An introduction to Augustan literature
While literary periods are stylized by names, such as ‘Augustan literature,’ the works and authors often overlap from previous eras and those which follow. Augustan literature is generally ascribed to a period in the first half of the 18th Century, during much of the reigns of:
- Queen Anne (1702 – 1714)
- King George I (1714 – 1727)
- King George II (1727 – 1760)
The term, ‘Augustan’ refers to King George I’s desire to be compared to the first Roman Emperor, Augustus Caesar, when poetry and the arts were supported and admired, and thus flourished. Anyone educated in the eighteenth century would be familiar with the original texts, since studying the classics was a central feature of the school curriculum.
Eighteenth century Augustan literature emulates the classical style, tending to be polished and shaped according to rules which governed both Roman and Greek works. However, classical works are not just emulated but also parodied during the Augustan period.
Key authors of the Augustan era
The most representative authors of this era are:
- Alexander Pope (21 May 1688 – 30 May 1744), poet
- Jonathan Swift 30 November 1667 – 19 October 1745), essayist
The era also saw the development of the novel by authors such as:
- Daniel Defoe (c.1659 – 24 April 1731), whose Robinson Crusoe (1719) was published in more editions than any other works besides Swift’s Gulliver's Travels
- Samuel Richardson, who wrote the sentimental epistolary novels Pamela (1740–41) and Clarissa (1747–48)
- Henry Fielding, who parodied Richardson in his Shamela (1741), and wrote Joseph Andrews (1742) and Tom Jones (1749).
Features of the Augustan period
The dominant tone
Wit and intellectual conceits shaped the tone of much Augustan writing (following on from the clever arguments of the metaphysical poets). Satire had already been a feature of Restoration literature, prior to the Augustan era, but at that time it was more circumscribed due to threat of prosecution for defamation.
In the eighteenth century, satire and parody were more widely used across the spectrum of prose, poetry and dramatic works. Poets also bantered and argued over what should be the proper modes of poetic expression, and which topics were worthy of the art form. One such debate was about the role of the pastoral, for example.
The Augustans were very much influenced by Milton’s vast showcase of classical and biblical allusion, Paradise Lost (1667). Displaying ones familiarity with the classics and the Bible in a witty way was admired
The increase in literacy and printing
Literacy, and the relatively low cost of printed matter, expanded the reading audience to greater numbers across social, economic and cultural spectrums. Periodicals were widely distributed. The most famous was The Spectator, which was filled with essays on world events, politics and culture, presented as if by a bystander, or ‘spectator’. This journalistic manner of reporting events laid the groundwork for expanded popularity of the novel, and in fact, Defoe worked in journalism at the time of writing Robinson Crusoe.
The dominant philosophy
The main philosophy of the period was empiricism (the reliance on reasoning based upon experimentation and verification). It was scientific in its orientation, moving away from the idea that humankind has innate qualities, inherited because people are made in the ‘image of God.’
- The philosophy of empiricism had originally been championed by John Locke in the Restoration period, and was further debated during the Augustan era.
- An empirical approach can be witnessed in the development of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755), which sought to pin down the exact meaning of words.
Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726, amended 1735), is an excellent example of Augustan literature, characterized by parody and satire. In his work, Swift targets the empiricists who insist on individual, unyielding reason over morality and social values.
Alexander Pope was the most significant figure in poetry during the Augustan period. His witty couplets were often quoted and used as axioms. Pope took issue with other authors about what should be considered the proper subjects and nature of poetic expression. Often, he publicly attacked his contemporaries through his satiric verse, making enemies of many. Pope’s work The Dunciad (1728), held contemporary ‘dunces’ up to ridicule. He was roundly derided by similar methods in return.
In his Rape of the Locke (1712 and 1714), Pope created a mock-heroic narrative poem, which satirised classical literature, with its heroes and nymphs and gods. Pope used the trivial snipping of a lock of hair as the backdrop for a quarrel which rises to epic proportions. He used both parody and satire to show how the ‘gods’ of human vanity and folly can be so promoted that triviality takes precedence over common sense and reason.
Pope also trivialised the contributions of female writers, continuing the debate about what was fit for great literature:
Who give th' hysteric, or poetic fit;
On various tempers act by various ways,
Make some take physic, others scribble plays.
(Canto IV. l.59-62)
This witty denouement offended the aristocratic poet Anne Finch, Countess of Winchelsea, who countered Pope’s criticism with The Answer, and received another putdown in response:
And cite those Sapho's we admire no more:
Fate doom'd the Fall of ev'ry Female Wit,
But doom'd it then when first Ardelia writ.
(Impromptu, to Lady Winchelsea l.1-4)
Pope’s use of heroic couplets, an apparently Latinate form of Anne (Ardelia), and reference to the ancient Greek poet Sappho, are typical of the elevated diction and educated allusion found in Augustan verse.
The Romantic reaction
The Romantic literary movement developed in the second half of the eighteenth century. It is characterized by a reaction against Augustan literary ideals, empiricism and the Enlightenment focus on ‘reasoning’ as a way to make authoritative conclusions.
Instead, Romanticism promoted:
- The language of the common man, rather than Latinate or elevated diction
- Feeling, rather than reasoning
- The religion of Nature, rather than empiricism
- Original expression and strong emotion, rather than wit
- The creation of terror and use of horror in medieval settings is seen in the sub-genre of the Gothic novel. A primary example is Horace Walpole’s, The Castle of Otranto (1764)
- Originality of imagination and form, rather than refining existing models
- Nationalism and political radicalism, rather than literary spats.