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Sri Aurobindo

Archives and Research

a biannual journal

April 1977

Volume I; No 1

Characteristics of Augustan Poetry

The first of a series of lectures on English poetry prepared by Sri Aurobindo for his classes at Baroda College during the early part of his career there (1898-1901). The four passages given as footnotes were found on pages of the manuscript facing the text pages.

Relation of Gray to the poetry of his times

The poetry of Gray marks the transition from the eighteenth-century or Augustan style of poetry to the nineteenth-century style; that is to say1 almost all the tendencies of poetry between the death of Pope and the production of the Lyrical Ballads in 1798 are to be found in Gray's writings. Of the other poets of the time, Johnson and Goldsmith mark the last development of the Augustan style, while Collins, Blake, Cowper, Burns, Chatterton each embody in their poetry the beginnings of one or more tendencies which afterwards found their full expression in the nineteenth century. Gray alone seems to include in himself along with many characteristics of the conservative school of Johnson and Goldsmith all the revolutionary tendencies, not one or many but all, of the later poets. His earliest poem, the Ode on Spring, has many of the characteristics of Pope and Dryden; one of his latest, the Ode on Vicissitude,2 has many of the characteristics of Wordsworth. He is therefore the typical poet of his age, which, as regards poetry, was an age of transition.

What is meant by the Augustan or eighteenth-century style? In what sense is it less poetical than the poetry of Wordsworth and Shelley?

The poetry of the eighteenth century differs entirely from that of another period in English literature. It differs alike in subject matter, in spirit and in form. Many modern critics have denied the name of poetry to it altogether. Matthew Arnold calls Pope and Dryden classics not of poetry, but of prose, he says that they are great in the regions of half-poetry; other critics while hesitating to go so far, say in substance much the same thing; Gosse, for instance, calls their poetry the poetry of English rhetoric, which exactly amounts to Matthew Arnold's description of it as half-poetry. Its own admirers give it the name of classic poetry, that is to say a poetry in which imagination and feeling are subordinated to correctness and elegance.

Poetry as generally understood, the poetry of Shakespeare and Wordsworth, may be defined as a deeper and more imaginative perception of life and nature expressed in the language and rhythm of restrained emotion. In other words its subject-matter is an interpretation of life and nature which goes deeper into the truth of things than ordinary men can do, what has been called a poetic criticism of life; its spirit is one of imagination and feeling, it is not intellectual but imaginative, not rational but emotional; and its form is a language impassioned and imaginative, but restrained by a desire for perfect beauty of expression; and a rhythm generally taking the form of metre, which naturally suits the expression of deep feeling. It differs from rhetoric in this that rhetoric expresses feeling which is not deep and not quite sincere, and tries to strike and influence the reader instead of being satisfied with expressing itself and for that purpose relies mainly on tricks of language such as antithesis, epigram etc. Rhetoric tries to excite admiration and appeals to the intellect; poetry is content with adequate self-expression and appeals to the heart.

Eighteenth-century poetry differs from ordinary poetry, in subject-matter, in spirit and in form.


The spirit of ordinary poetry is one of imagination and feeling, that is to say imaginative and emotional; that of eighteenth-century poetry is one of commonsense and reason, that is to say intellectual and rational. Pope and Johnson are the two chief critics of the school. Pope expressly lays it down in his Essay on Criticism that sense and wit are the bases of all true poetry and Johnson is continually appealing to them as criterions, especially in his life of Gray, where he objects to what he considers the excess of imagery, the incredibility of his subjects, the use of imaginative mythological language and the occasional absence of a didactic purpose. In their opinion nothing should be admitted in poetry which is not consistent with sense and wit, that is to say which is not intellectual and rational. Accordingly we find no striking imagery and no passion in eighteenth-century poetry; the poets as a rule avoid subjects in which emotion is required and when they do try to deal with the passions and feelings, they fail, their expression of these is rhetorical and not poetic. This is the reason why the drama in the eighteenth century is such an utter failure.


