Upon completion of the unit, the learner will be able to:
We have already learned from the previous unit about the Renaissance and its keen interest in the revival of the Greco-Roman classics. Similarly, Neoclassicism or new-classicism (neo means new) is another movement closely related to the Greek and Latin classical ideals. While both Neoclassicism and Renaissance share a common interest in classics, Neoclassicism goes a step further with its deliberate and blatant imitation of classical genres. More than a mere appreciation for the classics, Neoclassicism consciously strives to imitate and recreate the classical styles and techniques of the past.
Moreover, the Neoclassical movement can be viewed as an attempt to overcome England’s immediate past of violent political upheavals and to emulate the bygone glory of the Ro-man past. Let us learn about the key similarities and differences between classicism and Neoclassicism.
Classicism, Neoclassicism, Mimesis, Restoration, Satire, Sensibility
2.3.1 Classicism and Neoclassicism
In simple terms, classicism is the predominant literature or art style of the ancient Greco-Ro-man period, whereas Neoclassicism is the literature or art produced later in imitation of such classics. The artistic and cultural movement of Neoclassicism originated during the 17th century in France and remained prominent in Europe till the early 19th century.
In essence, Neoclassicism propounded a revival of the ancient forms of literature and art. Classical standards were deemed as the ideal in most art forms including painting, sculpture, literature, architecture and music. Neo-classicism staunchly advocated the absolute superiority of the classical genres and viewed them as the perfect models. It explicitly tried to copy the aesthetic principles and techniques of these classical models and determined their artistic value based on the concept of mime-sis. In The Republic, Plato described art as mimesis, the Greek term for imitation. That is, art is the imitation or representation of nature/reality through another medium. Thus, the closer an artwork is to reality, the higher its perceived merit or value.
Rules of Composition
Neoclassical literature insisted on the strict adherence to certain classical rules. These include:
- Decorum/ propriety
- Verisimilitude (resemblance to reality)
- Purity of forms and genres
- Unities of time, place, and action
Neoclassical literature gave great importance to the theory of decorum or propriety. It viewed an art/ literary work as a combination of parts compiled together based on their internal and external harmony. A literary work should exhibit consistency and unity in all aspects, and the form/genre of literature should be appropriate for its subject. Moreover, this sense of propriety also entails closely following the social rules and norms of the time. When it comes to drama, this means that the actors should only perform roles that correspond to their social status.
Neoclassical literature also followed the principles of classical aesthetics, such as the hierarchy of genres and the dramatic unities of time, place and action.
Each genre had a fixed place in this hierarchy. For instance, tragedy, epic, and ode were considered high genres, whereas comedy, satire, and fable were considered low. The mixture of the high and low genres – such as the tragi-comedy – was highly discouraged.
Neoclassicists maintained an almost scientific approach to art, insisting that art should be conceived using reason, logic and intellect. They followed the artistic principles of classical philosophers like Aristotle and Horace. Though both Renaissance and Neoclassicism attempt to revive the classics, there are significant differences between the two movements. Let us take a look at some of the major differences between Renaissance and Neoclassicism:
- Renaissance regarded art to be a creative and spontaneous process, whereas Neoclassicism viewed it as a product of conscious study and effort.
- In contrast to the humanistic approach of the Renaissance, Neoclassicism believed that man is essentially imperfect and flawed.
- Renaissance focused on self-ex-pression while Neoclassicism emphasised self-restraint. More-over, Neoclassicists viewed art as, objective, rational and impersonal.
- In contrast to the creative and innovative spirit of the Renaissance, Neoclassicists believed that art attained its height of excellence during the Classical Age. To achieve similar perfection, they insisted on closely following the classical style and theories.
- Instead of the high individual-ism of the Renaissance, Neo-classicism viewed human nature as general and universal.
2.3.2 The Neo-Classical Age (1660-1785)
As we have already learned from the previous unit, during the Commonwealth Period/ the Interregnum, England was under parliament rule for a period of 11 years (1649-1658). However, with the ascension of Charles II – the exiled son of Charles I – in 1660, the monarchy was restored in England. The English society was finally free from the orthodox morality of Puritanism. Following Charles II’s reign which lasted from 1660 to 1685, his younger brother James II took over the English throne till 1688.
