William C. Harmon and C. Hugh Holman provide us with this definition of the term “neoclassicism”: “The term for the classicism that dominated English literature in the Restoration Age and in the eighteenth century ... Against the Renaissance idea of limitless human potentiality was opposed a view of humankind as limited, dualistic, imperfect; on the intensity of human responses were imposed a reverence for order and a delight in reason and rules; the burgeoning of imagination into new and strange worlds was countered by a distrust of innovation and invention ...
Artistic ideals prized order, concentration, economy, utility, logic, restrained emotion, accuracy, correctness, good taste, and decorum. A sense of symmetry, a delight in design, and a view of art as centered on humanity, and the belief that literature should be judged according to its service to humanity resulted in the seeking of proportion, unity, harmony, and grace in literary expressions that aimed to delight, instruct, and correct human beings, primarily as social animals.
It was the great age of the essay, of the letter and epistle, of satire, or moral instruction, of parody, and of burlesque. The play of mind mattered more than the play of feeling, with the results that a polite, urbane, witty, intellectual art developed. Poetic diction and imagery tended to become conventional, with detail subordinated to design. The appeal to the intellect resulted in a fondness for wit and the production of satire in both verse and prose.
A tendency to realism marked the presentation of life with stress on the generic qualities of men and women. Literature exalted form and avoided obscurity and mystery ... Didactic literature flourished. ” (Definition excerpt taken from Dr. Kaufman’s Final Essay Syllabus. ) The works of Dryden, Pepy, Swift, and Behn exhibit qualities of order, clarity, and stylistic creations that were formulated in the major critical writings of the time period, which represents the Neoclassical period.
The literature of this time period is known for its use of philosophy, reason, skepticism, wit, and refinement. This essay will examine the works of these writers, and how each of the mentioned pieces has their own carved out place in this category.
Dryden’s Annus Mirabilis is also known as London Reborn. In this poem, Dryden interprets the Great Fire of London as a patriotic message to rebuild the city from its ashes into one of the great cities in the world, urging that its countrymen take this opportunity to recreate London as a new Rome, as hown here in (Lines1177-1178), "More great than human, now, and more August, / New deified she from her fires does rise. " John Dryden even imbues the fire with the characteristics of some sort of redemptive act by which London shall achieve a sort of salvation, growing greater with the expectation that the world is going to change and England will be the country to lead it.
This is shown in (Lines 846-848) "By an high fate thou greatly didst expire; Great as the world's, which at the death of time Must fall, and rise a nobler frame by fire. Dryden’s poem reflects and anticipates this far-reaching desire of London's citizens to create something bigger, better; more noble out of the destruction left behind by the Great London Fire of 1666 (Lines 1170-1172), “I see a city of more precious mold: Rich as the town which gives the Indies name, With silver paved, and all divine with gold. ” Pepy’s The Diary (The Great Fire) is a chronicle (literally, his personal diary) of his life from 1660-1669, until he started losing his vision.
This particular excerpt, The Great Fire, describes the event in compelling human detail, as shown in this line taken from (Page 2136), “When we could endure no more upon the water, we to a little alehouse on the Bankside over against the Three Cranes and there stayed till it was dark almost and saw the fire grow; and as it grew darker, appeared more and more, and in corners and upon steeples…in a most horrid malicious bloody flame, not like the flame of an ordinary fire. ” It is interesting how Pepy describes this fire, as no other fire that has been; it is a grand fire, a magnificent fire, but not meaning it in a good sense of the word.
Actually, it is quite the opposite. Pepy is describing this fire as the worst fire that has been. It made him “weep to see it” (Page 2136). Pepy adds a bit of sarcasm, as well, as shown in this line (Page 2135), “And to see the churches all filling with goods, by people who themselves should have been quietly there at this time”. Basically, Pepy is saying that as the city is burning, the people are worried about and making all attempts to save their physical possessions, instead of praying for the city’s salvation in the very buildings they are storing their worldly possessions in.
Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels is a satirical narrative told in the first person point of view, and is narrated by Lemuel Gulliver, surgeon, turned sailor of the high seas. Gulliver is telling us (the reader) of his great adventures he had on his voyages. Gulliver’s adventure in Lilliput begins when he wakes after his shipwreck to find himself bound by an insurmountable amount of tiny threads and addressed by tiny captors (Lilliputians), (Page 2329), “…I perceived it to be a human creature not six inches high…” They are in awe of him but fiercely protective of their kingdom.
