The Classical School of Poetry | Neo Classicism

The Age of Pope (broadly speaking the period from 1702 to 1740) is called the classical or neo-classical or pseudo-classical or falsely classical age. It is also known as the Augustan Age in English literature. The writers of this period in England tried to imitate the characteristics of Virgil, Horace, Cicero and other writers of the age of Augustus Caesar in Rome, who had themselves imitated the classical Greek writers of a few centuries earlier. English writers of this age thought that they had achieved perfection in literature and social manners. For almost a century reason and critical habit crushed emotion and creative spirit. The age has truly been called Pseudo-Classical or Falsely Classical Age, because it was essentially a second hand Augustinism and a third hand classicism. Furthermore, it is called ‘classical’ as opposed to Elizabethan romanticism because it reacts against the Elizabethans in its imitation of the ancients through Greece, Rome and France. Classicism was thus both a ‘revolt’ and a ‘revival’. It was a revolt against Elizabethan romanticism; it was a revival of the ancient classical spirit of Greece and Rome.

In its popular literary connotation, the term ‘classicism’ stands for qualities such as restraint, simplicity, dignity, serenity, repose and reason. The Age of Pericles, the Age of August, the Age of Louis XIV are the famous classical ages besides the Age of Queen Anne in England. Classicism, indeed, is characterized by perfection of form, based upon a unity in which the detail is subordinated to the whole, and a clarity of conception which springs from an imaginative rationality. Classicism in art seeks to invest the universal with the beautiful. It maintains a balance of matter and form. The classical artist delights in “what was of thought but ne’er so well expressed”. Neo- classical poetry of England of the age of Queen Anne and of George I has all these qualities. It is didactic and moral. It is mainly rational and intellectual. It deals exclusively with the artificial life of the upper classes of the city of London, and its form and diction is as artificial as its theme. It is far removed from Nature. It confines itself only to the heroic couplet and disregards the music and melody of a host of ancient English metres. It closely imitates the ancient classical writers:

Immortal heirs of universal praise;

Whose honours with increase of ages grow.

Major Writers: The major prose-writers of the age are Defoe, Addison, Steele and Swift. It is primarily an age of prose. In the field of fiction the age is rich and has great four wheels of fiction in Richardson, Fielding, Smollett and Sterne. Drama is developed by Addison, Steele, Fielding, Nicholas Rowe and others. But it is not a brilliant period in English drama. It is in prose that it attains its highest glories. Defoe is a voluminous writer who wrote over two hundred books and pamphlets. Addison wrote a number of essays, poems and plays. He did three things for English literature:

  • He overcame the corrupt tendency bequeathed by the Restoration literature.
  • With the help of Steele, Addison took up the new social life of the clubs and made it the subject of endless pleasant essays upon types of men and manners.
  • He shaped a clear and graceful style of English prose. He revealed the simplicity, straightforwardness and perfection of the English language in his essays. He also wrote poems. Steele shines as a co-author of Addison. Steele made the first sketch of Sir Roger de Coverley, which was developed so beautifully by Addison. Swift is the greatest English prose satirist. His chief works are The Battle of the Books and Gulliver’s Travels.

The Classical School of Poetry: Pope is the centre of the ‘classical’ generation. He is the beginning and end of classical poetry in English. With Pope one must also link up the contemporary poets, the school over which he presides: Mathew Prior and John Gay.

  1. Matthew Prior (1685-1732): He wrote verses from boyhood. Many of his poems are autobiographical. His “Poems on Several Occasions” contains some of his best pieces.
  2. John Gay (1685-1732): He reveals his jovial temper by his couplet which is inscribed on his tomb :

Life is a jest, and all things show it

I thought so once, and now I know it.

His Beggar’s Opera (1728) was very successful. He wrote pleasant ballads like Sweet William’s Farewell to Black Eyed Susan’, and ‘twas when the Seas were roaring’.

  1. Alexander Pope (1688-1741): Pope is in many ways a remarkable figure: (a) He was for a generation the poet of a great nation. It is true that in the early eighteenth century there were no lyrics, no love poetry, no epics, no dramas, no songs of Nature. There was only the narrow field of satire and didactic verse: and Pope was the undisputed master in the field. (b) His poetry reflects powerfully the spirit of the age in which he lived. There is hardly an ideal, a belief, a doubt, a whim of the age of Queen Anne that is not reflected in his poetry. (c) “Pope was the chief founder of an artificial poetry which in his hands was living and powerful, because he used it to express artificial modes of thinking and an artificial state of Society. Measured by any high standard of imagination, he will be found wanting; tried by any test of wit, he is unrivalled”. (J. R. Lowell).

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Pope’s famous poems are: Essay on Criticism, Eloise to Abelard, Essay on Man, The Rape of the Lock, Dunciad, Epistles and his translation of Homer. In is Essay on Man he writes:

Hope springs eternal in the human breast:

Man never is, but always to be blest.

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;

The proper study of mankind is man.

In The Rape of the Lock (1717), Pope attains the highest goals of classical poetry. He takes up the rape of a lock of Miss Arabella Fermor’s hair by Lord Peter. The incident gave rise to a quarrel between the two families. With the idea of pacifying this, Pope treated the subject in a mock-heroic form. The poem describes the frivolities of London Court life-the cards, parties, toilettes, lapdogs, tea-drinking, snuff-taking, etc. The poem is a mirror to contemporary society.

In his Essay on Criticism, Pope advocates that all sound judgement and true wit is founded on the observation of Nature; that false wit arises from a disregard of Nature and an excessive affection for the connections of the mind; and that the true standard for determining what is ‘natural’ in poetry is to be found in the best works of the ancients. In his poems he very craftily qualifies his subservience to the ancients:

Some beauties yet no precepts can declare,

For there’s a happiness as well as care,

Music resembles poetry, in each

Are nameless graces which no methods teach,

And which a master-hand alone can reach.

Pope is one of the most ‘correct’ of English poets. He is a consummate artist who polishes, chisels and refines his expression with care, accuracy and labour. “He has said in the best words what we all know and feel but cannot express and has made that classical, which in weaker hands would be common place”. His imagination does not over-step reason; his logic does not impend the flight of imagination; his sentiment does not encroach on the right of good sense, and his good sense never kills the warmth of sentiment.



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