A Short History of English Literature

By Harry Blamires | Go to book overview

15

The close of the eighteenth century

We reach the ‘Eve of Romanticism’, yet the phrase must be used as the label of a period, not of a literary movement. There were writers productive contemporaneously who could scarcely be bracketed together except by the calendar (Sheridan and Cowper, for instance). Moreover anticipations of the Romantic reaction against the predominant tastes of eighteenth-century culture were not confined to the last quarter of the century. The passion for the primitive in the ‘Ossianic’ literature is closely related to the taste for the archaic in Mrs Radcliffe and Keats. There was an enthusiast for genuine archaism in Dr Johnson’s own circle: Bishop Thomas Percy (1729-1811) issued his Reliques of Ancient English Poetry in 1765. Percy’s versions of old ballads and metrical romances (like Chevy Chase and The Rising of the North) nourished the reviving cult of the past. It spread to Ireland where Macpherson’s Ossian had revived interest in Gaelic literature. In 1789 Charlotte Brooke1 (1740-93) published her Reliques of Irish Poetry, the first significant collection of translations from early Irish verse. The fascination of the past exercised its grip with tragic power on the career of Thomas Chatterton (1752-70) who passed off his fabricated ‘medieval’ poems as the work of ‘Thomas Rowley’. What Chatterton read in the library of St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol, fused with an astonishing gift for the reproduction of an idealized verbal antiquity:


In Virgyne the sweltrie sun gan sheene,
And hotte upon the mees did caste his raie;

1Charlotte Brooke was daughter of Henry Brooke (c.1703-83), Irish novelist, dramatist and poet whose reflective five-volume novel, The Fool of Quality (1765-70), so appealed to John Wesley that he produced an abridged edition in 1783.

-217-

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