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THE AUGUSTAN AGE.
1700–1727. \HE period of literature now to be considered is usually
styled the "Augustan Age," but in brilliancy of creative genius it can, in no respect, be compared with the Elizabethan period, nor with the age immediately preceding its own; and in no way did it resemble the Augustan age of Roman literature but in the patronage extended to authors, who, by the partisan spirit of their writings, kept alive the flame of animosity which was raging between the political parties.
The Revolution of 1688, which placed William and Mary on the throne, settled the British Constitution, defined the rights of the people and the prerogative of the King, and secured the Protestant Succession. At the death of William III., in 1702, Anne, the sister of Mary, succeeded to the throne. Her reign is distinguished by the military achievements of the Duke of Marlborough and the constitutional union of England and Scotland. Although since the first Stuart king of England (James I. of England and VI. of Scotland) these two countries had acknowledged but one sovereign, their laws and Parliaments were distinct. In the new ratification the Scots were to send their commoners and peers to represent them in the English Parliament. Their own Presbyterian form of church government, their laws concerning property, and the administration of justice they were to retain inviolate. With the death of Anne in 1714 the Stuart line of kings was ended. Not one of her numerous children survived her, and
the throne passed to the head of the Protestant line of succession, George I., of the House of Brunswick, or Hanover, great grandson of James I. The accession of the German king was opposed by the Tory and Jacobite leaders, who still hoped to place a Stuart on the throne, and favored the cause of the Pretender, as the son of James II. was called. The Whigs, who advocated the rights of the people rather than the rights of the crown, favored the accession of the Hanoverian line. During this reign Sir Robert Walpole became Prime Minister, and Whig rule prevailed. From 1721 to 1742 Walpole practically ruled England. During this reign the celebrated South Sea scheme originated, which, plausible as it seemed, was a fraudulent scheme, involving the financial ruin of thousands.
The Augustan age of literature, usually limited to the twelve years of Anne's reign, though in reality comprising both the reigns of Anne and George, is better termed the age of POPE or ADDISON. These two, with STEELE and Swift, were the principal writers of the time. It was far from being an age of general intelligence. It was a sequel to the preceding age, a moulding of the forces which had sprung into existence in Dryden's time. Open indecency was checked, but covert immorality practised. The flights of genius were curbed and made to conform to rule. The school of criticism begun by Dryden was, in this age, perfected by Pope.
Poets. ALEXANDER POPE (1688–1744), born twelve years before Dryden died, was a professed follower of Dryden. From his boyhood he cherished the most profound admiration for his chosen master, and it is curious to observe with what fidelity he copied and improved upon his original. Dryden wrote a prose essay on dramatic poetry; Pope wrote, in verse, an Essay on Criticism. Dryden translated or reproduced some of Chaucer's poems, Pope as unsuccessfully tried the same. Dryden translated Virgil; Pope translated Homer. Dryden wrote MacFlecknoe, a satire upon Shadwell; Pope wrote the Dunciari, a kindred satire, a continuation, as it were, of MacFlecknoe, making the object of his satire THEOBALD, and afterwards COLLEY CIBBER, the successors of Shadwell to the throne of
Dulness.* The most remarkable of Pope's imitations of Dryden is his Ode on St. Cecilia's Day.
Pope was by no means a servile copyist. He seemed merely to prefer walking in the paths which others had trodden, glean ing what they had left untouched, and perfecting, as far as in his power lay, all that came under his hand. His strength lay in accuracy. Ile was not a poet of “imagination all compact.” His mission was to teach correctness. To perfect the art which his great pattern commenced was no doubt a congenial work to Pope, and how thoroughly he established a school of criticism and correctness can be read in all the writings of that age and the next.
The publication, in 1711, of the Essay on Criticism, admitted Pope at once into the highest rank of authorship. This poem was suggested by Boileau's "Art of Poetry” (L'Art Poetique), and like that poem is compact with wise thoughts and terse expressions condensed into couplets. Following Boileau, Pope holds up as models of style the writers of the Augustan age of Roman literature.
The Essay on Man, published twenty years afterwards, takes a wider range of thought. But here again thought and fancy are made subservient to art, and are cribbed and confined within the narrow couplet. But the skill of the writer is all the more triumphantly exhibited in the fact that, notwithstanding these fetters, he expressed as much wisdom and sound philosophy as he did.
The Rape of the Lock is a humorous poem, celebrating an unforgiven act of Lord Petre, a courtier in Queen Anne's train, for stealing a lock of hair from the fair head of a maid of honor. The style of the poem is mock heroic. Its dedication to the lady, Mrs. Arabella Fermor, gives a quaint picture of the times in its flattery and derision of the ignorant beauties of the court :
"Madam :-It will be in vain to deny that I have some regard for this piece, since I dedicate it to you. An imperfect copy having been offered to a bookseller, you had the good nature for my sake to consent
* This, like most of Pope's satires, was engendered in bitterness. Theobald had, at the same time with Pope, brought out an edition of Shakespeare. Towards Colley Cibber, Pope had always an implacable dislike. By personal satires Pope submitted himself to the most humiliating warfare of words. Keeply sensitive to ridicule himself, be made satire his weapon of retaliation.
to the publication of one more correct. This I was forced to before I had executed half my design, for the machinery was entirely wanting to complete it.
