Betwixt Two Ages Cast;
Just How Long Is the Long Eighteenth Century?

By Jack Lynch,
Rutgers University — Newark

Delivered 13 April 2000 at the ASECS annual meeting in Philadelphia

How fitting that I'm reading this paper in Y2K, just a few months after every news organization on the planet heralded the dawn of the twenty-first century. Now, I don't begrudge anyone's New Year's party — there's something appealing about watching the odometer turn over from 1999 to 2000 — but, as a nitpicking pedant, I can't suppress the nagging awareness that this century still has a few months to go. Owing to a confusion of cardinal and ordinal numbers, 2000 is not the beginning of a new age but the end of the old: the last year of the twentieth century and of the second millennium. So in referring to our own century, those who strive for precision have to shuffle uncomfortably and choose to be either belligerent or apologetic toward the less finicky. The question you'd think would have the most straightforward possible answer — "What century is it?" — can only be answered by beginning, "Well, it depends. . . ." I bring up this uncomfortable shuffling because it's apropos for students of seventeenth-century literature. When asked what should be a straightforward question — "What century is that work?" — we have to answer, "Well, it depends. . . ."

Now, the "E" in our professional organization's name suggests we're not concerned with the seventeenth century. But when we teach Rochester and Dryden, we have a de facto professional interest in it. We all know that England's notoriously "long" eighteenth century has swallowed up around half of the seventeenth and, depending on who's counting, perhaps a third of the nineteenth. In some reckonings, "our" century stretches from 1640 to 1832 — a 192-year century. (In an ASECS plenary session a few years ago, Earl Miner referred to the long eighteenth century as spanning the years from 1066 to World War I.) Like Berlin after the War, the seventeenth century is partitioned between scholars of the Renaissance and those of the Restoration and eighteenth century. Meanwhile, at the other end of our century, some of our Romanticist cousins — feeling crowded between "long" eighteenth and nineteenth centuries — have proposed "the Romantic century," running from 1750 to 1850.

1640, 1660, 1700, 1750 — note that pleasingly round numbers influence our calculations. We thank Wordsworth and Coleridge for publishing in 1798, which is close enough to a century boundary for all practical purposes, and lets us divide our anthology chapters and survey courses at a good round number. Margreta de Grazia poses an intriguing counterfactual: suppose Dionysius Exiguus decided to start reckoning years anno domini not from Christ's birth but from his death. That would make Shakespeare unambiguously a sixteenth-century writer; it would put the Caroline dramatists at the beginning of a century stretching through Milton and Dryden to Pope and Swift; and it would give us an eighteenth century that begins with, say, Johnson, and stops neatly at the threshold of Victoria's reign. Would such an arbitrary movement of double-nought dates make us reconceive our literary periods?

Doubtless it would do something. But dates, however important, aren't the whole story. They work well with some unambiguous cases: Pope, whose career stretches from around 1710 to 1743, is squarely in the eighteenth century. Dryden is pure Restoration: notwithstanding some forgettable early verse, his important works began appearing in 1660, and he had the decency to die in 1700, leaving our chronologies pleasantly tidy. But not all writers were so considerate of later historians in choosing when to live and die. What do we do with writers who do us the discourtesy of spanning two periods? More important, there are border-crossings on both sides: Renaissance scholars claim Milton as their own, and eighteenth-century scholars have taken Denham in return, even though Paradise Lost appeared in 1667 and Cooper's Hill in 1642. Literary periods can be surprisingly elastic.

This matters for several reasons. First, epochal turf-wars have implications for who studies what and how: students reading Paradise Lost alongside Locke may well produce different interpretations than those who read it with Bodin or Lipsius. But more important, periods are all about identity. When we divvy up writers like children choosing teams on a playground — "I call Marvell!" "I call Pomfret!" — we determine the characters of the two ages. To decide what is eighteenth-century is to decide what the eighteenth century is.

But rarely is the dynamics of cultural periodization given much thought. Most people simply accept it without question; others reject it wholeheartedly. But few have examined the received periodization of seventeenth-century literature sympathetically, trying to understand the implied characters attributed to the two ages by the very act of associating writers with them. The curious fact is that virtually all writers have been slotted into one era or the other, and with remarkable unanimity — as if by common consent. I'll grant noteworthy exceptions, but nearly all the institutional mechanisms of periodization — anthologies, literary histories, survey courses, professional organizations — concur in their implicit judgments of what makes a Renaissance writer a Renaissance writer and an eighteenth-century writer an eighteenth-century writer. It's like watching someone in the Post Office sorting letters by Zip Code. Cowley? — Renaissance. Milton? — definitely Renaissance. Denham? — eighteenth century. Carew? — Renaissance. Bunyan? — eighteenth century. Browne? — Renaissance. Waller? — eighteenth century. And on they go, each one shooting into the appropriate slot. But who made the call? — on what grounds?

