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General editor: Peter Brown, University of Kent, Canterbury

The books in this series renew and redefine a familiar form by recognizing that to write literary history involves more than placing texts in chronological sequence. Thus the emphasis within each volume falls both on plotting the significant literary developments of a given period, and on the wider cultural contexts within which they occurred. ‘Cultural history’ is construed in broad terms and authors address such issues as politics, society, the arts, ideologies, varieties of literary production and consumption, and dominant genres and modes. The effect of each volume is to give the reader a sense of possessing a crucial sector of literary terrain, of understanding the forces that give a period its distinctive cast, and of seeing how writing of a given period impacts on, and is shaped by, its cultural circumstances.

Published to date

Seventeenth‐Century English Literature
Victorian Literature
Old English Literature, Second Edition

Modernist Literature
A History of Eighteenth‐Century British Literature

Thomas N. Corns
James Eli Adams
R. D. Fulk and Christopher M. Cain
Andrzej Gąsiorek
John Richetti



John Richetti


For Robert Ferguson, fidus Achates


A little more than a decade ago over a pleasant lunch at my London club, The Reform, Emma Bennett from Blackwell asked me to accept this assignment to write the eighteenth‐century volume of the Blackwell History of English Literature. I was flattered to be asked and took it on. Over the years I have worked steadily at what turned out to be an exhilarating but extremely challenging and protracted task. There is so much to say about this rich period of English literature, so many writers and so much that has to be left out or treated with less than adequate thoroughness and appreciation. So, as long as this book is, it could (should?) have been much longer. I am grateful for the patience of various Blackwell editors, especially Professor Peter Brown, the editor of this series, who responded to the chapters I sent him with enthusiasm and praise that I hope I am worthy of. I am also grateful to others at Wiley Blackwell who have worked with me and encouraged me over the years since that lunch. I can only hope that the finished product was worth the long wait.

Part of my Chapter 1 dealing with the poetry of Pope and Swift first appeared in Etudes Anglaises (“Beginning as a Poet: Pope vs. Swift,” Etudes Anglaises, April–June 2013). I am grateful to the past and present editors of the journal, Pascal Aquien and Alexis Tadié, for permission to reprint. And I also want to thank my friend and colleague, Isabelle Bour, of the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris 3 for asking me to write the essay.

I first studied the British Eighteenth Century as an undergraduate at St. Francis College in Brooklyn nearly sixty years ago with Professor John Eichrodt. His enthusiasm encouraged me to declare it as my major field when I went to graduate school at Columbia, where I studied with Professors John H. Middendorf and James L. Clifford, and then at University College, London, where my mentor as a Fulbright scholar was Professor James R. Sutherland. I will never see any of these men again, but I am deeply in debt to all of them for instruction and inspiration. I am grateful to all these scholars and other teachers from my younger years who enriched my understanding of this wonderful period of English literature. I am also deeply indebted to the many students who studied the period with me during visiting assignments at Stanford, Princeton, and NYU, and especially to the scores of my students at Columbia University, Rutgers University, and the University of Pennsylvania, institutions where I spent many happy years. I learned as much from all these students (or perhaps more) than I tried to teach them.

I am also grateful to the Mellon Foundation for an Emeritus Faculty Fellowship that enabled me to spend five months in 2011 living in Primrose Hill and reading eighteenth‐century verse in the British Library. And I am always more than grateful to my wife, Deirdre David, who has encouraged me in all my work over the years and not too long ago read some of the manuscript and pronounced it good. I treasure the praise of an elegant writer like her.


