How Enlightened was the Enlightenment?


Week 7: The Arts.


Links: Imagining Other Index Page


Week 6: human nature in Smith, Rousseau, Kant


Week 8: Political Ideas part 1



1. The arts and the enlightenment

2. Enlightenment ideas reflected in the arts:

2. Social Change – portraiture etc.

3. Indirect representation of enlightenment values

            3.1 Rococo

            3.2 Neo-classicism

4. The other side of life.

5. ‘The Other’ – Arabian Nights, orientalism, magic etc.

6. Nature and Science.

7. Nature and God (deism)

8.  Reason and the emotions – the beginnings of romanticism

9.  Human nature

10. Women and Men, manners and morality

11. Political commentary

12. Aesthetics (culture or psychology? – the sublime and the beautiful)



1. The arts and the enlightenment:


Clearly there are different views as to the extent to which the arts reflect society (I do not believe that they are they ‘autonomous’ – independent of society). I have been influenced by John Berger (Ways of Seeing), and by Marxist criticism etc…


In the visual arts, it is my view that we are not likely to find direct representation of ‘enlightenment ideals’ – because these are to do with abstract notions e.g. the values of reason, secularism, humanism, progress, freedom, etc. An exception is Blake – see below – whose central pre-occupation was with liberty from tyranny, and this can be seen in many of his prints.


Similarly, Roy Porter (rfc, p 59) points out that “Not all literary and other products express a coherent Enlightenment philosophy, but the philosophes’ ideals of the good life found wide expression … [and] ‘in many respects the arts embodied the ideas of the Enlightenment’.


In these notes I hope to show (i) how the arts of the time (especially poetry, the novel and drama, and paintings) illustrate - though sometimes ‘indirectly’ or implicitly - typical ‘enlightenment’ concerns and values, and (ii) how there were differences of viewpoint, and disagreement about these concerns and values (since, as I have stressed, the enlightenment was not a homogenous cultural or philosophical movement.


2. Social change:


Literacy was increasing - e.g. in England, thanks to: the charity schools (primary schools set up by Dissenters and Anglicans); newspapers; Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge; Methodism; and especially the clubs and friendly societies where politics and culture were discussed – and which paved the way for increased democracy in England.


It is important to note, then, that the arts had a new bourgeois (middle class) audience… (From: J.H. Pumb: England in the Eighteenth Century, Pelican History of England). This is most obvious in portraits, such as those by Joshua Reynolds (1723 – 1792), who helped found the Royal Academy in 1768 and Thomas Gainsborough (1727 – 1788) who ‘painted the beauty and wealth of England’ (Plumb). Jonathan Jones in an article in the Guardian G2 11.07.12 asking what is ‘British art?” says that what many people mean by British art is a tremendous Gainsborough portrait of a posh person.

In fact, during this period some artists began to define themselves as British in style and attitude. (See also on Hogarth below). He also says that in Gainsborough (as later with Constable and Turner) you can practically smell the countryside, taste the rain.


(i) Reynolds: Colonel John Hayes


(ii)  Gainsborough: Mrs. Sheridan


The children of the wealthy often went on a ‘grand tour’. (O’Hara ch 9) See Guardian article 21.11.11…


(iii)  Pompeo Batoni: Portrait of Baron Francis Bassett (commissioned by the Baron)


3. ‘Indirect’ evidence of social values etc:


During the 18th century there were two main strands in the visual arts (and in music): rococo, and neo-classicism.


3.1 In first half of the century: rococo can be seen as a ‘witty response to the overblown pomposity of rulers’ such as Louis XIV. It was decorative, characterised by ‘glitziness’ (O’Hara says), and sceptical as to deeper meaning in art – rather it practised ‘a civilised type of purposeless decoration.’ Perhaps its escapism reflects the lack of democratic involvement?


Rococo can be illustrated by Watteau (1684 – 1721) whose paintings are ‘decorative and even theatrical, with a sense of meaninglessness and melancholy’ (O’Hara) and Fragonard (1732 – 1806):


(iv) Watteau: Embarquement pour Cithere.


(v) Watteau: Les Plaisirs du bal (1719)

            also: table by Dubois.


Watteau Les Plaisirs du Bal 1719: is a ‘record of the pleasures of a highly civilised country life’ – but it is not a simple documentary: ‘the setting and costumes put the picture into the realm of arcadian fantasy.’  ‘The statuary is a living and participating element in the setting, and the landscape... never threatens to be more than an agreeable background to the fete.’ (Landmarks of World Art, the Age of Baroque, by Michael Kitson, pub. Paul Hamlyn 1966, Plate 19). 



(vi) Fragonard:The Swing,


(vii) Fragonard: Blind Man’s Buff 


Note how people dwindle into nothing against the background (O’Hara).


