The main characteristics of neoclassical poetry
What is Neo-classical age?
The period in English literary history extending from 1660 to 1789 and covering the Ages of Dryden, Pope and Dr Jonson is variously called the Classical Age, or the Neo-Classical Age or the pseudo- Classical Age. The Age is called Classical Age at least in three senses.
Firstly, the term is used for writers and for literature that stands in a class by themselves. It is used in general for the works of the highest rank in any literature. Thus the Age of King Augustus is called the Classical Age of Latin literature, the Age of Dante, the Classical Age of Italy, the reign of King Louis XIV, the Classical Age of France and the Age of Dryden and Pope, the Classical Age of England.
The poetry of the upper class in neoclassical poetry: The Neo-Classical poetry is the poetry of the town and the fashionable upper-class people of the city of London. The writers claimed to follow 'nature' but the nature they follow is "human nature" which is revealed by the fashionable circles of London.
It deals with the vices, the frivolities and follies of the bells and beaux, the life of coffee-houses and clubs, and the artificial manners and fashions of the courtly circles. It doesn't deal with nature that fascinates us in Wordsworth and Shelley. Dryden and Pope had no love for the world of leaves and flowers. Poetry is found here social and realistic rather than personal and emotional.
Satiric in neoclassical Poetry
Lack of Epic, Dramatic and Lyric Poetry- Drama and epic, the grandest form of poetry, were beyond the reach of the writers of this period. They lacked lyric intensity and couldn't write lyrics. They stand out only in one kind of poetry, i.e. Satiric. This rife tendency to satire results from the unfortunate union of politics with literature. Dryden's Absalom and Achitophel and Pope's The Rape of the Lock are the most important satires of the age.
The use of only one metre the Heroic Couplet: A heroic couplet is the only verse form which they perfected and in which they excelled. It was used with rare brilliance and effect for satirical and intellectual poetry. In the hands of Dryden and Pope acquired perfection and correctness.
Imitation of the Ancient Classics: Respect for Rules- Respect for rules becomes one of the cardinal features of Neo-Classical poetry.
Correctness: Emphasis was laid on "correctness, reason and good sense". The artist must follow the rules "correctly," and any exuberance' of 'fancy' or 'emotion' must be controlled by reason or good sense. A balance must be maintained between Fancy and Judgement. The head must predominate over the heart. The need for inspiration was recognized but it was to be held in check and balance by reason and good sense. Moderation was the golden rule in life and in literature.
Universal truth and General Ideas: The poets of the Neo-classical Age must deal with universal truths and general ideas. The emphasis was on formal finish and perfection rather than on content.
Emphasis on Moral teaching: The function of poetry was to instruct and delight. The didactic function was considered more vital than the aesthetic one. It was with this end in view that poetic justice was considered necessary- the poet must suitably reward virtue and punish vice. However, it was also recognized by Dryden and others that the function of poetry is also to move the heart. Thus tragedy must purge the soul of pride and hardness of heart.
Language and Poetic Diction in neoclassical poetry
In the eighteenth century, a variety of devices were accustomed used to a noble, pure and exalted diction, a diction proper for poetry meant for refined and cultured audiences.
Much thought was given to the style and diction of poetry. It was supposed that there is a difference between the language of prose and the language of poetry. It should be noble and elevated. Virgil was held out as the ideal and personification and circumlocution were resorted to, to impart dignity and elevation to the diction.
Common words were avoided and deities of classical mythology were additionally used with this end in view. The avoidance of compound words and epithets was also frequent for this very reason. In this way, efforts were made to avoid the vulgar, the archaic and the technical. Latin words and Latin constructions were abundantly used.
Famous poets of neoclassical age
1. John Dryden
2. Oliver Goldsmith
3. John Milton
4. Alexander Pope
5. Jonathan Swift
6. Daniel Defoe
7. Samuel Johnson