Augustan Literature

Augustan Literature
The term ‘Augustan’ comes from the reign of the Roman emperor born Gaius
Octavius Thurinas, who became Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus (27BC – 14AD).
The term is applied to a section of English literature written in a period which,
theoretically, imitated and embodied the ideals of the Augustan period – allegedly a
golden age of Classical Rome.
Those ideals included civic responsibility, decorum, and self-discipline. It is
important to distinguish between ideal and practice.
The period which produced Augustan literature produced neo-Classical styles of
architecture, furnishing, and literature.
Augustan ideals of literary style were formality, balance, clarity, and seriousness.
Satirical and political as well as other forms of writing were able to flourish in the
reign of Augustus, and they did again during the English Augustan period. The
models of the later period were in particular Cicero, Horace and Virgil.
The Augustan period in literature can be roughly dated from the reign of Queen
Anne (1702-1714) to the death of Jonathan Swift in 1745. In particular, George I,
the Elector of Hanover, Georg Ludwig (reigned 1714-27), was often represented in
statuary and paintings in the guise of Augustus, a useful piece of political
propaganda that might help to endear to the populace a king who spoke almost no
English and never ceased to prefer Saxony. His son, George II, was Christened
Georg August and was the subject of part of a satirical Horatian Ode, Epistle to
Augustus (1737), written by Pope.
During this period, there were successive attempts to ‘fix’ the English language,
protecting it from change (and thus, it was believed, decay); to impose a Latinate
form of the understanding of grammar on the language; and to impose a Classical
system of genres on English literature.
The Classical genres of Tragedy, Epic, Lyric and Comedy were defined by form as
well as by content. A different metre was used for Lyric poetry than would have
been used for Epic. That distinction could not be made in English poetry, which does
not use Classical quantitative metres. Genres were also distinguished in terms of
class. Tragedy was something that happened to the nobility; one had to be highborn in order to suffer a fall; while comedy tended to be concerned with peasantry
and rustics.
Further, Classical literature did not include anything like our modern idea of the
novel, which employs prose narrative fiction. Nonetheless, it was during the
Augustan period that the novel in English developed and flourished.
The genre with which Augustan literature is most readily identified is satire. Political
- and personal – satire appeared in all forms: narrative fiction; poetry; drama;
journalism; and the latter is particularly important in this period. This is the age of
the coffee-house and the coffee-house periodical.
The Augustan age coincides with the later Enlightenment, sometimes called the Age
of Reason, when scientific and rational discourses are said to have begun to replace
religious, superstitious and other ways of seeing and understanding the world.,
though of course this must be a simplification. Certainly, scientific institutions such
as the Royal Society became prominent at this time, and discoveries were made in
astronomy, medicine, navigation, chemistry, biology and physics which changed the
way we see the world and its place in the universe.
Although this was the Age of Reason and the Age of Elegance it was also the age of
criminality, poverty, dirt, disease, and corruption. The spirit of the age was captured,
as he saw it, by artist William Hogarth, in a series of satirical sketches known as The
Rake’s Progress.
Another advance that was perhaps more important for Augustan literature was the
advance in print technology. The price of printed books fell, and the number of
copies that could readily be printed grew, and this coincided with a rise in literacy,
and thus in the demand for inexpensive books. The transactions of the Royal
Society were published, as were other works of research and science, with keys and
digests to explain their import to non-specialist readers. Works of more immediate
practical application were also published, on animal husbandry, agriculture, and, in a
burgeoning genre, social problems. Many works offered solutions to social and
economic ills – some sensible, others impractical, others ridiculous, and this later
developed into a rich vein for satire. We should not exaggerate this. Many people
remained illiterate, and books remained far too expensive for many people who
could have read them, but for the enlarging middle class with some disposal income,
books became within reach. Without the classical education of the well-born and
wealthy, they tended to avoid the poetry of the era, but novels became a popular,
and respectable, way of filling their new leisure time.
Books were not the only printed media available. Chap books and broadsheets were
distributed throughout the country, apprising people outside the capital of the news,
debates, and scandals of the day. Many periodicals came into being in this period,
chiefly, The Gentleman’s Magazine (1731), The London Post (1699), The Tatler,
1709, succeeded by the The Spectator (1711). The Tatler and the Spectator,
founded by Richard Steele, were popular among the middle-classes.
