Neoclassicism | Meaning, Characteristics and Neoclassical Poets

The word neoclassicism has been derived from Greek “neos” means “new” and Latin “classicus” means “relating to ancient Greek or Latin principles of the forms of art.” The neoclassicism was a movement against the too much use of individualism and imagination in literature as well as the violation of classical rules and regulations in literature. The followers of the classical literature tried to put the classical norms back in literary forms and other arts also.

What is Neoclassicism?

Neoclassicism refers to the habit of imitating the great authors of antiquity (notably its poets and dramatists) as a matter of aesthetic principle; and the acceptance of the critical precepts, which emerged to guide that imitation. Medieval writers had often used classical works for models, but Petrarch in the 14th century, was the first to do so because he considered it the only way to produce great literature. Thus, literary genres like epic, eclogue, elegy, ode, satire, tragedy, comedy, epigram etc. of ancient times all found imitators, first in Latin, then in the vernaculars. At the beginning of the 16th cent, the recovery of the previously neglected Poetics of Aristotle provoked an attempt to establish rules for the use of the ancient genres. Theoreticians like Castelvetro and Scaliger imprisoned the notion of ‘imitation’ within a rigid framework of rules, for which the flexibility of ancient practice offered little precedent. The most famous of their inventions was the observance of the dramatic unities of time, place, and action, which won great support in France where a new generation of playwrights in the 1620s and 1630s was eager to attract a more educated public.

Up to the last quarter of the 17th century, neo-classicism had little influence in England. Except for Samuel Johnson, no important writer paid strict attention to the rules humanist critics had formulated.

Dryden also produced All for Love (1677), which has been called the only correct neoclassical tragedy in English; but the fashion was outdated. The usual excuse for the rules was that they helped writers to be true to nature. Alexander Pope wrote, “Those RULES of old discover’d, not devis’d, Are Nature still, but Nature methodiz’d, and implicit in his view was the assumption that ‘nature’ consisted in what was generally true. But, this assumption, advanced

first by Scaliger and echoed much later by Dr Johnson, had never commanded unquestioning support. What is natural came to be seen no longer as an absolute, but as historically conditioned. What undermined neo-classicism most decisively however in the 18th century, was the changing view of the goal of literary creation provoked by Boileau’s translation (1674) of the Longinian treatise of the Sublime. It is interesting to note that A cult of sublimity—the greatness of conception and emotion—replaced the wish to produce a just representation of general reality, and the way to Romanticism lay open.

However, the following list of ideas and characteristics, as mentioned by M H Abrams, were shared, between 1660 and the late 1700s, by authors such as John Dryden, Alexander Pope, Joseph Addison, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, and Edmund Burke. These may serve as an introductory sketch of some prominent features of neoclassic literature:

Characteristics of Neoclassical literature

(1) The neoclassic authors exhibited a strong traditionalism, which was often joined to a distrust of radical innovation and was evidenced above all in their great respect for classical writers—especially from ancient Greece and Rome—who were thought to have achieved excellence, and established the enduring models, in all the major literary genres.

(2) Literature was conceived to be primarily an ‘art’; that is, a set of skills, which, though it requires innate talents, must be perfected by long study and practice, and consists mainly in the deliberate adaptation of known and tested means to the achievement of foreseen ends upon the audience of readers. The representative neoclassic writer commonly strove, therefore, for “correctness,” was careful to observe the complex demands of stylistic decorum, and for the most part, respected the established “rules” of his art.

The neoclassic rules of poetry were, in theory, the essential properties of the various genres (such as epic, tragedy, comedy, and pastoral) that have been abstracted from classical works whose long

survival has proved their excellence. Such properties, many critics believed, must be embodied in modern works if these too are to be excellent and to survive. In England, however, many critics were dubious about some of the rules accepted by Italian and French critics and opposed the strict application of rules such as the three unities in drama.

(3) Human beings as an integral part of a social organisation were regarded as the primary subject matter of literature. Poetry was held to be an imitation of human life—in a common phrase, “a mirror held up to nature.” And, by the human actions, it imitates, and the artistic form it gives to the imitation, poetry is designed to yield both instruction and aesthetic pleasure to the people who read it. Not art for art’s sake, but art for humanity’s sake, was a central idea of neoclassic humanism.

(4) Both in the subject matter and the appeal of art, the emphasis was placed on what human beings possess in common—representative characteristics and widely shared experiences, thoughts, feelings, and tastes. “True wit,” Pope said in a much-quoted passage of his Essay on Criticism, is “what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed.” That is, a primary aim of poetry is to give new and consummate expression to the great commonplaces of human wisdom, whose prevalence and durability are the best warrant of their importance and truth.