Francois Boucher (1703 – 1770) – known for his idyllic voluptuous paintings on classical themes, decorative allegories, and pastoral scenes (Wikipedia).


(viii) Boucher: La Toilette (1742)

- shows how much time was spent by fashionable ladies (in imitation of the court) on their toilette... The picture is used to illustrate and article by Amanda Vickery on an exhibition at the Getty Museum on luxury in 18th century France: - based on a book by Charissa Bremer-David: Paris, life and luxury in the 18th c.

Says Vickery: ‘France was everything the new Protestant parliamentary state [Britain] abhorred – Catholic, authoritarian, pleasure loving and effervescent. Yet still those thrifty Anglo Saxon Protestants could not contain their desire for French silks, tapestry, porcelain, mirrors, clocks and cabinetwork. "We are the whipped cream of Europe," sighed Voltaire in 1735.  "Paris is the world," crowed Marivaux in 1734, "the rest of the earth is nothing but its suburbs." ‘

Rococo extravagance and decoration can be seen clearly in:


(ix) Versailles (1671) Salon de Venus, decorated for Louis XIV, under the direction of Lebrun

– the subject of the ceiling painting is ‘the influence of love [hence Venus] on kings’ – gilded copper, coloured marble, originally with furniture: inlaid tables and cabinets,  stools covered with cut velvet or tapestry, and gilt-bronze candelabra – originally had marble flooring...


(x) Tiepolo: Ceiling (Kaisersaal, 1751 – 2)


In the ceiling by Giambattista Tiepolo, (plate 8 from loc cit): - the theme is serious (betrothal of Beatrice of Burgundy to Emperor Frederick Barbarossa) – but the treatment is ‘all lightness and rococo.’ ‘A painting not for instruction, but for decoration and charm.’


An interesting painter, who illustrates a number of features of this period, was Elizabeth-Louise Vigee-Lebrun (1755 – 1842) – she was seen as Marie Antoinette’s official portrait painter (her marriage to Jean-Baptiste Pierre Lebrun had brought her into this milieu). She was admitted to the Academie Royale probably with Marie Antoinette’s assistance (as she was initially turned down). Her style is mainly rococo, but with neo-classical influences (see the comment on her self-portrait).


(xi) Vigee-Lebrun: Portrait of Marie Antoinette (1783)


(xii) Vigee-Lebrun: Self-Portrait with her Daughter (1786) 


In her self-portrait she is showing her teeth which led to her being strongly criticised – this was not done in antiquity!!


3.2 In the second half of the century rococo came to be felt to be unnatural, and now the arts incorporated ‘social conscience’ and ‘republican sternness,’ reflecting current debates about virtue. Classical models were back in fashion, and there was more emphasis on reason. This can be called neo-classicism.


Neo-classicism can be illustrated by Jacques-Louis David (1748 – 1825) – his work expressed ancient ideas of virtue. He was in favour of revolution and the execution of Louis XVI, but became disillusioned, later becoming pro-Napoleon. One of his best-known paintings portrays the Assassination of Marat.


(xiii) Jacques-Louis David: The Oath of the Horatii

            and Rape of the Sabine Women.


Neo-classicism in poetry can be illustrated by Alexander Pope (see below on science and nature).


Neither rococo nor neo-classicism went in for deep psychological exploration – and they were not interested in mysteries: religion, folklore, alchemy and magic had become unfashionable in the Enlightenment. (See later, on Fuseli and Blake, however).


4. The other side of life:


Probably the best-known artist to portray the poor, and to criticise the values of the middle classes was William Hogarth (1697 – 1764). Jonathan Jones (referred to above) says the first artist to aggressively promote himself as British was William Hogarth, who mocks the scrawny French in his 1748 painting O the Roast Beef of Old England.


(xiv) Hogarth: Gin Lane

- demonstrating the evils of the combination of drink and poverty.


(xv) Hogarth: Marriage a la Mode

- ridiculing bourgeois practices such as marrying for money


But there was also: Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin 1699 – 1779 – painter of domestic life... see

See also


(xvi) Chardin: detail from Boy Building a House of Cards.


In poetry Robert Burns (1759 – 1796) also stands for the ‘ordinary man’. OHara (p 171) describes him as: ‘the greatest poet of the Enlightenment.’ His poetry is ‘great art distilled from the detail of ordinary life’:


A man’s a man for a’ that:


What though on hamely fare we dine,

Wear hoddin grey, and a’ that;

Gie fools their silks and knaves their wine,

A man’s a man for a’ that:

For a’ that, and a’ that,

Their tinsel show, and a’ that;

The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor,

Is king o’ men for a’ that!


