Neoclassical literature was written between 1660A.D. – 1798 A.D. It was a time of both formality and artificiality. Writers of the Neoclassical period tried to imitate the style of the Romans and Greeks. Thus the combination of the two terms- ‘neo’ which means ‘new’ and ‘classical’ which means ‘as in the day of the Roman and the Greek classics’.
This was also the Era of Enlightenment, which emphasized logic and reason. It was preceded by the Renaissance and followed by Romantic era. In fact, the Neoclassical period ended in 1798 A.D. when Wordsworth published the Romantic Lyrical Ballads.
Characteristics of Neoclassical Poetry
Rationalism is an essential feature of Neoclassical poetry. Neoclassical poetry is a reaction to the Renaissance style of poetry. It is not like the Renaissance poetry, in which the sentiments play a vital role in writing poetry. But in it, reason and intellect are dominant elements.
The Neoclassical poets always loved to make use of scholarly allusions in their poetry. As they were all highly educated and well-versed in various fields of studies, they all knew a lot about religions, Biblical and Classical literature. Allusions helped them to convey their message to their readers in a better way. They desired to write in the manners of their classical masters like Virgil, Horace, and Homer.
Neoclassical poets rebelled against the romantic nature of poetry of the Renaissance Period. The poets of the Renaissance period loved to compose poetry just for the sake of poetry. e.g. John Keats. Their main purpose was to express their feelings. On the other hand, the Neoclassical poets laid stress on morality. They were chiefly concerned with the didactic aspects of their poetry.
Realism is the hallmark of the Neoclassical poetry. The Neoclassical poets, unlike those Renaissance poets, were not living in their own world of imaginations. They were hard realists and presented the true picture of their society.
They went deep into the harsh realities. Neoclassical poets were men of action and practically lived in the midst of people. They avoided abstract ideas, imaginations, thoughts, and idealism in their poetry. Works of Dryden’s and Pope’s poetries are the excellent examples of realism.
Adherence to Classical Rules
The Neoclassical poets were undoubtfully great adherents of classical rules. They revived the classicism in their poetry by following each and every rule of classicism. Their highest concern was to adhere to the classical rules and employ them in their poetry as much as possible. For this reason, Neoclassical poetry is also called as ‘Pseudo-classical poetry’.
The heroic couplet is another hallmark of Neoclassical poetry. The heroic couplet or rhyming couplet consists of two iambic pentameter lines which rhyme together. Each line is composed of five accents or ten syllables. e.g.:
‘To err is human, to forgive divine’ (Pope)
It is called ‘heroic’ because of the common employment of this measure in heroic poetry. Neoclassical poets were the champions of the heroic couplet. No poet in the history of English Literature can compete with the mastery of Neoclassical poets in handling heroic couplet. They excelled each and every poet in this regard.
Chaucer was the first poet who employed heroic couplet in his poetry. Though many renowned poets of the world tried their hands on heroic couplet, yet Dryden and Pope are the only poets who outdid everyone in this regard. What is the most important about these two poets is that they polished the heroic couplet, corrected it, made it regular and more flexible? It is said that Dryden wrote almost 30,000 heroic couplets.
A Mock-epic is a sub-section the larger satirical heroic style which can be used for anything from novels to comic books. It is a long epic poem which is written about a subject that is not really worthy of an epic. Mock epic is the product of Neoclassical age.
Pope’s The Rape of Lock is a good example of the Mock-epic poem. Tassoni’s Rape of the Bucket is also a great Mock-Epic. The term Mock epic is often applied to other dignified poetic forms. e.g. Thomas Gray’s comic, Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat (1748 A.D.)
No Passionate Lyricism
Renaissance poetry is popular for its lyrical quality, while Neoclassical poetry is lacking in lyrical features due to lack of interest of the Neo-classical poets for passion, feelings, and emotions. In fact, they hated such feelings. This is the reason; very few lyrics were written in the age of Pope and Dryden. They didn’t give free play to their imaginations; rather they dwelt upon the intellectual aspects of poetry.
Objectivity is another important feature of Neoclassical poetry. As the Neoclassical poets were completely against subjectivity in poetry, they laid interest in writing objective poetry. They didn’t give way to their feelings, rather concentrated upon the miseries, hardships, and problems of the people. This is why we find very little information about the lives of Neoclassical poets in their poetry.
The poetic diction of Neoclassical poetry is completely different from the Renaissance poetry. In the later, diction is flexible and easy to use, while in the Neo-classical poetry, it is restrained, concrete and rigid. The Neoclassical poets were fond of using different language for poetry. They laid emphasis on specific style for poetry that would be different from that of prose. Pope is very conscious about the language of his poetry.