Writers and craftsmen including Alexander Pope, John Dryden, Jonathan Swift and Josiah Wedgwood found inspiration in the classical period. Andrew Macdonald-Brown explores how their works adopted the style, genres, aesthetic values and subjects of Greek and Roman writers.

Alexander Pope and the Augustan Age

In his long poem An Essay on Criticism (1711), Alexander Pope insisted that the best poetry or criticism should, above all, be true to ‘unerring NATURE … at once the source and end and test of Art’ (Part 1, l. 73). In this, Pope urged poets and critics to take their lead from the classical (‘ancient’) authors:

You then whose judgment the right course would steer,
Know well each ANCIENT’s proper character…
Be Homer’s works your study, and delight,
Read them by day, and meditate by night. (Part 1, l. 125)

Pope was preaching what he himself had practised: as a boy, he had taught himself Latin and Greek, and studied the works of the classical authors with a rare devotion. However, his reverence was also typical of his century, which hosted English literature’s so-called Augustan Age. (The emperor Augustus had presided over the golden age of Roman literature.)

Portrait of Alexander Pope by Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1719

Painted portrait of Alexander Pope in velvet cap and jacket, holding a copy of The Iliad

This portrait shows Pope holding a copy of Homer’s The Iliad – the book that made his fortune. Pope translated it over the course of six years, and published it in 1715‒20.

View images from this item  (1)

Usage terms © Private Collection. Not for reuse without permission. 
Held by© Private Collection

Pope and other Augustan writers believed in imitating the best of their classical predecessors through adopting classical genres (e.g. epic, pastoral, satire) and closely observing the principles thought to inform the ancient texts:

Learn hence for ancient rules a just esteem;
To copy nature is to copy them. (Part 1, l. 139)

This modern imitation of ancient Greek and Roman literature came to be known as neoclassicism.

Bankes Homer

A detail from the Bankes Homes, a 2nd-century papyrus featuring the final book of the Iliad.

This remarkable fragment of papyrus, over 2.3 metres long, dates from the 2nd century. It contains most of the text of the final book of Homer’s The Iliad.

View images from this item  (1)

Usage terms Public Domain

Wit, rationality, decorum

Like most cultural movements, neoclassicism was only labelled and defined retrospectively. And yet there was no self-styled group, no rulebook. That said, Pope, in his poetical Essay, identified and exemplified key neoclassical principles, such as wit, rationality and literary decorum (elegant harmony of style and content):

Expression is the dress of thought, and still
Appears more decent as more suitable…  (Part 2, ll. 320–21)

’Tis not enough no harshness gives offence,
The sound must seem an Echo to the sense… (ll. 366–67)

True Wit is Nature to advantage dress’d,
What oft was thought but ne’er so well express’d. (ll. 299–300)

Ben Jonson and the ‘unities’

In keeping with the wisdom of the last couplet – that it is not original thought which matters, but elegance of expression – Pope’s neoclassicism was hardly news in 1711. After all, English writers from Chaucer to Shakespeare had taken inspiration from the classics – and the Renaissance had seen a massive revival of interest in classical texts, philosophies and rhetoric.

Boydell's Collection of Prints illustrating Shakespeare's works

Print depicting characters in Act 5, Scene 3 of Shakespeare's Coriolanus

Shakespeare wrote four plays set in ancient Rome, including Coriolanus and Julius Caesar. This early 19th-century print shows Act 5, Scene 3 of Coriolanus.

View images from this item  (24)

Usage terms Public Domain

But where medieval and Renaissance writers were influenced and inspired, the neoclassicists imitated. By that definition, the first neoclassical English writer was the poet, playwright and proud classicist, Ben Jonson (1572–1637).

Jonson’s poetry included imitations of the Roman poet Martial, and his plays were infused with the saeva indignatio (fierce anger) of the satirist Juvenal. He also studied classical poetics (critical theory), translating Horace’s Ars Poetica (the Art of Poetry) and consciously employing the ‘classical unities’ of time, place and action in several of his plays. These ‘rules’, derived from Aristotle’s Poetics, required the action of a tragic drama to happen: a) over a single day; b) in one location; and c) in a single plot. The ‘unities’ were promoted by 17th-century French neoclassical critics, and scrupulously observed by the leading playwrights, Corneille, Racine and Molière.

