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  • Print publication year: 2009
  • Online publication date: September 2012

1 - Ancients and Moderns: Literary History and the ‘Grand March of Intellect’ in Keats's Letters and the 1817 Poems


By the close of the eighteenth century, the historiographical dispute concerning the ancients and the moderns had in many areas resolved itself in favour of the moderns, and doctrines of continuous or progressive degeneration across the arts and sciences were increasingly rare as the century advanced. William Mavor's Universal History, Ancient and Modern (1802), which Keats read while still at school, endorses the widely held view that warfare and government had improved with the passage of time and that modern monarchies were preferable to ancient ones (I, 20–3, 47–8, 101–2). With respect to learning and technology too, Mavor has no doubt that the moderns have outshone their predecessors. The visibility of progress in the practical arts leads him to conclude that advances in commerce and technology have improved standards of living, and promoted peace and a ‘milder spirit of policy’ in modern times (I, 43, 99–104, 105). In relation to the fine arts, however, he asserts that architecture, sculpture, history and some forms of poetry have declined from their ancient perfection, claiming that ‘[i]n most of the fine arts the Greeks are, to this day, unrivalled’ (I, 42). Ancient epic and dramatic poetry in particular receive high praise from Mavor, who maintains that even the Romans were incapable of reaching Greek standards (I, 67).