Log in

No account? Create an account

Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

steepholm steepholm
Previous Entry Share Next Entry
The Origins of Literary 'Analysis'
When did critics start using the word 'analysis' in connection with the discussion of literature? My feeling is that it's virtually absent from pre-1900 work, though if I'm wrong I'd be grateful to be told so. A. C. Bradley introduces it in Shakesperian Tragedy (1904) with some misgivings, fearing that it may be antithetical to imagination, and in the case of some characters - such as Ophelia - even a 'desecration', but believing too that its potential benefits justify its use:

[Lovers of Shakespeare] do not need, of course, to imagine whereabouts the persons are to stand, or what gestures they ought to use; but they want to realise fully and exactly the inner movements which produced these words and no other, these deeds and no other, at each particular moment. This, carried through a drama, is the right way to read the dramatist Shakespeare; and the prime requisite here is therefore a vivid and intent imagination. But this alone will hardly suffice. It is necessary also, especially to a true conception of the whole, to compare, to analyse, to dissect. And such readers often shrink from this task, which seems to them prosaic or even a desecration. They misunderstand, I believe. They would not shrink if they remembered two things. In the first place, in this process of comparison and analysis, it is not requisite, it is on the contrary ruinous, to set imagination aside and to substitute some supposed 'cold reason'; and it is only want of practice that makes the concurrent use of analysis and of poetic perception difficult or irksome. And, in the second place, these dissecting processes, though they are also imaginative, are still, and are meant to be, nothing but means to an end. When they have finished their work (it can only be finished for the time) they give place to the end, which is that same imaginative reading or re-creation of the drama from which they set out, but a reading now enriched by the products of analysis, and therefore far more adequate and enjoyable.

What I'm mostly interested in is the domain or domains from which the term leached into literary critical usage, becoming central to it from the 1920s on. There's psycho-analysis, of course (though note that Bradley at least is a pre-Freudian); but there are also mathematical, philosophical and scientific varieties, and perhaps others besides. My sense - perhaps biased by the fact that it fits the argument I want to make - is that literary critics took up the term so enthusiastically because of its quasi-scientific cachet, wishing to be seen as doing to texts much what biologists did to living material (note Bradley's 'dissect') and chemists to things in test tubes.

Does that seem wildly off-kilter?
Tags: ,

The OED places it much earlier, with an example pertaining to literature from 1684. It includes many examples in which "analysis" means a thorough examination of an idea (religion; grammar; logic) predating scientific use from the 16th through 18th centuries. So I wonder if science and lit-crit got it from the same source for the same reasons--to attach gravitas and seriousness to their endeavors.

Edited to add: does it have something to do with the development of the study of vernacular languages and literatures, rather than classics, perhaps? I don't know what, though.

Edited at 2016-01-02 08:53 pm (UTC)

Yes, true - thank you. And in fact there's a whole sub-sense of 'analyse' (II.3.a) devoted to this sense specifically:

a. To examine (a text) critically to bring out its meaning; to discuss the style, structure, or composition of (a literary work).

To which is appended helpfully: 'Originally used of scriptural exegesis, esp. that in which each part of a text is interpreted successively.'

So it comes in via theology, I suppose. I'm struck by the number of examples that collocate it with 'dissect', though. But my favourite is from Anne of Green Gables, four years after Bradley: 'They had studied Tennyson's poem in school the preceding winter... They had analyzed and parsed it and torn it to pieces in general.'

That's not to say that the idea of analysis as being the primary function of criticism didn't gain prominence from the 1920s, of course, or that it didn't acquire scientistic connotations in that new context, but it does complicate matters...

I just want to note that Bradley's second explanation is something that I, and everyone else I know who analyzes artistic works outside of the academy, has to trot out constantly in response to objections to what we're doing.

It's not only outside the academy. The whole 'breaking a butterfly upon a wheel' conversation about analysing works is one that crops up with students all the time, particularly in their first year. I'm interested in the history of this perceived opposition, and what's at stake in arguments about it.

(Deleted comment)
Thank you, yes that's very useful. It's interesting that this analysis is directed to the characters rather than the plays as such. That seems to be a better-established tradition in English letters.

Earliest use I found is 1775: https://books.google.com/books?id=ZB8FAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA328&dq=%22literary+analysis%22+smollett&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjHtOe_m5HKAhVBdj4KHZzDD5YQ6AEIHDAA#v=onepage&q=%22literary%20analysis%22%20smollett&f=false

The NYU catalogue of 1851 includes within the Rhetorical Studies division of the Moral Sciences curriculum a "thorough application of the principles of Literary Analysis and Criticism to the master works in Literature."


Thanks! The first one's particularly interesting, contrasting literary with chemical analysis as it does.

That is indeed rather striking!

It doesn't help track the path, but it definitely shows a long-term trend in how often the term is used!