English poetry of XVIII century.
The 18th century in Britain was to calm and complacent too sure of itself and its standards too certain that it lived in the vest of all possible worlds.
The 18th century too often ignored the secret inner life of men, their hidden dreams and hopes all that belonged to men as individuals and not as members of society. Even the writers who seem to us typically 18th century figures show that the pressure of this conformity was too much for them: Jonathan Swift, e.g. for all his powerful intellect revealed some dark madness in his savage satires.
Something had to break into this public literature of an ordered and self-satisfied society – and that “something” is the other side of man’s life, his inner world of wonder and strange feelings all that cannot be expressed in a social mood of philosophic calm.
This break is most obvious in the poetry of Thomas Grey, Oliver Goldsmith, Edward Young and Robert Burns.
Edward Young is a founder of the so called cemetery or grave poetry. Young poetizes the grave silence and solitude among tombs. Lying in graves the deads are seemed to him the happy “people who are free from chains of real life”. They are happy in comparison with the sufferings of alive persons. The poet wonders over the cemetery in his famous “The complaint, or Night Thoughts on Life, Death, and Immortality; he finds consolation in the dead silence and deep darkness.
A very important figure in this trend is Thomas Gray. In his day he was recognized as the foremost English poet; he was offered (but declined to accept) the position of poet laureate. Today he is remembered chiefly as the author of one of the best-known poems in the English language: “Elegy written in a Country Churchyard”, which was 9 years in the writing. Gray represents the transition from classical to romantic literature in England – from the strictly patterned verse of the 17th century to the simpler, freer verse forms and the depiction of nature and common life found in later Romantic poets. Here are some lines from his famous poem:
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day
The lowing herd wind slowly over the lea
the plowman homewards plods his weary way
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
… Beneath those rugged elms, that yew tree’s shade
where heaves the turf in many a moldering heap
Each in his narrow cell forever laid,
The rude forefather’s of the Hamlet sleep.
Oliver Goldsmith has the unique distinction among the 18th century writers of Having produced an unforgettable poem “The Deserted Village”. Here the author describes a fictitious Irish village of Auburn, whose people have been driven away by bigger landowners, and this one is probably similar to the village where Goldsmith spent his boyhood.
Sweet Auburn! Loveliest village of the plain,
Where health and plenty cheered the labouring
Where smiling spring its earliest visit paid,
And parting summer’s lingering blooms delayed;
Dear lovely bowers of innocence and ease,
Seats of my youth, when every sport could please
How often have I loited over thy green
Where humble happiness endeared each scene!
Robert Burns might be well called the national poet of Scotland. He is the last and we might say the greatest of the British poets of the 18th century. His works reflected the best humanistic principles of the age of the Enlightenment. But the poetry of Burns passes beyond the limits of the Enlightenment. People’s poet, contemporary of the French Revolution, Burns created works full of revolutionary terror which were altogether different from the works of the majority of the English of the Enlightenment. By its ardent and militant humanistic pathos, the work of Burns anticipated the best features of the English revolutionary romanticism of the 19th century.
In his early works the poet laughs at the reactionary Scottish clergy, who held a considerable part of the Scottish peasantry in terror and submission. His poems were circulated in manuscript form among his countrymen. These satires and his love songs openly violated the unwritten laws of Puritanical morals and Burns was several times threatened with putting him in an peculiar pillory. The preachers spoke against him from the pulpits.
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