Definition and Characteristics of Neoclassical Poetry
Definition of Neoclassicism
First of all, it is mandatory to know about the etymology of the word Neoclassicism. The term Neoclassicism is a combination of two words: Neo and Classic. The word neo has been derived from a Greek word neos, which means young or new, while the word classic, according to the Webster Dictionary, refers to the style and works of the ancient authors of Greece and Rome. To combine these words, we get the meaning of Neoclassicism as the rebirth and restoration of Classicism. Hence, Neoclassicism is the movement in the history of English literature, which laid immense emphasis on revival of the classical spirit during the period between 1680 and 1750 in the age of Pope and Dryden. It is a prototype of Classicism. Writers of this period immensely endeavoured to follow the footpaths of the writers of the period of Augustus, emperor of Rome, which produced unparalleled writers as Horace, Virgil and Ovid. That is the reason; the age of Pope and Dryden is also called Augustan Age.
Neoclassical Poetry is a type of poetry, which follows the pattern of poetry authored by the poets of ancient time i.e., Greek and Rome. Pope and Dryden were the leading writers, who deviated from the traditional schools of poetry and sought guidance in the works of ancient Greek and Roman writers. They tried to follow the writers of the antiquity in letter and spirit in the Augustan Age.
According to Britannica Encyclopaedia:
"Classicism and Neoclassicism, in the arts, historical tradition or aesthetic attitudes based on the art of Greece and Rome in antiquity. In the context of the tradition, Classicism refers either to the art produced in antiquity or to later art inspired by that of antiquity; Neoclassicism always refers to the art produced later but inspired by antiquity. Thus the terms Classicism and Neoclassicism are often used interchangeably."
Stages of Neoclassicism
The Restoration Period:
It is called the Restoration Period, as King Charles was restored in this era. The Restoration Period lasted from 1660-1700. Writers of this age, Dryden and Milton, endeavoured to use sublime, grand and impressive style, scholarly allusions, and mythology and curb the intense use of imagination.
The Augustan Age:
The Augustan Age is also called the Age of Pope. Pope was the leading poet in this age. The Augustan Age lasted from 1700 to 1750.
The Age of Johnson:
The Age of Johnson lasted up to 1798, when the Romantic Movement was underway with the publication of Lyrical Ballads by Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge.
Characteristics of Neoclassical Poetry
Rationalism is the most essential feature of neoclassical poetry. Neoclassical poets viewed reason as the mainspring of learning, knowledge and inspiration for their poetry. Neoclassical poetry is a reaction against the renaissance style of poetry. It is a unique outcome of intellect, not fancy and imagination. Unlike romantic poetry, which is entirely the result of sentiments of the poet, neoclassical poetry is a simulated, fabricated and stereotypical type of poetry. In romantic poetry, sentiments play a vital role in writing of poetry, while in neoclassical poetry; reason and intellect are dominant elements. You might have heard about Coleridge and Wordsworth, who wrote poetry thoroughly at the impulse of their imagination. They didn’t lay emphasis on reason to compose poetry. The neoclassical poets made an effort to disregard imagination, emotion and feelings, while composing their poetry. That is the reason; their poetry may be branded as artificial and synthetic.
The neoclassical poets always loved to make use of scholarly allusions in their poetry. As they were all highly educated and well-versed in various fields of studies, they knew a lot about religious, biblical and classical literature. Allusions helped them to convey their message to their readers effectively and easily. That is why; their poetry is brimming with plentiful allusions to classical writers i.e., Virgil, Horace and Homer. They desired to write in the manner of their classical masters. Look at the following examples taken from Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope:
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.
The Goddess 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.
Neoclassical poets rebelled against the romantic nature of poetry of the Renaissance Period. Romantic poets loved to compose poetry just for the sake of poetry like John Keats. They tried hard to sidestep morality and didacticism in their poetry. Their foremost purpose was to give vent to their feelings. On the other hand, the neoclassical poets laid stress significantly on the didactic purpose of poetry. They endeavoured hard to fix the teething troubles of humanity through the magical power of poetry. The neoclassical poets were chiefly concerned with the didactic aspects of their poetry. That is the reason; most of the neoclassical poetry is replete with didacticism to a great deal. Consider the following lines taken from Alexander Pope’s poem An Essay on Man, which is absolutely an excellent example in this regard:
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 the hallmark of neoclassical poetry. The neoclassical poets, unlike romantic poets, were not living in their own world of imagination. 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 keen observers and dwelled upon what they experienced with their open eyes in their poetry. These poets were not escapists like romantic poets, who turned their back to the harsh realities of life and tried to escape from them with the help of plight of imagination. Neoclassical poets were men of action and practically lived in the midst of people. That is why; they had a very keen observation of their society. They avoided abstract ideas, imaginative thoughts and idealism in their poetry. 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 neoclassical poets were undoubtedly great adherents of classical rules. They went all-out to revive the Classicism in their poetry by following each and every rule of Classicism. Their highest concern was to adhere to the classical rules and employ them in their poetry as much as possible. That is the reason; neoclassical poetry is also labeled as Pseudo Classical Poetry. 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 Pope)
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Heroic couplet is another hallmark of neoclassical poetry. The neoclassical poets were primarily responsible for reputation of heroic couplets in the history of English literature. They were the champions of heroic couplet. No poet, in the history of English literature, can compete with the mastery of neoclassical poets in handling heroic couplet. They excelled each and every poet in this regard. Chaucer was the first poet, who employed heroic couplet in his poetry. Though many renowned poets of the world tried their hands on heroic couplet, yet Dryden and Pope are the only poets, who outdid everyone in this regard. They are considered as the real masters of heroic couplet. What is most important about these two poets is that they polished 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 Absalam and Achitopel, Mac Flecnoe and The Medal are all in heroic couplets. Look at the following examples:
Music resembles poetry: in each
Are nameless graces which no methods teach,
And which a master hand alone can reach.
(An Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope)
Good nature and good sense must ever join;
To err is human, to forgive, divine.
(An Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope)
No Passionate Lyricism
Romantic poetry is popular for its lyrical quality, while neoclassical poetry is lacking in lyrical features due to apathy of the neoclassical poets for passion, feelings and emotions. They looked at the passion with distrust and suspicion. That is the reason; very few lyrics were written in the age of Pope and Dryden. They didn’t give free play to their imagination; rather they dwelt upon the intellectual aspects of poetry. Look at the following example:
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 feature of neoclassical poetry. As these poets were completely against subjectivity in poetry, they endeavoured hard to write objective poetry. They avoided giving vent to their feelings; rather they dwelt upon the miseries, hardships and problems of the people around them. That is why; we find very little information about the lives of neoclassical poets in their poetry.
Poetic diction of neoclassical poetry is completely different from that of romantic poetry. In romantic poetry, the diction is flexible and easy to use, while in the neoclassical poetry, it is restrained, concrete and rigid. The neoclassical poets were fond of using a different language for poetry. They thought that there should be a dividing line between the language of prose and poetry. That is why; they laid emphasis on specific style for poetry. 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 Criticism:
Expression is 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 Pope)
© 2015 Muhammad Rafiq
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