Beginnings in literature and literary theory

August 24, 2015 § Leave a comment

After the two back to back intensive reading sessions of Barry’s history of English studies and Eagleton’s ‘Literature and the Rise of English’ in Walder, I am almost depleted and in a very weakened state. For two reasons: firstly, because of the sheer culture shock of it all, discovering such huge amounts of information that I had never come across in my reading and secondly, because of studying and labouring over these long texts until late at night. I woke up early enough the past few days, at a time when the sun was up but the new identity that I have to adopt as a student of English calls for much effort.

If I may make a few comments as to my experience so far in the course, I should mention at point blank the Arts Good Study Guide textbook singularly as the book -a book that is not listed as a text under consideration but nevertheless a great book- that is shedding important light on the correct way of studying. Of course, there is the actual study materials that are waiting piled up on the work table to be perused and analysed but where sound advice is needed, this has got to be where a difference can be made for a high achiever. It gave directions on how to write a study chart to allocate hours for study from Monday to Sunday, introduced a few online libraries worth knowing to visit for further research, such as the OED (Oxford English Dictionary), breaking down tasks into smaller ones in manageable chunks, and reserving a study area and storage spaces for working and for retrieving filed notes. All of these helpful methods and more can actually save a lot of time and can, not only enhance our learning but also make us likely candidates to receive higher marks.

This is my study week chart, based on the model given in the book:

Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday
AM 2 hours 1 hour 1/3 2 hours 1 hour 1/3 2 hours 1 hour 1/3
PM 2 hours 40 min. 3 hours 2 hours 40 min. 3 hours 2 hours 40 min. 3 hours
Eve 2 hours 2 hours 2 hours 2 hours 2 hours 2 hours
Total 6 hours 40 min. 6 hours 40 min. 6 hours 40 min. 6 hours 40 min. 6 hours 40 min. 6 hours 40 min.

It can be revised where necessary as schedules are shifted.

Now, back to Barry. The second half dealt mainly with how writers and thinkers from Aristotle to Keats viewed English studies or what constituted literature. In Poetics (4th Century B.C.), Aristotle theorised about the nature of literature itself, and gave succinct definitions of tragedy and insisted that literature was about character and that the character is revealed through action. Sir Philip Sidney, who wrote ‘Apology for Poetry’ in 1580, profusely discussed the definition of literature first formulated by Ovid, who said that its mission was ‘docere delectando‘- to teach by delighting (meaning, in his day, to entertain) and quoted Horace to effectively say that a poem is ‘a speaking picture, with this end, to teach and delight’. Thus, the difference between philosophy and literature are highlighted where pleasure is given a central position in the reading of literature and the stigmatised counterpart is seen as worthy but not fun. As for the breakthrough to English studies in recent times, Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets and Prefaces to Shakespeare is credited as being an impetus to critical theory, giving a detailed commentary on the work of a single writer, Shakespeare. In the following century, Wordsworth too had his say when he collaborated with Coleridge on writing a text that would discuss high literature and popular literature. Coleridge would differ greatly from Wordsworth in his view on the lyrical ballads that which some of the literary ballads were, that had been based on the model of the popular oral ballads of ordinary country people, but these issues of the relationship between poetic language and ‘ordinary’ language sparks great interest in us readers in seeing the rationale behind this theoretical discussion. These two ambitious poets were trying to make their poetic voice sound as much like prose as possible. Later in Biographia Literaria, Coleridge addressed his now reformed views basing his interest in the effects that Aristotle and Sidney maintained, that poetry should use the language as needed for its ‘fictive’ qualities otherwise the language would be dead and not be entertaining. Shelley, a contemporary, thought in a similar vein: in A Defence of Poetry, both Shelley’s and Eliot’s notion of defamiliarisation to impersonality distances the reader and writer as much as possible. He wrote of poetry that ‘strips the veil of familiarity from the world… it purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity… It compels is to feel that which we perceive and to imagine that which we know’. Keats took the Freudian notion of the mind made up of conscious and unconscious elements. the ‘silent workings’ denote the unconscious and ‘spirit’ the conscious.

the mind in creation is a fading coal which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness; this power rises from within, like the colour of a flower which fades and changes as it is developed, and the conscious portions of our natures are unprophetic either of its approach or of its departure.

(A Defence, lines 999-1003, italics the author’s)

The latter half of the second half of the essay is on the founders of practical criticism, such as Matthew Arnold and I. A. Richards. I find these a bit tedious to read, mainly because I don’t have a clue what they are saying. Hopefully things will improve upon second reading.

Finally Eagleton’s language was so much more fluent and easier to read. It did have a few difficult passages in the middle on the constitutive of knowledge (pp.34-5) and ideology. More light on this matter in due course.

Also, a very true gem. Oxford World’s Classics’ Hamlet. Since it’s getting late, I will summarise a point about the original play that Hamlet was based on, in my next post. Hint: it’s a Norse saga and it even involves a Roman hero.


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