Requisites of literary criticism involve understanding and delving into a set of concepts and intellectual assumptions based on the underlying structure which constitutes the literary matter and the objective of the critical practice. The text is not merely just text but is a product or conception of the world outside the text.
Even with the proliferation of the Formalist approach—scientific basis through objective analysis of the motifs, devices, techniques, and other “functions”—the traditional approach of criticizing literary texts by tracking influences, establishing the canon of major writers in the literary periods, and clarifying historical context and allusions internal to the literary art remains a prominent form of criticism today.
The intellectual Structuralist and Post-Structuralist approach questions the importance of ‘historical/cultural contextualization’ in the face of objective criterion for analysis and pronounced importance of the literary form. Here we try to dis/prove the immediate roles of ‘historical contextualization’ on some popular poetry works spanning from different periods— The Lady of the Shalott (Medieval Ages ), William Blake’s The Lamb (Age of Romanticism), Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum (War Period).
Ordinarily, we associate mysticism, chivalry and knighthood with the Medieval Ages. The Lady of the Shallot can only be understood in terms of its’ historical implications primarily because the song/tale’s immediate objective was to denote the beliefs of the [medieval] locality [of Camelot] on the existence of ethereal beings and the fear [of the locality] and respect/admiration for the abstract beings.
William Blake’s The Lamb reflects the dreaminess of the Romantic Era which focuses much on the genteel qualities of life like the ‘pastures’ and ‘the little lamb [endearment terms for the baby]. Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum conditions us with tales of patriotism and war; the intent was unmistakable—depict the ugliness of bloodshed associated with [First World] War, it’s inevitability and the justifiable cause in the name of patriotism.
The historical values reflecting each era was clearly visible in terms of literary structure and author’s intent; while it is clear that the ‘structure’ and ‘forms’ reflect the internal qualities of the literary pieces, it must be maintained that we should acknowledged the necessity of making historical value judgments to feed the author’s intent and the cultural implications implicit within the texts.
Through this, we can address the fundamental aspects of literature— the material conditions of the culture depicted in each text and the underlying subtext; the revelations of economic and social realities that are embedded in different timeframes; and more so, the evolution of ideologies for the different timeframes/period. As previously noted, the different works do not work in a continuum; the literary consumption for Medieval Ages differ markedly from the Romantic and the War Era.
The medieval ages tend to hinge more on knighthood; the Romantic Era on pastoral qualities; and the War Era on bloodshed. We are trying to point out here that literature being a product of social context, then it must be analyzed on the material conditions imposed by the environment at the time of literary rendering and intent of the author. Culture is, after all, reflected in each text, hence the necessity of ‘contextualization.
’ What is literary is actually historical reality and cultural expression [and consumption] is a unifying concept amongst all literary forms. Thus, we can conclude that historical contextualization is an indispensible element in criticizing literary texts.
Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.
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