Saturday, January 22, 2011

A History of Literary Criticism for Beginners

This is the first of a series I am writing on the history of literary criticism. This is a brief overview of some of the key figures and works on literary theory. I hope you enjoy it.

Literary criticism is concerned with solving some of the questions which surround the art of poetry. What is the use of poetry? What is a poet and where does his art ultimately stem from? These are two of the key questions concerning the art of literary criticism.

Until the 20th century, literary criticism was concerned almost exclusively with poetry, and poetry is still considered to be the heart of literature. However, the ideas expressed in this essay may be applied to any form of artistic expression, be it the novel, music or movies.

M.H. Abrams wrote a book called "Critical Theory Since Plato" in which he grouped literary theory into four distinct types:

1) Mimetic Theories - Concerned with the relation of poetry to the universe (nature), mimetic theories view the best poetry as that which imitates nature as closely as possible.

2) Pragmatic Theories - Concerned with the social function of poetry, the didactic function of poetry. Pragmatic theories explore the impact that poetry has upon its audience.

3) Expressive Theories - Concerned with the relationship between the poet and her poem. Expressive theories tend to view poetry as a prophetic force as opposed to the didactic force expounded in pragmatic theories.

4) Objective Theories - Concerned with the poems relation to itself, the objective theories focus on the internal consistency of poetry.


Our first great literary critic, Plato, views poetry as a dangerous force which leads us further away from the truth. Basically, Plato viewed this world as a sort of illusion. Therefore, as poetry is a mimesis of this imperfect world it is an imperfect copy of a copy, a degradation from his ideal world of forms. In Plato's Ion, he presents the poets as the spreaders of madness. According to Plato, the only poetry that would be permitted in his Republic would be of the uplifting sort: hymns to gods and heroes.


Plato's pupil, Aristotle, turns Plato's view of poetry on its head. Aristotle maintained that mimesis was a search for harmony, a force for order and balance.

Aristotle's Poetics has had more impact in literary theory than any other work. In it he introduces us to many of the terms used in literary theory to this day. Key among these are mimesis (imitation), praxis (story), and muthos (plot).

The example of perfection in poetry used in Poetics is Sophocles Oedipus the King. Aristotle insists that all good poetry must have a "propter hoc" (because of) relationship between its plot elements. This means that the muthos must be consistent, and that events must bear a causal relation within the muthos. To Aristotle, a good muthos must be imagined as an inverted V, with the peak a denoument. This peak marks the reversal of fortune for the protagonist, a peripitea (reversal) of anagnorisis (recognition). In Oedipus the King both peripitea and anagnorisis occur simultaneously for Oedipus.

The tragic hero must have four qualities according to Aristotle:

1) He must be moral.

2) His character must be appropriate to his role.

3) He must be human.

4) He must be consistent.

As he is a tragic hero, he must have what Aristotle terms a "hamartia". This has been taken to mean some sort of character flaw, but it needs not be a moral defect. Hamartia may simply be the position the character is in, for example a ruler in a play that maintains that leadership is an inherently impossible position to find oneself in. The emotions of pity and fear are aroused within us because of the third of the qualities stated above. We feel a connection to the character, and we pity his or her fall from grace, and we fear that this may happen to us. In short we become emotionally involved in a good Aristotlian hero.

Perhaps the greatest term we have from Aristotle is directly linked by him to the feelings of pity and fear we experience from tragedy; catharsis. Unfortunately, this word can have at least three meanings, and Aristotle does not define precisely what he means by catharsis. He simply maintains it centrality to tragedy and moves on. This leads to three views of catharsis:

1) Catharsis as Purgation - Where tragedy cleanses us of the emotions of pity and fear. Tragedies therapeutic value.

2) Catharsis as Purification - Where we are spiritually strengthened by tragedy.

3) Catharsis as Clarification - Where our vague emotions are sharpened through tragedy.

The role of the critic according to Aristotle was to define the elements of great art, setting up principles for the poets to use in their craft.

Neoclassical Criticism 1


During the so-called "Golden Age of Roman Poetry" (roughly 27BCE-14BCE) Horace composed his Ars Poetica (Art of Poetry). The Ars Poetica was a verse epistle, and a masterpiece of irony. Horace wrote this to the young poets in the Piso family, and it is a subtle plea for them to give up their art.

According to Horace, the literary critic was a whetstone for poets to sharpen their craft against. Like all of the neo-classical critics, Horace was highly concerned with the rules of poetry known as decorum. Decorum means that a poem should not mix dissimilar elements, nor should he mix genres. Horace humorously presents the image of the mermaid as an example of the breaking of decorum.

Touching on pragmatic theory, Horace writes that the goal of poetry is "dulche et utile" (to please and to teach). To achieve this, the poem should be realistic and concise. Plays should begin "In medea res", or in the heart of the muthos rather than containing the entire praxis. It is the key moments in the hero's downfall we are concerned with, we need not know his life story.

Like Aristotle, Horace lampoons the "Deus ex machina". The Deus ex machina was a literal device used in the ancient Greek theater, a crane used to hold an actor portraying a god into the air above the stage. This was used by many playwrights to neatly wrap up the story with a god finally setting everything to right. According to both Aristotle and Horace this was a cop-out, a cheating of the audience, and in general a cheap way to solve the problems presented in a play.

Horace speaks negatively of what he termed "purple passages". These passages are basically beautiful sections of a poem that are unrelated to the story. In other words, beauty for the sake of beauty goes against the decorum prescribed by poetry's main goal of both pleasing and teaching.

Finally, Horace maintains that a mediocre poet is a laughingstock. Only those inspired craftsmen should engage the art, all others merely pollute the pristine waters of poetry. To Horace, the poet was the creator of society, bringing us together in a civilizing force.


Although the work known as On the Sublime has been traditionally ascribed to Longinus, we now know that it was not Longinus who wrote it, and the author is now unknown. It was written in the late 1st century AD.

The sublime is the powerful language of poetry that overwhelms its audience. It is always fresh and new, and is never bombastic nor fashionable nor inflated. The sublime is the echo of the great soul of poetry. "Longinus" writes that both inherent genius and skill are involved in great poetry. Genius produces great thoughts and passion while "techne" (skill) produces the words, syntax, and figures of great art.

Again, as a neo-classicist, "Longinus" holds a somewhat aristocratic, elitist view of poetry highly concerned with decorum. The author says that the best art will seem more natural than nature itself. The sublime is always above the corrupting influences of the world. Chief among the corrupting influences listed in On the Sublime are materialism and hedonism. These influences produce a "slavery of the soul" far worse than any material prison. Finally, the author maintains that poetry is a force for morality in the world.

1 comment:

  1. Ey, I found your blog almost by chance: I'm reading right now Frye's Anatomy of Criticism (.pdf from a scanned book I found somewhere) and it happens to miss page 21 of the Polemical Introduction, which I'm reading now from your blog.

    I'm a writer (30 y/o) entering peak, I think, or at least I feel it that way. I've published stuff. I live in South America.

    But I also have a great deal of interest in theory of literature in general.

    The blog is cool. Keep up the good work!