Essays in Criticism and Literary Theory

Essays in Criticism and Literary Theory

Essays in Criticism and Literary Theory

Essays in Criticism and Literary Theory

Excerpt

Virginia Woolf, who has some claim to be considered the best essayist of the twentieth century, was temperate in her praise of Addison, who may more confidently be judged the best essayist of the eighteenth century. “Neither lusty nor lively,” she wrote in 1919, “is the adjective we should apply to the present condition of the latter and the Spectator.” Yet if his best work, a series of essays contributed to The Spectator, has lost some of its former popularity, good reasons remain, now as at any other time, for reading it. The journal is above all famous for the completeness with which it records the life of Queen Anne’s England: what men talked about and thought on many subjects, including literature and literary criticism. In it Addison provided a systematic exposition of critical assumptions that shaped eighteenth-century literature, as well as numerous anticipations of those that influenced the literature of a later time.

He wrote essays on Paradise Lost, a poem resembling classical models; and he wrote essays on “the pleasures of the imagination,” trying to assimilate the empirical and conceptual discoveries of near-contemporary philosophers and show their relevance to aesthetics. The latter essays, summarizing theories that anticipate romanticism, are as psychological in their concern with the experience of art as the essays on Paradise Lost are formalistic, preoccupied with the structure of the poem and its resemblance to other epics. Addison was eclectic in his approach to literary problems. He was sensitive to Hobbes’s and Locke’s investigations in philosophy and psychology, and in following them he expressed attitudes that found fulfillment in romantic critical theory. Yet he remained a neoclassicist. Repeatedly he invoked the principle of uniformity: the assumption, fundamental to neoclassical theory, that men are everywhere alike . . .

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