Differences between Neoclassicism and Romanticism



Neoclassical and Romantic movements cover the period of 1660 to 1832. Neoclassicism showed life to be more rational than it really was. The Romantics favoured an interest in nature, picturesque, violent, and sublime. Unlike Neoclassicism, which stood for the order, reason, tradition, society, intellect and formal diction, Romanticism allowed people to get away from the constrained rational views of life and concentrate on an emotional and sentimental side of humanity. In this movement, the emphasis was on emotion, passion, imagination, individual and natural diction. Resulting in part from the liberation and egalitarian ideals of the French Revolution, the Romantic Movement had in common only a revolt against the rules of classicism.

Neoclassicism was an artistic and intellectual movement, beginning in the mid-17th century in England, both progressive and traditional in its goal of rivaling the literary and artistic accomplishments of Augustus Caesar’s day and the classical period in general. This movement could be characterized as a religion of the head. On the contrary, Romanticism was an artistic and intellectual movement that spread across Europe in the late 18th and early 19th century. This movement was a reaction in direct opposition to the Age of Reason in its understanding of human happiness and the means to achieve it. This literary revolution could be characterized as a religion of the heart. There are obviously a lot of distinctions between these two movements and here I am going to compare and contrast these two movements in English literature by considering the principles and writers and works of writers which exhibit these differences in both the periods.


The English Neoclassical Movement (1660-1798), predicated upon and derived from both classical and contemporary French models, embodied a group of attitudes toward art and human existence — ideals of order, logic, restraint, accuracy, “correctness,” “restraint,” decorum, and so on, which would enable the practitioners of various arts to imitate or reproduce the structures and themes of Greek or Roman originals. Though its origins were much earlier (the Elizabethan Ben Jonson, for example, was as indebted to the Roman poet Horace as Alexander Pope would later be), Neoclassicism dominated English literature from the Restoration in 1660 until the end of the eighteenth century, when the publication of Lyrical Ballads (1798) by Wordsworth and Coleridge marked the full emergence of Romanticism.

The term “Neoclassical” was not invented until the mid-19th century, and at the time the style was described by such terms as “the true style”, “reformed” and “revival”; what was regarded as being revived varying considerably. Ancient models were certainly very much involved, but the style could also be regarded as a revival of the Renaissance, and especially in France as a return to the more austere and noble Baroque of the age of Louis XIV, for which a considerable nostalgia had developed as France’s dominant military and political position started a serious decline.

The Neoclassic period can be divided into three relatively coherent parts for the sake of convenience:

  1. the Restoration Age (1660-1700), in which Milton, Bunyan, and Dryden were the dominant influences;
  2. the Augustan Age (1700-1750), in which Pope was the central poetic figure, while Defoe, Richardson, Fielding, and Smollett were presiding over the sophistication of the novel; and
  3. the Age of Johnson (1750-1798), which, while it was dominated and characterized by the mind and personality of the unique Dr. Samuel Johnson, whose sympathies were with the fading Augustan past, saw the beginnings of a new understanding and appreciation of the work of Shakespeare, the development, by Sterne and others, of the novel of sensibility, and the emergence of the Gothic school — attitudes which, in the context of the development of a cult of Nature, the influence of German romantic  thought, religious tendencies like the rise of Methodism, and political events like the American and French Revolutions — established the intellectual and emotional foundations of English Romanticism.

Neoclassicism was strongest in architecture, sculpture and the decorative arts, where classical models in the same medium were relatively numerous and accessible; examples from ancient painting that demonstrated the qualities that Winckelmann’s writing found in sculpture were and are lacking. Winckelmann was involved in the dissemination of knowledge of the first large Roman paintings to be discovered, at Pompeii and Herculaneum and, like most contemporaries except for Gavin Hamilton, was unimpressed by them, citing Pliny the Younger’s comments on the decline of painting in his period.

European Neoclassicism in the visual arts began c. 1760 in opposition to the then-dominant Baroque and Rococo styles. Rococo architecture emphasizes grace, ornamentation and asymmetry; Neoclassical architecture is based on the principles of simplicity and symmetry, which were seen as virtues of the arts of Rome and Ancient Greece, and were more immediately drawn from 16th century Renaissance Classicism.

