A literary movement is a general
term which is defined by a variety of authors from a particular time period who
share similar ideas regarding literary works, subjects, approaches, style,
content, philosophy, sociological concerns, art, culture and etc. Usually a
literary movement can be considered a reaction to a current literary movement.
For example, in England, Romanticism (approximately 1789-1832) was seen as a
reaction to neoclassical literature (approximately 1660-1789). Even though scholars
are continually debating the dates and even the “titles” of the
different movements, it can be said that the dates given are often historically
influenced with significant historical events. For example the launch of
Romanticism coincides with the year of the French Revolution, both indicating
new found freedoms and individuality. Some other examples of literary movements
include Classicism and Neoclassicism. Both of these movements, in the arts,
historical tradition or aesthetic attitudes are grounded in the ancient art of
Greece and Rome. In the context of convention, classicism denotes either to the
art produced in antiquity or to later art, inspired by that antiquity. Likewise
Neoclassicism is usually concerned with the art produced later but is motivated
by antiquity or the classics. Hence the terms Classicism and Neoclassicism are often used
interchangeably. The focus of this paper will be on an in-depth analysis of
both Classicism and Neo Classicism as literary movements. This will
include a general definition of both terms, a historical background,
characteristics, the figures and works associated with each movement as well as
a brief comparative study between the two.
Historical Background of Classicism and
Classicism or the
classical period is generally known to have emerged around 500 BC with great
classical dramatists Euripides, Aeschylus, and Sophocles, in addition to the
prominent philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle and finally the schools
of rhetoric, and the rise of Athenian democracy and power. The classical period (sometimes referred to as
Greco-Roman or antiquity) belonged to the noble works of ancient Greece and
This old period is considered the golden age for literature and arts. The
famous writers belonging to this period consist of all the Greek and Roman
writers and philosophers. These included writers like Homer who wrote epics
like the Iliad and Odyssey fame, and the Roman poet Virgil who authored the
famous Aeneid. The Greek philosophers Plato, Socrates and Aristotle also
associated themselves with this era. Moreover the Greek playwrights Euripides
and Aristophanes also fit into this poet. Among the famous influential poets of
this era included Horace and Ovid. It can be said that all these writers shared
a common feature in their works, which is discussing literature that is
distinctive for its balance, order and reasonableness. For example Aristotle’s
Poetics played a vital role in describing these features for drama. Others
included Horace’s Ars Poetica. With regards to the arts, Classicism is
considered an imitation of the arts of the ancient Greek and Rome. This genre
is considered an inventive genre that has been prevalent throughout a variety
of ages, most prominently in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, hence
continual imitation of the classical authors is where we get the word
neoclassical. Classicism usually portrays its classical principles in art,
literature, architecture, and music, hence artistic excellence and conservatism
are elements of classicism. Moreover, for centuries the study of Greek and
Latin as well as the arts of antiquity became major modules of education.
Classicism was first established after the collapse of
Byzantium of the Italian Renaissance. The thrive of education following the
medieval age as well as the emergence of knowledge of Europe’s ancient history,
led artists to imitate classical art in form, symmetry, balance and an overall
sense of order. Furthermore the classical models were particularly expressed in
sculpture, drawing and painting. Some of the chief artists of the Renaissance
classicism include Michelangelo, Raphael, and Correggio.
In the 16th and 17th century
classicism was more formally regarded and was given a greater gist of artistic discipline.
Art and music establishments started to acquire lessons for the expanding of
classical ideals. The Age of Enlightenment of the 18th century
classicism became a fundamental component of a formal education. This era’s
primary principles of freedom and democracy were embedded in classical
antiquity, especially the democratic government of ancient Greece. Classicism
led to the emergence of neo-classicism, and even
though these words can be used interchangeably, they belong to different
periods; however both movements embody the artistic influence of the ancient
Greece and Rome. Classicism also inspired the arts of the 19th and
20th centuries. The Greek and
Roman classical works exhibit characteristics of order and balance and most
commonly they embody classical subject matter.
The Enlightenment is considered to be a time of important
invention and development; hence one of major literary movements that is
responsible for the establishment of the Enlightenment is the architectural and
artistic movement of Neoclassicism. The neoclassicism of the 18th
and 19th century was one that treasured the ancient Greek and Roman
ideals. These ideals which included
order, symmetry, and balance were considered by many European generations as
the highest point of artistic excellence. The classics were always a source of
inspiration with many European movements especially in Neoclassicism.
The rise of Neoclassicism was the result of several
events and movements within the Enlightenment. This includes the expansion,
evolution, and redefinition of the European standard classical education. This increased
the influence and awareness of Greek and Roman art in the studies of the
developing artists, which would soon begin to show in their designs. Moreover, the
recent archeological discoveries of Pompeii and Herculaneum also played a vital
role. The excavation of these sites revealed massive amounts of new
information about the Roman’s everyday life, and it astonished those
who read about or visited these sites. Moreover,
the development of commissioned art and architecture and the refinement of the
art scholarship also played an important role in the rise of the neoclassical
movement. Finally one of the earliest causes for the rise of this movement was a
reaction to the Baroque and Rococo art style. This art was too busy and
ornamental; hence it was too trivial for the people, making it a necessity to return
to the harsher and more order of the ideals of antiquity.
