4. Neoclassical criticism





4.1. French influence

4.2. John Dryden

4.3. Alexander Pope

4.4. Samuel Johnson

4.5. 18th-century Aesthetics











4.1. French influence


4.1.1. Pierre Corneille: The Dramatic Unities

4.1.2. Nicolas Boileau




During the 16th century, Italy had been the main influence on critical ideas. But in the early 17th century the authority shifts to France.French taste and fashions are exported to all of Europe; in the case of Britain, there is the additional circumstance of the exile of the court and nobility during the Commonwealth.


Neo-classical thought becomes generally established as the century advances. While the best works of the Italian Renaissance had been written outside the principles of neo-classicism, it is the other way round in France, where many of the leading writers are consciously following the principles dictated by the critics.


Corneille and Boileau are both courtly poets, working under the system of patronage. This situation will gradually change, due to the eventual development of popular genres in drama and narrative which are financed directly by the public. The system of patronage will gradually be frequently replaced by a the subscriptions to a project before publication. Johnson's unsuccessful address to the Earl of Chesterfield, his independent success and his subsequent refusal of patronage have acquired a symbolic status in English literature.



4.1.1. Pierre Corneille (1606-1684)



Corneille was the leading French tragedian of the mid-XVII, an age when France is becoming the center of fashion and culture in Europe. The French critics like Le Bossu (Discours du poème épique) and Aubignac (La Pratique du théâtre ) are now developing a rigid literary creed, demanding strict submission to the classical canon. Corneille is both a victim and a theorist of neo-Classicism. Some plays of his, like Le Cid, were criticised for taking liberties with the unities, and Corneille stated his views on the subject in his three Discours du poème dramatique (1660), which had a direct influence on Dryden's dramatic ideas, and of which the most significant is the "Discours des trois unités." Corneille sees the problems of dramatic theory from the practical viewpoint of a playwright, and this leads him to take a more liberal attitude than his critics. He anticipates Dryden in discussing the theoretical points using practical examples from his own plays and from the classics, pointing out the defects he finds in both where necessary. Corneille is not rigidly prescriptive on this subject. "Corneille tries to refer rules of dramatic art to common sense and to the situation of the audience as well as to Aristotle," and is aware of what Aristotle said and did not say on this point, "but believes that something like unity of place follows logically from unity of time and unity of action" (Adams 218). In fact, the advice he gives on composition is appropriate for the kind of drama he wrote.


The Unity of Action

As Aristotle said, the plays must have a unity of action. But "the term unity of action does not mean the tragedy should show only one action on stage" (Three Unities, 219). Corneille understands it as referring to a unity of obstacle to plans in comedy and of peril in tragedy. If there are several elements which carry about this function, they must be logically linked. That is, there may be several actions which are incomplete and which reach completion only when the play is seen as a whole: they are subordinated to the main action. These incomplete actions will keep the minds of the audience in a "pleasant suspense" . "There must be only one complete action, which leaves the mind of the spectator serene" (219).


The logical linkage of the actions also implies that each act has to prepare the developments which will take place in the next one. What happens on the stage must be necessary, not the product of coincidence, of some sudden change of mind, or of the intervention of the deus ex machina . If possible, the passage from one scene to the next must not be abrupt: it must also submit to an appearance of necessity.


Corneille repeats the Aristotelian and Horatian ideas on the parts of the action (complication and resolution) and the use of narration. If possible, this has to be restricted to events happening behind scenes while the action is taking place. Events previous to the action must be used as little as posssible.


The play ought to be divided in 5 acts, and not in three, as the obstinate Spaniards will keep on doing. Each act should contain a greater part of the action than the previous one. The first should not advance the action, but prepare the second while it shows the moral nature of the characters and informs the audience of the situation of the story. As we said before, Corneille insists that the exits of the characters have to be accounted for; the entrances seem natural even if they are not explained, but they will have to be justified if a there are two or more by the same character in the same act. So, Corneille is not only repeating but also developing the classical doctrine of verisimilitude and unity. Elements such as the "liaison des scènes" are not found in classical theory. He also justifies the use of stage directions, which did not exist in the Classics, for the benefit of the reader and the director of troops.


The Unity of Time

Corneille thinks that 30 hours is a more reasonable limit than just 24; it may be broadened if necessary. He believes that following too strictly the unity of time may lead to more defects and incongruities than those which result from a subtle compression of story-time (he sets Aeschylus' Agamemnon as an example of absurd subjection to the rule of time: the fall of Troy and Agamemnon's return occur at an interval of a few minutes). The best solution for dramatic time, Corneille believes, is to leave it indeterminate to the audience whenever possible. The audience will not think of it unless they are made aware of incongruities. Time indications are always clumsy in plays, Corneille believes, and it is better to leave them out. All acts must cover a similar amount of story time, but the fifth has the privilege of acceleration. The acts must be continuous, if possible, but any amount of story-time may be consumed during the intervals. And a good justification to include all the events we need in the short time we are allowed is to choose for our play a day both illustrious and long-awaited. This subject is, moreover, a great ornament to a poem.


The Unity of Place

The requirement for a unity of place, Corneille notes, is not found in Aristotle or in Horace, only it seems a logical consequence of the unity of time. The closer we keep to a unity of place, the better, but there is a danger of its leading to absurdities, and so Corneille allows: "I should be willing to concede that a whole city has unity of place" (225). Only, the changes of place have to be made during the intervals between the acts. They must not be mentioned or shown through setting. As in the unity of time, Corneille believes that the best is to leave the place of the action undetermined: it must be an ideal "theatrical place," fictional, at once private and public, according to the needs of the action.


