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Winter Quarter ’03 – The History of Literary Criticism and Theory I: Plato to 1900

The Blackboard

We will be posting supplemental material to this site during the quarter. We don't expect to leave things up here indefinitely--so if you need it, read it or download it soon.

Current Postings:

  2. Horace to Wordsworth: Reflections on Taste
  3. Precis Paper Assignment
  4. Song: Come My Celia (Ben Jonson)
  5. A Conceptual Framework of Studying the History of Literary Criticism
  6. The Machine
  7. Webster's Rules for Reading Complex texts

Final Take-Home Examination

Due date: 12 PM, Wednesday, March 17 (in the box located outside the office of Prof. Handwerk, B-537 Padelford)—Late papers will be penalized. Please remember that you are also supposed to turn in a copy of your MacroMachine along with your final. Please also put your name on the BACK (not the front) of your essay, and write YES or NO there (concerning whether or not you would like any comments on the essay).

Address the following topic in an essay of NOT MORE THAN 5 double-spaced, typed pages.

For all of its paradoxical ingenuity, Wilde’s “The Decay of Lying” remains a piece of criticism that is continually in dialogue with its predecessors in the critical traditions we have been studying. It thus serves as an apt occasion for synthesizing our analytical work from throughout the quarter, and for reflecting upon the nature of the critical conversations we have been tracing.

Your task in the take-home essay is to respond to these questions:

  • Who are the two figures from the list below with whom you see Wilde most productively or provocatively in conversation?
  • Where does he agree and where does he disagree with each of them?
  • Why do these similarities and differences matter (i.e., what is particularly important in the end about what Wilde says)?

Figures on whom you may write include: Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Wordsworth, Arnold, Nietzsche.


Horace to Wordsworth: Reflections on Taste

Though “taste” as a critical term is largely an 18th century invention, the concept it names of a critical faculty that some people have by which the quality of art can be recognized by a kind of “tasting” of a thing is much older. It is very clearly present in Horace, where poetry is divided into high and low, and standards are set up by which the critic can be an arbiter between them. In Horace the principal ingredients of taste are learning on one hand, and an in-born sensibility on the other. Horace doesn’t say explicitly that any one class has better inborn taste than another, but the whole notion of taste nevertheless gets a social and elitist twist as Horace contrasts the critic’s good taste to the “ignorant” crowd’s lack of it (71a). Only the entitled classes have the required education, though many of even this group don’t actually have good taste. That’s where innate sensibility comes in, dividing even the privileged into the haves and the have-nots.

But what is important about this idea of taste is at least two-fold: first, it makes poetry a social matter. The poet is writing for the approval of those who have good taste—for other people, and in particular, for a certain subset of people. Which brings us to importance number two: theories of taste tend to be elitist. Poetry is not thought of here either in terms of blind inspiration, to be measured only by its truth value, or even of Aristotle’s universals of affect. Here if the crowd is not moved by your poetry, then so much the better, as long as those of good taste are. Moreover, the faculty of taste helps make (though doesn’t necessarily require) poetry-writing into something politically conservative, both because the people you are writing for tend to be those favored by the establishment, and because the principle of decorum requires that whatever you write be found “fitting” or “appropriate.” But that in turn tends to be what is expectable, what doesn’t rock the boat by going against the canons of good taste. Poetry has the duty here to please, and pleasing requires that it not offend.

“Taste” is no more a major term in Boileau than it is in Horace, but the concept to which the term taste will soon be regularly applied certainly is—and in a pretty much Horatian form. Again the potential audience for poetry is divided into those who have sensibility and knowledge on the one hand, and those who don’t on the other. Boileau appeals to “reason” and to nature, both of which align him with Horace’s principle of decorum: the reasonable fits expectations, conforms to the probable, and Boileau’s notion of nature does the same, particularly as it ties the poet to tradition. For following nature here means following the best that one can find in the antecedent literary tradition: Homer figures prominently. “Nature” is thus that pre-Romantic idea of those principles of character and action which the gifted poets of the past have intuited and represented in their works, a set of principles which ordinary life obscures, and which the ordinary poet cannot get firmly focussed. But Boileau’s poet, by reading the classics with sensitivity, by himself observing men and manners, and (in good Horatian manner) by listening to critics of good judgment, can. Again, the keys to having good taste are a sensibility one is born with and the sort of education which accompanies a certain class and status.

