Saturday, August 9, 2014

Descriptive Criticism

Etymologically the word criticism is derived from the Greek word meaning judgment and hence criticism is exercise of judgment and literary criticism is the exercise of judgment on works of literature. Criticism is the play of the mind on a work of literature, and its function is to examine its excellencies and defects and finally to evaluate its artistic worth.


1.  First is the principle of Truth. Truth is the final test of merit in literature, for a work which does not correspond with the facts of life or with the universal and fundamental beliefs of mankind, cannot be regarded as great whatever its technical excellence may be.

2. The second essential principle by which permanent worth of an author is to be assessed is the principle of symmetry. This principle implies right selection and arrangement of material. “ It implies that the writer should select certain aspect of reality.

3. The third principle is the principle of idealization. This principle implies not only that certain aspect of reality should be selected for artistic treatment but also that the selection so made should exclude such matters as affects unpleasantly the aesthetic consciousness of the reader.


1. A critic must be a man of rare organic sensibility.
2. Secondly he must be a man widely read not only in literature of his own language, but in that of as many languages as possible.
3. He must have proper training and technical skill in the different branches of literature.
4. He must rise above all prejudices.
5. The critic must have imaginative sympathy. He must be able to put himself in the place of the writer.
6.The critic must have a sound knowledge of human psychology.

So, the theories of art can be defined with regard to their focus and concentration on any of the afore-said variables. Thus a mimetic theory of art sees the work of art as reflecting the universe like a mirror. Aristotle who defined art as imitation in his Poetics is the prime example of this theory. This mimetic criticism regards literature as imitating or reflecting life and therefore emphasizes the truth and accuracy of its representation.

A pragmatic theory of art sees the work as a means to an end, to teach or instruct or aesthetic pleasure. There should be a pragmatic purpose to teach by delighting. The focus is changed to the work’s effect on an audience. It judges literature according to the successful achievement of this assumed aim. The assumption of most of the Neo-classical criticism from Sir. Philip Sydney’s Apology for poetry (1545) to Dr. Johnson’s many critical studies at the end of the 18th Century is that literature serves a pragmatic purpose.

Expressive theories centre on the artist. Wordsworth’s definition of the poetry as the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings is typical and nearly all Romantic and 19th Century criticism generally regards art as primarily concerned with expressing the poet’s feelings or psyche. It examines text as an expression of the writer’s feelings, imagination and personality. It tends to judge the work by its sincerity or the extent to which it has successfully revealed the author’s state of mind. Romantic Critics such as Coleridge and Wordsworth were expressive critics in this sense.

There are various types of criticism that have flourished from time to time they are


Descriptive criticism is the analysis of existing literary works of their aims, methods and effects. It is by far the most popular of the critical modes, and a large bulk of English criticism is of this type. Its most powerful exponents have been the poets themselves, who have analysed their own creations with a view to explaining their own aims and methods. As George Watson points out, “descriptive criticism begins in self-justification with poets discussing their own works and defending them against hostile attacks as Dryden has done in his innumerable prefaces”. His Essay on Dramatic Poesy provides the earliest extent example of descriptive criticism. While the legislative critic says,, “this is how a play should be written,” and a theoretical critic like Aristotle says, “this is the nature of Tragedy in general” a descriptive critic, like Dryden, simply says, “this is how I have tried to write my play and why” “Descriptive  criticism is always about some particular text whether of the critic’s own or of another, and the critic, instead of laying down general rules or theorizing in general terms, analyses the work in hand, traces the influence4s that have given rise to it, and then discusses it critically item by item.

At the beginning of this era stands John Dryden and at the end of it there is Dr. Samuel Johnson. In its first phase, i.e., during the Restoration age (1660-1700) which is presided over by John Dryden, Neo-classicism is the liberal and moderate; in its second phase, i.e. during first six or seven decades of the 18th century it becomes more and more narrow, slavish, and stringent. Pope, Addison and then Dr. Johnson are the leading critics of this second phase. George Shereburne in his Literary History of England defines Neo-classicism as,

“a veneration for the Roman classics, thought, and way of life”

JOHN DRYDEN. (1631—1700)
John Dryden was a versatile and voluminous writer who left no branch of literature untouched and produced works of outstanding merit in each field. He was a great poet and a great dramatist. He was a great poet and a great dramatist. He was also a great prose-writer, and is regarded as the founder of modern prose style. He was also an original and discriminating critic, so much so that Dr. Johnson called him, “The father of English criticism,” and critic after critic has agreed with this estimate. However, the only formal work of criticism that he has left behind him is his Essay on Dramatic Poesy, a work which is the unofficial manifesto of his critical creed, and an important landmark in the history of literary criticism in England.

JOSEPH ADDISON (1672—1719)
Criticism in the early 18th century does not differ substantially from Restoration criticism, except that Neo-classicism grows more severe and stringent, and there is an expansion and diffusion of the critical temper. “It accepts and consolidates the revolution that Dryden made, and advances it cautiously on many fronts.” It makes ample use of the critical tradition that it had inherited from Dryden.

The critical out put of Addison belongs to three different periods;
1. His early Criticism.
2. The Prose works of his Middle Period.
3. And the Essays which he contributed to the Tattler and the Spectator; the best of Addison’s criticism is contained in the Spectator papers.

ALEXANDER POPE (1688—1744)
Alexander Pope was a much greater poet than critic, though he has written at length on criticism. His chief critical works are:
1. Essay on Criticism.
2. Imitations of the Epistles of Horace to Augustus.
3. His letters.
4. His preface to his edition of Shakespeare’s Plays.

Bosker in his admirable book Literary Criticism in the Age of Johnson emphasizes the dual trends in the criticism of the later half of the 18th century; one is the persistence of the neo-classic trends, and the other is the rise of romanticism. The Neo-classical school is still dominant, but it is being undermined by the rising romanticism of the age.
Dr. Johnson was a voluminous writer and critical remarks are scattered all over his works. But his claim as a literary critic chiefly rests upon.
1. Preface to the Dictionary of the English Language.
2. Preface to Shakespeare.
3. Lives of the Poets.
4. Essays and Articles contributed from time to time to the Rambler, a periodical founded and edited by the Doctor himself.

S.T COLERIDGE. (1772—1834)
The awakening of sensibility is the most radical change that comes over the English Literary scene about the middle of the 18th century. Sensibility primarily means the power of generation or perception, but this meaning has become over laid with another, that of quickness and acuteness f apprehension or feeling, which in turn was extended, during the 18th century, to mean the capacity for refined emotion, sensitiveness generally in the face of external nature, and the readiness to feel for the poor and the suffering. The neo-classical dogma is felt to be too cramping and narrow, and writers turn to a freer mode of self expression.

Coleridge was a great poet, but he is also a great critic. He is one of the greatest of poet critics that England has ever produced. Stray’ remarks on literature and literary theory are scattered all over his prose works as , The Friend, Table Talks; Letters; Aids to Reflection; Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit: Anima Poetae; and Sibylline Leaves. But the bulk of his literary criticism, all that I most worthwhile in it is contained in his; Biographia Literaria and Lectures on Shakespeare and Other poets.

Wordsworth is one of the greatest poets of England, one to whom Matthew Arnold assigns a place next only to Shakespeare and Milton. He was primarily a poet, and not a critic. He has left behind him no comprehensive and systematic treatise on literary criticism. His criticism consists of Advertisement to the Lyrical Ballads, Preface to the Lyrical Ballads1800, Preface to the Lyrical ballads 1802. the preface was constantly revised for the subsequent editions of the lyrical Ballads. For the 1815 edition, the poet wrote a new preface and the older one was added as an Appendix. Wordsworth’s critical works also include his notes to “The Thorn”, and other poems as well as critical remarks of great significance scattered all up and down his correspondence.

MATHEW ARNOLD (1822—1888)
Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837 and she ruled England till her death in 1901. the beginning of her reign coincided with far reaching economic, social, scientific and literary changes which not only transformed English social life, but also had far reaching impact on literature and literary criticism. With the memory of the horrors of the French Revolution still fresh in their minds, the Victorians had a passion for law and order. They wanted progress but a steady, ordered progress, healthy evolution, and not a bloody revolution.

Mathew Arnold the greatest name among the Victorian critics is a poet turned critic. He started his literary career by writing poetry. It was only at the age of thirty-one in 1853 that he published his first piece of criticism as preface to the poems, and then for the rest of his life for full thirty-five years, he hardly wrote anything but criticism.
His works on criticism consists of The Preface to the Poems 1853, On Translating Homer 1856, Essay in Criticism, On the study of Celtic Literature.

T.S ELIOT (1888—1965)
Twentieth century literary criticism in England offers a bewildering variety of critical theory and practice. New discoveries in psychology, anthropology, sociology, economics, etc. having brought about a revolution in critical methods with the result that modern criticism is quite different from criticism in the 19th century. Critics like I.A.Richards, T.S.Eliot, F.R. Leavis, William Empson, have provided entirely new interpretations of old writers, and presented them in an entirely new light. The full significance of their achievement is yet to be realized.

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