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  • On the Presuppositions of Literary Periods
  • Ralph Cohen and John L. Rowlett (bio)

The Problem of Periods

As i consider the problem of literary periods, I am reminded of Marianne Moore's statement about poetry: "imaginary gardens with real toads in them."1 Periods are imaginary gardens, but the works that compose them are alive and actual. Literary periods are concepts of literary works that exist in time, and although time does not have a stop, literary periods do. They are concepts ordering literary works, and as critics frequently remark, there are more ways than one to order such works, more ways than one of conceiving of periods. As Francis E. Sparshott says, the vitality of literary historiography "shows itself in two things: that some try to fix periods, and others try to stop them."2

But whether critics try to fix or unfix periods, they rely for their concepts on the knowledge of their own time, and to this extent, periodization is a historical phenomenon. I wish to offer three examples of this taken from writers in three different centuries. Oliver Goldsmith in "An Account of the Augustan Age of England" (1759) took the concept of period to mean the years in which the high point of writing was reached. "Some have looked upon the writers in the times of Queen Elizabeth as the true standard for future imitation; others have descended to the reign of James I, and others still lower, to that of Charles II. Were I to be permitted to offer an opinion upon this subject, I should readily give my vote for the reign of Queen Anne, or some years before that period."3

Goldsmith's view of "period" was not chronologically firm, but the basis for comparing the period with Augustan Rome rested on the quality of writing and the support of patronage. In the nineteenth century, George F. Underhill wrote a book on Literary Epochs: Chapters on Noted Periods of Intellectual Activity (1887) and "laid down the dictum that the individual is the archetype of the nation and the period to which he belongs."4 His procedure was to define the period and then to discover its traits in the authors. It is unnecessary for me to point out that "period" is not an entity, and that writers contribute to the shaping [End Page 113] of periods. The most recent discussion of periods is in an essay by the Hungarian Marxist, István Sötér. He begins with a recognition of the role of the individual in the period. It is from the individual, what he calls "human nature" or "human essence," that a period takes its particular form because human beings are members of a class. From the conflicts, conditions, and relations of and within the class, a literary period takes its themes: "Single periods themselves are not delimited by changes in the literary or ideological currents, but the changes in the 'human essence' and 'human nature' are present in the emergence of literary or ideological currents."5

Sötér is aware of the problem of different themes and movements in a segment of time, but he wishes to preserve a period theory that depends on the acceptance of a class theory, and thus he posits a period as a change in human nature or class relations. But this critic seems unable to demonstrate a direct relation between literary style and class change. These three views seem naive, and my point is that concepts need to take account of a body of data in order to be considered as usable hypotheses. It is therefore necessary to suggest the data involved. I wish to confine myself to literature, and to the literature of England, using as an example of a period the time span 1660–1770. I know that the term period has been applied to the "Renaissance" and to "Romanticism" and that these cross national boundaries. I know, too, that the term has been applied to "Baroque" and "Rococo" entering the domains of art and music as well as literature. But a concept that has produced little usable scholarship had better be examined in its most elementary rather than...


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