Literary Appreciation and Criticism

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By painting the picture of a literary critic, the students are being prepared for the challenges of the critical discipline. Even though the instructional mode is used, this article is essentially theoretical rather than practical.

What is Literature?

In discussing literary appreciation and criticism, it is important for us to begin by examining what literature is. A clear-cut definition may not be easy to arrive at but then, this branch of knowledge springs from our love of telling a story, of arranging words in innovative patterns, and of expressing in words some delicate aspects of our human experience. Literature has several divisions called genres such as drama, poetry, the novel and the short story. All these products of imagination are aimed at giving pleasure, provoking fantasy and also drawing the reader to the substance of reality. It must be stressed however, that the literary person is not subjected to facts the same way as the historian, the economist or the scientist whose studies are essentially based on what has actually happened or on what does happen, in the world of reality. The writer of literature is essentially a creative author who recreates from what has already been created. The kind of literature that entertains does not sustain the reader for long in the domain of unreality. The reader derives his greatest satisfaction when literature takes him back to the realities of human situations, problems, feelings and relationships. Writers are in many cases people with visionary or prophetic insights into human life. They carry imaginative  lens that makes  them not only peep into the future but also suggest ways of addressing possible issues that may arise .


While it is true that a major driving force for the reading of literature is pleasure or entertainment, it is not the overriding factor. Soon, the reader begins to realize that he enjoys some things more than others and that some of his reading experiences are positively distasteful while others become more and more deeply absorbing. One way of explaining this would be to say that he begins to develop a taste for some things rather than for others. But this is even not the point. The real issue is that he begins the process of discriminating, of appreciating, and of feeling the difference between what is really important, really first-class or what is trivial or easily dispensable. As the reader begins to gain experience in the art of discrimination, in comparing his discrimination with other people’s ,particularly more experienced people, and as he reflects upon his literary actions and discovers the principles  or guidelines on which they are based, he comes towards a state of mind in which he feels a capacity  for judgment, that is, for delivering an opinion about the rights and wrongs of a situation, an expression or a problem which other people may accept or agree to , which is not subsequently overturned and which forms the best basis for many kinds of practical actions. The critical reading of a work of literature is a demanding discipline. But then the beauty of literary appreciation and criticism lies in the fact that the reader ultimately does not have anything to rely upon in making his choice but himself. In order to appreciate literature and put it in its proper place in the critical enterprise, the reader or critic must understand the underlying theory that literature as well as other arts can best be thought of  as a process of communication, between the writer  or the artist and his public.

This understanding makes the critic to assess any piece of writing using two test-questions: Do we receive the impression that the particular poem or piece of prose effectively communicates what it sets out to do? Has the ideal picture, character or situation communicated itself of any value to us? Neither of these questions can be answered easily or automatically, each of them requires us to read         carefully, reflect and compare impression received from one thing with those received from others?  The essence of literary appreciation and criticism is rested, among other things, on the thinking that the substance of  a writer’s achievement can only be strongly felt and assessed by responding to the way he uses words  and that the capacity to make such a response can be formed or greatly enhanced  by a training in literary appreciation and criticism. It is instructive to place the relationship between the creative writer and the literary critic in proper perspective. In other words, there are several ways in which criticism and the making of a literary work can be regarded as two sides of the same coin. In the first type of cooperation, the creative talent and the creative faculty co-exist in the same person and may be regarded as identical.  There is also a sense in which criticism exists as a seemingly independent activity practised by more or less professional critics.

The influence of literary appreciation and criticism on the final shape of the literary work is a general one because even in the published form, the literary product still depends largely on the work of criticism for establishing  its importance on its place in the tradition. Literary appreciation is often responsible for bringing the work to the public. It might reduce the esteem it already enjoys with the reading public or it might help build up a tradition by creating taste for similar literature. It might bring out the importance of a work by discovering in it new meanings not noticed before by the public and thus give the work a new form and a new importance, perhaps over and above originally intended or thought of by the author.


The literary critic is not just any kind of person. He is a special individual with awesome analytical and balanced disposition. He is a man ( or woman) who truly sees. He is not satisfied in reducing the work in front of him to a cliché or a commonplace; rather, he examines the product until its particular reality comes vividly to life. The rewards of such attention are very considerable since in works like great poems the words themselves as well as the experience they convey are more alive and more revealing than they are in the context of everyday .The literary critic is the voice and, to some extent defender of the creative enterprise. No literary work is great in itself. Every outstanding work of literature is so referred to by disciplined affirmation. In other words, while it is true that there are generally accepted codes for measuring good and bad, there is no peculiar intrinsic value placed on any work of art.  What a literary critic does is give us, as completely as clearly as he can, his response to a writer, a play, a poem, a novel etc and so help us to a fuller enjoyment and understanding of the experience in and behind the writing.

