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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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The idea of an evolution of literature dates back at
least as far as Aristotle's Poetics (Chapter IV). There we
are told that the origin of tragedy is in the dithyramb,
and of comedy in phallic songs, and then Aristotle
continues: “From its early form tragedy was developed
little by little as the authors added what presented itself
to them. After going through many alterations, tragedy
ceased to change, having come to its full natural stature”
(trans. Allan Gilbert, quoted from Literary Criticism:
Plato to Dryden,
New York [1940], p. 74). The analogy
between the history of tragedy and the life-cycle of
a living organism is here asserted for the first time.


Tragedy reached maturity, “natural stature,” beyond
which it could not grow, as man cannot grow after
he has reached the age of twenty-one. Evolution is
conceived (as everywhere in Aristotle) as a teleological
process in time directed toward one and only one
absolutely predetermined goal.

Antiquity applied Aristotle's insight extensively: thus
Dionysius of Halicarnassus traced the evolution of
Greek oratory towards the supreme model of Demos-
thenes, and Quintilian did the same for Roman elo-
quence culminating in Cicero. (See J. W. H. Atkins,
Literary Criticism in Antiquity, Cambridge [1934], II,
123, 281.) Velleius Paterculus, in a passage quoted
throughout the history of criticism, even as late as by
Sainte-Beuve, asserted the alternation of periods of
flowering and exhaustion, the impossibility of lasting
perfection, the fatal necessity of decay. (See J. Kamer-
beek Jr., “Legatum Velleianum,” in Levenden Tale, No.
177 [December, 1954], pp. 476-90; reprinted in Crea-
tive Wedijver,
Amsterdam [1962]. Sainte-Beuve quotes
the passage in Nouveaux Lundis, 9 [January, 1865],

These ancient ideas were taken up by Renaissance
and neo-classical criticism: echoes can be found every-
where, but no systematic application to the history of
literature was made before the middle of the eight-
eenth century, when the growth of biological and
sociological speculation (in Vico, Buffon, and Rousseau)
stimulated analogous thinking about literature. John
Brown (1715-66) wrote a general history of poetry,
A Dissertation on the Rise, Union, and Power, the
Progressions, Separations, and Corruptions of Poetry
and Music
(London, 1763), which expounds an elabo-
rate evolutionary scheme: a union of song, dance, and
poetry is assumed among primitive nations, and all
subsequent history is described as a separation of the
arts, a dissolution of each art into genres, a process
of fission and specialization, of degeneration linked to
a general corruption of pristine manners. Brown's
scheme, marred as it is by his illogical recommendation
of a return to the original union of the arts, still fore-
shadows the later concept of an internal development
of poetry. Brown writes a “history without names,”
in blocks and masses, seen in a perspective which
embraces the oral poetry of all known nations.

Brown's sketch was published the year before J. J.
Winckelmann's Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums
(1764), the first history of an art which traced an evo-
lutionary scheme with a wealth of concrete knowledge.
Within an overall analogy of growth and decline,
Winckelmann describes four stages of Greek sculpture:
the grand youthful style of the earliest time, the mature
perfection of the Periclean climax, the decline with
its imitators, the sad end with late Hellenistic manner
ism. Both Herder and Friedrich Schlegel proclaimed
an ambition to become the Winckelmann of literature.
In Herder's many sketches of literary history and in
Friedrich Schlegel's fragmentary histories of Greek
poetry (in Griechen and Römer [1797], which contains
a long paper, “Über das Studium der griechischen
Poesie,” written in 1794-95, and in Geschichte der
Poesie der Griechen und Römer
[1798]), the “organo-
logical” concept of evolution is employed with skill
and consistency. Both Herder and Schlegel assume
throughout a principle of continuity, the adage natura
non facit saltum
(“nature makes no leap”), which in
Germany had been immeasurably strengthened by the
philosophy of Leibniz. But in detail, Herder, Schlegel,
and their many followers vary in their attitudes toward
the future and the implicit consequences of the deter-
minism implied in their scheme. Thus Herder teaches
that poetry must decline from the glories of primitive
song, but at the time he believes that poetry, at least
in Germany, can be saved from the blight of classical
civilization and be returned to the racial wellspring
of its power. Friedrich Schlegel conceives of Greek
poetry as a complete array of all the different genres
in a natural order of evolution. The evolution is de-
scribed in terms of growth, proliferation, blossoming,
maturing, hardening, and final dissolution, and it is
thought of as necessary and fated. But this closed cycle
is completed only in Greece—modern poetry is rather
“universal progressive poetry,” an open system, per-
fectible almost limitlessly. In the Grimms, the process
is one of irreversible decay: there has been in the dim
past the glory of natural poetry, and modern poetry
is but its sorry detritus. What is common to all of these
conceptions is the assumption of slow, steady change
on the analogy of animal growth, of an evolutionary
substratum in the main types of literature, of a deter-
minism which minimizes the role of the individual, and
of purely literary evolution in the general process of