Now, to be sure, one can be of middle class origin and still attain to good taste, but as Boileau describes it achieving good taste could also be seen as being assimilated into the politically dominant cultural ethic. You will have arrived when you can write things which established judgments admire. Again, the social effect of this is both socially conservative and defensive of the status quo.

One could suggest that even though the concept of taste is implicit in most Horatian poetics, “taste” doesn’t become a specifically defined critical issue until the 18th century because it is only then that the notion of the rightness of such an elitist definition of worth comes under significant fire. As the polity increasingly includes middle class and even lower class readers, and as those readers embrace art forms (and political positions) which are “indecorous” from the point of view of the traditional elite, the elite finds itself needing to defend its traditional hegemony, and taste becomes one of its principal terms. This can be seen in both Burke and Hume, for underlying their efforts to write anatomies of taste one can see an inherently conservative agenda: by the ends of their treatises they will have justified the notion of taste by appeals to science and universal principles, yet the social function of taste will hardly have changed. In place of Horace and Boileau’s mere assumption of the rightness of the role of good tasters, Burke and Hume give one an elitist concept of taste now grounded in a kind of rhetoric of universal human equality. They write as if to say: “No, no, when we say we like this sort of art and we condemn that sort, and are challenged by others who say, ‘well, that’s just your opinion, and in matters of taste, all of us are entitled to have our own,’ we will reply by showing you that taste is NOT just a matter of whim or caprice, but arises—just like our knowledge of the material world—from capacities universal to human nature. Thus there are in fact ways to show that ‘good taste’ has an empirical, testable basis, and isn’t mere cultural snobbism.”

They thus turn objections to the dominance of the culture by those of (ostensibly) good taste back upon their relativist and democratic objectors. No, it turns out, everyone does NOT have a right to their own opinion in matters of taste. For that would imply that there are no principles, no universals, that all men are not by birth equal in matters of perception, of which taste is one dimension. Science makes it obvious that there are in fact principles and capacities which the behavior of everyone reveals—so long as that behavior is properly interpreted. Now, coincidentally, when we follow Burke, for example, in his study of these universals, and watch him show that everyone has equality of taste, we also work our way up with him to the concept of “judgment,” by which he effectively reestablishes the same hierarchialized and privileged institution of good taste which had so long dominated the arts without any of this scientific rationalism to support it. For Burke (and Hume, too, through a somewhat different argument) doesn’t finally think we all have the same artistic taste; quite the contrary, some of us (as in Horace) have good taste, and others do not.

But here the reason for that difference isn’t (as in Horace) merely assumed, or described as the effect of a naturally more sophisticated sensibility (though Burke and especially Hume do still make some allowance for such differences in sensibility). Rather it’s the result of a carefully trained and experienced judgment. If our human capacity for taste is equal, our judgment manifestly is not. We develop judgment only through experience and study, but as soon as we grant a need for experience and study, presto, we’re right back to where the right to set rules, to decide on what is valuable, belongs only to an elite group (to which both Burke and Hume belong) that has been educated in just the right way.

Now that is all interesting enough, but the turn Kant takes on the problem is more interesting by far. For Kant accepts the offer of rationalists like Burke and Hume of “universality” of taste, but he rejects judgment, or rather, reduces the scope of judgment to a relatively small element in the machine of perception. For Kant all men have “good” taste because taste is all the same—here there really is no such thing as good or bad taste at all, there is simply “taste.” It is a given, a universal. And because the beautiful is purely and simply a matter of taste, all men are equally qualified to experience it. Judgment in Burke’s sense doesn’t even come into the equation, since “beautiful” can be felt only about “purposeless” objects, and since they are purposeless, there can be no way in which to judge them rationally, since such judgments always entail purpose: “good FOR WHAT?”

Nor is Kant satisfied merely with this democratizing of the beautiful; he brings a kind of cognition back (without importing with it—somewhat contradictorily, one might think—a complex notion of educated judgment) as he describes the sublime, with its “vibrations.” Kant never suggests that some of us perceive the sublime better than do others, though his discourse is thick with terms like “judgment” and even “purpose.” And this remains true of his extension of the sublime to the notion of the aesthetic idea—in a way even more so, since the aesthetic idea resembles the concept of the beautiful in being “without any definite thought, i.e. any concept being capable of being adequate to it.” That makes it ineffable, Kant tells us, but it also, one would think, makes it impossible to judge, since, like the beautiful which cannot be judged because it has no concept or purpose to serve as a standard against which it can be measured, the aesthetic idea cannot be judged because there exists no “definite thought” or “concept” to which it can be compared such that it could be found either sufficient or wanting.

