Neoclassicism Biography

Introduction

Neoclassicism was a movement whose artists looked to the classical texts for their creative inspiration in an effort to imitate classical form. The writers in particular drew on what were considered to be classical virtues—simplicity, order, restraint, logic, economy, accuracy, and decorum—to produce prose, poetry, and drama. Literature was of value in accordance with its ability to not only delight, but also instruct.

Although the terms Classicism and Neoclassicism are somewhat interchangeable (and often used as such), Neoclassicism refers strictly the specific literary periods in history that produced art inspired by the ancients, which, of course, excludes the ancients themselves. It is usually more specifically defined as a Classicism that originally dominated English literature during the Restoration Age and which lasted well into the eighteenth century.

What these writers longed for began as a reaction to the Renaissance. Neoclassicists believed in Greek ideals, in restraint of passions, and valued communication as an exchange rather than individual self-expression. The Renaissance celebrated human potential, individualism, imagination, and mysticism. In contrast to the Renaissance, neoclassicists saw humans as being limited in potential and imperfect in form. They distrusted innovation and invention and believed in exercising restraint in personal expression. The efforts of the neoclassical writers resulted in the creation of a polite, urbane, and witty art form that was as instructive as it was entertaining.

Neoclassicism Representative Authors

Daniel Defoe (1660–1731)
Daniel Defoe produced his most important works during the Augustan Age, named for its writers who consciously attempted to emulate the work of the original Augustan writers, such as Vergil and Horace. He is also among those responsible for the creation of the English novel. Over the course of his lifetime, he worked as a journalist, pamphleteer, and essayist, writing as a social commentator for the merchant class. Defoe’s work is a hallmark of the neoclassical age. It was didactic as well as intellectual in nature. Defoe wrote as effortlessly on the subjects of politics, religion, and economics as he did fiction and employed the use of several neoclassical conventions, including the satire and the epic.

Scholars estimate that Defoe’s birth occurred sometime in 1660, the year that marked the beginning of the neoclassical age. He was born to James Foe, a tradesman and merchant, and Alice Foe; it is unclear why Daniel added the “De.” Though his father was reasonably successful, he could not send his son to the best schools, as he was a Dissenter, which was a religious group that did not conform to the Church of England. In his adult life, Defoe would work as a businessman in land speculation, the import business, as an inventor, and in other endeavors.

During Defoe’s life, England was politically driven by the monarchy and the Anglican Church, and, like his father, Defoe was a Dissenter and found need to defend his faith. Defoe participated in several rebellions, and, after a show of support during the Glorious Revolution, was honored with several positions, serving William of Orange from 1689 to 1702.

Defoe’s religious beliefs are what prompted many of his writings, including several political pieces and pamphlets and some satirical poetry. It was The Shortest-Way with Dissenters; or, Proposals for the Establishment of the Church, a satire written in support of religious freedom, that earned him fame in 1702. In reaction to the work, Defoe found himself charged with libel, fined, and imprisoned until Robert Harley secured his release in 1703 in exchange for his services as a pamphleteer and undercover public propagandist for the government, which continued for roughly ten years.

A Review of the Affairs of France, with Observations on Transactions at Home, was a triweekly journal Defoe created in 1704. Though he likely felt obligated to lean his review in favor of the government, his employer, it was still an essential vehicle of expression for the writer at the time. In the journal, Defoe offered his views on a variety of topics, including politics, economics, morality, and religion. His reporting techniques, social commentary, advice columns, and other features made A Review of the Affairs of France, with Observations on Transactions at Home a model publication for journalism today.

The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner, better known today as Robinson Crusoe, was published in 1719. It was his first novel and is his most recognized. Defoe is also responsible for writing several other novels including Moll Flanders, Colonel Jack, and Roxana, all of which are still in publication.

Defoe died April 26, 1731, in Moorfields, London, England.

John Dryden (1631–1700)
John Dryden, a champion of the Restoration Age, was an amazing writer whose versatility has rarely been matched and whose works managed to change the course of English literary history. He produced a wide variety of literature, including satires, comedies, tragedies, lyric poetry, farces, translations, literary criticism, political poetry, and essays. Identified by some scholars as...

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