Pope’s neoclassicism* was part of a broader current of Enlightenment rationalism. According to rationalists, who valued reason above all else, nature’s laws are objectively present in the material world — providing archetypal criteria by which to judge artistic creations — and are independent of the limited subjective “wit” of the individual.
In the “Essay on Criticism”, Pope made this point by drawing a metaphorical comparison between light and divine knowledge:
First follow NATURE, and your Judgement frame By her just Standard, which is still the same; Unerring Nature, still divinely bright, One clear, unchang’d, and Universal light, Life, Force, and Beauty, must to all impart, At once the Source, and End, and Test of Art.
Another important neoclassicist was the poet and playwright John Dryden. In his “Essay of Dramatick Poesy” (1668), Dryden responded to Sidney’s “Defense” and set out to justify drama as a legitimate kind of poetry.
I uphold the soundness of neoclassical principles but dismiss a rigid or unquestioning adherence to classical rules.
He defended English drama, and particularly Shakespeare, against classical and French competitors, warning against an overly restrictive interpretation of Aristotle’s “unities” while exploring the relative merits of ancient and modern drama. The essay takes the form of a conversation between four people, each given a classical name but representing 17th-century figures, including Dryden himself.