Saturday, 31 October 2015


An introduction to English Criticism

Literature can be enjoyed in two ways. A layman enjoys it haphazardly. But he gets a vague and confused impression out of that book.  On the other hand a trained man studies literature in a methodical manner. He gets maximum enjoyment out of that book. First of all the trained man makes a thorough study of the work of art. In the light of his examination, he declares whether it is good or bad, enjoyable or unenjoyable. This mode of enjoyment is known as criticism and a critic is an ideal reader. Thus, criticism is born out of questioning. Its approach is that of science. Intellectual freedom is necessary for the development of criticism.

But the standard of criticism is different from age to age, person to person.  Each critic has his own individual approach. For example, a critic will look for morality in literature, another for aesthetic pleasure, a third for both morality and aesthetic pleasure. So the principles of criticism is based on various interpretations of literature or literary activity from time to time.

There are three different kinds of criticism.   They are legislative criticism, aesthetic criticism and descriptive criticism.
Legislative criticism lays down rules for the art of writing, based on the best works of Greek and Latin literature. The Elizabethan criticism in England and a large part of eighteenth century criticism belong to legislative criticism.
Aesthetic criticism treats literature as an art, independent activity of the mind. Examples are the criticism of Philip Sidney in the Elizabethan Age in England, John Dryden in the seventeenth century and Joseph Addison  in the eighteenth century. It was followed by S.T. Coleridge, Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde and I.A. Richards in our age.

Descriptive criticism is a study of individual works of writers, of their aims, methods and effects. Descriptive criticism is the latest of the three criticisms and the most popular. Among the earliest examples are Ben Johnson’s Conversations with Drummond  and John Dryden’s prefaces.

In Europe the art of criticism began in ancient Greece. It was in the fifth century B.C. that criticism began to flurish. It was a great age of intellectual awakening in Athens. Great scholars and learned men discuss freely various subjects such as religion, philosophy, morality, politics, art and literature.  Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripedes, Socrates, Aristophenes and a number of other great writers and scholars lived in this age. But Aristophenes was the first writer who applied his mind to a critical study of literature. In his comedy titled The Frogs, he discussed the relative merits of Aeschylus and Euripedes.  Aristophenes discusses the relative importance of craftsmanship, morality and the choice of language in a work of art.                           
Drafted and printed and circulated by K.J. Thomas M.A.Litt. among his students of Prthibha College for their studies.dated 26th June 2006.

The Background of English Criticism.

The Greek Masters
Plato was the most celebrated disciple of Socrates. During Plato’s time, the glory of art and literature was on the wane and philosophy and oratory began to flurish and Socrates was the greatest of the philosophers. At the same time the national character and the standards of social and public life were declined.  The rulers were corrupted and people lost moral values. So the philosophers began to discuss why there is decline in moral values.  They applied the test of reason to each problem of the state. Philosophical investigation was the chief interest of Plato. His great work is called the DIALOGUES because subject is discussed in question answer form by a number of interlocutors and Socrates was chief among them. There are several such dialogues. They are Ion, Cratilus, Protagoras, Georgias, Symposium, Republic, Phaedrus,Philabus and Laws.

In Republic, Plato says that Ideas are the ultimate reality (truth).  Things are first conceived as ideas before they are shaped into things. This is known as Plato’s Theory of Ideas. All the things in the world are mere images or copies of ideas. The idea of everything is its original pattern. Original is far better than its copy.  A tree is a copy and idea is its original. So a tree is once removed from reality. So tree is an imperfect copy of its original. The reproduction of tree in art and literature is more imperfect or twice removed from reality. Therefore the productions of art and literature cannot shape the character of the individual or promote the wellbeing of the state. They take men away from reality. This is the reason for the decline of moral values in society.

How does Plato attack Poetry ?
Plato’s judgement of poetry is based on the twin standards. Reproductions of poetry are twice removed from reality. So it cannot mould the character of the individual and promote the welfare of the state. Besides Plato condemns poetry on other three grounds.

1.      Poetic inspiration

Plato says that the poet does not think deeply. Instead, he writes poem out of sudden emotional inspiration. It is not based on reason. So his words cannot be trusted. Poetry does not go deep into the root of things.

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