Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Criticism at the Turn of the Century

T.S. Eliot’s emergence as a major original and revolutionary critical voice occurred at a time when English literary scene was marked by conflicting assumptions and confusion of ideas that were voiced from different directions. Towards the last leg of the nineteenth century there was visible rise in new schools of thought consequent upon ground-breaking findings and discoveries in science, history, philosophy and social sciences that posed serious challenges to the established beliefs and assumptions, questioning and interrogating their basic foundations. This is reflected in the uncertainties, skepticism and feelings of anxiety which we find in the literary works of the period. It was a period of turmoil in ideas.

This was also an age of remarkable material progress with publishing industry registering extraordinary advancement and expansion. Major events of socio-political significance were taking place that also shook English society to its foundations. The age produced writers of great stature, like Thackeray, Dickens, the Bronte sisters, Trollop, Tennyson, Browning, Arnold, Swinburne and others; there was also a large number of lesser writers who were read widely for entertainment and they became as much popular as the first-rate writers. The variety and multifarious composition of the age is clearly reflected in the writings. In serious philosophical-theoretical domains works of great thinkers illuminated the areas of controversy and sought to discover truth, as we find in Thomas Carlyle, Edmund Burke, Cardinal Newman, Matthew Arnold, John Ruskin, Harriet Monteau, John Stuart Mill, Adam Smith, etc.

As the century reached its closing years there arose literary figures who committed themselves to serious theoretical questions, and endeavoured to formulate critical principles. Intellectual world was undergoing momentous changes in the wake of radical ideas presented by Marx, Freud, Jung, Darwin and other thinkers. The world was standing on the threshold of a bright dawn unlike anything it had witnessed ever before. There were those who were filled with awe and fright which made them cling to the old in an attempt to assert that the ground they were standing on was yet solid and stable; and there were those who did not believe so. They felt that the old institutions had far outlived their validity and bold adventurous spirit was needed to revitalize the jeopardized systems of human society. It needed a painful intellectual overhauling to show to all how out of date the contemporary literary writings had become and impress upon them the urgency to evolve a new mode of thinking, feeling and expression.

Thus one can say that in many respects literary tendencies of the Victorian period were carried forward in the twentieth century. The conflicting thought currents and conventions, the mutually contrary habits and beliefs and the restive intellectual air that awaited the coming of a new era of order and system, continued to agitate the early years of the new era too. People’s attitudes were changing, so were their life-view and modes of enquiry into the complex realities emerging. Standing on the threshold of the twentieth century English literature was poised for revolutionary changes.

The new century opens with a deep sense of skepticism and uncertainty, two dominant moods that we never became free from. As A.C. Ward observers:

“The old certainties were certainties no longer Everything was held to be open to question, everything from the nature of the Deity to the Construction of verse forms”.

Not only were the old Victorian poets yawned over and the novelists mocked for various reasons, but the very position of authority which many of the past intellectuals occupied were challenged, it was a belligerent mood with which the new age dawns. J.B. Priestley draws a fine picture of the scene in Literature and the Western Man when he takes up M. Georges Sorel’s writings to find out what bewilders man on the threshold of the century, “first, a contemptuous rejection of all the accepted values, creeds, institutions of the age. Secondly, raging behind all his arguments and pronouncements, a lust to destroy, to bring the whole age to a violent end. Thirdly, after the state and all traditional culture had vanished in smoke and dust, the desire to create……an era of vast productiveness, of triumphant technicians and busy workers, untroubled and no longer deceived by any idea, religious, philosophical, cultural, social that had clouded men’s mind with past,” and then he goes on to say, “What was behind all this, throughout Europe if not in America…..and soon, as our century advanced it was to be commoner still. Men felt themselves to be living without purpose, in a society without meaning. What might be accepted consciously was violently rejected unconsciously, in the depths no longer controlled by any symbols of a larger significance containing life, a life in which the individual felt himself to be unique, a complete and responsible person.”

While the older age acknowledged the word of the Expert, the Voice of Authority and the majority of the people were content to follow the pronouncements of these voices, this kind of willing submission to oracular voices was frowned upon by the post-Victorians.

