Friday, December 10, 2010

What Is Literary Criticism?

I must begin with a preliminary warning: literary criticism is not something which can be summed up in series of neat little statements which can be learnt by heart; rather, it is a journey of exploration into the nature of literature in all its variety; the last word is never said. What this book sets out to do is not to take you to the end of that journey and tell you what you will find there—it has no ending—but rather to set up a series of signposts so that you may start out in the right direction.
I shall have to generalize, to over-simplify, sometimes to dogmatize: there will not be space to qualify every statement, or to give every side of controversial questions. But if you treat the book as what it is intended to be, not as a summary of the unsummarizable but as pointing the way to further reading and further thought, you will find out for yourselves the complexities and apparent contradictions, the paradoxical exceptions to the rule, which I have been obliged to ignore. You may even, in certain cases, decide after further reading that I have been mistaken. That will not matter: what matters is that you should be sufficiently stimulated to follow up the problems for yourselves. The book will only have failed if it does not make you want to go further along the various roads to which it points you.
This said, we go on to the subject of this chapter. What is Literary Criticism? Of what use is it? And, assuming that it has a use, what are the qualifications of a critic? And how does he set about his job?
The Functions Of Literary Criticism
The business of the literary critic is, in the first instance, to distinguish between a good book and a bad one, and, that done, to help us to recognize for ourselves, and to get full value out of, literary quality when we meet with it, thus opening up for us the whole world of pleasure and imaginative experience and intellectual stimulus which is waiting to be explored but which, without a qualified critic’s help, we would not discover for ourselves. The ways in which the critic sets about his task are innumerable, ranging from, on the one hand, the most general statement of principle to, on the other, a detailed line by line and word by word analysis of one short poem, but always the purpose is the same: to quicken and refine our, the readers’, perceptiveness so that, as time goes on, we too may come to share his understanding of, and pleasure in, what is best in literature. As Cecil Day Lewis puts it (The Poetic Image, p. 16): “To say it quite simply, the critic has one pre-eminent task—the task of easing or widening or deepening our response to poetry” (italics mine)— or, one must add, to whatever other branch of literature he may have chosen as his special study.
The Critic As Judge: Absolute Standards In Literature
I said in the last paragraph that the critic must, in the first instance, be able to distinguish between a good book and a bad one. The word “critic” is, in fact, derived from the Greek crites, a judge. Self-evidently the first step towards “easing or widening or deepening” our response to what is best in literature must be that the critic himself should be able to recognize quality when he meets with it. The first step only—but if he himself has not learnt to recognize the good and to reject what is worthless he will be a blind leader of the blind.
How, then, does a critic set about his task of judging? By what standards does he judge? And how are we, his readers, to know whether any given critic’s judgement is likely to be more reliable than that of another or than our own?
These questions raise the whole problem of the existence of absolute standards in literature. And there are people who doubt whether such standards exist: they believe that the most that any critic can do is to express a personal preference for one book rather than for another, but that of whether one book is in itself better than another there is no method of proof. And this because of the subjective nature of the evidence upon which the critic must base his judgement. When a judge gives a verdict in a court, of law the process is objective: he is guided, not by something personal to himself, but by a set of external laws* set down in black and white and familiar to every lawyer, and by sworn statements of fact; his own personal opinion only comes into play in assessing the reliability of any witness, and this can be checked by the evidence of other witnesses. The law forbids murder; all that concerns the judge is to discover whether the man in the dock did, in fact, commit murder or not; his own personal feelings about murder, or his liking for, or dislike of, the accused, are totally irrelevant. The critic, on the other hand, has no law to administer; the nearest thing to law which he has to guide him is certain statements of principle, such as those found in Aristotle’s Poetics, but every critic who has treated these as the judge treats the law of the land, as external rules by which the (aesthetic) guilt or innocence of a writer can be determined, has invariably given mistaken judgements. And the only evidence upon which a critic can base his judgement lies in his own personal response to what he reads: he asks, not “What are the rules? Does this work observe them?”, but “What do I, the critic, feel about this book?” He may,” it is true, if other critics whose opinion he respects differ from him, reserve judgement, but nevertheless the ultimate test is subjective. And this inevitably, for literature, whether poetry or prose, is addressed to the imaginative and aesthetic sense of the individual reader and only the reader: himself can judge of its impact.