The Neoclassical Age remains significant in English history as it sparked many fundamental transformations in society. This was the period during which the first political factions emerged: the Tories (conservatives) who supported Charles II’s ascension and the Whigs (liberals) who opposed it. During the peak of the Neoclassical Age, England grew into a formidable empire with its aggressive, expansionist, and colonialist policies in countries like India and Australia. During this period, England also took part in the practice of the African slave trade.
With the increasing trade and commercialism, the Neoclassical period marked the formation of the middle class, in addition to the existing binaries of the wealthy and the poor. The emergence of the literate middle class led to an increased demand for literary entertainment, and the fields of fiction and journalism began to develop. In short, the Neoclassical period popularised the emerging genres of magazines and newspapers, revived public theatre and conceived the genre of the novel.
The coffee houses of London city became a hotspot for reading circles and witnessed many heated discussions on the latest magazine articles. The act of drinking chocolate – expensive and exotic – became a status symbol of sorts. The modern forms of commercialism, commodification, and consumption have their roots in this age, as advertisements for clothes, furniture, etc., first made their appearance in the periodicals of the time.
Salient Features of Neoclassicism:
- Imitation of Greco-Roman classics
- Age of reason and enlightenment
- Idealization of order, symmetry, and harmony
- Adaptation of classical literary genres such as epics, odes, pastorals, and satires
- Idealistic and artificial
- Fostered in a highly political and urbane environment
- Elegance in structure and form
- Emphasis on wit, decorum, and civility
- Restraint of emotion/imagination and focus on intellect
- Obsession with external appearances
- Emphasis on universal truths and general ideas
- The predominance of comedy and satire
- Development of journalism
- Development of the genres of diary and periodical essay
- Birth of the novel
The Neoclassical Age is also known as the Age of Reason and Enlightenment due to its emphasis on logic and rationality. Neoclassical literature can be seen as a sharp reaction against the extravagance of Renaissance literature and the complexity of Metaphysical poetry. In contrast, realism and intellect became the preferred method with which art was created and appreciated during the Neoclassical period.
The Neoclassical Age can be further divided into the Restoration Age, the Augustan Age and the Age of Sensibility.
- The Restoration Era (1660-1700)
As its name signifies, the Restoration era is the period during which the monarchy was restored in England. With the crowning of Charles II in 1660, the Stuart line was restored and continued its reign in England till 1700. Restoration literature is generally considered to have begun and flourished under the reign of Charles II. It was a period of conflicting and contradictory writings – from the seminal Paradise Lost to the biting satire of Dryden, the spiritual journey of The Pilgrim’s Progress to the licentious comedy of the Restoration drama – it had it all.
During this era, poetic devices, such as enjambment and blank verse were discarded, and the heroic couplet became the standard form of Neoclassical verse. The heroic couplet is a rhymed couplet of iambic pentameter used in epic and narrative poetry, first introduced by Geoffrey Chaucer. Generally, Restoration poetry was written as either long verse narratives or in the form of mock epics. They often had a satirical tone and employed elevated diction and extensive allusions modelled after the classics.
- John Milton (1608-1674)
Major works: Lycidas (1637), L’ Allegro (1631), Il Penseroso (1645), Areopagitica (1644), Paradise Lost (1667), Paradise Regained (1671), Samson Agonistes (1671)With his unconventional and rebellious writings, Milton defies the neat categorisations of periods or movements. Though he lived mostly during the Puritanical era and was a staunch supporter of the Protectorate, Milton often rebelled against the hypocrisy of Puritanism through his poetry. In this way, Milton can be considered both a Renaissance figure as well as a Restoration writer.
After Charles II’s restoration, Milton was imprisoned for his support of the Protectorate. His highly erudite, lofty and Latinate literary style has left an indelible mark on English literature. His pastoral poems L’Allegro (1631) and Il Penseroso (1645) are companion poems, each narrating the conflicting states of the human psyche – joy and melancholy – respectively. His later work Lycidas (1637) was a pastoral elegy written for Edward King, his classmate at Cambridge who was drowned in the Irish Sea.