5. The ‘other’ – the orient, utopias and the impact of colonial explorations:


As Outram points out, there was a large audience for books on voyages (e.g. Cook, Bougainville), and this kind of book was read more than any other genre except novels, especially by women. These works included descriptions of new countries, their trading prospects, and how to navigate to them… The problem of ascertaining longitude correctly was solved when John Harrison perfected the chronometer (Plumb). This led to Cook’s voyages.


The public had a need to believe that these were utopias – peaceful, natural and pure, without intrusive govt, and with no great distinctions of wealth or social status – which, Outram argues, was a ‘projection’ - a space for European hopes, frustrations and desires. Also the beauty of the Pacific islands (for example) was appreciated at a time when beauty was sought in European landscapes. Hence the growth and importance of travel literature, stage plays etc; and artists were traveling to Tahiti and similar places; paintings and engravings often had images of plants, (Outram p 52) and there were lively markets in indigenous artifacts. In effect, people felt ‘enlightened’ by encountering images of the exotic, without having to travel!


One of the most popular works with an exotic content, was The Arabian Nights, [see Robert Irwin’s article, Guardian Review 12.03.11:] – translations appeared in 12 volumes between 1704 and 1717; ‘it was read and enthused over by courtiers and Intellectuals in Versailles and Paris’… Montesquieu (in his Persian Letters), Voltaire (in Zadig ou la Destinee, 1747), Addison, Johnson and Goethe were among the 18th century writers whose work was heavily influenced by the ‘Nights.’ ‘The Nights had a crucial role in shaping the origins and evolution not just of fantasy literature but also of the realistic novel.’ Irwin has written: The Arabian Nights: A Companion, 1994.


There is also a book by Marina Warner: Stranger Magic (2011) – reviewed by Robin Yassin-Kassab:


Warner sees the Nights as ‘a unique key to the imaginary processes that govern the symbolism of magic, foreignness and mysterious power in modern culture.’ Her book is influenced by Edward Said and aims to uncover a neglected story of reciprocity and exchange. Before the ‘enlightenment’ there were many cross-contacts between different cultures in terms of science philosophy and art (recognizing no frontiers), though in politics and religion the Christian and the Islamic worlds were in conflict.


The enlightenment brought a closing off of science from religion, and it therefore led to the exclusion of magic (necromancy became inseparable from ‘nigromancy’ – deriving from dark places and peoples) – so oriental magic was a replacement for the home-grown variety. It was ‘stranger magic’ and so ‘easier to disown or quarantine.’


She concludes, though, that enchantment is useful to ‘open new possibilities of thought and sympathy’ and that it is essential in a self-consciously ‘rational’ and secular world.


The problem of ‘orientalism’ as defined by Edward Said is that it puts the ‘other’ culture as separate, different etc and either romanticizes it or looks down on it.


Irwin takes issue with Said: and argues that orientalism ‘in the pejorative sense’ is to be found in ‘government departments, army barracks, police stations, Hollywood studios and the editorial rooms of trash newspapers...’ it ‘bubbles up from below’, and it is unfair to criticise George Eliot or Joseph Conrad, and not Dennis Wheatley et al.


6. Nature and Science:


Alexander Pope (1688 -1744) gives a good example of the general outlook, with its optimism: e.g. his proposed epitaph for Sir Isaac Newton, where nature can be understood by our reason since it follows physical laws.


Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night:

God said, Let Newton Be! And all was light.


Another famous saying of his is seldom quoted in full:


‘Know then thyself, presume not God to scan

The proper study of Mankind is Man’


Note also a couple of musical examples of the idea of ‘enlightenment’: Haydn’s Creation (1796 – 8) has a tremendous climax on the word ‘light’ in the creation story… And Mozart’s Magic Flute (1791) can be read as a portrayal of the search for enlightenment (couched in Masonic terms)…


An illustration of the admiration of science: Joseph Wright of Derby (1734 – 97) whose work recorded industrialists and scientific experiments – at the Lunar Society for example (e.g. the


(xivi) Joseph Wright of Derby: Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump - 1768).


As we have seen “nature” was a key concept in Enlightenment thinking, and many writers and artists at the time believed that art should reflect nature and be ‘true’ (see O’Hara ch 9) – and this meant ordered, rational, realistic. The British painter George Stubbs (1724 – 1806) illustrates this:


(xviii) George Stubbs: Horses

            and Aelbert Cuyp (1620 – 1691): Cattle.


Note, however, that at the same time Stubbs is displaying the wealth of those who could own horses...


Poetry in the period is no longer personal, deep, and emotional – or as complex – as 17th century ‘metaphysical’ poetry. Metaphysical poetry says O’Hara (p 167) was not so suited to the ‘reasoned, ordered’ view of nature of the Enlightenment. Poetry in the age of enlightenment tended to be ‘lighter and more joyous’ as O’Hara puts it.


