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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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Periodization in literary history can hardly be dis-
cussed apart from periodization in general history. The
contrast between the modern age and antiquity was
a central issue in literary debates for centuries. La
querelle des anciens et des modernes
at the end of the
seventeenth century in France and its echo in England—
where it is usually called the “Battle of the Books”—
did much to define the idea of progress and demon-
strate the emancipation of the moderns from the
ancients. But Friedrich Schiller's distinction between
naive and sentimental (1795) and the Schlegels' con-
trast of classical and romantic resume the same debate
in different terms. The consciousness of a new age, in
what later became to be called the Renaissance, im-
plied as early as Petrarch a conception of the Middle
Ages as the dark or monkish ages. It was extended to
literature, though the term “Middle Ages” cannot be
traced further back than to 1688 when Christophus
Cellarius (Keller), in Halle issued Historia medii aevi.

In the seventeenth century specific ages of literature
established their supremacy and attracted laudatory
terms independently of purely political periodizations.
For example, John Dryden in his Original and Progress
of Satire
(1693) enumerates the great age of Euripides,
Sophocles, Aristophanes, “and the rest among the
Greeks” alongside the age of Augustus and that of
Lorenzo de'Medici and Pope Leo X (Essays, ed. Ker,
II, 25). Voltaire in Le Siècle de Louis XIV (1751) lists
the great French age with the ages of Pope Leo X,
Augustus, and Alexander. Characteristically, he ignores
the age of Pericles which, later in the eighteenth cen-
tury, was usually added to the four great ages.

The metaphor of the Golden Age drawn for the
scheme of mythical history first found in Hesiod's


Works and Days was during the Renaissance proudly
claimed for contemporary Italy. In a letter of Marsilio
Ficino (1492) his own age is called golden and Erasmus,
in a letter to Pope Leo X (1517) and the dedication
of his edition of the Vulgate to the Pope, congratulated
him for turning a worse than iron age into a golden
one. Similar claims for their own time were not un-
common in the Spain and France of the sixteenth
century, but a specific application of this term to the
literature of a particular age seems later. Dryden, in
the Preface to the Fables (1700) says that “with Ovid
ended the golden age of the Roman tongue,” but this
opinion seems to have been common much earlier.
Tiraboschi in his Storia della letteratura italiana
(Modena, 1777), calls the sixteenth century of Italian
literature secolo d'oro rather casually, and so does
Algarotti in a letter of 1752. This must be also an old
usage, as Bishop Berkeley refers, in Alciphron (1723),
to “the golden age (as the Italians call it) of Leo the
Tenth.” (See Fritz Schalk, “Das goldene Zeitalter als
Epoche,” in Exempla romanischer Wortgeschichte,
Frankfurt, 1966.) Bishop Hurd's dialogue “On the
Golden Age of Queen Elizabeth” (1759) was an early
statement of what to Thomas Warton seemed a com-
monplace. In his History of English Poetry ([1790], III,
490) Warton expressly states “The age of Queen Eliza-
beth is commonly called the golden age of English
poetry.” Later, in the context of the romantic revolt,
Friedrich Schlegel in Gespräch über die Poesie (1800)
and Geschichte der alten und neuen Literatur (lecture
15, 1815) attacked the concept of the Golden Age and
pointed to its relativity. J. C. Gottsched identified the
golden age of German literature as the time of Fred-
erick the Great, in poets such as Besser, Neukirch, and
Pietsch, completely forgoteen even in Schlegel's time.
Only in Spain has the term el siglo de oro become
completely established. It seems to have been used first
by Francisco Martínez de la Rosa, a romantic poet,
when writing his Poética while exiled in Paris. Today
it is usually conceived as extending well beyond a
century from Garcilaso (who died in 1536) to the death
of Calderón (1681).