The second important feature of the earlier period which was severely corroded in the following one was the “impassioned belief in permanence of nineteenth century institutions”. They liked to believe that their house was built on unshakable foundations and the illusion of its continuing perpetually was a comfortable one. “Whatever they did was done as in the light of eternity”, as one scholar said.

The twentieth century writers rebelled against both the single voice of authority and the idea of fixity. “The change of outlook that came with the twentieth century was due to the growth of restless desire to probe and question.” The whole gamut of old established idea, concepts and assumptions was put under scrutiny.

The Edwardian and Georgian periods “have been years of social progress as well as of imperial decline.” The scene was filled by strides being taken in the field of education, eliminating the miserable condition of women, more equitable distribution of wealth and technological progress affecting work, mobility and domestic comfort (Harry Blamires 4). Intellectuals were engaged in spreading the ideals of socialism through Fabian Society (by G.B. Shaw) founded in 1884 which vowed not to use violent methods for achieving their ends. The government was also open to suggestions and many legislative acts such as Education Act of 1902, Old Age Pension Act of 1908 and Llyod Georges Insurance Act in 1911 sought to improve the conditions of life.

Nevertheless, parallel to these progressive measures then also were visible signs of social nerves, dissatisfaction and unrest. World War I left many permanent sears on the face of modern life. It was the first war fought on a world-wide scale and left the mankind badly shaken, young men dying in trenches, many of whom were young writers like Isaac Rosenberg, Sigfried Sassoon, Christopher Caudwell, added an element of anxiety and anger in public life. To quote A.C. Ward once again, “The individual soldier found himself living in a rather worse world than he had lived in June 1914; he naturally felt, therefore, that he had been ‘sold’, and that whatever sacrifice he and the others had made was useless. There is no reason for wonder if, in his disgust, he brooded upon the missing of his own narrow but intense existence.” The social distress and privation mark the popular books of the years following the Great War. Erich Von Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Richard Aldington’s Death of A Hero, R.C. Sherrif s play Journey’s End, Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War, Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole, etc.

The mood is aptly suggested in these lines of Thomas Hardy,

We have lost somewhat, afar and near, Gentlemen,

The thinning of our ranks each year

Affords a hint we are nigh undone,

That we shall not be ever again

The marked of many, love of one, Gentlemen.

Intellectual’s mind was probing deeper and deeper into different aspects of individual and social life and making disconcerting revelation. There was hardly a philosopher in the new century who, matching in any way those of the previous one, could be called the guiding figure for all; and yet the investigations went on, zealously grappling with all manner of problems! As J.B. Priestley says “Just when men needed a contemporary world view, apparently there was not one to be had. And what was to be had, so far as it could be understood, was not what most men felt, they needed.”

A consequence of the general acceptance of the tradition of interrogation was the rise of anti-rationalism, especially in America. The celebrated psychologists William James, C.S. Peirce, John Dewey and several of their contemporaries and followers shared the active man’s suspicions and distaste for ‘a block universe’, the creation once and for all of an immovable, unwinking Absolute (Priestley: 307). His pragmatism propagated the validity of any idea which works and helps men to live wisely and happily.

George Santayana’s five-volume Life of Reason may be considered as reply to the irrational movements. The Spanish philosopher and novelist Miguel de Unamuno’s Del Sentimiento tragico de la vida (The Tragic Sense of Life) treats man realistically as individual capable of analytical, intellectual and critical reason, and not a being wishing for immortality and fighting death all his life. Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West proclaimed that our civilization was doomed, leaving an “uneasy feeling that the whole civilization of the west was more than merely insecure”. Though he was widely condemned, his infectious pessimism spread quickly and was contracted by other scholars.

Literary Criticism of the Period

Emerging from the shadow of the late Victorian critical schools, the early twentieth century criticism gives a picture of groupings in different directions in the works of such critics and essayists as Helaire Belloc, O.K. Chesterton, Arthur, Symons, Sir Walter Raleigh, George Saintsbury, Henry James, Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group and others. The early years of the century witnessed a phenomenal increase in book and periodical publication containing critical essays and articles, but most of it was wayward and rambling.

