Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Age of Pope (1700-1744)

The earlier part of the eighteenth century or the Augustan Age in English literature is called the Age of Pope, because Pope was the dominating figure in that period. Though there were a number of other important writers like Addison and Swift, but Pope was the only one who devoted himself completely to literature. Moreover, he represented in himself all the main characteristics of his age, and his poetry served as a model to others.

(a)  Poetry
It was the Classical school of poetry which dominated the poetry of the Age of Pope. During this age the people were disgusted with the profligacy and frivolity of the Restoration period, and they insisted upon those elementary decencies of life and conduct which were looked at with contempt by the preceding generation. Moreover, they had no sympathy for the fanaticism and religious zeal of the Puritans who were out to ban even the most innocent means of recreation. So they wanted to follow the middle path in everything and steer clear of the emotional as well as moral excesses. They insisted on the role of intelligence in everything. The poets of this period are deficient on the side of emotion and imagination. Dominated by intellect, poetry of this age is commonly didactic and satirical, a poetry of argument and criticism, of politics and personalities.
In the second place, the poets of this age are more interested in the town, and the ‘cultural’ society. They have no sympathy for the humbler aspects of life—the life of the villagers, the shepherds; and no love for nature, the beautiful flowers, the songs of birds, and landscape as we find in the poets of the Romantic period. Though they preached a virtuous life, they would not display any feeling which smacked of enthusiasm and earnestness. Naturally they had no regard for the great poets of the human heart—Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton. They had no attachment for the Middle Ages and their tales of chivalry, adventure and visionary idealism. Spenser, therefore, did not find favour with them.
In the poetry of this age, form became more important than substance. This love of superficial polish led to the establishment of a highly artificial and conventional style. The closed couplet became the only possible form for serious work in verse. Naturally poetry became monotonous, because the couplet was too narrow and inflexible to be made the vehicle of high passion and strong imagination. Moreover, as great emphasis was laid on the imitation of ancient writers, originality was discouraged, and poetry lost touch with the real life of the people.
Prose being the prominent medium of expression, the rules of exactness, precision and clarity, which were insisted in the writing of prose, also began to be applied to poetry. It was demanded of the poet to say all that he had to say in a plain simple and clear language. The result was that the quality of suggestiveness which adds so much to the beauty and worth of poetry was sadly lacking in the poetry of this age. The meaning of poetry was all on the surface, and there was nothing which required deep study and varied interpretation.
Alexandar Pope (1688-1744). Pope is considered as the greatest poet of the Classical period. He is ‘prince of classicism’ as Prof. Etton calls him. He was an invalid, of small sature and delicate constitution, whose bad nerves and cruel headaches made his life, in his own phrase, a ‘long disease’. Moreover, being a Catholic he had to labour under various restrictions. But the wonder is that in spite of his manifold handicaps, this small, ugly man has left a permanent mark on the literature of his age. He was highly intellectual, extremely ambitious and capable of tremendous industry. These qualities brought him to the front rank of men of letters, and during his lifetime he was looked upon as a model poet.
The main quality of Pope’s poetry is its correctness. It was at the age of twenty-three that he published his Essay on Criticism (1711) and since then till the end of his life he enjoyed progidious reputation. In this essay Pope insists on following the rules discovered by the Ancients, because they are in harmony with Nature:
Those rules of old discovered, not devised
Are Nature still, but Nature methodised.
Pope’s next work, The Rape of the Lock, is in some ways his masterpiece. It is ‘mock heroic’ poem in which he celebrated the theme of the stealth, by Lord Petre of lock of hair from the head of Miss Arabella. Though the poem is written in a jest and deals with a very insignificant event, it is given the form of an epic, investing this frivolous event with mock seriousness and dignity.
By this time Pope had perfected the heroic couplet, and he made use of his technical skill in translating Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey which meant eleven years’ very hard work. The reputation which Pope now enjoyed created a host of jealous rivals whom he severely criticised and ridiculed in The Dunciad. This is Pope’s greatest satire in which he attacked all sorts of literary incompetence. It is full of cruel and insulting couplets on his enemies. His next great poem was The Essay on Man (1732-34), which is full of brilliant oft-quoted passages and lines. His later works—Imitations of Horace and Epistle—are also satires and contain biting attacks on his enemies.
