Literature of the 18th century historical context, characteristics, themes, authors

Basil Manning

The 18th century literature it stood out mainly for the idea that humanity was happy through contact with culture and progress. At that time the stage of the Enlightenment originated, also known as the “Age of Enlightenment”, where reason was the most important and the texts had moral, civil and teaching objectives..

It began with the so-called War of Succession in 1701, which broke out as a result of the death of the Spanish King Carlos II, who left no heirs. The death of the monarch originated a conflict between royal houses for the throne, in which the Bourbon dynasty was victorious and Philip V came to power..

Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos, one of the main exponents of 18th century Spanish literature, portrait made by Goya. Source: Francisco Goya [Public domain].

The so-called Enlightenment period was also joined by the post-baroque movements, neoclassicism and pre-romanticism. The three agreed to maintain a cultured language, sober and far from emotions. In general, literature was not linked to personal feelings, but was directed towards the knowledge of the community.

As for literary genres, eighteenth century literature was oriented to the development of theater, poetry and prose. Importantly, the novel was not considered a genre, so the essay had more value. Among the most prominent authors are Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos, Benito Feijoo, José Caldaso, Rousseau and Voltaire.

Article index

  • 1 Historical context
  • 2 Features
    • 2.1 - Illustration
    • 2.2 - Neoclassicism
    • 2.3 - Preromanticism
  • 3 Topics
  • 4 Authors and representatives
    • 4.1 - Spain
    • 4.2 - Mexico
    • 4.3 - Colombia
    • 4.4 - Ecuador
    • 4.5 - Venezuela
  • 5 References

Historic context

The literature of the 18th century occurred between different warlike conflicts that took place in Europe due to the predominance of the bourgeoisie and the monarchy. The dispute of the throne in Spain after the death of Carlos II brought as a consequence the War of Succession that in turn produced that the French won and Felipe V became king..

Later other series of political and social conflicts arose that marked the course of history, among them the French Revolution in 1789 commanded by Napoleon Bonaparte..

At the same time, in countries like England, economic growth expanded with the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Meanwhile, the Latin American territory continued in the hands of the Spanish.

During that time, the development of the New World was debated between the interests of the crown and the benefits that the Creoles sought to obtain. As a result, the American continent was economically and politically behind for a long time in relation to the momentous changes that occurred in Europe..


Referring to the characteristics of 18th century literature is to mention the most outstanding features of the currents: the illustration, neoclassicism and pre-romanticism. The most outstanding aspects are described below:

- Illustration


The authors of the time stated that reason should be above feelings and imagination. In such a way that the texts became teaching material of social, political and moral content. At the same time they were aimed at society in general. An example is the essays of Fray Benito Feijoo.


The Enlightenment managed the ideal that reason was the main weapon for societies to develop their cultural potential and economic advancement. In this sense, the intellectuals sought the approach of reformist thoughts in their works in order to produce transformations.

One of the most representative works in this sense was Emilio by French Jean-Jacques Rousseau.


The literary works of the Enlightenment period were characterized by being critical, analytical and questioning about the role of the church in the behavior of society. On the other hand, the writers delved into the habits and customs that man was acquiring. At the same time, they debated the absolutism of the monarchies.

Added to this is the importance that the intellectuals gave to the right of the people to participate in political life. One of the most representative authors in this type of subject was the Spanish Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos.

Language and aesthetics

Literature during the Enlightenment period was characterized by the application of a well-crafted, sober, and cultured language. During the development of that time, the authors expressed their ideas without exaggeration or overflow of emotions. As for aesthetic canons, those imposed by the academies prevailed.

Antonio Nariño, a Colombian politician, military and author of the 18th century. Source: José María Espinosa Prieto [Public domain]

However, the dominance of reason took away space from ideas loaded with fantasy, while the authors resorted to the use of sarcasm and parody as tools to denounce and criticize members of the bourgeoisie and the powerful classes. The works of Voltaire and Rousseau are a clear example of this.

- Neoclassicism

The characteristics of the neoclassic movement were attached to the precepts of the current or phenomenon of the Enlightenment. The following are the most salient features of this trend were:


The authors of neoclassicism developed their works under the guidelines established and controlled by the academies that operated in the 18th century. In this way, creativity and imagination were left out. The essays by José Cadalso or the plays by Leandro Fernández de Moratín are an example.

