EVEN when we avoid the two great branches of emotive historical narrative, the Decline and the Progress, we are still hampered by the inevitable version of the eighteenth century as a placid period--a period dominated by a desire for order. A rage for order need not in itself of course issue in calm, but until very recently the order was posited as a calm. That is a tribute to the success of Whig propaganda in the eighteenth century (and later), for it was most certainly to the political and economic interests of the powerful group of Whigs in politics and commerce to make out that English life had a natural and inevitable balanced order, which they had discovered and now represented.
But relatively few people, even Whigs, really bought that for breakfast, dinner, and supper. In the arts in England, and especially in the art of poetry, wherever we encounter order, we can see an experiment--or a set of experiments. And one kind of order in a poem may allow the poet to produce certain favored kinds of disorder and dissonance. In histories the "sun of Enlightenment" has too often hidden the private night.
A better key to the period than the opposition between order and disorder can be found in the problems set up by a strongly felt need to make literature--and especially poetry--public in all its manifestations. That literature at its best, its most effective, deals with public matters in public language had been generally felt, and widely demonstrated, during the Restoration. Dryden was the great exemplar of the public poetry, not because he was a public poet, a one-time poet laureate, but