Here lies the problem: if the test by which the critic judges is purely subjective—a matter not of externally verifiable facts but solely of his own personal preference—who is to say, should two critics disagree, or, as frequently happens, should the consensus of critical opinion differ from that of the general public, that any given critic’s personal response is likely to be more reliable than that of another or of the non-critical majority? Is there, in fact, /any objective standard by which we can say that some books are, ‘ in themselves, good and others bad, or is it, as many people claim, “all a matter of tastt”? If there is no objective test of quality, and enjoyment is all, is there any evidence that Hamlet is a better play than The Mousetrap or War and Peace a better novel than Daphne du Manner’s Rebecca? Is not the critic’s preference—and ours—for Hamlet and War and Peace simply a personal idiosyncrasy? Why should he—and we—be right and the majority—for they arc a vast majority—who prefer Tin Mousetrap and Rebecca be wrong? If we can find no answer to these questions then value-judgement becomes a chimera—all that is possible is a statement of personal preferences, one as valid as another: a book is a good book for those who like it, a bad one for those who do not —in fact, “Every man his own critic”.
But there is an answer to these questions. To find it we must break the vicious circle of subjectivity. And the circle can be broken if we can find, despite the subjectivity of the individual judgement, that there is objective evidence that, irrespective of what you or I or the man in the street may feel about them, some books have proved themselves to be better than others. If such evidence exists and we can identify these books, then the man or woman who prefers them to the rest has shown that he or she can recognize quality when they meet with it; those who do not, cannot—their judgement is worthless.
And such evidence does exist: the test of time. In every period there are books—the vast majority—which are enormously popular and which, at the time, produce a strong emotional response in the majority of their readers, but which, after a generation or two, are either completely forgotten or, if they survive at all, do so only as literary curiosities, evidence of the queer taste of our forbears. They have pleased only the contemporaries for whom they were written. But meantime other books throughout the centuries or even millennia have continued to be as moving and satisfying as they were to the people to whom they were first addressed. Such are the works of Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Racine, Milton—you can add to the list. Their readers have belonged to different races, and in some cases to periods of history far remote from those which gave them birth, living in totally different circumstances, troubled by different problems, with different religions, philosophies and political and social assumptions from those of the generation for whom they were written. Yet all this has made little difference. And this is not by chance. There are two levels upon which a book can move us. Every period has, inevitably, its own way of life, its own beliefs, preoccf pations, hopes and fears, which, as long as they last, seem to be, and very possibly arc, of transcendent importance, and which hence arouse strong, often violent, emotion, but which, when the circumstances which produced them change, are replaced by others and arc forgotten. They are like waves upon the surface of the sca.sihe books in the first class appeal to these surface—and most easily aroused - emotions, but are as ephemeral as the mood which gave them birth. But at the same time, down in the depths, there are the universal and unchanging human passions, problems and aspirations, the same always and everywhere whatever winds may ruflle the surface. The books in the second class penetrate to these depths. The sufferings of an Oedipus or a Hamlet, however much the circumstances, or even the beliefs, which cause them belong to the age in which the play was written, have in themselves nothing to do with fashion or with historical circumstance; they are fundamental to human nature, irrespective of time and place. Now, if you accept (as I think you will) that the greatest literature is that which goes deepest and appeals to what is most universal in man, then I think you will agree that their survival provides objective evidence that the books in the second class have a quality of greatness which is lacking in the first.
