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.
Shaftesbury belonged to the period in which England still seemed on the verge of turmoil. After the steady progress of the Tudor years, the Stuarts had precipitated the Civil War. This led to the execution of Charles I and the establishment of what was termed a Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell. But Cromwell, like many able rulers, wanted his son to succeed him. Richard Cromwell however proved neither competent nor popular, which led to the recall of the Stuarts in the form of Charles II. Yet that transition was peaceful and Richard Cromwell lived on to a ripe old age in enforced retirement, and is indeed still the longest lived British Head of State, even though he occupied that position for just over a year.
Charles’s brother James II however had learnt nothing from the fate of his father in the Civil War, and he too was expelled from his throne. But his overthrow was relatively peaceful, and his replacement was his daughter Mary, along with her husband, the Dutch King who ruled as William III. So despite all these upheavals England remained in essence at peace in the latter part of the 17th century. The idea of an Augustan Age was not then unreasonable, though this in fact kicked in only with the new century, and it is perhaps the next great English poet, Alexander Pope, who can be described as quintessentially Augustan.
For Absalom and Achitopel is based on an actual rebellion, even though it was one that turned out to be a damp squib. This was the rebellion of the Duke of Monmouth, which had preceded the actual overthrow of James. And that might indeed have turned out a bloody event, except that, as Dryden indicated in the portrait of Shaftesbury, it was not really thought out carefully by competent conspirators. Certainly one of the other great set pieces from that poem makes clear the relatively frivolous nature of the protagonists in the episode, in its account of the changeable Duke of Buckingham –
In the first rank of these did Zimri stand,
A man so various that he seemed to be
Not one, but all mankind’s epitome:
Stiff in opinions, always in the wrong,
Was everything by starts and nothing long;
But in the course of one revolving moon
Was chymist, fiddler, statesman, and buffoon;
Then all for women, painting, rhyming, drinking,
Besides ten thousand freaks that died in thinking.
Blest madman, who could every hour employ
With something new to wish or to enjoy!
Railing and praising were his usual themes,
And both, to show his judgment, in extremes:
So over violent or over civil
That every man with him was God or Devil.
In squandering wealth was his peculiar art;
Nothing went unrewarded but desert.
Beggared by fools whom still he found too late,
He had his jest, and they had his estate.
He laughed himself from Court; then sought relief
By forming parties, but could ne’er be chief:
For spite of him, the weight of business fell
On Absalom and wise Achitophel;
Thus wicked but in will, of means bereft,
He left not faction, but of that was left.
A very different sort of poem was Alexander’s Feast; or, the Power of Music which describes how Alexander burnt down the city of Persepolis, an act of destruction that seems surprising in a conqueror who sought to assimilate all those over whom he ruled. Dryden’s conceit is that his emotions were played on during a celebratory feast, by the musician Timotheus.
Soothed with the sound, the king grew vain:
Fought all his battles o’er again;
And thrice he routed all his foes, and thrice he slew the slain. —
The master saw the madness rise,
His glowing cheeks, his ardent eyes;
And, while he heaven and earth defied,
Changed his hand, and checked his pride.
He chose a mournful muse,
Soft pity to infuse,
He sung Darius great and good,
By too severe a fate,
Fallen, fallen, fallen, fallen,
Fallen from his high estate,
And weltering in his blood:
Deserted, at his utmost need,
By those his former bounty fed;
On the bare earth exposed he lies,
With not a friend to close his eyes.
With downcast looks the joyless victor sate,
Revolving, in his altered soul, 
The various turns of chance below;
And, now and then, a sigh he stole,
And tears began to flow…..
Now strike the golden lyre again;
A louder yet, and yet a louder strain.
Break his bands of sleep asunder,
And rouse him, like a rattling peal of thunder
Hark, hark! the horrid sound
Has raised up his head;
As awaked from the dead,
And amazed, he stares around.
Revenge, revenge! Timotheus cries,
See the furies arise;
See the snakes, that they rear,
How they hiss in their hair,
And the sparkles that flash from their eyes!
Behold a ghastly band,
Each a torch in his hand!
Those are Grecian ghosts, that in battle were slain,
And, unburied, remain
Inglorious on the plain:
Give the vengeance due
To the valiant crew.
Behold how they toss their torches on high,
How they point to the Persian abodes,
And glittering temples of their hostile gods. —
The princes applaud, with a furious joy,
And the king seized a flambeau with zeal to destroy;
Thais led the way,
To light him to his prey,
And, like another Helen, fired another Troy.
Dryden was a subtle thinker and his poetry is full of interesting aphorisms and thoughts.
None but the brave deserves the fair
Is in fact from Alexander’s Feast. Then we have the striking reflection on Mankind
Men are but children of a larger growth;
Our appetites as apt to change as theirs,
And full as craving too, and full as vain.
And yet the soul, shut up in her dark room,
Viewing so clear abroad, at home sees nothing;
But, like a mole in earth, busy and blind,
Works all her folly up, and casts it outward
To the world’s open view; thus I discover’d,
And blam’d the love of ruin’d Antony;
Yet wish that I were he, to be so ruin’d.
This is from All for Love, Dryden’s version of the story of Antony and Cleopatra – and the last
line suggests that, despite its harsh assessment of how the inner feelings we do not register work themselves out, Dryden does feel that perhaps the world was well lost for love.
Illuminating too is his account of how dreams reflect half forgotten impressions that we have absorbed –
Dreams are but interludes which Fancy makes;
When monarch Reason sleeps, this mimic wakes:
Compounds a medley of disjointed things,
A mob of cobblers, and a court of kings…
Sometimes forgotten things long cast behind
Rush forward in the brain, and come to mind.
The nurse’s legends are for truths received,
And the man dreams but what the boy believed.
Finally, I will quote a charming conceit from To the memory of Mrs Anne Killigrew when he moves from the lady to her brother, coming home from a voyage, to the unexpected death of his sister
Meantime, her warlike brother on the seas
His waving streamers to the winds displays,
And vows for his return, with vain devotion, pays.
Ah, generous youth! that wish forbear,
The winds too soon will waft thee here!
Slack all thy sails, and fear to come,
Alas, thou know’st not, thou art wreck’d at home!
No more shalt thou behold thy sister’s face,
Thou hast already had her last embrace.
But look aloft, and if thou kenn’st from far,
Among the Pleiads a new kindl’d star,
If any sparkles than the rest more bright,
‘Tis she that shines in that propitious light.
Ceylon Today 25 Jan 2015 – http://www.ceylontoday.lk/96-7-news-list-mosaic.html