Late Eighteenth Century British Literary Criticism

In the second half of the eighteenth century, literary criticism turned away from the predominantly neoclassical thought of a previous generation, shifting from a vision of literature as a standard of civilized taste to one based on individual experience. Social change, such as the growth of the reading public, which was increasingly bourgeois (rather than aristocratic), profoundly influenced literary production during the later eighteenth century. While criticism itself became a more specialized discipline, it was produced by a host of professional critics who catered to the expanding reading public and appealed to the general audience rather than the educated elite. In place of the stress on the “civilized” standard of classical learning, late-eighteenth-century criticism drew many of its tenets from individual experience, as reflected in its frequently psychological approach. During this time, the emphasis on the public and moral function of literature faded; the injunction to “please and instruct” shifted away from didacticism and focused almost completely on the sources of pleasure in poetry. While unwilling to abandon neoclassicism completely, critics began to move away from the ideals of order, refinement, and decorum, searching instead for new sources of aesthetic pleasure and new criteria for genius. Formalism, characterized most vividly by those dramatic “rules” championed by French critics such as Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux and René le Bossu, was generally rejected in favor of a new focus on sensibility and psychology. Discussions of literature and the arts began to center on a series of new topics: poetic originality, reevaluation of “primitive” literature, the sublime, and the picturesque. As a topic of criticism, the sublime would come to dominate aesthetic theory. Often referred to as “pre-Romantic,” the critics of the later eighteenth century developed issues that were to become the foundation for criticism in the Romantic period.

Few critics ignored these new developments, and few completely abandoned the standards of reason and universal truth so important to the previous generation. At one end of the spectrum, conservative critics such as Samuel Johnson and philosopher David Hume incorporated some elements of contemporary criticism into their arguments. Four Dissertations, Hume’s most widely read literary criticism, expresses his interest in universal nature and refinement, as well as his distrust of irregularity, all topics popular with critics in the early decades of the eighteenth century. Nonetheless, Hume is skeptical about such popular neoclassical issues as literary rules (see “Of Tragedy”) and rules for defining taste (see “Of the Standard of Taste”). The most important critic of this period, Samuel Johnson, was also closely attuned to the familiar precepts stressing the imitation of nature and the dual function of literature to please and instruct. Yet, despite the conservatism of these ideas, Johnson also firmly rejects the notion of literary rules on psychological grounds, arguing that the popular concept of dramatic “unities” is based on a false notion of verisimilitude: requiring a play’s action to conform to a single day and a single place is an unnecessary and artificial constraint, since “the truth is, that the spectators are always in their senses, and know, from the first act to the last, that the stage is only a stage, and that the players are only players” (7:77)· In the end, “a play, written with nice observation of critical rules,” becomes nothing more than “an elaborate curiosity” (7:80). Later, in The Lives of the Poets, Johnson uses the increasingly familiar terms of originality and sympathy as the bases for his judgment of the poets of his generation.

One of the most prominent developments in midcentury criticism was the increased emphasis on literary originality, reflecting a corresponding shift toward the individual and away from the standards of classical education. It was assumed that in order to be considered an original, a writer should rely upon him- or herself, using for a model only nature, not the works of other writers. While earlier critics had sanctioned imitation, both of nature and of other writers, by mid-century the sense of the term was largely pejorative, a literary endeavor akin to mere transcription. Imitation, particularly of other writers, was regarded merely as servile copying. The topic became a central focus in the works of critics such as Edward Young, William Duff, and Joseph and Thomas Warton. The growing interest in originality and its relationship to genius was sparked largely by Young’s Conjectures on Original Composition (1759). Young argues that originality is a prime criterion for genius and that those who imitate can claim no more than “good understanding.” While originals benefit mankind by “extend[ing] the republic of letters” (6), imitations only duplicate that which is original; they cannot improve it. In Young’s eyes, imitation can even be harmful both because of its artificiality and because it causes learning to stagnate. It encourages writers to “think little and write much” (20). Shakespeare, writing purely from his heart, without the learning that dulled even Milton’s genius, is the great original of English literature. In contrast, Alexander Pope, the greatest poet of the previous age, forfeits the title of genius because he was too willing to imitate, too inclined to refine and polish “what oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed” (Pope, Essay on Criticism, 1711,1.298).