- Paradise Lost (1667):
This epic poem is considered one of the greatest masterpieces of English literature. Composed of twelve books in the manner of the classic Aeneid, this literary epic in blank verse narrates the original Fall of Man. Milton’s humanistic and compassionate portrayal of Satan in this work received criticism from his peers and won admiration from later Romantics.
- Paradise Regained (1671):
A brief epic in comparison to Paradise Lost, this work also examines the theme of temptation – of Christ this time. However, the major difference is that Christ succeeds in resisting temptation and restores the paradise lost by man.
- Samson Agonistes (1671):
Published along with Paradise Regained, this closet tragedy narrates the downfall and redemption of Samson, closely modelled after the conventions of the Greek tragedy.
- John Dryden (1631-1700)
Major works: MacFlecknoe (1682), Absalom and Achitophel (1681), The Medal (1682), Essay of Dramatic Poesy (1668)
The most influential and representative writer of the Restoration – so much so that the period itself is referred to as the Age of Dryden. Moreover, Dryden is also considered to be the first Neoclassical critic. He made his mark in all the literary styles and genres of the time such as satire, comedy, tragedy, ode, heroic play and criticism.
Dryden’s satirical poems The Medal and MacFlecknoe can be considered to be the originators of the Neoclassical movement in English poetry. With his characteristic style of elegant and dignified satire, Dryden praised the reign of Charles II in Absalom and Achitophel. Furthermore, in his mock-epic Mac Flecknoe, Dryden ridiculed and satirised his rival, the Whig poet Thomas Shadwell.
The mock-epic/ mock-heroic is a neoclassical genre that imitates the grand style of the classical epics while dealing with common and trivial subjects. This inversion provides a highly jarring and humorous effect to the work. Dryden also wrote numerous heroic dramas which were immensely popular on the stage such as The Conquest of Granada (1672) and All for Love (1677).
- Essay of Dramatic Poesy (1668): Titled the father of English criticism by Samuel John-son, Dryden created a milestone in modern English prose with this work. Written in the form of a debate on drama, Essay delineates Dryden’s conflicting views on the Neoclassical rules. Though he advocates for the necessity of verisimilitude in literature, Dryden also points out the liberal use of supernatural elements by Shakespeare. He admits that by breaking the Neo-classical rules, Shakespeare has achieved greater excellence than many conventional writers.
- Samuel Butler (1612-1680):
Major Works: Hudibras (1633,1664,1678)
Samuel Butler was a poet and satirist. Butler’s most famous work is his long poem Hudibras, a bitter satire on the Puritan commonwealth. Written in octosyllabic couplets, the poem was published in three parts – in 1633,1664 and 1678.
The Restoration period witnessed the flowering of prose, with a renewed interest in language studies, grammar and dictionaries. Moreover, as individualism and self-reflection heightened, emerging genres, such as letters, diaries, essays and biographies began to gain widespread popularity. The general tone of prose writing at the time was more or less pedagogic and the writer more often than not assumed the role of a moralist.
- John Bunyan (1628–1688)
Major Works: Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (1666), The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), The Life and Death of Mr Badman (1680), The Holy War (1682).
According to many critics the desire that first motivated him to write was merely to celebrate his religion and convert others, and he was educated, like other Puritans, to scorn the adornments of style and to regard writing as a means to a goal. His command of words, whether colloquial or biblical, is that of a skilled artist. Bunyan depicted the intense spiritual struggle of man in his work The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), one of the most celebrated texts of the Restoration period. It narrates the journey of a man from the city of destruction to salvation.
The Restoration Age is regarded as the greatest age of comedy and satire in English literature. With the restoration of the monarchy, the Puritan ban on theatres was lifted. Drama re-entered English life and society as theatres reopened all across England. As if to compensate for the harsh censorship during the preceding Puritanical era, the plot lines of Neoclassical drama became increasingly licentious and even crass at times.
The Neoclassical drama was often a ploy to poke fun at the frivolities of court life and the aristocracy. It gradually developed into a distinct genre called Restoration comedy – the height of the comedy of manners. Modelled after the French dramas of Molière, the comedy of manners reveals the frivolous nature and relationships of the fashionable up-per-class society. Wit, urbanity, and sparkling dialogue were the characteristic features of this genre. As they often employed brilliant, polished repartee between the characters, these dramas became famous for their liberal use of wit.
