Victorian Critical Theory
Victorian Critical Theory
Victorian critical theory reflected the ideological upheaval that was present within society as a whole. New advances in empirical sciences such as biology and geology gave rise to questions about the nature of reality and previous ideas about religion and truth were called into question. Increased overcrowding, poverty, and disease, in addition to a climate of materialism and mechanization resulted in a generalized cultural feeling of anxiety. Given this milieu, the proper function of literature and of criticism became a subject of widespread debate. Critics of the day examined literature in relationship to other modes of discourse, such as science, religion, and art. According to Alba H. Warren, Jr., the post-Romantic critics “recognized few common aims.” Terry Eagleton explains that Victorian literary critics were conflicted with respect to their role in the culture of the time, stating that “either criticism strives to justify itself at the bar of public opinion by maintaining a general humanistic responsibility for the culture as a whole, the amateurism of which will prove increasingly incapacitating as bourgeois society develops; or it converts itself into a species of technological expertise, thereby establishing its professional legitimacy at the cost of renouncing any wider social relevance.”
Matthew Arnold, perhaps the most influential critic of the Victorian era, saw cultural expressions such as art and literature as having an important impact on the overall well-being of society. He felt that great literature conveyed deep and everlasting truths about the human condition. These works, combined with detached, objective criticism, would naturally move culture toward intellectual, moral and spiritual perfection. Arnold also attempted to address societal anxieties regarding new science and the threat to religion by proposing that people look to poetry for inspiration and as a buffer of sorts from bleak reality. In the view of Patrick Parrinder, it was Arnold who “bore the brunt of propagandizing for literary culture in the Victorian age. He saw literature as embodying the spiritual life of modern society and taking over the edifying and consoling functions of religion.” T. S. Eliot, however, claims that Arnold's work as a critic is weakened by his “conjuring trick” whereby he considered poetry as substitute for both religion and philosophy. Eliot posits that Arnold's reputation as a literary critic is overblown and unsubstantial, a viewpoint that Lionel Trilling challenges in his essay, “The Spirit of Criticism.”
Later in the century, in contrast to previous concerns with science, culture, and religion, came the development of the Aesthetic Movement with its credo of “Art for Art's Sake.” The movement centered on Walter Pater’s Preface to Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873), which was written after a trip to Italy where Pater became quite impressed with the vitality and sensuality of Italian culture and Renaissance art. The Aesthetic Movement pivoted on the belief that, since the absolutes of religion and morality were rendered relative and mutable, the purpose of life had necessarily changed as well. Pater wrote that, since life was so short, it was imperative to seek, “not the fruit of experience, but experience itself.” According to the Aesthetes, to be truly alive was to be immersed in “ecstatic experience,” with free enjoyment being the supreme priority and “beauty” a central focus. Aesthetic critics became concerned with seeking and identifying beauty, not as an absolute, but as a “relative, ever-changing” quality. Albert J. Farmer claims that “the aim of the aesthetic critic should be, therefore, to find, not some inadequate universal formula, but the formula which expresses beauty in this or that individual case, under these or those particular circumstances.” Other notable Aesthetes included Algernon Charles Swinburne and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Critic Parrinder acknowledges that the doctrine of art for art's sake had appeared earlier in the nineteenth century, but that “it was not until the time of Pater and Swinburne that aestheticism emerged as a coherent force in England.” Although several modern critics align Swinburne with aestheticism, Clyde K. Hyder suggests that Swinburne's position is not quite that simple. “Though Swinburne emphasized aesthetic criteria in judging literature,” Hyder comments, “it is an error to suppose that he disregarded moral standards or historic considerations.” Swinburne is also known for popularizing poets and novelists that other critics had dismissed. “Who among English critics has done so much to awaken interest in so many different authors?” asks Hyder, crediting him with recognizing the value of William Blake, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Lord Byron, Robert Browning, and Charles Dickens well in advance of most other scholars and critics. Even Eliot, while categorizing Swinburne as an “imperfect critic,” acknowledged that “he was sufficiently interested in his subject-matter and knew quite enough about it; and this is a rare combination in English criticism.”
