Neoclassical Literature Definition Characteristics Movement

Neoclassical Literature Definition Characteristics Movement

Neoclassical Literature Definition Characteristics & Movement : Neoclassical literature sought to imitate the writers of antiquity and emphasized order, structure, and common sense. Learn the definition of Neoclassical literature and explore the Neoclassical movement, characteristics, and stages.

Neoclassical Literature Definition Characteristics & Movement


Neoclassical literature was written between 1660 and 1798. This time period is broken down into three parts: the Restoration period, the Augustan period, and the Age of Johnson.

Writers of the Neoclassical period tried to imitate the style of the Romans and Greeks. Thus the combination of the terms ‘neo,’ which means ‘new,’ and ‘classical,’ as in the day of the Roman and Greek classics. This was also the era of The Enlightenment, which emphasized logic and reason. It was preceded by The Renaissance and followed by the Romantic era. In fact, the Neoclassical period ended in 1798 when Wordsworth published the Romantic ‘Lyrical Ballads’.

Neoclassical Era

Understanding the Neoclassical era helps us better understand its literature. This was a time of comfortableness in England. People would meet at coffee houses to chat about politics, among other topics, and sometimes drink a new, warm beverage made of chocolate! It was also the beginning of the British tradition of drinking afternoon tea. And it was the starting point of the middle class, and because of that, more people were literate.

People were very interested in appearances, but not necessarily in being genuine. Men and women commonly wore wigs, and being clever and witty was in vogue. Having good manners and doing the right thing, particularly in public, was essential. It was a time, too, of British political upheaval as eight monarchs took the throne.

Characteristics of Neoclassical Literature

Neoclassical literature is characterized by order, accuracy, and structure. In direct opposition to Renaissance attitudes, where man was seen as basically good, the Neoclassical writers portrayed man as inherently flawed. They emphasized restraint, self-control, and common sense. This was a time when conservatism flourished in both politics and literature.

Some popular types of literature included:

  1. Parody
  2. Essays
  3. Satire
  4. Letters
  5. Fables
  6. Melodrama, and
  7. Rhyming with couplets

Three Stages

As I noted at the beginning, the Neoclassical period of literature can be divided into three distinct stages: the Restoration Period, the Augustan Period, and the Age of Johnson. We will take a look at some of the prominent writers in each of these stages.

Understanding Neoclassical Literature and Culture

This lesson introduced you to an important time in British literature and culture: the Neoclassical period. Now it’s time to take a closer look at Neoclassical literature and culture, and how both fit into a broader historical perspective.

Reading Neoclassical Literature

This lesson listed some of the most famous Neoclassical writers, who included John Dryden, Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, Daniel Defoe, and Samuel Johnson. Have you read any work by these writers? If not, now is your chance. Many of them wrote relatively short works like poems and essays. For instance, check out Swift’s A Modest Proposal, Pope’s “Ode on Solitude,” or Dryden’s Marriage a-la-mode. Now that you’ve read some famous works of Neoclassical literature, write a short essay explaining how these works connect to the cultural elements of Neoclassicism that you learned about in this lesson.

Neoclassicism and Colonialism

As this lesson explained, the Neoclassical era was comfortable for many people living in Britain. It was a less happy time for many people in other countries, as Britain was in the process of colonizing many parts of the world. Racist ideas abounded, the slave trade was in full swing, and much of Britain’s newfound wealth came from exploiting international resources. For example, writers like Daniel Defoe, particularly in his novel, Robinson Crusoe, embodied these racist and colonial ideas. How did colonialism contribute to Neoclassical literature and the conception of personhood in Britain? Explain your answer in an essay or paragraph.

17th Century World Literature

Britain was not the only nation with a thriving literary tradition in the 17th and 18th centuries. Research some other countries’ literary traditions at the time, and compare and contrast two or more countries’ literary works during the Neoclassical era in a paragraph or essay.

Examples: Qing Dynasty literature in China; Indian poets like Mah Laqa Bai; Icelandic sagas that were largely written down in the 1600s.

 Short Notes On “Neo-Classical Age”

In English literature the period from the later half of the 17th century to the end of the 18th century, is called the period of Neo-classicism. In Elizabethan age Sidney and Ben-Jonson were classicists. The general trend of that age was that of romantic excesses and extravagances. A natural relation against thus tendency is seen in the metaphysical poets. True the Elizabethan and the Metaphysical enormously helped towards the evolution of Neo-classicism in England.

Politically the most important factor responsible for this change was the influence of France or English manners of life. Boileau, Rapined and Bossu formulated their theory of poetry based on the authority of Aristotle. The most important thing which the Neo-classicists emphasized was the precept follow nature. In an Essay on criticism Pope says “First Follow Nature and Your Judgement Frame by her Just Standard, Which is Still the Same”.

The other characteristic feature of Neo-classicism are a thorough study of the ancient writers and rigid observance of the rules evolved by them. Correctness they meant, the technical perfection only after getting labour. It is their belief that true fluency ease in writing comes from art not from chance, as they move easiest who have learnt to dance. What is more in 18th century criticism, the critics were very careful in the choice of diction. They believed that the language of poetry should be elevated. This led to the formulation of poetic diction as distinct from the language of prose. The meaning of wit according to Pope is “True Wit in Nature Advantage Dressed, What apt was Thought But Never so Well Expressed”.

The Neo-classicists were not so slavish followers of the rules as in commonly believed. The traces of independent thinking are perceptible in their writings. The artists were advised to deal with universal truths and general ideas. There was practically no scope for the originality and novelty of thoughts. However, they manifested familiar truths and made them attractive turning out common ideas and places in a neat and pointed language. Further the other striking features of the Neo-classicists were that they were interested not in the display of their private feelings and idiosyncrasies but appealing to the judgement of their audience. The poet’s function was to teach and delight or to give wise instructions and to provide recreation. But their bedrock was clarity and chasteness of expression combined. With smoothness and elegance.

In the poetry of Dryden and Pope what strikes us most is its external character and its limited range of subjects. Literary criticism of this period seems like a well-bred elderly gentlemen but some what with chilling manners. In brief, it can be said without a shadow of doubt that the trends of 18th century criticism were remarkable for its dominance of reason and for its analytic qualities.

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