Major Restoration Comedies:
- The Country Wife (1675) – William Wycherley
- The Way of the World (1700) – William Congreve
Moreover, another significant change occurred in the Neoclassical theatre. We wit-ness for the first time the presence of women on stage as they began to play female roles instead of men in drag as was the custom at the time.
- The Augustan Era (1700-1745)
The Augustan Age in Rome, named after its Emperor Augustus, is considered to be the golden era of Latin literature due to the presence of classic poets like Virgil, Horace and Ovid. The era of Neoclassical writers who followed the conventions of these classic Ro-man poets came to be known as the Augustan era in English. Not only did these Neoclassical writers imitate the literary style of the classic Augustans but they also translated many of their works into English.
Let us take a look at some of the representative authors of the Augustan Age.
- Alexander Pope (1688 – 1744)
Major works: The Rape of the Lock (1714), The Dunciad (1728), An Essay on Criticism (1711), The Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot (1734)
The Augustan Age is alternatively known as the Age of Pope. He was a pivotal figure in the early 18th-century Neoclassical movement. He is credited with perfecting the rhymed couplet form and using it for satiric and philosophical purposes. The Augustan era is considered to have reached its end with the death of Pope in 1744.
- The Rape of the Lock (1714): Initially composed in two cantos and revised later in five, this heroic-comical poem is a feminine and witty take on the epic genre. Pope delightfully narrates the tale of a lock of hair being stolen from a lady and exposes the folly and vanity of the aristocracy through this poem
“Be Homer’s works your study, and delight, Read them by day, and meditate by night.”
An Essay on Criticism
- An Essay on Criticism (1711):This poetical treatise is considered to be one of the foundational texts of the Neoclassical movement. It is a detailed study of the concepts of nature and wit and the clearest statement of the Neo-classical principles. Pope equates nature with Homer while exploring the function of the poet and the critic in this work. Composed in heroic couplets, the work is filled with famous maxims and epigrams such as:
- “To err is humane; to forgive, divine”
- “For fools rush in where angels fear to tread.
- “A little learning is a dangerous thing.”
Pope and Dryden are considered to be the masters of the heroic couplet.
- Jonathan Swift (1667 – 1745)
Major works: Gulliver’s Travels (1726), A Modest Proposal (1729), A Tale of a Tub (1704), The Battle of the Books (1704)
Swift is largely regarded as the finest literary satirist in English literature history. His satirical outlook on human nature is expressed most clearly through his famous novel Gulliver’s Travels. Furthermore, Swift, as a Tory, used his works to mainly criticise Whig politicians.
- Gulliver’s Travels (1726):
In this allegorical novel in four books, Swift criticised the religious and political events of the time and satirised the figure of Robert Walpole, the Whig Prime Minister. The novel narrates the tale of Lemuel Gulliver, a sur-geonturned sailor, and his fantastical adventures on various fictional islands.
- The Battle of the Books (1704): An allegorical prose satire depicting the battle between the Ancients and Moderns – a hotly contested issue of the time.
- John Gay (1699–1745)
Major works: The Beggar’s Opera (1728), The Shepherd’s Week (1714)
English poet and playwright, John Gay is best known as the author of The Beggar’s Opera, a work notable for its witty satire. He was close to Alexander Pope, who influenced much of Gay’s work.
- The Beggar’s Opera (1728): An-other satire on Whig politicians in general and Walpole in particular, this work follows the form of the Italian ballad opera and reveals a corrupt and morally degenerate society.
Scriblerus Club: An informal literary club formed in 1713 which includes Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, John Gay, and various other Tory wits.
Augustan Age: Major Prose Writers
- Joseph Addison (1672-1719) and Richard Steele (1672-1729)
Addison and Steele are the pioneers of the periodical essay – the genre considered to be the truest mirror of the Augustan era in England. Richard Steele invented this literary form when he launched The Tatler in 1709, in which Addison was a major contributor. Soon, another periodical, The Spectator (1711) by the duo also gained popularity. These satirical essays formed the foundation of modern English essays.
