. Among the many distinguished authors who wrote for London’s newspapers and journals were the poet Alexander Pope (1688-1744); the churchman and satirist Jonathan Swift (1667-1745); and the playwright and poet John Gay (1685-1732).

Alexander Pope

Although he suffered great physical and emotional hardships throughout his life, Alexander Pope was able to rise above these challenges to become, like John Dryden, the defining poet of his age. Born to mature Catholic parents, he grew up in London before his family moved to Hammersmith, then a village west of the city. His father had been a wealthy merchant of linen, who was forced to retire from his profession by the passage of anti-Catholic laws during the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Despite that deprivation, the family remained prosperous, and when Pope was just twelve his father purchased an imposing estate and land in the forests outside London. Although he attended a school open to Catholic boys for a time, he was soon expelled for writing a satirical verse about another student, and priests provided much of his subsequent education. When he was still a child, Pope developed an infection of the bone that left him crippled in adulthood. As a result, he never grew past the height of four feet, six inches, and much of his life was spent wracked with pain. Eventually, he needed to wear braces in order to stand upright. Both his debility and his Catholicism became defining features of his character, with his life assuming the character of an almost heroic struggle to achieve recognition. During the 1710s, Pope spent some time writing for the London journal, The Spectator, a literary magazine that was edited by the great essayists Sir Richard Steele and Joseph Addison. Unlike the other London periodicals of the day, The Spectator generally steered clear of partisan politics, although its outlook was seen by many as mildly Whig—that is, favoring the authority of Parliament over the monarch. The journal was fashioned as if it was written by a fictional society known as the “Spectator Club,” and in this format those who contributed poetry or prose to the periodical were free to write on any subject they chose, so long as they made their contributions fit with the fiction. From the time of the publication of these early pieces, Pope acquired the reputation for being the greatest English poet of his day, the heir to Dryden. Although he spoke on political issues from time to time, he was more concerned with developing a theory of aesthetics in his poetry and essays. Ugly things repulsed Pope, and he was consequently a lover of all the arts, visual as well as literary. He was not only a practicing poet, but a capable amateur painter as well. His published works promoted the idea that the poet’s mission was to inspire his audience with an ideal of what might be accomplished in an orderly, well-run society that prized beauty. As a consequence of these aesthetic ideals, Pope was a harsh taskmaster over his own writing; he frequently subjected his poems to revision, thus there are variant versions of many of the poems.


Similar formalistic sensibilities are to be found in the life of Jonathan Swift, a satirist and poet who was for a time a close associate of Pope and Defoe. The three were members of the Scriblerus Club, a group of Tory wits that met in London during 1713 and 1714. These meetings left their imprint on the style of many of those involved in them. Biting satire came to be one of the common stocks in trade of those that were associated with the Scriblerus Club, although Swift had honed his skills in this regard long before that venture. Born and raised as an Anglo-Irishman, he was educated at Trinity College in Dublin for a time, but was a haphazard student. Eventually, he received a “special degree” and became a tutor in the household of the Surrey gentleman, Sir William Temple. He took an M.A. from Oxford in 1692, and accepted a position in the Irish Protestant church near Belfast, but he soon returned to Temple’s service when he became disenchanted with the grinding poverty of his situation. In Temple’s service he began to write satire and literary criticism, including A Tale of a Tub and The Battle of the Books. This last work entered into the then common debate in England and France about the relative merits of ancient versus modern literature. Prudently, Swift sided with his patron, Sir William Temple, who had defended the ancients over the efforts of contemporaries. A Tale of a Tub, by contrast, was a biting satire that mocked recent corruptions in religious practices in the figures of three brothers who represent Catholics, Protestants, and Anglicans. Each figure dramatically misreads their father’s will, a device that stands for the Bible. In this way Swift relied on a fable to condemn in a lively and exuberant fashion the recent errors of all the Christian faiths. But while Swift could admit that his own Anglican tradition had sometimes erred, he continued throughout his life to evidence the religious views of a Tory—he always supported a High Church policy. He believed that the Church of England should continue to enjoy a privileged position among all the religious institutions of the country, and that laws against dissenters and Catholics should be upheld. In his political leanings, though, Swift often favored the Parliamentary dominance championed by the Whigs. The accession of the German Hanoverian king George I (r. 1714-1727), though, meant that the Tories were soon thrown from power, and because of his religious leanings and his participation in the Scriblerus Club, Swift never again wielded political influence. Instead he became a member of the loyal opposition, writing pamphlets that criticized the Whigs’ corrupt exercise of power under George I and George II, and perfecting the art of political satire to the highest level it was perhaps ever to achieve. Among the works that he published in these later years of his life, two in particular stand out for their brilliance: Gulliver’s Travels, which was published anonymously in 1726; and A Modest Proposal. The by-now familiar plot and charming narrative that Swift spins in Gulliver’s Travels has long obscured the work’s biting political attack on the Whig Party and its indictment of many British institutions of his day, including the Royal Society. In A Modest Proposal Swift continued to batter the government through a satirical tract that alleged to be a kind of government paper outlining a plan to raise Irish children for food. Although Swift continued to have a wide readership during his lifetime, the ribaldry and frank sexuality that is present in many of his works, including Gulliver’s Travels, meant that they increasingly fell out of favor. As he aged, too, Swift was often accused of insanity, adding to the flagging popularity of his works. By the Victorian era, his great masterpiece, Gulliver’s Travels, had been transformed in heavily sanitized editions into a classic intended to be read, not by adults, but by children. In this way knowledge of the topical political commentary Swift had inserted into the work fell out of English readers’ view, and the work became merely a good yarn of adventure.

The Origins of the Novel in England

New Genre, New Times

The relatively rapid rise of the novel as a popular reading form in eighteenth-century England has long elicited interest from historians and literary critics. Of course, these were not by any measures the first “fictions” to enjoy a wide readership, but the eighteenth-century novel came to be distinguished from its forbearers—works like Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko—both by its length and its efforts to create an entirely imagined universe. Its development as a modern literary form occurred in the relatively brief space of two generations, the years, that is, between 1720 and 1780. Its development points to many changes in eighteenth-century society, including increasing disposable income among the middle classes to spend on books and greater leisure time in which to enjoy them. Its appearance, too, points to the increasingly secular spirit of eighteenth-century society, as readers exchanged the devotional literature of the past for fictions, fictions that the Christian moralists of the age often condemned as morally suspect and light-headed. Since many of those that consumed the new novels were women, too, the rise of this literary form also reveals rising educational standards during the period. The novel was an undeniably secular form of entertainment when compared against the devotional works and spiritual biographies and autobiographies that had been popular in the seventeenth century. But while secular in its outlook, the ways in which eighteenth-century authors crafted their stories were not devoid of moral or religious purposes. Eighteenth-century England was still a country very much shaped by its Puritan past, and in the novel’s plots authors often told stories about downtrodden women and libertine men, tales that had just enough of a whiff of danger about them to titillate, and yet reinforce traditional values.


