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Do not remove this notice. Citation Eagleton, Terry. 1996 ‘The Rise of English’ In: Literary Theory : An Introduction / Terry Eagleton. 2nd ed. Oxford : Blackwell, 1996, Chapter 1, pp. 15-46 This file is a digitised version of printed copyright material. Due to the process used to create it, its accuracy cannot be guaranteed. Please refer to the original published version if you have any concerns about its accuracy. 1 The Rise ofEnglish
In eighteenth-century England, the concept ofliterature was not confined as it sometimes is today to ‘creative’ or ‘imaginative’ writing. It meant the whole body of valued writing in society: philosophy, history, essays and letters as well as poems. What made a text ‘literary’ was not whether it was fictional- the eighteenth century was in grave doubt about whether the new upstart form of the novel was literature at all- but whether it conformed to certain standards of ‘polite letters’.
The criteria of what counted as literature, in other words, were frankly ideological: writing which embodied the values and ‘tastes’ of a particular social class qualified as literature, whereas a street ballad, a popular romance and perhaps even the drama did not. At this historical point, then, the ‘value-Iadenness’ of the concept of literature was reasonably self-evident. In the eighteenth century, however, literature did more than ’embody’ certain social values: it was a vital instrument for their deeper entrenchment and wider dissemination.
Eighteenth-century England had emerged, battered but intact, from a bloody civil war in the previous century which had set the social classes at each other’s throats; and in the drive to reconsolidate a shaken social order, the neo-classical notions of Reason, Nature, order and propriety, epitomized in art, were key concepts. With the need to incorporate the increasingly powerful but spiritually rather raw middle classes into unity with the ruling aristocracy, to diffuse polite social manners, habits of ‘correct’ taste and common cultural standards, literature gained a new importance.
It included a whole set of ideological institutions: periodicals, coffee houses, social and aesthetic treatises, sermons, classical translations, guidebooks to manners and morals. Literature was not a matter of ‘felt 16 The Rise of English experience’, ‘personal response’ or ‘imaginative uniqueness’: such terms, indissociable for us today from the whole idea of the ‘literary’, would not have counted for much with Henry Fielding. It was, in fact, only with what we now call the ‘Romantic period’ that our own definitions of literature began to develop. The modern sense of the word ‘literature’