Looking back on his career in his 1686 “Ode to Mrs. Anne Killigrew,” John Dryden compared the moral effects of his works to her pure poetic effusions, what he calls “Her Arethusan stream…unsoiled” (l. 68): “O gracious God! how far have we/Profaned thy heavenly gift of poesy!” (ll. 56–7). Why, he asks, “were we hurried down/This lubric and adulterate age/(Nay, added fat pollutions of our own)/To increase the steaming ordures of the stage?” (ll. 62–5). Although the spirit of his eulogy of his friend Henry Killigrew’s young poet‐painter daughter made such confessional abasements appropriate and effective, the newly converted Roman Catholic poet sounds sincere, and those graphic and indecorous “steaming ordures” would seem to express real regret and disgust. And yet the literary epoch Dryden evokes wherein the “heavenly gift of poesy” was “debased to each obscene and impious use” was certainly marked, even dominated, by an easy sexual libertinism encouraged by the Restoration court of King Charles II and exemplified in works by irreverent poets such as John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, the Duke of Buckingham, Aphra Behn, and Sir Charles Sedley. Dryden himself had been no prig; he kept an actress as his mistress for years. Dryden’s sentimental retrospection on what he dramatizes as his errant literary and moral past is more than a tribute to Anne Killigrew’s purity, since the accession in 1685 to the throne of Charles’ Roman Catholic brother, James II, and his forced abdication in 1688, had altered the literary as well as the political scene. Just before his death in May 1700, Dryden had composed a short dramatic after‐piece, The Secular Masque (1699), performed at the conclusion of a revival of the Jacobean playwright John Fletcher’s The Pilgrim. Three Greek deities, Momus, Janus, and Chronos, look back on the century that is about to end, with Chronos weary of carrying the world on his shoulders announcing, “I could not bear/Another year the load of human kind,” and Momus declaring that since none of them “Can hinder the crimes,/Or mend the bad times,/’Tis better to laugh than cry.” But they then summon three other gods – Diana, Mars, and Venus – to survey the age that is almost past in which these three gods have dominated in human affairs. In the end, Momus looks back on what they have wrought:

pointing to Diana:

Thy chase had a beast in view;

to Mars:

Thy wars brought nothing about;

to Venus:

Thy lovers were all untrue.

And Janus sums things up: “’Tis well an old age is out,/And time to begin a new.”

For Dryden and perhaps for many in his audience, it seems, the arrival of a new century marked the opportunity for a fresh start, with hope of better things for Britain. Dryden himself was old and ailing, and with the ouster of King James II he had lost, thanks to his conversion to Catholicism, his post as poet laureate and earned the disgust of many of his contemporaries who saw his conversion as rank opportunism to curry favor with the Catholic James II. Of course, the start of a new century is never an actual and fresh beginning or a total rupture with the past. Readers of this book will remember the recent less‐than‐momentous transition from the twentieth to the twenty‐first century. This history of British eighteenth‐century literature will necessarily trace many continuities and vivifying links from the latter half of the seventeenth century, from the Restoration, from Dryden, especially, and from his age, and seek to trace gradual changes in literary expressiveness as they arise and develop over the course of the century. Although I will begin with a chapter on poetry in the first forty years or so of the eighteenth century, featuring Pope and Swift and some of their contemporaries, some of them rivals and enemies, I will need to look back to the line of English verse that begins in the mid‐ and late seventeenth century and that includes Milton (Paradise Lost was first published in 1667) as well as Dryden, whose influence and example as poet, dramatist, literary critic, master prose stylist, and translator of the classics are pervasive in the early decades of the new century to which his A Secular Masque looked so hopefully forward.

