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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 would move against Anglican interests. His attempts to convert the nation to Catholicism provoked William of Orange, his Dutch son-in-law, to organize an army. A confrontation occurred in November of 1688, causing James to flee to France.
The reign of King William III saw the restoration of the Church of England but also an England deep in debt from funding the revolution, inspiring much political grumbling and satire. Queen Anne, his successor, had what some historians have called a peaceful reign, inspired by consumer confidence and a sense of nostalgia. But after Queen Anne’s death, King George I and his family were imported from Hanover, Germany. He could only speak broken English and had little interest in English politics.
At that point, Robert Walpole chose to step in and manage the affairs of both George I and his successor, George II. Walpole, acting more as minister than advisor, overstepped his bounds, swaying party politics, making way for the Whigs to assume a dominant role. He was sarcastically dubbed “prime” minister, due to his arrogance and his politics. So tyrannical were his policies that the two main parties, the Whigs and the Tories, formed a temporary alliance against him. It would be the pressure of military conflict that would ultimately lead to Walpole’s resignation.
George III was next to take the throne, and though his reign has been characterized as a tumultuous, historians are quick to point out that during that time, Britain was the richest nation with the largest world empire. The return of English control to the monarchy also fostered the reopening of the London theaters in 1662. The new theaters were no longer located in the lower-class parts of town, as was often the case in the Elizabethan age, but were now between Westminster and the City of London, elevating the audience’s experience to new levels. It was a chance for people of many financial positions to observe royalty and the well to do in addition to the actors’ performances. The drama of the theater also managed to overshadow a major naval defeat at the hands of the Dutch in 1673.
It was also a time of high fashion. As the middle class mingled with gentry, they strove to imitate what they saw as being their tastes. Wigs, scarves, silks, jewelry—all of these commodities were in demand and appeared in catalogs like Sotheby’s. Advertising was also a natural outgrowth of such consumerism and began to be a major source of financial support to periodicals. There was also a focus on politeness and self-control. Pope, Swift, and others would satirize what they saw as being frivolous or pointless attempts at self-promotion.
All of the diversion—the pomp and circumstance of the social classes, the drama of the theater, the drama of the monarchy—could not avert the ever-widening gaps between rich and poor. Nor could it avert the public outcry against the slave trade, a business that was the reason for much of England’s financial success as a superpower. These conflicts and others would move literature towards Romanticism.
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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 the neoclassical writers were instructional, as many of them were moralists and critics of English politics, and all shared an interest in conveying their position. In the case of Robinson Crusoe, Defoe’s lesson for the young audience is that perseverance pays off.
Robinson Crusoe was recognized as a book of extraordinary value for children in its time. Many believed Crusoe to be an excellent role model for children. Steady, intelligent, spirited, independent, industrious—Defoe’s character demonstrates all of these qualities in the face of great adversity and survives. Defoe’s work has also been praised because of children’s ability to relate to Crusoe and his persistence, delighting in the discoveries he makes and the things he does to survive.
Any unrhymed poetry constitutes blank verse; more specifically, it is unrhymed iambic pentameter verse (composed of lines of five two-syllable feet, or sets, with the first syllable accented and the second unaccented). Blank verse was often used by neoclassical poets, as it was by post-Renaissance poets, and was appreciated for its flexibility as well as its dignified tone.
Shakespeare wrote most of his plays in blank verse, subsequently attracting imitators like John Dryden. Dryden was known for his mastery of various rhyme forms, and blank verse was among his repertoire, All for Love (1678) being a prime example.
This literary form was a common and clever mode of satire used to make light of a wide range of contemporary concerns. Many of the neoclassical writers—Pope, Swift, Dryden, Defoe, Richardson, Johnson—wrote satires on what they viewed to be some of the social and political excesses of the age.
First, consider the classic epic—a long narrative poem about a hero, someone of great nationalistic, historic, or legendary importance. The setting is vast, and often there is some sort of cosmic intervention in the form of gods, angels, or demons. The work is usually written in a classical style, with elaborate metaphors and allusions to further express the importance of its subject.
