Enlightenment literature

Rational poetry

Poetry generated in the Age of Reason characteristically appealed to the head and to appreciation of form, rather than to the ‘heart' or imagination. Consequently, wit was highly valued.

The standard form was the closed heroic couplet, such as this from Alexander Pope's An Essay on Criticism (1711):

In Wit, as Nature, what affects our hearts
Is not th' exactness of peculiar parts;
'Tis not a lip, or eye, we beauty call,
But the joint force and full result of all.

The above poem is constructed from a sequence of rhyming pairs of iambic pentameter lines with masculine rhymes. The heroic couplet tends to give the effect of neatness and finality, with an implication that life can be similarly neat and controllable. Used by less gifted poets, it could be a very mechanical form.

Moralising verse for children

The eighteenth century also saw a fashion for ‘improving' moralistic verse aimed at children. The simple, closed form reinforced the simple, controlling message of the verse. An example of this is one of Isaac Watts' Divine and Moral Songs for the Use of Children:

SONG 24: The Child's Complaint

1.Why should I love my sport so well,
So constant at my play,
And lose the thoughts of heaven and hell,
And then forget to pray!

2.What do I read my Bible for,
But, Lord, to learn thy will?
And shall I daily know thee more,
And less obey thee still?

3.How senseless is my heart, and wild!
How vain are all my thoughts!
Pity the weakness of a child,
And pardon all my faults.

4.Make me thy heav'nly voice to hear,
And let me love to pray;
Since God will lend a gracious ear
To what a child can say.

Blake employed the form and style of this kind of children's verse to parody their content and beliefs.

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