Neoclassicism represented a reaction against the optimistic, exuberant, and enthusiastic Renaissance view of man as a being fundamentally good and possessed of an infinite potential for spiritual and intellectual growth. Neoclassical theorists, by contrast, saw man as an imperfect being, inherently sinful, whose potential was limited. They replaced the Renaissance emphasis on the imagination, on invention and experimentation, and on mysticism with an emphasis on order and reason, on restraint, on common sense, and on religious, political, economic and philosophical conservatism. They maintained that man himself was the most appropriate subject of art, and saw art itself as essentially pragmatic — as valuable because it was somehow useful — and as something which was properly intellectual rather than emotional.

Hence, their emphasis on proper subject matter; and hence their attempts to subordinate details to an overall design, to employ in their work concepts like symmetry, proportion, unity, harmony, and grace, which would facilitate the process of delighting, instructing, educating, and correcting the social animal which they believed man to be. Their favourite prose literary forms were the essay, the letter, the satire, the parody, the burlesque, and the moral fable; in poetry, the favourite verse form was the rhymed couplet, which reached its greatest sophistication in heroic couplet of Pope; while the theatre saw the development of the heroic drama, the melodrama, the sentimental comedy, and the comedy of manners. The fading away of Neoclassicism may have appeared to represent the last flicker of the Enlightenment, but artistic movements never really die: many of the primary aesthetic tenets of Neoclassicism, in fact have reappeared in the twentieth century — in, for example, the poetry and criticism of T. S. Eliot — as manifestations of a reaction against Romanticism itself: Eliot saw Neo-classicism as emphasising poetic form and conscious craftsmanship, and Romanticism as a poetics of personal emotion and “inspiration,” and pointedly preferred the former.


On the other hand, the creative, literary, and scholarly movement known as ‘Romanticism’ began in Europe in 18th century and in most areas was at its crest in the estimated era from 1798 to 1832 (some historians say- from 1800 to 1840). Partly a reaction to the Industrial Revolution, it was also a revolt against aristocratic social and political norms of the Neo-classical Age (Neo-classicism) or the Age of Enlightenment and a reaction against the scientific explanation of nature. Many critics say that The Romantic Movement appeared in Germany, which soon spread to England as well as France, however, the main source of inspiration came from the events and ideologies of the French Revolution. Other than this, even the industrial revolution which began during the same period is also said to be responsible for the development of this movement. Though Romantic elements were found in art and literature since several centuries, it was the publication of ”Lyrical Ballads” by Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1798 that marked the beginning of the Romantic period. Let us now understand this concept in more detail. It is a literary, artistic, and philosophical movement characterized chiefly by a reaction against neoclassicism and an emphasis on the imagination and emotions, and marked especially in English literature by sensibility and the use of autobiographical material, an admiration of the primitive and the common man, an appreciation of external nature, an interest in the remote, a liking for melancholy, and the use in poetry of older verse forms. This period is called the second creative period of English literature (Elizabethan Age is the first). The literature of this period is largely poetical; it is the golden age of the lyric.

The expression, Romanticism, is a phenomenon of immense scope; it embraces literature, politics, history, philosophy and the arts in general. There has never been much agreement and much confusion as to what the word means. It has, in fact, been used in so many different ways that some scholars have argued that the best thing we could do with the expression is to abandon it once and for all. However, the phenomenon of Romanticism would not become less complex by simply throwing away its label of convenience.

Originally, Romanticism referred to the characteristics of romances, whose extravagance carried somewhat pejorative connotations. But, in the 18th century the term came to designate a new kind of exotic landscape which evoked feelings of pleasant melancholy. The term Romantic as a designation for a school of literature opposed to the Classic was first used by the German critic Karl Wilhelm Friedrich von Schlegel (1772-1829) at the beginning of the 19th century. From Germany, this meaning was carried to England and France.

Since no single figure or literary school displays all the characteristics considered to be “Romantic,” any general definitions tend to be imprecise. In addition, these characteristics are often discerned in artists and cultural movements not usually so designated. They are not, in fact, the exclusive property of the Romantic period, but it is here that they are dominant and give identity to an era.

