Neoclassicism began in Rome but spread throughout Europe as students of the arts were influenced by Greco-Roman artistic principles. It occurred around the same time as the Age of Enlightenment, an intellectual movement that dominated thinking in Europe in the 18th century. It lasted into the 19th century and for a time, competing with Romanticism. It’s possible to see the effects and influence of neoclassicism on architecture to this day. The literary period ended when William Wordsworth published Lyrical Ballads in 1798.
Definition and Explanation of Neoclassicism
Literary neoclassicism is noted for attempts to imitate the style of the Romans and Greeks. Writing from this period is noted for its accuracy and order, as well as its direct and clear structure. Writers sought to portray their characters as flawed, and very human, something that’s today seen in stark contrast to previous Renaissance attitudes in which humankind was depicted in God’s image– as perfect. The writers and artists of the period emphasized control and restraint, something that spilled over into politics at the time. By using restraint, the poets, novelists, and playwrights believed that they could imitate the structures of Greco-Roman literary works. The writers of the period most commonly engaged with satire, essays, fables, rhyming poems with couplets, parodies, and more.
Characteristics of Neoclassicism
- Valued common sense and clarity.
- Structures are well ordered.
- Content is accurate and believable.
- Characters are portrayed realistically.
- Showed humankind to be flawed.
- Characters are conservative and controlled.
- Influenced by Greco-Roman writing and philosophy.
Periods of Neoclassicism
Neoclassicism in literature lasted from 1660 to 1798 and can be divided into three parts:
- Restoration period: the period after King Charles I was beheaded and the monarchy was restored to order. The style of the period was concise and made use of short sentences. John Milton, John Bunyan, and John Dryden were the primary influences.
- Augustan Period: writers of this period believed in imitating the forms of Greco-Roman writers and adopting similar genres, such as epic or pastoral. The writings of Alexander Pope fall into this period. His long poem, ‘An Essay on Criticism,’ published in 1711 is a great example.
- Age of Johnson: also known as the “age of transition.” 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 Neoclassical 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 are a few lines from the first stanza in the first canto:
What dire offence from am’rous causes springs,
What mighty contests rise from trivial things,
I sing—This verse to Caryl, Muse! is due:
This, ev’n Belinda may vouchsafe to view:
Read more of Alexander Pope’s poetry.
Paradise Lost by John Milton
Milton’s best-known work, ‘Paradise Lost’ is a long epic poem that details humanity’s fall from the Garden of Eden and Satan’s rebellion against God. It is written in blank verse and when it was first published consisted of ten books with more than ten thousand lines of poetry. The characters in the poem include God, Satan, Adam, Eve, Raphael, the Son of God, Michael, and more. This epic solidified Milton’s reputation as one of the most important English-language poets. Here are a few lines from the poem:
Me miserable! Which way shall I fly
Infinite wrath and infinite despair?
Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell;
And in the lowest deep a lower deep,
Still threat’ning to devour me, opens wide,
To which the hell I suffer seems a heaven.
Read more poems by John Milton.
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 famous quote from the book:
This made me reflect, how vain an attempt it is for a man to endeavor to do himself honor among those who are out of all degree of equality or comparison with him
Read the poetry of Jonathon Swift.
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe was published in April of 1719 and is presented as an autobiography of a castaway who spent 28 years on a desert island. It’s part confessional and part epistolary. Defoe uses a simple narrative style but the novel has endured as one of the most important in the English language. It is one of the most widely published books in history. Here is a well-known quote from the novel:
Those people cannot enjoy comfortably what God has given them because they see and covet what He has not given them. All of our discontents for what we want appear to me to spring from want of thankfulness for what we have.
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.
- Listen: Neoclassicism Overview
- Listen: Art History–Neoclassicism and Rococo
- Watch: History of Ideas–Romanticism