Pragmatic criticism: A type of literary criticism going back to the Roman poet Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus), who in his Ars poetica (Art of Poetry) (c. 20 B.C.) emphasized the effect of a literary work on its audience. As Horace put it, “the poet’s aim is either to profit or to please, or to blend in one the delightful and the useful.” Pragmatic critics believe that works are structured to attain specific effects on and elicit certain responses from the reader or audience. These critics thus evaluate works based on their perception of whether the author’s objective is achieved.
Over time, pragmatic critics began to emphasize the ethical or moral impact of literary works. For example, in An Apology for Poetry, also known as The Defense of Poesy (written c. 1579; published 1595), Renaissance poet and critic Sir Philip Sidney characterized poetry as “a speaking picture, with this end — to teach and delight” and asserted that “right poets … range … into the divine consideration of what may be and should be”; they “delight to move men to take that goodness in hand … and teach to make them know that goodness whereunto they are moved.”
Pragmatic criticism is similar to rhetorical criticism in its emphasis on how — and how well — a work (or author) manages to guide or influence the reader’s or audience’s response. Like rhetorical criticism, pragmatic criticism was practiced from classical times up through the eighteenth century, when its popularity declined with the rise of expressive criticism, which views literary works in light of their authors’ thoughts and feelings. It lapsed into still deeper obscurity during the nineteenth century with the advent of objective criticism.