It was called the age of transition, because the drift of poetry of this period was towards Romanticism. It was the Romantic reaction, a rebellion against the classical domination. The “return to nature” is a name often given to one mode or feature of the Romantic reaction viz. the revival of the handling in poetry of subjects connected with external nature in a natural manner. Referring to this Romantic reaction Wyatt says: “Even while the fame of the classical poetry was at its height, the way was being prepared for its overthrow”.
Before Pope had reached the summit of his fame in the fourth decade of the century, James Thomson’s the Seasons (1730) had presented nature herself at first hand, not mere her conventional descriptions by poets who recommended her as a tonic to the town-weary, found a place once more in our literature, and was to find a larger one that at any earlier period.
Thomson’s The Seasons was the first noteworthy poem of the romantic revival; and the poems and poets increased steadily in number and importance till, in the age of Wordsworth and Scott, the spirit of romanticism dominated English literature more completely than Classicism had ever done. This Romantic Movement – (Victor Hugo says) liberalism in literature – is simply the expression of life as seen by imagination, rather than by prosaic “commonsense”, which was the central doctrine of English philosophy in the 18th century.
The Growth of Historical Research:
History appears late in English literature, for it presupposes a long apprenticeship of research and meditation. Like so many other things it was fostered in France, and it touched Scotland first. The general advance in knowledge and the research into national affairs which were the features of the 18th century culture quickly brought the study of history into prominence.
The historical school had a glorious leader in Gibbon, who was nearly, as much at home in the French language as he was in English.
Fielding and his kind dealt very faithfully with human life, and often were immersed in masses of sordid detain. In the wider sense of the word, the novelists were Romantics; for in sympathy and freshness of treatment they were followers of the new ideal.
The Influence on Poetry:
In 1740 we have Pope still alive and powerful, and Johnson as aspiring junior; in 1800, with Burns and Black, Romanticism has unquestionably arrived. Consequently:
1. Decline of the heroic couplet and free use of the Pindaric ode in the works of Gray and Collins.
2. The revival of the ballad.
3. The descriptive and narrative poems began – e.g. The Deserted Village.
4. The rise of lyric. The intense simplicity of the lyric of Burns and Blake.
Goldsmith adopts Pope’s heroic couple in The Deserted Village which is excellent poem of a didactic kind, exquisitely expressed. The Augustine principle of Reason and correctness came to be challenged. There was the raise of genuine imagination. There was also the protest against the bondage of rules.
The habit of writing leers became very popular during the 8th century and flourished till well into the 19th century, when the institution of the penny-post made letter-writing a convenience and not an art. It was this popularity of the letter that helped Richardson’s Pamela into public favor. In The Life of Johnson Boswell published many of Johnson’s letters.
There is a renewed appreciation of nature in the second half of the 18th century. The slogan was “A Return to Nature”. The nature was given due place in the classical poetry. But it was the conventional, bookish nature of the artificial pastoral and it dealt with urban life. Thus it was deficient in any genuine feeling for nature.
The poem The Seasons of Thomson reflects that he was an extremely careful observer of nature. It abounds in description of nature which is purely photographic. He was a describer and enumerator of nature which foreshadows great poets of nature i.e. Wordsworth and Shelley. The other precursors of the Romantic Reactions were Grey Collins, Blake and Burns whose poetry reveals an intimate knowledge and love of nature. Their attitude towards nature comes nearest to the Wordsworthian spirit.