Literary classicism: what it was, how it arose and its main features


What does literary classicism mean?

Literary classicism or classicism in literature is a movement that focuses on the definition of a writing style that consciously emulates features and characteristics of classical antiquity. This movement arose during the Enlightenment and the Renaissance, imitating mainly important authors of poetry and drama, although following critical and aesthetic precepts.

What does literary classicism

Classicism was considered an intellectual and aesthetic movement that was present in the artistic manifestations of the West, especially during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Greece and Rome will be determining points of reference for creation, complemented with a deep interest in knowledge, but also in the search for perfection, precepts of Humanism.

Emergence of literary classicism

The origin of classicism takes place in Europe, specifically at the time when the continent comes into contact with the Enlightenment, an era distinguished mainly by the exaltation of intellectualism and reason. Its first steps were focused on a struggle against the baroque that began with painting. However, little time passed for the struggle to take place in other fields, in this case, in literature, at a time when the precepts of the baroque were dominating literary expressions.

After a few years, classicism triumphed in literature towards the end of the 16th century. From this moment on, it begins to be characterized by its emotional content in which it seeks to reach the reader’s feelings through the intellect. Thus, Boileau’s Poetics, a work that rejects the excesses of the Baroque and proposes the recovery of classical elements, including the values of harmony that dominated especially the literature of the Ancient period.

Development of classicism in literature

Since Boileau’s Poetics, several elements of the Aristotelian rule began to be introduced in other fields such as theater, especially with the absolute unity of time, action and space. Although its end is approaching towards the eighteenth century and with it the established permanence of classical values that would enter into discussion again, the truth is that it persists in the creations of poets and writers of the Enlightenment that renew their ideas, continuing with the love for the intellectual and a strong disdain for the sentimental of the Classical era.

Thus, the classicist writers, as they were called, wrote about everything that in their eyes was true, but above all worthy, in contrast to the baroque literary style, which was branded as exaggerated and rejected for its unreality.

Characteristics of classicism

To learn more about what was the movement of literary classicism, we present below a series of key characteristics about its development and general features of its literary creations:

Rule of three units

As we mentioned, one of the main aspects of this movement was the rule of three units that began to develop especially in the theater. These units were focused on space, unity of time and unity of action. This means that the play must take place within the same setting, marked in a specific period of time, sometimes 24 hours, and have a single event as the main theme.

Features of the genres

Although in theater there were more defined parameters for its development, in narrative and essay, psychological themes stand out in its creation. This, taking into account their prioritization of reason over imagination. Another important fact that should be taken into account is that in classicism laws are also determined that allow distinguishing genres and maintaining a clarity on the creations in which the imagination is left aside.

Main references

One of the most important referents of classicism was Aristotle’s Poetics, but also other relevant works such as the Poetical Art written by Horace, Longinus’ On the Sublime, among other varied forms such as tragedy, comedy, satire, elegy, ode, eclogue and epic. The choice of works was based on the idea that they would get the authors to be true to nature and write under the true and the possible.

In particular, dramatic works were inspired by Greek masters such as Aeschylus and Sophocles, who were especially interested in the representation of the Aristotelian units of space, time and plot in a given time.

Before the Baroque

Many experts claim that classicism arises as a kind of reaction to the baroque in literature, since classicism is going to focus mainly on grandeur and harmony.

Search for classicism

Another important aspect that should be taken into account about this movement, particularly with its objective, is that it was defined by the aspiration for absolute perfection through artistic manifestations. Thus, the movement will also appear in other expressions besides literature, such as music and painting.

Written texts

Another of the most important particularities of classicism has to do with the way in which they were written. The first exponents of the movement wrote their texts in Latin, however, soon after they began to write in the respective European languages of the area they came from.

Pedagogical attitude

Another important axis of classicism was directly related to the fact that in its creations a pedagogical attitude was maintained, allowing the identification of important processes of history, since its content also included famous characters and important literary works of Antiquity. All this always preceded by a clear and simple development that the reader could enjoy under the intellectual element of its elaboration.

Characteristics of classicism

Authors representing classicism and their works

There were several authors who stood out during this movement, among them we can highlight Pierre Corneille who is considered the father of classical tragedy in France with his play El Cid, as well as other works such as Clitander, Innocence Persecuted, Melita, The Gallery of the Palace, The Widow, among others. Jean Baptiste Mliére was an important poet, actor and playwright of classicism and interested in classical comedy. Other important artists also appear such as Dante Aliguieri, Italian poet with his work The Divine Comedy, Jean Racine with works such as Thebaida, Bayaceto and Alexander Pope with The Stolen Curl, among other works.

Other important authors of literary classicism were Jean de la Fontine, Moliére, Nicolas Boileau, Pierre Corneille, among others.

Undoubtedly a movement that highlights and aspires to the works of Antiquity, always looking for clarity in the works in which harmonic dyes are also distinguished that allow the reader to observe its content with greater precision. Learn more about other literary movements in our section dedicated to Literature, as well as other artistic expressions.