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Default Literary Criticism (NUML Notes)

Matthew Arnold

The "eternal objects of poetry" are actions: "human actions; possessing an inherent interest in themselves."

The poet must not deal with the outer circumstances of a man's life, but with the "inward man; with [his] feelings and behavior in certain tragic situations."

Criticism prepares the way for great poetry by "see[ing] the object as in itself it really is."

Criticism strips away political agendas and makes "an intellectual situation of which the creative power can profitably avail itself."

"For the creation of a masterwork of literature two powers must concur, the power of the man and the power of the moment, and the man is not enough without the moment."

Criticism's primary quality is to be disinterestedness.
The law of criticism's being is "the idea of a disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world."

For a poem to be of real quality, it must possess both a "higher truth" and a "higher seriousness."

*
For Arnold, the "eternal objects of poetry" are actions: "human actions; possessing an inherent interest in themselves." Those actions are "most excellent . . . which most powerfully appeal to the great primary human affections." Arnold believes that there is an elementary and shared part of human nature--"our passions." "That which is great and passionate is eternally interesting . . . A great human action of a thousand years ago is more interesting . . . than a smaller human action of today." In keeping with this necessity to appeal to human passion, the poet must not deal with the outer circumstances of a man's life, but with the "inward man; with [his] feelings and behavior in certain tragic situations." Arnold regarded the classical poets as superior to the moderns in this respect: the classical poets emphasized "the poetical character of the action in itself," while the moderns emphasize "the separate thoughts and images which occur in the treatment of an action." The classical authors "regarded the whole." The moderns "regard the parts." Arnold also prefers the simplicity of classical poetic language to the "overcuriousness of expression" found in Shakespeare, who "appears in his language to have tried all styles except that of simplicity."

Function of Criticism

Criticism is, for Arnold, a secondary pursuit, inferior to the creative function of writing good poetry. Criticism prepares the way for great poetry (John the Baptist as a voice crying out in the literary wilderness) by "see[ing] the object as in itself it really is." In this way, criticism strips away political agendas and makes "an intellectual situation of which the creative power can profitably avail itself." It establishes "an order of ideas, if not absolutely true, yet true by comparison with that which it displaces; to make the best ideas prevail." (This is now called--in the terminology stolen from Thomas Kuhn--a paradigm shift.) Out of the "stir and growth" of criticism "come the creative epochs of literature. Great literature cannot simply be written by anyone at anytime: "for the creation of a masterwork of literature two powers must concur, the power of the man and the power of the moment, and the man is not enough without the moment." Great artists must be nourished by their times in order to produce great art. "The English poetry of the first quarter of the [19th] century . . . did not know enough." The times in England were not conducive to great poetry: "In the England of the first quarter of this century there was neither a national glow of life and thought . . . nor yet a culture and a force of learning and criticism."
Criticism's primary quality is to be disinterestedness. It is to keep "aloof from what is called the practical view of things" by resolutely following the law of its own nature, which is to be a "free play of the mind on all subjects which it touches." It is resolutely to avoid political polemics of the sort which dominate criticism in the late 20th century: "Criticism must maintain its independence of the practical spirit and its aioms." The law of criticism's being is "the idea of a disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world."

The Study of Poetry

This is where Arnold apotheosizes poetry:
"More and more mankind will discover that we have to turn to poetry to interpret life for us, to console us, so sutain us. Without poetry, our science will appear incomplete; and most of what now passes with us for religion and philosophy will be replaced by poetry."
Arnold outlines three ways in which poems may have importance: 1) they "may count to us historically"; 2) "they may count to us on grounds personal to ourselves"; 3) "they may count to us really." A poem may be regarded as important due to its position in the development of a language--but this does not say anything about its intrinsic merit. A poem may appeal to readers for personal reasons which have nothing to do with intrinsic merit. For a poem to be of real quality, it must possess both a "higher truth" and a "higher seriousness." Chaucer is out.

Matthew Arnold and the Function of Criticism
• Published: Mon August 7th, 2006
• By: Timothy Sexton
• Category: Arts & Entertainment


What is the role of the critic in society? A common observation is that one shouldn't criticize another unless they are capable of doing that which they criticize. I've never understood that point of view. Just because I'm not capable of playing the guitar doesn't mean that I can't distinguish between good and bad guitar playing. This point of view may be regarded in light of the truly bad criticism so prevalent among movie critics today, but genuine criticism has proven to be a very valuable component in the evolution of literature.
Early in his career Matthew Arnold was himself a very popular admired poet. Later in his life, however, he turned his considerable talent toward literary criticism as well as social criticism. In his seminal work on the subject, The Function of Criticism at the Present Time, Matthew Arnold posits the idea that criticism is an endeavor that is not dependent upon any creative art form, but rather enjoys an intrinsic value in itself. The value of criticism lies in bringing joy to the writer of it as well as playing a prominent role in ensuring that the best ideas reach society.
Matthew Arnold echoes the thoughts of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle's views of poetry when he declares that the ultimate function of humankind lies in exercising its creative power. Arnold therefore is able to link criticism with creative power in his essay, ultimately asserting that writing criticism actually produces in its practitioner a sense of ecstatic creative joy very similar to that enjoyed by the person who engages in creative writing.
Matthew Arnold goes on to equate the emotional experience of writing criticism with the emotional experience of creative writing in order to undermine the typical rap against criticism that it serves no purpose, or is just the sour grapes expression of one who criticizes something that he can't do as well himself.
Throughout the essay, Matthew Arnold very carefully delineates the personal function of criticism, but he also leaps from the personal to the universal in his argument that one of the functions of criticism is to propagate the best ideas so that they trickle down to the masses. According to Arnold, truly great liteature and thinking springs forth from an epoch of great ideas, and these epochs are manifested when the great ideas reach the masses.
The critic's part in this process requires that he disinterestedly recognize greatness in writing and use his critical powers to impart this greatness to the common man. In turn, the common man will be so influenced by the great ideas that his creative juices reach a boil.
In other words, the reason that periods of great creativity and periods of dormant creativity seems to come in irregular intervals can be traced just as much to the critic who recognizes creative greatness and brings it to the public's attention as it can to the creator of the great work. Examples of what Matthew Arnold is talking about can be illustrated in recent times when periods of lackluster creativity in movies or music have been kickstarted by exciting new talent brought to the attention of the masses by critical success rather than commecial success.
To further define what he's talking about consider whether you would ever have heard the music of such relatively commercially unsuccessful artists as U2 or REM, or such filmmakers as Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino if critical acclaim had not extended their careers long enough to achieve commercial success. Now consider the influence of these bands and filmmakers and how the music and film industry would be vastly different if they'd never made it big.
Instead of merely laying out a blueprint for criticism, Arnold attempts to prove that criticism in and of itself has several vital functions and should be regarded as art form that is at least as significant as any creative art form.

17. The Function of Criticism—M. Arnold & T.S. Eliot
With this lecture, we begin a new unit, objective criticism. We shall offer first, an overview of the main theorists of this unit. We shall them examine closely, two seminal essays that laid the groundwork for objective theory, Matthew Arnold's, The Function of Criticism at the Present Time, and T.S. Eliot's, Tradition and the Individual Talent. In this unit, we shall consider a theoretical shift from the poet to the poem itself. In other words, we're going to move from expressive theories, interested in the relationship between poem and poet, to objective theories (the fourth and last of our perspectives), interested in the relationship between the poem and itself. You'll really understand what that means, by the end of this unit. Now, this shift to objective criticism, or objective theories, begins in the critical essays of Matthew Arnold, and T.S. Eliot. So that's what we'll do in this lecture. Now, although Arnold the poet was strongly Romantic, Arnold the critic sought to replace the Romantic focus on feeling, with the renewed focus on ideas. Matthew Arnold is a fascinating character, because his career breaks smoothly into two halves. The first is all poetry, and then at a certain point, he stops writing poetry completely, and begins to write prose. His poetry is all exceedingly Romantic, melancholy, over-wrought, and he never was able to move beyond that. So finally it's as if Arnold gave-up on the poetry and turned to criticism. So whereas, as I mentioned, his poetry is Romantic, his criticism turns away from Romanticism in many ways, and wants to go back to ideas. It's sort of like a return to the 18th century in some ways. So as a Victorian sage, Arnold attempted to set aesthetic standards for his age, harkening back to the systematic theories of Pope and Burke. So we go back to this NeoClassical idea of the critic setting a kind of refined aesthetic taste. Arnold is going back to that idea of the critic, and of the poet as well. Now Eliot, writing half a century later, taking us into the 20th century, continued this de-Romanticizing of theory, moving away from Romantics. In fact, Eliot will argue that poetry is essentially a de-personalizing process. We'll see that in the second half of this lecture. Now again, in this lecture, we shall consider the theories of Arnold and Eliot, in two ways, both as critics just in their own right, yet also as precursors of what we're calling objective theory. Then in lectures 18 and 19, we shall turn our focus to the full flowering of objective theory in the 20th century American school of New Criticism. Through a close look at essays by I.A. Richards, John Crowe Ransom, W.K. Wimsatt, and Cleanth Brook, we shall explore the new critical belief that each poem is a self-contained, self-referential artifact. We will see in lectures 18 and 19, how they turn the poem into its own little universe. That's pure objective theory! We shall also discuss how the new critics created a special aesthetic space for poetry that would preserve it from all external forces. In other words, the new critics are what we might call, Neo-Kantians. Just like Immanuel Kant, they want to create a separate aesthetic place. So it's a different kind of thing, poetry. We'll see that as well in lectures 18 and 19. Finally, also in those lectures, we shall discuss the battery of new tools and methods that the new critics taught us to use when explicating poetry. New Criticism is very practical and pragmatic, it gives us rules and methods and tools. Then in lecture 20, we'll take up the archetypal theories of Northup Frye. Now also like the new critics, Frye kept his eye on the internal structure of the poem, he delves even deeper to uncover vast, mythic networks, and so in the last lecture of the unit, we'll widen our perspective to look at this large-scale, mythic view of poetry. In studying Frye, we'll also view him not as only in the context of objective theory, but in that of Christian typology and allegory. That is a Medieval thing I skipped, so we'll go back to it them, because it's linked to Frye. Finally, in all four lectures of this unit, you'll want to note how we'll focus on how theorists since Arnold have increasingly emphasized the importance and centrality of criticism itself. Starting with Matthew Arnold, the critic comes into his own, and has only gotten more and more important as we move to the end of our century. All right, lets turn to Matthew Arnold. In his seminal essay, The Function of Criticism at the Present Time, he argues for the central role of the critic in fostering great literature. He begins his essay by asserting that criticism is a positive, noble task (agreeing with Alexander Pope in this, but even more fully on it). You know that even today, a lot of people look down on critics. For many, they are like parasites, like lawyers (no offense to lawyers in the audience), but a lot of people look down at them as sort of like sponges. Well, it was even more so in Arnold's time. So Arnold wants to say that criticism is positive and noble. Now, like Pope, he does agree that finally, the creative faculty is superior to the critical, but still he insists strongly that criticism is a worthwhile endeavor; it is worth doing, it is good, it is noble. Here's a little explanation he gives: “All people have the need to exercise (what he calls) 'free creative activity.' Indeed, the exercise of this power, constitutes man's greatest joy.” Now if you think back to lecture 11 and Schiller, his idea of the play-drive is very similar to this “free creative activity;” our need to sort of expand our mind, to emphasize ideas, to move-out, to think; that's called free creative activity. Now the problem is that not all men exercise this power through the production of literature. Very few of us are great poets. So if the only way to do this, is the only way to get to joy, then there are going to be very few happy people, since so very few are poets! So, Arnold tells us that for many people, criticism functions as their main outlet of mental play. Not everyone is a poet, so sometimes criticism can be a way to exercise free creative activity. Now, Arnold carefully distinguishes between the creative faculty, and the critical faculty, showing us the difference. Whereas the creative faculty most expresses itself in the synthesis of existing ideas, it's the critical faculty that creates these ideas. Let's see how this works. Critics create new ideas through analysis and discovery, by seeing objects as they are. So critics use analysis and then look at the object, in order to see it as it really is. They're very clear-minded, almost scientific in a way. Isn't that different than poets? Romantics said poets are interested in synthesis, and they're interested in perception, in how things are perceived by poets, not as how they are. So now, Arnold is doing something interesting. Criticism is analysis, and poetry is synthesis. So now the critic is not to be disparaged, as he so often was by Romantics. Why did Romantics spurn critics? They privileged synthesis and subjective perception, over objective analysis. So even Wordsworth, later in life, said that he shouldn't have wasted his time with criticism. Now, we're glad that he did waste his time with it, but even he eventually turned against it. So that's sort of a Romantic thing, almost a Romantic myth, to turn away from analysis. Now if you're listening carefully, note what else he says. If the critic does analysis in order to prepare the way for the poet, then the critic is the one who offers raw material to the poet. It's almost like the critic is the primary imagination, and poetry is the secondary imagination, if we want to think about it in that way. So it's the critic who comes up with new ideas, and it's the poet who uses those new ideas. Let me explain more fully, the way Arnold does. He carries this distinction between critic and poet, into a wider, aesthetic view of history, by distinguishing between two epochs or ages, in what we might call the life-cycle of a culture. So there are two different epochs. The first epoch is called an epoch of expansion. Well, there's really no first and second here. Yet this is where a culture is rich with new and fresh ideas. So ideas are expanding, they are lively, full of life, vivacious. Now, during such epochs, poets are needed to harness this intellectual energy and convert it into great works of art. Let's put it in Shelly's way. Poets are needed to embody the zeitgeist, the spirit of the age. Now Arnold tell us, unfortunately, that such epochs are rare. In fact, he only really identifies two of them, with which most people would agree. The first is Periclean Athens, the age of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. The second, you might guess, is Elizabethan England, the age of Shakespeare, the British Renaissance. Those are really the only two he sees as full-fledged epochs of expansion. Yet oddly, unlike Shelly, Arnold did not consider the Romantic age, that which was born of the French Revolution, to be an epoch of expansion. He thought it almost was, but it failed. Instead, he considered his age (recall he's still thinking of himself as a Romantic until he really thinks of himself as Victorian), to be an epoch of concentration, one in which ideas are stagnant and the free exchange of ideas is stifled. So if you think about concentrated in terms of stifled, like a swamp or something, that's what he means by an epoch of concentration. There are no new ideas; they've grown stagnant, cliched, and old. Well, you might be thinking about something now, and come up with the idea before I even say it. Just as poets are needed to harness the energy of epochs of expansion, so critics are needed during epochs of concentration, in order to help create and foster a free flow of ideas that will initiate a new epoch of expansion. So you see, during epochs of concentration, a poet can't do anything, because there are no new ideas. So you need the critic in order to create those new ideas, through analysis and objective observation. Louis thinks it's a fascinating idea. Now for Arnold, great literature is the product of a creative fusion between a great poet (“the man”), and an epoch of expansion (“the moment”). So just being a great poet is not enough. You've got to be one living during an epoch of expansion, because if not, there will not be the raw material for you to write your great poetry. Allright, let's be a little bit critical of Matthew Arnold. Louis thinks it's very possible that the reason he invented this idea, was because he wanted to give us an excuse for why he wasn't a great poet! He tried to, and failed! His poetry is still worth reading, but he's not on the level of a Wordsworth or anything. Perhaps what he's doing is saying, hey, the reason I couldn't be a great poet, is because here I am, stuck in this epoch of concentration! So let me turn to criticism and do something. Now even if it's true that this is Arnold's motivation, Louis still thinks the system makes a lot of sense and really works. There are ages when poetry flourishes more, because there are more ideas. Again, epochs of concentration need the analysis of criticism, whereas the epochs of expansion need the synthesis of poetry. Again, it's not enough to be a gifted poet, without the fresh ideas available in an epoch of expansion. The poet will lack the necessary raw material for great art. What is the upshot of this? Poets and critics are interdependent, they need each other. Without the critic, there can be no poet. Without the poet, there is not much reason for the critic, so they are interdependent. This notion helps set-off a steady increase in the role and status of the critic. Now I would say, as I will later again, that we've gone a little bit overboard. We've made the critic too much. Arnold would still say that the critic is the handmaiden of the poet, like Alexander Pope did. So again, he opened the way, and nowadays criticism sometimes even takes itself more seriously than poetry. Allright, if criticism is so important for Arnold, what is criticism? Well very luckily, he gives us a very famous definition of what criticism is, and we encourage you to memorize this, because it's a great one: “Criticism is a disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world.” There are two parts to that, the disinterested part, and the part that is best known in thought. Let's look at the disinterested part first. Now, the word disinterested, as opposed to uninterested, signifies a critical approach that is removed, objective, and free from all political agendas. It's not uninterested, so it doesn't say, I don't care. Disinterested means again, that it's above these things. It doesn't worry about political agendas and ideologies, but it rises above, it's objective and removed. Note how this has a little touch of Kant here, this idea of poetry. Basically, what Kant says about poetry, he says about criticism, but it's aesthetic criticism after all. Criticism is free from all agendas. Arnold says that: “Criticism constitutes a higher kind of curiosity, a free play of mind that follows the flow of ideas wherever that flow may lead.” Now recall again in our Schiller lecture, we actually got you thinking about Arnold when we said that he became upset because in his day, curiosity had a negative connotation in the British language, as something childish; while in France, it has a good reputation, as something intelligent adults do. Well, here's where this comes from. Curiosity is a good thing, linked to the free play of mind; it is criticism. Now, Arnold was upset with the critics of his day, because he felt they were too partisan. We've heard a lot about partisan politics these days of course. They only engaged in as much free play of mind, as their party platform allowed. In other words, there were lots of great journals in Britain during this time, but some of them were Tory journals, and some were with Whigs, or other different parties. Each party had journals that were linked to that party. So what would happen was, if you were writing for a Tory journal, you would only allow for as much free play of mind as would fit-in with the Tory political agenda, and the same thing for the Whig agenda. Yet for Arnold, criticism has got to rise above any kind of party politics or partisan ideologies. So again, it's linked to this British view of negative curiosity. They think , ah, that's just too childish. Criticism has got to be pragmatic, linked to a party. No, Arnold says that true criticism has to be free, free to explore. If it's linked to a platform, it's not free. So what we're saying is that for Arnold, criticism has a value that transcends pragmatism (very Kantian). Indeed, it even transcends narrow, national boundaries, to interest itself in the culture and traditions of all Europe. In other words, Criticism can't only not join the bandwagon of Tory or Whig, but also cannot get involved in any British jingoism that says Britain is better than France, is better than Germany, etc. Criticism should be truly disinterested and treat all of European literature with equal respect. Now in addition to propagating new ideas to inspire poets, the job of the critic includes identifying (again the definition), the best that is known and thought. That's why the critic has to be free to explore all of Europe, because England no got got the sole authority on the best that is known and thought. You've got to go out and... Now this tends to be pretty European. We could expand it to Asia or something, but he's thinking in a European context here. So you've got to be open to all the literature throughout Europe, if you are going to identify the best that is known and thought. Now, by the best, what Arnold means is what we today call the canon, or the great books of the western world. You know what I mean, those by Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and Chaucer, etc. In other words, this is the canon, the great books that traditionally formed the core of great studies. Until fairly recently, everyone accepted that this was the western tradition, and this is what we should study. Now Arnold firmly believed that these works in the canon (like the canonical books of the bible), were aesthetically superior, and that they could be shown to be so, by objective disinterested criticism. In other words, he believed that you could prove that certain books belonged in the canon by objective, non-political criteria. He basically believed it to be self-evident and obvious. Now most people felt that way as well, but many critics today, moderns and post-moderns, totally disagree with Arnold. They view the canon as the product of socio-political forces, which determine what is acceptable and what isn't. We'll use the phrase you all know, that everything which is in the canon, is not because it's not great, but because it was written by dead, white, male heterosexuals. We've heard this before in the vernacular. In other words, what modern and postmodern people often say, is that those things are not in the canon because they are aesthetically, objectively superior, as Arnold claims, but because they are politically correct to that time period. So as you can imagine, Arnold is a huge bugbear of modern and postmodern theory. Guess what, Eliot is also a bugbear, because they both are at one in their view of the canon. In fact, they helped to sort of organized it. Now people knew what it was already, but they helped to get it as a sort of system in schools. So Arnold and Eliot are out of favor in many ways, because of their canonical view of literature, and just the western tradition in general. Well, let's turn to Eliot now.

