English 245 with Dr. G @ SUNY TC3
Syllabus & Schedule
Wife of Bath
12. Play of Mankind
Twelfth Night 2
An Age of Irreverence
Rape of the
An Age of Irreverence
The Restoration and Eighteenth Century
Vol. 1C, pages
2121-2144 and 2174-2193
Longman 3rd ed.
"Restoration and 18th Century" and "The Royal Society"
also available online at
Brief Lives ia also available at
ASSIGNMENTS FOR THIS LESSON
The lesson includes both a quiz and a journal writing assignment to be
submitted on the interactive course site at
SUNY Learning Network.
Write for an hour (or more if you have
time). Make notes you will find useful on the
final essay. Some
other journaling ideas for today might include:
How would you
describe the writing styles of the authors represented in today's
What seems modern and
what seems dated in these readings?
Why should we read any British writers prior to the Restoration, other than
maybe Francis Bacon? Why read any literature written before the age
Longman cover with Sir Joshua Reynolds, "Mrs. Abington
as Miss Prue."
Pictures tell the story of the age, as
illustrated in the frontispiece of the book. (How does it differ from the
earlier frontispieces? what does it show and suggest about the culture
General instructions on Journaling
this course. For a sample journal, see
Dr. G's 2007 Brit Lit 1 Journal.
Adapted by Dr. G from David Damrosch, et al.,
(New York: Longman, 2003)
the Renaissance is "early modern," then the
are a lot more modern. This era has been called
Age of Reason and Neo-Classical Age, to signify a time
when serious thinking emerged from
"middle" ages constrained by faith or superstition. Yet this great
new age of discovery and science was as playful and fun-loving as
might call it the Age of Irreverence. Some reverent things happened (the development of
religion, for example), and it was commonly thought at this time that the new
science would lead to real knowledge of God's plan for the universe.
Nevertheless, the questioning of authority begun in the late Middle Ages
reached fruition only after the English Civil War and commonwealth
period [Lesson 20]. Results included overhauls of religion
and government, the economy and work, technology and science,
Left: another provocative portrait
of Mrs. Abington by Sir Joshua Reynolds (cir. 1764-73).
Our textbook captures the refined and
spirit of this time with its cover, Reynolds' portrait of "Mrs. Abington as Miss Prue," the famous actress
elegantly and provocatively
posed. (What actresses did we see in prior periods?)
Have a look at the century-spanning portraits of women
that punctuate the general introduction. (What changes do they trace?)
Above all, see
Hogarth's A Rake’s Progress, which tracks one fop's demise through
the culture's eight
most central places (home, salon, tavern, square, church,
gambling den, Newgate,
Compare this progression to the medieval
stations of the cross!
The new age saw the introduction of
revolution and world trade, the construction of
coffeehouses and public
transportation, the rise of
scientific method and banking, the decline
of the monarchy and Anglicanism, and the burgeoning of novels, satires,
diaries, and self-expression in general. It was the time of
Glorious Revolution and
American Revolution. Change began to be seen as
progress rather than decay. Free thinking and tolerance came into vogue, and
personal quests for pleasure, wealth and political freedom lost much of
their former stigma.
Slavery was questioned and, finally, in 1772 declared to be contrary to
class system also was transformed. In the middle ages, society had
consisted of "the three estates": those who fought (the aristocracy or
landed gentry), those who prayed (church officials), and those who worked (peasants). This had come down from the ancient British
warriors, Druids and commons observed by Caesar. By the Restoration, however,
Brits began to be divided less by work than by money. The new orders were
middle class, and
lower class, as defined mainly by wealth--a social
arrangement more rigid
than in Anglo-America today but more fluid than in preindustrial times.
In sum, this Britain is our mother world. We begin to feel at home here,
at least if we feel at home in our time.
Left: Is this the first British
rock star? It's the first British
John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (1647-1680), crowning his inspiring monkey
with laurel. Some of the poems appear in our book (2345-3456).
The New Science
Science in the seventeenth century is rooted in
irreverence for literature--the belief that we can learn more from
nature than from our forefathers, even the ancient sagacious writers of
Israel, Greece or Rome. Experimental method accorded new centrality to
the data supplied by the senses. As
Sprat observes at one point in his
History of the Royal Society, fellows of the Royal
Society feel surest when
inquiring into “things” that can “be brought within their own touch and
sight.” They feel less secure about evidence for which they are
“forced to trust the reports of others.”
