Neoclassical Beauty

At the end of the renaissance, and at the dawn of the neoclassical era, writers, artists, and intellectuals found themselves jaded and disenfranchised by conventions of religion and politics. Religious conflict, which was seen as a detracting force from the liberal Whig concept of a consistently progressing society, was losing momentum, as a more universally accepted strand of Christianity began to become established as the accepted religion of the country. The contentions based around the divine right of kings were dissolved with the idea itself, as the monarchy was now perceived as being a covenant between the people and the Monarch, who ruled with their consent. The conflicts between the Puritans and the Church of England, as well as the Thirty Years War in Europe, had left the sensibilities of the English people in need of repair, of reconstruction.

Alongside the need for a structured future came the revivals of Classical ideologies evidenced in the architecture and attitudes of the day, drawing on Graeco-Roman principles and compounding them into an idealised form; the most profound of these inspirations was the genesis of empire, and expansionistic, exploitative invasions of peripheral cultures. Beauty, as we generally understand it today, is least at home in the Neoclassical era. Our modern perspective of the aesthetic would be aligned with the ‘savageness’[1] of the naturalistic Renaissance approach. In a truly tumultuous time for literature, and more fundamentally, language itself, the end of the seventeenth century saw the rise of science, with all its ideals of order, perfection, and balance diffusing outwards into poetry. Dr Johnson’s dictionary, the first serious attempt to organise language, to martial its use, to control and audit its content, as well as to establish a ‘correct’ form of its orders, was a revolutionary idea and one which many writers welcomed with open arms.

However, in this period we also see the greatest divergence of poetry from the principles of Aquinas. Poetry of this period is rarely profound, often being commandeered as a medium for the ‘public poem’ to express political agendas, thereby shirking its original responsibility as a didactic or ontologically reflective experience. In addition, language becomes convoluted and exclusive, owing to writers such as Dryden and Pope striving for an elegance and refinement not seen before in writing, giving rise to the notion of a more ordered aesthetic. Pope created ‘a model of poetry in which truth, clarity and sense predominated, and figurative language and all the other “embellishments” of poetry were kept duly subservient’,[2] and one in which the thematic idea of beauty, the superficial category of the aesthetic as it applies to emotional experience or catharsis, is neglected. Technical accuracy, to the Augustans, was valued above all else, as Johnson decreed that ‘the beauty who is totally free from disproportion or parts and features, cannot be ridiculed by an over-charged resemblance’.[3] Bradford claims that ‘a consistent feature of Pope’s and Dryden’s major couplet poems is their ability to sustain two patterns of signification throughout a single text’.[4] Take the following lines from The Rape of the Lock, for example:

The busy Sylphs surround their darling care;

These set the head, and those divide the hair,

Some fold the sleeve, whilst others plait the gown;

And Betty’s praised for labours not her own.

(Canto I, 144-48)

Superficially in this passage Belinda, the thinly veiled caricature of Arabella Fermor, is being prepared by her maid. However, within the context of this description, Pope draws upon the ‘occult and fantastic sphere of Rosicrucian mythology’,[5] merging the worlds of eighteenth-century aristocracy with the fantastical, yet failing to invoke emotion or a cathartic response, because of the subject. Despite being poetically and technically proficient, perhaps even conforming to Aquinas’s first two principles, The Rape of the Lock is a long, extended, sophisticated joke. It is humourous, and, as mentioned in the initial section, humour and beauty rarely, if ever, go hand in hand. Fundamentally, this failure rises not from a deficiency in authorial ability, but rather from an agenda not conducive to the construction of this kind of beauty. Beauty, to put it briefly, is a sincere category.

English, as a language, started to become more ‘refined’ in the neoclassical age, as did its expressions in the form of poetry. A new ideal of verse had become established by the early eighteenth-century, based on the heroic couplet. As a reaction against the unordered, unrhymed iambic pentameter of the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage, the heroic couplet can be paralleled with the revival of the principles of classical architecture. Reflective of the pillars that adorned the buildings of the age, the heroic couplet represented proportionality in poetry, a companion to the general cultural trajectory of the day, ‘a means of imparting to the functional role of poetry the much broader eighteenth-century ideals and imperatives of “order” in politics, society, architecture and philosophic thought’.[6] In keeping with this attitude, beauty in poetry became a reflection of a work’s technical proficiency. However, profound sentiment was not lost in the neoclassical era, as we can see in Dryden’s ‘To the Memory of Mr. Oldham’ and William Collins’s ‘Ode Written in 1746’.

O early ripe! to thy abundant store

What could advancing Age have added more?

It might (what Nature never gives the young)

Have taught the numbers of thy native tongue

(ll. 11-14) [7]

Dryden here combines ‘grief over the young man’s death and claims that his achievements had already rendered any future span of life superfluous’,[8] and expresses a deeply ontological sentiment that is considered by many to be beautiful. Johnson, however, is a great admirer of Dryden, crediting him as the man who ‘refined the language, improved the sentiments, and tuned the numbers of English Poetry’.[9]

Most importantly, Johnson acknowledges that:

Every language of a learned nation necessarily divides itself into diction scholastick and popular, grave and familiar, elegant and gross; and from a nice distinction of these different parts, arises a great part of the beauty of style.

There was […] before the time of Dryden no poetical diction, no system of words at once refined from the grossness of domestick use, and free from the harshness of terms appropriated to particular arts. Words too familiar, or too remote, defeat the purpose of a poet. [10]


In the time of Dryden then, Johnson believed that poetic diction was formed, as the very concept of beauty began to find its own place, away from the slapstick, the ‘gross domestic’, comedy of Marlowe’s Robin and Dick, and the mewling strains of Caliban and his theatrical ilk. Moving away from this frame, beauty was afforded the opportunity, as Johnson observes, to seek and find its own firm position within poetry. This is perhaps the greatest legacy of the neoclassicists, as despite their attitudes towards beauty being eagerly and decisively overturned by the Romantics, their enduring notions of ‘poetic diction’, though left unfinished by the close of the Augustan era, owing to the uncertain consensus of ‘poetic’ words, still linger on into some twentieth-century poetry.[11]

 – T. Colebrooke, 2016.




[1] Samuel Johnson, ‘Dryden’ in Samuel Johnson: The Major Works ed. by Donald Greene (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 723.

[2] Tom Furniss and Michael Bath ed., Reading Poetry: An Introduction (London: Longman, 2007), p. 113.

[3] Johnson, p. 722.

[4] Richard Bradford, A Linguistic History of English Poetry (London: Routledge, 1993), p. 71.

[5] Bradford, p. 72.

[6] Bradford, p. 75.

[7] William Collins, ‘Ode Written in 1746’ in The New Oxford Book of Eighteenth Century Verse ed. by Roger Lonsdale (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), p. 381.

[8] David Wheatley, ‘Arcs of Movement: The Heroic Couplet’ in A Companion to Poetic Genre ed. by Erik Martiny (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), p. 267.

[9] Johnson, p. 722.

[10] Ibid.

[11] For an authoritative and extended discussion of this notion, see Donald Davie, Purity of Diction in English Verse (London: Chatto & Windus, 1952).


Copyright (C) The Composite Review 2016.

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