English Poets of the Eighteenth Century eBook

This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 311 pages of information about English Poets of the Eighteenth Century.

  The straight-backed measure with the stately stride.

Thus in form as in substance the poetry of the period voiced the mood, not of carefree youth, nor yet of vehement early manhood, but of still vigorous middle age,—­a phase of existence perhaps less ingratiating than others, but one which has its rightful hour in the life of the race as of the individual.  The sincere and artistic expression of its feelings will be denied poetical validity only by those whose capacity for appreciating the varieties of poetry is limited by their lack of experience or by narrowness of sympathetic imagination.

II.  ORTHODOXY AND CLASSICISM ASSAILED (1726-1750)

During the second quarter of the century, Pope and his group remained dominant in the realm of poetry; but their mood was no longer pacific.  Their work showed a growing seriousness and acerbity.  Partly the change was owing to disappointment:  life had not become so highly cultured, literature had not prospered so much, nor displayed so broad a diffusion of intelligence and taste, as had been expected.  Pope’s Dunciad, Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot, and ironic satire on the state of literature under “Augustus” (George II, the “snuffy old drone from the German hive"), brilliantly express this indignation with the intellectual and literary shortcomings of the times.

A cause of the change of mood which was to be of more lasting consequence than the failure of the age to put the traditional ideal more generally into practice, was the appearance of a distinctly new ideal,—­one which undermined the very foundations of the old.  This new spirit may be termed sentimentalism.  In prose literature it had already been stirring for about twenty-five years, changing the tone of comedy, entering into some of the periodical essays, and assuming a philosophic character in the works of Lord Shaftesbury.  Its chief doctrines, rhapsodically promulgated by this amiable and original enthusiast, were that the universe and all its creatures constitute a perfect harmony; and that Man, owing to his innate moral and aesthetic sense, needs no supernatural revelation of religious or ethical truth, because if he will discard the prejudices of tradition, he will instinctively, when face to face with Nature, recognize the Spirit which dwells therein,—­and, correspondingly, when in the presence of a good deed he will recognize its morality.  In other words.  God and Nature are one; and Man is instinctively good, his cardinal virtue being the love of humanity, his true religion the love of Nature.  Be therefore of good cheer:  evil merely appears to exist, sin is a figment of false psychology; lead mankind to return to the natural, and they will find happiness.

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English Poets of the Eighteenth Century from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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