Definitions of Canon

Originated from a Greek term “kanon”, canon means “a yard stick” or “a measuring rod.” Generally, the term canon is used in three different meanings.

First, it is defined as a traditional collection of writings against which other writings are evaluated. In other words, it means a long list of works taken as authentic in the Bible written in Hebrew or even translated versions. This sense makes canon opposite to apocrypha, which means written works having anonymous authors. The Bible was considered a yardstick to evaluate a literary piece according to a certain criterion.

Secondly, students of literature use it to refer to the writings included in anthologies, or textbooks under certain genres and thus are evaluated according to the genre they are placed under. This meaning covers the entire literature generally thought as suitable for aesthetic admiration and academic use.

The third definition of the term indicates the literary writings of a particular author, which are considered by scholars and critics in general to be the genuine creations of that particular author based on some already deduced rules intended to be applied on the future pieces in the same genre. The term “canon” is also confused with a homonym “cannon”, which means a military weapon.

Difference between Canon and Apocrypha

Apocrypha is also a literary term, which means “hidden” or anonymous literary pieces, which were considered not confirming to the rules set by the written Bible in Hebrew or Latin. It describes those books, which have dubious authorship or the authority, or where the accuracy of the writers is questionable. However, canon is a literary rule that is used to evaluate books and writings against certain models such as plays are evaluated against Oedipus the King by Sophocles, where Oedipus the King is a yardstick which has set canons for plays.

Examples of Canon from Literature

Example #1

In a summer season when soft was the sun,
I clothed myself in a cloak as I shepherd were,
Habit like a hermit’s unholy in works,
And went wide in the world  wonders to hear.
But on a May morning on Malvern hills,
A marvel befell me of fairy, me thought.

(The Plowman’s Tales, Lines, 1-6)

Taken from the “The Plowman’s Tale”, these lines exemplify the third definition of canon. Chaucer’s canon includes “The Canterbury Tales”, for instance, but it does not include the apocryphal work, “The Plowman’s Tale,” which has been mistakenly attributed to him in the past. The canon is the use of archaic language that Chaucer used in his works but not used in this part.

Example #2

In the history of literature, a number of authors and poets have made such an extraordinary contributions that their literary works are considered yardsticks to have set canons to evaluate other works. Their literary works obtain in themselves the position of literary canon which the successive writers use as touchstone to compare their creations with. For example,

Homeric Epic

It was for long time that the world took the Greek epics of Homer, the great Iliad and the great Odyssey, as the sublime examples of literature. On the contrary, we have no idea whether the popular and well-known author was a genuine person. However, Homer and the other writers inspired by him have made their way to the list of the greatest literary brains of the world since antiquity only by following the literary canons of writing an epic on the Homeric lines that others tried to follow after them.

Shakespearean Plays

William Shakespeare has written tragedies and comedies for the Elizabethan audience. However, he has earned appreciation for these works in that they have become yardstick for the other writers to judge their place in literature. For many decades, English writers compared themselves with Shakespeare. This approach of looking at and following a writer’s work for measuring literary excellence and success is, in fact, called a Shakespearean canon such as having five acts in a play.

Jane Austen
Jane Austen is one of those female writers who came to the limelight by breaking all the traditional and conventional shackles. She wrote mild and smiling romantic novels such as Pride and Prejudice and Emma, setting them in England and making marriages her subject to be explored. As she used round characters in her novels uniquely different from her counterparts, this became her style and finally a canon for other female writers to be evaluated against.

Function of Canon

The function of a canon has always raised confusion and complexity. The works, traditionally considered following a certain canon, belongs to the writers who have long been dead. Moreover, only the white and male writers of antiquity have been given the membership to this exclusive club. Women, minorities and non-Western writes were kept out of this kind of arbitrary practice for long until they won recognition such as the writers of the Harlem Renaissance.  Furthermore, philosophical and political biases too made literary canons disputed. Hence, a number of critical circles suggest that the idea of having specific canons for specific genre need be abandoned. On the contrary, some other critics advocate the expansion of canons by including the extended range of sampling to broaden the horizon literary canons.

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