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Augustans Movement

Century: 17th

The Augustan era in English poetry is noted for its fondness for wit, urbanity, and classical (mostly Roman) forms and values.


The Augustan era in English poetry is applied to the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in England (and sometimes, more controversially, even to the entire eighteenth century) — the period sometimes called Neoclassical. The most important English writers of the period are Dryden, Swift, Pope, and Defoe.

In the Augustan era, poets were even more conversant with each other than were novelists (see Augustan prose). Their works were written as direct counterpoint and direct expansion of one another, with each poet writing satire when in opposition. There was a great struggle over the nature and role of the pastoral in the early part of the century, primarily between Ambrose Philips and Alexander Pope and then between their followers, but such a controversy was only possible because of two simultaneous movements. The more general movement, carried forward only with struggle between poets, was the same as was present in the novel: the invention of the subjective self as a worthy topic, the emergence of a priority on individual psychology, against the insistence on all acts of art being performance and public gesture designed for the benefit of society at large. Underneath this large banner raged multiple individual battles. The other development, one seemingly agreed upon by both sides, was a gradual expropriation and reinvention of all the Classical forms of poetry. Every genre of poetry was recast, reconsidered, and used to serve new functions. Ode, ballad, elegy, satire, parody, song, and lyric poetry would all be adapted from their older uses. Odes would cease to be encomium, ballads cease to be narratives, elegies cease to be sincere memorials, satires no longer be specific entertainments, parodies no longer be bravura stylistic performances, songs no longer be personal lyrics, and the lyric would become a celebration of the individual rather than a lover's complaint.

These two developments (the emphasis on the individual and the willingness to reinvent genre) can be seen as extensions of Protestantism, as Max Weber argued, for they represent a gradual increase in the implications of Martin Luther's doctrine of the priesthood of all believers and the Calvinist emphasis on individual revelation of the divine (and therefore the competence and worth of the individual). It can be seen as a growth of the power and assertiveness of the bourgeoisie and an echo of the displacement of the worker from the home in growing industrialization, as Marxists such as E.P. Thompson have argued, for people were no longer allowed to remain in their families and communities when they had to travel to a factory or mill, and therefore they grew accustomed to thinking of themselves as isolates. It can be argued that the development of the subjective individual against the social individual was a natural reaction to trade over other methods of economic production, or as a reflection of a breakdown in social cohesion unconsciously set in motion by enclosure and the migration of the poor to the cities. There are many other plausible and coherent explanations of the causes of the rise of the subjective self, but whatever the prime cause, poets showed the strains of the development as a largely conservative set of voices argued for a social person and largely emergent voices argued for the individual person.