The Neoclassical Period (1660-1785) in English Literature

Mofizur Rahman

The Neoclassical Period (1660-1785) in Literature or Classicism

History of English Literature
The Neoclassical Period in English Literature (1660-1785)
Major Works of  The Neoclassical Period in English
Major Writers of The Neoclassical Period

The Neoclassical Period (1660-1785) in English Literature, neoclassical period writers & their works neoclassical age in English literature

Neoclassical Period


The age is called Neoclassical or Pseudo-classical Age to mean the artificiality of the writers of this age. They imitated the ancient Greek and Roman literary tradition but lacked the originality of the writers of that period.

Main Literary Features of the Age:-

1. The writers of this age imitated the style of the ancient Greek and Roman writers.
2. Much attention is paid to technical perfection rather than innovation or natural genius.
3. Human beings are given most importance. The literary ideal of the age is “art for man's sake”, not “art for art's sake”.
4. General rather than the individual qualities of human beings are given more importance.
5. Sophistication in thought and style is emphasized.

The Neoclassical Age comprises three shorter ages:

The Restoration Period(1660-1700)
The Augustan Age (1702-1745)
The Age of Sensibility((1745-85)

The Restoration Period (1660-1700)

This period is called the Restoration Period because in this period, with the restoration of monarchy, the English literary tradition was restored. In the Commonwealth Period Charles II, the son of Charles I, escaped to France. After the death of Richard Cromwell the people of England brought him back and made him King of England on May 29, 1660. He remained in power till his death in 1685 when James II, another son of Charles I, ascended the throne. He was a Catholic and most of the people who were Protestants wanted to dethrone him. In 1688 there was the Glorious Revolution (Bloodless Revolution) against him. He fled to France.

William III of France, the husband of Mary, the daughter of James II, came to power.William ruled England till his death in 1702.

The important facts which influenced the literature ofthis period are:-

1. A general reaction against puritanical restraints became very strong.
2. Two political parties - the Whig and the Tory - were formed. The Whigs were against the King and for the Protestants. The Tories supported the King and the Catholics.
3. In 1690 there was Jacobite Rising. The Catholics of Ireland, who were led by James II, fought against William's soldiers and were defeated.
4. In 1662 the Royal Society was founded to promote scientific research. Sir Isaac Newton was a member of it.
5. In 1695 the press was made free. Everyone wàs given liberty to express his or her views.
6. The Bill of Rights was adopted in 1689. It curtailed the monarch's power and increased parliament's power.

Major Writers of the Period and Their Major Works:-

John Milton

John Milton (1608-74)
He started writing in the previous age, wrote his great epics in this period. He remained almost unaffected by the looseness of the Restoration Period.
  1. Paradise Lost (1667), the great epic in English
  2. Paradise Regained (1671)
  3. Samson Agonistes (1671)

Samuel Butler

Samuel Butler (1612-80)
  1. Hudibras (1663), a satire in verse

John Bunyan 

John Bunyan (1628-88)
The Pilgrim's Progress (1678), the famous allegory in prose

John Dryden

John Dryden (1631-1700)
  1. All for Love (1778)
  2. The Indian Emperor(1665)
  3. Aureng-Zebe (1675)
  4. Absalom and Achitophel (1681)
  5. MacFlecknoe(1682)
  6. “The Essay of Dramatic Poesy”(1668)

John Locke

John Locke (1632-1704)
  1. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690)

William Wycherley

William Wycherley(1640-1715)
  1. The Country Wife(1675)
  2. The Plain Dealer(1676)

Aphra Behn

Aphra Behn (1640-1689)
  1. The Rover (1677), a Restoration comedy
  2. Oroonoko (1688), a prose fiction

William Congreve 

William Congreve (1670-1729)
  1. The Double Dealer(1693)
  2. Love for Love(1695)
  3. The Way of the World (1700)

George Farquhar

George Farquhar (1678-1707)
  1. The Recruiting Officer (1706)
  2. The Beaux's Stratagem (1707)

Main Literary Features of the Age:

1) Imitation of the ancient Greek and Roman writers gives rise to Neo-classicism.
2) Puritan controls loosen and a wave of foppery and vulgarity sweeps the creative works.
3) Great English epics are written with proper elegance and grandeur.
4) Drama returns with the then French licentiousness and gaiety; it loses Elizabethan seriousness and splendour.
5) Comedy of manners and heroic tragedy become major dramatic genres.
6) Translation of great classical texts starts appearing.
7) Satirical verse becomes popular.
8) Literature of two extremes co-exists: Great epics, like Paradise Lost, and the moral wisdom, like The Pilgrim's Progress, are written. At the same time sensual comedies, like The Country Wife, are also written.

The Augustan Age(1702-1745)

This age is called Augustan Age because the writers of this period imitated the style and elegance of the writers who wrote in Italy during the reign of the Emperor Augustus (27 B.C.-14 A.D). This span of time is also called the Age of Pope because Alexander Pope was the best known poet of the time. During these years England was ruled by Queen Anne (1702-14), George I (1714-27)and George II (1727-60).

The important facts which influenced the literature of this period are:-

1. Scotland was annexed to England.
2. Jacobite rising continued.
3. The first cabinet of England was formed.
4. The first English daily newspaper, “The Daily Courant”, appeared in London in 1702.
5. The number of coffee houses, pubs and clubs was multiplied and people learned the habit of living together.
6. A number of literary associations started. Of them the most famous was the Scriblerus Club.