[In the 17th century, poets such as John Donne, Henry Vaughan, and Andrew Marvell (1618 – 1678) came to be known as metaphysical poets – there writing was ‘close-packed and dense with meaning’ (H.Gardner see below), highly metaphorical, and often referred to philosophical questions in unusual contexts. Examples of poetry that includes ‘philosophical speculation’ are given in the footnote following these notes.]


Thus John Dryden (1631 – 1700) commented critically on metaphysical poetry in John Donne:  “He affects the metaphysics, not only in his satires, but in his amorous verses, where nature only should reign: and perplexes the minds of the fair sex with nice speculations of philosophy, when he should engage their hearts, and entertain them with the softness of love”. (From the Introduction to The Metaphysical Poets, ed. Helen Gardner, Penguin, 1957).


Alexander Pope (1688 - 1744) exemplifies this belief in order following nature: his poetry is neo-classicist (or ‘Augustan’). Neo-classical verse has: clarity, regularity, high moral seriousness, and social or cultural significance (from Douglas Grant, Introduction to: Pope, Selected Poems, New Oxford English Series, 1965).


In his Essay on Criticism Pope sets out the view that the rules of poetry are to be found in nature, and he argued for ‘wit’, which was the appropriateness of thought reflecting nature:


‘True wit is Nature to Advantage drest,

What oft was thought, but ne’er so well Exprest,

Something, whose Truth convinc’d at sight we find,

That gives us back the image of our Mind.’


7. Nature and God (deism):


Pope also illustrates the view that this ordered universe is created by an all-wise God – and even though we may not understand everything nevertheless there is reason and order to be found. See (quoted by O’Hara p 6), his Essay on Man (1733 – 4):


‘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’


This is a similar idea to that promoted by Leibniz, of providence, and that God would not have made an imperfect world… Enlightenment theories are well in evidence here! However, in ‘deist’ fashion, Pope says that we cannot fully understand the universe God has created. The poem ‘justifies the ways of God to man’ and warns against putting man on too high a platform.


Putting a contrary point of view, Voltaire wrote Candide (1759) which mocks, in the person of Dr Pangloss, the optimism of Leibniz, and which dwells on the injustices of life. In Candide: Voltaire repudiates arid rationalism and advocates practical activity (‘il faut cultiver notre jardin’ - cultivating your garden) (Porter). The novel is satire, and it targets (along with the blind optimism of Pangloss) men of the cloth, the hypocrisy and extremism of religion, the way that money rank violence and sex are used by the powerful to control others. There is a scene which condemns the treatment of slaves on sugar plantations, and a famous episode where an English admiral (Byng) is executed ‘pour encourager les autres.’  The article also points out how popular the book was at the time – and how quickly it was translated into English.


An excellent article on Candide, by Julian Barnes is at:


Samuel Johnson wrote Rasselas (1759) - a ‘moral fable’ (Porter) which also resembles Candide, describes the difficulties of finding true happiness in a world tormented by cruelty, violence, ambition, suffering and disappointment. Rasselas warns of over-inflated expectations of worldly bliss.


[Dr Johnson was an anti-romantic, and opposed Wilkes (who fought for reform of parliament… Priestley supported Wilkes). Johnson and Boswell, though writing mid-century, hark back to the Augustan writing of Pope and Swift.]



8. Reason and the emotions – the beginnings of romanticism.


Rousseau and a few others felt the importance of emotion and the need for it to be expressed rather than repressed (so also Blake…). This tendency developed into the ‘romantic’ movement (in literature, visual arts and music especially). The romantics dwelt on our feelings for and in reaction to nature – and on feelings generally. Romanticism was most popular early in the 19th century, and was a reaction against much of what the Enlightenment stood for.


Blake (1757 – 1827 - already mentioned in a previous week): poet, engraver, mystic – largely unrecognized in his time can also be seen as a fore-runner of romanticism…Note the solidity of the bodies – this shows the influence of medieval sculptures (as in Westminster Abbey)...  perhaps Blake studied and copied these because they contained a spirituality that he wanted to preserve or revive?


(xix) Blake: Newton.

- probably both a criticism of Newton’s mechanistic world-view (note the darkenss in front of him and the flowers etc behind) – but also a stage in the fall of man.


(xx) Blake: God Judging Adam.

- illustrates Blake’s unorthodox interpretation of the Bible and Christianity. Blake’s struggle was ‘to liberate the human spirit from its earthy confinement’ – ‘humanity struggles to escape from the tyranny of Urizen, who is always depicted as a ferocious bearded old man, symbol both of the authoritarian father and God the unfeeling creator of systems and laws’. (Marshall Cavendish series: The Great Artists, No 7, 1984, p 202 - 3)


For Blake, the Old Testament God was cruel and vengeful – Christ brings gentleness, innocence, and love... ‘Opposed to [God] is ‘Jesus, the Imagination’ – also called ‘the God within’  ‘The imagination is not a State: it is the Human existence itself.’ 