(5) Neoclassic writers viewed human beings as limited agents who ought to set themselves only accessible goals. Many of the great works of the period, satiric and didactic, attack human “pride”, or presumption beyond the natural limits of the species, and enforce the lesson of the golden mean (the avoidance of extremes) and of humanity’s need to submit to its restricted position in the cosmic order—an order sometimes envisioned as a natural hierarchy or Great Chain of Being.

So, while discussing and analysing Neoclassical Poetry, you should always keep these above-mentioned characteristics in mind.

Important Neoclassical Poets And Their Works

John Dryden (1631-1700)

Dryden is often regarded as one of the most important writers of the Neo-classical Period. For forty years, he continued to produce an
abundance of literary works of every kind—poetry, plays, and prose works.

Dryden began his work with poetry; he concluded it with poetry. His first published poem of any consequence was a series of heroic stanzas on the death of the Protector Oliver Cromwell (1659). It consists of thirty-seven quatrains of no particular merit. In 1660, Dryden published Astrcea Redux, in celebration of Charles I’s return. Dryden’s early poetical work concludes with Annus Mirabilis (1667), which gives a spirited account of the Great Fire and the war with the Dutch in the previous year.

Then for more than fifteen years, Dryden devoted himself almost entirely to the writing of plays. Then, about 1680, events both political and personal drove him back to the poetical medium, with results both splendid and astonishing. Political passions over the Exclusion Bills were at their height, and Dryden appeared as the chief literary champion of the monarchy in the famous satirical allegory Absalom and Achitophel (1691). Next year he produced another political poem, The Medal, which called forth an answer from an old friend of Dryden’s, Shadwell. A new poetical development was manifest in Religio Laid (1682) and The Hind and the Panther (1687). The first poem is a thesis in support of the English Church; the second, written after the accession of James, is an allegorical defence of the Roman Catholic faith.

Though it is small in bulk, Dryden’s lyrical poetry is of much importance. The longest and the best-known pieces of this class are his Song for St Cecilia’s Day (1687) and Alexander’s Feast, written for the same anniversary in 1697. Both show Dryden as a master of melodious verse and a varied and powerful style. His numerous prologues and epilogues, written in couplets, show abundant wit and vivacity, yet they habitually appeal to the worst instincts of his audiences, being very often coarse and unmannerly.

Samuel Butler (1612-80):

Another considerable poet of the period is Samuel Butler whose fame rests on one work, Hudibras. Born in Worcestershire, the son of a farmer, Butler was educated at the Cathedral School at Worcester. He held many clerical appointments in important households, and was, for a time, clerk to Sir Samuel (Luke one of Cromwell’s officers for Bedfordshire, in whose service probably obtained that experience of the Puritans, which form the basis of Hudibras. Although he was at one time the steward of Ludlow Castle, he spent the last years of his life in obscure penury in London. In 1663, he published Hudibras, which was at once a success. Two other parts followed in 1664 and 1678 respectively.

Hudibras was topical, for it was a biting satire on the Puritans. In general outline, it is modelled upon the adventures of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, who find their respective parallels in Sir Hudibras and his squire Ralpho. Sir Hudibras is a Puritan knight who undergoes many absurd adventures with Ralpho, his Independent squire; but the poem lacks the real pathos and genuine insight of its great Spanish original. It is wholly

Alexander Pope (1688-1744)

Pope is best known for his satirical verse, as well as for his translation of Homer. Famous for his use of the heroic couplet, he is one of the most frequently quoted writers after Shakespeare. Pope’s earliest important work was his Pastorals. Written before he was eighteen, these poems were published in 1709. By that time, Pope established himself as a poet who used heroic couplet so beautifully. In 1711, appeared his An Essay on Criticism, also written in heroic couplets. In 1712, was published the first version of The Rape of the Lock, one of the most brilliant poems in the English language. In this poem, Pope tried to laugh back into good humour two families who had been estranged when Lord Petrie cut off a lock of hair from the head of Miss Arabella Fermor. It is in the mock-heroic strain. The poem combines with its humorous, epic treatment of the trivial theme a delicate fancy and a good deal of satire on the weaknesses of the fair sex and on society manners in general. After that, the Pope was well known, and he set about his ambitious scheme of translating the Iliad. He completed the task in 1720. The Iliad was followed, in 1725 and 1726, by the Odyssey. Both works were so successful as to make Pope a wealthy man, but brought upon him jealousy and criticism, and led to many quarrels, notably with Addison. Criticism was evoked by his edition of Shakespeare, published in 1725. This was a task for which he lacked the necessary Elizabethan scholarship, but he prefaced the work with a fine appreciation. He was vehemently criticised by Theobald, in Shakespeare Restored (1726). Theobald’s criticism gained him the throne of dullness in The Dunciad, which appeared anonymously in 1728, and again in 1742, with the addition of a fourth book and the dethronement of Theobald in favour of Colley Cibber. In this poem, modelled on Dryden’s Mac Flecknoe, Pope turns to rend the host of minor writers whose attacks had been making his life a misery.

