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RYDEN’S name stands like a grand landmark at the
end of the seventeenth century. His life had covered a period full of changes. Charles I. had been beheaded ; Cromwell had held his stern but able rule over the nation; the “ merry monarch," as Charles II. was called, had kept up his dissolute revels during the fifteen years he had been king; James II., his brother, who succeeded him, had been forced to give up his crown and flee to France; and Mary, the daughter of James II., with her politic and wise husband, William of Orange, were reigning together on the throne of England when Dryden died, just in the opening year of the eighteenth century. Two years after his death, Mary's sister, Anne, became queen. Her reign is often called the Augustan age of literature, a title borrowed from a period in Latin history.
1702 During the reign of the Emperor Augustus Cæsar, Latin poetry rose to its greatest height in elegance. The poets of that day worked to make the language pure and polished, and their verse perfect according to established rules, And as the Emperor Augustus was one of the patrons of literature, and it throve under his fostering care, the age has been known as the Augustan age. And hence it is that the period in English which is claimed to resemble this era in Roman history received the name of the Augustan age.
You will see that the work of Dryden in poetry and criticism had been leading up to a new taste in literature. The French have always imitated the ancients, especially in their work for the stage. Form and method were in their eyes two of the most important requirements in poetry. Following them, the new school of English writers began to
consider the artificial finish of a verse the great test of its merit. Dryden had made verse in his day more artificially perfect than it had ever been. The best writers among those who followed him improved upon their master. The writers of the Elizabethan age, even Shakespeare and Milton, were looked down upon as poets who did very well in their day, but did not understand the true art by which poetry was manufactured. This was the aspect of the popular taste towards poetry when Dryden died; and as he had, more than most men, set the fashion and laid down the rules for the time in which he lived, it was natural that his influence should extend into the age that followed. That he did have such an influence we shall recognize in studying the works of Pope, the greatest poet of the Augustan age.
We shall notice, in reading the leading writers of this new period in English literature, that many of its greatest productions in poetry and in prose are satires. Both Latin and French literature were distinguished for satirical power ; but until Dryden's time English literature had not been distinguished for its satire. But with the polish of the French school, the English writer began to borrow the keenness of its satire, which held up to laughter anything in art, society, or politics which he wanted to reform. Satires against persons, too, became common, and the poet could in this way use his talents as a means of defence against those who were unjust to him, or of revenge against those whom he disliked. Dryden's Mac Flecknoe and Pope's Dunciad, both satires against persons, are two of the most famous English works of this kind written in verse.
Another marked feature of the age was the club, gathering of literary men or politicians, or any group of men of similar tastes and pursuits, at some general meeting-place where they could discuss subjects most interesting to them with more freedom than at any private house. We have seen that the wits and poets of the sixteenth century were wont to gather at the Mermaid. Ben Jonson, a little later, formed a club at the Devil Tavern, and Dryden
gathered about him the most famous men of the seventeenth century at Will's Coffee-house. In the reign of Queen Anne these clubs became the rage. They were generally formed in some of the inns or eating-houses of the time, and you cannot read the history or the literature of the age without finding constant mention of them. Will's Coffee-house continued the chief centre for the men of letters, and Pope, Gay, Swift, Arbuthnot, and others, who formed the Scriblerus Club, met there. Not far from Will's was another coffee-house, known as Button's, where Addison used to have his headquarters, and where his friends sought him out when they wanted to enjoy the charm of his society. Then there was the Kit-Kat Club, which was formed principally of politicians, but which included also Addison and Steele. This met at the shop of a pastry-cook, Christopher Kat, who was celebrated for the excellence of his muttonpies. These are two or three among the many meetingplaces of the wits and public men of the day, and you can see how these gatherings must have fostered the discussions of all questions which the pens of the writers of the time took for their theme, and what a strong influence on society the clubs of the day exercised. With this glimpse into the Augustan age, we will begin our consideration of some of its chief writers, - Pope, Prior, and Gay in poetry ; Congreve, its greatest dramatic writer ; and De Foe, Swift, Addison, and Steele, in prose.
1 This club had its name from a satire of the time, written by one of its members, John Arbuthnot, to ridicule the pedantic and false taste in literature. The satire was called Memoirs of Martin Scriblerus.
ON ALEXANDER POPE AND HIS SCHOOL OF POETRY.
in the year.
LEXANDER POPE was a boy of twelve when Dry
den died. He was a very precocious boy, beginning to write verses at eight years, and lisping rhymes almost
from his cradle. He was a great reader, both 1688-1744
of English and the classic writers, devouring all kinds of books as soon as he could read. Of course he read and admired Dryden, like all the rest of his age. On one occasion, when eleven or twelve, he induced some friend to take him to Will's Coffee-house, where Dryden sat in state, like a poetical lawgiver, almost every afternoon
With what admiring eyes the little boy, who burned with desire to be one day a great poet, must have looked on the old man in his armchair, surrounded by his courts of wits and admirers ! It is related that at this visit some one showed Dryden Pope's translation of some Latin verses, and that he patted the schoolboy on the head in approval, and gave him a shilling. The approval was worth more than the shilling to Pope, we may be sure, and he must have remembered it with pleasure all his life after.
Pope is usually regarded as the founder of the school of poetry which prevailed all through the eighteenth century; but it was a school of which Dryden had laid the cornerstone. Pope could not but be influenced by Dryden, whom he had read so early and admired so much. But in form and execution Pope excelled his master. He had a delicate, musical ear, ear that demanded regular cadences; and he wrote lines more regular and smooth than those which contented Dryden and his contemporaries. His rhythm is so regular it sounds to many ears mechanical. His poetry is rhymed, and almost always in couplets; the lines have a see-saw sound, the first half of
the verse balancing the last like a pair of scales, — as these, for instance :
“Worth makes the man, the want of it the fellow."
But look from Nature up to Nature's God.''
One can fancy that to read right on, for hours, these smooth, balanced lines would be very tiresome, no matter how excellent the sense. Indeed, it seems to me that much of Pope's meaning would be as good or better in prose, and that he might have saved himself the trouble of rhyming I should claim that the true test of poetry is that its subject-matter should transcend prose, and flow naturally into harmonious numbers; that the thought had sought expression in poetry because prose had been a garment too mean and poor to clothe its nobility. If this be so, Pope is not always a poet. But if poetry be the art which puts any thought, commonplace or not, into regular numbers and almost perfect form, then Pope belongs among the greatest English poets. He was man in miserable health, with a sickly, deformed body; yet in spite of this he did prodigies of work, and elaborated all he did with the patience of the worker in diamonds, who cuts, polishes, and refines till the jewel gives out its fullest lustre.
Pope wrote no plays, — the first great poet since Shakespeare's age who did not write in the dramatic form. Instead, he wrote moral essays in verse, the Essay on Man and the Essay on Criticism ; a few lyrics, as the Ode on St. Cecilia's Day, which is not so good as Dryden's; a great many epistles to different persons; satires, in which he is a master; translations and imitations of Greek and Latin authors; and some miscellaneous poems. His translation of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey alone would have made him famous, and he also put Virgil and Horace into English verse, and turned some of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales into modern form, much after the manner of a translation.