Hegel introduced a strikingly different concept of
evolution. Dialectics replaces the principle of continu-
ity. Sudden revolutionary changes, reversals into op-
posites, annulments, and, simultaneously, preservations
constitute the dynamics of history. The “objective
spirit” (of which poetry is only a phase) differs pro-
foundly from nature. The biological analogy is
dropped. Poetry is conceived as self-developing, in
constant give-and-take with society and history, but
distinct and even profoundly different, as a product
of the spirit must be, from the processes of nature. But
in his Vorlesungen über Aesthetik (pub. 1835; lectures
given in the preceding decade) Hegel does not apply
his method consistently: he makes many concessions
to the older, “organological” point of view which he


has met in the Schlegels. Though he traces an involved
scheme of triads, from epic through lyric to a synthesis
in tragedy, and from symbolic through classical to
romantic art, the Lectures remain largely a poetics and
aesthetics and do not incorporate history successfully,
as they should according to his theory. Hegel's fol-
lowers tried to apply his scheme to literary history,
but most of them succeeded only in discrediting his
method by forcing the complexities of reality into
Hegelian formulas. (Cf., e.g., Karl Rosenkranz, Hand-
buch einer allgemeinen Geschichte der Poesie,
3 vols.,
Halle [1832], and the much later writings of the St.
Louis Hegelians, Denton Snider, W. T. Harris on
Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe.)

With the advent of Darwin and Spencer evolution-
ism revived. Spencer himself suggested how the devel-
opment of literature could be conceived in terms of
a law of progression from the simple to the complex.
(See “Progress: its Law and Cause” [1857], in Illus-
trations of Universal Progress,
New York [1880], pp.
24-30, and First Principles [1862; New York, 1891], pp.
354-58.) In many countries the ideas of the new evolu-
tionism were eagerly applied to literary history. But
it seems difficult to decide exact priorities and to dis-
tinguish the new, Darwinian and Spencerian, motifs
from returns to ideas of “organological” or of Hegelian
evolution. The exact share of these three conceptions
needs detailed investigation in the case of each writer
on the subject. In Germany, for instance, where the
romantic tradition was very strong, it would be almost
impossible to disentangle the different strands in the
writings on Völkerpsychologie of H. Steinthal and M.
Lazarus, or in those on the history of German literature
and on poetics of Wilhelm Dilthey and Wilhelm
Scherer. (See Erich Rothacker, Einleitung in die Geis-
2nd ed., Tübingen [1930], pp. 80n.
and 215, for good comments on Steinthal, Lazarus,
Wilhelm Scherer, and Dilthey.) Evolutionism is Dar-
winian only when it implies the mechanistic explana-
tion of the process (which was Darwin's special con-
tribution) and when it uses such ideas as “survival of
the fittest,” “natural selection,” “transformation of