The concept of the Golden Age suggested the appli-
cation of a Silver Age to literature. In Ainsworth's
Latin English Dictionary (1736) we are told that
“Tacitus, Pliny the historian, Suetonius, and some other
prose writers flourished in the silver age” and this usage
must go back to Latin writers of the preceding century.
Herder, in 1775 (ed. Suphan, 5, 633), and Friedrich
Schlegel (Kritische Ausgabe, 11, 127) refer to this con-
trast which seems, however, rare before the later nine-
teenth century. F. A. Wolf in his Geschichte der rö-
mischen Literatur
(1832) does not even allude to it. An
echo of this conception is Thomas Love Peacock's
witty little treatise “The Four Ages of Poetry” (1820)
of iron, gold, silver, and brass seen as a sequence in
antiquity and repeated inexorably by the moderns—
which elicited Shelley's Defense of Poetry (1822, pub-
lished 1840). These terms imply a concept of evolution,
a scheme of the flowering and decay of literature.

The simplest and one of the oldest methods is the
division by calendar centuries, decades, or years in
annalistic fashion. “Period” is treated implicitly as
merely a linguistic label, as a convenience in the de-
limitation of a topic or the subdivision of a book. This
view, though frequently unintended, underlies many
studies even today which religiously respect datelines
of centuries or which set exact limitations of years (e.g.,
1700-50) unjustified by any reason other than the
practical need of some time limits. An extreme nomi-
nalism is implied in such practice. “Period” is, in this
view, an arbitrary imposition on material which in
reality is nothing but a continuous directionless flux.
Richard Moritz Meyer (1901) defended his division of
nineteenth-century German literary history by decades
on theoretical grounds, but such self-consciousness is
rare. One must realize, however, that the names of
centuries at least in some literatures, particularly in
Italian, have assumed an almost symbolic meaning, so
that Trecento, Quattrocento, Cinquecento, Seicento,
etc., probably under the influence of their meaning in
the history of art, continue to be widely used, and also
in English the term “Eighteenth Century” seems to
have assumed a stylistic meaning about equivalent to

Many period concepts in literary history presuppose
rather a dependence on or parallel to historical, politi-
cal, and social changes. Literature is implicitly con-
ceived as determined by the historical, political, and
social revolutions of a nation and the problem of
determining literary periods is handed over to the
general historian, whose divisions and periodizations
are often adopted without question. Older English
literary histories frequently were written in divisions
according to the reigns of the English sovereigns. This
division could and can hardly be carried out consis-
tently. It would be difficult to defend an account of
early nineteenth-century literature which respects the
dates of the reigns of George III (d. 1820), George IV
(d. 1830), and William IV (d. 1837). The distinctions
however, between the literature under Queen Eliza-
beth (d. 1603), James I (d. 1625), and Charles I (d. 1648)
still survive in such terms as “Elizabethan,” “Jaco-
bean,” and “Caroline” drama.

Among the English monarchs, Queen Elizabeth and
Queen Victoria, have come to symbolize the character
respectively of their times and their literatures. The
exact chronological span of their reigns is, however,


usually not respected in practice. The term “Eliza-
bethan” thus often includes dramatists up to the closing
of the theaters in 1642, thirty-nine years after the death
of the Queen. On the other hand, hardly anybody
would refer to a man such as Oscar Wilde as a Victo-
rian though his life falls well within the chronological
limits of Queen Victoria's reign.

A special case in literary periodization is presented
by the term “Augustan” which was applied early to
the period after the Restoration to the death of Queen
Anne. It claims comparison with the great age of
Rome, flatters the reigning monarch, and congratulates
the English poets. It seems first to occur in Bishop
Atterbury's preface to Waller's Poems (1690); was ap-
plied to English literature by Leonard Welsted in 1724
(Epistles, Odes, etc. p. 45), and was used as a matter
of course in Joseph Spence's sketch of a History of
English Poetry
(written in French about 1732-33, pub-
lished in 1949): he speaks there of notre Age Augustaine
qui commence avec la Restauration de Charles 2.
Goldsmith wrote “An Account of the Augustan Age
in England” for The Bee (24 November 1759) and Anna
Seward refers to the age of Pope as “generally called
the Augustan age” (in Gentleman's Magazine [April
1789], p. 192). The irony of Pope's Epistle to Augustus
(i.e., George II, in 1737) must be seen in this context.
All these examples precede the date (1819) given for
the first occurrence of the term in the New English