The difference in subject-matter is manifold. In the first place, instead of dealing with the whole of life and nature, they limit themselves to a very narrow part of it. This limitation is partly due to the restriction of poetry to sense and wit and partly to the nature of the audience the poets addressed. It was a period in which literature depended mainly on the patronage of the aristocracy, and it was therefore for the English aristocracy of the time that the poets wrote. They were therefore bound to limit themselves to such subject-matter as might suit the tastes of their patrons. These two considerations led to three very important limitations of subject-matter.

First, the exclusion of the supernatural from poetry. The temper of the times was rationalistic and sceptical and to the cultured aristocracy of the times Shakespeare's ghosts and fairies and Milton's gods and angels would have seemed absurdities; it resulted also from the idea of commonsense as the cardinal rule of poetry, that nothing incredible should be admitted unless it was treated humorously, like the sylphs and gnomes in Pope's Rape of the Lock or the beasts in the fables of Gay and Swift. Poetry however seems naturally to demand the element of the supernatural and the only way to admit the supernatural without offending against reason was by Personification. We therefore find a tendency to create a sort of makeshift mythology by personifying the qualities of the mind. Otherwise the supernatural practically disappears from English poetry for a whole century.

Second, the exclusion of rural life and restriction to the life of the town and of good society. The aristocracy of the time took no interest in anything but the pleasures, occupations and mental pursuits of the town and it is accordingly only with this part of life that eighteenth-century poetry deals. The country is only treated as a subject of ridicule as in Gay's Shepherd's Week or of purely conventional description as in Pope's Pastorals and Windsor Forest.3

Third, as a natural result of this, the exclusion of external Nature. The sense of natural beauty is quite absent from eighteenth-century poetry and we do not have even so much as the sense of the picturesque except in subjects such as landscape gardening where art could modify nature. Whenever the poets try to write of natural scenery or natural objects, they fail; their descriptions are either conventional and do not recall the object at all or only describe it in a surface manner recalling just so much as may be perceived by a casual glance. Of sympathy with Nature or close observation of it, there is hardly a single instance in English poetry between Dryden and Thomson.

Fourth, the exclusion of human emotion, that is to say4 poetry was not only limited to the workings of the human mind and human nature, but to cultured society and to the town, and not only to this but to the intellect and weaknesses of men purely; the deeper feelings of the heart are not touched or only touched in an inadequate manner; and it is a characteristic fact that the passion of love which is the most common subject of English poetry, is generally left alone by these poets or if handled, handled in a most unreal and rhetorical manner. It followed from the exclusion of so much subject-matter that the forms of poetry which demanded this subject-matter almost disappeared. Lyrical poetry and the drama, both of which demand passion, feeling and fancy; epic poetry, which requires a grasp of entire human and external nature, a wide view of life and some element of the super-nature; and serious narrative poetry are very little represented in the age of Pope and then only by second-rate productions. The poetry of the age is mainly didactic, i.e. its subjects are literary criticism, ethics, science or theology, or humorous, i.e. consists of satire, mock-epic, humorous narrative and light society verse. All these are subjects which are really outside the scope of poetry strictly so called, as they give no room for imagination and emotion, the cardinal elements of poetry. The subjects and the way they are treated, making allowance for the difference involved by the use of metre and especially the heroic metre which necessitates a very condensed expression of thought, is not very different from that of the prose periodicals of the time. The poetry of the age taken in the mass gives one the impression of a great social journal in verse, somewhat more brilliant and varied than the Tatler and Spectator but identical in spirit.


