Q. What are the characteristics of Neoclassical poetry?
Neoclassical poetry, which flourished primarily during the late 17th and 18th centuries, is marked by its emphasis on order, reason, and formal rules.
It is rooted in the classical traditions of ancient Greece and Rome. However, it emerged during a time often referred to as the Age of Enlightenment (Neoclassical Age). Here are some defining characteristics of Neoclassical poetry:
- Reason and Order
- Classical Allusions
- Satire and Wit
- Elevated Style
- Heroic Couplet
Characteristics of Neoclassical Poetry
1- Reason and Order
Neoclassical poets valued reason and order. This perspective emerged during the Age of Enlightenment, a period when people championed science, logic, and structured thinking. The poetry of this era reflects this structured mindset, showcasing clear, logical progressions of thought.
A prime example is Alexander Pope. His poems demonstrate clear connections from one idea to the next, meticulously crafted to ensure readers can quickly grasp his message. There’s no randomness; each word and line has its purpose.
Order is equally crucial. Unlike chaotic or unstructured works, Neoclassical poetry thrives on balance and harmony. Every stanza, line, and word fits perfectly, like pieces in a puzzle.
This focus ensures that the poetry not only sounds pleasant but also conveys its message in a clear, comprehensible manner. Neoclassical poetry marries beauty with clarity, producing art that enlightens as much as it entertains.
From “An Essay on Criticism”:
True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learned to dance.
This shows the belief that good writing (or art) doesn’t just happen by accident—it’s a cultivated skill, emphasizing the importance of order and discipline.
From “Absalom and Achitophel”:
In pious times, ere priestcraft did begin,
Before polygamy was made a sin.
Dryden’s lines often unfold in a logical and orderly manner. It reflects societal observations with precision.
2- Classical Allusions
Neoclassical poets often allude to ancient Greece and Rome. These “allusions,” helped them make points, paint images, or add depth. They loved borrowing characters, myths, or tales from these ancient civilizations.
Why? Because these stories carried weight. Readers knew them and understood their meanings.
For example, Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock” alludes to the epic battles of the classics. However, he’s talking about a minor quarrel over a lock of hair. By doing so, Pope playfully compares a minor dispute to epic wars.
In John Dryden’s “Alexander’s Feast,” Alexander the Great becomes a central figure. The poem taps into well-known tales of this ruler to discuss the power of music. Even the structure, like the “heroic couplet,” takes its name from the classical idea of heroism.
These allusions worked twofold: they linked poems to respected ancient texts and provided readers with familiar references.
3- Satire and Wit
Neoclassical poets had a knack for sharp humor. Using satire and wit, they poked fun at society’s flaws, human follies, or grand institutions. Their clever use of language turned simple poems into biting commentaries.
Alexander Pope stands out here. In “The Rape of the Lock,” he mocks the elite’s petty squabbles by comparing a small spat over a lock of hair to an epic battle. He writes:
What dire offense from amorous causes springs,
What mighty contests rise from trivial things.
Jonathan Swift is another master of satire. His poem “A Modest Proposal” is not just a critique but a darkly humorous jab at how the English treated the Irish.
In a mock-serious tone, he suggests that the solution to poverty is for the people with low income to sell their children as food.
These poets used wit as a tool. It wasn’t just for laughs; it was to make readers think. Through clever lines and witty remarks, they highlighted the absurdities of their time.
They showed that poetry wasn’t just about beauty or emotions. It could be smart, funny, and critical all at once.
From “Mac Flecknoe”:
Shadwell alone my perfect image bears,
Mature in dullness from his tender years.
In these lines, Dryden humorously and satirically crowns Shadwell, a poet he often quarreled with, as the king of dullness and mediocrity, highlighting his wit in a biting manner.
From “The Dunciad”:
While pensive poets painful vigils keep,
Sleepless themselves, to give their readers sleep.
Here, Pope wittily critiques bad poets, suggesting that their tedious works are so dull they can put readers to sleep, even if the poets themselves stay awake to write them.
Neoclassical poets often wore a teacher’s hat. Through their poems, they aimed to instruct or offer moral lessons. This teaching approach in poetry is known as didacticism. These poets thought art should do more than amuse; it should also teach and show the way.
Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Man” is a prime example. He delves into man’s place in the universe and how we should live. He advises:
Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is man.
Another example comes from Samuel Johnson. In his poem “The Vanity of Human Wishes,” he explores the emptiness of worldly desires, guiding readers to seek deeper, more lasting values. He observes:
Where then shall hope and fear their objects find?
Must dull suspense corrupt the stagnant mind?
Through such poems, Neoclassical poets offered wisdom. They encouraged readers to think, reflect, and better themselves. It was not just about enjoying the rhythm but walking away wiser.
Neoclassical poets had a keen eye for the real world. They painted life as it was, not as they wished it to be. This realistic approach often highlighted society’s norms, values, and flaws. Rather than idealizing subjects, these poets preferred authenticity.
Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock” is a perfect example. While the poem has a playful tone, it offers an honest look at the vanity and pettiness of English high society. He describes a lady’s morning routine:
And now unveil’d, the toilet stands display’d,
Each silver vase in mystic order laid.
Jonathan Swift took realism to a darker level. In “A Modest Proposal,” he gave a chilling, satirical solution to Ireland’s poverty problem, reflecting the dire circumstances of the time.
John Dryden’s “Annus Mirabilis” captures the actual events of 1666, including the Great Fire of London. He depicts the fire’s fury:
The diligence of trades and noiseful gain,
And luxury more late, asleep were laid:
All was the night’s; and in her silent reign,
No sound the rest of nature did invade.
Neoclassical poets believed in the power of truth and used their verses to show it.
6- Elevated Style
Neoclassical poets loved grandeur. Their style often soared to lofty heights, echoing the great epics of ancient times. This “heroic” approach wasn’t just about heroes and battles but also about elevating language and theme.
Alexander Pope showcased this. Even when discussing criticism, a seemingly mundane subject, he made it sound noble in “An Essay on Criticism”:
When first young Maro sung of kings and wars,
Ere warning Phoebus touched his trembling ears.
Here, by referencing the Roman poet Virgil (Maro), Pope elevates the act of writing to something ancient and grand.
John Dryden’s “A Song for St. Cecilia’s Day” magnifies the power of music in an elevated style:
From harmony, from heavenly harmony,
This universal frame began.
These lines don’t just say that music is powerful. They suggest it’s the force that shaped the universe!
This grand approach made even simple subjects feel important and universal. Neoclassical poets believed that poetry should inspire, educate, and elevate. Their choice of words, references, and themes reflected this belief.
By adopting a heroic and elevated style, they transformed everyday observations into timeless reflections, capturing the imagination of their readers.
7- Heroic Couplet
The heroic couplet is like poetry’s dynamic duo. It consists of two rhymed lines, each in iambic pentameter. Each line has ten syllables: five pairs of unstressed and stressed beats. The rhyme and rhythm make it catchy, and Neoclassical poets loved it.
Alexander Pope made this form famous. His “An Essay on Criticism” is packed with heroic couplets. Here’s a taste:
To err is human; to forgive, divine.
A little learning is a dangerous thing.
John Dryden, another maestro, used this form brilliantly. In “Absalom and Achitophel,” he writes:
In pious times, ere priestcraft did begin,
Before polygamy was made a sin.
The charm of the heroic couplet lies in its simplicity and balance. Two lines, clear rhyme, and a steady rhythm. It’s crisp and memorable.
Neoclassical poets held a magnifying glass to the world. They aimed to see things as they were, not colored by personal feelings or biases. Being “objective” means not letting feelings take over and showing things fairly and evenly.
Alexander Pope embodied this in “An Essay on Man.” He observed humanity from a detached perspective:
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise and rudely great.
John Dryden, in his critical works, showcased a similar objective tone. In “An Essay of Dramatic Poesy,” he assesses drama without letting personal preferences dominate:
But if this incorrect essay, written in the country without the help of books or advice of friends, shall find any acceptance in the world, I promise to myself a better success of the second part, wherein the virtues and faults of the English poets, who have written in the dramatic, epic, or lyric way, will be more fully treated of, and their several styles impartially imitated.
Through objectivity, Neoclassical poets offered readers a clear lens. They believed that the poet’s role was not just to express but to inform and enlighten. By keeping personal biases at bay, they endeavored to present truths that stood the test of time.