Introduction: Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), the Victorian poet and critic, was 'the first modern critic' [1], and could be called 'the critic's critic', being a champion not only of great poetry, but of literary criticism itself. The purpose of literary criticism, in his view, was 'to know the best that is known and thought in the world, and by in its turn making this known, to create a current of true and fresh ideas', and he has influenced a whole school of critics including new critics such as T. S. Eliot, F. R. Leavis, and Allen Tate. He was the founder of the sociological school of criticism, and through his touchstone method introduced scientific objectivity to critical evaluation by providing comparison and analysis as the two primary tools of criticism.
Arnold's evaluations of the Romantic poets such as Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, and Keats are landmarks in descriptive criticism, and as a poet-critic he occupies an eminent position in the rich galaxy of poet-critics of English literature.
T. S. Eliot praised Arnold's objective approach to critical evaluation, particularly his tools of comparison and analysis, and Allen Tate in his essay Tension in Poetry imitates Arnold's touchstone method to discover 'tension', or the proper balance between connotation and denotation, in poetry. These new critics have come a long way from the Romantic approach to poetry, and this change in attitude could be attributed to Arnold, who comes midway between the two schools.

The social role of poetry and criticism
To Arnold a critic is a social benefactor. In his view the creative artist, no matter how much of a genius, would cut a sorry figure without the critic to come to his aid. Before Arnold a literary critic cared only for the beauties and defects of works of art, but Arnold the critic chose to be the educator and guardian of public opinion and propagator of the best ideas.
Cultural and critical values seem to be synonymous for Arnold. Scott James, comparing him to Aristotle, says that where Aristotle analyses the work of art, Arnold analyses the role of the critic. The one gives us the principles which govern the making of a poem, the other the principles by which the best poems should be selected and made known. Aristotle's critic owes allegiance to the artist, but Arnold's critic has a duty to society.
To Arnold poetry itself was the criticism of life: 'The criticism of life under the conditions fixed for such criticism by the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty', and in his seminal essay The Study of Poetry' 1888) he says that poetry alone can be our sustenance and stay in an era where religious beliefs are fast losing their hold. He claims that poetry is superior to philosophy, science, and religion. Religion attaches its emotion to supposed facts, and the supposed facts are failing it, but poetry attaches its emotion to ideas and ideas are infallible. And science, in his view is incomplete without poetry. He endorses Wordsworth's view that 'poetry is the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all Science', adding 'What is a countenance without its expression?' and calls poetry 'the breath and finer spirit of knowledge'.

A moralist
As a critic Arnold is essentially a moralist, and has very definite ideas about what poetry should and should not be. A poetry of revolt against moral ideas, he says, is a poetry of revolt against life, and a poetry of indifference to moral ideas is a poetry of indifference to life.
Arnold even censored his own collection on moral grounds. He omitted the poem Empedocles on Etna from his volume of 1853, whereas he had included it in his collection of 1852. The reason he advances, in the Preface to his Poems of 1853 is not that the poem is too subjective, with its Hamlet-like introspection, or that it was a deviation from his classical ideals, but that the poem is too depressing in its subject matter, and would leave the reader hopeless and crushed. There is nothing in it in the way of hope or optimism, and such a poem could prove to be neither instructive nor of any delight to the reader.
Aristotle says that poetry is superior to History since it bears the stamp of high seriousness and truth. If truth and seriousness are wanting in the subject matter of a poem, so will the true poetic stamp of diction and movement be found wanting in its style and manner. Hence the two, the nobility of subject matter, and the superiority of style and manner, are proportional and cannot occur independently.
Arnold took up Aristotle's view, asserting that true greatness in poetry is given by the truth and seriousness of its subject matter, and by the high diction and movement in its style and manner, and although indebted to Joshua Reynolds for the expression 'grand style', Arnold gave it a new meaning when he used it in his lecture On Translating Homer (1861):
I think it will be found that that the grand style arises in poetry when a noble nature, poetically gifted, treats with simplicity or with a severity a serious subject.
According to Arnold, Homer is the best model of a simple grand style, while Milton is the best model of severe grand style. Dante, however, is an example of both.
Even Chaucer, in Arnold's view, in spite of his virtues such as benignity, largeness, and spontaneity, lacks seriousness. Burns too lacks sufficient seriousness, because he was hypocritical in that while he adopted a moral stance in some of his poems, in his private life he flouted morality.

Return to Classical values
Arnold believed that a modern writer should be aware that contemporary literature is built on the foundations of the past, and should contribute to the future by continuing a firm tradition. Quoting Goethe and Niebuhr in support of his view, he asserts that his age suffers from spiritual weakness because it thrives on self-interest and scientific materialism, and therefore cannot provide noble characters such as those found in Classical literature.
He urged modern poets to look to the ancients and their great characters and themes for guidance and inspiration. Classical literature, in his view, possess pathos, moral profundity and noble simplicity, while modern themes, arising from an age of spiritual weakness, are suitable for only comic and lighter kinds of poetry, and don't possess the loftiness to support epic or heroic poetry.
Arnold turns his back on the prevailing Romantic view of poetry and seeks to revive the Classical values of objectivity, urbanity, and architectonics. He denounces the Romantics for ignoring the Classical writers for the sake of novelty, and for their allusive (Arnold uses the word 'suggestive') writing which defies easy comprehension.

Preface to Poems of 1853
In the preface to his Poems (1853) Arnold asserts the importance of architectonics; ('that power of execution, which creates, forms, and constitutes') in poetry - the necessity of achieving unity by subordinating the parts to the whole, and the expression of ideas to the depiction of human action, and condemns poems which exist for the sake of single lines or passages, stray metaphors, images, and fancy expressions. Scattered images and happy turns of phrase, in his view, can only provide partial effects, and not contribute to unity. He also, continuing his anti-Romantic theme, urges, modern poets to shun allusiveness and not fall into the temptation of subjectivity.
He says that even the imitation of Shakespeare is risky for a young writer, who should imitate only his excellences, and avoid his attractive accessories, tricks of style, such as quibble, conceit, circumlocution and allusiveness, which will lead him astray.
Arnold commends Shakespeare's use of great plots from the past. He had what Goethe called the architectonic quality, that is his expression was matched to the action (or the subject). But at the same time Arnold quotes Hallam to show that Shakespeare's style was complex even where the press of action demanded simplicity and directness, and hence his style could not be taken as a model by young writers. Elsewhere he says that Shakespeare's 'expression tends to become a little sensuous and simple, too much intellectualised'.
Shakespeare's excellences are 1)The architectonic quality of his style; the harmony between action and expression. 2) His reliance on the ancients for his themes. 3) Accurate construction of action. 4) His strong conception of action and accurate portrayal of his subject matter. 5) His intense feeling for the subjects he dramatises.

His attractive accessories (or tricks of style) which a young writer should handle carefully are 1) His fondness for quibble, fancy, conceit. 2) His excessive use of imagery. 3) Circumlocution, even where the press of action demands directness. 4) His lack of simplicity (according to Hallam and Guizot). 5) His allusiveness.

As an example of the danger of imitating Shakespeare he gives Keats's imitation of Shakespeare in his Isabella or the Pot of Basil. Keats uses felicitous phrases and single happy turns of phrase, yet the action is handled vaguely and so the poem does not have unity. By way of contrast, he says the Italian writer Boccaccio handled the same theme successfully in his Decameron, because he rightly subordinated expression to action. Hence Boccaccio's poem is a poetic success where Keats's is a failure.
Arnold also wants the modern writer to take models from the past because they depict human actions which touch on 'the great primary human affections: to those elementary feelings which subsist permanently in the race, and which are independent of time'. Characters such as Agamemnon, Dido, Aeneas, Orestes, Merope, Alcmeon, and Clytemnestra, leave a permanent impression on our minds. Compare 'The Iliad' or 'The Aeneid' with 'The Childe Harold' or 'The Excursion' and you see the difference.
A modern writer might complain that ancient subjects pose problems with regard to ancient culture, customs, manners, dress and so on which are not familiar to contemporary readers. But Arnold is of the view that a writer should not concern himself with the externals, but with the 'inward man'. The inward man is the same irrespective of clime or time.

The Function of Criticism
It is in his The Function of Criticism at the Present Time (1864) that Arnold says that criticism should be a 'dissemination of ideas, a disinterested endeavour to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world'. He says that when evaluating a work the aim is 'to see the object as in itself it really is'. Psychological, historical and sociological background are irrelevant, and to dwell on such aspects is mere dilettantism. This stance was very influential with later critics.
Arnold also believed that in his quest for the best a critic should not confine himself to the literature of his own country, but should draw substantially on foreign literature and ideas, because the propagation of ideas should be an objective endeavour.

The Study of Poetry
In The Study of Poetry, (1888) which opens his Essays in Criticism: Second series, in support of his plea for nobility in poetry, Arnold recalls Sainte-Beuve's reply to Napoleon, when latter said that charlatanism is found in everything. Sainte-Beuve replied that charlatanism might be found everywhere else, but not in the field of poetry, because in poetry the distinction between sound and unsound, or only half-sound, truth and untruth, or only half-truth, between the excellent and the inferior, is of paramount importance.
For Arnold there is no place for charlatanism in poetry. To him poetry is the criticism of life, governed by the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty. It is in the criticism of life that the spirit of our race will find its stay and consolation. The extent to which the spirit of mankind finds its stay and consolation is proportional to the power of a poem's criticism of life, and the power of the criticism of life is in direct proportion to the extent to which the poem is genuine and free from charlatanism.
In The Study of Poetry he also cautions the critic that in forming a genuine and disinterested estimate of the poet under consideration he should not be influenced by historical or personal judgements, historical judgements being fallacious because we regard ancient poets with excessive veneration, and personal judgements being fallacious when we are biased towards a contemporary poet. If a poet is a 'dubious classic, let us sift him; if he is a false classic, let us explode him. But if he is a real classic, if his work belongs to the class of the very best . . . enjoy his work'.
As examples of erroneous judgements he says that the 17th century court tragedies of the French were spoken of with exaggerated praise, until Pellisson reproached them for want of the true poetic stamp, and another critic, Charles d' Hricault, said that 17th century French poetry had received undue and undeserving veneration. Arnold says the critics seem to substitute 'a halo for physiognomy and a statue in the place where there was once a man. They give us a human personage no larger than God seated amidst his perfect work, like Jupiter on Olympus.'
He also condemns the French critic Vitet, who had eloquent words of praise for the epic poem Chanson de Roland by Turoldus, (which was sung by a jester, Taillefer, in William the Conqueror's army), saying that it was superior to Homer's Iliad. Arnold's view is that this poem can never be compared to Homer's work, and that we only have to compare the description of dying Roland to Helen's words about her wounded brothers Pollux and Castor and its inferiority will be clearly revealed.

The Study of Poetry: a shift in position - the touchstone method
Arnold's criticism of Vitet above illustrates his 'touchstone method'; his theory that in order to judge a poet's work properly, a critic should compare it to passages taken from works of great masters of poetry, and that these passages should be applied as touchstones to other poetry. Even a single line or selected quotation will serve the purpose.
From this we see that he has shifted his position from that expressed in the preface to his Poems of 1853. In The Study of Poetry he no longer uses the acid test of action and architectonics. He became an advocate of 'touchstones'. 'Short passages even single lines,' he said, 'will serve our turn quite sufficiently'.
Some of Arnold's touchstone passages are: Helen's words about her wounded brother, Zeus addressing the horses of Peleus, suppliant Achilles' words to Priam, and from Dante; Ugolino's brave words, and Beatrice's loving words to Virgil.
From non-Classical writers he selects from Henry IV Part II (III, i), Henry's expostulation with sleep - 'Wilt thou upon the high and giddy mast . . . '. From Hamlet (V, ii) 'Absent thee from felicity awhile . . . '. From Milton's Paradise Lost Book 1, 'Care sat on his faded cheek . . .', and 'What is else not to be overcome . . . '

The Study of Poetry: on Chaucer
The French Romance poetry of the 13th century langue d'oc and langue d'oil was extremely popular in Europe and Italy, but soon lost its popularity and now it is important only in terms of historical study. But Chaucer, who was nourished by the romance poetry of the French, and influenced by the Italian Royal rhyme stanza, still holds enduring fascination. There is an excellence of style and subject in his poetry, which is the quality the French poetry lacks. Dryden says of Chaucer's Prologue 'Here is God's plenty!' and that 'he is a perpetual fountain of good sense'. There is largeness, benignity, freedom and spontaneity in Chaucer's writings. 'He is the well of English undefiled'. He has divine fluidity of movement, divine liquidness of diction. He has created an epoch and founded a tradition.
Some say that the fluidity of Chaucer's verse is due to licence in the use of the language, a liberty which Burns enjoyed much later. But Arnold says that the excellence of Chaucer's poetry is due to his sheer poetic talent. This liberty in the use of language was enjoyed by many poets, but we do not find the same kind of fluidity in others. Only in Shakespeare and Keats do we find the same kind of fluidity, though they wrote without the same liberty in the use of language.
Arnold praises Chaucer's excellent style and manner, but says that Chaucer cannot be called a classic since, unlike Homer, Virgil and Shakespeare, his poetry does not have the high poetic seriousness which Aristotle regards as a mark of its superiority over the other arts.

The Study of Poetry: on the age of Dryden and Pope
The age of Dryden is regarded as superior to that of the others for 'sweetness of poetry'. Arnold asks whether Dryden and Pope, poets of great merit, are truly the poetical classics of the 18th century. He says Dryden's post-script to the readers in his translation of The Aeneid reveals the fact that in prose writing he is even better than Milton and Chapman.
Just as the laxity in religious matters during the Restoration period was a direct outcome of the strict discipline of the Puritans, in the same way in order to control the dangerous sway of imagination found in the poetry of the Metaphysicals, to counteract 'the dangerous prevalence of imagination', the poets of the 18th century introduced certain regulations. The restrictions that were imposed on the poets were uniformity, regularity, precision, and balance. These restrictions curbed the growth of poetry, and encouraged the growth of prose.
Hence we can regard Dryden as the glorious founder, and Pope as the splendid high priest, of the age of prose and reason, our indispensable 18th century. Their poetry was that of the builders of an age of prose and reason. Arnold says that Pope and Dryden are not poet classics, but the 'prose classics' of the 18th century.
As for poetry, he considers Gray to be the only classic of the 18th century. Gray constantly studied and enjoyed Greek poetry and thus inherited their poetic point of view and their application of poetry to life. But he is the 'scantiest, frailest classic' since his output was small.

The Study of Poetry: on Burns
Although Burns lived close to the 19th century his poetry breathes the spirit of 18th Century life. Burns is most at home in his native language. His poems deal with Scottish dress, Scottish manner, and Scottish religion. This Scottish world is not a beautiful one, and it is an advantage if a poet deals with a beautiful world. But Burns shines whenever he triumphs over his sordid, repulsive and dull world with his poetry.
Perhaps we find the true Burns only in his bacchanalian poetry, though occasionally his bacchanalian attitude was affected. For example in his Holy Fair, the lines 'Leeze me on drink! it gies us mair/ Than either school or college', may represent the bacchanalian attitude, but they are not truly bacchanalian in spirit. There is something insincere about it, smacking of bravado.
When Burns moralises in some of his poems it also sounds insincere, coming from a man who disregarded morality in actual life. And sometimes his pathos is intolerable, as in Auld Lang Syne.
We see the real Burns (wherein he is unsurpassable) in lines such as, 'To make a happy fire-side clime/ to weans and wife/ That's the true pathos and sublime/ Of human life' (Ae Fond Kiss). Here we see the genius of Burns.
But, like Chaucer, Burns lacks high poetic seriousness, though his poems have poetic truth in diction and movement. Sometimes his poems are profound and heart-rending, such as in the lines, 'Had we never loved sae kindly/ had we never loved sae blindly/ never met or never parted/ we had ne'er been broken-hearted'.
Also like Chaucer, Burns possesses largeness, benignity, freedom and spontaneity. But instead of Chaucer's fluidity, we find in Burns a springing bounding energy. Chaucer's benignity deepens in Burns into a sense of sympathy for both human as well as non-human things, but Chaucer's world is richer and fairer than that of Burns.
Sometimes Burns's poetic genius is unmatched by anyone. He is even better than Goethe at times and he is unrivalled by anyone except Shakespeare. He has written excellent poems such as Tam O'Shanter, Whistle and I'll come to you my Lad, and Auld Lang Syne.
When we compare Shelley's 'Pinnacled dim in the of intense inane' (Prometheus Unbound III, iv) with Burns's, 'They flatter, she says, to deceive me' (Tam Glen), the latter is salutary.

