Augustan Age: Literary Characteristics

Augustan Age: Literary Characteristics


Matthew Arnold. (Wikipedia)

Matthew Arnold described 18th century as “the age of prose and reason”. The Enlightenment movement stressed on the significance of reason, common sense, wit and intelligent and shaped the tone of much of the writings in Augustan age. Order, clarity and stylistic decorum were the characteristic traits of the major writers of the age. Major literary figures like Pope, Swift and Addison were less concerned with emotion and imagination than with fact and reason. Alexander Pope was the most representative writer of the age.

The writers of Augustan age tried to imitate the classical forms like epic, ode, epistle. They looked for aesthetic and critical principles in the works of classical authors like Aristotle, Horace, Virgil and Cicero. As Alexander Pope says:

Learn hence for ancient rules a just esteem;

To copy Nature is to copy them.

However, they stressed more on the style of the ancient classical writers than the content.

Prose underwent massive growth and evolution during the period. Periodicals, essays, satires and novels flourished. Even poetry became prosaic and was used for criticism and satire. Augustan writers also focused on examining and understanding the enduring truths of human nature. In drama, sentimental comedy flourished, in which middle-class protagonist triumphantly overcame a series of moral trials. Best example of the form is Richard Steele’s The Conscious Lover (1722). Ballad opera, farce and pantomime are other prevailing dramatic forms.

The dominance of political parties grouped common people into the supporters of Whigs and Tories. Political discussion became common. Writers and poets were also engaged to represent differing political views. Clubs and coffeehouses peaked in number where people socialized and discussed politics and religion. The famous Scriblerus and Kit-Cat clubs with purely literary associations came into being. New publishing houses also emerged as the number of reading public grew with the rising interest in politics. Decline in drama also raised the demand for more literary output. A number of periodicals also appeared such as The Tatler and The Spectator among others. A new kind of morality came into existence as a reaction to the immorality of the Restoration age.

1. An Age of Prose

A number of practical needs arising from new social and political conditions inspired the necessity of a versatile medium of expression, not only for books, but also for pamphlets, magazines and newspapers. Poetry proved inadequate for such expression, so the eyes turned to prose. In no time prose evolved into the favourite medium of expression, versatile enough to suit various practical needs of the day. Even poetry became more prosaic, when it began to be employed not for the creative works of imagination, but for writing essays, satires and criticisms—exactly the task for which prose was being harnessed. Thus, the greatest literary contribution of the age is the development of various prose styles, so finely polished and perfected that they began to serve for the clear and precise expression of every human interest and emotion.

2. The Rise of Periodicals

Front page of the first issue of The Daily Courant

In 1682, when freedom of press was restored, large numbers of periodicals appeared and flourished in their different fashions. These periodicals also started the trend of advertisements. In 1702, The Daily Courant, the first daily newspaper, was published which continued till 1737. Fierce contests between the Whigs and the Tories during the early years of 18th century led to rapid expansion of the periodical press. Nearly every writer of the period was employed by either of the party to serve their special interests. Defoe, for example, wrote for The Review (1704), the Whig weekly periodical, while Swift contributed to The Examiner, the Tory paper. Among the most famous periodicals of the period was Sir Richard Steele’s The Tatler (1709), which soon started publishing daily literary essays. This tradition was carried farther by Addison and Steele’s The Spectator (1711). Thus, literary journals gained prominence during this period.

3. The Rise of Essays

Joseph Addison

Augustan Age is also remarkable for the developments in the genre of Essay. Dr. Samuel Johnson defined an essay as a loose sally of the mind; an irregular indigested piece; not a regular or orderly composition. However, this definition is not complete. An essay may be defined as a short unmethodical personal piece of prose, written in a style that is literary, easy and elegant.

English essays originated in Elizabethan age in the miscellaneous work of Lodge, Lyly, Greene and other literary freelancers. But the credit of establishing essay as a literary form goes to Francis Bacon (1561-1626), who published short series of essays in 1597, enlarged in two later editions (1612, 1625). Bacon followed and was inspired by the French writer Montaigne, whose essays appeared about 1580. Bacon wrote short essays on miscellaneous themes, but they lacked skillful handling and style of a professional essayist. They appeared more the musings of a philosopher than the personal opinions of a literary man. Abraham Cowley (1618-1667) surpassed the limitations of Francis Bacon. His essays were written in a pleasant discursive manner, different from the dry and objective attitude of Bacon. His essays act as a link between the styles of Bacon and Addison. In the restoration age, we find Dryden’s Essay on Dramatic Poesy (1668) And Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). But they are too long to be called essays, they’re rather called treatises.

With the development of the periodical press, the essay form quickly evolved to maturity. It gained variety, character, suppleness, and strength. The contribution of Addison and Steele has been significant in this regard. Periodicals like The Tatler (1709) and The Spectator (1711) laid the foundation for the evolution of essay in the hands of the future spectacular writers. Swift, Pope and Defoe also made remarkable contribution to the essay form.