Now, we are some distance from “taste” when we hit this aesthetic idea, but perhaps not as far as it seems. For by fully democratizing “taste” in matters of the beautiful, Kant has set up a kind of conceptual precedent for doing the same in matters first of the sublime, and then, even more importantly, in matters of the aesthetic idea. There may still be here an elite group of those who do this imagining better than others, but the ability to do it no longer is the product of social training. No education in classical texts can do this for you—you are on your own. If you have more imaginative genius than someone else, it’s because you have more “spirit” (“Geist” in Kant’s German), which reveals itself in the working of the imagination. And rather than being bounded by experience, as is the notion of taste in writers like Burke and Hume, the object of the imagination’s work is precisely “to go beyond the limits of experience”—in a word: to transcend it.

So one can see Kant as a revolutionizer of the concept of taste, and from there it will be but a short step to Wordsworth. “Taste” is a critical term in Wordsworth: he uses it quite explicitly in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, but in doing so he significantly redefines its application. You can see this in at least two ways. First he goes to great lengths to justify adopting for poetry the “language of real men” and subjects “drawn from rustic life,” declaring that such subjects and language are closer to nature than anything to be found in traditional poetry.

Like Burke and Hume, then, Wordsworth finds it necessary to ground his sense of good poetic taste in something, and, again like them, the something he grounds it in is “nature.” But rather than the neo-classical tradition’s nature that we find in the great writers like Homer (“Learn hence for ancient rules a just esteem; / To copy nature is to copy them,” to use Alexander Pope’s Boileau-esque lines), or Burke or Hume’s sense of the human species’ natural “organs” of perception, Wordsworth substitutes the new and improved Romantic notion of nature: that which one sees when one goes out walking. So for him the measure of taste is no longer going to be anything like a judgment carefully trained by study of the great writers of the past and now applied to the universal human aptitude for taste, but rather the spontaneously felt impact of the non-urban, non-cultured world upon one’s innate but threatened-by-social-institutions sensibility. This of course leads to a second big difference: though Wordsworth allows that others might be able to point out weaknesses in what he writes, it is he, the poet, not they, the critics, who are the final arbiters of what is poetically just and tasteful. Precisely because it is his own sensibility he is expressing in his poetry, in the final analysis only he can judge whether his expression of it is proper.

It is hard to overestimate the revolutionary character of Wordsworth’s rewriting of “taste” to accord with his new sense of poetry’s subject and function. Social entitlements to good taste are not just disallowed; they are described as positively harmful. The more you know of tradition, the more deeply corrupted you are by the artificial. And in Wordsworth’s world it is not just the with-it crowd of readers and publishers who have taste (indeed, their taste is probably corrupt). As in Kant, all human beings are endowed with a sensibility that can recognize—indeed, even live from—a true poetic sensibility. If the Horatian aesthetic of taste, in either its 17th or its 18th century forms, tends to privilege the status quo, the cultural hegemony of the economically and socially advantaged, Wordsworth’s new Kant-influenced romantic aesthetic creates a quite different sense of tasteful entitlement. It, too, can see hierarchy and privileging, but the minds it privileges are those of the socially uncorrupted: poets, children, and that band of rustics whose lives have enabled them either to avoid the distorting influence of social institutions altogether, or to hear in their work and life the countervailing voice of “the spirit in the woods.” And of course, the class of the tasteful will now also include you and me as well--those who, as readers of Wordsworth’s poetry, may be affected by the poet’s recollections and be moved along with him to a

. . . primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind. (Ode on Intimations: 182-7)

Précis Paper: Boileau, Burke, Hume, or Kant

Length: 3-4 pages, typed, double-spaced
Due date: Friday, February 27, 12 PM (at our offices)


The goals of this paper are straightforward: to write, within the space of a 3-4 page paper, an explication of a specific passage from one of our primary texts. Your aim should be to present and explain the logic of the arguments in this passage, i.e., to explain what it is that the author is asserting here and what the reasons are that justify those assertions. Doing that well will require that you think more broadly than in terms of just one passage, so should therefore feel free to consider and draw upon other passages from the text. But again, your primary goal should be to explicate what is right here in this single passage—what is the author saying, why does he assert these ideas, and why (in the context of his theory and in the history of literary criticism) do they matter?