This poses an interesting new question for literature: if nobody is too
impressed with lies any more, how can a writer, a maker of mere "reports," engage readers' senses? One answer appears
where our eyes take in directly the drawn-up data—even as the data,
obtained by means of microscope, alert us to the inadequacy of human
vision heretofore. A somewhat more subtle answer appears in
biographies that deal very abundantly in things touched, smelled, tasted,
counted. (To compile a quick catalog:
Bacon’s aversion to neat’s leather, his strong beer, his snowstuffed
goose . . .) Sprat
himself returns repeatedly to the ideal (to be savagely mocked by
satirist Jonathan Swift) that words can attain the “nakedness,”
specificity, and palpability of things. Throughout this period, writers
of various kinds sought to close the gap between the word for a thing,
or the appearance of a thing, and the thing itself.
Thomas Sprat and the Royal Society
In phrases key to this "Perspectives" section of our
textbook, Sprat emphasizes the importance of incompletion in the
fellows’ work: “their purpose was to heap up a mixed mass of
experiments, without digesting them into any perfect model,” and to
present their reports “not as complete schemes of opinions, but as bare,
unfinished histories” (2127). How does each of these writers in the
writing itself--its structure, diction, style--attempt to convey the
sense of a heap, a mixed mass, an unfinished history, an unsolved puzzle? In what ways—and
for what reasons—do the writers complicate this agenda by insinuating
order, hypothesis, point, and rhetorical flourish in their prose?
Left: the microscope used for the Royal
Society of London by Robert Hooke.
In many authors of this period, and in Sprat in
particular, old contends with new. Sprat was a theologian hired to defend the Royal Society's
scientific project from religious attacks, and his writing style is
generally at odds with his
message. His words are most ornately rhetorical when denouncing ornate rhetoric. His
scornful rejections of “this vicious abundance of phrase, this trick of
metaphors, this volubility of tongue,” and of “all the amplifications,
digressions, and swellings of style,” are both instances of the
Ciceronian tricolon (or three-parter), that amplified
or copious style that had long afforded writers and orators the kind of
prefabricated grandeur that Sprat criticizes.
Sprat is aware of his
style in which [this history] is written,” he confesses in his preface,
“is larger and more contentious than becomes that purity and shortness
which are the chief beauties of historical writings.” For this fault he
blames the Society’s detractors. So severe are their attacks, Sprat
argues, that he must use all of the rhetorical resources available to
him. He just doesn't get it.
In Philosophical Transactions
(a scientific journal established in 1665 and still published as I write
the newly developing genre of the periodical provided a near-perfect
implementation of the “mixed mass” and the “unfinished history.” The
table of contents for each number blazoned an ostentatious variety of
topics. In the matter of “the monstrous calf,” erroneous observations in
the first number are comfortably corrected in the second.
conjectures about ambergris, though erroneous in themselves, fulfill
flawlessly the Society’s agenda for inquiry: its proud dependence on
information gathered by merchants and “mechanicks” engaged with the real
world; its use of a manuscript “journal” (another mode of periodical) in
which the data are recorded fresh, at the time and place of their first
Hooke sustains a continual traffic between small things and great.
He asserts, throughout his text, that the microscope’s
minutiae have much to teach us about Creation and about the “true
philosophy” in which Hooke and his colleagues are engaged. Yet the
connections between facts and conclusions are tentative, cautiously
subject to revision.
repeatedly confesses his subordinate social status (real enough at the
Royal Society), which probably made it seem to his aristocratic bosses
that they were the discoverers, and yet they often were annoyed that
Hooke went off on his own priorities. One discovery they were making is
that the world of science, even though it requires funding, actually belongs to those who do it.
Hooke’s preface highlights the double status of the human senses in the
Society’s agenda: the senses are essential, and they are sadly feeble. New instruments
are needed to extend their reach and
refine their grasp. Hooke promptly remakes this point, with subtle
the book's first illustrative plate, showing a printed period (or full stop) many times
magnified. The plate leads us into
the book’s central revelation: we have looked at things all our
days, but we have not seen them as they are.
Having seen the period in the plate, we cannot
look at text on any page in quite the same way again, and so we read
more carefully, we begin to experiment with alphabets that are less
difficult for the human eye to distinguish, and in general we
advance into that collaborative process of skeptical
inquiry which the Society so prized. Hooke draws us there again and
again by inviting us to do our own “work” on the plates he presents, as
at the end of his commentary on the flea.
Hooke’s flea seems to have produced the
most shock and fascination of any of his plates, partly because of the
implicit violence of the image (see the metaphors of armor and weaponry
that Hooke deploys in his description) but partly too because the
picture was a foldout, glued into the book but four times the size of
the book’s normal page. Having perhaps become accustomed to the
magnifications on early pages, the reader was confronted here, at the
very end of the book, with expansion expanded—and with the implication
its attendant inquiries would prove an unending program, of which this
was a first installment of bare, unfinished history.