Nor need we take their greatness on trust. Assuming that we have it in us to respond to great literature, we can as we grow older compare for ourselves the quality of our own response to the two classes of books. Most of us in our youth, even though we are at the same time “enjoying” Shakespeare, some of the great novelists and, probably, the more romantic llyrical poetry, go through a phase of respondent with something like rapture to the superficially romantic or adventurous second-rate. And meantime many books which we have been told are “great” leave us cold—we are not ready for them. Then there comes a change: as we mature our responses widen and deepn: even the great books which we loved best we now love for a different reason, and, of the rest, one by one we become, so to speak, tuned in to their wavelength; we are ready for them, and they make their full impact. We can now compare the quality and depth of our response to the two groups of books. The “popular” ones may have moved us violently, “carried us away”, seemed “perfectly wonderful”, but in the “great” books we shall have found a depth, an assurance, a satisfyingness, a clam contentment, which, when we look back, we know was completely lacking in the rush of adolescent emotion produced by the others. However much we “adored” the ephemeral ones (and it is normal, and nothing to be ashamed of, that the young should be indiscriminatingly carried away by what they read), we cannot doubt that were we to return to them we should find them, by comparison with the “great”, shallow and shoddy. And further, if we go, when we have reached maturity, from one of the great to almost any new book, even a relatively good one, the difference will be self-evident. Once we have learnt to recognize in ourselves the authentic respondent to greatness we cannot but be aware of its absence. This alone, without the confirmatory evidence provided by the power of survival, would prove nothing; the impact upon us of the “great” books might be due merely to some subjective kink in ourselves. But when we put the two things together—that not only is there a peculiar quality in our own response to these books but that they have survived innumerable changes of circumstance and fashion, continuing to give pleasure to generation after generation of readers—then it seems to add up to fairly conclusive proof that the difference lies in the books themselves.
Now to return to the critic: although it is true that his judgement on any given book must be based upon his own subjective response, there is an objective test by which we can assess his qualifications: can he recognize greatness where we know that it exists?
The Critic’s Qualifications
The man who has read—or attempted to read—Sophocles, Dante, Shakespeare, Tolstoy and the rest and has “seen nothing in any of them” his proved conclusively that he cannot recognize creative genius when he meets with it. If he then sets up for a critic he will be like a colour-blind person setting up as a judge of colour. We can dismiss him from consideration.
This man has taken the test and has failed. But what of one who has never been tested—who for some reason, possibly prejudice due to a faulty education, has not read the attested great, and has confined his reading to contemporary books? This man may have natural taste of a high order—imaginative sensibility and perceptiveness—all the gifts, in fact, required to make him potentially even a great critic. And many of his judgements may be more perceptive than those of a less sensitive though widely-read scholar. But he will have no standard by which to judge; never having experienced the authentic impact of supreme greatness he will not be aware of its absence; he will almost certainly fail to distinguish between the surface waves of topicality and the deeper currents, the ephemeral and the universal. In virtue of his sensibility he may in any given case be perceptive, but he will be capricious—possibly right, but more probably wrong. He, too, may be dismissed as unqualified.
The critic’s essential qualification, both to prove his own capacity for response and in order that he may have a standard by which to judge, is wide and perceptive reading in the great literature of the past. And ideally his taste should be so catholic that, having read every great work, he has responded to the full to all of them. And there have been critics so widely read and so many-sided that little has been beyond their scope.
But such catholicity is rare? temperaments vary: there are born classics, born romantics; some people respond instinctively to the sensuous and emotioned, others to the austere and the intellectual, some to formal perfection, others to creative exuberance. We can all, it is true, extend our range and learn at least to admire, even if not to be profoundly moved by, what is alien to our temperaments; we may even, by dint of persevering reading, discover in ourselves latent potentialities for enjoyment until nearly the whole of literature is opened up to us. Nevertheless, in all but the most myriad-minded, blind spots will remain.
