England at the time of the emergence of modern institutions. The Restoration: an age of transition. The Age of Dryden, or the making of the Augustan ideal. The Age of Pope, or the Augustan ideal under stress. Neoclassic poetic arts. The socially-oriented literary kinds. Genesis, poetic, and structural devices of the English novel. The movement away from neoclassic orthodoxy. The rise of supernaturalism and sentimentalism in response to oppressive Augustan rationalism.


By analogy with the reign of Augustus Caesar (27 B.C. – 14 A.D.), which was the golden age of Roman literature, an “Augustan age” means a period of peace, prosperity, and artistic refinement. In England, its most characteristic traits can be identified in a period stretching from 1714 to the mid-eighteenth century, known as the age of Pope and Addison, but it may be extended to a broader neoclassical frame to include the Restoration and a transition period from an age of reason to one of sensibility between 1750-1780.

The Restoration of the Stuarts was a culture of passage, in which two codes were still competing: of the Court and of the City, mirroring the final stage of a confrontation which ended in 1689, with the Whig replacement of the Stuart monarchy by William of Orange, of the Nassau dynasty (married to Mary, the daughter of James II). Queene Anne (1702-1714), James II's daughter, left no inheritor to the British throne, all her children dying in infancy or early childhood. The ascension to the throne of George I in 1714 meant the beginning of the Hanoverian dynasty, which went down to Queen Victoria and her descendants (renamed “Saxe-Goburg and Gotha” under Edward VII, and afterwards  “Windsor” – the present royal family). Engineered through the Act of Settlement (1701), the Hanoverian parliamentary monarchy (the king as merely an instrument of the Parliament) meant the victory of the Whig party, the onset of an age of political stability, and a rapprochement with France.

Towards the end of the eighth decade, Dryden abandoned drama in the Restoration heroic and heroic-comic tradition, moving more decidedly into a neoclassical direction, enforced by poetic principles programmatically expounded.  Whereas Dryden draws on René Le Bossu and René Rapin in The Grounds of Criticism in Tragedy (1679), (after the compromise in the comparative evaluation of the merits of the neoclassical French and of the highly irregular English drama in his Essay of Dramatic Poesy, 1668), Alexander Pope's model is the fully canonical expression of neoclassical poetic: Boileau, walking in the footsteps of Horace. Maybe that is why Pope succeeded where Shakespeare and Milton had failed: he was the first English poet to enjoy reputation across the Channel, seeing many of his works translated into French, praised and imitated. From the second half of the eighteenth century there were accumulating signs of a transition to a new mode of understanding and sensibility, which triumphed in Wiliam Blake, the visionary prophet of the Romantic school. The English Augustans consciously imitated and compared themselves to the authors in Caesar Augustus's Rome (Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Livy, as well as Juvenal, of the first century), the neoclassic drift being now Roman rather than Hellenic. The shift is important for the greater emphasis upon the links between a flourishing material civilization and the arts, between politics and artistic Maecenate, between artistic creation and a hedonistic, refined life-style. Writers were known for their elegance, in attire as well as manners or speech, for the social enjoyment of ideas in the coffee-house coterie, rather than for a strenuous and scholarly intellectual effort.  We may add a philosophical and religious eclecticism, yielding a motley reinscription of various systems. Samuel Johnson dismissed Pope's Essay on Man, the most ambitious philosophical poem of the time, as a metaphysical wreck, but that was precisely the point: As the picture of the universe was being challenged and shattered by new scientific discoveries, the thinkers of the time felt free to discourse more tentatively and leisurely on such issues, to “tame” the language of the Royal Society “virtuosi” into the common talk of a cultivated society. Joseph Addison, the new voice that could be heard from journalism in a cultural democracy, proposed to bring Philosophy out of Closets and Libraries, Schools and Colleges, to dwell in Clubs and Assemblies, at Tea-Table, and in Cofee-Houses (The Spectator, No. 10, 12 March 1711).

Although we do not subscribe to Eugenius's (Gr. eugenes: well-born) opinion in Dryden's version of the Platonic dialogue – An Essay of Dramatic Poesy – that the progress of science automatically brings poesy and other arts (...) nearer to perfection, we admit that the importance of the social-political and epistemological background in an approach to Augustan literature is paramount. In this age literature moves from language to society, from history to the contingent, from the memory of the antiquity towards literary models geared to living reality. Man descends from his central position in the universe, allowing himself to be governed by social rules and necessities, confining his Faustian ambitions to the infinitely more modest requirements of a practical humanism. From aspiration towards universality, the artist turns to the painting of morals, from lyricism, to an impersonal kind of literature and eloquence, from esoteric exploits, to observation of nature, from erudition to modish topics, from idealism to sentimentality, from a metanarrative (a central story) to individual facts. Theology tended to be replaced by political economy (Robinson Crusoe). It was from the picture of England's flourishing industry and commerce, about 1610, that Antoine de Montcrestien (1575-1621), the author of the first treatise of political economy (L'economie politique, 1615), derived his notions about the dignity of capitalist enterprise and peaceful trade. Common man, engaged in his daily practical activities, became a moral norm and a hero in literature for the first time.

Warfare was not entirely absent over this timespan, but it usually led to a more advantageous settlement for the British nation. The Exclusion Crisis provoked by Lord Shaftesbury's proposition in Parliament that the Collateral line represented by James, the younger brother of Charles, should be excluded from succession to the throne, in favour of the Duke of Monmouth, Charles' illegitimate son, fell in Parliament and led to Shaftesbury’s imprisonment, as well as to an armed action led by Monmouth himself, which was suppressed. As a result of James' deposition three years later (1688), a new political government could be settled under William III: a social contract between King and Parliament, which radically restricted the former's prerogatives, while ensuring the predominance of the Commons, religious tolerance with no more suspicions, more or less grounded, about “Popish plots” (the last, of Titus Oates, had had its share in the Succession Crisis). The rise to power of the middle class, whose upper strata had absorbed a large part of the aristocracy, through the titles sold by the Stuarts to the moneyed landowners and as a result of Cromwell's confiscations from the royalists, was completed by the end of the Whig Prime Minister Robert Walpole's long and peaceful political rule (1721-41), the interests of the two dominant classes having by then completely merged together. Initially ascribed to those who had opposed the exclusion of James, Duke of York, and to those who had supported it, attempting a subordination of the king to Parliament after the 1688 Glorious Revolution, the names of “Tory” and “Whig', respectively, were in time replaced by “Conservative” and “Liberal”. The antagonism between them diminished during the Augustan Age, with active support from those who could sway public opinion in favour of a peaceful cohabitation of all social classes.

The values and taste of the middle class replaced the aristocratic values, gentility, as a summation of virtue, religious faith, decorum, mental and physical energy ousted the ideal of the courtier's refined appearance, manners, and wit. Essayists and writers of the age undertook to educate the bourgeoisie in respect to manners, urbanity and propriety of address (letter-writing, conversation). John Pomfret's poem, The Choice (1700), defines the ideal way of life as that of a leisurley, civilized golden mean, while Robinson's father's advice to his son (Robinson Crusoe) displays a similar appreciation of the ideal middle class way of life. Even the third Earl of Shaftesbury's code of Augustan refinement in art and morals – Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (neoclassic in its import), does not make Gentlemanliness a privilege of caste, but an attribute of a civilized man living in a stable and just society.

The Great War of the Spanish Succession, which ended with the Peace of Utrecht (1713) gave Britain control over Gibraltar, Minorca, North America, as well as the exclusive right to export slaves to the West Indies. The provisions of the treaties concluded between England, France, Holland, and Spain, Savoy, Prussia, and Portugal increased England's participation in the largest slave trade in history, when at least six million human beings were captured and transported across the ocean.

The changes in science and philosophy were deep enough to breed an awareness of a fundamental discontinuity in history. The “Battle of the Ancients and the Moderns”, that is between the advocates of the values and spirit of the Antiquity, which had prevailed during the Renaissance, and those evincing a modern consciousness, arising from a scientific-experimental attitude to the world, spread from France to England with the return of the exiled royalists and with the arrival of a French exile, Saint-Evremond. Dryden, who was an acquaintance of Saint-Evremond's, echoes the dispute in his Essay of Dramatic Poesy. Important public figures joined the controversy. Sir William Temple supported the Ancients, while William Wotton sided with the moderns. As Sir Temple's secretary, Jonathan Swift gave his own opinion in his usual recourse to irony in A Tale of A Tub and in The Battle of Books. In the former, the moderns are defined in the manner of the twelfth-century monk, Bernard de Chartre, and of the contemporary Bernard de Fontanelle as the present “pigmies” on the shoulders of the ancient giants, whose fundamental works had germinated into a sprawl of petty lexicons. Conservative attitudes are characteristic among the writers of the age, who support stability, the establishment – as classicists will always do. However, the substance of their work – realistic and satirical – is the very outcome of the scientific and social revolutions. The writers' true political leanings may have remained secret, considering their dependence upon patronage. The story of Daniel Defoe being a Whig mole on the staff of a Torry paper is symptomatic [1]. Samuel Johnson's 1755 letter to Lord Chesterfield meant the declaration of the writer's independence of patronage, but it succeeded a long tradition of flattering and humiliating dedications from authors whose ambition to make a living from writing turned them into trimmers. 

