Age of Prose and Reason

Age of Prose and Reason

Age of Prose and Reason : The eighteenth century was a great period for English prose, though not for English poetry. Matthew Arnold called it an “age of prose and reason,” implying thereby that no good poetry was written in this century, and that, prose dominated the literary realm.

Age of Prose and Reason

Much of the poetry of the age is prosaic, if not altogether prose-rhymed prose. Verse was used by many poets of the age for purposes which could be realised, or realised better, through prose. Our view is that the eighteenth century was not altogether barren of real poetry.

Even then, it is better known for the galaxy of brilliant prose writers that it threw up. In this century there was a remarkable proliferation of practical interests which could best be expressed in a new kind of prose-pliant and of a work a day kind capable of rising to every occasion. This prose was simple and modern, having nothing of the baroque or Ciceronian colour of the prose of the seventeenth-century writers like Milton and Sir Thomas Browne. Practicality and reason ruled supreme xin prose and determined its style. It is really strange that in this period the language of*prose was becoming simpler and more easily comprehensible, but, on the other hand, the language of poetry was being conventionalised into that artificial “poetic diction” which at the end of the century was so severely condemned by Wordsworth as “gaudy and inane phraseology.”

The Contribution of the Age to Prose:

Much of eighteenth-century prose is taken up by topical journalistic issues-as indeed is the prose of any other age. However, in the eighteenth century we come across, for the first-time in the history of English literature, a really huge mass of pamphlets, journals, booklets, and magazines. The whole activity of life of the eighteenth century is embodied in the works of literary critics, economists, “letter-writers,” essayists, politicians, public speakers, divines, philosophers, historians, scientists, biographers, and public projectors. Moreover, a thing of particular importance is the introduction of two new prose genres in this century.

The novel and the periodical paper are the two gifts of the century to English literature, and some of the best prose of the age is to be found in its novels and periodical essays. Summing up the importance of the century are these words of a critic: “The eighteenth century by itself had created the novel and practically created the literary history; it had put the essay into general circulation; it had hit off various forms and abundant supply of lighter verse; it had added largely to philosophy and literature.

Above all, it had shaped the form of English prose-of-all-work, the one thing that remained to be done at its opening. When an age has done so much, it seems somewhat illiberal to reproach it with not doing more.” Even Matthew Arnold had to call the eighteenth century “our excellent and indispensable eighteenth century.”

After these preliminary considerations let us briefly discuss the important trends and writers of the age.

Daniel Defoe (1660-1731):

Defoe was perhaps the most copious writer of the eighteenth century. He is best known for his Robinson Crusoe and some other works of fiction like Moll Flanders and Roxana. His non-fictive prose consists of a large number of pamphlets (generally published anonymously) and a staggering bulk of miscellaneous writings mostly topical in nature. He started a tri-weekly periodical The Review in 1704, which continued up to 1713. In it he dealt with political, religious, and commercial matters. There is not much of the universal in his non-fictive prose to keep it alive, but one just wonders at the sheer number of his works which total above five hundred.

John Arbuthnot (1667-1735):

Arbuthnot was man estimable for his learning, amiable for his life, and venerable for his piety”-was a close associate of Swift and Pope and was by profession a physician. His History of John Bull (1712), an, allegorical satire, in the words of Legouis in A Short History of English Literature, “remains one of the most famous political satires England has produced”. Therein is described the legal battle between John Bull (England) and Nic Frog (Holland) ontne one side, and Lewis Baboon (France) and Lord Strutt (Spain) on the other. Arburthnot upholds evidently the Tory point of view favouring the termination of hostilities then raging between the countries mentioned above. He manifests an easy mastery of lucid and vivid style as also delightful strokes of irony, which made Swift “complain”:

Arbuthnot is no more my friend;
He dares to irony pretend;
Which I was born to introduce,
Refin ‘d it first and shew ‘d its use.

Jonathan Swift (1667-1745):

Swift was the greatest prose satirist of England. He dominated the first half of the eighteenth century as Dr. Johnson did the second; and as an intellectual he was far superior to Johnson. Some of his satires are obscene, misanthropic, and cynical, but none can question his moral integrity and the unflinching earnestness with which he removes the externals of things to bring out the corruption which lies at their heart.

Swift’s satire is all-embracing. Its rapier-like thrusts spare neither a fraudulent almanac-maker, nor a misguided zealot, nor an airy philosopher, nor a glib politician, nor a conceited fop, nor a pretentious scientist.This greatest of satirists once satirised even satire! The paltry Partridge (an almanac-maker) and the great Walpole (the Prime Minister of England) alike winced under his terrible “whip of scorpions”.

