The Making of the English Literary Canon: From the Middle Ages to the Late Eighteenth Century

By Trevor Ross | Go to book overview

7 A Basis for Criticism

The eighteenth century, it is commonly assumed, inaugurated the formation of the English literary canon. It is during this period that the modern terms of value first entered critical discourse: the concept of aesthetics was introduced by Alexander Baumgarten in 1735; David Ruhnken, writing in 1768, adapted the term canon to refer for the first time to a selection of poets and orators; and the word literature, long used to designate erudition among a broad range of polite learning, grew increasingly specialized in its meaning so as to become by the end of the century the most prevalent term given to imaginative writings. 1 The emergence of these conceptual categories went hand in hand with significant changes in critical practice, including what René Wellek identified as "the awakening of the historical sense and modern self-consciousness" that led to the development of literary history as a discipline, culminating during the period with the publication of Thomas Warton's History of English Poetry (1774-81). 2 Extending Wellek's argument, Lawrence Lipking has suggested that Warton's work ought to be seen alongside Johnson's Lives of the Poets (1779-81) as answering a larger cultural need for an "ordered" canon of English letters: "What the public demanded, and what it eventually received, was a history of English poetry, or a survey of English poets, that would provide a basis for criticism by reviewing the entire range of the art. Warton and Johnson responded to a national desire for an evaluation of what English poets had achieved ... English literary history was shaped by the need for a definition of the superiority of the national character." 3

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The Making of the English Literary Canon: From the Middle Ages to the Late Eighteenth Century
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • The Making of the English Literary Canon - From the Middle Ages to the Late Eighteenth Century *
  • Contents *
  • Acknowledgments *
  • Introduction *
  • Part One - Versions of Canonic Harmony *
  • 1 - Early Gestures *
  • Part Two - Consequences of Presentism *
  • 2 - Albion's Parnassus and the Professional Author *
  • 3 - The Uses of the Dead *
  • Part Three - Defining a Cultural Field *
  • 4 - Value into Knowledge *
  • 5 - The Fall of Apollo *
  • Part Four - Consumption and Canonic Hierarchy *
  • 6 - Reading the Canon *
  • 7 - A Basis for Criticism *
  • Epilogue - How Poesy Became Literature *
  • Notes *
  • Index *
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