Lastly the poetry of the eighteenth century differs widely in form, i.e. in language and metre, from that of preceding and subsequent poetry. This difference proceeds from a revolt against the poetical language of the seventeenth century, just as the language of Wordsworth and Keats is a revolt against that of the eighteenth. The Elizabethan poets aimed at a poetry which should be romantic, sensuous and imaginative; romantic, that is to say full of the strange and wonderful, sensuous, that is to say expressing the perceptions of the senses and especially the sense of the beautiful in vivid and glowing colours, and imaginative in the sense of being full of splendid and original imagery, and especially of striking phrases and vivid metaphors. In the later Elizabethans and even many of the earlier all this was carried to great excess; the love of the strange and wonderful was carried into unnaturalness and distortion, sensuousness became lost in exaggeration and poetry became a sort of hunt for metaphors, metaphors used not as aids to the imagination, but for their own sake, and the more absurd and violent, the better. Waller and Dryden first and Pope to a much greater extent revolted against this style of forced ingenuity and proclaimed a new kind of poetry. They gave to Elizabethan language the name of false wit and Pope announced the objects of the new school in an often quoted couplet

True wit is nature to advantage dressed

What oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed.

This couplet gives the three main principles of eighteenth-century style out of which all its distinctive characteristics rise.

(1) The poets were to write only of what oft was thought; they were to avoid the Elizabethan romantic tendency to search after the strange and wonderful. But these poets went much farther. Not only all that was peculiar or eccentric but all that was original, individual or unusual was avoided as offensive to reason and commonsense. There are no ideas in Augustan poetry which are not perfectly obvious and common, nothing which might not occur to an average educated man. This was fatal to poetry which to be poetry at all must be unusual; unusually lofty, unusually beautiful or unusually impassioned, and which dries up in an atmosphere of commonsense and commonplace. Augustan poetry has neither feeling for greatness nor for beauty nor for passion and it is therefore not without justice that it is described as at best a half-poetry or a poetry of rhetoric.

But the obvious and commonplace will not be read, unless it is made to look new and interesting by brilliant language.

(2) The second principle is that while the obvious and commonplace should be the staple of poetry, it should be expressed in new and brilliant language, and this should be done by means of true wit. That is to say, while false ingenuity should be avoided, true ingenuity should be the rule of poetry. Accordingly we find that striking poetical expressions are singularly absent; the imagery is cold, obvious and conventional; their place is taken by brilliant cleverness and rhetoric. In order to conceal the barrenness of subject-matter every line is made an antithesis, an epigram or some other rhetorical turn of language. The Augustan poets did not realise that wit, whether false or true, has nothing to do with poetry and so they fell from one extreme to the other; poetry with them became even more an exercise for mere ingenuity than with the Elizabethans, in a way less open to ridicule but more barren and prosaic.

(3) The eighteenth century was not contented with nature, it wanted nature to be dressed and dressed to advantage. Elizabethan poetry had been even at its best either rude and unpolished or extravagant and lawless. It broke through all the ordinary rules which restrain poetry; in their recoil from this tendency the Augustans determined to restrict themselves by the greatest number of rules possible, not only those rules which are universal and for all time but many which were artifical5 and unsuitable. They made the language and metre of their poetry not only smooth and elegant, but formal and monotonous; the tendency was as has been often said, to cut out poetry according to a uniform and mechanical pattern. Cowper said that Pope

Made poetry a mere mechanic art

And every warbler has his tune by heart

and Taine has expanded the charge in his History of English Literature (II p.l94), "One would say that the verse had been fabricated by a machine, so uniform is the make." The charge though exaggerated is well-founded; there is a tendency to a uniform construction and turn of sentence and the unchanging repetition of three or four rhetorical artifices. It is the language of a school rather than of individual genius.

