What is Neoclassical Poetry?

Neoclassicism as a label is applied to a period of English literature lasting from 1660, the Restoration of Charles II, till about 1800. This period is also designated as the ages of Dryden, Pope and Dr. Johnson.

The literature of the neoclassical period marked the breaking of ties with the Elizabethan literature. By the year 1660 Elizabethan romanticism had all but spent itself. The spirit of the neoclassical literature was very much different from the spirit of the Elizabethan literature. In the Age of Renaissance even intellectual inquiry was started by the rapture of sense and feeling. In other words, it represented a rich flowering or romantic inspiration. The bounds of human thought, as well those of human activity, seemed infinitely remote; the imagination, dealing with power, as in Marlowe or with knowledge as in Bacon, took wings to self and flew. But from 1660 there is a gradual change in the tone of literature as well as in the temperament of writers. With the Restoration we enter upon a period in which literature is more intellectual rather than imaginative or emotional.

Neoclassical poets used social events and controversies of the day in their poetry, as in Dryden’s two famous satires- Absalom and Achitophel and Mac Flecknoe. Pope’s Rape of the Lock is based on an actual incident of London society. These poets wrote about kings and princes, lords and ladies, current fashions, fads, fetishes and controversies of the day.

The neoclassical poets were shy of all extravagance and expression of emotion and passion. Most of the Elizabethan literature was characterized by romantic inspiration, keen imagination, passion, emotion and sensibility. The neoclassical school breaks away from the Elizabethan romanticism. Instead of making an appeal to the heart they addressed to the intellect and restrained the exhibition of emotion. They laid emphasis on form rather than on the spirit. They were proud of their ‘wit’ and a capacity for creating memorable phrases. In brief, their literature is characterized by lucidity, correctness, wit and elegant finish.

The neoclassical age heroic couplet became the dominant measure and was used for drama, satire, descriptive and narrative verse. Dryden used the heroic couplet in his verse. He gave it an additional vigor, a sinewy elegance and a noble rhythm and beauty.

Satire was the prominent form of literature of the neoclassical age. Dryden used this powerful weapon in his famous poems like Absalom and Achitophel, Mac Flacknoe and The Medal. Pope has a particular liking for satire which we find in his poems like The Rape of the Lock and The Dunciad.

In conclusion the neoclassical poets of the eighteenth century made poetry more social than personal, more intellectual than emotional and imaginative, more rule-based than spontaneous, more formal than familiar, elegant but not simple and frank, generalized but not personalized. Then in their poetry, they described only the superficial things of life and didn't touch its deeper issues. Poetry was used as a vehicle for instruction rather than for pleasure.

Published on 22 Sep. 2014 by Kedar Nath Sharma

Related Topics

John Dryden: Biography

Alexander Pope: Biography

Samuel Johnson: Biography