A tax was imposed on newspapers in 1712 which made them expensive for the less
well-off individual. Many periodicals would have been read in coffee-houses,
however, which were like a combination of a modern café and a gentleman’s club.
The first was in Oxford, but soon after they appeared all over London. Men went
there to smoke their pipes, drink coffee, read newsletters and periodicals, and
converse. Some coffee-houses had runners to bring details of the latest news.
Different London coffee-houses became associated with different social groups,
depending on their location, so that those in Westminster tended to attract
politicians, whilst those near St Paul’s attracted clergymen, and the Fellows of the
Royal Society met at the Graecian. They also divided politically. The Whigs met at
the St James’s and the Tories at The Cocoa-Tree, both in Pall Mall. Poet and
dramatist John Dryden patronised Will’s coffee-house in Covent Garden just before
our period, and attracted to it a circle of admirers and fellow-authors. Next to
become fashionable was Button’s coffee-house, patronised by Addison and Steele
and their circle.
As the demand for inexpensive up-to-date publications rose, so did the profession of
hired writer, or hack, who was usually paid by the word and printed anonymously or
pseudonymously. These were despised by authors such as Alexander Pope, who
clung to the old idea that writers should receive an income from patrons rather than
from the sale of their works, but treated rather more realistically by Addison and
Steele. Hogarth satirises ‘Grub Street’ – a generic name for the fruits of such writing
which comes from a street in London which became a writers’ colony – in a painting
known as ‘The Distress’d Poet’.
Although he didn’t live in Grub Street, Defoe was the greatest hack of them all. He
edited and contributed to a number of publications, sometimes writing under
different pseudonyms, reviewing his own work, and answering letters which he had
also written. His Robinson Crusoe first appeared in a periodical, The London Post, in
Initially there was no clear-cut distinction between factual and fictive writing. The
novel had a number of ancestors: the biography; the work of speculation; and
journalism in prose non-fiction, and the Romance; long narrative poem; and fairy
and folk tales in fiction. The first novel is difficult to identify. Its precursors could be
as early as John Lyly's Euphues (1579) or Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia (1590) or John
Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress (1684). More recognisable, perhaps, are Aphra Benn’s
Letters Between a Nobleman and his Sister (1683) and Oroonoko (1688). In the
August period, Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year (1722) mixes fact and
fiction in a journalistic style and a number of novels claim for themselves a kind of
authority by offer their stories as fact. Early novels often have subtitled such as ‘A
True and Faithful Account of...’ or ‘As Related to the Author...’ They are also often
‘framed narratives’, that is, they have an introductory section in which the author
asserts that he or she found the story in a mss in an old chest, or was the recipient
of the last dying gasp of an ancient seaman.
The Fortunes & Misfortunes
of the Famous Moll Flanders &c.
Who was Born in Newgate, and during a Life of continu'd Variety for Threescore Years,
besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her
own Brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew
Rich, liv'd Honest, and dies a Penitent. Written from her own Memorandums …
[also see Crusoe]
As the prose fiction evolved, authors tested its possibilities, trying out forms such as
the epistolary novel (the novel in letters), the picaresque (the humorous and
fantastical journey-novel), the bildungsroman (the novel charting the journey from
youth to maturity), the roman à clef (the story which needs a key, i.e. its characters
are lightly-disguised portraits of real people) the story within a story, the first-person
narrative, the third-person narrative, the intrusive narrator, and the multiple
Women Augustan authors contributed to this evolution, in particular Mary Delariviere
Manley, who wrote The Secret History of Queen Zarah and the Zaraians (1705) and
The New Atalantis (1709), Eliza Heywood, who wrote Love in Excess (1719) and
Jane Barker, who wrote Loves Intrigues: Or, The History of the Amours of Bosvil and
Galesia (1713).
The most famous of the texts fully-recognisable as novels from this period are
perhaps Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), Moll Flanders (1722) and Roxana (1724).
There was a market for novels telling of scandals and romance in high life, and for
lurid tales of the criminal classes, whether unregenerate scoundrels or people down
on their luck and forced to survive in an emergent capitalist society with little more
than their wits. In order to attain any kind of status as literature, however, the novel
had to claim for itself a function as more than escapist or entertaining. The hierarchy
of literary genres still had at its head Classically-inspired and modelled poetry,
followed by belles-lettres, essays, history, biography, and other forms of non-fiction.
