The Neo-Classical School of Poetry

Generally, the period between 1680 and 1750 is called the Augustan age in English literature, for frequent comparisons were made between the literary activity of the England of this period and that of the Rome of Emperor Augustus which produced such poetic geniuses as Virgil, Horace, Ovid, and many others. Dr. Johnson in his characteristic way said that Dryden did for English poetry what Augustus had done for the city of Rome—”he found it brick and left it marble.”

Dryden and Pope were the greatest poets of the Augustan age. They conscientiously looked to the writers of Greek and Roman antiquity for guidance and inspiration. However, most of all, they were influenced by the Roman poets of the age of Augustus. They discredited the tradition of the decadent metaphysicals and established a new school of poetry which has since come to be known as the neo­classical school of English poetry. Though something had already been done before Dryden by Denham and Waller yet much was left to be done by Dryden himself and, still later, by Pope. The neo-classicism of Dryden and Pope was representative of the spirit of the age. The Restoration age marked the close of the genuine “romanticism” of the Elizabethan period and also the decadent romanticism of the Jacobean and Caroline periods. The creative imagination, exuberant fancy, and extravagance of the past had no appeal for an age which saw the establishment of the Royal Society and the inauguration of a new era of experimental science. A critical spirit was aboard, and men stopped taking things for granted. The spirit of the age was analytic and inquisitive, not synthetic and naively credulous. It put a greater stress on reason and intellect than on passion and imagination. The neo­classical poetry of Dryden, Pope, and their contemporaries was a manifestation of this new spirit.