Arnold on Shakespeare
Praising Shakespeare, Arnold says 'In England there needs a miracle of genius like Shakespeare's to produce a balance of mind'. This is not bardolatory, but praise tempered by a critical sense. In a letter he writes. 'I keep saying Shakespeare, you are as obscure as life is'.
In his sonnet On Shakespeare he says; 'Others abide our question. Thou are free./ We ask and ask - Thou smilest and art still,/ Out-topping knowledge'.

Arnold's limitations
For all his championing of disinterestedness, Arnold was unable to practise disinterestedness in all his essays. In his essay on Shelley particularly he displayed a lamentable lack of disinterestedness. Shelley's moral views were too much for the Victorian Arnold. In his essay on Keats too Arnold failed to be disinterested. The sentimental letters of Keats to Fanny Brawne were too much for him.
Arnold sometimes became a satirist, and as a satirical critic saw things too quickly, too summarily. In spite of their charm, the essays are characterised by egotism and, as Tilotson says, 'the attention is directed, not on his object but on himself and his objects together'.
Arnold makes clear his disapproval of the vagaries of some of the Romantic poets. Perhaps he would have agreed with Goethe, who saw Romanticism as disease and Classicism as health. But Arnold occasionally looked at things with jaundiced eyes, and he overlooked the positive features of Romanticism which posterity will not willingly let die, such as its humanitarianism, love of nature, love of childhood, a sense of mysticism, faith in man with all his imperfections, and faith in man's unconquerable mind.
Arnold's inordinate love of classicism made him blind to the beauty of lyricism. He ignored the importance of lyrical poems, which are subjective and which express the sentiments and the personality of the poet. Judged by Arnold's standards, a large number of poets both ancient and modern are dismissed because they sang with 'Profuse strains of unpremeditated art'.
It was also unfair of Arnold to compare the classical works in which figure the classical quartet, namely Achilles, Prometheus, Clytemnestra and Dido with Heamann and Dorothea, Childe Harold, Jocelyn, and 'The Excursion'. Even the strongest advocates of Arnold would agree that it is not always profitable for poets to draw upon the past. Literature expresses the zeitgeist, the spirit of the contemporary age. Writers must choose subjects from the world of their own experience. What is ancient Greece to many of us? Historians and archaeologists are familiar with it, but the common readers delight justifiably in modern themes. To be in the company of Achilles, Prometheus, Clytemnestra and Dido is not always a pleasant experience. What a reader wants is variety, which classical mythology with all its tradition and richness cannot provide. An excessive fondness for Greek and Latin classics produces a literary diet without variety, while modern poetry and drama have branched out in innumerable directions.
As we have seen, as a classicist Arnold upheld the supreme importance of the architectonic faculty, then later shifted his ground. In the lectures On Translating Homer, On the Study of Celtic Literature, and The Study of Poetry, he himself tested the greatness of poetry by single lines. Arnold the classicist presumably realised towards the end of his life that classicism was not the last word in literature.
Arnold's lack of historic sense was another major failing. While he spoke authoritatively on his own century, he was sometimes groping in the dark in his assessment of earlier centuries. He used to speak at times as if ex cathedra, and this pontifical solemnity vitiated his criticism.
As we have seen, later critics praise Arnold, but it is only a qualified praise. Oliver Elton calls him a 'bad great critic'. T. S. Eliot said that Arnold is a 'Propagandist and not a creator of ideas'. According to Walter Raleigh, Arnold's method is like that of a man who took a brick to the market to give the buyers an impression of the building.

Arnold's legacy
In spite of his faults, Arnold's position as an eminent critic is secure. Douglas Bush says that the breadth and depth of Arnold's influence cannot be measured or even guessed at because, from his own time onward, so much of his thought and outlook became part of the general educated consciousness. He was one of those critics who, as Eliot said, arrive from time to time to set the literary house in order. Eliot named Dryden, Johnson and Arnold as some of the greatest critics of the English language.
Arnold united active independent insight with the authority of the humanistic tradition. He carried on, in his more sophisticated way, the Renaissance humanistic faith in good letters as the teachers of wisdom, and in the virtue of great literature, and above all, great poetry. He saw poetry as a supremely illuminating, animating, and fortifying aid in the difficult endeavour to become or remain fully human.
Arnold's method of criticism is comparative. Steeped in classical poetry, and thoroughly acquainted with continental literature, he compares English literature to French and German literature, adopting the disinterested approach he had learned from Sainte-Beuve.
Arnold's objective approach to criticism and his view that historical and biographical study are unnecessary was very influential on the new criticism. His emphasis on the importance of tradition also influenced F. R. Leavis, and T. S. Eliot.
Eliot is also indebted to Arnold for his classicism, and for his objective approach which paved the way for Eliot to say that poetry is not an expression of personality but an escape from personality, because it is not an expression of emotions but an escape from emotions.
Although Arnold disapproved of the Romantics' approach to poetry, their propensity for allusiveness and symbolism, he also shows his appreciation the Romantics in his Essays in Criticism. He praises Wordsworth thus: 'Nature herself took the pen out of his hand and wrote with a bare, sheer penetrating power'. Arnold also valued poetry for its strong ideas, which he found to be the chief merit of Wordsworth's poetry. About Shelley he says that Shelley is 'A beautiful but ineffectual angel beating in a void his luminous wings in vain'.
In an age when cheap literature caters to the taste of the common man, one might fear that the classics will fade into insignificance. But Arnold is sure that the currency and the supremacy of the classics will be preserved in the modern age, not because of conscious effort on the part of the readers, but because of the human instinct of self-preservation.
In the present day with the literary tradition over-burdened with imagery, myth, symbol and abstract jargon, it is refreshing to come back to Arnold and his like to encounter central questions about literature and life as they are perceived by a mature and civilised mind.

What are merits and demerits of Arnold as a critic?
Matthew Arnold, the greatest of the Victorian critics, has been both eulogized and condemned by scholars. In recent times too T.S. Eliot has criticised him. He calls him a propagandist, a salesman, a clever advertiser, rather than a great critic. He finds him lacking in the power of connected reasoning at any length says that “his flights are short flights or circular flights.” F.R. Leavis accuses him of “high pamphleteering”. Prof. Garrod, who otherwise is an admirer of Arnold, feels that Arnold became a critic only by accident (the accident of Oxford Professorship), and names him “the vendor of Frenchified disin terestedness.”
His Shortcomings
Arnold’s limitations as a critic can be summarised in the following manner:—
(1) He is incapable of connected reasoning at any length, and often contradicts himself. Thus first he lays down the test of total impression for judging the worth of a poet, but soon after contradicts himself and prescribes the well-known, “Touchstone method.”
(2) There is a certain want of logic and method in Arnold’s criticism. He is not a scientific critic. Often he is vague, and fails to define or state clearly his views. Often he is lop-sided as in his Essay on Shelley which is all biography except a brief concluding paragraph. His criticism is often gappy; before he has fully established a point, he would hastily hurry onto another.
(3) He frowns upon mere literary criticism. He mixes literary criticism with socio-ethical considerations and regards it as an instrument of culture. Purely literary criticism with him has no meaning and significance.
(4) There is some truth in the criticism that he was a propagandist and a salesman. As Wimsatt and Brooks point out, “very simply, very characteristically, and repetitiously, Arnold spent his career in hammering the thesis that poetry is a, “criticism of life.” All his practical criticism is but an illusion of this view.
(5) His criticism is lacking in originality. Practically all of his critical concepts are borrowed. In his emphasis on ‘action’ and high seriousness,’ he merely echoes Aristotle; his concept of “grand style” is exactly the same thing as, ‘the sublime,’ of Longinus and his biographical method is the method of the French Saint-Beauve. As George Watson says, “he plagiarises too heavily.”
(6) He might be learned, but his learning is neither exact, nor precise. He does not collect his facts painstakingly. His illustrations of his touchstone method are’all misquotations. Similarly, his biographical data are often inaccurate.
(7) He is in favour of biographical interpretation; he is also conscious he importance of “the moment,” and yet he is against the historical method of criticism.
(8) He advocates ‘disinterestedness,’ but ties the critic to certain socio- ethical interests. He would like him to rise above ‘practical’ and ‘personal’ interests, but he wants him to establish a current of great and noble ideas and thus promote culture. But disinterestedness means that the critic should have no interests except aesthetic appreciation.
(9) He speaks of the moral effects of poetry, of its ‘high seriousness,’ but never of its pleasure, the ‘aesthetic pleasure’ which a poet must impart, and which is the true test of its excellence. His standards of judgment are not literary.
(10)His literary criticism is vitiated by his moral, classical, and continental prejudices. He is sympathetic only to the classical, he rates the continental poets higher than the great English poets, and the moral test which he applies often makes him neglect the literary qualities of a poet. The immoral in the life of a poet, prejudices him against his poetry.

His Merits and Achievements
Arnold’s faults are glaring, but more important are his merits and achievements. He is the most imposing figure in Victorian criticism. In his own day, and for years afterwards, he was venerated and respected almost like Aristotle. After him the cry, for years, was, “Arnold has said so.” “For half a century, Arnold’s position in this country was comparable with that of the venerable Greek, in respect of the wide influence he exercised, the mark he impressed upon criticism, and the blind faith with which he was trusted by his votaries.” (Scott-James). Another critic praises him because his criticism is more “compellingly alive”, more thought-provoking than that of any other critic of his age. Harbert Paul goes to the extent of saying that Arnold did not merely criticise books, he taught others to criticise books.
Judged historically, Arnold rendered a great service to criticism. He rescued it from the disorganised state in which it had fallen by stressing the need of system in critical judgement. He also waged a relentless battle against the intrusion of personal, religious, or political considerations in the judgement of authors and works. Lastly, he raised criticism to a higher level than was ever thought by making it the care-taker of literature in epochs unfavourable to its growth. But more than one critic has been struck by the incongruity between Arnold, the more or less romantic poet, and Arnold, the more or less classical critic.
In certain respects, as shown by Scott-James, Arnold is superior to Aristotle. Aristotle knew none but the classics of Greece, the only literary models available to him, whilst Arnold, having the literature of many nations and ages before him, was limited only, of his own choice, to, “the best that is known and thought in the world.” Further, Arnold repudiated the idea that the critic should be an “abstract lawgiver.” Above all, “Aristotle shows us the critic in relation to art. Arnold shows us the critic in relation to the public. Aristotle dissects a work of art Arnold dissects a critic.” The one gives us the principles which govern the making of a poem : the other, the principles by which the best poems should be selected and made known. Aristotle’s critic owes allegiance to the Artist, but Arnold’s critic has a duty to society. He is a propagandist tilling the soil so that ‘the best ideas.’ may prevail, making “an intellectual situation of which the creative power can profitably avail itself.

Conclusion
In the words of Saintsbury, “His services, therefore, to English Criticism, whether as a “receptist” or as an actual craftsman cannot possibly be overestimated. In the first respect he was, if not the absolute reformer, the leader in reform, of the slovenly and disorganised condition into which Romantic criticism had fallen. In the second, the things which he had not, as well as those which he had, combined to give him a place among the very first. He had not the sublime and ever new-inspired inconsistency of Dryden. He had not the robustness of Johnson, the supreme critical “reason” of Coleridge; scarcely the exquisite, fitful, appreciation of Lamb, or the full-blooded and passionate appreciation of Hazlitt. But he had an exacter knowledge than Dryden; the fitness of his judgment seems finer beside Johnson’s bluntness; he could not wool-gather like Coleridge; his range was far wider than Lamb’s; his scholarship and his delicacy alike were superior to those of Hazlitt.”

Touchstone Method: Arnold
"Poetry is interpretative by having natural magic in it,
and moral profundity".
Touchstone Method is a short quotation from a recognized poetic masterpiece ‘The Study of Poetry’ (1880), employed as a standard of instant comparison for judging the value of other works. Here Arnold recommends certain lines of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton as touchstones for testing ‘the presence or absence of high poetic quality’ in samples chosen from other poets.
The" Touchstone Method" - introduced scientific objectivity to critical evaluation by providing comparison and analysis as the two primary tools for judging individual poets. Thus, Chaucer, Dryden, Pope, and Shelley fall short of the best, because they lack "high seriousness". Even Shakespeare thinks too much of expression and too little of conception. Arnold's ideal poets are Homer and Sophocles in the ancient world, Dante and Milton, and among moderns, Goethe and Wordsworth. Arnold puts Wordsworth in the front rank not for his poetry but for his "criticism of life".
Arnold writes, in order to judge a poet's work properly, a critic should compare it to passages taken from works of great masters of poetry, and that these passages should be applied as touchstones to other poetry. Even a single line or selected quotation will serve the purpose. From this we see that he has shifted his position from that expressed in the preface to his Poems of 1853. In The Study of Poetry he no longer uses the acid test of action and architectonics. He became an advocate of 'touchstones'. 'Short passages even single lines,' he said, 'will serve our turn quite sufficiently'.
Some of Arnold's touchstone passages are: Helen's words about her wounded brother, Zeus addressing the horses of Peleus, suppliant Achilles' words to Priam, and from Dante; Ugolino's brave words, and Beatrice's loving words to Virgil. From non-Classical writers he selects from Henry IV Part II (III, i), Henry's expostulation with sleep - 'Wilt thou upon the high and giddy mast . . . '. From Hamlet (V, ii) 'Absent thee from felicity awhile . . . '. From Milton's Paradise Lost Book 1, 'Care sat on his faded cheek . . .', and 'What is else not to be overcome . . . '
Like Ruskin Arnold too wanted the contemporary reader against certain fallacies; the ‘fallacy’ of “historical estimate” and the “fallacy” of “personal estimate” were both, in Arnold’s view, reflections of inadequate and improper response to literature. According to him, both the historical significance of a literary work as well as its significance to the critic in personal terms tend to obliterate the real estimate of that work as in itself reality is. The best way to know the class, to which a work belongs in terms of the excellence of art, Arnold recommends, is
“to have always in one’s mind lines and expressions of
the great masters, and to apply them
as a touchstone to other poetry.”
Comparing with the best lines and passages from Homer and Shakespeare, Arnold surveys the entire track of English poetry, and divides the various poets into the categories of the good-and-great and the not-so-good and not-so-great. His idea of tradition is select in that only the great constitute the body of literary history we should care for, and the rest we better ignore. Arnold’s view of the greatness in poetry and what a literary critic should look for are summed up as follows:
“it is important, therefore, to hold fast to this: that poetry is at
bottom a criticism of life; that the greatness of a poet lies in his
powerful and beautiful application of ideas to life,
—to the question: how to live.”
here is sort of manifesto for the criticism of the early Victorians as well as an indictment of the critical creed, ‘art for art’s sake,’ as propounded and advocated by the later Victorians.

Link 2
Arnold’s touchstone method is a comparative method of criticism. According to this method, in order to judge a poet's work properly, a critic should compare it to passages taken from works of great masters of poetry, and that these passages should be applied as touchstones to other poetry. Even a single line or selected quotation will serve the purpose. If the other work moves us in the same way as these lines and expressions do, then it is really a great work, otherwise not.
This method was recommended by Arnold to overcome the shortcomings of the personal and historical estimates of a poem. Both historical and personal estimate goes in vain. In personal estimate, we cannot wholly leave out the personal and subjective factors. In historical estimate, historical importance often makes us rate a work as higher than it really deserves. In order to form a real estimate, one should have the ability to distinguish a real classic. At this point, Arnold offers his theory of Touchstone Method. A real classic, says Arnold, is a work, which belongs to the class of the very best. It can be recognized by placing it beside the known classics of the world. Those known classics can serve as the touchstone by which the merit of contemporary poetic work can be tested. This is the central idea of Arnold’s Touchstone Method.

Doodle with Literature
Sunday, January 24, 2010
Touchstone method - Matthew Arnold


Matthew Arnold is a Victorian critic and a poet.Who can forget his famous poem "Dover Beach" , which presents the cardinal voice of Victorian literature , the doubt and faith in religion. But Arnold is more renowned for his contribution in literary criticism .
Literary Criticism -
Literary criticism is the study, discussion, evaluation, and interpretation of literature. There were two prominent schools in literary criticism - one is , Classical school of criticism and other one is , Romantic school of criticism. Matthew Arnold belonged to the classical school of criticism. Essays in Criticism contains the best of his critical work, which is marked by wide reading and critical thought. There is one essay The Study of Poetry in this collection which talks about the problems of evaluating literature and the real method to evaluate a true and worthy literature.
The Study of Poetry -
Arnold believes and states in the present essay that the future of poetry is "immense" because poetry is Truth and truth always elevates our heart and soul and it survives through all odds. Somebody has rightly said, "Poetry is first and the last of all knowledge . It is as old as the human heart." Arnold then recalls Wordsworth's theory of poetry that poetry is "the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge."
Further , critic talks about the difficulties which come while evaluating poetry. He says there are two estimates - Personal and Historical estimate which we should discard while evaluating literature and specially in terms of poetry.
Historical Estimate -
We regard anything of History with respect because it has survived through time . But we shall not estimate poetry in this way . Critic says that we should discard historical estimate becase whatever is ancient may not be true or worthy. Another point he gives that every work of great author may not be great. For instance, Shakespeare's all dramas may not be as great as his four great tragedies .
Personal Estimate -
Arnold says Personal estimate is another fallacy in criticism. It generally happens with the contemporary writers. Suppose , if I am a writer and my friend is a critic or another writer then she will give mild , soft , praising comments and so she won't criticize my poem or judge it honestly. This is Personal Estimate. According to Arnold , we should save ourselves from such dishonest judgments. We should be objective while criticizing our contemporaries .
Touchstone Method -
Arnold has proposed a new method to evaluate poetry. He invents touchstone method and says that it is a real estimate to evaluate poetry.First one should see that if a work has stood the test of time then it is worthy. Another thing is that whenever you want to judge a poem place it beside the great lines of Famous poet's poem . For instance - place it beside Milton's poem (Paradise Lost) -
Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,.....
and Shakespeare's Hamlet's words -
To be or not to be ...
Etc etc...
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T.S. Eliot


An Ideal Critic: His Qualifications and Functions

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.

