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Renaissance decadence and Enlightenment modernism

Nicholas L Nownes, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


Renaissance Decadence and Enlightenment Modernism forwards Restoration and eighteenth century literature as the first explicitly modernist movement in English literary history. I reject traditional descriptions of Restoration and eighteenth century literature as “neoclassical,” a construct predicated upon the claim that the tradition of Dryden and Pope was beholden for inspiration to the literary models of antiquity. This claim I reverse exactly: the tradition I call “Enlightenment modernism” was progressive, rejecting the literary examples of antiquity to embrace a native, modern tradition. ^ I begin by considering the analyses of Milton and the metaphysical poets offered in Johnson's Lives of the Poets. Johnson regards the poetry of the later-seventeenth century as regressive, betraying a jejune reliance upon the examples of the past. Johnson, I argue, is the first critic in any discipline to describe what will be called “baroque” art, the dominant literary mode of the late Renaissance. I use the term “Renaissance decadence” to describe the stylistic characteristics of earlier-seventeenth century literature, made manifest by the systematic repudiation of Renaissance canons of formal clarity, proportion, and decorum. Behind this formal experimentation can be found the disruptions of the New Learning, which originates as a sustained assault on traditional learning as irredeemably compromised by superstition, unguided speculation, and theology. ^ Enlightenment modernism originates as the search for literary modes able to order and explicate the radically shifting conceptions of man, nature, and the mechanisms of human knowledge ushered in especially by the influx of scientific knowledge emerging during the earlier-seventeenth century. The formal characteristics of Enlightenment modernism—the canons of “propriety, perspicuity, elegance, and cadence” identified by John Hughes in 1698—are the features of a literature designed to confront the naturalistic implications of modernism, which originates with Bacon. The chief characteristic of Enlightenment modernism I identify as “ethical form.” Through the contrivances of art, Enlightenment modernism makes available to the senses the formal strategies we rely upon to extrapolate meaning from the facts of experience. ^

Subject Area

Literature, English

Recommended Citation

Nownes, Nicholas L, "Renaissance decadence and Enlightenment modernism" (2000). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI9967398.