First edition of Ben Jonson's Volpone, 1607

Printed title page from Ben Jonson's Volpone

Jonson boasted in the epistle to the reader that because his play adhered to the classical concept of dramatic unity, his work had more integrity and finesse than that of his contemporaries.

View images from this item  (9)

Usage terms Public Domain

Dryden and Restoration neoclassicism

Meanwhile, English writers of the Restoration period (1660–89) developed their own, less rigid neoclassicism. John Dryden, in An Essay on Dramatic Poesy (1668), noted that the ‘regular’ French plays could be rather lifeless (‘the beauties of a statue but not of a man’), whereas ‘irregular’ English plays were ‘fuller of variety … fuller of spirit’. As for the unities, Dryden declared that

by their servile observations of the unities of time and place and integrity of scenes, [French playwrights] have brought on themselves that dearth of plot and narrowness of imagination which may be observed in all their plays…

Portrait of John Dryden

Painted portrait of John Dryden, who is sat next to a pile of books, dressed in blue silk, and with a dog at his feet

This portrait, painted by James Maubert in around 1695, contains many classical allusions. The eagle perched by the window is looking towards Mount Parnassus, home of the classical Muses.

View images from this item  (1)

Usage terms © National Portrait Gallery, London
Held by© National Portrait Gallery

Nonetheless, Dryden championed those classical principles which would inspire the Augustans. He defined ‘the law’ of playwriting as ‘the lively imitation of nature’, and so decried ‘incredibility’. He believed, echoing Horace, that plays should ‘instruct delightfully’, illustrating ‘the punishment of vice and reward of virtue’. He shared the French playwrights’ love of wit, and approved of regularity and decorum, so long as they were enlivened with ‘variety … well ordered’. Comparing his two favourite playwrights, Dryden concluded:

I must acknowledge [Jonson] the more correct poet but Shakespeare the greater wit. Shakespeare was the Homer or father of our dramatic poets; Jonson was the Virgil, the pattern of elaborate writing; I admire him, but I love Shakespeare.

The Works of Virgil, translated by John Dryden 1697

Frontispiece page with illustration of Virgil in robes and laurel next to a male figure and a cherub, from The Works of Virgil

Dryden’s translation of Virgil’s poetry influenced the great writers of the Augustan age.

View images from this item  (23)

Usage terms Public Domain

Pope again: The periodical essay and novel

Dryden’s brand of neoclassicism is expressed, repeatedly, in Pope’s Essay on Criticism:

Some beauties yet no Precepts can declare,
For there’s a happiness as well as care.
Music resembles Poetry; in each
Are nameless graces which no methods teach,
And which a master-hand alone can reach. (Part 1, ll. 141–45)

In taking liberties with the regular structure here – using enjambment in the third line, and making an unexpected rhyming triplet with the fifth line (extending the heroic couplet) – Pope practises what he preaches. Method plus grace; flexible regularity: this is the essence of Augustan neoclassicism – and one reason why so many writers of the period could flourish within its parameters. (Another was that the Augustans could be playful as well as moralistic: imitation of the ancients could, and often did, include parody.)

Alexander Pope's translation of The Iliad, written on the back of his personal letters

First page from Alexander Pope's handwritten translation of the 'Iliad'

Pope’s translation of Homer’s Iliad was drafted on the backs of his personal notes and letters. On this first page, the poet invokes the ‘Goddess’ to inspire him to ‘sing’ his story of the ‘wrath’ of Achilles.

View images from this item  (17)

Usage terms

Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Among them, Pope was the dominant figure, rarely departing from neoclassical forms. These included long moralistic ‘Essays’ and mock-epics (The Rape of the Lock, The Dunciad); best-selling translations of Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey; and, in his final years, a series of Imitations of Horace’s Satires – all in his trademark heroic couplets.

