Explain the liberal humanism approach to analyzing a poem in layman's terms.

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rareynolds eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Liberal Humanism refers to a set of values and attitudes about the relationship of the individual to the outside world. Many of the concepts that seem fundamental to human existence that emerged from the Enlightenment—briefly summarized in the Declaration of Independence as "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness"—are expressions of what has come to be known as liberal humanism.

In the context of literary texts or poetry, a liberal humanist reading would embrace the following precepts:

  1. Literature is timeless and transcends its historical context (that is, it is intrinsically valuable and fundamentally ahistorical)
  2. It is self contained; a reader doesn't have to look to outside material to understand its meaning;
  3. It should be read in isolation from other material
  4. Human nature is essentially unchanged; people today have the same feelings and desires as people from hundreds or thousands of years ago
  5. People are individuals and that individuality can be defined as our "essence"
  6. The purpose of literature is to preserve or enhance these essential values, in a subtle way
  7. The form and content should be organically linked, that is, the structure of the poem (meter and rhyme, stanzas and line breaks, etc.) should enhance the meaning
  8. It should be true or real or genuine; that is, it should articulate a truth in a new and direct way that avoids cliche
  9. It should show rather than tell
  10. The role of the critic is to help the reader unlock the true meaning of the piece.

So, in brief, a liberal humanist reading of a poem would involve a close reading of the text in an attempt to understand its "universal truth"—in other words, that which is revealed by the essential humanity shared by reader and writer.

See Peter Barry, Beginning Theory (Oxford UP, 2013)

jgeertz eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Liberal humanism is a literary theory that was popular at the end of the 1800's and beginning 1900's. Liberal humanism understands literature/poetry to be timeless. It must reveal a constant or universal truth about humanity. Also, it contains meaning without regard to other works. Liberal humanists analyze the text of a poem with no predetermined ideas or bias. Therefore a Marxist or Feminist could not in fairness call themselves a liberal humanist. Liberal humanists attempt to understand the individual's identity by excluding environmental circumstances. Additionally, the content of a poem is seen as a product of form, e.g. e.e. cummings' poems are a product of his artistic style. Finally, liberal humanists view poetry and literature as an artistic celebration that elevates humanity.


In order to analyze a poem using the liberal humanism approach, follow these guidelines:

1. find the poem's universal truth

2. analyze the text with no bias

3. look for the individual's identity

4. understand that content follows form