3.9: Age of Enlightenment Literature

An Age of Satire

Literature during this period was often considered a tool for the advancement of knowledge. Writers were often found observing nature in their attempts to express their beliefs. Human nature was considered a constant that observation and reason could be applied to for the advancement of knowledge. Within these circumstances, the Age of Satire was born. Satire was the most popular literary tool that was utilized by writers of the time. With the help of satire, writers were better able to educate the public through literature. Its function was to acknowledge a problem in society and attempt to reform the problem in a comical manner while still educating the public. Its effectiveness can be seen in literary pieces by Jonathan Swift such as A Modest Proposal where he addresses and criticizes the problem of a growing famine in Ireland. Playwrights of the time were also known to incorporate satire in their plays. Through the use of satire, they were able to expose and critique social injustices. “Over the thirty years of its triumphs, Restoration comedy, in an astounding fugue of excesses and depravities, laid bare the turbulence and toxins of this culture” (Longman). Satire was a highly successful literary tool that worked to promote social awareness through literature, the theater and periodicals of the time.

To call the 18th century the Age of Reason[1] is to seize on a useful half-truth but to cause confusion in the general picture, because the primacy of reason had also been a mark of certain periods of the previous age. It is more accurate to say that the 18th century was marked by two main impulses: reason and passion. The respect paid to reason was shown in pursuit of order, symmetry, decorum, and scientific knowledge; the cultivation of the feelings stimulated philanthropy, exaltation of personal relationships, religious fervour, and the cult of sentiment, or sensibility. In literature the rational impulse fostered satire, argument, wit, plain prose; the other inspired the psychological novel and the poetry of the sublime.

The cult of wit, satire, and argument is evident in England in the writings of Alexander PopeJonathan Swift, and Samuel Johnson, continuing the tradition of Dryden from the 17th century. The novel was established as a major art form in English literature partly by a rational realism shown in the works of Henry FieldingDaniel Defoe, and Tobias Smollett and partly by the psychological probing of the novels of Samuel Richardson and of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. In France the major characteristic of the period lies in the philosophical and political writings of the Enlightenment, which had a profound influence throughout the rest of Europe and foreshadowed the French RevolutionVoltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Charles de Montesquieu, and the Encyclopédistes Denis Diderot and Jean d’Alembert all devoted much of their writing to controversies about social and religious matters, often involving direct conflict with the authorities. In the first part of the century, German literature looked to English and French models, although innovative advances were made by the dramatist and critic Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. The great epoch of German literature came at the end of the century, when cultivation of the feelings and of emotional grandeur found its most powerful expression in what came to be called the Sturm und Drang (“Storm and Stress”) movement. Associated with this were two of the greatest names of German literature, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller, both of whom in drama and poetry advanced far beyond the turbulence of Sturm und Drang.

Read this excerpt from An Essay on Man (1732-1734) by Alexander Pope for an example of Enlightenment era poetry:

All nature is but art, unknown to thee;
All chance, direction, which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good:
And, spite of pride in erring reason’s spite,
One truth is clear, whatever is, is right.


Know, then, thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is man.
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the stoic’s pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a god, or beast;
In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reasoning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much:
Chaos of thought and passion, all confused;
Still by himself abused, or disabused;
Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

Read this excerpt from Gulliver’s Travels (1726) by Jonathan Swift for an instance of Enlightenment era fiction:

I made his honour my most humble acknowledgments for the good opinion he was pleased to conceive of me, but assured him at the same time, “that my birth was of the lower sort, having been born of plain honest parents, who were just able to give me a tolerable education; that nobility, among us, was altogether a different thing from the idea he had of it; that our young noblemen are bred from their childhood in idleness and luxury; that, as soon as years will permit, they consume their vigour, and contract odious diseases among lewd females; and when their fortunes are almost ruined, they marry some woman of mean birth, disagreeable person, and unsound constitution (merely for the sake of money), whom they hate and despise.  That the productions of such marriages are generally scrofulous, rickety, or deformed children; by which means the family seldom continues above three generations, unless the wife takes care to provide a healthy father, among her neighbours or domestics, in order to improve and continue the breed.  That a weak diseased body, a meagre countenance, and sallow complexion, are the true marks of noble blood; and a healthy robust appearance is so disgraceful in a man of quality, that the world concludes his real father to have been a groom or a coachman.  The imperfections of his mind run parallel with those of his body, being a composition of spleen, dullness, ignorance, caprice, sensuality, and pride.

  1. It is HIGHLY recommended to click on this link and read the article about the Enlightenment.