Literary criticism

Literature Review 2013 11 Pages

Literature - Basics




I- The Historical criticism:

II-The new criticism:

III- Reader Response theory:


conclusion :


Internet Resources :


Despite all its shortcomings, literary criticism still supplies both the writer and the reader with the tools for self-evaluation and self-improvement. It comes in various forms and for different aims. The evolution of literary criticism passes through different schools and approaches as one school opposes the other. Some of the major approaches that stood against each other based on different assumptions, had been started with the historical theory that was hugely criticised specially by the mid-twentieth century tendencies which knew the emergence of the New criticism developed by Anglo-American writers, and later the growth of reader-response criticism followed indirectly by the structuralist theories.

So, what are the major principals of these schools? how did the new criticism opposed the contextual and historical criticism? How rebelliously reader-oriented theory challenged the ‘text’- oriented theories’ of new criticism ? how meaning is produced according to the structuralists ?

I- The Historical criticism:

One of the most basic approaches used in the analysis of literary work refers to the historical method of literary criticism. Historical criticism main emphasize is to understand a literary work relying on the cultural, intellectual, and social context that produced it. Behind his or her work, a writer’s life and biography is considered to be the first step to analyse the literary work. A historical reading of a literary work starts by examining the various ways in which the signification of the text has changed over time. At the heart of historical criticism, it is necessary for the reader to evaluate a work of art, not only based upon their impressions of the cultural statement being made in the work informed by their own social and cultural history, but of the statements being made within the context of the period in which the work was created. To return to Weldon Kees’s poem ‘’For My Daughter’’, for example, we learn a great deal byconsidering two historical facts--the year in which the poem was first published(1940) and the nationality of its author(American)—and then asking how this information has shaped the meaning of the poem. In 1940, war had already broken out in Europe and most Americans realized that their country would soon be drawn into it; for kees the future seemed uncertain and dangerous. Depending on this historical information, it helps explain part of the bitter pessimism of kees’s poem.

II-The new criticism:

Unlike the Historical criticism, New Critics treat a work of literature as if it were a self-contained, self-referential object. Rather than basing their interpretations of a text on the context of the work or the author’s life, as it is the case in the historical approach, New critics perform a close reading, concentrating on the relationships within the text that give it its own form.

As a type of formalist literary criticism, new criticism reached its height during the 1940s and 1950s.Precisely, the Anglo-American traditions of criticism in the mid-twentieth century was noticeably influenced by one of the foremost poets and critics of the 19thcenturyMatthew Arnold, who was often regarded as the father of modern literary criticism. In his essay “the study of poetry”, Arnold gives poetry the highest value when he believes that “mankind will discover that we have to turn to poetry to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us”[1], and he proposed that philosophy and religion should be replaced by poetry. Arnold believed also that modern poets should look to the ancients writers and their great characters and themes for inspiration and guidance. For him only some literary writing should be viewed as ‘Literature’ then be part of the ‘canon’; the idea that will later be rejected by some authors who viewed the canon as being artificial and hierarchical.

The work of Arnold laid the foundation for 20thcentury criticism ofT.S. Eliotwhich both viewed as reassessment and reaction to earlier writers. His part in criticism is the reaction against the romantic inclinations by rejecting the individual’s perfectibility and ‘’Inner Voice’’. A critic, according to Eliot, must follow objective standards and conform to tradition through respect for order and authority. By achieving impersonality and objectivity, Eliot sought to raise criticism to the level of science.

New criticism and the whole of modern tensional poetics derive their strength and inspiration from the writings ofI.A.Richardswho has formulated a systematic and complete theory of the literary art. His methods had been well described in his famous book Practical Criticism (1929) where he reported the results of his experiments, which was based on giving poems to students without any information about the author’s life or the context of the work and ask them to write commentaries about their processes of reading the poems. The objective of his work was to encourage students to concentrate on ‘the words on the page’, instead of relying on preconceived beliefs. Richards argued that criticism should follow the precision of science in order to establish the special character of literary language. Richard’s most influential student, William Empson, advocated the idea of seeing poems as structures of complex meanings and separate the literary works from their contexts.

Based on his book, the well-wrought urn, Cleanth Brookshighlights the fact that critics should be objective and scientific in their criticism. Brooks said that ‘’critics should not forget the differences between historical periods but forget those qualities those periods have in common’’[2]. He believed that New criticism should make universal judgements as poetry does.

Evolving the ideas of Matthew Arnold, which mixed culture with formality,F.R.leavisexpressed his opinions morally, believing that literature is the representation of life and texts should be valuated according to the content and author’s moral perspective. He attacked late Victorian poetry and celebrated the work of modern poets as the great traditions. A literary work, for Leavis, can be understood through ‘close reading’ without any knowledge of social or historical context. Leavis’s approach rely heavily on the construction of traditions that are considered to be the ‘healthy’ and correct form of English writing.

III- Reader Response theory:

As a direct reaction to the New Critics theory, Reader response theory strongly rejected the way the new critics “wrongly” ignored the role of the reader and stated that the reader’s role deserved the same value as the text itself. How texts actually come to mean something to us was determined, in Reader response theory, through the act of reading. Even if they differ in the norms, the advocates if this theory focused on the importance of the reader and their individual, subjective response to the text.


[1]Matthew Arnold , The Study of Poetry (1880), Critical Theory Since Plato

[2]Cleanth Brooks, The well-wrought urn. New York : Harvest Books ; Harcourt : Brace and World, 1968.


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Title: Literary criticism