What Is the Difference between Neoclassicism and Romanticism?

T. Carrier

There are a number of differences between neoclassicism and romanticism, but the biggest tend to center on style, thematic focus, and the influence of emotion. The timing of when each movement was most popular is somewhat different, too, with neoclassical ideas usually appearing before the rise of the romantics. Neoclassicism — a product of the 18th century — is widely believed to have begun 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, and as a result it placed more focus on appreciation of the exotic and the different. The two styles will sometimes overlap, and not all writers and thinkers adhere to all of either genre’s characteristics; in most cases, the differences between the two are more stark in theory than in practice.

English poet Alexander Pope penned works of neoclassical literature.
English poet Alexander Pope penned works of neoclassical literature.

Philosophical Applications

People usually talk about neoclassicism and romanticism as they apply to writers and thinkers, and in generally they’re seen as styles of philosophy and rhetoric. Scholars classify works as well as ideas into these categories based first on their timing and chronology, but also and perhaps more importantly on the ideas that they contain and the themes they discuss. The true difference between these two philosophies can be said to lie in the difference between reason and emotion, between tradition and innovation, and between the individual and society. There isn’t usually a recipe or strict set of requirements for falling into either category, and in most cases a classification is made mostly on the work’s overall “feel.”

Both Classicism and Neoclassicism reflect Roman and Greek ideals.
Both Classicism and Neoclassicism reflect Roman and Greek ideals.

Style Differences

The subject matter and literary style is one of the most obvious places where works from the neoclassical versus the romantic period diverge. Neoclassical works typically adhere 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.

Neoclassicism looked back to the past while Romantic poets like Wordsworth were more personal and emotional.
Neoclassicism looked back to the past while Romantic poets like Wordsworth were more personal and emotional.

Thematic Focus

Realism, or a focus on how things really are, is often at odds with idealism, or a fixation on how things might be, and how this tension is captured and conveyed is another important difference between the styles. Characters in neoclassical works are usually moderate and non-controversial, and plots tend to adhere strongly to traditional themes. Romantic works, conversely, more often idealize humans somewhat by promoting human innocence and the idea of a so-called “noble savage” unhindered by modern evils. Non-conformists and tended to be 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 does tend to be somewhat de-emphasized in neoclassical literature, however. Writers more frequently used established literary forms — such as the essays and satires by authors like Alexander Pope — to analyze actual events and people.

Influence of Emotion

Another area in which the two styles diverge is 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 are often instilled with more drama and characters were more humanized to stir audience empathy. Neoclassical characters and plots are typically more conservative in nature, and also tend to more faithfully observe the propriety and cultural norms of the time.

John Keats was a notable Romantic poet.
John Keats was a notable Romantic poet.

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Discussion Comments


At the time, did they refer to these styles as neoclassic and romantic?

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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