Part I Classical Literary Criticism and Rhetoric

Chapter 1 Classical Literary Criticism

Introduction to the Classical Period

Plato (428–ca. 347 bc)

Aristotle (384–322 bc)

Chapter 2 The Traditions of Rhetoric

Greek Rhetoric

Roman Rhetoric

The Subsequent History of Rhetoric: An Overview

The Legacy of Rhetoric

Chapter 3 Greek and Latin Criticism During the Roman Empire

Horace (65–8 bc)

Longinus (First Century ad)


Part II The Medieval Era

Chapter 4 The Early Middle Ages

Historical Background

Intellectual and Theological Currents

Chapter 5 The Later Middle Ages

Historical Background

Intellectual Currents of the Later Middle Ages

The Traditions of Medieval Criticism

Transitions: Medieval Humanism

Part III The Early Modern Period to the Enlightenment

Chapter 6 The Early Modern Period

Historical Background

Intellectual Background

Confronting the Classical Heritage

Defending the Vernacular

Poetics and the Defense of Poetry

Poetic Form and Rhetoric

Chapter 7 Neoclassical Literary Criticism

French Neoclassicism

Neoclassicism in England

Chapter 8 The Enlightenment: Historical and Intellectual Background

Enlightenment Literary Criticism: Language, Taste, and Imagination

Chapter 9 The Aesthetics of Kant and Hegel

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804)

Hegel (1770–1831)

Part IV Romanticism and the Later Nineteenth Century

Chapter 10 Romanticism





Chapter 11 Realism, Naturalism, Symbolism, and Aestheticism

Historical Background: The Later Nineteenth Century

Realism and Naturalism

Symbolism and Aestheticism

Chapter 12 The Heterological Thinkers

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860)

Henri Bergson (1859–1941)

Matthew Arnold (1822–1888)

Part V The Twentieth Century: A Brief Introduction


Chapter 13 From Liberal Humanism to Formalism

The Background of Modernism

The Poetics of Modernism: W. B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot


Russian Formalism

The New Criticism

Chapter 14 Socially Conscious Criticism of the Earlier Twentieth Century

Marxist and Left-Wing Criticism

The Fundamental Principles of Marxism

Marxist Literary Criticism: A Historical Overview

Early Feminist Criticism: Simone de Beauvoir and Virginia Woolf

Chapter 15 Phenomenology, Existentialism, Structuralism





Chapter 16 The Era of Poststructuralism (I): Later Marxism, Psychoanalysis, Deconstruction

Later Marxist Criticism



Chapter 17 The Era of Poststructuralism (II): Postmodernism, Modern Feminism, Gender Studies

Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929)

Jean Baudrillard (1929–2007)

Jean-François Lyotard (1924–1998)

bell hooks (Gloria Jean Watkins; b. 1952)

Modern Feminism

Gender Studies

Chapter 18 The Later Twentieth Century: New Historicism, Reader- Response Theory, Postcolonial Criticism, Cultural Studies

The New Historicism

Reader–Response and Reception Theory

Postcolonial Criticism

Cultural Studies

Epilogue New Directions: Looking Back,Looking Forward

New Directions: The New Liberalism, Aestheticism, and Revolutionism

A New Liberalism

The New Aestheticism

The New Theorists of Revolution

Looking Back, Looking Forward


Also available:

The Blackwell Guide to Literary Theory

Gregory Castle

Literary Theory: An Introduction, 25th Anniversary Edition

Terry Eagleton

A History of Literary Criticism: From Plato to the Present

M. A. R. Habib

Modern Literary Criticism and Theory: A History

M. A. R. Habib

Literary Theory: An Anthology, Second Edition

Edited by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan

Literary Theory: A Practical Introduction, Second Edition

Edited by Michael Ryan

The Encyclopedia of Literary and Cultural Theory

Edited Michael Ryan, Gregory Castle, Robert Eaglestone and

M. Keith Booker


For Mughni Tabassum


I would like to thank the following people for their encouragement, inspiration, and support or endorsement: Michael Payne, John Carey, Mughni Tabassum, Joe Barbarese, Robert Grant, Ron Bush, Peter Widdowson, Frank Kermode, Emma Bennett, and Yasmeen.


Our English word “criticism” comes from the ancient Greek noun krites, meaning “judge.” But what does it mean to be a “judge” of literature? We might break this down into several basic questions: what is the purpose of literary criticism? How broad is this field of inquiry, and who gets to define it? What are its connections with other disciplines such as philosophy and religion? How does it relate to the realms of morality, of knowledge, and of learning? Does it have any political implications? How does it impinge on our practices of reading and writing? Above all, what significance does it have, or could it possibly have, in our own lives? Why should we even bother to study literary criticism? Is it not enough for us to read the great works of literature, of poetry, fiction, and drama? Why should we trouble ourselves to read what people say about literature? And surely, after all the obscure “theory” of the last 50 years or so, what we need to get back to is the texts themselves. We need to appreciate literature for its beauty and its technical artistry. In short, we need to read literature as literature – without the interference of some “judge” telling us what to look for or how to read.

