Poetry in the 18th century [interactive timeline & timemap]

Whether we realise it or not, the things we have experienced in our lives shape our thoughts and our opinions. This is something that a lot of creative people use to their advantage in their works. Everyone from musicians to playwrights to, of course, poets, use their experiences and the things that they have been through when they are putting together their creative masterpieces. This is why, if you assess a poet’s work, you will see common themes throughout, such as religion, nature, life and death, and so on.

Consequently, I decided to put together a timeline and timemap of the 18th century. You can take a look at the main poets that lived during this time as well as some of the main events that occurred, both in regards to the poet’s life and general events that were going on around the world.

What Was Poetry Like in the 18th Century?

First, let’s take a look at 18th century poetry in general. Poetry during this period was often didactic and moralising because of the hard realities of the time. The style and form of poetry has widely been praised, as it possessed a certain charm and quaintness. The dominant style during this period was Neoclassicism. This style is characterised by harmony, balance, and order.

Abstract and grandiose themes also became popular during this period while the individual was secondary. Another popular theme was nature, and satire was also prevalent during this time. Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope were two of the most distinguished satirical writers. Other themes worth noting were death, humanitarianism, love, and English life and culture.

It is worth noting that during this period only the upper middle class and aristocracy read poetry. This is something that has often been criticised. However, it is important to bear in mind that the poets of the time were educated men, and thus they wrote their works for people who would understand what they had to say. Not everyone had the ability to relate to the aesthetic beauty that these poets referred to.

The Timeline and Timemap

Now that you have a little bit of background regarding poetry in the 18th century, let’s take a look at the timeline and the timemap in further depth. The timeline spans the entire 18th century, and events are marked throughout. You will see that each event is marked with a colour, which is to represent a poet, except from red, which is used to signify any events of global historical context. The same colour coded scheme is used for the timemap. However, as you have no doubt gathered, everything is marked based on location as opposed to time. Altogether, this gives you a clear picture of what was going in the world and the life of poets, and when it was happening. You can then draw your own conclusions on what shaped the world of poetry during this century.

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Featured 18th century poets

Let’s take a look at a few of the most popular poets from that century that are featured on the timeline and timemap.

Jonathan Swift

As mentioned earlier, Jonathan Swift was one of the key satirical poets of the century. For those who are unaware, satire is the use of exaggeration, irony, humour, or ridicule in order to criticise and expose the vices or stupidity of people, especially in regards to topical issues, such as politics. This is interesting when you consider that Swift published a political pamphlet in 1701 entitled ‘A Discourse on the Contests and Dissentions in Athens and Rome.’ He did so anonymously. Perhaps he turned to satire as a better way to get his point across? Swift addressed many issues in his satirical pieces. In a Tale of the Tub, which was published in 1704, he tackled the topic of religion. It is a prose satire that is meant to defend the Anglican Church. However, a lot of contemporary readers deem it as an attack on all religion. It is also interesting to note that Swift met Esther Vanhomrigh in 1707, yet a Journal to Stella was wrote three years later, from 1710 to 1713. A Journal to Stella was a series of love letters wrote to Esther Johnson, who was known as Stella. Whether they married and, if so why it was not made public, is something that has been debated for many years. Esther Vanhomrigh was also a long time lover of Swift. His letters to her were published after she passed away in 1923. Vanessa was a nickname given to her; he took Van from her surname and matched it with Esse, a pet name from her first name.

Phillis Wheatley

It would not be right to mention 18th century poetry without taking a look at Phillis Wheatley, who was the first published female African-American poet. There is no denying that Phillis’ experiences shaped her work. She was captured in 1761 and then sold later in the same year. Although she was a slave to John Wheatley and his wife, they educated her in Greek and Latin, and, as you know, she then went on to write highly acclaimed poetry. As you can see from the timeline, she was taught to read in 1762, and then she began to write poetry in 1767. She published her first poem at the end of that year, entitled On Messrs Huffin and Coffin. A lot of her works centred on morals and religion. With one of her most memorable poems, Atheist, published in 1769 – a mere two years after she started writing poetry. Remarkably, she had to testify in court that she wrote the poems in 1772, as many people doubted a slave would be able to do so. In 1776, she was invited to see George Washington, but several years prior Susannah Wheatley died and not long after so did John Wheatley. You will notice that there were no poems published around this time. While Wheatley was free of slavery, she struggled financially, which resulted in her husband being imprisoned for unpaid debts in 1784. She died in the same year.

Alexander Pope

Alexander Pope is another poet known for his incredible use of satire. One of the most notable events on the calendar is when he met poet John Carlyll in 1705. Carlyll is credited with introducing Pope into the London literary scene. Four years later, Pope published his first piece of work called Pastorals. He produced his most famous piece of work in 1712, The Rape of the Lock. The satirical poem is long, funny, and a slice of genius. He uses a ridiculous situation, such as cutting off a friend’s lock of hair, to actually try and heal the wounds of two families. It is an excellent piece of mock epic satire. It gently chides the Fermor family, as Arabella Fermor’s hair was cut off by Lord Petre. Significantly, it was actually John Carlyll who suggested that Pope write the piece.

John Newton

The final poet we are going to take a look at is John Newton. If you take a look at the timemap, you will see that Newton lost his mother at an early age. This resulted in him going on sea journeys with his father from the mere age of 11 years old, which he continued to do until his father retired. Newton later went on to become a midshipman abroad the HMS Harwich. However, he tried to desert the ship and was flogged, consequently having his rank reduced. He then jumped ship and joined Pegasus, which was a slave trader. He did not get on with the crew, and was left in Africa with Amos Clowe, a slave dealer. He escaped Africa in 1748 and it was around this time when he had a spiritual conversion to evangelical Christianity. When you see the life he led, it is not difficult to see where he got the inspiration for the many hymns that he wrote, such as Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken and Amazing Grace.

Now you have a clearer idea of how life and world events have shaped the poets of the 18th century and the poetry they produced, why not look at what life and world events could inspire yours?

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