They are not afraid to use violence against Gulliver, though their arrows are little more than pinpricks (Page 2329), “…with a bow and arrow in his hands, and a quiver at his back…I felt at least forty more of the same kind…” But overall, they are hospitable. Gulliver became a national treasure, of sorts, but was later convicted of committing treason when he doused out a fire (with an unbefitting bodily fluid) at the royal palace. He was sentenced to death, but eventually managed to escape, fix his boat, and goes on to England. After staying in England for a bit, Gulliver then set off on his next voyage.
He ends up in Brobdingnag, which is the complete opposite of Lilliput, as the natives there are not tiny, but giant in size (Page 2367), “…appeared as tall as an ordinary spire-steeple, and took about ten yards at every stride.. ” With the Brobdingnagians being so large, everything about a normal sized person is magnified on them. This, along with their blissful ignorance repulses Gulliver. Eventually, Gulliver was taken away from Brobdingnag in a cage by a large bird that dropped him into the sea. Gulliver’s final voyage places him as the captain of the ship, but his crew declares mutiny.
After being locked in his quarters for a long period of time, he finally lands in a strange place, where horses (Page 2419), “Their heads and breasts were covered with thick hair…often stood on their hind feet…” are in charge (Houyhnhnms) and the human-type creatures (Yahoos) are the ‘commoners’ (Page 2444), “…the Yahoos appear to be the most unteachable of all animals”... Gulliver rather enjoys the Houyhnhnms, because they are able to think rationally and logically. However, when they see his naked body, they see that physically he looks like the Yahoos, and he is then banished from the land.
Gulliver eventually ends up alone on a deserted island, and is left to ponder about colonialism. Gulliver’s Travels poses the question of whether physical power or moral righteousness should be the governing factor in social life. Gulliver experiences the advantages of physical might both as one who has it, as a giant in Lilliput where he can defeat the Blefuscudian navy by virtue of his immense size, and as one who does not have it, as a miniature visitor to Brobdingnag where he is harassed by the hugeness of everything from insects to household pets.
His first encounter with another society is one of entrapment, when he is physically tied down by the Lilliputians; later, in Brobdingnag, he is enslaved by a farmer. He also observes physical force used against others, as with the Houyhnhnms’ chaining up of the Yahoos. Swift does a fine job of clearly a comedic view of how knowledge, whether theoretical, or practical, is not necessarily always power. Behn’s Oroonoko (The Royal Slave) is a narrative told in the first-person point of view, which chronicles the story of the African prince/slave named Oroonoko, and the woman he falls in love with goes on to and marry, Imoinda, a slave, as well.
The narrator of the story, (who never mentions their name) starts off by giving us (the reader) a bit of background as to how the slaves were brought to the colonies, as shown in this passage (Page 2183), “…’tis fit I tell you the manner of bringing them to these new colonies, for those they make use of there are not natives of the place for those we live within perfect amity, without daring to command ‘em, but on the contrary caress ‘em with all the brotherly and friendly affection in the world, trading with ‘em for their fish…” Unfortunately, Oroonoko and Imoinda’s love and lives (including their unborn child) end tragically.
Oroonoko kills a pregnant Imoinda as a last act of his love for her and their family to keep them from being sold into slavery. A few days later, Byam’s men locate Oroonoko and prepare to whip him but Oroonoko requests they kill him. Oroonoko stands stoically smoking his pipe while they chop off his nose, ears, and one leg. Then he falls down dead, and they quarter his body before disposing of it. (Page 2226), “Thus died a great man, worthy of a better fate, and a more sublime wit than mine to write his praise.. .
Part of what makes Aphra Behn’s style so unique is her repeated insistence that everything she has written down has credibility and is valid. She goes out of her way to convince the reader that what she is saying is true and says that she knows the parties involved and was a witness to the events. Aside from these blatant admissions, she incorporates realistic details such as descriptions of animals in Suriname and other aspects of life that only a “witness” would know of.
This is evident on (Page 2183-2184), where she mentions “cousheries, a little beast in the form and fashion of a lion, as big as a kitten, but so exactly made in all parts like that noble beast…parakeetoes, great parrots, macaws and a thousand other birds and beasts of wonderful and surprising forms, shapes and colors. ” Because she is so specific and makes such overriding claims of authenticity, the story reads more like it was written with a third party objective mind set (much like a reporter) rather than a fictional one.
Also, Behn presents a hero who proves that black men can be educated and noble (a new and novel concept for the 17th century, for sure) and she actively seeks to show the reader the way families are ripped apart, and lives ended, and loves lost because of slavery. This piece is certainly a forward-thinking, thought-provoking, analytical narrative which will surely be enjoyed for many more years to come.