Golden age

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Golden age

Golden age: A term variously used to refer to: (1) a mythical age of abundance and happiness; (2) the historical epoch in which a given civilization reached prominence; and (3) a particularly notable period in the history of a national literature or a literary genre.

In classical Greek and Roman mythology, golden age refers to an original period of human felicity, an idyllic state of ease, harmony, peace, and plenty first described by the Greek poet Hesiod in Works and Days (c. 700 B.C.). Later, Christian pastoralists associated the golden age with life in Eden before the Fall, viewing Christ as the Good Shepherd who would restore humanity to Paradise. Similar concepts of an ideal first age exist in Eastern cultures; for instance, Hindu teachings, set forth in works such as the ancient Sanskrit epic Mahābhārata, posit a cycle of four ages, each associated with a color (much as the Greeks spoke of golden, silver, bronze, and iron ages), beginning with an enlightened, “white” era and subsequently descending into want, wickedness, and strife.

When used with regard to a historical era, golden age can reference any past period, however recent (“the golden age of air travel”). Usually, however, the term is reserved for epochs associated with achievements that have defined our understanding of a civilization; for example, the period of the Tang dynasty (618—906) and the reign of Elizabeth I (1588—1603) are commonly referred to as the golden ages of Chinese and English history, respectively. The Islamic golden age, noted particularly for achievements in science, mathematics, and medicine, is generally said to have lasted from the eighth to the thirteenth centuries.

In connection with literary history, the term often refers specifically to sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spanish literature, the Siglo de Oro, or “Century of Gold,” whose leading figures included lyric poet Luis de Góngora; playwrights Lope de Vega and Pedro Calderón de la Barca; and Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote (1605, 1615). It may also, however, be applied to other literatures or genres (as when the Elizabethan Age is called the golden age of English drama) or may be used even more broadly (as in Rolling Stone’s special collector’s edition of The 100 Greatest Hip Hop Songs [2015], in which EPMD’s “Strictly Business” [1988] is called “a cornucopia of blatant samples from the golden age of artistic pilfering”).