The neoclassical era is nestled between the renaissance and romantic periods of literature. Though this period lasted only for around 150 years, its influence can be seen in the literature of today.
The neoclassical period of literature is also known as the Enlightenment Period.
Literature can be broadly divided into ages, starting from the middle ages, renaissance, neoclassical period, romantic period, modern period, to the post-modern period.
Neoclassical authors saw the world under a new light. Unlike the previous two eras, the writers of this era gave more importance to social needs as compared to individual needs. They believed that man can find meaning in society, religion, natural order, government, and literature. In no time, the winds of a new revolution swept through Europe and North America, and changed everything from art and literature to society and fashion, on its way. Though the neoclassical era later transitioned into the romantic era, it left behind a prominent footprint which can be seen in the literary works of today.
The term neo means new while classical refers to the Roman and Greek classics, hence the name is aptly coined as neoclassical. Neoclassical literature emulated the Greek and Roman styles of writing.
The neoclassical era was closely preceded by the renaissance period. Before the renaissance period, life and literature was mainly dictated by the Church. However, during renaissance, science and innovation was given the main emphasis. Thus, in the neoclassical era, a vast difference between the two ideologies can be witnessed. Therefore, you will find confusion and contrary depictions in neoclassical literature.
Neoclassical literature was defined by common sense, order, accuracy, and structure. In the literature of the renaissance period, man was portrayed to be good; however, this genre of writers showed man to be flawed and relatively more human. Their characters also practiced conservatism, self-control, and restraint.
A large number of literary works came out during this period, which included parody, fables, melodrama, rhyming with couplets, satire, letters, diaries, novels, and essays. More emphasis was given to grammar and etymology (study of words).
For the sake of convenience, experts have divided this era into three sections: Restoration period, Augustan era, and Age of Johnson.
The Restoration Period (1660-1700)
After the beheading of King Charles I, the monarchy was ‘restored’, and so this period got the name ‘restoration’. A new era had dawned with epic works such as Paradise Lost and Areopagitica by Milton and Sodom by Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester. It also saw a new age of both sexual comedy and wisdom, with works such as The Country Wife and The Pilgrim’s Progress respectively. While writers like Richard Blackmore wrote King Arthur, it also saw critics like Jeremy Collier, John Dryden, and John Dennis who gave a new direction to understand literature and theater.
Poetry too was revamped and saw the beginning of rhyme schemes. The iambic pentameter was one of the popular forms of poetry, preferred by the poets and the listeners. Odes and pastorals became the new means for exchanging ideas.
The poems were mostly realistic and satirical, in which, John Dryden reigned supreme. He further divided poetry into three heads, that of fables, political satire, and doctrinal poems. You will not find any spiritual bias, moral highness, or philosophy in these poems, which became the signature style of the Restoration Era.
Augustan Age (1700-1745)
The Augustan Age took its name from the Roman Emperor Augustus, whose monarchy brought stability in the social and political environment. It is during his reign, that epic writers such as Ovid, Horace, Virgil, etc., flourished.
Writers such as Pope, Dryden, Daniel Defoe, Swift, and Addison were the major contributors to this era. Dryden’s attempts at satiric verse were highly admired by many generations. This era was also called the Age of Pope due to his noteworthy contributions.
Age of Johnson (1745-1785)
This era made its way into the literary world by stepping out of the shadows of its previous age. Shakespearean literature found appreciation during this era. It brought forth the Gothic school of literature. Qualities like balance, reason, and intellect were the main focus of this era. Hence, this age is also called the Age of Sensibility.
Important works such as Burke’s, A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas on the Sublime and Beautiful, Johnson’s, The Rambler, and Goldsmith’s, The Vicar of Wakefield are still read.
Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) gave a massive literary contribution, which till date is a great boon to one an all. And that is the Dictionary of the English Language, which was first published in the year 1755. Though many similar books were used prior to this book, the dictionary in particular was the one that was most popularly used and admired, right until the printing of the Oxford English Dictionary in 1928.
Some Neoclassical Writers and their Works
John Milton (1608 – 1674), Paradise Lost
John Dryden (1631 – 1700), To My Lord Chancellor and Marriage a la Mode
Alexander Pope (1688 – 1744), Translation of the Iliad, Pastorals and An Essay on Criticism
Jonathan Swift (1667 – 1745), Gulliver’s Travels
Daniel Defoe (1660 – 1731), Robinson Crusoe
Samuel Johnson (1709 – 1784), A Dictionary of the English Language
A new class of poets and writers rose out of the flickering ashes of neoclassical literature, and a new genre called Romanticism manifested itself with prominent writers like William Wordsworth, Coleridge, John Keats, Lord Byron, Shelley, and William Blake.