René Wellek

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Sven Eric Molin

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Professor René Wellek's A History of Modern Criticism: 1750–1950 … stands fair to become an important history of criticism, replacing its now half-century old predecessor by George Saintsbury which has long been felt to be inadequate on a number of grounds, including its excessive impressionism and its undue neglect of Continental critics. Both of these faults Professor Wellek abundantly corrects by his own practice, which is true to its announced intention of being written from a consistent point of view and which, if it errs, does so, perhaps, in the opposite direction by giving almost total credit for originality to the Continental—particularly German—critics. In addition to Professor Wellek's great range …, he also exhibits an admirable knowledge and apportionment of minor critics and an awesome thoroughness with the major critics. Whatever equipment one would expect an historian of criticism to bring to his task. Professor Wellek has brought. (p. 156)

There would seem to be at least two directions in which one is led by reading a particular literary critic. When we ask what kind of job a particular critical theory enables us to do in understanding and evaluating diverse works of literature, we are led directly from that theory to those diverse works. We are led by Coleridge to Shakespeare and Wordsworth, by Dr. Johnson to Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Thomson, et al. This, one would expect, is as it should be, for, in the first place …, a literary theory is related, however indirectly or obliquely, to literary practice; and in the second, the point of criticism is the understanding and evaluation of diverse works.

But this direction is exactly one that Professor Wellek is explicit in rejecting. Early in his Introduction he sets as his aim the middle ground between "a history of abstract aesthetics and [a history] of concrete taste,"… and in his first chapter he spells out in detail the limitations he has imposed to achieve this aim. The first limitation is a dissociation of literary criticism ("a topic which has its own inherent interest") from literary practice…. Another acknowledged limitation is an avoidance of "the casual explanation of the changes we shall describe,"… and still another, the removal of literary criticism from a direct relationship "with particular social or historical changes."… (p. 157)

The limitations which Professor Wellek accepts, in short, are those he had to accept to write his "internal history" with "its own inherent interest," and the direction in which he leads us is from critic to critic, and not from critic to poetry. What he does is to do—with different standards, emphases, and judgments—what Saintsbury did before him, namely, to pass from one critic to another critic and to another, until all have been put into place. Thus, while his undoubted superiority to Saintsbury lies in his breadth of coverage, and while his standards are more clearly revealed and hence more discussable than are Saintsbury's, his aims are essentially the same. His book is criticism in vacuo, a history of modern critical ideas discussed in their relationship to each other.

Professor Wellek's means of keeping these ideas in hand and of avoiding an undigested relativism is his own firmly developed point of view, a point of view I do not propose to dispute. The self-imposed limitations, however, are more questionable. For example, to admit the "new and difficult question" of the relationship between poetic theory and poetic practice, while admittedly new and difficult, perhaps may be not to confuse the "internal history of criticism," but rather necessary to define that history in the first place. I am not suggesting that Professor...

(This entire section contains 1218 words.)

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Wellek should have written a history of concrete taste (similar in ways, perhaps, to Saintsbury's histories of literature), for to do this would be only to continue the dichotomy, but that a history of concrete taste is not a true alternative to his own historical practice. In examining a critic (whether to "place" him historically or to glean from him his contributions to modern theory), one cannot avoid examining the critic's own examples. No matter how great the difference may seem to be between a contemporary theory and practice, it is by a critic's own examples that we define his critical terms from context. We define Dr. Johnson's famousdiscordia concors, for example, not only by his statements, but by the particular lines he wants us to see as discordant. Coleridge's argument with Wordsworth and Wordsworth's problems with himself are both defined in Wordsworth's specific practice. We know these critics by their understanding and evaluation of diverse works of literature.

What happens when one considers criticism in vacuo, moving from critic to critic instead of from criticism to poetry, can be seen in Professor Wellek's chapter on Dr. Johnson. It is by looking at Johnson merely as one in a long line of literary critics, as related only to his predecessors, and successors, that Professor Wellek is able to make his "sensational" opening charge against Johnson: "he is … one of the first great critics who has almost ceased to understand the nature of art, and who, in central passages, treats art as life." Professor Wellek later in his chapter seems to give Johnson more credit. He labels several tendencies of Johnson's criticism as realism, moralism, and abstractionism, and he states:

Dr. Johnson's criticism … is not defeated by the conflicting theories of realism, moralism, and what is here called abstractionism. The three strands were no doubt reconcilable in his own mind … The three motifs here analyzed are kept in balance and stressed according to context, alternating by turns, apparently without a clear consciousness that these criteria lead to very different conclusions about the nature of art and the value of particular works of art.

The fact that Johnson worked "apparently without a clear consciousness that these criteria lead to very different conclusions about the nature of art," and that Johnson's conception of metaphor seems to us in some ways an incomprehension is not what one concludes about Johnson, but where one begins. It is just what makes Johnson a critic worth studying. (pp. 157-59)

The danger of Professor Wellek's approach can be stated in other terms. To delimit his subject, he has sharply restricted the "history" of which he will talk, and he has omitted the object of criticism, namely, literature. The dialectical chain-reaction has its effects on the third term of his entity, criticism. If we can laud him for the breadth of his knowledge and for his emphatic attack on the existing provincialism of modern English-language criticism, we must nevertheless say that criticism in vacuo ignores some of the most pressing problems of criticism itself: for example, its place in society—which is to say, the language that critics can validly use to understand and evaluate diverse works of art. What we are left with is Professor Wellek's own point of view, honestly labelled a history. But, to reapply words he uses in his preface, the history he writes is one that illuminates and interprets our present situation in rather oblique ways. It is a history that is not "comprehensible only in the light of a modern literary theory." (pp. 159-60)

Sven Eric Molin, "Criticism in Vacuo," in The Kansas City Review (copyright University of Kansas City, 1957), Vol. XXIV, No. 2, December, 1957, pp. 156-60 [revised by the author for this publication].


David Daiches


Laurence Lerner