In addition to Arnold, Pater and Swinburne, there were a number of other scholars who contributed to critical thought during the Victorian period. According to René Wellek, George Henry Lewes was the first to promote the use of realism in a novel. Lewes believed that all art should closely reflect reality, although Wellek points out that he did not insist on literal portrayals and, in fact, disliked what he called “detailism.” Instead, he advocated that the purpose of the artist was to obtain “the necessary coherence of reality,” while allowing for artistic license. In the 1840s, John Ruskin published Modern Painters. Although the book was primarily a criticism of visual art, Ruskin’s theory on imagination is widely considered one of the more important critical developments for literary criticism as well. It is described by Alba H. Warren, Jr. as, “a theory of a penetrative function by which the imagination seizes the object in its very core of reality and meaning.” With the publication of The Gay Science (1866), Eneas Sweetland Dallas posited his own ambitious theory on imagination. He claimed that real imagination occurs through the unconscious and that a poet who possesses this gift will display it in his work. To this end, Dallas attempted a scientific approach to poetry, creating classifications of “genres in a triadic scheme.” Wellek writes, “Oddly enough, the scheme overlays a highly irrationalistic psychology that locates the origin of art in the unconscious or the ‘hidden soul.’ The incongruous mixture of psychology of the unconscious with insistently symmetrical schematization makes Dallas' books piquant dishes not to be missed by connoisseurs of the history of criticism.”
On Translating Homer; Three Lectures (lectures) 1861
On Translating Homer; Last Words (lectures) 1862
“The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” (essay) 1864
Essays in Criticism (essays) 1865
Culture and Anarchy: an essay in political and social criticism (criticism) 1869
“The Study of Poetry” (essay) 1880
Essays in Criticism: Second Series (essays) 1888
“Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Browning; or, Pure, Ornate, and Grotesque Art in English Poetry” (essay) 1864
On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History (lectures) 1841
Eneas Sweetland Dallas
Poetics: An Essay on Poetry (criticism) 1852
The Gay Science. 2 vols. (criticism) 1866
George Henry Lewes
“Hegel's Aesthetics. Philosophy of Art” (essay) 1842
“The Principles of Success in Literature” (essay) 1865
“Theories of Poetry and a New Poet” (essay) 1853
John Stuart Mill
“Two Kinds of Poetry” (essay) 1833
“What Is Poetry?” (essay) 1833
John Henry Newman
“Poetry, with Reference to Aristotle's Poetics” (essay) 1829
Preface to The Renaissance; Studies in Art and Poetry (essay) 1873
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Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: Warren, Alba H., Jr. “The Topics of English Poetic Theory, 1825-1865.” In English Poetic Theory, 1825-1865, pp. 3-34. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1950.
[In the following excerpt, Warren outlines the numerous and varied perspectives of early Victorian literary critics.]
The period of creative activity that dates roughly from the Lyrical Ballads to the death of Byron was succeeded by a period of critical reflection and assessment. The new period was not wanting in poetry and it witnessed the rise of the Victorian novel, but it was also notable for an access of criticism which reached its climax in Matthew Arnold. Arnold, writing in 1865, was certain of the value of the critical endeavor; it was second only to the creative activity itself, and its function was to provide intellectual situations in which the creative artist could work: but if Arnold was able to write of the critical office at all in philosophic terms, it was because he had in front of him a quantity of responsible criticism from which to generalize.
Criticism of the period between 1825 and 1865 was not a concerted effort. There was no center for educated opinion in England such as Arnold found in the French Academy; the romantics had cast off rules and standards, and the new critics recognized few common aims. Besides this, criticism had a wide variety...
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SOURCE: Wellek, René. “English Criticism.” In A History of Modern Criticism: 1750-1950, Volume 3: The Age of Transition, pp. 86-92. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1965.