The universal and didactic

The literary genres developed in neoclassicism had universal features, that is, they reflected themes of general social interest. In this sense, the works were created with the intention of leaving some kind of knowledge to the masses.

Distraction and recreation were not considered elements. An example of these are the fables of Félix María Samaniego.

Genres and styles

The literature of the 18th century within the neoclassic movement developed poetry, theater, and prose. The essay was the predominant subgenre in prose writers. However, the poetry was not very expressive, while the theater went for a walk through the traditional and respected the units of time, space and action.

On the other hand, the academic norms of the time did not allow the mixture of tragedy with the comic in the theater. In the genres already mentioned, authors such as Ramón de la Cruz, Alberto Lista, José Marchena and Tomás de Iriarte stood out..


The literary genres of neoclassicism were characterized mainly by the application of reason. Hence, they were sober, didactic, formal and devoid of emotionalism. The play The old man and the girl Leandro Fernández de Moratín is a clear example.

- Preromanticism

The preromanticism movement was characterized by the manifestation of emotions and feelings that gave way to intimate expressions. Consequently, the authors moved away from established norms and embraced creative freedom. In that sense, genres stopped being didactic to become recreational.

Using freedom, the writers varied the theme of the texts and began to write about love, loneliness, the end of existence, disillusionment and other points that paved the way for Romanticism..

In relation to language, written creation became more expressive through the use of a diversity of literary resources. The works of Alberto Lista and Nicasio Álvarez Cienfuegos represent a clear example of this in Spain.

Fragment of the poem "La Primavera" by Alberto Lista

"The bitter winter fled,

and in the warm sphere

on the wings of the tender favonio

spring shines;

and its beautiful garland

smiling defoliating,

of white lily and fiery rose

Las Vegas is sowing.

No longer from frozen snow

the covered meadow lies,

nor love the stripped jungle,

nor the sad and stiff mountain ... ".

Fragment of the poem "My destiny" by Nicasio Álvarez Cienfuegos

"In my poor crib,

needy child,

between innocent dreams

I posed calmly,

when towards me, without arrows,

laughing love came

and, around him, playing

another thousand sweethearts ... ".


The theme of the works of literature of the eighteenth century varied according to the introduction of the currents described above. So in the beginning the authors wrote about social, political, religious, moral, educational and civil aspects.

However, with the arrival of pre-romanticism the content was based on the feelings of the human being, which allowed more freedom to the writers.

Authors and representatives

- Spain

Jose Cadalso

- Solaya or the Circassians (1770).

- Don Sancho Garcia (1771).

- Gloomy nights (Posthumous publication, 1789-1790).

- Moroccan letters (Posthumous publication, 1789).

Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos

- The honest criminal (1774).

- Funeral praise of the Marquis de los Llanos de Alguazas (1780).

- Plan to arrange University studies (1798).

- Report on the causes of the decline of economic societies (1786).

- Mexico

Francisco Javier Clavijero

- The history of Antigua or Baja California.

- From the colonies of the Tlaxcalans.

- Brief description of the province of Mexico in the year 1767.

- Cursus philosophicus.

Servando Teresa de Mier

- Letters from an American to Spanish.

- History of the New Spain Revolution.

- Memories (Apology and relationships of his life).

- Memories. A Mexican friar exiled in Europe.

- Colombia

Antonio nariño

- "The fruits of the noble tree" (1791).

- "Letters from an American to a friend of his".

- "Representation to the king of several American individuals from the mainland and South America residing in Cádiz".

- Translation of the Declaration of the Rights of Man.

Jose Maria Gruesso

- The nights of Zacharias Geussor.

- Lamentations of Puban.

- Ecuador

Jose Joaquin de Olmeda

- "I sing to Bolívar".

- "To General Flores, winner in Miñarica".

- "Alphabet for a child".

- "The tree".

- Venezuela

Juan Antonio Navarrete

- The novena of Saint Efigenia.

- Philosophical course.

- Ark of letters. Universal theater.

Francisco de Miranda

- Daily (1771-1792).


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