Similar processes can be observed in other litera-
tures: in French the term: “the age of Louis XIV” (who
reigned from 1643 to 1715) is in literary use usually
confined to the writings of the heyday of classicism:
from Pascal's Lettres provinciales (1656-57) to Fén-
elon's Télémaque (1699). In other literatures the atten-
tion to monarchs varies with their importance: in
Russia the dominance of the Czars assures some signifi-
cance to distinctions among the ages of Peter, Cather-
ine the Great, the two Alexanders, and the two Nicho-
lases while in Germany only Frederick the Great and
possibly the Emperor Wilhelm I have lent their names
to literary periods (Das Friedericianische Zeitalter, das
Wilhelminische Zeitalter
). Elsewhere (e.g., in Italy)
terms of rulers seem almost without significance for

Individual historical events and great social changes
associated with them have provided other common
period concepts. In England the Restoration of 1660
is also an obvious dividing line in literature; the French
revolution of 1789, the fall of Napoleon in 1815, the
1830 and 1848 revolutions, and the establishment of
the republic in 1871 are landmarks in French literary
history. In Germany the end of the Thirty Years War
(1648) and the Seven Years War (1753) are treated as
watersheds in literature. The list could be extended
almost indefinitely. It gives rise to debates about the
exact relation between these events and the literature
of the times.

The dependence of literary periodization on political
and social history has, however, never been complete.
Periods were and are divided by diverse criteria de-
rived rather from intellectual and art history and from
the slogans of the literary movements themselves. In
practice, the derivation of these names current today
is bewilderingly diverse. A glance at the usual terms
of English literary historiography suffices to reveal the
lack of consistency in the usual sequence. “Reforma-
tion” comes from a movement mainly in ecclesiastical
history; “humanism” describes a revolution in classical
scholarship; “Renaissance” is a term first used widely
in the history of the plastic arts; “Restoration” refers
to a single political event; “Augustan” is a self-
congratulatory term suggesting an analogy to Rome.
“Classicism,” “romanticism,” “realism,” “symbol-
ism,” “naturalism” are definitely literary terms.
“Modernism,” though wider in its implications, has also
primarily literary associations.

In other literatures the picture is equally motley.
In American literature “the Colonial period” is a well-
defined historical term. “Puritanism” and “Transcen-
dentalism” are religious or philosophical notions.
“Romanticism,” “realism,” and “naturalism” are lit-
erary slogans. In France the neat literary sequence
“Renaissance, classicism, romanticism, realism, sym-
bolism” has prevailed, though le siècle des lumières
emphasizes rather ideology. In German literary history,
“baroque” has won out as a designation for the litera-
ture of the seventeenth century, while in the eighteenth
century shorter subdivisions are generally accepted. Of
these Sturm und Drang is a slogan derived from a
contemporary play by Friedrich Maximilian Klinger
performed in 1777, while Klassik is a term dating from
the late nineteenth century to match Romantik a des-
ignation first used derisively for the Heidelberg group
in 1808. The term Das junge Deutschland has stuck
though it was imposed by an arbitrary resolution of
the German Diet in 1835 on a literary coterie of five
authors. “Naturalism” is an established term in German
literary history but neither symbolism nor realism have
caught on though the term poetischer Realismus, in-
vented by Otto Ludwig (1813-65), has made headway
as a designation for the literature from about 1848 to
1885. A peculiarity of German literary history is the
use of local terms such as Biedermeier (derived from
a comic figure invented by L. Eichrodt in the 1850's)
for the literature between 1815 and 1848 and “expres-
sionism” (first used in 1910) which has begun to spread
beyond the confines of the German arts and literature.


