Updated June 27, 2022
Arguably, the evolution of English literature started much before but, you can find Prose dominance in 18th Century. And, there were many factors responsible including socio- economic & political conditions of the society of the time. Precisely, these are the very factors that impact writing of any age and that literature mirrors the soul of the age. It is thus, literature of 18th century reflects the soul of the age.
The 18th century was an age of tolerance, moderation, and common sense. Nevertheless, it was in cultured circles sought to refine manners and introduce into life the rule of sweet reasonableness. The exhibition of vices and follies of the society affected the literature of the 18th century significantly. Hence, it becomes imperative to know the social, political, religious and economic conditions of the age to appreciate the literature of the time.
Backgrounds of Prose Dominance in 18th Century & Literature as a Whole
Experts with no bar, hold that the societal conditions are largely responsible for the course of literature of the age. And, the societal conditions may have many dimensions including, socio- political, religious and economic. The prominent aspect of any literature, be it prose dominance or poetry inclination are all the demand of time. Accordingly, we’ll go through exact societal ambience of the time that could have facilitated Prose dominance in 18th Century literature.
The English society of the 18th century was showy and shabby. Drinking and gambling were very common. Even women drank and gambled. The card games were very popular among the men and women of all classes. Even the cruel and vulgar games and amusements were also very popular.
The manners of the people were unrefined. Vulgarity, profaneness, lavishness, licentiousness and immorality were the order of the day. Travel was an unsafe adventure. People used to carry swords and pistols for their safety. Duel was in fashion. Bullies were ready to provoke quarrel. The slightest causes would often result into an affair of honour.
The position of women was pitiable. They were treated as if they have no sense of understanding. The women of the upper class spent their time in toilet and fashion. They had developed a habit of swearing, drinking and gambling. They received the guests and visitors even in their bedrooms and ill treated their husbands.
Girls of beauty were raped and abducted. The middle class possessed piety, simplicity and sentimental morality. People developed a sense of reason and rationalism. The sense of patriotism also developed during the age.
The 18th century witnessed some political upheavals. The men of letters (educated persons) were affected by the influence of the court. Court etiquette was enforced though it was stiff, formal and ungraceful. Queen Anne and Robert Walpole were important political figures of the time.
The nation was divided into two great political parties of Whig and Tory. Domestic affairs, while they never approached the stage of bloodshed, took on a new resentment that was to affect literature deeply. They often fought with each other.
We may say that the parties were divided on its political faith- the Whig party stood for the pre-eminence of personal freedom as opposed to the Tory view of Royal divine right. The foreign war also shaped the literature. Contemporary literature is much concerned both with the war of Spanish Succession and the peace.
The 18th century was the age of material prosperity. The slow but steady expansion of the British Empire resulted in the growth of trade and capitalism. The manufacturers grew in a large number.
The aristocratic class ganged up with the agriculture capitalists to control the resources of the country. The material prosperity resulted in the life of indulgence. The upper class led a life of comfort and luxuries. However, the agriculture and manufacturing sectors suffered owing to the shortage of labourers.
The people of the 18th century had a peculiar view towards religion and political issues. They believed in respectability and decent conformity. These views were in close resemblance with the views prevalent during the Renaissance and the Puritan Age.
Unlike the Elizabethans, the Augustans hated enthusiasm, mystery and religious broodings. Such reactions led to the constant sectarian controversy in the 18th century. The 18th century literature shows some unique characteristics.
The literary figures of the time preferred the exaltation of form over matter. They had a firm belief that literature must follow human nature. But it was not the nature of Wordsworth. It was human nature. They presented the town life in their literary works.
In fact, they wrote for the people of London with its roads, streets and buildings. The writers of the 18th century adhered to set rules and principles of the Classical Age. They developed satires and used heroic couplet.