The pedagogical purposes of this exercise are likewise straightforward. Doing this paper well will involve reviewing and pulling together your reading and our class discussion of one of these authors. This sort of reflective review will help you prepare for the upcoming midterm, where this sort of general understanding of the individual authors will be the basis for the exam questions (that may deal with individual writers or be comparative in structure).

Passages available for adoption:

1) Boileau, The Art of Poetry, pp. 246-47 (“There is no serpent…an unforeseen aspect to the whole.”)
2) Burke, A Philosophical Inquiry, p. 303-04 (“So long as…upon the same principle.”)
3) Hume, Of the Standard of Taste, pp. 312-13 (“It is well known…the true standard of taste and beauty.”)
4) Kant, Critique of Judgment, p. 378 (“This explanation…claim upon everyone’s assent.”)
5) Kant, Critique of Judgment, pp. 387-88 (“We call that sublime…measurement that has been made.”)
6) Kant, Critique of Judgment, pp. 390-91 (“But we can regard…with nature itself.”)

Song: Come my Celia

Come, my Celia, let us prove,
While we can, the sports of love.
Time will not be ours forever;
He at length our good will sever.
Spend not then his gifts in vain.
Suns that set may rise again;
But if once we lose this light,
‘Tis with us perpetual night.
Why should we defer our joys?
Fame and rumor are but toys.
Cannot we delude the eyes
Of a few poor household spies,
Or his easier ears beguile,
So removéd by our wile?
‘Tis no sin love’s fruit to steal;
But the sweet thefts to reveal,
To be taken, to be seen,
These have crimes accounted been.
Ben Jonson (1573-1637)

A Conceptual Framework for Studying the History of Literary Criticism

As you wrestle this quarter for control of issues that come up again and again in the history of criticism, it may help if you think of our texts as each taking part in a centuries-long struggle for cultural position and authority. For poetry, or literary “making” (the Greek root for “poetry” is poiein, “to make”), is only one cultural enterprise among many, and as the enactors of a set of practices its partisans tend to do what the partisans of other cultural enterprises also do: look for ways to justify both the products of their energies, and, through those products, their own lives. But both because any culture’s material and intellectual resources are limited, and because one cultural enterprise’s claims may conflict with those of another enterprise, poetry’s partisans have also often defined themselves against other arts, arguing that they, and not philosophy, or history, or oratory (for example) can best offer the culture truth, or an understanding of nature, or wisdom, or pleasure.

You can see this intra-art competition already well formed as early as the first of the writers we read. For Plato (certainly NOT an advocate for poetry, but, as he saw it, for philosophy instead) effectively argues that in his culture poetry already has too much cultural authority. He sees poetry as in contest with philosophy for control of truth, and he declares that poetry’s claim is finally invalid. Worse yet, Plato sees poetry as endowed with great power, and, because powerful, also (since in his view poets tell lies and create immoral models for action) harmful.

Aristotle, by contrast, develops the conversation by writing what is in many ways a defense of poetry against Plato’s attack. He offers a different understanding of truth, one within which poetry can both be morally and philosophically “true” without having to imitate reality with historical exactness. This in turn constitutes an argument on behalf of poetry, and is part of an allocation to the poet of a certain amount of power: a power to provide pleasure, a power to provide a certain moral edification, a power to effect the psychologically useful and satisfying process of catharsis. Poetry for Aristotle is thus culturally beneficial and deserving of respect and authority.

Other things could be said here about how each of these writers positions poetry in the on-going competition for cultural authority and value. But it is clear in their works that that positioning is going on, and that it is part of what has given their writings on poetry such lasting interest. Indeed, those early texts set the terms of a debate which is no less alive now than it was then. For poetry and the arts are still in a contest for cultural value and authority. That debate plays out in terms of respect (does the culture respect the writers, the teachers, the performers, who practice the literary arts? does it listen to what they say? Does it take seriously the discourses they offer the culture?) and materially as well (what resources does the culture provide to the literary arts? Do we value them by employing them? Buying their products, whether poems, novels and plays, or classes, essays and theories?)

Many would now argue that, while the current culture certainly values the literary arts in some degree, it doesn’t value them as highly as it should. Literary-artistic practices, many now would say, can do more for the culture than the culture thinks. Without taking a position on that here, the argument of this course will be that the issues over which the current contest about the cultural role of the arts is being fought are not new. Rather, they have a long history—an understanding of which can fill out and make far more productive the current conversation.

