Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 631
Intellectuals and Intellectualism
Devotion to the exercise or application of the intellect was important to the neoclassical writer. This tendency is a natural outgrowth of the classical tradition these writers sought to imitate. Writers like Dryden, Johnson, and Pope, not wanting to limit themselves to one genre, engaged in experimentation to broaden their own intellectual abilities, imitating the conventions of classical poetic verse, drama, and rhetoric. In addition, these writers commented on a wide range of topics—political, historical, and social—demonstrating a wealth of personal knowledge. Intellectual expression was of greater value to the neoclassicist than the expression of feelings, and out of this desire came the satire and various forms of didactic (instructional) literature.
Often the writings of these authors were a printed form of warfare, intellectual contests in print and journalism. Satirists would compete with one another, relying on a keen sense of wit to savagely expose their adversary. When John Dryden wrote Of Dramatick Poesie: An Essay, he criticized the current trends of the English theater. Sir Robert Howard immediately responded to the essay with some criticisms of his own. The result was a scathing rebuttal, A Defence of An Essay of Dramatick Poesie, in which Dryden attacks Howard’s comments. Howard’s response was fairly mild, almost as if he were surrendering.
The seemingly unchecked actions and irresponsibility of the monarchy were a source of deep contention among its critics. The reign of Charles II and James were mired in contradiction, their public faces never mirroring their true intentions. There was also great opposition to the “reign” of Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford; a highly influential statesman, he all but assumed the role of king, gaining the confidence of George I and II.
Neoclassical writers would, time and again, prove to pose a threat to the establishment, resorting to their own form of social protest, the written word expressed as satire, to inform, educate, and inspire public outrage. In response to Walpole’s flagrant abuse of power, the two popular political parties of the time, the Tories and the Whigs, would form a loose alliance against Walpole. Of those dissenters, Tory writers Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, John Gay, and Henry Fielding and the Whig writer James Thomson formed an alliance bent on exposing Walpole publicly. The efforts of the small group of sharp-tongued intellectuals stung Walpole. He responded to the attacks by imposing censorship on the group.
The neoclassicists sought to imitate the classics, looking to the poetic conventions, the dramatic theories, as well as the rhetorical skills of the classicists for guidance. From the onset of the Restoration Age through the Age of Johnson, writers would look to classical forms such as the ode, the satire, and the epic for their inspiration. They also tended to favor rhymed couplets utilizing conventional poetic diction and imagery in their works.
Imitation was also a neoclassical genre. An imitation is a translation by which the translator takes certain artistic liberty with a classical work in an effort to produce something new. Using the classical source as a point of reference, the translator often altered not only the language but the actual structure of the work, sometimes omitting or changing sections of it to suit contemporary tastes.
Imitation was a well-accepted art form, readily adopted by Restoration poets. Samuel Johnson was an imitator and chose the Latin poet Juvenal, imitating his Satura III, to express himself on urban life in London. Johnson took care to include Juvenal’s words at the bottom of the pages of his London, wishing to preserve Juvenal’s sentiments next to his own. Johnson preserved the original structure of the work but altered portions of it in order to voice his own views, which were more specific to his audience.
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