Alternatively, the critic can also reveal, by examining a piece of writing in detail, the elements in the writing which combine to make its particular quality The mature critic who is conscious of the fact that his account and evaluation of an author must depend on the actual words written by the author, supports his remarks and judgment with pieces (no matter how little) of examined text, the text out of which his conclusions come. To do anything contrary would be tantamount to biased assessment which in itself is antithetical to the critical discipline. It has been observed by scholars that literary appreciation and criticism can be no more than a reasoned account of the feeling produced upon the critic by the book he is criticizing. Criticism is not exactly science. It is in the first place, very personal and second, it is concerned with values that science ignores. The critic judges a work of art by its effect on his emotion more than anything else. All the critical nuances about style and form and all the classifications and analytical tools of conventional assessment are products of the emotion. It therefore, follows that a critic must be able to feel the impact of a work of art in all its complexity and its force .To do so, he must be a man of complexity himself, a man with a superficial and indolent nature will never come out with anything but paltry comment. Criticism is not only an examination of the in context but also a tacit investigation of the totality of the critic himself. Whatever comes out of the critic, either by way of what he says or commits to paper, is a faithful reflection of who he is.

Besides, an artistically and emotionally mature man must also be a person of good faith. In other words, he should be courageous enough to admit what he feels as well as the flexibility to know what he feels. So it is possible for a critic to be brilliant and not honest, to be emotionally sound and yet manipulates feelings. A dependable critic must be emotionally alive, intellectually capable and skilful in basic logic and morally upright. It is the business of the literary critic to analyze and judge works of literary arts. He is basically concerned with the work in front of him as something that should contain within itself the reason it is so and not otherwise. The more experience of life he brings to bear on it, the better. The possibility of the critic being wary about how he exerts extraneous knowledge on the author’s intention cannot be ruled out because intentions are not particularly striking in arts except as realized and the test of realization is standard and hardly manipulable. They are applied in the operation of the critic’s sensibility; they are a matter of his sense, derived from his literary experience of what the living thing feels like. The tests may well reveal in the final analysis that the deep rooted intentions is something quite different from the intention the author would declare.


The impression is always erroneously generated that there is a secret process which would, when mastered, make understanding literature easy. But  a good reader of literature is not one who has a series of categories to fit a poem (or prose) into, or a special vocabulary to describe them. He does not go about with an apparatus of terminologies and method in his head. He is a good reader and critic partly because he can respond to the unfamiliar, for which there has been no previously worked out critical account. There is no knowing before hand with literature just how we should be expected to respond and the demand for alternative component. In fact, systematic procedure is one that practical criticism can never properly meet.

The fundamental questions a practical critic should pose to a work of art include the following: Can I respond to this poem in the way the poet wants me to respond? Can I in a way identify myself in the spirit in which it was written? In practice, the compilation of these are infinitely various:  we cannot tell before hand just how we will have to respond, there can be no adequately previously learned formula to tell us and we may have to do any number of things to find the answers. But with some points these general questions must translate into more practical questions such as: what is gained by this effect? Does this detail seem successful? Does it relate meaningfully to a general effect? What precisely is the intention here? In other words, to discover where our real preferences lie often involves a searching, exacting appraisal of everything that makes up the total effect of a poem.

A young critic when first asked to say what he thinks of a poem, will, if he has read it curiously , usually fall into mere –‘I like this’, ‘this appeals to me’ and so on. But we haven’t really read a poem until we know what we like about it more fully than this. Reflecting on a poem, deciding just where we stand in relation to it and finding the right language to express ourselves about it are essential parts of reading the poem. The work of art comes home to you when you respond naturally to it realizing exactly what you like about it and having a vivid description of the work as part of that realization.  If we are moved by the literature and the spirit of the criticism, we should be able to find a sharper more strongly felt description and until we find a description that satisfies, we know we have not finally grasped it.

One basic question often asked in literary appreciation and criticism is: Why read a work of literature in this way? Is analyzing not hostile to the spirit of poetry? This poser has been expressed so often that pushing it aside would be unfair to any discourse on literary appreciation .Wordsworth’s popular lines are instructive in this respect.

… our meddling intellect

Mis- sharpen the beauteous forms of things.

We murder to dissect…

In other words, there are risks to which literary critics are exposed. Is a beautiful poem to be reduced, by a probing intellect to its bare bone? What is to become of its beauty, its charms and spontaneity, its supernatural life? As intricate as these posers may be, it should be understood that in addition to misconceiving the nature of literary appreciation and criticism , they underestimate the poem they seem to defend. They also suggest that our pleasure in poetry is a subjective illusion which closeness to the poem cannot sustain. This is not so. In fact, a poem or a work of art that is in any degree successful blossoms the critic’s careful attention. A great poem actually begins to take possession of the critic not immediately and at one bound, but gradually over an undefined period of time.

An isolated phrase or a line or a sequence of lines will return to the critic with a great sense of fitness and familiarity and he begins to wonder where he heard such a thing as the poem comes anew to him with its fresh form and beauty. It is not really that the critic recalls his analysis step by step but rather that the experience of the poem’s totality, its uniqueness captures the critic more powerfully than before. Literary appreciation includes a new sense of the poem’s structure and the imagery, its tone and verbal delicacy, its precise effect.

