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Dec 17, 2012

Prose and Reason

       You that delight in with and mirth      
                        and love to hear such news     
                        as comes from all parts of the earth    
                        Dutch, Danes, Turks and Jews:           
                        I’ll send ye to a rendezvous    
                        where it is smoking new:        
                        Go, heat it at a Coffee House,            
                        it cannot but be true.”[i]
Matthew Arnold summed up the eighteenth century as “the age of prose and reason, our excellent and indispensable eighteenth century” was “a product of reason and intelligence playing upon the surface of life.” Actually, the ideas which developed in this age, had already taken roots in the seventeenth century, when the writers like Dryden, Waller and Denham had shown the new path. The Elizabethan age had been an age of romanticism, imaginative, and melodrama which lacked balance, but 18th century was marked by reason, good sense, refinement, wit and logicism with a fair amount of realism couched in the heroic couplet “A wit’s a feather, and a chief a rod/An honest man’s the noblest work of God.” As for the general social tone of the age “the manners were coarse, politics scandalously corrupt and the general tone of the society brutal.”

In scientists, Newton was the first who comes with a strong reason that this universe could not have arisen ‘out of a Chaos by System by the mere Laws of Nature’; such a “wonderful Uniformity in the Planetary System’ had to be the handiwork of an intelligent and benevolent creator. For Locke, the mind was a tabula rasa at birth, a ‘white Paper, void of all Characters, without any ideas.’ When he rhetorically, demanded how the mind acquired ‘all the materials of Reason and Knowledge”, has answered succinctly, ‘from Experience.”

First literary writer of the prose with a strong reason was Pope. It was now a fashion with the poets to follow Nature, and Pope was the greatest protagonist in this regard. Pope's "Nature" was not the "Nature" of the romantics like Wordsworth and Coleridge. Nature to them meant, in the words of A. R. Humphreys, "the moral course of the world or as ideal truth by which art should be guided." Man's subjective feelings were thus discreditedi and sacrificed to "the laws of Nature."  Pope advised writers to follow the Nature:          
                “First follow Nature, and your judgement frame        
                          By her just standard, which is still the same”.           

Pope laid stress on the writers (poets’ in particular) following the rules set up by the ancient masters instead of carving out new grooves of writing for themselves.

                        “Learn hence for ancient rules a just esteem,  
                         To copy Nature is to copy them”.      

The qualities such as mystery, passion, emotion, imagination, romanticism, etc., came to be discounted and replaced those related to reason and logic.

For Hudson poetry of eighteenth Century “is a literature of intelligence, of wit, and of fancy, not a literature of emotion, passion or creative energy.” All the poetry of the age seldom travels in the narrow word called “the Town,” and gives an image of its public in the coffee houses and drawing rooms. “The London” of Johnson’s time was a noisy, turbulent, high-spirited London which was in Shelley’s lines:  
                        “a populous and smoky city   
                        Small justice shown and still less pity,”          
and as David Garrick describes it:      
                        “the city’s fine show……….  
                        Such jostling and bustling.”    

violence was indeed a key note of the social life. According to Johnson: “the Age is running after innovation; all the business of the world to be done in a new way.” On other hand, Pope’s main purpose was “to enliven morality with wit”:
“Who shall decide when Doctors disagree?
“A little learning is always dangerous thing”
“And fools rush in where angles fear to tread”
“To err is human, to forgive divine”
“The proper study of mankind is man”
“The Right Divine of kings to govern wrong”

To prove our point let us see a comparison: if Pope like Keats, had listened to a nightingale and had found himself believing that “Now more than ever seems it rich to die,” he would not have put the idea into a poem. This is the reason  that he looks back on the pastorals, Windsor Forest, The Rape of the Lock as so much wandering ‘in Fancy’s maze’, and on his essays and satires as “truth”, as concerned with fact, with “Whatever is.” Pope is rooted in Man. What they copied was only the good taste and reason of the ancients. Well did Pope observe: "Those who say our thoughts are not our own because they resemble the Ancients' may as well say our Faces are not our own because they are like our Fathers." 

