According to Estatelearning, the eighteenth century in England was a century of supreme intellectual and literary wealth, of profound social (just think of the first industrial revolution) and cultural upheavals, which made it a crucial century for modern culture, and not only for English. The rise and affirmation of a new social class, the mercantilist bourgeoisie, favored or even determined the genesis and development of new literary genres such as the novel and the essay, as well as the slow reversal of the neoclassical ideals in which it recognized itself. and the ruling class entrenched itself for a few decades before gradually surrendering to the new romantic sensibility, which in England was already in full force at the turn of the century. The overthrow could not have been more complete, nor is the vastness of the phenomena more complex or the literary casuistry richer.
The most complete expression of neoclassicism, that of A. Pope (1688-1744) and, theoretically, of S. Johnson (1709-84), the literary arbiter of the period immortalized in the biography of J. Boswell (1740-95), is already contradicted by their mature works – the Dunciad in the first case, Rasselas in the other – and by the disintegrating and negating fury that animates the masterpieces of J. Swift (1667-1745). The vogue of the burlesque genre as it had manifested itself in J. Gay was enough to unhinge it (1685-1732), the progressive affirmation of sentimental comedy and the first manifestations of bourgeois drama. Against the courtly, enlightened and reasoning culture of the court and the upper classes, a new form of bourgeois culture was thus taking hold which expressed the ideals and nourished the expectations of the new class of merchants and which had the greatest strengths in the essay and in the novel. The former thrived in newspapers such as The Tatler and The Spectator, to which the names of Sir R. Steele (1672-1729) and J. Addison are inextricably linked. (1672-1719), and which are a bit like the mirror of the customs of the time. The eighteenth-century novel, in turn, by reconnecting itself to seventeenth-century diaristics and essays of a character, and skipping the epic-chivalric or pastoral experience, set itself from the beginning as an attempt to immediately mirror reality and lived life, finding in D. De Foe (ca. 1660-1731) the impulse and the practice of circumstantial realism, in S. Richardson (1689-1761) the epistolary model and in H. Fielding (1707-54) the commitment to a total representation of the society of the time.
The robustness, sometimes ribald, of the first was counterpointed by psychological casuistry and the moralistic-sentimental tendency of the second: both found their crowning glory in Fielding, the only one of the three who had a certain culture and who formal and structural problem of the novel, linking it to the model of the epic. But precisely because of that turbulent variability that was characteristic of the century, as soon as the new genre had reached and implemented its own form, which it consolidated in the novels of O. Goldsmith (1728-74) and TG Smollett (1721-71), it immediately became overturned and shattered by the intervention of the most original narrator of the period, that L. Sterne (1713-68) to which the definitive consecration of sensitivity (and sentimentality), of the psychological vibration that replaces the dominion of reason, is due in the eighteenth century. The troubled fate of the novel was sealed ever since. And if in the field of theater the anti-sentimental reaction of the aforementioned Goldsmith led to a revival of the brilliant comedy that found its greatest representative in RBB Sheridan (1751-1816), also in the field of poetry the sentimental taste and the elegiac tendency gained the upper hand., opening the doors to a taste that was already pre-romantic. The change in sensitivity is already noticeable in J. Thomson (1700-48); but it is above all in the sepulchral poetry of E. Young (1683-1765) and of the famous one Th. Gray (1716-71), in the elegiac and “nocturnal” vibrations of W. Collins (1721-59) and in the rediscovery of the medieval and barbaric theme of the historical past, which unites these two last poets, that pre-romanticism is already evident. In support of the new taste were the theories discussed by E. Burke (1729-97) in the Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas on the Sublime and Beautiful (1756; Philosophical investigation into the origin of our ideas of the sublime and the beautiful), the discovery of the Songs of Ossian by J. Macpherson (1736-96), the rediscovery of medieval ballads by Th. Percy (1729-1811); parallel phenomena were the manifestations of primitivism and exoticism found in W. Beckford (1760-1844) and H. Walpole (1717-97), to whom the vogue for the “black” novel is also due. continued uninterrupted to full romance. Totally pre-romantic, due to their mixture of new sensitivity and traditional poetic forms, of complete adherence to nature and still eighteenth-century language, of the taste for everyday life and unpaid tensions of overcoming, of peasant realism and sentimental wealth, poets like W. Cowper (1731) appear. -1800), G. Crabbe (1754-1832) and the Scotsman R. Burns (1759-96), through which the love of the fields and the longing for freedom, the fullness of the sensual man and the joy of direct contact with nature speak, recreated in the form of the song and in a language dialectal that has an immediate grip on reality. In Burns there are already the tremors and instances brought by the French Revolution (the liberating and terrible event with which the century awakens to new life), tremors and instances that also run through the early work of W. Blake (1757-1827), with which one truly arrives at the threshold or in the real penetrals of romanticism.