Respect for the Ancients:
Cazamian observes: “The literary transition–ffom the Renaissance to the Restoration is nothing more or less than the progressive movement of a spirit of liberty at once fanciful, brilliant, and adventurous towards a rule and discipline both in inspiration and in form.” The neo-classicists were champions of common sense and reason and were in favour of normal generalities against the whims and eccentricities of individual genius. These normal generalities went under the term “Nature.” Pope’s advice to writers was to “follow Nature.” Curiously enough, the slogan of Rousseau and the English romantic poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge who reacted against the school of Pope, was also the same. But “Nature” for the romantics meant something entirely different-primitive simplicity and the world of forests, flowers, birds, streams, etc. Dryden and Pope laid special stress on the imitation of the ancients and the observance of the rules formulated or adhered to by them. For the rules of the ancients were, in the words of Pope, “Nature still, but Nature methodised.” Neo­classical poets abundantly translated and adapted classical works. Thus Dryden gave a verse translation of Virgil, and Pope of Homer. These.translations did not literally adhere to their originals. Thus, Bentley observed that Pope’s translation of Homer was a good poem but it was “not Homer”. What is more important than literal fidelity, however, is the attempt at capturing the spirit of the original. And this Dryden and Pope did pretty well. Even the original works of the English neo-classicists have rich echoes of classical writers.
Influence of the French Neo-classicists:
The neo-classical school of Dryden and Pope was much influenced by the neo-classical French school of the age of Louis XIV which goes down in history as the “golden” or “Augustan” age of French literature. According to W. H. Hudson vnAn Outline History of English Literature, “the contemporary l.iterature of France was characterised by lucidity, vivacity, and—by reason of the close attention given to form—correctness, elegance, and finish…It was moreover a literature in which intellect was in the ascendant and the critical faculty always in control.” It was a literature of good sense and regularity and order.
One of the important tenets of the French neo-classical criticism was the theory of kinds or genres. Traditional criticism in the age of Dryden and Pope also worked through a reverent attention to these genres which the French critics had derived from the classics. Aristotle, the godhead of alj criticism for the neo-classicists, had dealt with only two genres-epic and tragedy. But by the middle of the seventeenth century many more genres came to be recognized and fit styles for them came to be fixed. The appropriateness of the style to the genre-the principle of decorum-came to be exalted to a veritable shibboleth. A hierarchy of genres found its establishment/John Dennis in 1704 sooke for his aee when in “The Grounds of Criticism in Poetry” he divided all genres into high and low groups, the first group-comprising epic, tragedy, and “greater lyrical poetry”, (that is, the Pindaric ode) and the other, comedy and satire, the liftle ode, and elegiac and pastoral poems. It is of interest to note that the ancients had to offer no example of the genre of mock epic. The English poets adopted this important genre from the French neo-classicists. The most influential mock epic was Boileau’s Le Lutrin which provided a model for such excellent English mock epics as Dryden’s Mac Flecknoe, Garth’s The Dispensary, and Pope’s The Rape of the Lock and even The Dunciad.
Realism, Didacticism, and Satire:
Much of romantic poetry is marked by an egregious lack of realism amounting at times to sheer escapism. Classicism, on the other hand, puts special emphasis on concrete reality and aims pre­eminently at edification and improvement of the reader. That is why much of classical poetry is realistic, didactic, and satiric. Almost all classical poets were men of action very much in the thick of life and its pressing affairs. They wrote with a very clear and concrete purpose, not just for the fun of it or for fulfilling a pressing necessity of self-revelation. Political, religious, and even personal satire became in the Augustan era the vogue of the day. If the neo-classical poet was not satiric, he was, at least, sure to be didactic. It is very rarely that we come across in this age such a poem as Pope’s Eloisa to Abelard, which is “a poem without a purpose” aiming neither at instruction nor at ridicule nor chastisement through satire. To quote some instances, Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel and The Medal are political satires, and his Mac Flecknoe a personal satire. Pope’s most important poems, like The Dunciad, The Rape of the Lock, and The Epistle to Afbuthnot, are all satires. Most of the rest of his poems, like his “Moral Essays”, are didactic in aim. A subject on which neo-classical poets showed much brilliance was dullness—the dullness of some specific rivals or the collective dullness of all of them put together. The Dunciad and Mac Flecknoe show how dullness can serve as a target of brilliant satire. Some of neo-classical poems are too much topical in nature, and all of them are full of contemporary references, and they need exhaustive annotation to become comprehensible to the reader of today who is unfamiliar with the atmosphere out of which these poems grew and which was very well known to the readers of that age. The poems of the romantics, on the other hand, are largely free from contemporary references, for the romantic poet, generally speaking, is not a man of action and affairs and scarcely lives on the common, humdrum earth. He lives, instead, in a world of his own fancy with
magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.
“Vers de Societe”:
One explanation for the realism of neo-classical poetry is that the neo-classical poet wrote as a civilised man speaking to other civilised men, not, like a romantic poet, an eerie voice’ ‘speaking from the clouds.” The works of neo-classical poets were appraised not in literary journals but in drawing-rooms and coffee-houses. Neo­classical poetry, then, is what the French call vers de societe. The aim of the neo-classical poet was not only self-revelation but arguing and convincing with the help of either real logic or rhetoric (which has been called “specious logic”). Satire also came in handy for the purpose. Being in all respects a normal member of the community, the neo-classical poet made it a point to write poems on festive or important public occasions such as the coronation of a king, the recovery from illness of a dignitary, a national victory in a battle, and so on. Dryden’s Astraea Redux commemorated the coronation of Charles II, his Annus Mirabilis had for its theme the Great Fire of 1666 and the defeat of the Dutch Fleet in the same year, his Medal was occasioned as a reaction against the jubilance of the Whigs at the release of the Earl of Shaftesbury in 1681 and their striking a medal in his honour. Addison’s The Campaign was written to commemorate the Allies’ victory in the battle of Blenheim. Much of Swift’s poetry is also occasional in nature. Pope’s The Rape of the Lock and some other poems also got started off by one real happening or another.
Being vers de societe, it is natural for neo-classical poetry to be town poetry, or even “drawing-room poetry” having little contact with the “barbarous” world of nature which to some romantics appealed as a deity and to all as a source of inspiration and a perennial theme for poetry. About this aspect of neo-classical poetry W. H. Hudson observes : “It is almost exclusively a “town” poetry, made out of the interests of ‘society’ in the great centres of culture. The humbler aspects of life are neglected in it, and it shows no real love of nature, landscape, ortountry things and people.” The neo-classicists were averse to the description of natural beauty, however appealing. Pope in his maturity disapproved of his earlier poem Windsor Forest because in it, to quote himself, “mere description held the place of sense.”
No Imagination or Passionate Lyricism:
Being cultured men of society, neo-classical poets held all passion as suspect, as something primitive and uncultured. Lyricism therefore declined and very few good lyrics were produced in the age of Dryden and pope. Dryden did write a few good lyrics. “but they. too. are “classical” in spirit, for in them he was fully objective and rigorously correct. He never gave a free play to his emotions. In neo­classical poetry wit and intellect took the place of passion and imagination. It is only now and then that the neo-classical poet deals with human passion, as for instance Pope in his Eloisa to Abelard. Pope mostly dealt with poetry as if it were just an intellectual exercise to please himself and his friends and to frighten his enemies. He liked such poetic toys as acrostics, puzzles, puns, anagrams, and so on which showed his intellect and art rather than any deep poetic passion or inspiration. For instance, consider the following couplets by him which are expressive of wit rather than romantic poetic fury :
“Epigram engraved on the collar of a dog which I gave to His Royal Highness”
I am his Highness ‘dog at Kew,
Pray, tell me, sir, whose dog are you?
You Beat your Pate, and Fancy Wit will come;
Knock as you please, there’s nobody at home.
Here Francis Charters lies. Be civil;
The rest God knows
perhaps the Devil!
“The Balance of Europe” Now Europe‘s balanc’d, neither side prevails:
For nothing ‘d left in either of the Scales.
Expression-the Heroic Couplet:
The neo-classical poet put a special premium upon beautiful and effective expression. He did not mind even if the thought sought to be expressed was stale. As Pope puts it,
True Wit is Nature to advantage dress’d,
What oft was thought but ne ‘er so well express ‘d.
The heroic couplet became with neo-classic poets the most favoured of verse measures. It was Dryden who took this measure from Waller and Denham and polished it into a very effective medium of narrative and satiric poetry. It was left for Pope to perfect the heroic couplet and to employ it as the effective expression for all kinds of poetry. R. P. C. Mutter and Kinkead-Weekes observe in Introduction to Selected Poems and Letters of Alexander Pope : “From Dryden’s extremely varied achievement in the heroic couplet Pope learnt how it could be made flowing and easy, or packed and concise, how it could be wittily antithetical or tenderlv elegiac.” Whereas neo-classica! poets expressed themselves mostly in thefieroic couplet or such “recognized” measures as the heroic stanza (making exception for the irregular and intricate measures of the so-called Pindaric ode), romantic poets revived a large number of stanzaic patterns and invented many on their own. In the age of Dryden and Pope much stress was laid on the “correctness” of sentiment and form, and the heroic couplet with all its neatness and precision embodied well the desired correctness of form.

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