Neoclassical and Romantic Generalizations

by Richard Kroll, adapted by Alfred J. Drake

See M.H. Abrams' Glossary of Literary Terms, Third Edition; The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics; and W.J. Bate, From Classic to Romantic.

The shift from Neoclassic premises to Romantic ones, although it is clearly recognizable at an intuitive level, has rarely been satisfactorily described. Bate's is an old but reliable (and probably still the best such) attempt. But there remain some broad generalities which I think can remain useful at a practical level. I attempt such a diagram below:

Neoclassical Premises (ca. 1650-1789)

(a) always defined by a broad social commitment: a social ethic; the need for society to continue in face of various attacks; can be understood as a response to the very deep divisions of the Civil War, 1642-1649, and the Commonwealth, 1649-1660.

(b) an inclination to categorize experience, nature, literature—the neoclassical "kinds"

(c) uses of satire

(d) importance of probability; thus the use of analogy as a literary figure: the two terms of the comparison both illuminate each other and are kept distinct

(e) the prevalence of moral categories

(f) use of classical precedent

(g) obedience to ordinary English grammar

(h) categorizing the appropriate types of speech for appropriate subjects: thus we use epic for high subjects, lyric for love poetry, etc.

(i) importance of the idea of mirroring nature in art (mimesis)

(j) skepticism about language—another reason for analogy: metaphor tends to collapse the two terms of comparison: man = pig, etc.

(k) importance of utile et dulce: literature must both please and teach, with emphasis on the latter function

Romantic Premises

(a) always defined in terms of the Self, the Mind; not primarily a social ethic

(b) attempts to break down scientific categories of experience; experience is whole (organic): attempts to reunify Nature

(c) essentially serious: the search for spirituality

(d) defies ordinary probability: presents us with unreal worlds, myth, dream, trance

(e) defies ordinary moral categories

(f) changes the meaning of classical precedent: classics as a myth of origin

(g) suspends normal grammatical expectations (cf. "Lucy" poems)

(h) all speech united in the highest kind of speech: POETRY, which is like Scripture

(i) ideal of the artist as creator: art is expression, not mimesis

(j) skepticism about ordinary alienated human language, BUT belief that in poetry we can recover the language of Eden: a universal language which will reintegrate Man, Spirit, and Nature

(k) teaching is less important than leading the reader into an apprehension of Spirit; dulce thus overtakes utile