In a number of critical essays like The Perfect Critic, The Imperfect Critic, The Function of Criticism and The Frontiers of Criticism, Eliot has dealt with the qualifications and functions of a critic. His views in this respect may be summed up as follows:
An Ideal Critic: His Qualifications
1. A good critic must have superior sensibility. He must have greater capacity of receiving impressions and sensations from the work of art he studies.
2. He must also have wide erudition. This would increase his understanding. His mind would be stored with impressions which would be modified and refreshed by each successive impression he receives from the new works he contemplates. In this way would be built up a system of impressions which would enable him to make generalised statements of literary beauty. Such a universalizing or generalising power is essential for an ideal critic, and he can get it only through erudition.
3. A good critic must be entirely impersonal and objective. He must not be guided by the inner voice, but by some authority outside himself. Eliot instances two types of imperfect critics, represented by Arthur Symons and Arnold. Symons is too subjective and impressionistic, while Arnold is too dry, intellectual and abstract. Eliot regards Aristotle as an instance of a perfect critic, for he avoids both these defects. In his hands, criticism approaches the condition of science.
4. A good critic must not be emotional. He must be entirely objective. He must try to discipline his personal prejudices and whims. He must have a highly trained sensibility, and a sense of structural principles, and must not be satisfied with vague, emotional impressions. Critics who supply only vague, emotional impressions, opinions or fancy, as he puts it, are great corruptors of taste.
5. An ideal critic must have a highly developed sense of fact. By a sense of fact, Eliot does not mean biographical or sociological knowledge, but a knowledge of technical details of a poem, its genesis, setting, etc. It is a knowledge of such facts alone which can make criticism concrete as well as objective. It is these facts which a critic must use to bring about an appreciation of a work of art. However, he is against the ‘lemon-squeezer’ school of critics who try to squeeze every drop of meaning out of words and lines.
6. A critic must also have a highly developed sense of tradition. He must be learned not only in the literature of his own country, but in the literature of Europe down from Homer to his own day.
7. Practitioners of poetry make the best critics. The critic and the creative artist should frequently be the same person. Such poet-critics have a thorough knowledge and understanding of the process of poetic creation, and so they are in the best position to communicate their own understanding to their readers.
8. An ideal critic must have a thorough understanding of the language and structure of a poem. He must also have an idea of the music of poetry, for a poet communicates as much through the meaning of words as through their sound.
9. Comparison and analysis are the chief tools of a critic and so a perfect critic must be an expert in the use of these tools. His use of these tools must be subtle and skilful. He must know what and how to compare, and how to analyse. He must compare the writers of the present with those of the past not to pass judgment or determine good or bad, but to elucidate the qualities of the work under criticism. In other words, he must be a man of erudition, for only then can he use his tools effectively.
10. He must not try to judge the present by the standards of the past. The requirements of each age are different, and so the cannons of art must change from age to age. He must be liberal in his outlook, and must be prepared to correct and revise his views from time to time, in the light of new facts.
In short, an ideal critic must combine to a remarkable degree, “sensitiveness, erudition, sense of fact and sense of history, and generalising power.”
The Critic: His Functions
1. The function of a critic is to elucidate works of art. This function he performs through, ‘comparison and analysis’. His function is not to interpret, for interpretation is something subjective and impressionistic. Critics like Coleridge or Goethe, who try to interpret works of art, are great corruptors of the public taste. They supply merely opinion or fancy which is often misleading. The critic should merely place the facts before the readers and thus help them to interpret for themselves. His function is analytical and elucidatory, and not interpretative. “Analysis and comparison, methodically with sensitiveness, intelligence, curiosity, intensity of passion, and infinite knowledge, all these are necessary to the great critic.”
2. The critic must also have correct taste. He must educate the taste of the people. In other words, he must enable them positively to judge what to read most profitably, and negatively what to avoid as worthless and of no significance. He must develop the insight and discrimination of his readers.
3. A critic must promote the enjoyment and understanding of works of art. He must develop both the aesthetic and the intellectual sensibilities of his readers.
4. It is the function of a critic to turn the attention from the poet to his poetry. The emotion of art is impersonal, distinct from the emotion of the poet. The poem is the thing in itself, and it must be judged objectively without any biographical, sociological or historical considerations. By placing before the readers the relevant facts about the poem, the critic emphasises its impersonal nature, and thus promotes correct understanding.
5. Criticism must serve as a handmaid to creation. Criticism is of great importance in the work of creation itself. The poet creates, but the critic in him sifts, combines, corrects and expunges, and thus imparts perfection and finish to what has been created. No great work of art is possible without critical labour.
6. The function of a critic is to find common principles for the pursuit of criticism. To achieve this end, “the critic must control his own whims and prejudices, and co-operate with other critics in the common pursuit of true judgment.” He must co-operate with the critics both of the past and the present. He must also realise that all truths are tentative, and so must be ready to correct and modify his views as fresh facts come to light.
7. The function of a critic is not a judicial one. A critic is not to pass judgment or determine good or bad. His function is to place the simpler kinds of facts before the readers, and thus help them to form their own judgment. He does not supply statements or communicate feeling; he merely starts a process. A critic is a great irritant to thought; he tries to secure the active participation of the readers in the work of criticism.
8. A critic should try to answer two questions: “‘What is poetry?” and “Is this a good poem?” Criticism is both theoretical regarding the nature and function of poetry and the poetic process, and practical concerned with the evaluation of works of art. With this end in view, he should bring the lessons of the past to bear upon the present.
Conclusion: Eliot’s Classicism
In short, Eliot’s conception of a critic and his functions is classical. He insists on a, “highly developed sense of fact”, on objective standards, on a sense of tradition, and rejects the subjectivism of the romantics. The concern for a poem as an objective thing is the special highlight of the classicism of Eliot.