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The History of Criticism in Literature and Poetry

Written by: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th Edition

CRITICISM (from the Gr. κρ?της, a judge, κρ?νειν, to decide, to give an authoritative opinion), the art of judging the qualities and values of an aesthetic object, whether in literature or the fine arts.1 It involves, in the first instance, the formation and expression of a judgment on the qualities of anything, and Matthew Arnold defined it in this general sense as “a disinterested endeavour to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world.” It has come, however, to possess a secondary and specialized meaning as a published analysis of the qualities and characteristics of a work in literature or fine art, itself taking the form of independent literature. The sense in which criticism is taken as implying censure, the “picking holes” in any statement or production, is frequent, but it is entirely unjustifiable. There is nothing in the proper scope of criticism which presupposes blame. On the contrary, a work of perfect beauty and fitness, in which no fault could possibly be found with justice, is as proper a subject for criticism to deal with as a work of the greatest imperfection. It may be perfectly just to state that a book or a picture is “beneath criticism,” i.e. is so wanting in all qualities of originality and technical excellence that time would merely be wasted in analysing it. But it can never be properly said that a work is “above criticism,” although it may be “above censure,” for the very complexity of its merits and the fulness of its beauties tempt the skill of the analyser and reward it.

It is necessary at the threshold of an examination of the history of criticism to expose this laxity of speech, since nothing is more confusing to a clear conception of this art than to suppose that it consists in an effort to detect what is blameworthy. Candid criticism should be neither benevolent nor adverse; its function is to give a just judgment, without partiality or bias. A critic (κριτικ?ς) is one who exercises the art of criticism, who sets himself up, or is set up, as a judge of literary and artistic merit. The irritability of mankind, which easily forgets and neglects praise, but cannot forgive the rankling poison of blame, has set upon the word critic a seal which is even more unamiable than that of criticism. It takes its most savage form in Benjamin Disraeli’s celebrated and deplorable dictum, “the critics are the men who have failed in literature and art.” It is plain that such names as those of Aristotle, Dante, Dryden, Joshua Reynolds, Sainte-Beuve and Matthew Arnold are not to be thus swept by a reckless fulmination. There have been many critics who brought from failure in imaginative composition a cavilling, jealous and ignoble temper, who have mainly exercised their function in indulging the evil passion of envy. But, so far as they have done this, they have proved themselves bad critics, and neither minute care, nor a basis of learning, nor wide experience of literature, salutary as all these must be, can avail to make that criticism valuable which is founded on the desire to exaggerate fault-finding and to emphasize censure unfairly. The examination of what has been produced by other ages of human thought is much less liable to this dangerous error than the attempt to estimate contemporary works of art and literature. There are few indeed whom personal passion can blind to the merits of a picture of the 15th or a poem of the 17th century. In the higher branches of historical criticism, prejudice of this ignoble sort is hardly possible, and therefore, in considering criticism in its ideal forms, it is best to leave out of consideration that invidious and fugitive species which bears the general name of “reviewing.” This pedestrian criticism, indeed, is useful and even indispensable, but it is, by its very nature, ephemeral, and it is liable to a multitude of drawbacks. Even when the reviewer is, or desires to be, strictly just, it is almost impossible for him to stand far enough back from the object under review to see it in its proper perspective. He is dazzled, or scandalized, by its novelty; he has formed a preconceived notion of the degree to which its author should be encouraged or depressed; he is himself, in all cases, an element in the mental condition which he attempts to judge, and if not positively a defendant is at least a juryman in the court over which he ought to preside with remote impartiality.

It may be laid down as the definition of criticism in its pure sense, that it should consist in the application, in the most competent form, of the principles of literary composition. Those principles are the general aesthetics upon which taste is founded; they take the character of rules of writing. From the days of Aristotle the existence of such rules has not been doubted, but different orders of mind in various ages have given them diverse application, and upon this diversity the fluctuations of taste are founded. It is now generally admitted that in past ages critics have too often succumbed to the temptation to regulate taste rigidly, and to lay down rules that shall match every case with a formula. Over-legislation has been the bane of official criticism, and originality, especially in works of creative imagination, has been condemned because it did not conform to existing rules. Such instances of want of contemporary appreciation as the reception given to William Blake or Keats, or even Milton, are quoted to prove the futility of criticism. As a matter of fact they do nothing of the kind. They merely prove the immutable principles which underlie all judgment of artistic products to have been misunderstood or imperfectly obeyed during the life-times of those illustrious men. False critics have built domes of glass, as Voltaire put it, between the heavens and themselves, domes which genius has to shatter in pieces before it can make itself comprehended. In critical application formulas are often useful, but they should be held lightly; when the formula becomes the tyrant where it should be the servant of thought, fatal error is imminent. What is required above all else by a critic is knowledge, tempered with good sense, and combined with an exquisite delicacy of taste. He who possesses these qualities may go wrong in certain instances, but his error cannot become radical, and he is always open to correction. It is not his business crudely to pronounce a composition “good” or “bad”; he must be able to show why it is “good” and wherein it is “bad”; he must admire with independence and blame with careful candour. He must above all be assiduous to escape from pompous generalizations, which conceal lack of thought under a flow of words. The finest criticism should take every circumstance of the case into consideration, and hold it necessary, if possible, to know the author as well as the book. A large part of the reason why the criticism of productions of the past is so much more fruitful than mere contemporary reviewing, is that by remoteness from the scene of action the critic is able to make himself familiar with all the elements of age, place and medium which affected the writer at the moment of his composition. In short, knowledge and even taste are not sufficient for perfect criticism without the infusion of a still rarer quality, breadth of sympathy.

