The Augustan Period as a Rethinking of Traditions

Thanks, Carrie, for setting up this reading and providing us with a very lucid introduction to BP’s book and its aims.

Since I’ll be posting tomorrow morning on chapter 1, the Samuel Butler chapter, I’ll just take up a few issues from yours and Matt’s posts. Nonetheless, I think these issues will probably recur in discussion:

For me, the most useful thing about the Triumph is its ability to serve as a case study in the opposing literary-historical problems of periodicity and the persistence of traditions. Even more helpfully, this book really does have the generic breadth that enables BP to view these developments in the broadest possible light.

Here, the key question seems to involve the exact relation of Augustan “neo-classicism” to two forms of inherited or “traditional” (this is BP’s term, I think) authority: historical Christianity and classical antiquity. So we have the period-specific uses of Horace or biblical sources, but the sometime puzzling persistence of genres like the epic

In this instance, Parker focuses upon the transition out of the “Baroque” and into the “Augustan” to fashion a larger-scale argument about the birth of modernity, which is treated here as yet another narrative of disenchantment, flattening, loss of collective and sacred meaning, etc. etc. The goal, as far as I can see, is some kind of historicist reanimation of the Baroque, so that its true breadth and depth can be seen from the inside rather than outside.

Carrie’s description nicely encapsulates this aspect of the argument:

While the critical history of the Augustan period has always marked the move away from metaphor, flights of imaginative fancy, “superstition” and “enthusiasm,” and the shift toward a commitment to empiricism and mimetic description, Parker specifically notes that this shift comes, first, as a total rejection of the aesthetics of traditional Christianity, not necessarily, as the writers of the age would style it, as a “return” to classical values. The only way to get to the aesthetic values of Addison, Pope, and Johnson is by first actively destroying the dominant modes of representation.

I agree with this characterization of the period’s novelty, though it doesn’t seem at all counter-intuitive to me, or even that surprising, in the wake of, say, Raymond Williams’ discussion of the dominant and the residual in Marxism and Literature, or the reception studies of the classical past done by the followers of Warburg, or the recent critics of Swift who have emphasized his affiliations with the Moderns rather than the Ancients. In fact, I would be interested to hear more specifically from Parker who his specific targets were when he wrote this book, or at least what forms of criticism he was writing against. I do agree wholeheartedly, though, with the book’s argument that “neo-classicism” nowadays seems a whole lot more “neo” than “classical.”

What I am not sure about is whether BP has really gotten beyond the “dissociation of sensibility” thesis of Eliot, since he seems to be arguing for a similarly broad and irrevocable estrangement of poets and poetry from the sacred (or is it from a holistic culture that embraces the sacred?) around the mid-seventeenth century. The anti-rhetorical, anti-figurative, anti-analogical thought of the Augustans was first given memorable expression by Samuel Butler, the poet who invented a form, Hudibrastics, ugly enough to suit his era’s political behavior. And as I’ll elaborate tomorrow, I find this reading of Butler very convincing.

Nonetheless, what I really wanted from this introduction, and what I didn’t quite receive, was a fuller explanation of what BP meant by “the literal” in writing, and what relation this term had to the still-emergent empiricism of the mid-seventeenth century. Here I would second Matt in his questions about the causal relations of literature to philosophy.

What’s more, I kept wondering about the exact contours of the big historical break we keep hearing about, and whether it happens fast or slowly, or in a number of places or all at once. But it is nice to hear that Samuel Butler and his writing stand as one of the causes of these momentous changes.


7 responses to “The Augustan Period as a Rethinking of Traditions

  1. In fact, I would be interested to hear more specifically from Parker who his specific targets were when he wrote this book, or at least what forms of criticism he was writing against.

    I also found it interesting that Parker’s critical targets are mostly Eliot, Brooks, and their contemporaries. I’d like to hear from him, also, about why he felt the need to reach that far back to fight that battle. I keep thinking he’s suggesting that there are ways the New Critical readings of the Augustans have somehow lingered, or only been battled in ideological terms. The intervening years have brought fascinating Marxist criticisms of the New Critical models of the early modern period, but that’s not what Blanford’s doing here. Rather, he seems invested in showing how the NCs fail even on their own terms of close aesthetic analysis to make distinctions that would have been important and self-conscious innovations of the authors of the period. Raymond Williams isn’t going to do that for you.

