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What Is Neoclassical Literature?

By A. Leverkuhn
Updated May 23, 2024
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Neoclassical literature is writing from a period spanning roughly 150 years, covering 1660 - 1798. Relying on the classic styles of the ancient Greeks and Romans, its main characteristic is an emphasis on logic, common sense, properness and adequate performance in society. Largely a response to the previous chaos of the Renaissance, the writings of this time included a variety of genres, including novels, diaries, essays and satires. Grammar and word study became more formalized, with authors preferring simplicity. Although writing eventually transitioned to more Romantic concepts, the influence of Neoclassical thought is still evident today.

Experts divide Neoclassical literature into three major sections: Restoration, Augustan and Johnson. The first section spans approximately 1660 - 1700, while the second, referencing the original Augustan writers such as Horace, covers 1700 - 1750. The generally accepted years for the Johnson division are 1750 - 1798.


This period in literature, and other forms of art, was largely a response to the Renaissance. During this earlier time, people focused on invention and experimentation, using science to explain the world around them. This was a dramatic shift in thought, because the Roman Catholic Church long had been the primary source of information. The Neoclassicists generally didn’t want to abandon this study entirely, but they thought that the Renaissance methods were too chaotic, so they stressed a return to ancient Greek and Roman classicism. Much of this was because, after a period of considerable political instability and conflict, Europe — especially Great Britain — wanted to redefine itself, with many people rethinking what roles they had and whether they were playing them the right way.

Major Themes

With people generally looking more closely at the part they played in society, the main themes of the Neoclassical period were restraint and order. Each person was expected to do what was “proper” and to show that he or she had good taste, the idea being that, given the flawed nature of mankind, putting some limits on what someone said or did was better than trying and failing at the outrageous. It became very important to prove that someone had a decent level of intelligence. Writers often used their works not only to express rules about etiquette and decorum, but also to demonstrate brilliant skills of wit.

Popular Forms

The emphasis on order, reason, etiquette and wit made certain styles of literature more popular than others. Diaries, essays, letters and first person narratives were extremely successful, because they concentrated on what a single person thought or accomplished, which was in line with the Neoclassical idea of analyzing and reforming a person’s social role. Moral fables were a favorite, as well, as were parodies and burlesques. Novels in various styles developed rapidly, becoming a main entertainment for women in the home. The rhymed couplet — specifically, the heroic couplet — dominated poetry, and in the theater, audiences flocked to sentimental comedies, comedies of manners and heroic dramas.

Journalism became well accepted and significantly shaped society during the period. Writers in this field frequently used their talents to promote “proper” goods, services and events. They also reported on weddings, because these were often primarily unions of convenience that were closely tied to the flow of money and the general economy.

Grammar and Word Study

Most people took the study of English very seriously during the Neoclassical period, because problems in language could make a person seem less intelligent. It was standard to work hard on grammar and use dictionaries seriously. Those who truly wanted to appear refined also studied additional languages, especially French and Italian, although they typically learned just enough to throw a few words into conversation here and there to give a good impression.

Writers of the Time

One of the most influential Neoclassical writers was John Milton (1608 - 1674), author of the epic poem, Paradise Lost. Much of his work reflects the political issues England and other countries faced. John Drydon (1631 - 1700), also called “Glorious John,” was also a major force during Restoration, working on both plays and poetry to such a degree that the entire first section of the period sometimes is called “the Age of Drydon.” Two of his most famous works are To My Lord Chancellor and Marriage a la Mode.

Alexander Pope (1688 - 1744) was an Augustan poet. He made money translating major works, such as The Iliad, but soon established himself with his own pieces. His Pastorals and An Essay on Criticism are probably the best known of his writings, and scholars recognize him for his command of the heroic couplet.

For satire, the champion of the period was Johnathon Swift (1667 - 1745). Although he wrote both poetry and prose, he is best known for the latter. Many of his works were originally published under pseudonyms, including M.B. Dapier and Isaac Bickerstaff. He is the author of the well-known novel, Gulliver’s Travels.

Along with Samuel Richardson, Daniel Defoe (1660 - 1731) was one of the leading pioneers in the development of the English novel. He is notable not only for the content of his works, but also because of the sheer number of them — some experts say at least 500 different pamphlets, books and other writings are Defoe’s. Perhaps the one out of all of these that people still know well today is Robinson Crusoe. His political writings brought trouble at times, with Defoe even spending some time in prison.

Experts usually see Samuel Johnson (1709 - 1784) as the last great writer of the Neoclassical period in literature. His major contribution is A Dictionary of the English Language, which people used for well over a century. Although the Oxford English Dictionary eventually replaced it, Johnson's dictionary was a major accomplishment in the development and standardization of English.

Decline and Modern Influence

Starting around 1750, some people began to reject the Neoclassical ideas of order and sense. They began emphasizing the individual rather than how a person could contribute to and fit into society, and they fought — often literally — against strict rules and tyranny, stressing freedom. This new school of thought became known as Romanticism.

Even though Neoclassicism declined and gave way to other ideals, people still feel the influence of the period’s literature. The belief that a simple, orderly way of writing was best, for example, led to many of the grammar standards individuals still use. In emphasizing truth and reason, authors cemented the idea that writing can have real social purpose, helping each person fit into the larger community.

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Discussion Comments

By stoltzfus — On Oct 05, 2011

"I will show you fear in a handful of dust." - T.S. Eliot

By afterall — On Oct 03, 2011

@Catapult- One of my favorite neoclassical writers is T.S. Eliot. While his writing is not always what I would call "flowery", and sometimes it is really dark and sparse to read, he does make a lot of references to things like stories or events, and uses other languages a lot within his work.

I think he's a great example though of the bridge between neoclassicism and modernism.

By Catapult — On Oct 02, 2011

I love literature, and Neoclassical is one I really enjoy, even though it is hard to understand sometimes, with all the flowery language and obscure references. I think it shows how we never get tired of looking to the past for inspiration.

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