Looking back in 1699 on his era, the elderly Dryden had good cause for the disappointments he put in the mouths of his cynical deities. He had lived in exceedingly interesting, or, more accurately, tumultuous times: from the bloody Civil War of the 1640s and the execution of Charles I in 1649, to the rule of Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector from 1653 to 1658, the collapse of the Commonwealth after Cromwell’s death, the restoration of the Stuart monarchy with Charles II in 1660, three destructive wars with the Dutch, England’s imperial and commercial rival, and in 1665 and 1666 an outbreak in London of bubonic plague that killed many thousands, followed by the Great Fire that destroyed most of the wooden buildings of old London. And then most calamitous of all these events: after Charles II’s death in 1685, the disastrous, brief reign of his Catholic brother, James II, who in 1688 was forced to abdicate and to cede the throne to his Protestant daughter, Mary, and her Dutch husband, William, Prince of Orange, who reigned as dual monarchs. Following Mary’s death in 1694, William was killed in a fall from his horse in 1702, and he was succeeded by Mary’s younger sister, Anne. William’s reign was marked by a series of expensive military campaigns that he embarked upon to thwart the expansionist ambitions in Europe of Louis XIV of France, culminating in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–13), as England and her allies (Holland and Austria) sought to prevent Louis’ son from inheriting the Spanish throne (and its vast empire in Europe and America). So this opening decade of the new century witnessed nearly constant warfare, which began for England in the victories of the Austrian Prince Eugene of Savoy and the English generalissimo, John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, whose spectacular triumphs early in the war at Blenheim (1704) in Bavaria and at Ramillies (1706) in Belgium made him a hero for many in England, the subject of numerous bellicose and chauvinistic panegyrics. In the end, however, the Grand Alliance faltered and many in Parliament and especially Queen Anne herself grew weary of these destructive and tremendously expensive wars as the French and Spanish recaptured much of the territory that they had lost. In 1713, the Treaty of Utrecht ended hostilities, with French European hegemony yielding to an uneasy balance of power on the continent. This Anglo‐French power struggle, however, would continue through the century, with Britain and her allies eventually defeating the French in North America. In 1763 thanks to General Wolfe’s defeat of the French at Quebec at the end of the Seven Years War, Britain acquired French Canada and truly and finally initiated British imperial domination in America and in Asia.

So the domestic tumults that convulsed Britain in the seventeenth century gave way to incessant geo‐political struggles in the eighteenth century as Britain and France contended for imperial control on several continents. And yet for the first half of the eighteenth century even domestic tranquility was seriously threatened by the claims to the throne of the exiled Stuart family and their faithful adherents at home (called Jacobites, after the Latin for James, Jacobus). With the financial support of the French, the Stuarts mounted two unsuccessful invasions of Britain to restore their dynasty in 1715 and 1745, the latter a more serious threat in which the rebels penetrated from their landing in Scotland fairly far south into England. But they were ineffectually led by James II’s grandson, “Bonnie Prince Charlie,” and were destroyed at the Battle of Culloden in Scotland. The brutal suppression of Charles’ Scottish sympathizers that followed Culloden was to leave lingering bitterness in Scotland over English tyranny for many years. Dynastically, however, England managed a smooth transition after the death of Queen Anne in 1714, since all the many children that she bore had died before her. The 1701 Act of Settlement, passed in the wake of the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 that ousted James II, prohibited a Catholic from inheriting the throne, so that Anne’s Stuart relatives were excluded and her Protestant cousin, the Elector of the German state of Hanover, succeeded her as George I. The three Hanoverian Georges who occupied the British throne for just about the rest of the century presided over an increasingly constitutional monarchy, with real power and actual governance wielded by Parliament and the cabinet, headed from 1721 by the Whig politician Robert Walpole, who as Chancellor of the Exchequer and First Lord of the Treasury acquired almost absolute power as the de facto Prime Minister until his ouster in 1742 (the current British system of Prime Ministers dates from his time).

Necessarily, my rough outline of British history and politics, domestic and foreign, in the first half of the eighteenth century is a radically incomplete sketch. But to understand the nature of British eighteenth‐century writing one must keep in mind these political and historical circumstances, since much of the prose and a good deal of the verse in the period is crucially intertwined with those events, issues, and the persons involved in them. Much of the writing of the period is activist and practical, arguing about specific policies and broader ideological positions. For example, the political, satirical, and moral prose writings of Swift, Defoe, Addison and Steele, and others require immersion in their contemporary circumstances and issues. The period’s numerous verse satires, elegies, odes, and panegyrics are of course enriched by an awareness of the particulars that provoked them. To a degree and extent difficult for early twenty‐first‐century readers to imagine or appreciate, eighteenth‐century writing, especially verse, is specifically and pointedly “occasional,” written often enough in response to great public events – the births and birthdays, deaths, and marriages of princes and aristocrats, military victories, electoral contests, natural disasters and celestial phenomena – as well as to mark private and particular happenings and relationships. Verse in eighteenth‐century Britain is a form of public discourse and debate, practiced widely by professionals and amateurs alike, a heightened form of language designed often to illustrate or debate particular issues in national life as much as it is a self‐expressive exercise. To be sure, much of the occasional verse is opportunistic, mediocre flattery often enough of the great if not the good. A poet like Pope makes his own occasions, as Samuel Johnson noted in his “Life of Pope” in The Lives of the Poets (1779–81): “his effusions were always voluntary, and his subjects chosen by himself. His independence secured him from drudging at a task, and labouring upon a barren topick: he never exchanged praise for money, nor opened a shop of condolence or congratulation. His poems, therefore, were scarce ever temporary. He suffered coronations and royal marriages to pass without a song, and derived no opportunities from recent events, nor any popularity from the accidental disposition of his readers. He was never reduced to the necessity of soliciting the sun to shine upon a birth‐day, of calling the Graces and Virtues to a wedding, or of saying what multitudes have said before him.” But Pope and a few others were the exceptions.