Arthur Symons (1865-1945) has contributed considerably through his critical writing in popularizing the poetry of Blake and D.G. Rossetti. He made detailed study of Romantic poets in his 1910 publication The Romantic Movement in English Poetry. His other works are Baudelaire (1920), Hardy (1927) and Walter Pater (1932). But perhaps his most significant work was Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899) which opened before the English people the fascinating world of the French Symbolists. Typically, Symons belongs to the Edwardian tradition in being unnecessarily impressionistic, diffuse and unsystematic. His writings read like poetry, a reason why Eliot considered him an imperfect critic.

Sir Walter Raleigh (1861-1922). A traditionalist to his finger tips, Raleigh was essentially a critic in the Victorian mould. He does not put forward any theory, nor does he project a particular type of criticism. Rather his strengths are clarity and lucidity with which he writes his observation about Milton, Wordsworth and Shakespeare. His major books are English Novel (1898), Milton (1900), Wordsworth (1903), Shakespeare (1907), and Six Essays on Johnson (1910).

George Saintsbury (1845-1933). He left his mark as a profound scholar and a man of immense learning leaving to us such immortal works as Elizabethan Literature (1887), History of English Prose (1906-10), History of English Criticism (1911), History of European Criticism (1912), The Peace of Augustans (1919), History of English Prose Rhythm and English Novel. In an age when systematic and scientific criticism had not yet begun, Saintsbury’s critical writings exude a high level of erudition and informativeness. It was David Daiches who compared him with T.S. Eliot in observing strict and austere standards of interpretation. He used to lodge immense confidence in his readers, a thing which Eliot never did. However, Saintsbury is still read for his high critical standards and immeasurably profound scholarship. His authoritative voice often reminds one of Arnold. In recent years some critics have tried to place him alongside Pater and his Aestheticism rather than Arnold.

Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (1861-1944). A Professor of English literature at Cambridge in 1912, Sir Quiller-Couch influenced a whole generation of reader’s taste by such of his notable works as Studies in Literature (1918, 1922, 1929), Shakespeare’s Workmanship (1918) and On the Art of Reading (1920).

A.C. Bradley (1851—1934) is known for his Shakespearean scholarship. It is his book Shakespearean Tragedy (1904) that is still most widely read than any other book. He presented a critical survey of the main tragedies of Shakespeare which appears to have evoked strong reaction from several sources, including Professor L.C. Knights. His other famous work is Oxford Lectures on Poetry (1909) that gives useful information on many poets.

This was the scene just before the emergence of T.S. Eliot, a very unorganized kind of scene, when no dominant critical ideals or central theory held the critics together and presented a firm system of norms whereby to function. It was the coming of Eliot on the scene that changed everything, gave criticism a definite theoretical strength and direction and created both staunch followers and dour opponents.

Henry James (1843-1916)

A significant name in modern literary criticism is Henry James whose position as a frontline novelist of modern era remains unchallenged. He is the first critic to bring novel and fiction under serious discussion and theorising. As one scholar says, “Upto this point there had been no theorising about the novel as a genre to match the theorising that had accompanied the growth of tragedy and epic.” Henry James in articles appearing in The Times Literary Supplement in 1914 resented the lack of professionalism with which the novel had been till then regarded.

In his famous essay “The Art of Fiction” written in 1884 he drew attention to the formlessness of some of the notable works of Tolstoy (War and Peace) and Arnold Bennett (Old Wives Tale). He discovers in their intense preoccupation with the content, a ‘Saturation in the actual’ to the extent there is a crippling severance between matter and method. James evolved a theory of the need for selectivity by the novelist which saves the novelist from falling into life’s ‘inclusion and confusion’. “Life in a fluid, disorderly, aggregative experience in which relations never stop, and it is the novelist’s duty, by discrimination and selection to create the illusion of wholeness or roundedness. In this connection his prefaces for a certain edition of his novels between 1907 and 1909 turned out to be remarkable essays. They open to the readers the secret workings of the mind of the novelist at work. So his prefaces to The Ambassadors, The Portrait of A Lady, The Golden Bowl show us his brilliant formulation of his subtle theories of the fictional material being nothing but a flow of impressions that form his consciousness of experience, and the author’s detachment from his work being as much of importance as his involvement in it. “In the preface to The Golden Bowl he speaks of his efforts to shake off the muffled majesty of authorship, to get down into the arena and do his best to live and breathe and rub shoulders and converse with his characters. The restraining hand performs its function by the manner in which the whole thing remains subject to the register, ever so closely kept, of the consciousness of but two of the characters.”

