A Short History of English Literature

By Harry Blamires | Go to book overview

12

The age of Swift and Pope

We have already trespassed into the reign of Queen Anne in following the course of post-Restoration drama as far as the tragedies of Rowe; and in pursuing the growth of the novel we considered works by Defoe which were published in the reign of George I. Nevertheless the dividing lines we have adopted are useful. There is a fading out of post-Restoration drama in the work of Rowe, and the early eighteenth century adds little else of significance to English dramatic literature. Moreover, by taking the account of the novel as far as Defoe we have prepared the ground for the decisive breakthrough in this new literary form which came in the 1740s with the work of Fielding and Richardson. In short the years 1700 to 1740 write only an epilogue to the Restoration drama and only a prologue to the eighteenth-century novel. Yet so impressive is the character of this period that it has been called the ‘Augustan Age’; and the phrase makes an implicit correspondence with the classical age of outstanding literary productivity under Caesar Augustus, when Virgil, Horace and Ovid were at work. If we have already set foot in the Augustan Age chronologically in our study of the drama and the novel, we have done so culturally in our attention to Dryden with whom the spirit of the Augustan Age is born. He established the heroic couplet which became the norm of Augustan poetry.

We tend to associate the Augustan Age with the technical polish and intellectual poise exemplified in the work of Pope, yet the period is also represented by Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), a writer whose immense talent exploded in works that seem to erupt from some centre of strange, sometimes demonic power. Swift, of course, laboured under a double frustration, professional and personal. He served the Whigs and then the Tories with his pen, yet never attained

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