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The Literary Principles of the Neoclassical Age

Updated July 22, 2017

Classical Influences

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.

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