Study Guide

Augustans Characteristics

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  • Satire

    Those Augustans were totally into using irony, humor and exaggeration to ridicule and expose people's (and society's) vices. In fact, satire is one of the defining characteristics of Augustan literature. And we're not just talking about one genre or style of writing: these writers were satirical in poetry, in prose, in—well, they were satirical everywhere.

    No person, or subject, was too high or too low for the Augustans' satirical attacks. Political figures? Check. Religious figures? Check. Other writers and literary figures? Check.

    The Augustans prided themselves on exposing society's double standards, showing how superficial, not to mention contradictory, many of the laws and values that governed English society were.


    Check out Jonathan Swift's sharp satire in A Modest Proposal, in which he proposes that one way to deal with the Irish poor is to eat their babies (Quote #2). We can't make this stuff up, folks.

    And here's Jonathan Swift satirizing courtly language in this quotation (Quote #1) from Gulliver's Travels.

  • Wit

    The Augustans weren't just into being satirical—they were also into being witty. Look no further if what you love is clever turns of phrase, literary inventiveness, and all-out 100% smart-mouthery.

    These guys have the gift of literary gab: they play with ideas and metaphors, they twist and turn words around, they're funny, and they're really intelligent to boot. This emphasis on wit also comes from the Augustans' obsession with classicism, because hey, the ancients were into being smart mouths, too.


    Alexander Pope is a master of wit, and he's got some advice on how to be just as witty as he is. Take a look at these quotations from "Sound and Sense," part of his Essay on Criticism.

    Jonathan Swift uses his wit to convince us that eating Irish babies isn't actually such a bad idea in this quotation (Quote #1) from A Modest Proposal.

  • Neoclassicism

    So, the Augustans were obsessed with antiquity. No, we're not talking about cute coffee tables in your neighborhood antique shop; we're talking about ancient Greece and Rome. The Augustans loved them some classic lit: stuff like the Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, Virgil's Aeneid, the poetry of Horace, and anything else written by two-thousand-year-old old dudes (and the occasional dudette).

    Because they loved the classics so much, the Augustans often modeled their own work after the example of these classics. They adopted and adapted classical genres like the epic and the ode, and redeployed them to fit their own needs and the framework of their time.


    Pope takes the classical epic genre and transforms it into mock epic in The Rape of the Lock. Check out how he does this here.

    In "Sound and Sense," Pope praises Homer for writing lines that reflect the sense. Have a look here (Quote #2).

  • Mock Epic

    The Augustans were really into playing around with classical genres like the ode and the epic. Sometimes, they added a surprise twist to them—like how they turned the epic into the mock epic.

    When you think about epics, you probably think about grand battles, heroic warriors, and valiant sword-wielders like Achilles and Hector in the Iliad. The Augustans took on the epic genre but used all the conventions to talk about silly, trivial things. Basically, they wrote about silly things in a grand way, in order to make fun of these silly things.

    The most famous example of a mock epic is Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock. It's about a guy stealing a lock of hair from a woman, but it's written in the style of an epic: the language is grand, there are "wars" (though they take place in drawing rooms, rather than on battlefields), and there are heroes and heroines aplenty.


    Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock is full of classical and epic imagery. Delve into a discussion of this imagery here.

    Pope also uses the mock-epic style in the Rape of the Lock to comment on how superficial and materialistic he thought Augustan society was. Here's an analysis of this theme in the poem.

  • Novel

    The Augustans didn't just copy classical writers—they also invented new genres. Like the novel, folks.

    That's right: we can officially date the beginning of the English novel to the time of the Augustans.

    Ever heard of a little old book called Robinson Crusoe? Well, some people say that's officially the first novel as we know it in the English language, and it was written by Daniel Defoe, an Augustan through and through.

    Sure, there were long prose works before the Augustans came along, but it's the Augustans who made the novel what it is today. One reason for this was that Augustan writers brought the techniques associated with journalism (which was also a booming business in that day and age) and applied them to fiction. After this, novels became a lot more realistic—just the way they tend to be these days.


    A lot of smarty-pants scholars say that Daniel Defoe was one of the first writers to develop realism in the novel. For an example, check out these realistic descriptions of the natural world in Robinson Crusoe.

    Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels is a novel, a satire, and an adventure story all rolled into one. Check out how all of these elements come together in this analysis of the novel.

  • Political Critique

    The Augustans sure weren't afraid to get political.

    In fact, politics was one of their favorite themes. After all, if being snarky is your shtick, what better topic could there be than politics? The Augustans loved writing pamphlets and treatises and even poems condemning laws and policies and any type of political practice that they didn't agree with. And there was a lot they didn't agree with.


    Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal may be funny, but it also addresses some serious political issues of the day. Have a look at an analysis of its political themes here.

    Things get pretty political in Gulliver's Travels, too. Gulliver's experience with various governments during his travels is actually pretty disheartening. Check out this book's politics here.

  • Religious Critique

    The Augustans sure didn't keep their thoughts about religion to themselves. Back in the day, people who didn't subscribe to the doctrines of the Church of England were called Nonconformists, and Daniel Defoe was one of them. The Nonconformists liked to show how hypocritical and unjust the dominant religious values of the time were.

    Now, religion was a big deal back in the day. Sure, almost everyone in England was a Christian, but although there was a dominant church (the Church of England), there were lots of different denominations. And man, all these people did not get along. The Augustans may have been into attacking just about everything and everyone around them, but the Church of England was one of their favorite targets.


    Daniel Defoe was a religious rebel who defied the Church of England, and his character Robinson Crusoe is also a religious rebel. Delve into these quotations, which are all about Robinson's religious rebellion.

    Even though Jonathan Swift was a Protestant clergyman, he attacked his Protestant fellows for not caring about the Irish poor in A Modest Proposal. Check it out here.

  • Church of England

    Church, monarchy, politics: it was all mixed up back during the Augustan age. The dominant church of the time in England was—you guessed it—the Church of England, a.k.a. the Anglican Church. The doctrines of this church were upheld by the monarch, and it was officially the "national" church.

    It wasn't actually that simple, though. There were a whole lot of people, including some of the literary big shots of the Augustan age, who did not belong to the Church, or who disagreed with its doctrines. Some of these people were Puritans, some were Roman Catholics, and some were Protestants (called "dissenters" or "Nonconformists") who rejected some of the Church of England's doctrines.


    Daniel Defoe was a Nonconformist who was a big believer in religious freedom. In Defoe's novel Robinson Crusoe, the character Crusoe also allows for religious freedom on the island he inhabits.

    Even believers in the Anglican Church, like Jonathan Swift, couldn't help criticizing some aspects of it. In A Modest Proposal, for example, Swift stick it to his fellow Anglicans for not caring about poor Irish people. Check it out an analysis of Swift's critique here.

  • During the Augustan age, print technology developed by leaps and bounds. Up until then, books and printed materials were generally only accessible to the aristocracy and to highly educated and specialized groups like the clergy.

    But in the Augustan age, advances in print technology made it possible to print books cheaply, and that meant that more and more books and other materials were printed and available at much lower prices. At the same time, more and more people were becoming literate.

    Guess what that means? Yup: way more readers. Way more readers also means way more books. Put it all together, and you get the printing boom of the Augustan age.


    Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe was a commercial blockbuster when it was first published in 1719, and that's in no small part thanks to the advances in print technology that had been taking place at the time. Read more about Robinson Crusoe's publishing success here.

  • Journalism

    Because of the printing boom during the Augustan age, the number of periodicals and journals mushroomed. Everywhere, someone or other was starting a new journal. People developed an appetite for news and commentary, and the multiplying number of journals and periodicals fed that appetite.

    The development in print journalism totally had consequences for the literature of the period. For example, the novels of the Augustan age (like Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe or Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels) often take on a journalistic tone. They're narrated as "real-life" events, and sometimes, as in the case of Defoe's novels, they're even inspired by real-life events. The journalistic style pretty much led to the beginnings of realism in the novel as we know it.


    The line between fiction and journalistic writing is thin during the Augustan age. Daniel Defoe, for instance, may have based his novel Robinson Crusoe on the true-life story of a castaway.

    In Moll Flanders, Daniel Defoe again blurs the line between fiction and journalistic writing when he insists that the events he narrates in the book are true. Check out this quotation (Quote #1) to see it in action.

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