Historians and literary critics have often identified a series of three works that Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) published in the years around 1720 as decisive in fashioning the English novel: The Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe(1719), The History and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders (1722), and The Fortunate Mistress, or Roxana(1724). Defoe came to this fictional form late in life, and he did not create these works out of entirely new cloth. Before completing his Robinson Crusoe, for instance, he had already written more than 400 other works of political commentary, fiction, and satire. These three works were consequently only a miniscule output of their author’s entire body of work. His tremendous production is the result of his creation of the literary equivalent of a cottage industry. Like Peter Paul Rubens, the seventeenth-century painter who presided over an enormous studio that churned out many paintings under his name, Defoe seems to have employed “ghost” writers, including his two sons, in order to complete the massive amounts of prose he was called upon to write for newspapers, journals, and the press in the 1710s and 1720s. In the years between 1709 and 1714, he developed his skills as a propagandist for the Tory Party, then the ruling faction in Parliament. As Queen Anne’s death approached, many Tories supported a return to Stuart rather than Hanoverian rule, but with the accession of the German George I (r. 1714-1727) to serve as England’s monarch, these plans were quickly discredited. Defoe and some of his associates now were persecuted for their role in popularizing the Tory program in print. Defoe was convicted of Seditious Libel, and in the months that followed he seems to have become a kind of literary spy for the Whigs, who paid him to continue to work for Tory publications so that he might “tone down” the rhetoric they used against the new Hanoverian government. By 1715, Defoe was editing one Tory newspaper while simultaneously producing another that was Whig in its orientation. For these efforts he was widely attacked, but he was enormously successful all the same. He made annually around 1,200 pounds from his journalism alone, a sum that was about 25 times the average wage of a shopkeeper or artisan in the country. Because of his acerbic wit, his texts were assured of a wide audience, and he was paid handsomely for them, but as a result, he also dabbled in other business deals, and in these he failed to show the same skill as in his journalism so that by the end of his life his finances were in shambles.

Castaways and Criminals

Defoe’s skill in developing a market for his fiction can be seen in his Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, as well as in Moll Flanders and Roxana. In truth, it must be admitted that Defoe was not really trying to develop these texts as “novels”; they were extensions of his long-term use of satire and of the “pretend narratives” he had long written to make points in his journalism. A central concern of Defoe’s political writings had been his criticism of public corruption and of the private morality evidenced by men of affairs in the political world of his time. In The Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe the author continued to speak to these issues, while nevertheless constructing an entirely fictionalized world. The sources for such an imaginative approach were many. Defoe appears to have modeled his story on the “real-life” adventures of Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish sailor who had been rescued from shipwreck and who had returned to Britain in 1709. But Defoe also relied on a number of travel narratives, history, diaries, works of political philosophy, and theology as well. The most important genre that inspired his narrative, however, was the Puritan confession or spiritual autobiography. Chief among the many works that left its residue in Robinson Crusoe was John Bunyan’s Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, a text that he was well familiar with as a result of his Presbyterian upbringing. The tale that he spins subsequently transposes the theme that Bunyan and other Puritan devotional writers had often treated: the attempt of the individual to achieve salvation in a hostile environment. Defoe imagined this hostile environment, not as “worldly” Restoration England or corrupt Hanoverian Britain, but rather as a desert island. The central character, Crusoe, is abandoned there as a direct result of his defiance of his parents’ wishes and his embarking on a life of adventure, a plot derived from the story of the disobedience of Adam and Eve and the Fall of Man. The tale is thus filled with a high moral purpose, but also has the appeal of an adventure story. A similar combination of moral commentary and adventure are to be found in Defoe’s two other masterpieces, The History and Misfortunes of Moll Flanders and The Fortunate Mistress, or Roxana, although both these stories are highly tinged with eroticism as well. In Moll Flanders, Defoe relied on the by-then conventional narrative of personal religious conversion. The central character, Moll Flanders—a name that was then redolent of prostitution—is born to a thief in prison and is eventually forced to survive on her wits as a fallen woman. Through a series of alternate fortunes and misfortunes, she eventually is able to put her shady past behind her, and she announces at the end of the work her intentions to live a new, morally upright life. To this point, though, the highly ironic cast in which Defoe has cast Moll’s adventures leads the reader to conclude that perhaps she will not be so penitent as she claims.

Life Among the Great and Good

In Roxana, Defoe continued in a similar vein, although instead of setting his tale in the lower reaches of London society, he recounted the adventures of a great Restoration-era courtesan who circulates in high society. For its middle-class readers, part of the appeal of Roxana lay in its attack on aristocratic decadence and lasciviousness, qualities that they saw as standing in marked contrast to the thrift and hard work of English commercial society. The central character is forced to survive on the largesse of her lovers following her husband’s abandonment and her subsequent bankruptcy. The narrative recounts Roxana’s attempts to store up enough treasure through her subsequent line of distinguished paramours so that she may never be subjected to such embarrassments again. But in a way that was new, Defoe also describes Roxana’s growing psychological turmoil and her eventual mental breakdown as a consequence of her constant realization that the path on which she has embarked leads only to personal damnation. Where Moll Flanders is eventually redeemed, or at least seems to be redeemed, from her life of crime, Roxana’s criminal use of sex ultimately destroys her. Both works are extraordinary texts that can be profitably subjected to a number of different readings. On the one hand, they appear to uphold a traditional Christian morality, but they do so in a way that plays on the sexually voyeuristic appetites of readers. In both books, outright sexual perversions play a central role in the plot. In one of her misfortunes, for instance, Moll Flanders falls unwittingly into a marriage and incest with her brother. Roxana presents her maid Amy to sleep with her own lover so that she might give him a son, an incident that recalls the story of Sarah and Hagar in Genesis 16. Like her husband who has abandoned her, Roxana, in turn, abandons her own numerous children, and at one point even overexerts herself in hopes that she might miscarry. In these and other ways, both stories present a great deal of social commentary about the role that English law and society play in fostering such feminine crimes. Free women, Defoe decries at points in both narratives, are enslaved by laws that dissolve their status into their husbands when they marry. English society, rather than educating its daughters in useful occupations that might provide them income to survive, instead schools them to make use of their sexuality. Prostitution is, Defoe argues, the logical consequence of the economic and social realities of the day, a daring statement at a time when moralists continued to insist that it arose strictly from personal sinfulness. Yet Defoe also keenly realized that his audience was fascinated by the ideas of Locke and other early Enlightenment thinkers that saw crime, not as the consequence of a primordial mark of Cain, but as the outcome of societies that were badly organized. In this way he developed his novels as exercises in social commentary. Although it must be admitted at the same time that these books’ “high” moral aims were frequently at odds with their hints of the pornographic and the merely prurient.