If literature displays fundamentally new traits, even less entitled would one be to regard the scientific and philosophical exploits of the age as mere footnotes to classical works. With all his emphasis upon the importance of science and experiment, Bacon had however remained ignorant of a number of important scientific discoveries and advances, which philosophers could no longer fail to take into account: Kepler's astronomical discoveries, Napierian logarithms, the progress of mechanics in Galileo and his theory of the acceleration of falling bodies, the theory of the lever, and of the precession of the eqionoxes, etc.[2].

Following Isaac Newton's publication of Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687), the universe ceased to be regarded as organic and teleological. The long-cherished Ptolemy-Galen-Pliny-Paracelsus model was discarded altogether, yielding to a decentered, mechanistic picture of bodies moving in space and time, according to mechanical and matter-based principles.  The book of the universe, according to Galileo, was written in mathematical language. After the Restoration the group of Cambridge Platonists, who had preoccupied themselves with the philosophical impact of Hobbes's empiricism on religion, incorporated the Royal Society “for the Improving of Natural Knowledge”, patronized by Charles II. Its members meant to promote not only the New and Real Philosophy, but also a new language capable to word it: of mathematical plainness, freed from empty scholastic, syllogistic ratiocination (having a “why for every wherefore”, like Butler's Hudibras), of “fruit-bearing” empirical relevance, of use to the artisan, the countryman, the merchant (Thomas Sprat, The History of the Royal Society, 1667).  The cognitive turn (from ontology to gnoseology, from inquiry into being to inquiry into the possibilities and circumstances of cognition, announced by Montaigne and Bacon and effected by Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, was the one which actually worked the change from the ancients to the moderns, whereas the hermeneutic turn (from “what do I know?” to  “how do I interpret a world which is in its essence unknowable, how do I represent or constitute it?”), originating in David Hume and Immanuel Kant, with bearings upon the Romantics and the Victorians, was absolutized by the modernists. The deconstructive turn (the deconstruction of the logocentric paradigm of primary and derivative terms, like speech and writing, cause and effect, good and evil, straight and crooked, right and left etc into differences without positive terms), originating in Nietzsche and receiving fresh impetus from Heidegger, Gadamer and Derrida, shaped the epistemological matrix of postmodernism.

Religion was going from a doctrinary (inner) towards a cognitive (contextual) crisis. John Locke, a member of the Royal Society, who returned from his French exile (he had been Earl of Shaftesbury's physician) with William III in 1689, inquired into The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695), while G.F. Leibnitz searched in a manner (logical-mathematical) different from Milton's (the theological doctrine of the happy fall) to “justify the ways of God to Man”, in the best of all possible worlds (Theodicy). The philosophers of the age were shrewd in mathematics: Hobbes, who was Charles II’s mathematician, entered into controversies with Descartes, whereas Leibnitz discovered differential calculus independently from Newton. The Dutch Baruch Spinoza constructed his Ethics by the Geometrical Method. Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746), quantified the morality of social action in a way which anticipated the Victorian utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham in An Inquiry into the Original of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue (1725): that Action is best, which procures the greatest Happiness for the greatest Numbers; and that, worst, which, in like manner, occasions Misery (3, VIII). He even finds analytical propositions and mathematical formulations for moral actions in his System of Moral Philosophy, posthumously published in 1755: The moral Importance of any Agent, or the Quality of publick Good produc'd by him, is in a compound Ratio of his Benevolence and Ability: or (by substituting the initial Letters for the Words, as M = Moment of Good, and m = Moment of Evil, M = B x A). Half a century later, when vehemently exposing the outrage of making God “a mathematical diagram”, Romantic poet William Blake might well have been thinking of David Hartley (1705-1757), who used a similar quasi-mathematical formulation to represent man's relationship with God in Observations on Man (1749).

The authority of mathematical principles spread quickly to the arts. They could ensure the neoclassical principles of harmony, proportion, symmetry.  John Wood the Elder and his son of the same name were two neo-Palladian architects who reconstructed Bath according to “figures and numbers”, with no more Gothic or medieval reminiscences. From buildings of monumental classicism to the “model villages”, they remained faithful to Palladian proportions, symmetries and rhythms, integrating individual buildings into the general design with a remarkable sense of the social organization of space [3]. The individual is conceived of only in relation to the community. Everything is merged into everything else, with an effect of wholeness, integrity. Art is made dependent on reason, truth, craft, elaboration, obeying the commandments of mathematical constructs: The square in geometry, the Unison or Circle in Musick, and the Cube in Building have all an inseparable Proportion: the Parts being equal, and the sides and Angles etc. give the Eye and Ear an agreable Pleasure; from hence may likewise be deduced the cube and a harf, the double cube, the Diapason, and Diapante being founded on the same principle in Musick [4].