The Neoclassical movement was a dominant art form which
looked back to the Greek and Roman artists, philosophers, and ideals as the
highest point. It influenced and endured many national revolutions and
international wars and due to its strength and balance, perhaps the era was
made all the stronger because of the art and architecture that was the backdrop
for the action of the age.
Definition of Classicism and Neoclassicism:
Generally classicism refers to the styles,
rules, modes, conventions, themes and sensibilities of the Classical writers
and their impact and occurrence on later authors. Classicism denotes a stress
on the virtues of reason, moderation, balance and harmony, in addition to a
view of human beings as essentially social in their nature. For the Romans
classicism was coterminous with Greek influence. For example, Seneca imitated
the Greek tragedians and Virgil was greatly influenced by Homer. Additionally
in the 12th c, we have Graeco-Roman styles that were used by French and German
courtly romance writers.
The imitation of the rules of Classical
poetics is another very important development. Two major influential works of
the 15th and 16th c were Aristotle’s Poetics and Horace’s Ars Poetica .
Aristotle’s influence can be greatly seen in most of the16th century
to the end of the 18th century dramas, hence many critics spread
Aristotle’s theories of imitation. Additionally his notions on tragedy and epic
were almost considered a manifesto The main observers of Aristotle’s works were
mostly Italian whom included: Robortelli, Segni, Maggi Vettori and Castelvetro.
Furthermore Scaliger’s Poetica (1561) wan an important piece in England. In the 16th century Vida,
Robortelli, Joachim du Bellay, Pierre de Ronsard and Sir Philip Sidney studied
and spread Horace’s notes on decorum, the propriety of language and style, the
mutual propriety of action and character, and his insistence on craftsmanship chiefly
in Sidney’s Apologie for Poetrie, 1595.Seneca was also another influential
classical on drama particularly in tragedy to the point where we have what is
known as Sececan tragedy.
In the 17th and 18th century Classicism was most prominent in France Classicism
was strongest in France and at the same time in England. The French writers who
adhered to the Classical teachings were Corneille, Racine, Molière, Voltaire,
Boileau and La Fontaine, hence the most influential treatise by a Frenchman is
without a doubt Boileau’s Art poétique (1647). For the Englishmen, the major
writers to follow Classical teachings and styles included Ben Jonson, Dryden,
Pope, Swift, Addison and Dr Johnson.
Classical influence was also quite evident in the works of numerous German
authors in the second half of the 18th century. These included Winckelmann,
Lessing, Goethe, Schiller and Hölderlin. These writers imitated mostly Greek
forms and were not as interested in the French neoclassic or Roman works. The Italian
authors also took influence from the classics for example Alfieri. It can be
said that Classicism in literature is still apparent today specifically in Classical
themes in drama, fiction and verse, particularly in French drama, and mainly in
the plays of Sartre, Cocteau, Giraudoux and Anouilh.
The neoclassical period is usually said to have lasted from 1660 to 1780.
That’s to say it can be dated back to the beginning of Dryden’s career to
Johnson’s death in 1784. Apart from the dramatists, Dryden (1631–1700), Swift
(1667–1745), Addison (1672–1719), Steele (1672–1729), Pope (1688–1744), Lord
Chesterfield (1694–1773), Fielding (1707–54), Johnson (1709–84), Goldsmith (1730–74)
and Gibbon (1737– 94) are considered to be the main English writers in this
period. Additionally in areas of literary theory and practice most authors of
this era were traditionalist, and highly esteemed Classical authors,
particularly the Romans who they claimed perfected the rules of literary genres.
They believed that literature was
considered an art whereby it can be excelled by a professional approach of closely
studying Classical authors and imitating them. Since the 18th
century was considered the Age of Reason, and that decorum was essential, reason
and judgment were thought to be the most looked upon faculties. In both prose
and verse writing the most suitable tributes included harmony, proportion,
balance and restraint, hence the neoclassical writers aimed at correctness.
This was quiet apparent in their use of heroic couplet. Neoclassical beliefs
and ideals created a definite vision of man and mankind. Man and his activities
were considered to be the main subjects of poetry. As Pope put it in An Essay
thyself, presume not God to scan,
study of mankind is man.
It can be said that the main preoccupation of the poets were, man in
society and man in his social environment. They tended to shed light on what
men possess in common; the general and representative characteristics of
mankind. Johnson summarized it all in The Vanity of Human Wishes:
with extensive view,
from China to Peru;
Remark each anxious toil, each eager strife,
And watch the
busy scenes of crowded life.
evolved a general view of nature and mankind; a general vision of man’s
position and function in the universe, his relationship to the natural order
and his relationship with and to God.
neoclassicists were not conservative in any negative way. Even though they were
motivated to settle for the traditional and the typical, they were ready to
accept the novel and the particular, and they were much concerned with the
importance of invention, and fancy and imagination.
and establishment of order, balance and correctness was quite cherished by Pope,
Swift or Johnson, yet no one accuse them for a lack of originality. Their recurrent use of satire was a mean of
controlling excess, folly, stupidity and corruption; indeed, any shortcoming in
man and society which threatened to be contrary to the maintenance of good
moral order and literary discipline. As Pope wrote, ‘Order is Heav’n’s first
law.’ Thus the writer was under some moral and aesthetic obligation to instruct
as well as to please.