He particularly resented the so-called ‘realistic’ fiction’s proclivity for the solid, palpable material with which it invests itself—ignoring the elements of technique and form. The great debate between Henry James and H.G. Wells over what should receive the central critical attention as the primary element, has now become common knowledge. While James deplored his deep involvement with the external realities, Wells called James’s mind as totally devoid of penetration. ‘He is the culmination of the Superficial’.

Over the years Henry James’s critical theories of fiction have come to be recognized as of paramount importance. He inaugurated an era that took novel seriously, and paved the way for later critics to propound advanced opinions on the topic. With time his place has only been made more secure and firm, and to-day is beyond challenge or question.

The Modernist Movement

In the early part of the 20th century a great spurt of literary activities indicated the urge to create something new and bold by rejecting the old and conventional. It challenged the traditional techniques and subject-matter, and sought other areas of experience and techniques producing new and innovative body of works. The new sense of experimentation came be represented by the novels like Ulysses and The Lighthouse based on the Stream of consciousness technique. “In poetry T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound showed the way by employing free verse, deliberately appearing fragmentary and disjointed.” It was not in a strict sense a ‘movement’, but refers to a general feeling to shun the worn-out paraphernalia of literary exercises and create something new that would appropriately articulate the new experiences and responses.

A new generation of critics appeared on the scene to interpret the new writings such as Arthur Symons whose The Symbolist Movement (1899) influenced W.B. Yeats and inspired him to write ‘The Symbolism of Poetry’ (1900). These are the first critical attempts to interpret reality in different light, calling for ‘a casting out of descriptions of nature for the sake of nature, of the moral law for the sake of the moral law…..” Poetry was moving towards the condition of pure art: “It is symbolism that makes poetry moving by the way emotions and ideas are embodied, and the consequent evocations have a restorative effect on the human heart.

Yeats was indebted to Symons for his ideas on poetic creativity. In his essay ‘Ireland and the Arts’ he discovers a parallel between the vocation to religion and the vocation to art. “There is only one perfection and only one search for perfection, and it sometimes has the form of the religious life, and sometimes of artistic life.” Art was taking on the sanctified look of religion. Around this time the one single work that emerged as a major influence was T.E. Hulme’s (1883-1917) Speculations which contained his scattered lectures and writings gathered by Herbert Read. ‘Romanticism and Classicism’ pleaded for the revival of classicism, because Romanticism is a ‘disease’, which denies progress and dynamism. At a time when critics like Arthur Symons were busy elevating poetry to the role of religion Hulme’s support for the classical tenets and adherence to traditional models and organization further strengthened the emerging intellectual strength of critical theorizing. He set the trend which was extended by T.S. Eliot later on and which disparaged in clear terms the Romantic poets and their reliance on non-rational modes of apprehending realities. He decries “Sloppiness which does not consider that a poem is a poem unless it is moaning or whining about something or other.” As one scholar said, “Romanticism is a kind of drug; it produces ‘damp’ poetry, whereas the properly classical poem is ‘all dry and hard’. It accepts accuracy of description; it does not drug the infinite in but recognizes that ‘man is always man and never god.’ Romantic thinkers have, like Coleridge, tried to deduce critical opinions from fixed metaphysical principles.”

Talking about the language used in prose and poetry, Hulme insists on the precise nature of poetic language, imagining prose as a cracked pot through which meanings leak out and poetry as an ever-renewing bowl of metaphors. Poetic or metaphorical language in his opinion is far more accurate that prose language: “Indeed, plain speech is inaccurate; it is only new metaphors that can make it precise.” Hulme’s concerns indicated the future concern of critics to perfect the poetic form and technique, even for non-poetic writings, poetic ideals were considered suitable.