The mock heroic poem presents a brilliant picture of fashionable life—the game of Ombre, the coffee at Hampton Court, the lady’s toilet etc. all the trivialities of the fashionable life are strictly examined.  

The emergence of the periodicals, journals and newspaper helped in the growth of conversation and the middle prose style. The main reason for the popularity of the periodical essay in the 18th century was that it was suited to the genius of the period, as much of the authors, as of the people who exhibited specific spirit and tasted in the period. The eighteenth century was doubtlessly an age of great prose, but not of great poetry. When Matthew Arnold-calls it an age of prose, he suggests that even the poetry of the period was of the nature of prose, or versified prose. It:is he who observed that Dryden and Pope are the-classics not of our poetry but of prose. Among the greatest prose writers of the age are Addison, Steele, and Swift. 

One of the occasional spokesmen for British aristocracy in the 18th century, Addison (1672-1719) was perhaps the first great “common” voice to assume the authority of morals in a secular Age. Steele’s main purpose was “to expose the false arts of life…. and to recommend a general simplicity” and “to satirises the vanity of the society.” An essay by Montaigne is a medley of reflections and quotations but in Addison, the thought is thin and diluted:           

“it is said of Socrates, that he brought philosophy down from heaven to inhabit among men; and I shall be ambitious to have it said of me that I have brought philosophy out of closets and libraries, school and colleges, to dwell in clubs and assemblies at tea-tables and in coffee-houses.”

Swift had been busy manufacturing lives of people attention---of famous men who had just died, and of notorious adventures and criminals. He made up stories as true stories. It is for the reason that we may best describe then in the phrase used, as “ficitious biographies”, or, Leshlie Stephen’s words, as “history minus the facts”

In the new age, we find Dryden castigating lack of reason and swift condemning the Yahoos for their impulsiveness and eulogizing Houyhnhnms for their characteristics based on reason and balance. Now, there grew a tendency to imitate and glorify the ancient classical master as a tendency which reaches its climax in Pope’s works. Even Swift tried to demonstrate in his The Battle Of Book the overall superiority of the ancients over all the writers that came after them. In the voyage to Lilliput, which is largely concerned with the English politics of the time, have an exposure of the infinite littleness and absurd pretensions of man. In the voyage to Brobdingnag, in which Gulliver becomes pigmy, the same moral is driven well home. In voyage to Laputa, he scornfully attachks philosophers, projectorsm and inventions all those who waste their energies in the pursuit of visionary and fantastic things. Finally in Houyhnhnms and Yahho, swift tears away all the accessories and artifices of civilization and puts “that animal called man” before us as he himself saw him.

Richardson made a close study of the feminine heart and revealed it in the novels like Pamle and Clarissa Harlowe. Fielding save the nascent novel from degeneration onmto a new kind of sentimental romance. He presented a realistic picture of society in Joseph Andrews, Tom Jones, Jonathan Wild and Amelia.

Thus, it was basically the age of prose and reason, dominated chiefly, apart from Pope, by such celebrated prose writers as Addison, Steele, swift, Gibson, Burke, etc. It is clear that new milieu wanted a different treatment which was argumentative in nature and could be expressed only through polished prose and the best and the most suitable vehicle. The main characteristic of the literature of this period may be summed up in the phrase “From the head, not the heart”.
The eighteenth century if often called Enlightenment with reference to the philosophy that prevailed in this period. The name comes from the belief held by many humanist thinkers and artists of the time that human reason could bring light into the darkness of the world that it could prevail over tyranny, ignorance and superstition. It focuses on two major concepts: the nature of human understanding and the nature of human beings.

It was an age badly needing light. Political life was corrupt; women were in law the property of their men folk; over 200 crimes were punishable by public execution; the average life expectancy was 35 years. However, the middle classes were becoming better educated; perhaps half a million of the six million population could read.

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