The Novel and Mid-Eighteenth-Century English Literature


Although the autobiographical style that Defoe had used in his early novels continued to be used throughout the eighteenth century, a number of other authors soon expanded the repertory of techniques that could be called upon to structure the novel. Among these, Samuel Richardson (1689-1761) was the most influential in fashioning a mature novel style that was soon to be imitated by a number of writers. His career was unusual for a writer. Born into relatively humble circumstances, he was educated for the clergy before becoming a printer’s apprentice out of financial necessity. In the years that followed he became a successful printer in his own right, and eventually turned to writing as a pastime. His first novel, Pamela (1740), appeared when he was already 51. Rather than relying on the autobiographical narrative that Daniel Defoe had popularized, Pamela is written in the form of a correspondence between its main characters. Richardson’s own voice serves as the editor who compiles and arranges these letters, filling his audience in on the details that they need to know to understand their exchanges. Like Defoe, he structured his work to be both an entertaining diversion and a morally instructive tale, but although it was soon a hugely popular success, not everyone was so convinced that its themes were uplifting. The central character, Pamela, is a maid who rises to marry her master. Some criticized such a plot as seeming to sanction class commingling to its readers, while others found some of the novel’s episodes—including one in which one character watches Pamela undress—immoral. In the years that followed, numerous parodies, including the almost equally famous Shamela (1741) of Henry Fielding, appeared from English presses. Richardson took the criticisms of his work to heart, and a few years later he completed his masterpiece,Clarissa, a work that was published in two halves during 1747 and 1748. The themes of this work were darker, and the book today retains the curious distinction of being the longest novel ever written in the English language. The novel recounts the trials of a young heiress at the hands of an immoral aristocrat, Lovelace, who eventually succeeds in seizing the woman, drugging her, and raping her in a brothel. Following the rape, Clarissa resolves to die, and the remainder of the story deals with the way in which she makes her funeral preparations. The story itself was not remarkable. Richardson apparently pieced together a tale from plots and themes that had been popular in English literature since the Restoration, even as he also relied on the works of a number of female writers that were popular in the early eighteenth century, including Penelope Aubin, Eliza Haywood, and Mary Delarivière Manley. Yet while its story was not extraordinary, the psychological insight that Richardson brought to this material, and the pathos with which he treated it, soon made it a sensation. Even before the novel had been completely published, a number of literary luminaries in England began to write to the author to plead that Clarissa’s life be spared. The work established Richardson’s reputation as a fictional writer of the highest rank, and his works and their epistolary style were widely copied. Eventually, his influence helped to establish a new genre known as the sentimental novel, which explored the emotions and their effects on characters.


The career of Henry Fielding followed a course different from that of the artisan Richardson. Born into a gentry family, he had grown up in an apparently well-off household, although there had been tensions about money which were exacerbated by his father’s poor management of the family’s resources. His mother had married for love, and her own family always found the match with Fielding’s father inappropriate. Despite these troubles Henry Fielding received the best education possible. He attended the prestigious public school Eton before going off to study at the University of Leyden in Holland. In his twenties Fielding enjoyed a successful career writing for the London stage, but like many playwrights he faced a crisis when the government passed the Stage Licensing Act in 1737, a measure designed to censor and contain the theater, which had recently grown as a vehicle for expressing discontent. The Licensing Act prohibited drama in all venues in London that lacked a royal patent, effectively placing a damper on the capital’s great theater scene. As a result, Fielding saw the commercial possibilities that the stage offered dry up rather quickly. To continue to earn a living, he studied the law and eventually entered the bar. Although he was successful in his new career and eventually rose to the rank of judge, he continued to write, anonymously publishing his Shamela, a spoof on Richardson’s Pamela as early as 1741. In that work Richardson’s virtuous Pamela is transformed into the social-climbing servant Shamela who tricks her master, Mr. Booby, into marrying her. In 1742 Fielding wrote his first novel, Joseph Andrews, a work that continues where his spoof Shamela left off. Shamela is now the hopeless snob, Mrs. Booby, and Joseph Andrews is her lowborn brother. The novel opens with a hilarious scene of seduction in which Joseph refuses to surrender his virginity outside the bounds of marriage, and the resulting comic spectacle that Fielding relates ranks among one of the most entertaining in eighteenth-century English fiction. Fielding’s skills as a storyteller continued to grow, and in 1749 he produced his great masterpiece, The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling. This rollicking story in which Jones makes his way in the world through a series of mishaps and romances is lighthearted and often erotic, but not without an infusion of moral purpose. At the novel’s conclusion, the hero renounces his wayward past, marries, and settles down into a more prudent life. Tom Jones, in contrast to the darker Clarissa of Richardson, is a work of high comedy, but together the two stories rank as the finest novels of the period.

Other Novelists

Although Fielding and Richardson were by far the greatest fictional authors of the period, the vogue for the novel inspired a host of other writers. By the second half of the eighteenth century, the novel had gradually replaced the theater as a source of literary innovation and entertainment for many English men and women. The commercial possibilities this kind of publication offered were great, for even in London and other provincial centers with a theater, an author still wrote for a relatively limited audience. Yet the readership for English novels might exist anywhere where English was spoken, thus providing an almost limitless audience for writers, who now became expert in appealing to their readers, and who made use of the financial possibilities that authorship offered. Although there were many great, near-great, and mediocre writers who wrote novels during this time, the works of Tobias Smollett and Laurence Sterne deserve special mention. In his many novels, Tobias Smollett (1721-1771) evidenced a taste for portraying characters that were amusingly exaggerated and grotesque. His tales were told in the first person and were greatly influenced by the picaresque tradition that had first developed in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spain. In those novels the central character was often lowborn and survives by his wits rather than hard work. Smollett made use of this tradition of characterization, but he modulated it to suit the current taste of English readers for a fiction that was realistic. The resulting mix of colorful characters, satire, and often righteous social commentary can best be seen in Smollett’s novels The Adventures of Roderick Random (1748); The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle (1751); and perhaps his best novel, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771). By contrast, a considerably more somber spirit hangs over the great creation of Laurence Sterne (1713-1768), Tristram Shandy, which was published in nine volumes during the years 1759-1767. Sterne’s novel was a self-consciously experimental one, and its tone grows darker in its later volumes, a fact that has often led literary critics to question whether its author’s approaching death occasioned this change. The novel is innovative because its narrator, Mr. Yorick, spends little time telling his readers about his own life and instead devotes himself to discussing his family and surroundings. Sterne was very much influenced by John Locke and his notions about human psychology, particularly the idea that the mind was a “blank slate” upon which experience left its residue. In Tristram Shandy, then, he self-consciously attempted to develop these psychological insights by creating one of the first truly in-depth character studies in the English novel. The result is a stunning tour de force in literary experimentation, perhaps unequalled until the novels of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf in the twentieth century.

