Eighteenth century as an age of Prose
Eighteenth century as an age of Prose : The literary ideals of the classical age, appeal to the intellect or reason rather than emotion or passion were more suited to the development of prose than poetry. The prose of the eighteenth century is a continuation of the prose of the Restoration and Dryden age. The spread of science and the spirit of commonsense accounts for the development of prose. The influence of France is also responsible for the growth of intimate and vigorous prose of the time. The eighteenth century cultivated the spirit of reason. They sought order and harmony in literature. The prose of the age is the natural outlet of the energy of the intelligence and has some superior and solid merits. With Addison and Steele, Defoe and Swift and later on Dr. Johnson the prose has become a more conscious and retined art. In short, the era of modern prose began with these writers.
Eighteenth century as an age of Prose
In the history of English literature the names of Addison and Steele always go together. In 1711 the two friends started a daily called The Spectator, which at once leapt into popularity and exercise a great influence on the reading public.
Lancelot Addison (1672-1719) soon became the dominating spirit behind the paper. He wrote 274 essays out of a total of 555 and wholly shaped its policy. His genius is best illustrated in the pages of the journal. In the language of Courthope, his biographer, “Addison may be said to have almost created and wholly perfected English prose as an instrument for the expression of social thought”. The essays are frankly didactic in spirit and purpose, namely to reform the contemporary manners and morals. As he says- “I have brought philosophy out of the closet and libraries, schools and colleges to dwell at tea tables and coffee houses” The essays are on an endless variety of subjects and manners.
Story, allegory, character sketches are found plentifully in them. The author’s humour, suavity and imaginatian add considerable to the grace of these essays. The essays contain the raw materials of the novel and have, indeed, paved the path for the English novel. The Coverley Papers, a collection of essays relating to Sir Roger de Coverley, an imaginary eccentric country knight who is a member of the Spectator Club, might with a little systematic retouching, be turned into an excellent domestic novel. It is in his style that Addison is great. The prose of Bacon, Milton, Hooker was ornate and rich in colour and eloquence. They speak as it were in full dress from a platform.
In The Tatler and The Spectator we have the intimate confidential note which later on attained a pertection in the romantic prose writers like Lamb and Hazlitt. It is a style that is simple, limpid, clear, flexible and full of conversational ease. It is never slip-shod or obscure. The writer “has an infallible instinct for the proper word and an infallible ear for a subdued and graceful rhythm”. Thus the style has a curious air of modernity. Dr. Johnson says of Addison’s style – “His prose is the model of the middle style pure without scrupulosity, and exact without elaboration always equable, and always easy, without glowing words or pointed sentences.”
Richard Steele (1672-1729) was admirably suited to be the co-craftsman with Addison, for he gave what the other lacked. A comparison between the two has been often made, Steele brought to the work a wide experience of life, broad sympathies and genial humour. His pathos is more attractive and humane. His style is, like Addison’s easy, spontaneous, fresh and colloquial. And the differences between the two served to give breadth and diversity to their joint work.
Daniel Defoe (1659-1731) wrote some inconsequential pamphlets. He is better known as the author of the famous Robinson Crusoe, a pioneer work in novel writing. His imagination was realistic, He gave life and reality to his fictions by means of vivid details. The atmosphere of illusion is gripping. His interest in contemporary life is unbounded. This accounts for the wonderful variety of situations and characters that make up his fictional work. His “style is unpolished, but has a vigorous; homely raciness and a colloquial vocabulary which make it ideal tor his purpose of narrative.”
Jonathan Swift is perhaps the greatest writer of the classical age by the force of his genius. Concern for art or form is not his main concern. He carries the rational criticism of contemporary life to the dengerous point of misanthropy. His life itself was a tragic one for various reasons and this left its impress on his literary works. He stands in his witings as a sombre and tragic figure reviling the age that crushed him- “an Ajax defying the lightning and smitten with blindness”. Placed by his side Pope, Addison and Steele pale into insignificance. Such is the figure of the Dean, the thwarted genius. His first great work is The Batle of Books, dealing with the academic controversy of modern versus ancient writers, in an allegorical setting.
The handling is vigorous and illuminating. The lable of the bee and spider at the end is quite interesting. A Tale of a Tub is a savage attack on the churches and is indeed one of the fiercest satires in the English language. Its irony is deadly. Its cynicism is oppressive. Its style has a sustained vigour, pace and colourfulness which Swift did not equal in any of other works, Giulliver’s Travels is his most popular work. It is pseudo realistic narrative in the manner of Robinson Crusoe having playfulness of fancy and a simplicity in the treatment of the narrative. As such it has a great appeal to the children.
But it is the allegorical significance of the story that in its ferocity and pessimism makes it a revolting study. Human degradation has never been painted in blacker colours than Swift does here. The pessimism of the later part of the romance is unrelieved. Allegory has been applied to satire in these books; humour, irony and the marvellous case of the style have contributed to its effectiveness. His prose is simple, vigorous and straight forward. Each word is in its proper place quite simply and spontaneously. There is no conscious effort at fine writing. As a force in letters Swift has impressed succeeding generations more than his own age.
He is still a living influence. Other prose writers of the period (1700-1740) are John Arbuthnot whose writings are chiefly political and include the Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus, The History of John Bull ridiculing the war policy of the whigs and the Art of Political lying.
Lord Bolinbroke (1678-1751), one of the chief political figures of the time wrote Letter to Sir William Wyoham, A Letter on the Spirit of Patriotism, The ldea of a Patriot King.
George Barkley‘s The Principles of Human Knowledge Lady Mary Montagu’s Letters, and Earl of Shaftesbury’s Characteristics of Men, manners, opinions and Times (1711) are important prose works of the period.
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