Daily Archives: June 1, 2010

“A New Handbook of Literary Terms”


From the preface to A New Handbook of Literary Terms by David Mikics (Yale University Press, 2007)

An ideal bibliography should include older, respected works that continue to shape our sense of what criticism can to. Auerbach’s Mimesis, first published in Switzerland in 1946, is still the indispensable book on realism. Mimesis is referred to repeatedly here, as is Northrop Frye’s definitive Anatomy of Criticism (1957), the best treatment of genre. Frye, like Auerbach, opened up a whole new world for criticism with his book, which continues to be central to literary study fifty years after it was written. A student who wants a sure grounding in literary history, and at the same time an exhilarating experience of criticism at the height of his powers, would do well to read Mimesis and Anatomy of Criticism—along with other synoptic and original works like James Nohrnberg’s The Analogy of the Faerie Queene, Harold Bloom’s The Visionary Company, Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel, Geoffrey Hartman’s Beyond Formalism, Martin Price’s To the Palace of Wisdom, Martha Nussbaum’s The Fragility of Goodness, Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era, Irving Howe’s Politics and the Novel, Ronald Paulson’s Satire and the Novel, Frank Kermode’s Romantic Image, and William Empson’s Some Versions of the Pastoral. Curtius’ European Literature the Latin Middle Ages remains the essential guide to the topoi that engage medieval and Renaissance literature. These fourteen books, some of them published as long ago as the 1930s (Empson), provide the background and assumptions for much later work. Some more recent volumes, like Margaret Doody’s The True Story of the Novel, share the ambitions and innovative character of those I have just listed. The Handbook takes care not to slight younger critics—there are quite a few references from the new, twenty-first century—but I have emphasized those books that have already stood the test of time.

“Les Fleurs du Mal”

“Hymne à la beauté”

On this date in 1857 Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal was first published.

In this excerpt from “The Literary Meaning of ‘Archetype'”, Baudelaire only gets a passing mention, but his work is nevertheless associated with a constellation of archetypes.

This aspect of symbolism is what I mean by archetypal symbolism.  I should tentatively define an archetype, then, as a symbol, that is, a unit of a work of literary art, which connects one poem with another and thereby helps to unify and integrate our literary experience.  The archetype is thus primarily  the communicable symbol, and archetypal criticism is particularly concerned with literature as a social fact and as a technique of communication.  By the study of conventions and genres, it attempts to fit poems into a body of poetry as a whole.  It is the only method of criticism known to me in which it is really necessary to assume that there is such a subject as comparative literature.

Or even, we may say, that there is such a subject of literature at all.  The repetition of certain common images of physical nature like the sea or the forest in a large number of poems cannot in itself be called even “coincidence”, which is the name we give to a piece of design when we cannot find a use for it.  But it does indicate a certain unity in the nature that poetry imitates.  And when pastoral images are deliberately employed in Lycidas, for instance, merely because they are conventional, we can see that the convention makes us assimilate these images to other parts of literature.  We think first of its descent from the ritual of the Adonis lament down through Theocritus, Virgil, and the whole pastoral tradition to The Shepheardes Calendar, then of the intricate pastoral symbolism of the Bible and the Christian Church, then of the extensions of pastoral symbolism into Sidney’s Arcadia, The Faerie Queene, Shakespeare’s forest comedies, and so on, then of the post-Miltonic development of pastoral elegy in Shelley, Arnold and Whitman.  We can get a whole liberal education simply by picking up one conventional poem and following its archetypes as they stretch out into the rest of literature.  Expanding images into conventional archetypes is a process that takes place unconsciously in all our reading.  A symbol like the sea or the paradisal garden cannot remain within Conrad or Green Mansions; it is bound to expand over many works into an archetypal symbol of literature as a whole.  The ancient mariner’s albatross links us to Baudelaire and his ship to Rimbaud’s bateau ivre; Yeats’s tower and winding stair blend into Dante’s Purgatory, like their more explicitly allusive counterparts in Eliot; and Moby Dick merges into the leviathan of Job.  There is only one hypothesis that will prevent this linking of archetypes in our reading from being simply free association.  That is the hypothesis that literature is a total form, and not simply the name given to the aggregate of existing literary works.  In other words, we have to think, not only of a single poem imitating nature, but of an order of nature as whole being imitated by a corresponding order of words.  (CW 10, 184-5)