In England, John Addington Symonds applied the
biological analogy to the history of Elizabethan drama
(1884) with ruthless consistency. He argues that Eliza-
bethan drama runs a well-defined course of germina-
tion, expansion, efflorescence, and decay. This devel-
opment is described as “e-volution,” as an unfolding
of embryonic elements to which nothing can be added
and which run their course with iron necessity to their
predestined exhaustion. The initiative of the individual
is completely denied. Genius is incapable of altering
the sequence of the stages. Even the individuality of
different cycles of evolution disappears: Italian paint-
ing passes through exactly the same stages as Eliza-
bethan drama. Literary history becomes a collection
of cases which serve as documents to illustrate a gen-
eral scientific law. In practice, Symonds escaped some
of the rigidities of his scheme by his aesthetic sense
and by such a device as the concept of the “hybrid,”
which allows for the blurring of types which would
otherwise be made to appear too sharply distinct. In
the preface to Shakspere's Predecessors in the English
(London, 1884) Symonds says, that he wrote
the book substantially in 1862-65. “On the Application
of Evolutionary Principles to Art and Literature,” in
Essays Speculative and Suggestive (London, 1890), I,
42-83, contains a theoretical defense of his method.

After Symonds, Richard Green Moulton applied
evolutionism to Shakespeare as a Dramatic Artist
(1885) and reiterated his faith in the principle as late
as 1915, in The Modern Study of Literature. There is
hardly any English or American book in these decades
which deals with oral literature and is not based on
Darwinian conceptions. H. M. Posnett treated Com-
parative Literature
(1886) as a Spencerian progress
from communal to individual life. F. Gummere's Be-
ginnings of Poetry
(1901) and A. S. Mackenzie's The
Evolution of Literature
(1911) may serve as later exam-
ples by American authors.

In France the two leading critics of the period,
Hippolyte Taine and Ferdinand Brunetière, were pre-
occupied with the problem of evolution. Taine, how-
ever, is not a naturalistic positivist: in spite of many
terminological borrowings from physiology and biol-
ogy, his concept of evolution remained purely Hegel-
ian. He definitely disapproved of Comte and Spencer.
Hegel, whom he read as a student, “taught him to
conceive of historical periods as moments, to look for
internal causes, spontaneous development, the inces-
sant becoming of things.” (On Taine and Comte, see
besides his article in Journal des Débats [July 6, 1864]
reproduced in V. Giraud, Essai sur Taine, 6th ed., Paris
[1912], p. 232, D. D. Rosca, L'Influence de Hegel sur
Paris [1928], p. 262n. On Spencer and Hegel,
see Derniers Essais de critique et de l'histoire, 3rd ed.
[1903], pp. 198-202.) But Taine never thinks of evolu-
tion as a separate literary evolution. Literature is part
of the general historical process conceived as an orga-
nized unity. Literature is dependent on society, repre-
sents society. It is also dependent on the moment, but
moment for Taine usually means the “spirit of the age.”
Only once in all his writings does Taine think of mo-
as the position of a writer in a merely literary
evolution. He contrasts French tragedy under Corneille
and under Voltaire, the Greek theater under Aeschylus
and under Euripides, and Latin poetry under Lucretius


and under Claudian, in order to illustrate the difference
between precursors and successors (Introduction to His-
toire de la littérature anglaise,
2nd ed. [1866], I, xxx).

