Literary post-modernism. Eighteenth-century poets may expand our sense of what's possible

The Daring Muse: Augustan Poetry Reconsidered, by Margaret Anne Doody. New York: Cambridge University Press. 288 pp. $44.50, cloth; $12.95, paper. Now that modernism is no longer modern -- no longer chic -- many writers have turned away from self-conscious modern literary styles exploited by Virginia Woolf and T. S. Eliot toward narrative and more-or-less direct statement. Once the hallmark of modernism, free verse is taking the back seat to fixed forms of poetry; poets are writing novels in sonnets!

Post-modernism? Maybe.

Margaret Anne Doody's study of the Augustans suggests one place to look for perspective: the 18th century. Poets such as Dryden, Swift, Pope, and many lesser known -- some given their first sympathetic readings in these pages -- revitalize our sense of the possibilities of literature.

Not only a ``reconsideration'' of a period of literature long obscured by prejudice and ignorance, ``The Daring Muse'' is also a straw in the wind. Just as modernism was stamped by Eliot's return to the ``metaphysicals,'' this book tells us as much about ourselves as about Pope and Dryden.

Doody is professor of English at Princeton University and author of a popular mystery novel as well as studies of 18th-century fiction: she knows the field. According to her, the muse of the Augustans was ``daring'' in the vernacular sense of daring. Augustans had an enormous appetite for experience, and their poems positively swarm with life. They dared to find literary forms for their exuberance.

Their confidence and expansiveness led them not toward vague horizons but toward natural limits in every direction, including the past. In certain Romans they heard echoes of the sounds they would like to make. They are called Augustans (the reference is to the early Roman Empire under Caesar Augustus) because, as Doody explains, ``Horace and Virgil looked like companions.''

The Augustan sense of imperial adventure is reflected in the illustration on this page. Of it, Doody writes, ``Pope, pensive, with the strange mongrel dog (Satire) at his feet, exhibits a lively interest combined with a calm which relfects his undoubted authority. . . .''

The daring of the Augustans did not simply demolish literary forms, but combined old ones into new ones. Kinds of poems were like kinds of fruit: interesting, and to be grafted.

Unrecognized literary forms -- hymns, ballads -- along with those of classical pedigree -- odes and epics and epigrams -- all added to the fun of the smorgasbord. Doody's discussion of these complexities is as lucid and animated as good after-dinner conversation.

Augustan literature everywhere sounds like that, like good conversation -- several people talking at once. Doody calls it the ``double voice'' effect. (In a fascinating passage, Doody argues that the Augustan use of this double-voiced language reflects the simultaneous discovery of two-party government.)

Doody tests this hypothesis on a wide variety of texts. Songs, hymns, verse letters, long descriptive poems, all seem to reflect this double voice. This even goes for parts of poems. Doody's analysis of a couplet by Pope has the precision of a computer program, and a lot more wit.

Alongside Doody's meticulous and sometimes profound microanalysis, one is grateful for her insights into the larger schemes that inform Augustan literature. For example, while recognizing the commitment to accurate and detailed reflection of daily life, Doody shows that they sometimes envisioned a surreal world, and she often points to what she calls ``charivari,'' in which ``the strange confluence of male and female qualities, bearing all down before them, busily engaged by their very oddly-combined presence in an un-creation or new creation not subject to ordinary rules and commonplace vision.''

It's all a ``splendid and perverse and dizzying mess,'' where before we saw only reason and decorum!

Whatever the vision, the building block of the Augustan poem is as often as not the couplet. As Doody shows, in the couplet lies the secret of the peculiar consolations of Augustan verse.

The couplet -- two lines that end with matching sounds -- in the hands of the Augustans not only ended with a rhyme, it often ended with a period; it was pretty final, and later poets reacted to it as harsh discipline, especially since it seemed to reinforce the common-sense acceptance of death as a limit even poets couldn't jump over.

This romantic reaction against the couplet was the result of a misperception, as Doody shows. For the couplet, having ended, suggests that another pretty much like it will come after. ``There is a deep poetic and psychological satisfaction in encountering this ending and escaping it,'' she writes. ``For the Augustans who, as we have seen, felt the secret horror of the last, and the fear of an ending, the pleasure of constantly encountering endings and constantly transcending them seems to have been especially great.''

Doody's enthusiasm is contagious -- even for the way these poems look on the original page. She writes, ``These poems, uncramped and unembarrassed, promise interesting pauses between words, and curves of sound in the words. These poems want to be read -- and to be heard, clearly heard.''

The Augustans are back!

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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