[In the following excerpt, Wellek describes the 1830s and 1840s as transitional decades between earlier Romantic theories and those of the Victorian age.]
In England the thirties and forties of the 19th century can be described as an age of transition. This, it has been objected, is true of any period; but these two decades fit particularly well John Stuart Mill's description in his Spirit of the Age (1831): “Men have outgrown old institutions and old doctrines, and have not yet acquired new ones.” There was an anarchy of opinions and an aversion to system and theory. “He is a theorist: and the word which expresses the highest and noblest effort of human intelligence is turned into a bye-word (sic) of derision.”1 Mill is thinking in general terms, but his diagnosis also applies to the situation in literary criticism. The 18th-century system of poetics and aesthetics had decayed, but it lingered on with many writers. The romantic creed systematically propounded by Coleridge had not taken firm root in England, though it was upheld, in various versions, by Lamb and Hazlitt, and after their death by a few survivors such as De Quincey and Leigh Hunt. New or...
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SOURCE: Wellek, René. “English Criticism: Historians and Theorists.” In A History of Modern Criticism: 1750-1950, Volume 4: The Later Nineteenth Century, pp. 141-54. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1965.
[In the following excerpt, Wellek provides an overview of contemporary literary criticism in the 1850s.]
It would not be unfair to say that around 1850 English criticism had reached a nadir in its history: the great romantics, Coleridge, Hazlitt and Lamb, had died in the thirties; Carlyle, the strongest figure after them, had relinquished criticism for history and social pamphleteering; Macaulay and Mill were no longer concerned with criticism. The camp followers of the great romantics, De Quincey and Leigh Hunt, both lived till 1859, but were only pale ghosts of their youth. Poetic theory was practically nonexistent or simply a remote derivative of popularized romanticism: genius, imagination, sincerity of feeling, the moral and finally social function of the poet were the constant themes of perfunctory discussion ultimately derived from Wordsworth.1
Still, a revival of English criticism was just around the corner. It came about in various and often devious ways. One could sort out the different motives by pointing to a new historicism, a new classicism, a new realism, and finally a new aestheticism which opposed the all-pervading Victorian atmosphere of...
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SOURCE: Parrinder, Patrick. “Victorian Criticism: The Republic of Letters.” In Authors and Authority: English and American Criticism 1750-1990, pp. 117-206. London: Macmillan, 1991.
[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1977, Parrinder examines the writings of several major Victorian literary critics.]
THE DEFINITION OF LITERARY CULTURE
In Shelley's poem ‘Julian and Maddalo’, the poet's friendship with Byron is recaptured at certain moments with supreme naturalness. Arriving before Maddalo is up one morning, Julian observes the Count's baby daughter, whose eyes gleam
With such deep meaning, as we never see But in the human countenance:
He then starts to play with the child, and so
after her first shyness was worn out We sate there, rolling billiard balls about, When the Count entered …
In romantic criticism, as well as poetry, we are able to meet the creative genius face to face. Romantic egotism, even while it exalts the poet and puts him on a pedestal, can include this interest in personality and in the everyday life of oneself and one's friends. Hazlitt, Lamb and de Quincey were the intimates of great poets; but they also felt themselves their equals, and cherished their own experience as Shelley does in these lines. The early Victorian critics inherited the romantic...
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SOURCE: Eagleton, Terry. “Chapter III.” In The Function of Criticism: From the Spectator to Post-Structuralism, pp. 45-67. London: Verso, 1984.
[In the following excerpt, Eagleton explains the role of the nineteenth-century man of letters as commentator and interpreter of literature for the middle-class reading public.]
