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


Neoclassicism: A style of Western literature that flourished from the mid-seventeenth century until the end of the eighteenth century and the rise of romanticism. Neoclassicists stressed reason, harmony, balance, restraint, order, serenity, decorum, and realism — above all, an appeal to the intellect rather than emotion. They looked to the great classical writers for inspiration and guidance, considering them to have mastered every major genre, including the “noblest” literary forms, namely, tragic drama and the epic. Noted statements of neoclassical principles and rules include Nicolas Boileau’s L’art poétique (The Art of Poetry) (1674) and Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Criticism” (1711); preferred literary forms included the comedy of manners, epigram, essay, fable, letter, ode, and satire.

Neoclassical writers shared several beliefs. First, they thought of literature as an art, a craft requiring both study and practice. While they acknowledged the importance of individual inspiration and talent, many engaged in imitation of the “masters” in order to perfect their work and foster proper models of expression. Second, they emphasized adherence to form and to the conventions and rules associated with given genres. Third, they thought that literature should both instruct and delight and that the proper subject of art was humanity. Unlike some of the more idealistic and expansive writers who preceded them during the Renaissance (and followed during the Romantic Period), neoclassicists started from the assumption that humanity is imperfect and limited. Nevertheless, many neoclassicists found cause for optimism, particularly in the power of reason to perfect human civilization gradually, in keeping with the Enlightenment thinking of the period.

The Restoration (of the monarchy) in 1660 marked the beginning of the Neoclassical Period in Great Britain, whose writers included Pope, John Dryden, Henry Fielding, Samuel Johnson, and Jonathan Swift. But neoclassicism was by no means an exclusively British phenomenon; the movement flourished throughout Europe, particularly in France and Germany. French dramatist Jean Racine’s tragedy Phèdre (1677) exemplifies neoclassical qualities, as does his compatriot Molière’s (Jean-Baptiste Poquelin) satiric comedy Tartuffe (1667). In Germany, this movement was simply called die Klassik, or classicism. Notable works include Friedrich Schiller’s play Don Carlos (1787), Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Iphegenie auf Tauris (Iphigenia in Tauris) (1787), and Friedrich Hölderlin’s long poem Brot und Wein (Bread and Wine) (c. 1800). German classicism developed one major difference from Graeco-Roman classicism: the absolute, uncompromisable integrity of the human being.

The twentieth century witnessed a revival of neoclassical qualities in such writers as W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, and Ezra Pound. Many critics have viewed this revival as a corrective reaction to the excesses of romanticism, whose conventions, styles, and traditions nonetheless still influence our literary landscape.