Types of Criticism in Literature

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      Prof. M. G. Bhate, in his Literature and Literary Criticism, lists no fewer than fifteen types of criticism: Textual, Rhetorical, Classical, Neo-Classical, Romantic, Judicial, Impressionistic, Technical, Formal, Biographical, Sociological, Marxist, Psychological, Didactic, Aesthetic and Evaluative. This is to confound critical types with critical approaches like the Didactic (or Moralistic) or Aesthetic] and critical methods (like the Biographical or Psychological) and broad literary movements (Classical and Romantic) within whose fold critical orthodoxies or heresies were voiced. (Cp. Wilbur Scott: ‘The Five Approaches of Literary Criticism’ viz., Moral, Psychological, Sociological, Formalistic and Archetypal.) Basically, there are only three or four types of criticism, around which several of these methods and approaches may attach themselves.

      These are (1) Legislative (2) Theoretical (3) Judicial and (4) Descriptive (Cp. George Watson, according to whom there are only three, viz., (1) Legislative (2) Theoretical and (3) Descriptive.) Of these the first, namely, Legislative Criticism is addressed to the writer rather than to readers. It claims to teach poets how to write, or how to write better. It was the standard kind of criticism practiced by the Elizabethans and for half a century after. It consists of rules, formulae, according to which a literary work may be composed. Though these may have been derived from an analysis of ancient works of art, they are delivered more in the spirit of prescription than of critical discovery. The work of Puttenham, Gascoigne, Campion and Daniel read like recipe books rather than works of critical discussion. This type of criticism is practically dead today, in England and elsewhere, unless we count the Handbooks of Composition written by American academic critics for American college students as its few survivors.

      The second, that is Theoretical Criticism, is what may be called Literary Aesthetics. It is taken up with such abstract issues as ‘What is Beauty?’ or the nature of poetic truth (or, as with Aristotle, the Nature of Tragedy) and such psychological questions as the nature of the creative act, or yet subjects such as Taste. In the 18th century, it centered round the theory of Beauty and the nature of Imagination. Sidney’s Apologise for Poetry Addison’s essays on the Imagination and Burke’s essay on the Sublime and the Beautiful may be cited as specimens of this kind. Coleridge’s Biographia also falls under the same category. Modern examples are the essays on Beauty and Art by Collingwood, Carritt, Clive Bell, and Herbert Read (The Meaning of Art).

      Though a philosophical discussion as to the meaning of Art or the nature of Beauty is quite relevant and helpful, preparatory to any critical discussion so that we may be clear in our minds as to what we expect of Art or what kind of Beauty it is that we look for in literature, such discussion is likely to taper off into the realm of pure philosophy or psychology. And when it does so, it can hardly be regarded as a part of literary criticism. (Cp. F. R. Leavis: “Literary Criticism and Philosophy seem to me to be two quite distinct and different kinds of discipline”)

      Of course, some kind of theoretical orientation is implicit in the practice of any kind of judgment in literature, though the critic may not go so far as to spell it out. Even though the poet may be hard put to it to explain the nature of inspiration or the process of poetic composition, with the critic, too, certain matters like beauty in Art or the principles of Art may be a matter for assumption rather than of explicit statement. At any rate, it would be wrong to postulate that only he who has a theoretical grounding would be the perfect critic. Knowledge of aesthetics or psychology is not a necessary part of the critic’s equipment. His concern is with the finished product, and the canons he follows are those of a well-informed and sensitive mind.

      The two kinds of critical activity described above are not concerned with a formal discussion or reasoned analysis of literature, or individual works of literature, which has the reader at the receiving end and whose aim is the promotion of literary enjoyment. Dryden was the first in England to use the word ‘criticism’ in this new sense.

      Now, the several approaches to literature and methods of critical discussion center round the twin functions of criticism, viz., interpretation (or exposition) and evaluation (or judgment). Critics of the Classical and Neo-Classical school have always taken a judicial posture, hauling up every new aspirant to literary fame before the bar of the ancient worthies, and judging every new literary work by the impersonal laws of literature (like ‘correctness’ or ‘declaim’) which the ancient masters are supposed to have laid down, or trying these by the ‘touchstone’ of the Classics. Such criticism, deriving its authority from Aristotle down to Boileau and Bossu, becomes institutionalized and its laws, enshrined in tradition and overlaid with convention as they are, become impersonal, rigid and unbending.

      When we move from Classicism to Romanticism, we notice a shift away from an objective and institutionalized mode of assessment of literature to a subjective approach and personal mode of assessment — a shift away from absolutism to relativism, from a judicial posture to one of interpretative concern. It is not as if one excluded the other. It had always been assumed that the function of criticism is first to interpret and then to judge. But, as it happened, judgment had greater importance for the Neo-Classical critics than exposition. For them, analysis was for purposes of evaluation. And, in a sense, they were right. For analysis is with a view to demonstrating whether a particular work of art is good or bad, is a success or failure. But since these critics came to their task in the spirit of a hanging judge and applied the laws of art, which were supposed to have been given by the ancients, as if they were State laws or the laws of morality, inviolable, absolute and worthy of universal obedience, they helped to make the critic’s profession into a piece of authoritarian nonsense. In his passion for Form and “Rules”, the Neo-Classical critic sometimes even overlooked the substance, and the actual beauty and power of the text he was judging. The reaction against this too formalistic a concern with literature was for criticism to make itself text-centered. With this shifting of focus from a dry-as-dust formalism to the heart of the text, there also went a Romantic reverence for the author’s personality or individuality; hence an inductive process of evaluation (if the critic presumed to evaluate at all, that is).

