The English climate during the neoclassical period was one of false appearances in both political and the public domains. Part of the masquerade involved a monarchy that was publicly sensitive yet privately ambivalent concerning many issues. There was also a nouveau riche middle-class who were more interested in gentrifying themselves with clothing and mannerisms than acknowledging the political conflicts swirling about them.
The history of the monarchy was fuel enough for a great deal of criticism on the part of the neoclassicists, and rightfully so. The hopes of the public were high for a leader who could promise relief from the religious and political struggles that plagued England. It is not surprising that a crowd gathered to cheer Charles II as he landed on the shores of Dover in May of 1660. Many felt that Charles’s coronation in 1661 would signify an end to the civil and political unrest. However, he would prove to be a man of contradictions.
Charles II, at least on the surface, gave England much to hope for. Publicly, he professed a love of parliaments and expressed a hope for an independent Church of England. Privately, however, he often postponed parliaments, pushed for toleration of Catholics, and even converted to Catholicism on his deathbed. Similarly, James, Charles’s brother and successor, initially pledged support of the Anglicans by promising to honor the national church and to end religious uniformity. Soon, however, he...
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Allegory An allegory is a narrative technique in which symbolic characters or actions are used to convey a message or teach a lesson. Typically used to teach moral, ethical, or religious ideals, it is also used for political purposes. In the case of the neoclassicists, the latter was often the case, often in conjunction with satire.
Swift’s criticism of English politics was so harsh that he felt it necessary to publish his work Gulliver’s Travels anonymously. On the surface, the work is mere fiction, but on a deeper level it is an account of the bitter political struggles between the two major political parties of the early eighteenth century, the Tories and the Whigs.
Johnson lampoons those intimate with the British political scene in his depiction of certain characters. For example, the Lilliputian emperor is characterized as being tyrannical and corrupt and is also easily recognized as George I, King of England (from 1714 to 1727). The Lilliputian Empress stands for Queen Anne, who, offended by Swift’s earlier satires, chose to prevent his advancement in the Church of England. The two parties in Lilliput, the Low-Heels and the High-Heels, represent the Tories and the Whigs.
This term describes works of literature that aim to teach some moral, religious, political, or practical lesson. The term usually refers to literature in which the message is more important than the form. The aims of many of...
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The neoclassical period was framed by specific historical events. Scholars generally agree that the movement began with the return of the Stuarts to the English throne in 1660 and ended with the publication of “Lyric Ballads” by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1798. The period itself includes the Restoration Age (1660–1700), the Augustan Age, (1700–1750), and the Age of Johnson (1750–1798).
The Restoration Age (1660–1700)
England underwent a transformation at the outset of the Restoration, in strong reaction against Puritanism. The period was marked by a resurgence of scientific thought as well as investigation. It is at this point, with the infusion of French influences, that Neoclassicism begins to develop.
During the Restoration Age, the Heroic couplet, a rhyming couplet written in iambic pentameter (a verse with five iambic feet), was the major verse form. The poetry itself was typically didactic or satirical in nature—the work’s main aim was either to instruct some moral, religious, political, or practical lesson or to ridicule and attack some aspect of contemporary life. The ode was also a widely used form. An ode is a lengthy, lyrical, rhyming poem addressing or praising some object, person, or quality in a lofty, noble style.
Prose took on a more “modern” style, as represented by Bunyan, Dryden, and Milton, principal writers of the age. Milton’s Paradise Lost and...
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Compare and Contrast
1600s–1700s: Oliver Cromwell’s protectorate is overthrown, and after two decades in which England was without a sovereign, Charles II is crowned king.
Today: Tony Blair is the prime minister of England, and Queen Elizabeth II is the symbolic head of state under a parliamentary democracy.
1600s–1700s: The most celebrated eighteenth century periodical, The Spectator, is founded by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele.
Today: The advent of the internet revolution connects millions of households with a seemingly limitless number of newspapers, magazines, and periodicals at the click of a mouse.
1600s–1700s: The rise of the English theater changes social patterns as English citizens from all classes begin to attend theatrical performances.
Today: The advent of the DVD and the development of home entertainment systems begin to change the patterns of many moviegoers, who, instead of visiting the theater, opt to stay home.
1600–1700s: With the restoration of the English theater comes an intermingling of the social classes, and fashion becomes the focus as middle- and upper-middle class patrons of the stage imitate the monarchy in style and dress.