The members of this club were Alexander Pope, John Gay, John Arbuthnot, Jonathan Swift and Thomas Parnell. The other clubs of this period were Kit-cat Club and the Spectator's Club.

Major Writers of the Period and Their Major Works:-

Daniel Defoe

Daniel Defoe(1659-1731)
  1. Robinson Crusoe(1719)

Jonathan Swift

Jonathan Swift(1667-1745)
  1. The Battle of the Books(1704)
  2. A Tale ofa Tub (1704)
  3. Gulliver's Travels (1726)

Joseph Addison

Joseph Addison (1672-1719) and Sir Richard Steele (1672-1729)
The Tatler and The Spectator (1709-1712).
* Addison wrote 274 out of total 555 essays published in them and Steele wrote the rest.

Alexander Pope

Alexander Pope (1688-1744)
  1. The Rape of the Lock (1712)
  2. Dunciad (1728)
  3. Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot(1735)
  4. An Essay on Criticism(1711)

Samuel Richardson

Samuel Richardson (1689-1761)
  1. Pamela or Virtue Rewarded(1740), the first English novel

Henry Fielding

Henry Fielding(1707-54)
  1. Joseph Andrews (1742), a novel

Main Literary Features of the Age:-

1. Neo-classical spirit continues.
2. Poetry becomes a visual as well as a verbal art following Horace's theory “as in painting, so in poetry” (“Ut pictura poesis").
3. Precise, formal and elegant become the standard style of writing.
4. Moderation, realism and rationalism become the main principles of creative works.
5. The regular pentameter couplet and blank' verse are developed to the best possible perfection.
6. Lyric poetry looses dominance.
7. Satirical verse continues.
8. Satirical prose appears; it blends fact and fiction in new forms, such as, biographies, travelogues, political allegories, and romantic tales.
9. Novels and journalism begin.
10. Translation of great classical texts continues.
11. Wit or inventiveness, and aptness of' descriptive images or metaphors become major literary devices.
12. Literature mirrors political awareness.
13. Urban culture overpowers literature.

The Age of Sensibility ((1745-85)

This age is called the Age of Sensibility because reason, sensible views and “original genius” controlled the literature of the time. It is also called the Age of Johnson after the name of Dr. Samuel Johnson who dominated this period. This age started after Pope's death and ended with the first edition of Lyrical Ballads in 1798.

The important facts which influenced the literature of this period are:

1. James Watt invented steam engine in 1769. In 1733 John Kay invented the flying shuttle. In 1764 Hargreaves invented the spinning jenny. All these contributed to the Industrial Revolution.
2. Industrial towns appeared.
3. There was revolution in agricultural production.
4. The British founded its empire in India in 1757 and lost its American colony in 1776.
5. French Revolution started in 1789 and continued till 1799. Voltaire (1694-1778) and Jean Jacques Rousseau(1712-78) taught individualism and inspired revolution for more freedom and equality. During the reign of Louis XVI of France (whose wife was Marie Antoinette) there were several social inequalities among the people. The King and the nobility were enjoying all the good things of the country and the common people were deprived of their due shares. The law of the country was'not equal for all classes of people. The existing social injustices prompted the great revolution known as the French Revolution in 1789.The slogan of the revolution was “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity”. The King along with his Queen was overthrown by the common people. This revolution had tremendous effect on the life and literature of the people of England.

6. In 1764 Dr. Johnson founded his famous literary club known as Johnson's Literary Club; its members were Burke, Pitt, Fox, Gibbon, Goldsmith and a few other great persons of the time.
7. The development of industry and commerce, the rise of political parties and democracy created problems and a change in the social infrastructure ensued.
8. A literate middle class grew and the range of reading public widened.

Major Writers of the Period and Their Major Works:

Samuel Richardson

Samuel Richardson (1689-1761)
* He had started writing novels in the previous age and wrote the following novels in this age.
  1. Clarissa Harlowe (1748)
  2. Sir Charles Grandison (1754)

Henry Fielding 

Henry Fielding (1707-54)
*He had started writing novels in the previous age and wrote the following novels in this age.
  1. Tom Jones (1749)
  2. Amelia (1751)

Dr. Samuel Johnson

Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-84)
  1. Dictionary (1755)
  2. The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia (1759)
  3. “Preface to Shakespeare”(1765)
  4. The Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (1779-81)

Thomas Gray

Thomas Gray (1716-71)
  1. “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1751)

Oliver Goldsmith

Oliver Goldsmith (1728-74)
  1. The Citizen of the World (1759)
  2. The Vicar of the Wakefield (1766)

Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke (1729-97)
  1. “On American Taxation” (1774)
  2. “Speech on Conciliation with America” (1775)
  3. “Speech on Mr. Fox's East India Bill” (1783)

Edward Gibbon

Edward Gibbon (1737-94)
  1. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776)

Main Literary Features of the Age:-

1) The Restoration spirit dies away.
2) The age marks a gradual change in poetic taste and techniques.
3) The heroic couplet and blank verse decline and the ballad and lyric revive.
4) Pindaric ode appears.
5) Intellectual prose writings flourished.
6) The novel takes a definite shape and rises to dominate the literary scene.
7) Poetry shifts its focus from intensely social issues to melancholy, isolation, and reflection.
8) Features of romanticism that flourishes in the next age come into view.
9) Literary criticism finds a solid ground.

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