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Outlines of English and American Literature
Eighteenth-Century Classicism
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.]

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