Analysis of T.S. Eliot’s Hamlet and His problems
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Analysis of T.S. Eliot’s Hamlet and His problems


Published in 1919, Hamlet and His Problems may be considered an example of “destructive criticism” in the sense that it challenges the age-old established critical perspectives on a work of art. Eliot puts forward his contention that much of the critical has been devoted to analysing the character of Hamlet, rather than analysing the play, which should be the primary business of the critics. He cites the example of two great minds, Goethe and Coleridge, who also who were not immune to this kind of fallacy and who have substituted “their own Hamlet for Shakespeare’s”. Eliot alleges that instead of studying it as a “ work of art”, they have imposed their personalities on Shakespeare’s Hamlet and “made of Hamlet a Werther” and “ of Hamlet a Coleridge” respectively. Eliot, on the other hand, praises J.M. Robertson and Stoll, who, according to him, tried to shift the critical focus of Hamlet to a right direction by pointing out the genesis of Shakespeare’s play from his predecessors: “Hamlet is a stratification, that it represents the efforts of a series of men, each making what he could out of the work of his predecessors.” According to Eliot, the presence of anomalies and much of the crude elements of the play can be attributed to this fact.

In order to establish his contentions, Eliot goes on to examine the play from a historical perspective. He cites the example of Kyd’s Hamlet Play and Spanish Tragedy and tries to establish the fact that just as Kyd’s Shakespeare’s play was also made in the tradition of Elizabethan revenge tragedies and was expected to serve the dramatic purpose of this genre. In this Eliot argues that the revenge-motives in the earlier plays are dramatically justified, but in the case of Shakespeare’s Hamlet there is a failure in establishing the motive of the character. Eliot thinks,

‘...there is a motive which is more important than that of revenge, and which explicitly "blunts" the latter; the delay in revenge is unexplained on grounds of necessity or expediency; and the effect of the "madness" is not to lull but to arouse the king's suspicion.’

According to him, Shakespeare made certain changes with the play of Thomas Kyd, but those changes are far from being convincing. Eliot gives some other evidences to establish that Shakespeare adapted his story from Kyd’s lost play. He strong defends Robertson’s view that

‘Shakespeare's Hamlet, so far as it is Shakespeare's, is a play dealing with the effect of a mother's guilt upon her son, and that Shakespeare was unable to impose this motive successfully upon the "intractable" material of the old play.’

Then Eliot goes on to pronounce his notorious judgement on the play: “far from being Shakespeare's masterpiece, the play is most certainly an artistic failure.” For, according to him, Shakespeare failed to make proper arrangement of incidents and impose a dramatic order. He points out that the play is the longest and there are superfluous and inconsistent scenes with the versification being variable. Not only this, Eliot presents his assumption that the play must have been written during a period of intense emotional crisis. Even he relates it to another great production art, Mona Lisa and calls the play "Mona Lisa" of literature, thereby creating another controversy.

According to Eliot that the failure of the drama lies not simply with the adaptation, plot construction and versification, but more importantly with the motive of the drama, which Robertson called “the feeling of a son towards a guilty mother”. Eliot thinks that Shakespeare could not handle the "guilt of a mother" so effectively as he “handled the suspicion of Othello, the infatuation of Antony, or the pride of Coriolanus”. Eliot attributes the failure to Shakespeare’s inability to all-pervasive emotion, found in the sonnets, and argues that Hamlet contains certain mysterious elements, which “the writer could not drag to light, contemplate, or manipulate into art.”

Finally Eliot comes to use a term which would draw the attention of the critical community very soon and goes on to put forward a solution through this. He says that,

‘The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an "objective correlative"... a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion.’

He cites the example Macbeth and Othello and tries to show how Shakespeare made use of this successfully, which is, according to him, precisely not the case in Hamlet. Shakespeare could not project any external elements which would fitfully reflect his inner world and could not present external events or elements which would justify his terrible mental anguish. According to Eliot, Hamlet’s case is that of over-reaction. For, “Hamlet is up against the difficulty that his disgust is occasioned by his mother, but that his mother is not an adequate equivalent for it; his disgust envelops and exceeds her.” (Eliot thinks that “Hamlet's bafflement at the absence of objective equivalent to his feelings is a prolongation of the bafflement of his creator in the face of his artistic problem.”)

Finally Eliot takes up the case of Hamlet’s Madness and tries to refute conventional view by arguing that Hamlet’s madness “is less than madness and more than feigned”. That is to say, he is neither fully mad nor is always feigning. He tries to establish the second case by pointing out his levity, puns and repetitions of phrase, which point towards a mental disorder. In fine, Eliot assigns the genesis of the drama to an unknown state of mind of the creator and hopes for explorations on the part of the critics to solve “an insoluble puzzle”.

Introduction

Often hailed as the successor to poet-critics such as John Dryden, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Matthew Arnold, T.S. Eliot’s literary criticism informs his poetry just as his experiences as a poet shape his critical work. Though famous for insisting on “objectivity” in art, Eliot’s essays actually map a highly personal set of preoccupations, responses and ideas about specific authors and works of art, as well as formulate more general theories on the connections between poetry, culture and society. Perhaps his best-known essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent” was first published in 1919 and soon after included in The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (1920). Eliot attempts to do two things in this essay: he first redefines “tradition” by emphasizing the importance of history to writing and understanding poetry, and he then argues that poetry should be essentially “impersonal,” that is separate and distinct from the personality of its writer. Eliot’s idea of tradition is complex and unusual, involving something he describes as “the historical sense” which is a perception of “the pastness of the past” but also of its “presence.” For Eliot, past works of art form an order or “tradition”; however, that order is always being altered by a new work which modifies the “tradition” to make room for itself. This view, in which “the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past,” requires that a poet be familiar with almost all literary history—not just the immediate past but the distant past and not just the literature of his or her own country but the whole “mind of Europe.”

Eliot’s second point is one of his most famous and contentious. A poet, Eliot maintains, must “self-sacrifice” to this special awareness of the past; once this awareness is achieved, it will erase any trace of personality from the poetry because the poet has become a mere medium for expression. Using the analogy of a chemical reaction, Eliot explains that a “mature” poet’s mind works by being a passive “receptacle” of images, phrases and feelings which are combined, under immense concentration, into a new “art emotion.” For Eliot, true art has nothing to do with the personal life of the artist but is merely the result of a greater ability to synthesize and combine, an ability which comes from deep study and comprehensive knowledge. Though Eliot’s belief that “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality” sprang from what he viewed as the excesses of Romanticism, many scholars have noted how continuous Eliot’s thought—and the whole of Modernism—is with that of the Romantics’; his “impersonal poet” even has links with John Keats, who proposed a similar figure in “the chameleon poet.” But Eliot’s belief that critical study should be “diverted” from the poet to the poetry shaped the study of poetry for half a century, and while “Tradition and the Individual Talent” has had many detractors, especially those who question Eliot’s insistence on canonical works as standards of greatness, it is difficult to overemphasize the essay’s influence. It has shaped generations of poets, critics and theorists and is a key text in modern literary criticism.

Tradition and Creativity:
T S Eliot "Tradition and the Individual Talent"
Trevor Pateman


Abstract: Exposition and commentary on the key themes of T S Eliot's essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent" in which comparisons with structuralist understandings of languages are made and bearing on educational debates discussed.
Who could possibly be against tradition? Well, most important twentieth century artists have at some point thought themselves to be against it. But they have been against different things, and they have not always in practice been against what they said they were against.
Artists have said they have been against tradition when they have been against academicism: the lifeless repetition of motions and motifs no longer rooted in art but the requirements of the classroom for order, predictability and assessability. For the academicism of an early 20th century German art school, see George Grosz, A Small Yes and a Big No. Presumably, only academics are in favour of academicism, though they wouldn't call it that.
More significantly, artists have proclaimed themselves against tradition, meaning the art of the past. But the key difference is between those who have learnt from the past, and need to move beyond it to find new ways of expressing new things and those who, having failed to learn from the past , are doomed either to repeat it or to produce work which, in retrospect, is merely the evidence of a protest movement, as with much of Dada, old and new.
There will often be ambivalence on the part of the creative artist towards the artistic past, especially the recent past. This is understandable. On the one hand, there is the desire to be truly creative, to produce something new and not merely a novelty within well - worn and well - understood forms. On the other, there is the pressing need for genius to learn from genius. The tension produces perfectly researchable anxieties of influence to take the title of a well - known book by Harold Bloom. Some artists can happily enter into and work through an encounter with the art of their predecessors, acknowledging that they are learning and what they are learning from them. Others are anxious lest influence spoil their own individual talent, and they have to deny and repress such influence. Artists will often move more or less uneasily between these two relationships to what has already been created.
In T. S. Eliot's famous 1919 essay, `Tradition and the Individual Talent', acknowledgment of the indispensability of tradition is linked to a (classical) stress on the value of achieving impersonality in art. This is contrasted with a Romantic stress on self - expression (see elsewhere on this website `Classicism and Romanticism'). The poet is someone who excels in having a feeling for words, not one who readily finds words for a feeling. Indeed, for Eliot, poets need make no distinction between emotions they have experienced , and emotions they have not, in fashioning feelings in words. And fashioning feeling in words requires not that one looks inside oneself, examining the phenomenology of subjective experience, but rather that outside oneself one is able to locate an `objective correlative' for an emotion. As Eliot puts it in the other essay of 1919, that on Hamlet, `The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an "objective correlative", in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked'.
This seems to be a particular way of stating a more general view, that one should distinguish between the live expression of an actually occurring emotion (as when I jump for joy) and the repeatable representation of such emotion, as when a dancer is choreographed to jump joyfully. For purposes of art, the important thing is to be able to find such representations which evoke in others feelings appropriate to them. This is rather different from being oneself filled with emotions.
Eliot has an account of how he thinks the artist ought to engage with Tradition - roughly, the Dead Poets' Society. He also has a view as to how a Tradition is constituted in a culture and for an audience. The leading idea here is that a living Tradition is one in which new art can alter the meaning, the perception of the monuments of the past. Eliot puts it like this in a key passage of the Tradition essay:
The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new. Whoever has approved this idea of order . . . will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past. And the poet who is aware of this will be aware of great difficulties and responsibilities.
This idea of Eliot's has its roots in German and American Idealism, Hegel and Josiah Royce. But the idea that in a living tradition past and present form a simultaneous order, is most clearly comparable to the structuralist idea that a living language exists for its speakers in a single synchronous state even though it is the product of historically reconstructible (diachronic) processes and practices. In both cases a living tradition is distinguished from a dead one. In the latter case there is no simultaneous order, no synchrony, for any living person, merely historical (archival, philological) records. French is a living language, the simultaneous order of which is being continuously re - shaped by new speakers. Each innovation which takes hold subtly re - inflects the language inherited from the past. It is no paradox to say that for a living language, order and change always co-exist. In contrast, Cornish is a dead language because there are no new speakers to re - shape it. There is no order and no change, just dictionaries and grammars. In this perspective a large part of active arts education must be concerned with keeping alive the past, and that implies deciding what to keep alive and how. For example, in England no one believes that Beowulf can be kept alive in Anglo-Saxon; it has to be translated if it is to have any chance of staying in a simultaneous order (and even then it may be beyond recall). But what of Chaucer and Shakespeare? No sooner do we name these names than familiar disputes recall themselves. The friend of Shakespeare who wants Shakespeare to stay in a living and widely accessible arts tradition will be happy to take on new rewritings and adaptations of the original. The friends of Shakespeare who think that what matters is not any old living tradition but a particular simultaneous order in which it is the language of Shakespeare which matters, will resist. They will find nothing in West Side Story or a comic strip Othello which serves to sustain the tradition as they would wish to define it. One might add that those whose concern is with Christian theology and morality will be happy to see the Bible endlessly retranslated and modernized; those who care for a Church and for the Bible as part of ritual or literature, rather than as revealed truth, will insist on the King James' Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, etc.
The controversies here align to a large extent with the division between the friends of the people (populists) and the friends of the established order (elitists). It is very hard to evade this division and opposition. In the end every teacher has to take a view on whether, say, Shakespeare is important and, if he is, what is essential in him. The only point of serious agreement between populists and elitists appears to be a shared commitment to the idea of a living arts tradition. No one is interested in preserving Shakespeare merely as history, as a sort of archeological curiosity: "This what they did then. Just fancy that!"
There have been those who have said they would dispense with any and all traditions in the interests of self - expression, paralleling in the world of arts education the position of artists who have rejected tradition. Critics like Peter Abbs have argued that the attempt to evade tradition is misguided because ultimately incoherent: without tradition (an inherited language and culture) there is very little, if any, self, and consequently little or nothing to be expressed.
But in an essay which has been sympathetic to the claims of Tradition, it should be said in conclusion that this is not quite the whole story. Consider only that when children begin to draw and paint, they do so in ways which do not derive from the traditions around them. They do so in ways which are invariant across cultures and which draw on the resources of the developing human mind. What is true, however, is that such creative self - expression grinds to a halt unless it can make contact with the traditions which have developed around it. At that point of contact, however, it risks being overwhelmed by the traditions it encounters and coming to a different kind of halt. That is why there is a central place in education for the teacher's tact in managing the encounter between the individual child, as new Talent, and Tradition, as sediment of the talent of the past.

On Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1917)

"To divert interest from the poet to the poetry is a laudable aim,” T.S. Eliot declares in his acclaimed essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1917). In the essay Eliot reintroduces the notion of the inconspicuous artist―- the old classical interpretation of the artist-as-mirror―- which went out of fashion in the early Romantic period and was replaced with a radically new view that placed the author’s interior life at center. The points made in Eliot’s essay soon became some of the key concepts of the Formalist critics, particularly the New Critics, who advocated a kind of criticism that, to quote Eliot, “is directed not upon the poet but upon the poetry.” Eliot later distanced himself from New Criticism, calling it “the lemon-squeezer school of criticism” and referring to their work as “bogus scholarship.” Nevertheless, his influence on their method of analysis, whether intended or not, is palpably evident.

The critic should avoid excessive attention to the poet, Eliot explains, because “no poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone . . . you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. . . as a principle of aesthetic, not merely historical, criticism.” According to Eliot, facts about the poet’s public or personal life will lead nowhere, since the mind of the tradition is “much more important than his own private mind.” The poet’s task, then, is to become a “finely perfected medium in which special, or very varied, feelings are at liberty to enter into new combinations,” rather than to become the discoverer and expressor of new emotions. The artist’s proper goal, Eliot declares, should be the “continual extinction of personality,” not its development and expression.

If the artist's objective is the dissolution of personality, what then is left to create the art? Addressing this problem, Eliot goes on to clarify what he sees as the distinction between “the man” and “the poet.” Casting doubt on the “theory of the substantial unity of the soul,” he argues that men―- or at least men of artistic inclination―- are divided into two separate and conflicting entities, “man” and “poet.” Since the personality, emotional life, feelings, and so forth of “the man” disappear in the works of the great poets, biographical consideration has no place in assessing the work of art. Though “the man” himself may have a personality, in his art he must either subdue or transform it, in order that he may function only as a medium “in which impressions and experiences combine in peculiar and unexpected ways.”

Thus, the task of the poet, Eliot concludes, is ultimately the escape from the self. “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.” In typical Eliot fashion, he ends the section with a concession, perhaps a subtle admission that his argument is a tad polemic and overstated. He concedes that these subjective aspects of “the man,” whose destruction he has here been advocating, are indeed the starting point of art. “But, of course,” he writes, “only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.”
Link 3

