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.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Three Theban Plays

The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at ColonusThe Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The magisterial Robert Fagles presents this volume of the most powerful of Greek Tragedies: the Oedipus plays of Sophocles. His introduction to Greek tragedy is beautiful, and his introductions to each of the three plays are brilliantly luminous. Historical background is provided, and the notes throughout each play make the reading rewarding and rich, deepening the pleasure and the understanding of the reading of Greek drama. In most collections of Sophocles's Oedipus plays the three tragedies are presented in chronological order of the events described. Here Fagles presents the stories in their historical order of presentation; Antigone, Oedipus the King, and Oedipus at Colonus.

Sophocles was by far the most acclaimed of the three tragedians in his time, notable for his introduction of the third actor onto the stage, thus taking much of the focus that belonged to the chorus and placing the heart of action on the characters. This makes him perhaps a more accessible tragedian than Aeschylus to an audience unfamiliar with Greek drama as these plays contain more action and dialogue.

The power of Sophocles can be more greatly appreciated with a little background on his time. Living in the "Golden Age" of Athens, Sophocles presented the familiar stories of the classical figures of Greek mythology in a manner that was highly relevant to his audience. This period of Greek enlightenment produced many new ideas, and one with perhaps the most impact was the rise of reason among the educated Athenians. As we see today in the early 21st century, there appeared to be a correlation between rising education and falling religiosity. In 5th century Athens the gods were dying.

We see hints at social commentary in the most famous of the three plays; Oedipus the King. Oedipus's wife/mother positively mocks the power of Fate as well as the deliverer of Apollonian prophecy; Tiresias. The chorus here pleads that the terrible prophecies come true else "Never again will I go reverent to Delphi". Oedipus calls Tiresias a "scheming quack", believing that he has been corrupted by the perceived usurper Creon. There can be no mistake that Sophocles was upholding the spiritual foundations of Attic civilization in the Theban plays, particularly in Oedipus the King.

One of the first things one must understand about Greek tragedy is that our attempt to understand it can never be fully completed. To the Greeks this was more than art or entertainment, the festival of Dionysus was a profoundly religious event that has no contemporary equivalent, thus these stories will always produce the effect of the alien upon us. There is the impression on reading Oedipus the King of a terrible tension between a horrible fate and the power of prophecy. We fear nothing more than the realization of Fates power, while needing its terrible force to affirm our order of the universe. This play was not held for naught by Aristotle to be the perfection of the form. It is as simple and beautiful on the surface as a placid Alpine lake, but underneath this lies the richest depth to explore. Oedipus the King is the masterpiece of Greek tragedy.

Antigone (like Aeschylus's Agamemnon) explores the unwritten laws of familial duty, and the steadfast (the chorus calls her mad) commitment to her principles and values in the face of death by the problematically portrayed Creon makes her perhaps the most heroic of the characters while simultaneously the most human. Her heroism is based upon love, and this love provides her with the strength to bear the terrible burden she carried along with her brother/father Oedipus.

Oedipus at Colonus is the swan song of Sophocles. It was performed only after his death, and it is a bittersweet tribute to the glory of Athens. Athens had by the time of the performance been brought to her knees in the Peloponnesian War. The tale of the final days of Oedipus echo the triumphs of Athenian achievements, and both go down to die in the knowledge of their immortality. Oedipus at Colonus reverberates through my mind with images of the empty, decaying ruins, victims to Time the conqueror once filled with the songs of the Dionysian festivals.

This is literature that humbles us, leaving us with a sense of awe. Eternal testimonies to the power of genius, Greek tragedy is our legacy and our cultural wealth.

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