Introduction to Neoclassical Literary Criticism 

We know that Renaissance insisted on going back to classics. In that way, neo-classicism can be seen as an extension of the Renaissance from the early seventeenth century to the mid-eighteenth century, but they discontinued the over ornamentalization and sophistication in language found in the Renaissance writers.

Unlike Milton and others, they did not believe in creating mythical figures. Sydney once had argued that to create the ideal world was the function of the poets—something that neo-classicists did not accept.

The major focus of neo-classicists was the recreation of the classic writers of Rome and Greece, but they were also not up to use classics the way Renaissance writers did and were against such kind of idealism.

Objectivity, rationality, impersonality, decorum, balance, harmony, etc. were the words they picked to work with from the classics in their own times. They were Aristotle of their time who were reacting to Plato’s idealism.

Hence, the word, neo, which literary translates to ‘revival’, in neo-classicism. Like most of the literary movements, this was also not limited to England but was present all over Europe.

In their approaches to art, while the Renaissance writers believed in creativity and invention, the neo-classicists focused on technique and worked by the rule book. When Renaissance writers were experimenting with the genres of art like mixing prose and poetry, the neo-classicists wanted to keep them separated and pure in their own form.

Alexandrine in France and a heroic couplet in England were the form of poetry that the neo-classicists majorly wrote in. While Renaissance writers pursued a world of infinite human possibility, the neo-classicists moved with the ambit of finitude.

Imitation and Nature were two major concepts through which the neo-classical writers approached the production of art. Imitation has its roots in Aristotle, meant to be suggesting that art, which would be imitative in nature, will be objective and impersonal.

The Renaissance subjectivity, where art was the product of imagination, not of objective technique, were reacted against. Nature is not understood in Romantics’ sense by them.

Nature here refers to the human nature and when neo-classical writers concern themselves with it, they wish to guide humans about what is permissible and not because, in their view, the human nature has already been understood by the great old bees like Homer and Virgil.

Therefore, just following the classics by imitating them would help modern writers to understand and best express the external world and human nature. However, they were not blind followers of the classics. All of them have different ways of approaching the classics. They were basically thinking around the concepts articulated by Aristotle.

The beginning of the eighteenth-century saw the emergence of debates between the moderns and ancients. Johnathan Swift perhaps would have the idea from such debates for his book The Battle of Books.