The nineteenth century was to produce a category which yoked sage and critical hack uneasily together: ‘man of letters’. It is an interestingly elusive term, broader and more nebulous than ‘creative writer’, not quite synonymous with scholar, critic or journalist. T. W. Heyck has argued that it is the nearest term we have in nineteenth-century England to the significantly absent category of ‘intellectual’, which was not to gain currency in its modern sense until the 1870s.1 Like the eighteenth-century periodicalists, the man of letters is the bearer and dispenser of a generalized ideological wisdom rather than the exponent of a specialist intellectual skill, one whose synoptic vision, undimmed by any narrowly technical interest, is able to survey the whole cultural and intellectual landscape of his age. Such comprehensive authority links the man of letters on one side with the sage; but whereas the sage's synopticism is a function of transcendental detachment, the man of letters sees as widely as he does because material necessity compels him to be a...
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Criticism: Matthew Arnold
SOURCE: Eliot, T. S. “Matthew Arnold.” In The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism: Studies in the Relation of Criticism to Poetry in England, pp. 103-19. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1933.
[In the following excerpt, Eliot discusses Arnold's limitations as a critic, which he views as traceable to Arnold's belief that poetry could serve as a substitute for religion.]
MARCH 3RD, 1933
The rise of the democracy to power in America and Europe is not, as has been hoped, to be a safeguard of peace and civilisation. It is the rise of the uncivilised, whom no school education can suffice to provide with intelligence and reason. It looks as if the world were entering upon a new stage of experience, unlike anything heretofore, in which there must be a new discipline of suffering to fit men for the new conditions.
I have quoted the foregoing words, partly because they are by Norton1 and partly because they are not by Arnold. The first two sentences might well be Arnold's. But the third—‘a new stage of experience, unlike anything heretofore, in which there must be a new discipline of suffering’: these words are not only not Arnold's, but we know at once that they could not have been written by him. Arnold hardly looks ahead to the new stage of experience; and though he speaks to us of discipline, it is the discipline...
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SOURCE: Trilling, Lionel. “The Spirit of Criticism.” In Matthew Arnold, pp. 190-221. New York: Columbia University Press, 1949.
[In the following excerpt, Trilling examines Arnold's widespread influence as a literary critic.]
For to be possessed of a vigorous mind is not enough; the prime requisite is rightly to apply it. The greatest minds, as they are capable of the highest excellences, are open likewise to the greatest aberrations; and those who travel very slowly may yet make far greater progress, provided they keep always in the straight road, than those who, while they run, forsake it.
Arnold was the most influential critic of his age: the estimate must be as unequivocal as this. Other critics may have been momentarily more exciting; none was eventually more convincing. T. S. Eliot has said that the academic literary opinions of our time were formed by Arnold; F. O. Matthiessen, recalling this comment, specifies George Saintsbury, Charles Whibley, A. C. Bradley, W. P. Ker and Irving Babbitt as the continuators of the Arnold tradition;1 and in another essay Eliot finds that the assumptions of Arnold's criticism were adopted by Walter Pater, Arthur Symons, J. A. Symonds, Leslie Stephen and F. W. H. Myers.2 “For half-a-century,” says R. A. Scott-James, “Arnold's position in...
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SOURCE: Perkins, David. “Arnold and the Function of Literature.” ELH 18 (1951): 287-309.
[In the following essay, Perkins asserts that Arnold's value as a literary and cultural critic lies in his revitalization of essentially classical notions at a time when modern society was most in need of them.]
CULTURE AS PROCESS AND IDEAL
It is perhaps a platitude that man's study both of himself and of the world he lives in has become increasingly compartmentalized; and that diverse, specialized studies have each tended to exercise and develop one particular facet of the mind, often at the expense of others. On the other hand, the general development of man's mind and emotional character—the development, to use the classical term, of the “total man”—has traditionally stood out as the most challenging and fundamental aim of human culture; and it is this aim that inspired the ancient classical belief in the unique value of the humanities, The need for such a development of human nature has become more desperate during the past century. It is to the genuine credit of Matthew Arnold that, shrewdly assessing the complex conditions that were beginning to confront human beings during the later nineteenth century, he should have tried so courageously and persistently to bring back to the attention of thinking people the classical ideal of education and the...
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SOURCE: Wimsatt, William K., Jr. “The Arnoldian Prophecy.” In Literary Criticism: A Short History, edited by William K. Wimsatt, Jr., and Cleanth Brooks, pp. 432-51. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1957.