The scientific critical rationalism of the first phase of English Neoclassicism stands under the sign of Thomas Hobbes's (1588-1679) mechanistic and deterministic materialism. The royal way to truth leaves behind authorities, theoretical systems (Nulius in verba), being restricted to inductive and mathematical methods. Leviathan (165l) examines the content of the mind, reducing it to sense data, to various impressions worked upon the senses by contact with the exterior world: there is no conception in a man's mind which hath not at first, totally or by parts, been begotten upon the organs of senses. The rest are derived from that original (Leviathan Part I, Chapter I). Innate ideas are also denied by John Locke (1632-1704), yet he defines the human being in the same way as Descartes, as being conscious to himself that he thinks (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 1690, Book II, Chap. I) and dissociates between sensations and ideas, the latter transcending the object of the senses: Whence has it (the mind) all the materials of reason and knowledge ? To this I answer in one word: from experience; in that all our knowledge is founded, and from that it ultimately derives itself. Our observation employed either about external sensible objects, or about the internal operations of our minds, perceived and reflected on by ourselves, is that which supplies our understandings with all the materials of thinking. These two are the fountains of knowledge, from whence all the ideas we have, or can naturally do spring. Such dichotomies as sensation and idea, simple and compound ideas (derived from the first, through the mind's observation of its own operations), perception and reflection do allow of a form of transcendentalism, at a remove from Hobbes's purely empirical psychology. The mechanistic-empiricist representation of the mind was later ridiculed by Laurence Sterne in his Tristram Shandy (although it is Locke he mentions): when his own father impresses him in so many different ways, can the content of the mind be reduced to a mechanical effect of unique sense impressions (the same for any subject as long as the object of perception remains the same), like the material print of a maid's thimble on wax? (Book II, Chap. II) At the other end of the Augustan Age, Imagination struck Tristram as something quite different from Memory of the sense impression when the object is removed, being inferior to actual perception of the object: From whence it follows that the longer the time is, after the sight or sense of any object, the weaker is the imagination. For the continual change of man's body destroys in time the parts which in sense were moved; so that distance of time, and of place, hath one and the same effect in us. (Leviathan Part I, Chap. II, Of Imagination). The fascination of remoteness in time and space was already relished by some of Sterne’s contemporaries (Edward Young), precisely for the freedom it granted the mind to invent something of larger import than any contingent reality. And what is Uncle Toby (Tristram Shandy), at his heart, if not an obsession with something which has never happened – his invented, rather than memorized “heroic” past? Sterne’s criticism was preceded by the philosophers'. There is nothing in the intellect that has not previously been in the senses, Leibnitz (1646-1716) replies in his New Essays on Human Understanding, except the intellect itself. For the soul includes being, substance, the one, the same, cause, perception, ratiocination, and many other notions which the senses are not capable to originate (Nouveaux essais sur l'entendement humain, II, I, 2). The monism constructed by Leibniz in his Monadology (each monad has its own soul, whereas God, as the largest monad, comprises them all) was the other extreme from atheistic empiricism and different (although equally optimistic in its view of the best of all possible worlds) from Deism, which only derived the idea of God from the contemplation of the universe as a perfect machinery, presupposing the existence of a master-mechanic. Miracles are precluded, God no longer intervenes in his creation, as a personified agent. Spinoza's ontological monism apparently offered a solution to Descartes' dualism (being split into substance-body and substance-soul). In Spinoza, the physical and the metaphysical are merged together, God being the common substance (Deus, sive substantia, God, that is substance). Everything is individualized but also merged into its horizon: modes of being included in attributes, attributes, in substance. Whereas the mechanistic sense theory of Hobbes informs Dryden's view of feelings and states of mind induced by the way musical instruments work upon the senses (the odes composed for St. Cecilia's Day), we think it was the philosophy of Spinoza that provided the arguments of Alexander Pope's Essay on Man. In the Design preceding the four verse epistles – a form of didactic literature (a classical favourite) employed for the exploration of some philosophical, moral etc. idea – Pope thanks Lord Henry Bolingbroke for having been his “guide, philosopher, and friend”. Samuel Johnson thought it had been the other way round: Pope had been the one whose ideas had sprouted in Bolingbroke's posthumous papers. The poem has often been accused of doctrinary incoherence, eclecticism, and inconsistency: Colin Manlove, in an essay, Parts and Wholes: Pope and Poetic Structure [5] reproduces some of them, pointed out by previous commentators, which meet with his approval: Pope tells men they are fools to try to inquire into the nature of the universe, but then has to do the same himself in order to tell them why they should not: the poet who tells his reader that the proper study of mankind is man spends much of the first epistle among the constellations and well above or beneath the sphere of human existence on the great chain of being. Then there is difficulty with Pope's conception of the governing spring of human conduct – the “Ruling Passion”, a force conferred by the deity working through nature: where is there to be human choice in such a deterministic arrangement? Considered in the light of Spinoza's philosophy, and of the analogical method inspired to his contemporary, Samuel Clarke (later resumed by Bishop Joseph Butler in his Analogy of Religion, 1736), in A Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God (1705-6), by Newton's universal laws of nature, Pope's doctrinaire frame appears less incoherent. If inferior modes of being and powers of perception are included in man, he can obviously know them, and, through a study of the general laws at his level, he can speculate on larger “gradations” of the universal “chain of being” or “extent”, or “range”. It is odd that Colin Manlove does not mention Spinoza, although the following commentary on Pope is perfectly valid with respect to the Dutch philosopher's advance in a rationalist direction, away from both Descartes and Leibniz: A significant change in the poem is from a vertical to a horizontal conception of being. The prepositions “above” and “below” become fewer, and we deal with a passion that pervades, a social impulse that spreads. This is already happening in that beautiful passage on the activity of God at the end of Epistle I – He is an immanent force that “spreads” through all being and “extends thro' all extent”; His presence in all things removes hierarchic distinctions, levelling all created things in equal importance: “To him no high, no low, no great, no small; He fills, he bounds, connects, and equals all.” The ladder of being in which mankind is reduced to a mere point in space, is later in the poem transformed to the surface of a lake over which like a dropped pebble the loving action of one man ripples out to embrace all being; just as the vertical has shifted to the horizontal, so has shrinkage to expansion. (Op. cit., p. 147). Here is Gheorghe Vlăduţescu on Spinoza: În deosebire de Descartes şi, totodată, cu un grad sporit de autenticitate şi adevăr, Spinoza nu mai aşază cele două mari “trepte” într-o scară a lumii, pe “verticală”, ci pe “orizontală”. În acelaşi plan, adică, şi, parcă, à tiroirs, mai-cuprinzătorul incluzând orizontul subiacent, substanţa, atributele şi modurile sunt, deopotrivă, în identitate şi în non-identitate. Venind “de sus” dinspre substanţă, totul este în toate, dar venind din “jos”, pentru că moduri şi atribute sunt cuprinse (modurile în atribute, atributele în substanţă), identitatea presupune şi deosbirea [6].

The term “chain of being” is misleading, Pope proceeding to a systematic deconstruction of the Renaissance overall image of existence. The hierarchy of separate and multilayered individualities, (the level of nature, of humanity, and of God) yields to a more egalitarian picture of Being: one stupendous Whole, one Body, one Soul. He maps the Renaissance onto a philosophical concept which is completely different. Pope's contention in the Design, that he is steering betwixt the extremes of doctrines seemingly opposite, probably means avoiding both the Scylla of Descartes (dualism body/soul) and the Charybdis of Deism (dualism God/creation). The homogeneous element of water is a monistic trope – a universal substantia further qualified by attributes of “range”, “extent”, “powers” (possibilities of perception individualized for each mode of being, from the lowest, which is the mole's blindness, to man's perception of ideas – in whose description Pope draws on Locke). Pope does not ridicule human capacities in general, but only the Renaissance picture of man in his glory, as the coronation of Creation. His world picture is Newtonian, inferable from a number of general laws, empirically testable. The Renaissance had emphasized ontological split (outside and within man); Pope emphasizes connectedness, at equal distance from Hobbes’s bleak view of man’s instinctive selfishness (Leviathan) and Shaftesbury’s confidence in man’s inborn moral sense and love for his fellow men (An Inquiry Concerning Virtue, 1699):  

            The great directing Mind of all ordains,

            All are but parts of one stupendous whole,

            Whose body Nature is, and God the soul;


            All Nature is but Art, unknown to thee;

            All Chance, Direction, which thou canst not see;

            All Discord, Harmony not understood;

            All partial evil, universal Good:

            And, spite of Pride, in erring Reason's spite,

            The truth is clear: WHATEVER IS, IS RIGHT.

                                                         (Epistle I)


                                              Parts relate to whole;

            One all-extending, all-preserving Soul

            Connects each being, greatest with the least

                                                            (Epistle III)


            Remember, Man, the Universal Cause,

            Acts not by partial, but by general laws.

            And makes what Happiness we justly call

            Subsist not in the good of one, but all.


            That true Self-Love and Social are the same:

                                                           (Epistle IV). 

Of the attributes of God or Nature, man only knows range and thought (Reason).  Coming from above, from substance, everything is identical to everything else, yet coming from below, from different attributes and modes, everything is confined to a certain “gradation” of the “chain of being”: 

             Far as Creation's ample range extends,

            The scale of sensual, mental powers ascends:

            Mark how it mounts, to Man's imperial race,

            From the green myriads in the peopled grass;

            What modes of sight betwixt each wide extreme,

            The mole's dim curtain, and the lynx's beam (I, 207-212): 

            The Renaissance world picture is subject to a sardonic attack. 

a) The humanistic fiction of man as the yardstick of the universe, possessed of the spirit divine (Pope: Eternal Wisdom): 

            Superior beings, when of late they saw

            A mortal Man unfold all Nature's law,

            Admired such wisdom in an earthly shape,

            And showed a NEWTON as we show an Ape. (II, 3l-34)

b) The capacity to know the entire chain of being. Confined to his “gradation” of the “ample range”, man is advised to drop all Titanic aspirations and Faustian ambitions, to learn submission (to universal order), acknowledge his own “point” in space and time, and limits (blindness, weakness).

c) The existence of an organic universe, whose general design and purpose (telos) is known to man. Pope draws the picture of the universe as a machine, as aggregates of atoms held together by the general laws discovered by Galilei and Newton, as an anonymous circuit of matter, with creatures feeding upon one another: 

            See plastic Nature working to this end,

            The single atoms each to other tend,

            Attract, attracted to the next in place

            Formed and impelled its neighbour to embrace.

            See Matter next, with various life endued,

            Press to one centre still, the general Good.

            See dying vegetables life sustain,

            See life dissolving vegetate again:

            Ill forms that perish other forms supply. (III, 9-17) 

d) The pastoral meliorist project: the pride of aiming at more knowledge, and pretending to more Perfection, is the cause of Man's error and misery. (I/IV)

e) Knowledge received from transcendental experience: the a priori ideas of operations of the intellect, mysterious communication with the divinity, through dreams, visions, miracles, inspiration, divination etc. In purely Lockean fashion, Pope reduces the content of the mind to what comes through a “gradation” of sense, instinct, thought, reflection. A mole's mode of being and attribute (the “powers”) are included in those ranging above, and so on, whereas man's Reason is all these powers (sense, remembrance, reflection, thought) in one (I, 212-232). Also in Spinozian fashion, man is supposed to suppress his passions and exercise his rational powers, which enable him to acquiesce in the existing order, which would be ruined if only one element were removed from its place.