1714 edition of The Rape of the Lock, with illustrations and epistle to Arabella Fermor

Printed title page from a 1714 edition of The Rape of the Lock

In his ‘heroi-comical poem’, Pope used the elevated style of Greek and Roman epic to mock the self-importance of the 18th-century elite.

View images from this item  (21)

Usage terms Public Domain

Neoclassicism pervades even the two original literary forms produced by the Augustan Age: the periodical essay (pioneered by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele) and, of course, the novel (especially those of Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding). In both prose forms, an elaborate style – resembling that of Cicero, the great Roman orator – prevails. Sentences are complex constructions, with a preference for Latinate abstract nouns over concrete Anglo-Saxon ones. Among all the rhetorical figures on display (anaphora, tricolon, litotes, etc.), these writers particularly favour paradox and antithesis. Elegant balance is the organising principle. Here is Addison, in The Spectator (1711), celebrating the Royal Exchange (London’s centre for trade and commerce) and the abundance of exotic produce traded there:

Nor is it the least part of our happiness, that while we enjoy the remotest products of the north and south, we are free from those extremities of weather that give them birth; that our eyes are refreshed with the green fields of Britain, at the same time that our palates are feasted with the fruits that rise between the tropics.

The essayist’s ironic wit and the tone of lofty but genial authority are distinctively Augustan: an English version of Horace’s wry sophistication. Equally, Augustan satirists could lash out with a furious scorn learnt from Juvenal. Here is Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels (1726), reporting the king of Brobdingnag’s disgust at Gulliver’s account of humanity:

I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth. (Ch. 6.)

The Adventures of Captain Gulliver

Printed text and woodcut illustration of a miniature Gulliver sailing in a trough, entertaining the queen of Brobdingnag and her courtiers, from a children's version of Gulliver's Travels

This woodcut shows a miniature Gulliver sailing in a trough, entertaining the queen of Brobdingnag and her courtiers.

View images from this item  (20)

Usage terms Public Domain

Palladianism and Arcadian gardens

It was not only in Augustan literature that neoclassicism thrived. In the 1720s, Lord Burlington – a friend and patron of Pope – built Chiswick House, distinguished by its Doric columns, pediments and symmetry, in imitation of an Italian villa designed by the neoclassical Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio, whose work inspired a whole architectural style known as ‘Palladian’. The interior was lavishly decorated by Burlington’s protégé William Kent, who also redesigned the garden, incorporating classical temples, urns and obelisks. Chiswick House helped make Palladianism, along with the ‘natural’ style of landscape gardening, the design of choice for wealthy country estate owners. Like Burlington, many of them had seen classical ruins and Palladian architecture for themselves on the Grand Tour. (This tour of Europe’s cultural highlights, especially the ancient ones, was de rigueur for fashionable young Georgian gentlemen looking to enrich their knowledge and appreciation of the classical world.)

Ephraim Chambers's Cyclopaedia, 1741

Diagrams of architectural columns and details in the styles of ancient Rome and Greece, from Ephraim Chambers' Cyclopaedia, 1741

This fold-out illustration from Ephraim Chambers’ encyclopaedia (1741) shows the classical influences on Georgian architecture.

View images from this item  (13)

Usage terms Public Domain

Other neoclassical styles of Georgian architecture emerged over the century, evident still in many of our terraces, squares and public buildings. They are all united by the same aesthetic principles which informed the literature of the age: regularity, restraint, elegance.

A view of Bath

Colour print depicting the buildings of Bath and surrounding countryside, seen from outside the city on top of a hill

Today, Bath has many surviving neo-classical houses, terraces and crescents. This mid 18th-century engraving shows the white, harmonious buildings soon after they were first constructed.

View images from this item  (1)

Usage terms Public Domain

Wedgwood and Flaxman

In the decorative arts, Georgian neoclassicism meant a rejection of rococo and baroque exuberance in favour of classical purity and simplicity – and images of antiquity. Josiah Wedgwood (1730–1795) made a fortune manufacturing vases modelled on Greek or Etruscan originals, and other pottery decorated with classical scenes. However, where Greek art was uncompromising in its depiction of the nude, Wedgwood spared the blushes of his clientele with careful employment of silks and fig leaves!