The mock epic employs many of the same classical conventions as the epic—the work is written as a long narrative, employing the use of high language, metaphors, and allusions. The subject matter, however, is decidedly less heroic, thereby ridiculing real-life overreactions to it.
Pope’s “Rape of the Lock” is a good example of the mock epic. As duly pointed out by Frances Mayhew Rippy, in “The Rape of the Lock: Overview,” Pope’s work looks at modern concerns, finding them less heroic than those of the classical world. Rippy adds that the “Epic battles have become card games and snuff-throwing,” and the “genealogy of weapons has become the history of Belinda’s ornamental hairpin.” Essentially, the work succeeds in satirizing the loss of a sense of what is important.
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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 Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress were among the major literary achievements of the period, and Dryden’s work demonstrates a transition toward the Augustan Age. Locke’s writings, more political in nature, represented the course of English thought during this time.
The Restoration Age also enjoyed the reopening of theaters. Both William Wycherly and William Congreve would infuse the stage with their contemporary dramas. The comedy of manners and the heroic drama developed as genres.
The Augustan Age (1700–1750)
Classical ideas of common sense and reason took precedence over creativity fueled by emotion and imagination during the Augustan Age. Characteristically, literature produced in this time is realistic, satirical, and moral—it was also guided by the politics of the day. Authors like James Thomson continued to reflect in their writings a concern for the study of nature and science.
Poetry is decidedly cleaner and tighter, as reflected in that of Pope, and the mock epic as well as the verse essay became commonly used literary forms. Defoe’s journals, collections of essays, and periodicals like the Spectator influenced English prose style. Swift’s satires were popular as were the early novels of Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding, among others. Finally, the theater took a turn in character from a moralistic bent in favor of the sentimental comedy. In addition, classical and domestic tragedy also dominated the stage.
The Age of Johnson (1750–1798)
A period aptly named after Samuel Johnson, whose prose and critical works eventually led to the end of the neoclassical tradition, the Age of Johnson represented a transition from a focus on classical study/imitation to an interest in folk literature and popular ballads, which can be similarly observed in Johnson’s writing.
During this time, the novel advanced steadily, and Sterne and Mackenzie developed what would be called the novel of sensibility. The Gothic novel came into view due to the efforts of Ann Radcliffe and Horace Walpole. Henry Brooke and William Godwin wrote novels steeped in distinct philosophical as well as political commentary. Shakespeare was exceedingly popular, and both the sentimental comedy and the comedy of manners remained widely used forms. In addition, burlesque, pantomime, and the melodrama also came to the forefront.
The age experienced a growing interest in human freedom, intensified by both the American and French revolutions. An interest in the outdoors, a celebration of country life, and an engagement in an ever-widening circle of intellectual pursuits characterized the period, as did the development of several religious movements like Methodism. It would be in this environment that the neoclassical tradition would then finally be put to rest while English Romanticism gained moment.
Compare and Contrast
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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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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 and loosely follow the dramatic principles of Aristotle. Presented as a dialogue, another classical convention, the work is as intellectually engaging as it is entertaining.
Jonathan Swift experienced overnight success with the publication of his politically charged satire Gulliver’s Travels. It had all of the elements of a tempting read—mystery as well as political, social, and sexual scandal. So controversial was its content, however, that Swift saw fit to publish the book anonymously in 1727.
Lemuel Gulliver is the main character of Gulliver’s Travels, and the book is an account of his adventures in Lilliput, Brobdingnag, Laputa, and Houyhnhnms. Gulliver finds himself towering over the inhabitants of Lilliput (they are only six inches high), and they refer to Gulliver as “Man-Mountain.” Gulliver’s size is a political issue, and, as he becomes more and more involved in Lilliput, demands are put upon him to aid the Lilliputians in a war against Blefuscu.
The plot was largely allegorical in its comment on contemporary British politics. It did not take the public long to discover that the author was writing about England rather than Lilliput and the like, or that the author of this satire was Jonathan Swift. He was not only active on the political scene but a wellknown journalist with an easily recognizable style.