From the centre of creation, man suddenly sees himself under the interdiction even to think of the Centre, to soar with Plato to th'empyrial sphere, unless he means to drop into himself and be a fool (II, 19-34). From inquiry into the essence of the world, he starts wondering: What world is this after all? What “gradation” in the Great World? Yet he does not, because Alexander Pope will not allow him to look beyond, and nothing can be defined but by its relation to something else, to everything else. The only knowledge that is still available is not without but within: all our knowledge is OURSELVES TO KNOW (IV, 398). The eighteenth-century view of the universe as a perfect machinery is made to serve Socrates' precept, “Know thyself”.  Such a perspective also justifies social order, the status quo: the division into the monadic existences of Beast, Man, or Angel, Servant, Lord or King (III), as well as the inextricable ties between them. Man is made aware of different ranges of knowledge, of different points of view. The images of the New World are not only those of the treasures that could be seized but also of other peoples' modes of understanding (see Friday in Robinson Crusoe, praying to Robinson's gun like to a god, because he does not understand its mechanism). The natives are confined within the gnoseological horizon made possible by their particular experience (see the mutual revelation of colonizers and colonized in Aphra Behn's Oroonoko). Jonathan Swift's work is mainly based upon a manipulation of various points of view. A cultivated man is no longer one who dedicates himself to reading but also one who travels, a citizen of the world, familiar with as many aspects of the human show as possible. A Latitudinarian, if not downright relativistic attitude is characteristic of the Age of the Luminaries, ready for new discoveries, new theories, new experiences of otherness. Fanaticism, dogmatism were buried in the historical past. Robinson Crusoe is capable to see his situation from opposite points of view, which are both true. There is no ending to Swift's and Pope's exploration of paradox.  In fact, Locke's Epistola to Tolerantia, 1689, the first published on his return to England (1689), heralded the spirit of the coming age. About the same time, Bernard de Fontenelle was entertaining wild fantasies about possible other worlds: lost civilizations in the cosmic space, which the micro-organisms contained in the big meteorites that had hit the earth made one suspect, populated far-off gallaxies. Fontenelle is as severe as Pope in his indictment of man's 'pride” and heresy of trying to know and judge everything: Nous voulons juger de tout et nous sommes toujours dans un movais point de vue. (Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes – conversations with a marquise, 1686). In order to see right, one needs to be outside, a spectator, not the inhabitant of some particular world. Gulliver, the traveller from one imaginary world to another, is trading in biases and monocular modes of vision with the inhabitants of each visited land. In a fragment left out in the final version of Tristram Shandy, first published by Paul Stapfer in 187o, after meditating on the infinite relativity of time and space, the author-narrator falls asleep, dreaming that he has become the inhabitant of a plum on a tree in his orchard. Awakening from an apocalyptic experience, he notices that several plums have fallen from the tree, shaken off by a gust of wind. No, it had not been a world, but only a bubble that had burst, as Pope says (Who sees with equal eyes, as God of all,/ A hero perish, or a sparrow fall,/ Atoms or systems into ruin hurled,/ And now a bubble burst, and now a world – I) If Laurence Sterne  had preserved the fragment, it would have served as an appropriate allegory for his characters, each imprisoned in his “hobby horse” (personal obsession). But having journeyed from observation to imagination, from physical sensation and mechanical psychological response to private obsession, from Social Self to Individual Self, we have trespassed the Romantic frontier, so we need to return to the Augustans.           

Having outgrown the Protestant emphasis upon individual consciousness, as well as aristocratic egotism, Augustan literature mirrors the relationship between private and social self, and often develops a discourse akin to that of political economy, law, philosophy. The policy of a good government no longer looks up towards the ideal “governor” but down, to the masses of individuals and the way in which they are to integrate themselves in the social order, to harmonize their private interests with those of the community. To Hobbes' s absolutism in Leviathan, Locke opposes a characteristically Augustan balance between the constitutional power and the subjects' rights. A practical morality replaces the idealism and absolute standards of the Renaissance man, who had lived by models: If man in the state of nature be so free, as has been said; if he be absolute lord of his own person and possessions equal to the greatest, and subject to nobody, why will he part with his freedom? Why will he give up this empire, and subject himself to the dominion and control of any other power? To which 'tis obvious to answer, that though in the state of nature he hath such a right, yet the enjoyment of it is very uncertain, and constantly imposed to the invasion of others. For all being kings as much as he, every man his equal, and the greater part no strict observers of equity and justice, the enjoyment of the property he has in this state is very unsafe, very unsecure. This makes him willing to quit a condition, which, however free, is full of fears and continual dangers; and 'tis not without reason that he seeks out and is willing to join in society with others, who are already united, or have a mind to unite, for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties and estates, which I call by the general name, property. (John Locke, The Second Treatise of Government, 1690, Chapter II).

Consequently, Augustan literature is to a large degree public, occasional, mundane. Generally speaking, this is a literature predominantly of social record: comedy of manners, pamphlet, satire, the addresses of philosophers, divines, journalists, authors, essays, periodicals. It serves to popularize philosophical ideas, to educate artistic tastes, to prevent social turbulence, to help polishing manners, and breed civility, and to assist man in any other way in his effort to depart from the “state of nature” and advance towards civilization. Writers are now addressing an extended readership, aiming at a general rather than individual reception. In the mid-seventeenth century, Comenius, who had been invited to Britain to help promoting the New Education, was impressed by the amount of books that were being published. In 1709 a Copyright Act granted writers certain royalties, and the large sales signalled the existence of a wide popular market. Circulation increased, and periodicals such as “The Taltler” and “The Spectator”, founded by Richard Steele and Joseph Addison, disseminating the new ideas in every walk of life, benefited from wide circles of readers. Pope's translations of the Illiad (175l-2o) and Odyssey (1725-26) sold remarkably well. The taste for reading and the ability to read increased with the spreading of charitable foundations, sunday schools, academies, circulating libraries. Contemporary travellers testified to the existence of a cultivated reading public, and to knowledge of literature circulating in common talk.

The desire for stability in politics and society bred the need for stability in language. Science demanded precision, direct, unelaborate expression, as we have seen, and so did the literary discourse. Florid, conceited style, the uneasy marriage of wit and the puzzling paradoxes had become gratuitous exhibitionism, being replaced by a record of actual experience, perceived in the broadlight of reason, apprehended with the unfailing tools of judgement, and rendered discursively according to precise rules. As women increased the numbers of the reading public, authors avoided the use of “hard words”. The ideal idiom, refined in the conversation schools of the literary clubs and coffee houses of Dryden's and Addison's days, was a variety of well-bred speech, free from affectation, pedantry, rusticity, and crudeness. The efforts of a committee set up by the Royal Society, of which Dryden was a member, to “improve the English language”, particularly as an instrument of precise denotation in an empirically minded community of speakers, were continued in the next century in the direction of stabilization. The English language had been changing at an alarming rate, so that Geoffrey Chaucer's, for instance, had become obscure within two centuries after his death. Language could only be stabilized through dictionaries, deciding on correct meaning, laying down rules of spelling, pronunciation. Nathaniel Bailey contributed the first lexicographical work including all English words: Universal Etymological Dictionary (1721). In 1755, the authoritative, critically and scholarly-minded Samuel Johnson published his Dictionary, illustrating the meanings of words by quotations from literary works, ranging from Philip Sidney's onwards. 

Characteristic of the age was the periodical essay, a literary kind invented by Richard Steele in April 1709, when his “Tatler” was first issued. It was followed by other periodicals, whose titles mirror the spirit of the Enlightenment: “The Spectator”, “The Connoisseur”, “The Citizen of the World”. The primacy of knowledge, the cosmopolitanism of the age meant an opening to the world, a search for models of civilization, an interest in the new developments in the academies of France, in the revolutionary trends in science and philosophy which emerged on the Continent. Everybody shared Edmund Burke's view: We are afraid to put man to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and ages. Images drawn from the new, powerful world of commerce and finances display a new notion of knowledge, not as the trophy of the closeted scientist, or of the philosopher's “hermitage of the mind”, but as that which is common acquisition, coming from minds working together and being shared with the rest of the community. Ideas are no longer privately enjoyed in the intellect's ivory tower, but disseminated like light all around. The Spectator – one of the imaginary personages gathered in Steele's and Addison's literary clubs, with a complete fictional biography, engages in a mutual exchange of ideas with his readers, invited to write back. A hypothetic explanation of the emergence of a persona, of an objectified self in eighteenth-century fiction, of a narrator different from the author (which was a symptom of the general tendency towards impersonality, towards the dissolution of the private into the social self) is Locke's theory of the mind examining its own workings. Be it as it may, the Augustan theory of the imagination expounded in the 44th issue of “The Spectator” (1712) is an aesthetic by-product of Locke's description of psychological processes, which was thus popularized in a big run: It is this sense (i.e. sight) which furnishes the imagination with its ideas; so that by the pleasures of the imagination, or fancy (...) I here mean such as arise from visible objects, either when we have them actually in our view, or when we call up their ideas into our minds by paintings, statues, descriptions, or any the like occasion. We cannot, indeed, have a single image in the fancy that did not make its first entrance through the sight; but we have the power of retaining, altering, and compounding those images, which we have once received, into all the varieties of picture and vision that are most agreeable to the imagination; for by this faculty a man in a dungeon is capable of entertaining himself with scenes and landscapes more beautiful than any that can be found in the whole compass of nature.