Criticism has been one of the latest branches of literature to reach maturity, but from very early times the instinct which induces mankind to review what it has produced led to the composition of imperfect but often extremely valuable bodies of opinion. What makes these early criticisms tantalizing is that the moral or political aspects of literature had not disengaged themselves from the purely intellectual or aesthetic.

To pass to an historical examination of the subject, we find that in antiquity Aristotle was regarded as the father and almost as the founder of literary criticism. Yet before his day, three Greek writers of eminence had examined, in more or less fulness, the principles of composition; these were Plato, Isocrates and Aristophanes. The comedy of The Frogs, by the latter, is the earliest specimen we possess of hostile literary criticism, being devoted to ridicule of the plays of Euripides. In the cases of Plato and Isocrates, criticism takes the form mainly of an examination of the rules of rhetoric. We reach, however, much firmer ground when we arrive at Aristotle, whose Poetics and Rhetoric are among the most valuable treatises which antiquity has handed down to us. Of what existed in the literature of his age, extremely rich in some branches, entirely empty in others, Aristotle speaks with extraordinary authority; but Mr G. Saintsbury has justly remarked that as his criticism of poetry was injuriously affected by the non-existence of the novelist, so his criticism of prose was injuriously affected by the omnipresence of the orator. This continues true of all ancient criticism. A work by Aristotle on the problems raised by a study of Homer is lost, and there may have been others of a similar nature; in the two famous treatises which remain we have nothing less important than the foundation on which all subsequent European criticism has been raised. It does not appear that any of the numerous disciples of Aristotle understood his attitude to literature, nor do the later philosophical schools offer much of interest. The Neoplatonists, however, were occupied with analysis of the Beautiful, on which both Proclus and Plotinus expatiated; still more purely literary were some of the treatises of Porphyry. There seems to be no doubt that Alexandria possessed, in the third century, a vivid school of critic-grammarians; the names of Zenodotus, of Crates and of Aristarchus were eminent in this connexion, but of their writings nothing substantial has survived. They were followed by the scholiasts, and they by the mere rhetoricians of the last Greek schools, such as Hermogenes and Aphthonius. In the 2nd century of our era, Dio Chrysostom, Aristides of Smyrna, and Maximus of Tyre were the main representatives of criticism, and they were succeeded by Philostratus and Libanius. The most modern of post-Christian Greek critics, however, is unquestionably Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who leads up to Lucian and Cassius Longinus. The last-mentioned name calls for special notice; in “the lovely and magnificent personality of Longinus” we find the most intelligent judge of literature who wrote between Aristotle and the moderns. His book On the Sublime (Περ? ?ψους), probably written about A.D. 260, and first printed in 1554, is of extreme importance, while his intuitions and the splendour of his style combine to lift Longinus to the highest rank among the critics of the world.

In Roman literature criticism never took a very prominent position. In early days the rhetorical works of Cicero and the famous Art of Poetry of Horace exhaust the category. During the later Augustan period the only literary critic of importance was the elder Seneca. Passing over the valuable allusions to the art of writing in the poets, especially in Juvenal and Martial, we reach, in the Silver Age, Quintilian, the most accomplished of all the Roman critics. His Institutes of Oratory has been described as the fullest and most intelligent application of criticism to literature which the Latin world produced, and one which places the name of Quintilian not far below those of Aristotle and Longinus. He was followed by Aulus Gellius, by Macrobius (whose reputation was great in the middle ages), by Servius (the great commentator on Virgil), and, after a long interval, by Martianus Capella. Latin criticism sank into mere pedantry about rhetoric and grammar. This continued throughout the Dark Ages, until the 13th century, when rhythmical treatises, of which the Labyrinthus of Eberhard (1212?) and the Ars rhythmica of John of Garlandia (John Garland) are the most famous, came into fashion. These writings testified to a growing revival of a taste for poetry.