They deliberately avoided the use of the common words and ordinary languages in their works. Hence their writings appear artificial, stilled and void of enthusiasm. On the whole, the 18th century has distinctive characteristics of its own. This age will always be remembered for the advancement and evolution of literature.
Forms of The Prose Predominance in 18th Century
18th century was essentially an age of prose and reason. It was so dominant the form that even the poetry of this period had the qualities of prose. Since the poetry and prose of this age were characterized by terseness (brevity), neatness, condensation and elegance, this age has been considered as the Age of Prose.
Matthew Arnold goes to the extent of saying that Dryden and Pope are not the classics of our poetry but they are classics of our prose. The whole of the 18th century prose can be divided into two categories:
(a) The prose of the Age of Pope (1700-1744) and
(b) The Prose of the Age of Transition (1745-1798)
The Prose of the Age of Pope
The Prose of the Age of Pope is basically the history of the growth of the periodical literature in the early of 18th century. Daniel Defoe, Richard Steele, Addison, Goldsmith and Jonathan Swift are the four great writers of the periodical essays in the 18th century.
Defoe pioneered the trend in this regard. His Review exhibits the germs of periodical essay. But he is famous for his semi-fictional work “Robinson Crusoe”. Later he wrote successful works like “Moll Flanders”, “Colonel Jacque” and “The Unfortunate Mistress” or “Roxana”. All these works are closer to being novels.
Richard Steele and Joseph Addison laid the foundation of the periodical essays during the 18th century. Steele started “The Tatler”. Later, on its place was taken by “The Spectator”. These two periodicals portrayed 18th century life with fidelity. The 18th century life was portrayed with its gay affection, its ball dances, club sittings, its cock-hunting and its literary discussions.
The style of Steele and Addison also reflected an apparent dose of morality. Addison laid special emphasis on the character portrayal in “The Coverlay Papers”. These periodical essays became very popular because of the support of the middle class. Lengthwise, these essays were short. They highlighted the moral temper of the age and gave a faithful reflection of the 18th century society. They also avoided the political and religious controversies of the age.
Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) is another important name in the field of the 18th century prose. His main prose works include few minor satirical pieces such as “The Modest Proposal”, “the Battle of Books”, “A Tale of a Tub”, “Gulliver’s Travels”, etc. Swift’s prose was marked by satire, humour and Irony. In fact, he was the greatest prose satirist of the 18th century. Then there were some minor prose writers like Defoe, Gibbon, Burke, Berkeley, Bolingbroke, Arbuthnot, and others.
The Prose of the Age of Transition
During the 18th century, particularly in the period of Transition, prose was immensely enriched by the contributions of a host of writers. Dr. Samuel Johnson was the most important among them. His prose works may be divided into two classes, those in which he is primarily a moralist and those in which he is primarily a critic. His “rambler” and “The Lives of the Poets” belong to the latter category. He also produced a large quantity of miscellaneous prose works.
Oliver Goldsmith is also an important prose writer of this age. His famous prose works are “The Citizens of the World”, “the Public Leader”, “the Bee”, etc. His novel “The Vicar of the Wakefield” is in the first rank of 18th century novels.
Apart from these great prose writers, we have James Boswell. His “Life of Johnson” is one of the classics of the 18th century prose. Memoir literature also enjoyed a great popularity during the 18th century. Almost all the letters and memoirs were similar in character. The most important memoir writer was Horace Walpole.
In all, we find that there was a tremendous growth of literature and a prose dominance in 18th century existed. The dominance of prose had many factors responsible for and it had many forms. Unequivocally, 18th century is the century of prose and the richest period for this genre
Beyond Prose Dominance in 18th Century Under Literature Listing
- The Salient Features of 18th Century English Literature
- Literary Characteristics of The Age of Pope aka Augustan Age
- The Four Wheels of the English Novel in Augustan Age
- The Periodical Essay and Journal of the 18th Century
- Note on Gothic Fiction and Prominent Novelists of this Genre
- Picaresque Novels Features & Influence on European Fictions