The question can't be answered with reference only to twentieth-century scholarship: it takes us back to the late seventeenth century itself. I've argued elsewhere that this period marks a historiographical turning point. We know the story of the Renaissance: beginning with Petrarca, the Florentine humanists of the fifteenth century propagandized themselves as radically "modern," and in so doing they created a "last age" — what we've come to call the Middle Ages. (They called it Middle too, but were more fond of the polemic adjective "Dark.") A new historiographical scheme was put in place, one with three terms: ancient, middle, modern. From its origin in the late fourteenth century, the new paradigm remained essentially intact in European thought for about three hundred years.

By the late seventeenth century, the humanists' tripartite historical model was firmly in place, and was summarized most effectively for a learned audience by Cellarius. But paradoxically, at the very time that the humanist periodization was receiving its definitive form, this vision of a homogeneous modern period came to seem inadequate, at least in England. Dryden's and Pope's contemporaries, that is to say, no longer thought of themselves as belonging to the same modernity as Erasmus and Shakespeare. The three-term system of ancient, medieval, and modern needed a new term: modernity had grown unwieldy, and had to be split in two. British writers of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, in other words, made the same sort of declaration of modernity that humanists like Petrarch and Erasmus had made centuries earlier. Indistinct at first, the new dividing line was firmly in place by the end of the eighteenth century, and it soon became common to refer to the era of Spenser and Shakespeare as "the last age."

That term requires caution. Sometimes "the last age" is charged with millenarian meanings — the final age — and "age" is sometimes a mere synonym for "century." But another sense of "age" is less arbitrary, for Johnson's first definition is "Any period of time attributed to something as the whole, or part, of its duration: in this sense, we say, the age of man, the several ages of the world, the golden or iron age." This was what many writers had in mind: they belonged to a new age, and history had a new chapter.

Epochal ruptures of this sort are often the source of great cultural anxiety: just think of similar moments after the French Revolution and the Great War. But Dryden — among the first to express this sense of a new age — saw not a threat but an opportunity: "'Tis well an Old Age is out,/ And time to begin a New." And, like the early humanists, he hoped to claim the liminal position between ages for his own: "Let him retire, betwixt two Ages cast,/ The first of this, and hindmost of the last."1

We can see similar awareness of the division between the old age and the new in many writers. The eighteenth century was the first to attempt synoptic accounts of English literary history. Though all attempts were abortive before Thomas Warton's great History in 1775, Alexander Pope planned a history of English poetry, and his notes toward it, dividing history into two "æras," survive.2 The first "æra" comprises the "School of Provence" (including "Chaucer's Visions" and Gower), the "School of Chaucer" (Lydgate, Occleve, Skelton), the "School of Petrarch" (Surrey, Wyatt, Sidney), and the "School of Dante" (Sackville). "Æra II" is derived from "SPENCER, Col. Clout, from the School of Ariosto and Petrarch, translated from Tasso," and begins with the "School of Spencer, and From Italian Sonnets" (Fletcher, Alabaster, "Milton's Juvenilia," Fairfax), and concludes with the omnibus category of the "School of Donne" (Cowley, Davenant, Drayton, Cleveland, Crashaw, Carew, Sandys). Pope's scheme, with its elaborate poetic genealogies, is complicated, but the first thing to strike modern eyes is just how far it is from our own schemes of literary history, how counterintuitive his periodization is. A Renaissance in which Alabaster and Sandys are representative figures is hard for us to appreciate.

Thomas Gray too hoped to write such a history; he received Pope's sketch, and passed along to Thomas Warton "any fragments, or sketches of a design" he had completed. The most notable thing about this sketch, however, is the way his four parts correspond to our own period conceptions. In the decades between Pope's and Gray's schemes, it seems, the more lasting and familiar outline of English literary history was born. Part one of Gray's plan, "the School of Provence," is devoted to early Middle English poetry "from the Conquest . . . to the reign of Edward the 3d." His second part is what we call the high Middle Ages: "Chaucer, . . . Gower, Occleve, Lydgate, . . . &c." Part three, the "Second Italian School (of Ariosto, Tasso, &c:) an improvement on the first, occasion'd by the revival of letters at the end of the 15th century," corresponds almost perfectly to our twentieth-century notion on Renaissance literature: beginning with "Ld Surrey, Sr T. Wyat . . . &c: in the beginning of the 16th century," it runs through "Spenser . . . Drayton, . . . &c.: this school ends in Milton," with a parallel course comprising "A third Italian School, full of conceit, begun in Q: Elizabeths reign, continued under James, & Charles the first by Donne, Crashaw, Cleveland; carried to its height by Cowley, & ending perhaps in Sprat." With the end of the Renaissance and the beginning of the long eighteenth century comes the fourth part, the "School of France, introduced after the Restoration. Waller, Dryden, Addison, Prior, & Pope, wch has continued down to our own times."3 Enter Augustan poetics, on its way to its eventual triumph.