Augustan Age: Major Novelists
- Samuel Richardson (1689–1761)
Major works: Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740–41), Clarissa Harlowe: Or, The History of a Young Lady (1747–48)
Samuel Richardson invented and used the letter form to broaden the dramatic potential of the novel. Richardson’s sentimental and didactic novels Pamela and Clarissa are writ-ten in an intimate, and confessional manner. These epistolary novels were immensely popular at the time and revealed for the first time, the intricate details of the inner life, and psyche of a female character.
- Daniel Defoe (1660-1731)
Major works: Robinson Crusoe (1719), Moll Flanders (1722), Journal of the Plague Year (1722)
Daniel Defoe is well known for his works Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Moll Flanders (1722). During his lifetime, he rose to prominence for his poems, political pamphlets, and journalism. Defoe is often regarded as having substantially fashioned the novel as a new form of English literature.
- Robinson Crusoe (1719): This intricate caricature of the solitary life of a man shipwrecked on an island for twenty-eight years and his struggle for survival remains highly popular even to this day. Defoe’s striking realism and eye for minute details make this novel seem more like a biography than fiction.
- Moll Flanders (1722): This picaresque novel narrates the adventurous life of the titular character Moll Flanders – a fiercely independent and determined woman. Derived from the Spanish term picaro (rogue), the picaresque novel narrates the adventures of a rogue or a low-class character, using realism and satire.
- Henry Fielding (1707-1754)
Major works: Shamela (1741), Joseph Andrews (1742), Tom Jones (1749)
Along with Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding is also regarded as the pioneer of the English novel. Fielding wrote Shamela as a parody of the sentimental morality of Richardson’s Pamela. Fielding’s playful use of humour and satire also becomes apparent through his picaresque novels Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones. Fielding wrote these novels as a form of social commentary and sharply criticised the spiritu-al barrenness of the Neoclassical society.
- Eliza Haywood (1693–1756)
Major works: The Adventures of Eovaai, Princess of Ijaveo (1736), Anti-Pamela(1741)
Haywood wrote numerous sensational and passionate romantic novels heavily based on the scandals of the time. Her spirited works often drew intense criticism from her male contemporaries like Pope and Swift. As a re-action to the popular but problematic novel Pamela, Haywood wrote the parody Anti-Pamela.
Furthermore, she published The Female Spectator in 1744 – the first periodical to be written exclusively by and for women.
A reaction against the indecency and licentiousness of Restoration comedy, a new genre called Sentimental comedy began to develop in England. Instead of mockery and satire, these dramas portrayed the lives of the com-mon people with sympathy and compassion. The virtues and morality of the middle class were highlighted instead of the vices. Often evoking tears instead of laughter, Richard Steele’s The Conscious Lovers (1722) is one of the major examples of this genre.
- The Age of Sensibility (1744-1789)
As its title indicates, this era marks a major shift in ideology – from the Neoclassical focus on reason and logic to the original Renaissance spirit. Highly contradicting the intellectual inclination of Neoclassicism, the literature of this period emphasises qualities like instinct, emotion and imagination. Previously known as pre-romanticism, it was the critic, Northrop Frye who identified and named this period the Age of Sensibility.
This period witnessed the gradual waning of the Neoclassical spirit and a growing preference for emotional and aesthetic values in-stead. The Age of Sensibility precedes and anticipates the English Romantic movement and is sometimes referred to as the Age of Transition. The period ended when the French Revolution broke out in 1789. Alternatively, 1798 is also considered its end due to the publication of the Lyrical Ballads.
- Dr Samuel Johnson (1709 -1784)
Major works: Dictionary (1755), The History of Rasselas (1759), Preface to Shakespeare (1765), The Life of the Most Eminent English Poets (1781)
Due to Dr. Samuel Johnson’s towering presence and countless literary achievements in genres such as essays, biography, travelogue, journalism, and criticism, the period from mid 1700’s to 1798 is commonly referred to as the Age of Johnson. Dr. Johnson’s nine-year-long work A Dictionary of the English Language (1755) is one of the major literary outputs of the period. It remained the foremost dictionary in English language until the publication of The Oxford English Dictionary (1928). From 1750 to 1752, Johnson published a series of essays in his periodical called The Rambler. Using highly ornate and elevated language, Johnson touched on various topics, such as politics, morality and religion.