T. S. Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent" was first published in The Egoist in September and December of 1919. Its immediate cultural context included several other significant preoccupations with the past: F. T. Marinetti's Manifesto of Futurism (1909), the serial publication of Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time (1913-1927), and Tristan Tzara's Dada Manifesto (1918). Appearing in a moment of avant-garde collectivities, of manifestoes announcing decisive breaks with the past, Eliot's essay asserted the present writer as a member of the largest collective of all, the dead. Now bodiless, the dead are present as the living past of literature (and of utterance in general). Like Tzara, and unlike Marinetti, Eliot saw no progress in this history of literature; it doesn't improve, its bodiless corpus only grows and changes. However, its accruing variations, which Tzara trivializes as "uninteresting questions of fashion," are for Eliot the very condition of literary "talent." The "whole of the literature of Europe from Homer" is a polylingual archive constitutive of the present moment and its authors. The "talent" in the essay's title is the ability to recombine the elements of this archive so as to produce a new relation to it, one which complicates all the other extant combinations.
In this sense, literature is much like the alphabet on which it depends—a set of elements whose arbitrary, historical order can be segmented, rearranged, and repeated to produce words and a text from these words. The new work is expressed through them and they through it; they are each other's medium. "Tradition" and "Individual Talent" are synonyms for Eliot, the moments of a reciprocal constitution, two aspects of the same substance. The keyword "medium" is itself an example of this fungibility, deployed several times in the essay in both its senses: it indicates the artist, whose "historical sense" allows her to function as a conduit for the past, and the past itself, the medium or ground in which both the poet and her text are set. The medium is indistinguishable from the artist's mind but is in no way identical to the artist's personality. Eliot figures that mind as a poetic archive, a "receptacle" for storing "feelings, phrases, images" which "remain there" until combined to form a new compound. The experience of language yields more language.
This account of the writer-as-medium obviates the idea of the text as a transcript of personal feelings (hence Eliot's description of art as an "escape from personality"). Feelings are tropes with long histories, shared conventions rather than subjective data, and, considered as form rather than content, are only one formal feature among many (prosody, lexicon, genre, etc.). Instead of the artist's personality, an "art emotion" presents itself as and through the full sonic and semantic relation of the text to all other texts. The artist is the medium for that two-way message and the message is the medium itself, the expression of literature's materials and of the conditions of its production.
The "of" in Eliot's phrase "a consciousness of the past" functions for the essay in much the same way that "medium" does—it's a plenary genitive (rare), which expresses both the subjective and objective senses of the genitive: is this the past's consciousness or a present poet's consciousness of the past? The plenary construction is the answer; there is, for Eliot, very little difference between these forms of belonging—past and present, self and speech, contemporary literature and that which precedes it are "of" each other. Early in the essay, Eliot links criticism to the autonomic, if not involuntary, act of breathing, declaring it "as inevitable." It's important that he links it to the circular, or two-way, process of respiration rather than the transitive expression of voice; for Eliot, an engagement with literature is a process of recirculation (breathing) rather than original production (speaking). Like breath, this engagement happens below the threshold of conscious agency and hence is inevitable, yet, when this engagement happens as poetry (another form of criticism) it can also be described as an "escape from personality." Writing in the presence of the past is, then, an escape into the inevitable, into the constant process of taking in and then recirculating tradition, inhaling and exhaling.
How can escape and its impossibility be simultaneous? The answer lies in another of the essay's famous terms, "the historical sense." We might redescribe this sense as a self-consciousness about an involuntary relationship to the past of cultural utterance. The "great labor" of acquiring this historical sense, which Eliot leaves vague, would be the coming to ever greater, more specific, and more elaborate awareness of one's inevitable retransmission of the archive, and of the archive's similar helplessness not to change as it absorbs new contributions to itself, new arrangements of its previous conventions. Put another way, this historical sense is equivalent to noticing and then taking control of one's respiration, making the involuntary briefly voluntary. It's for this reason that the "historical sense" again marks that oscillation of the plenary genitive—is this the sense of history or the historied sense? Tradition and the individual talent are synonyms because they are both terms for the agency of literary work.
To give the historical sense itself some background, behind both Eliot and Proust stands the phenomenologist Henri Bergson's theory of "la durée" (Eliot had gone to a series of his lectures in 1911). Bergson's description of time as duration, a single indivisible substance, all of which is continuously present, rather than a series of discrete moments, undergirds Proust's idea of "Time Regained" and Eliot's strategic indistinction between artist and archive—the past and present are coterminous features of the Ego when it "lets itself live, when it refrains from separating its present state from its former states."1 Proust's In Search of Lost Time could be summarized as the voluntary epic of involuntary memory, an attempt to investigate and manage the details of unbidden psychic experience, of the past's unscheduled reirruption in the present. For Eliot, whose field in his essay is not a mind but literature, all texts are madeleines.
The Waste Land stands as the ars poetica of this impersonal style: personal "feelings" are deployed in a relentless citational environment such that they assume the quality of quotation, while the quotations move towards the condition of original speech. Of course both tendencies are evident since all writing, even confessional writing, is a matter of recombining word histories, while citations are made new, or different, by entering new contexts. All speech is citation, even if the source is plurally and anonymously authored; literature is the archive's continuous confession of itself. The Waste Land is a confession of that confession, a selective genealogy of the Western canon whose past and present are collaborators requiring one another—Shakespeare's Hamlet is based in Thomas Kyd's lost play and The Spanish Tragedy, Daniel Arnaut speaks Provencal within Dante's Divine Comedy (both of which are cited simultaneously at the end of Eliot's poem, they are each other's textual breath and what the poem breathes—to cite "Poi s'ascose nel foco che gli affina" is to cite Arnaut, Dante, and Eliot at once).
This impersonal collaboration can even extend into the present "of" The Waste Land, whose set of allusions was made even more selective by Ezra Pound's significant redactions. Unlike reading and writing literature, certain registers of experience in the poem, ones in which the historical sense may not be developed (sex, war, the war of the sexes), lead instead to silence and inert repetition ("Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.") or to unintelligible repetition ("Tereu"). These modes have at least as long a history as literature and also operate by means of a set of conventions, but for Eliot the fact of embodiment as either the subject or object of desire and violence seems less susceptible to self-consciousness, to a voluntary experience of the involuntary, than the supple, reconfigurable body of literature, which is always fertile and much harder to kill. As a body, one is forced to interact only with the rest of the recalcitrant bodies around one in the present; as a poet, the dead, while unavailable to the senses, are the present medium of sense.
Eliot's essay and the example of The Waste Land place his early thought in proximity with recent poetics and their practitioners, from John Ashbery to the loosely associated poetries comprehended under the rubric of Language Poetry. Eliot's emphasis on the difference between feelings and "art emotion" and on the past of literature as its present material are both essentially constructivist tenets. Ashbery's inventory of the present and recent past of language use, a Waste Land of slang and pop culture, and his rapid shifts between subjective centers conspire to defeat the possibility of locating a unitary personality; his ability, or rather the poem's, to forget its subject from line to line is, paradoxically, its method of remembering so many features of American idiom, of producing new interactions among them, of deploying a historical sense that easily takes in both Andrew Marvell and Raymond Roussel. Similarly, Language Poetry's New Sentence, especially when used to reinvigorate autobiography as in Lyn Hejinian's My Life or Ron Silliman's Albany, proceeds by citing and circulating many sources, public and private, whose syllogistic relationship to each other has been deemphasized; the sentences are related by virtue of appearing together on and as the same ground, a signifying ground that can be figured as a life (My Life) or a place (Albany). They are archives of sentences. In both cases, the poem stands not as an escape from personality and psychology, but as the inevitable record of an experience of language and power, of the ongoing textualization of the subject and its dispersion in time and categories. When Hejinian discusses Gertrude Stein she sounds remarkably like Eliot: "the discovery that language is an order of reality itself and not a mediating medium—that it is possible and even likely that one can have a confrontation with a phrase that is as significant as a confrontation with a tree, chair, cone, dog, bishop, piano, vineyard, door, or penny."2 Of course our confrontation here is with "tree," "chair," "cone"; Hejinian's order of reality is one because the archive is not a mediating medium but the material construction of experience. As an earlier incarnation of Eliot (George) put it in Middlemarch: "Our deeds still travel with us from afar / And what we have been makes us what we are." The rhyme between tradition and talent is not always this audible. More often, as T. S. Eliot puts it himself in "The Dry Salvages:" "it is not heard at all, but you are the music / While the music lasts."

T.S.Eliot as a critic
Eliot is one of the greatest literary critics of England from the point of view of the bulk and quality of his critical writings. His five hundred and odd essays occasionally published as reviews and articles had a far-reaching influence on literary criticism in the country. His criticism was revolutionary which inverted the critical tradition of the whole English speaking work. John Hayward says:
“I cannot think of a critic who has been more widely read and discussed in his own life-time; and not only in English, but in almost every language, except Russian.”
As a critic Eliot has his faults. At times he assumes a hanging-judge attitude and his statements savor of a verdict. Often his criticism is marred by personal and religious prejudices blocking an honest and impartial estimate. Moreover, he does not judge all by the same standards. There is didacticism in his later essays and with the passing of time his critical faculties were increasingly exercised on social problems. Critics have also found fault with his style as too full of doubts, reservations and qualifications.

Still, such faults do not detract Eliot’s greatness as a critic. His criticism has revolutionized the great writers of the past three centuries. His recognition of the greatness of the Metaphysical poets of the 17th century resulted in the Metaphysical revival of the 20th century. The credit for the renewal of interest in the Jacobean dramatists goes to Eliot. He has restored Dryden and other Augustan poets to their due place. His essay on Dante aroused curiosity for the latter middle ages. The novelty of his statements, hidden in sharp phrases, startles and arrests attention. According to Eliot, the end of criticism is to bring readjustment between the old and the new. He says:
“From time to time it is desirable, that some critic shall appear to review the past of our literature, and set the poets and the poems in a new order.”
Such critics are rare, for they must possess, besides ability for judgment, powerful liberty of mind to identify and interpret its own values and category of admiration for their generation. John Hayward says:
“Matthew Arnold was such a critic as were Coleridge and Johnson and Dryden before him; and such, in our own day, is Eliot himself.”
Eliot’s criticism offers both reassessment and reaction to earlier writers. He called himself “a classicist in literature”. His vital contribution is the reaction against romanticism and humanism which brought a classical revival in art and criticism. He rejected the romantic view of the individual’s perfectibility, stressed the doctrine of the original sin and exposed the futility of the romantic faith in the “Inner Voice”. Instead of following his ‘inner voice’, a critic must follow objective standards and must conform to tradition. A sense of tradition, respect for order and authority is central to Eliot’s classicism. He sought to correct the excesses of “the abstract and intellectual” school of criticism represented by Arnold. He sought to raise criticism to the level of science. In his objectivity and logical attitude, Eliot most closely resembles Aristotle. A. G. George says:
“Eliot’s theory of the impersonality of poetry is the greatest theory on the nature of the process after Wordsworth’s romantic conception of poetry.”
Poetry was an expression of the emotions and personality for romantics. Wordsworth said that poetry was an overflow of powerful emotions and its origin is in “Emotions recollected in tranquility”. Eliot rejects this view and says that poetry is not an expression of emotion and personality but an escape from them. The poet is only a catalytic agent that fuses varied emotions into new wholes. He distinguishes between the emotions of the poet and the artistic emotion, and points out that the function of criticism is to turn attention from the poet to his poetry.

Eliot’s views on the nature of poetic process are equally revolutionary. According to him, poetry is not inspiration, it is organization. The poet’s mind is like a vessel in which are stored numerous feelings, emotions and experiences. The poetic process fuses these distinct experiences and emotions into new wholes. In “The Metaphysical Poets”, he writes:
“When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experiences; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary”.
Perfect poetry results when instead of ‘dissociation of sensibility’ there is ‘unification of sensibility’. The emotional and the rational, the creative and the critical, faculties must work in harmony to produce great work of art. Critics stressed that the aim of poetry is to give pleasure or to teach morally. However, for Eliot the greatness of a poem is tested by the order and unity it imposes on the chaotic and disparate experiences of the poet. Wimsatt and Brooks are right in saying:
“Hardly since the 17th century had critical writing in English so resolutely transposed poetic theory from the axis of pleasure versus pain to that of unity versus multiplicity.”
Eliot devised numerous critical concepts that gained wide currency and has a broad influence on criticism. ‘Objective co-relative’, ‘Dissociation of sensibility’, ‘Unification of sensibility’ are few of Eliot clichés hotly debated by critics. His dynamic theory of tradition, of impersonality of poetry, his assertion on ‘a highly developed sense of fact’ tended to impart to literary criticism catholicity and rationalism.

To conclude, Eliot’s influence as a critic has been wide, constant, fruitful and inspiring. He has corrected and educated the taste of his readers and brought about a rethinking regarding the function of poetry and the nature of the poet process. He gave a new direction and new tools of criticism. It is in the re-consideration and revival of English poetry of the past. George Watson writes:
“Eliot made English criticism look different, but not in a simple sense. He offered it a new range of rhetorical possibilities, confirmed it in its increasing contempt for historical processes, and yet reshaped its notion of period by a handful of brilliant institutions.”
His comments on the nature of Poetic Drama and the relation between poetry and drama have done much to bring about a revival of Poetic Drama in the modern age. Even if he had written no poetry, he would have made his mark as a distinguished and subtle critic.

T.S. Eliot as a critic

Eliot is one of the greatest literary critics of England from the point of view of the bulk and quality of his critical writings. His five hundred and odd essays occasionally published as reviews and articles had a far-reaching influence on literary criticism in the country. His criticism was revolutionary which inverted the critical tradition of the whole English speaking work. John Hayward says:

“I cannot think of a critic who has been more widely read and discussed in his own life-time; and not only in English, but in almost every language, except Russian.”

As a critic Eliot has his faults. At times he assumes a hanging-judge attitude and his statements savor of a verdict. Often his criticism is marred by personal and religious prejudices blocking an honest and impartial estimate. Moreover, he does not judge all by the same standards. There is didacticism in his later essays and with the passing of time his critical faculties were increasingly exercised on social problems. Critics have also found fault with his style as too full of doubts, reservations and qualifications.

Still, such faults do not detract Eliot’s greatness as a critic. His criticism has revolutionized the great writers of the past three centuries. His recognition of the greatness of the Metaphysical poets of the 17th century resulted in the Metaphysical revival of the 20th century. The credit for the renewal of interest in the Jacobean dramatists goes to Eliot. He has restored Dryden and other Augustan poets to their due place. His essay on Dante aroused curiosity for the latter middle ages. The novelty of his statements, hidden in sharp phrases, startles and arrests attention. According to Eliot, the end of criticism is to bring readjustment between the old and the new. He says:

“From time to time it is desirable, that some critic shall appear to review the past of our literature, and set the poets and the poems in a new order.”

Such critics are rare, for they must possess, besides ability for judgment, powerful liberty of mind to identify and interpret its own values and category of admiration for their generation. John Hayward says:

“Matthew Arnold was such a critic as were Coleridge and Johnson and Dryden before him; and such, in our own day, is Eliot himself.”

Eliot’s criticism offers both reassessment and reaction to earlier writers. He called himself “a classicist in literature”. His vital contribution is the reaction against romanticism and humanism which brought a classical revival in art and criticism. He rejected the romantic view of the individual’s perfectibility, stressed the doctrine of the original sin and exposed the futility of the romantic faith in the “Inner Voice”. Instead of following his ‘inner voice’, a critic must follow objective standards and must conform to tradition. A sense of tradition, respect for order and authority is central to Eliot’s classicism. He sought to correct the excesses of “the abstract and intellectual” school of criticism represented by Arnold. He sought to raise criticism to the level of science. In his objectivity and logical attitude, Eliot most closely resembles Aristotle. A. G. George says:

“Eliot’s theory of the impersonality of poetry is the greatest theory on the nature of the process after Wordsworth’s romantic conception of poetry.”

Poetry was an expression of the emotions and personality for romantics. Wordsworth said that poetry was an overflow of powerful emotions and its origin is in “Emotions recollected in tranquility”. Eliot rejects this view and says that poetry is not an expression of emotion and personality but an escape from them. The poet is only a catalytic agent that fuses varied emotions into new wholes. He distinguishes between the emotions of the poet and the artistic emotion, and points out that the function of criticism is to turn attention from the poet to his poetry.

Eliot’s views on the nature of poetic process are equally revolutionary. According to him, poetry is not inspiration, it is organization. The poet’s mind is like a vessel in which are stored numerous feelings, emotions and experiences. The poetic process fuses these distinct experiences and emotions into new wholes. In “The Metaphysical Poets”, he writes:

“When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experiences; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary”.

Perfect poetry results when instead of ‘dissociation of sensibility’ there is ‘unification of sensibility’. The emotional and the rational, the creative and the critical, faculties must work in harmony to produce great work of art. Critics stressed that the aim of poetry is to give pleasure or to teach morally. However, for Eliot the greatness of a poem is tested by the order and unity it imposes on the chaotic and disparate experiences of the poet. Wimsatt and Brooks are right in saying:

“Hardly since the 17th century had critical writing in English so resolutely transposed poetic theory from the axis of pleasure versus pain to that of unity versus multiplicity.”

Eliot devised numerous critical concepts that gained wide currency and has a broad influence on criticism. ‘Objective co-relative’, ‘Dissociation of sensibility’, ‘Unification of sensibility’ are few of Eliot clichés hotly debated by critics. His dynamic theory of tradition, of impersonality of poetry, his assertion on ‘a highly developed sense of fact’ tended to impart to literary criticism catholicity and rationalism.

To conclude, Eliot’s influence as a critic has been wide, constant, fruitful and inspiring. He has corrected and educated the taste of his readers and brought about a rethinking regarding the function of poetry and the nature of the poet process. He gave a new direction and new tools of criticism. It is in the re-consideration and revival of English poetry of the past. George Watson writes:

“Eliot made English criticism look different, but not in a simple sense. He offered it a new range of rhetorical possibilities, confirmed it in its increasing contempt for historical processes, and yet reshaped its notion of period by a handful of brilliant institutions.”

His comments on the nature of Poetic Drama and the relation between poetry and drama have done much to bring about a revival of Poetic Drama in the modern age. Even if he had written no poetry, he would have made his mark as a distinguished and subtle critic.
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Hamlet and His Problems

FEW critics have even admitted that Hamlet the play is the primary problem, and Hamlet the character only secondary. And Hamlet the character has had an especial temptation for that most dangerous type of critic: the critic with a mind which is naturally of the creative order, but which through some weakness in creative power exercises itself in criticism instead. These minds often find in Hamlet a vicarious existence for their own artistic realization. Such a mind had Goethe, who made of Hamlet a Werther; and such had Coleridge, who made of Hamlet a Coleridge; and probably neither of these men in writing about Hamlet remembered that his first business was to study a work of art. The kind of criticism that Goethe and Coleridge produced, in writing of Hamlet, is the most misleading kind possible. For they both possessed unquestionable critical insight, and both make their critical aberrations the more plausible by the substitution—of their own Hamlet for Shakespeare’s—which their creative gift effects. We should be thankful that Walter Pater did not fix his attention on this play. 1 Two recent writers, Mr. J. M. Robertson and Professor Stoll of the University of Minnesota, have issued small books which can be praised for moving in the other direction. Mr. Stoll performs a service in recalling to our attention the labours of the critics of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, 1 observing that
they knew less about psychology than more recent Hamlet critics, but they were nearer in spirit to Shakespeare’s art; and as they insisted on the importance of the effect of the whole rather than on the importance of the leading character, they were nearer, in their old-fashioned way, to the secret of dramatic art in general.
2 Qua work of art, the work of art cannot be interpreted; there is nothing to interpret; we can only criticize it according to standards, in comparison to other works of art; and for “interpretation” the chief task is the presentation of relevant historical facts which the reader is not assumed to know. Mr. Robertson points out, very pertinently, how critics have failed in their “interpretation” of Hamlet by ignoring what ought to be very obvious: that Hamlet is a stratification, that it represents the efforts of a series of men, each making what he could out of the work of his predecessors. The Hamlet of Shakespeare will appear to us very differently if, instead of treating the whole action of the play as due to Shakespeare’s design, we perceive his Hamlet to be superposed upon much cruder material which persists even in the final form.
3 We know that there was an older play by Thomas Kyd, that extraordinary dramatic (if not poetic) genius who was in all probability the author of two plays so dissimilar as the Spanish Tragedy and Arden of Feversham; and what this play was like we can guess from three clues: from the Spanish Tragedy itself, from the tale of Belleforest upon which Kyd’s Hamlet must have been based, and from a version acted in Germany in Shakespeare’s lifetime which bears strong evidence of having been adapted from the earlier, not from the later, play. From these three sources it is clear that in the earlier play the motive was a revenge-motive simply; that the action or delay is caused, as in the Spanish Tragedy, solely by the difficulty of assassinating a monarch surrounded by guards; and that the “madness” of Hamlet was feigned in order to escape suspicion, and successfully. In the final play of Shakespeare, on the other hand, there is a motive which is more important than that of revenge, and which explicitly “blunts” the latter; the delay in revenge is unexplained on grounds of necessity or expediency; and the effect of the “madness” is not to lull but to arouse the king’s suspicion. The alteration is not complete enough, however, to be convincing. Furthermore, there are verbal parallels so close to the Spanish Tragedy as to leave no doubt that in places Shakespeare was merely revising the text of Kyd. And finally there are unexplained scenes—the Polonius-Laertes and the Polonius-Reynaldo scenes—for which there is little excuse; these scenes are not in the verse style of Kyd, and not beyond doubt in the style of Shakespeare. These Mr. Robertson believes to be scenes in the original play of Kyd reworked by a third hand, perhaps Chapman, before Shakespeare touched the play. And he concludes, with very strong show of reason, that the original play of Kyd was, like certain other revenge plays, in two parts of five acts each. The upshot of Mr. Robertson’s examination is, we believe, irrefragable: that Shakespeare’s Hamlet, so far as it is Shakespeare’s, is a play dealing with the effect of a mother’s guilt upon her son, and that Shakespeare was unable to impose this motive successfully upon the “intractable” material of the old play. 4 Of the intractability there can be no doubt. So far from being Shakespeare’s masterpiece, the play is most certainly an artistic failure. In several ways the play is puzzling, and disquieting as is none of the others. Of all the plays it is the longest and is possibly the one on which Shakespeare spent most pains; and yet he has left in it superfluous and inconsistent scenes which even hasty revision should have noticed. The versification is variable. Lines like
Look, the morn, in russet mantle clad,
Walks o’er the dew of yon high eastern hill,
are of the Shakespeare of Romeo and Juliet. The lines in Act v. sc. ii.,
Sir, in my heart there was a kind of fighting
That would not let me sleep…
Up from my cabin,
My sea-gown scarf’d about me, in the dark
Grop’d I to find out them: had my desire;
Finger’d their packet;