While not all critics accepted Young’s argument (his friend Joseph Warton thought he had gone too far), most agreed that originality should be a major criterion for judging literature and concurred with Johnson’s Imlac, who claimed that “no man was ever great by imitation” (16:41). Originality becomes a standard by which most writers are judged, as in Johnson’s “Life of Milton,” where his final assessment of Paradise Lost is dependent on the poem’s originality: “[It] is not the greatest of heroic poems, only because it is not the first” (Johnson as Critic 298).

The emphasis on originality points to a larger reassessment of the sources and judgment of art, linking originality inversely with the rise of Western civilization. Following Young’s lead, critics such as William Duff (An Essay on Original Genius, 1767) argue that original poetic genius is displayed most vigorously in early periods of society and that it rarely appears to any high degree in civilized life, because the uncultivated poet is closer to nature, and the imagination less fettered. Using criteria much stricter than those of Young, Duff identifies Shakespeare, long known for his failure to imitate classical form, as the only modern writer who can be seen as original. “Refinement,” a term with positive connotations for critics in the early part of the century, here becomes a sign of human falling away from the purer emotions and more vivid imagination of the primitive. By idealizing the primitive as the source of originality and genius, Duff rejects the underpinnings of neoclassic critical tenets and leads the way for both the redefinition of what constitutes literature and the establishment of a new literary canon based on native English works, paralleling the popular interest in working-class poets such as Robert Burns.

Examined in its larger context, late-eighteenth-century criticism can be seen as following the tide of British nationalism that swept the country in the second half of the century. Rejecting the values of a previous generation that had looked to Greece and Rome for its models, critics now turned to native English poets, in particular Chaucer, Spenser, and Shakespeare, as examples of poetic genius. Much of this criticism can be characterized by its réévaluation of earlier, nonclassical literature. Thomas Warton, for example, absolves Spenser’s Fairie Queene from earlier critics’ charge that it did not follow the rules dictating unity in an epic. He stresses instead the importance of considering the age in which a literary work was written and notes with approval that Spenser wrote rapidly out of strong feeling, a trait that engages the reader’s affections more strongly than would a regular but emotionless epic. This emotional power Warton ties to the remote age in which Spenser wrote, before the obsession with rules and classical form had vitiated the primitive power of native English literature.

Interest in medieval and Renaissance literature grew as critics looked at the past, particularly the English past, not as a barbaric and unrefined age but as a time when writers were closer to poetic inspiration. “Primitivism” became a means of reclaiming an English literary tradition, and it influenced even critics with close ties to traditional neoclassic criticism, such as Richard Hurd, who looked back nostalgically to medieval romance and legend. In Letters on Chivalry and Romance (1762) Hurd suggests that the “Gothic barbarism” of the Middle Ages was uniquely poetical, its superstitions and fantasies more “awakening to the imagination” (48) than even the mythology that preceded Homer. Hurd’s suggestion that Augustan theorists had gone too far in their adherence to classical texts sets up a replacement of traditional classical models with the irregular, enchanting, and sublime “fancies” of so-called primitive poets. This nostalgia for a golden age of poetry and genius is widely reflected in the work of late-eighteenth-century poets, artists, and architects, many of whom used the past to evoke a sense of grandeur and mystery, particularly by the gothic revival in architecture and the steadily growing popularity of the gothic novel.

Akin to the interest in the primitive was the concept of the sublime, associated by Hurd and others with nonclassical literature and itself the focus of much aesthetic theory. The term originated in Longinus’s third-century treatise On the Sublime, a work long familiar to critics but most often cited in discussions of style. By the later eighteenth century, critics used the term increasingly to discuss a state of intense, awe-struck emotion. Predicated upon the individual response, the sublime, with its language of sensibility, is related to what social historian Lawrence Stone, in The Family, Sex, and Marriage in England, 1500-1800 (1977), has termed the growth of “affective individualism.” The catalyst for much of the interest in the sublime was Edmund Burk’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757). Burke discusses general concepts of the sublime in nature and in art but devotes a sizable section of his treatise to an examination of the sublime in poetry. His study focuses on the emotional impact of the sublime, characterized by its power, obscurity, darkness, and vastness of scale and its excitation of pain, terror, and awe. “The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature … is astonishment… it anticipates our reasonings, and hurries us on by an irresistible force” (53)· For Burke and his contemporaries, the sublime incorporates those emotional and irrational elements of art that tended to be absent from or less emphasized in neoclassical art. In contrast, the qualities of the beautiful are smallness, smoothness, and delicacy. It is comprehensible where the sublime is incomprehensible, and the emotional response it excites is love, not awe. Burke finds Milton’s Paradise Lost, in particular the scenes in hell, illustrative of sublimity, whereas the smooth versification and compact heroic couplets practiced by Pope and his contemporaries neatly illustrates Burke’s concept of the beautiful.

