ENG 2110

Friday, April 01, 2005

The neoclassical age

The period is called neoclassical because its writers looked back to the ideals and art forms of classical times, emphasizing even more than their Renaissance predecessors the classical ideals of order and rational control. Such simply constructed but perfect works as the Parthenon and Sophocles' Antigone, such achievements as the peace and order established by the Roman Empire (and celebrated in Book VI of Vergil's Aeneid), suggest what neoclassical writers saw in the classical world. Their respect for the past led them to be conservative both in art and politics. Always aware of the conventions appropriate to each genre, they modeled their works on classical masterpieces and heeded the "rules" thought to be laid down by classical critics. In political and social affairs, too, they were guided by the wisdom of the past: traditional institutions had, at least, survived the test of time. No more than their medieval and Renaissance predecessors did neoclassical thinkers share our modern assumption that change means progress, since they believed that human nature is imperfect, human achievements are necessarily limited, and therefore human aims should be sensibly limited as well. It was better to set a moderate goal, whether in art or society, and achieve it well, than to strive for an infinite ideal and fail. Reasonable Philinte in The Misanthrope does not get angry at people's injustice, because he accepts human nature as imperfect.

Neoclassical thinkers could use the past as a guide for the present because they assumed that human nature was constant--essentially the same regardless of time and place. Art, they believed, should express this essential nature: "Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature" (Samuel Johnson). An individual character was valuable for what he or she revealed of universal human nature. Of course, all great art has this sort of significance--Johnson made his statement about Shakespeare. But neoclassical artists more consciously emphasized common human characteristics over individual differences, as we see in the type-named characters of Moliere.
If human nature has remained constant over the centuries, it is unlikely that any startling new discoveries will be made. Hence neoclassical artists did not strive to be original so much as to express old truths in a newly effective way. As Alexander Pope, one of their greatest poets, wrote: "True wit is nature to advantage dressed, / What oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed." Neoclassical writers aimed to articulate general truth rather than unique vision, to communicate to others more than to express themselves.
Social Themes

Neoclassical writers saw themselves, as well as their readers and characters, above all as members of society. Social institutions might be foolish or corrupt--indeed, given the intrinsic limitations of human nature, they probably were--but the individual who rebelled against custom or asserted his superiority to humankind was, like Alceste in The Misanthrope, presented as presumptuous and absurd. While Renaissance writers were sometimes fascinated by rebels, and later Romantic artists often glorified them, neoclassical artists expected people to conform to established social norms. For individual opinion was far less likely to be true than was the consensus of society, developed over time and embodied in custom and tradition. As the rules for proper writing should be followed, so should the rules for civilized conduct in society. Neither Moliere nor Jane Austen advocate blind following of convention, yet both insist that good manners are important as a manifestation of self-control and consideration for others. (www.academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/cs6/neocl.html)

In brief, the neoclassical age came about as part of the 18th century, and it was considered to be an enlightenment movement. In this age, man was considered to have been related to the world, and he also had a social contract with life, where a poets mind was rarely a subject at all.... here I have put together some descriptions that I have understood the neoclassical age to consist of: Structure, order, miles, symmetry, constraints, common sense, harmony, ideal beauty, and it is also very universal. I came across some interesting facts about this age on titan.iwu.edu/~wchapman/britpoet/neoclassicalism.html, and it gave some general information for my better understanding. I choose to blog about this because differernt poets came out of diffrent ages and wrote about different things. For example I would categorize romantic poets as being influenced by freedom, disorder, asymmetry, imagination, emotion, disharmoneous, dissonance, and lastly relative beauty.

Neoclassical era:

Why the name?
because it gave reverence for classical authors and ideas. There were imitations of classical forms such as epic, ode, epistle, etc. (but in a complicated way--more on this in a moment)
The use and refinement of aesthetic and critical principles taken from classical authors such as Horace.
decorum: adherence to more or less well defined rules for what is appropriate to a certain genre of poetry.
e.g. tragedy should depict characters of very high status--kings and/or nobles--and should be written, correspondingly, in a formal, elevated style.

view of poetry:
Writing as a craft, and not "overflowing of genius" poetry is mimesis, not expression
The thing that poets are interested in representing is "nature"--something like "that which is permanently true." The most central part of nature to represent is human nature. Poetry tends to deal with generalities and abstractions, not particulars. Poetry is public in character, not private expression of individual

view of the world:
The world is a heirarchy, a Great Chain of Being, and correspondingly, humans are fallen creatures especially prominent and central sin: pride.


  • At April 3, 2005 at 7:22 PM, Blogger la said…

    This post was extremely detailed and insiteful. =)

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