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About this book

The author traces the course of literary criticism from its foundations in classical and medieval precepts to the theorising of the present day. He explores the texts which have been milestones in the history of critical thought, placing them firmly in the context of their time.

Table of Contents

1. The Classical Age

Abstract
Nothing is more remarkable in the history of literary criticism than the way in which theories launched in the classical age have kept a grip on people’s minds. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, writers were still hotly debating how far the authority of the ancients ought to determine literary practice. When in 1789 Thomas Twining (1735–1804) published what was to become for long the standard translation of Aristotle’s Poetics (Aristotle’s Treatise on Poetry), he accompanied it with Two Dissertations on Poetic and Numerical Imitation in the effort to rescue the Aristotelian concept ‘imitation’ from connotative confusions he detected as it was tossed about in argument between contemporary writers. In our own century, in 1955, when the Hungarian critic Georg Lukácz (1885–1971) made a celebrated critique of recent literary tendencies in a lecture, ‘The Ideology of Modernism’, he expounded his case on the basis of ‘the traditional Aristotelian dictum’ that man is a social animal. The dictum is ‘applicable to all great realist literature’, ‘to Achilles and Werther, Oedipus and Tom Jones, Antigone and Anna Karenina’.
Harry Blamires

2. The Middle Ages

Abstract
The centuries between the fall of the Roman Empire in the west and the Renaissance are loosely called the ‘Middle Ages’. Waves of barbarian invaders, Goths, Huns and Vandals, swept over the imperial frontiers in the last decades of the fourth century AD until Alaric, King of the Visigoths, eventually captured and sacked Rome itself in the last year of his life, 410. The submergence of Roman civilisation under the invading hordes was such that the period from the fall of Rome to the later eleventh century has been labelled the ‘Dark Ages’, and the term ‘Middle Ages’ applied more limitedly to the period from the twelfth century to the Renaissance. The Dark Ages were not uniformly dark. We caught a glimpse of the fifth-century literary mind in the last chapter when we cast our eyes forward to see the longterm effect of the decay of oratory into declamation in the first century AD. The Frankish King Charlemagne (c.742–814) was inspired to extend his rule in all directions with the hope of recreating the Christian empire of Constantine. Eventually he seized the crown of Lombardy and took the papacy under his protection. In 800 AD he was crowned by the Pope as Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. His patronage was such that historians speak of the ‘Carolingian Renaissance’.
Harry Blamires

3. The Renaissance

Abstract
The term ‘Renaissance’ is sometimes so vaguely used that it tends to represent a period of history rather than a historical development. In its strictest sense, at least for the literary world, the ‘Renaissance’ is the rediscovery of the ancient classics of Greece and Rome which scholars edited, translated, and wrote commentaries on. With the capture of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453 the drift of Greek scholars to Italy was accelerated. Increasingly manuscripts were transferred from Byzantium to the west and copied. It must be recalled that the Emperor Constantine (288–337) had transferred his capital to Byzantium in 328 and renamed the city ‘Constantinople’. After the death of the emperor Theodosius the Great (c.346–395) the Roman Empire was split into two halves, one of Theodosius’s sons ruling from Rome, the other from Constantinople. As Rome declined and ceased finally in 476 to be the seat of an emperor, Constantinople remained for nearly a thousand years an imperial centre capable of defending its culture against invaders.
Harry Blamires

4. The Seventeenth Century: Peacham to Dryden

Abstract
In turning to the early seventeenth century we do not immediately take leave of the Renaissance. Some ninety years after the publication of Sir Thomas Elyot’s The Governour, Henry Peacham (c.1578–c.1642) wrote a seventeenth-century version of the handbook for the governing class, The Compleat Gentleman (1622). 1622 was the year in which the architect Inigo Jones (1573–1652) completed the magnificent banqueting hall in Whitehall, and its opening was marked by the production of Ben Jonson’s The Masque of Augures. Jones was influenced by the Italian Palladian style and is credited with having brought pure Renaissance architecture to England. The masque itself flourished increasingly in the later years of Queen Elizabeth and in the reigns of James I and Charles I. It gave free rein to the Renaissance taste for splendour. In the lavishness of its scenic display and the extravagance of its stage mechanisms, it epitomises the courtly opulence which the Commonwealth was to sweep away. And for practitioners such as Ben Jonson, the comprehensive artistic splendours of the masque conveyed an image of the eternal in a transient world.
Harry Blamires

5. The Seventeenth Century: Rymer to Dennis

Abstract
It is easy to oversimplify in defining the character of the Restoration period, because the comedies of the age stamp in our minds the picture of a frivolous society ready to trivialise human relationships, to treat love and marriage flippantly, and to show scant regard for the virtues of hard work, sobriety and unselfishness. Indeed the public that supported the London theatre was a very different public from the seemingly mixed cross-section of the populace who attended the Globe theatre in Shakespeare’s day. The Restoration theatre provided amusement for a leisured and dissolute society taking their cue from a dissolute court. Puritans naturally shunned it. The respectable Londoners who earned their livings by honest trade or craft could scarcely be expected to throng to see themselves made butts of upper-class mockery. The court of Charles II certainly contained more than its fair share of cynical libertines who made a mockery of virtue and assumed all its advocates to be hypocrites.
Harry Blamires