In Germany the most sustained efforts were made
to apply the stylistic terms established or recently
devised in art history to literary periods. The art his-
torian Richard Hamann suggested the applicability of
impressionism to a period in literature in his Der Im-
pressionismus in Leben und Kunst
(1907); the Czech
art historian Max Dvořák was apparently the first to
suggest the term “mannerism” for literature which has
been taken up most influentially by Ernst Robert Cur-
tius in his Europäische Literatur und lateinisches Mit-
(Bern, 1948). “Baroque” has completely re-
placed the old deprecatory terms such as Schwulst.
“Rococo” as a literary term emerges in the early 1920's
even with an application to Pope's Rape of the Lock,
in Friedrich Brie's Englische Rokokoepik (1927).
“Gothic” has been used in German literary history
largely as a term for the originally “Teutonic” (in
defiance of the evidence for the origin of gothic in
France) and recently even Jugendstil has been applied
to literature.

All these terms raise large issues about the parallel-
ism of the arts, of the possibility of a “reciprocal illu-
mination of the arts,” as advocated by Oskar Walzel in
Wechselseitige Erhellung der Künste (1917), and of the
existence and nature of a unitary Zeitgeist. The diffi-
culties and dangers of the transfer of such categories
to literature have been widely recognized: the arts and
literature do not always develop step by step, the
categories devised in art history lend often only vague
and even misleading metaphors in their application to
literature. Nevertheless the terms have also spread
outside Germany, as the problem of the parallelism
of the arts is very real indeed. In English the books
by Wylie Sypher, Four Stages of Renaissance Style
(1955) and Rococo to Cubism (1960), and of Roy
Daniells, Milton, Mannerism and Baroque (1963) testify
to the fascination of these transfers.

In Italy the century labels seem to have proved most
useful but Romanticismo is used alternately with Il
“Arcadia,” derived from the name of an
Academy founded in 1690, corresponds roughly to
French and English neo-classicism. Verismo is the Ital-
ian term for naturalism, Ermetismo for symbolism. Sim-
ilar lists could be drawn up for most other literatures.

In defense of this mixture of terms it may be urged
that the apparent confusion is caused by history itself.
Literary history has to pay heed to the ideas and con-
ceptions, the programs and the slogans, of the writers
themselves and must be content with accepting their
own divisions. Consciously formulated programs, and
self-interpretations cannot, one should grant, be ig-
nored. Still, programs and names are only declarations
of intentions which may not conform to performance,
and the whole history of criticism provides only a
running commentary on the history of literary creation.
Contemporary programs and slogans, while offering
suggestions and hints to the modern literary historian,
cannot prescribe his own divisions, for the modern
historian must describe, interpret, and evaluate works
of art in his own terms, not always adequately de-
scribed or even labeled by their contemporaries.

Besides, the terms of so confusingly different origin
were usually not established in their own time. In
English, according to the New English Dictionary, the
term “humanism” occurs first in 1832; “Renaissance”
in 1840; “Elizabethan” in 1817; “Augustan” in 1819;
and “romanticism” in 1844. These dates are not reli-
able. “Augustan” occurs as early as 1690, “romanti-
cism” in 1831, but they indicate the time lag between
the labels and the periods which they designate.
“Romanticism” as a term for the English poets of the
early nineteenth century which used to be grouped
under the “Lake,” “Cockney,” and “Satanic” schools
was established only late in the nineteenth century.
One cannot escape the conclusion that the sequence
of English literary period names is a motley collection
of political, literary, and artistic labels picked up here
and there without much rhyme or reason.

Theorists of literary history have therefore argued
for the adoption of a consistent scheme derived purely
from literary history, from an observation of the deci-
sive changes in literary evolution. A solution of the
problem of evolution of literature is presupposed. A
period is after all only a subsection of the universal
development. Period is thus no metaphysical entity
whose essence can be intuited, as conceived by some
Platonizing Germans, nor an arbitrary cross-section
preferred by nominalists of the British empiricist tradi-
tion, but rather a time-section dominated by a set of
literary norms (conventions, genres, ideals of versifica-
tions, standards of characters, etc.) whose introduction,
spread, diversification, integration, decay, and disap-
pearance can be traced. These norms have to be ex-
tracted from history itself: we have to discover them
in the observable literary process. “Romanticism,” for
instance, is not a unitary quality which spreads like
an infection or a plague, nor is it a mere verbal label,
but it is a historical category or, to use the Kantian
term, a “regulative” idea (or rather a set of ideas) with
the help of which we interpret the historical process.
But we have to find this scheme of concepts in the
process itself. This concept of the term “period” differs
from one frequent use: its expansion to a timeless
psychological type which can be taken out of its his-
torical context and transferred anywhere else. Thus
speaking of “Greek romanticism,” “Latin realism,” or
“medieval classicism” takes these terms out of their
historical context and either assumes some timeless set


of types, or suggests a dubious hypothesis of recur-
rences and regularities in the manner of Oswald