Ferdinand Brunetière (1849-1906) finds his starting
point in this very passage. Moment with him takes
precedence over milieu and race. He resolutely envis-
ages the ideal of an internal history of literature which
“has in itself the sufficient principle of development”
(Études critiques sur l'histoire de la littérature française,
Paris [1890], III, 4). What is to be established is the
inner causality. “In considering all the influences which
operate in the history of literature, the influence of
works on works is the main one” (Preface to Manuel
de l'histoire de la littérature française,
Paris [1898], p.
iii). It is a double influence, positive and negative: we
imitate or reject. Literature moves by action and reac-
tion, convention and revolt. Novelty or originality, is
the criterion which changes the direction of develop-
ment. Literary history is the method which defines the
points of change. So far Brunetière could be a Tainian
or even an Hegelian. But he has also tried to transfer
specifically biological concepts from Darwinism. He
believes in the reality of genres as if they were biologi-
cal species. He constantly parallels the history of genres
with the history of human beings. French tragedy was
born with Jodelle, matured with Corneille, aged with
Voltaire, and died before Hugo. He cannot see that
the analogy breaks down on every point; that French
tragedies were not born with Jodelle but just were not
written before him, and that they died only in the sense
that important tragedies, according to Brunetière's
definition, were not written after Lemercier. Racine's
Phèdre, in Brunetière's scheme, stands at the beginning
of the decline of tragedy, but it will strike us as young
and fresh compared to the frigid Renaissance tragedies
which, according to the scheme, represent the “youth”
of French tragedy. Brunetière in his genre histories
even uses the analogy of the struggle for existence to
describe the rivalry of genres and argues that some
genres are transmuted into other genres. French pulpit
oratory of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries
was thus changed into the lyrical poetry of the ro-
mantic movement. But the analogy will not withstand
close inspection: at most, one could say that pulpit
oratory expresses similar feelings (e.g., about the tran-
sience of things human) or fulfills similar social func-
tions (the articulation of the mystery behind our lives).
But surely no genre has literally changed into another.
Nor can one be satisfied with Brunetière's attempt to
compare the role of genius in literature, its innovative
effect, to that of the Darwinian “sport,” the mecha-
nistic variation of character traits. (See E. R. Curtius,
Ferdinand Brunetière, Strassburg, 1914.)

Brunetière's followers pushed his schematism often
to absurd extremes: thus Louis Maigron, in his Le
Roman historique (1898), simply declares one book,
Mérimée's Chronique de Charles IX (1829), to be the
culmination point of the French historical novel, to
which those preceding it (such as Vigny's Cinq-mars,
1826) provide the stepping-stones, while all those
which follow (such as Hugo's Notre Dame de Paris,
1831) demonstrate only slow decadence. Chronology
is king: a neat gradation and recession must be con-
strued at any price.

Later attempts to modernize and modify the con-
cept of literary evolution failed. Thus John Matthews
Manly was deeply impressed by the mutation theory
of De Vries and proposed its application to literary his-
tory and especially to the history of medieval drama
(“Literary Forms and the New Theory of the Origin
of Species,” in Modern Philology, 4 [1907], 577-95).
But “mutation” turns out to be simply the introduction
of new principles which suddenly crystallize new types.
Evolution, in the sense of slow continuous develop-
ment, is given up in favor of an anomalous principle
of special creation.

Evolutionism, especially in the form in which it was
formulated by Brunetière, was widely criticized and
rejected, in part, of course, simply in the name of
genius and impressionistic appreciation. But the reac-
tion in the early twentieth century has deeper roots
and raises new issues. It was powerfully supported by
the new philosophies of Bergson and Croce. Bergson's
concept of creative evolution, his intuitive act of true
duration, rejected the whole idea of a chronological
order. It is no accident that his central book, Evolution
(1907), ends with an attack on Spencer. Also
Croce's onslaught on the very concept of genre was
almost universally convincing. His arguments for the
uniqueness of every work of art and his rejection of
artistic devices, procedures, and styles (even as topics
of history) destroyed, in the eyes of many, the very
basis of all evolutionism. Croce's prediction and hope
that literary history would come to consist entirely of
essays and monographs (or handbooks and compendia
of information) is being fulfilled (“La Riforma della
storia artistica e letteraria,” in Nuovi saggi di estetica,
2nd ed., Bari [1927], pp. 157-80; and “Categorismo
e psicologismo nella storia della poesia,” in Ultimi
Bari [1935], pp. 373-79).

