The eighteenth century is usually known as the century of "prose and reason," the age in which neoclassicism reigned supreme and in which all romantic tendencies lay dormant, if not extinct. But that is a verdict too sweeping to be true.
In this century-especially the later part of it-we can see numerous cracks in the classical edifice through which seems to be peeping the multicoloured light of romanticism. In the later years of this century a large number of new influences were at work on English sensibility and temper. The change signalized a change in the ethos of poetry and, in fact, literature as a whole. The younger poets started breaking away from the "school" of Dryden and Pope, even though some poets, like Churchill and Dr. Johnson, still elected to remain in the old groove. There were very few poets, indeed, who set themselves completely free from the old traditional influences. Most of them are, as it were, like Mr. Facing both ways, looking simultaneously at the neoclassical past and the romantic future. They seem to be
Plac 'd on this isthmus of a middle state.
In the selection of subjects for poetic treatment, in the choice of verse patterns, and in the manner of treatment we meet with perceptible changes from the conventions of the Popean school. Those eighteenth century poets who show some elements associated with romanticism, while not altogether ignoring the old conventions, are called transitional poets or the precursors of the Romantic Revival.
Let us sum up the romantic qualities of the poetry of these transitional poets.
- These poets believe in what Victor Hugo describes as "liberalism in literature". Not much worried about rules and conventions, they believe in individual poetic inspiration.
- Their poetry is not altogether intellectual in content and treatment. Passion, emotion, and the imagination are valued by them above the cold light of intellectuality. They naturally return to the lyric.
- They have, to quote Hudson, "a love of the wild, fantastic, abnormal, and supernatural."
- They show a new appreciation of the world of Nature which the neoclassical poetry had mostly neglected. Their poetry is no longer "drawing-room poetry." They do not limit their attention to urban life and manners only, as Pope almost always did.
- They place more importance on the individual than on society. In them, therefore, is to be seen at work a stronger democratic spirit, a greater concern for the oppressed and the poor, and a greater emphasis on individualism in poetry, in society, everywhere. Their poetry becomes much more subjective.
- They show a much greater interest in the Middle Ages which Dryden and Pope had neglected on account on their alleged barbarousness. Dryden and Pope admired the Renaissancermuch more and had many a spiritual link with it.
- Lastly, there is a strong reaction against the heroic couplet as the only eligible verse unit. They make experiments with new measures and stanzaic forms. It is said that every hero ends as a bore. The same was the case with the heroic couplet.
While exhibiting all these above-listed tendencies in their poetic works, the transitional poets are not, however, altogether free from Popean influences. That is exactly why they are not full-fledged romantics but only "transitional" poets. Nevertheless, their work proves: "The eighteenth century was an age of reason but the channels of Romanticism were never dry."
Let us now consider the work of the most important of the transitional poets of the eighteenth century.
James Thomson (1700-48):
He is a typical transitional poet, though he chronologically belongs to the first half of the eighteenth century. Though he was contemporaneous with Pope yet he broke away from the traditions of his school to explore "fresh woods and pastures new." He bade goodbye to the heroic couplet and expressed himself in other verse-Tieasures—blank verse and the Spenserian stanza. He would have acknowledged Spenser and Milton as his guides rather thanDryden and Pope. His Seasons (1726-30) is important for accurate and sympathetic descriptions of natural scenes. It is entirely different from such poems as Pope's Windsor Forest on account of the poet's firsthand knowledge of what he is describing and his intimate rapport with it. The poem is in blank verse written obviously after the manner of Milton', but sometimes it seems to be over-strained, "always labouring uphill," in the words of Hazlitt. Thomson's Liberty is a very long poem. In it Liberty herself is made to narrate her chequeredcareer through the ages in Greece, Rome, and England. The theme is dull and abstract, the narration uninteresting, and the blank verse ponderous. His Castle of Indolence (1748) is in Spenserian stanzas, and it captures much of the luxuriant, imaginative colour of theElizabethan poet. As a critic puts it, for languid suggestiveness, in dulcet and harmonious versification, and "for subtly woven vowel music it need not shirk comparison with the best of Spenser himself." Thomson looks forward to the romantics in his interest in nature, in treating of new subjects, his strong imagination, and his giving up of the heroic couplet. But he is capable of some very egregious examples of poetic diction. Even Dr. Johnson was constrained to observe: "His diction is in the highest degree florid and luxuriant. It is too exuberant and sometimes may be charged with filling the ear more than the mind."