are of his quite mature. Both workmanship and thought are in an unstable condition. We are surely justified in attributing the play, with that other profoundly interesting play of “intractable” material and astonishing versification, Measure for Measure, to a period of crisis, after which follow the tragic successes which culminate in Coriolanus. Coriolanus may be not as “interesting” as Hamlet, but it is, with Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare’s most assured artistic success. And probably more people have thought Hamlet a work of art because they found it interesting, than have found it interesting because it is a work of art. It is the “Mona Lisa” of literature.
5 The grounds of Hamlet’s failure are not immediately obvious. Mr. Robertson is undoubtedly correct in concluding that the essential emotion of the play is the feeling of a son towards a guilty mother:
[Hamlet’s] tone is that of one who has suffered tortures on the score of his mother’s degradation.… The guilt of a mother is an almost intolerable motive for drama, but it had to be maintained and emphasized to supply a psychological solution, or rather a hint of one.
This, however, is by no means the whole story. It is not merely the “guilt of a mother” that cannot be handled as Shakespeare handled the suspicion of Othello, the infatuation of Antony, or the pride of Coriolanus. The subject might conceivably have expanded into a tragedy like these, intelligible, self-complete, in the sunlight. Hamlet, like the sonnets, is full of some stuff that the writer could not drag to light, contemplate, or manipulate into art. And when we search for this feeling, we find it, as in the sonnets, very difficult to localize. You cannot point to it in the speeches; indeed, if you examine the two famous soliloquies you see the versification of Shakespeare, but a content which might be claimed by another, perhaps by the author of the Revenge of Bussy d’ Ambois, Act v. sc. i. We find Shakespeare’s Hamlet not in the action, not in any quotations that we might select, so much as in an unmistakable tone which is unmistakably not in the earlier play.
6 The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked. If you examine any of Shakespeare’s more successful tragedies, you will find this exact equivalence; you will find that the state of mind of Lady Macbeth walking in her sleep has been communicated to you by a skilful accumulation of imagined sensory impressions; the words of Macbeth on hearing of his wife’s death strike us as if, given the sequence of events, these words were automatically released by the last event in the series. The artistic “inevitability” lies in this complete adequacy of the external to the emotion; and this is precisely what is deficient in Hamlet. Hamlet (the man) is dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible, because it is in excess of the facts as they appear. And the supposed identity of Hamlet with his author is genuine to this point: that Hamlet’s bafflement at the absence of objective equivalent to his feelings is a prolongation of the bafflement of his creator in the face of his artistic problem. Hamlet is up against the difficulty that his disgust is occasioned by his mother, but that his mother is not an adequate equivalent for it; his disgust envelops and exceeds her. It is thus a feeling which he cannot understand; he cannot objectify it, and it therefore remains to poison life and obstruct action. None of the possible actions can satisfy it; and nothing that Shakespeare can do with the plot can express Hamlet for him. And it must be noticed that the very nature of the données of the problem precludes objective equivalence. To have heightened the criminality of Gertrude would have been to provide the formula for a totally different emotion in Hamlet; it is just because her character is so negative and insignificant that she arouses in Hamlet the feeling which she is incapable of representing.
7 The “madness” of Hamlet lay to Shakespeare’s hand; in the earlier play a simple ruse, and to the end, we may presume, understood as a ruse by the audience. For Shakespeare it is less than madness and more than feigned. The levity of Hamlet, his repetition of phrase, his puns, are not part of a deliberate plan of dissimulation, but a form of emotional relief. In the character Hamlet it is the buffoonery of an emotion which can find no outlet in action; in the dramatist it is the buffoonery of an emotion which he cannot express in art. The intense feeling, ecstatic or terrible, without an object or exceeding its object, is something which every person of sensibility has known; it is doubtless a study to pathologists. It often occurs in adolescence: the ordinary person puts these feelings to sleep, or trims down his feeling to fit the business world; the artist keeps it alive by his ability to intensify the world to his emotions. The Hamlet of Laforgue is an adolescent; the Hamlet of Shakespeare is not, he has not that explanation and excuse. We must simply admit that here Shakespeare tackled a problem which proved too much for him. Why he attempted it at all is an insoluble puzzle; under compulsion of what experience he attempted to express the inexpressibly horrible, we cannot ever know. We need a great many facts in his biography; and we should like to know whether, and when, and after or at the same time as what personal experience, he read Montaigne, II. xii., Apologie de Raimond Sebond. We should have, finally, to know something which is by hypothesis unknowable, for we assume it to be an experience which, in the manner indicated, exceeded the facts. We should have to understand things which Shakespeare did not understand himself.

The Function of Criticism at the Present Time.
MANY OBJECTIONS HAVE BEEN made to a proposition which, in some remarks of mine on translating Homer, I ventured to put forth; a proposition about criticism, and its importance at the present day. I said: “Of the literature of France and Germany, as of the intellect of Europe in general, the main effort, for now many years, has been a critical effort; the endeavor, in all branches of knowledge, theology, philosophy, history, art, science, to see the object as in itself it really is.” I added, that owing to the operation in English literature of certain causes, “almost the last thing for which one would come to English literature is just that very thing which now Europe most desires,–criticism”; and that the power and value of English literature was thereby impaired. More than one rejoinder declared that the importance I here assigned to criticism was excessive, and asserted the inherent superiority of the creative effort of the human spirit over its critical effort. And the other day, having been led by a Mr. Shairp’s excellent notice of Wordsworth to turn again to his biography, I found, in the words of this great man, whom I, for one, must always listen to with the profoundest respect, a sentence passed on the critic’s business, which seems to justify every possible disparagement of it. Wordsworth says in one of his letters:–
“The writers in these publications” (the Reviews), “while they prosecute their inglorious employment, cannot be supposed to be in a state of mind very favorable for being affected by the finer influences of a thing so pure as genuine poetry.”
And a trustworthy reporter of his conversation quotes a more elaborate judgment to the same effect:–
“Wordsworth holds the critical power very low, infinitely lower than the inventive; and he said to-day that if the quantity of time consumed in writing critiques on the works of others were given to original composition, of whatever kind it might be, it would be much better employed; it would make a man find out sooner his own level, and it would do infinitely less mischief. A false or malicious criticism may do much injury to the minds of others, a stupid invention, either in prose or verse, is quite harmless.”
It is almost too much to expect of poor human nature, that a man capable of producing some effect in one line of literature, should, for the greater good of society, voluntarily doom himself to impotence and obscurity in another. Still less is this to be expected from men addicted to the composition of the “false or malicious criticism” of which Wordsworth speaks. However, everybody would admit that a false or malicious criticism had better never have been written. Everybody, too, would be willing to admit, as a general proposition, that the critical faculty is lower than the inventive. But is it true that criticism is really, in itself, a baneful and injurious employment; is it true that all time given to writing critiques on the works of others would be much better employed if it were given to original composition, of whatever kind this may be? Is it true that Johnson had better have gone on producing more Irenes instead of writing his Lives of the Poets,; nay, is it certain that Wordsworth himself was better employed in making his Ecclesiastical Sonnets than when he made his celebrated Preface so full of criticism, and criticism of the works of others? Wordsworth was himself a great critic, and it is to be sincerely regretted that he has not left us more criticism; Goethe was one of the greatest of critics, and we may sincerely congratulate ourselves that he has left us so much criticism. Without wasting time over the exaggeration which Wordsworth’s judgment on criticism clearly contains, or over an attempt to trace the causes,–not difficult, I think, to be traced,–which may have led Wordsworth to this exaggeration, a critic may with advantage seize an occasion for trying his own conscience, and for asking himself of what real service at any given moment the practice of criticism either is or may be made to his own mind and spirit, and to the minds and spirits of others.
THE CRITICAL POWER IS of lower rank than the creative. True; but in assenting to this proposition, one or two things are to be kept in mind. It is undeniable that the exercise of a creative power, that a free creative activity, is the highest function of man; it is proved to be so by man’s finding in it his true happiness. But it is undeniable, also, that men may have the sense of exercising this free creative activity in other ways than in producing great works of literature or art; if it were not so, all but a very few men would be shut out from the true happiness of all men. They may have it in well doing, they may have it in learning, they may have it even in criticizing. This is one thing to be kept in mind. Another is, that the exercise of the creative power in the production of great works of literature or art, however high this exercise of it may rank, is not at all epochs and under all conditions possible; and that therefore labor may be vainly spent in attempting it, which might with more fruit be used in preparing for it, in rendering it possible. This creative power works with elements, with materials; what if it has not those materials, those elements, ready for its use? In that case it must surely wait till they are ready. Now, in literature,– I will limit myself to literature, for it is about literature that the question arises,–the elements with which the creative power works are ideas; the best ideas on every matter which literature touches, current at the time. At any rate we may lay it down as certain that in modern literature no manifestation of the creative power not working with these can be very important or fruitful. And I say current at the time, not merely accessible at the time; for creative literary genius does not principally show itself in discovering new ideas: that is rather the business of the philosopher. The grand work of literary genius is a work of synthesis and exposition, not of analysis and discovery; its gift lies in the faculty of being happily inspired by a certain intellectual and spiritual atmosphere, by a certain order of ideas, when it finds itself in them; of dealing divinely with these ideas, presenting them in the most effective and attractive combinations,–making beautiful works with them, in short. But it must have the atmosphere, it must find itself amidst the order of ideas, in order to work freely; and these it is not so easy to command. This is why great creative epochs in literature are so rare, this is why there is so much that is unsatisfactory in the productions of many men of real genius; because, for the creation of a master-work of literature two powers must concur, the power of the man and the power of the moment, and the man is not enough without the moment; the creative power has, for its happy exercise, appointed elements, and those elements are not in its own control.
Nay, they are more within the control of the critical power. It is the business of the critical power, as I said in the words already quoted, “in all branches of knowledge, theology, philosophy, history, art, science, to see the object as in itself it really is.” Thus it tends, at last, to make an intellectual situation of which the creative power can profitably avail itself. It tends to establish an order of ideas, if not absolutely true, yet true by comparison with that which it displaces; to make the best ideas prevail. Presently these new ideas reach society, the touch of truth is the touch of life, and there is a stir and growth everywhere; out of this stir and growth come the creative epochs of literature.
Or, to narrow our range, and quit these considerations of the general march of genius and of society,–considerations which are apt to become too abstract and impalpable,–every one can see that a poet, for instance, ought to know life and the world before dealing with them in poetry; and life and the world being in modern times very complex things, the creation of a modern poet, to be worth much, implies a great critical effort behind it; else it must be a comparatively poor, barren, and short-lived affair. This is why Byron’s poetry had so little endurance in it, and Goethe’s so much; both Byron and Goethe had a great productive power, but Goethe’s was nourished by a great critical effort providing the true materials for it, and Byron’s was not; Goethe knew life and the world, the poet’s necessary subjects, much more comprehensively and thoroughly than Byron. He knew a great deal more of them, and he knew them much more as they really are.
IT HAS LONG SEEMED to me that the burst of creative activity in our literature, through the first quarter of this century, had about it in fact something premature; and that from this cause its productions are doomed, most of them, in spite of the sanguine hopes which accompanied and do still accompany them, to prove hardly more lasting than the productions of far less splendid epochs. And this prematureness comes from its having proceeded without having its proper data, without sufficient materials to work with. In other words, the English poetry of the first quarter of this century, with plenty of energy, plenty of creative force, did not know enough. This makes Byron so empty of matter, Shelley so incoherent, Wordsworth even, profound as he is, yet so wanting in completeness and variety. Wordsworth cared little for books, and disparaged Goethe. I admire Wordsworth, as he is, so much that I cannot wish him different; and it is vain, no doubt, to imagine such a man different from what he is, to suppose that he could have been different. But surely the one thing wanting to make Wordsworth an even greater poet than he is,–his thought richer, and his influence of wider application,–was that he should have read more books, among them, no doubt, those of that Goethe whom he disparaged without reading him.
But to speak of books and reading may easily lead to a misunderstanding here. It was not really books and reading that lacked to our poetry at this epoch: Shelley had plenty of reading, Coleridge had immense reading. Pindar and Sophocles–as we all say so glibly, and often with so little discernment of the real import of what we are saying–had not many books; Shakespeare was no deep reader. True; but in the Greece of Pindar and Sophocles, in the England of Shakespeare, the poet lived in a current of ideas in the highest degree animating and nourishing to the creative power; society was, in the fullest measure, permeated by fresh thought, intelligent and alive. And this state of things is the true basis for the creative power’s exercise, in this it finds its data, its materials, truly ready for its hand; all the books and reading in the world are only valuable as they are helps to this. Even when this does not actually exist, books and reading may enable a man to construct a kind of semblance of it in his own mind, a world of knowledge and intelligence in which he may live and work. This is by no means an equivalent to the artist for the nationally diffused life and thought of the epochs of Sophocles or Shakespeare; but, besides that it may be a means of preparation for such epochs, it does really constitute, if many share in it, a quickening and sustaining atmosphere of great value. Such an atmosphere the many-sided learning and the long and widely combined critical effort of Germany formed for Goethe, when he lived and worked. There was no national glow of life and thought there as in the Athens of Pericles or the England of Elizabeth. That was the poet’s weakness. But there was a sort of equivalent for it in the complete culture and unfettered thinking of a large body of Germans. That was his strength. In the England of the first quarter of this century there was neither a national glow of life and thought, such as we had in the age of Elizabeth, nor yet a culture and a force of learning and criticism such as were to be found in Germany. Therefore the creative power of poetry wanted, for success in the highest sense, materials and a basis; a thorough interpretation of the world was necessarily denied to it.
AT FIRST SIGHT IT seems strange that out of the immense stir of the French Revolution and its age should not have come a crop of works of genius equal to that which came out of the stir of the great productive time of Greece, or out of that of the Renascence, with its powerful episode the Reformation. But the truth is that the stir of the French Revolution took a character which essentially distinguished it from such movements as these. These were, in the main, disinterestedly intellectual and spiritual movements; movements in which the human spirit looked for its satisfaction in itself and in the increased play of its own activity. The French Revolution took a political, practical character. The movement, which went on in France under the old régime, from 1700 to 1789, was far more really akin than that of the Revolution itself to the movement of the Renascence; the France of Voltaire and Rousseau told far more powerfully upon the mind of Europe than the France of the Revolution. Goethe reproached this last expressly with having “thrown quiet culture back.” Nay, and the true key to how much in our Byron, even in our Wordsworth, is this!–that they had their source in a great movement of feeling, not in a great movement of mind. The French Revolution, however,–that object of so much blind love and so much blind hatred,–found undoubtedly its motive-power in the intelligence of men, and not in their practical sense; this is what distinguishes it from the English Revolution of Charles the First’s time. This is what makes it a more spiritual event than our Revolution, an event of much more powerful and world-wide interest, though practically less successful; it appeals to an order of ideas which are universal, certain, permanent. 1789 asked of a thing, Is it rational? 1642 asked of a thing, Is it legal? or, when it went furthest, Is it according to conscience? This is the English fashion, a fashion to be treated, within its own sphere, with the highest respect; for its success, within its own sphere, has been prodigious. But what is law in one place is not law in another; what is law here to-day is not law even here to-morrow; and as for conscience, what is binding on one man’s conscience is not binding on another’s. The old woman who threw her stool at the head of the surpliced minister in St. Giles’s Church at Edinburgh obeyed an impulse to which millions of the human race may be permitted to remain strangers. But the prescriptions of reason are absolute, unchanging, of universal validity; to count by tens is the easiest way of counting–that is a proposition of which every one, from here to the Antipodes, feels the force; at least I should say so if we did not live in a country where it is not impossible that any morning we may find a letter in the Times declaring that a decimal coinage is an absurdity. That a whole nation should have been penetrated with an enthusiasm for pure reason, and with an ardent zeal for making its prescriptions triumph, is a very remarkable thing, when we consider how little of mind, or anything so worthy and quickening as mind, comes into the motives which alone, in general, impel great masses of men. In spite of the extravagant direction given to this enthusiasm, in spite of the crimes and follies in which it lost itself, the French Revolution derives from the force, truth, and universality of the ideas which it took for its law, and from the passion with which it could inspire a multitude for these ideas, a unique and still living power; it is,–it will probably long remain,–the greatest, the most animating event in history. And as no sincere passion for the things of the mind, even though it turn out in many respects an unfortunate passion, is ever quite thrown away and quite barren of good, France has reaped from hers one fruit–the natural and legitimate fruit though not precisely the grand fruit she expected: she is the country in Europe where the people is most alive.
But the mania for giving an immediate political and practical application to all these fine ideas of the reason was fatal. Here an Englishman is in his element: on this theme we can all go on for hours. And all we are in the habit of saying on it has undoubtedly a great deal of truth. Ideas cannot be too much prized in and for themselves, cannot be too much lived with; but to transport them abruptly into the world of politics and practice, violently to revolutionize this world to their bidding,–that is quite another thing. There is the world of ideas and there is the world of practice; the French are often for suppressing the one and the English the other; but neither is to be suppressed. A member of the House of Commons said to me the other day: “That a thing is an anomaly, I consider to be no objection to it whatever.” I venture to think he was wrong; that a thing is an anomaly is an objection to it, but absolutely and in the sphere of ideas: it is not necessarily, under such and such circumstances, or at such and such a moment, an objection to it in the sphere of politics and practice. Joubert has said beautifully: “C’est la force et le droit qui règlent toutes choses dans le monde; la force en attendant le droit.” (Force and right are the governors of this world; force till right is ready.) Force till right is ready; and till right is ready, force, the existing order of things, is justified, is the legitimate ruler. But right is something moral, and implies inward recognition, free assent of the will; we are not ready for right,–right, so far as we are concerned, is not ready,–until we have attained this sense of seeing it and willing it. The way in which for us it may change and transform force, the existing order of things, and become, in its turn, the legitimate ruler of the world, should depend on the way in which, when our time comes, we see it and will it. Therefore for other people enamored of their own newly discerned right, to attempt to impose it upon us as ours, and violently to substitute their right for our force, is an act of tyranny, and to be resisted. It sets at naught the second great half of our maxim, force till right is ready.
THIS WAS THE GRAND error of the French Revolution; and its movement of ideas, by quitting the intellectual sphere and rushing furiously into the political sphere, ran, indeed, a prodigious and memorable course, but produced no such intellectual fruit as the movement of ideas of the Renascence, and created, in opposition to itself, what I may call an epoch of concentration. The great force of that epoch of concentration was England; and the great voice of that epoch of concentration was Burke. It is the fashion to treat Burke’s writings on the French Revolution as superannuated and conquered by the event; as the eloquent but unphilosophical tirades of bigotry and prejudice. I will not deny that they are often disfigured by the violence and passion of the moment, and that in some directions Burke’s view was bounded, and his observation therefore at fault. But on the whole, and for those who can make the needful corrections, what distinguishes these writings is their profound, permanent, fruitful, philosophical truth. They contain the true philosophy of an epoch of concentration, dissipate the heavy atmosphere which its own nature is apt to engender round it, and make its resistance rational instead of mechanical.