If T.E. Hulme launched a merciless assault on the romantic poetry, Ezra Pound (1885-1972) brought the Victorian poetry under merciless scrutiny for being ‘blurry’, ‘messy’, ‘sentimentalistic’ and ‘mannerish’. Pound brought a new angle to the quest of modern poets and thinkers for objectivity and treated poetic exercises closer to mathematical methods. He wrote his opinions in The Poetry Review in 1913. In 1918 appeared A Retrospect with his further elaboration of what he had earlier written.

“Poetry is a sort of inspired mathematics which gives us equations, not for abstract figures, triangles and spheres, and the like, but equations for the human emotions” (The Spirit of Romance, 1910).

His collaboration with Richard Aldington (1892-1962) and Hilda Doolittle or ‘H.D.’ (1886-1961) produced the famous ‘Imagist Movement’ which generally celebrated precision and directness in expression. Two of its proclaimed tenets became the central guiding principles.

1. Direct treatment of the ‘thing’ whether subjective or objective.

2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.

Pound emphasized discipline and precision in a way that frowned upon the prolixity, verbosity and flaccidity of the earlier generation of poets. He felt that the craft and technique need to be mastered by the younger poets. Poetry writing is a matter of life-time’s dedication. ‘Image’ for Pound was “an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time” which gives us a “sense of sudden liberation”. Ezra Pound’s poetic and critical work had tremendous effect on changing the contemporary opinion, for there emerged a strong line of younger poets who followed him and considered him their idol.

Ford Madox Ford (1873-1939) is now regarded as an undeservedly neglected writer, both as a novelist and critic. He was instrumental in launching D.H. Lawrence and Wyndham Lewis, and his English Review launched in 1908 became a forum for discussing new critical ideas. He was a prolific writer and produced massive novels like Parade’s End, considered to be next only to Ulysses. He wrote regularly on various topics most of which appeared in his own and other journals of the period. The Critical Attitude appeared in 1911, Henry James A Critical Study in 1913, Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance in 1924 followed in 1938 by the memorable The March of Literature from Confucius to Modern Times. Graham Greene discovered tremendous vitality and energy in Ford, “It is the vitality and vividness of Ford’s critical writing that is irresistible.” He met may writers personally like Arnold Bennett and Joseph Conrad. With Conrad he wrote the novels The Inheritors (1901) and Romance (1903). They were deeply influenced by Maupassant and Flaubert for their innovative use of technique and after Conrad’s death urged the younger writers to forge a new fictional technique that would make the novel have the kind of effect on the readers that life has “And life does not report to you in organized narration.” In his opinion “the object of the novelist is to keep the reader entirely oblivious of the fact that the author exists—even of the fact that he is reading a book.” He wanted to bring literature closer to life so that it “lets you into the secrets of the characters of the men with whom it deals.” He invented the device of slipping into the narrative innocuous-looking “Conversational throwaways”—the casual observations that may ring the bell in the mind of an attentive reader. His ‘time-shift’ idea was fashioned to avoid the conventional chronological presentation.

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) In the genre of fiction while Ford was working out experiemental possibilities in his own way, Virginia Woolf organized some renowned personalities from different fields to form a radical-looking ‘Bloomsbury Group’, famous among them being the economist Maynard Keynes, Dorothy Richardson and Lytton Strachey. This was an avant-garde group that looked beyond the conventional and was bold enough to venture into the new and unknown. Virginia Woolf’s husband Leonard Woolf gathered her critical opinions in Collected Essays (1966-67). One of these essays is ‘Modern Fiction’ which has become a milestone work, in which she discusses what she later practiced in some of her novels, namely, the technique of presenting human experience. Dorothy Richardson was not very effective in her use of impressionistic stream-of-consciousness method; but it was Virginia Woolf who succeeded brilliantly in pioneering the fiction employing it completely. She is able to take us right into the center of her heroine’s consciousness which is her real world and sail through the flickering impressions that continually flow and form her life, “what Virginia Woolf, and for that matter Dorothy Richardson, were rebelling against was represented by the novelists Arnold Bennett, H.G. Wells and John Galsworthy.”

