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Poetry in the 18th. Century

Alexander Pope and his time - the century of learning.

Part One

The 18th. Century heralded the end of the Renaissance and the beginning of the short-lived Neo-Classical period, that soon followed the Renaissance and shortly gave way to the Romanticism. The world had begun to search for knowledge and rely on scientific learning. At the beginning of this century, England did command the respect of its eternal archenemy, Spain, when England seized Gibraltar, though it would not be the deathblow to Spanish might. England was still preparing for the coming of that day.

By 1707, England had merged with Scotland and Wales, in order to constitute the United Kingdom of Great Britain. On the other side of the Atlantic, the colonies were now known as The United States. This former colonial territory was a mecca to European people, especially Germans. These hard-working immigrants would help to create new industries, based on the latest agricultural achievements. All those enthusiastic new Americans were helping grease the wheels of progress in regard to world history.

But, as the new American residents worked hard, they also loved freedom - the love of freedom that the Puritans had brought with them, at the nation's earliest beginnings. Soon brilliant, thinking men who would speak about democracy, economy and other vital ideologies would appear. These new ideologies would be swiftly and strongly embraced by North Americans and would kick-start its destiny of changing the world.

If we are to speak about poetry during this period, then we must start with Alexander Pope (1688-1744). He was, along with several contemporaries who followed the French poet and theorist, Nicholas Boileau, (1636-1711), who, in turn, was a fervent follower of the Roman poet Horace (Quintus Horatious Flaccus, 65-8 B.C.), author of Ars Poetica. and other classical Latin and Greek poets.
Boileau was the author of the book Art Poetique, which became the manual of the poets who founded the Neo-Classical era which was noted for the imitation of classical aesthetics in poetry.

Pope was considered a prodigy, because he wrote quality verse at only twenty years of age. One of his more celebrated poem was "The Dunciad" (begun in 1728 and completed in 1741), a satire aimed at his detractors and the dullness of some pieces of art in those days. This poem uses the heroic couplet. The heroic couplet comes from Horace and was used first in England by John Donne, Andrew Marvell and John Milton. It is considered to have been perfected by John Dryden (1631-1700), poet laureate.

Here is some basic information about the heroic couplet:

An heroic couplet is a rhyming couplet written in iambic pentameter (a verse with five iambic feet). See this example by Pope:

"Truth guards the poet, sanctifies the line
and makes Immortal, Verse as mean as mine"

For a complete glossary on poetry terms go to Gale web site

A few lines of "The Dunciad":

   THE DUNCIAD
 Book IV
 (excerpt)

Yet, yet a moment, one dim ray of light
Indulge, dread Chaos, and eternal Night!
Of darkness visible so much be lent,
As half to show, half veil, the deep intent.
Ye pow'rs! whose mysteries restor'd I sing,
To whom time bears me on his rapid wing,
Suspend a while your force inertly strong,
Then take at once the poet and the song.

Now flam'd the Dog Star's unpropitious ray,
Smote ev'ry brain, and wither'd every bay;
Sick was the sun, the owl forsook his bow'r.
The moon-struck prophet felt the madding hour:
Then rose the seed of Chaos, and of Night,
To blot out order, and extinguish light,
Of dull and venal a new world to mould,
And bring Saturnian days of lead and gold.

She mounts the throne: her head a cloud conceal'd,
In broad effulgence all below reveal'd;
('Tis thus aspiring Dulness ever shines)
Soft on her lap her laureate son reclines.

Beneath her footstool, Science groans in chains,
And Wit dreads exile, penalties, and pains.
There foam'd rebellious Logic , gagg'd and bound,
There, stripp'd, fair Rhet'ric languish'd on the ground;
His blunted arms by Sophistry are borne,
And shameless Billingsgate her robes adorn.
Morality , by her false guardians drawn,
Chicane in furs, and Casuistry in lawn,
Gasps, as they straighten at each end the cord,
And dies, when Dulness gives her page the word.
Mad Mathesis alone was unconfin'd,
Too mad for mere material chains to bind,
Now to pure space lifts her ecstatic stare,
Now running round the circle finds it square.
But held in tenfold bonds the Muses lie,
Watch'd both by Envy's and by Flatt'ry's eye:
There to her heart sad Tragedy addres'd
The dagger wont to pierce the tyrant's breast;
But sober History restrain'd her rage,
And promised vengeance on a barb'rous age.
There sunk Thalia, nerveless, cold, and dead,
Had not her sister Satire held her head:
Nor couldst thou, Chesterfield! a tear refuse,
Thou weptst, and with thee wept each gentle Muse.

