The age of transition

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George III succeeded his grandfather in 1760; he could speak English so he could do whatever he wanted. The most important events occurred during his reign were:
- the American revolution: that was due to the distance from the mother country and to the fact that Americans were not represented in parliament (their slogan was: no taxes without representation). England could not accept this and war broke out in 1775, George Washington was made commander in chief of the American army. On July 4, 1776, representatives of the colonies met in Philadelphia and made the Declaration of independence that affirmed the natural right of people to choose their own system of government. The colonies were helped by France and the English were defeated, so they have to acknowledge the independence of the United Stated of America.
- the French revolution: England remained neutral during its first stage but after the execution of Louis XVI the English realized that it was necessary to oppose the born of the French hegemony in Europe.
- the industrial and agricultural revolutions: English economical life was influenced by the invention of machine (steam engine for example) which transformed commercial production and marked the beginning of the industrial era. In agriculture new scientific techniques were applied to farming. Both the revolutions required financial support, so people whit money to invest became very important and there was a social division between the class with capital and labour. At first they worked in inhuman conditions, in time their situation slowly improved owing to the economic theory of “laissez-faire”, according to which the state was not to interfere with economic activity.
Social background
During the years of revolutions started a period of transition characterized by the decline of classical values and the awakening of romantic ideals. The first industrial revolution had its roots in the improvements and innovations of previous centuries:
- the developments in agricultural techniques
- the passing of the Enclosure Acts which permitted landowners to fence off their holdings but damaged the landless poor and forced some small freeholders to migrate to the towns
- the development of trade and commerce
- the growth in population which brought fresh labour to industry
- the improved conditions in transport and communication
- the scientific progress which had paved the way of mechanization
The invention of the steam engine, spinning jenny and weaving machines introduced the methods of factory production but destroyed the old domestic system. Immigration to the new industrial districts brought overpopulation, overcrowded slums and bad sanitation in factories. The situation moved the humanitarian feelings: special institutions were founded and poor children began to be taken into care. Women began to make more conspicuous contributions to the social life of the country: some travelled, others began the struggle for female emancipation.
Literary production
The literary production of this time was influenced by the social and political conditions of the age: satire was replaced by sentimentalism, rationalism and realism by symbolism and imagination. The age of transition is divided into two periods: the twilight of classicism and early romanticism.
The twilight of classicism
During the first half of the 18th century, greater attention was paid to the problem caused by the industrial revolution, the poor were being regarded with more tolerance and interest had begun to shift from town to country life. The country side became the setting for several successful plays where the rural class was represented as honest and dignified people. This renewed interest led to a new approach to nature, which was considered a place where it’s possible to contemplate God, and poets idealized the beauty and tranquillity of rural scenes and took the possibility to lament the sad lot of villagers. New themes appeared beside the classical ones, for example the melancholy associated with meditation on death. This age was dominated by sentimentalism and by a new interest in nature, but rationalism and classicism resisted in fact there were a return to Milton’s blank verse and to Pope’s poetic diction.
Samuel Johnson
Was born in Lichfield in 1709 and was the son of a small bookseller so he could read many books of classical authors, he attended the local grammar school and studied at Oxford but he couldn’t take a degree because of poverty and ill health. He left his family in 1737 and went to London where his early life was very hard and marked by a constant struggle against poverty and hunger. Step by step he was renown as poet, critic and lexicographer; in 1764 he founded the famous Literary Club, of which he became the leader. His old age was marked by an increasing sense of melancholy and he died in 1784. Johnson was the first greater writer of the age of transition, his most important works are: - the lives of poets, a biography of the authors of the time
- the preface to Shakespeare, a new edition of Shakespeare’s works, preceded by a long preface about the greatness of the poet
- a dictionary of the English language, a work through which Johnson tried to fixed rules and standards for speech and writing.
He was a very strange person but a great talker, his conversations were sparkling of humour and paradox but let his auditors be abused by his biting tongue. He was anti-American and supported the arbitrary power of the king but was charity towards the poor, in fact he idealized their virtuous poverty and anticipated Gray and Burns.
Grub street: place where people live in a poor way
Lexicographer: a writer of dictionaries
Oats: a grain given to horses
Pension: an allowance made to anyone without an equivalent
Pensioner*: a slave of state hired by a stipend to obey his master
*this definition proved embarrassing when J. accepted a pension from George III but J. said that he had written the definition in an humoristic way.
On Shakespeare
In this work J. defended freedom of imagination in drama, he admired Shakespeare and saw in him a great moral teacher. In the first part he describes Shakespeare’s love and knowledge of nature and humanity, in the second the characteristic of his plays (composition of a distinct kind from tragedies and comedies), in the third his characters (serious and ludicrous), in the fourth the motives because of which Shakespeare had written without the unities of time and place (necessity of making the drama credible and impossibility that action of month can passed in few hours).