But Burke is so great because, almost alone in England, he brings thought to bear upon politics, he saturates politics with thought. It is his accident that his ideas were at the service of an epoch of concentration, not of an epoch of expansion; it is his characteristic that he so lived by ideas, and had such a source of them welling up within him, that he could float even an epoch of concentration and English Tory politics with them. It does not hurt him that Dr. Price and the Liberals were enraged with him; it does not even hurt him that George the Third and the Tories were enchanted with him. His greatness is that he lived in a world which neither English Liberalism nor English Toryism is apt to enter;–the world of ideas, not the world of catchwords and party habits. So far is it from being really true of him that he “to party gave up what was meant for mankind,” that at the very end of his fierce struggle with the French Revolution, after all his invectives against its false pretensions, hollowness, and madness, with his sincere convictions of its mischievousness, he can close a memorandum on the best means of combating it, some of the last pages he ever wrote,–the Thoughts on French Affairs, in December 1791,–with these striking words:–
The evil is stated, in my opinion, as it exists. The remedy must be where power, wisdom, and information, I hope, are more united with good intentions than they can be with me. I have done with this subject, I believe, forever. It has given me many anxious moments for the last two years. If a great change is to be made in human affairs, the minds of men will be fitted to it; the general opinions and feelings will draw that way. Every fear, every hope will forward it: and then they who persist in opposing this mighty current in human affairs, will appear rather to resist the decrees of Providence itself, than the mere designs of men. They will not be resolute and firm, but perverse and obstinate.
That return of Burke upon himself has always seemed to me one of the finest things in English literature, or indeed in any literature. That is what I call living by ideas: when one side of a question has long had your earnest support, when all your feelings are engaged, when you hear all round you no language but one, when your party talks this language like a steam-engine and can imagine no other,–still to be able to think, still to be irresistibly carried, if so it be, by the current of thought to the opposite side of the question, and, like Balaam,to be unable to speak anything but what the Lord has put in your mouth. I know nothing more striking, and I must add that I know nothing more un-English.
For the Englishman in general is like my friend the Member of Parliament, and believes, point-blank, that for a thing to be an anomaly is absolutely no objection to it whatever. He is like the Lord Auckland of Burke’s day, who, in a memorandum on the French Revolution, talks of “certain miscreants, assuming the name of philosophers, who have presumed themselves capable of establishing a new system of society.” The Englishman has been called a political animal, and he values what is political and practical so much that ideas easily become objects of dislike in his eyes, and thinkers “miscreants,” because ideas and thinkers have rashly meddled with politics and practice. This would be all very well if the dislike and neglect confined themselves to ideas transported out of their own sphere, and meddling rashly with practice; but they are inevitably extended to ideas as such, and to the whole life of intelligence; practice is everything, a free play of the mind is nothing. The notion of the free play of the mind upon all subjects being a pleasure in itself, being an object of desire, being an essential provider of elements without which a nation’s spirit, whatever compensations it may have for them, must, in the long run, die of inanition, hardly enters into an Englishman’s thoughts. It is noticeable that the word curiosity, which in other languages is used in a good sense, to mean, as a high and fine quality of man’s nature, just this disinterested love of a free play of the mind on all subjects, for its own sake,–it is noticeable, I say, that this word has in our language no sense of the kind, no sense but a rather bad and disparaging one. But criticism, real criticism, is essentially the exercise of this very quality. It obeys an instinct prompting it to try to know the best that is known and thought in the world, irrespectively of practice, politics, and everything of the kind; and to value knowledge and thought as they approach this best, without the intrusion of any other considerations whatever. This is an instinct for which there is, I think, little original sympathy in the practical English nature, and what there was of it has undergone a long benumbing period of blight and suppression in the epoch of concentration which followed the French Revolution.
But epochs of concentration cannot well endure forever; epochs of expansion, in the due course of things, follow them. Such an epoch of expansion seems to be opening in this country. In the first place all danger of a hostile forcible pressure of foreign ideas upon our practice has long disappeared; like the traveller in the fable, therefore, we begin to wear our cloak a little more loosely. Then, with a long peace, the ideas of Europe steal gradually and amicably in, and mingle, though in infinitesimally small quantities at a time, with our own notions. Then, too, in spite of all that is said about the absorbing and brutalizing influence of our passionate material progress, it seems to me indisputable that this progress is likely, though not certain, to lead in the end to an apparition of intellectual life; and that man, after he has made himself perfectly comfortable and has now to determine what to do with himself next, may begin to remember that he has a mind, and that the mind may be made the source of great pleasure. I grant it is mainly the privilege of faith, at present, to discern this end to our railways, our business, and our fortune-making; but we shall see if, here as elsewhere, faith is not in the end the true prophet. Our ease, our travelling, and our unbounded liberty to hold just as hard and securely as we please to the practice to which our notions have given birth, all tend to beget an inclination to deal a little more freely with these notions themselves, to canvass them a little, to penetrate a little into their real nature. Flutterings of curiosity, in the foreign sense of the word, appear amongst us, and it is in these that criticism must look to find its account. Criticism first; a time of true creative activity, perhaps,–which, as I have said, must inevitably be preceded amongst us by a time of criticism,–hereafter, when criticism has done its work.
It is of the last importance that English criticism should clearly discern what rule for its course, in order to avail itself of the field now opening to it, and to produce fruit for the future, it ought to take. The rule may be summed up in one word,– disinterestedness. And how is criticism to show disinterestedness? By keeping aloof from what is called “the practical view of things”; by resolutely following the law of its own nature, which is to be a free play of the mind on all subjects which it touches. By steadily refusing to lend itself to any of those ulterior, political, practical considerations about ideas, which plenty of people will be sure to attach to them, which perhaps ought often to be attached to them, which in this country at any rate are certain to be attached to them quite sufficiently, but which criticism has really nothing to do with. Its business is, as I have said, simply to know the best that is known and thought in the world, and by in its turn making this known, to create a current of true and fresh ideas. Its business is to do this with inflexible honesty, with due ability; but its business is to do no more, and to leave alone all questions of practical consequences and applications, questions which will never fail to have due prominence given to them. Else criticism, besides being really false to its own nature, merely continues in the old rut which it has hitherto followed in this country, and will certainly miss the chance now given to it.
FOR WHAT IS AT present the bane of criticism in this country? It is that practical considerations cling to it and stifle it. It subserves interests not its own. Our organs of criticism are organs of men and parties having practical ends to serve, and with them those practical ends are the first thing and the play of mind the second; so much play of mind as is compatible with the prosecution of those practical ends is all that is wanted. An organ like the Revue des Deux Mondes, having for its main function to understand and utter the best that is known and thought in the world, existing, it may be said, as just an organ for a free play of the mind, we have not. But we have the Edinburgh Review, existing as an organ of the old Whigs, and for as much play of the mind as may suit its being that; we have the Quarterly Review, existing as an organ of the Tories, and for as much play of mind as may suit its being that; we have the British Quarterly Review, existing as an organ of the political Dissenters, and for as much play of mind as may suit its being that; we have the Times, existing as an organ of the common, satisfied, well-to-do Englishman, and for as much play of mind as may suit its being that. And so on through all the various fractions, political and religious, of our society; every fraction has, as such, its organ of criticism, but the notion of combining all fractions in the common pleasure of a free disinterested play of mind meets with no favor. Directly this play of mind wants to have more scope, and to forget the pressure of practical considerations a little, it is checked, it is made to feel the chain. We saw this the other day in the extinction, so much to be regretted, of the Home and Foreign Review. Perhaps in no organ of criticism in this country was there so much knowledge, so much play of mind; but these could not save it. The Dublin Review subordinates play of mind to the practical business of English and Irish Catholicism, and lives. It must needs be that men should act in sects and parties, that each of these sects and parties should have its organ, and should make this organ subserve the interests of its action; but it would be well, too, that there should be a criticism, not the minister of these interests, not their enemy, but absolutely and entirely independent of them. No other criticism will ever attain any real authority or make any real way towards its end,–the creating a current of true and fresh ideas.
It is because criticism has so little kept in the pure intellectual sphere, has so little detached itself from practice, has been so directly polemical and controversial, that it has so ill accomplished, in this country, its best spiritual work; which is to keep man from a self-satisfaction which is retarding and vulgarizing, to lead him towards perfection, by making his mind dwell upon what is excellent in itself, and the absolute beauty and fitness of things. A polemical practical criticism makes men blind even to the ideal imperfection of their practice, makes them willingly assert its ideal perfection, in order the better to secure it against attack: and clearly this is narrowing and baneful for them. If they were reassured on the practical side, speculative considerations of ideal perfection they might be brought to entertain, and their spiritual horizon would thus gradually widen. Sir Charles Adderley says to the Warwickshire farmers:–
Talk of the improvement of breed! Why, the race we ourselves represent, the men and women, the old Anglo-Saxon race, are the best breed in the whole world…. The absence of a too enervating climate, too unclouded skies, and a too luxurious nature, has produced so vigorous a race of people, and has rendered us so superior to all the world.
Mr. Roebuck says to the Sheffield cutlers:–
I look around me and ask what is the state of England? Is not property safe? Is not every man able to say what he likes? Can you not walk from one end of England to the other in perfect security? I ask you whether, the world over or in past history, there is anything like it? Nothing. I pray that our unrivalled happiness may last.
Now obviously there is a peril for poor human nature in words and thoughts of such exuberant self-satisfaction, until we find ourselves safe in the streets of the Celestial City.
“Das wenige verschwindet leicht dem Blicke
Der vorwärts sieht, wie viel noch übrig bleibt–”
says Goethe; “the little that is done seems nothing when we look forward and see how much we have yet to do.” Clearly this is a better line of reflection for weak humanity, so long as it remains on this earthly field of labor and trial.
But neither Sir Charles Adderley nor Mr. Roebuck is by nature inaccessible to considerations of this sort. They only lose sight of them owing to the controversial life we all lead, and the practical form which all speculation takes with us. They have in view opponents whose aim is not ideal, but practical; and in their zeal to uphold their own practice against these innovators, they go so far as even to attribute to this practice an ideal perfection. Somebody has been wanting to introduce a six-pound franchise, or to abolish church-rates, or to collect agricultural statistics by force, or to diminish local self-government. How natural, in reply to such proposals, very likely improper or ill-timed, to go a little beyond the mark and to say stoutly, “Such a race of people as we stand, so superior to all the world! The old Anglo-Saxon race, the best breed in the whole world! I pray that our unrivalled happiness may last! I ask you whether, the world over or in past history, there is anything like it?” And so long as criticism answers this dithyramb by insisting that the old Anglo-Saxon race would be still more superior to all others if it had no church-rates, or that our unrivalled happiness would last yet longer with a six-pound franchise, so long will the strain, “The best breed in the whole world!” swell louder and louder, everything ideal and refining will be lost out of sight, and both the assailed and their critics will remain in a sphere, to say the truth, perfectly unvital, a sphere in which spiritual progression is impossible. But let criticism leave church-rates and the franchise alone, and in the most candid spirit, without a single lurking thought of practical innovation, confront with our dithyramb this paragraph on which I stumbled in a newspaper immediately after reading Mr. Roebuck:–
A shocking child murder has just been committed at Nottingham. A girl named Wragg left the workhouse there on Saturday morning with her young illegitimate child. The child was soon afterwards found dead on Mapperly Hills, having been strangled. Wragg is in custody.
Nothing but that; but, in juxtaposition with the absolute eulogies of Sir Charles Adderley and Mr. Roebuck, how eloquent, how suggestive are those few lines! “Our old Anglo Saxon breed, the best in the whole world!”–how much that is harsh and ill-favored there is in this best! Wragg! If we are to talk of ideal perfection, of “the best in the whole world,” has any one reflected what a touch of grossness in our race, what an original short-coming in the more delicate spiritual perceptions, is shown by the natural growth amongst us of such hideous names,–Higginbottom, Stiggins, Bugg! In Ionia and Attica they were luckier in this respect than “the best race in the world”; by the Ilissus there was no Wragg, poor thing! And “our unrivalled happiness”; –what an element of grimness, bareness, and hideousness mixes with it and blurs it; the workhouse, the dismal Mapperly Hills,–how dismal those who have seen them will remember;–the gloom, the smoke, the cold, the strangled illegitimate child! “I ask you whether, the world over or in past history, there is anything like it?” Perhaps not, one is inclined to answer; but at any rate, in that case, the world is very much to be pitied. And the final touch,–short, bleak and inhuman: Wragg is in custody. The sex lost in the confusion of our unrivalled happiness; or (shall I say?) the superfluous Christian name lopped off by the straightforward vigor of our old Anglo-Saxon breed! There is profit for the spirit in such contrasts as this; criticism serves the cause of perfection by establishing them. By eluding sterile conflict, by refusing to remain in the sphere where alone narrow and relative conceptions have any worth and validity, criticism may diminish its momentary importance, but only in this way has it a chance of gaining admittance for those wider and more perfect conceptions to which all its duty is really owed. Mr. Roebuck will have a poor opinion of an adversary who replies to his defiant songs of triumph only by murmuring under his breath, Wragg is in custody; but in no other way will these songs of triumph be induced gradually to moderate themselves, to get rid of what in them is excessive and offensive, and to fall into a softer and truer key.
IT WILL BE SAID that it is a very subtle and indirect action which I am thus prescribing for criticism, and that, by embracing in this manner the Indian virtue of detachment and abandoning the sphere of practical life, it condemns itself to a slow and obscure work. Slow and obscure it may be, but it is the only proper work of criticism. The mass of mankind will never have any ardent zeal for seeing things as they are; very inadequate ideas will always satisfy them. On these inadequate ideas reposes, and must repose, the general practice of the world. That is as much as saying that whoever sets himself to see things as they are will find himself one of a very small circle; but it is only by this small circle resolutely doing its own work that adequate ideas will ever get current at all. The rush and roar of practical life will always have a dizzying and attracting effect upon the most collected spectator, and tend to draw him into its vortex; most of all will this be the case where that life is so powerful as it is in England. But it is only by remaining collected, and refusing to lend himself to the point of view of the practical man, that the critic can do the practical man any service; and it is only by the greatest sincerity in pursuing his own course, and by at last convincing even the practical man of his sincerity, that he can escape misunderstandings which perpetually threaten him.
For the practical man is not apt for fine distinctions, and yet in these distinctions truth and the highest culture greatly find their account. But it is not easy to lead a practical man,–unless you reassure him as to your practical intentions, you have no chance of leading him,–to see that a thing which he has always been used to look at from one side only, which he greatly values, and which, looked at from that side, quite deserves, perhaps, all the prizing and admiring which he bestows upon it,–that this thing, looked at from another side, may appear much less beneficent and beautiful, and yet retain all its claims to our practical allegiance. Where shall we find language innocent enough, how shall we make the spotless purity of our intentions evident enough, to enable us to say to the political Englishmen that the British Constitution itself, which, seen from the practical side, looks such a magnificent organ of progress and virtue, seen from the speculative side,–with its compromises, its love of facts, its horror of theory, its studied avoidance of clear thoughts,–that, seen from this side, our august Constitution sometimes looks,–forgive me, shade of Lord Somers! a colossal machine for the manufacture of Philistines? How is Cobbett to say this and not be misunderstood, blackened as he is with the smoke of a lifelong conflict in the field of political practice? how is Mr. Carlyle to say it and not be misunderstood, after his furious raid into this field with his Latter-day Pamphlets? how is Mr. Ruskin, after his pugnacious political economy? I say, the critic must keep out of the region of immediate practice in the political, social, humanitarian sphere, if he wants to make a beginning for that more free speculative treatment of things, which may perhaps one day make its benefits felt even in this sphere, but in a natural and thence irresistible manner.
Do what he will, however, the critic will still remain exposed to frequent misunderstandings, and nowhere so much as in this country. For here people are particularly indisposed even to comprehend that without this free disinterested treatment of things, truth and the highest culture are out of the question. So immersed are they in practical life, so accustomed to take all their notions from this life and its processes, that they are apt to think that truth and culture themselves can be reached by the processes of this life, and that it is an impertinent singularity to think of reaching them in any other. “We are all terræ filii,” cries their eloquent advocate; “all Philistines together. Away with the notion of proceeding by any other course than the course dear to the Philistines; let us have a social movement, let us organize and combine a party to pursue truth and new thought, let us call it the liberal party, and let us all stick to each other, and back each other up. Let us have no nonsense about independent criticism, and intellectual delicacy, and the few and the many. Don’t let us trouble ourselves about foreign thought; we shall invent the whole thing for ourselves as we go along. If one of us speaks well, applaud him; if one of us speaks ill, applaud him too; we are all in the same movement, we are all liberals, we are all in pursuit of truth.” In this way the pursuit of truth becomes really a social, practical, pleasurable affair, almost requiring a chairman, a secretary, and advertisements; with the excitement of an occasional scandal, with a little resistance to give the happy sense of difficulty overcome; but, in general, plenty of bustle and very little thought. To act is so easy, as Goethe says; to think is so hard! It is true that the critic has many temptations to go with the stream, to make one of the party movement, one of these terræ filii; it seems ungracious to refuse to be a terræ filius, when so many excellent people are; but the critic’s duty is to refuse, or, if resistance is vain, at least to cry with Obermann: Périssons en résistant.
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Johnson


Introduction

The term “Metaphysical Poets” as ascribed to a certain group of 17th century poets – such as Donne, Herbert, Marvell, Cleveland, Crashaw, Traherne, Vaughan and Cowley – has a derogatory etymology. The initial signification of the term was actually the opposite of its modern connotation as related to ‘spirits’ and spiritual matters. Those who first imposed the term on such poets – whose poetic interests are nevertheless quite discordant in their scope of subject matters and interests – were critics of the Augustan Age who accused them of being harsh, unnatural, bizarre, and in a word, against the poetic norms of the era. Metaphysical poets had to wait frustrated in their graves for thirty scores till the 20th century revival of interest in them; their poetry then was called not only precious, but the only true poems, rich with association of sensibility.
In the profile of “Metaphysical Poetry” there are two figures that stand out as giving revolutionary depth and signification to the term: Samuel Johnson, and T.S. Eliot. This paper, therefore, tends to make a survey on the application of the term from its first coinage by the Augustans to the 20th century critics who gave new meaning to them. The main focus will obviously be on two main articles: Johnson’s “Life of Cowley”, and Eliot’s “Metaphysical Poets”. Finally it will have a glance at what happened to the somehow put-out fire of enthusiasm in Metaphysical poetry after Eliot and later, the wave of Deconstructionism.

