Literary criticism developed in the early eighteenth century as part of a broader cultural discourse that included moral philosophy, politics, aesthetics, science, and economics. For critics otherwise as different as Alexander Pope (1688-1744), Joseph Addison (1672-1719), and Anthony Ashley Cooper, the third earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713), the study of literature offered a means to promote the moral education of its readers; however, what that education entailed varied from critic to critic. Although the first half of the eighteenth century is often termed the “neoclassical” or “Augustan” age for its fascination with championing the moral and literary models of ancient Greece and Rome, the criticism of the period was ultimately less concerned with establishing rules of literary composition based on classical precedent than with promoting literature as a standard of civilized taste to which all educated men and women could look for guidance. In this respect, criticism from the time of John Dryden to the death of Pope was concerned primarily with moral—and sociopolitical— issues rather than with establishing methodological procedures or analyzing individual texts.
Debates among eighteenth-century critics, particularly the “Battle of the Books” between the so-called ancients and moderns, should be seen within the context of the changing conditions of publication and the professionalization of criticism. During the early eighteenth century the reading public became increasingly large and diverse. Prior to 1700, literary critics, such as Dryden and the playwright William Congreve (1670- 1729), perceived themselves as writing primarily for an educated elite. “Poetry,” Congreve says, “is sacred to the Good and Great,” that is, to those who are morally and socially privileged (392). But by 1709, when Richard Steele (1672-1729) and Addison began the triweekly paper the Tatler, criticism assumed the ideological function of promoting civilized values among a wide and diverse readership, including tradespeople, women, and readers in the country. For Addison and Steele, literary journalism offered a way to promote values of educated taste, good breeding, refinement, and decorum among the middle classes, who previously had been excluded or ignored by critical formulations that made literature the domain of “the Good and Great.” For Addison and Steele, particularly in their second paper, the Spectator (1711-12, 1714), criticism provided a means to mediate potentially divisive conflicts between the middle and upper classes; the language of “taste” and “refinement” offered the opportunity to forge what Terry Eagleton calls a “historical alliance” between bourgeois conceptions of virtue and propriety and aristocratic principles of birth and honor (10-11). This yoking of morality and manners testifies to the cultural importance that criticism assumed in the early eighteenth century. The appreciation of literature, at least according to Addison and Steele, became a way to bring together potentially antagonistic elements of society by emphasizing the shared principles and values that support the union of art and morality.
To the extent that critics in the early eighteenth century shared an ideal vision of literature as a means of moral education, their critical vocabulary of order, stability, and virtue may seem consistent. But this common vocabulary cannot mask the debates that raged about what its terms—”wit,” “judgment,” and “nature,” among others—can and should mean. As James William Johnson argues, neoclassicism in the eighteenth century was not a doctrine but a series of attempts to explore and to resolve the internal contradictions that arose from efforts to model English critical and literary practice on the examples of the ancients. As Johnson notes, eighteenth- century neoclassicists were frequently devout Christians who celebrated pagan writers as authorities on morality as well as art. Also, they promoted the cultural and political example of the Roman Empire as a model for England’s own “Augustan” age, yet they took as their heroes defenders of the Roman republic, including Cato (the subject of a popular tragedy by Addison performed in 1713) and Cicero (xi). If these problems resist simple solutions, they should focus our attention on the ideological and cultural implications of neoclassical rhetoric.
Precisely because criticism was viewed in the eighteenth century as part of larger moral and political discourses, controversies about literary tastes and aesthetic principles reveal often fundamentally different assumptions about the values and practices of English society. As the debates between Pope and John Dennis (1657- 1734) illustrate, criticism often seemed to its contemporaries little more than invective. But the no-holds-barred rhetoric of the era reveals the intense passions unleashed by an ongoing struggle for a common vocabulary. What was at stake in early eighteenth-century criticism was competing views of civilization, history, and social order as well as of wit and the efficacy of the Aristotelian “rules”: the antagonists in the debate were, on the one hand, those critics and philosophers who saw English civilization progressing toward new conceptions of individual ism and economic prosperity founded upon the accumulation of capital and, on the other, those who resisted such changes and saw in eighteenth-century British culture a fall from classical ideals of morality, prudence, and moderation. This confrontation between the moderns and the ancients was, however, immensely complicated and involved multiple loyalties on the part of its participants. In some respects, it was less a battle of diametrically opposed intellectual camps than a struggle to define the moral value of a civilized, literary education.
