Literary classicism refers to a style of writing that consciously emulates the forms and subject matter of classical antiquity. For the purposes of Western literature, this means Greek and Roman drama, poetic forms like the epic, and literary theory as expounded in Aristotle’s “Poetics.” Classicism developed during the Renaissance and Enlightenment eras, and continued to shape literature into the 20th century.
Origins and Features of Classicism
Seventeenth century French writers were the first to align with classical standards as part of an organized literary movement. An appreciation for the ideals of antiquity began when classical translations first became widely available during the Renaissance. Literary classicism appeared in dramatic works modeled on Greek masters, such as Aeschylus and Sophocles, and sought to embody Aristotle’s Three Unities. These called for literary works to have a single plotline, a single location and a compressed time span. Literary classicism expanded from drama into poetry during the Enlightenment, when it became known as Neoclassicism, and prose during the 18th century Augustan Age of English literature.
French Classicists showcased their ideals almost exclusively in drama. Pierre Corneille, the father of French classical tragedy, adapted Euripides in his early play, "Medee." Corneille’s masterpiece, “Le Cid,” broke with strict adherence to the Three Unities, yet developed the dramatic form to encompass the demands of both classical tragedy and comedy. Other French Classicists include Jean Racine, whose work “Andromaque” expanded upon the Trojan War, and Jean Moliere, who displayed his mastery of classical comedy in “Tartuffe” and “Le Misanthrope.” In the 20th century, T.S. Eliot embraced literary classicism in his dramatic works. “Family Reunion" incorporates the structure and subject matter of Aeschylus’ “Orestes,” while “Cocktail Party” does the same with Euripides’ “Alcestis.”
Poetry of the Classicists
The Italian poet Dante is an outlier in the development of literary classicism, as his epic poem, “The Divine Comedy,” appeared independently of any organized movement. In his three-part work, Dante consciously drew inspiration from classical epic poetry, specifically the “Aeneid." English poet Alexander Pope adopted classical techniques during the Augustan Age, a period of English art that celebrated Ancient Rome. Pope’s “Dunciad” and “Rape of the Lock” use the format of epic poetry, yet parody the tone and are known as mock-heroics. Robinson Jeffers, the 20th-century American poet, updated Euripides’ “Medea” and combined the techniques of classical tragedy and epic poetry in works like “Cawdor.”
Literary Classicism in the Novel
The concept of prose literature postdated antiquity, so there is no explicit classicist tradition in fiction to match those of drama and poetry. Format aside, early novels appeared in an era that held classical literature in high esteem, and novelists consciously adopted aspects of classical literature, such as Aristotle’s insistence on moral value, Greek dramatist’s use of divine intervention and epic poetry’s focus on the hero’s journey. Samuel Richardson’s “Pamela” serves as an extended lesson on the values of middle-class morality and presupposes the involvement of God in personal affairs. Novels such as “Robinson Crusoe,” “Gulliver’s Travels” and “Don Quixote” center on the hero’s journey as modeled in works by Homer and Virgil.