13 The Age of Reason

Alan Lindsay, PhD

The period that coincides roughly with the Eighteenth century is known by various names: The Enlightenment, The Neo-Classical Age, The Augustan Age, and The Age of Reason. Advancing the project of the Renaissance, it was a time that yearned to use logic or reason to raise history out of the darkness of superstition and establish a verifiable knowledge of the world. It is the age of the philosophy of John Locke and the science of Isaac Newton. As we will see however, we will need to understand more than reason to understand the poetry of the era.

The Rise of Reason

Commenting on one of his poems to the young woman who inspired it, Alexander Pope—the premier English poet of the eighteenth century—wrote: “I know how disagreeable it is to make use of hard words before a lady; but ’tis so much the concern of a poet to have his works understood, and particularly by your sex, that you must give me leave to explain two or three difficult terms” (italics added).

Once again, we see here how important it is for the poet that his poem not be “open for interpretation.” He’s afraid the lady might not understand his great work properly. And this worries him. So he will condescend to give her the means by which she can better understand what is going on in the poem. This is not at all surprising in the Enlightenment, which was officially sexist and, more importantly for our concerns, devoted to the idea that reason is the primary means through which humanity will lead itself out of error and into truth. If we lived in this era, we’d expect to reason not only about poems but also in poems.

This is perhaps the biggest change in poetry from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment. Poetry was still thought of as elevated language. You could still do all the things in poetry you could do in any kind of language, and there were still love poems, and lyric poems, and narrative poems. Poetry was still thought of as a moral force (or, if misused, as an immoral force). And poets were still thought of as artists—in fact, being an artist was an even bigger deal in the eighteenth century than it had been in the previous two centuries. And poetry was still expected to “imitate nature.” But in the eighteenth century, poetry became more aligned with the humanist project of understanding nature (including human nature) through reason than it ever had been before. It came to be believed in the eighteenth century that nature was best understood through reason, so poetry became more closely aligned to reason.

That does not mean that all poems were conceived of as making logical arguments bent on establishing objective truth through reason. As we’ll see below, both sentimental poetry and satire also rose to high prominence at the time, and neither of these makes a direct appeal to reason. But among the most characteristic poetry of the age was the essay poem. Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Criticism,” and “An Essay on Man,” are the two most important examples. In these poems England’s premier poet gave us first an explanation in heroic couplets of what poetry is and how it works, and a philosophical work aimed at “vindicat[ing] the ways of God to man.” In “An Essay on Man,” Pope translates the work of the German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz into verse.

 Delight, Satire, and the Limits of Reason

Reason grew to be more central to poetry than it had ever been. But, as noted above, that was not the whole story. There was then, as always, a debate about the nature and proper use of poetry. The two main poles of the eighteenth-century debate can be characterized by the two words “teach” and “delight.” The question was whether poetry should primarily teach us about the world or give us pleasure. All writers admitted both were important, but which one should be subordinated to the other?  What was the principle end, or purpose, of poetry?

Pope’s predecessor, John Dryden, tried to work out the relationship between teaching and pleasure this way: “Delight is the chief, if not the only end of poetry; instruction can be admitted but in the second place; for poesy only instructs as it delights.” Notice that he is struggling to maintain his preference for pleasure. He starts off by putting all the emphasis on “delight,” but immediately retreats and adds “instruction,” and then seems to suggest that “delight” is important because it is necessary for instruction—which makes us wonder if teaching is more important after all.

As noted, the two other types of poetry most characteristic of the age are satire and sentimental poetry. Satire is an ancient form of rhetoric that pokes fun at folly or vice with the moral purpose of correcting the error. The problem with folly (accepting things that are not true) and vice (acting in ways that are against one’s own best interests) is that they are unreasonable. Satire however aims at revealing the error of folly and vice not by reason but by mockery.

The most famous satire of the age is certainly Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock.” It is a long narrative poem which makes fun of a young woman’s anger at having a lock of her hair cut off by a suitor who is enraged because she has defeated him in a card game. Elevating the cutting of a lock of hair to the status of rape and presenting rape in terms of an epic military battle, the poem says, essentially, “aren’t you being irrational to throw away your future wealth and happiness for a lock of hair?”

Although satire uses hyperbole and mockery to make its point, the point is still to help the object of the satire laugh herself back onto the path of reason.[1]

The third type of poem that arose and became associated with the age is sentimental verse. Unlike satire, sentimental verse takes us entirely outside of reason. It was not anything Alexander Pope would have written. The rise of sentimental poetry, at first glance, may seem like an anomaly in the Age of Reason. Sentimental poetry does not draw on reason but on feeling alone and attempts to wring out of inherently emotional subjects (like pets and babies and motherhood) as much feeling as can be wrung—always more even than the subject rightly calls for. This marks a change from the poetry of previous times. It also becomes of the most roundly rejected aspects of the time by the centuries following the Enlightenment.

Whereas for example seventeenth century puritan poetry such as Edward Taylor’s “Upon Marriage and the Death of Children,” attempted to find consolation in the death of children, eighteenth century poetry is more likely to wring the greatest number of tears from the death of a  not merely a child, but even a pet, as in William Cowper’s “Epitaph on a Hare,” or even a field mouse, as in Robert Burns’ “To a Mouse,” which is subtitled “On turning up her nest with the plough, November 1783” and contains such sentiments as:

Thou saw the fields laid bare and waste,
And weary Winter comin’ fast,
And cozy here, beneath the blast,
Thou thought to dwell,
Till crash! the cruel coulter* passed                *plough
Out through thy cell.
That wee-bit heap o’ leaves an’ stibble
Has cost thee many a weary nibble!
Now thou’s turn’d out, for all thy trouble,
Both house or hold,
To thole* the Winter’s sleety dribble,           *endure
An’ cranreuch cold!*                                          *cold frost

A poor, innocent, little mouse has had his home wrecked by the massive, indifferent machinery of a farmer’s plough!