Oliver Goldsmith (1728-74):
Goldsmith was as friendly with Dr. Johnson had been with Pope, but that did not curb the individual genius of either. Goldsmith was as essentially a conservative in literary theory as Dr. Johnson of whose "Club" he was an eminent member. Both of his important poems, The Traveller (1764) and The Deserted Village (1770) are in heroic couplets. The first poem is, didactic (after Johnson's visual practice) and is concerned with the description and criticism of the places and people in Europe which Goldsmith had visited as a tramp. The second poem is rich in natural descriptions and is vibrant with a peculiar note of sentiment and melancholy which foreshadows nineteenth-century romantics. As in the first poem, Goldsmith exhibits the tenderness of his feelings for poor villagers.
Thomas Percy (1728-1811):
Percy is known in the history of English literature not for original poetry but for his compilation of ballads, sonnets, historical songs, and metrical romances which he published in 1765 under the title Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. The work .did a lot to revive public interest in that kind of poetry which had gone out of vogue in the age of Dryden and Pope. The book contained poetry from different ages-from the Middle Ages to the reign of Charles. The work had a tremendous and lasting popularity. About its influence on the poets who were to come, we may quote Wordsworth: "I do not think that there is an able writer in verse of the present day who would not be proud to acknowledge his obligation to the Reliques." Even Dr. Johnson favoured Percy's venture and earned his thanks by lending him a hand in the compilation.
Thomas Chatterton (1752-70):
Chatterton is referred to by Wordsworth in his poem Resolution and Independence as
The marvellous boy
The sleepless soul that perished in his pride.
The sleepless soul that perished in his pride.
Chatterton, indeed, was a "marvellous boy" who shot into fame, and then, before he was eighteen, poisoned himself with arsenic getting sick of his poverty. Some of his poems are quite Augustan in their matter and from but the most characteristic poems are the ones he published as the work of Thomas Rowley, a fifteenth-century monk who lived in Bristol, Chattertdn's native place. Chatterton gave out that he had discovered them in a box lying in a Bristol church. His hoax was soon seen through, but that does not detract from the merit of the Rowley poems. The poems like Aella and the Ballad of Charity are, according to Hudson, quite remarkable for two reasons-'because they are probably the most wonderful things ever written by a boy of Chatterton's age, and because they are another clear indication of the fast growing curiosity of critics and the public regarding everything belonging to the middle ages." Chatterton's work considerably influenced the romantic poets-who were intensely interested in everything medieval.
James Macpherson (1736-96):
He was another forgerer like Chatterton, though his work was not altogether baseless. He first achieved fame with Fragments of Ancient Poetry Collected in the Highlands of Scotland and translated from the Gaelic or Erse Language which were given out to be "genuine remains of ancient Scottish poetry." Later he produced Fingal, an Epic Poem in six books(1762), and then Temora, an Epic Poem in eight books (1763). Macpherson asserted ttyat these two poems were the genuine work of a Gaelic bard of the third century, names Ossian and that he had given their literal translation in prose. His claims.provoked an acrimonious controversy as to their genuineness. "Fortunately," says Hudson, "we need not enter ihto the discussion in order to appreciate the epoch-making character of Macpherson's work. In the loosely rhythmical prose which he adopted for his so-called translations he carried to an extreme the formal reaction of the time against the classic couplet. In matter and spirit he is wildly romantic." His poems transport the reader to a new world of heroism and super-naturalism tinged with melancholy, a world which is altogether different from the spruce and reasonable world of Pope.
Thomas Gray (1716-71):
Gray was one of the most learned men of the Europe of his day. He was also a genuine poet but his poetic production is lamentably small-just a few odes, some miscellaneous poems, and the Elegy. He started his career as a strait-jacketted classicist and ended as a genuine romantic. His work, according to Hudson, is "a kind of epitome of the changes which were coming over the literature of his time." His first attempts, The Alliance of Education and Government and the ode On a Distant Prospect of Eton College were classical in spirit, and the first mentioned, even in its use of the heroic couplet. Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard is Gray's finest poem which earned him the praise of even Johnson who condemned most of Gray's poetry. Hudson observes about this poem: "There is, first, the use of nature, which though employed only as a background, is still handled with fidelity and sympathy i There is, next, the churchyard scene, the twilight atmosphere, and the brooding melancholy of the poem, which at once connect it...with one side of the romantic movement-the development of the distinctive romantic mood. The contrast drawn between the country and the town the peasant's simple life and 'the madding crowd's ignoble strife'-is a third particular which will be noted. Finally, in the tender feeling shown for 'the rude forefathers of the hamlet' and the sense of the human value of the little things that are written 'in the short and simple annals of the poor', we see poetry, under the influence of the spreading democratic spirit reaching out to include humble aspects of life hitherto ignored." Gray's next poems, The Progress of Poesy and The Bard, present a new conception of the poet not as a clever versifier but a genuinely inspired and prophetic genius. His last poems like The Fatal Sisters and The Descent of Odin are romantic fragments with which we step out of the eighteenth century and find ourselves in the full stream of romanticism.