One of the fundamentals of Romanticism is the belief in the natural goodness of man, the idea that man in a state of nature would behave well but is hindered by civilization (Rousseau —  “man is born free and everywhere he is in chains”). The “savage” is noble, childhood is good and the emotions inspired by both beliefs causes the heart to soar. On the contrary, urban life and the commitment to “getting and spending,” generates a fear and distrust of the world. If man is inherently sinful, reason must restrain his passions, but if he is naturally good, then in an appropriate environment, his emotions can be trusted (Blake — “bathe in the waters of life”).

The idea of man’s natural goodness and the stress on emotion also contributed to the development of Romantic individualism, that is, the belief that what is special in a man is to be valued over what is representative (the latter oftentimes connected with the conventions imposed on man by “civilized society.” If a man may properly express his unique emotional self because its essence is good, he is also likely to assume also that its conflicts and corruptions are a matter of great import and a source of fascination to himself and others. So, the Romantic delights in self-analysis. Both William Wordsworth (in The Prelude) and Lord Byron (in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage), poets very different from one another, felt the need to write lengthy poems of self-dramatization. The self that Byron dramatized, a projection not identical with his own personality, was especially dear to the Romantic mind: the outcast wanderer, heroic by accursed, often on some desperate quest, in the tradition of Cain or the Flying Dutchman. S. T. Coleridge’s Mariner and Herman Melville’s Ahab are similar Romantic pilgrims.

For English literature the most significant expression of a Romantic commitment to emotion occurs in Wordsworth’s preface to the second edition of the Lyrical Ballads (1800), where he maintains that “all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” Although Wordsworth qualifies this assertion by suggesting that the poet is a reflective man who recollects his emotion “in tranquility,” the emphasis on spontaneity, on feeling, and the use of the term overflow mark sharp diversions from the earlier ideals of judgment and restraint.

Searching for a fresh source of this spontaneous feeling, Wordsworth rejects the Neoclassic idea of the appropriate subject for serious verse and turns to the simplicities of rustic life “because in that condition the passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature.” That interaction with nature has, for many of the Romantic poets, mystical overtones. Nature is apprehended by them not only as an exemplar and source of vivid physical beauty but as a manifestation of spirit in the universe as well. In “Tintern Abbey”, Wordsworth suggests that nature has gratified his physical being, excited his emotions, and ultimately allowed him “a sense sublime/Of something far more deeply interfused,” of a spiritual force immanent not only in the forms of nature but “in the mind of man.” Though not necessarily in the same terms, a similar connection between the world of nature and the world of the spirit is also made by Blake, Coleridge, Byron and Shelley.

In his desire to identify with a spiritual force, the Romantics often expressed the Faustian aspiration after the sublime and the wonderful. Committed to change, flux rather than stasis, he longs to believe that man is perfectible, that moral as well as mechanical progress is possible. Although the burst of hope and enthusiasm that marked the early stages of the French Revolution was soon muted, its echoes lingered through much of the 19th century and even survive in the 20th century. If the Romantic often sees his enemy in the successful bourgeois, the Philistine with a vested interest in social stability, political revolution is not always his goal. His admiration for the natural, the organic, which in art leads to the overthrow of the Classical rules and the development of a unique form for each work, in politics may lead him to subordinate the individual to the state and insist that the needs of the whole govern the activities of the parts.

Although these characteristics of Romanticism suggest something of its nature, they are far from exhaustive. The phenomenon is too diverse and too contradictory to admit of an easy definition. As Lovejoy suggested, “typical manifestations of the spiritual essence of Romanticism have been variously conceived to be a passion for moonlight, for red waistcoats, for Gothic churches . . . for talking exclusively about oneself, for hero-worship, for losing oneself in an ecstatic contemplation of nature.”

Differences between Neoclassicism and Romanticism:

Both Neoclassicism and Romanticism are poles apart from a variety of perspectives. However, the visible differences between Neoclassicism and Romanticism are as follows:


The neoclassic writers gave importance to thought, reason and commonsense.

On the other hand, the romantic writers gave importance to emotions, imagination and self experience.