[In the following excerpt, Wimsatt provides the background for Arnold's emergence as the most important literary critic of his generation.]
Feeling and Image came through the eighteenth century, as we have seen, in close liaison, and they enjoyed at the dawn of the new era a high estate together. Feeling was somewhat indiscriminately treated as either something that welled up in the poet himself or (it made little difference) something that was discernible in the poem or in its images. Among the poetic genres, lyric had moved into the normative place. Or the broader and simpler concept of “poem” (or “poetry,” in the soul of the poet) was the norm—it mattered not what “order of composition” the poet elected. The notion of untutored, and hence genuine, utterance was not likely to be far absent from poetic discussion. Let us re-focus momentarily on the situation about 1795 by quoting a letter from a poetess, “The Swan of Lichfield,” Anna Seward.
Our very peasants show that the seeds of poetry exist in the rude soil of their minds. Awaken their passions or excite their wonder, and you will often hear them speaking in metaphor, which is the poetic...
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Criticism: Walter Pater And Aestheticism
SOURCE: Saintsbury, George. “English Criticism from 1860-1900.” In A History of English Criticism, pp. 468-514. Edinburgh: William Blackwood & Sons, 1962.
[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1911, Saintsbury considers Pater's disputed reputation as the finest literary critic of his generation.]
To assert too positively that Mr Walter Pater was the most important English critic of the last generation of the nineteenth century—that he stands to that generation in a relation resembling those of Coleridge to the first, and Arnold to the latter part of the second—would no doubt cause grumbles. The Kingdom of Criticism has been of old compared to that of Poland, and perhaps there is no closer point of resemblance than the way in which critics, like Polacks, cling to the Nie pozwalam, to the liberum veto. So, respecting this jus Poloniœ, let us say that those are fair reasons for advancing Mr Pater to such a position, while admitting that he is somewhat less than either of his forerunners.
His minority consists certainly not in faculty of expression, wherein he is the superior of both, nor in fineness of appreciation, in which he is at least the equal of either: but rather in a certain eclectic and composite character, a want of definite four-square originality, which has been remarkably and increasingly characteristic of the century itself. In...
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SOURCE: Wimsatt, William K., Jr. “Art for Art's Sake.” In Literary Criticism: A Short History, edited by William K. Wimsatt, Jr., and Cleanth Brooks, pp. 475-98. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1957.
[In the following excerpt, Wimsatt discusses the development of English aestheticism and its association with Walter Pater, James MacNeill Whistler, and Oscar Wilde.]
Aestheticism in England, says a recent writer, “was not a sudden development: the nature of the trend from Keats through Tennyson and Dante Gabriel Rossetti was, even in Arnold's mid-career, not unapparent to the critic who passed the judgment on the great Romantics. The insistence that poetry must be judged as ‘criticism of life’ is the same critic's reaction to the later Romantic tradition; it puts the stress where it seemed to him that it most needed to be put.”1 Arnold himself has left us such statements as the following in his Preface to Wordsworth (1879):
Morals are often treated in a narrow and false fashion; … they grow tiresome to some of us. We find attraction, at times, even in a poetry of revolt against them; in a poetry which might take for its motto Omar Khayam's words: “Let us make up in the tavern for the time which we have wasted in the mosque.” Or we find attraction in a poetry indifferent to them; in a poetry where the contents may be what they will, but where the...
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SOURCE: Farmer, Albert J. “The Method.” In Walter Pater as a Critic of English Literature, pp. 1-17. N.p.: Folcroft Library Editions, 1973.
[In the following excerpt, Farmer considers Pater's critical method in the context of earlier nineteenth-century criticism.]
