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Classicism is a term used to describe literature that reflected the thoughts and ideas from Ancient Greece and Rome. 

The term is either used to describe the work of Ancient Greece and Rome or the work that was inspired by it, sometimes also called Neoclassicism. (Neoclassicism was a movement that began only in the 18th century and lasted till the end of the 19th century, while Classicism covers a broader period.) 

The genre came to prominence during the 1600s and 1700s, when Europe was entering the period of the Enlightenment. Some early authors, like John Dryden and John Locke, are great examples of writers who exemplified the characteristics of Classicism. Later writers like Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift in the 1700s continued what their predecessors began. 

The Golden Age of Classicism was during the mid-to-late 1700s. This period is also known as the “Age of Johnson.” It was defined by Samuel Johnson’s literary impact, especially his satirical works that focused on the British government. 

In America, authors like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine were influenced by Classicism. Works like Common Sense are good American examples. 

Classicism definition, characteristics, and examples in literature

Classicism Definition

Classicism was a period of literature from the late 1600s to the mid-1800s.

It was a period during which authors sought to write poetry and drama that exemplified their interest in the work of Ancient Greek and Roman authors. Characteristics of this period of literature can be explored below: 

Characteristics of Classicism 

Some of the characteristics of Classicism include: 

  • Appreciation of the ideals of antiquity. 
  • Single plot lines in literary works. 
  • Compressed time span.
  • New interest in writing epics. 
  • Focus on poetry and prose over the novel
  • Use of literary theory in Aristotle’s Poetics. 
  • Logic and symmetry as attributes. 
  • Valued common sense and clarity. 
  • Structures are well ordered. 
  • Content is accurate and believable.

Important Ancient Greek and Roman Literary Works 

Below are a few of the most important works of the classical period of literature. It’s to these works that the authors of the Classicism and Neoclassicism movement looked for inspiration. 

  • Iliad and Odyssey by Homer 
  • Medea by Euripides 
  • Antigone by Sophocles
  • The Satyricon by Petronius
  • Metamorphoses by Ovid
  • Poetics by Aristotle

Periods of Classicism

Below, readers can explore the periods of Classicism, ending with the Age of Johnson, which also was the period during which Neoclassicism was prominent. 

  • Restoration: the period after King Charles I was beheaded and the monarchy was restored to order. Authors like John Dryden and John Milton were writing. 
  • Augustan Period: writers were imitating the works of Greco-Roman authors and adopting similar genres. Alexander Pope was writing during this time. 
  • Age of Johnson: also known as the “age of transition” was the period during which classicism was dominate. The period also known as Neoclassicism. It was dominated by Samuel Johnson and is named for his influence. He died in 1784, only a few years before the publication of Lyrical Ballads and the end of neoclassicism in literature.

Examples of Classicism in Literature 

The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope

‘The Rape of the Lock’ was first published anonymously in May of 1712. It is a mock-heroic that satirizes a meaningless event and elevates it by comparing it to the world of the gods. He uses the traditional structure of classical epics throughout the poem in order to emphasize how trivial the incident truly was. Here is a quote: 

Yet graceful ease, and sweetness void of pride,

Might hide her faults, if belles had faults to hide:

If to her share some female errors fall,

Look on her face, and you’ll forget ’em all.

Read more of Alexander Pope’s poetry.

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathon Swift

Gulliver’s Travels, or Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships is a 1726 prose satire work written by Jonathon Swift. It satirizes human nature and travelers’ tales. Today, it’s considered to be an important work of English literature and a great representative of the neoclassical period. It was quite successful and is included on many lists of the best novels ever written. Here is a quote from the book: 

And he gave it for his opinion, “that whoever could make two ears of corn, or two blades of grass, to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together.

Read the poetry of Jonathon Swift.


What does Classicism mean in history?

Classicism can refer to the period of classical antiquity in Greek and Roman or to a period of revival from the late 1600s to the late 1800s in Europe. 

What was the aim of Classicism?

The aim of the movement was to construct an ideal version of literature and of the man experience that inspires and instructs readers. These authors prided themselves on their rationality and symmetry.

Why is Classicism better than Romanticism?

Some people believe that Classicism is better than Romanticism. This is due to the greater restraints on Classicism and rules the authors must follow, while fewer rules define Romanticism.

How did Classicism influence the Renaissance?

Renaissance authors and artists turned to the classical authors and artists of Greek and Rome for inspiration. They were inspired by the authors’ styles and intents, as well as their integrity and the structures they used. 

Related Literary Terms 

  • Georgian Poetry: a poetic movement in England that lasted from 1910 to 1936 during the reign of George V.
  • Realism: a literary movement that portrays everyday life exactly how it is.
  • Romanticism: a movement that originated in Europe at the end of the 18th century and emphasized aesthetic experience and imagination.
  • Characterization: a literary device that is used to detail and explains the aspects of a specifically crafted character in a novel, play, or poem.
  • Neoclassicism: a movement interested in reviving Greco-Roman literature, art, architecture, philosophy, and theatre in the 18th century.

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