From the Metaphysicals we move on to the Augustans, so named because their approach to literature was seen as similar to that of writers at the time Augustus Caesar established the Roman Empire. His great sidekick Maecenas – or rather, one of his great sidekicks, the other being the military man Agrippa – was in charge of propaganda, and ran a stable of poets who celebrated the new imperial dispensation. These included the former Republican Horace, but by far the most famous of them was Vergil, whose Aeneid makes its eponymous hero very similar to Augustus. Later generations found Aeneas dull rather than heroic, in contrast to the Achilles of the great Greek epic, the Iliad, but Vergil I suppose was one of those who found eminently satisfying the peace Augustus brought after 100 years of turmoil in Rome. So pius Aeneas, as he termed him, was to be celebrated instead of more active figures.
John Dryden, the first of the Augustan poets, in fact translated the Aenied, which was considered one of his most significant achievements, though now that translation seems stodgy. He is remembered more now for his political satires, which included devastating criticisms of leading politicians of the day. His portrait of the Earl of Shaftesbury, likened to Achitopel of Bibilican fame, is perhaps the best. I will highlight passages that convey sharp criticism in a brilliantly economic use of rhymed couplets –
Of these the false Achitophel was first:
A name to all succeeding ages curst.
For close designs, and crooked counsels fit;
Sagacious, bold and turbulent of wit:
Restless, unfixt in principles and place;
In pow’r unpleas’d, impatient of disgrace.
A fiery soul, which working out its way,
Fretted the pigmy-body to decay:
And o’er inform’d the tenement of clay.
A daring pilot in extremity;
Pleas’d with the danger, when the waves went high
He sought the storms; but for a calm unfit,
Would steer too nigh the sands, to boast his wit.
Great wits are sure to madness near alli’d;
And thin partitions do their bounds divide:
Else, why should he, with wealth and honour blest,
Refuse his age the needful hours of rest?
Punish a body which he could not please;
Bankrupt of life, yet prodigal of ease?
And all to leave, what with his toil he won
To that unfeather’d, two-legg’d thing, a son:
Got, while his soul did huddled notions try;
And born a shapeless lump, like anarchy.
In friendship false, implacable in hate:
Resolv’d to ruin or to rule the state.
To compass this, the triple bond he broke;
The pillars of the public safety shook:
And fitted Israel for a foreign yoke.
Then, seiz’d with fear, yet still affecting fame,
Usurp’d a patriot’s all-atoning name.
So easy still it proves in factious times,
With public zeal to cancel private crimes:
How safe is treason, and how sacred ill,
Where none can sin against the people’s will:
Where crowds can wink; and no offence be known,
Since in another’s guilt they find their own.
The man’s recklessness is succinctly placed before us, and also the stratagem, common in politicians, of asserting patriotism that will cover a number of sins. Continue reading