In the history of literature, he holds an important place, because, more than any other writer, he calls attention to the importance of correctness of form and of careful expression. He is the prince of artificial poets. Though he erred in exalting form above matter, he taught his age the needed lesson of careful workmanship.
The Restoration and the first part of the eighteenth century display a low moral standard in both church and state. This standard had its effect on literature. The drama shows marked decline. We find no such sublime outbursts of song as characterize the Elizabethan and Puritan ages. The writers chose satiric or didactic subjects, and avoided pathos, deep feeling, and sublimity. French influence was paramount.
The classical school, which loved polished regularity, set the fashion in literature. An old idea, dressed in exquisite form, was as welcome as a new one. Anything strange, irregular, romantic, full of feeling, highly imaginative, or improbable to the intellect, was unpopular. Even in Gulliver’s Travels, Swift endeavored to be as realistic as if he were demonstrating a geometrical proposition.
Dryden and Pope are the two chief poets of the classical school. Both use the riming couplet and are distinguished for their satiric and didactic verse. Their poetry shows more intellectual brilliancy than imaginative power. They display little sympathy with man and small love for nature.
The age is far more remarkable for its prose than for its poetry. French influence helped to develop a concise, flexible, energetic prose style. The deterioration in poetry was partly compensated for by the rapid advances in prose, which needed the influences working toward artistic finish. Because of its cleverness, avoidance of long sentences, and of classical inversions, Dryden’s prose is essentially modern. Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is the world’s most popular story of adventure, told in simple and direct, but seemingly artless, prose. Of all the prose writers since Swift’s time, few have equaled him and still fewer surpassed him in simplicity, flexibility, directness, and lack of affectation. The essays of Steele and Addison constitute a landmark. No preceding English prose shows so much grace of style, delicate humor, and power of awakening and retaining interest as do the Sir Roger de Coverley Papers.
The influence of this age was sufficient to raise permanently the standard level of artistic literary expression. The unpruned, shapeless, and extravagant forms of earlier times will no longer be tolerated.
An account of the history of this period may be found in either Gardiner, Green, Walker, or Cheney. Vols. VIII. and IX. of the Political History of England give the history in greater detail. For the social side, consult Traill, Vols. IV. and V., and Cheney’s Industrial and Social History of England. Lecky’s History of England in the Eighteenth Century is an excellent work.