The Augustan Age: Meaning, Characteristics, and Literature

The Augustan Age: Meaning, Characteristics, and Literature

The Augustan Age, a period spanning from the late 17th century to the mid-18th century, is a significant epoch in literary and cultural history. Named after the reign of the Roman Emperor Augustus, this era witnessed a flourishing of arts, literature, and intellectual pursuits in England. This Article aims to delve into the meaning, characteristics, and literary aspects of the Augustan Age, providing a comprehensive understanding of the socio-cultural milieu that defined this period.

Meaning of the Augustan Age:

The term "Augustan Age" refers to the historical period characterized by a revival of classical ideals, particularly those associated with the literature and art of ancient Rome. The Augustan Age in English literature is often identified with the reigns of Queen Anne (1702–1714) and the first two Georges (1714–1760).

It was a time of relative political stability, economic growth, and intellectual vigor, mirroring the perceived peace and prosperity of the Roman Empire under Augustus. The Augustan Age in England is marked by a deliberate emulation of classical models in various artistic and literary endeavors.

The Augustan Age: Meaning, Characteristics, and Literature

Characteristics of the Augustan Age:

The widespread availability of printed material emerged as a primary catalyst for literary flourishing during the Augustan Age. In the eighteenth century, an array of printed materials, including books, magazines, newspapers, tracts, and poems, became extensively accessible. The prevalence of printed material led to a reduction in book prices, facilitating even broader circulation. Moreover, in an era predating copyright regulations, copies of literary works circulated widely without the explicit permission of the authors. Consequently, this surge in available printed material not only contributed to increased educational levels but also played a pivotal role in shaping the literary landscape of the Augustan Age.

Classicism and Imitation: Central to the Augustan Age was the revival of classical ideals and a fervent adherence to the principles of ancient Greek and Roman literature. Writers of this era sought inspiration from classical works, emphasizing order, reason, and restraint in their compositions.

Satire and Social Commentary: Satirical literature flourished during the Augustan Age, serving as a powerful tool for social critique. Writers like Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, and Joseph Addison used satire to highlight and criticize the vices and follies of their contemporary society.

Rationalism and Enlightenment Thought: The Augustan Age coincided with the broader Enlightenment movement, emphasizing reason, empirical observation, and intellectual inquiry. Writers of this period embraced these ideals, contributing to the dissemination of knowledge and the cultivation of a more enlightened society.

Neoclassical Aesthetics: The Augustan Age witnessed a departure from the extravagance of the preceding Restoration period. Neoclassical aesthetics, characterized by simplicity, order, and symmetry, dominated literature, architecture, and visual arts during this time.

Moral and Didactic Literature: The literature of the Augustan Age often carried a moral and didactic purpose. Writers aimed to instruct and edify readers, promoting ethical conduct and virtue through their works.

Urbanity and Wit: The Augustan writers were known for their urbanity and wit. The use of polished language, clever wordplay, and refined expression became hallmarks of the literature produced during this period.

Augustan Age Literature:


a. Alexander Pope: One of the towering figures of Augustan poetry, Pope's works, such as "The Rape of the Lock" and "The Dunciad," showcase his mastery of satire and keen observational skills. Pope's use of heroic couplets and his satirical commentary on the society of his time are emblematic of the Augustan literary spirit.

b. John Dryden: Often regarded as the transitional figure between the Restoration and the Augustan Age, Dryden's poetry reflects a shift towards classical ideals. His didactic poem "Absalom and Achitophel" is a notable example of political and satirical verse from this period.


a. Jonathan Swift: A prominent satirist, Swift's "Gulliver's Travels" is a classic work of satirical fiction that critiques various aspects of human nature and society. Swift's use of irony and his exploration of political and social issues make him a key figure in Augustan prose.

b. Joseph Addison and Richard Steele: The founders of the literary periodical "The Spectator," Addison and Steele played a pivotal role in shaping the essay form during the Augustan Age. Their essays, often moral and reflective in nature, addressed a wide range of topics and set a standard for periodical literature.


a. John Gay: Known for his satirical ballad opera "The Beggar's Opera," Gay used the medium of drama to critique the political and social landscape of his time. The incorporation of popular songs and a focus on social commentary distinguish Gay's work as a unique contribution to Augustan drama.

b. William Congreve: Though primarily associated with the Restoration period, Congreve's comedies continued to be performed during the early years of the Augustan Age. His wit and comedic mastery influenced the development of the comedy of manners during this era.

c. George Farquhar: Another notable playwright of the Augustan Age, George Farquhar contributed significantly to the realm of comedy. His play "The Beaux' Stratagem" is considered one of the last great comedies of the English Restoration and a transitional work into the Augustan Age. Farquhar's wit, humor, and exploration of social themes make him a key figure in the development of comedic drama during this period.

d. Colley Cibber: As both an actor and a playwright, Colley Cibber played a prominent role in the Augustan theatrical scene. His comedy "The Careless Husband" is a representative example of the sentimental comedy that gained popularity during this era. Cibber's work reflects a shift towards more emotionally resonant and morally didactic themes, setting the stage for later developments in English drama.

e. Susanna Centlivre: A rare female playwright in the Augustan Age, Susanna Centlivre made a significant impact with her comedies. Her play "The Busy Body" is known for its witty dialogue and complex plot, challenging societal norms and expectations. Centlivre's success in a predominantly male-dominated field contributes to the evolving landscape of gender roles and perspectives in Augustan drama.

f. Richard Steele: While primarily recognized for his contributions to periodical literature, Richard Steele also made notable forays into drama. His play "The Conscious Lovers" is regarded as one of the first sentimental comedies, emphasizing virtue, morality, and the triumph of true love. Steele's influence on the fusion of sentimental and comedic elements paved the way for later developments in 18th-century drama.

g. Nicholas Rowe: A transitional figure between the Restoration and Augustan periods, Nicholas Rowe's plays reflect a changing dramatic landscape. His tragedy "Jane Shore" and historical drama "The Tragedy of Lady Jane Grey" mark a departure from the ribaldry of Restoration tragedy, embracing a more restrained and morally focused approach in line with Augustan ideals.

h. John Vanbrugh: An architect by profession, John Vanbrugh made significant contributions to both drama and architecture during the Augustan Age. His comedies, such as "The Provoked Wife" and "The Relapse," are characterized by intricate plots and satirical elements. Vanbrugh's plays, often exploring the complexities of marriage and societal expectations, added depth and sophistication to Augustan theatrical productions.

i. Thomas Southerne: Known for his tragedies, Thomas Southerne addressed moral and ethical dilemmas in his plays. His work "Oroonoko" tackles issues of slavery and colonialism, reflecting the broader social concerns of the Augustan Age. Southerne's plays, though less known today, contributed to the diversity of themes explored in the dramatic productions of this era.



In conclusion, the Augustan Age stands as a pivotal chapter in English literary history, marked by a conscious revival of classical ideals, a commitment to reason and order, and a flourishing of satirical and didactic literature. Writers of this era, such as Pope, Swift, Dryden, Addison, and Steele, left an indelible mark on the literary landscape, shaping the trajectory of English literature for generations to come. 

The Augustan Age, with its emphasis on reason, satire, and classical aesthetics, represents a cultural renaissance that bridged the gap between the tumultuous Restoration period and the subsequent Romantic era. Through a nuanced exploration of its meaning, characteristics, and literature, we gain a deeper appreciation for the enduring legacy of the Augustan Age and its lasting impact on the evolution of English letters.



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