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We'll give it to you straight: Pope was a teeny-tiny guy. Due to health problems he had as a child that affected his growth, he grew up to be under five feet tall. As if that weren't bad enough, he was also a Catholic. (Hey, with a name like Pope, what else could you be?)
Being a Catholic back in the day in England was like being a squirrel among Chihuahuas—not good. That's because the Church of England, the dominant church, suppressed Catholics and excluded them from social and political structures.
But being tiny and Catholic didn't stop Pope. He became one of the leading writers of the Augustan age, thanks largely to his incredibly witty, urbane poetry. He was also known for his translations of the classics: thanks to him, classical works became more accessible to English readers than they ever were before.
The Rape of the Lock is Pope's most famous work, and it's a prime example of the "mock epic" genre. Basically, it's about a gentleman who steals a lock of hair from a lady. So what, right? Well, that's the point: the content of the poem is trivial, but its style is totally grand.
What makes the poem funny is that everyone in it takes everything that happens totally seriously. The whole thing is a send-up of how silly and trivial high society is, and it's hilarious.
Here's a strange one: it's an essay on criticism written in the form of a poem. So it's both an essay and a poem.
So what's it all about? Well, it's about the literary age in which Pope lived. It talks about Pope's fellow writers and critics—and let's just say that Pope pretty much has nothing good to say about any of them.
But Pope doesn't just write about his contemporaries here; he's also totally obsessed with classical literature. He praises classical poets all over the place, and he also models the poem itself after the work of the classical author Horace. It's a great example of the way in which Pope and others like him looked to classical writers as role models.
Alexander Pope's most famous work is his mock-epic poem The Rape of the Lock. Look at how Pope writes about Belinda, the heroine of the poem, in these quotations (Quotes #2 and #3).
Alexander Pope was especially famous for his use of the "heroic couplet" in his poetry. Look at these examples of heroic couplets from "Sound and Sense," a part of his Essay on Criticism.
Defoe was a dude with many talents. He was a writer, a businessman, and even a straight-up spy at one point. Given how busy he was, it's pretty incredible that, by the time he died in in 1731, he had left behind hundreds of written works: novels, poems, political pamphlets—you name it.
He also had some run-ins with the law. That's because he was a religious dissenter—he didn't subscribe to the doctrines of the Church of England—and this was totally not cool with the authorities. Once, Defoe was actually sentenced to three days in the pillory. Yeah, they totally still used pillories back in those days.
And no, being pilloried sure didn't make Defoe start seeing eye-to-eye with the authorities.
This work is often taken to mark the beginning of the English novel. It's told by Crusoe, who recounts his years of shipwreck on an island, where he befriends a native of the island called Friday.
The book was a big hit when it was published, and because it was published under the name of Robinson Crusoe, a lot of people actually believed that Crusoe was a real person recounting true events. That's how realistic the book seemed.
Don't you love how many Fs are in the title of this novel? Talk about alliteration.
The novel tells the life story of Moll Flanders, who spent a bunch of years as a prostitute, had a bunch of husbands, and spent a bunch of time in prison in Virginia, among other things.
The book is a novel, but it's also social commentary. It deals with themes including poverty, class relations, and gender issues. It's also written in that realistic style Defoe is so famous for, making a big 18th-century innovation to boot.
Defoe's Robinson Crusoe is not only one of the first novels ever written, it's also a great adventure story about a shipwreck. Check out these quotations depicting Crusoe facing the terrors of the natural world.
Defoe was into commenting on social and political issues, like crime, in his work. For example, see how he tackles the theme of criminality in his novel Moll Flanders.
Jonathan Swift was the king of satire. Yeah, all the Augustan writers were pretty good at satire, but Swift was the man in this arena. He was an Anglo-Irish writer who loved criticizing—among many other things—English policy toward the Irish, whom they were brutally colonizing.
Like his fellow writers, Swift was a pretty versatile guy. He wrote political pamphlets, poetry, and fiction, and he was also a clergyman in Dublin.
