The new classical doctrine had five major elements: (1) that imitation was the basis for artistic creation, (2) that ‘‘rules’’ existed to guide the artist, (3) that genius must submit to the yoke of‘‘art,’’ (4) that propriety was required in all aspects of a work, and (5) that art must teach as well as delight. From this simple enumeration of principles one can already spy out ‘‘reason’’ lurking in the shadows, but the principles were often developed in subtle ways that encouraged creativity as much as they frowned on excess.
We can begin with imitation. In the Poetics Aristotle tells us that art imitates nature, but how is this accomplished? The artistic culture of the Romans, on which the French critics based so many of their judgments, was both conservative and pragmatic. For them the literary tradition had already answered most of the difficult questions. A wise poet learns from the experience of his predecessors. As a result imitation takes on a new meaning: the best way to capture nature is to imitate existing works that accomplished this goal. In his Essay on Criticism (1711) Alexander Pope offers his own fantastic literary history to illustrate the idea for his contemporaries:
When first young Maro [Vergil] in his boundless mind A work t’outlast immortal Rome design’d,
Perhaps he seem’d above the critick’s law,
And but from Nature’s fountains scorn’d to draw:
But when t’examine ev’ry part he came,
Nature and Homer were, he found, the same.
That is, Vergil discovered that he could best imitate nature by imitating Homer. The doctrine of imitation, then, was a sort of literary short cut, a means of exploiting the achievements of one’s predecessors and engaging one’s readers on familiar terrain.
The idea that there are ‘‘rules’’ governing artistic creation flows directly from the concept of imitation. For most genres the rules were little more than the successful practices of former writers. The precept that an epic should begin in medias res (in the middle of the story), for example, could have no basis in logic; it was merely a successful practice that resulted in a more satisfying narrative. Alexander Pope again offers a contemporary expression of the principle:
Those Rules of old discover’d, not devis’d,
Are Nature still, but Nature methodiz’d.
(Essay on Criticism, lines 88-9)
The rules, then, are practical experience reduced to an orderly system.
In the neoclassical conception, the rules constitute the basis of ‘‘art.’’ This term had a somewhat narrower meaning in earlier centuries than it has in ours. Art consisted of a series of skills or techniques that could be taught; an artist was a person who had mastered those techniques. This concept was at the heart of the ancient quarrel about whether a poet was born or made. Everyone agreed that genius was necessary for poetic greatness, but was genius enough, or did it have to be guided by art? The ancient Augustans were poets of refined technique, and this required something more than untutored genius. Horace’s advice was clear: study the Greeks night and day (Arspoetica 268-9). Art without genius was sterile, but genius without art was crude. The rules - art in a codified form - were necessary if a work was to appeal to a sophisticated taste.
Art, though, was not an end in itself. The greatest poets recognized its purpose and its limits. When a poet found himself too confined by traditional practices, he was free to reject them. And if his new attempt pleased men of taste, he had added to the stock of useful artistic knowledge. In Alexander Pope’s phrase, a daring poet might ‘‘snatch a grace beyond the reach of art’’ (Essay on Criticism 155). Indeed, the most perceptive critics were aware that there was often something mysterious or ineffable in the way a literary work affected its audience. Bouhours perhaps captured this quality best in his idea of the je ne sais quoi, the inexpressible ‘‘I know not what’’ of a fine piece of writing. And Boileau, with his translation of Longinus’ treatise On the Sublime (1674), introduced the age to a new and powerful concept. For Boileau, as for Longinus, the ‘‘sublime’’ was achieved through rhetorical techniques and thus was clearly linked to the tradition of ‘‘art’’; but its effect was the crucial element. The sublime was something extraordinary or marvelous in a work, something that lifts, ravishes, transports the reader. And this, like the je ne sais quoi, could not really be taught. Such ideas opened up the true space for genius in the neoclassical scheme. Racine sums up the contemporary attitude: ‘‘La principale regle est de plaire et de toucher. Toutes les autres ne sont faites que pour parvenir a cette premiere’’ (the primary rule is to please and to touch; all the others were made to attain this end; quoted in Yarrow 1967: 203).
In the end, though, one cannot help but sense that these writers were suspicious of the imagination. The respect for the rules and the deference to the Horatian idea of careful craftsmanship were reinforced at every turn during this time by the tendency towards rationalism. Most writers of the day agreed that the poet’s most important faculty was not his imagination but his judgment. This was the element of restraint, the faculty that pruned away all excesses and produced a finished work of art. The term ‘‘judgment’’ is sufficiently general to allow a variety of elements in its composition, including the even-less-concrete notion of ‘‘taste,’’ but underlying it is always at least a hint of reason. It was, after all, the century of Descartes, and reason had become for many the only means of access to the truth, and for some, even to beauty. For thinkers like these, the creative mind was not opposed to the rational but supported by it.
Judgment was the faculty that governed the next basic element of neoclassical aesthetics: propriety, or decorum, in French la bienseance. Although the concept can be found in Aristotle, it has a strong Horatian provenance. Indeed, the first 50 lines of the Ars poetica offer a primer on the topic: the elements of a work must fit together, the author must know what to include now and what to defer until later, and so forth. But during the seventeenth century the idea was exalted to the highest level of importance. Rene Rapin called decorum the essential principle of literary creation, claiming that without it all the other rules were false (Bray 1927: 215). The term implied a vague but universal principle of fitness. Propriety had a social character as well. Not only must the work be skillfully assembled, it must also be fit for its intended audience. It is not enough, for instance, for a satirist to imitate the tone or manner of Juvenal; he must also fashion a poem suitable for his audience - in this case an aristocratic readership, at least nominally Christian, with a distaste for blatant vulgarity. The principle of decorum would here overrule the utility of imitation. Juvenal’s nymphomaniacs and homosexual prostitutes were suitable subjects for those who could read Latin, but they were not fit to be mentioned in French or English.
Finally, the concept of social decorum was closely allied to the demand for an art of moral instruction. Horace tells us that every poet wishes either to be of use to his readers (aut prodesse) or to delight them (aut delectare), but the writer wins every vote who mixes the useful with the sweet (Arspoetica 333, 343). Horace is far from dogmatic here; the delightful and the useful each has its own audience. But the French critics who formulated the modern theory generally agreed that instruction was necessary; after all, the poet lived in society and had an obligation to it (Bray 1927: 63-84). And to a devout Christian like Samuel Johnson, merely to delight was an unacceptable goal if that delight might encourage sin. In his ‘‘Preface to Shakespeare’’ Johnson sums up the modern rethinking of Horace: ‘‘The end of writing is to instruct; the end of poetry is to instruct by pleasing’’ (1958: 7:67).
These principles provided the general context within which poets and critics thought about literary matters. Roman authors were held in particularly high regard, and their works provided the most important models for imitation. In both France and England, the discursive genres came to dominate. Satire, with its direct link to the Roman tradition, became very popular among contemporary poets, but other discursive forms flourished as well, including poetic essays and epistles. In addition, each nation developed a suitably ‘‘refined’’ verse form appropriate to such topics. French poets, adhering to the rules set down by Malherbe, made the ‘‘Alexandrine’’ couplet an elegant vehicle for discursive verse, while Edmund Waller and Sir John Denham, two poets of the mid-seventeenth century whose verse was praised by contemporaries for its smoothness and musicality, brought in the vogue of the English ‘‘heroic’’ couplet. These verse forms would dominate poetry for the next century.