Addison and Steele were not only disseminating ideas but also constructing the Augustan world of peace, tolerance, and social concord. They were helping bridge the gap between town and country, present and past, smooth over differences between the Tories and the Whigs, the hereditary aristocracy and the champions of industry, between Cavalier and Puritan.

The Spectator, as the owner of a hereditary estate which has been in the family since William the Conqueror, suggests the need for continuity in a people's history. Sir Roger de Coverlay is a softened, sentimentalized version of the landed aristocracy. Like Chaucer's “Knight”, he is still the first of his society, yet not as an awe-inspiring figure but in a demystified travesty, with whom the rest of the company, lower in “estate”, could feel at home. The details of his biography are picturesque and amusing: his great grandfather invented an inoffensive country-dance, which is called after him, Sir Roger was crossed in love by a perverse beautiful widow, and on some occasion he kicked Bully Dawson in a public coffeehouse, for being called youngster. The most important element in the “invention” of the Tory figure, however, is the mutual understanding between himself and his tenants, their prosperity and love for him.

The champion of industry is Sir Andrew Freeport, a merchant of great eminence in the city of London. The upper middle class figure is constructed in a similar idyllic light. New elements have enriched the Augustan code of values: indefatigable industry, strong reason, and great experience. Such qualities, as Robinson and his father are well aware, had earned England a prominent place among the nations of the world. The prosperous merchant figure too is softened and sentimentalized. Even if public opinion suspects such people of some sly way of jesting, yet his ideas of trade are as noble and generous as those inscribed in the Cavalier code. The model of the age goes beyond social distinctions. The human ideal is an image, a construct, not a given. There is a scaling down of man, removed from the centre of the universe into the entertaining society of a “Chocolate-house”. Good-breeding replaces Charity at the top of the hierarchy: the height of good breeding is shown rather in never giving offence, than in doing obliging things. Thus, he that never shocks you, though he is seldom entertaining, is more likely to keep your favour, than he who often entertains, and sometimes displeases you. The most necessary talent therefore is a Man of Conversation, which is what we ordinarily intend by a Fine Gentleman, is a good Judgement. He that has this in Perfection, is master of his companion, without letting him see it; and has the same advantage over man of any other qualifications whatsoever, as one that can see would have over a blind man of ten times his strength. („The Tatler”, May 26, 1709).

The introduction of imaginary readers – persons of different humours and characters – offered the possibility of varying the point of view on different subjects. Conversation, discussion had proved more profitable than the blows of the Civil War. It was the age of the public debate, the Parliament itself, possessed of new powers, was called the “talking shop”. Negotiating ideas rather than killing in their name. Tolerance was the pass-word in a century of talk and talkers. Political news and comment were almost absent in the two periodicals, only interested in improving manners, morals, artistic taste. “The Spectator” No 125 was teaching the lesson of recent history: There cannot a greater judgement befall a country than such a dreadful spirit of division as rends a government into two distinct peoples and makes them greater strangers and more averse to one another than if they were actually two different nations (...) This influence is very fatal both to men's moral and their understanding; it sinks the virtue of a nation (...) and destroys even common sense....  And what could be worse in the “age of reason and common sense”?... 

The Romantics were the first literary “school” – a group of writers sharing a common aesthetic program. The Augustan poetic arts are, from this point of view, more divided, in their support of one or other trend of thought, intersecting and playing against each other in the “grey beginning” of the modern age. The Cartesian division of matter and spirit had wedged the critical spirit to the point of a breakdown. The very medium of art, language, was subject to an unprecedented critical examination, words and figures being utterly mistrusted in certain circles (The Royal Society, for instance) as to their capacity to express the true essence of things. The medieval dispute between nominalism and realism had mounted higher than ever. Swift pitches it to an absurd height, in Gulliver's travel to Laputa (standing for the Royal Academy), where the remedy suggested for the words' emptiness and conventionalism is that it would be more convenient for all men to carry about them such things as were necessary to express the particular business they are to discourse on.  

Thomas Hobbes advises the poet to carry about him the whole known world, when he means to add to his better “Judgment” some mean “ornament”, be it an epithet or a metaphor. The materialist-empirical version of aesthetics is provided by his Answer to Sir Will. D'Avenant's Preface Before Gondibert. (a preface written in defence of the heroic poem). His syllogistic progression sounds as dogmatic as medieval scholasticism: Time and education beget experience; experience begets memory; memory begets judgment and fancy; judgment begets the strength and structure and fancy begets the ornaments of a poem. The ancients therefore fabled not absurdly in making memory the Mother of Muses. For memory is the world (though not reality, yet so as in a looking glass) in which the judgement, the severer sister, busieth herself in a grave and rigid examination of all parts of Nature, and in registering by letters their order, causes, uses, differences, and resemblances; whereby the fancy, when any work of art is to be performed, finds her materials at hand and prepared for use, and needs no more than a swift motion over them...

In conclusion, if some metaphysical wit runs into such fits of fancy as to associate God with a pulley, it only happens because he has not “scanned” his memory seriously enough to remember that he has never seen a pulley in such venerable company.

At the other pole, Anthony Ashley Cooper, the third Earl of Shaftesbury (167l-1713), advises the poet to forget about the whole damned world, and to turn to art in order to find true beauty, and to meditate upon the supreme order of beauty, which is the form-giving form. Natural beauty does not count, since it is transitory, it vanishes with the recess or withdrawing of the beautifying power (Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, Part III, Section II).  One of Locke'e disciples, Shaftesbury ended by rejecting his master, turning to Deism and to Platonism.  Beauty cannot be separated from moral goodness (beauty and good are one and the same: kalokagathon), therefore it cannot rest in Nature. What will a classicist abhor? Obviously, the shades, the rustic, the dissonancies, that wild beauty and high irregularities in unspoiled nature, which the Romantics would relish. Taste requires study, science, and learning (Characteristics, Ibidem). But even more regular “lineaments” and proportions in the world of matter are inferior to those fashioned by the hand of man as an effect of the forming power of the mind. Highest in rank is a sort of Platonic Nous, or the “living forms” of the archetypes: that which fashions even minds themselves, contains in itself all the beauties fashioned by their minds, and is consequently the principle, source, and fountain of all beauty. The text itself is a Platonic dialogue with Philocles as a Socrates figure. 

John Dryden and Alexander Pope are the only ones who seem to stick to the golden mean, and to talk in the neoclassical language. Dryden's Socrates in his Essay of Dramatic Poesy is Neander, one of a company of four gentlemen who are sailing down the Thames in a barge, trying to escape a siege of the Dutch fleet on June 3, 1645. The others are Crites, a severe critic (Gr. krinein: to dissociate, but also chrisis, the personage giving an impression of sharp judgement and – a false one – of ill nature) of the Moderns in comparison to the Ancients' greatness (while acknowledging the Moderns' advances in optics, medicine, anatomy, astronomy, to the point at which almost a new nature has been revealed to us); Lisideius, who defends the Moderns' (Cavalier and later Augustan) code of aesthetic values, which also leads him to an encomium of French drama, for observing the rules of the Ancients (Des trois unités, La liaison des scénes) : even, sweet and flowing, majestic, correct, elevated, full of spirit, lively image of human nature, representing its passions and humours, for the delight  and instruction of mankind. Eugenius, with his Hobbist expectations of a mechanical link between the development of sciences (a knowledge of natural causes) and the improvement of the arts. Neander shows the broadest understanding of “Nature”, whose irregularities English drama could not help reflecting, and of the huge “Difformities” in the human soul itself, which Shakespeare's more comprehending genius could not ignore. He approves of “tragicomedy”, for is not life itself a mixture of occasions for sorrow and for mirth, a sequence of pleasing and disturbing events? Today his attitude would be termed “realistic” rather than “neoclassical”. The argument around the comparative merits of English (particularly Shakespeare) and French dramatists was a long on-going affair, which culminated in Samuel Johnson calling Voltaire a “petit esprit”, for his misunderstanding of Shakespeare's genius, and Voltaire calling Johnson a “practical joker and a drunk” for talking such nonsense.   

