A research paper on Augustan Poetry illustrates that although the poets of the early eighteenth century often incorporated nature as subject matter, the natural world did not represent the unknowable, ungovernable force that it would later be figured as in the work of the Romantic poets. Instead, the world could be viewed as subject to the logical order, in a clear power structure that was under the direction of God.
The defining form used in the Augustan age was that of the heroic couplet, as honed to near-perfection in the work of Alexander Pope. The heroic couplet consists of the following structure:
- End-rhymed stanza
- Iambic pentameter, often divided into quadrants by a medial caesura.
- Most heroic couplets in the Augustan age were "closed," containing a complete thought or idea unto themselves.
Augustan poets used the highly ordered structure of the heroic couplet to express amazingly complex thought and philosophy.
Satire is also discussed in the research paper and was another important aspect of Augustan poetry, as was the larger, overarching category of wit. Neoclassical writers produced caustic critiques of the prevailing social conditions that shaped their period, such as the emergence of a bourgeois middle class, the increasing diversity in aesthetic values and tastes, and the growing irrelevance of the traditional English system of class distinctions. However, although these issues may have been deeply felt by Augustan authors, the satiric style of response favored by them was predicated upon an emotional distance from the subject matter, a logical precision that did not deign to dissolve into emotionalism and sentimentality.
In contrast, these attributes became central to a growing movement in literature that would emerge on a large scale in the latter half of the eighteenth century. Although many of the same social issues are responded to in literature of sensibility, intuition, emotion and compassion became the most important features of this type of writing. The pastoral featured heavily in writings from the period of sensibility, as did domestic concerns. There was a renewed interest in literature that promoted national unity, as this was viewed as the single unifying element in a society that was increasingly divided by socioeconomic, political, and religious concerns.
Although the literature that most defined the eighteenth century is now largely regarded as that of the neoclassical poets and writers, elements of both the Augustan age and the age of sensibility run concurrently throughout the texts dating from this period. The next section will focus on analyzing the presence of both of these approaches as manifested in a number of the most important works from the eighteenth century.