Tools of Literary Appreciation and Criticism

There are different tools that become handy in appreciating literature. But let us briefly consider an aspect of it which is figures of speech. Even at that, we can only look at a few of them. They include the following:


This is the repetition of a leading vowel or consonant sound in a phrase. Alliteration can take the form of assonance or consonance. However, unlike in strict definition of alliteration, assonance and consonance can regularly occur within. The meaning is conveyed essentially through sound harmony:

The leaves live and sneeze on the tree.


This establishes a clear, contrasting relationship between two ideas by joining them together or juxtaposing them, often in parallel structure:


This is a rhetorical figure in which the speaker addresses a dead or abstract person, an abstraction or inanimate object .It is widely applied for emotional emphasis


 A climax is a figure of speech in which a sequence of terms is linked by chain- like repetition through three or more clauses in ascending order of importanceas in:

The angry man entered the house, saw his enemy and killed him.


This involves the running over of the sense and grammatical structure from one  verse line or couplet to the next without a punctuated pause. The completion of a phrase, clause or sentence is held over to the following line so that the line ending is not an end-stopped line.


This figure of speech is a word or phrase that softens the hard reality of the truth. Examples:

The old man passed on peacefully last night. The softer version of saying that the old man is dead.

Beauty has just been put in the family way signifying that she has been impregnated.


This is essentially an exaggeration for the purpose of emphasizing a point. It  is not meant to be taken literally.

The whole country came to witness the coronation ceremony of my uncle.


A subtly humorous perception of inconsistency in which an apparently straight-foreword statement or event is undermined by its context so as to give it a very difficult significance.

Rut Brutus is an honourable man. What is being met really is that Britus has not behaved honourably.


Metaphors are used to reflect a form of comparison. This comparison is made by suggesting some common qualities shared by two or more actions. This resemblance as an imaginary identity rather than directly stated as a comparison.

In the sentence Amina is a flower, there is a direct link between he fragrance of the flower and that of the girl

Kola is a lion. This direct comparison with the lion is simply to reflect the strength of the boy.


This is used in literature to replace the name of one thing with the name of something associated with it.

We must respect the crown. This implies that royalty or kinship , which the crown is associated with,  must be given its place of honour.


This literary tool combines two conventionally contradictory terms in a compressed word link. Let us take general examples:

Women are necessary evil.

The old man is the wisest fool.


Paradox is a literary statement that is so surprisingly self- contradictory as to drive us into seeking another sense or context in which it would be true.

A child is the father of the man

The ripest fruit is the saddest


This figure of speech gives human qualities and characteristics to inanimate objects and non living things .The function is to heighten the quality of the message and make it have emotional strength. Examples include:

The forest is singing

The leaves are dancing.

 In the illustrations, human qualities are given to forest and leaves.


This is an expression that achieves emphasis and humour by contriving an ambiguity – a play on words whereby two distinct meanings are being suggested either by the same word or by two similar sounding word.

For instance: It is a fool that fools but a double fool that thinks everyone is a fool.


Rhetorical Question

In literature, rhetorical questions are not meant to be answered .They are asked to strengthen a point being made or to stress an instruction being given.

The expression: Should we then abandon schooling because the fees are high? Is not meant to be answered but to stress the importance of education.


Similes are used in literature to compare two things, ideas, concepts and situations. This comparison is done with the use of ‘ as’ or ‘ like’. Examples:

The young man runs as fast as lightning.

The city is as quiet as the grave.

Samson’s chest is like that of the elephant.


On the whole, it becomes clear that the appreciation of a poem, for instance, is not antithetical to literary enjoyment. It is not the substitution of an intellectual pleasure for an aesthetic pleasure or the diminishing of the poetic understanding to a dull routine. On the contrary, it is an opening up of the poem for what it can really be: a unique and fascinating experience, carefully provoked by its maker and fully available only to those with the patience as well as the sensibility to recreate. If the poem is a good poem the criticism begins in pleasure and deepens that pleasure as it proceeds. It makes our pleasure more articulate and therefore more meaningful. Emotion is enriched and extended by the exercise of thought carefully.

To discuss the criticism  or appreciation of literature therefore in this manner is to defend it. We cannot be content to like literary work merely at random and to pay them the compliment of not more than a passing glance; we cannot be content to take from a great poem, for example, only it, as though it were simply a confirmation of something we already knew. The great poem has the power to enrich and extend us, to make us something more than we were before. In its essential greatness, it is unlike any other poem. But how is this uniqueness to reach us, unless we attend precisely and in very great detail to what it is?

Every word in the literary parlance counts. Every interplay of meter with rhythm, every modulation and nuance of tone. The creative writer has certainly been conscious of many effects he precisely intended and this precision for us and for him is not the opposite of poetic experience. It is the means by which the poem is achieved.

The creative writer surely needs the audience – the reader or the critic –to succeed. And the critic needs to co-operate by an active and impartial reading of what is in front of him. The literary product (poem, prose or dramatic piece) merely exists by the fashion of the printed pages and between its cover and the book shelves, but its real existence is only when in a critic’s mind and consciousness, it comes alive


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