Neo-Classicism in English Literature.

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      About the middle of the seventeenth century a change came over the spirit of English literature. The change is due to no mere fluctuation of literary fashion but in deeply rooted in the life of the time. The Elizabethan romanticism has all but spend itself by 1660. The age ot Elizabeth was an age of spiritual and material expansion. It was the full budding of the spirit of the Renascence and Reformation, of the liberation of the spirit, of wild adventures and discoveries, of reckless experimentations in which emotions of the heart found full expression. Thus the drama and poetry of the age were the natural expressions of this spirit. But this emotional exuberance was too high pitched to last long. Already in the literature had become clearly expressed. Its splendid exuberance had yielded to extravagance and violence. Poetry and drama, except in occasional purple patches had become extravagant and frivolous, with the soul of the creative impulse gone out of them. And in the closing years of the Elizabethan age great minds like Bacon and Milton retlected in their writings the dawn of a fresh interest- the spirit of criticism, of balance and sobriety. John Donne broke away from the Elizabethan tradition and Petrarchan conventions. His poetry with the blend of passion and wit and with its uses of strange imagery registers a reaction to the easy fluency and facile optimism of the age.

the Neo-Classicism of Dryden and Pope.
Neo-Classicism

      At the Restoration the break with the past was complete. The nation which was in its childhood in the Elizabethan age seemed to have come of age. The uncritical period of childhood was gone. Intellectual criticism took the place of uncritical enthusiasm and imaginative fervour. Men's thoughts were now directed to the problems of civic and national life. Naturally, literature was involved with the problems of practical politics. In short, the age of reason had dawned. The later poems of the transitional poets like Cowley, Waller and Denham point to the new note that was coming and with the coming of John Dryden it proclaimed itself clearly in the literature.

      As this literature came of a reaction from Elizabethan romanticism, it is called classical by contrast. Now this triumph of the classical ideal was also a natural effect of the Renascence. The romantic spirit of the Elizabethan age owes, no doubt, considerably to the study of Greek and Roman classics. But "while it was the substance that excited men at first, when the early exhilaration had worn off, the method of the old writers attracted more and more attention". The weakness of romanticism was seen clearly even in the Elizabethan age by Ben Jonson, Shakespeare's rival and friend, who threw in his weight on the classical side. His influence worked on the poets of the transition and paved the path for the Neo-Classicism of Dryden and Pope. Lacking the creative genius of the Elizabethan writers, the poets of the age turned to the great classical writers, particularly to the Latin writers, for inspiration. Reason or intellect took the place of poetic imagination. Emotion or passion was banished; the appeal was to the brain rather than to the heart. Literature became criticism of life, rather than imaginative interpretation of life. Thus "the new spirit was critical and analytical, not creative and sympathetic". Hence the abundance of satires in this age and not of lyrics. "The merits of the new school are to be found in its intellectual force and actuality, just as its demerits lie in its lack of deep imagination and its tendency to deal with manners and superficiality, rather than with the elemental things and large issues of life". Analysis, reasoning, realism and criticism these are the literary methods of the age. Clearness, conciseness, concentrated force in literary expression were the ideals set up before the writers. 'Correctness' or 'good sense' was the main end of the school. This correctness, as Albert has observed, means "avoidance of enthusiasm; moderate opinions moderately expressed; strict care and accuracy in poetic technique; and humble imitation of the style of the Latin classics". In a word, the age of prose and reason was ushered and poetry came closer to prose than in any other age of English literature.

      In this revolution in English literature, a set of French writers who had arisen in this age, actuated by classical methods had exercised a profound influence. Moliere, Boileau etc. were the main exponents of the classical creed in France. Learned treatises on the writing of poetry were written by these French authors. Boileau's ideal of good sense became the main inspiration of these writers of the age of Dryden and Pope. The old heroic couplet was revived by this new school and given order, symmetry, regularity and cadence.

      "Dryden did not attain altogether to this idea". Some of the old ideals of romanticism still persisted in his writings, though the new tendencies were clearly marked. He dominated the literature till the end of the century. It was for the next age, the age of Pope and Addison to carry these classical ideal to perfection; hence that age has been called the Classical or Augustan age in English literature.

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