The Augustan Age was also marked by the evolution of satirical verse, the development of the novel, and the use of melodrama over political satire. The Augustan Age was also noted for the changes in philosophical thought, for example, the formalization of capitalism. The writing during this period was highly regulated and stylized, but the borders of the movement are unclear. Meaning, scholars are undecided on when exactly it begins and ends. But, the literature produced during the reign of Queen Anne, King George I, and George II is considered part of the literary period.
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Definition of the Augustan Age
The Augustan Age was an important period during 18th-century literature. During this period, authors like Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift created their groundbreaking satire. Their deaths in the 1740s are often used as a marker for the end of the Augustan Age. The majority of the writing produced during this period was structured and stylized, but it also foreshadowed the changes that were to come with the Romantic era. The period was an important transition away from courtly writing and towards a style of verse that is more modern.
History of the Augustan Age
The period is also sometimes known as the Age of Reason and the age of Neoclassicism. It was marked by a new availability of books as prices fell and the trade of chapbooks and broadsheets. Periodicals were also a new development. They included The Gentleman’s Magazine and the London Magazine. Newspapers bloomed and spread throughout the country. Most of the authors during this period wrote distinctly political texts. Even those who wrote plays and poems were in some way politically active or funded by political sources. Authors also spent time writing essays criticizing other literary works, making understanding the ins and outs of some literary works difficult.
Alexander Pope and the Augustan Age
Alexander Pope is regarded as the single most important poet of the period. In fact, scholars often describe his writing as dominating the Augustan Age. He has numerous enemies in the politics and social sphere, people he referred to as “the Dunces.” He fought with these contemporaries over his poetry and the proper use of a poetic voice. Two of his greatest works during this period were ‘The Rape of the Lock,’ a satire and mock-heroic, and ‘The Dunciad.’
Examples of Augustan Age Literature
The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope
‘The Rape of the Lock’ is the best-known work of the Augustan Age. It is also Alexander Pope‘s most famous publication. It is a mock-heroic and a wonderful example of high burlesque literature. It was first published in 1712 and then later in 1714 in a new, five-canto version. This version was accompanied by six new engravings.
The final version of the work appeared in 1717. The ‘Rape of the Lock’ details a small incident, satirizing it and comparing it to the epic, dramatic, and over-the-top world of gods. It was based on real events and got to the heart of aristocratic society. It begins when the speaker, Pope, declares that there was a “dire offence.” A man has assaulted a woman, and she has rejected him. Here are a few lines from this important literary accomplishment:
What dire offence from am’rous causes springs,
What mighty contests rise from trivial things,
I sing—This verse to Caryl, Muse! is due:
This, ev’n Belinda may vouchsafe to view:
Slight is the subject, but not so the praise,
If she inspire, and he approve my lays.
The Dunciad by Alexander Pope
‘The Dunciad’ is considered to be one of Pope’s two great masterpieces. The poem celebrates a goddess Dulness and her agents who bring destruction and decay to Britain.
Pope published the first version in 1728 anonymously. It was followed by two others. Today it is well understood that part of his inspiration for the characters in the book comes from his poor relationship with the royal court. The literary work addressed and insulted several important literary figures of the time, including Lewis Theobald. He presented the premise that literature and the arts more broadly had been handed over to the “Dunces,” who were now controlling and commodifying writing. Here is a quote from the text:
Nor public flame, nor private, dares to shine;
Nor human spark is left, nor glimpse divine!
Lo! thy dread empire, Chaos! is restored;
Light dies before thy uncreating word:
Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;
And universal darkness buries all.
Read more Alexander Pope poems.
Mac Flecknoe by John Dryden
‘Mac Flecknoe’ is another mock-heroic satire. It’s directed at Thomas Shadwell, a contemporary poet. It was published in 1682 and depicted a series of disagreements between the two poets. They were in disagreement about the genius of Ben Jonson, Dryden’s preference for comedy of wit over Shadwell for humors comedy, the purpose of comedy, and the value of rhymes in plays. Finally, they were also in disagreement about plagiarism. Shadwell is humorously described as the heir to a poetic kingdom of dullness. Here is a quote from the text:
Shadwell alone my perfect image bears,
Mature in dullness from his tender years.
Shadwell alone, of all my sons, is he
Who stands confirm’d in full stupidity.
Three Airs for the Beggar’s Opera, Air XXII by John Gay
‘Three Airs for the Beggar’s Opera, Air XXII’ is an example of Gay’s Augustan poetry. In the two stanzas of this poem, the author writes about youth, nature, and the fleeting nature of time. He uses clear language and lines that directly address the subject he’s interested in. Consider these lines from the poem:
Youth’s the season made for joys,
Love is then our duty;
She alone who that employs,
Well deserves her beauty.
Let’s be gay,
While we may,
Beauty’s a flower despis’d in decay.
The 18th century is known as the Augustan Age because of the Roman emperor Augustus. The period is named after him due to the inspiration that poets in the 18th century took from this period in Roman history.
The Augustan Age of English literature is famous for satire, wit, and Roman forms. The writers who flourished during this period often modeled their literary works off of famous Roman poets, like Virgil and Horace.
Alexander Pope is generally considered to be the greatest poet of the Augustan Age. He wrote important literary works like ‘The Rape of the Lock’ and ‘The Dunciad.’ His literary accomplishments also influenced decades and centuries of poets after him.
The main features were a dominant tone, allusions to Roman and Greek mythology as well as contemporary social and political issues. Literacy was steadily increasing during this period, meaning that more and more everyday people could engage with the written word.
After the Augustan Age is the Romantic Period. It singled another important shift in literary values from an interest in classical forms and topics (inspired by classical writers) to an interest in nature and an emphasis on individual emotions and the imagination.
Related Literary Terms
- Lampoon: a type of satire in which a person or thing is attacked unjustly. They can be found in prose and verse.
- Satire/Satirical Comedy: are used to analyze behaviors to make fun of, criticize, or chastise them in a humorous way.
- Aphorism: short, serious, humorous, and philosophical truths about life.
- Black Humor: a literary device that’s used in all forms of literature in order to discuss taboo subjects in a less distressing way.
- Comedy: a humorous and entertaining genre of literature, film, and television.
- Farce: a genre of comedic literature. It uses exaggerated and outrageous situations to create humor and make the audience laugh.