Blake was also a political radical, friend of Tom Paine, William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft and others (see next week). He saw the Gordon Riots, 1780, (an attack on Newgate Prison) – put down by William Pitt the Younger (loc cit p 216). He met regularly with other ‘Liberty Boys’ at Joseph Johnson’s house near St Paul’s.


A note on the song Jerusalem, written by Blake in 1804 (as a Preface to Milton, a Poem): 


- Jerusalem symbolizes ‘heaven on earth’ (book of Revelations tells of Jesus establishing a new Heaven) – the ‘dark satanic mills’ were probably based on the Albion flour mills, ‘the first major factory in London’ which were situated near where Blake lived, in Southwark.  The steam-powered engines were built by James Watt and Matthew Boulton. It could produce 6,000 bushels of flour a week. These huge mills threatened the livelihoods of small local baker and met with opposition – opponents described the mills as satanic, and accused them of adulterating flour and using cheap imports at the expense of local producers.


In 1791 the Albion Mills burned down and local people celebrated with ‘Success to the mills of Albion but no Albion Mills!’ – and Blake in one of his long poems, Jerusalem, ch 3, says: ‘And all the Arts of Life they changed into the Arts of Death in Albion.’


Another interpretation is that the Mills represented established religion – which Blake also attacked strongly (see the Songs of Innocence and Experience).




It is disappointing to me to learn that Robert Bridges, poet laureate, wanted the poem set to music in 1916 as part of the effort to rouse patriotic feeling in Britain during the ‘Great War’ – the ‘Fight for Right’ campaign. [See the website for further details]. Parry set it for four voices and organ and gave it to Bridges. In 1917 Parry withdrew his support from the campaign, and instead produced an orchestrated version for the National Union of  Women’s Suffrage Societies at the request of Millicent Fawcett – it was performed at a Suffrage Demonstration Concert in 1918. When the NUWSS was folded up, in 1928, the copyright passed to the Women’s Institute. (It is now in the public domain).


The romantics rediscovered the dream and the beauty of darkness. (from Ringer in his book on Schubert: Schubert’s Theater of Song - see below on music).


Also in the transition to romanticism, we have writings which place feeling and sentiment as the ‘springs of morality’ (Porter) - as in the philosophical writings of the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, Francis Hutcheson, and David Hume (dealt with last week).  And of course, Jean-Jacques Rousseau: (1712 – 1778): his Confessions (1769) are an analysis of his own feelings and development; and see La Nouvelle Heloise (1761), and Emile (1762), on the education and upbringing of children.


Similarly: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1832) - one of whose novels is called ‘Elective Affinities’ after the tendency of some chemicals to combine. Are human passions governed by similar laws? Sturm und Drang (‘storm and stress’) was the name given to literature (and music) where individual expression was championed against rationalized and civilised discourse – Goethe: The Sorrows of Young Werther 1774 (where the hero ends in suicide) can be seen as the at the beginning of romanticism… (‘emotion escaped its restraint’). Goethe later abandoned Sturm and Drang for German classicism.


There were others – especially, but not only, later in the 18th century –who criticised the narrowness of Enlightenment rationality. For example, James Thomson (1700 – 1748), in his comments on the limitations of Newtonian Opticks:


Thomson, from The Seasons:


‘Here, awful Newton, the dissolving clouds

Form, fronting on the Sun, thy show’ry prism;

And to the sage-instructed eye unfold

The vaious twine of light, by thee disclos’d

From the white mingling maze. Not so the boy;

He wondering views the bright enchantment bend,

Delightful o’er the radiant fields and runs

To catch the falling glory’.


Thomson’s work was used (by van Swieten – see above) as the basis for Haydn’s oratorio The Seasons.


For more examples of poetry with emotional depth see: Thomas Gray (1716 – 1771), especially his Elegy in a Country Churchyard; Cowper; the Poems of Ossian; and Percy’s Reliques of English Poetry, and especially: ‘gothic novels”. The preoccupation with the dangers of science led, later in the 18th century, to the genre known as gothic novels e.g. Horace Walpole (son of the PM): Castle of Otranto 1764, and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818) – Victor Frankenstein goes to the University of Ingolstadt, and hears professor Waldman teach that modern scientists “have acquired new and almost unlimited powers”… and Henry Fuseli (1741 – 1825) – who did paintings of nightmares.


(xxi) Fuseli: The Nightmare.