Moreover, a literary history of eighteenth‐century Britain encompasses a great deal of writing, both prose and verse, that twenty‐first‐century readers might not recognize or categorize as “literature,” a word that I place in quotation marks because in that century and earlier it included all serious writing on any subject and not simply or exclusively as it does for us nowadays imaginative expression proper to the various literary genres or types, what has traditionally been called “belles lettres,” poems, plays, and novelistic fiction. So in the chapters that follow I will discuss a broad and diverse (and changing) body of eighteenth‐century writing in various genres and forms, poetry, as well as the mostly verse drama (both new plays and revivals) that flourished throughout the century. I will also devote several chapters to the many prose fictions that came to be recognized and valued as “novels,” what many readers and writers then saw as a distinctly new and specifically modern prose genre. Finally, I will discuss at some length various prose writings that we tend nowadays not to grant the honorific status of literature such as political and polemical journalism, religious, didactic, and epistolary prose, historical narration, biography, and literary criticism.

This history is informed by a revised understanding of the literary scene in eighteenth‐century Britain that has replaced the older notion of its literature as serenely “neo‐classical” and “Augustan,” two tags that used to be employed to characterize the period, dominated by a few major writers such as Pope, Swift, Addison and Steele, Johnson, Gray, and Burke. Literary historians now stress the changing diversity of imaginative writing throughout the century and call attention to the profoundly transitional nature of literary production that may be said to begin in 1688 with the political and religious ferment surrounding the forced abdication of James II. Following the lead of economic historians, literary scholars have also emphasized the effects on consciousness and day‐to‐day experience of the so‐called “financial revolution,” as Britain began in the last years of the seventeenth century the shift to a modern socio‐economic order in which abstract financial instruments such as paper money and credit, as well as deficit financing, replaced land as the basis of wealth and power and as British commerce and international trade expanded, along with the prestige and power of the politicians, merchants, and financiers who managed those activities. To be sure, there is much in eighteenth‐century British experience and consciousness – social hierarchical organization dominated by the rural gentry and the landed aristocracy, the force of the established state church and its regulation of daily life, the more or less illiterate and superstitious mass of the people unaware of the intellectual ferment of the times – that endures quite powerfully and pervasively, a traditional world essentially unchanged for centuries. The literary history of the eighteenth century, likewise, is not simply a matter of tracing a clear prelude to the expression of an enlightened political and intellectual modernity. And yet among the European nations of the time, as visitors from abroad like Voltaire observed with a good deal of admiration, Britain had the freest and most open political and intellectual sphere, and its eighteenth‐century literature often reflects that freedom in its intellectual variety and vivacity.