      Along this interpretational line, we have an extreme kind of text-centredness which goes by the name of Verbal Analysis. (Everything that contributes to the total pattern of meaning — in terms of word suggestion, image and symbol—is analyzed and thus the text’s end-pattern of meaning is built up). This kind of critical analysis which has ‘closeness to the text’ as its motto is different from what we call Textual Criticism. Textual Criticism is a kind of path-finding job, which the critic does for the reader. This kind of job, by way of careful editing, giving variant readings and possible emendations or interpolations, and footnotes and glossary and maybe a critical introduction, prepares the reader for a first-hand experience of the text. The critic, in this instance, leads the reader, mostly uninitiated, by the hand, all the way through the text, offering all sorts of aids and crutches on the way. The critic, at this level, does not go by the professional name as such. He is only a modest ‘editor.’ Textual criticism is a scholarly job performed mostly by academic critics. It is of invaluable help to the reader where the text is old and the language is unintelligible to the ordinary reader and therefore needs not only a glossary and annotation but also commendation on contemporary theatre and other conditions.

      When the critic starts with the assumption that each literary work is unique, slit generis, and takes every writer on his own terms, his criticism becomes Inductive. The Inductive critic has sometimes taken the neutral stand that he is not concerned with merit, absolute or relative, that it is not his business to praise or blame. He looks for the laws of art in the practice of the artist. The frame of reference for him is that provided by the work itself. He has no use for the impersonal, arbitrary laws of any external authority. Where the Judicial critic of the Classical school had failed to see the principle of growth in literature, and the variability of taste from age to age, the Inductive critic recognizes these principles. Professor R. G. Moulton, who enunciated these principles in the preface to his Shakspeare as a Dramatic Artist, typifies this school of critical theory He considers the business of the critic to be to state what is, and not what ought to be. This, in modern parlance, is Descriptive Criticism term used by George Watson, on the analogy of ‘Descriptive Linguistics’. But our objection to this critical credo is that criticism cannot be a science like Botany or Geology (for the geologist no rock formation is either good or bad). Since literature is concerned with subjective modes of existence, an emotive and imaginative assessment of life (unlike science, which is concerned only with factual truth), it must at some stage pass beyond mere analysis, or exposition, to some kind of assessment in terms of good or bad, success or failure, at least by implication. There may be no explicit attempt at comparative evaluation or at placing a work of art in a hierarchy of excellence (works of art can be arranged in a graded order of literary worth or excellence in the same category, or in point of greatness as revelations of permanence or meaning in life, while accomplishing this in the way of art, not a homily). Yet some kind of judgment seems inevitable, some kind of assessment—personal or impersonal—of the life values and art-values of the literary piece under consideration. Critics down the centuries have, however, tended to shy away more and more from judgment and taken the non-committal position of ‘interpreter’. Emphasis has shifted from one to the other of these twin functions of criticism, accompanied by variations in approach, method or tools. At one end we have the ‘verbal analysis’ of the Modem Critics, which is committed to interpretation and consciously refrains from judgment, while at the other we have Judicial (or Evaluative) Criticism of the older Classical school. In between, along the line, we have varying degrees of personal and impersonal reactions to a work of art.

      Before the critical responsibility of weighing the merits and demerits of a literary piece is assumed by the would be critic, he may be content with ‘relishing’ the poem and enjoying its best parts. Where praise is bestowed by implication, and blame is eschewed, where only the merits of the piece are considered and not its demerits, where the accent is on ‘enjoyment and not so much on ‘weighing’, the adolescent critical activity (which is not critical enough) is called Appreciative Criticism. When, however, the critic, without affecting much scholarship, proceeds on the inductive principle, and surrenders himself, with an abandon, to the influence of a book, looking at it from a purely personal way, or yields himself to the inspiration of a book as the artist yields to the inspiration of life or nature, and when his critical reaction becomes the record of personal impressions rather than a reasoned apologia or statement of principles whereon judgment may be securely based, the criticism is called Impressionistic Criticism (An example is Lamb’s critique of the Restoration Comedy).

      Comparative Criticism is only a mode of evaluative or judicial criticism. The critic has not only to judge whether a work is good or bad, but how good, in relation to others of its kind. He must juxtapose parallel literary efforts, and form a comparative estimate, so that we understand the relative perfection of the one in terms of the blemishes of the others. Comparative evaluation becomes necessary as we progress in our consideration from one work to another of a similar kind, and so on to formulate a hierarchy of literary merit, if we take judgment, as indeed we should, to be the proper business of criticism, unlike the Cambridge School of Critics, headed by Dr. I. A. Richards, who in the wake of Moulton, have sought to purge criticism of all value-judgments and bring Criticism back to ‘exposition’.

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