Neoclassical Period in English Literature: Characteristics & Themes


Neoclassical literature has been written in a period where social order was undergoing a tremendous change. In the so-called Enlightenment Period, people believed that natural passions aren’t necessarily good; natural passions must be subordinated to social needs and be strictly controlled.

Authors believed that reason was the primary basis of authority. They believed that social needs are more important than individual needs. It is quite on contrary to its preceding age, in which emphasis was laid on individualism rather than the socialism.


Influence of Materialism

When Pope declares the limits of man, he also sets, by implications, the limits for the artist:

“Know then thyself, presume not God to scan
The proper study of mankind is man!”

But Pope echoes only dominant philosophical thoughts here. After the Renaissance, Platonism and Christian Humanism, we find in the Neoclassical age, the dominance of Materialism and Empirical Science.

The ruling thought of the age is shaped by philosophers like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Joseph Butler. The philosophical empiricism of the age propagated through the writings of Bacon, Hobbes and Locke were supported and strengthened by the advancement of empirical science.

Under the influence of empirical philosophy and experimental science, writers of the age narrowed both their vision of man and view of life. The affairs of men, their politics, their morals, and manners became the chief concern.

Although the concern with politics was present in the time of Shakespeare also, his and his contemporaries’ treatment was ideal and utopian. But the treatment of Neoclassical writers was practical rather than utopian.

Imitation of Classics

One of the most important features of the Neoclassical literature is the imitation of the classics of ancient Greek and Roman literature.

Although the Renaissance writers had imitated the classics, whereas Renaissance writers mere derived inspirations from the classics rather than copying the models of the past, the Neoclassical writers strictly adhered to the authority of their models. Thus Neoclassical literature can be called as ‘Traditional’.

The Neoclassical writers like Dryden, Pope, Swift, and Johnson were convinced that excellence and perfection in the literary art have been attained by the Roman writers of antiquity, thus they can only copy the models of perfection and excellence.

Concept of Nature

The concept of nature was also an important characteristic of the Neoclassical age. By nature, they never meant the forest nature, but for them, nature meant the general human nature.

The general human nature was not what the ordinary men and women felt and thought, but the standard view of human nature as held by Homer and Horace.

Like their static view of the world, the Neoclassical writers thought of human nature also was something static and standard, which is the same in all men and remains the same at all times. Thus their view of nature as well as of man, world, and genre was static and standard.

Concept of Man

The Neoclassical literature considers man as a limited being, having limited power. A large number of satires and works of the period attack the man for his pride and advise him to remain content with his limited power of knowledge. Thus man in Neoclassical literature remains a being of limited means and power.

Literary Forms

Among the Neoclassical forms of literature, the most famous were the essay, both in verse and prose. While drama declined and almost disappeared during the later part of the period, Novel made its beginnings. The literature of the age was mostly comic and satiric. An important failure of the age was to produce tragedy.

Neoclassical Drama

Neoclassical drama falls into two phases-

In the Restoration Age, drama rose in the form of Comedy of Manners. But in the second phase, it declined as the Elizabethan dramas like those of Shakespeare were reproduced and age itself did not produce drama. Thus the decline of drama happened.

The New Restraint

Writers started inventing new words and regularising vocabulary and grammar. Complex bodily metaphysical language such as Shakespeare used in his major tragedies was clarified and simplified.

Moreover, the plays of Neoclassical age compared to those of Shakespeare plays are of single plot-line and are strictly limited in time and place.

Age of Reason

Neoclassical Period is often called the Age of Reason. Thinkers of this age considered reason to be the highest mental faculty and sufficient guide in all areas. Both religious beliefs and morality were grounded on reason. In literature also, the reason is predominant in the Neoclassical age. Emotions and imaginations are also present but in a controlled way.


The Neoclassical Period in literature brought a sense of decorum and stability to writers. There were rules to be carefully followed. It was a time of careful moral appearance, though appearances were more valued than honesty. However, some of England’s most brilliant literature can be credited to this era.