Samuel Johnson

While novels continued to attract the attention of English readers as one of the fashions of the age, the greatest literary personality of the eighteenth century was not a novelist, but a literary critic and poet. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), known affectionately as Dr. Johnson to generations of English readers, began life in humble surroundings in a Midlands town before embarking on a remarkable life. He attended Oxford for only little more than a year, where the depth of his learning in the Classics impressed his tutors. He became a teacher at a grammar school, but left soon afterward when he found the environment stifling. Eventually he married well, and with his wife’s money he set up his own school. One of his students, David Garrick, was destined to become the greatest actor in eighteenth-century England, but Johnson’s school failed, and he and his pupil departed for London in 1737. Soon, he was writing for the Gentlemen’s Magazine, a popular literary and political journal. Although he was prolific and achieved some successes, his first decade in London was difficult. He did not, despite the aid of Alexander Pope, attract patrons, and he struggled to establish a reputation. In these years he formulated his plans for a comprehensive dictionary of the English language, a work that was begun in the late 1740s and published in its first edition in 1755. Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was not the first such reference work to appear in England, although it was the most comprehensive to date. It provided its readers with etymologies, definitions, and examples of how words had been used at different points in the history of the language. It quickly became an indispensable source of information for writers and educated society, and it was also a source of significant pride to its author, who reminded his friends that he had compiled his dictionary in only nine years, while a similar reference work for French had required a team of writers forty years to complete. In 1750, Johnson had begun writing for The Rambler, and his columns in that periodical as well as The Adventurer had already brought him significant acclaim. He began in 1756 to serve as editor of the Literary Magazine, and in that capacity his critical reviews helped shape literary tastes. Around this time, he also turned his attention to the works of William Shakespeare, planning and then in 1765 publishing the first critical edition of the bard’s opus. Even before that great publication, the government had awarded him with an annual pension, which freed him from the necessity of his journalistic endeavors. In the same year of the first publication of his Shakespeare edition, he received an honorary doctorate from Trinity College in Dublin, a degree that was followed a decade later by another from Oxford.

A Force with Which to Be Reckoned

Besides his literary endeavors, Johnson was famous for the role that he played in establishing The Club, an organization that he and his friend, the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, formed in 1764. Nine members drawn from the world of politics, literature, and the arts were among the founding members of this organization, which quickly became an important force on the London scene in the later eighteenth century. Eventually, it became known as The Literary Club and it provided a significant outlet for Johnson’s personable nature. His house in the center of London near Chancery Lane also became a significant social and literary hub, and in the years following his wife’s death Johnson frequently invited literary men and women to stay with him there. Some in these later years of his life saw Johnson as a kind of literary dictator, who could establish or discredit the career of a budding author in a phrase or two. Yet he was a perceptive critic and was widely regarded for the common sense and good judgment that he exercised when commenting upon other authors’ works. Johnson’s life, his interest in everything from the Latin Classics to manufacturing processes, points to the increasingly outward-looking culture of metropolitan London in the Georgian era. Johnson arrived in London at a time when it was already the largest city in Europe, a great metropolis that attracted traders and literary figures from across the continent. Yet in those years, despite the city’s precocious journalistic culture and its heated printed debates, London lacked the equivalent of the sophisticated salons that played such an important role in the diffusion of the ideas of the Enlightenment in France. Johnson’s influence over the literary society of the later eighteenth century helped to develop similar centers of refined discussion throughout London society, as debating the relative literary merits of contemporary authors’ works became increasingly a pastime of the city’s cultivated society.

French Literature during the Enlightenment


As in other parts of Europe, the Enlightenment in France had been preceded by the publication of a number of works that were critical of the Roman Catholic Church, traditional Christianity, and received wisdom in general. Although the French court had come to be affected powerfully by a renewed sense of piety in the last quarter of the seventeenth century, these years had also seen the publication of a number of works that were to be widely read in the eighteenth century, and to form the basis for the Enlightenment’s attempts to establish an “Age of Reason.” Newton’s ideas of a world held together by the opposing forces of gravity and John Locke’s teachings concerning the necessity of liberty in civil societies came to be almost as important in eighteenth-century France as they were in England and America. Yet France also produced its own scientists and political theorists in this period, intellectuals that challenged the wisdom of past ages. Among these, Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle (1657-1757) and Pierre Bayle (1647-1706) were two of the most important thinkers of the years around 1700, and their ideas formed one of the foundations of the Enlightenment in France as it gathered strength in the years following Louis XIV’s death in 1715. Fontenelle was a scientist and a productive author who tried to make the implications of the latest scientific experiments available to a more general readership. He published widely on all kinds of topics, from the Classics to political theory and science, eventually winning a place for himself among the immortals of the French Academy. His most influential work, A Plurality of Worlds (1688), promoted the notion of the Copernican heliocentric or sun-centered universe. Although Copernicus had advanced this notion as early as 1543, and Galileo had elaborated upon his theory in the early seventeenth century, the Catholic Church’s condemnation of the notion of a sun-centered universe had helped to dampen its rise to prominence, even among intellectuals in France in the later seventeenth century. Much of Fontenelle’s scientific theorizing in the Plurality of Worlds was clearly wrong, and was soon disproven by the publication of Isaac Newton’s Principia in 1689. Yet Fontenelle wrote vigorously and convincingly for the Copernican theory, and helped as a result to establish its acceptance in the country’s intellectual society. Pierre Bayle, by contrast, singled out the entire edifice of Roman Catholicism for his most vigorous attacks. A Protestant, he was forced to emigrate from France as a result of Louis XIV’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, which had previously granted a degree of toleration to France’s Protestant population. Bayle helped to establish the tradition of French writers publishing in exile that was to play an important role in the eighteenth century. His and his successors’ works were often printed in London, Amsterdam, or in Switzerland before being smuggled into France, where they were avidly read by French intellectuals. In his works Bayle attacked the fanaticism of the traditional Catholic Church, but he was at the same time critical of the developing rationalistic strains of thought found in many European thinkers. His works were important, especially his Historical and Critical Dictionary (1697), because they celebrated toleration and championed a society of pluralistic views. His vision was not realized in late seventeenth-or early eighteenth-century France, although the thinkers of the Enlightenment were to champion many of the same causes that Bayle had.


