Throughout the Enlightenment, writers created poetry, plays, satire, essays, and more. The novel was also on the rise. It was in its formative age, resulting in books like Gulliver’s Travels and Robinson Crusoe. In the world of poetry, authors like John Milton were working. He created his masterpiece, Paradise Lost, published in 1667. French dramatists like Molière were also working, creating some of the greatest plays in the French language.
Definition of Enlightenment
The Enlightenment occurred after the Renaissance and during a period in which life was significantly improving. Progress was being seen in a wide variety of fields, and the scientific method was a hallmark of that progress. Independent thought was an important feature of the Enlightenment as was an emphasis on new values, a celebration of the human mind, science, and skepticism. Thinkers were no longer as bound by the church or governments in regard to their research and publications. Literacy rates were also on the rise throughout Europe as more people had access to better educations.
Examples of Enlightenment Literature
The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope
‘The Rape of the Lock’ is one of Pope’s best-known works. It is a mock-heroic narrative poem that was written in order to make fun of the upper classes. It satirizes a small incident and compares it to the world of the gods. It was based on a real-life encounter that one of Pope’s friends had. He wrote the poem in an attempt to “merge” the social and heroic worlds. The poem was incredibly popular, selling thousands of copies. Here are a few lines from Canto I:
What dire offence from am’rous causes springs,
What mighty contests rise from trivial things,
I sing—This verse to Caryl, Muse! is due:
This, ev’n Belinda may vouchsafe to view:
Slight is the subject, but not so the praise,
If she inspire, and he approve my lays.
During the 18th century, the poem was translated into French, German, and Italian, a marker of its success. It was later translated into numerous other languages, including Czech and Danish. Since its publication, it has been read in schools and universities, parodied by famous authors, and celebrated in various new forms and adaptions.
Paradise Lost by John Milton
‘Paradise Lost’ was published in 1667 and is widely considered to be one of the greatest pieces of writing in the English language. It contains ten books and over ten thousand lines of verse. It tells the biblical story of the fall of Adam and Eve and the explosion of Satan from Heaven. The latter spends much of the poem trying to organize his followers in Hell or Tartarus. Here are a few famous lines from the poem:
OF Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing Heav’nly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
In the Beginning how the Heav’ns and Earth
Rose out of Chaos: or if Sion Hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa’s brook that flow’d
Fast by the Oracle of God; […]
The piece is well-loved by readers all over the world and explores, in-depth, in universities by students to this day.
Read more of John Milton’s poetry.
Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray
This well-loved poem is an elegy written to mourn someone’s death. It was published in 1751 after the passing of Gray’s friend, Richard West. The poem is considered to be Gray’s masterpiece. In it, readers can explore imagery related to life and death and how the latter is unavoidable. Here are a few lines:
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
Now fades the glimm’ring landscape on the sight,
And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds;
The poet opens the open by describing a rural place and the tolling of the church bell, symbolizing the end of the day (and the end of life). Darkness is falling, and everyone is going home for the night. This poem is a great example of the work of the Graveyard Poets during the Enlightenment.
Explore more Thomas Gray poetry.
Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope
‘Essay on Criticism’ is another quite well-known Alexander Pope work. It is imposed in heroic couplets, something that Pope is celebrated for and published in 1711. It contains the famous quote, “to err is human, to forgive divine,” as well as several other well-known sayings. It’s considered an essay in verse. Here are a few lines from Part I:
‘Tis hard to say, if greater want of skill
Appear in writing or in judging ill;
But, of the two, less dang’rous is th’ offence
To tire our patience, than mislead our sense.
Some few in that, but numbers err in this,
Ten censure wrong for one who writes amiss;
A fool might once himself alone expose,
Now one in verse makes many more in prose.
Although the verse essay seems strange and usual today, in the 18th century, it was fairly common. Throughout, Pope states that bad criticism does far more harm to the literary world and the reader than bad writing does. Literature needs worthy criticism in order to thrive. He makes allusions to various classical authors throughout the poem, like Homer and Aristotle.
Read more of Alexander Pope’s poetry.
The Enlightenment was a turning point in the history of Western Europe, England, and the American colonies. Religious tolerance had a place in society it never had before, and scientific progress was respected and encouraged. Reason and rational thinking were also incredibly central to this period in a way they hadn’t been before.
The Enlightenment was centered around the idea that reason is of the utmost importance. It is the primary authority when considering all other topics. The Enlightenment advocated for free-thinking, criticism, and tolerance.
Enlightenment thinkers rejected constraints on scientific progress and on free speech. They also rejected absolutism or the idea that there was one specific answer that was not up for debate.
John Locke, Charles Montesquieu, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were three of the most important Enlightenment thinkers. They developed theories about the government, religious tolerance, and more.
Related Literary Terms
- Augustan Age: a period during the first half of the 18th century in England. Poets during this period created verses inspired by authors like Virgil and Ovid.
- Cavalier Poets: a group of writers from the 17th century in England.
- Georgian Poetry: a poetic movement in England that lasted from 1910 to 1936 during the reign of George V.
- Graveyard Poets: also known as the Churchyard Poets, were a group of writers in England during the 18th century.
- Lake Poets: a group of English poets who lived and wrote in the Lake District during the nineteenth century.
Metaphysical Poetry: marked by the use of elaborate figurative languages, original conceits, paradoxes, and philosophical topics.
- Read: The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope Canto I
- Read: An Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope
- Read: Enlightenment