In addition, there were complaints that reading fiction gave people ideas above their
station and made them dissatisfied with real life. It was said to be particularly
injurious to women. In response, stress began to be laid upon the educative and
moral function of the novel.
The circle of Pope, Addison, Steele and Swift was able to influence the taste of the
age and to lay down precepts for how literature should be. Augustan literature as
formalised by Alexander Pope consciously imitated the methods and forms of
Classical literature, and admired the art and artifice of the works
True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learn'd to dance.
'Tis not enough no harshness gives offence,
The sound must seem an echo to the sense. (An Essay on Criticism II ll. 3625)
Those rules of old discovered, not devised,
Are nature still, but nature methodized.
It did adapt Classical forms, however, in particular developing the mock-epic and
mock-heroic, which were used to humorous and satirical effect.
Pope’s The Rape of the Lock (1714) is a mock epic, that is, a piece in which the
commonplace is treated in exalted, portentous language more usually associated
with High Seriousness. The commonplace is a boat-ride and a card game, and the
lock is stolen lock of hair. It is based on a real-life squabble between Arabella
Fermor and Lord Petre. His The Dunciad (1728), also a mock epic, is sometimes
vicious attack on critics and lesser writers of the day. In Jonathan Swift's The Battle
of the Books (1704), clashes of intellect, philosophy and outlook between ancient
and modern thinkers are reduced to a fight between a bee and a spider. Swift's
Gulliver's Travels (1726) is another kind of satire. Ostensibly a travel narrative which
takes Lemuel Gulliver to far-off and strange lands, it satirises the hypocrisy,
stupidity, bureaucracy, and gullibility that Swift saw in his own time and place. The
High Tory Catholic Pope was one of the founders of the Scriblerus Club, an
association of writers including John Gay, Jonathan Swift and and John Arbuthnot,
dedicated to the satirisation of pedantry, fakery and ignorance.
Satirical poetry was often written in iambic lines which rhymed aa, bb, cc – heroic
couplets. Other poetry might have more complex and interlaced rhyme-schemes,
and the four-line stanza – the quatrain – was much used. Earlier in the period,
locodescriptive poetry – the poetry of place – was popular, as was poetry which
minutely described aspects of nature, such as James Thomson’s The Seasons. Later
in the period, poetry tended to take on a darker, more melancholy strain, as with
Edward Young’s The Complaint: or, Night Thoughts on Life, Death, and Immortality
(1742-45), usually known as Night Thoughts.
Pope’s Essay on Man
Know then thyself, presume not God to scan,
The proper study of mankind is man.
Plac'd on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the Stoic's pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a God, or beast;
In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reas'ning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little or too much:
Chaos of thought and passion, all confus'd;
Still by himself abus'd or disabus'd;
Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl'd:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!
Augustan drama followed the bawdy and licentious but witty and mannered
Restoration drama, which reflected the interests of the king and court. With much
less royal interest and patronage, Augustan drama tended to reflect the interests of
businessmen and the bourgeois, and tended to develop towards moral dilemma and
melodrama, though there were plays which presented political debates and even
propaganda, for example Joseph Addison’s Whig play Cato, Henry Fielding’s Tom
Thumb (1730) and Covent Garden Tragedy (1732), John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera
(1728) which was an attack on the Prime Minister, Robert Walpole.
Throughout the period, whilst literary plays by, for example, George Lillo and
Richard Steele (The Conscious Lovers (1722)) were staged, theatre managers were
often induced to present plays which consisted mostly of spectacle, written by hired
hacks, as this avoided payments for rehearsals and the customary third-night benefit
performances to playwrights.
Augustan drama was dealt a severe blow in 1737, with the implementation of the
Theatrical Licensing Act, which gave the Lord Chamberlain the right to approve any
play before it was staged, and thus the power to censor any play considered
subversive or politically dangerous.
Poets and satirists
Alexander Pope
Jonathan Swift
John Dryden
Fiction and ‘faction’
Eliza Heywood
Jane Barker
Daniel Defoe
John Gay
Lexicographer, essayist
Samuel Johnson (later work slightly out of the period), Dictionary of the English
Language (1755)
Essayists and periodical editors
Joseph Addison
Richard Steele
Criticism / didactic writing on literature
John Dryden, An Essay of Dramatic Poesy (1668)
Alexander Pope, Essay on Criticism (1711)