The beginning of the nineteenth century marks the opening of a new chapter in the history of English criticism. The attempt to escape from the conventional restraint which had so long weighed upon literature is not less evident here than elsewhere. In prose writing, as in verse, the tenets and dogmas sacred to the writers of the preceding age lose their prestige. A new attitude is everywhere visible. Instead of clinging to outworn notions which had so long served, critics tend more and more to establish their judgments on more flexible, and more personal standards. The rigid objective methods of the past are cast aside, the subjective method asserts its sway. And of this «subjective method», Pater will be the most brilliant exponent and the most remarkable representative.
If we are to understand rightly Pater's position, it is therefore essential to recall briefly the attitude of his predecessors in the nineteenth century. For if he stands apart from them in the sense that he is the first critic boldly to assert the rights of the individual temperament in the appreciation of literature, it is...
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Criticism: Other Victorian Critics
SOURCE: Eliot, T. S. “Imperfect Critics.” In The Sacred Wood, pp. 17-46. London: Methuen, 1920.
[In the following excerpt, Eliot discusses the critical theories of Algernon Charles Swinburne, George Wyndham, and Charles Whibley.]
SWINBURNE AS CRITIC
Three conclusions at least issue from the perusal of Swinburne's critical essays: Swinburne had mastered his material, was more inward with the Tudor-Stuart dramatists than any man of pure letters before or since; he is a more reliable guide to them than Hazlitt, Coleridge, or Lamb; and his perception of relative values is almost always correct. Against these merits we may oppose two objections: the style is the prose style of Swinburne, and the content is not, in an exact sense, criticism. The faults of style are, of course, personal; the tumultuous outcry of adjectives, the headstrong rush of undisciplined sentences, are the index to the impatience and perhaps laziness of a disorderly mind. But the style has one positive merit: it allows us to know that Swinburne was writing not to establish a critical reputation, not to instruct a docile public, but as a poet his notes upon poets whom he admired. And whatever our opinion of Swinburne's verse, the notes upon poets by a poet of Swinburne's dimensions must be read with attention and respect.
In saying that Swinburne's essays have the value of notes of an...
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SOURCE: Tillotson, Geoffrey. “Newman's Essay on Poetry: An Exposition and Comment.” In Criticism and the Nineteenth Century, pp. 147-87. N.p.: Archon Books, 1967.
[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1951, Tillotson discusses Newman's influential 1829 essay, “Poetry with Reference to Aristotle's Poetics,” which is informed by John Henry Newman's Evangelical religious beliefs.]
The intellectual range and powers of Newman as a young don are nowhere concentrated more splendidly than in his essay on poetry.1 ‘Poetry with Reference to Aristotle's Poetics’ was furnished in response to a request of the strangely versatile Blanco White,2 who had been asked to edit a new magazine, and who looked to his friend Newman for a secular contribution to it: ‘Give me an article on any subject you like’, he pleaded, ‘Divinity excepted for the present, for of that I expect a flood.’3 Blanco White had known the young Newman for the few years during which his ‘reputation as a thinker pure and simple—though confined to a comparatively small circle—was [perhaps] at its highest, [the days] when the bent of his mind was towards liberalism’,4 and he knew him well enough to know ‘how difficult it is to persuade a mind like [his] to write without preparation.’5 Fearing a refusal because of short notice, he offered anxious advice:...
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SOURCE: Kaminsky, Alice R. Introduction to Literary Criticism of George Henry Lewes, pp. ix-xxi. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1964.
[In the following essay, Kaminsky suggests that Lewes's worth as a literary critic is far greater than his diminishing reputation in the years following his death would indicate.]
Emily Dickinson once remarked that “Fame is a fickle food upon a shifting plate.” When George Henry Lewes died, Matthew Arnold and other eminent Victorians predicted that his fame would endure. Yet curiously enough, one of the most remarkable men of the nineteenth century, esteemed as philosopher, scientist, and critic, is today more readily identified as the writer who lived with George Eliot. He deserved more. Even in an age which produced such figures as Carlyle, Ruskin, Arnold, and Mill, Lewes was a rare enough phenomenon, a thinker equally at ease in the fields of science and literature, viewing them not as antagonistic but as complementary fields of inquiry in a complex and changing universe.
