All great cultural eras, by virtue of their magnitude and the force of massive shifts in aesthetic considerations, are inevitably complex. Certainly, the minds and writers prominent in them choose to explore varying aspects of the arts, and this is true of the Neo-Classical period in Europe. At the same time, the era is defined by a single ambition. As the Renaissance so emphasized the rediscovery of classical traditions, the Neo-Classical concerned itself with inquiry, as opposed to direct statement or an embracing of a specific form. This spirit of inquiry is blatantly evident in John Dryden’s Essay of Dramatick Poesie. Employing dialogue between Eugenius, Crites, Lisideius, and Neander, Dryden presents a complex and critical analysis of the various virtues and flaws within drama as poetry. Multiple elements are argued, from the quality of rhyme as opposed to blank verse, to the status of Shakespeare and the possible superiority of French drams to English. Most evident in the dialogue, however, is the careful application of classic styles to determine the merits of the modern, in the 17th century and earlier. Essentially, it is a distanced investigation of what best defines dramatic poetry, which inevitably relies in part on a sense of Aristotle’s unities.
Those unities are then explored more specifically in Cornielle’s Of the Three Unities of Time, Place and Action. While Dryden is content to explore and present differing assessments of Aristotelian form, Cornielle only takes a critical stance in regard to the philosopher’s beliefs. He judges, even as he investigates, and asserts the need for drama to always follow an arc of action, no matter the variables within it. Beyond this, and emphatically, Cornielle decides that the classic unities must obey rules either ignored or inaccurate in Aristotle. In a very real sense, the 17th century dramatist acts as an editor here; a writer of tragedies, he is concerned with identifying the most proper means of creating drama. More importantly, and in keeping with the Neo-Classical “agenda,” he fearlessly does what the Renaissance refused to accommodate: take on the ancient greats and decide what of their thinking has actual value. This connects to Sir Philip Sydney’s An Apology for Poetry, which may also be seen as a response to Dryden’s varying questions. More exactly, Sydney chooses to offer a pragmatic rationale for poetry; he extends Dryden’s inquiry by affirming that poetry, in drama or otherwise, has a social and state purpose to serve. As it may inspire virtuous behavior, it has meaning beyond an art form, and this then adds interesting possibilities to Dryden’s dialogue. With Sydney’s concerns in place, the points raised by Dryden’s gathering of thinkers take on greater importance. If the Neo-Classicists Cornielle and Sydney present specific and didactic ideas regarding the purposes and value of literature, the point remains that their uniform approach is a confidence in exploring classicism, and determining its merits and weaknesses.
The same confidence in inquiry and criticism is seen in Lodovico Castelvetro’s The Poetics of Aristotle Translated and Explained. At the same time, his thinking directly opposes Sydney’s belief in poetry as serving social and political needs. True to the other Neo-Classicists, Castelvetro does not question the innate worth of poetry. He insists, however, that its meaning lies in elevating the human spirit apart from other considerations. Moreover, he dismisses the idea of poetry as a gift, and asserts that it is a talent derived from effort and study. This then corroborates the more pragmatic views in Dryden, as well as the pragmatism of Corneille and even Sydney. The more the Neo-Classicists are explored, then, the more evident is their uniformly emphatic insistence on challenging classic beliefs regarding literature. By the early 18th century, Alexander Pope would then present what may be termed a response to Neo-Classicism itself, which reinforces the reality of how the era is marked by shifts motivated by what has come before. Essentially, Pope criticizes the critics, and argues that deviation from classical form is invalid for the true poet. This extends the thinking of 16th century poet Torquato Tasso who, in his Discorsi dell’arte Poetica, upholds the classical structure put forth by Aristotle, and also affirms the need for simplicity and minimal devices in poetry and drama, in order to preserve the unities. What is interesting here is the time span, in that Tasso’s earlier thinking, refuted or challenged by Dryden, Sydney, and Cornielle, is supported afterward by Pope and somewhat in keeping with Castelvetro.
Then, another quality may be observed in all the Neo-Classical argument; namely, a liveliness, or a kind of ferocity of expression, as these thinkers were all motivated by deep interest. Francis Bacon’s Advancement of Learning and Preface to the Wisdom of the Ancients depart from this liveliness, largely because Bacon is so consistently composed and analytical. Nonetheless, he adheres to the Neo-Classical determination to decide on the value of ancient artistic principles and aims. The former work links the literary arts to the need to elevate learning in all matters, as the latter attributes psychological, scientific, and moral qualities to the most ancient fables, and emphasizes value in them not adequately appreciated. In a very real sense, Bacon stands apart from his fellow Neo-Classicists by virtue of his greater distancing himself from interaction with peers, likely due to his focus on achieving court status. Nonetheless, and even with the detached Bacon, the reality remains that he is profoundly of the era and movement, and because he, like the others, feels empowered to contribute to thinking as assessment of what was embraced in ancient times and revived in the Renaissance.