All over the West, the anti-historical point of view
in criticism reasserted itself at about the same time.
It was in part a reaction against critical relativism,
against the whole anarchy of values to which nine-
teenth-century historicism had led, and in part a new
belief in a hierarchy of absolute values, a revival of
classicism. T. S. Eliot has most memorably formulated
his sense of the simultaneity of all literature, the feeling
of a poet “that the whole of the literature of Europe
from Homer and within it the whole of the literature


of his own country has a simultaneous existence and
composes a simultaneous order” (“Tradition and the
Individual Talent” [1917] in Selected Essays, London
[1932], p. 14). This sense of the timelessness of litera-
ture (which Eliot oddly calls the “historical sense”)
is only another name for classicism and tradition.

Eliot's view has been followed by almost all recent
English and American critics. On occasion they may
recognize the illumination which criticism derives from
literary history and history in general. (See William
K. Wimsatt, Jr., “History and Criticism: A Problematic
Relationship,” in The Verbal Icon, Louisville, Ky.
[1954], pp. 253-66.) But they have on the whole ig-
nored the problem of an internal literary historiogra-
phy and evolution. Histories of literature and of literary
genres are being written without any allusion to the
concept and apparently with no awareness of it.
F. W. Bateson's English Poetry and the English Lan-
(Oxford, 1934) and English Poetry: A Critical
(London, 1950) are attempts to trace the
history of English poetry as a mirror of either linguistic
or of social evolution. The statistical investigations of
Josephine Miles (The Vocabulary of Poetry, Berkeley,
1946; The Continuity of Poetic Language, Berkeley,
1951; Eras and Modes in English Poetry, Berkeley,
1956, new ed. 1963) which trace the changes in key
words and sentence patterns aim finally at an evolu-
tionary scheme. But these are isolated instances.

The story has been very different in Russia. There
Spencerian evolutionism was stated most impressively
in the grandiose attempts of Aleksandr Veselovsky
(1838-1906) to write a historical poetics on a world-
wide scale. Veselovsky had been a pupil of Steinthal
in 1862 in Berlin; he drew evolutionism also from many
other sources, including the English ethnographers.
More concretely, and with a much wider command
of literatures and languages than anybody in the West,
he traces the history of poetic devices, themes, and
genres throughout oral and medieval literature. Yet
Veselovsky's theoretical assumptions are extremely
rigid. Content and form are sharply divorced. Poetic
language is assumed as something given since imme-
morial times: it changes only under the impact of social
and ideological changes. Veselovsky traces the breakup
of the syncretism of original oral poetry and always
looks for survivals of animism, myth, ritual, or customs
in conventional poetic language. All poetic creativity
is viewed as occurring in prehistoric times when man
created language. Since then the role of the individual
has been limited to modifying the inherited poetic
language in order to give expression to the changed
content of his own time. On the one hand Veselovsky
conducts a genetic inquiry into the dim origins of
poetry, on the other he studies “comparative litera-
ture,” migrations and radiations of devices and motifs.
His shortcomings are those of his period: he worships
fact and science so excessively that he has no use for
aesthetic value; he views the work of art far too atom-
istically, dividing it into form and content, motifs and
plots, metaphors and meters. (On Veselovsky see Victor
Erlich, Russian Formalism: History—Doctrine, The
Hague, 1955; in Russian see B. M. Engel'gardt, A. N.
Petrograd, 1924; and V. žirmunskij's long
introduction to Veselovskij, Istoričeskaja Poètika, Len-
ingrad, 1940.)

