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[ 753 Experiment in Criticism1 There is no department of literature in which it is more difficult to establish a distinction between “traditional” and “experimental” work than literary criticism.2 For here both words may be taken in two senses. By traditional criticism we may mean that which follows the same methods, aims at the same ends, and expresses much the same state of mind as the criticism of the preceding generation. Or we may mean something quite different: a criticism which has a definite theory of the meaning and value of the term “tradition,” and which may be experimental in reverting to masters who have been forgotten. And as for “experiment” one may mean the more original work of the present generation, or else the work of critics who are pushing into new fields of inquiry, or enlarging the scope of criticism with other kinds of knowledge. To use the word “experimental” in the first sense would be invidious, for it would cover all the critical work of our time which one considers to have merit. For it is obvious that every generation has a new point of view, and is self-conscious in the critic; his work is twofold, to interpret the past to the present, and to judge the present in the light of the past. We have to see literature through our own temperament in order to see it at all, though our vision is always partial and our judgement always prejudiced; no generation, and no individual, can appreciate every dead author and every past period; universal good taste is never realized. In this way, all criticism is experimental, just as the mode of life of every generation is an experiment. It is only in my second sense, therefore, that it is worth while to talk of experimental criticism; only by considering what critics today may be deliberately attempting some kind of critical work which has not been deliberately attempted before. In order to make clear exactly what there is that is new in contemporary critical writing I shall have to go back a hundred years. We may say, roughly, that modern criticism begins with the work of the French critic SainteBeuve , that is to say about the year 1826.3 Before him, Coleridge had attempted a new type of criticism, a type which is in some respects more allied to what is now called aesthetics than to literary criticism. But from the Renaissance through the eighteenth century literary criticism had been confined to two narrow, and closely related, types. One was a type which 1929 754 ] has always existed and I hope always will, for it can always have very great value: it may be called practical notes on the art of writing by practitioners, parallel to the treatises on painting which have been left us by Leonardo da Vinci and others.4 Such notes are of the greatest value to other artists, particularly when studied in conjunction with the author’s own work. Two classical examples in English are the Elizabethan treatises on rhymed and unrhymed verse written by Thomas Campion and Samuel Daniel.5 The prefaces and essays of Dryden, the prefaces of Corneille, are of the same type but on a larger scale and engage wider issues.6 But at the same time there is a large body of criticism, a considerable quantity in English and still more in French, written by men who were professionally critics rather than creative writers: the most famous critic of this sort is of course Boileau.7 This type of critic was primarily the arbiter of taste, and his task was to praise and condemn the work of his contemporaries, and especially to lay down the laws of good writing. These laws were supposed to be drawn from the practice, but still more from the theory, of the ancients. Aristotle was highly respected; but in practice this type of criticism was usually far from following the profound insight of Aristotle, and confined itself to translating, imitating, and plagiarizing Horace’s Art of Poetry.8 At its best, it confirmed and maintained permanent standards of good writing; at its worst, it was a mere sequence of precepts. In general, French criticism was more theoretic, and, as in La Harpe, more desiccated; the normal English type was nearer to plain good sense, as in Johnson’s Lives of the Poets; though interesting theory, usually on specific literary types such as the drama, is found in authors like Thomas Rymer...


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