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Various philosophies have driven artistic and creative pursuits, and two of the most influential and enduring philosophies are neoclassicism and romanticism. The difference between these two philosophies lies in the difference between reason and emotion, between tradition and innovation, and between the individual and society. Writings from these periods reflect the philosophies through themes, characters, and literary styles.
Neoclassicism — a product of the 17th century — began as an homage to the past. Individuals in this period valued the culture and creative works produced by storied civilizations like those in ancient Greece and Rome. Romanticism, on the other hand, arose in the 18th century as a response and an alternative to classicism. As such, this movement placed more focus on appreciation of the exotic and the different.
Due to these varied outlooks, the subjects and styles of neoclassicism and romanticism often diverge. Neoclassical works faithfully adhered to past templates for structure. Romanticists, however, were more experimental in their literary approaches. For example, they were more likely to write poetry in unrhymed blank verse rather than the typical rhymed couplet structure characteristic of much neoclassical poetry. Romantic literature also used fantastic mythical or nature-focused images in many works such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," whereas neoclassical authors and poets like John Dryden often emphasized historical periods or themes infused with moral lessons.
In addition, realism versus idealism emerged as a key difference between neoclassicism and romanticism. Characters in neoclassical works were usually moderate and non-controversial, and plots adhered strongly to traditional themes. Meanwhile, romantic works idealized humans somewhat by promoting human innocence and the idea of a so-called noble savage unhindered by modern evils. Non-conformists and rebels were somewhat celebrated in romantic literature as well.
These approaches also highlight the divergent emphasis in neoclassicism and romanticism concerning society and the individual. The human imagination and unique personal outlooks became cornerstones of written texts in romantic literature, particularly in the Romantic Era poetry made famous by William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, and others. Imagination was somewhat de-emphasized in neoclassical literature, however. Rather, writers used established literary forms — such as the essays and satires by authors like Alexander Pope — to analyze actual events and people.
Another area in which neoclassicism and romanticism separated was the latter's focus on emotion and sentiment rather than reason. As a result, word choices and language often used more metaphorical and descriptive devices that would invoke various images and associations from the reader. Further, stories were often instilled with more drama and characters were more humanized to stir audience empathy. Neoclassical characters and plots were typically more conservative in nature and propriety and cultural norms were faithfully observed.
Another interesting difference between these two is that Romanticism took more interest in primitive or folk traditions. The collection of fairy tales from the Grimm Brothers was inspired by Romantic-era interest in stories told by the common people. There seems to be a connection between developing democratic traditions in Europe in the 19th century and greater literary interest in the creations of ordinary folk.
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