Historicist Criticism

  • Stephen Regan
Part of the The Critics Debate book series (TCD)


Most critical studies of Philip Larkin’s poetry have tended to regard ‘history’ and ‘society’ as background information, so that the context of the writing is treated as a matter of secondary interest and importance. Alternatively, Larkin has been studied as a poet of ‘social observation’, as if the work simply ‘reflected’ society in some direct and unproblematic way. More recently, Larkin has been seen as a poet whose work ‘transcends’ society and acquires an affirmative value in its ability to move beyond ‘mere’ sociological observation. This appraisal adopts a very different approach; it presupposes that Larkin’s work is deeply and perpetually implicated in history, both partaking of the values and meanings inherent in modern society, but in turn helping to shape the beliefs and ideals of its readers. Society, in this instance, is not regarded as a static entity or backdrop, but as a dynamic and changing formation, a set of institutions, practices and experiences, of which poetry, like all literature, is an essential and valuable part. Historicist criticism begins with the fundamental assumption that writing and reading take place in history, and that the meanings of any text are therefore historically variable. This is not to say that literary works have an infinite range of meanings, all of them equally valid, but rather that the scope or horizon of possible meanings is determined by the conjuncture of two historical moments: the moment of writing and the moment of reading.


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© Stephen Regan 1992

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  • Stephen Regan

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