The criticism of poetry has always played an influential role in the development of poetry in Western civilization, from the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans up through the Renaissance, neoclassic, and Romantic periods and into the twenty-first century. By articulating the general aims and ideals of poetry and by interpreting and evaluating the works of particular poets, critics throughout the ages have helped shape the development of poetry. Poets, for their part, have often attempted to meet—or to react against—the stated aims and ideals of the prevailing critical theories. Some poets have also formulated and practiced the criticism of poetry, producing a closer and more vital relationship between criticism and poetry. For the student, the study of poetic theory and criticism can be not only an interesting and fruitful study in itself, but also a valuable aid in the attempt to understand the historical development of poetry.
The following review is organized chronologically, divided into six main sections: classical critics, Renaissance critics, neoclassic critics, Romantic critics, Victorian critics, and modern critics. The focus is primarily on English critics, though the ancient Greeks and Romans are included because they represent the classical tradition inherited and built on by the English. Significant American contributors to the mainstream of poetic theory and criticism are, with the exception of Edgar Allan Poe, restricted to the twentieth century and beyond. In this essay, T. S. Eliot is the only American critic treated in depth, though even his contributions are seen as a continuation of the English tradition.
Criticism of poetry can appear in many different forms but can be categorized one of two basic ways: Theoretical criticism, or poetic theory, is the articulation of general principles and tenets of poetry, usually regarding the nature, aims, and ideals of poetry, but also covering techniques and methods. Practical criticism, on the other hand, is the application of these principles and tenets to the tasks of interpreting and evaluating particular works of poetry. Both theoretical and practical criticism can be focused on any of four different aspects of poetry: the poem itself, the relationship of the poem to that which it imitates, the poet’s relationship to the poem, and the relationship of the poem to the audience. M. H. Abrams designated these four types of criticism as objective, mimetic (after the Greek wordmimesis, for imitation), expressive, and pragmatic. A recognition of the critic’s orientation as either theoretical or practical and as objective, mimetic, expressive, or pragmatic can help the student of criticism comprehend the contribution of the critic to the history of criticism.
Four works of poetic theory by ancient Greek and Roman theorists have had a profound influence on the course of Western literature in general and poetry in particular: Plato’s Politeia (fourth century b.c.e.; Republic, 1701), Aristotle’s De poetica (c. 334-323 b.c.e.; Poetics, 1705), Horace’s Ars poetica (c. 17 b.c.e.; The Art of Poetry), and Longinus’s Peri hypsous (first century c.e.; On the Sublime, 1652). In these four works are many critical theories that make up the classical tradition inherited by English letters. The two most important of these theories address the relationship of poetry to that which it imitates and the relationship of poetry to its audience. The central Greek concept of poetry is that of mimesis : Poetry, like all forms of art, imitates nature. By nature, the Greeks meant all of reality, including human life, and they conceived of nature as essentially well ordered and harmonious and as moving toward the ideal. Hence, poetry seeks to imitate the order and harmony of nature. Of equal importance to the mimetic concept of poetry is the Greek belief that poetry has a moral or formative effect on its audience. Poetry achieves this effect by making the reader more aware of reality and thereby more...
(The entire section is 14,632 words.)