Medieval Literature Class
Practical Criticism is premised on the idea that the way in which something is said is central to its meaning (for an account of the history of the practice, see Introduction to Practical Criticism). Such criticism focusses minutely, therefore, on the manner, or style of a given text. Style is a large concept, which embraces all the ways in which language can be patterned and presented. Some of those ways could be listed as follows:
- diction, involving register, level of formality, and, where appropriate, linguistic origin
- syntax, involving questions of syntactic complexity or simplicity, and especially questions of syntactic co-ordination or sub-ordination
- metre and rhythm
- poetic form
- rhetorical figures, including figures of thought (sometimes known as tropes, or conceits) and figures of speech (sometimes known as schemes)
- point of view, involving the person of the narrator (age, gender, competence), and both the angle and distance from which the narration is projected.
- implied or stated audience
Style, then, could be described as the cumulative effect of these linguistic resources used in combination. If that is true, then it follows that Practical Criticism is most fruitfully applied to texts that are themselves densely textured. Many texts, however, were not written for private readers who can appreciate linguistic complexity through private re-reading. In all kinds of social situations, texts must communicate to an audience that is not in a position to appreciate texts in private leisure. Many texts (and this is especially true of medieval literature) have, for example, been written for a listening audience, and are therefore written in a less densely textured way. They are written to be understood via the ear rather than the eye. Does this mean that Practical Criticism cannot be applied to such texts? Not at all, but it does mean that verbal density is not the only criterion for literary and cultural interest.
©James Simpson 2000