Though Pope enjoyed a tremendous reputation during his lifetime and for some decades after his death, he was so bitterly attacked during the nineteenth century that it was doubted whether Pope was a poet at all. But in the twentieth century this reaction subsided, and now it is admitted by great critics that though much that Pope wrote is prosaic, not of a very high order, yet a part of his poetry is undoubtedly indestructible. He is the supreme master of the epigrammatic style, of condensing an idea into a line or couplet. Of course, the thoughts in his poetry are commonplace, but they are given the most appropriate and perfect expression. The result is that many of them have become proverbial sayings in the English language. For example:
Who shall decide when doctors disagree?
Thou wert my guide, philosopher, and friend.
Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is man.
Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
Man never is, but always to be, blest.
Minor Poets of the Age of Pope. During his age Pope was by far the greatest of all poets. There were a few minor poets—Matthew Prior, John Gay, Edward Young, Thomas Pernell and Lady Winchelsea.
Matthew Prior (1664-1721), who was a diplomat and active politician wrote two long poems: Solomon on the Vanity of The World and Alma or the Progress of the Mind. These are serious poems, but the reputation of Prior rests on ‘light verse’ dealing with trifling matters. He is not merely a light-hearted jester, but a true humanist, with sense of tears as well as laughter as is seen in the “Lines written in the beginning of Mezeraly’s History of France’.
John Gay (1685-1732) is the master of vivid description or rural scenes as well of the delights of the town. Like Prior he is full of humour and good temper. As a writer of lyrics, and in the handling of the couplet, he shows considerable technical skill. His best-known works are: --Rural Sports; Trivia, or the Art of Walking the Streets of London; Black-Eyed Susan and some Fables.
Prior and Gay were the followers of Pope, and after Pope, they are the two excellent guides to the life of eighteenth century London. The other minor poets, Edward Young, Thomas Parnell and Lady Winchelsea, belonged more to the new Romantic spirit than to the classical spirit in their treatment of external nature, though they were unconscious of it.
Edward Young (1683-1765) is his Universal Passions showed himself as skilful a satirist as Pope. His best-known work is The Night Thoughts which, written in blank verse, shows considerable technical skill and deep thought.
Thomas Parnell (1679-1718) excelled in translations. His best known works are the The Night-Piece on Death and Hymn to Contentment, which have a freshness of outlook and metrical skill.
Lady Winchelsea (1660-1725), though a follower of Pope, showed more sincerity and genuine feeling for nature than any other poet of that age. Her Nocturnal Reverie may be considered as the pioneer of the nature poetry of the new Romantic age.
To sum up, the poetry of the age of Pope is not of a high order, but it has distinct merits—the finished art of its satires; the creation of a technically beautiful verse; and the clarity and succinctness of its expression.
(b)  Prose of the Age of Pope
The great prose writers of the Age of Pope were Defoe, Addison, Steele and Swift. The prose of this period exhibits the Classical qualities—clearness, vigour and direct statement.
Daniel Defoe (1661-1731) is the earliest literary journalist in the English language. He wrote on all sorts of subjects—social, political, literary, and brought out about 250 publications. He owes his importance, in literature, however, mainly to his works of fiction which were simply the offshoots of his general journalistic enterprises. As a journalist he was fond of writing about the lives of famous people who had just died, and of notorious adventurers and criminals. At the age of sixty he turned his attention to the writing of prose fiction, and published his first novel—Robinson Cruso—the book by which he is universally known. It was followed by other works of fiction—The Memoirs of a Cavalier, Captain Singleton, Moll Flanders, Colonel Jack, Roxana and Journal of the Plague Year.
In these works of fiction Defoe gave his stories an air of reality and convinced his readers of their authenticity. That is why they are appropriately called by Sir Leslie Stephen as ‘Fictitious biographies’ or “History minus the Facts’. All Defoe's fictions are written in the biographical form. They follow no system and are narrated in a haphazard manner which give them a semblance of reality and truth. His stories, told in the plain, matter-of-fact, business-like way, appropriate to stories of actual life, hence they possess extraordinary minute realism which is their distinct feature. Here his homely and colloquial style came to his help. On account of all these qualities Defoe is credited with being the originator of the English novel. As a writer of prose his gift of narrative and description is masterly. As he never wrote with any deliberate artistic intention, he developed a natural style which made him one of the masters of English prose.
Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) was the most powerful and original genius of his age. He was highly intellectual but on account of some radical disorder in his system and the repeated failures which he had to face in the realisation of his ambition to rise in public life, made him a bitter, melancholy and sardonic figure. He took delight in flouting conventions, and undermining the reputation of his apponents. His best-known work, Gulliver’s Travels, which is a very popular children’s book, is also a bitter attack on contemporary political and social life in particular, and on the meanness and littleness of man in general. The Tale of a Tub which, like Gulliver’s Travels, is written in the form of an allegory, and exposes the weakness of the main religious beliefs opposed to Protestant religion, is also a satire upon all science and philosophy. His Journal to Stella which was written to Esther Johnson whom Swift loved, is not only an excellent commentary on contemporary characters and political events, by one of the most powerful and original minds of the age, but in love passages, and purely personal descriptions, it reveals the real tenderness which lay concealed in the depths of his fierce and domineering nature.
Swift was a profound pessimist. He was essentially a man of his time in his want of spiritual quality, in his distrust of the visionary and the extravagant, and in his thoroughly materialistic view of life. As a master of prose-style, which is simple, direct and colloquial, and free from the ornate and rhetorical elements, Swift has few rivals in the whole range of English literature. As a satirist his greatest and most effective weapon is irony. Though apparently supporting a cause which he is really apposing, he pours ridicule upon ridicule on it until its very foundations are shaken. The finest example, of irony is to be found in his pamphlet—The Battle of Books, in which he championed the cause of the Ancients against the Moderns. The mock heroic description of the great battle in the King’s Library between the rival hosts is a masterpiece of its kind.
Joseph Addison (1672-1719) and Sir Richard Steele (1672-1729) who worked in collaboration, were the originators of the periodical essay. Steele who was more original led the way by founding The Tatler, the first of the long line of eighteenth century periodical essays. This was followed by the most famous of them The Spectator, is which Addison, who had formerly contributed to Steele’s Tatler, now became the chief partner. It began on March 1, 1711, and ran till December 20, 1714 with a break of about eighteen months. In its complete form it contains 635 essays. Of these Addison wrote 274 and Steele 240; the remaining 121 were contributed by various friends.
The Characters of Steele and Addison were curiously contrasted. Steele was an emotional, full-blooded kind of man, reckless and dissipated but fundamentally honest and good-hearted. What there is of pathos and sentiment, and most of what there is of humour in the Tatler and the Spectator are his. Addison, on the other hand, was an urbane, polished gentleman of exquisite refinement of taste. He was shy, austere, pious and righteous. He was a quiet and accurate observer of manners of fashions in life and conversation.
The purpose of the writings of Steele and Addison was ethical. They tried to reform society through the medium of the periodical essay. They set themselves as moralistic to break down two opposed influences—that of the profligate Restoration tradition of loose living and loose thinking on the one hand, and that of Puritan fanaticism and bigotry on the other. They performed this work in a gentle, good-humoured manner, and not by bitter invective. They made the people laugh at their own follies and thus get rid of them. So they were, to a great extent, responsible for reforming the conduct of their contemporaries in social and domestic fields. Their aim was moral as well as educational. Thus they discussed in a light-hearted and attractive manner art, philosophy, drama, poetry, and in so doing guided and developed the taste of the people. For example, it was by his series of eighteen articles on Paradise Lost, that Addison helped the English readers have a better appreciation of Milton and his work.
In another direction the work of Addison and Steele proved of much use. Their character studies in the shape of the members of the Spectator Club—Sir Roger de Coverley and others—presented actual men moving amid real scenes and taking part in various incidents and this helped in the development of genuine novel.
Both Steele and Addison were great masters of prose. Their essays are remarkable as showing the growing perfection of the English language. Of the two, Addison was a greater master of the language. He cultivated a highly cultured and graceful style—a style which can serve as a model. Dr. Johnson very aptly remarked: “Whoever wishes to attain an English style, familiar but not coarse, and elegant but not ostentatious, must give his days and nights to the volumes of Addison.” And again he said: “Give nights and days, Sir, to the study of Addison if you mean to be a good writer, or what is more worth, an honest man.”

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