Literary criticism and the rise of national literary history

Lawrence Lipking*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

6 Scopus citations


One story that eighteenth-century critics liked to tell about themselves was the triumph of criticism itself, its rise and progress from modest beginnings before the Restoration to a respected place in English literature. ‘Dryden may be properly considered as the father of English criticism, as the writer who first taught us to determine upon principles the merit of composition’, Samuel Johnson wrote in his Prefaces, Biographical and Critical, to the Works of the English Poets (1779–81). Earlier poets like Shakespeare ‘wrote without rules’, and a few hints had been given by Jonson and Cowley, ‘but Dryden's Essay on Dramatick Poetry [1668] was the first regular and valuable treatise on the art of writing’. Since that time, Johnson continues, sound critical principles had become ‘universally practised’ even the common reader was now a good critic. The success story of criticism is exemplified by Johnson's own Prefaces. Commissioned to enhance a massive collection of English poetry from Cowley to Gray, they were soon printed separately as Johnson's Lives of the English Poets, which went through many editions. Readers valued the critical effort to sort and judge the poets who represented the nation, and the pleasures of poetry seemed incomplete without the pleasures of talking about it. Johnson's stature as a leading authority on language and literature as well as the conduct of life contributed to the keen public interest in his opinions. But the habit of supplying works with critical prefaces had been ingrained in English since the time of Dryden, who constantly formulated principles to justify what he published. Without such a preface, a new text might look naked.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge History of English Literature, 1660-1780
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages27
ISBN (Electronic)9781139053877
ISBN (Print)0521781442, 9780521781442
StatePublished - Jan 1 2005

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)


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