- The Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (1781): From Milton to Gray, Johnson chronicled the lives and works of 52 major poets of English literature. The work is remarkable for its detailed, comparative analysis of the life, social context, and works of each poet.
Dr Johnson’s biography, The Life of Samuel Johnson, was written by his close friend James Boswell in 1791.
- Preface to Shakespeare (1765): This work remains as one of the earliest and most influential pieces of literary criticism where Johnson defended Shakespeare for his apparent violation of the classical rules.
Novel of Sensibility
Pioneered by writers such as Richardson and Fielding, the novel grew into a more promi-nent and popular form during the Age of Sen-sibility. Instead of action, the novels of this period relied on the emotional response of the characters as well as the reader to advance the plot.
- Laurence Sterne (1713–1768)
Major works: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759), A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy (1768)
An Irish born English novelist, Laurence Sterne’s masterpiece, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, is a highly experimental novel in nine volumes. It is a delightful blend of the comic and absurd with moral and senti-mental elements. In essence, Tristram Shandy is considered an anti-novel – the parody of the genre of novel. Moreover, the work contains many postmodern elements such as self-re-flexivity, stream of consciousness and pas-tiche. Pastiche is the combination or imitation of the styles of past arts or literature.
- Frances Burney (1752–1840)
Major works: Evelina: Or The History of A Young Lady’s Entrance into the World (1778), Cecilia: Or, Memoirs of an Heiress (1782)
Frances Burney, often known as Fanny Burney, an English novelist and letter writer who wrote Evelina, a seminal work in the evolution of the book of manners.
- Evelina (1778): Burney’s skilful use of domestic comedy in this epistolary novel became the classic model for later writers like Jane Austen.
As a reaction against sentimental comedy, a new genre known as anti- sentimental comedy was developed by playwrights like Oliver Goldsmith and Richard Sheridan during this period. Brilliantly employing wit without re-sorting to indecency, this genre distinguished itself from the licentious Restoration drama and the maudlin sentimental comedy.
- Oliver Goldsmith (1728 -1774)
Major works: She Stoops to Conquer (1773), The Vicar of Wakefield (1766), The Citizen of the World (1762), She Stoops to Conquer (1773).
Goldsmith’s remarkable career began as a writer for Ralph Griffith’s Monthly Review. He also contributed to The Bee and The Public Ledger with writings. Goldsmith’s reputation as a poet, writer, and dramatist grew as a result of his pleasant, accessible writing style and the assistance of numerous prominent acquaintances. She Stoops to Conquer, subtitled ‘The Mistakes of a Night,’ is a comedic drama filled of misplaced identities and clever repartee that cemented his playwriting talents. She Stoops to Conquer was a massive hit and has become one of the most popular English-language plays from the era.
- The Vicar of Wakefield (1766): Goldsmith’s only novel is a memoir of the fictional Dr. Prim-rose and the fortunes and misfortunes that befall his family.
- Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816)
Major works: The School for Scandal (1777), The Rivals (1775), The Critic (1781).
Richard Brinsley Sheridan is yet another Irish playwright who advanced the genre of anti-sentimental comedy apart from Goldsmith. Sheridan is well-known for his quick-witted and humorous comedy of manners.
- The School for Scandal (1777): A daring mixture of sentimental comedy and comedy of manners. The complex plot of this play exposes the disparity between the appearance and reality of its characters.
As the Neoclassical ideals of reason and logic began to wane, a group of poets termed the Graveyard School of Poetry began to explore themes of mystery, mortality and melancholy. Elegy was the preferred form of this school and their works anticipated the Gothic novel in English.
- Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1751) by Thomas Gray
- Night Thoughts (1742) by Edward Young
- The Grave (1743) by Robert Blair
The Neoclassical period in many ways strongly advocated the return of classicism. The period attempted to bring back ideals of the classical times such as order, structure, and logic into literature and life. Thus, the Neoclassical period also contributed in shaping the literary tastes and values of the succeeding periods.