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26 June, 2013
Outlines of English and American Literature|
by Long, William J.
|The above title is an unfortunate one, but since it is widely used we must
try to understand it as best we can. Yet when one begins to define
"classicism" one is reminded of that old bore Polonius, who tells how
Hamlet is affected:
Your noble son is mad:
Mad, call I it; for to define true madness,
What is't but to be nothing else but mad?
In our literature the word "classic" was probably first used in connection
with the writers of Greece and Rome, and any English work which showed the
influence of such writers was said to have a classic style. If we seek to
the root of the word, we shall find that it refers to the classici,
that is, to the highest of the classes into which the census divided the
Roman people; hence the proper use of "classic" to designate the writings
that have won first rank in any nation. As Goethe said, "Everything that is
good in literature is classical."
Classic and Pseudo-Classic
Gradually, however, the word "classic" came to have a different meaning, a
meaning now expressed by the word "formal." In the Elizabethan age, as we
have seen, critics insisted that English plays should conform to the rules
or "unities" of the Greek drama, and plays written according to such rules
were called classic. Again, in the eighteenth century, English poets took
to studying ancient authors, especially Horace, to find out how poetry
should be written. Having discovered, as they thought, the rules of
composition, they insisted on following such rules rather than individual
genius or inspiration. It is largely because of this adherence to rules,
this slavery to a fashion of the time, that so much of eighteenth-century
verse seems cold and artificial, a thing made to order rather than the
natural expression of human feeling. The writers themselves were well
satisfied with their formality, however, and called their own the Classic
or Augustan age of English letters. [Footnote: Though the eighteenth
century was dominated by this formal spirit, it had, like every other age,
its classic and romantic movements. The work of Gray, Burns and other
romantic poets will be considered later.]