  2. Hey Carrie,

    I responded this morning, then realized when I got back from my meetings that Blogger had eaten my response. In a nutshell, here’s what I said:

    In some ways BP might find a more receptive audience now than he did when he initially published this in ’98, if only because the materialist or new historicist readings coming out at that moment have had their greatest impact, namely in the displacement of the New Critical readings of Mack et al.

    Nonetheless, it’s a little surprising to me that BP doesn’t engage with those “external” or interdisciplinary contexts, but focuses on what I’d call an “internal” literary historical narrative, that relies very much on canonical literary texts and readings, even if those older canons (i.e., Hudibras) have been a little neglected since the New Criticism. Criticizing the New Critics for failing on their own terms seems to me to be an internal argument about literary history, using chiefly earlier literary histories for guidance.

    This is one reason why I wonder how thoroughly revisionist this history is, if it chooses not to debate or engage much with its immediate predecessor, the New Eighteenth Century crowd, except in the form of its nod toward Foucault in the Intro.



  3. I think that BP is also really interested in puncturing any received ideas about the shift from the Augustan to the Romantic (clearly this is an important aspect of this book)–and I think that’s still a very timely clarification, and one he does really well.

  4. I definitely understand David Mazella’s comment about the way in which this book revolves around “internal literary historical narratives” –but it is meant to do that, I think, and it’s nice to see a book that actually succeeds on its own terms by producing a cogent reading of a movement within a particular –somewhat bounded– culture. While the book clearly works with the canon, and works with literary texts almost exclusively, I don’t see why another writer couldn’t play with BP’s arguments and test them against other disciplines–or political and economic movements–or non-canonical writers or other forms of artistic production. There are certainly moments in the book, for example, where BP links his thoughts on Augustan poetry to visual culture/painting. When BP describes Belinda “alone in a world of things” I can almost feel the political/economic/ gendered resonances of being “alone in a world of things”–even though these aspects of the topic are not fully explored. I think the joy of BP’s book is that he provides you with so many interesting ideas–and solid ideas–that you want to run with them (and somehow I think the book wants you to make linkages, linkages, linkages between the textual and the world, since the linkage between text and world is somehow always at issue in Augustan poetry).

  5. This is an interesting book, largely because of the very deliberate choices that Parker made in terms of his narrative arc and exemplary texts, which I think work extremely well. Because they are not really linear, though, I termed them “constellations.”

    Ordinarily, in a book like this, I would feel the breakdown and segmentation of the argument into separate readings strung together more or less cogently: (uh oh, here comes the Pope reading, followed closely by Thomson or Gray blah blah blah).

    But here there’s a strong enough argument and historical narrative pull to move us in and out of those readings in a way that feels motivated.

    This book could provoke quite a different debate than the one we’re having about BP’s arguments and their overall rightness as literary history. Instead, we could discuss the problem of innovation in literary history: where does it come from? how desirable is it? how distinct is innovation from the quality or sophistication of thought that went into it? does it come from new methodologies? undiscovered authors? fresh new approaches? striking new interpretations? or none of the above? If the answer is none of the above, then wherein lies the contribution of a book like this one?

    My suspicion is that its contribution lies in its very subtle and synthetic approach to literary history,which manages to pack an enormous number of contexts into its literary genealogies and close readings.


  6. That is to say, BP is engaged in the difficult task of developing an aspect of literary history that is known but has not been particularly valued for the past 15 yrs or so. This is one of the reasons why it stands out.

    And it will be interesting to hear what he thinks of it now, at this remove from the initial publication date, and where he locates it in the current critical landscape.


  7. I think you’ve put your finger on the book’s main contribution, David. I liked it because it made me realize that I had undervalued this aspect of literary history. Are we not still in the thrall of the new critics to some extent?