The literary landmarks of the century included both the classical writings of the French philosophes and the English Augustans, and new experiments in the depiction of realism and “sensibility,” that is, the life of the emotions. In England the Augustan Age of letters took its name from the claim that it boasted a group of talents comparable to those of Vergil, Horace, and Ovid, who had flourished under the emperor Augustus in Rome.
The greatest of the Augustans was Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), a pessimistic and sometimes despondent genius. In his great work Gulliver’s Travels (1726), the broad and savage satirization of scientific endeavors and the startling contrast between the noble and reasonable horses, the Houyhnhnms, and the brutish and revolting human Yahoos were intended as attacks on easy assumptions of rational human behavior.
Much closer to the classical temper were Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1788) and Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary. Gibbon (1737-1794) made history the excuse for a sustained attack on Christian fanaticism. The lexicographer Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) expressed another concern of the age in the preface to his Dictionary:
When I took the first survey of my undertaking, I found our speech copious without order and energetic without rules; wherever I turned my view, there was perplexity to be disentangled and confusion to be regulated; choice was to be made out of a boundless variety, without any established
principle of selection; adulterations were to be detected, without a settled test of purity; and modes of expression to be rejected or received, without the suffrages of any writers of classical reputation or acknowledged authority.*
Meantime, the rapid development of the novel greatly increased the popularity of more down-to-earth and emotional reading. Two of the earliest examples of the new type of fiction were by Daniel Defoe—Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Moll Flanders (1722). Both were far removed from the refinements and elevated feelings of classicism. Realism was also evident in two celebrated midcentury novels: In Roderick Random (1748), Tobias Smollett (1721-1771) drew an authentic picture of life in the British navy, with its cruelty and hardship; Tom Jones, by Henry
Fielding (1707-1754), published in 1749, was the first truly great social novel, with convincing portraits of the toughs of London slums and the hard-riding, hard-drinking country squires. Fielding also delighted in parodying the sentimental fiction of Samuel Richardson (1689-1761), who created three giant novels cast in the form of letters by the hero or heroine.
An example was Clarissa Harlowe (1748), which described in 2400 pages the misfortunes of Clarissa, whose lover was a scoundrel and whose greedy relatives were scheming to secure her property. With all Richardson’s excessive emotionalism and preachiness, his descriptions of passion and conscience carried such conviction to a growing reading public that his novels did much to establish the tradition of moral earnestness in English fiction and public discussion.
In France the novel of sensibility came into its own with the very popular Manon Lescaut (1731) of Antoine François Prevost, which related the adventures of a young woman sent to the colony of Louisiana. Much closer to Richardson in style and tone was Rousseau’s long novel about the conflict of love and duty, La Nouvelle Hélase (1761). Increasingly readers were turning to such fiction, rather than to the church, for guidance on moral and especially sexual questions.
In Germany the most important literary works were the dramas of Lessing and the outpourings of writers associated with the Sturm and Drang (storm and stress) movement. Lessing (1729-1781) combined the sensibility of Richardson and the tearful sentimentality of French comedies with an enlightened devotion to common sense and toleration. In Nathan the Wise (1779) he dramatized the deistic belief that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all manifestations of a universal religion.
Yearning, frustration, and despair characterized the most successful work of the Sturm and Drang period, The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), a short novel that made the youthful Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (17491832) famous overnight. Napoleon claimed to have read it seven times, weeping copiously at each reading when the hero shoots himself because the woman he loves is already married. The themes of self-pity and self- destruction were to be prominent in the romantic movement that swept over Europe at the close of the eighteenth century.
The classicism of the century more strongly affected its art. Gibbon’s history, the research of scholars and archaeologists, and the discovery in 1748 of the ruins of Roman Pompeii, well preserved under lava from Vesuvius, raised interest in antiquity to a high pitch. For the scholars of the Enlightenment, the balance and symmetry of Greek and Roman temples represented, in effect, the natural laws of building. Architects adapted classical models with great artistry and variety.