Alexander Pope is the only one who produced a “neoclassical Bible” in his Essay on Criticism. The poet is to follow Nature but Nature methodized, that is the dramatic representation of the world in the ancients' discourse: fable, subject, purpose, the way they mirrored the social, religious etc, context, the spirit of the age. The best poet is the best student of the ancients, their best imitator. The English should forget their pride in refusing to follow “foreign laws”, which resulted in their being “less civilized”, and observe the rules and laws of artistic representation (design, language, versification), as they had been laid down by Boileau, who “still in right of Horace sways”. John Dryden had created the first body of professional criticism in England, and had launched the idea of “literary age”. In his Preface to Don Sebastian (1690), he says that Materia Poetica is “as common to all Writers as the Materia Medica to all Physicians”. The body of nature, the flesh of the world are not subject to historical inflexions. What gives one right of property over the assets of literature is “the contrivance, the new turn” – i.e. the historically specific encodings of the literary discourse. It was Pope's turn to discover the international character of the literary codes at some time or other. With him, the search for common stylistic features, for a rhetorical paradigm as valid in England as on the Continent, replaced the more primitive recourse to alien stuff as random sources of inspiration. It was no longer a matter of adapting, imitating or even stealing...; it was an awareness of the existence of some normative poetics bespeaking the spirit of an age.  The individual genius of a Hamlet, who would not play someone else's tune, the originality sought by Sidney, the “Liberty of Wit” which had prompted the wild troping of the metaphysicals were denounced as primitive and counterproductive in an age of cosmopolitan and collective values, European tours, and universalizing spirit. The Britons (the use of the Roman appellative is significant) should follow the example of French intellectual and aesthetic discipline. The illuminizing code of reason and progress found in neoclassicist formality its ally as a formative element:

            But Critic Learning flourished most in France

            The Rules, a Nation born to serve, obeys,

            And Boileau  still in right of Horace sways

            But we, have Britons, Foreign Laws despised,

            And kept unconquered and uncivilized.

            Fierce for the Liberty of Wit and bold

            We still defy the Romans as of old.

Nevertheless, Pope also mentions the opposite tradition, of inspired art and the sublime, whose definition had been provided by Longinus in his Peri Hypsous (1st century). It is true that Nicolas Boileau had translated it into French in 1674, yet his subsequent L'Art Poétique had opted for Horace.  Pope prefers to straddle the two positions, praising with a vengeance the “offending Wit” capable of snatching a grace “beyond the reach of Art”, the Lucky Licence which Critics “dare not mend”, and the original Example which becomes the Law. Apparently, Dryden and Pope had problems imposing the strict normative usage of the neoclassicalists, as they had to cope with “offending” Shakespeare's genius...

A refined civilization is the joint work of many artisans. Enlightenment poetics is oriented to a practical finality, that of refining manners and of enlarging the minds of men (Thomas Hayward, The British Muse, 1738, and Isaac Watts, The Improvement of the Mind, 1741). In his “Life of Addison” (Lives of the English Poets), Samuel Johnson, the great legislator of the republic of letters in mid century, expresses his appreciation of the more recent literature which, even if, contrary to Locke's prescriptions, is no longer ashamed of pleasing as well, had managed however to breed new standards and values into the society, even among the idle rich, emulating not only graceful manners but also intellectual elegance. Being stylish, classy, had a more serious purport than the shallow fashionableness of the Restoration aristocrats. One also needed a knowledge of Greek and Latin models, of grammar, and a range of experience which betrayed a “citizen of the world”.

The recourse to set forms and generic conventions, even if accompanied by small inventions, show the Augustans' penchant for formality. Witty phrasing and expressiveness are not an end in themselves: accurate representation (Pope: “Truth convinced at Sight we find”) and the force of the shaping intellect („That gives us back the Image of our Mind”) are expected to deepen the effect of the aesthetic (sensory) enjoyment of art. The Augustan concept of “correctness”, referring to the metrical structure, was illustrated by Pope in the high regularity of the couplet. Pope condemns the variations in line-length (for instance, the Spenserian use of a final, longer alexandrine), although he highly praises the music of Dryden's poetry, which relies precisely on a very flexible, changing metric scheme. “Neoclassical” also means anti-medieval, Pope placing Boileau at the top of a gallery of enlightened minds, which had put an end to the “barbarous age” and had driven the “holy Vandals” off the stage of history. 

The Restoration of the Stuarts (1860-1889) is an age of social refinement and self-complacency. All anxiety has been hushed, and an easily reachable ideal has replaced the baroque impasse with the insoluble incongruities of the human condition. Dryden congratulates his contemporaries on having outgrown the “less polished” and “unskilled” age of Jonson, the faults and errors of that art, while linking, in a symptomatically neoclassic manner, the present artistic refinement with that of the society in its entirety:

            „tis not the poet, but the age is praised.

            Wit's now arrived to a more high degree;

            Our native language more refined and free,

            Our ladies and our men now speak more wit

            In conversation, than those poets writ.

                                       (Epilogue to The Conquest of Granada, II)

 Obviously, polish of manners, wit in conversation, and refinement in language are not heroic ideals. For all that, the protagonists of an unheroic age cling to a pseudo-courtly ideal, defending heroic literary kinds, heroic plots, which most often than not amount to mere extravagance of events and sentiments. Consequently, Restoration art displays a hybrid character, mingling conventions which neither come together nor serve a meaningful antithesis. They simply turn on their own axes, annulling each other’s effects.

The loyalists who had followed exiled royalty to France had brought back with them a rich display of gallantry and conversational cunning, to which witty and polished verse could be added for the mere necessity of amorous conquests. The hedonistic court of Charles II resumed its patronage of the theatre world, rebuilding it in its image. In the eyes of the respectable middle-class, it was a place of vice and corruption. Nor were Restoration playwrights gravitating around the Court more interested in winning the esteem of the Town. The middle-class code of values (virtue, marriage, honesty, hospitality) is ridiculed, the respectable squires and merchants being shown as the target of the Court gallants' cunning games and tricks. When it is not class-drama, the play thematizes the battle between the sexes as an encounter between prudence (a fallen version of virtue) and cunning masculine sexual siege (a fallen version of love). The rich scenery catered for the contemporary concern with a more accurate representation of space, while the introduction of women actresses contributed more relish to the preoccupations with love, primary physical appetite.

The display of cunning in action and of a quick repartee in speech well matches the attitude of cynical detachment. Less fortunate is the combination of love entanglements, with seducers testing a woman's leaning to prudence or surrender, and a heroic plot, with characters torn between conflicting loyalties in the Corneille fashion (The Comical Revenge by George Etherege, 1634-1691). William Wycherley (1640-1716) plays on the misanthrope theme in The Plain-Dealer, and on the contrast between public pretence of virtue and private reality of lust in The Country Wife, with a typical tandem of profligate and cuckolded husband in Mr. Horner and Mr. Pinchwife. Even Dryden yields to the fashion, combining comic action and heroic subplot in Marriage à la Mode. From vices, brilliantly satirized by Butler, hypocrisy and cynicism have turned into such tyrannical fashion („way of the world”) that characters are ashamed of their more humane emotions, doing their best to conceal them behind words and gestures (William Congreve, The Way of the World).

While almost forgotten as a Restoration dramatist, drawing on the Spanish farcical comedy, or yielding to the literary taste of the time for heroic tragedy in Abdelazar, Aphra Behn has been recently rediscovered, particularly by feminist criticism, as a poet and fictionist, with particular merits in the birth of the modern novel. Her novella Oroonoko: Or the Royal Slave, written and published in 1688, may also be said to combine a heroic plot with a realistic story of early colonial venture. The novella received an early recognition as a seminal work in the tradition of antislavery writings, and its staging by Thomas Southerne in 1696 increased its public appeal. 

Oroonoko is an early stance of the self-conscious female narrator, pondering on her capacities to handle a literary convention which till then had been the province of “the more sublime wit” of male narrators. The spirit of a new age, more realistically and practically-minded, can be inferred from her emphatic profession of truth in narrating events she actually experienced, not imagined.

Oroonoko is a noble African prince, taken into slavery to the West Indies. Reunited to his beloved, Imoinda, in Suriname, a British colony in Guiana, he leads a slave rebellion which leads to the heroes' deaths: Imoinda at the hands of her lover, Oroonoko, executed by the colonists.

