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The Emergence of "Literature": Making and Reading the English Canon in the Eighteenth Century

From: ELH
Volume 63, Number 2, Summer 1996
pp. 397-422 | 10.1353/elh.1996.0019

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ELH 63.2 (1996) 397-422

The idea of literature, it has often been noted, is of relatively recent emergence. In Foucault's version of the claim, the idea was born of a radical realignment of the disciplines of knowledge, a realignment that, by the nineteenth century, had left a space for the "pure act of writing" to curve back upon itself and to reconstitute itself as an independent "form of language that we now call 'literature'." We have learned to question this notion of literature's autonomous "purity"; my interest here is with the historical argument. That the modern sense of "literature" has not been in the Western world for long should not be taken to mean that before the nineteenth century the word itself had not been around nor that there was no collective term for identifying the peculiar "form of language" of writings that we would now consider literary. Yet a change did occur: something happened in the late eighteenth century to the way works of art were valued. No longer considered rhetorical or didactic instruments, they became prized as autonomous creations. In Northrop Frye's formulation: "nearly every work of art in the past had a social function in its own time, a function which was often not primarily an aesthetic function at all. The whole conception of 'works of art' as a classification for all pictures, statues, poems, and musical compositions is a relatively modern one." Frye does not explain the change he is describing, though such an explanation is nonetheless implicit in something Frye suggests in his preceding paragraph. Defending humanist culture, Frye writes: "it is the consumer, not the producer, who benefits by culture, the consumer who becomes humanized and liberally educated." Arguably, it is this assumption that is the relatively modern conception, the one that brought about such concepts as literature and the aesthetic. I wish to suggest that the emergence of literature in its modern sense reflects such a change in how literary value was perceived, a change from production to consumption, invention to reception, writing to reading.

I begin by looking at notions of literature before "literature." It is sometimes claimed that since earlier writers had no knowledge of literature as we understand the concept, they did not consider their work distinct from any other type of discourse, including texts of a didactic or political nature. Literature, Terry Eagleton suggests, "was invented sometime around the turn of the eighteenth century, and would have been thought extremely strange by Chaucer or even Pope." There is truth in this: certainly Pope would never have denied the moral and political import of his poetic practice. But there is also exaggeration, for if literature in its modern sense did not yet exist, there was nonetheless an understanding of the distinct rhetorical category under which the writings of Chaucer or Pope could be classed. Aristotle, in the Poetics, complains of how the "art that uses only speech by itself or verse, . . . has as yet no name; for we have no common term to apply to the [prose] mimes of Sophron and Xenarchus and to the Socratic dialogues, nor any common term for mimeseis produced in verse." Aristotle wants a term to designate that verbal art whose essential quality he identifies with fictive representation. With some reluctance, he accepts the common designation of "poetry," a term which could refer to any rhythmic utterance: "people do attach the making [that is the root of the word poietes] to the name of a metre and speak of elegiac-makers and hexameter-makers; they think, no doubt, that 'makers' is applied to poets not because they make mimeseis but as a general term meaning 'verse-makers'." Not every fool, Aristotle adds, who writes a medical treatise in verse ought to be called a poet, but that is unfortunately what happens. Though "poetry" will do for now, Aristotle seems to be saying, we need more refined distinctions if critical discourse is to be a meaningful activity.

Despite Aristotle's protests, the conventional distinctions remained in place throughout much of the history of European criticism. "Maker" was the prevalent term in Chaucer's time, and Dunbar's, "poet" in Shakespeare's...


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