Today: Overnight pop music sensations like Britney Spears set fashion standards for contemporary teens.
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Topics for Further Study
The neoclassicists often used references to ancient cultures to give their works added meaning. Investigate some of the materials behind these references and explain their significance in the works of the neoclassical writers.
English politics was the major target for satirists Swift, Dryden, Pope, and others. Satire was often viewed as a dangerous political weapon, resulting in censorship or the arrest of many satirical writers. Investigate the influence of satire on the press during the neoclassical period in response to political events of the time.
The Age of Johnson represented a profound shift in the neoclassical genre that would ultimately result in the advent of Romanticism. What were the factors that caused such a shift as well as the end of the neoclassical era?
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Of Dramatick Poesie: An Essay
Of Dramatick Poesie: An Essay (1668) represented John Dryden’s challenges to the trends of English theater in the seventeenth century and is considered one of his best prose works. The significance of the piece lies within the argument it presents concerning the development of the English theater and would prove to be a driving influence.
In Of Dramatick Poesie: An Essay, four speakers, namely Crites, Eugenius, Lisideius, and Neander, drift down the Thames River as the English and Dutch wage a naval battle. Dryden presents his views in dialogue form. The use of several characters allowed Dryden to present the various aspects of his argument from a multitude of perspectives without specifically endorsing a given opinion. The author offers clear positions on the issues discussed, i.e., on the merits of English theater versus that of the French and on other dramatic conventions, including his defense of drama written in verse. Dryden had an affinity for this mode of argument, being characteristic of much of his work, as it allowed him to offer consideration for various positions in an effort to support his own.
The characters in the essay are engaged in a discussion of classical conventions, as they are used by the French, and the value of the unities in English theater. The unities were strict rules of dramatic structure formulated by Italian and French writers during the Renaissance...
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Gulliver’s Travels appeared as a television miniseries released by Hallmark Home Entertainment in 2000. This adaptation of the classic preserves the satire and wit of the original.
Robinson Crusoe has been adapted for film several times, most recently in 1996, starring Pierce Brosnan.
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What Do I Read Next?
Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe (1993), by Merry E. Weisner, represents the author’s research of women from 1500 to 1750. The author focuses on women’s roles in relation to general historical developments and the effects of such developments on women. Her work is characterized by her approach to study as a sort of “digging into women’s private and domestic experiences.” There is consideration not only of the physical experiences of women—those of menstruation, pregnancy, and motherhood—but of the ways in which women attempted to carve out meaningful lives for themselves based on such experiences. The work also compares female gender roles with those roles imposed on males, to produce some very interesting insights and observations.
Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution (1990), edited by John Morrill, is a discussion of Oliver Cromwell’s life, both personal and political. Although he died at the dawn of the neoclassical age, he was one of the best-known, as well as one of the most controversial, figures in English history and would shape political discourse well into the neoclassical age. Cromwell has been celebrated as a champion of both religious and civil liberties and for his role in the defeat of Stuart tyranny. The book describes the phases of his career as citizen, soldier, and lord protector.
The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding (1938), written by Ian Watt...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Bond, Donald F., “The Neo-Classical Psychology of the Imagination,” in ELH, Vol. 4, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1937.
Greene, Donald, “What Indeed Was Neoclassicism? A Reply to James William Johnson’s ‘What was Neoclassicism?,’” in the Journal of British Studies, Vol. 10, No. 1, November 1970, pp. 69–79.
Johnson, James William, “What was Neoclassicism?” in the Journal of British Studies, Vol. 9, No. 1, November 1969, pp. 49–70.
Jones, Thora Burnley, Neo-Classical Dramatic Criticism, 1560–1770, Cambridge University Press, 1976, pp. 124–43.
Rippy, Frances Mayhew, “The Rape of the Lock: Overview,” in Reference Guide to English Literature, edited by D. L. Kirkpatrick, St. James Press, 1991.
Walsh, Marcus, “Johnson, Samuel,” in Reference Guide to English Literature, edited by D. L. Kirkpatrick, St. James Press, 1991.
Walter, Scott, “Daniel Defoe,” in On Novelists and Fiction, edited by Ioan Williams, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1968, pp. 164–83.
Durant, William, and Ariel Durant, The Age of Reason Begins, Simon and Schuster, 1961. The Age of Reason Begins is an excellent historical reference guide for those who want to understand the political era leading up to the neoclassical period. It reviews a period in history full of religious...
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