classicism in poetryIntroduction

Classicism is a an aesthetic attitude deriving from the arts of ancient Greece and Rome, specifically an emphasis on simplicity, proportion, and restrained emotion. {1} {2} {3} {4}

Put very simply, Classicism, Realism and Romanticism all deal with the outside world, but Realism shows the world as it is, Romanticism as the heart tells us it should be, and Classicism as it would be in some ideal and public incarnation. Contemporary literature, by contrast, is commonly a retreat into the writer's consciousness — to make autonomous creations that incorporate diverse aspects of modern life (Modernism), or free-wheeling creations constructed of a language that largely points to itself (Postmodernism).

The terms are somewhat overlapping, and ill-defined. Catullus, Lucretius and Horace were very different poets, for example, {5} {6} and some aspects of all five terms can often be found in the more ambitious poems of the present time. More particularly, Classicism is a term that has evolved over the centuries, often differently in different countries. The French call Classical their great literature of the seventeenth century, but German authors tend to call this Neoclassicism, i.e. constrained and derivative.


In varying degrees, Classic, Classical or Classicism is used to denote:

1. attitudes stemming from classical culture, particularly: {7}

simplicity: less is more if carefully chosen and crafted.
clarity: depth achieved through surface transparency.
perfection: achieved through extended, painstaking craftsmanship.
proportion: nothing to excess, aiming for beauty or pleasing aesthetic shape.
restraint: opposed to individuality of expression.
propriety: an elevated but not necessarily refined language that usually excludes the humdrum, misshapen and obscene.

2. forms and themes invented/developed by classical world: {8}

genres: epic, comedy, tragedy, lyric.
conventions of these genres, e.g. Aristotle's three unities in drama.
mythology: Greek myths used throughout English literature (particularly by Modernism as an alternative to plot).

3. excellence

best of its kind: in language, depth of treatment and subtlety of theme.
exemplar for others: material to learn from.
standard to emulate, quarrel with or surpass.

4. traditional

respect for traditional forms and genres
building on achievements of celebrated authors.
pragmatic: based on experience rather than theory.

5. period designation


Greek writers
Alexandrian school
Roman late classical period
renaissance classicism

6. taught in schools

academic tradition: understanding the rules before knowing how and when to break them.
an essential part of the nineteenth-century curriculum.

Classical Attitudes

As depicted above, Classicism seems a rather dull affair, excluding the life-sustaining, colourful and original. In fact, life in the ancient world was far more precarious and violent than ours, and its language much less inhibited. Few commercial theatres will put on Aristophanes in a literal translation today, and swimming pools decorated with the pornographic images common in Roman bath-houses would be closed down.


Our concepts of epic, tragedy, drama, lyric, etc. date from antiquity, but they have only gradually taken their current form. Plato distinguished description (epic) from drama (enacted), though allowing for a mixed category. Aristotle also saw literature as a form of imitation, though he did not recognize lyric as such. His writings are much less prescriptive than commonly supposed. It was the Alexandrians of the second century BC that undertook much of the classifying and grading of writers, but even then lyric meant poetry sung to the lyre rather than personal expression. In their enthusiasm for the ancient world, the Renaissance imposed much more rigorous formulations, tending to replace what had been convenient labels with strict rules. Codification continued in French classical drama, which (wrongly) attributed 'unities of time, place and action' to Aristotle, and insisted on the most elevated language. Victor Hugo's plays were a sensible reaction, though they caused outrage at the time. Only in the nineteenth century did the lyric become poetry in its purest form, a view enshrined in Palgrave's Golden Treasury. {9}


Horace codified contemporary understandings in his Ars poetica, {10} stressing craftsmanship, urbanity and decorum, thereby creating the mindset with which antiquity was viewed later. Horace was the ultimate craftsman, but urbanity is not what one associates with Catallus, Juvenal or a host of Greek authors. Each age adapts to new demands, and writers in the classical tradition are as individual as those outside. Writers of consequence simply exploit a convention in ways that seem relevant to their contemporaries, and that remain personal and authentic to them. Ultimately, it is not a question of rules or conventions, but of extending and making more pleasing and telling what seems normal at the time, which is a social matter.


However academic or remote Classicism may seem in the contemporary art scene, it is the dominant aesthetic attitude of western culture (and even more so of Indian and Chinese cultures). Long centuries go past in which Classicism is lost or misunderstood, but the arts inexorably return to what human beings crave: significance, beauty and security, the return often being celebrated an outburst of creative energy. Predominantly, Classicism is the art of communities that live by accepted rules — rules which a long and often painful history has shown to be necessary. Classicism is not based on theory, therefore, but on experience: its rules generalize on past achievements. Tradition can be stifling, and artists worth the name usually innovate, test and break the rules. Nonetheless, when their work is successful, it is often by developing aspects of tradition that had been overlooked.

Classicism also underwrites popular culture. Bestsellers, soaps, Hollywood blockbusters all follow rules laid down two thousand years ago — which novel-writing software or a short course in script-writing will demonstrate. Even 'slice of life' dramas are in fact carefully constructed: characters built up with motives and telling idiosyncrasies, suspense generated by time-honoured techniques, and the plot given some aesthetic shape.


All the great English poets show the influence of Classicism, but the following are often regarded as the more Classical:

Ben Jonson: e.g. An Elegy {11}
Samuel Johnson: e.g. The Vanity of Human Wishes {12}
John Dryden: e.g. Absalom and Achitophel {13}
Alexander Pope: e.g. The Rape of the Lock {14}
Matthew Arnold: e.g. The Scholar Gipsy {15}

References and Internet Resources

1. Classicism. Nicolas Pioch. Oct. 2002. Brief introduction at Web Museum.
2. Classicism. Encyclopedia entry, with links to examples.
3. Classicism: Wikepedia entry, with good links to examples.
4. Classicism. W.B. Fleischmann, J.K. Newman and F. Will. The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (Princeton Univ. Press, 1993), 215-9. Detailed and helpful entry.
5. Literary Resources Classical and Biblical. Extensive listing.
6. Classics Network. Biographies of leading authors, links and free essays.
7. Gilbert Highet, The Classical Tradition (OUP, 1949). Now a little dated, but covers most aspects.
8. Genre. Frederick Garber et al. The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (Princeton Univ. Press, 1993), 456-61.
9. Francis T. Palgrave, ed. (18241897). The Golden Treasury. 1875. Online text, searchable by chronology, title, poet and first line.
10. Ars Poetica by Quintus Horatius Flaccus (Horace). Introduction and listings.
11. Ben Jonson. An Elegy. One of an excellent collection of his works on this site.
12. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) The Vanity of Human Wishes The Tenth Satire of Juvenal, Imitated. NNA. Site includes biography and other works by Samuel Johnson.
13. John Dryden (1631-1700) Absalom and Achitophel. NNA. Site includes biography and other works by John Dryden.
14. The Rape of the Lock Home Page. NNA. Extensive resources.
15. Matthew Arnold 1822 - 1888. The Scholar Gipsy. Short biography and links to 16 poems.


C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if properly referenced.