[PDF Notes] General characteristics of the literary criticism of 18th century

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 has inherited from Dryden.

(i) 18th century has inherited the “cultural nationalism” of Dryden, i.e., a love of English litera­ture and criticism and contempt for French literary theories and criticism. In this connec­tion, George Matson says that the Augustan contempt for French neo-classical authority is much like Dryden’s even in its ambiguities. The attitude of the nineteen-year old Pope when he wrote The Essay on criticism might be Dryden’s “cultural nationalism” put into verse. In so far as the rules are French, Pope argues; they are bad; in so far as they are ancient, and judiciously interpreted by Englishmen, they are good.

(ii) Criticism in the 18th century has also inherited from Dryden his historicism or historical sense. No Augustan critic can match Dryden in the fitness of his historical sense; but as a result of his work there is widespread awareness in the early 18th century that the sense of the past is a useful and necessary part of the equipment of a critic.

(iii) It has acquired a tradition of descriptive criticism – As a result of Dryden’s work, the Au- gustiness are able to practice descriptive criticism more casually and naturally than any Restoration critic. The older legislative criticism, or the older method of judging a work on the basis of the genre to which it belonged, was pushed out, and descriptive and analytic criticisms henceforth reigned supreme.

Analysis became a fashionable active with and critics no longer hide their analysis of literary masterpieces in some other from. Descriptive criticism can now throw off its mask, and appear in its true colors. A revolution of a far-reaching significance was thus brought about by Dryden.

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