In Neoclassicism, poetry was the artful treatment of the real life happenings into a poetic composition portraying a fictional character.

But, in Romanticism, poetry expressed personal feelings of the poet as it is spontaneous and not the man in action in the composition.


The neoclassicists gave importance to poetic ‘eye’ where the reader sees the other person through the poet’s eye.

Whereas, the romanticists gave importance to poetic ‘I’, meaning the reader sees the poet in the protagonist.


According to the neoclassicists, human beings were an important part of the social organization, were the main subject of poetry.

By contrast, the romanticists appreciated nature much in their poetry.


To the neoclassicists, formal rules, diction, vocabulary and grammar were more important.

On the contrary, diction was viewed as less important by the romanticists and they empasised more on the language of the common man.


The neoclassicists believed in order in all things.

But, the romanticists believed in spontaneity of thought and action.


The neoclassicists wrote about objective issues that concerned society as a whole such as, politics and religion.

Conversely, the romanticists wrote about subjective experiences of the individual, such as, desires, hopes, and dreams.


Traditional standards were strictly maintained by the neoclassicists .

Whereas, the romanticists believed in experimentation.


The neoclassicists exercised controlled wit.

The romanticists celebrated strong passion and vision.


The focus of the neoclassicists was mainly on adult concerns, primarily those of the ruling class.

But, the romanticists reflected on the experiences of childhood, primitive societies, and the common man.


In the end, Neoclassicism is a revival of the styles and spirit of classic antiquity inspired directly from the classical period, which coincided and reflected the developments in philosophy and other areas of the Age of Enlightenment, and was initially a reaction against the excesses of the preceding Rococo style. While the movement is often described as the opposed counterpart of Romanticism, this is a great over-simplification that tends not to be sustainable when specific artists or works are considered, the case of the supposed main champion of late Neoclassicism, Ingres, demonstrating this especially well. In English, the term “Neoclassicism” is used primarily of the visual arts; the similar movement in English literature, which began considerably earlier, is called Augustan literature, which had been dominant for several decades, and was beginning to decline, by the time Neoclassicism in the visual arts became fashionable. Though terms differ, the situation in French literature was similar. In music, the period saw the rise of classical music, and “neoclassicism” is used of 20th century developments. However the operas of Christoph Willibald Gluck, represented a specifically neo-classical approach, spelt out in his preface to the published score of Alceste (1769), which aimed to reform opera by removing ornamentation, increasing the role of the chorus in line with Greek tragedy, and using simpler unadorned melodic lines.

Just showing what the Romantic Movement is, it can be shown as a reaction against Neoclassicism. Romantic art portrays emotional, painted, or shown in a bold and dramatic manner, and there is often a stress on the past. Romantic artists often use sad themes and dramatic tragedies. Paintings by famous Romantic artists such as Gericault and Delacroix are filled with energetic brushstrokes, rich colors, and emotive subject matters. While the German landscape painter Casper David Friedrich created images of lost loneliness and at the same time in Spain, Francisco Goya conveyed the horrors of war in his works. This shows the variety of different art works of this time period. Some of these artists were fascinated in nature; people can definitely see this if they are shown through any Romanticism museum, also the importance of drama and emotion. At this time artists made their art work portray more then what the eye sees, the artists added more symbolism to the art work then in the Renaissance. The Pre-Raphaelite movement succeeded Romanticism, and Impressionism is firmly rooted in the Romantic tradition. Other famous Romantic artists include George Stubbs, William Blake, John Margin, John Constable, JMW Turner, and Sir Thomas Lawrence. And Although Romanticism was very popular for the paintings, it was also popular for its music, and poetry, and even architecture. This shows that this period advanced not only in variety of artwork but also a variety of all sorts of effects.

Works Cited

Ferber, Michael. (2010) Romanticism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Honour, Hugh. (1968) Neo-classicism. Style and Civilisation  (reprinted 1977).

Irwin, David. (1997) Neoclassicism. London: Phaidon.

Smith, Logan Pearsall. (1924) Four words: romantic, originality, creative, genius. Oxford, Clarendon Press.

www. wikipedia.com


Source by Md. Ziaul Haque