The Age of Reason, or the Enlightenment, occurred in the 18th century in Europe and North America and birthed a new reverence for reason and scientific knowledge -- rather than religion -- as a means of understanding the world and our place in it. Because the Age of Reason held logic and rationality in such preeminence, the era produced mostly nonfiction, including poetry that dealt with reason. People saw little value in creating worlds that were not true to life; however, literary critics argue that this period gave rise to the novel, which went on to become extremely popular in the subsequent century, and remains so today.
Many poets of the Enlightenment celebrated reason in their work, such as in Alexander Pope's "An Essay on Man," which denies divine intervention and declares the inherent goodness of nature, rather than some transcendent deity. Pope asks early in the poem, "Say first, of God above, or man below, / What can we reason, but from what we know?", placing the ultimate authority for knowledge, even knowledge of God, on human reason. Anne Finch, the Countess of Winchelsea, and American slave and poet Phillis Wheatley also invoked reason in their poetic explorations of femininity and slavery, respectively. In keeping with the Enlightenment's emphasis on rationality, Wheatley and other poets typically incorporated formal rhyme schemes and rhythms in their work, such as rhyming couplets, as well as classical styles such as elegies and prologues.
Bringing Back the Greeks
This revival of classical culture, called "neoclassicism," stemmed from the Enlightenment's fascination with reason, and manifested itself not only in poetry but also in the development of rhetoric and formal writing. Philosophers and writers became increasingly interested in Greek and Roman literature on rhetoric, logic and government, and authors such as Swift and Wheatley included many classical allusions in their writing. Writers became concerned more with clarity of speech and standardized language, as opposed to their predecessors during the Renaissance, who explored language more creatively.
Literature as Criticism
Writers during this era frequently employed satire to critique excessive power or other social injustices. The concept of social justice and helping those less fortunate was developed strongly during this period when people lost confidence in divine intervention and providence. Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift and Voltaire all wrote widely read satirical essays, sometimes in the form of pamphlets -- loosely put together pages typically containing political criticism or ideas -- which became a widespread genre of literature during the 1700s. Political parties paid writers such as Jonathan Swift, Joseph Addison, Richard Steele and Matthew Prior to write pamphlets promoting party platforms and philosophies, disseminating many political and social ideologies this way.
The Novel Begins
In addition to the nonfiction circulating during the Age of Reason, this era also gave birth to the modern-day novel. Although debate ensues about which novel deserves credit as the first, many critics consider the English novel "Robinson Crusoe" by Daniel Defoe to be it. Other early novelists include Samuel Richardson, who wrote the epistolary novels "Pamela" and "Clarissa," and Henry Fielding, who authored "Tom Jones." In typical Enlightenment fashion, many of these novels contain stock characters and the prose is unequivocal and logical; nonetheless, they include a hint of the sentimental romance and concern with class that preoccupies the 19th century novel.