Along with Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver's Travels is the second big novel of the Augustan age. It's an adventure story that tells the tale of Gulliver's shipwreck on the fictional island of Lilliput, which is full of very small people, and then it tells about Gulliver's travels through many other fantastic lands.
Gulliver's Travels is a great adventure story, but it's also a satire of the mindless adventure stories that were so popular at the time. Swift just couldn't help himself. He loved satirizing everything—including the very sub-genre he was writing in.
In this political tract, Swift proposes that we should all eat Irish babies.
Okay, so he wasn't actually serious; he was satirizing English policies and attitudes toward the Irish. Those policies and attitudes were brutal, and Swift's point was that for all the English cared, they might as well have been eating up Irish babies.
The tract is a classic example of Swift's biting satire. It doesn't get much better than this.
How satirical is Jonathan Swift? Oh, so satirical. So satirical, in fact, that in A Modest Proposal, he proposes that the English should all start eating Irish babies as a way to deal with Irish poverty. Check it out here (Quote #2).
There's a ton of symbolism in Gulliver's Travels. Here's an analysis of the way Swift uses symbolism in the novel.
Samuel Richardson didn't start off as a writer. He actually started off as a printer, which means that he made his living off of the growing publishing industry of the day.
But Richardson became a superstar writer almost overnight when he published his first novel, Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded. Richardson is especially known for developing the "epistolary" style in the novel, which is when a novel is written as a series of letters.
Poor Pamela is preyed upon by Mr. B, who is intent on having his raunchy way with her. In fact, he's so intent on having his way with her that he kidnaps her and locks her up in his house. Somehow, virtuous Pamela manages to withstand Mr. B, resisting his attempts again and again and again and again. (Have you seen the size of this novel?)
The novel tells the story of their developing, uh, relationship.
This is the novel in which Richardson first experimented with the epistolary form. Most of the novel is written as a series of letters that Pamela writes to her parents, but which also function like diary entries describing her thoughts and emotions.
Here's another epistolary novel by Richardson, this one telling the tale of another virtuous young lady. (Richardson really had a thing for virtuous young ladies.) Clarissa, like Pamela, is abducted by a baddy, Robert Lovelace, who tries to force her to lose her virtue.
Besides being notable for its epistolary style (the novel is made up of letters written by a number of characters), Clarissa happens to be one of the longest novels ever written. Yes folks, this history of a young lady goes on for over 1000 pages.
Take a deep breath. You can handle it.
Richardson's Pamela was not only innovative in its use of the epistolary style; it also popularized the novel genre. Delve into the novel here.
In Clarissa, Richardson's epistolary approach gets even more complex. Get the scoop on the novel here.
Okay, so Addison isn't as famous as his contemporaries Pope, Swift, Defoe, and Richardson. But along with his friend Richard Steele, he's still an important man in the period. Like these other dudes, he wrote himself some poetry and plays, but he's most famous for his journalistic contributions and his essays.
Addison, along with Steele, founded a journal called The Spectator, which became a runaway hit when it was first distributed in 1711. It ran essays written by Addison and Steele, in which this dudely duo commented on English society and politics.
In this famous essay, Addison lays out the rationale for the journal The Spectator. He says that it's all about giving people doses of wit and morality all at once. Who says talking about morality has to be dull, right?
Addison's skills as an essayist are on full display in this piece. It's clever and funny and clear all at once.
So, about those plays Addison wrote: a pretty famous one is called Cato, and it dramatizes the story of the Roman senator and Stoic philosopher Cato, who stood up to Julius Caesar. And paid with his life.
The play became super popular after it was first performed in 1713. It was a big hit not only in England but also in America, which at that time was still a British colony.
Why is it so important to have a daily periodical read by the masses? Here is Addison explaining the uses of the The Spectator to his audience.
Addison, like his other Augustan contemporaries, was pretty obsessed with ancient Rome, and his play Cato is all about the Roman Stoic philosopher.