NEOCLASSICAL and ROMANTIC  Literature:
Some General Distinctions

Copyright 1996 by John Lye. This text may be freely used, with attribution, for non-profit purposes.

As with all of my posts for this course, this document is open to change. If you have any suggestions (additions, qualifications, arguments, corrections), mail me.

 
NEOCLASSIC
ROMANTIC
Quality of poetry
decorum, concision, restraint, balance, reason, regularity, wit
emotion, introspection, passion, sublimity, beauty, spontaneity, irregularity, picturesque
Subjects
public and political concerns, social responsibility, manners & morals; "The proper study of mankind is Man" (Pope)
natural world serves as an image of or analogy for human concerns
deals with polite, urbane society, upper and middle classes; the natural world serves as an image of or analogy for human concerns
humankind generally, nature & the soul, spiritual identity; a-political (or radical)
human value, perception and wholeness, often evoked through and deeply connected to the natural world
inclusion of the elderly, women, children, the rural and the unlettered
Values
absolute, public, rational, humanist
private, spiritual, universal through Spirit in nature and in humankind
The poet
urbane, witty, gentlemanly, moral, incisive; good sense, good humour, learning, social concern, capable of moral outrage
solitary, reflective, inspired; a person of imagination and acute sensibility, sometimes visionary
Setting
urban; the rural is seen either as pastoral (idealized) or as ignorant and unmannerly
rural, the countryside; the city is seen as the locus of corruption, greed and power
Allusion and history
Classical Greece and, especially, Augustan Rome, also the Bible
the mythic, the mediaeval, the gothic, irrational, remote
Language
"Language is the dress of thought" (Pope); attention to decorum, propriety, allusion
language has creative power; attention to the evocative, moving, beautiful
Genres
satire, epistle, epic (teaching, ideas, critique of public values), ode (public) and epigrams
lyric, ode (enthusiasm, union with nature, inspiration, emotion, meditation)
Idea of 'Nature'
(Most qualities of poetry and senses of what constitutes moral life follow upon the age's understanding of Nature.)

Nature is the 'order of things', the "clear, unchanged and universal light" (Pope); it is marked by harmony, rationality and order, expressed descriptively and emotionally as well as intellectually. The 'real' world as we experience and understand it models a divinely sanctioned, hierarchical order. Poetry is public, ordered, intellectual; it values right reason, teaching, civic concern.

'Nature' refers firstly to the external world in its beauty and power, and then as that nature is an expression of the power of Being which flows through and unites all things, including humankind. This force is creative and moral, and is embodied in humans in the Imagination -- as opposed to the Reason in the neo-classical view. Therefore poetry is marked by emotion, beauty, inspiration, feeling, mystery. Its sense of the moral is the fully experiencing, passionate person, in harmony with the natural world and the higher forces -- as opposed to the civic order and right reason of the neoclassical sense of the moral.
Key texts
Ben Jonson, "To Penshurst"
Alexander Pope, "Essay on Criticism"
William Wordsworth, "Preface to The Lyrical Ballads", "Tintern Abbey"