The term neoclassical is applied to the age of Dryden and Pope in English poetry for two principal reasons. First, there was a self-conscious effort by writers to pattern their work after that of classical (meaning ancient Greek and Latin) models. Second, the poetry of the period was based on...
The term neoclassical is applied to the age of Dryden and Pope in English poetry for two principal reasons. First, there was a self-conscious effort by writers to pattern their work after that of classical (meaning ancient Greek and Latin) models. Second, the poetry of the period was based on the ideals of elegance, balance, and restraint which have come to be associated with classicism in all the arts, as opposed to the more emotional and unrestrained qualities we associate with Romanticism.
Pope's Essay on Man, like all of his work, conforms to the classical aesthetic in the elegance and, almost paradoxically, the purity and simplicity of its language. The heroic couplet, in rhymed iambic pentameter, was considered the ideal metrical form in which to convey ideas in conformance with that aesthetic.
The ideas expressed by Pope in The Essay on Man are related to classicism because they are rooted in man's limitations and his acceptance of his place in the universe as an imperfect being, subordinate to God. The didactic emphasis of Pope's verse is to encourage the reader to view those limitations and flaws not as something of which to try to break free, but as qualities to be celebrated as the result of God's perfect design. It's the antithesis of the Romantic ideals of Shelley, for instance, nearly a century later, who sees man as ideally striving to become something greater than he is, to break free of the bonds that nature has imposed upon him and to become superhuman, as it were.
The ideas expressed in The Essay on Man were not original ones, nor did Pope claim they were. The philosophy of Leibniz has generally been considered their main source. This was the thinking ridiculed by Voltaire in Candide and caricatured as a belief that "this is the best of all possible worlds," while in his fable Voltaire depicts the mayhem and injustice that takes place on a daily basis, and has done throughout history. In my opinion, the Leibnizian view of the world, even in a non-caricatured form, is not necessarily a philosophy that has anything classical or neo-classical about it. Pope's thinking, his view of the cosmos, is basically rooted in deism, which rejects organized religion, though Pope merely implies this. He was nominally a Roman Catholic in a time when Catholics were still discriminated against in England. In both the religion in which he was raised and in his mature beliefs, Pope was actually a subversive, subtly anti-establishment figure. In this sense, the Essay on Man does not conform to the aspect of classicism that is conservative and endorses the existing order in society (I would argue). That said, in its poetic grace and elegance and its dependence on the aesthetic of the poetry of antiquity, Pope's work is fully of its time and is an example of neoclassicism.