My colleague Dr. Jo Koster prepared an excellent summary of this period in the following on-line document: http://faculty.winthrop.edu/kosterj/ENGL201/neoclassical.htm. I heartily recommend that you read it. For those of you who do not wish to do so, this handout provides a brief summary of its main points. In any case, be sure to read the introductory material to "The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century" in the Oxford Anthology.
The period itself: The period spans 1660-1798 (the accession of Charles II to the publication by Wordsworth and Coleridge of Lyrical Ballads). It is called the Neoclassical period because of reverence for the works of classical antiquity. The period is often called the Age of Reason, and science was used to glorify God and his creation. Be sure to get familiar with the terms Restoration (of the Stuarts to the monarchy [see Harmon and Holman, page 432]) and the Augustan period (after Emperor Augustus—because of the emphasis on the classics [see Harmon and Holman, page 46]).
Major events: Earlier in the 17th century the Puritans had overthrown King Charles I. He had a French Catholic wife, Queen Henrietta Maria. King Charles II was a closet Catholic. In 1700 the Act of Settlement prohibited a Catholic from being king or queen.
The Great Fire of London in 1666 enabled Londoners to remake their city; see http://london.allinfo-about.com/features/rebuilding.html. And in 1662 the Royal Society was created to further scientific study. [We will see reason's role evaluated in Swift's works. Also, "A Modest Proposal" parodies the genre of scientific proposal for which the Royal Society was noted.]
Major currents: This was a period of political and military unrest, British naval supremacy, economic growth, the rise of the middle class, colonial expansion, the rise of literacy, the birth of the novel and periodicals, the invention of marketing, the rise of the Prime Minister, and social reforms. Key names include Mary Wollstonecraft (the rights of women; marriage was still an economic transaction; women were still considered property) and John Wesley (the founder of Methodism). Key words to describe the period include "façade," "complacency," and "decorum." Appearances mattered. [Keep this in mind as we study The Rape of the Lock.]
Literary developments: Wit was a key concept as well (Harmon and Holman, pages 538-39), which is related to sprezzatura, the art of concealing art. In this period people also emphasized studying the English language. A key work: Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language. Literature was didactic, self-examination was important (hence diaries and letters), and as Pope says "the proper study of mankind is man" (see Essay on Man, Epistle II, section I, line 2). [Satire was an important genre: you will need to look up satire in Harmon and Holman and become familiar with the terms Horatian and Juvenalian. Other good terms to know: epistolary novel and heroic couplet.]