The Age of Pope (Classical Age) in English Literature

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The Classical Age Or The Augustan Age Or The Age of Pope

      Introduction. Following the Restoration, in 1660, of the Stuart King, Charles II, to the throne of England the manners of the seventeenth-century society became quite coarse, politics scandalously corrupt and the general tone of society brutal. But people soon grew sick of the outrageous license of the fashionable circles and the early 18th century witnessed a resolute attempt in the direction of moral regeneration.

      This desire for improvement was a feature of the literature of this age, and particularly of the literature that was created by middle class writers who were most strongly influenced by the moral considerations. But the people of this age were quite as hostile, on the other hand, to the religious zeal and fanaticism of the Puritans. And thus, though England began to regain lost ground morally, she did not recover the high passion or the spiritual fervor of the Elizabethan age. People, in their dread of the emotional excesses of the Puritans, fell into a mood of chilly apathy, virtue was preached and recommended, but any manifestation of earnestness, even in the Pulpit was regarded as 'enthusiasm' and hence, shockingly bad taste. 'Good sense' became the idol of the time, and by 'good sense' was meant a love of the reasonable and the useful and a hatred of the extravagant, the mystical and the visionary.

      This is shown in the field of religion in which the prevailing principles were rationalism and utility. The same temper marks the literature of the age which exhibits a similar coldness and want of feeling and a similar tendency towards shallowness in thought and formality in expression. It is a literature of intelligence-intelligence which rarely goes much beneath the surface of things-of wit and of fancy and not a literature of emotion, passion or creative energy which are the essential elements of high class literature. In this literature, spontaneity and simplicity are sacrificed to the dominant mania for elegance and correctness. This is true even of poetry; which seldom traveled, beyond the interests of that narrow world of the 'Town' by which men's outlook was commonly circumscribed, and finding its publicity in the coffee houses and the drawing rooms, drew for its substance upon the politics and the discussion of the hour; and the couplet was its accepted dress. Such poetry, however clever, was necessarily more or less fugitive; it lacked inevitably the depth and grasp of essential things which alone assure permanence in literature. And the quest for refinement in style resulted too often in stilted affections and frigid conventionalism.

      The Classical or the Augustan Age. The period covering the age of Dryden as well as that of Pope (1660-1745) is sometimes called the Classical and sometimes the Augustan age of English literature. The poets and critics of this age believed that the work of the writers of classical antiquity, especially those of the Latin writers, presented the best of models and the ultimate standards of literary taste; and they tried to imitate these models. Secondly, in a more general way; like these Latin writers, they had little or no faith in the promptings and guidance of individual genius, but they had much faith in laws and rules imposed by the authority of the past. In 1706, Walsh wrote to Pope: "The best of the modern poets in all languages are those that have nearest copied the ancients." This expressed concisely the principle of classicism. Pope himself reiterated this principle in the well-known lines in his Essay on Criticism.

"Tis more to guide than spur the Muses' steed;
Restrain his fury, than provoke his speed;
The winged courser, like a gen'rous horse,
Shows most true mettle when you check his course,
Those rules of old discover'd not devis'd,
Are nature still, but Nature methodis'd,
Nature like liberty, is but restrain'd
By the same laws which first herself ordain'd.
Learn hence for ancient rules a just esteem.
To copy Nature is to copy them."

      In imitating the models set by the ancients and in following the rules and laws laid by them, the poets of this period thought that they themselves were producing work which would be called classic or of their work goes; otherwise, they lacked their genius. For this reason, the age is also called the age of false or pseudo-classicism.

      The epithet 'Augustan' was applied, to begin with, as a term of high praise, because those who used it really believed that just as the age of Augustus was the golden age of Latin literature, the Age of Pope was the golden age of English literature. But that is not the view of all; and hence, the original significance of the term has disappeared. But the epithet is still retained for the sake of convenience. It serves to bring out the analogy between the English literature of the first half of the eighteenth century and the Latin literature of the days of Virgil and Horace. In both cases, men of letters were dependent upon powerful patrons and in the both cases, a critical spirit prevailed. In both cases, the literature produced by a thoroughly artificial society was a literature, not of free creative effort and inspiration, but of self-conscious and deliberate art.

      "Our Excellent and Indispensable Eighteenth Century." The age of Pope (and for that matter the whole of the eighteenth century) was the age of reason and the age of prose - "our excellent eighteenth century", as Arnold put it "the age of prose." The writers of the age, though they did not produce great poetry, did other essential work for the service of literature: (i) they settled (as Saintsbury has pointed out) English grammar for prose use-in fact, they laid the foundation of real prose style in English literature (ii) they created a sort of "etiquette" or convention which would prevent the absurd extravagances of metaphysical poetry (e.g., describing the eyes of a lady as "walking baths" (iii) they brought order and harmony both in poetry and prose. Their poetry devoid as it was of imaginative quality, was no doubt of an inferior order, but the prose of Steele and Addison, the novels of Defoe and the work of Swift are things of which any age may be proud.

      Limitations of The Age of Pope. The age of Pope has no doubt limitations. Its literature was mostly the literature of the town, and as such the view of life revealed in it is of a limited character. It has neither depth nor breadth of interest. The writers cared more for form and rule than for freedom and spontaneity. But we must not forget the valuable contributions of the writers of the age. They extended the domain of literature by (i) perfecting the satire and the heroic couplet, (ii) producing examples (unequaled even till today) of excellent prose style, (iii) getting the Essay thoroughly into shape and (iv) preparing the ground for the birth of the novel. Thus, the age of Pope with its ideals of reason and good sense, instead of merely repeating and continuing the tendencies of the preceding ages, shaped new things and made direct contribution to English literature. It was, no doubt, deficient in poetry, but excelled in its prose.

