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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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7 occurrences of Dictionary of the History of Ideas
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The term “classicism” is comparatively new, particu-
larly in English. Thomas Carlyle used it in 1831 for
the first time, complacently and prematurely reflecting
that “we are troubled with no controversies on Ro-
manticism and Classicism,” in his “Essay on Schiller”
(Critical and Miscellaneous Essays, Centenary Edition
[1899], II, 172). John Stuart Mill, in 1837, explained
that the “insurrection against the old traditions of
classicism was called romanticism” in France (“Armand
Carrel,” Dissertations and Discussions [1867], I, 233).
Both these early uses refer to the Continental debate.
But even there the term cannot be traced back very


far. It seems to occur first in Italy, in 1818, during
the discussion waged in Milan. Ermes Visconti uses
classicismo frequently in a series of articles, “Idee
elementari sulla poesia romantica” in the famous “blue
sheet,” Il Conciliatore. (See Discussioni e polemiche sul
ed. E. Bellorini, Bari [1943], I, 436ff.)
Stendhal picked up the term in Milan: he read and
paraphrased Visconti whom he also knew personally,
and then gave in Racine et Shakespeare (1823) the
famous facetious definitions of classicism and romanti-
cism. “Classicism is the literature which gave the
greatest possible pleasure to our great grandfathers,”
while romanticism is the literature which gives us
pleasure now.

But neither in France nor in England was the term
widely used in the nineteenth century. In England rival
forms which have since dropped out of use, occur
occasionally. “Classicalism” appears, e.g., in Elizabeth
Barrett (1839), in John Ruskin (1846), and in Matthew
Arnold (1857). The alternate form “classicality” was
used by Ruskin when he referred to the “vile classi-
cality of Canova” (Modern Painters, Vol. I). In the
atmosphere of the later nineteenth century generally
hostile to the eighteenth century, the term “pseudo-
classicism” emerged. James R. Lowell, in his essay on
Pope (1871) speaks of a “pseudo-classicism, the classi-
cism of red heels and periwigs” (Literary Essays, Bos-
ton [1891], IV, 8). In 1885 the word appeared for the
first time on the title page of an American book.
Thomas Sergeant Perry's From Opitz to Lessing: A
Study of Pseudo-classicism in Literature.
The neutral
term “neo-classicism” emerges also toward the end of
the nineteenth century and is still used widely to refer
to the period of Dryden and Pope. But in that era
“classicism” was even more successful. It occurs in
Matthew Arnold's essay on Heine (1863). Walter Pater,
in his essay on romanticism (1876), quotes the defini-
tion of Stendhal and literary historians increasingly
refer to the age which used to be called “Augustan”
as the “age of classicism.” Louis Cazamian's Histoire
de la littérature anglaise
(1925) called a section “Clas-
sicism (1702-1740)” and his book was, in English
translation, the standard English literary history for
many years. Handbooks now contain chapters “The
Rise of Classicism,” “The Disintegration of Classicism,”

Similarly, in France, the term classicisme was
rarely used in the nineteenth century. It is called a
“neologism” as late as 1863 in Littré's Dictionnaire.
Sainte-Beuve and Taine do not use the term. It spread
more widely about 1880: Émile Deschanel, in Le
Romantisme des classiques
(1882) uses the term and
Ferdinand Brunetière, in his review of the book
(“Classiques et romantiques,” in Études critiques sur
L'histoire de la littérature française, Paris [1890], Vol.
III) picks it up. In 1889 Georges Pellisier's Le Mouve-
ment littéraire aux XIX siècle
contained an introductory
chapter “Le classicisme.” In 1897 Louis Bertrand put
the term on the title page of his book, La Fin du
classicisme et le retour à l'antiquité,
a study of the late
eighteenth-century classical revival in France. But
Gustave Lanson's standard Histoire de la littérature
(1894) still avoids the term in the text, though
two chapter captions use it casually. Louis Bertrand
later belonged to the group of conservative critics who
early in the twentieth century launched the anti-
romantic campaign which accused romanticism of all
the evils brought about by the French Revolution and
the anarchy of our time. Charles Maurras, the editor
of the Action française, Pierre Lasserre, the author of
a violently antiromantic Le Romantisme français
(1907), and the Baron Seillière who wrote many books
attacking the romantic disease, made Classicisme a
new slogan in France where it became also a political
and philosophical war cry. In England T. E. Hulme
drew heavily on the doctrines of the new French clas-
sicism: his paper “Romanticism and Classicism” (1913,
published in Speculations, 1924) provided the most
often quoted statement of the new classicism in Eng-
land. T. S. Eliot proclaimed his classicism in the Preface
to For Lancelot Andrewes (1928).