The concerns that Bayle and Fontenelle had expressed soon were taken up by many others, including the Baron de Montesquieu (1689-1755), the first great thinker the French Enlightenment produced. Montesquieu entrusted his business interests to his wife, who was an astute manager, so that he could devote himself to study, writing, and his position in the Parlement of Bordeaux, an important court and administrative institution. In 1721, Montesquieu’s first great work, The Persian Letters, appeared and soon prompted considerable debate. It was styled as a series of letters written between two Persian travelers during a visit to France. It mocked French civilization and customs by holding them up to the lens of supposed outsiders. In these letters Montesquieu ranged far and wide, and no one in France seems to have escaped the penetrating gaze of his considerable intelligence. The work attacked the absolutist system of government set up by Louis XIV, the Catholic Church, and all the country’s social classes. In its allegorical portrait of a race of Troglodytes, it set forth a cogent discussion of Thomas Hobbes’ seventeenth-century notion of the state of nature. Fueled by his success in prompting intellectual ferment, Montesquieu soon left his provincial home in Bordeaux and made his way to Paris, where he circulated in high court circles. In these years in Paris, he came into contact with several English aristocrats, and from his discussions with them, he, like other Enlightenment figures, came to admire the flexibility and greater freedom of England’s political system. Eventually, he traveled to England to witness firsthand the country’s government at work. In the years following his return to France, Montesquieu began his great classic, The Spirit of the Laws, a work that was largely complete by 1743, but not published until 1748, when he had deliberated over his arguments for a number of years and considerably refined them. In its final printed form it was almost 1,100 pages long. The originality of Montesquieu’s vision as a political theorist can be seen in the ways in which he takes up subjects that were common among political writers at the time. Instead of insisting, as past theorists had, that governments should be divided for purposes of examination into aristocracies, monarchies, and democracies, Montesquieu instead treated the spirit that he believed produced each kind of political system. Republics, he argued, arose from a spirit of human virtue; monarchies from a spirit of honor; while despotisms were the product of fear. A second feature of the work proved to be of major importance in the later political history of France and the United States: Montesquieu’s notion of the separation of powers. He argued that it was not enough for a government merely to separate functions, but that the legislative, judicial, and administrative duties in a state should be confided to completely separate groups that acted autonomously of each other. In this way his political theory anticipated the political innovations of the U.S. Constitution and the French Revolution. Although Montesquieu shied away from controversy, the implications of his work were widely recognized and attacked at the time. In the Sorbonne, Paris’ distinguished university, they were condemned, and the French clergy widely attacked his conclusions as well. In 1751, his Spirit of the Laws was placed on the Catholic Index of Prohibited Books.


The greatest author of the French Enlightenment was François-Marie Arouet (1694-1774), who was always known by his pen name Voltaire. He began his career as a secretary before turning to writing, although troubles soon plagued his career. For his early plays, tragedies in the tradition of Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine, he was pronounced the great successor to seventeenth-century classicism. But when he fell afoul of members of the court, he was banished for a time from France. In these years he lived in London and came to admire the greater liberty of English life. When he returned to France, he published his reminiscences of his time among the English as The Philosophical Letters (1734), a work filled with keen insights and irony about the differences between French and English societies. In religious matters, Voltaire always professed to be a deist, that is, a follower of the naturalistic religion that had been popular in England among some intellectuals at the end of the seventeenth century. His criticisms of French life, manners, and religion eventually made his life in Paris uncomfortable and, turning his back on France, he traveled for a time to Prussia, where he was offered a position in the court of Frederick II. There intrigues followed him, and eventually he left Germany, only to be captured and imprisoned for a time by Frederick’s forces before regaining his liberty. The remainder of his life he spent in Switzerland and at a château he owned on the French border at Ferney. Controversies continued even there, although Voltaire established a salon wherever he went that frequently was sought out by the best minds of Europe at the time. He was also an avid correspondent who kept in touch with many other Enlightenment figures. Besides his plays, Voltaire’s greatest literary achievement was his short fictional satire, Candide (1759), a work that viciously attacked the philosophical optimism of Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, an early German Enlightenment thinker. Leibniz had taught that nature showed a gradual evolution and improvement towards the most perfect forms. Voltaire, by contrast, argued that such complacency was a fundamentally wrong-headed attitude toward the world. Life presented everyone with sheer random events as well as inexplicable evils that every human being should strive to correct. The characters in his Candide start with an essentially optimistic view of the world, a view from which they are soon disenchanted by the stunning series of tribulations they experience. The work presented Voltaire’s alternative to Leibniz’s philosophical optimism. In it, he argued that human society could be changed for the better, but only if, as in the work’s conclusion, everyone tended to “cultivating their garden.”

Diderot and the Encyclopédie

Voltaire’s fame spread far and wide throughout eighteenth-century Europe, in large part because of his popular plays but also because of his voluminous correspondence and his literary works. Denis Diderot (1713-1784) did not enjoy such an exalted reputation among France’s Enlightenment philosophers and authors, but he came nevertheless to exert a significant influence over literary and artistic tastes in the country in the second half of the eighteenth century, primarily through his role as editor of the Encyclopédie. Diderot’s publisher had intended this project to be merely a translation of the Cyclopaedia written by Ephraim Chambers and published in England in 1728. In his capacity as editor, though, Diderot soon vastly expanded the work, and together with his co-editor, Jean Le Rond d’Alembert (1717-1783), the pair made the publication into a major organ for promoting the ideals of the Enlightenment. The radical character of some of its articles, which were solicited from like-minded figures, soon led the government to censor parts of the publication. Despite such efforts and the work’s 25-year production schedule, the Encyclopédie was eventually completed, a significant work that helped to establish many of the new teachings about art, literature, and politics among its broad, cultivated readership in France and Europe.