But such blind spots do not matter overmuch: what we demand of a critic is not infallibility throughout the whole range of literature, but that within his own range he should be a sure guide and should contribute to the utmost to our appreciation and understanding; if he docs this he has fulfilled his function; where he fails we can turn to another critic for help. If he is wise he will, of course, recognize his own limitations and confine his judgements to the field in which his sympathies lie. But even if he lacks this wisdom and goes beyond his range the errors which he may make outside his own field in no way invalidate his judgements within it. If these are of superlative quality he remains a great critic, even if a restricted one. Charles Lamb was a born romantic who had no wish to be anything else; not content to say, “I, Charles Lamb, do not like the neo-classical literature of the Restoration and the eighteenth century”, he assumed that because he failed to respond to it there could be nothing in it to like: the fault must lie in it and not in himself. But this simply means that when we want a just appraisement of the classical period we go elsewhere; it takes nothing from the perceptiveness with which he assesses and illuminates with his poetic imagination the writers of the Elizabethan Age and of the early seventeenth century. So with Samuel Johnson: his verdict on Lycidas shows that where pastoral elegy was concerned he was colour blind, but this is totally irrelevant to the greatness of his assessments of Paradise Lost, Shakespeare, Pope, Dryden. It is these which put him in the first rank among critics.
There is, it is true, a blind spot which is more serious, and which may itself be caused by the very familiarity with the traditional great which is the critic’s essential equipment: the inability to recognize the genius of an innovator who has broken with tradition and has created a new form in which to express his vision. Such innovators were Wordsworth in Lyrical Ballads and Gerard Manley Hopkins. It is here that many-sided reading is the critic’s safeguard. Has he learnt to respond to only one style (as had Wordsworth’s critic to the neo-classical) the unorthodoxy of the new form may stand between him and the imaginative content; has he, on the contrary, already discovered in how many ways genius can express itself he will be on his guard against judging by surface orthodoxy and should be able to recognize the authentic impact of greatness even though it may take an unfamiliar form. At worst, being aware “of the pitfalls, he can reserve judgement and leave the final verdict to a younger generation of critics whose responses have not become set.
So, to sum up: the wider is a critic’s range the better -blind spots are always a fault. But what we demand above all is not the negative merit of absence of errors -they are inevitable, even in the greatest—but that positively the critic should contribute something of unique value to our appreciation of literature and to our ability to recognize, and enjoy, the greatest when we meet with it. And to do this his primary qualification is that he himself should have learnt to respond to the full to the greatest.
The Critic As Interpreter
Already throughout the last section, although writing ostensibly on the critic’s qualifications as a judge, it have assumed his further function: interpretation. The two cannot be separated when one comes to write of individual critics: in practice it is in their interpretation that they reveal their judgement.
Yet the two functions are in fact distinct: it is one thing to tell us what is good and what is bad—to separate the sheep from the goats—and quite another to train us to see for ourselves that the sheep are sheep and to enjoy them proportionately. Give an inexperienced reader a list of “The Hundred Best Books” (such lists have been made) and leave him without any guidance as to what to look for in them; a large proportion of them he will find less attractive than current fiction or poetry. Some—the easier novels, lyrical poetry, perhaps drama—may give him great pleasure, though even here he will miss much that a trained sensibility would be aware of. The rest, though he may conscientiously persevere to the end in his pursuit of “culture”, will only leave him puzzled as to what other people Jfave seen in them \vhi< h has led them to be called “great”. And this even if |Milentially he has it in him to be a ‘‘good reader”. Great literature riffi/s int’ipnidtiun. We may, unaided, get a glimpse, or even more than a glimpse, of the loveliness of a lyric, or the poignancy of a tragic play or story, but a gulf separates us from the intuitions of genius; were it not so it would not be genius. The critic’s business is to bridge this gulf. Being himself a man with imaginative perceptions akin to those of his subject, and having by years of concentrated and appreciative reading sensitized himself and trained himself in awareness as no ordinary reader has had the time or the opportunity to do, he then tells tha. reader what he has discovered in his author, or authors, in such a way that the reader may see it for himself. The critic’s methods of interpretation may vary infinitely, but whether he is elucidating a single work or making the most general statements of what to look for in any work of a given kind, always his purpose is the same: to quicken our apprehension of and response to what literature has to say to us so that we may not only know what we ought to read, but get full value out of it when we read it.