One of Wedgwood’s protégés, John Flaxman (1755–1826), was perhaps the most devout neoclassicist of them all. Flaxman modelled classical reliefs for Wedgwood’s jasperware and also sculpted numerous church monuments, much admired for their Greek grace and simplicity. But it was his illustrations of Homer’s works in the linear style which made him famous across Europe. This style – pure outline drawing – was considered the classical style par excellence. Flaxman was the style’s English master.

Tooke and Lemprière

Wedgwood’s pottery (if not the vases, then the more affordable crockery and ornamental medallions of Roman emperors) and Flaxman’s illustrations helped bring the classical world into the homes of the Georgian middle class, which, thanks to a trade-driven consumer boom, was growing in size and prosperity. Two popular books by schoolmasters also contributed to the dissemination of classical knowledge: Andrew Tooke’s The Pantheon (1698), a compendium of stories of the classical gods and heroes, and John Lemprière’s Bibliotheca Classica (1788), a dictionary of classical mythology and history.

The Pantheon

Illustration of classical Greek gods and figures, opposite the title page for The Pantheon

Andrew Tooke’s Pantheon was immensely successful, going through 22 editions.

View images from this item  (12)

Usage terms Public Domain

The age of Johnson

Meanwhile, on the loftier heights of the literary landscape, stands the successor to Pope as English neoclassicism’s presiding genius: the hulking, influential figure of Samuel Johnson (1709–1784).

Portrait of Samuel Johnson by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1756-57

Painted portrait of Samuel Johnson, seated with a quill in one hand and another hand resting on pieces of paper

Sir Joshua Reynolds painted Johnson a number of times. This is probably the most flattering of those portraits.

View images from this item  (1)

Usage terms © National Portrait Gallery, London
Held by© National Portrait Gallery

Quite apart from writing the first comprehensive English dictionary, Johnson achieved greatness in several Augustan genres: the periodical essay; the prose narrative (Rasselas); and the moral essay in heroic couplets (London and The Vanity of Human Wishes). The latter poems are imitations of Juvenal’s satires, but Johnson, like Pope, does so much more than merely imitate his ancient model. The saeva indignatio (savage indignation) at ‘these degenerate days’ is Juvenal’s, but the satire of Walpole’s government in London and the redemptive vision of Christian love, patience and faith at the end of The Vanity of Human Wishes are Johnson’s. That moral vision informs all of Johnson’s works – along with a Latinate prose style that treads a fine line between pomposity and godlike authority. Here he is, in The Rambler (1751), musing on ‘the need for general knowledge’:

An elevated genius employed in little things appears, to use the simile of Longinus, like the sun in his evening declination; he remits his splendor but retains his magnitude, and pleases more though he dazzles less.

In Johnson, the sun of English literary neoclassicism approached its own ‘evening declination’. All that rationalism and wit, the elegant style and moral conservatism, could be taken no further. One lesson of Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (published between 1776 and 1788, and itself a neoclassical masterwork) was that all empires, all historical moments, must pass. By the 1770s, revolution was in the air of Europe and America – and radically different types of art were already emerging. Gothic novels, such as Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764), did not so much ‘instruct delightfully’ as disturb and terrify. Writers and painters were beginning to depict Nature not as the ‘unerring’ source of ‘ancient rules’, but as sublime, chaotic and quite beyond human understanding. Romanticism’s moment was nigh.

Gothic novel The Castle of Otranto, by Horace Walpole

Illustration of a man and woman within a ruined building, opposite the title page to The Castle of Otranto

The Castle of Otranto is generally regarded as the first Gothic novel, with its ghosts, vaults and living statues. This copy, published in 1765, contains Walpole’s initials.

View images from this item  (17)

Usage terms Public Domain

  • Andrew Macdonald-Brown
  • Andrew Macdonald-Brown is the Head of English at Moreton Hall school in Shropshire. He has published close readings of various poems for the Connell Guides Text of the Week series.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.