“ The machinery, madam, is a term invented by critics, to signify that part which the deities, angels, or daemons are made to act in a poem ; for the ancient poets are in one respect like many modern ladies: let an action be never so trivial in itself, they always make it appear of the utmost importance. These machines I determined to raise on a very new and odd foundation, the Rosicrusian doctrine of spirits.
"I know how disagreeable it is to make use of hard words before a lady; but 't is so much the concern of a poet to have his works understood, and particularly by your sex, that you must give me leave to explain two or three difficult terms. The Rosicrusians are a people I must bring you acquainted with. The best account I know of them is in a French book called 'Le Comte de Gabalis,' which, both in its title and size, is so like a novel, that many of the fair sex have read it for one by mistake. According to these gentlemen, the four elements are inhabited by spirits, which they call sylphs, gnomes, nymphs, and salamanders. The gnomes or daemons of earth delight in mischief'; but the sylphs, whose habitation is in the air, are the best-conditioned creatures imaginable.
"As to the following cantos, all the passages of them are as fabulous as the vision at the beginning, or the transformation at the end (except the loss of your hair, which I always mention with reverence). The human persons are as fictitious as the airy ones, and the character of Belinda resembles you in nothing but beauty.
“If this poem had as many graces as there are in your person or in your mind, yet I could never hope it should pass through the world half so uncensured as you have done. “I am, madam, your most obedient, humble servant,
A. POPE." Among Pope's earliest productions are his Pastorals, which he, it is said, considered his best efforts. Windsor Forest celebrates the beauty of this early retreat of Pope, and the plan is borrowed from Denham's Cooper's Hill. His Messiah was an adaptation of Virgil's Pollio. The Dying Christian to his Soul, an adaptation of the Emperor Adrian's Animula Vagula.
Other poems were an imaginative Epistle of Eloisa to Abelard, Epistle of Sappho to Phaon, and an Elegy on an Unfortunate Laly. He composed a great many Epitaphs and innumerable Satires and Epistles. His Imitations of Horace were among his last works.
To be appreciated, Pope must be read by fragments. Each line or couplet is a gem-a crystallized thought. His finished style was attained only by incessant care and labor. He copied and recopied his verses, and, alas ! smoothed and polished until all exuberance of fancy disappeared-until, in the words of Dr. Johnson, his page was “a velvet lawn, shaven by the scythe and levelled by the roller." *
* An elegant writer in Blackwood's Magazine has justly described the aims of three great representatives of three successive ages, Milton, Dryden, and Pope:
"In the interval between the end of Milton and the beginning of Pope the art of song had suffered one of its many metamorphoses. It had changed from an inspired message into an elaborate chime of words. Milton--grand, harmonious, and musical as is his utterance at all times--was a man overflowing with high thought and lofty meaning, with so much to say to his generation that the mode of saying it might almost have been expected to become indifferent to him. It never did so, because of the inborn music of the man, that wonderful sense of melody in which he has never been surpassed, if, indeed, ever equalled, in the English tongue. But notwithstanding this great natural gift, his subject was the thing preeminent with him; and as his subject was of the highest importance and solemnity, so his verse rose into organ-floods of severest sweetness. Dryden, who succeeded him, did not possess a similar inspiration. He had no message to the world to speak of, and yet he had a great deal to say. Accordingly with him the subject began to lower and the verse to increase in importance. In Pope this phase of poetry attained its highest development. With him everything gave way to beauty of expression. No prophetic burden was his to deliver. The music of the spheres had never caught his ear. Verse was the trade in which he was skilled, not the mere mode of utterance by which a mind overflowing with thoughts of heaven or earth communicated these thoughts to its fellows. He was an admirable performer upon an instrument the most delicate and finest-toned which humanity possessed. His power on it was such that the most trivial motif, the most mean topic became, in his hands, an occasion of harmony. We confess without hesitation that the music of Pope's verse does not enchant and enthral our particular ear, but it did that of his own generation. It belonged, as does so much of the poetry of France, to an age more marked by culture than by nature; building upon certain doctrines and tenets of literary belief; trusting in style as in a confession of faith, and establishing as strict a severance between the orthodox and heterodox in literature, as ever a community of ecclesiastics has done in a religious creed. Perhaps that was the only period of English literature in which an academy would have been possible. Pope made himself the poetic standard of the age. His contemporaries were measured by it as by a rule; and no one came up to the height of the great master. He gave to his generation a stream of melodious words, such as might have made the whole country sweet, but which, unfortunately, being often employed to set forth nauseous or trifling subjects, gave no nobility to the mind of his period, but only a mathematical music-something which touched the ear rather than the heart. But in Pope his school came to a close. It was impossible to do any. thing finer, more subtle, or more perfect in the art of combining words. If there had been given to him a message to deliver, probably he would not have reached to such perfection in the mode of delivering it; but as it was, he brought to its highest fulfilment and completion the poetical style of which he was capable."