The cause of science in the nineteenth century had no more devoted champion. As its advocate, he belongs with Darwin, Huxley, Mill, Spencer, Bain, Wundt, Taine, and Comte. In histories of philosophy, Lewes is usually categorized as one of the Comtist positivists, but this is a misleading classification. He wrote an explication of Comte's theories in 1853 (Comte's...
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SOURCE: Wellek, René. “English Criticism.” In A History of Modern Criticism: 1750-1950, Volume 3: The Age of Transition, pp. 86-149. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1965.
[In the following excerpt, Wellek describes John Ruskin's literary criticism, which is based on his aesthetic theories on modern painting.]
JOHN RUSKIN (1819-1900)
Ruskin seems hardly to belong to a history of literary criticism. One can of course collect his opinions on poets and writers and come up with a body of pronouncements that, not unexpectedly, reflects the taste of the early Victorian age: Shakespeare is admired for his universality and objectivity; Wordsworth for his love of nature proclaiming the glory of God; Scott, “the greatest literary man whom that age produced,”1 for his humanity, sanity, and landscape painting. Ruskin appreciated Tennyson and the two Brownings, and he supported and defended Dante Gabriel Rossetti both as a painter and poet. He was carried away by Swinburne, though he thought him “a Demoniac youth.”2 But Ruskin's sympathy failed when confronted with the new novel: an image of the ugliness and corruption of modern city life and the craving for excitement at any price. Ruskin has little use for Dickens and none for Thackeray, and even the high-minded George Eliot is berated: “The Mill on the Floss is perhaps the most...
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SOURCE: Hyder, Clyde K. Introduction to Swinburne as Critic, pp. 1-22. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972.
[In the following essay, Hyder contends that Swinburne's critical perspective was informed by his work as a poet.]
A critic of any century is likely to be remembered for his judgment, which should be based on knowledge, and taste. Critical aims, whether professed openly or merely implicit, may differ in emphasis. It has been pointed out that nineteenth-century critics tended to conceive of literature as expressive of an author's ideas and emotions, as a mirror of nature (both human and wild) or reality, as a work of art conforming to accepted standards, and as an organic whole.1 Among the Romantic critics, those of the generation preceding his, Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909) particularly admired Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Charles Lamb, both of whom he surpassed in range, in catholicity of taste, and in sharpness of perception. The influence of Coleridge was more seminal than his, for Coleridge has contributed more to recent critical theories, but Swinburne's judgment has affected the standing of more authors. Furthermore, his opinions on subjects dealt with by both men, such as the characters of Shakespeare, are sounder. In stimulating interest in Elizabethan drama he carried on a labour of love begun by Lamb, but he did this more amply and...
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Baldick, Chris. “Matthew Arnold’s Innocent Language.” In The Social Mission of English Criticism 1848-1932, pp. 18-58. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983.
Discusses Arnold as an innovative critic who was the first to explore the social function of both literature and literary criticism.
Brown, Monika. “‘Describing Something Else’: Analogies to Visual Arts in Victorian Criticism of Realist Fiction.” Yearbook of Interdisciplinary Studies in the Fine Arts 2 (1990): 331-55.
Discusses the the role the visual arts played in contemporary criticism of Victorian realist fiction.
Courtemanche, Eleanor. “Bread, Roses, and Reason; or, Can Victorian Cultural Criticism Reform Political Economy?” Nineteenth Century Studies 16 (2002): 115-25.
Considers the relationship of Victorian cultural criticism to aesthetic literary theory.
Decker, Clarence R. “The Aesthetic Revolt against Naturalism in Victorian Criticism.” PMLA 53, no. 3 (September 1938): 844-56.
Addresses the development of the Aesthetic movement and its relationship to Naturalism.
Eliot, T. S. “The Perfect Critic.” In The Sacred Wood, pp. 1-16. London: Methuen, 1920.
Assesses various nineteenth-century critics and a discusses what...
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