The Baroque in English Neoclassical Literature

By J. Douglas Canfield | Go to book overview

Introduction

BOTH BAROQUE AND NEOCLASSICAL ARE LABELS FROM THE HISTORY of the arts. The latter is used generally to mean art which imitates the classics and stresses order, restraint, the rational, the lucid; the former, art which stresses disorder, excrescence, exuberance, the irrational, the grotesque, the cryptic. The chronology of the use of the terms as indicating period styles varies from art to art and country to country. But most who use them usually see them as succeeding each other, baroque to neoclassical, between the middle of the sixteenth and the end of the eighteenth century.1

In literature, the early seventeenth century is traditionally considered the heyday of the baroque, its vertiginous apex. Coming closer yet to the area to which I wish to restrict this study, critics generally say that baroque literature yields to the neoclassic in both England and France as that century progresses. With regard to England itself, J. M. Cohen, after asserting that “Baroque characteristics became strong in England… during the last decade and a half of the sixteenth century,” repeats the commonplace that “[h]alfway through the seventeenth century their hold weakened in England.”2 I should like to argue that these characteristics persisted, not in some weak residue but in some of the later, neoclassical literature’s most arresting moments.

Cohen, of course, was thinking primarily of the lyric, but Paul N. Skrine finds the baroque especially in the drama, for he sees the twin pillars supporting the style as “absolutist monarchy and the theatrical stage.”3 If one thinks of the baroque as involving extravagant display, one can readily agree with Skrine about the pageantry of seventeenth-century Europe. And if one adds to extravagance the notions of the monstrous or the grotesque or the macabre or the morbid or the outrageous—as I for one do in my understanding of the baroque—then one can see a baroque presence in early modern continental drama, even as it pursues neoclassical topics amidst a regularizing of the rules, from Cleo

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