The Name and Nature of
Comparative Literature
(Part I)
Rene Wellek
The term "comparative literature" has
given rise to so much discussion, has
been interpreted so differently and
misinterpreted so frequently, that it
might be useful to examine its history
and to attempt to distinguish its
meanings in the main languages.
then can we hope to
define its exact scope and
content. Lexicography,
"historical semantics," will be
our starting point. Beyond it, a
brief history of comparative
studies should lead to
conclusions of contemporary
“Comparative literature" is still a controversial
discipline and idea. There seem no particular
problems raised by our two words individually.
"Comparative" occurs in Middle English,
obviously derived from Latin comparativus. It
is used by Shakespeare, as when Falstaff
denounces Prince Hal as "the most
comparative, rascalliest, sweet young
prince,”Francis Meres, as early as 1598, uses
the term in the caption of "A Comparative
Discourse of Our English Poets with the Greek,
Latin and Italian Poets.
“ The adjective occurs m the titles of
seventeenth-and eighteenth-century
books. In 1602 William Fulbecke
published A Comparative Discourse of
the Laws. I also find A Comparative
Anatomy of Brute Animals in 1765. Its
author, John Gregory, published A
Comparative View of the State and
Faculties of Man with hose of the Animal
World in the very next year.
Bishop Robert Lowth in his Latin Lectures
on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews
(1753), formulated the ideal of
comparative study well enough: "We
must see all things with their eyes [i.e.
the ancient Hebrews]: estimate all things
by their opinions; we must endeavour as
much as possible to read Hebrew as the
Hebrews would have read it.
In 1800 Charles Dibdin published, in five
volumes, A Complete History of the English
Stage, Introduced by a Comparative and
Comprehensive Review of the Asiatic, the
Grecian, the Roman,he Spanish, the Italian,
the Portuguese, the German, the French and
Other Theatres. Here the main idea is fully
formulated, but the combination "comparative
literature" itself seems to occur for the first
time only in a letter by Matthew Arnold in 1848,
where he says: "How plain it is now, though an
attention to the comparative literatures for the
last fifty years might have instructed any one
of it, that England is in a certain sense far
behind the Continent.”
But this was a private letter not
published till 1895, and "comparative"
means here hardly more than
"comparable." In English the decisive use
was that of Hutcheson Macaulay Posnett,
an Irish barrister who later became
Professor of Classics and English
Literature at University College, Auckland,
New Zealand, who put the term on the
title of his book in 1886.
Posnett, in an article, “The Science of
Comparative Literature," claimed "to
have first stated and illustrated the
method and principles of the new
science, and to have been the first to do
so not only in the British Empire but in
the world.''Obviously this is preposterous,
even if we limit "comparative literature"
to the specific meaning Posnett gave to it.
The English term cannot be discussed in
isolation from analogous terms in France
and Germany.
The lateness of the English term can be
explained if we realize that the
combination "comparative literature"
was resisted in English, because the
term "literature" had lost its earlier
meaning of "knowledge or study of
literature" and had come to mean
"literary production in general" or "the
body of writings in a period, country, or
That this long process is complete today
is obvious from such a fact that, e.g.,
Professor Lane Cooper of Cornell
University refused to call the department
he headed in the twenties "Comparative
Literature" and insisted on "The
Comparative Study of Literature." He
considered it a "bogus term" that "makes
neither sense nor syntax." "You might as
well permit yourself to say 'comparative
potatoes' or 'comparative husks.'” But in
earlier English usage "literature" means
"learning" and "literary
culture,"particularly a knowledge of Latin.
Incomplete or even slightly incorrect in
its detail, this history of the terms in the
main languages could become more
meaningful if treated in the context of
competition with rival terms.
"Comparative literature" occurs in what
semanticists have called "a field of
meaning." We have alluded to "learning,"
"letters," and "belles lettres" as rival
terms for "literature."
"Universal literature," "international
literature," "general literature," and
"world literature" are the competitors of
"comparative literature. Universal
literature'' occurs in the eighteenth
century and is used rather widely in
German .where "general literature"
means what we would call"theory of
literature" or "principles of criticism."
The term "world literature," Weltliteratur, was
used by Goethe in 1827 in commenting on a
translation of his drama Tasso into French, and
then several times, sometimes in slightly
different senses: he was thinking of a single
unified world literature in which differences
between the indi viduaI literatures would
disappear, though he knew that this would be
quite remote. In a draft Goethe equates
"European" with "world literature," surely
Just as the exact use of "world literature" is
still debatable, the use of "comparative
literature" has given rise to disputes as to its
exact scope and methods, which are not yet
resolved. It is useless to be dogmatic about
such matters, as words have the meaning
authors assign to them and neither a
knowledge of history nor common usage can
prevent changes or even complete distortions
of the original meaning. Still, clarity on such
matters avoids mental confusion, while
excessive ambiguity or arbitrariness leads to
intellectual dangers which may not be as
serious as calling hot, cold, or communism
democracy, but which still hamper agreement
and communication.
One can distinguish, first, a strict, narrow
definition; Van Tieghem, for example,
defines it thus: "The object of
comparative literature is essentially the
study of diverse literatures in their
relations with one another.'' Guyard in his
handbook, which follows Van Tieghem
closely in doctrine and contents, calls
comparative literature succinctly "the
history of international literary
relations,''and J.-M.Carré in his Preface to
Guyard, calls it "a branch of literary
history; it is the study of spiritual
international relations,
of factual contacts which took
place between Byron and Pushkin,
Goethe and Carlyle, Waiter Scott
and Vigny, between the works, the
inspirations and even the lives of
writers belonging to several
In a wider sense "comparative
literature" includes what Van Tieghem
calls "general literature." He confines
"comparative literature" to "binary"
relations, between two elements, while
"general literature" concerns research
into "the facts common to several
literatures.'' It can, however, be argued
that it is impossible to draw a line
between comparative literature and
general literature,
Besides, the term "general
literature" lends itself to confusion:
it has been understood to mean
literary theory, poetics, the
principles of literature. Comparative
literature in the narrow sense of
binary relations cannot make a
meaningful discipline, as it would
have to deal only with the "foreign
trade" between literatures and
hence with fragments of literary
It would not allow treating the
individual work of art. It would be
(as apparently Carré is content to
think) a strictly auxiliary discipline of
literary history with a fragmentary,
scattered subject matter and with
no peculiar method of its own.
The method of comparison is not
peculiar to comparative literature; it is
ubiquitous in all literary study and in all
sciences, social and natural. Nor does
literary study, even in the practice of the
most orthodox comparative scholars,
proceed by the method of comparison
alone. Any literary scholar will not only
compare but reproduce, analyze,
interpret, evoke, evaluate, generalize,
etc., all on one page.
1.Lexical meaning of the term
"comparative literature"?
2.The historical semantics of
"comparative literature"。
3.What’s the meaning of "world literature"
and "general literature"?What is your
understanding of Comparative literature as
a discipline?

The Name and Nature of Comparative Literature (Part I)