In Germany around 1800 the term “Romantik” be-
came the battle cry of a whole group of writers. But
the word “Klassik” occurs only in then unpublished
notes of Friedrich Schlegel. In 1797 he jotted down
the puzzling statements; Absolute Classik also anni-
hilirt sich selbst
(“absolute classicism thus annihilates
itself”) and Alle Bildung ist Classik Abstraction (“Every
structure is classic abstraction”) (Philosophische Lehr-
ed. E. Behler, Munich [1963], I, 23). “Klassizis-
mus” seems not to be used at all until Hermann Hettner
in his Literaturgeschichte des achtzehnten Jahrhunderts
(6 vols., 1856-57) used it in referring to French clas-
sicism. In Wilhelm Scherer's standard Geschichte der
deutschen Literatur
(1883) the term occurs only in the
Table of Contents. But about that time “Klassizismus”
in Germany was slowly replaced by the term “Klassik.”
It seems to have been invented by Otto Harnack
around 1887: in his Goethe in der Epoche seiner Vol-
(1887) he uses it first in quotation marks. He
felt it to be an innovation as he explained in the preface
to a later book, Der deutsche Klassizismus im Zeitalter
(1906): “I could not this time avoid the un-
pleasant expressions 'Classicism' and 'classicist,' for
which I usually substitute 'Klassik' and 'klassisch,' be-
cause usage has given the word 'klassisch' a special
narrow meaning in relation to German poetry.”
Harnack draws a distinction between “Klassizismus,”


the imitation of antiquity, and “Klassik,” a term desig-
nating the works of Goethe and Schiller. The new term
replaced the older early in the twentieth century:
Friedrich Gundolf, the most prominent literary histo-
rian of the circle around Stefan George, concluded
his book, Shakespeare und der deutsche Geist (1911)
with a chapter “Klassik und Romantik.” In 1922 Fritz
Strich attempted to apply the principles of Wölfflin's
art history and his contrast between Renaissance and
baroque to the conflict between classicism and roman-
ticism in Germany in his Deutsche Klassik und Ro-
mantik: oder Vollendung und Unendlichkeit.
The tri-
umph of the new term was soon complete.

The reasons for its success are obvious. Classicism,
in a sense resembling that of French classicism, is not
a very appropriate term for most of the writings of
Goethe and Schiller if one excepts the stages in their
careers when they consciously aimed at the imitation
of the ancients. The term “Klassik” resumes the old
meaning of standard or model, while the association
with the ancients almost ceases to be felt. It has become
a term which pries the German classics loose from
international classicism and yet resists the Western
tendency to treat Goethe and Schiller as romantics.

The noun “classicism” and its variants are, of course,
derivatives of the adjective “classical.” Classicus first
occurs in Aulus Gellius, a Roman author of the second
century A.D. who in his miscellany Noctes Atticae (19,
8, 15) refers to classicus scriptor, non proletarius, ap-
plying a term of the Roman taxation classes to the
ranking of writers. Classicus means there “first-class,”
“excellent,” “superior.” The term seems not to have
been used in the Middle Ages but it reappears in the
Renaissance in Latin and soon in the vernaculars.

The first recorded occurrence in French, in Thomas
Sebillet's L'art poétique (1548) refers, surprisingly, to
les bons et classiques poètes français comme sont entre
les vieux Alain Chartier et Jean Meun
(Paris [1910],
Ch. II, p. 26). The names of these two medieval poets
show that the word had then no association with classi-
cal antiquity and meant simply “standard” or “excel-
lent.” It remains to be found how the term became
soon to be identified with the ancients, as in the phrase
“classical antiquity.” “Classical” came to mean Roman
and Greek and still implied, for obvious reasons, supe-
riority, authority, and even perfection.

