Classical Literature

Literary classicism flourished primarily in France in the late 17th century, and from there spread throughout Europe. It prescribed a return to some basic classical principles as they were common in antiquity, including the rule of three units: the unit of time, the unit of place, and the unit of action, within which a play was to take place. Theater was the main literary genre of the time, prose was only emerging, but the storyline in novels also had to follow strict rules.


The monarchical centralisation initiated by Louis XIII was asserted from 1630 onwards in the political domain, first under the authority of Richelieu, then of Mazarin and Louis XIV. It had consequences in the cultural domain with the creation of the Académie française in 1635 and then of other academies which aimed to codify the language and regulate the composition of works. However, one should not be too quick to equate political authority with cultural authority.

From an ideological point of view, the great question of the seventeenth century was the religious question. Classical writers were therefore necessarily steeped in religious culture. Some works, such as Pascal's Provinciales or Bossuet's work, were even entirely religious. Many were influenced by Jansenism.

It was the works of the learned who defined the theories of classical taste, through letters, treatises and poetic arts. Vaugelas, Guez de Balzac or Dominique Bouhours thus legislated on the proper use of language. Jean Chapelain and the Abbé d'Aubignac defined the rules of classical theatre. They spread this taste among the socialites of the salons they frequented. The literary canons were also defined in non-theoretical works, literary works, or prefaces justifying them. This is the case with the greatest playwrights: Molière, Racine and above all Corneille, who was involved in numerous quarrels and summed up his opinions on theatrical writing in Les Trois discours sur l'art dramatique. It should be noted, however, that the playwrights most often plead for an adaptation of the rules, which they rarely apply to the letter.

The teaching of the scholars was in fact based on rules drawn from Greek and Latin models. Aristotle's Poetics was read and reread at this time, and its interpretation was the source of most of the rules of classical theatre. In poetry, Horace's Poetic Art served as a reference. Finally, classical authors drew on ancient models to create their own works. However, they are not pure imitation. The great authors only reused these models to create modern works. For example, La Fontaine reuses the fables of Aesop and Phaedra to create a modern version whose social and political morality can only be understood in the context of the seventeenth century.


Classicism in the 17th century was far from being limited to an imitation of the Ancients. Docters and literary scholars in fact invented an aesthetic based on fairly restrictive principles of order that would lead modern critics to equate classicism with respect for rules.

Classical writing is based on reason. This has sometimes been seen as the influence of Descartes' rationalism, but it is rather an interest in lucidity and analysis. Classical heroes and heroines are generally not rational, but their passions, often violent, are analysed by the writing, which makes them intelligiblenote 2. Classicism is thus influenced more by a desire to submit the unreasonable to the order of reason than by a true rationalism that would later inspire the philosophers of the Enlightenment.

In creating a form of order, the classical writers were looking for the most natural thing. To give the impression of a perfect match between form and content through writing that flows naturally is indeed the ideal of the classical style. In this respect, classicism does indeed come into tension with what the baroque style was. Charles Sorel writes: "Their natural language, which appears simple to vulgar minds, is more difficult to observe than those swollen languages which most people hold in such high esteem. This search for a form of simplicity in writing was to be admired by many 20th century authors such as Valéry, Gide, Camus and Ponge.

However, in order to give the impression of naturalness, it is above all important not to shock the reader. This is why the rules of verisimilitude and propriety played a major role in the 17th century.

Plausibility is what can be made to seem true. The aim is not to represent the truth, but to respect the framework of what the public of the time considers possible. Boileau was able to say in his Art poétique that "the true may sometimes not be plausible". What is plausible is what corresponds to the public's opinions in terms of morality, social relationships, the level of language used, etc. The biggest criticism of Cid is that it has an implausible ending, as morality cannot accept a daughter marrying her father's murderer even if the fact is historical.

The importance of verisimilitude is linked to the importance of morality in classical literature. Classical works aim to 'reform' the audience by making them reflect on their own passions. According to Chapelain, the public can only be touched by what it can believe, and literature can only help people to improve themselves if it touches them. For the artistic ideal of classicism is accompanied by a moral ideal embodied in the theoretical figure of the honest man. This expression sums up all the qualities that can be expected of a man of the court: politeness, culture, humility, reason, temperance, respect for rules, and the ability to adapt to his surroundings.


Representatives of classicism in French literature include: the theorist Nicolas Boileau and the playwrights Molière and Jean Racine.

Nicolas Boileau by Hyacinthe Rigaud.
Nicolas Boileau by Hyacinthe Rigaud.



The novel was considered a very minor genre at that time. Most of them were published anonymously, because a slightly prominent person could hardly admit to writing novels. The first part of the century was characterised by very long and complex novels. In the classical age, these novels became short stories. The plots become much simpler. They draw on a fairly recent historical background, whereas the baroque novels preferred antiquity.

Saint-Réal wrote Don Carlos in 1672, the first "historical novel" which tells the story of Don Carlos of Spain, son of Philip II of Spain. Madame de La Fayette set the action of The Princess of Cleves, a masterpiece of the genre, at the court of Henry II of France, i.e. at approximately the same time. This novel is a good example of the ambiguities of classicism, as it is far removed from sentimental novels due to its modest size and the sobriety of its writing, but it takes up certain features of preciosity in the depiction of feelings. Madame de La Fayette was indeed a great precious and her concern was not to oppose in everything a period that had preceded her.


The seventeenth century was a century of literary ferment, and all the ancient genres were revived. In fact, in the sixteenth century (the so-called Baroque period), a certain 'cultural chauvinism' had led poets to use medieval forms (rondeaux, triolets, madrigals, chansons, sonnets), as a reaction against the systematic use of ancient genres. The seventeenth century saw the publication of odes (a genre already used by Ronsard), such as the one on the capture of Namur by Boileau, or the lesser-known one on Port Royal des Champs by Racine. Epigrams, such as those by Martial or Ovid, epistles or satires in the style of Horace (notably by Boileau), are being revived. There was also a revival of the Homeric or Virgilian epic. But this genre was not successful. The Pucelle by Chapelain, decried by Racine and Boileau, is a case in point. Only Boileau's Lutrin, a satirical epic, remains familiar to us. Jean Pierre Collinet, when editing the works of Boileau and Perrault, pointed out that the seventeenth century is, despite appearances, a century without poetry and that only La Fontaine or Racine would escape this rule[citation needed].

Other Genres

  • Formal poetry;
  • Burlesque poetry (Paul Scarron);
  • La poésie mondaine (Nicolas Boileau);
  • The maxims (François de La Rochefoucauld);
  • The portrait (Jean de La Bruyère);
  • The fable (Jean de La Fontaine);


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Andrea Palladio
Classical Antiquity
Classical Period
Dutch Classicism
Literary Classicism


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This page was last changed on 2021-09-21.