The Characteristics Of Neo-Classicism | Neoclassicism

Criticism Between Ben Jonson and Dryden:

After Ben Jonson, literary activity in England suffered a serious setback. Between Jonson and Dryden there is hardly any critic worth the name. The energy of the people was spent up in the religious and political controversies of the day, controversies which culminated in the civil war and the beheading of the English king. Literary analysis and literary criticism are peaceful pursuits, and art and culture are adversely affected by tension and violence. Charles II’s accession to the throne in 1660 brought about a return to peace and a favorable environment for economic growth in the nation. The Renaissance impulse, which had resulted in such a rich flowering of literature in the Elizabethan era, had already exhausted itself out. Now the sensuous and romantic Italian influence was replaced by the French influence. Thus began the era of Neo-classicism which was to reign supreme in England for the next over hundred years.

Neo-classical Criticism:

Its Two Phases: At the beginning of this era stands John Dryden and at the end of it there is Dr. Samuel Johnson. In its first phase, i.e. during the Restoration age (1660&1700) which is presided over by John Dryden, Neo-classicism is liberal and moderate; in its second phase, i.e., during first six or seven decades of the 18th century it becomes more and more narrow, slavish, and stringent. Pope, Addison and then Dr. Johnson are the leading critics of this second phase.


Nature and Definition: This school of criticism is called variously as New-classical, Pseudo-classical, Augustan, or loosely, even the classical school of criticism. It is called “Augustan because the writers of this time considered that their age was a brilliant and glorious in literature as the Age of King Augustus Caesar of Rome, an age which produced such brilliant figures, as Horace, Virgil, Longinus and Quintilian. George Sherburne in his Literary History of England defines Neo-classicism as, “a veneration for the Roman classics, thought. and way of life”, and Atkins defines it as the classic system of France evolved during the reign of Louis XIV, an adaptation, rather than an exact copy of original Greek classics. In other words, Neo-classicism implies a respect for the rules and principles of Aristotle and other Greek and Roman critics as interpreted and modified first by the Italian critics, and then by the French critics of the reign of Louis XIV. It is also known as Pseudo- classicism for Aristotle was often misinterpreted and much that he had never said was grafted upon him. Thus the unities of time and place which he had hardly mentioned were derived from him and made into essential ‘rules’ for dramatic writing. There were also significant departures from him as, for example, when the Neo-classics preferred epic to tragedy. Sir Philip Sidney also had great respect for Aristotle and other French critics, but he never practiced what he preached. Ben Jonson both preached and practiced classicism but he too did not follow the rules slavishly. He believed in using his own eyes and ears. Truth lies open all around and one needs only eyes to see it. Both of them adm red Greek literature but that was all. It was only during the late 17th and early 18th centuries that Neo classicism came to have a complete hold over the English mind and spirit.

Its Rise Causes:

There are various reasons for the rise of Neo- classicism in the second half of the 17th century. The excesses of the Metaphysical the followers of Donne naturally led to a revolt in favour of order, balance and sanity in literature. Their extravagant hyperboles. far-fetched and violent similes and metaphors, and ‘conceits’ elaborated to a fantastic extent, prepared the ground for neo-classicism with its emphasis on correctness’ and ‘decorum’. Then there was the predominance of French influence, the most potent factor in the rise of neo-classicism. Charles II and his courtiers returned from France imbued with French culture and the French respect for rules and the French theory and practice of literature. Say Wimsatt and Brooks. “In the Frenchified courtly literary circles of Restoration England, the most effective outside influence was contemporary French classicism one difference between the French classicism and the earlier Italian classicism was that the best creative works associated with the earlier movement were those written without concern for the code, or at least in expansion of it, whereas the best French classicism seemed actually the product of the code or at least a conscientious attempt to demonstrate it.” In France, rigid rules and regulations had already been framed by the French Academy and they were now imported into England. French critics like La Bossu and Boillieau now reigned supreme. French dramatists and poets like Corneille and Racine venerated, and Shakespeare, Chaucer and Spenser were thrown over-board. As R.A. Scott-James points out, “The invention, passion, curiosity, adventurousness, and experimental effort in which the released forces of the Middle Ages had broken out with explosive violence, were now looked askance at they appeared as the wildness of a disordered mind-Nature without Method-the inferior, brutish thing. which it was the business of criticism, built up on the good manners of the classics, to expose and suppress.” The rise of the scientific spirit and the new philosophy with their emphasis on rationalism, reason, clarity and simplicity in thought and expression, and the avoidance of all that was extravagant, also favoured the rise of Neo-classicism. Philosophers, like Hobbes, taught that ‘fancy’ should be guided and controlled by judgement. The Royal Society for Science had already been founded, and the scientists threw all their prestige and weight in favour of rationalism. moderation and self-control. In the beginning, as in Dryden, this neo- classicism was liberal, but with the passing of time it became more and more rigid. Instead of the rules being followed in spirit, there was a slavish adherence to the letter, often at the cost of the spirit.

Also Read : 


Its Chief Features:

The chief features of the Neo-classic creed may be summarised as follows:

(1) The precept “follow nature is the very centre of the Neo-classic creed. ‘Nature’ is however used in a number of senses.