“Classical” became also associated with the class-
room, with the texts taught in schools, as the ancients
were then the only secular authors studied and they
were studied as models of excellence, both in content
and form. The meaning “classical” and “classics,” re-
stricted in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to
the ancients, was later extended to the vernacular
literatures. In England George Sewell, in his introduc
tion to Shakespeare's Poems (a part of Pope's Shake-
1725) asked for careful editions of English
authors which “we in justice owe to our own great
writers, both in Prose, and Poetry. They are in some
degrees our Classics.” Sewell thought of Shakespeare
as deserving and getting such treatment. Pope, in 1737,
in the First Epistle of the Second Book of his Imitations
of Horace
said that “who lasts a century can have no
flaw,/I hold that Wit a Classik, good in law.”

The same expansion of the meaning occurred also
in France, though surprisingly later than in England.
Pierre-Joseph Thoulier D'Olivet, in his Histoire de
(1729) complains that “Italy had classical
authors and we as yet have none” (ed. Livet, Paris
[1858], II, 47). Years later Voltaire in a letter to the
same abbé D'Olivet, proposed to edit the “classical
authors” of the French, reserving Corneille for himself.
Voltaire's own Siècle de Louis XIV (1751) put that age
next to other golden ages: that of Leo X, of Augustus,
and of Alexander. Characteristically, the age of Pericles
is missing from the list. In all these discussions the
implication of “classicity” as mode and standard is
dominant. The remoter model behind the great modern
writer in antiquity is assumed as a matter of course,
but no more so than when Dante is considered a “clas-
sic” in Italy or when Spaniards speak of their Golden
Age. The matter of style did not enter.

The decisive event for the development of the con-
cept of “classicism” was the great romantic-classical
debate waged in Germany by the brothers Schlegel.
The transformation of the meaning of the word “clas-
sical” from a term of value to a term for a stylistic
trend, type, or period in which differences of quality
are allowed to exist, was the crucial turning point. The
historistic revolution brought about an awareness of
the existence, side by side, of at least two literary
traditions. The Schlegelian dichotomy was first ex-
pounded in France by Madame de Staël in De l'Al-
(1814) but a few months before the delayed
publication of the book August Wilhelm Schlegel's
Vorlesungen über dramatische Kunst und Literatur
appeared in a translation by her cousin, Madame
Necker de Saussure. In her Preface (1813) Madame
Necker commented perceptively: “In Mr. Schlegel's
work the epithet 'classical' is a simple designation of
a genre, independent of the degree of perfection with
which the genre is treated.” Madame de Staël's book
excited violent polemics in France. What had been a
local German debate became a European one. The
terms “classical” and “romantic” soon were discussed
in every country of Europe and of the Americas.

The history of the term reflects the history of its
meaning: at first, in the seventeenth and eighteenth
centuries, a term for excellence, particularly in the


writings of antiquity, it changed under the impact of
the romantic and historistic revolution, to a term for
a style challenging opposed or parallel styles: romantic,
realist, modern, etc. The exact value put on classicism
will necessarily vary with the context and the polemi-
cal attitude of the writer. Often “classicism” is used
pejoratively to refer to academic, conventional art. In
other situations it assumes again the old meaning of
superior value, perfection, and excellence as in the
French classicist critics of this century or in their
English counterparts, T. E. Hulme and T. S. Eliot. In
different countries different ages are labeled “classi-
cal”: the meaning shifts then from excellence, pre-
scriptive greatness with an implied relation to antiq-
uity, or even a claim of rivalling or surpassing
antiquity, to that of a neutral, objective designation
of a past style of art. The situation differs greatly in
the main countries of Europe.

Italians speak of “classicism” today mainly as apply-
ing to what is usually called the Italian Renaissance,
or speak of neoclassicismo in the eighteenth century:
e.g., in the tragedies of Alfieri. But there is in Italy
no particular feeling that Italy had its classical age,
though Dante is the great classic in the sense of excel-
lence. A series such as Classici Italiani includes simply
writers of all epochs and styles of any eminence.

In France, the seventeenth century is considered the
classical age: Corneille, Racine, Molière, Pascal, La
Fontaine are the classics. Early in the nineteenth cen-
tury beginning particularly with Chateaubriand, the
French seventeenth century was exalted as the classical
age in sharp contrast to the eighteenth century which
to a modern literary historian may appear stylistically
and in critical theory largely a direct continuation of
the seventeenth century. But in the early nineteenth
century the two periods were contrasted for reasons
which can be called political: the seventeenth century
appealed to the conservative reaction, while the eight-
eenth-century literature bore the stigma of having
prepared and even caused the French Revolution. Dé-
siré Nisard was, in his Histoire de la littérature française
(4 vols., 1844-61), the most influential propounder of
this conception. The French spirit, he assumes, reached
perfection in the seventeenth century, while everything
since appears as decadence. He regards the French
classical age as parallel to that of the great Augustus
while—as he had argued in an earlier book, Études
des mœurs et de critique sur les poètes latins de la
(2 vols., 1834)—the age of Silver Latin
corresponds to the French nineteenth century.

