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Neoclassical Criticism

John Dryden and Samuel Johnson

Neoclassical period in English literature

 Between 1660-1798
(Restoration period, Augustan Period, Age of Johnson)

 Imitated the style of the Greeks and the Romans

 Drama - most dominant form of literature

Restoration period – brief history

 Restoration:

 Shakespearean stage:

Quick summary:
 Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans (Parliament-ruled)– close of theatres in 1642
 Reopening of theatres after Charles II returned to England from France (return
of monarchy)– 1660

Relationship between political shifts and literature!


 What were the comedies about?

 What were some of the new developments?
 What practice continues even today?
 What did the British stage borrow? And from whom?
 What did the pit have?
 Who sat in the boxes?
 How did the audience change towards the end of the 17th century?
(1631 to 1700)

Poet, literary
critic, translator
and playwright
Dryden’s contribution to literary criticism

 Rules of drama
 Modernizing of British stage theatre
 Diction and rhyme
Role of fancy/imagination/wit

 The role of “fancy” (imagination) (also called wit):

In the preface to his poem Annus Mirabilis (1667), Dryden gave an account of the phases of
the creative process, which we can profitably compare with the inventio , disposition
(organization) and elocutio of classical rhetoric.
To compose an epic poem, he says, a poet needs wit. "Wit" in the eighteenth century did not
suggest the gift of the quick repartee, it stood for the creative faculty of the human mind, the
ability to see the resemblances between different objects.
Dryden defines wit as imagination, as the ability to find the right memory or the right metaphor
we are looking for
Creative Process

Creative process
finding an idea

moulding the thought

adorning the thought in
appropriate sounding words
Modern ideas about Drama

 But true imitation must be original and improve the models. Dryden believed that poetry
has a historical development, and he wishes "that poetry may not go backward, when all
other arts and sciences are advancing." We may profit from the models and the
experience of the ancients and try to go beyond them.
 The neoclassical era is not particularly sensitive to originality and invention, but
nevertheless Dryden believes that other things being equal, originality is to be preferred to
good imitation, and is a greater proof of genius.
Diction and Rhyme

 Rhyme was for Dryden something more than a mere ornament. It is a way of consciously
controlling the process of composition: because of the superior attention it requires, rhyme
demands a greater consciousness on the part of the poet, and less abandonment to the
inspiration of his fancy.
 For tragedy, blank verse (a British style) was better
Reception of rhyme

 Dryden defended the use of rhyme. He believes that the end of a play is not so much to
give a faithful imitation of human life as to give a heightened image of reality. Rhyme
works in that way: it guides the attention and gives greater tightness to speeches. Besides,
Dryden says, blank verse is not "natural," either.
 Dramatic verisimilitude deceives us because we desire to be deceived, and that we know
all the time that we are being deceived.
Dramatic Unities

 Unity of time – the period of time presented in the play

 Unity of place – the setting presented
 Unity of action – plot (connection between beginning, middle and

(The unities aim at verisimilitude; the space and time of representation must be as close as
possible to those of the feigned action. Any distortion must be supposed to fall between the
acts, plots have to begin "in medias res", narration must be restricted to events simultaneous
with the action if possible, etc.)
Description of drama

 “a just and lively image of human nature, representing its passions and humours, and the
changes of fortune to which it is subject, for the delight and instruction of mankind.”
- Of Dramatic Poesy

 Later: delight is the chief, if not the only end of poesy; instruction can be admitted but in
the second place, for poesy only instructs as it delights,