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Home » » Discuss the main trends of the Classical Age focusing on the satirical tone of Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift

 Trends of the Classical Age 

In the history of English literature, the time span from 1700-1745 is regarded as the Classical Age. Because the writers of this period demanded that they were the classics of English literature. They believed that the works of those writers of classical antiquity presented the best of models and the ultimate standards of literary taste.  This article mainly focus on main trends of classical age focusing on the satirical tone of Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift. Moreover they did not believe in the inspiration of the individual genius like the Latin writers. They felt that the best poetry was the product of the rules and laws by the authority of the past. As a result, in the literature of the period intelligence rather than imagination was the important guidance of artistic genius. The literature became didactic and satiric. In poetry, the establishment of a highly artificial and conventional style was common. Classical decorations were employed by the writers. Most of the writings of this age are in prose. The age is called the age of reason and satire.
main trends of classical age

The poetry in the Classical Age is about the aristocratic and fashionable upper circles of the city of London, The writers  claim to follow "nature". But the nature they follow is "human nature" as revealed by the fashionable and aristocratic society of London. Classical poetry deals with the trivial subjects. Decorated drawing rooms, vices, frivolities and follies of the belles and beaux are selected for the subject-matter for poetry. The life of coffeehouses and clubs and the arificial manners and fashions of the courtly circles become dominant in it. Heroic couplet and satire are main weapons in writing. Poetry in this age does not deal with "nature" that fascinates us in Wordsworth and Shelley. Dryden and Pope have no love for the world of leaves and flowers. 

Drama and epic, the grandest forms of poetry, were beyond the reach of the writers of this period. They lacked lyric intensity and could not write lyrics. They excel only in one kind of poetry and it is undoubtedly satiric. But such poetry is certainly not the highest or the best kind of poetry. This prevalent tendency to satire results from the unfortunate union of politics with literature. Nearly every writer of the day was used by the Two political parties to throw satires over the heads  of each other. No doubt, the satires of Dryden, Pope, Swift and Addison have rare brilliance. They are the best in the language but they cannot be called great literature. These giants were capable of far better things that those which occupied them all their live.

Heroic couplet is the only verse-form which they perfected and in which they excelled. It was used with rare brilliance and effect for satirical and intellectual poetry. In the hands of Pope it acquired a perfection and correctness. But his poetic father is Dryden. But excessive refinement led to monotony and rigidity in the hands of the followers of Pope. Their language and diction is highly artificial. Personification, circumlocution, Latinism etc. are frequently used to achieve elevation and dignity.

Alexander Pope is a great satirist in the Classical Age. The Rapè of the Lock" is his first satire. It is a social satire as well as a mock epic. It is a mocking poem in which the poet mocks not only at the little unguarded follies of the fair sex but at the artificial social life of 18th century London as a whole. The fashion, the artificiality, the vanity and frivolity of the age are exposed and ridiculed with the firm grasp of a master. "The piece sparkles in every line. The touch is never too heavy,an air of gay good humour is preserved throughout." says an eminent critic. 

The Moral Essays" and "Satires and Epistles" are the final and crowning efforts of the poet's satiric genius. They contain his finest workmanship as a satirist. They will be read with more pleasure than "The Dunciad". In The Epistle to Mr. Fortesque". Pope boldly satirizes corruption in high places. We know that he never flattered like Dryden. In fact, he was much more independent. He was never afraid to write with exemplary fearlessness. He lashes vice and fosters virtue.His  special talent was in satiric portraiture. 

Swift is the greatest of prose-satirists in the English language. Although he was sometimes provoked into exposing the individual, his satire is more often general than personal. A Tale of a Tub is one of those books which is more fun to write than to read. It is obviously characteristic of the Rabelaisian side of Swift. But it is not at all typical of his satire as a whole. In The Battle of Books, the satire is both general and personal.  This is a highly successful exercise in belittlement effectively ridiculing a literary controversy. Swift's aim here is almost purely destructive. His intention is much more to expose Bentley and Wotten than to take sides with the Ancients against the Moderns. He pronounces upon the issue in the fable of the spider and the bee. But his essential purpose is to make the whole controversy appear trivial, a mere battle of the books.

Swift's best satire is Gulliver's Travels. It is a book of travels to strange lands of pygmies, giants, and horses. His purpose was to expose the vices and follies of mankind by ridiculing them. Man is reduced to the shortness of the Lilliputians. He is magnified into the gross Brobdingnagians. He is contrasted with the equal virtues of the Houyhnhnms. The effectiveness of such a satire depends on the invention with which these strange worlds are made praiseworthy. lt depends on the precision with which the irony makes evident the likeness between the real world and the imaginary. So successful was Swift's invention that ever since the book was published. Children have read the voyages to Lilliput and Brobdingnag as fairy stories without worrying about the satire. So effective is the irony that Gulliver's Travels remains one of the most appalling exposures of human weakness.

This will not be an exaggeration if we call the Classical age a period of satire. Pope and Swift have played a very significant role in this respect. They have used satire, irony and humour as the main weapons. The satirical tone in their works is unmistakable. "The Rape of the Lock" is a satire of the fashionable world of the aristocratic society of the 18th century London society. But Gulliver's Travels is a bitter satire on the follies, absurdities and frailties of human being


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