With the triumphs on the stage of the actress Rachel
in seventeenth-century tragedies, and the great success
of François Ponsard's tragedy Lucrèce in 1843, some-
thing like a comeback of classicism seemed assured.
Ponsard rather coyly pretended hardly to remember
that one used to distinguish between “Classics and
romantics, or people who were called something like
that.” But nothing came of this revival. The new en-
thusiasts for classical antiquity preferred to speak of
the “pagan school” or named their style néo-grec.
It was rather a new Hellenism which saw itself as very
different from the tradition of French classicism.
Sainte-Beuve's famous essay “Qu'est-ce qu'un clas-
sique?” (1850) must be seen in this context. While
insisting on the Greco-Latin tradition Sainte-Beuve
aims at enlarging the concept. He recognizes the exist-
ence of something transcending the French tradition:
Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare are also classics,
though they do not conform to the demands of what
we would call French classicism. This kind of classi-
cism, with its rules, Sainte-Beuve knows, is definitely
a thing of the past. Still, he pleads, we must preserve
the notion and the cult of the classics and at the same
time widen it and make it more generous (Causeries
du Lundi,
Vol. III).

In England, the period generally referred to today
as the Age of Classicism, has no comparable standing,
because, in the later view, the age of Dryden and Pope
was surpassed by the Elizabethan age and particularly
by Shakespeare and Milton. The English classicists did
not call themselves by that name. They spoke of the
imitation of the ancients or the observance of the rules.
Under the impact of the romantic movement their
reputation declined early in the nineteenth century and
they were looked upon as belonging to a bygone age,
which was called variously the Augustan Age, the Age
of Pope, the Age of Queen Anne, but not the Classical
Age. Macaulay, in 1820, spoke of “the Critical School
of Poetry”; others referred to it as “the French
School,” a disparaging term, as it implied that the
English poets were derivative from France. This was
the assumption behind Pope's well-known lines (from
the First Epistle of the Second Book in Imitations of

We conquer'd France, but felt our captive's charms:
Her Arts victorious trimph'd o'er our Arms.
English classicism was, it was assumed, the direct result
of the Restoration of 1660 when the Stuarts returned
from exile in France. This dependence of the English
classics on the French has been since disputed: vio-
lently, e.g., by Thomas De Quincey, in 1851, who
denied that “either Dryden or Pope was even slightly
influenced by French literature” (Collected Writings,
ed. D. Masson [1896], XI, 61) and more sensibly by
modern scholars who pointed out the native elements
in English neo-classicism (e.g., P. S. Wood, in Modern


Philology, 24 [1926], 201-08) and traced neo-classical
theory in England to Ben Jonson.

This pushes the matter back into the past of the
history of criticism, to the sources common to both
French and English literature of the neo-classical, i.e.,
Aristotelian and Horatian theory, which was formu-
lated in Italy late in the fifteenth and early in the
sixteenth century and codified in Julius Caesar Scali-
ger's Poetics (1561) and by the Dutch humanists, Vossius
and Heinsius. Ben Jonson paraphrased and translated
these writers in his Discoveries (see J. E. Spingarn, “The
Sources of Jonson's Discoveries,” in Modern Philology,
1 [1905]) and French seventeenth-century critics were
clearly influenced both by the Italians and the Dutch.
(See also Edith G. Kern, The Influence of Heinsius and
Vossius upon French Dramatic Theory,
[1949].) The direct influence of Boileau on Dryden and
Pope is undeniable as is the influence of Molière on
Wycherley. There were many other contacts, which
should not, however, obscure the substantial originality
of the great poets, Dryden and Pope, and of the great-
est prose writer of the time, Jonathan Swift.