9. Human nature:


Pope again:

‘Two principles in human nature reign:

Self-love, to urge, and reason, to restrain’ (O’Hara p 11)


The popularity of travel tales, as noted, shows a particular aspect of Enlightenment preoccupations about human nature that were reflected in the arts – viz. the ‘noble savage’ idea etc.


The novel in the 18th century was a good example of how Enlightenment pre-occupations could be incorporated in works of art. (OH): much writing was ‘domestic’ – fiction from letters was popular with the aspiring middle class – small-scale action becomes significant, and the story is spun out at great length.


There was (says Porter) an interaction between, on the one hand, innovations in philosophy, morality and psychology, and on the other, the characters in novels – e.g. Rameau’s Nephew by Diderot (1761 – 2), which examines topics such as the education of children, the nature of genius, and money (one of the two main characters has raised love of gold to the status of a religion). The rambling style is used to poke fun at prominent people of the time, who in the novel are shown to poke fun at enlightenment intellectuals. (Wikipedia)


The new empirical philosophy produced novels based on individual’s experiences in a realistic social context i.e. social and psychological realism – characters and plot driving each other.


Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, written early in the century (1719) fictionalized the dilemma of the man set in the state of nature, having to re-invent civilisation… Defoe (who had a dramatic life, once a spy, one time in prison…) believed man is born sinful – his novels deal with people encountering moral problems, and finding a way to redemption. For example (OH): Moll Flanders (1722) – narrative of struggle as a prostitute tries to better herself…


Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) – both this and the Defoe’s novels were ‘tall stories’ written as if true. Gulliver’s Travels was an attack on Defoe’s pessimism. It was felt to be a dangerous book, and the printer/publisher produced an expurgated version. Swift was a complex person, both a misanthrope and a moralist (etc). He wrote satires on men’s limitations, and on absolute power. For example in Gulliver, there are two kids of being: the (?) ouhnihans – a breed of rational horse, and the yahoos. He adopts a ‘Martian’ view (what would the world look like to an outsider) to develop his satire. (Later writers in this tradition are Orwell, Wells, Bellamy).


Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (written 1760 – 7) is a playful narrative, hopping from topic to topic, following Locke’s theory of association of ideas… there is an exoticism of style in the work – and Porter says that Laurence Sterne (who was a vicar and shocked some with his writing) claimed that to understand Tristram Shandy you had to know Locke’s psychological theory…


In Tristram Shandy, very soon after the start, which describes how his conception was interrupted by his mother asking his father if he had set the alarm clock! - he argues that the ‘homunculus’ has rights, and he refers to political philosophers such as Puffendorff to back him up:


“The homunculus, Sir, in however low and ludicrous a light he may appear, in this age of levity, to the eye of folly or prejudice: - to the eye of reason in scientific research, he stands confessed – a being guarded and circumscribed with rights.”


10. Women and Men, manners and morality:


Novels often represented young women in emotional difficulties (though written by middle-aged men!), e.g.: Antoine Prevost: Manon Lescaut (1731), and Samuel Richardson: Pamela or Virtue Rewarded (1740): this is a highly moralistic novel; and in Clarissa (the longest novel ever written!) Richardson described in shocking detail a fallen heroine.


Much of this, then was ‘domestic art’ – for example, fiction created from letters – which was popular with the aspiring middle class: small-scale action becomes significant, and the plot or story is spun out at great length.


However, social commentary could also be strong and direct:


Some novelists were mocking: Henry Fielding sent up Pamela in Shamela, and in Joseph Andrews 1752, (about Pamela’s impossibly moral brother). Fielding was a magistrate, who was responsible for the creation of the Bow Street Runners, and who cared about social problems of the time. His novels are rich with social criticism: in Tom Jones 1749, Tom is a foundling, and the novel helped raise awareness of the plight of orphans; like his friend Hogarth (see below) he was concerned about the gin-drinking that was so prevalent in London at the time.


In poetry: as noted above, the poetry of the 17th century, e.g. Donne, Henry Vaughan, had been dense, and metaphorical – metaphysical in fact - (OH p 6) In the 18th century, Dryden and Pope were more typical. (OH p 167) Their work was lighter, with more social commentary, more satirical, and with more reference to preoccupations of the Enlightenment (reason/passion, virtue, nature).


If we look at Pope’s An Essay on Man (Epistle I), alongside To A Lady – Of the Characters of Women (1743), we find an extremely vivid example of the view that men were objects of serious study, while women are merely decorative…


From An Essay on Man:


‘Let us…

Expatiate free o’er all this scene of Man;

A mighty maze! But not without a plan;

A Wild, where weeds and flow’rs promiscuous shoot;

Or Garden, tempting with forbidden fruit.

But vindicate the ways of God to Men.


