by George J. Dance

Nine lyric poets

The 9 lyric poets of the Greek canon: Alcman, Sappho, Alcaeus, Anacreon, Stesichorus, Ibycus, Simonides, Bacchylides, Pindar. Composite work by FriedC, 2012. Licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0), courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The literary canon of a group, for any time or place, is the list of literary works (usually books) considered by the group to be the most important of that time or place.[1] A group can be any size from a cult to a nation, and the time and place can be equally variable.

The name sounds like an ironic reference to the Roman Catholic process of canonization, or granting sainthood. However, the literary practice has been going on for far longer than the religious one. For instance, the Ancient Greeks had a canon of 9 lyric poets.[2]

Inclusion in a canon confers social, political, economic, and aesthetic status on the writer. "Belonging to the canon is a guarantee of quality."[3]

Because the question of "what people are most interested in" is one that "weighs in on whether or not the work is canonized," and because interests of a group's members will change over time, it follows that "a literary work may move in and out of interest and contextual relevance. Over time, literary canons will reflect these changes, and works [...] be added or subtracted from the canon."[1]

Because canonized works are those that are taught as canonical, it can be argued that canons are self-perpetuating: that the major reason for a work to be in the canon is that it is already in the canon.

A variant of that argument would be criticism by feminists, members of younger generations, newcomers, or minority groups that the canon excludes their kind by design: that a major reason to keep a work out of the canon is that it is not included in it. "That is why feminists object to the omission or excision of female works from the canon, for by not appearing within the canon works by women do not appear."[3]

In particular, the so-called Western canon, the list of the greatest books of Western civilization of all time, became "the subject of increasing contention in the latter half of the 20th century."[4] Many have worked hard over those years to add women, visible minority, and LGBTQ writers to the canon, which can can be seen as either a refutation of the criticisms, or an acknowledgment of their basic truth.


  1. 1.0 1.1 "What is a Literary Canon ?", Wisegeek, Conjecture Corp.,, Web, June 25, 2011.
  2. "Nine lyric poets ," Wikipedia, June 4, 2011, Wikimedia Foundation, Web, June 25, 2011.
  3. 3.0 3.1 George P. Landow, "The Literary Canon, The Victorian Web. Web, May 18, 2018.
  4. "Western canon ," Wikipedia, June 4, 2011, Wikimedia Foundation, Web, June 25, 2011.

External linksEdit

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