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Critical Overview

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Neoclassicism is an extension of the classical period. Scholars generally note that it was in fact a time of great importance because the works produced during this period have greatly influenced the course of literature to follow. Dubbed by many to be “intellectual art,” the works of neoclassical writers were praised for their didactic nature. Great admiration has been bestowed upon these founding fathers of the English canon—many have marveled at the great versatility of these writers who produced a seemingly endless variety of work, including poetry, satire, odes, drama, prose, criticism, and translations. The works themselves commanded greater admiration still, as they were apt to be written with elegance, simplicity, dignity, restraint, order, and proportion.

One rather negative assertion made on the part of critics is that imagination was intentionally repressed during the neoclassical period. To the contrary, Donald F. Bond, author of “The Neo- Classical Psychology of the Imagination,” argues that although writers were concerned with the “dangers of an uncontrolled imagination, an examina- tion of the psychological background of the period reveals an awareness of the validity of the imagination.” Considering the mind as a “storehouse of images,” he elaborates on his point by stating that “this aspect of the imagination, as the power whereby the mind is cognizant of external objects without direct sensory stimulus, is prevalent throughout the period.”

Another problem of note is the rather fuzzy classification Neoclassicism is subject to. Depending upon the critic, the terms Classicism and Neoclassicism are thought to be sometimes interchangeable and sometimes not. James William Johnson’s “What Was Neoclassicism?” explored the issue, taking the position that the research of his contemporaries has uncovered “a vast range of literature simply ignored—or perhaps suppressed— by earlier critics.” His conclusion was simply that “the resulting disparity between limited assumptions and expanded information has called into question the very possibility of formulating any critical schema that accurately describes the characteristics of English literature between 1660 and 1800.”

In Donald Greene’s “What Indeed Was Neoclassicism,” the author counters Johnson, dismissing his ideas as “tedious pseudo-problems, better left for journalists—and professors of literature— to play with if it amuses them.”

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Essays and Criticism