William Collins (1721-59):
Collin's work is as thin in bulk as Gray's-it does not extend to much more than 1500 lines. He combines in himself the neoclassic and romantic elements, though he is not without a specific manner which is all his own. On the one hand, he provides numerous examples of poetic diction at its worst, and, on the other, he delights in the highly romantic world of shadows and the supernatural. His Ode on the Popular Superstions of the Highlandsforeshadows the world in which Coleridge delighted. He is chiefly known for his odes. To Liberty and the one mentioned above are the lengthiest of Collins' odes, but he is at his best in shorter flights. He is exquisite when he eschews poetic diction without losing his delightful singing quality. Referring to Collins, Swinburne maintains that in "purity of music" and "clarity of style" there is "no parallel in English verse from the death of Marvell to the birth of William Blake." n
William Cowper (1731-1800):
"He", says Compton-Rickett, "is a blend of the old and the new, with much of the form of the old and something of the spirit of the new. In his satires he imitated the manner of Pope, but his greatest poem The Task is all his own. It is written in blank verse and contains the famous line:
God made the country and man made the town
which indicates his love of Nature and simplicity. However, the classical element in him is more predominant than the romantic. Compton-Rickett maintains: "We shall find in his work neither the passion nor the strangeness of the Romantic school. Much in his nature disposed to shape him as a poet of Classicism, and with occasional reserves he is far more of a classical poet than a romantic. Yet throughout Cowper's work we feel from time to time a note of something that is certainly not the note of Pope or Dryden, something deeper in feeling that meets us even in Thomson, Collins, or Gray. There is a tenderness in poems like My Mother's Picture, that not even Goldsmith in his verse can quite equal; while his fresh and intimate nature pictures point to a stage in the development of poetic naturalism, more considerable than we find in Thomson and his immediate succesors."
George Crabbe (1754-1832):
He mostly continued the neoclassic tradition and was derisively dubbed as "a Pope in worsted stockings." In his poetry, which is mostly descriptive of the miseries of poor villagers, he was an uncompromising unromantic realist. He asserted
I paint the Cot
As Truth will paint it, and as Bards will not.
As Truth will paint it, and as Bards will not.
He showed much concern for villagers, but he left for Wordsworth to glorify their simplicity and, even, penury. Crabbe's excessive, boldness as a realist alienates him from the polish.of the neoclassic school. However, he tenaciously adhered to the heroic couplet, even when he was a contemporary of Blake and the romantic poets.
Robert Burns (1759-95):
He was a Scottish peasant who took to poetry and became the truly national poet of Scotland. His work Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1786) sky-rocketed him to fame. All these poems are imbued with the spirit of romantic lyricism in its untutored spontaneity, humour, pathos and sympathy wjth nature and her lowly creatures including the sons of the soil. Sometimes indeed Bums tries to write in the "correct" manner of the Popean school but then he becomes unimpressive and insipid. A critic observes : "Burns was a real peasant who drove the plough as he hummed his songs, and who knew all the wretchedness and joys and sorrows of the countryman's life. Sincerity and passion are the chief keys of his verse. Burns can utter a piercing lyric cry as in A Fond Kiss and then we Sever, can be gracefully sentimental as in My love is like a Red, Red Rose, can be coarsely witty as in The Jolly Beggars, but he is always sincere and passionate, and that is why his words go straight into the heart." Bums was influenced a great deal by the spirit of the French Revolution. His fellow-feeling extended even to the lower animals whom he studied minutely and treated sympathetically.
William Blake (1757-1827):
Blake was an out and out rebel against all the social, political, and literary conventions of the eighteenth century. It is with considerable inaccuracy that he can be included among the transitional poets or the precursors of the Romantic Revival, as in many ways he is even more romantic than the romantic poets! The most undisciplined and the most lonely of all poets, he lived in his own world peopled by phantoms and spectres whom he treated as more real than the humdrum realities of the physical world. His glorification of childhood and feeling for nature make him akin to the romantic poets. He is best known for his three thin volumes-Poetical Sketches (1783), Songs of Innocence (1789), and Songs of Experience (1794), which contain some of the most orient gems of English lyricism. A critic observes: "His passion for freedom was, also, akin to that which moved Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey in their earlier years, though in its later form, it came nearer to Shelley's revolt against convention. There is, indeed, an unusual degree of fellowship between these two: the imagery and symbolism, as well as the underlying spirit, of The Revolt of Islam, Alastor and Prometheus Unbound find their nearest parallel in Blake's prophetic books. Both had visions of a world regenerated by a gospel of universal brotherhood, transcending law."