Still, the English eighteenth-century writers could
never after 1800 assume the position of authority which
the French classics of the age of Louis XIV or Goethe
and Schiller assumed in France or Germany. In recent
decades, with the general antiromantic reaction, much
has been done to rehabilitate the “classical” English
literature, particularly in scholarly circles. T. S. Eliot
exalted Dryden (see Homage to John Dryden, 1924).
Pope has found many defenders and admirers: even
his translation of Homer has been reinstated as a tri-
umph of the art of adaptation. Dr. Johnson has always
had a following, mainly as person and sage. Scholarly
efforts to revive the eighteenth century, particularly
in the United States, are often motivated by a nostalgia
for a time which is assumed to have been still a coher-
ent society with its proper hierarchy of classes, a tran-
quil refuge from the stresses of our time. But the figure
of the misanthropic Dean belies this conception. T. S.
Eliot is right in saying that “we have no classic age,
and no classic poet in English,” though he reminds us
that “unless we are able to enjoy the work of Pope,
we cannot arrive at a full understanding of English
poetry” (What is a Classic?, London [1945]).

Germans still recognize six Klassiker: Klopstock,
Lessing, Wieland, Herder, Goethe, and Schiller (Wil-
helm Münch, “Über den Begriff des Klassikers” in Zum
deutschen Kultur- und Bildungsleben,
Berlin [1912]), an
extremely heterogeneous group of which Klopstock
today would appear to belong to what is usually called
sentimentalism; Lessing, in spite of his polemics
against the practices of French tragedy, is a ration-
alistic classicist who worshipped Aristotle; Wieland is
rather a man of the Enlightenment whose art strikes
us often as rococo; Herder would seem an irrationalistic
preromantic. It is difficult to see how a writer like
Herder can be called klassisch. In 1767 he exclaimed
“O the cursed word 'Classisch'” (Sämtliche Werke, ed.
B. Suphan, I, 412) and he attacked Goethe's and Schil-
ler's turning toward classicism as a betrayal of his

Goethe and Schiller did not call themselves Klas-
and actually had an ambiguous attitude toward
the whole enterprise of establishing a classical litera-
ture. Goethe, in 1795, in an article, “Literarischer
Sansculottismus” argued that no German author con-
siders himself klassisch and that he would not desire
“the revolutions which could prepare classical works
in Germany” (Sämtliche Werke, Jubiläumsausgabe,
XXXVI, 141). The paper was written when the French
Revolution had not yet run its course: Goethe feared
the dangers of centralization and the abolition of the
little German states, with one of which (the Duchy
of Weimar) he was closely identified, since “classical”
meant to him writing which would express the unity
of a nation. Only after the Schlegels had excited the
great debate did Goethe use the term more freely,
either denying the distinction and clinging to the older
meaning of excellence or taking sides against the ro-
mantics. A letter in 1804 reports that Goethe rejected
the difference between the romantic and the classic
because “everything excellent is eo ipso classic” (Letter
by Heinrich Voss, Jr., to L. R. Abeken, 26 January 1804,
in Goethe's Gespräche, ed. von Biedermann, Wies-
baden [1949], p. 163). But later in 1829 Goethe made
the famous pronouncement to Eckermann: “I call the
Classic the healthy, the Romantic the sickly” (April
12, 1829, Gespräche mit Goethe, Houben ed., Leipzig
[1948], pp. 263-64). Goethe was then disturbed by
what he considered the excesses of the German ro-
mantics such as E. T. A. Hoffmann and he disliked the
new French roman frénétique, particularly Victor
Hugo's Notre Dame de Paris (1831). He had lost sight
of the much wider meaning of the contrast, though,
in a conversation in 1830 with Eckermann, Goethe
claimed wrongly that the Schlegels merely renamed
Schiller's distinction between the naive and the senti-
mental (ibid., 21 March 1830, pp. 322-23). Goethe
himself always professed to stand above the battle. In
Helena and particularly in the figure of Euphorion
Goethe aimed at “reconciliation of the two poetic
forms” (ibid., 16 December 1829, p. 299). While
Goethe viewed the debate rather detachedly, he was,
during his lifetime, fast becoming the German Klas-
or at least one of the two great Klassiker.