In between 1731 and 1735, Pope published a series of philosophical poems, including To Lord Bathurst, Of the Use of Riches, Of the Knowledge and Characters of Men, Of the Characters of Women, and, most famous of all, An Essay on Man, in which he discussed Man’s place in the universe. The years 1733 to 1737 mark Pope’s last important period of production. In these periods appeared his Imitations of Horace, in which, using the Latin satirist as his model, Pope launched his attacks in a series of poetical epistles on the greed and corruption of his day, and especially of the Whig party then in power. His famous Prologue to the Satires, better known by its other title, Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot (1735), contains some of his most brilliant and finished work.

Matthew Prior (1664-1721).

Born in Dorsetshire, Prior studied at Cambridge and was early engaged in writing on behalf of the Tories, from whom he received several valuable appointments. In 1701, he entered the House of Commons; and in 1715, becoming involved in Jacobite intrigues, he was imprisoned. He was liberated in 1717 and died in 1721. His first long work is The Hind and the Panther Transver’d to the Story of the Country and the City Mouse (1687), written in collaboration with Charles Montagu, and ridiculing The Hind and the Panther. Other longer works are Alma: or the Progress of the Mind (1718) and Solomon on the Vanity of the World (1718). The first imitates Butler in Hudibras, and with fair success; the second, written in the heroic couplet, aims at being a serious poem, but its seriousness is often marred with levity, and it shows no wisdom or insight. Prior’s chief distinction lies in his miscellaneous verse, which is varied, bulky, and of high quality. In some respects, it resembles the verses of Swift, for much of it is composed in the octosyllabic couplet, and it has a fair amount of Swift’s force and dexterity. Prior lacks Swift’s deadly power and passion, but he surpasses the Dean in versatility, in an easy wit and impudence, and in sentimentality. In this pleasant ease of verse and sentiment, he is rarely approached. Some of the best of his shorter pieces are The Chameleon, The Thief and the Cordelier, and a number of poems, To Chloe.

John Gay (1685-1732).

Gay was born in humble circumstances, and was apprenticed to a silk-mercer; but, being ambitious, he entered the service of the Duchess of Queensberry (1712). His poems having brought him some fame, he sought a public appointment. He was only moderately successful in this search, and his lazy and indifferent habits spoiled the chances that came in his way. He died in London, an amiable and shiftless idler. His chief works are The Rural Sports (1713), written in the heroic couplet, and resembling Pope’s Pastorals, The Shepherd’s Week (1714), and The What d ‘Ye Call It (1715), a pastoral farce. Trivia or The Art of Walking the Streets of London (1716) is a witty parody of the heroic style, and it contains bright descriptions of London streets. He is, however, best remembered for his Fables (1727), which are in colloquial, easy octosyllabics, though only a few of them are really of permanent interest, and The Beggar’s Opera (1728). This last play had a great success, which has lasted to the present day. It became the rage and ran for sixty-two performances. It deserved its success, for it contains some pretty songs and much genuine though boisterous humour. It is also of importance as the beginning of the tradition of comic opera, which culminates in the work of Gilbert and Sullivan. Gay had the real lyrical gift, which was even more valuable considering the age he lived in. His ballad Black-eyed Susan is still popular.

Edward Young (1683-1765)

Young had a long life and produced a large amount of literary work of variable quality. He was born in Hampshire, went to Oxford, and late in life (about 1730), entered the Church. He lived much in retirement, though in his later years he received a public appointment. His major works are The Last Day (1714) and The Force of Religion (1714), which are moralising written in the heroic couplet; The Love of Fame (1725-28), which shows an advance in the use of the couplet; and a poem in blank verse, The Complaint, or Night Thoughts on Life, Death, and Immortality (1742). This last poem, which was inspired by the death of his wife, had great and long-enduring popularity, which has now vanished. Like Young’s other poems, it shows some power of expression and a sombre satisfaction at his own misery. In the history of literature, it is of some consequence, for the blank verse is of considerable strength, and as a reaction against the dominance of the couplet its value is undeniable.

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