When we examine the metre, we find it treated in the same way. Poetical harmony depends upon two things, the choice of the metre and the combination of all the various cadences possible within the limits of the metre chosen. The poet chooses a particular stanza or a couplet form or blank verse just as he thinks most suitable to his subject; but the pauses and accents in the lines of the stanza or successive verses may be arranged many different ways, the disposition of long and short syllables and the combination of assonances and alliterations are almost infinite in their variety, and great poets always vary one line from another so that not only the language but the sound of the verse, or as it is technically called the movement may suggest the exact emotion intended. This variation of cadences is a matter not for rules, but for individual genius to work out. But the Augustan poets in their passion for regularity determined to subject even this to rules. They chose as their favourite and almost only form of verse, the couplet and especially the heroic couplet. All ambitious poetical work of Pope's school is in the heroic couplet; only in light verse do they try any other. The part of their poetry in lyrical metres or in stanzas is insignificant in quantity and almost worthless in quality. Having confined themselves to the heroic couplet, they tried to make even this as formal and monotonous as possible; they put a pause regularly at the end of the first line and a full stop or colon at the end of the second; they place the accent almost invariably on every second syllable; they employ assonance without the slightest subtlety and, though without some skill in the disposition of long and short syllables good metre itself is impossible, yet they only use it in the most elementary manner. The only variety then possible was a very minute and almost imperceptible one which gave great scope for ingenuity but little for real poetic power.

One more characteristic of the school must be noticed, i.e. the narrowness of its culture. In the eighteenth century it was the tendency to consider all the age between the third and sixteenth centuries as barbarous and best forgotten; even the sixteenth and early seventeenth were regarded as half barbarous times: and the only things besides contemporary science, philosophy and literature which were regarded with interest were ancient classical literature and French civilisation. Even of the classics, little was known of Greek literature though it was held in formal honour; French and Latin and Latin rather of the second best than the best writers were the only foreign influences that affected Augustan literature to any appreciable extent.

The main characteristics of eighteenth-century poetry may therefore be summed up as follows; a rational and intellectual rather than imaginative and emotional spirit; a restriction to town society and town life, an6 inability to deal with rural life, with Nature, with passion or with the supernatural; a tendency to replace the supernatural by personification; an almost exclusive preference for didactic, satirical and humorous poetry; a dislike of originality and prevalence of merely obvious ideas and sentiments; an excess of rhetorical artifice in style; a monotonous, rhetorical and conventional style; a restricted and cut-and-dried metre and an exclusion of all poetic influences and interests except the Latin writers and contemporary and French thought and literature. Its merits were smoothness, regularity and correctness; great cleverness and brilliance of wit; great eloquence; and the attainment of perfection within its own limits and according to its own ideals.


Besides7 this, in order to dignify the obviousness of their ideas and sentiments, a sort of conventional poetic language was adopted, wherever wit and epigram could not be employed; ordinary words were avoided as ignoble and literary words often with an artificial meaning were employed, or else a sounding paraphrase was employed or a pretentious turn of language. The universal rule was that an idea should not be stated simply, but either cleverly or as it was called nobly.


These8 restrictions forced the writers to be extremely condensed and ingenious and as has been said reduced every couplet to the point of an epigram.


The9 history of our period is partly that of a breaking away from formality in language and metre and a revival of lyric poetry, but still more of a struggle to widen the range of poetry by bringing all nature and all human activity both past and present into its scope, to increase interests and subject matter as well as to inspire new life and sincerity into its style.


1 1997 ed.: i.e. to say


2 Ode on the Pleasure Arising from Vicissitude (Ed.)


3 The poets of the time have a tendency to the false or conventional pastoral; that is to say a mechanical imitation of Latin and Greek rural poetry, and especially when they try to write love poetry, they use Latin and Greek pastoral names; but these pastorals have nothing to do with any real country life past or present, nor do they describe any rural surroundings and scenery that ever existed, but are mere literary exercises.


4 1997 ed.: i.e. to say


5 1997 ed.: artificial


6 1997 ed.: and


7 This passage was written on a separate page of the manuscript. Its place of insertion was not marked


8 This passage was written on a separate page of the manuscript. Its place of insertion was not marked


9 This passage was written on a separate page of the manuscript. Its place of insertion was not marked