Neoclassical Prose in English Literature: Characteristics and the Writers


Mathew Arnold called the 18th century in English Literature as the “age of prose and reason, our excellent and indispensable 18th century”. Thus Neoclassical age is primarily the “age of prose and reason”.

As compared to poetry, the prose of the Neoclassical age developed more. The poetry of the period developed the qualities of prose such as clearness, lucidity, and beauty of expression.

Dryden was a poet and dramatist of repute, but he was also a great writer of prose. He was the first great modern prose writer and also the first great critic.

Similarly, the Pope was a poet, but we find in his poetry, characteristics of good prose-neatness, lucidity, uniformity, and balance. Mathew Arnold declared that Dryden and Pope were the classics of prose and not of poetry.


Pre-conditions of Literacy

Literacy rates in the early 18th century are difficult to estimate accurately. However, it appears that literacy was higher than the school enrolment would indicate and that literacy passed into the working class as well as the middle and upper classes.

The Churches emphasized the need for every Christian to read the Bible and instructions to landlords indicated that it was their duty to teach servants and workers, how to read and to have the Bible read aloud to them. Moreover, literacy was not confined to men. Females of the time were literate to the same extent.

Circulating Libraries

Circulating libraries in England began for those who were literate in the Augustan period. Libraries were open to all. Circulating libraries were a way for women, in particular, to satisfy their desire for books reading without facing the expense of purchase.

The Essay

Although, Francis Bacon was the first to have introduced an essay in English Literature during the Renaissance period, its development in England remained rather slow during the 17th century.

No doubt, prose made rapid progress during the time of Dryden, the essay remained where Bacon had left it until it was formally and forcefully launched by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele in the 18th century as Periodical Essay.

Periodical Essays

A periodical is a magazine, with a distinct literary flavour, published at regular intervals, weekly, monthly, quarterly etc.

The periodical essay was chiefly the invention of Steele when he started The Tatler (1709 A.D.) thrice a week, the chief aim of which was to expose the false arts of life and to recommend a general simplicity in our dress, our discourse, and our behaviour.

Later on, Steele and Addison joined hands and brought the publication of The Spectator. It was a daily paper.


At the beginning of this era, John Dryden was the major critic whereas at the end of it was Dr Samuel Johnson. Though we find criticism in all the major genres of literature like poetry, drama etc. but it mainly developed in prose of the age. All the important critics of the period including Dryden, Pope, Addison, Johnson etc were creative writers as well.

Criticism, like other forms of writing in the 18th century, became a professional activity but its major and influential supporters were the creative writers who showed critical interest in their essays, treatises etc. Addison and Steele’s The Spectator is a good periodical essay that criticised the prevailing vices.

Here is a detailed summarization of Neoclassical Criticism and important critics


the 18th century was a classical age, an age of prose and reason. The Elizabethan Age had been an age of romanticism, imagination etc. which lacked balance but the 18th century was marked by reason, good sense, wit and logicism with a fair amount of realism. This was basically the age of prose and reason.

Rise of Novel

Read about the Rise of English Novel in the 18th century

Major Writers

Jonathan Swift

He was a son of English parents. He was very wretched and unhappy at school. He might have become Bishop, but he attained mastery of English prose.

He became one of the greatest prose writers of the Neo-classical age. His important works are The Battle of Book, A Tale of Tub, The Whigs for the Tories, Gulliver’s Travel etc.

Joseph Addison

He was educated at the Charter House and later went to Oxford. He died at the age of 40. He wrote many political pamphlets but didn’t get fame as a pamphleteer. He became famous only through his essays. His important prose writings are The Tatler, the Spectator, The Guardian etc.

Richard Steele

He was an unfortunate person, due to his own disposition. He was educated at Charter House and then moved to Oxford without taking a degree. His important works are The Funeral (Drama), The Guardian, The Englishman, The Reader etc.

Daniel Defoe

He was born and died in London. He was one of the best prose writers of his time. His important works are The Dissenters, The True Englishman, Robinson Crusoe, Roxana, A New Voyage Round the World etc.