Thus a period is not a type or a class but a time
section defined by a system of norms embedded in the
historical place and irremovable from its historical
place. If it were merely a general concept, it could
be defined exhaustively. But the many futile attempts
to define “romanticism” show that a period is not a
concept similar to a class in logic. If it were, all indi-
vidual works could be subsumed under it. But this is
manifestly impossible. An individual work of art is not
an instance in a class, but a part which together with
all the other works makes up the concept of the whole.
No individual work of art will ever realize the concept
in its entirety nor can the concept exhaust its meaning.
The history of a period will consist in the tracing of
changes from one set of norms to another. While a
period is thus a section of time to which some sort
of unity is ascribed, it is obvious that this unity can
be very imperfect. It means merely that during a spe-
cific period a certain scheme of norms has been realized
most fully, i.e., has been dominant in the eyes of a
later observer. If the unity were absolute, periods
would lie next to each other like blocks of stone. There
would be no continuity of development. Thus the
survival of a preceding scheme of norms, and anticipa-
tions of a following scheme are inevitable, as a period
is historical only if every event is considered a result
of the preceding past and if its effects can be traced
into the future. The decision about the dominance of
specific norms at a specific time will be an act of
criticism, as only critical judgment can single out the
important works of art and their leading traits.

The critic will have to decide which works present
a break with tradition, are genuinely innovating, and
which revive older stages of the literary development,
present throwbacks, and which simply continue the
accepted tradition. Distinctions between epigones,
dominant figures, and path-breaking avant-gardists will
have to be made.

It will be wise to distinguish the concept of “period”
from that of “movement,” “current,” and “school.”
“Movement” might be reserved for a self-conscious and
self-critical activity which, in its metaphor, has the
advantage of suggesting something of the dynamism
of history implicit also in “current,” a term made
popular through Georg Brandes' influential Main Cur-
rents of 19th Century Literature
(originally in Danish,
1872-90), and hence picked up by Vernon L. Parring-
ton for his Main Currents of American Thought
(1927-30), and many others. “School” might be re-
served for a group of writers who derive or owe alle-
giance to some master. The term comes from art his
tory and has its obvious dangers. The members of the
so-called “school of Donne” did not go to school to
Donne in the same way as painters were trained in
the workshop of Titian or Rubens. But Alexander
Pope's sketch of the history of English poetry, first
published in 1769, lists all English poets under headings
such as the School of Provence, the School of Petrarch,
the School of Dante, followed by the schools of Chau-
cer, Spenser, and Donne. Thomas Gray's later sketch
(in a letter 1770, first printed in 1783) speaks of three
Italian schools of English poetry, headed respectively
by Chaucer, Surrey, and Donne, and a contemporary
School of France which began with Waller and culmi-
nated in Pope. The romantic “schools” in Germany
and France designate a coterie, a cénacle, a Pléïade,
or simply groups of friends and acquaintances with
similar aims and ambitions.

Another criterion for the division of literary change
has found much favor in the last hundred years. The
concept of generations, first elaborated in Cournot's
Considérations sur la marche des idées (1872), has since
been applied to literary history. There are many theo-
retical discussions, e.g., by Julius Petersen and Eduard
Wechssler, and more recently by Henri Peyre. A divi-
sion by generations appears first in Friedrich Schlegel's
Geschichte der alten und neuen Literatur (1815) and
is carried out for the German nineteenth century in
F. Kummer's Deutsche Literaturgeschichte des 19.
(1909), and very skillfully for France in
Albert Thibaudet's Histoire de la littérature française
de 1789 à nos jours
(1936). But one should realize that
generation, taken as a biological entity, offers no solu-
tion. If we postulate three generations in a century,
e.g., 1800-33, 1834-67, 1868-1900, we must admit that
there are equally such series as 1801-34, 1835-68,
1869-1901, etc. Biologically considered, these series
are completely equal; and the fact that a group of
writers born around 1800 have influenced literary
change more profoundly than a group born around
1815 must be ascribed to other than biological causes.