How can we answer such skepticism? We might begin by recalling that “theory” and critical reflection on literature began at least 2500 years ago, and have been conducted by some of the greatest Western thinkers and writers, ranging from Plato and Aristotle, through Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas, Johnson, Pope, and the great Romantics to the great modern figures such as Locke, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Freud, W. B. Yeats, and Sartre. Until 200 years ago, most great thinkers, critics, and literary artists would not have understood what was meant by reading literature as literature. They knew that literature had integral connections with philosophy, religion, politics, and morality; they knew, in other words, that literature was richly related to all aspects of people’s lives.

If we had no tradition of critical interpretation, if we were left with the “texts” themselves, we would be completely bewildered. We would not know how to classify a given writer as Romantic, classical, or modern. We would not know that a given poem was epic or lyric, mock-heroic, or even that it was a poem. We would be largely unaware of which tradition a given writer was working in and how she was trying to subvert it in certain ways. We would not be able to arrive at any comparative assessment of writers in terms of literary merit. We would not even be able to interpret the meanings of individual lines or words in any appropriate context. It has been the long tradition of literary interpretation – refined and evolved over many centuries – which has addressed these questions. It is surely naive to think that we are all endowed with some superior sensibility which can automatically discern which writers are great and which are mediocre. We do not even know for certain how the ancient Greek of Homer was pronounced; most of us cannot read the Greek of Plato or the Latin of Aquinas or the Italian of Dante or the Arabic of al-Ghazzali. How would we ever, independently, arrive at any estimation of these writers or their backgrounds or their contributions without a body of critical apparatus, without a tradition of critical expertise and interpretation, to help us? Shakespeare “is” a great writer because that has been the enduring consensus of influential critics. The reputations of writers can vary quite dramatically. At the beginning of the twentieth century, T. S. Eliot was a powerful critical voice, denigrating the Romantics, extolling the metaphysical poets and revaluating the very idea of tradition. Nowadays, Eliot commands far less critical authority, though his high status as a poet endures.

We can try to illustrate our actual reliance on the traditions of criticism and theory by using a particular example, Matthew Arnold’s famous poem “Dover Beach”:

The sea is calm to-night.

The tide is full, the moon lies fair

Upon the straits; on the French coast the light

Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand;

Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.

Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!

Only, from the long line of spray

Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,

Listen! you hear the grating roar

Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,

At their return, up the high strand,

Begin, and cease, and then again begin,

With tremulous cadence slow, and bring

The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago

Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought

Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow

Of human misery; we

Find also in the sound a thought,

Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating, to the breath

Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear

And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! for the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

A conventional reading of this poem based on the immediate “text” might go like this: “Dover Beach” is a lyric poem which expresses the painful doubt and disorientation of the Victorian age. The poem is unified by the image and symbolism of the sea, which is used to express the decline of religious faith. In the first section the calm of the sea is complemented by the “grating roar,” and the motion of the waves, which the poem’s language imitates, symbolizes the cyclical movement of human history, an idea which Arnold may have derived from his father, Thomas Arnold. This symbolism is intensified as the sea meets the “moon-blanched” land, the moon also symbolizing change, in which case “moon-blanched land” might refer to a civilization bleached or made colorless by change or progress. The picturesque opening presents a visual scene of the moonlit ocean whose calm is interrupted only when it is heard, as a “grating roar” which prepares the transition from the sea as physical image to symbol, infused with “The eternal note of sadness.” The second section makes more precise the sea’s significance: the “hearing” of the sea, and the “finding” of “a thought” in its sound, has a classical precedent, not only inscribing Arnold within a literary tradition going back to Sophocles but also stressing the universality of the human predicament. The third section uses the sea as a powerful symbol of both religious faith, which once clothed the world, and the process of secularization, which leaves the world “naked”; the symbolic “long, withdrawing roar” echoes the literal “roar” of the first section, once again creating a fusion of general and particular. The last section warns of the deceptive nature of the world’s apparent beauty and variety (as presented in the poem’s opening): beneath these “glimmering” surfaces are other, more threatening sounds, foreboding chaos, war, and destruction.