Most criticism in the second half of the eighteenth century incorporated some discussion of the sublime, a change of focus that led to a conception of poetry different from that popular at the beginning of the century. One notable example, Joseph Warton’s Essay on the Genius and Writings of Pope (1756), articulates a new definition of poetry, one that separates poetry from morality and emphasizes the primal role of imagination in the creation of literature. Warton argues that “the sublime and the pathetic are the two chief nerves of all genuine poesy” (Chapman 204). He delineates four categories of poets based on this assumption: 1) sublime and pathetic poets; 2) poets with noble talents for moral, ethical, and panegyrical poetry; 3) writers of wit with a talent for describing familiar life, although not the “higher scenes of poetry”; and 4) mere versifiers (Chapman 204-5). Only three English poets fall into the category of sublime and pathetic poetic genius: Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton. Pope falls short because of what Warton perceives as his lack of pathos and because he rarely introduces the sublime into his poetry. Pope’s poems, while brilliant, are too regular and too even to qualify as “genuine poetry.” Warton’s brother and fellow critic Thomas Warton indirectly accuses his Augustan predecessors of a lack of sensibility by locating poetic genius in an age before satire, “that bane of the sublime” (2:111), became a popular genre.

The search for new sources of aesthetic pleasure also appears in the interest in the “picturesque,” a term that would become increasingly popular in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Writers such as William Gilpin (“On Picturesque Beauty,” 1792) and Sir Uvedale Price (An Essay on the Picturesque, 1794) sought to define a quality somewhere between the sublime and the beautiful, something characterized by “ruggedness,” “ruin,” and “the destruction of symmetry” (83). The picturesque inspired neither the astonishment of the sublime nor the simple pleasure of the beautiful but instead curiosity, “an effect which, though less splendid and powerful, has a more general influence” (98). The term became synonymous with ruined abbeys and overgrown, rustic landscapes. Like the interest in the sublime, the interest in the picturesque represents a search for aesthetic pleasure outside of the realm of social art, in particular apart from the social world of satire.

Sir Joshua Reynolds/Royal Academy of Arts

Perhaps the most effective summary of late-eighteenth- century criticism can be seen in the writings of Sir Joshua Reynolds. Reynolds, the foremost English painter of his day, delivered a series of fifteen lectures to students at the Royal Academy of Art between the years 1769 and 1790. While Reynolds may not be a strictly original thinker, his Discourses provide a valuable record of popular thought; typical of many late-eighteenth century critics, Reynolds possessed a strong neoclassical background, which became more and more infused with the new ideas current in literary theory. While his earlier discourses examine topics familiar to Augustan critics—the imitation of nature and the importance of reason and judgment in the creation of art—the later discourses focus more and more on issues such as the primacy of imagination and feeling. Reynolds’s discussion of Renaissance artists illustrates this progression. In discourse 5 (1773) he compares the talents of Raphael, characterized by taste, fancy, and proper judgment, with those of Michelangelo, noted for his genius and imagination, the creator of ideas both vast and sublime, and finds the artists equally gifted. By discourse 15 (1790) this balance no longer exists, as Reynolds concludes the Discourses with praise of Michelangelo as the emblem of genius, energy, and the sublime. Here Reynolds, like most of his contemporaries, considers these characteristics more artistic than those of Raphael, who is seen, not coincidentally, as the embodiment of the values lauded by critics and writers a generation before.

