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Neoclassical School of Poetry: Definition & Style

Instructor: Summer Stewart

Summer has taught creative writing and sciences at the college level. She holds an MFA in Creative writing and a B.A.S. in English and Nutrition

The Neoclassical school of poetry happened between 1660-1798, with major poets such as John Dryden, John Milton, Oliver Goldsmith, and Alexander Pope being central to the period. In this lesson, we will learn the definition and style of neoclassical poetry.

What Is Neoclassical Poetry?

The prefix 'neo' means new, while classical refers to a return to the ideologies set in place by Greeks and Romans during the Classic period. To put it plainly, neoclassical poetry merged the new and the old together to produce poetry that exalted the human condition without the frills that defined the Renaissance. Poets clung to logic and sparse language to build bodies of poetry that define the Neoclassical school of poetry. Poets assigned to this school of poetry are John Dryden, Oliver Goldsmith, Alexander Pope, and John Milton. Each poet surfaced during one of the three major segments of the neoclassic period. In this lesson, we'll take a deeper look at the characteristics of neoclassical poetry and look at these three poets to better understand neoclassical poetry itself.

Major Characteristics of Neoclassical Poetry

Every school of poetry has a specific style and neoclassical poetry isn't any different. One of the main characteristics of neoclassical poetry was its imitation of classical Greek and Roman concepts.

For neoclassical poets that meant revisiting rhyme, meter, and an adherence to human nature as rigid. Moreover, the content of the poems focused on topics of the public sphere and did not focus on notions of the speaker's personal life.

The most popular style of poetry written was satire. Even though the language and form were restrained and logical, a dash of wit was welcomed. For example, poets weaseled wit into their work by using a form such as an ode or epic to discuss a topic that didn't quite belong with it.

Neoclassical poets brought back rhymed and heroic couplets. Alexander Pope used the heroic couplet extensively in his work. Moreover, neoclassical poets showed off their scholarly skills by including allusions to the Bible and other major writings.

Poets of Neoclassical Poetry

The neoclassical period is divide into three time frames: Restoration Age, Augustan Age, and the Age of Transition. The Neoclassical school of poetry can be divided in the same way. Let's look at poets from each period.

John Milton and John Dryden

Portrait of John Milton
Portrait of John Milton

John Milton and John Dryden were prominent poets during the Restoration Age, which went from 1660-1700. John Milton is famous for writing Paradise Lost, an epic poem that follows in the tradition of writers such as Virgil and Homer. Milton included dozens of allusions to other classical writings. The epic poem is written in blank verse and is approximately 10,000 lines (actually a little more, believe it or not!). Milton sticks to themes traditionally explored in classical Greek and Roman writings such as war and the meaning of life.

Portrait of John Dryden
A portrait of John Dryden

John Dryden's poetry was built around reason, logic, and matter of fact. Often, he attempted to make his poetry accessible using plain language. Moreover, Dryden reinvigorated poetry with the heroic couplet, alexandrine, and triplet. For example, in his allegorical poem The Hind and The Panther, he uses heroic couplets to write about religion after he converted to Catholicism.

Alexander Pope

A portrait of Alexander Pope
A portrait of Alexander Pope

Alexander Pope was a prolific neoclassical poet during the Augustan Age, which occurred between 1700 to 1750. He relied heavily on the heroic couplet for much of his poetry. Furthermore, Pope is known for using the heroic couplet to build satirical and philosophical writings.

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