"Philosophy" and "science" were closely related terms in the 17th
century. One meant pursuit of knowledge, and the other meant knowledge.
Hooke's period (full stop), left, gaves him the idea that secret code
can be devised by shrinking text to miniature size, readable only by
Left: Hooke's flea. With the
Restoration, some Brits
started over by looking more closely at things.
Brief Lives are unfinished history incarnate: even
in this copious array of notes towards biography, he leaves blanks that
he never gets around to filling in. The real question is what makes them
so pleasurable as prose and so persuasive, in their own way, as
biography. It may be best to hear a few items read aloud, some short
(Bacon’s “hazel eye,” Harvey’s “young wench”) and some longer (Harvey’s
involvement at Edgehill, with its striking train of narrative thought),
and to ask, one by one, what effects Aubrey achieves in these items and
how he achieves them. One key may lie in Sprat’s recurrent praise of
“naked” language (and “bare” history).
Aubrey’s anecdotes seem unadorned, unmediated, as though rawly reported
in accord with the credo, “first thought, best thought.” At the same
time, Aubrey is conspicuously and pervasively present, as gatherer (“Mr.
Hobbes told me. . .”) and as shaper: it seems, for example, that
with a few reservations Aubrey admires both Bacon and Harvey,
though he does not directly say so. At least he presents his subjects as
worthy of note.
Yet Aubrey reveals warts and all. Bacon is not only a
great scholar and wit: he takes bribes and molests boys! The Brief
Lives are entirely new in their realism--or scandal or gossip or
whatever. Before Aubrey with some exceptions, biography normally was
used for moral teaching. Characters exemplified good or bad conduct,
saints (Foxe's Book of Martyrs) or sinners (Thomas More's
Richard III). In
most cases, the biographer did not know the subject personally or
through acquaintances but only through books and imagination. Which is it:
does Aubrey apply scientific method in order to tell the complex truth, or is he merely a gossip collector showing how well connected
he is to important people of the day?
Dueling Prose Styles
contrasts in style with the selections in our anthology from
Lives of the Poets
Historical Narrative of the Rebellion (recall "the Death of
Montrose" in Lesson 20). Aubrey
offers informal, clipped, simple sentences. (And sentence
fragments!) Johnson and Hyde, however, use formal Ciceronian periods. The
formal and informal, or
middle styles, have separate purposes. The high sentence expresses, as
syntax, those “perfect [i.e., polished, completed] models” of thought
that Sprat could not resist using when denouncing his opponents. On the other hand, the
middle style, also known as the "running style" or "Senecan
style," embodies the provisional, the observed, the sense of history unfinished,
which Sprat celebrated. This style eventually developed into today's "plain
using the fewest words that clearly convey the meaning, usually in
(subject-verb-object) order. It is our familiar ideal in almost all nonfiction prose.
The high and middle styles battled through the eighteenth century.
Comic novelist Henry Fielding
and other humorists used periodic sentences to describe to lowly
subjects; Daniel Defoe
and other journalists used running
sentences to provide a sense of
Writers often used the two modes on different occasions.
For instance, Samuel Pepys
used ornate Ciceronian “public prose” in speeches, but he chose a far
plainer style for his informal data-driven diary. We live in a much less
ornate world today, but dressing up and
dressing down, British writers of the 17th and 18th centuries were keenly aware of how their words looked in
Aubrey inaugurates the scandal
sheet that has become the standard fare in popular English media.
Below: Frontispiece to the History
of the Royal Society. Crowning King Charles II are the first president
of the society Christopher Wren (left) and the Elizabethan philosopher
of science Francis Bacon (right)
For criticism and mockery of Hooker
and Sprat, see Margaret Cavendish, "Observations upon Experimental
Philosophy" (Damrosch 2203-2205) and "A Voyage to Laputa" in Jonathan
Swift's Gulliver's Travels (Damrosch 2532-2536). Gulliver is
especially taken with an experiment that would abolish all words and use
only things themselves for expression (2535). Cavendish mistakenly
believes the natural world is only what we see, that the microscope
produces only unnatural distortions. Her view is likely to have been
shared by many.
The Royal Society
maintains a web page. Some famous
Royal Society papers
are also collected online.
Micrographia by Robert Hooke (with plates) at Project Gutenberg.
Robert Hooke web site
English Bill of
Rights 1689 from the Yale Law School
Great Fire of London from BBC
Industrial revolution links
Samuel Pepys Diary
Know of an
excellent website that would wonderfully complement this lesson? Please send it to Dr. G.
2008 by Gary Homer Gutchess