Peter Barry: Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary Theory and Cultural Criticism

Literary theorizing from Aristotle to Leavis – some key moments

Aristotle’s Poetics: earliest work of theory: (21)

·         Defines tragedy

·         Argues that lit is about character

·         Argues that action reveals character

·         Explains plot

·         Reader-oriented approach noticed in his term catharsis

Sidney’s ‘Apology of Poetry’ in 1580: first English critical theory: (22)

·         Refers to Ovid: mission of lit is to teach by delighting

·         Refers to Horace: a poem is a speaking picture aimed to teach and delight

·         Pleasing reader is primary aim of literature, primary to moral element

Johnson’s Lives of the Poets & Prefaces to Shakespeare: 18th century practical criticism: (22)

·         Extends practical criticism beyond study of Bible and religious texts

The Romantics:

·         Wordsworth’s Preface to the Lyrical Ballads: with Coleridge: ordinary poetic diction (23)

·         Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria: breaks with Wordsworth: aesthetic value of poetic language is its ‘fictive’ quality (23)

·         Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry (1821) anticipates Russian ‘defamiliarization’ (poetry ‘strips the veil of familiarity) & Eliot’s ‘impersonality’ (separates author from writer) (24)

·         Keats’s ‘negative capability’ anticipates Freudian notion of the unconscious (25)

Mid-late Victorians:

·         Arnold: literature should be ‘disinterested’ or politically detached & lit of past should be used as Touchstones to measure contemporary lit (inspired close reading) (26)

20th Cent: Leavis, Eliot, Empson, Richards

·         Eliot’s ideas: (27)

·         Dissociation of sensibility: 17th cent idea of dissociating through from feeling

·         Impersonality as a way of moving away from Romantic idea of poetry as pouring out of emotions, towards idea that best poetry is one that revives poet’s predecessors,

·         Objective correlative: express emotion indirectly through a vehicle

·         Leavis rejects politicizing lit & looked for system of analyzing lit (29)

·         Empson’s close reading of ambiguities in lit; verbal difficulties as language is a slippery medium (setting the stage for post-structuralism) (29)

·         Richards’ decontextualization dominates Britain from 1930s to 1970s as practical criticism, & as New Criticism in America (30)

Liberal humanism in practice

Liberal humanist approach to Poe’s ‘The Oval Portrait’: artist feeding on energies of sitter = debased art that is only aesthetic. Moralist approach focuses on content over structure (32)

The transition to theory (32)

1960s revival of Marxist & psychoanalytic, linguistic & feminist attack liberal humanism

1970 structuralism & post-structuralism from France lead to crisis in English by early 1980s

1980s return to history in new historicism (US) & cultural materialism (Britain)

1990s post-colonialism rejects universality of people, postmodernism stresses fragmented experience, feminism dissolves into gender studies, gay & lesbian studies, black feminism