Empire and Poesy

Pope's ironic comparison between George II and Augustus Caesar emphasizes one of the most important ways in which politics and literature were seen to be related in this period — namely, in the interdependence of arts and empire. In the Epistle to Augustus the malaise of contemporary England is revealed in sharp focus by the contrast with the empire of Augustus, when writers such as Virgil, Horace, and Ovid had flourished under the encouragement and patronage of an enlightened and cultured ruler. Underwriting the comparison is the conviction that bad politics produce bad poetry. It is one of the ironies of Pope's poem that his satires also proved this assumption wrong: for what he and the Tory Scriblerians saw as a regime of mediocrity and philistinism undoubtedly fostered some of the greatest political satire of the century.

Pope's sense of the inadequacy of the Hanoverians compared with the reign of Augustus is a far cry from the optimistic pronouncements of seventy years earlier, at the Restoration of Charles II, when numerous poets, anticipating the revival of English letters under the Stuart monarchy, had proclaimed the birth of a new Augustan age. John Dryden's first panegyric on the accession of Charles II finishes:

Oh Happy Age! Oh times like those alone By Fate reserv'd for Great Augustus Throne! When the joint growth of Armes and Arts foreshew The World a Monarch, and that Monarch You.

In his employment of the Augustan model, Dryden, like many other Restoration poets, clearly articulates a belief in the symbiotic relationship between empire and poesy. Moreover, in describing the Restoration as a political and an artistic revival, he and other writers gave a cultural dimension to their polemical representation of recent events. The celebration of the regeneration of art and literature after the Restoration was premised on a rejection of Puritan culture. According to Dryden in the Essay of Dramatick Poesie (1668), Restoration culture rose up gloriously from the ruins of Puritan philistinism:

the fury of a Civil War, and Power, for twenty years together, abandon'd to a barbarous race of men, Enemies of all good Learning, had buried the Muses under the ruines of Monarchy; yet with the restoration of our happiness, we see reviv'd Poesie lifting up its head, & already shaking off the rubbish which lay so heavy on it.

The revival and restoration that the Tory Dryden heralded with the Restoration are sharply contrasted with the ignorance, barbarism, and fury he associates with the Civil War period. Although the English Revolution had produced, and would continue to inspire, some of the greatest works of the century, by Milton, Marvell, and Bunyan, the Augustanism of the post-Restoration period presented this dissenting and republican literature as, to use Dryden's word, little more than "rubbish." Dryden's and his Tory contemporaries' evaluation of their recent literary history was inseparable from their sense of their political history, and the very notion of the Restoration as a new Augustan age for English literature was predicated on a rejection of the Puritan past.

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