The Literary Principles of the Neoclassical Age
In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Neoclassical Age revered and imitated the principles of ancient Greek and Roman art and literature. In addition, new ideas about nature permeated writing. Critics and writers valued restraint in expression and the idea of reason. Well-known neoclassical writers include Moliere, Racine, Dryden, Pope, Swift and Samuel Johnson
Looking back to classical ideals resulted in conservatism in literature as well as politics. This led to writing that emphasized order and rational control. Literary works sought to model masterpieces of the classical Roman and Greek world. Writers followed literary “rules” set by classical critics such as Aristotle and Horace, resulting in a respect for and acute awareness of conventions and genre. Alexander Pope, neoclassical poet, satirist and critic, for example, set out to correct what he saw as deviations of previous English poets from classical modes of pastoral poetry by writing pastorals with classical models in mind. Classical genres such as epic, tragedy, comedy, pastoral, ode and satire dominated neoclassical writing.
Representing Human Nature
Following the rules of genre -- using the right language, style, tone and rhetorical figures -- was considered a means to discovering nature. The past could be used as a model for neoclassical writing because human nature was viewed as constant. To neoclassical sensibilities, humanity was inherently imperfect, sinful and limited. This idea, however, began to soften later in the era, giving rise to more optimistic and sentimental trends in literature as seen in the works of Oliver Goldsmith and George Crabbe.
Restraint in Expression
In neoclassicism, the complexity and metaphorical nature of Renaissance writing shifted to precision in grammar and vocabulary. Neoclassical verse as well as prose demonstrated balance through use of parallels and antithesis. The imagination let loose unrestrained was thought to result in extravagant or unruly works -- unless reined in by judgment, using nature as a guide. Alexander Pope wrote in "An Essay on Criticism": "First follow nature, and your judgement frame / By her standard, which is still the same." This, however, did not seek to limit passion or originality. Judgment was to make writing more effective. Thus, neoclassicism seeks a sense of “decorum” in writing.
The Guidance of Reason
The Neoclassical Age is often referred to as the Age of Reason. During this period, the concept of reason penetrated all aspects of society, including religion, politics and art. Reason was viewed as the highest mental ability. In literature, this meant works needed to be logical and to advocate for rational norms in society. According to “Introduction to Neoclassicism,” critics judged characters in literature based on their use of reason. In addition, this rationality nurtured a key characteristic of neoclassical literature -- wit. Exemplars of wit in drama are George Etherege's "Man of Mode" and William Congreve's "The Way of the World." Characters in such dramas were admired for using wit, through rational examination of the world, to point out similarities between seemingly unlike things through suitable metaphors, similes and images.
- Brooklyn College English Department: Introduction to Neoclassicism
- The Norton Anthology of Literature, Volume I
- The Penguin History of Literature: Dryden to Johnson
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