On one level, the battle between the ancients and the moderns centered on the question whether the classical unities of time, place, and action—the “rules”—should be followed rigorously or be subordinated to the writer’s imagination. But its implications are much larger. Dennis identified the neoclassical unities with the moral purpose of art. In The Impartial Critick (1693) he declared that the “rules of Aristotle are nothing but Nature and Good Sence reduc’d to a Method” (1:39), and in The Grounds of Criticism in Poetry (1704) he argued that “if the End of Poetry be to instruct and reform the World, that is, to bring Mankind from Irregularity, Extravagance, and Confusion, to Rule and Order” (1:335), then the rules were essential to this purpose. Similarly, Charles Gildon (1665- 1724) in The Complete Art of Poetry (1718) maintained that art is “Nature reduc’d to Form” (1:94). Other critics, however, including Addison, Leonard Welsted (1688-1747), and Henry Felton (1679-1740), disagreed, arguing for a flexibility in applying the rules. Dennis’s argument, as he makes explicit in A Large Account of the Taste in Poetry (1702), is based on the need for a strict adherence to authority, given the decline in the quality of theater audiences (and by implication of all consumers of literature) since the reign of Charles II (1660-85). Whereas in those days “a considerable part of an Audience had those Parts, that Education and that Application which were requisite] for the judging of Poetry .. . there are [in the early eighteenth century] three sorts of People now in our Audiences, who have had no education at all”: “younger Brothers, Gentlemen bom, who have been kept at home, by reason of the pressure of the Taxes”; war profiteers, “who from a state of obscurity, and perhaps of misery, have risen to a condition of distinction and plenty”; and “a considerable number of Foreigners” (1:291,293). All three categories of unqualified spectators are products of England’s unpopular involvement in a series of wars on the Continent that Dennis, a staunch Tory, opposed. In this regard, “judging Poetry” is a sociopolitical as well as a critical act, one of the skills that gentlemen of “Parts” and “Education” must acquire. For Dennis, the rules are not simply formal principles of composition but part of the structure of cultural authority— moral, political, and theological as well as literary— that informs his vision of an ordered society.
On another level, critical conflicts about whether the rules guided or hindered the artistic imagination were manifestations of efforts to define the individual’s relationship to both artistic and social convention. In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), John Locke (1632-1704) held that ideas formed from sensory impressions constitute the only legitimate basis for a theory of knowledge or language. Although language may be a socially contrived system, it is arbitrary and contractual. Only the individual’s ideas, which Locke discusses as though they were personal possessions, can be represented, and knowledge therefore is also the product of each individual’s sensory experience. The individual, in Locke’s philosophy, becomes paradoxically both isolated and free from the sorts of social determinations that underlie contemporary critical debates about the representation of a transhistorical and unchanging Nature. Shaftesbury, a former pupil of Locke’s, perceived the threat to the established social order that Locke’s view posed and sought to bring the imaginative faculty within the bounds of aristocratic views of an ordered, stable, and hierarchical society. “To philosophize,” Shaftesbury maintains, “is but To carry Good-Breeding a step higher. For the accomplishment of Breeding is, To learn whatever is decent in Company, or beautiful in Arts: and the Sum of Philosophy is, to learn what is just in Society, and beautiful in Nature, and the Order of the World” (3:161). In seeking to counter the individualistic emphases in Locke’s Essay, Shaftesbury creates a unified vision of art, morality, philosophy, and social stability that emphasizes the creative power of the imagination, what he calls “enthusiasm.” His aestheticized view of an ordered and harmonious world influenced a number of contemporaries, including Addison and Steele, and subsequent critics, among them Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
In contrast to Locke, Shaftesbury, and Addison, the Tory satirists, particularly Pope and Jonathan Swift (1667- 1745)/ sought to preserve classical ideals of civilization and viewed most modern innovations—from the verse of their political enemies to the scholarship of Richard Bentley (1662-1742), who argued that many ancient texts were corrupt or spurious—as a threat to the classical idea of civilization the ancients represented. For Pope and Swift, history was a process of corruption and decay, a fall from ancient virtues to the degenerate standards they repeatedly associated with the Whig prime minister, Horace Walpole. The role of literature is to recall society to sanity and stability, often through satiric at tacks on literary and political enemies, as in Pope’s poem The Dunciad (1728, rev. ed., 1743), a savage satire of writers who in one way or another abandoned neoclassical ideals. Similarly, the function of criticism is to guide readers to establish sound principles of aesthetic judgment that will reunite morality and art. Unlike Shaftesbury, however, Pope’s view was Christian as well as classical; his stance, like Swift’s, was that of the isolated moralist who recognized the corruption of his age and used satire as his weapon both to attack vice and to point the way toward a restoration of virtue.