4. Narrative and Miscellaneous Prose

Narrative prose also found expression in the Augustan Age. They were also used for satirical purposes. Most of these narratives were still written as allegories. Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels exemplifies sharp and heartless satires. Addison’s The Vision of Mirza is an example of allegorical prose narrative. Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe contributed to the emergence of lengthier prose narratives i.e. novels.

The period also produced a large body of religious, political and philosophical works which were mostly satirical. Swift wrote excellent political prose like The Drapier’s Letter and religious prose like Tale of a Tub.

5. Dominance of Satire

The literature of the preceding Restoration Age was known for it’s tendency towards:

  1. Realism i.e. representation of plane and unvarnished reality without regard to ideals or romance;
  2. Formalism i.e. directness and simplicity of expression without unnecessary and irrelevant description, preferring reasoning over romantic fancy and following strict rules for writing.

These two tendencies were still present in the current age and can be easily seen in the works of its representative literary figures like Pope and Addison. The third tendency i.e. the prevalence of Satire, also developed in Augustan literature due to the unfortunate amalgamation of politics with literature. Political parties opportunistically used the ever expanding printing press to propagate their ideologies and counter those of the opposing parties. Both Whigs and Tories employed almost all the literary figures of the age to advance their special interests and satirize their enemies. Alexander Pope, though never involved in this rat race, also wrote satires in verse, following the trend of the prose satirists of the age.

Yet satire is, at its best, a destructive kind of criticism, and even though there is no doubt that the satires written by Pope, Swift and Addison are the best in English language, these works cannot be classified as great literature because great literature is fundamentally written with a constructive spirit. However we must acknowledge that these writers were capable of much better things than they ever wrote.

6. Poetry

The influence of classicism can be most profoundly seen in the poetry of Augustan age. The lyric poems almost disappeared. Among those that survived, the best lyrics can be found in Matthew Prior’s shorter pieces, in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera and in Allan Ramsay’s The Gentle Shepherd.

Satirical poems were the most common and of high quality. Pope’s personal satire, The Dunciad is the best example. Though we don’t have any political satire comparable to Dryden’s in this age. Satires were written not only in the most popular verse form of the age i.e. heroic couplets, but also in other forms like in octosyllabic couplets by Jonathan Swift, Matthew Prior and John Gay. Alexander Pope also wrote epistolary form of Satire like Epistle of Horace Imitated, in his later years.

Narrative poems were among the best productions of the age. Pope’s translation of Homer is a good example. Matthew Prior and John Gay tried their hands in writing ballads.

Pastoral poems, partly due to the genre’s classic origin, also gained popularity but were mostly of artificial kind. Pope and Philip wrote pastoral poems.

7. The Classical or Pseudo-classical Age

The word “classic” is used in reference to literature in three different senses:

A) to refer, in general, to the writers of the highest rank in any nation. In English literature, it refers to the writers of ancient Greece and Rome, like Homer and Virgil. Besides, the works written following the simple and noble methods of these writers are also referred as having the classic style.

B) the period in the history of a nation’s literature that produced unusual numbers of great writers is called the classic period of that nation. The Augustan Age was the classic or golden age in Rome. Similarly, the age of Queen Anne (early 18th century) is often called the classic age of England.

Dryden and his successors tried to revive the classicism of the ancient Greek and Roman literature by strictly following the rules of writing established by ancient classic writers. They started looking at life critically and emphasized on intellect rather than imagination. They tried to repress emotions and enthusiasm and used precision and elegance as their writing principles.

However they stressed more on the form then the content and thus deviated from the very essence of true classic literature. Hence, these works became sham or pseudo-classics. It, therefore, appears illogical to call the age a classic age. One rather finds it more appropriate to call it Augustan Age–a name chosen by the writers themselves. It is an age that produced several great writers like Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, Joseph Addison, Richard Steele and Daniel Defoe, just like the ancient Augustan Age of Horace, Virgil and Cicero.

8. Drama

Drama remained the least prolific form of the age. Restoration Comedy of Manners lost its popularity and as a reaction to it’s profaneness, a new form of comedy, the Sentimental Comedy, was introduced, that was established by Richard Steele, with his The Conscious Lovers (1722) being the best example of the form. In sentimental comedies, the middle-class protagonists triumphantly overcome a series of moral trials. Richard Steele’s The Lying Lover (1703), The Tender Husband (1705), Edward Moore’s The Foundling (1748) are other examples.

Tragedies were not so popular, yet Joseph Addison’s Cato (1714) owes a mention. John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera is a remarkable ballad Opera known for its vitality, music and songs.

Copyright © Md. Rustam Ansari 2021-2024


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