A brief survey of the Victorian sense reveals that literary criticism during the age easily falls into three clear-cut and distinct times – the early Victorian, the mid-Victorian and the later Victorian. The early Victorian era (1835-1860) is a period of the decay and decline of literary criticism.

There is practically no talented critic, and no outstanding work of literary criticism. The only names worth mentioning are those of Keble and Brimley. No doubt, Macaulay, Carlyle and John Stuart Mill belong to this age, but they are not literary critics. Their literary criticism, though of a high standard, is only incidental; their interests are historical, social or philosophical.

To the middle period (1860-1880) belong Arnold and Ruskin, both outstanding thinkers and scholars. Of these two, Ruskin is more an art critic than a literary critic, though his literary criticism too is illuminating and original. Ruskin considered the art to be the greatest medium which conveyed to the reader the greatest number of the greatest ideas.

Thus he could achieve a synthesis or compromise between art and morality. This very compromise Arnold did achieve by advocating that poetry should be a criticism of life, and that criticism should propagate the best that ever was thought or written.


In the third phase (1830-1910) this synthesis is broken, and the cult of “art for Art’s sake” as distinguished from the earliest cult of “Art for life’s sake” acquires prominence. Pater and Oscar Wilde are the most powerful exponents of this cult. They stand in the front rank of the English aesthetes, who made the pursuit of Beauty, to the total exclusion of life and reality, the concern of their art.

The ultimate source of this school of ‘art for art’s sake’ may be traced to Idealistic philosophy of Kant and other German philosophers. Now it was revived under the influence of the French critic Gautier, and the French symbolist Baudelaire. The critics of this school sought refuge from the ugliness and harshness of reality in the realm of art. Their method of evaluation is largely individual and impressionistic.

To the later Victorian phase also belong a number of able and scholarly university professors who devote themselves to literary criticism. Their works lacks originality, but they are talented scholars. They collect their facts painstakingly and their methods are scientific and systematic.

Leslie Stephen, Edward Dowden, George Saintsbury, David Masson, are only a few of these illustrious names. Their contribution is of far-reaching significance in as much as they bring facts to light, and make us see things in their correct perspective.