On a technical level, we might observe that the poem is written as a dramatic monologue, melancholy in tone, in four sections. It has no regular rhythm or rhyme scheme but traces of a sonnet form may be discernible in the first two sections; we might discern the ghost of an eroded blank verse in the gesture of many lines toward iambic pentameter, with the preceding and subsequent lines cut short to achieve various effects, as in “The Sea of Faith” which, in its present eroded state, stands alone as merely four syllables, while its comforting fullness in the past is evoked in two full pentameters beginning “Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore.” We might also point out that the already irregular rhyme scheme abacdbdc breaks down in the middle of the first section: there is no word to rhyme with “roar,” which might also mimic the fragmentation of the Victorian world. The poem employs numerous literary devices, most notably the metaphors (inherited from Romanticism) ascribing intelligence or sentience to elements of nature such as the sea and the night wind, the simile comparing the sea of faith to a protective “girdle,” and various obvious devices such as anaphora, as in the repetition of “so” and “nor” in the final section.

It is simply not possible to ascribe any meaning to the poem without referring its words to broader trends in Victorian society. We might say that the poem represents the anxiety of a world where religious faith was called into question by numerous developments in science, scholarship, and technology: the various theories and philosophies of evolution, the German Higher Criticism which discredited much of the Bible, and the Industrial Revolution which caused a mass migration of people from the country to the towns, displacing a village life centered around the parish with a life revolving around the factory or office. Arnold was reacting against a mechanical, industrial society which prided itself on progress. The only security left is that of personal relationships. But the feelings expressed in the poem are universal: we have the theme of man’s alienation and isolation, and his inability to change the world. Arnold’s poem still applies today, just as it applied in the ancient Greek world of Sophocles; that is why it is a great poem. It represents its age as well as being timeless.

Already, even at this most basic level of interpretation, we have gone far beyond the “words on the page.” Our reading already presupposes a knowledge of the Victorian era, its intellectual and religious currents, a knowledge of literary tradition going back to classical times, a knowledge of Arnold’s biography, and an awareness of theories of poetic form, genre, and rhetorical theories of literary figures. And much literary and rhetorical theory – both ancient and modern – would challenge the view that Arnold is expressing a universal human predicament, as well as any sharp distinction between literal and figurative language. In fact the poem is very much conditioned by its historical context, a context governed by the French Revolution of 1789 and the rise to power of the middle classes through much of Europe. In England, the Reform Bill of 1832 established the power of the middle classes over the landed aristocracy. The Liberal Party, representing the middle classes, came to power in 1830. In 1867, the year in which Arnold’s poem was published, the vote was extended to urban industrial workers, and in 1884 to most agricultural laborers. What Arnold expresses is perhaps his despair over the rise of middle-class society, whose narrowness and mechanical ideals he criticizes eloquently in his prose writings. Who are the “ignorant armies” that Arnold has in mind? The poem gives the impression that all such struggle is futile and ignorant but it was written in 1851, after violent revolutions in 1830 and 1848 had convulsed Europe: the main aim of these revolutions was to establish constitutional monarchies or governments where the people had some say in how they were ruled. Also, there is a contradiction between the form and content of the poem: the poet urges sentimentally that his relationship with his beloved must be one of mutuality and truth; yet there is no interaction with the woman addressed, who remains without character or voice. The very form of the dramatic monologue enacts the alienation expressed in the poem’s content. Arnold was at Dover with his wife in June of 1851 and again in October, after a continental honeymoon. In the poem, which is presumably addressed to his wife, she is given no personality or individuality at all. She is reduced to a mere occasion for his grandiose reflection from his privileged vantage point on the cliffs of Dover. The poem thus invites consideration from many other perspectives, including those of feminism, Marxism, psychoanalysis and various branches of rhetoric.

None of this is to deny that “Dover Beach” is a fine poem; it is, rather, intended to show that the process of “reading” – even at the most basic level – involves vast presuppositions and ever-broadening contexts. It is the task of criticism and theory to articulate these presuppositions and to furnish the contexts in which literary “judgments” can be appropriately made. Hence the practice of literary criticism as applied to given texts is underlain by complex assumptions and principles. Theory is devoted to examining these principles. As such, theory is a systematic explanation of practice or a situation of practice in a broader framework; theory brings to light the motives behind our practice; it shows us the connection of practice to ideology, power structures, our own unconscious, our political and religious attitudes, our economic structures; above all, theory shows us that practice is not something natural or neutral but is a specific historical construct, resting on specific assumptions and motives, even if these are unacknowledged.

This book aims to offer a concise introduction to the major tendencies and figures of literary criticism and theory from ancient Greek times until the present. An endeavor of such broad scope is bound to be incomplete: there is not enough room to include, or even to do justice to, all of the important figures. I do hope, however, that the following account will have the virtues of clarity, close reading, and appropriate contextualization, in making accessible to a general reader these sometimes difficult theories, their philosophical premises and their historical contexts. We will see, in the chapters that follow, that the questions raised at the beginning of this introduction have been addressed in a rich variety of ways by great thinkers and great literary artists and critics for more than 2000 years.

Part I

Classical Literary Criticism and Rhetoric