The last years of the eighteenth century produced a variety of experimental approaches to literature focusing on issues such as character analysis and the process of poetic creation. Most of these works were strongly influenced by John Locke’s theories of the human mind, in particular the association of ideas. Locke argued that thought processes in the mind operate by association, one thought leading to a whole spectrum of loosely related thoughts, rather than by simple logical progression. Unlike earlier critics such as Shaftesbury, who rejected Locke’s individualistic emphasis as a critical tool, writers in the last decades of the eighteenth century promoted individual response as a necessary part of criticism. One notable example of Locke’s influence on literary criticism appears in An Essay on the Dramatic Character of Sir John Falstaff (1777), Maurice Morgann’s book-length study of Shakespeare’s character. Based in part on Locke’s principle of associations, Morgann’s Essay stresses the importance of impressions (“the Impression is the Fact” [146]), as well as how literature consists of a series of impressions that create a whole. This assumption implies that simply examining literature on a rational level distorts it; it must be felt as well as understood. Morgann’s Essay, which ranges far beyond Falstaff himself, develops what would later be called the concept of organic unity, the sensation of wholeness or roundness that arises from a variety of disparate elements. Other critics applied the principle of association to aesthetic theory (Archibald Alison, Essays on the Nature and Principles of Taste, 1790) and to the process of composition as manifested in Shakespeare’s image clusters (Walter Whiter, A Specimen of a Commentary on Shakespeare, 1794). Like Morgann, both Alison and Whiter base their work on the concept of associative imagination. Alison attributes the emotional effect of literature to the train of images it excites, and Whiter traces specific patterns of association at work in the imagery of Shakespeare.

By the 1790s, then, little remained of the staunch emphasis on order and the classics that had characterized criticism in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Most discussions of literature focused on individual experience, emphasizing sensibility rather than restraint and finding irregularity a virtue rather than a vice. For critics in the later eighteenth century, the glorification of classical learning and refinement, so important to a preceding generation, had become sterile, and the ideal of an ordered, harmonious, and ultimately aristocratic society had become an anachronism. The late-eighteenth-century critics, with their interest in originality, the sublime, and the primitive, coupled with their incorporation of British nationalism, appealed to a larger, increasingly bourgeois, general readership. The appeal to a common reader helped define the criticism of this transitional age, linking seemingly disparate elements with a focus on individualism rather than social consensus.

Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757, ed. Adam Phillips, 1990); Gerald Wester Chapman, ed., Literary Criticism in England, 1660-1800 (1966); David Hume, Essays Moral, Political, and Literary (ed. Eugene F. Miller, 1963); Richard Hurd, Letters on Chivalry and Romance (1762, ed. Hoyt Trowbridge, 1963); Samuel Johnson, The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson (ed. Allen T. Hazen and John Middendorf, 16 vols. to date, 1958-), Johnson as Critic (ed. John Wain, 1973); Maurice Morgann, An Essay on the Dramatic Character of Sir John Falstaff (1777, ed. Daniel A. Fineman, 1972); Sir Uvedale Price, On the Picturesque: With an Essay on the Origin of Taste, and Much Original Matter (1794, ed. Sir Thomas Dick Lauder, 1842); Sir Joshua Reynolds, Discourses on Art (1769-90, ed. Robert R. Wark, 1975); Thomas Warton, Observations on the Faery Queen of Spenser (1754); Walter Whiter, A Specimen of a Commentary on Shakespeare (1794, ed. Alan Over and Mary Bell, 1964); Edward Young, Conjectures on Original Composition (1759, ed. Stephen Cornfold, 1989). Walter Jackson Bate, The Burden of the Past and the English Poet (1970), From Classic to Romantic: Premises of Taste in Eighteenth-Century England (1961); James Engell, Forming the Critical Mind: Dryden to Coleridge (1989); Walter John Hippie, Jr., The Beautiful, the Sublime, and the Picturesque in Eighteenth-Century British Aesthetic Theory(1957); Thomas McFarland, Originality and Imagination (1985); Marjorie Hope Nicolson, Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory: The Development of the Aesthetics of the Infinite (1959); Douglas Lane Patey, Probability and Literary Form: Philosophic Theory and Literary Practice in the Augustan Age (1984); Ernest L. Tuveson, The Imagination as a Means of Grace: Locke and the Aesthetics of Romanticism (1960); Thomas Weiskel, The Romantic Sublime: Studies in the Structure and Psychology of Transcendence (1976).
Source: Groden, Michael, and Martin Kreiswirth. The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

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