Transitional Augustan poetry, anyone?

I promised I would pick up the slack on the “Transitional Augustan poetry” chapter, and have written and deleted several posts that attempted to address this chapter. All my attempts were very bad, so I have decided to keep this as short as possible and hope for comments.

I enjoyed this chapter very much, as it addresses Cowley, whose poetry I often find myself reading aloud in funny voices. In fact, I would say this was the chapter that most directly answered my own queasiness/fascination with the early Augustan. Much of the who/what/when/how of the Augustan shift is described in this chapter, but I admit I required seeing Parker elaborate in the Pope chapter that follows before I saw clearly where this was going.

I wonder if it is a failure of my imagination that I am more comfortable discussing authors who are self-consciously manipulating a dominant aesthetic than those who are caught between two ages, still holding onto the tail of one while they grasp out toward the head of the next. I think Parker does this well, but I did not nod furiously along as I read it (as I did when I came to Pope), but thought instead, “Is that really so?”


7 responses to “Transitional Augustan poetry, anyone?

  1. Cowley is an interesting test case for BP, because it’s hard to imagine a revolution in taste that would elevate him above Dryden. Of course, I’m saying this as someone who would take Dryden above Pope any day of the week, so my tastes probably do favor the earlier over the later stuff.

    If that is the case, though, I wonder how far BP’s historicist project of resuscitating the Baroque aesthetic can go, since it leaves Cowley untouched.

    Cowley is too transitional, too amphibious a specimen to survive between the two epochs, but Dryden’s functional typologies (unlike Cowley’s) manage to coexist with the degraded analogies of satire. (I must admit, I think I learned more about Cowley in Wilcher’s Writings of Royalism than I did here. Did others have the same reaction?)

    So what distinguishes Dryden from Cowley? Is it their relative awareness of their modernity? Or something else entirely?


  2. So what were the questions that were building up while you read it, Carrie? And where did you begin to have your doubts? It would be interesting to see where the argument began to cause some resistance for you.


  3. It’s not that I don’t believe Parker’s argument here. It’s certainly not unsound. However, and this is a problem I think he raises in this couple of chapters, one can easily apply his thesis to what is undeniably late-Renaissance poetry (Donne) and to what is undeniably mature Augustan verse (Pope), but these transitional figures are clearly making moves that are neither fish nor fowl, as it were. It’s useful to think of Cowley as someone treating Augustan subjects (the nature of “Man,” the observational relationship of “nature” to the individual, etc.), but still caught up in the metaphysical imagery of “analogism,” but to place someone like Cowley within this narrative is to see him as a figure who is “becoming” within a teleological framework. One can’t fully eschew teleologies when approaching transitional aesthetics, but the individual pressures on Cowley seem, to me, to transcend that problem, at least beyond what can be reasonably treated in a section of a chapter.

    Am I the only person alive who prefers Cowley to Dryden? This is one of those cases in which personal taste may, indeed, be “wrong.” I could be convinced, but I haven’t been, yet. I wonder if the preference for Dryden isn’t that he more comfortably embodies what we can think of as the early Augustan without the aesthetic incoherencies of being a “transitional” poet. Cowley is an odd duck.

  4. That is to say, I think your comment that “Dryden’s functional typologies (unlike Cowley’s) manage to coexist with the degraded analogies of satire” makes a lot of sense. I am much more comfortable with Parker’s treatment of Dryden, as he fits better within the framework he’s created.

    Whenever there is a massive shift in a dominant aesthetic, aren’t there always these accidents of evolution, like Cowley, that know not where they’re headed and may, perhaps, die out?

  5. These are good points, Carrie, though I always regard the 17c folk as mid-century or restoration rather than Augustan, in my own mental categories.

    I think of Cowley as somehow seems more specific to his period than Dryden, but that may largely be an effect of his subsequent influence, esp. as a model for Pope. Cowley, though, seems to have suffered for his political failures of nerve, which were of course understandable in those treacherous political times.

    I also think that Dryden’s importance as a critic (once again, as a writer self-conscious of his modernity, and articulate about it), may have helped him leap over that divide in ways that Cowley could not.

    But certainly the subsequent receptions of both writers suggest a massive realignment in taste between Dryden’s and Cowley’s era and, say, Addison’s.


  6. [Haloscan is trying to eat my comment. Sorry if this turns out to be a duplicate.]


    When you write, “Am I the only person alive who prefers Cowley to Dryden?”, what’s your grounds for that preference? I was wondering whether BP’s definition of the literal would affect your explanation of that preference at all. (Or does it not apply?)

  7. I am afraid my preference for Cowley is completely indefensible. I know, by every standard, that he is not as great a poet as Dryden. Someday, I will figure out why I feel this way, but I haven’t yet.