A classic in its own right, The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner, now recognized as simply Robinson Crusoe, was published in London by William Taylor on April 25, 1719. It was based on the adventures of Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish sailor marooned alone on the island of Yernandez in the South Pacific. By many accounts, it has been branded as one of the first English novels.
Robinson Crusoe rejects his mercantile family in favor of a life at sea. After a number of adventures, including his encounters with pirates and an escape from slavery, to name a few, Crusoe is caught in a hurricane. His ship is rendered useless as a result of the storm, and for the next twentyeight years, he finds himself stranded on an island in the Caribbean. The work documents Crusoe’s struggle to survive in isolation.
Robinson Crusoe has many characteristics of a classical epic, with an identifiable hero, hard travel, separation from a homeland, and even small battles. Defoe assigns the character of Robinson Crusoe several admirable qualities, recognized, both now and at the time of the book’s publication, for his practicality, intelligence, and a well-balanced religiousness, among others. The book was even used for instructional purposes as a result. Known for its efficiencies, it is devoid of needless complexity and is unified in plot and character, also attributes valued by the ancients.
The Rape of the Lock
When one thinks of the works of Alexander Pope, The Rape of the Lock is often the first that comes to mind. In light of the work’s value, this immediate association is not unfounded—The Rape of the Lock has been identified as one of the best examples of the mock epic from the neoclassical age. Pope’s work has also been recognized for its use of the heroic couplet and as a good example of satire in eighteenth-century literature. The work was published in 1712, when Pope was just twentythree years old.
The story was written to smooth over the tensions that developed between two prominent families when Lord Petre cut a lock of Arabella Fermor’s hair. In Pope’s version, Belinda (Arabella Fermor) meets the Baron (Lord Petre), among others, at the Hampton Court Palace. Over coffee and tea, the Baron cuts the treasured lock, inviting a verbal attack from other women at the gathering who witness the crime. Belinda manages to throw snuff in his face before threatening him with a hairpin. At this point, the speaker interjects his own consolation to the victim, and at the work’s end, he also points out that, though the lock is lost and cannot be recovered, it will be preserved on the moon (a common belief of the time concerning things lost) and may outlast even Belinda.
The work, in the tradition of the genre, softens the events on which it was based by satirizing or making light of them. Pope honors this minor tragedy in classical form and, in doing so, undermines the intensity of Arabella’s experience. This is precisely because the trivialities of modern life fail to compare to the subject matter classicists usually reserved for the genre.
This work is an imitation, a popular contemporary poetic form used by Samuel Johnson. London was a translation of Satura III by Juvenal, a great satirical poet of ancient Rome. It is a work on urban life in London, and it is of particular significance since it would be the first piece Johnson would create and publish on his own, independent of the magazine he was working for in 1738.
The satire speaks first to the difficulties of making an honest living in the city and then moves on to discuss the dangers of urban life. Johnson did not stick closely to the text, however, but reworked it to accommodate his depictions of country life as a viable alternative for city dwellers. This celebration of country life is dictated by the time in which he wrote, a time when literature expressed a preoccupation with nature and life on the farm. Johnson also left out many of Juvenal’s depictions of urban blight and poverty as well as the nuisances accompanying them, i.e., noise, crowds, traffic, crime, etc. Johnson also expands Satura III, adding many contemporary political references to the introduction of the work. Following a common practice of the times, Johnson used his work as a platform for critique, in this case, pointed at Spanish efforts to squash British commerce, among other things.
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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.
Bibliography and Further Reading
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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 strife and scientific progress, from 1558 to 1650.
Finley, M. I., The Ancient Greeks, Penguin Books, 1991. The Ancient Greeks covers the Greek classical period and includes discussions on Greek literature, science, philosophy, architecture, sculpture, and painting.
Highet, Gilbert, The Classical Tradition, Oxford University Press, 1949. The Classical Tradition goes into great detail in explaining the major events/movements that defined Classicism. The author not only includes key classical movements, but also discusses the impact of classical work on more contemporary writers.