French playwrights developed the so-called "liaison des scènes," the linking-up of scenes, to emphasize the unities of time and place. The characters must come to the stage or leave it for some reason having to do with the plot, and the characters must meet in some way so that the audience knows that there is no change of place nor of time from a scene to the next. In this way, Corneille says, continuity of presentation helps shape continuity of action. He acknowledges it is not a rule: it is only an embellisment. But audiences have grown so accustomed to it that it has become something like a rule. This is a recognition that there is an authority of practical response in the audience, as well as the authority of the Ancients.


There are three possible links which can be established between one scene and the next: the characters in one scene may hear the others coming, or they may see them coming, or they may meet for some time and speak. Corneille believes the last is the better, though he tolerates the second one too. The first, however, liaison through sound, is to be avoided.


As is the case of Dryden, Corneille defends his relaxation of the rules against critics, saying that it is easier to criticise than to write a successful play following the rules strictly. We may note that this relaxation of the rules leaves them more or less where Aristotle had defined them originally; only more specified.









4.1.2. Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux (1636-1711)


Boileau is not an original critic. He follows a tradition that includes the critical work of Malherbe and Chapelain. Boileau and René Rapin were French critics whose influence is stronger in Britain towards the end of the 17th century.


Boileau's most famous work, L'Art poétique (1672), is written in the tradition of the Horatian epistle, with a somewhat more systematic structure. Its more direct model, however, is Vida's latin poem in three cantos De arte poetica (1527), as well as the swarm of epistles, poems and treatises which followed. But while Vida's work was not successful poetry, Boileau's is at once poetical and theoretical. Its great success stimulated the fashion, which continued well into the 18th century. It was translated into English by Dryden and was imitated by many English writers in the late 17th and early 18th centuries (Rochester, Mulgrave, Roscommon, Granville, Wesley, and last but not least Pope in his Essay on Criticism ).


The work is divided into four cantos. The first deals with general advice on the nature of poetry. Both talent and inspiration are necessary: hard work is not enough. Preciosism, exaggeration and farce are extremes which must be avoided; also, rime and reason must fit each other. Like Horace, Boileau gives a miniature treatise of versification and a history of (French) poetry. It is significant that he ignores the Middle Ages.


The second canto defines the minor lyrical and satiric genres: idyll, elegy, ode, sonnet, epigram, satire, song, etc.


The third deals with the major genres: tragedy, epic and comedy; he follows all the classical ideas of Horace + Aristotle, often simplifying them (above all Aristotle, whose systematic interests are beyond Boileau): to move and to please, verisimilitude rather than truth or improbability, decorum everywhere, etc. There is, however, a significant emphasis on pleasing , practically ignoring the didactic element of poetry which is often emphasized by Renaissance classical doctrine.


The last canto includes more general advice and an eulogy of the king, his patron. Boileau lives in an age of literary patronage, and takes for granted the role of the poet as a parasite and apologist; in this, as in many other things, he looks extremely conservative to us.


This scheme leaves many lacunae: Boileau does ignores the novel, the opera, the fable, and even the kind of didactic poem he is writing. Actually, the author is trying to be clever and entertaining, rather than systematic, and he introduces digressions, classical references, etc. just for the sake of variety and taste.


Rationalism is the predominant philosophy in France and it has an influence on aesthetics; even Pascal, who opposed his "esprit de finesse" to the "esprit de géometrie" believes that there are rules to please, as well as rules to prove. Only, "reason" is used in an arbitrary way, and many things are termed reasonable which we might wish to call conventional. Boileau is best known as the apologist of rule. This is clearly seen in the Art poétique, but we must not forget that he also allows a Longinian freedom to the truly great genius. Towards the end of the XVIIth century, he wrote a series of meditations on art under the title Réflexions sur Longin. He contributed a great deal to the diffusion of the Longinian principles. Now he thinks there are rules, but "when a passage in a discourse is admired by all, one must not look for reasons, or rather vain subtilities, to prevent this admiration, but rather manage to find the reasons of the admiration." And he wonders "whether the basic rule behind all rules is to please." Indeed his readiness to please may seem too far-fetched at times. You must only write that which is sure to please. More than that: while discussing poetic diction, one of his hobby-horses, Boileau submits thought and reason to diction:


Nothing is more debasing of a discourse than low words. Generally speaking, it is better to suffer a low thought expressed in noble terms than the noblest thought in the world expressed in low terms. The reason is that not everybody can judge of the rightness and shape of a thought, while practically nobody . . . ignores the vulgarity of words.


"Boileau argues that expression follows thought and that before writing we should learn to think" (Adams 258). We can compare this conception to Hobbes's idea that only what is clearly understood is a fit subject for poetry. This is a view which divorces language and thought, and it is not much favoured in our century: since the Romanticism (and since Vico, Croce, Sapir, Whorf) we prefer to think that language and thought help shape each other. Boileau says that form and content must be related (so, he opposes senseless rhyme and superfluous decoration), but his very assumptions tend to split them.


Boileau does not owe his fame to his genius, but to the circumstance that both his virtues and his limitations coincided with those of his age. (Hall 60). He is commonsensical, he insists on moderation, imitation and convention. Like Horace, he seems at times not so much concerned with defining the principles of literature or with teaching how to write, rather, his tone is worldly-wise, giving advice on how to prevent the poet from making a fool of himself. He is not an inventor, but he gives clever and catchy formulations of old principles. Boileau is not too subtle or deep as a thinker. But he has a keen sensibility and wit, and he is not as dogmatic as he looks. There are no good books, he believes, which are rejected by the public. His emphasis is on restraint, but the artist must have freedom to touch.