Goethe, after the great international success of the
Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) fell into comparative


oblivion. Only the success of Hermann und Dorothea
(1797) and the effect of the collection of epigrams,
Xenien, written in collaboration with Schiller, gave
him a commanding position in German literature.
Goethe's towering reputation was secured first by the
brothers Schlegel who played him up against Schiller
yet did not consider either Schiller or Goethe classics.
Friedrich Schlegel hoped as early as 1800 that Goethe
would accomplish the task of “harmonizing the classi-
cal and romantic” (Gespräch über die Poesie, in Kri-
tische Schriften,
ed. W. Rasch, Munich [1956], p. 334).
In August Wilhelm Schlegel's Lectures on Dramatic
Art and Literature
(1809-11) Goethe is discussed with
the romantic drama written in the wake of Shake-
speare. While Goethe's reputation as a great poet and
sage steadily grew in the first decades of the nineteenth
century and while his writings began to penetrate into
the schools, neither he nor Schiller was considered a
Klassiker or as representing “classicism” for a long
time. The whole early nineteenth century in Germany,
dominated as it was by Romantic theory and taste,
would not have considered the term “classicism” flat-
tering. Friedrich Schlegel, in 1800, referred con-
temptuously to the “so-called classical poets of the
English: Pope, Dryden and whoever else” (Gespräch
über die Poesie,
ibid., p. 288).

August Wilhelm Schlegel's influential lecture courses
treated all forms of classicism, French, English, and
German with polemical harshness. The literary histo-
ries of the time avoided the terms “classicism” and
“classical.” Thus Gervinus in his standard Geschichte
der poetischen Nationalliteratur der Deutschen
(5 vols.,
1835-42) never refers to Goethe or Schiller as Klas-
or Klassiker. Gervinus thought rather that the
new edition of Faust (1808) put Goethe “in the van-
guard of romantic trends” (Leipzig [1871-74], V, 789).
The same is true of other histories such as A. F. C.
Vilmar's popular Geschichte der deutschen National-
(1857). Not until Rudolf Gottschall's Die
deutsche Nationalliteratur des 19. Jahrhunderts
were Goethe and Schiller called consistently die
In 1867, when the privileges protecting the
reprinting of the works of Goethe and Schiller were
abolished, Klassikerausgaben began to proliferate.
With the establishment of the German Empire the
works of Goethe and Schiller assumed more and more
the role of a national palladium: a cultural heritage
surrounded by almost superstitious awe. The founding
of the Goethe-Gesellschaft (1885), the publication of
the 143-volume edition of Goethe's complete works
known as Weimarer Ausgabe and the emergence of a
new academic profession, Goethe-philologie, are symp-
toms of this victory. Only in the twentieth century
did more detached views of the German classics be-
come possible in Germany.

In retrospect it is obvious that the term “classicism”
is a nineteenth-century term. It occurs first in Italy in
1818, in Germany in 1820, in France in 1822, in Russia
in 1830, in England in 1831. In Germany about 1887
the new term Klassik, first used casually by Friedrich
Schlegel in 1797, expelled Klassizismus. Clearly the
terms have something in common: the reference to
excellence, to authority, and to the relation to antiq-
uity. In the countries we have discussed “classicism”
refers however to three distinct bodies of literature:
the French seventeenth century, the English late
seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, and the
very late eighteenth-century German literature. They
differ widely in their substance and form, their claim
to authority and greatness, and even in their relation
to antiquity. French classicism has preserved its im-
mense prestige, but recent scholarship has minimized
its debt to antiquity. Henri Peyre, in Qu'est-ce que le
(1935) has emphasized the distinctness and
uniqueness of French classicism and argued that “the
relations between French literature of the seventeenth
century and that of antiquity were much looser than
it is usually assumed” (Le Classicisme français, New
York [1942], p. 32). English classicism has remained
mainly a scholar's delight and preserve. The German
classics, even if reduced to Goethe and Schiller, loom
still large on the literary horizon. French and English
classicism is far more “Latin” than German classicism
which is more self-consciously “Greek.” In a history
of European styles of literature based on an analogy
with art history, French classicism will appear as
closely related to the baroque: it has many baroque
features which are however, muted and subdued as Leo
Spitzer has shown persuasively in “Die klassische
Dämpfung in Racines Stil,” found in Romanische Stil-
und Literatur-studien
(Marburg [1931], I, 135-268).
English classicism seems most closely related to the
Enlightenment, to realism, though on occasion it has
affinities with what could be called rococo in its artistic
style. This seems true of Pope's Rape of the Lock
(Friedrich Brie, Englische Rokoko-epik, Munich [1927]).
German classicism even in its most self-conscious stage
appears often romantic or possibly nostalgic and
utopian as did also the contemporary classicism else-
where. The elegiac note is prominent in André Chénier
and the painters and sculptors of the return to antiq-
uity. David, Canova, and Thorvaldsen have a strong
sentimental streak. The dream of the golden age is
never far away (Rudolf Zeitler, Klassizismus und
Uppsala [1954]). The Empire style of Napoleon
is classicistic: but Napoleon carried Werther and Ossian
about with him.

