Older Masters: Essays and Reflections on English and American Literature

By Donald Davie | Go to book overview

11
Language and Poetry in the English Enlightenment

There is a trap in my title. For what was the English Enlightenment? And when did it happen? English students of English literature seldom ask these questions, let alone answer them. The questions crop up only when, as too seldom happens, we try to see our native literature in the context of foreign literatures; for then we discover that, in any foreign literature we are likely to look at, the term and the concept, 'the Enlightenment', turn out to be natural and indispensable for designating a well-defined phase of that literature, or rather of the whole foreign culture of which the literature is one facet. In the case of English culture and English literature this is not the case; 'the Enlightenment' is for the most part, apparently, a category we can do without when we look at the English past and at the history of the English imagination. And yet not just the Germany of the Aufklärung or the France of the encyclopédistes, but equally the Russia of Catherine the Great or the Latin America of the Liberators, are in an obvious and necessary sense 'Enlightenment cultures', as the England of George III and George IV is not. More strikingly, the disparity can be brought nearer home; for there are English-speaking cultures that go through an Enlightenment phase as the culture of England does not: not only the North America of the first presidents, but also the Scotland of David Hume and Adam Smith, are normally taken to be Enlightenment cultures. If we look, in the England of the last decades of the eighteenth century and the first decades of the nineteenth, for figures that manifest the ideological traits that we recognize as of the Enlightenment, they turn out to be generally regarded by the English as more or less inspired cranks and oddities, such as Tom Paine, Richard Price, Joseph Priestley, the Boswell of the Hypochondriack essays rather than the biography, Richard Lovell Edgeworth, Thomas Day (the author of Sandford and Merton), William Godwin. (And Boswell is a Scot, in any case, and Edgeworth an Irishman.) In narrowly literary terms, the most respected figure to whom the tag 'Enlightenment' might be generally applied as necessary and proper is Maria Edgeworth.

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