After the eighteenth century, sentimental poetry was universally rejected by serious poets because of its cheap effects and it attempt to draw strong emotional reactions from trivial events that do not deserve them. But it’s easy to see how “the Age of Reason” would come to value this type of poem. Reason at the time attempted to divide experience up into the most distinct units possible. In keeping with this, some poets, understanding that human nature includes both reason and feeling attempted to isolate feeling and perfect poetry that appealed only to that part of our being, with no sense of reason at all. Reason cuts up and compartmentalizes reality. Poetry follows suit.

Poetry of Social Conscience

Poetry had more to do in the century however than producing arguments and tears or raising or rescuing individuals from vice and folly. It was assumed at the time that poetry had an effect on the whole of society. It could be used to both conservative and liberal ends. And poets on all sides of the political divides did use poetry to advance their political ideologies. And they did so more actively than they had done in previous times and more successfully than they would manage in subsequent times. On the one side, for example, you have conservative verse like this from Dryden:

After hearing what our Church can say,
If still our Reason runs another way,
That private Reason ’tis more Just to curb,
Than by Disputes the publick Peace disturb.

Here Dryden admits that we as individuals may disagree with the church. But, for the sake of peace (not truth or conscience) we should accept what the church teaches and reject our own thought. Although the stated goal is peace, not truth, the sentiment is not unreasonable. “Private” reason is suspect because it is private. Individuals are very likely to reason badly. The opinion of the many (i.e. the public) therefore reasonably outweighs the opinion of the few.

On a more liberal side, we have the poetry of social conscience. It is where private reason is made public and therefore can be defended. We should note that “social conscience” is, of course, not confined to poetry. The important thing is that it was prominent in poetry as in other forms of writing. The poetry of social conscience is activist, more activist than satire. Satire aims to change the individual, but socially conscious poetry aims to change the world.

According to one critic,

A social conscience, propagated through poems, periodicals, novels, sermons, and philosophy, bore fruit in the works of welfare—the foundation of charity schools, of dispensaries providing medicine for the poor, and of bodies like the Marine Society…. and the Royal Humane Society…[2]

In fact poetry has always had a sense that part of its job was to do something in the world. Poets such as the American Carolyn Forché think this way even today. As noted, such poetry came to greater prominence in the eighteenth century and probably had the strongest effect it has ever had both because its activist tendencies were felt to be proper to it and because it was so widely read. It was an active part of the larger political conversation.

Among the best socially conscious poetry of the time was that of Phillis Wheatley, an African slave living in Boston. In poems like “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” and “His Excellency General Washington,” she promoted the dignity of African people and created and enhanced public sentiment in favor of the American Revolution (which was acknowledged by no less a figure than Washington himself).

How Poetry Circulated

Recall that in the Renaissance, poetry was supported by patronage. At the same time, and for the first time in the English-speaking world, it became possible to make money off the sale of printed books. Most of that money went to the printers and booksellers, though authors were often paid a fee for their work. By the end of the eighteenth century, the patronage system had come to an end. Starting in 1709, copyright law gave writers more control and rights over their work. It became increasingly possible for a poet or other writer to make a living as a writer and therefore no longer to depend upon a patron for survival. One way to do this was through the sale of written works just as is done to this day; another was through subscription. Established writers could make advance money from potential readers by having them pay in advance for a work. If the poet got enough advance money, he or she would write the poem. Great poets of significant reputation were very successful in selling their works this way.[2]

Subscription become possible because literacy exploded in the eighteenth century. This led to a huge increase in the publishing industry. Everyone was reading, and the industry did its best to supply the readers with books. Although poets and other writers were eager to teach and to enforce faith and morality, most readers were reading for mainly for entertainment or pleasure. And what they were reading was, increasingly, novels and other prose works. But the average reader was far more likely also to be reading poetry, the most prestigious of the language arts, than is the case today.

[1] It should be pointed out that the proper object of satire is not an individual but a type. The young woman of “The Rape of the Lock” properly represents not a specific young woman, but any young woman—or any person—whose vanity leads her to irrational actions.

[2] This practice is the forerunner of a phenomenon happening today in the music industry, whose former model of recording and sales becomes less viable due to easy internet pirating, at such sites as Pledgemusic.com

Video Lecture: The Age of Reason

Some Poems:

Johnathan Swift, “A Description of the Morning” (Links to an external site.)

John Gay, Airs from The Beggar’s Opera, “Greensleeves” (Links to an external site.)

Alexander Pope,, “An Essay on Man”

Thomas Gray, “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College,”

William Collins, “Ode to Evening” (Links to an external site.)

William Cowper, “Epitaph on a Hare,” 

Philis Wheatley, “To S.M., a Young African Painter, On Seeing His Works,”  (Links to an external site.)

“On Being Brought from Africa to America” (Links to an external site.)

Charlotte Smith, From The Emigrants: A Poem (Links to an external site.)

Robert Burns, “Tam O’Shanter”

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The Age of Reason by Alan Lindsay, PhD is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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