The revival of classicism late in the nineteenth and
early in the twentieth century was strongest and most
articulate in France. Charles Maurras (1868-1952)


proclaimed classicism as a slogan around 1894. “Clas-
sicism” with him and his followers was part of a general
ideological scheme in which monarchism, belief in the
Roman Church as an institution, a concept of history,
of France and its past, were amalgamated into a co-
herent ideology which had strong political appeal. But
the Action française became discredited by its collabo-
ration with the Germans during the second World War.
Many other contemporaries, often in violent disagree-
ment with Maurras and his group, also embraced what
they called classicism: Julien Benda, a violent anti-
romantic polemicist, highly rationalistic in outlook,
recommended classicism. For a time even André Gide
considered himself “the best representative of classi-
cism,” as he told Émile Henriot in 1921. Its secret was
“modesty,” the tendency toward litotes, understate-
ment. Gide argued that there are classics only in
France, if one excepts Goethe; classicism is a French
invention, elsewhere it remained artificial as the case
of Alexander Pope shows. (See “Billets à Angèle”
Œuvres complètes [1932], Vol. XI.) When the critic
Jacques Rivière returned from German captivity after
the first World War and assumed the editorship of La
Nouvelle Revue française
he promised, in his statement
of purpose, to “... describe what seems to us to fore-
shadow a classical renaissance, not literal and purely
imitative... but a deep, inner classicism” (La Nouvelle
Revue française,
13 [June 1919], 8). Also Paul Valéry
considered himself a classicist and defended even the
most arbitrary rules and restrictions. Discipline, purity,
form, restraint are classicist motifs in his poetics.

French neo-classicism radiated abroad. The two
American neo-humanists, Paul Elmer More and Irving
Babbitt drew on the earlier versions of French anti-
romantic thought, particularly on Brunetière. Babbitt
referred with approval to Maurras but was shocked
to discover that Lasserre's book on romanticism was
displayed in a bookshop in the Quartier Saint Germain
along with books advocating the restoration of the
monarchy. Babbitt remained a good American repub-
lican who had no use for “an impossible political and
religious reaction” (Preface to The New Laokoön, Bos-
ton [1910]). Babbitt was T. S. Eliot's teacher at Harvard
and must have influenced his literary ideology. Eliot
read Maurras, dedicated his booklet on Dante (1929)
to Maurras, and recognized the great influence of
Maurras on his intellectual development (Nouvelle
Revue Française,
11 [1923], 619-25). Eliot's “classi-
cism” has however only a very general similarity with
Maurras'. In describing modern classicism as “a tend-
ency toward a higher and clearer conception of Rea-
son, and a more severe and serene control of the
emotions by Reason” he quotes a heterogeneous list
of names: Sorel, Maurras, Benda, Hulme, Maritain, and
Babbitt (Criterion, 4 [1926], 5). T. E. Hulme preceded
Eliot in his admiration for the French neo-classicism
but could not have influenced Eliot as Hulme's essays,
Speculations, were printed only in 1924; Eliot's posi-
tion had been reached much earlier in the twentieth

In Germany there were also attempts to revive
classicism: Paul Ernst (1866-1933) spoke in these
terms, Hugo von Hofmannsthal showed such tenden-
cies, as did the whole circle around Stefan George, but
one cannot speak of a concerted movement. The same
is true of Russia where the symbolist poet Vyacheslav
Ivanov (1866-1949) was a classical scholar, and the
group which called itself Acmeists resumed classical
themes and forms.

Twentieth-century neo-classicism is and often was
escapist and academic: in France it combined with
xenophobia, with a violent nationalism conscious of its
opposition to everything Nordic, German, and roman-
tic. But the neo-classical movement provided also
something of aesthetic importance: a resistance against
the abolition of art and the rejection of beauty which
culminated recently in pop and op art, concrete poetry,
and electronic music. Neo-classicism may be a narrow
taste and assumes a specific image of man but Phidias
and Vergil, Raphael and Titian, Racine and Goethe will
always provide a center of security, a point of stillness,
an exemplification of what is art, or at least one kind
of art, admired through the ages. In this sense the
concept of classicism is likely to survive and is likely
to be restored in the future. It is not merely a historical
concept but a living idea.


