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It was poet Oliver Goldsmith who first designated the early 18th century, as the Augustan Age. The age has also been called the Age of Pope. The Augustan age includes the age of Dryden and Pope. The restoration of Stuart monarchy in 1660 marked the beginning of the Augustan age.
Eighteenth century in England was an age equal to the age of Augustus Caesar, when the Roman society had reached the peak of its glory. The name Augustan Age was chosen by writers who saw in Pope, Addison, Swift, Johnson and Burke the modern parallels to Horace, Virgil and Cicero, and all that brilliant company who made Roman literature famous in the day of Augustus. Past ages of England were looked upon as barbarous, and the classics of Greece and Rome were regarded as models which men of taste were to follow.
Characteristics of the Augustan Age
1. The Classical Age
This period, in the first place, is called the classical age, because reason dominated emotion; social conventions became more important than individual convictions ; form became more important than content. The term “classic” is applied to designate writing of the finest quality. According to Goethe, “Everything that is good in literature is classical.” Every national literature
has at least one period in which an unusual number of exceptional writers produce books of outstanding quality, and this is called the classical period of a nation’s literature. The age of Queen Anne is often called the classical age of England. Addison, Swift, Richardson, Fielding, Goldsmith, Dr Johnson, Burke, Gibbon and Pope are the great luminaries of the age.
2. Rule of rules
The writers of this age were governed by set rules and principles. And, in this crazy adherence to rules the writers were deeply influenced by Boileau and Rapin, who insisted on precise methods of writing poetry and who professed to have discovered their rules in the works of Aristotle and Horace.
3. Age of good sense and reason
The period is also called the age of reason and good sense, because it was based on the good – sense ideal of the French critic Boileau. It was an age of enlightenment when a literature which had become pellucid and clear began to diffuse knowledge among a growing public. The supremacy of reason was scarcely challenged. There reigned a common belief in the advancement of human mind.
4. Religious and philosophic thought
The Augustans believed in respectability and designed conformity. They had no regard for boundless imagination and overflowing enthusiasm of the Elizabethan age. Their outlook was rational. The poets of this age strove to repress all emotion and enthusiasm. Good sense became the ideal of the time, and good sense meant a love of the reasonable and the hatred of the extravagant and mystical. Wit took precedence of imagination ; inspiration was lost in technical skill. The whole literature of the age was marked by coldness and want of feeling.
5. The French influence
The 18th century literature was indebted to the growing influence of French literature. One notable feature of French influence may be seen in the tragedies in rhyme that were for a time in vogue, of which plots were borrowed from French romances. Boileau held supreme sway over the minds of the literary artists. He was almost a literary dictator.
6. Nature followed
An important characteristic of the age was the belief that literature must follow nature. Pope exhorted his contemporaries to follow nature. However, the nature of the Augustan period was not the nature of Wordsworth. The Augustans were drawn towards human nature rather than the nature we have in forests. Their sole aim was to copy man and manners of society. Alexander Pope said : “The proper study of mankind is man“.
7. Reflection of the contemporary society
The literature of the age was concerned with the follies and foibles of the times. Literature became an interpretation of life, the kind of life that was led in the social and political circles of the times. Poetry became the poetry of the town, the coffee – house and artificial society ; Pope’s The Rape of the Lock is a classic example. The literature of the age lost all touch with the country life and became the literature of the town.
Satire is the literary art of diminishing or derogating a subject by making it ridiculous and evoking towards it attitudes of amusement, scorn, or indignation. Satire is usually justified by those who practice it as a corrective of human vice and folly.
Satire became the prominent form of literature during the Augustan age. The satires of Dryden are well known to us. In the age of Pope the love for satire came to the upper surface and the coldworldliness of Augustan life found its expression in polished wit and satire.
9. Poetic diction
The language of poetry became gaudy and inane and the ordinary language was kept out from poetic literature. The result was that the literature of the age became artificial, stilted, rational and intellectual, losing all inspiration, enthusiasm and romantic fervour which were the hall-marks of the literature of the Elizabethan age. The Augustans were superior in other ways, notable in satire and journalism, in the technical language of philosophy and science and in the great branch of modern literature, the novel, of which they were among the English pioneers.
10. The heroic couplet
In heroic couplet lines of iambic pentameter rhyme in pairs : aa, bb, cc and so on. The adjective “heroic” is applied because of the frequent use of such couplets in heroic poems (epic) and plays. This verse form was introduced into English poetry by Geoffrey Chaucer.
During the Augustan age the heroic couplet was recognised as the only medium of poetic expression. It was no longer possible to write one’s thoughts as the pen could move. The fastidiousness of the public ear did not appreciate “the mob of gentlemen who wrote with ease.” In the heroic couplet the poets put all their skill and wrote with an unimaginable correctness and precision.