Deservedly Veselvosky enjoyed enormous academic
prestige and thus imposed the problem of literary
evolution on the Russian Formalists. They shared his
emphasis on the work of literature, his preoccupation
with formal devices, his interest in the “morphology”
of literary types. But his view of evolution was unac-
ceptable. They had grown up in a revolutionary at-
mosphere which radically rejected the past, even in
the arts. Their allies were the Futurist poets. In con-
temporary Marxist criticism art had lost all autonomy
and was reduced to a passive reflection of social and
economic change. The Formalists rejected this reduc-
tion of literature. But they could accept the Hegelian
view of evolution: its basic principle of an immanent,
dialectical alteration of old into new and back again.
They interpreted this for literature largely as a wearing
out or “automatization” of poetic conventions and then
the “actualization” of such conventions by a new
school using radically new and opposite procedures.
Novelty became the only criterion of value. (On the
Russian Formalists Erlich's book is the most informa-
tive, not only in English.)

Jan Mukařovský (born in 1891), a follower of the
Russian Formalists in Czechoslovakia who developed
their theories more coherently, with a great awareness
of philosophical issues, formulated the theory very
clearly: “A work of art will appear as positive value
when it regroups the structure of the preceding period,
it will appear as a negative value if it takes over the
structure without changing it” (Kapitoly z české
poetiky, Chapters from Czech Poetics,
Prague [1948],
II, 100-01). A divorce between literary history and
criticism is advocated. Purely aesthetic evaluation is
the business of criticism. In literary history there is only
one criterion of interest: the degree of novelty.

On many occasions René Wellek, who was a member
of the Prague Linguistic Circle in the thirties, argued
(e.g., in “The Theory of Literary History,” in Travaux
du Cercle Linguistique de Prague,
Vol. V [1936]) against
this divorce between criticism and history pointing out
that works of art are assemblings of values which
constitute their very nature, and are not merely struc-
tures analyzable descriptively. In his view works of art
are not simple members of a series, links in a chain.
Still, he wanted to salvage the concept of literary


evolution, the whole problem of an internal history
of literature by pointing to a modern concept of time.
Man is not merely in the present reacting againt the
immediate past (as the evolutionists assume) but lives
simultaneously in three times: in the past through
memory, in the present, and, through anticipations,
plans, and hopes, in the future. He may reach, at any
moment, into his own remote past or into the remotest
past of humanity. An artist does not necessarily develop
toward a single future goal: he can reach back to
something he may have conceived twenty, thirty, or
forty years ago. He can start on a completely different
track. His reaching out into the past for models or
stimuli, abroad or at home, in art or in life, in another
art or in thought, is a free decision, a choice of values
which constitutes his own personal hierarchy of values,
and will be thus reflected in the hierarchy of values
implied in his works of art. This multiple relationship
to past and present can be paralleled in larger group-
ings of works of art, in a period and hence in the whole
evolution of art and literature. The interpenetration
of the causal order in experience and memory refutes
the simplicist schemes of evolution but does not dispose
of the complex problem of the evolution of art and
literature. It is still unsolved, if not in theory, then
certainly in the practice of literary historians.


No history of evolutionism in literature is known to exist.
For earlier treatments of this theme see René Wellek, “The
Theory of Literary History,” in Travaux du Cercle Linguis-
tique de Prague,
6 (1936), 173-91; idem, Theory of Literature,
with Austin Warren (New York, 1949); and idem, “The
Concept of Evolution in Literary History,” in For Roman
(The Hague, 1956), pp. 653-61, reprinted in Con-
cepts of Criticism
(New Haven, 1963), pp. 37-53. For evolu-
tionary concepts in historiography and philosophy see Ernst
Troeltsch, Der Historismus und seine Probleme (Tübingen,
1922); F. S. C. Northrop, “Evolution in its Relation to the
Philosophy of Nature and the Philosophy of Culture,” in
Evolutionary Thought in America, ed. Stow Persons (New
Haven, 1950), pp. 44-84; and Hans Meyerhoff, Time in
(Berkeley, 1955).


[See also Continuity; Evolutionism; Historicism; Literature;
Periodization in Literature.