The history of the term has hardly been investigated.
Some remarks are to be found in Pierre Moreau, Le Classi-
cisme des romantiques
(Paris, 1932); Henri Peyre, Le Classi-
cisme français
(New York, 1942), Ch II, “Le Mot Classi-
cisme,” deals with the word “classique” and has nothing
to say about “classicisme” as a word; Ernst Robert Curtius,
Europäische Literatur und lateinisches Mittelalter (Bern,
1948), esp. pp. 251ff.; Harry Levin, “Contexts of the Classi-
cal,” in his Contexts of Criticism (Cambridge, Mass., 1957),
pp. 38-54; Georg Luck, “Scriptor Classicus,” in Comparative
10 (1958), 150-58; René Wellek, “The Term and
Concept of Classicism in Literary History,” in Aspects of
the Eighteenth Century,
ed. Earl R. Wasserman (Baltimore,
1965), pp. 105-28; also in Proceedings of the IVth Congress
of the International Comparative Literature Association:
Fribourg, 1964
(The Hague, 1966), pp. 1049-67.

Most other discussions of “classicism” are analytical,
ideological, or historical. Here is a small selection: P. Van
Tieghem, “Classique,” in Revue de synthèse historique, 41
(1931), 238-41, is purely analytical; Gerhart Rosenwaldt,
“Zur Bedeutung des Klassischen in der bildenden Kunst,”
Zeitschrift für Aesthetik, 11 (1916), on page 125 contains
a striking definition: Klassisch ist ein Kunstwerk das voll


kommen stilisiert ist, ohne von der Natur abzuweichen, so
dass dem Bedürfniss nach Stilisierung und Nachahmung in
gleicher Weise Genüge getan ist
(“A work of art is classical
that is completely stylized without deviating from nature,
so that the requirements of both stylization and imitation
are equally well met”); Helmut Kuhn, “'Klassisch' als his-
torischer Begriff,” in Werner Jaeger, ed., Das Problem des
Klassischen und die Antike
(Stuttgart, 1933, reprint 1961),
pp. 109-28; idem, Concinnitas: Beiträge zum Problem des
Klassischen. Heinrich Wölfflin zum achtzigsten Geburtstag
... zugeeignet
(Basel, 1944); Kurt Herbert Halbach, “Zum
Begriff und Wesen der Klassik,” in Festschrift Paul Kluck-
hohn und Hermann Schneider gewidmet
... (Tübingen,
1948), pp. 166-94; Heinz Otto Burger, ed., Begriffsbestim-
mung der Klassik und des Klassischen,
Wege der Forschung,
Vol. 210 (Darmstadt, 1971); W. Tatarkiewicz, “Les quatre
significations du mot 'classique,'” Revue Internationale de
43 (1958), 5-11; E. F. Carritt, “Classicism,”
ibid., 23-36.

Fritz Ernst, Der Klassizismus in Italien, Frankreich und
(Zurich, 1924), is a thin sketch. Sherard Vines,
The Course of English Classicism from the Tudor to the
Victorian Age
(London, 1930), is lively but confused. Two
books on Goethe's fame are relevant: Reinhard Buchwald,
Goethezeit und Gegenwart (Stuttgart, 1949), and Wolfgang
Leppmann, The German Image of Goethe (Oxford, 1961),
German version: Goethe und die Deutschen (Stuttgart, 1962).

Three encyclopedia entries merit attention: Antonio
Viscardi, “Classicismo” in Dizionario letterario Bompiani
delle opere
(Milan, 1947), I, 22-43; Henri Peyre, “Le Classi-
cisme,” in Encyclopédie de la Pléiade. Histoire des littéra-
(Paris, 1956), II, 110-39; and W. B. Fleischmann,
“Classicism,” in Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, ed. A.
Preminger (Princeton, 1965), pp. 136-41.


[See also Ancients and Moderns; Baroque; Criticism; En-
Historicism; Mimesis; Nature; Romanticism;
Style; Ut pictura poesis.]