Some People and Issues in Critical History--the Quick Survey

Classical Greek and Roman

Plato (5th century BCE): lliterature is religious and political tool with unpredictable and dangerous results / mere sophists [persuasive spoken rhetoric] are even more dangerous.

Aristotle (4th century BCE): literature [drama / lyric poetry] is a socially necessary aesthetic and political creation and its effects can be predicted and controlled by studying the best models / persuasive rhetoric can be taught and is important to the state)

Horace (1st century BCE): lyric and play writing is a popular social game whose rules can be inferred from what the public likes, and whose "winners" both delight and instruct their audiences.

Quintilian Institutio Oratio (1st century CE): rhetoric is a speaker’s art whose rules can be taught.

English Renaissance

Sir Philip Sidney, The Defense of Poesy (1579): gives the English a survey of literary history since the Greeks, and argues that poetry, including epics, plays, lyrics, romances etc., is a special form of spoken and written language that does not claim truth, but describes possibilities and invents new things.  Poets teach cultures to improve themselves.  At worst, they are harmless because ineffective; at best they are prophets.

English Enlightenment

John Dryden (Essay of Dramatic Poesy, 1668; The Author’s Apology for Heroic Poetry and Heroic License, 1677; A Discourse Concerning the Original and Progress of Satire, 1693; The Preface to Fables Ancient and Modern1700): literature should be judged by referring to classical standards, but also should be respected for native English wit and invention.  Dryden also began the tradition of analyzing poets by comparing them with their greatest contemporaries (Shakespeare and Jonson; Chaucer and Lydgate or Gower).

Samuel Johnson (The Preface to Shakespeare, 1765; Lives of the English Poets, 1781): The Preface established the publishing tradition of a critical preface to an authoritative edition of a poet’s collected works, in this case praising Shakespeare for all the now-usual reasons, but also subjecting Shakespeare to criticism for his irregular structures and dramatic effects unsuited to C18 tastes.  The Lives established the form of the “literary biography,” combining historical data on the author’s life and literary productivity and critical analysis of the authors’ works and lifetime achievement.  The greatest literature is that which has pleased the most people for the longest time.

English Romanticism

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (with Wordsworth, the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, 1798; Biographia Literaria,  1817):  poetry arises spontaneously from the poet’s emotional and spiritual life, and should speak in the language of common people rather than in elevated artful terms.  Poems grow “organically,” like plants, according to their own rules rather than according to the generic prescriptions of classical and neo-classical criticism.

English Victorian

Matthew Arnold  (Essays in Criticism, First and Second Series, 1865, 1888; On the Study of Celtic Literature, 1867; Culture and Anarchy, 1869):  After the fading of popular English faith in Christianity as revealed transcendental truth, Arnold argued for literature as the new, secular source of anchoring cultural values.  Past literatures from all cultures should be studied with an open mind “to see the object as in itself it really is,” free from local cultural prejudices.

English Modern (late-Nineteenth and Twentieth Century)

Psychological Critics— Sigmund Freud, 1856-1939; Carl Jung, (1875-1961) literature arises from psychological conflicts in the author’s unconscious or from deep-seated cultural forces in a “collective unconscious.”  Literature should be studied for clues to the structure and contents of the unconscious part of the human mind, or the structure and contents of our culture's "collective unconscious" mind.  Criticism is a force for liberating humanity from its unconscious neuroses.

Marxist Critics—Karl Marx, (1818-1883) literature documents the social and economic conditions of the cultures in which it is produced, unless the literature is escapist or some other form of “false consciousness.”  Literature should be studied for clues to the hidden operation of the forces which cause class-based oppression, or the forces by which cultural forces are resisting and challenging those forces.  Criticism is a force for liberating humanity from its class-based false consciousness.

Belletristic Critics—literature is the possession of every cultivated, educated member of a culture and writing about literature should be beautiful, impressive, undocumented, and apparently effortless.  Both creation of literature and writing about literature are arts that cannot really be taught.

Philological Critics—literature contains evidence of languages’ evolutionary change and should be studied as a science to discover rules to document and predict those changes.

New Critics—Great works of literature are unique cultural objects that do not belong to their creators (authors) or to its consumers (readers), but to the critic who alone can unlock the secrets of the works' ability to transmit to cultures the timeless, transcendental truths about human existence.  Those truths are what enable people to survive the barren universe of popular culture.  Critics are in the business of judging literature, determining which poems best deliver those t-t-t-a-h-es.  Critical analysis skills can be taught as professionally as biological or chemical analysis

Structuralist Critics--as languages are constructed of "phonemes" (basic structural units of words), literature is composed of "mythemes" which are the basic structuring units of narratives and evidence of cultures' structuring "binary oppositions" governing deep structuring rules which construct cultural "reality"; the rules by which authors create myths which respond to or manipulate those binary oppositions and deep structuring rules.

Deconstructionist Critics--literature is composed of unstable signifiers which the dominant ideologies of a culture attempt to make "normal" or "natural" but which are continually subverting those agencies of control because texts will always mean more than their authors intended them to mean, sometimes even the opposite of that intended meaning; interpretation demonstrates either the "undecidability" of a text's meaning or its potential to mean radically differently from the significance attributed to it by New Critics or Structuralists.

Feminist Critics--literature is composed of "gendered" language and roles played by authors, readers, and characters which initially correspond to the presumed "normal" or "natural" superiority of the male/masculine point of view, assumptions of authority and literary quality, and a wide variety of other foundational assumptions which the Feminist critic challenges by revealing texts' gender assumptions in language, characterization, plot, assumed readers, or other attributes.

Reader-Response Critics--literature as read by New Critics or Structuralists is taken to mean "all at once" or "synchronically," whereas readers experience it as a sequence of reading events, "diachronically," and authors manipulate deliberately the way meaning develops over time in readers' experiences by misleading them, revealing only parts of structuring "enigmas," and staging readers' discovery of solutions to enigmas in ways which educate the readers about literature, society, and the nature of human existence.

Post-Structuralist Critics (New Historicism, Semiotics and Cultural Studies, Queer Studies, Post-Colonial Studies)--literature means differently in different eras of readership (NH), is constructed of sign systems which can be studied as evidence of other cultures' or eras' structuring mythologies (Sem. and CS), or gendered assumptions or "heteronormality" (QS), or Colonialist assumptions of the superiority of the values of the Colonizers and the inferiority of the values of the Colonized, all of which may be subverted by revolutionary or theoretically self-aware authors and readers.

Après eux, le déluge!