Oroonoko's exploits follow closely the pattern of the hero from the origins to the present: Homer's hero, invincible in battle, doing single-handedly such things as will not be believed that human strength can perform, Virgil's good conduct, Renaissance Humanity and Learning, reigning well and governing as wisely, Augustan ease in Wit more quick and a conversation most sweet and diverting. In everything he does, he is guided by the conventional aristocratic code of love and honour, typical of the Restoration heroic convention. Even killing a tiger proves child's play, and is not considered too high a price for love and gallantry. At the same time, the novella is an example of the reductive strategy through which the alien figure of the native is assimilated by the metropolitan observer. Natives and Europeans are forcibly brought into contact, and the colonialist-economic relationships engage new psychological realities: both parties confront outsider perspectives, unfamiliar Others. One hypostasis of this cross-cultural relationship is identification. As we have seen, the African native is naturalized within a European's cultural paradigm. Except for his black complexion, his physical appearance can be barely distinguished from the classical beauty of the English princes: he is most admirably turned from head to foot, his nose is rising and Roman instead of African, his lips are not those great turned lips which are so natural to the rest of the Negroes. Oroonoko entertains a neoclassical admiration for the Roman world, behaving like someone educated in some European court. The native is made to assimilate the imperialist's standards, his insider norms.

The forcible cultural assimilation has an economic correlate. The listing of all sorts of goods, beginning with the feathers which they order in all shapes and which adorn the dress of the Indian Queen, infinitely admired by persons of quality, skins of prodigious snakes, baskets, weapons, fish, venison, buffalo's skin..., the evocation of the brilliant colours of a paradise of birds and beasts betray all the fascination the New World of colonial commerce and luxury was exerting on the colonizers' imagination, including the aristocracy.

The colonial paradigm is enacted by – the least expected – Restoration poetry. The description of the Thames in Cooper's Hill by John Denham applies the classical ekphrasis to an encomium of the economic realities made possible by the river, the order of art and that of nature being brought together in the neoclassical golden mean:

            Though deep, yet clear, though gentle, yet not dull,

            Strong without rage, without ore-flowing full.   

The descriptive details of this landscape poem amount in fact to a meditation on the way in which it affects the life of the community, from the mowers and plowmans on the banks to the great navigators and colonizers. There is no sparkling imagery of the watery body (as in the Anglo-Saxon Durham) but only a dry report on the various profits of the river. Mythological framing (The Thames as a river god, the most lov'd of all the Oceans sons) and lyricism dissolve into the language of economy and empire-building, which is curiously inverted, from outward venture into home-coming and abolition of Otherness:

            When he to boast, or to disperse his stores

            Full of the tribute of his grateful shores,

            Visits the world, and in his flying towers

            Brings home to us, and makes both Indies ours;

            Finds wealth where 'tis, bestows it where it wants

            Cities in deserts, woods in Cities plants.

            So that to us no thing, no place is strange… 

At the beginning of John Dryden's Essay of Dramatic Poesy, Lisideius drops a “conceit” about those poets capable to write a panegyric upon a victory and at the same time a funeral elegy upon the vanquished, whose courage deserved a better destiny. With “neoclassical ease”, Dryden passed from the “funeral dirge” of the Heroic Stanzas on the Death of Oliver Cromwell (1659), to a poem in heroic couplets welcoming Charles back one year later: Astraea Redux. At that restless end of the century a poet's destiny actually seemed to depend a lot upon political commitment. Dryden's genius was even more apparent in 1889, and yet the Poet Laureateship went from him to his dull rival Shadwell on William III's accession. Dryden's conversion to Catholicism, apart from his open support of the Stuarts, had its share in his fall from favour. The poet faced it all with the courage and detachment that is always to be expected from a great personality.

The balanced structure of the decasyllabic couplet, with the crisp effect of the end-stopped rhyme, which Dryden developed, provided the formally tight and harmonious stylistic matrix of an entire age. The classical bent is also apparent in the public themes of his occasional elegies (On the Death of Lord Hastings), odes (To the Pious Memory of the Accomplished Young Lady, Mrs. Anne Killigrew), satires (The Medal, against Shaftesbury and the Whigs, which meant “against sedition”). The support of the establishment, of the status quo takes two forms:  either that of praise, the panegyric of the existing order as the only legitimate, or of satire against those who subverted rules and conventions considered to be normative.

Of the greatest satirical poem in the language, Absalom and Achitophel, probably written at the request of Charles II, to turn opinion against the supporters of the Exclusion Bill, it may be said that it does both. That is why it is difficult to classify it: the satire against Shaftesbury, the Duke of Buckingham, Monmouth and the rest of the rebel party, is doubled by the legitimating story of Charles and his brother, cast as a mythical allegory (Absalom rebelling against his father, King David) with several passages sounding like a heroic poem. It does not mean that the poem is formally loose, its various threads being woven into a perfectly calculated and harmonious design. The “impure” aspect is the result of an original development of the English seventeenth-century satire from the Elizabethan Complaint: Before the changeover from Complaint to satire fully can be grasped, a brief description (...) of the two forms is necessary. While both types protest current policy and urge the reform, or at least the altering of present conduct in some way, notable contrasts in style and tone, in the use of persona, and in the ultimate objective of the remonstrance divide Complaint and satire. In general, Complaint speaks abstractly, often allegorically (...) By contrast, satire tends to fasten upon the here and now – the temporal rather than the spiritual. Knavery and folly are given a local habitation and a name; satirists draw a hard-edged portrait of the contemporary setting. Named individuals and groups, rather than general types, are depicted engaged in earthly wrongdoing [7]. Dryden expounds his views on the nature and particularly formal aspects of this literary kind in his Discourse Concerning the Original and Progress of Satire, prefaced to verse translations from Juvenal. Its late seventeenth-century form has to be in keeping with the general need of decorum, urbanity and elegant wit prevailing among contemporaries, so it will not clash with the panegyric element: Yet still the nicest and most delicate touches of satire consist in fine raillery... How easy it is to call rogue and villain, and that wittily! But how hard to make a man appear a fool, a blockhead or a knave, without using any of these opprobrious terms!... Neither is it true that the fineness of raillery is offensive, a witty man is tickled while he is hurt in this manner, and a fool feels it not... I avoided the mention of great crimes, and applied myself to the representing of blind sides and little extravagances.

One of the characters who must have felt “tickled”, although the praise is ambiguous, was the King himself. For whereas in David's time polygamy was legitimate, in Dryden's Christian world it was considered a sin, and it had not been “priestcraft” that had declared it so. The issue was important in an argument over legitimacy; for Monmouth was thus reminded of his illegitimacy, but this circumstance also detracted from the king's justness. Dryden's allusion to Charles having a bastard son after David's example is therefore a two-edged strategy: defence or irony? As a consequence, the poem starts both in a majestically panegyric and ambiguously subversive way, which diminishes the heroic aspect, smoothing the transition to the satirical. The comparison between God creating man in his image and the procreative potential of David/Charles has rather a mock-heroic effect.

            In pious times ere priestcraft did begin,

            Before polygamy was made a sin;

            When man on many multiplied his kind,

            Ere one to one was cursedly confined,...

            Then Israel's monarch after Heaven's own heart

            The vigorous warmth did variously impart

            To wives and slaves; and, wide as his command,

            Scatter'd his Maker's image through the land (I, 1-10). 

The portraits of Achitophel/Shaftesbury and of Zimri/Buckingham are both topical and timeless, in pure neoclassical fashion, which means description of human nature and character having general validity. Buckingham's verse serving his amoral sensualism and stylized hedonism is easily recognizable, but at the same time the individual is made into a type: the reckless shifty, Protean philanderer, no more consistent in his opinions than in his gallant games:

            In the first rank of these did Zimri stand;

            A man so various, that he seem'd to be

            Not one, but all mankind's epitome:

            Stiff in opinions, always in the wrong,

            Was every thing by starts, and nothing long;

            But, in the course of one revolving moon,

            Was chymist, fidler, statesman, and buffoon;

            Ten all for women, painting, rhyming, drinking,

            Besides ten thousand freaks that died in thinking (I, 544-552).

Achitophel/Shafetsbury's portrait is a sketchy, stereotyped character progress (a predictable career, from birth to maturity), the human type (the first in a certain order, the arche-type or original model), which is that of the scheming politician, being individualized only through the physical details of a shapeless body as the proper embodiment of social anarchy. The poetic language has something of a metaphysical quality in the fusion of abstract and concrete images: a shapeless son for an offspring, and a ruined social order as a result of irresponsible political action: 

            Of these the false Achitophel was first,

            A name to all succeeding ages cursed:

            Sagacious, bold, and turbulent of wit,

            Restless, unfix'd in principles and place,

            In power unpleased, impatient of disgrace:

            A fiery soul, which, working out its way,

            Fretted the pigmy-body to decay,

            And o'er-inform'd the tenement of clay.

