neoclassicism

Theneoclassical 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). Apartfrom 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 andpractice most writers of this period were traditionalist, and they had a greatrespect for the Classical authors, and especially the Romans, who, theybelieved, had established and perfected the principal literary genres for alltime.

Literature was regarded as an art, in which excellence could be attainedonly by prolonged study. Thus the writers of the period were painstakingcraftsmen who had a deep respect for the rules of their art. These rules couldbest be learnt from close study of the Classical authors (Horace was afavorite) and by careful (if not sedulous) imitation of their works. Theirapproach was thoroughly professional. They thought that reason and judgmentwere the most admirable faculties (the 18th c. was, after all, the Age ofReason), and that decorum (q.v.) was essential.

In prose, as in verse, the mostdesirable qualities were harmony, proportion, balance and restraint. Itfollows, therefore, that the neoclassical writers aimed at correctness. Thiswas nowhere more evident than in their use of the heroic couplet. Neoclassicalbeliefs and ideals generated a definite vision of man and mankind. Man and hisactivities were regarded as the main subjects of poetry. As Pope put it in AnEssay on Man:Know thenthyself, presume not God to scan, The properstudy of mankind is man.Man, man insociety, man in his social environment – these were to be the preoccupations ofthe poets.

The emphasis tended to be on what men possess in common; the generaland representative characteristics of mankind. Johnson summarized it all in TheVanity of Human Wishes:Let observationwith extensive view,Survey mankind,from China to Peru; Remark each anxious toil, each eager strife, And watch thebusy scenes of crowded life.There thus evolved a general view ofnature and mankind; a general vision of man’s position and function in theuniverse, his relationship to the natural order and his relationship with andto God – mid-way in the great chain of being (q.v.

).Despite all this the neoclassicistswere not conservative in any pejorative sense. Though they were inclined tosettle for the traditional and the typical, they were ready to accept the noveland the particular, and they were much concerned with the importance ofinvention, and fancy and imagination (qq.v.). Johnson often fulminated againstthe perils of the fanciful, of letting the imagination run away with one.

Solong as novelty and invention enhanced the subject, adorned the chosen form, itwas acceptable; it was, in a sense, ‘safe’.but no one could accuse Pope, Swiftor 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 ofsatire (q.v.) as a corrective. It was a means of controlling excess (which wasespecially repugnant to them), folly, stupidity and corruption; indeed, anyshortcoming in man and society which threatened to be contrary to themaintenance of good moral order and literary discipline. As Pope wrote, ‘Orderis Heav’n’s first law.’ Thus the writer was under some moral and aestheticobligation to instruct as well as to please.

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