In painting, neoclassicism had an eminent spokesman in Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), president of the Royal Academy. Beauty, Sir Joshua told the academy, rested “on the uniform, eternal, and immutable laws of nature,” which could be “investigated by reason, and known by study.” This was the golden age of English portraiture, the age of Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough (1737-1788), George Romney (1734-1802), and Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830). But it was also the age of William Hogarth (1697-1764), who created a mass market for the engravings that he turned out in thousands of copies, graphic sermons on the vices of London— Marriage a la Mode, The Rake’s Progress, The Harlot’s Progress, and Gin Lane.
In France the decorative style called rococo prevailed during the reign of Louis XV. It was even more fantastic than the baroque, but lighter, airier, more delicate and graceful, addicted to the use of motifs from bizarre rock formations and from shells. The style captured the social graces of the period, for it was elegant while superficial, elaborate while stereotyped, and, at its best, cheerfully playful while, at its worst, florid and self-conscious.
Meanwhile, three artistic fashions that were to figure significantly in the age of romanticism were already catching on—the taste for the oriental, for the natural, and for the Gothic. Rococo interest in the exotic created a vogue for things Chinese—Chinese wallpaper, the “Chinese” furniture of Thomas Chippendale (c. 1718-1779), and the delicate work in porcelain or on painted scrolls that is called chinoiserie. Eighteenth-century gardens were bestrewn with pagodas and minarets.
But music was the queen of the arts in the eighteenth century. A German choirmaster, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), mastered the difficult art of the fugue, an intricate version of the round in which each voice begins the theme in turn while other voices repeat it and elaborate upon it. Bach composed fugues and a wealth of other material for the organ; for small orchestras he created numerous works, including the Brandenburg Concertos, in which successive instruments are given a chance to show off their potential. His sacred works included many cantatas, the Mass in B minor, and two gigantic choral settings of the Passion of Christ.
Bach’s quiet provincial life contrasted sharply with the stormy international career of his countryman George Frederick Handel (1685-1759). Handel spent most of his adult years in London trying to run an opera company. He wrote more than forty operas and used themes from the Bible for The Messiah and other vigorous oratorios arranged for large choruses and directed at a mass audience.
Although Bach and Handel composed many instrumental suites and concertos, it was not until the second half of the century that orchestral music really came to the fore. New instruments were invented, notably the piano, which greatly extended the limited range of the harpsichord. New forms of instrumental music—the sonata and the symphony—were also developed, largely by an Austrian, Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809).
Haydn wrote more than fifty piano pieces in the sonata form, in which two contrasting themes are started in turn, developed, interwoven, repeated, and finally resolved in a coda (Italian for “tail”). Haydn also arranged the sonata for the orchestra, grafting it onto the Italian operatic overture to create the first movement of the symphony.
The operatic landmark of the early century was John Gay’s (1685-1732) Beggar’s Opera (1728), a tuneful work caricaturing the London underworld. Later, the German Christoph Gluck (1714-1787) made opera a well-constructed musical drama, not just a vehicle for the display of vocal skill. He kept to the old custom of taking heroes and heroines from classical mythology, but he tried to invest these figures with new vitality.
Opera, symphony, concerto, and chamber music all reached a climax in the works of another Austrian, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791). As a boy Mozart was exploited by his father, who carted him all over Europe to show off his virtuosity on the harpsichord and his amazing talent for composition. Overworked throughout his life, and in his later years burdened with debts, he died a pauper at the age of thirty-five. Yet his youthful precocity ripened steadily into mature genius, and his facility and versatility grew ever more prodigious.
The Enlightenment also saw a flowering of women as writers, especially on social issues. They were leaders in the movement to abolish slavery, played significant roles as hostesses of salons where writers met to debate the issues of the day, and founded new religious movements.
The concept of romantic love and of marriage as not only a contract but also companionship for life, changed attitudes toward the family. One early feminist writer stood above all others, however: Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797). A rebel against society’s conventions in dress and behavior, she wore trousers, championed the poor, and left home at an early age.
An essayist and novelist, she called for sexual liberation, openly spoke of woman’s sexual passion, and compared women to slaves. Her A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) is now used to date the beginning of the modern women’s rights movement.
Her work would be forgotten, however, because she seemed too radical and shocking: She had a child out of wedlock, lived openly with a leading anarchist, William Godwin (1756-1836), and scandalized British society. She was not rediscovered until the end of the nineteenth century.