The Various Ways In Which The Critic Fulfils His  Task
(a) The Critic as Generdizer: The Formulation of Principles
Every literary work, whether a lyric poem, a play, a novel, or anything else, has its individual qualities: each is unique. Yet, nevertheless, there are certain common characteristics which, in any given class, make fir quality or for the reverse. The business of the critic as generalizer is, by watching his own highly trained responses to the various works, good and bad, of any given kind, to isolate and define those qualities which the good have in common so that we may know what to be on the watch for, may recognize it when we meet with it, and notice its absence when it is not there. The first—and he is still the greatest—of all generalizes was Aristotle, in his Poetic!. Through his own sensitivity, and through his supreme analytic genius, he was able In his study of the individual Creek tragedies to discover ilu-presence in those which satisfied him ol certain common (actors -a type of hero, a cer am kind of plot with “a beginning, .1 middle and an end’- and, further his greatest contribution of all -to define the effect of these threat tragedies upon his, and our, emotions, imagination and moral being, an effect totally lacking in the lesser ones. He thus, in defining the authentic tragic experience, fulfilled the true function of the critic by directing his readers’ attention, to the essential so that they might watch for it, recognize H when it was present, and so respond to it to the full. \Ve all of us tend to sec only what we are looking for: it was Aristotle who first showed us how, in tragedy, to look tor the right thing. And to a lesser extent, too, in comedy and epic, although those he only touched upon in passing.
And when the art of literary criticism was reborn with the Renaissance it was to such general statements of principle that the critics turned, but, disastrously in the case of the majority, with a total misunderstanding of Aristotle’s method and purpose. For they took the business of the critic to be not, as had Aristotle, by observation to discover what in fact was the impact made by any given work, but to turn his statements of what was into rigid and mechanical rules of what ought to be, and appraised any given work not, as he had, by its power to arouse a profound imaginative response, but by a purely ryechanical test, “Does it keep the rules?” Tims much Renaissance and neo-classical criticism is invalidated. It required a critic of exceptional imaginative pcrceptivcncss and independence of mind to dare to trust, as had Aristotle, to his own’subjective response, and to say that if any writer had achieved the desired effect by unorthodox means then that only went to show that, right as Aristotle had been about the plays and poems which he knew, there was more than one way of attaining the goal: that the critic’s business was nut to condemn the “irregular’’ work but to supplement Aristotle’s observations by analysing the new way as he had the old. This is Drydcn’s greatness: he knew that, rules or no rules, Shakespeare moved him more than did any other dramatist; by-passing the whole- pedantry of his age he went back to the fundamental question: What is it that Shakespeare has got which makes me it’i’f him more than I do any “correct” dramatist? And having answered the question he goes on, as would Aristotle himself have done, to extend the definition of great drama so as to include Shakespeare. And Pope, too, though more wedded to the “rules” than was Drydcn, knew equally that the business of “rule” \\;is to follow the workings of the imagination and not, conversely, the business of the imagination-to keep the rules:
If, where the rules not far enough extend,
(Since rules were made but to promote their end)
Some lucky licence answer to the full
Th’intent propos’d, that lictrxe ij a rule.
[Pope, Eisay on Criticism, lines 146-9 (italics mine).]
Drydcn and Pope were both working within the classical tradition. The Romantic Movement brought with it a revolutionary change in poetic sensibility, and a resultant exploration of the very nature of the; poetic imagination and its expression in literature. Hence the need for new, and revolutionary, “generalizations”. Here the great name is Coleridge, in Biographia Lilerariu; probably no one has done more than has Coleridge to widen and deepen our conception of what poetry is. And, narrower in its range but profound in its insights, Wordsworth’s Preface, to Lyrical Ballads. And Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry, and, on a lovver level but excellent as a summing up of Romantic principles, Hazlitt’s essay, Of Poetry in General.
