In grouping texts according to
"type," the concept of genre is applied to all literary works,
past, present, or future. Thus seeing a single work in its generic
context becomes inseparable from seeing it as part of literary
history. The concept of literary period also implies a grouping
through time. But a work, rather than being "placed" within the
entire sweep of literary history, is "placed" within a much more
restricted time frame. The period concept provides another system
of classification, ordering literary and cultural data
chronologically, within certain discrete time periods. It assumes
every age has its characteristic special features, which are
reflected in its representative artifacts or creations. (Indeed,
among these characteristic features may be its typical choice of
genres.) The kind of coherence displayed is not accidental, for
literary works participate in the culture of their times.
We may ask, for example, how are the "characteristic features" of a given period determined? The facts suggest that very often the majority of writers in a period will continue to use the norms of the previous period. We should note, then, that it is usually a special minority, the greatest and most significant artists, who shape and reflect the defining character of a literary period.
It also becomes clear that at least three qualifications to the period concept are necessary. First, the features that differentiate periods are always relative: works written in one time period often display continuities with works of other periods as well as differences among themselves. Second, the beginning, the flowering, and the end of each literary period can be defined, but cannot be fixed precisely; in addition, such terminal dates may vary from one country to another. Third, no individual work can ever embody all that is associated with a given period.
Another thing we might try to avoid as we read in, or about a period, is what may be called the "evolutionary fallacy." This involves the claim that a particular period represents an "advance" of some sort or that something "higher" has "evolved" out of earlier, more "primitive" forms. The more one studies literature, the more one recognizes that the paradigm of cumulative progress is untenable, that one period cannot be said to be "better" than another. What we do see is that works of differing styles (which reflect their time periods) often go through cycles of enthusiastic reception, then disfavor, and then perhaps revival of interest.
Finally, the attentive student may note that even the labeling of literary periods and movements does not always appear to be consistent. This has come about because the traditional names derive from a variety of sources. "Humanism" came from the history of ideas, and the "Renaissance" from art historians; "Restoration" came from political history, and "The Eighteenth Century" is strictly chronological; "Neoclassic" and "Romantic" came from literary theory, while both "Elizabethan" and "Victorian" came from the names of reigning monarchs.
Despite these cautions and
qualifications, the study of literary periods and movements can be
helpful in three ways. At the least, for student or for scholar,
there is always some teasing contemporary allusion that can only be
cleared up by study of the age. More significantly, such study may
help one avoid the potential danger of misreading a work through
ignorance of its historical context. Finally, and most importantly,
great works of art do indeed seem clearer and more interesting in
proportion to the reader's possession of certain broad kinds of
information about the age in which they were produced--whether it
be about the age's religious orientation or its cosmology, about
its attitude toward "love," toward the classics or its own place in
history, toward the state, the individual, or society. The reader's
experience of literature will necessarily be enriched by knowledge
of the prevailing attitudes toward education, money, arranged
marriages, duty, ethics; by its attitudes toward human nature,
including the importance attached to various human faculties
(spirit, reason, feeling, imagination). And especially important to
the student of literature is the age's representative attitudes
toward art and the methods of its creation.
Renaissance || Neoclassical Period || Romantic Period
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