When lo! a harlot form soft sliding by,
With mincing step, small voice, and languid eye;
Foreign her air, her robe's discordant pride
In patchwork flutt'ring, and her head aside:
By singing peers upheld on either hand,
She tripp'd and laugh'd, too pretty much to stand;
Cast on the prostrate Nine a scornful look,
Then thus in quaint recitativo spoke.

Read more lines of "The Dunciad" poem Click here

Alexander Pope gave the world important contributions in the form of statements of universal appeal, known now as proverbs:

"To err is human; to forgive divine."

Pope's "The Dunciad"  poem, published in 1728, was intended to get back at his detractors. Notice also that from the first stanza Pope is saying to his enemies, "Stop attacking me and listen to the poet!"
To speak about Pope's difficulties one must beguin almost from his birth. Here, however, we'll refer only to the problems with his colleagues. Two of his principal enemies were Lewis Theobald, the leading Shakespeare scholar of the time, and the poet and stage actor, Calley Cibber, (1671-1757). Theobald criticized Pope's work as early as 1726 and Cibber was elevated to Poet Laureate in 1730. This later event inflamed most of the leading intellectuals of the day, and especially Pope because the only reason Cibber was awarded that title was because of his untiring support of the so-called prime minister, the Whig, Sir Robert Walpole. He was governing only, on behalf of George I, who lived in Hannover, Germany and had never learned English. Pope was so irritated by the Cibber appointment that in the newly-published Book IX of The Dunciad in 1741, he even mentioned Cibber directly, in a line of the poem.

A poem by Cibber:

THE BLIND BOY
      Colley Cibber

O SAY what is that thing call’d Light,
Which I must ne’er enjoy;
What are the blessings of the sight,
O tell your poor blind boy!

You talk of wondrous things you see,
You say the sun shines bright;
I feel him warm, but how can he
Or make it day or night?

My day or night myself I make
Whene’er I sleep or play;
And could I ever keep awake
With me ’twere always day.

With heavy sighs I often hear
You mourn my hapless woe;
But sure with patience I can bear
A loss I ne’er can know.

Then let not what I cannot have
My cheer of mind destroy:
Whilst thus I sing, I am a king,
Although a poor blind boy.

There was an intense discussion about the role of poetry. This discussion was manned on the one side, by the "Parnassians," or Neo-Classical deffenders, who leaned on Horace and Boileau, and on the other by the pro-modernists, who disliked the old style, because Parnassians claimed that beauty is the prime objective of poetry, while they believed that poetry should play a social role.

Also, it is important to note that there were not, in this century, so many poets as renowned as Pope. The more noticeable ones were John Gay, poet and dramatist; William Blake, poet and painter ; and for the first time, two women appeared in the English poetic world. They were Anna Laetitia Barbauld and the Afro-American, Phillis Wheatley.

Excellent fiction writers of the century were Jonathan Swift, Daniel Defoe and a few others who enthralled their readers with their stories, and took away much of poetry's audience.

At the time poets were squabbling about old and modern poetry in this so-called "Century of Science,", on the political side important events were happening in the world, and especially in North America. By that time, there were about 275,000 people in the new nation, and the principal town was Boston. New York started to come into prominence, with the arrival of, not only Englishmen, but other European immigrants as well, including a sizable influx of Germans. It should be noted that the first German immigrats lived among the English settlers at Jamestown, in 1608. Therein lies one of the reasons why North America thrieved better than South America. While the northern colonies were open to other non-English settlers and international commerce was embraced, in the south, the Spanish kings prohibited the entrance of non-spaniards to their New World possessions. If a non-Spanish person wanted to immigrate to Mexico, Peru or any other southern country, he had to first acquire the Spanish citizenship.

In 1706, Benjamin Franklin was born and in 1732, George Washington. These two men native-born Americans were bound to play important roles in changing the New World. In the Europe, another giant of the political and military world was born in Corsica, just a few months after France bought that isle from Italy (1769). This other latter bigger-than-life figure would set Europe ablaze, by the end of the century.
And what was about England's longtime archenemy, Spain? Well, that country was still living on what it could strip from its colonies abroad. A seemingly endless supply of gold and other treasures poured into Spain by the armada-load.


    SOON TO COME: the second part of this essay:
  • The first important women poets in 18th. century.
  • New thinkers with new revolutionary ideas
  • Political events in the Americas and in Europe



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