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Classicism

lassicism (sometimes referred to as neoclassicism) is the principles and aesthetic attitudes emphasizing form, simplicity, proportion, and emotional restraint based on the culture, art, and literature of ancient Greece and Rome.  Classicism in literature is predominately inspired by antiquity and characterized by the faithful adherence to ancient aesthetic ideals rather than individual expression.  Furthermore, classical poetry was written with an aura of pride and  “denotes the imitation of Greek and Latin themes … [as well as] the imitation of Greek and Roman literary forms in composing works on any theme” (137 Preminger)  Either way, classical writers maintained a “rationality and universality [in] their themes” (139 Preminger).  Notable English classical writers are “John Dryden (1631-1700), Thomas Rymer (1641-1713), and Alexander Pope (1688-1744)” (139 Preminger).  Their poems were inherently conservative, prideful of the ancient ideals, and express distrust in innovation and change.  In Essay on Criticsm, Alexander Pope describes the philosophy of classical poetry as:

 

“Those rules, of old discovered, not devised,
Are nature still, but nature methodized;
Nature, like liberty, is but restrained
By the same laws which first herself ordained.” (http://www.readbookonline.net/readOnLine/607/)

 

It is this unwavering faith in “nature’s” law that implies a conviction of a set of permanent universal “rules” that dictate how poetry should be written and structured.  Thus, these poets followed a strict set of formal rules and tradition was valued above personal creativity.  Naturally, “20th century critics have come to see the contrast between classicism and romanticism as an emphasis on poetic form and conscious craftsmanship opposed to a poetics of personal emotion and logically incommensurable inspiration” (140 Preminger).

If classical poetry had an antithesis, it would be indisputably be the poetry of the Romantic Era.  The Romantic Movement marked the shift in Western culture to art and human creativity in the late 18th century first half of the 19th century.  Romantics rejected the rationalism, “objectivity, imitation, invention, clarity, [and] separation of prose and poetry” (718 Preminger) treasured by poets of the previous century.  Instead, they celebrated “absolute creative freedom, spontaneity, ‘sincerity,’ and a sort of emotional engagement on the part of the poet” (718 Preminger).   Thus, the restrained balance valued in the 18th century was abandoned in favor of emotional ecstasy, nostalgia, and sexuality; the imitation of Greek and Roman literature and ideals were replaced by irrational dreams as well as folk superstitions and legends.  Romantics celebrate the beauties of nature, human personality, and the focus of passions on inner struggles.  They valued the individual over the ideal; the poet was now the individual creator and his creative spirit is more important than the strict adherence to traditional rules and procedures.  To the romanticists, the universe no longer held a set laws and boundaries, free development and creative imagination were encouraged: “magical inspiration and archetypal myths … owe much to the romanticists’ interest in the nocturnal side of nature” (720 Preminger).  Owing to change and progression, the Romantic Movement dominated the European culture by the mid 19th century and has influenced most subsequent developments in literature.

Modernism is a term applied to a wide range of experimental and unconventional trends in literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  The avant-garde Modernist movement, “under the influence of developments in other disciplines, especially philosophy and psychology” (514 Preminger), rejected the 19th century romantic traditions and the adopted new complex forms and styles.  Charles Baudelaire believed the modern poet should translate “his experiences into symbols of a transcendental reality through a fusion of all the senses” (511 Preminger).  Thus, modern poetry is characterized by a removed reality intertwined with collages of fragmentary images and complex allusions.  The poets favored a “very simple device, the juxtaposition of the lovely and the squalid, or the passionate and the trival” (470 Scott-Kilvert) to express allusions of the brute realities of life.  However, the terminology and allusions of modern poets are sometimes unclear (515 Preminger), especially Eliot, and lead to an ambiguity in interpretation.  But modern poets with their juxtaposition and allusions interject moral values in their poems that capture everyday conflicts and relate them to both the poet and the reader.  “Essentially a poem is itself an action, the poet’s own struggle to work out problems, insights, valuations” (517 Preminger) but these actions and struggles also apply to the readers, effectively allowing them to relate and sympathize with the author’s struggle.  Thus, modern poetry progresses from romantic framework in that a successful modern poem “is not the direct emotional response of the poet to some particular situation in his own life” (515 Preminger).  Instead, it is impersonal, directed towards the public, and should “not be valued for its ideas as such, but for its demonstration of what it feels like to the poet [or the reader] to have them” (515 Preminger).

To critics, the works of Alexander Pope belong in the same great tradition of classical English poetry as Dryden, Rymer, Milton, and Spenser. Whereas the romantics’ attitude towards earlier poetry was one of disdain, Pope and his contemporaries celebrated and imitated the poetry written ages before them.  “William Wordsworth despised most of the poetry written in the century before his own … [but] Pope considered the development of poetry in the age before his own as a matter for rejoicing” (1001-1002 Kilvert).  Concordantly, Pope’s poetic attitude was not one of revolt; “his poetry did not disgust on its first appearance by deserting accepted models” (opl.org §1 POPE).  Instead, he employed the classical technique of imitating both the literature of the Ancient Greeks and Romans as well as that of earlier classical authors. “Pope ‘endeavoured to collect all the beauties of the great epic writers into one piece: there was Milton’s style in one part … here the style of Spenser imitated … here Homer and Vergil, and there Ovid and Claudian’” (1002 Kilvert).  He further demonstrated his appreciation for Greek Literature and his adherence to tradition (in form, simplicity, and proportion) by publishing his translation of the Iliad” in 1717 (§12 his homer opl.org) in which he emphasized “his boyish rage for rhyming” (1002 Kilvert).  And while Pope composed his poetry imitating the simplistic style of earlier poets “in the rejection of the extravagance of the so-called metaphysical poets” (opl.org §1 POPE), he presaged the romantic movement by exploring “passionate sexual love” (1003 Kilvert) such as in his poem: The Rape of Lock.

In 1717, Pope published The Rape of the Lock; a mock heroic satire that captured the essence of classical poetry (1003 Kilvert).  The poem was an “exquisitely witty and balanced burlesque displaying the literary virtuosity, the perfection of poetic ‘judgment,’ and the exquisite sense of artistic propriety, which was so sought after by Neoclassical artists” (http://www.victorianweb.org/previctorian/pope/rape.html).  Pope arranged it in cantos that mirrors a Greek epic and employed a binary structure was to keep the poem in proportion.  “The conspicuous orderliness of the verse is played against the disorder of the world to which it directs our gaze, setting up the two-way or binary opposition so typical of formal verse satire: the precise voice of the satirist, and the mere
noise of the external scene. The attempt to clarify, to make sense of the chaos, is
the characteristic action of Pope’s satire.”  The poem begins with an invocation of the muse.

 

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