            I. Say first, of God above, or man below,

What can we reason, but from what we know?

Is the great chain, that draws all to agree,

And drawn supports, upheld by God, or thee?


            II. Presumptuous Man! The reason wouldst thou find,

Why form’d so weak, so little, and so blind?

First, if thou canst, the harder reason guess,

Why form’d no weaker, blinder, and no less?

Ask of they mother earth, why oaks are made

Taller or stronger than the weeds they shade?’


Note how the immediate theme is the relation between God, maker of the universe, and Man. No matter if Pope describes Man as weak and little and blind – this is surely natural in comparison with God, and of course man is – like an oak compared to weeds – stronger than other aspects of God’s creation!


Epistle II. To a Lady…


‘Nothing so true as what you once let fall,

‘Most Women have no Characters at all.’

Matter too soft a lasting mark to bear,

And best distinguish’d by black, brown, or fair.

There follows a series of accounts of individual women – some from mythology or the Bible (‘naked Leda with a Swan’ – ‘Magdalen’s loose hair and lifted eye’), emphasising how, to portray the variety of women (‘How many pictures of one Nymph we view, All how unlike each other, all how true!’), the poet needs to:


‘Come then, the colours and the ground prepare!

Dip in the Rainbow, trick her off in Air…’


And note how:


‘Rufa, whose eye quick-glancing o’er the Park,

Attracts each light gay meteor of a Spark,

Agrees as ill with Rufa studying Locke,

As Sappho’s diamonds with her dirty smock;

Or Sappho at her toilet’s greasy task,

With Sappho fragrant at an ev’ning Mask:

So morning Insects that in muck begun,

Shine, buzz, and fly-blow in the setting-sun.’


Note also: Fanny Burney: Eveline, and (1796) Camilla: comedies of manners, a trend which leads to Jane Austen. In music: note Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte, with its study of manners, but with also an underlying questioning of the hypocrisy of social life.


Moreover, at the end of the century the Marquis de Sade questions whether there are any rules of conduct at all… (Porter): Justine (1791). And Laclos: Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1782) – expounds free thought about sex and relationships (O’Hara).


11. Political commentary:


The Fable of The Bees: or, Private Vices, Public Benefits - a book by Bernard Mandeville, consisting of the poem The Grumbling Hive: or, Knaves turn’d Honest and prose discussion of it. The poem was published in 1705 and the book first appeared in 1714.] The poem elucidates many key principles of economic thought, including the division of labor and the invisible hand, seventy years before Adam Smith (indeed, John Maynard Keynes argues Smith was probably referencing Mandeville). This work arose controversy by saying that is not possible to have a flourishing economy and a virtuous society at the same time… [It also describes the paradox of thrift centuries before Keynes, and may be seen as part of the school of underconsumption, according to wikipedia].


See also:

- Saint-Simon’s Memoires – utopianism, socialistic planned society.

- Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1766-88),

- Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776).

- William Godwin in Caleb Williams (1789 – 93) gives the anarchist view that the spirit of government pervades everything in society, constituting a kind of tyranny. Caleb is in pursuit of the truth – the novel portrays the polarization of society, the extent of persecution, and consequent paranoia in an age of austerity.


Drama was a ‘battle-ground for politics’ (Plumb) – e.g. Gay: The Beggar’s Opera (1728) – a satirical ballad opera, satirizing Italian opera conventions by using popular tunes and ordinary characters, but also attacking poverty, injustice and corruption.


Fielding, in his play Tom Thumb (1730), a farcical tragedy, in which the ‘hero’ is both small and insignificant…, attacked the government of George III: was he being ruled by his queen? [The government was losing an empire, and refusing liberty – which led to the opposition of Wilkes etc].


[However, drama did not flourish until: Goldsmith: She Stoops to Conquer (1773), Sheridan: The Rivals (1775), which brought life and with back into the theatre.]


Voltaire wrote twenty tragedies which were very popular – Marivaux and Beaumarchais (Rossini and Mozart based operas on his plays) wrote comedies.


12. Aesthetics:


There were discussions on aesthetics, often sparked off by archeological discoveries (which also contributed to neo-classicism). Porter says that discussions on taste were around the question of how much taste was a product of cultural conditioning, and how much it was based on psychological responses to e.g. colours. In this way, these discussions reflect central enlightenment concerns.


For example, O’Hara summarises Edmund Burke’s distinction: the sublime is masculine and a quality of greatness that sometimes inspires terror – while beauty is feminine and gives pleasure…


And the poet Lessing wrote that: ‘succession of time is the province of the poet just as space is that of the painter.’ (Showing the influence of Locke’s work on psychology, the senses etc.)