Pope’s critical principles are fully articulated in his Essay on Criticism (1711), a work that implicitly rejects Lockean accounts of language and society in favor of an aesthetic that seeks to define the relationships between the imagination and social convention. Despite his poem’s title, Pope’s chief theoretical interest lies in defining “wit,” a problematic term for English critics since the seventeenth century. In the years prior to writing his essay, Pope was engaged in revising the poems of the aging playwright William Wycherley (1640-1716). Wycherley, the leading dramatist of the 1670s and still a considerable literary figure in the early eighteenth century, resisted Pope’s efforts to regularize his verse, disparaging “method” in favor of an unfettered wit. In responding to Wycherley, Pope developed a sophisticated argument for wit as a mediating force between the imagination and poetic convention that is fully laid out in the Essay (Hooker 46-50). Pope defines wit as “Nature to advantage dress’d, / What oft was thought, but ne’er so well express’d” (11. 297-98). Wit is the individual’s imaginative recreation of general human experience, his or her unique expression of nature’s “clear, unchanged, and universal Light” (1. 71). Pope’s description of the relationship between individual imagination and literary conventions steers carefully between Lockean individualism and the reliance on the rules by critics such as Dennis, who offer “dull receipts how poems may be made” (1.115). For Pope, the rules were “discover’d, not devised”; they are “Nature still, but Nature methodized” (11. 88-89). To explicate these lines, Pope uses a political image: “Nature, like Liberty, is but restrain’d / By the same laws which first herself ordain’d” (11. 90-91). Nature, then, functions in the poem as both an absolute standard against which all literary works must be judged and a kind of contractual entity that acts as a regulative force on art. Later in the poem, Pope argues that “Nature and Homer [are] the same” (1. 135). This identification underlies the values of neoclassicism. Homer and ancient civilization in general are idealized as representations of a golden age in which poets had seemingly an unmediated access to nature. For modern writers, art becomes a recreative as well as a creative endeavor, an attempt to embody the principles that the ancients had known and used to “methodize” Nature, to represent it as fully as possible.
Pope’s Essay on Criticism, then, can be read as a polemical piece that is intended less to establish guidelines for critics than to identify the moral and cultural significance of criticism. Criticism, for Pope, was crucial to the literary culture of his time because it regulated the relationships between imagination and convention; it functioned ideally not as a form of detraction but as a means to encode those neoclassical values that will establish the importance of literature in creating a moral and ordered society. In this regard, Pope recognized that neoclassical values, literary and political, represented idealized visions of art and society. The ancients, for him, were both historical figures and deliberately idealized extensions of the union of art and nature. Because Pope and his contemporaries could not reconcile the contradictions of a Christian and mercantilist society’s taking a pagan empire as its standard of political and moral value, they sought to transcend these tensions by aestheticizing them, by seeking a set of principles that would allow society to be defined—and judged—in the same way as a work of art. In this respect, the metaphors of harmony and order that figure prominently in eighteenth- century criticism represent efforts to transcend the complexities and contradictions of historical experience, to escape to the kind of idealism that is evident in Shaftesbury’s works and is satirized by Swift in book four of Gulliver’s Travels. The fact that the early eighteenth century generally is considered the great age of English satire suggests the extent to which Pope, Swift, and their contemporaries recognized and sought to overcome the discrepancies between neoclassical ideals and the corruption of their age. In this regard, the criticism of the period 1700-1740 represents the other side of the satiric impulse: a series of attempts to legislate rather than ridicule the corruption of the times out of existence.
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Source: Groden, Michael, and Martin Kreiswirth. The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.