The French Novel

While political philosophy and works of social and literary criticism attracted some of the finest minds of the French Enlightenment, the period was also a great one in the development of the novel. An important genre of roman de moeurs or “moralistic novels” developed throughout the period. In this regard, the works of Alain René Lesage (1667-1747) were widely influential. After producing several works that were influenced by Spanish novel traditions, Lesage began to publish his Histoire de Gil Blas de Santillane (The Adventures of Gil Blas of Santillane) in 1715. When the final installment was completed in 1735, it was a work unlike any other written to that time in French. The story followed its hero, Gil Blas, through a series of positions as a valet. Unlike the picaresque novels of Spain, the story is less tragic and brooding. It tells of Blas’ adventures, crimes, and amours, before recounting his marriage and retirement from a life of exploits. More tragic, but no less popular was Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut (History of the Knight des Grieux and of Manon Lescaut), the best known of the novels of the Abbé Prévost (1697-1763). It tells the story of a nobleman who falls in love with a courtesan. As a result, he falls into a seamy life to support his passion. In this widely read novel, realism combines with the taste for romance. The result produces a work that stood far above most of the novels written at the time. The tale follows the couple’s fateful romance to its final destination, colonial Louisiana, where Manon dies. The overwrought but realistic description of her death was irresistible fare for operatic and ballet composers, as it was for eighteenth-century readers. Several composers relied on the story in the nineteenth century for operas and ballets. In contrast to Prévost’s hard-edged realism, the novelist and playwright Pierre Marivaux (1688-1763) preferred plots that allowed him ample room to explore human psychology and his characters’ thoughts. His two most accomplished works in this strain were The Life of Marianne, published between 1731 and 1741, and The Fortunate Peasant, published between 1734 and 1735. In both works Marivaux showed that he was a master of analyzing feelings and their effects on the human character. His works are now seen as anticipating the popular “novels of sentiment” that became common in both England and France in the second half of the eighteenth century.

Rising Literary Quality

Despite its great popularity, novels were considered slightly disreputable forms of literature in France—that is, until some of the country’s greatest authors began to write them. Although they had long been consumed in France’s elite society, fiction generally was associated in the elite mind with the lower classes and country folk. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries thousands of cheap fictions were sold in France’s villages through colporteurs, itinerant peddlers who carried with them everything from bows to buttons to escapist fiction. The figures of the colporteurs, immortalized in François Boucher’s eighteenth-century painting The Galant Colporteur, had helped to create a whiff of disreputability for the novel in French high society, even though the evidence suggests that many in high society read these texts. But the traditional concerns of French classicism, with its efforts to create a national literature that was immortal and timeless, continued to discourage efforts to see the novel as a literary form that might rise to the status of high art. In the later eighteenth century, though, this situation changed rather quickly. In the articles he wrote for the Encyclopédie, for example, Denis Diderot celebrated realistic bourgeois fiction as a vehicle for inculcating moral values, and he pointed to the English novelist Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa as an appropriate source for authors to emulate. Diderot eventually tried his hand at writing such an “elevated” novel, but the resulting product, Jacques, the Fatalist, did not appear in print until 1796. A generation earlier, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), perhaps the greatest political and social theorist of the Enlightenment, had already taken up Diderot’s call for a morally uplifting fiction. He was the first French philosopher to embrace the novel form as a serious vehicle for treating moral and philosophical issues. But he would not be the last. Until modern times, the novel in France has retained a centrality in philosophical discussions that it lacks in many other cultures. The great twentieth-century philosophers, Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, for example, continued to write novels, as their Enlightenment and nineteenth-century forebears had. Rousseau’s Julie, or the New Heloise (1762) stands at the beginning of this trend. Today, it hardly appears as a great work of art. It is long, overly sentimental, and often dry, but eighteenth-century readers loved it all the same. They seemed to have found in the work a precise description of a world they recognized, combined with a moral commentary they thought was appealing. Rousseau himself seems to have labored over Julie, working on the novel for about five years before its publication. The subject he chose was modeled after the medieval romance between Abelard and Heloise, an event that ended tragically with Abelard’s castration and both lovers’ entrance into convents. In Rousseau’s updated retelling of the story, Julie instead dies, but before she does, she composes a letter to her lover that asks him to accept her death and their unresolved passion. The novel thus set up an interesting interplay between erotic attachment, sexual desire, and its ultimate renunciation in death. The effect of this ending galvanized Rousseau’s reputation as a novelist of the highest merit, particularly among his female readers. In this work, Rousseau had intended to accomplish for the French novel what Samuel Richardson had done for the English genre through his Clarissa. In the wake of his Julie, Rousseau was barraged with letters from his fans, particularly his female fans, a testimony to the way in which he modulated his storytelling to the sentiments of his time.

Later Eighteenth-Century Novels

Two other novelists produced works in the later eighteenth century that stirred similar emotions, and which continued to experiment with ways of presenting moral and intellectual dilemmas to their readers. In 1782, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ Les liaisons dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons) caused an excitement similar to Rousseau’s Julie. The work has stood the test of time better than the earlier philosopher’s fiction, and it remains an extraordinary piece of literature today. In fashioning his story Choderlos de Laclos (1741-1803) was also influenced by Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, a tale of a corrupt aristocrat who brutally rapes the heroine when she refuses to submit to his will. By contrast, the central story line of Les liaisons dangereuses involves, not a rape, but the gradual, entirely calculated seduction of a virtuous woman, who proves unable to resist the protestations of love of the anti-hero, Valmont. In the end it is the wicked Valmont who is consumed by his deceit, although the transforming experience of love that he undergoes with his heroine redeems him, so that even in his death he is restored to a state of moral goodness. But before this sublime transformation occurs, the work’s complex plot twists reveal love among the “high and mighty” as nothing more than a cynical game, untouched by true passion, a diversionary amusement shaped by the desire for possessions and reputation. Choderlos de Laclos’ brutal and contemptuous portrait of the dissolution of French high society remains unparalleled for its descriptions of aristocratic decadence. Its publication seven years before the outbreak of the French Revolution, when mounting criticism of France’s idle aristocrats was steadily rising, helps to explain the sensation it caused, but the work transcends the problems of its own era and is one of the great Western depictions of hypocrisy and trickery. Evil of a different kind is also to be found in the works of the last great French novelist of the eighteenth century, the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814). His descriptions of sexual pleasure mingled with pain, particularly in his Justine, helped coin the word “sadism.” The work is a “black novel,” recounting the lives of two sisters, Justine and Juliette, the first virtuous, the second wicked. The religious Justine sees good in everyone, but is taken in by a libertine who gains her trust before subjecting her to his perversions. Like Rousseau’s Julie and Choderlos de Laclos’ Les liaisons dangereuses, the story line is also shaped by a reading of Richardson’s Clarissa and the many “novels of sentiment” popular in late eighteenth-century Europe. The themes that Sade developed here—sexual desire, misplaced trust, and depraved wickedness—had frequently been treated in many other works, but certainly not with the degree of candor or overt sexuality as in Sade’s fictions. The perversions he related in Justine as well as in many of the other writings he undertook while imprisoned for his own sexual deviations were, in large part, drawn from his own repertory of experiences.