 The Romantic Period was the great age of inspired criticism. With the Victorians there was a falling off, the major figure being Matthew Arnold, with his attempt to reintroduce a classical discipline as a corrective to romantic extravagance. This re-invigoration of classicism, though a new classicism far removed from eighteenth-century pedantry, has been the main work of T. S. Eliot, first in his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (Selected Essays), whiolt, published in 1917, marked a turning point in taste, and in Ine later volumes The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism and What is a Classic? And, Eliot apart, “generalization” continues today in innumerable specialized studies of some one or other branch of literature; I shall refer to some of them in the course of this book.
 (b) The Critical Appraisement and Elucidation of the Works of Individual Writers
 The earlier critics were all concerned with the formulation of general principles rather than with the study of what differentiated one writer from the rest of his kind. In passing, it is true, they often analysed and passed judgement upon the qualities of many writers and individual works: Aristotle appraises Homer and certain Greek plays; Sidney in his Apology for Poetry interpolates the earliest assessment of Spenser, and Dryden in the Essay of Dramatic Poesy introduces what is almost certainly the most penetrating and perceptive brief appreciation of Shakespeare which exists. But all these were by the way, introduced in the course of discussing some general truth. But already with Drydcn himself a new trend was emerging: towards the end of his life, in his Preface to his translations of Virgil, Boccaccio and Chaucer, On Translating the Poets, he is concerned not, as his title would suggest, with the art of translation in itself, but to write an appreciation of the three poets—it is Chaucer who in fact takes up the greater part of the essay—for tbei. own sakes. It is modern interpretative criticism—what,predominantly, though not exclusively, we expect of the critic today. And by the mid-cightcenth century this new trend was established: though “generalization” continued, the appraisement of individual authors and the analysis of their works had become the critic’s main business, reaching its high-water mark in Samuel Johnson’s Preface to’ Shakespeare and in the best of his Lives of the Poets. Johnson’s method is still general in that his aim is to identify the main characteristics of his subject’s genius rather than, except to some extent in his annotations of Shakespeare’s plays, the detailed line-by-line elucidation of each work. But at his best—as in the greater part of his Preface to Shakespeare, and in his Dryden, Pope, and, superlatively, his Milton —his outlines have never been surpassed for balanced judgement and the surcncss with which he defines his subject’s essential greatness. Johnson’s criticism is rational and objective. With the Romantics came an extreme subjectivity the imaginative re-creation for the reader of what the poetic intuitions of the critic himself had revealed to him in his study of his author—not so much appraisement as revelation, the opening up of a new world of meaning in works which the eighteenth century had dispassionately assessed. Again, it was predominantly Shakespeare, but a new Shakespeare, transformed by the romantic sensibility: Coleridge—again the greatest of all -in his lectures on Shakespeare; Lamb, capricious but inspired, in his The Tragedies of Shakespeare; Hazlitt’s (inferior) I he Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays. The method had its dangers; even Coleridge tended to read into Shakespeare too much of himself. But, though the corrective of greater objectivity was necessary, and has since been provided, the romantic critics wrought a permanent change in the approach to poetry; nothing could ever be the same again.
The Victorians, Matthew Arnold apart, tended to do little but perpetuate the weaknesses rather than the strength of romantic subjectivity. The best of Matthew Arnold’s individual studies in Essays in Criticism—his Byron and Wordsworth in particular—combine objectivity with extreme perceptiveness. With the present century, from the 1920’s onwards, T. S. Eliot’s revival of classical standards in his theoretical writings has been paralleled by a stricter discipline in the assessment of individual works. Here F. R. Leavis has been a major influence. He is a highly controversial figure: to his disciples an inspired prophet, to others a bete noire. In reaction against what he saw as an “it’s all a matter of taste” subjectivity he has made it his mission to introduce into the practice of criticism puritanically strict professional standards in the place of the dilettantism and amateurism which he sees as the diseasj of contemporary culture. His faults arc exclusiveness and oveJTdogmatism; what does not fall within his own too narrow definition of excellence is rejected his worthless; his “dethronement of Milton” is notorious. Nevertheless, within his range, when writing of those authors who pass his test, he is one of the most stimulating of living critics, at least on this side of the Atlantic.         
