What is meant by the “historical method” in criticism?


In a very simple way historical method began to find an entrance into literary study through early modern attempts at writing literary chronicle – early nationalistic inclinations to look back over certain centuries and to catalogue authors, manuscripts, or printed books, as in the bibliographies of English literature compiled by Leland, c. 1545, Bale, 1548 and 1557, Tanner, 1748, and Mackenzie, 1708-22.

The drive toward literary history had begun during the 18th century in observations and speculations that were primarily evaluative – that is, they had to do with a re-assessment of neoclassic norms and a turning back to look at primitive literatures with what was considered a greater fairness.

The course of development of a nation’s language, thought, and poetry, is profoundly interesting; and by regarding a poet’s work as a stage in this course of development we may easily bring ourselves to make it of more importance as poetry than in itself it really is the mere presence of historical research as a method of ever-increasing efficiency tended to promote exhibitions of its worth.


The notion of a rigorously historical study of literature had, it is true, a long neo-classic and classic ancestry. In the historical and deterministic critics deriving from Hegel, like Taine, literature was the expression of race, milieu, and moment.

Some critics believe that a work of art cannot be fully appreciated without knowing fully the life of the artist. To them, the function of criticism is to have a thorough acquaintance with tie biography of the artists or the writers.

The historical method excellent as it is, has been weighed in the balance and found wanting If criticism considered as a evolution has as its purpose the assessment of the work as a piece of literature, then it might be urged that any historical consideration is irrelevant. A work of art is either good or bad, and though historical conditions may help to account for its badness (or its goodness) it cannot alter the fact.

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