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“The best poetry has a power of forming, sustaining, and delighting us, as nothing else can. … More and more mankind will discover that we have to turn to poetry to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us. Without poetry, our science will appear incomplete; and most of what now passes with us for religion and philosophy will be replaced by poetry.”
- Matthew Arnold, “The Study of Poetry”
An important source of moral guidance and spiritual inspiration
A worthy substitute for religion
in harmony with critical tradition
Moral approach has the longest history.
The importance of literature
not just its way of saying
but also what it says
Critics who concentrate on the moral dimensions of literature often
judge literary works by their ethical teachings and by their effects on readers
Literature that is ethically sound and encourages virtue is praised.
Literature that misguides and corrupts is condemned.
Some modern critical theories may make us resist the idea that literature has a didactic purpose.
but cannot deny many of the greatest writers have considered themselves teachers as well as artists.
acknowledged literature’s power as a teacher by believing it capable of corrupting morals and undermining religion
Aristotle and Horace
considered literature capable of fostering virtue
Literature should be “delightful and instructive”
Function of literature
To teach morality
To probe philosophical issues
“The Study of Poetry”
Most important thing is the moral or philosophical teaching
Great literary work must possess “high seriousness”
Important source of moral and spiritual inspiration
Would probably replace philosophy and religion
Can accept his idea that there are moral and religious significance in literature.
20th century moral evaluation
Literature as a criticism of life
the study of the technique of literature is a study of means
concerned with the ends of literature
How it affects the reader
Paul Elmer More
Harry Hayden Clark
Frank Jewett Mather
Stuart Sherman Pratt
Opposed two literary tendencies:
Denies man free will and responsibility
Excessive cultivation of ego
Sympathy with unrestrained expression
most influential and controversial moral critic of the 20th century
held that literature must help us recognize
the reality of evil
the necessity of controlling our impulses
“Genius and Taste” (1918)
“Truly great literature conforms to standards, to the ethical norm that sets bounds to the eagernessof the creator to express himself.” (164-165)
Literature that does not abide by such standards leads to:
Rousseau and Romanticism (1919)
critical of romanticism
condemns romantic morality
sees Blake as “the extreme example” of dangerous romantic rejection of limits and restraints:
“He proclaims himself of the devil’s party, he glorifies a free expansion of energy, he looks upon everything that restricts this expansion as synonymous with evil.”
Blake & other poets have contributed to a moral decline in society.
Paul Elmer More
It is the critic’s duty, to determine the moral tendency of literary works and to judge them on that basis.
The greatest critics are “discriminators between the false and the true, the deformed and the normal: preachers of harmony and proportion and order, prophets of the religion of taste.”
Paul Elmer More
“The Praise of Dickens”
Focuses on what is “false” and what is “true” in Dickens’ works.
Values Dickens’ “divine tenderness” and “humandelicacy” but also says “a strain of vulgarity” runs through his works (166).
Point of contention:
Whether the moralist would or would not acknowledge supernatural sanction for the moral standards he held up to the arts.
Associated with institutional religion
Necessity of alliance between religion and morality
Secular and religiously noncommittal
“Death” of Neo-Humanism
Birth of Christian Humanism (Religious Humanism)
"a philosophy advocating the self- fulfillment of man within the framework of Christian principles.“ (Webster)
Most human beings have personal and social needs that can only be met by religion
Man in Modern Fiction: SomeMinority Opinions on Contemporary American Writing (1958)
Fuller’s definition of critic is “to appraise the validity and the implications of the image of man projected by the artist’s use of his materials.”
Fuller (like Babbitt and More) sees standards and restraints as essential for moral action.
Condemns much of modern fiction for rejecting these guides in the name of compassion.
“Compassion must be based on a large and generous view of life and a distinct set of values” (34).
The compassion found in many modern novels is “a teary slobbering over the criminal and degraded, the refusal to assign any share of responsibility to them, and a vindictive lashing out against the rest of the world” (35-37)
The Ethics of Criticism
“literary criticism is inextricably linked to ethics” (1)
“…literary criticism accepts the task of examining to what extent literature and life contribute to the nature and knowledge of each other” (42).
Attempts to extract literature from an ethical context are misguided and ultimately unsuccessful.
Faults New Criticism
The Moral Imagination: Essays on Literature and Ethics (1986)
“literary works usually embody moral problems and reflect moral attitudes, sometimes even moral theories. There is no good reason for criticism to tiptoe around one of the major reasons that literary works endure” (xi).
Moral approach has become less popular and influential during the last few decades.
It could be due to
the excess of the critics
the deficiencies of the approach itself
the moral laxness of other critics
However, there are other critics/critical fields which promote a moral fervor in their writings:
“Aristotle’s Sister: A Poetics of Abandonment” (1983)
In addition to winning critical attention for many neglected works by women writers, feminist criticism has sparked a reevaluation of many works traditionally granted high, secure places in the canon.
“Something peculiar has been happening lately to the classics; some of them now seem less heroic, and some of them less funny. Those ‘irrelevant’ scenes of cruelty to women… have changed their character.” (79)
Do not categorize themselves as “Humanists”
Do express the traditional concern for the moral ends of literature
Kenneth B. Murdock
Literature and Theology in Colonial New England (1949)
Analyzes Puritan works
Sermons to poems
Notes plain style
Disapproval of art that only pleased the senses
Imagery: “homeliness” and “realism”
Religion and Literature (1971)
Examined religious elements in secular works
It is “a Christian tragedy in the sense that it is a tragedy of the imperatives and torments of the conscience.”
Hamlet’s discovery of all the evil and corruption in the world
Must recognize Hamlet’s attitude as fundamentally Christian
Stanley Romaine Hopper
Spiritual Problems in Contemporary Literature (1952)
Much modern literature is fundamentally religious
Quest of the Prodigal is central theme in poetry of Auden and Eliot
Analysis of such poetry would be incomplete without taking religious themes into account
Studying such poetry can help the reader understand vital religious issues