History of English Literature, Neo Classical Age

Classical or Neo-Classical Age

In English literature history, the Neo Classical Age generally refers to the years from the late 17th to the early 18th centuries.

During this period, literature moved away from the turbulent, emotive works of the Renaissance and began to adopt a more rational, systematic approach. For inspiration, writers often looked back to classical Greek and Roman literature for the ideals and forms of this period.

The classical attitude and style of art are based on or reiterate the themes, techniques, and subjects of ancient Greece and Rome (which date roughly from the time of Greek city-states in the 8th century BCE to the end of the Roman Empire in the 5th century CE). Generally, the term refers to art created after the decline of the Roman Empire that holds values associated with ancient art. The principles include harmony, idealism, proportion, restraint, and balance.

It is often assumed that “Greco-Roman art,” “classical art,” or “the art of antiquity” apply to ancient Greek and Roman art, but in reality, the way art was made varied through the centuries. In comparison with the art of the Romans, works created by ancient Greeks are vastly different.

Ancient Greece

While working after the fall of the Roman Empire, artists adopted elements from antiquity’s many periods, notably the artwork produced by the ancient Greeks during the Archaic (c. 625–500 BCE) and Classical periods (c. 500–323 BCE). In the Archaic period, builders developed the doric and ionic orders of architecture, displaying a concern for harmonious proportions in their architecture. In this period, freestanding figurative sculptures, called kourois (plural: kouros) and korais (plural: kores), became more realistic, with more attention paid to human anatomy and proportion. For example, Exekias depicted tragedies related to the Trojan War in balanced, spare compositions, heightening psychological tension.

In the classical period, temple-building continued to refine, culminating in the construction of the Parthenon, an icon of restrained elegance. A more dynamic sculpture was introduced with the invention of contrapposto (Italian: “opposite”), in which a standing figure is positioned such that the weight is on one leg (called the engaged leg), freeing the other leg. Having shifted their weight, the hips, shoulders, and head tilt suggest relaxation with subtle organic movement. In a royal tomb at Aegae in Macedonia (now Vergina, Greece), Greek paintings from the classical period depict similar scenes, such as Persephone being abducted by Hades. Several Greek paintings can still be found, whether murals or pottery work, depicting similar scenes, including the painting of Persephone abducted by Hades in a tomb at Aegae, Macedonia (now Vergina, Greece).

Ancient Rome

Ancient Rome also inspired artists interested in classicism. They embraced the traditions of Greek art but also borrowed from the Etruscans, one of their predecessors on the Italian peninsula, and gradually developed their own style. In Roman architecture, the Greek orders were used not only as functional bearing elements but also as ornamental (engaged) elements. The Romans also used concrete to build buildings with arches, vaults, and domes, such as the Pantheon. There was greater freedom of space with the use of columns, which often supported both arches and entablatures.

There were a wide variety of Roman sculptures. During the late republic (1st century BCE), portraits depict prominent figures, usually elderly men, with an honesty that captures every wrinkle, line, and blemish. It is clear from sculptures made during the Roman Empire (27 BCE–476 CE) that they show Greek influence in their use of contrapposto but that their heads have a greater degree of individuality than their Greek counterparts. A variety of Romans, including youthful women, were portrayed in portrait busts. There were numerous styles of large murals painted in homes, but all demonstrated illusionism’s hallmarks, such as modeling to create form and aerial perspective to suggest depth.

It was not until after the fall of Rome that classical aesthetics completely disappeared. A number of elements from antiquity influenced styles and motifs of Middle Ages art, despite the loss of illusionism, proportion, restraint, and balance. In illustrated manuscripts, tapestries, and sculptures, Greco-Roman gods, scenes from Homer’s works, and Alexander the Great’s and Julius Caesar’s feats are often portrayed. Classical architecture, art, and literature were revived in the 13th and 14th centuries by humanism, a system that examined human nature and promoted individualism over religious orthodoxy.

The Renaissance

Renaissance paintings and sculptures were often compared to antiquity due to their calm compositions and attempts to create harmony and balance. It was not uncommon for religious artworks, perceived to be separated from classical images, to be inspired by humanist ideals, resulting in a tendency to depict the world from a more “human” perspective. It was Donatello who rekindled interest in human form with his bronze statue of David, the first free-standing nude statue since antiquity. The most classical of his works, it exhibited elegant contrapposto and well-proportioned lines.

