A Treasury of Great Poems: English and American

By Louis Untermeyer | Go to book overview

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The Rise and Fall of Elegance

THE eighteenth century, that controversial era, is distinguished by many tendencies, but it may safely be said to have marked the rise and fall of elegance. Much ink has been spilled in the attempt to characterize the age as "a revival of classicism" and in the vainer effort to define the undefinable differences between 'classicism" and "romanticism." But when the formal manner began to dominate at the end of the seventeenth century, poetry took a turn toward pedantry, imitated the principles supposedly embodied by the great Greeks and Latins, and made a fetish of dignity and precision.

The initial result was a sharpening of technique and a clarification of ideas. But the performance fell short of the program, and what began as high principles ended in mere patternmaking. The dignity degenerated into dullness, the precision tightened into rigidity. The formal manner was allied with artificiality, and erudition could not separate itself from intellectual snobbery. "Man had ceased to live from the depths of his nature," wrote A. E. Housman in THE NAME AND NATURE OF POETRY. "He occupied himself by choice with thoughts which do not range beyond the sphere of his understanding." Lucidity became the prime virtue, rationalism was almost deified. The "bridge" between the seventeenth-century devotion to the passions and the eighteenth century's so-called scientific detachment was a long and hazardous one, but it was finally spanned by John Dryden, who combined energy and precision.

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