Blanford Parker's book, which gives the title to this session, is concerned with what makes the eighteenth century, whenever it began, the eighteenth century, and how we can tell it apart from the seventeenth. The Triumph of Augustan Poetics traces "the process whereby English culture moved from the acrobatic credulity of Browne to the cool and abject skepticism of Hume"4 — or, in Parker's preferred terms, the disappearance of "Baroque" culture and the rise of "Augustanism" — which he traces to the decline of analogy and the rise of literalism. This is a good answer, and it's even an eighteenth-century answer: Johnson famously distinguished Cowley's age from his own on just such grounds. Cowley's truth, he said, was like "gold . . . so concealed in baser matter that only a chymist can recover it."5

But this was not the only, nor even the most common, criterion the eighteenth century used to distinguish its own productions from those of the last age. The most important was sublimity, a quality they found abundant in many poets of the seventeenth century and lacking in their own age. Milton, of course, was the foremost poet of the sublime. Addison's early formulation is well known: "Milton's chief Talent," he says, "and indeed his distinguishing Excellence, lies in the Sublimity of his Thoughts."6 John Dennis likewise argues that "Milton . . . carried away the Prize of Sublimity from both Ancients and Moderns," and calls sublimity "his distinguishing and Characteristick Quality, . . . which sets him above Mankind."7 Now, it may seem that readings of Milton that emphasize ostensibly timeless sublimity over historicity are themselves thoroughly ahistorical. But the sublime is in fact deeply implicated in history. Sublimity serves as its own epochal marker. The syllogism was simple, if not entirely valid: Milton was sublime; Milton was of his age; ergo, the age was sublime.

Readers saw the Miltonic sublime in many authors of the last age, most notably in Shakespeare. Joseph Warton divides English poets into four classes, the first containing only the Renaissance triumvirate: "In the first class, I would place our only sublime and pathetic poets, Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton."8 He thereby groups the three most imposing canonical poets of the last age under the rubric of sublimity. And Robert Anderson grants even the decorous Ben Jonson "a strong, and sometimes sublime vein of poetry,"9 although a less "sublime" poet is hard for modern readers to imagine.

And with the periodic marker of the sublime comes, as a corollary, the periodic marker of the sublime genre, the epic — which, pace Blackmore, was sorely missing in eighteenth-century poetics. Other genres were parceled between the two ages: eighteenth-century writers were willing to give most lyric poetry to the last age, and claimed satirical, locodescriptive, and didactic poetry as their own. Such an agreement colored their literary histories. "No Satires," says Thomas Warton — incorrectly, we should note — "were written till towards the latter end of [Queen Elizabeth's] reign, and then but a few," and elsewhere he refers to "Satire, that bane of the sublime." His brother contrasts "WIT and SATIRE" with Milton's "NATURE and PASSION."10

After sublimity, the most important epochal criterion the eighteenth century used to distinguish itself from the last age was propriety, both in its broad sense and in the more limited sense of suitably refined poetics. Even Shakespeare is chided for his inappropriate and promiscuous blending of high and low, his quibbles, and his fondness for ghosts, although most critics blame not Shakespeare but his childish age for these improprieties. And the eighteenth century was positively vain about its advances in diction and versification; Johnson censures Cowley on these grounds — "He makes no selection of words, nor seeks any neatness of phrase" — and charges that the metaphysical poets' "modulation was so imperfect that they were only found to be verses by counting the syllables."11

That, then, is how the eighteenth century imagined itself, and how it imagined itself in relation to its predecessors. And the results of that historical imagination are with us still in the form of our periodic division between the Renaissance and the eighteenth century. The age of Pope claimed for itself all that was polished, regular, and satirical, and left for their predecessors the rude, clumsy, and indecorous. They ceded sublimity for propriety, traded Milton for Denham, and at first this seemed a pretty good bargain. It wasn't long before the eighteenth century began to regret the deal and to long wistfully for what they had earlier rejected — but that's a subject for another day.


1. "The Secular Masque," lines 90-91; Prologue to Aureng-Zebe, lines 21-22. Quotations from Dryden's verse are from The Works of John Dryden, ed. Edward Niles Hooker and H. T. Swedenborg, Jr., 21 vols. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1956-).

2. The scheme appears in Ruffhead's Life of Alexander Pope (London, 1769), p. 425. See Lawrence Lipking, The Ordering of the Arts in Eighteenth-Century England (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1970), pp. 334-38, for commentary on this early sketch of English literary history.

3. The Correspondence of Thomas Gray, ed. Paget Toynbee and Leonard Whibley, 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1935), 3:1122-24; to Thomas Warton, 15 April 1770.

4. The Triumph of Augustan Poetics (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1998), p. 24.

5. Life of Cowley, in The Lives of the Poets, ed. G. B. Hill, 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1905), 1:59.

6. The Spectator, ed. Donald F. Bond, 5 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), 2:587 (no. 279). Johnson quotes the passage in his Dictionary, s.v. sublimity, 3.

7. Critical Works, ed. Edward Niles Hooker, 2 vols. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1939-1943), 2:221-22.

8. An Essay on the Writings and Genius of Alexander Pope (London, 1756), 1:7.

9. Works of the British Poets: With Prefaces, Biographical and Critical, ed. Robert Anderson, 13 vols. (Edinburgh, 1792-95), 4:529.

10. The History of English Poetry, 4 vols. (London, 1775-81), 3:500; Observations on the Fairy Queen of Spenser, 2nd ed., 2 vols. (London, 1762), 2:111; Essay on Pope, 1:334.

11. Life of Cowley, in Lives, 1:59, 19.