Characteristics of Classicism and Neoclassicism
Rationalism is the most important characteristic
of neoclassicism. Neoclassicist saw reason as the mainspring of learning,
knowledge and inspiration for their works. Neoclassicism is a reaction against
the renaissance style of writing. The neoclassicists made an effort to
disregard imagination, emotion and feelings, while composing their works.
The neoclassicists were very interested in
making use of scholarly allusions in their writings. Because they were well
educated and well-versed in various fields of studies, they knew a lot about
religious, biblical and classical literature. Most of their works is full of
allusions to classical writers i.e., Virgil, Horace and Homer. Look at the
following examples taken from Rape of the Lock by Alexander
Safe past the
Gnome thro’ this fantastic band,
A branch of healing Spleenwort in his hand.
(Rape of the Lock, Canto IV)
In the above-mentioned lines, Spleenwort is a
branch of a tree. Pope is referring to Virgil’s Aeneid, wherein the Aeneas
visits the gangland safely just because of having magical branch of a tree.
with a discontented air
Seems to reject him, tho’ she grants his pray’r.
A wond’rous Bag with both her hands she binds,
Like that where once Ulysses held the winds.
(Rape of the Lock, Canto IV)
In the above-mentioned lines, the poet has made
allusions to Homer’s Odyssey.
Neoclassicists were against the romantic nature
of writing of the Renaissance Period, thus the neoclassicist focused significantly
on the didactic purpose. They were mainly concerned with the didactic aspects
of their writings. Consider the following lines taken from Alexander Pope’s
poem An Essay on Man, which is absolutely an excellent example in
Vice is a
monster of so frightful mien,
As to be hated needs but to be seen;
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.
(An Essay on Man by Alexander Pope)
Realism is one of the main features of
neoclassicism. They were hard realists and they presented the true picture of
their society. They didn’t turn their eyes from the harsh realities of life. They
were men of action and practically lived in the midst of people; hence they had
a very keen observation of their society. They avoided abstract ideas,
imaginative thoughts and idealism in their writings. Dryden’s and Pope’s poetry
are replete with excellent examples of realism. Look at the following example:
When I consider
Life, ’tis all a cheat;
Yet, fooled with hope, men favour the deceit;
Trust on, and think to-morrow will repay:
To-morrow’s falser than the former day;
Lies worse; and while it says, we shall be blest
With some new joys, cuts off what we possesst.
(Aurang Zeb by John Dryden)
Adherence to Classical Rules
The neoclassicists were without doubt great advocates
of classical rules. They went all-out to revive the Classicism in their writings
by following each and every rule of Classicism. They respected the classical
rules a great deal. Look at the following example from Pope’s poetry:
Those RULES of
old discovered, not devised,
Are Nature still, but Nature Methodized;
Nature, like Liberty, is but restrained
By the same Laws which first herself ordained.
(Essay on Criticism by Alexander
Heroic couplet is another characteristic of
neoclassicism. The neoclassical poets were primarily responsible for reputation
of heroic couplets in the history of English literature. Dryden and Pope are considered to be the only
poets, who refined the heroic couplet, corrected it, made it regular, more
flexible and a polished medium of poetic expression. It is said that Dryden wrote
almost thirty thousand heroic couplets. His poems like Absalamand Achitopel, Mac
Flecnoe and The Medal are all in heroic couplets.
Look at the following examples:
poetry: in each
Are nameless graces which no methods teach,
And which a master hand alone can reach.
(An Essay on Criticism by Alexander
Good nature and
good sense must ever join;
To err is human, to forgive, divine.
(An Essay on Criticism by Alexander
No Passionate Lyricism
Neoclassicists lack any lyrical features because
of their apathy for passion, feelings and emotions. That is the reason; very
few lyrics were written in the age of Pope and Dryden. Look at the following
I am His
Highness’ dog at Kew;
Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?
(Engraved on the Collar of a Dog Which I
Gave to His Royal Highness by Alexander Pope)
Objectivity is another important characteristic
of neoclassicism. Because these writers were firmly against subjectivity they strived
to write objectively by dweling upon the miseries, hardships and problems of
the people around them.
Poetic diction of neoclassical writings is
restrained, concrete and rigid. They were of the view that decorum, specific
style and mannerism are the vital elements of poetry. Alexander Pope was very
conscious about the language of his poetry. He says in Essay on
the dress of thought, and still
Appears more decent as more suitable.
A vile Conceit in pompous words express’d
Is like a clown in regal purple dress’d
For diff’rent styles with diff’rent subjects sort,
As sev’ral garbs with country, town, and court.
(Essay on Criticism by Alexander
Characteristics of Classicism