In particular, our texts set out and explore an array of concepts, many of which persist in ideas still foundational to today’s versions of these conversations, but which, removed from their historical context, now often lead to confusion rather than to productive exchange. Indeed, one very practical reason for studying the history of criticism is that doing so can bring insight to questions still very much in play.

With these issues of poetry’s cultural authority as a context, then, in this course we will be asking of each of the works we read: What position does this work take on the question of poetry’s struggle for cultural power and authority?

That question leads to sub-questions as well. Exactly how, for example, does each of these works define the powers and functions of poetry/literature? What does each think poetry can do, positively or negatively? How extensive do they think its reach? How do they each explain the means by which poetry has those powers?

Formulating answers to such questions will be a project for the entire quarter; to begin we offer you four related concepts through which you can work out for yourselves the relationships between the writers we take up. Because we will use these terms over and over again, and because doing so can seem a little mechanical at times (though not on that account any less helpful), we call the schema that represents these concepts “The Machine.”

The Machine

Given the range of texts we will read in this course, you are likely soon to find yourself losing track of what any one figure thought poetry was or might be. To help you keep track we will be using “The Machine.” The Machine offers four perspectives through which you can classify the theories we read. These perspectives are not mutually exclusive. A theory can be both Mimetic and Pragmatic, for example, concerned both with how poetry is an imitation and with what its imitation does. As you make your way through our authors, we strongly recommend that you keep your own Machine Notebook in which you jot down summaries for each. (These perspectives are adapted from Adams; see the "Introduction" to CTSP for his discussion of them.)

1. Mimetic: Mimetic theories (also called “Imitation theories”) argue that poetry (or “imaginative literature”) is an “imitation” of something. Mimetic theories thus attempt to answer such questions as: Granted that it is essential to poetry that it imitate something, what, exactly, does it imitate? is there in fact a particular thing, or set of things, that poetry imitates? Life? Ideas? Truth? Mental pictures?

2. Pragmatic: Pragmatic theories begin with the questions: What is the effect of poetry? What does it do? How are its readers affected? Does poetry move us to action? Or does it simply make us think hard? Does it teach? If so, what does it teach, and how? By proposing models for imitation? by offering us wisdom? by showing us Ideas? Or does poetry (in fact) do nothing at all? Is a poem merely a beautiful thing? (See Aesthetic below.)

3. Expressivist: The expressivist perspective centers on the Poet, asking: How is a poem an expression of the poet him- or herself? What is it that makes such expressions interesting? Are poets different from the rest of us? Is the poet inspired? If so, what does a poet’s singing/writing express? Something mystical? The Divine? Her imagination? His inner self? If poets are not inspired, but only different from other people, how then are they different? Do they have a different kind of consciousness from the rest of us? a different kind of intellectual capacity? or a different access point to truth? And if any of these, how do we know? What grounds can we give for believing such a thing?

4. Aesthetic: This fourth perspective looks at poetry as an object—a thing in the world, something made. What makes a poem a poem? How is it different from other objects? Is it “beautiful”? What is beauty? Is it a way of decorating life or thought? Does a poem have to be useful? If poetry is different because it is made differently, how, then, does this difference manifest itself? Is the poem (play, story) a highly crafted object? With parts which interrelate? Or is it the quickly caught record of a fragile, vanishing mental impression? What formal elements distinguish it from other discourses? Can one catalogue its parts? What gives it form? Can one describe why its formal qualities make it worth attention?


Webster’s Five Principles for Reading Complex Texts

1. Patience. Develop a capacity for suspending a thought until you’ve gotten enough to put it together. Correlative: don’t let an initial inability to comprehend something stop you from plowing on through.

2. Contextualize. Find a way to understand how this piece is a move in a larger conversation. What is the point of this piece? What is it trying to do, really? To whom does it respond? With whom is it in conflict? What work do you already know that can be brought to bear to help explain this piece?

3. One, Two, Three. Get one, then two, then three things straight. One step at a time.

4. Bracketing. Parse a sentence into its crucial parts, locating the essential core, and then bracketing off the rest while you work out the sense of that core.

5. Learn to tolerate a certain level of incompleteness. These are hard ideas, with a lot of allusiveness, and few readers can understand everything, especially on a first or second pass. So don’t worry too much if there are bits and pieces you don’t quite get. Some will come into focus as you get the basic structure, but others may never fully make sense for you. Even with some incompleteness in your understanding, you may still be able to get what is crucial to a given piece. (Indeed, even some of our authors will not have understood everything they wrote.)