The Dynamics of Imitation The Epistle to Augustus

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The early eighteenth century is still regularly described as the "Augustan" age of English literature. M. H. Abrams summarizes the common view, noting that "the leading writers of the time . . . themselves drew the parallel to the Roman Augustans, and deliberately imitated their literary forms and subjects, their emphasis on social concerns, and their ideals of moderation, decorum, and urbanity" (Abrams 1999: 214). Such an account is seriously misleading. First, many of the classical poets translated, imitated, and echoed in the period were not "Roman Augustans" at all. Several of them, moreover, are conspicuously notable for their lack of "moderation, decorum, and urbanity." Eighteenth-century English attitudes to Roman Augustan-ism, moreover, were themselves far more complex and various than Abrams implies, a Tacitean hostility to Augustus-the-tyrant coexisting with positive admiration for the Emperor's achievements as peacemaker and cultural patron (see Erskine-Hill 1983; Weinbrot 1978).

Of all the Roman Augustans, Horace might be thought to be most accurately characterized by Abrams's description. But Horace was himself a controversial figure, being admired by some for his Socratic combination of familiar wit and philosophical profundity, and excoriated by others as a self-serving and ethically inconsistent flatterer (see Stack 1985: 3—17; Weinbrot 1978: 120—49). Consequently, Horace's complex ironies seemed to some to emanate from a poised self-awareness which undermines complacency and dogmatism, while to others they betrayed a shallow worldli-ness and suave sycophancy. In his Imitations of Horace Pope shows his awareness of both traditions, adding his own layers of irony to create a voice which is neither simply "Pope" nor simply "Horace," but the product of a complex and ever-shifting dialogue, in which the Roman poet is sometimes invoked as an ally, sometimes regarded at a more quizzical distance, and sometimes used as a stalking-horse for highly subversive commentary on the cultural politics of Pope's own day.

The first in Book II of Horace's Epistles is a direct address to Augustus, in which the poet canvasses his emperor's support for contemporary work which, Horace maintains, surpasses that of the earlier Roman poets in its refinement and elegance. Horace's tone is genial and intimate. Extravagant eulogy is tempered and complicated with an assertive self-confidence which emboldens Horace to offer Augustus forthright advice and to criticize aspects of the Greek literature which the Emperor so loved. Horace also deploys witty self-deprecation to insinuate disarming doubts about the very modern poetry for which he is campaigning. The nuanced familiarities of Horace's tone are utterly transformed by Pope, who addresses his Epistle to Augustus to King George II (George Augustus), a monarch renowned for his philistinism, and for the favors he bestowed on third-rate poets and corrupt politicians. Horace's opening praise of Augustus' military triumphs is transformed by Pope into a piece of savage sarcasm which depends on the reader's perception of how inappropriately the Horatian eulogy fits the modern monarch: the seas, Pope's readers would know, were far from "open" at the time (English merchant ships were frequently harassed by Spanish cruisers); and George's excursions "in Arms abroad" were not military expeditions, but prolonged, and much resented, visits to his mistress in Hanover.

While You, great Patron of Mankind, sustain

The balanc'd World, and open all the Main;

Your Country, chief, in Arms abroad defend, At home, with Morals, Arts, and Laws amend; How shall the Muse, from such a Monarch, steal An hour, and not defraud the Publick Weal?

When, later in his poem (ll. 245-7), Horace, whose text Pope prints opposite his own, explicitly praises Augustus' good literary taste, the English "equivalent" of the Roman sentiments is clearly signaled - by an obtrusive blank space.

But Pope has not merely hijacked Horace's epistle for the purposes of harsh opposition satire. The central section of the poem, in which Horace charts the evolutionary development of Roman literature from its primitive beginnings to its present refinement, is recast and extended by Pope as a retrospective review of English poetry, in which the writer deploys his Horatian persona to reflect on his own great predecessors, blending generous praise with delineations of his precursors' weaknesses so acute that they have reverberated throughout later critical discussions. His famous lines on Milton's God have no direct equivalent in Horace:

Milton's strong pinion now not Heav'n can bound, Now serpent-like, in prose he sweeps the ground, In Quibbles, Angel and Archangel join, And God the Father turns a School-Divine.

And Horace's reflections on the spirited but rough-hewn and under-revised Roman attempts to imitate Greek tragedy are applied to more distinguished writers nearer home:

But Otway fail'd to polish or refine, And fluent Shakespear scarce effac'd a line. Ev'n copious Dryden, wanted, or forgot, The last and greatest Art, the Art to blot.

In the Epistle to Augustus Pope both aligns himself with Horace, seeing, and developing, modern analogies in the spirit of Horace's pocket history of Roman poetry, and simultaneously distances himself from his model, powerfully asserting the vast gulf between the opportunities afforded respectively by ancient Rome and modern London for a poetic culture supportive of and protected by the ruling powers. Pope's use of Horace is complex. He speaks with the voice of an Ancient authority to assert the merits of Modern verse, while simultaneously signaling the decadence and corruption of Modern, as against Ancient, civilization. His poem rests, therefore, not on any simple identification of ancient and modern worlds, or on an assertion of the blanket superiority of the former over the latter, but on a subtle sense of difference-in-similarity. If Rome and London are, in some senses, very close, they are also, in others, worlds apart. Pope gains a new perspective on his own culture by partially inhabiting a vantage point outside that culture. Such a process involves a cross-cultural dialogue that Pope knows (the most exquisite irony of all) the poem's addressee couldn't begin to understand.

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