The Enlightenment in Germany

Changing Times

In the seventeenth century German literature had often reflected the troubled religious landscape of the age, and the literary landscape was profoundly affected by the disputes of the era. In those years Protestant writers like Andreas Gryphius and Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen had been largely responsible for the creation of a national literature in Germany, a literature which, despite touches of humor and the picaresque, had often concentrated on creating new modes of expression for a language that authors desired to endow with the grandeur of classical rhetoric. Great variety had characterized the verse poetry and prose produced in this era, as many writers had experimented with new rhetorical forms and genres, a literary innovation that Germany’s budding “literary societies” supported. Yet the tenor of much of the underlying moral, religious, and philosophical foundations of this literature had remained conservative. While religion continued to be a central preoccupation of German life in the early eighteenth century, new pious movements led in directions different from the highly theological and doctrinal spirit of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. At the end of the seventeenth century, the German Pietists had supported the development of a new spirit within Lutheranism. Leaders of this movement—men like Philipp Jakob Spener and August Hermann Francke—advocated a religion that spoke to the heart rather than the mind. While Lutheran Pietism remained intensely orthodox in the theology that it espoused, it nevertheless supported a practical spirit, evidenced in the foundation of orphanages and schools as well as the formations of “circles” of lay people that met regularly for prayer and study. As its influence spread in the eighteenth century, Pietism affected many Protestant countries in Northern Europe, eventually helping to inspire the growth of Wesleyanism in England and the Americas. It also fostered the expansion of literacy through the foundations of hundreds of schools, particularly in northern Germany where its influences were most widely felt. Pietism also came to be an intensely literary movement, with its major leaders and advocates frequently publishing devotional works, spiritual autobiographies, and journals similar to those that were common in England and other European regions. Among the literary monuments of the movement Johann Philip Arndt’s True Christianity (1610), an early work later claimed by the Pietists as one of their sources of inspiration, and Philipp Jakob Spener’s Pia Desideria(Pious Desires; 1675) became important texts of the movement, and were much emulated by later writers. Francke’s influence, too, was notable in his foundation at Halle of a scriptural study institute that trained many in the techniques of Pietist biblical study and commentary. But the movement’s impact on the ideas of the eighteenth century was profound, stretching throughout Protestant Europe, and eventually coming even to influence many Catholic devotional writers as well.


While Pietism supported a “heart-felt” devotion rather than a hard-edged doctrinal religion, its teachings were nevertheless firmly located within the traditions of Lutheran orthodoxy fostered by the Reformation. Other sources of disaffection, though, were just beginning to appear in Germany around 1700, sources that eventually questioned the traditional role that Christianity had played in the country’s public life. These forces can be seen at work in the career and writing of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), a figure that had been born into a devout Lutheran family. Leibniz’s lifelong pursuit of a philosophical alternative to Christianity eventually called that edifice of belief into question. When he entered the University of Leipzig in 1661 as a law student, he soon became familiar with the entire range of scientific thinkers that were producing a reassessment of European ideas at the time, including Galileo, Thomas Hobbes, René Descartes, and Francis Bacon. In the years that followed, Leibniz developed an intensely metaphysical philosophy that attempted to harmonize this new learning with his own hunger for truth. Eventually, this quest resulted in a strikingly original philosophy. Leibniz spent the early part of his career without employment, although he eventually won positions at court. Of the many positions he filled, one as the librarian of the Duke August Library in Wolfenbüttel was particularly important. Wolfenbüttel was home to one of Europe’s most distinguished library collections, and there Leibniz was able to read widely, indulging his interests, which ranged across philosophy, the Classics, mathematics, history, and even physics and mechanics. From his tenure at Wolfenbüttel throughout the eighteenth century that followed, the position of librarian at this venerable institution was persistently awarded to some of Germany’s greatest literary figures. Eventually, the puzzling philosophy that Leibniz developed based upon his broad reading and his concept of monads, which were independent things he thought composed the real world, proved to be a significant intellectual riddle to untangle. But his lifelong search for philosophical truth, a truth that was independent of the received wisdom of traditional religion, inspired other major German thinkers in the Enlightenment. For these reasons, he has often been dubbed the “Father” of the German Enlightenment.

Impact of English Literature

Leibniz had envisioned a world free from the constraints of traditional Christian theology, and although his ideas attracted adherents among other philosophers and authors in eighteenth-century Germany, they were controversial all the same. Additional ferment and inspiration for new German literary forms also appeared in the eighteenth century from English literary works that came to be known in the country from the early eighteenth century onward. In these years German intellectuals avidly read the writings of Daniel Defoe, Joseph Addison, Jonathan Swift, and a number of others. The trend continued throughout the eighteenth century. Later German writers were highly influenced by the works of Samuel Richardson and the literary criticism of Samuel Johnson and others that issued from England in the mid-eighteenth century. The political writings of the French and British Enlightenment were another source of inspiration. Translations of many of these works were produced in Germany relatively quickly, making English fiction and European political writings accessible to many in German society. Among the figures that attempted to apply the insights that they had culled from English Augustan literature, Johann Christoph Gottsched (1700-1766) and Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock (1724-1803) were particularly important in fashioning new literary forms, both in the theater and in poetry. At Leipzig, Gottsched worked to establish new canons in the theater of his day, and he helped to formulate rules for judging the quality and content of literature. His rules were highly restrictive, but in the circle that he founded in the city, the discussion of them nevertheless produced a creative movement in the history of the country’s drama and literature. His followers, for instance, were quick to fashion new, less restrictive canons and to do so, they studied and imitated the works of John Milton and other English writers. Klopstock was one of these writers and he made his greatest mark on German literature through his poem, The Messias, which was published between 1749 and 1773. When the first three cantos of that work appeared in 1749, they caused great excitement. They were modeled on Milton’sParadise Lost, and like that earlier text relied on unrhymed hexameter for their structure. Emotionally sophisticated, they helped to establish their author as one of the leading poets of his age.


