The Evolution of Literary Criticism:
From the Classroom to Social
The advent of English Literature as a degree subject taught in universities and schools has a strong connection with the decline of the importance of religion in society and the parallel emergence of practical criticism or criticism that serves a social function. The study of English in school and university was championed by the likes of Matthew Arnold ,and consequently, the emergence of practical criticism can be traced from him through to T.S. Eliot, I.A. Richards, and F.R. Leavis who, according to Chris Baldick are the “the acknowledged leaders of English critical thought.”1
Even to the most seasoned practitioners of English literature it would seem that the subject is, in and of itself, a “natural” activity without any identifiable beginning. The same goes for literary criticism, which dominates the field and subject of English literature. However, Eliot stated that prior to the emergence of practical criticism and English literature being taught in schools there was a dissociation of sensibility in the seventeenth century literary world. However, this sensibility stated to evolve when Arnold and Leavis claimed a moral purpose for literature. According to them, literary criticism should have wider social effects and should serve as an active participant in the prevalent discourses of society, prompting discussion and action and palpable changes within society.
Prior to the introduction of English to the university system, the Church of England controlled higher education in England. Peter Barry paints this picture of higher education in England prior to the first quarter of the 19th century:
“There were only two universities, Oxford and Cambridge, these were divided into small individual colleges which were run like monastic institutions… The teachers were ordained minsters, who had to be unmarried, so that they...