6. The Eighteenth Century: The Age of Addison and Pope

Abstract
The early decades of the eighteenth century represent a period of calm and prosperity after the dissensions and turmoils of the previous century. The lively picture of the state of the country given by Daniel Defoe (1660–1731) in his Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724–6) shows a nation busily and contentedly at work. It was an age when industry and commerce were expanding, when agriculture, sheep-farming and woollen manufacture prospered. ‘Puritanism’ was taking on a different guise. Energies which had gone into religious controversy were being devoted to trade and industry. In this respect the dissenter Defoe himself seems to represent a new breed. With his heroine Moll Flanders, spiritual self-examination and financial accountancy go hand in hand as she repeatedly takes stock of her sins and her income. The same Defoe had been sent as an agent to Edinburgh in 1706 by the arch-political intriguer Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford (1661–1727). His brief was to pose as a disinterested friend of the Scots (‘a hardened, refractory, and terrible people’, he called them) and persuade them that union with England would be in their best interests. The Union was achieved in 1707.
Harry Blamires

7. The Eighteenth Century: Dr Johnson and his Successors

Abstract
The age of Pope, Swift and Addison has been regarded as the great classical age of English literature. It became known as the Augustan age because writers themselves saw a parallel between the great age of Virgil, Horace and Ovid and their own period of stability and cultural health. The self-conscious complacency was not wholly unjustified. After his visit to England in 1726–9, Voltaire (1694–1778) was moved by his experience of the freedom and justice of English society to attack the ancien régime at home in his Lettres Philosophiques (1734). It is, however, the bulky figure of Dr Johnson who represents for many readers the archetype of the eighteenth-century spirit, and his literary productivity belongs especially to the 1750s, 1760s and 1770s. Though, strictly speaking, the ‘classical’ label attaches less fittingly to Johnson than to his Augustan predecessors, if faithful attachment to ancient classical formulations is the criterion, yet the label belongs supremely to him in connoting the central fount of literary influence in the century of stability and the age of reason. There is a familiar portrait of Dr Johnson sitting in postprandial chairmanship, surrounded at table by the admiring faces of the musician Dr Burney, the statesman Edmund Burke, the dramatist Oliver Goldsmith, the actor David Garrick, the painter Joshua Reynolds, and the biographer James Boswell. The gathering indicates over what intellectual brilliance Johnson’s ascendancy was sustained.
Harry Blamires

8. The Romantic Age

Abstract
The Romantic age was an age of revolution, social and technological, philosophical and literary. The harnessing of steam-power, the consequent development of mass-production, and the movement of population from rural areas to the growing urban areas of industry and commerce, marked one of the crucial turning-points in modern history. Cities were built, fortunes made, and workers’ lives rendered dismally laborious in applying the laissez-faire principles of the economist Adam Smith (1723–90), whose study The Wealth of Nations (1776) encouraged the pursuit of individual profit as the route to national prosperity. The Industrial Revolution transformed the face of the countryside and thrust workers together in the new urban environments, packed and smoky.
Harry Blamires

9. The Victorian Age

Abstract
The Victorian age was a period of immense consolidation in terms of peace and prosperity, in terms of wealth and power, and in terms of artistic productivity. When Queen Victoria celebrated her Diamond Jubilee in 1897, her imperial sway extended over a fifth of the habitable world. Her capital city and her Houses of Parliament represented the apex of international dominion. The reign which began in the age of the stage coach ended with the British Isles netted from corner to corner with railways linking manufacturing city with country town, pit-head with dock, rural estate with the metropolis. And the reign was accounted an era of peace. The Crimean War (1853–56) and the Indian Mutiny (1857–58) were significant enough to stir patriotic fervour, but too far away to disturb public complacency. Irish political unrest and even the suffering endured during the potato famine of the 1840s seem scarcely to have ruffled the nation’s peace of mind. Agitations of a more intellectual kind preoccupied many thinking people.
Harry Blamires

10. The Twentieth Century: The Early Decades

Abstract
The early twentieth century was a period of remarkable literary productivity, rich in quantity and quality, in experimentation and innovation. The publishing industry was expanded and modernised, and there was a huge increase in the production and sale of books. Various developments increased the demand for reading material. Elementary education became universal, and higher education was made available on an unprecedented scale. The public library system was developed. The growing trade union movement reacted against the excessive working hours imposed on the masses in the hey-day of Victorian capitalism, and a vast increase in leisure followed. This was happening in a period that was especially rich in major writers of genius who have taken their places alongside the great writers of the past. The age was also rich in writers of lesser rank who produced neither masterpieces nor works of outstanding imaginative power, but served their readers with works of high entertainment value and accomplished craftsmanship. In short, the age of Joyce and Eliot, Lawrence and Yeats, was also the age of Galsworthy and Wells, Wodehouse and Masefield.
Harry Blamires

11. The Twentieth Century: Post-war Developments

Abstract
We have seen English critics strongly influenced by European thinkers at certain points in our literary history. Three of the major critics considered in the last chapter, Henry James, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, were American-born. As the later decades of the century pass, the course of literary criticism in Britain is increasingly influenced, indeed often seemingly determined, by intellectual trends emanating from abroad. With the vastly improved facility of communication, philosophical and cultural innovation is readily projected on to the international scene. The closer involvement of critical developments in Britain with movements initiated abroad, and often fostered especially in the USA, inevitably gives a more cosmopolitan character to studies in this field.
Harry Blamires
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