It is, however, in the masterly technical treatise De vulgari eloquio, generally attributed to Dante, the first printed (in Italian) in 1529, that modern poetical criticism takes its first step. The example of this admirable book was not adequately followed; throughout the 14th and 15th centuries, criticism is mainly indirect and accidental. Boccaccio, indeed, is the only figure worthy of mention, between Dante and Erasmus. With the Renaissance came a blossoming of Humanist criticism in Italy, producing such excellent specimens as the Sylvae of Poliziano, the Poetics (1527) of Vida, and the Poetica of Trissino, the best of a whole crop of critical works produced, often by famous names, between 1525 and 1560. These were followed by sounder scholars and acuter theorists: by Scaliger with his epoch-making Poetices (1561); by L. Castelvetro, whose Poetica (1570) started the modern cultivation of the Unities and asserted the value of the Epic; by Tasso with his Discorsi (1587); and by Francesco Patrizzi in hisPoetica (1586).

In France, the earliest and for a long time the most important specimen of literary criticism was the Défense et illustration de la langue française, published in 1549 by Joachim du Bellay. Ronsard, also, wrote frequently and ably on the art of poetry. The theories of the Pléiade were summed up in the Art poétique of Vauquelin de la Fresnaye, which belongs to 1574 (though not printed until 1605).

In England, the earliest literary critic of importance was Thomas Wilson, whose Art of Rhetoric was printed in 1553, and the earliest student of poetry, George Gascoigne, whose Instruction appeared in 1575. Gascoigne is the first writer who deals intelligently with the subject of English prosody. He was followed by Thomas Drant, Harvey, Gosson, Lodge and Sidney, whose controversial pamphlets belong to the period between 1575 and 1580. Among Elizabethan “arts” or “defences” of English poetry are to be mentioned those of William Webbe (1586), George Puttenham (1589), Thomas Campion (1602), and Samuel Daniel (1603). With the tractates of Ben Jonson, several of them lost, the criticism of the Renaissance may be said to close.

A new era began throughout Europe when Malherbe started, about 1600, a taste for the neo-classic or anti-romantic school of poetry, taking up the line which had been foreshadowed by Castelvetro. Enfin Malherbe vint, and he was supported in his revolution by Regnier, Vaugelas, Balzac, and finally by Corneille himself, in his famous prefatory discourses. It was Boileau, however, who more than any other man stood out at the close of the 17th century as the law-giver of Parnassus. The rules of the neo-classics were drawn together and arranged in a system by René Rapin, whose authoritative treatises mainly appeared between 1668 and 1674. It is in writings of this man, and of the Jesuits, Le Bossu and Bouhours, that the preposterous rigidity of the formal classic criticism is most plainly seen. The influence of these three critics was, however, very great throughout Europe, and we trace it in the writings of Dryden, Addison and Rymer. In the course of the 18th century, when the neoclassic creed was universally accepted, Pope, Blair, Kames, Harris, Goldsmith and Samuel Johnson were its most distinguished exponents in England, while Voltaire, Buffon (to whom we owe the phrase “the style is the man”), Marmontel, La Harpe and Suard were the types of academic opinion in France.

Modern, or more properly Romantic, criticism came in when the neo-classic tradition became bankrupt throughout Europe at the very close of the 18th century. It has been heralded in Germany by the writings of Lessing, and in France by those of Diderot. Of the reconstruction of critical opinion in the 19th century it is impossible to speak here with any fulness, it is contained in the record of the recent literature of each European language. It is noticeable, in England, that the predominant place in it was occupied, in violent contrast with Disraeli’s dictum, by those who had obviously notfailed in imaginative composition, by Wordsworth, by Shelley, by Keats, by Landor, and pre-eminently by S. T. Coleridge, who was one of the most penetrative, original and imaginative critics who have ever lived. In France, the importance of Sainte-Beuve is not to be ignored or even qualified; after manifold changes of taste, he remains as much a master as he was a precursor. He was followed by Théophile Gautier, Saint-Marc, Girardin, Paul de Saint Victor, and a crowd of others, down to Taine and the latest school of individualistic critics, comparable with Matthew Arnold, Pater, and their followers in England.

See G. Saintsbury, A History of Criticism (3 vols., 1902-1904); J. E. Spingarn, A History of Literary Criticism in the Renaissance (2nd ed. 1908); Théry, Histoire des opinions littéraires (1849); J. A. Symonds, The Revival of Learning (1877); Matthew Arnold, Essays in Criticism, i. (1865), ii. (1868); Bourgoin, Les Maîtres de la critique au XVIIe siècle (1889); Paul Hamelius, Die Kritik in der englischen Literatur (1897); S. H. Butcher,The Poetics of Aristotle (1898); H. L. Havell and Andrew Lang, Longinus on the Sublime (1890). See also the writings of Sainte-Beuve, Matthew Arnold, F. Brunetière, Anatole France, Walter Pater, passim.

(E. G.)

1It is in this general sense that the subject is considered in this article. The term is, however, used in more restricted senses, generally with some word of qualification, e.g. “textual criticism” or “higher criticism”; see the article Textual Criticism and the article Bible for an outstanding example of both “textual” and “higher.”

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