      The Age of Satire. The Augustan age is chiefly remarkable for the rise of satire. The social and political conditions of the time were just suitable for the development of satire. The fashionable society of the day was immoral and corrupt and infested with numerous vices and follies. This was a matter of anxiety to sensible men like Addison, Steele and Pope. Addison and Steele wrote mild satires in the 'Spectator' and the 'Tatier' to reform the society of the day. Pope wrote his satirical poems, not to reform but to amuse himself and others at the expense of the unfortunate and the foolish. With all his keen intelligence, Pope could not fail to see the emptiness of the life around him, and being a satirist by nature, he did not fail to ridicule it.

      The second cause for the development of satire was the political life of the day. It was a time of corrupt politics and dirty party warfare. The great politicians of the day vied with one another in showering ridicule and abuses on their opponents. Hence, authors, both of prose and poetry, who could write to serve this purpose were in great demand. The literature of this period, therefore became mostly a literature of satire, as almost all the works of Pope himself are. The heroic couplet, which was the chief medium of the poetry of this period, was specially suitable for satire.

      Town Life— The Usual Theme of The Poets. To the authors of this period, both of prose and poetry, life meant only the life of the fashionable society of the town. Nothing outside this life had any interest for them. Moreover, these authors describe only the superficial aspects of this time and the literature of this period, is therefore, a literature of manners only. Great authors, like Shakespeare, describe the basic characteristics of human nature as it has always been and will always be. The authors of the Augustan age, on the other hand, describe only the artificial manners of a frivolous society.


      The chief characteristics of poetry in the age of Dryden and Pope are as follows:

(i) Classical poetry is, in the main, the product of mere intelligence playing upon the surface of life and things. It is markedly deficient in emotion and exercise of imagination. It is generally didactic (Pope's "Moral Epistles") and Satiric (Dryden's "Mac Flacknoe", Pope's "Dunciad"). It is a poetry of argument and criticism, of politics and personalities.

(ii) It is almost exclusively a 'town poetry'. Its theme is the interest of 'society' in the great centers of culture. The humbler aspect of life and the common man are neglected in it; and it shows no real love of nature, landscape and of countryside things and people.

(iii) It is almost entirely lacking in all those elements which we rather vaguely sum up under the epithet 'romantic'. In an age of profound distrust of emotions and 'enthusiasm', all that savored of romanticism shocked their accepted notions of reasonableness and 'good sense'. The critical taste of the time was unsympathetic towards Chaucer, Spenser and even Shakespeare, who appeared to them to be 'rude' and barbaric. It was especially hostile to everything that belonged to the Middle Ages with its chivalrous extravagance, and visionary idealism. The distrust of romantic literature and art is reflected in the poetry of the age.

(iv) Extreme devotion to form and a love of superficial polish led to the establishment of highly artificial and conventional style, which soon became stereotyped into a regular traditional poetic diction. Classical embroidery of all kinds was employed in season and out of season till it was worn threadbare and made ridiculous by constant use. Simplicity and naturalness disappeared before the growth of a false conception of refinement, and high sounding phrases and pompous circumlocution were substituted for plain and direct expressions even when the matter dealt which was of the simplest and most commonplace kind. The simple 'God rest his soul' of the old ballads would be rendered by poets of the period into the pompous 'Eternal blessings on his shade attend'; and they would be thinking that they had turned vulgar colloquialism into beautiful poetry. Wordsworth was soon to revolt against this type of diction and style.

      The poets of this age stuck to the closed couplet as the only possible form for any serious work in verse. On account of its epigrammatic terseness, the form was suited admirably to the kind of poetry that was popular in the age. But it was too narrow and inflexible to be made the vehicle of high passion or imagination, and it was soon to grow monotonous. Pope was the supreme master of the closed couplet.

      On the whole, the poetry in the age of Dryden and Pope was not very good. It was only second rate because it had not the universal appeal of the poetry of the Elizabethan age, of Milton and of the romantics later on. It did not touch the heart. It only taxed the head.

      Pope as a Representative Poet of The Eighteenth Century. A representative poet is one who presents in his poetry the life and ideas of the age to which he belongs. He is not a rebel against his age. Rather, he accepts its ideas and ideals; and presents them in his poetry. Pope wholly accepts the ideas of the eighteenth century poetry and Works them out in his own poetry. In his hands, the heroic couplet reaches its perfection. Every line of Pope's poetry is so well constructed that it is impossible to improve upon it. Satire is the best expression of the spirit of the Neo-classical age. Since Pope is the representative poet of this age, his poetry is mostly satirical in nature and Pope accepts its literary theories. His Essay on Criticism is a collection of the literary- theories of the Neo-classical age. He knew his own ideal of literature, could express that ideal critically, as few could, and express it constructively as could no other man in the world.


Write a note on the Age of Pope.
"Such in short, were the general features of the age of which Pope was the leader in its literary activities." Discuss.
Why is Pope considered a representative poet of the eighteenth century?
State clearly why the age of Pope is called the Classical age. Illustrate your answer fully.
"Pope is pre-eminently the poet of his age." Discuss.
Expand and illustrate the remark that "Pope is the splendid high priest of our age of prose and reason, of our excellent and indispensable eighteenth century."

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