neoclassicism

The
neoclassical period is usually taken to be the hundred-odd years c. 1660–c.
1780; in other words, from Dryden’s maturity to Johnson’s death (1784). Apart
from the dramatists the main English authors in this period were: 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). In literary theory and
practice most writers of this period were traditionalist, and they had a great
respect for the Classical authors, and especially the Romans, who, they
believed, had established and perfected the principal literary genres for all
time. Literature was regarded as an art, in which excellence could be attained
only by prolonged study. Thus the writers of the period were painstaking
craftsmen who had a deep respect for the rules of their art. These rules could
best be learnt from close study of the Classical authors (Horace was a
favorite) and by careful (if not sedulous) imitation of their works. Their
approach was thoroughly professional. They thought that reason and judgment
were the most admirable faculties (the 18th c. was, after all, the Age of
Reason), and that decorum (q.v.) was essential. In prose, as in verse, the most
desirable qualities were harmony, proportion, balance and restraint. It
follows, therefore, that the neoclassical writers aimed at correctness. This
was nowhere more evident than in their use of the heroic couplet. Neoclassical
beliefs and ideals generated a definite vision of man and mankind. Man and his
activities were regarded as the main subjects of poetry. As Pope put it in An
Essay on Man:

Know then
thyself, presume not God to scan,

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The proper
study of mankind is man.

Man, man in
society, man in his social environment – these were to be the preoccupations of
the poets. The emphasis tended to be on what men possess in common; the general
and representative characteristics of mankind. Johnson summarized it all in The
Vanity of Human Wishes:

Let observation
with extensive view,

Survey mankind,
from China to Peru;

 Remark each anxious toil, each eager strife,

And watch the
busy scenes of crowded life.

There thus 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 – mid-way in the great chain of being (q.v.).

Despite all this the neoclassicists
were not conservative in any pejorative sense. Though they were inclined 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 (qq.v.). Johnson often fulminated against
the perils of the fanciful, of letting the imagination run away with one. So
long as novelty and invention enhanced the subject, adorned the chosen form, it
was acceptable; it was, in a sense, ‘safe’.

but no one could accuse Pope, Swift
or Johnson of lack of originality. The preservation (as well as the establishment)
of order, balance and correctness was dear to them; hence their frequent use of
satire (q.v.) as a corrective. It was a means of controlling excess (which was
especially repugnant to them), 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.

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