18TH CENTURY CLASSICISM IN ENGLISH POETRY

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Neoclassical movement coincided with the 18th Century Age of Enlightenment and continued into the early 19th century almost clashing with Romanticism. Neoclassicism is a revival of the styles and spirit of classic antiquity inspired directly from the classical period, which coincided and reflected the developments in philosophy and other areas of the Age of Enlightenment, and was at the beginning a reaction against the excesses of the preceding style.

What is Neoclassicism?

Neoclassicism like we have pointed out in the introduction of this unit has to do with the revival of the styles of classical period. This period coincided with the developments in philosophy and other areas of the Age of Enlightenment. The movement is often described as opposed to Romanticism. The revival can then be traced to the establishment of formal archaeology.

The writings of Johann Joachim Winckelmann were important in shaping this movement in both architecture and the virtual arts. His books, thoughts on the Imitation of Greek works in Painting and Sculpture were the first to distinguish sharply between Ancient Greek and Roman art, and define periods within Greek art, tracing a trajectory from growth to maturity and then imitation or decadence that continues to have influence to the present day. Winckelmann believed that art should aim at “noble simplicity and calm grandeur” and praised the idealism of Greek art, in which he said that “not only nature at its most beautiful but also something beyond nature, namely certain ideal forms of its beauty, which, as an ancient interpreter of Plato teaches us, come from images created by the mind alone”.

In English, the term “Neoclassicism” is used primarily of the visual arts: the similar movement in English literature which began considerably earlier is called Augustan literature, which had been dominant for several decades, and was beginning to decline by the time Neoclassicism in the virtual arts became fashionable.

Features of English Neoclassicism

The Restoration period clashed with the Neoclassical period in England. The poets of the Restoration and eighteenth century saw the poetry of the early seventeenth century as excessive, even unrefined. They associated the intensity of the tropes in metaphysical poetry with political and epistemological instability. Although the eighteenth century poets valued sociability, the ‘spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling’ that for Wordsworth defined good poetry would no doubt have struck eighteenth poets as unnecessarily impulsive. Between these two periods and the styles associated with them, the poets of the eighteenth century aimed for a balance. Formally, this balance was best achieved in the work of Alexander Pope as we shall see. Stylistically, Restoration and eighteenth-century poetry was dominated by the heroic couplet.

This form features pairs or couplets of iambic pentameter lines. That is, each line is composed of ten syllables arranged into five groups or ‘feet’ of unstressed and stressed syllables; both line sin the pair and with the same sound. Each line, then, can represent a kind of balance within itself. Moreover, the prevalence of this pattern also created an expectation in readers, an expectation against which the poet could play unexpected rhythms and rhymes. The topicality of Restoration poetry, which today makes the poetry seem inaccessible, represents its own kind of balance – an attempt to counter-balance the political pull of power contemporaries.

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