13. Music:


(O’Hara p 6 & Ch 9): Music in the 17th century: Byrd, Palestrina (complex polyphony) à Bach (1685 – 1750), Handel (1685 – 1759), Mozart (1756 – 1791):  lighter textures, more joyous music, and added emotional depth

(also Vivaldi, Telemann et al see below).


Early 18th century: baroque – Bach (1685 – 1750) and Handel (1685 – 1759) - born within a month of each other, and within 130 km, but never met.



- aimed to give public what it wanted, started with Italian-style opera, which mannered – then new style of oratorio – Messiah (1742)



- wrote for those who employed him – Lutheran, but only occasionally wrote for Latin texts (Magnificat and B Minor Mass); many cantatas, Passions, organ and keyboard works… elaborate counterpoint. 



Rameau (1683 – 1754) wrote on music theory: sound is a facet of nature, and harmony is central as part of nature. Rousseau argued that music should reflect human nature, and so melody was most important. Debate involved Diderot and D’Alembert…


Later, baroque felt to be over-elaborate, so Scarlatti, CPE Bach simplified it.


Then: classical period: Haydn 1732 – 1809 e.g. The Creation (note reference to ‘light’) – librettist: Van Swieten (1733 – 1803) who also helped Mozart.

Opera: Christoph von Gluck (1714 – 87) – where the story didn’t stop for grand-staging arias. And Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 91) 


Mozart illustrates Porter’s point that philosophical problems were even addressed in opera:

Mozart – Don Giovanni (libertine – humanity),

Marriage of Figaro denounces droit de seigneur,

Magic Flute: ‘the prospect of the spiritual improvement of human nature, realized through self-knowledge.’ (p 60)


Outram p 22:

Mozart’s Magic Flute (1791) as expression of Freemasonry: this was flourishing, and involved aristocrats e.g. Frederick the Great of Prussia, Francis I of Austria (see HC Robbins Landon…) – members cast aside social distinction, pledged to practice rational benevolence in society, centres of debate, sometimes of mysticism, sought moral regeneration of society and individuals without reference to established religions.

Condemned by Catholic Church – and sometimes seen as plotting against social order (see HC RL) – especially the Illuminati and at the end of the 18th century when after French Revolution there was uncertainty.


However, the opera gives the appearance of being a fantasy, or folk-story – did Mozart/Schickaneder want to hide the Masonic references? They knew that Freemasonry would soon be banned in Vienna (source below). But also it is probable that the references would only have been understood by initiates, and that anyway it would be regarded by Masons as ‘blasphemy’ to reveal such secrets…


Sarastro represents Enlightenment/Masonic ideals whilst the Queen of the Night represents their rejection (and therefore evil) – the most obvious symbolism is the repeated use of the number 3…


Peter Brook, producing the opera says (Guardian G2 17.03.11):

“The librettist… obviously wanted a big, fun popular show with plenty of scenic effects. But he and Mozart were both Freemasons, and, at a time when the movement was regarded by the Archduke as a potentially subversive threat, sought to create and opera that is about spiritual trial and initiation. For Mozart, freemasonry represented his intuition that there was something finer and purer in life beyond the material and the everyday.”


Mark Ringer, in Schubert’s Theater of Song (Amadeus Press 2009): ‘The Enlightenment cherished reason and the bright light of day. One thinks of Mozart’s triumph of light over darkness in The Magic Flute, or Haydn’s electrifying proclamation of “light” in the opening of The Creation.



The move to romanticism in music:


But (says Ringer) the romantics rediscovered the dream and the beauty of darkness. Here they were anticipated by their great forerunner Shakespeare. Caliban in The Tempest extols the magic of dreams on his enchanted island, which would:


 ‘show riches

Ready to drop upon me, that when I wak’d

I cried to dream again.’


He is writing about Schubert’s Nacht und Traume – ‘One cannot imagine a better musical analogue to Caliban’s lines than this lied.’





J.H. Pumb: England in the Eighteenth Century, Pelican History of England (1950, 1963, 1990).

HH: television programme on the Birth of the Novel presented by Henry Hitchings.



Footnote: an example of metaphysical poetry – by Andrew Marvell.


To make a final conquest of all me,

Love did compose so sweet an Enemy,

In whom both Beauties to my death agree,

Joining themselves in fatal Harmony:

That while she with her Eyes my Heart does bind,

She with her Voice might captivate my mind.


I could have fled from One but singly fair:

My dis-intangled Soul itself might save,

Breaking the curled tramles of her hair.

But how should I avoid to be her Slave,

Whose subtile Art invisibly can wreath

My fetters of the very Air I breath?


It had been easie fighting in some plain,

Where Victory might hang in equal choice,

But all resistance against her is vain,

Who has th’advantage both of Eyes and Voice,

And all my Forces needs must be undone,

She having gained both the Wind and Sun.