Thomas Woodman

It will be obvious to most readers that there is a significant difference in style and tone between the best early eighteenth-century poetry and that of the canonical Romantics. It will also be apparent that this difference is somehow symptomatic of the vast, fascinating and crucial changes in European consciousness during the course of the eighteenth century. What is much more difficult is how to account for or even chart this change in British poetry without considerable oversimplification. For many years an orthodox chronological explanation held sway: the idea that the correct and classical "Augustan" poetry of the early century was gradually replaced in the mid- and later century by a melancholy and imaginative poetry of nature that heralded the full flowering of the Romantic period. The increasing refinement and professionalization of literary studies and of critical theory has deconstructed this account. It has come to be recognized that all such periodizations involve deep-rooted preconceptions and prejudices, often of a specifically ideological nature.

This particular narrative has come to seem more suspect than most. The formulation of early eighteenth-century poetry as "Augustan" has been described as meaningless by D. J. Greene (1970: 91). Even those critics who may preserve the term find that "Augustan" restricts our sense of this poetry and sends out the wrong signals about the "daring muse" (Doody 1985) of this "Age of Exuberance" (Greene 1970). Such a feeling was intensified after Roger Lonsdale's anthologies, The New Oxford Book of Eighteenth-Century Verse (1984) and Eighteenth-Century Women Poets: An Oxford Anthology (1989) revealed the huge variety of authors, styles, and subjects in the published and previously unpublished verse of the century. The term "Pre-Romantic" has been criticized even more strongly, although it is still to be found in naive use and also in bold revisionist form in a powerful book by Marshall Brown (1991). Ultimately, though, the word implies that we view some very disparate and fascinating poets solely in the light of their proposed anticipation of what was to follow them. Finally, of course, the concept of Romanticism has itself been recognized as problematic in recent years, with the growing acknowledgment of the female poets of the time and the understanding that the Romantic movement grows out of as well as rejects the Enlightenment.

Yet a chronology, even a three-phase pattern of early, middle-to-late, and end-of-the century, stubbornly seems to insist on itself, whatever terms we use to describe it. It is a logical flaw prevalent in academia to believe that to point out an exception to a generalization, or even a series of exceptions, is to disprove that generalization. But if there are generalizations that sweep individual particulars away with them, there are others that can serve as conceptual tools to help us define individuality. Chronology has its place, and it does not disprove conventional accounts of Restoration literature, for example, to point out that Milton published Paradise Lost in 1667. In succumbing to the inevitability of narrative in this essay I have tried at the same time to do justice to the individuality of some very strikingly individual poets.

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