            A daring pilot in extremity;...

            Else why should he, with wealth and honour blest,

            Refuse his age the needful hours of rest?

            Punish a body which he could not please,

            Bankrupt of life, yet prodigal of ease?

            And all to leave what with his toil he won,

            To that unfeather'd two-legg'd thing, a son,

            Got, while his soul did huddled notions try,

            And born a shapeless lump, like anarchy (I, 150-159, 165-172). 

The ethical interrogation is never pitched too high by the classic's moderate and commonsensical appreciation of a good life, including wealth, honour, security, rather than loyalty as an absolute and fight to the death, characteristic of heroic times. In fact there is no absolute centre of power, but only some anonymous law, governing God himself, and some particular good, to which the king is bound in a way more appropriate to the power relations in a commonwealth.

            And public good, that universal call,

            To which even Heaven submitted, answered all. ((I, 421-22)

            Kings are the public pillars of the state,

            Born to sustain and prop the nation's weight (I, 953-54)

For all that, Dryden's choice expressed in Religio Laici is revealed religion, with the incarnated God, the poem being a refutation of the Deist conception about the universe as a mechanical system, free from God's intervention, and whose law can be completely realized in the finite mind. In a beast fable published five years later (1687), The Hind and the Panther, Dryden is obviously in favour of the Catholic Church, the unspotted hind of Rome. Such vacillations are characteristic of this age of transition to the modern, desacralized world. Dryden's conscious attempt to speak a traditional language is continually subverted by elements of the new world picture coalescing from the new science and philosophy, which steal into his poems.   

The neoclassic mock-heroic is a sort of Menippean satire, featuring an upside-down world, carnival-like, excentric (off-centred, decentered), effecting a temporary suspension of coherence. The baroque love of opposites urges Butler to redeploy a structure of meaning on a low level, or in low style. Hudibras has not managed to corrupt the fixed stars of his world, which are still shining: Montaigne, Tycho Brahe, Jacob Behmen, the refined science of logic, the gift of “Study, Industry, or Brains”; it is only that he makes such a poor work of them. Dryden's mock-heroic instates a realm of total non-signification, a sinister absence of meaning. One gets the feeling that the negation of cultural order has gone so far as to make no more value possible any longer. This cosmic picture is a sign of a desacralized world, generating a literature of logocentric subversion. Mac Flecknoe, Prince of Dullness, appoints a bad poet, Shadwell, as his true successor. The temporary negation of all order is meant, just like in a carnival, to reestablish the Augustan positive side of the coin, with judgement as the supreme aesthetic value.

            All human things are subject to decay,

            And when fate summons, monarchs must obey,

            This Flecknoe found, who, like Augustus, young

            In prose and verse, was own'd, without dispute,

            Through all the realms of Nonsense, absolute. 

Dryden's reinscription of Dante's Beatrice (a dead lady of exceptional accomplishments, admitted to heaven and mediating there for mortals) in Mrs. Killigrew is a transfer from a Theology-figure to a neoclassic artist-figure combining, according to Horace's precept, the gifts of the sister-arts of poetry and music (ut pictura poesis). The lady's portrait focuses the classic trinity of grace, well-proportioned shape, and beautiful lineaments, while her skill enacts the same aesthetic ideal: truthfulness, visualizing potential, perfect shape, face, lineament (To the Pious Memory of the Accomplished Young Lady Mrs. Anne Killigrew, Excellent in the Two Sister-Arts of Poesie and Painting, 1693).

As for music, that of Dryden's verse is unique in English poetry. The changing rhythms, geared to the sense unit of a complete thought, like a musical phrase, the echoing sounds, the vowel variations of his two odes commissioned for St. Cecilia's Day go far beyond neoclassical regularity and uniformity, snatching “graces” beyond the reach of prosodic norms. The series of annual celebrations in honour of St. Cecilia's Day (November 22), the patroness of music, mounted on a regular basis from 1683 to 1703, benefited by the contributions of Dryden, Pope, Henry Purcell. The Odes were performed by the combined quires of several churches, accompanied by an instrumental ensemble and the theatre orchestras. It was a grand affair, and Dryden's efforts to exploit all the possibilities of the conditions of performance are obvious. Dryden recovers the Pindaric principle of ring composition in the overall design. Pindar's structure of strophe and antistrophe (the latter ending with the first line of the strophe, which gives a sense of closure) still left out something supplementary: the epode (sung after), serving as a sort of fixed point (Ben Jonson calls it “stand”). Dryden rounds up the whole structure, the end coinciding with the beginning: from the tuning of the universe to its apocalyptic untuning in A Song for St. Cecilia's Day. Circularity or closure are also the effect of the allegorical mediation between planes of being: the power of pagan music to transcend matter (the immaterial sounds of the instrument) and the power of Christian music (vocal music) to enact a sort of incarnation, that of sounds into words, articulated by the human voice. Yet Dryden preserves several elements of the ancient Greek tradition, when armies used to sing as they went into battle: the power of music to arouse the timorous, to calm down the warring spirit, to sooth and comfort over loss, etc.

Although availing himself of traditional mythopoetic material (the Platonic idea of the creation of the universe from music, or the theory of the four elements), Dryden instils elements from a Newtonic cosmic picture into his “hymn of creation” (for ... atoms and Diapason), which opens his Ode to St. Cecilia's Day. The world is not created out of nothing, but through a cosmic arrangement of the original confusion of “jarring atoms”:

            From Harmony, from Heav'nly Harmony

                This universal frame began,

              When Nature underneath a heap

                   Of jarring Atoms lay,

               And cou'd not heave her Head,

            The tuneful voice was heard from high,

               Arise ye more than dead.

            Then cold, and hot, and moist, and dry,

               In order to their station leap,

                   And MUSICK's Pow'r obey.

            From Harmony, from Heav'nly Harmony

                This Universal Frame began

                 From Harmony to Harmony

            Through all the compass of the Notes it ran,

            The Diapason closing full in Man. 

The poet establishes a sort of Hobbist, mechanistic link between the kinds of musical sounds playing upon our ears and the kinds of affections they arouse: the trumpets stirring the listener to arms, the flute accompanying the “woes of hopeless lovers”, the violin inflicting “jealous pangs”.

Nor is the end of the Ode an orthodox apocalypse, leading to revelation of a a higher spiritual order. On the contrary, on the moment that the harsh sound of the trumpet is heard, the music and the orderly progression of the spheres will cease, the musical design will disappear. The celebration had a religious significance, church music being defended in a special sermon. Yet Dryden makes the end of his Ode sound very ambiguous in its terrifying picture of the death of life and the triumph of death, in the dissolution of heaven itself, in the absence of any hint at resurrection. Art, music, the tuned structure of the universe become an end in themselves, ruling out the religious, doctrinary aspect: 

            So when the last and dreadful hour

            This crumbling Pageant shall devour,

            The TRUMPET shall be heard on high,

            The dead shall live, the Living die,

            And MUSICK shall untune the sky!       

The power of music is the subject of the other St. Cecilia Ode, Alexander's Feast. The refrain, None but the Brave deserves the Fair, obviously pits art against valour, triumph in battle, with the former rising higher on the scales of values. It is not music celebrating martial power but martial power competing for the Fair trophy. The great Alexander is completely in Timotheus's power, who can control his martial drive, his state of mind, his visions by simply playing his instrument. The glory of the pagan performer is celebrated almost to the end of the poem, when St. Cecilia is finally brought onto the stage, unable, over the few remaining lines, to conquer Timotheus in a sort of Pythian contest: 

            Let old Timotheus yield the prize,

              Or both divide the Crown;

            He raised a mortal to the skies;

              She drew an angel down. 




[1] P. N. Furbank, W.R. Owens, The Myth of Defoe as Applebee's Man, “The Review of English Studies”, May, 1997.

[2] Theodore Redpath, Bacon and the Advancement of Learning in The New Pelican Guide to English Literature, 3. From Donne to Marvell, edited by Boris Ford, Penguin Books, p. 145

[3] Simon Varey, Space and the 18th c. Novel, Cambridge University Press, 1990.

[4] Robert Morris, An Essay in Defence of Ancient Architecture, 1728.

[5] Alexander Pope. Essays for the Tercentenary, edited by Colin Nicholson, Aberdeen University Press, 1988.

[6] Gheorghe Vladutescu, O istorie a ideilor filosofice, Editura Ştiinţifică, 1990, p. 289.

[7] Kirk Combe, The New Voice of Political Dissent. The Transition from Complaint to Satire in Theorizing Satire, edied by Brian A. Connery and Kirk Combe, Macmillan, 1995, pp. 76-77.



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