Literature 1660-1789: Dangerous Liaisons

Pepys, you stallion. Wikipedia can barely contain you.

The third and final module this semester goes by the name of From Satire to Sensibility: Literature 1660-1789. It starts where the Renaissance stopped, and the party was over — or was it? In fact, with Cromwell’s Commonwealth shut down and the Restoration of Charles II to the throne, a whole new party was about to open its doors. This is the period where the theatres finally started to use women to portray female characters (turns out you can only fool people for so many hundreds of years), where the libertines like the Earl of Rochester wrote poems so rude it’s hard to believe someone from so long ago could have had the vocabulary or imagination (turns out people have always had terrible, terrible minds), where diarists like Samuel Pepys logged their ordinary and extraordinary days in colourful detail (turns out that waking up covered in ‘spewing’ is the sign of a day that ended ‘with joy every where’), and where the modern novel was starting to be conceived (turns out Daniel Defoe really loved lying).

Some of the other famous names of writers operating in this period are Alexander Pope, Thomas Gray, and Jonathan Swift. Yes, the very same Jonathan Swift who shamelessly copied the 2010 Jack Black movie Gulliver’s Travels. The most important word in the era seems to have been ‘wit’. ‘Wit’ was what separated you from the animals — and in Thomas Hobbes’s case, perhaps not even that. In the plays of Etherege and Wycherley, the dashing libertines fire off wit at one another and brutally mock anyone unfortunate enough to be lacking in it. Wit was the currency. It may not be as hard to read as Shakespeare, but the witty exchanges of the characters do require a fair amount of invested time. And get ready for random capitalisation of the first letters of random words in the novels because that’s here in force. This period does have its own very distinct atmosphere that makes itself known in literature.

Reading these works, you can really feel the gap between our modern days and the days of the Renaissance being bridged. This semester stretches across the whole of the last millennium, starting at the beginning in the medieval period, then moving on to the Restoration before finally settling around the twentieth century. It means you never get locked in one time period, which is always a plus because without a time machine and 1.21 gigawatts of electricity you’d struggle to get back to the 21st century.

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About Richard

Richard graduated in the Summer of 2014. Richard was writing about the final year of his English degree, having just returned from an Erasmus year in Turin.

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