Gray, Burns, and Blake: The Transitional Poets
It was the mid-eighteenth century and poets were tiring of the neoclassical ideals of reason and wit. The Neoclassic poets, such as Alexander Pope, "prized order, clarity, economic wording, logic, refinement, and decorum. Theirs was an age of rationalism, wit, and satire." (Guth 1836) This contrasts greatly with the ideal of Romanticism, which was "an artistic revolt against the conventions of the fashionable formal, civilised, and refined Neoclassicism of the eighteenth century." (Guth 1840) Poets like William, "dropped conventional poetic diction and forms in favour of freer forms and bolder language. They preached a return to nature, elevated sincere feeling over dry intellect, and often shared in the revolutionary fervour of the late eighteenth century." (Guth 589) Poets wanted to express emotion again. They wanted to leave the city far behind and travel back to the simple countryside where rustic, humble men and women resided and became their subjects. These poets, William Blake, Thomas Gray, and Robert Burns, caught in the middle of neoclassic writing and the Romantic Age, are fittingly known as the Transitional poets.
Thomas Gray transitioned these phases nicely; he kept "what he believed was good in the old, neoclassic tradition" ("Adventures" 442) but adventured forth into "unfamiliar areas in poetry." In particular, Gray brought back to life the use of the first-person singular, for example "One morn I missed him on the customed hill…" ("Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard", p. 433, line 109) which had been "considered a barbarism by eighteenth century norm." (431) Thomas Gray’s poem Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard is a wonderful example of natural settings in transitional poetry. It "reflects on the lives of common, unknown, rustic men and women, in terms of both what their lives were and what they might have been". ("English" 268) Gray is unafraid to see the poor, and emotionally illustrates how death affects their life: "For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn, / Or busy housewife ply her evening care: / No children run to lisp their sire’s return…."
However, humble settings were also readily used by Robert Burns, a Scottish poet "frequently counted wholly as a romantic poet" ("English" 281), but who’s work often makes him a more transitional as it incorporates both neoclassical and romantic verse ideals. To a Mouse, also takes place in the country, and this time the humble subject is not a man, but a lowly mouse. Using such terms as "beastie" and "Mousie" results in an affectionate tone, as the human species is emotionally weighed up against "Mousie’s" life. A common ground is found when the poet notes that "the best laid scheme o’ mice an’ men/ Gang aft agley, / An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain". This public display of emotion, such as the affection and concern for the mouse, as well as a depressing revelation that life can go wrong for all, would have been surprising to pre-romanticism readers. One of Burns most significant influences though, was his use of Scottish dialect to write his poems; it was "a great departure from the elegant and artificial diction of eighteenth-century poetry." ("Adventures" 441) His use of dialect gave the reader a sense of connection to the common man and the humble subjects of this poetry. It created a rawer, more real mood that would have been lost in the ornamental heroic couplets used by the Neoclassic writers.
William Blake is, however, arguably the most important transitional poet. As a poet he did away with the common standards of "rationality and restraint" (Guth 589), instead favouring to write using "bold, unusual symbols to elaborate the divine energies at work in the universe" in poems such as The Tyger. This poem makes use of an awe-inspiring mood, coupled with deeply universal concerns and experiences. In this case, the tiger is a symbol of the evil in mankind, and the heavy knowledge of experience that is brought with adulthood. His poems also made great use of repetition and parallelism, sometimes to gain the effect of a nursery rhyme, simple soft and sweet, as read in The Lamb: "Little Lamb God bless thee, / Little Lamb God bless thee." However, the same device also emphasises the rhetorical nature of his famous question "Tyger…what immortal hand or eye, / Could frame thy fearful symmetry?" which makes up both the first and last stanza of The Tyger.
The transitional poets were no longer afraid to feel and were brave men who put their hearts on paper for all to see. They expressed a simple affection for uncomplicated country life, and used such settings to make profound comments on mankind in general, death, and religion. These poets idealised the humble man, the country setting, and universal truths. It is fitting to call Gray, Burns and Blake adventurers, whose guides to new lands were their pens. They dared change through the use of unconventional devices, such as dialect, the invocation of emotions, and the egotistic use of the first person singular. These changes in verse, and the subsequent popularity, and admiration received from the public, for Gray and Burns (Blake was not appreciated until the next century) and their transitional poetry marked the beginning of the end of Neoclassicism. Now, these three poets having forged the way, it was time for the Romantics to follow.
Adventures in English Literature, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1996
English Literature 12: The Enlightenment Concluded, Victoria: Open School, 2000
Guth, Hans P., and Gabriele L. Rico. Ed. Discovering Literature. Toronto: Prentice-Hall Inc, 1997