Literary criticism (or even ‘literary theory’) goes back as far as ancient Greece, and Aristotle’s Poetics. But the rise of English Literature as a university subject, at the beginning of the twentieth century, led to literary criticism focusing on English literature – everything from Shakespeare to contemporary literature – being taken seriously. Numerous masterpieces have been produced in the ‘genre’: here are a dozen of the most significant and notable works of literary criticism written in English.
1. F. H. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy.
In 1904, this immeasurably influential study of Shakespeare’s tragedies appeared. It is still in print – as an affordable Penguin Classics edition – and although Bradley sometimes treats the characters a little too much as though they were real people rather than imaginary constructions, there’s a raft of lucid insights into the plays to be had. Given how early this landmark work of literary criticism was published, it’s still endlessly readable thanks to Bradley’s colloquial and relatable style.
2. I. A. Richards, Practical Criticism.
Published in 1929, this book is as much the write-up to an educational experiment as it is a work of traditional literary criticism. Richards, whose lectures were hugely popular at Cambridge during the 1920s, gave his students a series of short poems with the authors and dates removed. This encouraged students to respond to the words on the page, paying close attention to the form and style of the poem and their response to the poem’s features. Richards’s work would influence American New Criticism in the mid-twentieth century – and his most famous pupil, William Empson …
Recommended edition: Practical Criticism: A Study of Literary Judgment
3. William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity.
William Empson (1906-1984) was a poet as well as a critic, and this probably helped him to get under the skin, as it were, of many of the poems he analyses in this pioneering work of poetry criticism, published in 1930 and written when he was still only in his early twenties (and completed shortly after he had been expelled from the University of Cambridge when contraceptives were found in his rooms).
Taking his examples from Geoffrey Chaucer as well as T. S. Eliot, Empson wittily examines the various ways in which poets generate ambiguity in their work, from simple examples to more complex and less easily resolved instances. Jonathan Bate called Empson the funniest critic of the twentieth century. He is also one of the most illuminating.
Recommended edition: Seven Types of Ambiguity
4. Caroline Spurgeon, Shakespeare’s Imagery and What It Tells Us.
This landmark work of literary analysis was first published in 1934, and is a fascinating study of Shakespeare’s writing and well worth reading. Spurgeon examines the images of Shakespeare’s plays in order to find out what sorts of images he most frequently draws on and what this might tell us about him, especially in terms of his relation to his contemporaries.
Stephen Fry has called it a sort of early version of what we’d now call digital fingerprinting, whereby digital analysis shows word frequencies and usage in Shakespeare’s work. It is a good study of what makes Shakespeare so peculiar alongside his fellow Elizabethan and Jacobean writers.
Recommended edition: Shakespeare’s Imagery and What It Tells Us
5. F. R. Leavis, The Great Tradition.
Leavis was another influential Cambridge academic, who founded the journal Scrutiny with his wife Q. D. (Queenie) Leavis in 1932. But it’s this 1948 book, which made a case for the few authors Leavis thought worthy of admittance into the canon of the great English novel (Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, Joseph Conrad), that is his most famous and representative work.
Recommended edition: The Great Tradition (Pelican)
6. M. H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp.
Not to be confused with the title of a Hilary Mantel novel, this ground-breaking study of Romanticism was published in 1953 and showed how, until the Romantics, art was seen to reflect the world (like a mirror), whereas the Romantics – and various writers and critics who have come along since – thought that art should illuminate the world (like a light). Abrams was born in 1912 and died at the ripe old age of 102 in 2015; this remained his most significant work, and one of the most important mid-century works of literary criticism.
Recommended edition: The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition (Galaxy Books)
7. Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism.
When literary critics of some reputation taught at summer schools in the mid-twentieth century, they would often teach ‘the poetry course’ or ‘the Shakespeare course’. When Frye turned up to teach, he’d be asked to teach ‘the Northrop Frye course’.
As this anecdote suggests, Frye’s influence on twentieth-century literary criticism was vast and distinguished, and he was writing at the peak of his powers when he penned this 1957 ‘anatomy’ of types of literature, adopting a structuralist approach to genre and form. Among other things, Frye’s book makes you want to go away and read all of the famous works of poetry, drama, and fiction which he draws upon.
Recommended edition: Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays
8. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics.
Bringing together various ‘isms’ and literary theories from the twentieth century, including feminist literary criticism, Marxism, and Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction, Spivak offers what might be described as an intersectional analysis of the relationship between women and their language and culture, in both western and non-western cultures. This book is as much cultural theory as it is literary criticism, although it also contains some astute readings of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Yeats’s work, and Wordsworth’s The Prelude.
Recommended edition: In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics
9. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic.
Published in 1979, this joint-authored book is a vast and highly readable study of Victorian fiction written by women, including the Brontës and George Eliot. The book’s title, of course, is taken from Bertha Mason/Rochester, Mr Rochester’s first wife whom he locks away in his house (technically, in the room below the attic) in Jane Eyre. Gilbert and Gubar’s enjoyable and perceptive analysis of the various tropes, symbols, and images nineteenth-century female novelists employed in their work makes for a provocative and persuasive account of the ways in which women negotiated the patriarchal society about which, and in which, they wrote.
10. Christopher Ricks, The Force of Poetry.
This 1984 volume is a collection of essays written during the 1960s-1980s, by one of the greatest living critics of poetry. Upon reading Ricks’s biography of Tennyson, W. H. Auden called Ricks ‘exactly the kind of critic every poet dreams of finding’. But Ricks is also a brilliant writer too, with a fondness (some would say weakness) for puns and wordplay of all kinds. He clearly has great fun pondering the significance of a semi-colon or set of parentheses, or the meaning of a particular image or word. This volume includes essays on, among others, medieval poet John Gower, John Milton, Samuel Johnson, Geoffrey Hill, and Stevie Smith.
Recommended edition: The Force of Poetry
11. Nicholas Royle, Telepathy and Literature: Essays on the Reading Mind.
Ranging from Shakespeare to Raymond Chandler, Royle reads canonical and non-canonical works of fiction, poetry, and drama through the lens of telepathy, exploring new ways of thinking about literary texts and the relationship between reader and author. Influenced by Derrida but far more accessible, Royle’s readings are perhaps the best way to begin learning how to write ‘creative criticism’: criticism that reimagines what the literary-critical essay might look like, while still offering some wonderfully nuanced and sensitive close readings of the texts under discussion.
Recommended edition: Telepathy and Literature by ROYLE (1990-11-29)
12. Eleanor Cook, Against Coercion: Games Poets Play.
Cook, who taught at the University of Toronto, collected some of her most important essays on a range of poets – including T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens – in this book in 1998. From the opening essay, in which Cook convincingly argues that Eliot’s The Waste Land was partly a response to Eliot’s reading of John Maynard Keynes’s The Economic Consequences of the Peace, it’s clear that Cook is a superlative critic who marries close reading of classic works of poetry to their various literary, social, and economic contexts. Cook has written other fine books, including a study of riddles and enigmas throughout literature, but this is the place to begin.
Recommended edition: Against Coercion: Games Poets Play