In Raphael’s School of Athens, he uses one-point linear perspective to give his architectural setting depth using illusionism. A renewed interest in classical architecture is reflected in the imaginary space. There was a revival of ancient Roman forms, including columns, round arches, tunnel vaults, and domes, throughout Italy. During antiquity, proportion played a significant role in beauty; Renaissance architects achieved harmony between structures and people. Renaissance style is distinguishable from Gothic style by its clear, easily comprehended space and mass. The Renaissance also incorporated antiquity into its art, as shown in Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (completed in 1485).

A key aspect of classical literature was the emphasis on reason and rationality. There was a desire among writers to apply logic and reason to various aspects of life, including literature, philosophy, and politics. During this time, scientific advancements influenced the importance of reason. The writers emulated classical Greek and Roman works to write their own. It was their admiration for the clarity, order, and precision found in the works of ancient authors like Virgil and Horace that drew them to them. Numerous works from this period display this influence in their structure and style.

There were strict rules of form and structure for Neoclassical poets. It was common for them to write in heroic couplets (rhymed pairs of lines in iambic pentameter) and adhere to conventions like unity of time, place, and action. In addition to “The Rape of the Lock” and “The Dunciad,” Alexander Pope wrote many other works of neoclassical literature.

There were three characteristics of classical prose: clarity, simplicity, and precision. There was a boom in the essay form during this period, with writers like Joseph Addison and Richard Steele encouraging the development of the periodical essay in publications such as “The Tatler” and “The Spectator.”

Throughout history, writers have used satire to criticize and mock society’s follies and vices. “Gulliver’s Travels” by Jonathan Swift is an example of satire from this period. Drama was also influenced by classical principles. A number of playwrights, such as John Dryden and William Congreve, followed the classical unities of time, place, and action, as well as the principle of verisimilitude (sense of reality).

It was also a time of Enlightenment, characterized by a focus on reason, science, and skepticism toward traditional authority. Philosophers of the Enlightenment, such as John Locke and Voltaire, promoted ideas of individual liberty and freedom in literature.


In the late 18th and first half of the 19th century, a pronounced classicism emerged again. This movement was inspired by the excavations of Herculaneum in 1738 and Pompeii in 1748, as well as by the excess of the Rococo style. In neoclassical art, symmetry, precision, and restraint are emphasized while depicting scenes and characters from classical antiquity. There was often a strong emphasis on historically accurate settings and clothing; however, they were occasionally ignored in an effort to illustrate a more universal ideal.

Neoclassical artists sometimes drew inspiration from their own lived history, utilizing techniques and approaches from antiquity to portray the present. The death of Jean-Paul Marat is depicted in Jacques-Louis David’s 1793 painting, The Death of Marat. The artist used a limited palette, a simple and balanced composition, and an idealized version of Marat’s face.

New Classical Age:

In literature, “New Classical” could refer to a revival or reinterpretation of classical principles. My last knowledge update was in January 2022, so I have no specific information about developments in literature after that.

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. When does the Classical Age in English literature generally refer to?
  2. What were the key characteristics of the classical age in literature?
  3. How did writers in the Classical Age draw inspiration, and from which classical cultures?
  4. What are some principles associated with classical art, as mentioned in the context of the classical age?
  5. During the Archaic period in ancient Greece, what developments occurred in architecture, and what were kourois and korais?
  6. Describe the innovations in sculpture during the classical period in ancient Greece, including the introduction of contrapposto.
  7. How did Ancient Rome contribute to classical influences, and what were some characteristics of Roman architecture?
  8. What were the characteristics of Roman sculptures during the late republic and the Roman Empire?
  9. When did classical aesthetics experience a revival after the fall of Rome?
  10. How did the Renaissance artists draw inspiration from classical ideals, and what were the key features of Renaissance art?
  11. Who was responsible for rekindling interest in the human form in sculpture during the Renaissance?
  12. In what ways did the Renaissance incorporate classical elements into its art, as exemplified in a specific painting mentioned?
  13. What were the key aspects of classical literature during the Classical or Neo-Classical Age in English literature?
  14. Describe the rules of form and structure for Neoclassical poets.
  15. What were the three characteristics of classical prose during the Classical Age?
  16. Give an example of satire from the classical age and mention the author.
  17. How did drama in the classical age reflect classical principles?
  18. What were some Enlightenment ideas that influenced literature during the Classical Age?
  19. What characterized Neoclassicism in the late 18th and first half of the 19th centuries?
  20. What does “New Classical” in literature potentially refer to, and do you have information about developments in literature after January 2022?

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