(a) It means “external reality’ which the poet must imitate and hence “follow nature’ becomes ‘realism’ or verisimilitude.

(b) Nature also means ‘general human nature’, i.e., qualities which are common to all men in all ages and countries. Thus the poet must deal with the ‘universals’ and not with the particular. the ‘individual’, or ‘the singular’.

(c) It also meant the typical qualities, qualities of a particular age or sex or profession. Thus the poet must be true to type.

(d) ‘Nature’ also meant the Principal or the Power that governs the universe. Order, regularity, harmony were supposed to be the qualities of this power, and so literature must also have them.

(e) “To follow Nature” also meant to follow the rules of the ancient masters, for they were based upon Nature:

The rules of old discovered, not devised

Are Nature still, though Nature methodised

And so to follow those rules was to follow Nature herself. Therefore, the ancients must be our, ‘study and delight’. The ancients simply, ‘methodised nature’, and so they must be followed in every particular. Hence it was that certain general rules were framed for poetry, and certain other rules for its particular kinds, and artists were expected to write according to those rules. It was supposed that great literature was not possible without adherence to these rules. Hence it is that respect for rules emerges as one of the cardinal features of Neo-classicism Critics judged works of literature on the basis of these rules, and writers created on that basis, Much was made of the three unities, and they were considered, a must for all dramatic writing. Similarly, tragi-comedy was condemned as a mongrel breed on the ground that Aristotle had prescribed that there should be no mingling of the tragic and the comic.

(2) Emphasis was laid on, ‘correctness, reason ‘and ‘good sense. The artist must follow the rules correctly, and any exuberance of “fancy” or ’emotion’ must be controlled by reason or sense. A balance must be maintained between Fancy and Judgement. The head must predominate over the heart. The need of inspiration’, or ‘furore poeticus’ was recognised but it was to be held in check by reason and good sense. Moderation was the golden rule in life and in literature. Pope’s advice. closely echoing Boileug is;

Avoid extremes, and shun the faults of such Who still are pleased too little or too much.

(3) The poets must deal with universal truths and general ideas. As universal truths, in their very nature, were limited, originality and excellence in respect of content was not always possible. Hence writers must say what they had to say in the best possible manner:

True wit is nature to advantage dressed What oft was said, but never so well expressed

The emphasis thus was on formal finish and perfection rather than on content.

(4) The function of poetry was to instruct and delight. The didactic function was considered more important than the aesthetic one. It was with this end in view that poetic justice was considered necessary; the poet must suitably reward virtue and punish vice. However, it was also recognised by Dryden and others that the function of poetry is also to move the heart. Thus tragedy must purge the soul of pride and hardness of heart. “Commiseration and admiration” were now considered functions proper to tragedy.

(5) Much thought was given to the style and diction of poetry. It was supposed that there is a difference between the language of prose and the language of poetry which should be noble and elevated. Virgil was held out as the ideal and personification and circumlocution were resorted to, to impart dignity and elevation to the diction. Common words were avoided, and dieties of classical mythology were also used with this end in view. The use of compound words and epithets was also frequent for this very reason. In this way, arose the artificial poetic diction which Wordsworth condemns at such lengths in his ‘Preface’.

Besides dignity, they also aimed at clarity, and with this end in view avoided Gothic words (archaic or obsolete words) and other Gothic absurdities. The avoidance of the technical words of the arts and the sciences, attention to minute details, and the use of far-fetched imagery: and conceits were other features of 18th century poetic diction.

(6) The need of decorum was also emphasised. It was recognised. that different kinds of poetry have different styles proper to them. For example, the diction proper to satiric poetry would be improper for the epic, and a poet must use the style proper to the genre, in which he was writing. Not only was there a difference between the diction of prose and poetry, there was also a difference between the diction of different kinds of poetry. Wordsworth reacted strongly against this artificial divison, and went to the extreme of saying that there is no essential difference between the language of prose and poetry. All men including the poet speak the same language, and if at all there is a difference it depends on the pitch and intensity of emotion.

(7) Much thought was also given to the comparative superiority of rhyme and blank verse. Finally, it was concluded that rhyme is superior to blank verse. The heroic measure was the right measure for poetry. for it was the measure which was supported by the authority of the Ancients, and by the practice of the French.

Its Value and Contribution:

The rigid neo- classical adherence to ‘rules’ and authority has a tendency to suppress genius, and so neo-classicism has been much frowned upon since the rise of romanticism in the last decades of the 18th century. However, Neo-classicism has its own merits and Mathew Arnold was right in calling it an “admirable and indispensable” age. Neo-classicism discourages erratic genius and as R.A. Scott-James points out. “The neo-classical critics added much that is essential to ‘culture’, and fixed all the important truisms without which we can hardly begin today to discuss the art of literature. “Emphasizing the value of this school of criticism Atkins writes, “In the long development of literary criticism in England the period covered by the second half of the 17th century and the century that followed is one of the first importance. It is a phase that represents on integral and indispensable chapter in English critical history, an advance on the performance of the Renaissance period, and a preparation leading up to the achievements of the 19th Century, and in it a host of fresh influences were brought to bear from various quarters, making the story one of many complications that calls for detailed and careful inquiry.”



Leave a Comment