poem index

A Brief Guide to the Augustans

Year

2004
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True wit is Nature to advantage dress'd,
What oft was thought, but ne’er so well express'd.
     —Alexander Pope, from An Essay on Criticism

The Augustan era in English poetry is noted for its fondness for wit, urbanity, and classical (mostly Roman) forms and values. Named for the Augustan period or "Golden Age" in Roman poetry, the English Augustans both translated and modeled their own verse after poets such as Virgil, Horace, and Propertius. This period is marked by the end of the Restoration era at its beginning, approximately 1690, and by the death of Alexander Pope in 1744. The Augustans were eventually overshadowed by the growth of English romanticism. Practitioners of Augustan models included Pope, John Dryden, John Gay, Jonathan Swift, and Samuel Johnson. These poets are famous for their long verse narratives or mock epics, which are often satirical and imitate classical models. Prime examples include The Rape of the Lock by Pope and MacFlecknoe by Dryden. These poems take features found in classical epics—invocations to deities, grandiose speeches, battles, divisions into cantos—and apply them to trivial subjects (in MacFlecknoe, lambasting the work of a minor poet; in The Rape of the Lock, a clandestine haircut). These conventions would have been well-known to readers of the day, and the juxtaposition between high rhetoric and low subject matter adds to the humor of the poem. Pope and Dryden were masters of the heroic couplet (lines of iambic pentameter that rhyme in pairs, as in the quotation above) a verse form first introduced by Geoffrey Chaucer in the fourteenth century.

For further information, read the major critical documents of the day to hear the poets of the time espouse their own aesthetic: Dryden's An Essay of Dramatic Poesy (1668), and Pope's An Essay on Criticism (1711).