But, Leavis apart, it is to my next section that the most significant developments of contemporary criticism belong.
(c) The Critic as Scholar: Academic Research
(1) Historical Research
Both Samuel Johnson and Coleridge recognized how easy it is to misunderstand the writers of the past for lack of historical knowledge of the circumstances in which they wrote, but in their times the technique of research was still in its infancy. And lesser critics ignored the danger and assumed that, given sufficient perceptiveness, the whole of the world’s literature should be equally accessible. But with the growth of the historical sense and the perfecting of research techniques it is now generally accepted that one of the main preoccupations of the critic of literature, at least of that up to the eighteenth century, must be scholarly spade-work in contemporary documents and records. For however universal he may be—however much he may transcend his age—it is now recognized that every writer is, first and foremost, a man of his own day, not only ‘speaking its language (and words are constantly changing their meaning) but working within its social, religious, political and philosophical framework, and, most important of all, taking fur granted in his audience or readers the knowledge and presuppositions of the time. If we do not share this knowledge and these presuppositions but substitute for them those of our own Hay his whole meaning may be falsified. The business of the critic as scholar is, as far as is possible, to re-create for us the intellectual and emotional climate —even the material setting—which the writer assumed, so that his words may bear for us, again as far as is possible, that meaning and those emotional overtones which their writer intended them to bear. (For the degree to which lack of such knowledge may mislead us read “The Profession of the Critic” in Helen Gardner’s The Business of Criticism.)
Here again the critic’s approach may vary from the most general to the most particular, from, on the one hand, the overall picture of an age to, on the other, the most minute exploration of the personal circumstances, intellectual equipment and idiosyncrasies of a single writer, from that which was the common experience of all men at the time to that which differentiated the one individual genius from all the rest. To the first group belong Tillyard’s The Elizabethan World Picture, and the various studies of the Elizabethan playhouse which have revealed for the first time how much in the construction of Shakespeare’s plays had no abstruse literary significance but was simply due to the fact that that was how they would best come across on the stage for which they were written. At the opposite extreme of particularity is the method known as “explication”, the scholarly elucidation, line by line and word by word, of the works of one writer, in the light not only of all that he must have shared with his age but of all that the most exhaustive research can discover of his own personal beliefs, preoccupations and experience. For explication in practice read Helen Gardner’s John Donne; The Divine Poems.
(2) Personal Research
The latter part of the last paragraph has brought us near to what I have called “Personal Research”. But however personal the interpretation of a poet such as Donne must be the historical setting still remains all-important; a gulf separates us from the seventeenth century. It is when we come to writers nearer to our own time—to those whose background is relatively familiar to us—that the scholarly critic can, while putting his subject in the setting of his own day, of its beliefs and pre-occupations, yet concentrate his researches almost entirely upon what is particular to himself. Here the classic example is Livingstone Lowes’s The Road to Xanadu—a classic in its field because, fven though he may, as Beer has shown in his recent Coleridge the Visionary, have neglected S( me aspects of Coleridge’s philosophical reading, Lowes is almost alone among scholars of his kind in his combination of meticulous detective work with a poetic imagination and intuition through whicli every fact which he has discovered becomes a source of illumination; setting out to discover, by reading every book which Coleridge’s note-books showed that he himself had read, the raw material which the poet’s imagination transmuted into the poetry of The Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan, he has immeasurably illuminated not only those two poems, but the creative process of the poct,c imagination itself. And this is where the academic scholar may fail: it is comparatively rare to find in the same person the capacity for the sheer drudgery—and much of it must be drudgery—of research and the poetic sensibility required to interpret a poem in the light of the facts when they are found. Failing this sensibility the scholar may succeed only in burying a living poem under a mountain of dead information. But where the two gifts are combined the result may be an almost immeasurable “easing, widening and Deepening” of our response to poetry.