Perhaps the greatest literary figure of the mid-century in Germany was Gotthold Ephraim von Lessing (1729-1781), a critic of considerable powers who also wrote drama, prose, and poetry. In 1770, he accepted the same position that Leibniz had two generations earlier as librarian at Wolfenbüttel. But even before this period, he had amassed a reputation as a literary artist of significant innovation. In his plays Lessing helped to develop a “middle-class” drama that spoke to the concerns of Germany’s increasingly bourgeois urban society. He produced a number of sparkling comedies before his writing took a more overtly philosophical tone. His work, in other words, came to celebrate the search for rational truth and for a tolerant society, unhindered by religious fanaticism that was typical of many Enlightenment authors. These dimensions of his work eventually spurred controversy. His dramatic poem, Nathan the Wise (1779), which intimated that three great world religions—Islam, Christianity, and Judaism—were essentially similar in their ethics, sparked controversy. His pleas for tolerance, particularly of Germany’s Jews, were also unusual for their time. But despite criticism of his work, particularly its downplaying of traditional Christian truth, Lessing remained until his death fundamentally assured in his faith in humanity and its ability to perfect itself.


A more tempestuous note is to be found in the life, career, and writing of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), one of the founders of the “Sturm und Drang” literary style. The values of the “Sturm und Drang” (meaning literally “Storm and Stress”) movement fascinated many authors in the final third of the eighteenth century. Writers who adopted this style abandoned the influence of Augustan-era England, with its imperturbable and graciously elegant lyric poetry and prose, and they searched instead for an idiom that was altogether more turbulent, emotional, and personal. Similar movements also influenced the visual arts and music at this time in Germany, helping to provide a bridge between the Classicism that was generally favored in the mid- and later eighteenth century and the Romantic Movement that developed around 1800. Goethe was one of the last great universal geniuses that European society was to produce. He was interested in every dimension of human experience and the natural world, and he became a poet, art critic, naturalist, educational reformer, philosopher, playwright, and novelist. His writings rank even today as among the greatest achievements of world literature. His scientific studies, in fact, fill a fourteen-volume edition, and to this must be added an enormous amount of other writings, all composed in one of the most thoroughly fluent and engaging prose styles imaginable. His life straddled the great literary achievements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and in his consistent development, Goethe proved ever capable of reacting to changing times and changing questions. Born into the German middle class, he consistently praised bourgeois culture for its production of history’s greatest cultural embodiments. Educated in the sophisticated atmosphere of eighteenth-century Leipzig, he left Germany in 1765 on what was intended to be a grand tour. Stopping in Strasbourg, he wanted to study law for a time before going on to Paris and other European cities. In Strasbourg, though, he was so captivated by the sight of the city’s Gothic cathedral that he came to realize the poverty of Leipzig’s culture of sophistication. From this time he devoted himself to promoting the integrity of the “Gothic ideal.” In Strasbourg, he also made contact with Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803), one of Germany’s foremost poets. His discussions with Herder convinced him of the poet’s great role in expressing emotions and fashioning a primitive language that spoke to the human soul. From this point, his poetry, prose, and dramas thus began to acquire the characteristic mix of emotions, strains, and pressure typical of the Sturm und Drang. Goethe had not created this style, but he was its most famous proponent, even as he later experimented with other literary movements. As a Sturm und Drang writer, though, his most significant achievement was the publication of his novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), a work that in many people’s minds became emblematic of the values of the entire Sturm und Drang movement, and which exerted a powerful influence over the development of literary Romanticism. The contents of Werther, the story of a young man’s unrequited love for a woman who is promised to another, was partially autobiographical. Yet Goethe fashioned his retelling of the tale in such a way as to elicit great pathos and enormous response from his readers. The tale’s tragic ending—young artistic Werther commits suicide as a victim of his love—spoke to readers who had to this point been schooled in the belief that art should mirror high ideals and present a larger-than-life heroism. Goethe showed them that the emotions might be a powerful barrier to achieving such a vision. His story thus played on the wellsprings of emotion that lay just beneath the imperturbable classical veneer of eighteenth-century middleclass and aristocratic societies. The novel produced an immediate sensation, not only in Germany, but throughout Europe, where it became one of the great literary success stories of the later eighteenth century. Its plot and style were widely imitated, and its popularity persisted into the nineteenth century, when it was dramatized, made the subject of ballets, and set to music in several operas.


In Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther can be seen many of the forces that were shaping European literature as the eighteenth century drew to a close. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, European writers had experimented with various literary forms and genres to give expression to their underlying religious, moral, and philosophical beliefs. In the seventeenth century, these attempts had produced great spiritual autobiographies and personal narratives, in which the Christian dramas of the Fall of humanity and its eventual redemption had been given a highly personal, individualistic cast. Poets like John Milton in England and Andreas Gryphius in Germany had similarly devoted themselves to relating the traditional concerns of the classical and Christian worldviews in ways that spoke to their generations of readers. Such works had greatly expanded the literary possibilities of the French, German, and English languages. In France, they had produced a great age of drama, poetry, and prose, in which the greatest writers of the period had developed a distinctly classical idiom. In Germany, such efforts resulted in the emergence of a forceful, varied, yet florid prose and poetic style. And in England, the literary Baroque of figures like John Donne and Milton, with their emphasis on encapsulating difficult meanings, gradually gave way to an Augustan form of expression, notable in John Dryden and others for its detached beauty. In the decades that followed 1700, the quest to present philosophical truths and for a literature that represented the changing realities of the time had begun to produce a fundamental shift, evidenced in the writings of many eighteenth-century authors. Now prose fiction and philosophical writing gave expression to many of the new ideas of the developing Enlightenment. That movement was the recognized heir to the mechanistic views of the universe promoted by Isaac Newton, the theories of natural law and psychology of John Locke, and the questioning and inquisitive spirit of figures like Pierre Bayle, Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, and Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle. As the Enlightenment endeavored to reform society into one based on the tenets of human reason, authors searched for new literary modes of expression that might give voice to the concerns of their age. Although the novels of Daniel Defoe or Samuel Richardson still continued to be profoundly affected by traditional Christian moral concerns, they were prized, not only in England, but also throughout Europe for the way in which they gave expression to the concerns of an expanding and urban “middle class” society. In Moll Flanders, for instance, Defoe presented to his readers a seemingly realistic portrait of life without the middle-class comforts of Augustan London. And in his Clarissa, Richardson warned his readers of the enormous powers of the emotions, helping to inspire a genre of “sentimental” novels in his native England, but also in France and Germany. The quest for a realistic fiction that might embody and examine the emotions and problems that accrued from living in the new civil societies of the age persisted throughout the later eighteenth century. Yet in Goethe and in the troubled spirit of his hero, Werther, can be seen at the same time the very same forces that eventually shattered the eighteenth-century confidence in human reason and its ability to perfect society. With Goethe, European readers were faced with a fundamentally new paradigm, a paradigm that led to the great Romantic literary experiments that fascinated nineteenth-century Europe.