Edmund Spenser: A Critical Study

By Charles M. Gayley; H. K. Schilling et al. | Go to book overview

PREFACE

In such days as these, literary criticism seems trivially remote. But I have been compelled to be loyal to this task by my belief that the two unequivocally reconstructive forces in the world today are the labor movement and those sciences of human society which are just beginning to organize after a fashion similar to that achieved by the once bickering sciences of biology which were at last reconciled and made to move in concert by Darwin. Literature at present has but a tenuous relation with either reconstructive force. But to make an effort, however groping, to merge it organically in both is to obey a categorical imperative.

If literary criticism is to exonerate itself from parasitism, from triviality and pedantry in the community of new sciences of man like psychology and ethnology, it must assume a task which is epical in its requirements. First of all it must examine its philosophical implications, particularly those limitations and emancipations revealed by an examination of the problem of consciousness, the problem of knowledge, and logic. And it must make its results as far as possible the coherent fruition of the best that has been thought and said on the topic under consideration by all the critics of previous ages. Today, although we all recognize the perils of impressionism in literature and long for some sort of restoration of judicial balance, there are nowhere apparent any a priori esthetic canons or even "necessities" of thought as distinct from the general necessities of the pure reason and the practical reason long ago established by Kant. But these provide us with nothing like those "eternal principles" of taste in which the critics of the renaissance and the eighteenth century believed unless we choose to pervert Kant with an admixture of dogma as do some of his professed followers in the realm of metaphysics. As literary men, in an age when all kinds of traditions are on trial, we can avoid irresponsible impressionism only by what has been termed "collective criticism." In consequence I have felt obliged to make my book empirical in the sense that it is an attempt to come to certain conclusions about Spenser only on the basis of a vast number of experiences of other readers of Spenser in every decade from 1579 to 1917. These conclusions of mine may at first sight appear to be iconoclastic; but I think that careful consideration

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