Augustan Satire and Dryden 1688-1744 are often referred to as the English Augustan Age. The term ‘Augustan’ is derived from the reign of the roman emperor Augustus wherein the prestige given to literature was noteworthy and therefore the term is often applied to the other epochs in world history when literary culture was high. The English Augustan Age was marked by perfection of letters and learning.
The 18th century led to the emergence of classical ideals of taste, polish, common sense and reason. Every age has its leanings. A notable factor in the emergence of a certain sort of literature in a particular time period is that of ‘action and reaction’. The appearance of satire in the 18th English Augustan Age as an emerging writing trend can be understood in relation of literature to the contemporary social arena.
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The Elizabethan Religious Settlement in 1559 was Elizabeth 1 response to the religious turbulence during the times of Henry VIII, Edward VI and Mary I and thus the already established Anglicanism was further promoted but this religious peace was rather short lived and led to+ the break out of English civil war during the reign of Charles I due to the discord between the puritan parliamentarian and the royalists. From 1629 to 1640 Charles governed England without a parliament. This period is often referred to as Eleven years of tyranny.
For seven long years England lived through the political turbulence and finally the parliamentarians emerged victorious in 1649. During these troubled times England was torn asunder by various religious sects each striving for ascendency. But the people of England hoped for a respite now. After restoration of Charles II in 1660 the monarchy and parliament worked peacefully for 25 long years but his successor James II’s blind determination to restore Catholicism finally cost him the crown and he had to flee England in1688.
His daughter Mary and William of Orange were finally installed to the British throne and England received peace and stability after a long struggle. These years of uncertainty led the Augustan literature to seek consolidation. The literature held firmly what is known rather than what is unknown. Rationality, reason and judgment were the pillars of the literature of this period. Another reason for the growth of the literature of rationality was the reaction against the metaphysical poets who claimed to be inspired.
And this poetic inspiration was linked to the inspiration of various religious fanatics who claimed to be inspired and caused turbulence in the english history and hence were despised. Therefore the search of sanity led to the literature of logic. The trajectory of English literature shows how growth of trends is the result of the distrust against the literature of the past. There was a strong manifestation of romanticism in the Elizabethan and Jacobean drama till it reaches its culmination in the hands of Shakespeare and the Caroline age showcased the decadence of this trend.
During the Commonwealth Interregnum prose work dominated the literary arena but the metaphysical poets also flourished in the period. However their fanciful inspired flights gave way to insecurity and instability and people began to place emphasis on rationality and reason. Thus Augustan literature can be seen as a sharp reaction to the Romantics and the metaphysical. The ideas which dominate a particular age emerge before the century starts that is why John Dryden who died in 1700 is often included in the study of 18th century literature.
The 18th century recognized the qualities of reason and logic along with the ordinary and factual. The Augustan age aimed at maintaining a reasonable way of life and distanced itself from the rich and metaphorical Shakespearean and Elizabethan trends. The essay and moral poetry flourished in this age. Satire as a corrective was celebrated in the literary arena. One of the functions of the writers of the century was to keep a vigilant eye on the social behavior of the people so that the ideals of the polite society could be maintained.
Often the aim was achieved by acknowledging the virtues of many but more often through the criticism by means of satire. A satirist was always eager to bring forth the folly , or the departure from sanity of the subject against whom the text was aimed. What Dryden contributed to this element of satire of English Augustan Literature was the element of delight. In his Discourse Concerning the Origin and Progress of satire he clearly states that satire is not only didactic or corrective.
John Dryden who was particularly annoyed with Thomas Shadwell who had been constantly criticizing him for his views on Jonson worked on a satirical assault on the third rate writers of the time aiming it directly on Thomas Shadwell and Mac Flecknoe was published in 1682. Literary upstarts like Thomas Shadwell had been appearing quite rapidly growing to the fast growing reading public. But Dryden felt that these newly hatched writers need to be coached and in Mac Flecknoe he tears Shadwell’s literary genius to shreds.
Dryden shows consummate skill in his ridicule of Shadwell. Shadwell is attacked with all the weapons in the armory of a satirist???irony, sarcasm, innuendo and raillery. Dryden’s wit in this poem is sharp and pungent. Exaggeration is always an effective feature of satire. Accordingly, Dryden depicts Shadwell as an heir to the throne of the realms of nonsense. Shadwell is best fitted to be the heir to this throne because he is a man who “stands confirmed in full stupidity”.
Dryden had developed a distaste against the Shakespearean metaphorical writings and this can be understood by tracing his translation of the work of Shakespeare from which he removed all the metaphors to bring forth clarity and Thomas Shadwell’s work showcased the same Elizabethan extravagance and hence he was criticized by Dryden. Macflecknoe is written as a mock-epic. The epic inflation of a trivial issue in the text leads to the satirical assault. The poet makes the subject ridiculous by placing it in a framework which is inappropriate to the importance of the subject. The poem portrays Shadwell as Mac Flecknoe.