No doubt, at some moments in history literary
change has been effected by a group of young people
of approximately equal age: the German Sturm und
or the French romantics around 1830 are obvi-
ous examples. Still, the generational unity is achieved
by social and historical conditions: only people of a
certain age group can have experienced such events
as the French Revolution or the First World War at
an impressionable age. The fact that Wordsworth was
19 and Coleridge 17 at the outbreak of the French
Revolution has obvious bearings on the formation of
their political views as has the fact that Byron was
27, Shelley 23, and Keats 20 at the time of the battle
of Waterloo, and the victory of the Holy Alliance. In


the writing of literary history such groupings by age
will always run into difficulties when dealing with
authors of longevity and a long productive life such
as Goethe or Victor Hugo or with authors who began
to publish late like Stendhal or Proust. In Albert
Thibaudet's History Stendhal and Proust have to ap-
pear outside their generational position: Stendhal with
the generation born in 1800, though he was born in
1783, and Proust with that of 1895, though he was
born in 1871. The only workable concept of a genera-
tion is a historical one: the grouping caused by the
impact of a great event. The rest is number mysticism.


Louis Cazamian, “La Notion de retours périodiques dans
l'histoire littéraire,” Essais en deux langues (Paris, 1938),
pp. 3-10; idem, “Les Périodes dans l'histoire de la littérature
anglaise moderne,” ibid., pp. 11-22. Harry Hayden Clark,
ed., Transitions in American Literary History (Durham, N.C.,
1953). Herbert Cysarz, “Das Periodenprinzip in der Litera-
turwissenschaft,” Philosophie der Literaturwissenschaft, ed.
E. Ermatinger (Berlin, 1930), pp. 92-129. Claudio Guillén,
“Second Thoughts on Currents and Periods,” The Disci-
plines of Criticism,
eds. P. Demetz, T. M. Greene, and Lowry
Nelson, Jr. (New Haven, 1968), pp. 477-509. J. Hermand,
“Über Nutzen and Nachteil literarischer Epochenbegriffe,”
Monatshefte, 58 (Madison, 1966). Uri Margolin, “The Prob-
lem of Periodization in Literary Studies,” Hasifrut, 2 (Tel-
Aviv, 1969); English summary on pp. 269-70. Richard
Moritz Meyer, “Prinzipien der wissenschaftlichen Period-
enbildung,” Euphorion, 8 (1901), 1-42. Josephine Miles,
“Eras in English Poetry,” PMLA, 70 (1955), 853-75. J. M.
Ritchie, ed., Periods in German Literature (London, 1966).
Le Second Congrès international d'histoire littéraire,
Amsterdam, 1935: les Périodes dans l'histoire littéraire de-
puis la Renaissance; Bulletin of the International Commit-
tee of the Historical Sciences,
9 (1937), 255-398. H. P. H.
Teesing, Das Problem der Perioden in der Literatur-
(Groningen, 1949). René Wellek, “Periods and
Movements in Literary History,” English Institute Annual,
(New York, 1941), pp. 73-93. Benno von Wiese, “Zur
Kritik des geisteswissenschaftlichen Periodenbegriffes,”
Deutsche Vierteljahrschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und
11 (1933), 130-44.

On Generation in Literary History, see: Julius Petersen,
“Die literarischen Generationen,” Philosophie der Litera-
ed. E. Ermatinger (Berlin, 1930), pp.
130-87. Henri Peyre, Les Générations littéraires (Paris,
1948). Wilhelm Pinder, Das Problem der Generation (Berlin,
1926). Eduard Wechssler, Die Generation als Jugendreihe
(Leipzig, 1930).


[See also Ancients and Moderns; Classification of the Arts;
Criticism; Evolution of Literature; Gothic; Periodization
in History;