The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Classicism: A broad and general term (like romanticism, with which it is often contrasted) that refers to a complex set of beliefs, attitudes, and values presumed to be grounded in the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome. Some would even call classicism a doctrine or set of doctrines.

When used in connection with the arts or, more specifically, with literature, the term calls to mind certain characteristics in the critical writings and artistic achievements of the ancient Greeks and Romans, including simplicity, directness, order, clarity, decorum, balance, unity, and an emphasis on reason. Today classicism is not used exclusively to refer to Greek and Roman works; rather, the term can be used in connection with any work that exhibits some combination of these qualities and thereby captures something of the spirit of the ancient Graeco-Roman tradition. English literature has been strongly marked by classicism, the ideals and characteristics of which were resurrected most notably in the Renaissance and the subsequent movement we refer to as neoclassicism.

During the Renaissance, scholars and critics took a particular interest in two ancient texts: Aristotle’s Poetics (c. 330 B.C.) and Horace’s Ars poetica (Art of Poetry) (c. 20 B.C.). Aristotle, a Greek philosopher, set forth rules governing epics and tragedies, argued that poetry properly imitates nature, and maintained that art has a salutary mental and moral effect. Most of the sixteenth-century commentators on Aristotle were Italians; of these, Julius Caesar Scaliger most influenced the emergence of classicism in England through his book Poetice (Poetics) (1561). Horace, a Roman poet, emphasized the importance of craftsmanship and decorum in poetry; he defined a decorous poetic style as one that is appropriate to the character, setting, and / or situation depicted in a given work. Sixteenth-century advocates of Horace’s literary theory included the French poet Pierre Ronsard and the English poet Sir Philip Sidney. Ronsard, leader of the Renaissance literary group known as the Pléiade, argued in his Défense et illustration de la langue française (Defense and Illustration of the French Language) (1549) for the need to adapt French poetic tradition to a classical mold. In An Apology for Poetry (1595), Sidney maintained that the intellectually and morally formative power of poetry resides in its power to represent truths vividly.

Although classicism was most effectively (re)theorized in the sixteenth century, some of the best-known restatements of classical principles came during the Neoclassical Period, which spanned the years 1660—1798. Examples include Pierre Corneille’s discussion of the classical unities in Discours (Discourses) (1660), John Dryden’s An Essay of Dramatic Poesy (1668), Nicolas Boileau’s L’art poétique (The Art of Poetry) (1674), David Hume’s Of Tragedy (1757), Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums (History of Ancient Art) (1764), Samuel Johnson’s Preface to Shakespeare (1765), Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Laocoön (1766), and the Discourses (1769—90) of the English portrait painter and founding president of the Royal Academy, Sir Joshua Reynolds.

Classical aesthetic principles had substantial impact on imaginative literature in Europe from the seventeenth century through the first half of the nineteenth century, particularly during the Neoclassical Period. In England, the influence of classicism was apparent in the plays of Ben Jonson, the poetry of Dryden and Alexander Pope, the satire of Jonathan Swift, and the novels of Henry Fielding. In France, classicism most profoundly influenced the theater, as evidenced by the plays of Corneille, Jean Racine, and Molière (Jean-Baptiste Poquelin). In Germany, the poetry of Friedrich Hölderlin and various works in several genres by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe owe a debt to classicism (and Greek classicism in particular).