Literary Theory and Criticism

OVERVIEW. This course is primarily a reading course on important literary critical texts ranging from Plato to Kant. As such, it will be organized chronologically according to traditional literary historical periods (Classical, Late Classical and Medieval, Renaissance, Restoration, and Eighteenth Century). Although everyone in the course will have myriad opportunities to participate actively in our examination of this material, I will also be presenting (via lectures) a “standard model,” that is, an intertextual interpretation of the material constructed out of well-respected histories of literary criticism (e.g. Wimsatt and Brooks, Literary Criticism: A Short History [1966]; Harry Blamires, A History of Literary Criticism [1991]). In addition, I will bring in a few rhetorical texts/principles, to show that the line between poetics and rhetoric was often blurred in the eras under consideration. Finally, I would like to spend a little time with a different set of texts: not literary theory/criticism written during the “classical period through eighteenth century,” but (only a few) modern theorists/critics who in some synoptic way discuss the literature produced during our eras.


METHODS. Because I am hoping that this course will enroll students with different predilections, I will try to balance shared reading with individual student’s interests and projects, always remembering, though, that as designed this course will cover a lot of ground rapidly.


First off, then, we will start with my laying out a few conceptual schema, drawn from modern literary theory (e.g., Abrams’s taxonomy: mimetic, pragmatic, expressive, and objective), to give us some grounding in the range of problems that all literary theorists/critics face.


We will then move into the bulk of the course–the trek through theoretical/critical texts, arranged chronologically and grouped according to the five traditional literary historical periods mentioned above. For each class session, we will read and during the first hour I will lecture on the important theorists/critics; during the second half of each class session, students will be reporting on other critics that have caught their interest (e.g., George Puttenham during the Renaissance). At the end of each literary historical period, we will have a class session devoted in its first half to my lecturing on how rhetoric figured in that period and in its second half to students reporting on articles/books they have found that make connections between at least one critic we shall have read and a (non-theoretical/critical) literary text (e.g., St. Augustine and Chaucer’s “General Prologue” to The Canterbury Tales).


At the end of the semester, we will have two class periods devoted to modern theorists/critics who write on one or more of the literary historical periods covered in the course:  one class on selections from Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1946) and E. R. Curtius’s European Literature and the Latin Middle (1953) for traditional approaches to our period; and then one class on Mikhail Bakhtin’s work on the Renaissance, Rabelais and His World (1968) and on Michel Foucault’s work on eighteenth-century prisons in Madness and Civilization (1973) for less traditional approaches.


STUDENT LEARNING OUTCOMES. Students who take this course would gain

– an acquaintance with most of the important pre-romantic texts of literary


– a sense of the continuities–especially in terms of the kinds of questions

considered–that obtain among these texts

– concomitantly, a sense that this theoretical/critical “tradition” has been punctuated at

intervals with dramatic changes as social, political, and literary landscapes have


– the realization that in the eras to be covered poetics and rhetoric were allied


– some familiarity with “practitioner criticism” (very obviously, many of the literary

theorists/critics we will be reading were also authors, so their criticism frequently

defends their own literary practices)

– some understanding that many of the works we will be reading are in themselves

“literature,” with all that that implies

– concomitantly, again, some understanding that these texts are rhetorical

performances, not laying down the theoretical/critical law for all time but arguing for a

not disinterested praxis.



(a) weekly electronic letters posted to the entire class about the shared reading;

(b) the oral report on a critic/theorist not covered in our shared reading (and a written summary of a text by that author);

(c) the oral report on an article/book connecting a critic/theorist to a non-critical literary text (and a written summary of the article/book);

(d) an oral report on a post-1800 critic/theorist who has written about pre-1800 material; and

(e) a longer project, for which virtually anything goes, as long as it relates somehow to

the texts and themes covered in the course.



Classical (Plato, Aristotle, Horace, Longinus)

Late Classical and Medieval (Plotinus, Augustine, Aquinas, Dante, Boccaccio)

Renaissance (Sidney, Tasso, Bacon, Jonson, Milton)

Restoration (Reynolds, Corneille, Dryden, Dennis)

Eighteenth Century (Pope, Addison, Burke, Johnson, Reynolds, Kant).



D. A. Russell and Michael Winterbottom, eds., Classical Literary Criticism (2008).

Edward W. Tayler, ed., Literary Criticism of 17th-Century England (2000).

Samuel Hynes, ed., English Literary Criticism: Restoration and 18th Century (1963)