Writing to rule

Claude Rawson

  • Boileau and the Nature of Neo-Classicism by Gordon Pocock
    Cambridge, 215 pp, £12.50, June 1980, ISBN 0 521 22772 0
  • ‘The Rape of the Lock’ and its Illustrations 1714-1896 by Robert Halsband
    Oxford, 160 pp, £11.50, July 1980, ISBN 0 19 812098 2

Was there such a thing as ‘Neo-Classicism’, outside the special sense of the term which art historians apply to a later period than the one over which students of literature lose so much of their composure? It seems to have existed sufficiently strongly in French studies to have produced a body of revisionist denials. The term ‘Neo-Classic’ has largely dropped out of the corridors of Englitbiz, usually to be replaced by ‘Augustan’, though one of the most loudly ballyhooed non-events in recent English studies has been an attempt to dislodge ‘Augustan’ too, on the grounds that some 18th-century authors took a dim view of Augustus Caesar. This, as someone remarked, is a bit like dropping the word ‘candidate’ because such persons no longer wear a white toga.

Mr Pocock is untroubled by problems of nomenclature, ignoring (I suppose in the French as well as the English sense of ignoring) the existence of this particular non-problem. He uses ‘Augustan’ of English poets as readily as he uses ‘Neo-Classic’ of the French, though with a more refreshing air of prelapsarian innocence. For he knows that in France the value of the word, and even the existence of the thing, have been questioned, and he intends to assert both. Not for him, however, the convenient imprecision of approximate labels, which are serviceable largely because they identify a broadly recognised set of common features (as one might use ‘Augustan’ to refer to Swift, Pope or Fielding and not to Defoe, Richardson or Blake) without claiming to force every individual case into a tight and elaborate fit. For him ‘Neo-Classicism’ means the rules codified by Renaissance pedagogues, the Horatian injunction to instruct and to please, and a few other things which are either (like the former) so specific and limiting as to raise the question of how the system survived for more than five minutes among authors of intelligence and talent if they understood it as Mr Pocock does: or (like the latter) so unspecific as to be applicable in his hands to almost any text in almost any way. An endearingly bizarre example is this passage on the continuity between the Middle Ages and Neo-Classic times: ‘A well-known device of medieval poetry is allegory, by which moral truths can be taught delightfully. This doctrine also flourishes in neo-classicism.’

‘Doctrine’ is a favourite word, though the usage here is more than usually loose, and it seems curious that a volume devoted to the expounding and rehabilitation of Neo-Classicism should lay quite so much stress on the ‘doctrinal’ channels of transmission and very little on the imaginative ones. The two, in any live culture, are not easily separable. But the idea that the Classical tradition was more securely passed on from great poet to great poet than through the repetition of precepts might have seemed better calculated to win over the supposedly resistant modern reader, as well as being what Boileau or Pope tended to think anyway.

It is certainly how English Augustans often looked on Boileau himself. When Spence recorded Pope’s remarks on the subject, that was the visible emphasis: ‘Boileau the first poet of the French in the same manner as Virgil of all the Latin. Malherbe (longo inter-vallo) the second’. Malherbe was the one who introduced correctness, or Augustanised French verse, much as Waller and Denham were felt to have done for English. ‘Enfin Malherbe vint’ is Boileau’s celebration of his impact on the progress of French poetry in the Art Poétique. The correctness he brought was, in reality, no very Classical thing per se, in the sense that it had nothing much in common with the Greek or Latin poets. But it was felt, in an obscure but potent sense, to be an integral part of the ‘Neo-Classical’ enterprise: thus also ‘Augustanism’ often refers to those features in English writers which are least like the Roman poets (the couplet, for example, or ‘wit’ or the drawing-room ethos), yet insists by name on the Roman connection.

Boileau was something else. Dryden called him ‘a living Horace and a Juvenal’, and credited him with the perfecting of a new idiom, that of serious mock-heroic, the ‘most noble kind of satire’ in which ‘the majesty of the heroic’ is ‘finely mixed with the venom of the other’. Dryden is said to have thought he had invented this himself in Mac Flecknoe, and had to be reminded that he’d got it from Le Lutrin. Boileau’s mock-epic about a clerical squabble which also helped to make possible Pope’s Rape of the Lock. That is a literally neo-classical thing. It derived from and presupposed an awareness of ancient epic, but in a new ironic way – not as mere parody (there had always been plenty of that), but as a primary creative idiom, the edgy product of an age that revered epic but could neither write it straight nor leave it alone.

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