Swift’s sensitiveness to all corruption, the numerous frustrations which punctuated the entire span of his life and the egregious folly, corruption, and self-seeking which he found tainting “the age of reason and good sense” prompted him to take up his lash. The age deserved satire, and his personal disposition and disappointments made him keen enough to give it. Swift is perfectly right when he says in The Death of Dean Swift:

Perhaps I may allow the Dean
Had too much satire in his vein,
And seem’d determined not to starve it,
Because no age could more deserve it.

The greatness of Swift’s satire is, in the last analysis, a triumph of technique. His arsenal as a satirist is chock-full of weapons, of all descriptions. Wit, raillery, sarcasm, irony, allegory, and so many more weapons are used to perfection by him in his crusade against folly, injustice, and unreason. Whichever weapon may he be employing for attack, his satire is usually darker and more telling than that of most writers. He may sometimes touch lightly, but very often he pierces deep to the very heart of life. In any case, his satire is very disturbing as it presents things in a fairly unconventional perspective eminently calculated to shatter the complacency of the reader. When Swift points out the acquired follies, he is quite constructive, but when he satirises the very nature of man, he is nothing but destructive.
Of all the satiric techniques the one most effectively used by Swift is irony. With Swift irony is often much more than just a figure of speech; it is extended so that the entire range of thoughts and feelings presented in a satiric work seems to be coming not from Swift himself but from a fictive character (a persona) created for the purpose. The irony lies in the difference between the views expressed by the persona and the common sense views (the same as the views of Swift himself).

Swift wrote a very large number of satires of which the most important areThe Battle of the Books, A Tale of a Tub, and Gulliver’s Travels. The first is just ajeu d’esprit and was meant to lampoon in mock-heroic terms the opponents of his patron Sir William Temple-­particularly Richard Bentley and William Wotton, both of whom had disputed the view of Temple granting supremacy to the ancients over the moderns.

A Tale of a Tub was meant to be a satire “on the numerous and gross corruptions in religion and learning.”-It represented the Church of England as the best, of all Churches in “doctrine and discipline,” and also lashed the shallow writers and critics of the age. Gulliver’s Travels is the most famous of Swift’s works. In it he savagely indicted “that animal called man.” Though it has the externals of a travel romance yet in reality it is a terrible but well-calculated satire on all the activities of human life and allthe attributes of human nature not sparing even the human body. However, its irony is so deep that it has been a favourite gift-book for children. Kipling once said that Swift’ ‘ignited a volcano to light a child to bed.” In fact, the book is enjoyed by all children from nine to ninety!

Credit must be given to Swift for the clarity, precision, and what Herbert Davis calls the “conciseness” of his prose style. Swift despises all unnecessary ornament. His imagery, however, is prolific and concrete. At any rate he gives us the impression of an easy mastery of the language. Halliday in the introduction to his Selection from Swift observes: “…the various phases of scorn and satire, of appraisement and direct denunciation, the various moods and tempers of the writer are expressed with wonderful and subtle skill. The secret of his power over his readers is to be sought for here. He makes you responsive to every nuance of thought and emotion and draws you with the magic of his pipe into whatever region he desires.”

Addison, Steele, and the Periodical Essay:

From Swift to Addison is” like coming from a real to a paper tiger. Addison perfected the periodical essay which was “invented” by Steele with the Taller in 1709. Addison collaborated with Steele as Steele did with him in the Spectator which was launched by Addison in 1711 after the Taller had been wound-up. The periodical paper was extremely suited to the temper and conditions of the eighteenth century; and that explains its immense popularity. The genius of Addison was also quite happy with this”new literary genre. He wrote a few more works, but his popularity today is entirely due to his work as a periodical essayist,

The work of Addison and Steele as periodical essayists was actuated by a definite purpose–that of providing instructive amusement to their readers many of whom were women. “I must confess,” wrote Addison once, “were I left to myself, I would rather aim at instructing than diverting.” But instruction would not have been welcomed by the readers if it were without some diversion. As “instructors” Addison and Steele paid special attention to improving the morals and social manners of the people. As champions of good taste and reason they did their best to improve the tone of society. They also popularised “philosophy.” With his papers onParadise Lost and the old ballad of Chevy Chase Addison did a signal service to literary, criticism. Steele and Addison were mostly retailers of other men’s opinions; they were not philosophers themselves but they did substantial workto make philosophy a subject of popular appreciation and discussion.

