Neoclassical literature: what it is, origin, literary development, characteristics and authors


What is neoclassical literature?

It is one of the most determinant literary periods for the development of this artistic expression that begins in the middle of the 18th century and ends towards the 19th century. One of the most important characteristics of neoclassical literature has to do with the renovation of both aesthetic and philosophical values coming from Classical Antiquity, reason why it receives its name.

Another series of aspects such as the cult of reason and other factors will also appear, which will lead to a new stage in the evolution of literature that was born in France and soon began to spread to other countries of the European continent until it reached the American continent.

History and origin of neoclassical literature

In its beginnings it was simply called classicism. This literary epoch has its origin in France in the 18th century, place from which it soon began to spread to other areas of the continent and the world, thanks to the expansion, also, of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was a philosophical movement that sought to repeal dogmatism through the exaltation of reason and knowledge. It was at this time that Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopédie was published for the first time. In this way the encyclopedia begins to have a substantial value during the dissemination of the ideas of the enlightenment based on the public domain of works among which literature could enjoy greater freedom.

However, for its appearance there were two other events that pushed the neoclassical literature; on the one hand the discovery of the ruins of Herculaneum and Pompeii, a fact that awakens the interest in the study of the Greco-Latin culture and on the other hand, the changes in the modes of production and social structure with the industrial revolution and the French revolution that defended freedom and equality.

Neoclassical literature arose as a response to Baroque literature, the literary period immediately preceding it, and reacted with a marked feeling of philosophical and aesthetic revolution, proclaiming itself as a confessional artistic movement, in other words, with its own structure that opposed the forms that were being worked.

Literary development in the neoclassical period 

It is important to mention that neoclassical literature initially sought a culture based on morality, but also on reason and progress. This thought would be formed from the context from which it arises and the social and political conditions that begins to cross not only France, but also, later, the European continent with the revolutions.

During the neoclassical literature, another series of aspects that limit the formal elegance, as well as constant conflicts between passions, honor and duty that remained in the literary works are also evidenced. The inspiration for Classical Antiquity will be exposed, as well as a major use of critical genres, leaving aside the didactic genres that were being developed in the Baroque period.

As for neoclassical literature in Latin America, it also had an important influence, extolling rational values and allowing each region to develop its own series of elements. Latin America in particular developed a focus on the values of freedom and progress, which were supported by figures such as Simón Bolívar. This period also saw the birth of gaucho literature in South American countries.

Neoclassical literature comprises three distinct eras that allowed its consolidation. These are:

Restoration Era

In this stage, poetry stands out mainly, continuing the Greco-Latin models but adding a novel factor to its composition: satire. For this era the theater also undergoes an important change with the incorporation of prose in the writing of plays, which allows a better development of comedy on stage and adds pastorals and odes.

Augustan Era

This second era is named after Augustus, the Roman emperor who was exalted for the prosperity he allowed for the Empire. In addition to this, during this stage, work began on fiction novels, some autobiographical works and the development of journalism. Comedies were maintained, although poetry leaned towards sentimentalism. Little by little a literature close to the moral, realistic and rational begins to be formulated.

Johnson’s era

Also known as the era of sensibility, it had several important axes on which the literary production begins, being these the intellectual, the balance and the reason, although a strong inclination for popular literature was evidenced. At this stage, the works of William Shakespeare reached a great importance, so that his recognition began to increase. However, the artist also devoted himself to the creation of dictionaries on spelling and grammar, as well as to the writing of encyclopedias.

What is neoclassical literature

Main characteristics of neoclassical literature

These are the most important characteristics of this literary period:

Themes: although part of the literary themes were instrumentalized by the political power, it did not happen with all the artistic production. These creations outside the subjection of the government, often touched on themes with moral models, the new ideas that came with the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution, Roman mythology, and in minor cases religion.

Moralizing purpose: the main objective of this literary period is considered to be the moralization of society. This purpose is based on education for the construction of the project of progress, which is why all artists in different areas begin to create works that disseminate the values required to reach a moral, rational and progressive society that leaves behind the ignorance and dogmatism of which they had been subjected in the previous era.

Universal values: in search of this social construction, there is a series of values considered universal that would allow the passage to the modernity of society, among which stand out the spirit of sacrifice, heroism, freedom and the idea of homeland.

Classical model: it is important to bear in mind that neoclassical literature owes its name to this relationship with the art of Classical Antiquity, because it is interpreted as a moral reference on which a new project can be founded. Many experts qualify this vision as a moral idealization of the past for the construction of modernity.

Importance of reason: among the main elements of neoclassical literature, reason is one of the most decisive for the formation of artistic thought. Reason becomes one of the most frequent elements of artistic representations because it represents the methodical organization and virtue for society, so that the cult of reason will be a constant of artists to spread it to readers and other viewers.

Main works of the neoclassical period

Among the most important works and authors of the neoclassical literature we find “The Fables” by Jean de la Fontaine, “Gulliver’s Travels” by Jonathan Swift, “Robinson Crusoe” by Daniel Defoe, “Leisures of my Youth”, “Don Sancho Garcia”, “Solaya or the Circassians” by Jose Cadalso Vazquez, “Essay on Man”, a philosophical poem written by Alexander Pope, among many others.