Judicial criticism: A type of practical criticism that regards judgment as the goal of literary criticism and aims to assess literary works in accordance with a set of external principles and rules that are viewed as objective and unchanging. Judicial criticism is often characterized as prescriptive, legislative, or even absolutist. Seeking a firm ground for judgment, judicial critics generally eschew individual sensibility and impressions in favor of analyzing an author’s style, subject matter, and technique in light of traditional — usually classical and canonical — standards. As French literary critic Julien-Louis Geoffroy asserted in the Journal des débats, judicial criticism serves “good taste, sound morals and the eternal foundations of the social order” (1805).
Judicial criticism was the dominant mode of criticism during the Renaissance and Neoclassical periods, which emphasized adherence to classical conventions and rules. With the advent of romanticism, which emphasized the individual and subjective experience, judicial criticism began to give way to impressionistic criticism, and by the latter half of the nineteenth century the rejection of criticism as judgment (with its correlative rules) was nearly complete. A few critics continued to defend or advocate a judicial approach, however, including nineteenth-century French critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, who moved from impressionism to a judicial approach over the course of his career; nineteenth-century English poet and critic Matthew Arnold, who spoke of a “real estimate, the only true one,” as opposed to “historic” and “personal” estimates in “The Study of Poetry” (1888); and twentieth-century American critic Irving Babbitt, who sought to “temper with judgment the all-pervading impressionism of contemporary literature and life” in “Impressionist Versus Judicial Criticism” (1906).
Noted judicial critics include seventeenth-century French poet and critic Nicolas Boileau and eighteenth-century English writer and critic Samuel Johnson. English poet Alexander Pope expressed the judicial belief in unchanging principles and rules in An Essay on Criticism (1711) when he wrote:
First follow NATURE, and your Judgment frame
By her just Standard, which is still the same:
Unerring NATURE, still divinely bright,
One clear, unchang’d, and Universal Light.