Addison’s prose style is as lucid and precise as Swift’s, but it has much more of polish, refinement, and studied ease. Dr. Johnson calls his style “the model of the middle style.” And this is his famous advice: “Whoever wishes to attain an English style familiar but not coarse, and elegant but not ostentatious, must give his days and nights to the volumes of Addison.” Steele as a man and stylist was less refined and consistent than Addison. He is sometimes patently ungrammatical even. Even then, sometimes his style, in all its spontaneity and attending carelessness, speaks, as it were, from the core of his heart, as Addison’s never even seems to do. “I Iike7′ said Leigh Hunt, “Stede with all his faults better than Addison with all his

Philosophers and Theologians:

George Berkeley (1685-1753) and David Hume (1711-76) were the great philosophers of the eighteenth century as Hobbes and Locke had been of the seventeenth. Berkeley was an upholder of absolute idealism, and as such, went so far as to deny the very existence of matter. His deep religious convictions had the colour of mysticism. As regards the clarity of Berkeley’s prose style, Legouis observes: “Nothing could be more admirable than the lucid prose, perfectly simple and perfectly elegant, in which Berkeley expressed his profound and subtle views.”

Hume was by far the greatest philosopher of his age. His approach is marked by scepticism and utilitarianism. Regarding his style Legouis says: “Nothing could be more tranquil and assured than the march of his thought, nothing clearer than the prose in which he pursued his most subtle analyses in lucid and sober language.”

Adam Smith (1723-90) was the father of political economy which Ruskin and his ilk were to attack in the Victorian age. His Wealth of Nations (1776) enjoyed a long and undisputed reign as the Bible of political economists. His style is precise and unadorned to the extent of being altogether sapless:

The first half of the eighteenth century saw the furious raging of the Deistic controversy. The Deists including Charles Blqunt, John Tolant, Matthew Tindall, Anthony Collins and the Earl of Shaftesbury believed in what they called “Natural Religion,” that is, belief in God without corresponding belief in Christianity, or, as a matter of fact, any religion. Swift was one of those who controverted the Deistic heresy.

The rise of Methodism was another theological feature of the century. The two Wesley brothers-John and Charles-were the initiators of the new move towards importing the old enthusiasm, simplicity and sincerity into the religion of the day. John Wesley’s prose is characterised by directness, simplicity, and a rude, compelling force.

Dr. Johnson (1709-84):

As a age of prose writer Dr. Johnson is particularly known for his Dictionary, his periodical papers, his philosophical tale Rasselas, and his critical work Lives of the Poets. He was the cham of the realm of letters in his age and an accepted arbiter of taste. As a critic he made many egregious errors, but his infectious sanity cannot be ignored. Asa prose stylist he was a purist. However, his style though vigorous and direct is somewhat heavy-handed, and as such is sometimes derisively called “Johnsonese”, which Chambers’s Dictionary defines as “Johnsonian style, idiom, diction or an imitation of it—ponderous English, full of antitheses, balanced triads, and words of classical origin.” Goldsmith said jokingly about Johnson’s style that it may fit the mouths of whales but it certainly does not fit the mouths of little fish.

Biographers and Letter Writers:

The eighteenth century produced a number of biographers, autobiographers, and writers of semi-public letters. James Boswell (1740-95), the biographer of his idol Dr. Johnson, has the pride of place among them. His work is as massive as the great Johnson himself! Life of Johnson is a unique work of its kind. Boswels devotion to Dr. Johnson became the cause of his own fame. Among the autobiographers may be mentioned Gibbon, Lord Hervey, and John, Wesley.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Cowper, Chesterfield, Gilbert White, Gray, and Horace Waipole were some of the famous letter writers of the eighteenth century.

Periodical Papers and Oliver Goldsmith (1730-74):

After the Spectator there was a remarkable proliferation of periodical literature in England. To name all the periodical papers which appeared in the eighteenth century will be an uphill task as their number is legion. Most of them continued the traditions set by Addison and Steele. The name of Oliver Goldsmith is associated with numerous periodical papers. His cosmopolitan attitude, tolerance, delicacy, and sentiment are his hallmarks as an essayist. He expresses himself in a chaste and elegant style free from artificial devices.


The eighteenth century saw the establishment of historiography as a respectable and highly developed branch of learned activity. Edward Gibbon (1737-94)-writer of the monumental The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire-was the greatest of the historiographers of the age. His attitude is entirely rational and anti-mystical. His style is dignified and somewhat ponderous, but he can effectively combine harmony and majesty with logic and precision.

Edmund Burke (1729-97):                                                     

Burke was the greatest orator of the age of prose. He dealt with the pressing political problems facing the British Empire. His works concerning Indian and American affairs and the French Revolution are couched in brilliant and rhetorical prose which cannot but impress the most indifferent reader or listener. He was an anti theorist who recommended action in keeping with the spirit and complexion of the times.


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