In her opinion they were ‘materialistic giving too much undue importance to the external things. “They write of unimportant things and they spend immense skill and immense industry making the trivial and the transitory appear the true and the enduring” (‘Modem Fiction’). She insisted that the ‘essential thing’ is life—the inner spirit or consciousness and the novelists need to catch that “they fail to register the myriad, multifarious impressions that shower upon the ordinary mind on an ordinary day. She then goes on to praise the achievement of James Joyce in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where we see “the flickering of that innermost flame which flashes its message through the brain.”

Virginia Woolf used rich metaphorical language in presenting her critical ideas, and thus sounds more like a novelist that she was than a critic. She praises George Moore for his power in portraying life as it is without condemning or justifying it; and deplored writers like Arnold Bennett and H.G. Wells for their practice of ‘heaping facts’ that concentrated on the ‘inessentials’ of life. In a similar vein Woolf attacked the poets of 1930s Auden, Spender, Mac Neice, Isherwood and Day Lewis in a paper entitled ‘The Leaning Tower’. Virginia Woolf is very harsh on these poets and “Words like ‘bleat’ and ‘whimper’ flow scathingly from her pen in describing their attitudes. No doubt it was the resurgence in their work of moral pontification from the radical political stand point which rubbed her up the wrong way.”

There were a few other writers around this time who were basically creative men but had turned their attention to the basic critical issues in a way that indicated a radical approach which came to mark most of the important critical works. E.M. Forster (1879-1970) as a critic is best known today for his publication Aspects of the Novel (1927), a collection of lectures delivered at Cambridge. The book has become a household name today and every where students of literature are expected to have read it. Written in a simple yet attractive language, the author discusses many relevant points about novel, propounding in the process some concepts. For example, his concept of ‘round’ and ‘flat’ characters is perhaps the best way to understand at the rudimentary level the simple division between two types of characters. While the flat characters present just one aspect to the readers, making it easy for them to explain their personality in one sentence, ‘round’ characters, on the other hand “are highly organized”, complex and “seem capable of an extended life beyond the bounds of the book in which they appear. They show growth in their inner life, in a way in which it is not seen in the ‘flat’ characters. But there are serious weaknesses about this kind of classification. Not all great characters can be so neatly put into either one or the other class, the best example being provided by Jane Austen. However, E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel remains a classic of its kind, seeking to discuss the basic components of novel in a chatty and easy-flowing style. D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930) also wrote a few critical works that bear the mark of his personality as an aggressive moralizer that often characterize his novels and other fictional works. Some of his essays are ‘The Novel’, ‘Morality and the Novel’ both published in 1925 and ‘Why the Novel Matters’, not published till 1936, As in his fiction, so here too in these essays Lawrence is preoccupied with man’s relation with the world. As one critic says, “Lawrence harangues the reader. Art is concerned with the relation between man and his world ... All life consists in achieving relationships between man and what lies about him, human or natural. Where religion, philosophy and science try to nail us down with propositions and prohibitions, the novel represents the highest example of subtle interrelatedness that man has discovered. The superior morality of the novel lies in its acceptance that everything is true in its own time, place, circumstance, and false outside.” He is centrally occupied with the idea of the life of soul being the true life and takes little time in denigrating the novels that highlight the materialistic life. In this he is closer to Virginia Woolf for whom also ‘nothing is important but life’. He sees the whole of life and does not believe in dividing into different worlds of specialized experiences as philosophers, sages, scientists do. One cannot apprehend or understand life by isolating experiences like that. The superiority of the novelist consists in dealing with the whole. From this position Lawrence goes on to condemn such wide-ranging novelists like Tolstoy, Conrad, Joyce and Jane Austen.

It is against this scenario that we must see the rise of T.S. Eliot as the most influential critic of our era. The various critics that we have just examined represent the scattered nature of the critical opinions that came to be articulated, showing a serious break away from the unproductive tradition of the past. But these independent views were too scattered, the age yet lacked a single guiding force in the critical domain. Such a dominant spirit was emerging in the shape of T.S. Eliot who combined the cultural forces, the social imperatives and the moral tenets into his literary works in a way that immediately offered a broad range to the reader’s experiences and vision. He pleaded for a wholistic approach and was averse to dissociating feelings from thought. His vision arose from his view of the fragmented, confined and degenerated world of our times.

People who read this post also read :


Post a Comment

Please leave your comments!