In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, there develops, mainly in London, a raucous publishing scene in which authors and ideas compete for attention and in which the high cultural and decorous neo‐classical ideal of literature supported by patronage for an elite audience (or circulated in manuscript in aristocratic circles) exists cheek‐by‐jowl with popular and demotic writing in a print marketplace directed at a socially and intellectually diverse audience for political purposes or commercial gain. Many of the workers in this marketplace (whose dominating figure for me in the early years of the century is Daniel Defoe) were from the outset attacked by elite writers. Swift and Pope and their friends in the Scriblerian circle famously mocked them as “Dunces,” in Pope’s phrase in his great poem, The Dunciad (1728, 1742–3). In recent years, however, students of the period have understood just how partial, polemical, and in fact distorted the Scriblerian satiric critique of the Dunces was. What a critic once called the “gloom” of the Tory satirists like the Scriblerians, their dissatisfaction and even disgust with contemporary literary and political life, was in fact balanced by the affirmative and celebratory works of a group of Whig poets and critics such as John Dennis, Richard Blackmore, and Daniel Defoe, whose works have lately received attention and a measure of respect. In this history I will pay attention to an enormous body of neglected (until recently) writing, in prose and in verse, some by these so‐called Dunces, who were more or less professional writers, and by others who were amateurs and truly occasional writers. A good deal of such writing was in fact by women and by non–elite‐class (even at times working‐class) writers.

As far as literary production goes, then, the early years of the British eighteenth century are marked by energetic fullness and variety of form and purpose made possible by the relative political freedom writers and booksellers then enjoyed and by demand from an expanding marketplace for books, pamphlets, periodical essays, individual poems, as well as more utilitarian printed matter such as almanacs, cookery books, and didactic treatises. Within this market there is considerable tension and conflict, with opposing notions of literary and political value and purpose (Whig and Tory, as they came to be called) in the air, and through the mid‐ and late eighteenth century one can say that there are unsettled and evolving conceptions of what counts as literature and what literary expression should look like. Pope’s magisterial verse ars poetica, An Essay on Criticism (1711), is his precocious (he was in his early twenties when he wrote it) and supremely confident articulation of neo‐classical, universalized commonplaces about what literature and literary criticism should ideally be. “First follow NATURE, and your Judgment frame/By her just Standard, which is still the same” is his vague if stirring prescription for aspiring authors. But from nearly its opening lines Pope’s poem also marks a debate about these matters, a sense of comic irresolution informed by contemporary life: “’Tis with our Judgments as our Watches, none/Go just alike, yet each believes his own” (ll. 9–10). To some extent, Pope’s poem records not just the received wisdom of what great literature is but also the inevitable limitations of evaluative literary criticism, caught like all other human efforts in comic variability and social and psychological inevitability of a racy and worldly sort:

Some praise at Morning what they blame at Night;

But always think the last Opinion right.

A Muse by these is like a Mistress us’d,

This hour she’s idoliz’d, the next abus’d,

While their weak Heads, like Towns unfortify’d,

’Twixt Sense and Nonsense daily change their Side.

(ll. 430–5)

Instability and uncertainty in critical judgments and standards as part of the story that literary history tells are to be expected, and in the course of the British eighteenth century preferences and tastes shift, audiences change, the profession of authorship expands so that writing looks very different at the end of the century than it does at the end of the seventeenth century. This literary history will seek to mark those changes and to trace how literary forms and genres are in practice dynamic or unstable, as writers can be seen adapting themselves to shifts in audience expectations and ideological needs. And writers themselves from our perspective can be observed changing in their ambitions and self‐definitions. Even in the high literary culture of the early eighteenth century, exemplified by Pope, Swift, and their circle, satire and polemic, parody and pastiche, are the dominant styles and trends, and that dominance signals the energizing nature of conflict and opposition in the literary world. Or consider Daniel Defoe’s exploitation of the power and resilience of the pen: sentenced to pay a large fine and to stand in the pillory for three days for his controversial and, as the government charged, incendiary satiric pamphlet, The Shortest Way with the Dissenters (1702), ironically defending his fellow religionists, the Dissenters, those who chose not to belong to the Church of England and were thus subject to legal restrictions and disenfranchisement, Defoe responded to his public humiliation by writing a long poem in his defense, “A Hymn to the Pillory,” which according to tradition was hawked for sale in the street as he stood in the pillory, turning public disgrace into a defiant triumph. For Defoe and for his contemporaries, writing was a political tool as much as a means of self‐expression. Here in both the pamphlet and the poem Defoe dramatizes both of these functions of eighteenth‐century writing, as he responds to occasions that are both public and deeply personal.