English Literature is certainly one of the broadest literature in the world. Not only England, in the later phase, but many other countries have also contributed to the widening dimensions of literature in this language. With the creative pieces of literary works, a critical faculty also developed (or we can argue they grew side by side or which came first) and the faculty is known as Literary Criticism and Literary Theory. While the two have different connotations and ramifications, for the time being, we will keep ‘theory and criticism’ in the same bracket and continue focusing on the general issues related to ‘it’. So, let’s start with the very basic question – what is criticism? There might be many answers to this simple question. However, we will keep it simple on the English Literature Education platform and do our best to keep it affordable for the different levels of students. After understanding Criticism, we will move towards Literary Theory.
What is Criticism?
The best way to define criticism (in the literary context) may certainly be by studying what the scholars say about it and then forming a concrete definition on our own. However, for beginners, I will instantly suggest going through the M. H. Abrams version – A Glossary of Literary Terms. After reading the definition there, we can certainly put the meaning of ‘criticism’ in the simplest of words, within the literary ambit:
“Criticism is the practice which enables us to judge our judgment. It is the branch which concerns with defining, classifying, and evaluating the works of literature.”
Going into depth, we can certainly have so many opinions and so many contradictions. However, to begin with, this is the best we can keep. Criticism is mainly divided into two categories – Theoretical and Practical Criticism. In the simplest form, Theoretical criticism concerns the set of rules for the classification and evaluation of the ‘works’ of literature. On the other hand, Practical criticism is a rather applied form of criticism overly concerned with the ‘works in hand’ without very much space left for the rules from the Theoretical criticism. While indulging in Practical criticism, the person reading a poem by Wordsworth might not find it ‘green,’ or ‘romantic’ at all.
One of the best examples of Theoretical Criticism is the celebrated work Poetics by Aristotle. In Poetics, Aristotle sets the ‘norms’ for a good work of literature in various genres. He also defines certain rules and regulations which have become the canons. In Practical Criticism, the essays by Dr Johnson, sets of Essays by Eliot and Arnold are some of the finest examples. In these essays, these scholars evaluate various authors, poets and their works.
What is Literary Theory?
So, coming to this important agenda, we need to answer this question. Theory is something that we all know. However, when we prefix ‘literary’ with Theory, things change; the intensity is excelled and we need to bring some concrete ideas home. To end the strife, we can conclude with the easiest choices of words:
“Literary Theory is a set of principles and ideas that help readers analyse and understand literary works in a special direction.”
We hope this echoes most of what Literary Theory is supposed to be. However, we will soon be writing a separate article entirely dedicated to this topic.
The next step forward from here should be understanding different Literary theories and their applicability in modern times. We have listed it below for your convenience:
Post Colonial Theory
The ‘no-theory’ Age
Other articles to explore: