From Early Formal Criticism to New Criticism: (De)Authorizing Literary Discourse.


For a broad outline, see  History of Literary Criticism


The Western critical tradition of literary “theory” began with Plato’s Republic (4th century BC).

*      In it, Plato warned told people not to listen to poets because they probably were mad with the Muse’s inspiration from the gods, they were not experts in the crafts they purported to describe, and their poetic forms produced dangerous emotional effects. 

*      Philosophical Idealism (in philosophy, meaning any view that stresses the central role of the ideal or the spiritual in the interpretation of experience). Ultimate reality is spiritual, composed of “ideal” forms. The material world being a mere shadow of absolute forms found in the spiritual realm, art is a “copy” of a copy.

*      Concern with morality, art’s influence on audience. Concerned that art might undermine the structure of society.


Aristotle, in his Poetics (a generation later), developed a set of principles of literary works that had a lasting influence.

*      Art is an imitation, but it represents a higher form of truth that is closer to reality in the spiritual world than what we see in the physical world.

*      Poetry taps into and conveys universal truths. It represents life “as it should be.”

*      While both Plato and Aristotle were concerned with the nature of literature’s relationship to reality (the mimetic theory of art), Plato’s primary emphasis was on the moral worth of literature and its impact on the reader.


At the end of the 16th century: Sir Philip Sidney argued that it is the special property of literature to offer an imagined world that is in some respects superior to the real one. John Dryden, a century later, proposed the less idealistic view that literature must primarily offer an accurate representation of the world for “the delight and instruction of mankind,” an assumption that underlies the great critical works of Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson (the pragmatic theory of art).

A paradigmatic turn from these ideas appeared in the criticism of the Romantic period, as embodied in William Wordsworth’s notion that the object of poetry is “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” (as qtd. in Bressler 36).

*      A turn away from reason as the source of knowledge that characterized the 18th century, this period emphasized intuition as the source of knowledge and “proper guide to truth” (Bressler 35).

*      Author’s imagination was thus emphasized in the creative process (the expressive theory of art).

*      Reader’s role: interpretation concerns itself with the author’s feelings and personal visions. The reader likewise should rely on her feelings and emotions when interpreting a work, not upon other’s views.

The mid 20th century saw another divergent developments, New Criticism or Formalism, known as the objective theory of art.

A more “professionalized” study of literature. A reaction against Romantic aesthetics that emphasized authorial intention: W.K. Wimsatt and M.C. Beardsley’s essay on “The Intentional Fallacy,” published in 1946, articulates the main tenets of New Criticism.

Basic Tenets: (see New Criticism Terms)

1)       The study of literature is an aesthetic experience that can lead to truth.

2)       Meaning resides in the text alone (see handout, Literary Criticism Map).

3)       Authorial intention should not be “invoked as a tool in the task of meaning’s excavation.”[1] Wimsatt’s and Beardsley’s key term: “intentional fallacy.”

4)       Authorial responsibility minimized as the text is brought to the forefront as a discrete, autonomous entity. Emphasis on objectivity and can be seen as

reacting against the emphasis on subjectivity inherited from Romanticism. Wimsatt and Beardsley wished to establish a doctrine of critical impersonality, disassociating its procedures from those of literary biography, its concerns from those of psychology, and authorial voice from the notion of the persona or speaker in a lyric poem, which therefore designated not an expression of its author’s feelings but a dramatic utterance. In place of the concept of authorial responsibility for or ownership of a poem’s meaning (a kind of intellectual copyright) Wimsatt and Beardsley claimed … that any text, once published, is publicly owned; a statement that, when applied to poetry, in effect meant released into the custody of critics. The entire essay assumed that public and objective standards of evaluation were at least conceivable, and were more likely to be arrived at if the author’s subjectivity was kept as far as possible out of the picture. (Patterson 141).

5)       Methodology: critic locates meaning through the text’s formal properties and through its conflicts, ambiguities and complexities.

6)       This theoretical paradigm presumes that the text has one correct answer. Anyone who has the proper tools can come to the same conclusions about a work’s “hidden” meaning.




[1] Patterson, Annabel. “Intention.” Critical Terms for Literary Study. Eds. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1990.135-146. Other passages directly quoted from this essay as well.