A Note On “Practical Criticism”
This, the critical method of I. A. Richards, is a highly controversial subject. Carried to its logical conclusion and used to the exclusion of every other method—as if has been by some of the” group who call themselves “The New Critics”—it is clearly indefensible. But {fused with common sense, not to the exclusion of, but as supplementary to, other approaches, it can provide an invaluable discipline in the reading of poetry. I. A. Richards explains his method, and his reasons for advocating it, in his book Practical Criticism, published in 1929.’ To summarize very briefly: he discovered in the course of his teaching at Cambridge that most undergraduates when given a poem to read read not the words printed upon the page but something else which they cxpecteJ to find; if they knew who wrote the poem they read into it *hat they had been told that that poet was likely to say; if they did not, they read it as meaning what some other poem with which they were familiar had said on the same subject, or else what they themselves would have said had they been writing the poem. In other words, in each case their response was not to the %vords in front of them but to something outside the poem of which it reminded them. And their judgement of the poem was equally unrelated to its merits: if they knew the name of the poet they repeated at second hand what they had learnt of that poet’s style and quality; if they did not they were all at sea; without the clue of a name they could not distinguish between a good poem and a bad one. This may seem incredible, but not only does my own experience as a teacher confirm it—even my most gifted pupils have from time to time completely reversed the meaning of a poem through inattemion to the words—but I myself, after a lifetime of reading, have to be constantly on my guard against such carelessness. The remedy which I. A. Richards suggests is to read the poem in, so to speak, a vacuum, ridding the mino^oTevery preconceived idea as to its probable meaning or quality, forgetting, if you know it, even the name of its author, and concentrating simply and solely upon the words themselves, and then to read and re-read it until every word, every image, every change of metre or rhythm, has made its full impact. From what I have said in the last section the inadequacy of this method as the only approach to poetry is self-evident. But nevertheless, if used side by side with, and not to the exclusion of, scholarly study, it does provide an invaluable discipline for which few readers would not be the better. It must, of course, be practised with common sense: if we know that a poem was written in the seventeenth century naturally we shall read the words in their seventeenth century and not in their modern sense; if we recognize an allusion, again naturally, we shall use any knowledge we may have to get its meaning, and the more such knowledge we have the better. But given this common sense, and given that when we have got all that we can for ourselves out of a poem we go to the scholars and interpr^ative critics for further help, a course of “practical criticism” <®m do nothing but good. What is the use of going to others to do for us what we have been too lazy to learn to do for ourselves? This quite apart from the fact that there arc many poems, including nearly all contemporary ones, on which no works of scholarship or interpretation exist. If we cannot read these without help shall not be able to read them at all.
A postscript on critics and Reviewers
In the foregoing I may have seemed to suggest that critics are only concerned with the elucidation of the established writers of the past. And many have made this their main, if not their only, preoccupation. But there is another kind of help which criticism can give us: the sorting out from the enormous volume of books published every year of those which are worth reading, and the formulation of the standards by which the majority are rejected and the few pass the test. This is the business of the critic as reviewer, and many of the best critics do turn to reviewing, bringing to the selection and the interpretation of current writing the same absolute standards which they have learnt from the; established books of the past. They write for the periodicals’ whose reader themselves have literary standards and demand the best. But the majority of readers in our semi-literate society, ask to be told not what is good in itself, judged as literature, but what they will “enjoy”. The reviewers who satisfy this need are no more than commercial journalists; their standard of judgement is not literary merit but popular appeal; they are not, in fact, critics at all, even though they may be so described. But the true critic-reviewer fulfils an indispensable function: not only does he save us the impossible task of discovering for ourselves the books which are worth reading and show us what to look for in them, but, even more important, he can be, so to speak, the growing-point of literary taste, alert jr> new talent, new developments, new ways of doing the old wing, interpreting for us what, by reason of the unfamiliarity of its form, we might, even if the book should come our way, pass by. Were it not for the per-ccptivcness of such critics and for their power of exposition no experimental writer would find his public.

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