Antagonist Augustans

The term metaphysical meaning ‘after physics’, ‘beyond physics’, or more clearly ‘after (Aristotle’s work on) physics’ is first mentioned in John Dryden’s Discourse of Satire (1693) that John Donne ‘affects the Metaphysics … in his amorous verses, where nature only should reign’, meaning that Donne employs the terminology and abstruse arguments of the medieval Scholastic philosophers and in fact spoils poetry by harsh philosophic expressions. Dryden disapproved of Donne’s stylistic excesses, particularly his extravagant conceits (or witty comparisons) and his tendency towards hyperbolic abstractions. There could be found, of course, traces of the usage of the term even before Dryden. One of the first to use the term was William Drummond of Hawthornden in a letter written to Arthur Johnston in 1630; this shows how much Dryden’s view of the poet was into the literary circles of the period.
Though metaphysical poets have always had admirers in different periods and eras – and that is why they surpassed history’s oblivion, the critics of the Augustan Age who were fond of Neoclassic ideals of decorum, clarity, restraint and admired shapeliness of the poets of Augustan Rome were therefore antagonistic towards poets of the mid-17th century who went beyond those restraints to the forbidden realms of far-fetched conceits and juxtaposition of the most dissimilar.
Samuel Johnson, one of the most outstanding critics and as the most pragmatic as well as practical critic of the era, established the term more or less permanently as a label for metaphysical poets in his Lives of the English Poets (of Cowley). Johnson’s view of the poetry is quite in line with Dryden’s; they both condemn Donne for his “perplex[ing] the minds of the fair sex with nice speculations of philosophy, when he should engage their hearts, and entertain them with the softness of love”.

Johnson’s “Life of Cowley”

Johnson’s description of [metaphysical wit] begins with introducing Metaphysical poets; he accuses them of being a bunch of showing off versifiers rather than true poets whose verses are mere celebration of their extreme knowledge of the world and scientific studies. In fact, Johnson and his contemporaries did not use the term “metaphysical” equal to “spiritual” or in opposition to “physical”; it rather connotes the philosophical and scientific aspect of the poetry rich with strange conceits such as compasses, ether, etc. only at hand for a scholar, not a poet. Johnson condemns these poets of being too much concerned with rhyme. Poetry, he believes, is what engages men’s hearts and opens up their eyes to the “softness of love” as in the poetry of Shakespeare and Milton.
Johnson then attacks the poetry from two different angles: mimetic and pragmatic. The Metaphysicals’ first failure, according to Johnson, could be found out through Aristotle’s criteria for true poetry – as imitative art: Metaphysical poetry is far from truth by copying neither “nature” nor “life”. He then approaches the poetry from another angle and that is its failure to affect the reader the way true poetry does. In other words, Johnson attempts to prove that Metaphysical poetry, though admirable, is not able to please the reader as a harmonious, unified, and beautiful piece of poetry, soothing the minds of the readers. In order to prove so, he questions the central anchor of Metaphysical poetry, namely “wit”:
He first confirms that the true value of their poetry only lies in the merit and extent of their wit. Even Dryden admitted that he and his contemporaries “fall below Donne in wit, but surpass in poetry”. But in order to attack this anchor, he wittily provides two different definitions of ‘wit’. According to Pope, wit is what “has been often thought, but was never before so well expressed”. Based on this definition, Metaphysical poets have failed to such wit, since they “just tried to get singular thought, and were careless of diction”, and language. Here Johnson wittily and boldly questions even Pope’s definition, and provides a new concept of ‘wit’, as being “at once natural and new”. Thus Metaphysical thoughts “are often new, but seldom natural”. In fact the unnaturalness of their poetry is what makes them unpleasing to the mind of the reader.
Having put the two previous definitions of ‘wit’ aside as not working in the case of metaphysical poets, Johnson then takes a step further to define their wit as an example of discordia concors; “a combination of dissimilar images, or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike”. He decries their roughness and violation of decorum, the deliberate mixture of different styles, this kind of wit they have “more than enough”.
Johnson may seem to condemn the pragmatic failure of metaphysical poetry as “not successful in representing or moving the affections”, but is actually leaving the ground for the values of their poetry but providing subjective definitions for pragmatic and mimetic values of true poetry:
If by a more noble and more adequate conception, that be considered as wit which is at once natural and new, that which, though not obvious, is, upon its first production, acknowledged to be just; if it be that which he that never found it, wonders how he missed; to wit of this kind the metaphysical poets have seldom risen.
Johnson here knowingly emphasizes the significance of the reader in producing the final poem, and if by any chance Metaphysical conceits fail to prove “natural”, “just” or “obvious”, they may turn to be so in another time and place, as it really happened in the 20th century and the strange conceits and fragmentation of images seemed so natural to the shattered subjects (readers) of the post-war time. As Goethe remarks, “the unnatural, that too is natural,” and the metaphysical poets continue to be studied and revered for their intricacy and originality because of the very naturalness of images found in their once supposed far-fetched conceits. Such evaluations totally depend on the context, the understanding of the reader, and the time it is being read.
Johnson’s other criteria for wit was being “new” to the reader, but how could a conceit prove new if over-used? In fact, if a conceit or thought become a dead metaphor, it will lose all its magic and wit; and this factor is also dependant on the time and era in which it is read.
His ending, however, is that of a fair judgment and sometimes admiration rather than condemnation: “if they frequently threw away their wit upon false conceits, they likewise sometimes struck out unexpected truth; if their conceits were far fetched, they were often worth the carriage”. Apart from finding a kind of ‘truth’ in their poetry, he also confirms a number of valuable features in their poetry such as “acuteness”, “powers of reflection and comparison”, “genuine wit”, “useful knowledge”, and finally “more propriety though less copiousness of sentiment”.
Johnson’s view of Metaphysical poets, though not totally confirming, proved to be fair and influenced by his own era’s literary canon – which valued imitativeness and unity over fragmentation and metaphysical expressions. We should keep in mind that metaphysical poetry was a reaction against the deliberately smooth and sweet tones of much 16th-century verse, a courageous act even against the literary canon of their own time. And that is why the metaphysical poets adopted a style that seems so energetic, uneven, and rigorous and much appealing to the fed up 20th century reader.

20th Century Revival of Interest

The Metaphysicals were out of critical favor for the 18th and 19th centuries. Obviously, the Romantic poets who dealt so much with the ideals of ‘nature’, ‘simplicity’, and ‘originality’ and so attempted to achieve the language of ‘man speaking to men’ in their poetry, found little in this heavily intellectualized poetry, that according to Johnson makes “the reader, far from wondering that he missed them, wonder more frequently by what perverseness of industry they were ever found’. At the end of the 19th century and in the beginning of the 20th century, interest in this group picked up, and especially important was T.S. Eliot’s famous essay “The Metaphysical Poets” (1921). Eliot himself was quite impressed by Sir Herbert Grierson’s Metaphysical Lyrics & Poems of the 17th Century (1921). It is in fact Grierson who discovers the treasure hidden in their poetry, and having compared them with all other masterpieces of literature, he concludes that metaphysical poetry
lays stress on the right things—the survival, one might say the reaccentuation, of the metaphysical strain, … in contrast to the simpler imagery of classical poetry, of mediaeval Italian poetry; the more intellectual, less verbal, character of their wit compared with the conceits of the Elizabethans; the finer psychology of which their conceits are often the expression; their learned imagery; the argumentative, subtle evolution of their lyrics; above all the peculiar blend of passion and thought[1], feeling and ratiocination which is their greatest achievement…All these qualities are in the poetry of Donne, and Donne is the great master of English poetry in the seventeenth century.
Grierson also uses the term Metaphysical to refer to the Scholastic and philosophic aspects of the terminology. Nevertheless, this feature finds quite positive connotations in his usage, as giving depth and richness to the language and strength of thought. T.S. Eliot, quite under the influence of Grierson, gave value to this kind of poetry as celebrating association of sensibility, that was actually a restatement of that old Johnsonian discordia concors but with a different positive connotation as poetic ideal, and that made all the difference.

T. S. Eliot’s “Metaphysical Poets”

Quite impressed by Grierson’s new interest and insight into Metaphysical poems of 17th century, and especially Donne’s, Eliot picks up the material in a few of his articles, and specifically in “Metaphysical Poets” and examines it from a new angle. He calls the virgin realm of Metaphysical poetry “the work of a generation more often named than read, and more often read than profitably studied”. Eliot therefore attempts to make a serious critical, or better say ‘analytical’, survey of the poetry in order to attract attention to its potentialities and the now-lost association of sensibility.
Eliot begins his article with a very good question quite untouched by the kind of abuse which has long shadowed the name and work of the metaphysical poets:
The question is to what extent the so-called metaphysicals formed a school (in our own time we should say a ‘movement’), and how far this so-called school or movement is a digression from the main current.
In order to define the school, he first categorizes the poetry of the so-called metaphysical poets into different classes, admitting that such term is too vague and general to cover the varied range of different and sometimes opposing styles and subject matters: the poetry of John Donne, according to Eliot, is “late Elizabethan, its feeling very close to that of Chapman”. The ‘courtly’ poetry of Jonson is Latinate and a different story. And finally there is “the devotional verse of Herbert, Vaughan and Crashaw” with more intrinsic differentiations.
Eliot’s next step is to find common grounds for such school of vast styles, discovering that what makes them distinguished from other kinds of poetry is “a development by rapid association of thought which requires considerable agility on the part of the reader”. He later elaborates more on the term and comes up with a definition of associated sensibility. “The language of these poets”, Eliot remarks, “is as a rule simple and pure“; but the structure of the sentences is “sometimes far from simple” which is due to their “fidelity to thought and feeling”, and not a vice. Comparing Donne with other poets of previous and later ages, Eliot realizes that the difference is not that of ‘degree’, but “between the intellectual poet and the reflective poet”. Eliot writes of Donne quite admiringly that
A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility. When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.
This amount of concentration and juxtaposition of discordant images is what T. S. Eliot as a man of 20th-century alienations and fragmentations would ideally admire – a consciousness of the fact that the life itself is a great paradox and inherently paradoxical; it is this paradox that manifests itself in the poetry of the Metaphysicals and can finally mingle thought and sense. This realization is of course not appealing to the taste of the Neoclassics – who still enjoyed the illusion of a harmonious world of accords.
Eliot’s article is in fact a response to Johnson’s remarks in “Life of Cowley”. In Eliot’s article, these two voices – of Augustans and of 20th century – make a dialogue with each other, at times approving and sometimes opposing one another. His strategy is a clever and well-planned one. In fact, Eliot claims that he is going to define the Metaphysical poets by their very failures previously shown by Johnson, and manages to transform them to a distinguished concept of paradoxical unity. Somewhere is the article Eliot writes,
If so shrewd and sensitive (though so limited) a critic as Johnson failed to define metaphysical poetry by its faults, it is worth while to inquire whether we may not have more success by adopting the opposite method: by assuming that the poets of the seventeenth century (up to the Revolution) were the direct and normal development of the precedent age; and, without prejudicing their case by the adjective ‘metaphysical’, consider whether their virtue was not something permanently valuable,… Johnson has hit, perhaps by accident, on one of their peculiarities, when he observed that ‘their attempts were always analytic’; he would not agree that, after the dissociation, they put the material together again in a new unity.
As seen in the above witty phrase, Eliot himself does not tend to wholly “reject the criticism of Johnson” – which is considered by Eliot to be “a dangerous person to disagree with”. Having left the Johnsonian canon in peace, Eliot manages to skip the danger of totally rejecting his pragmatic and still-perfect touchstones while cautiously developing his own point of discussion by giving depth and insight to the long ignored value of discordia concors.
Metaphysical Poetry Today
Eliot’s revaluation of Metaphysical poetry and of the association of thought and sense was a great influence on the poetry of twentieth century after him. Eliot himself was quite influenced by Donne’s conceits and far-fetched similes whose trace is easily found in his most outstanding poems, such as “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock”. Interest peaked after Eliot with the New Critics School around mid-century, though it declined afterwards.
One of the main reasons for such revival, apart from the interest and taste of the time’s literary canon, could be traced in the revolutionary ideas of Freud and Darwin as well as what the terrors of the World War left on the minds of the people alienated both from themselves and nature. Meanwhile, Freud’s deconstruction of the unified image of the self as shattered into ego, id, and superego could be considered a main factor in increasing the value of the kind of poetry which is not only conscious of these fragmentations, but actually acts as an agent to gather the broken and shattered pieces of self and universe in a harsh and violent way, in hope for an ultimate resolution.
Years after the decline of the New Critics, with the emergence of a newer voice of Deconstructionism – pioneered by Derrida – interest in Metaphysical Poetry tempered off a bit. The deconstructionists no more believed in the old-fashioned stuff of both Johnson and Eliot; their new literary canon triumphed in questioning the tyranny of language as well as its free play of signs which fails to mean what it struggles to mean. Based on the new waves of critical theory there could be no essential superiority in a text over the other; all texts make but a deferred process of signification which fail to provide an essential truth about the world. Enslaved in numerous discourses and signification systems, the more they try to give us an illusion of unity and harmony the more paradoxical and vulnerable they become.
Thus there might be no essential difference or superiority between the text of Metaphycals and any other text. Nevertheless, Donne and Herbert seem to have survived the critical whirlwind and are still studied from newer perspectives: their texts have proved to be ideal of deconstructive analysis due to the kind of premature consciousness they show towards language and various discourses they apply. Donne’s poetry is quite self-deconstructive and self-consciously tends to celebrate a threshold – a kind of undecidability in the kind and definition of ‘love’ he attempts to reach in his Sonnet Sequences but paradoxically defines it by not finding a determined definition for it. Herbert’s language also provides a perfect and witty fusion of different discourses, among which faith and love are the most outstanding and getting into the critics’ nerves. Another interesting feature of Herbert’s poetry from a Post-structuralist point of view is the amount of discourses he has consciously applied in addressing and describing his God.

Conclusion

In a conclusion, I should remark that there is necessarily no question of wrongs and rights, or failures or success – as being debated by Johnson and Eliot and over ages – about Metaphysical poetry. Having lost all its distinctions of ‘physics’ or ‘metaphysics’, the word metaphysical has lost its magic and strangeness to the postmodern reader and has actually become an overused and therefore absurd signifier. Thanks to the deconstructive theories of Derrida, I find no more distinction between these binary oppositions and the text itself has rightly proved to be an amalgam of everything in the universe from spirit to matter and from nature to culture.
As explained before, the critical canon of the day can find any kind of text worth studying and therefore the Metaphysicals do not gain any superiority even over the meanest nursery rime. Though still fascinating and surprising, the contemporary reader is not much shocked – if not bored – with the metaphysical conceits. This reveals how much Eliot’s and Johnson’s time is over and how much out-fashioned – though still admiring and truthful – their literary canons have become.

Wit, like all other things subject by their nature to the choice of man, has its changes and fashions, and at different times takes different forms. About the beginning of the seventeenth century appeared a race of writers that may be termed the metaphysical poets, of whom, in a criticism on the works of Cowley, it is not improper to give some account.
The metaphysical poets were men of learning, and to show their learning was their whole endeavour; but, unluckily resolving to show it in rhyme, instead of writing poetry they only wrote verses and very often such verses as stood the trial of the finger better than of the ear; for the modulation was so imperfect, that they were only found to be verses by counting the syllables.
If the father of criticism [Aristotle] has rightly denominated poetry . . . an imitative art, these writers will, without great wrong, lose their right to the name of poets, for they cannot be said to have imitated anything; they neither copied nature nor life, neither painted the forms of matter, nor represented the operations of intellect.
Those, however, who deny them to be poets, allow them to be wits. Dryden confesses of himself and his contemporaries, that they fall below Donne in wit, but maintains that they surpass him in poetry.
If wit be well described by Pope, as being “that which has often thought, but was never before so well expressed,” they certainly never attained, nor ever sought it; for they endeavoured to be singular in their thoughts and were careless of their diction. But Pope’s account of wit is undoubtedly erroneous: he depresses it below its natural dignity, and reduces it from strength of thought to happiness of language.
If by a more noble and more adequate conception that be considered wit which is at once natural and new, that which, though not obvious, is, upon its first production, acknowledge to be just; if it be that which he that never found it wonders how he missed, to wit of this kind the metaphysical poets have seldom risen. Their thoughts are often new, but seldom natural; they are not obvious, but neither are they just; and the reader, far from wondering that he missed them, wonders more frequently by what perverseness of industry they were ever found.
But wit, abstracted from its effects upon the hearer, may be more rigorously and philosophically considered as a kind of discordia concors; a combination of dissimilar images, or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike. Of wit, thus defined, they have more than enough. The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together; nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions; their learning instructs, and their subtlety surprises; but the reader commonly thinks his improvement dearly bought, and, though he sometimes admires, is seldom pleased.

Joseph Addison‘s criticism of Paradise Lost from The Spectator No. 267 is an attempt to characterize the work as a heroic poem. Addison considers the rules of heroic poetry as set down by Pére René Le Bossu. The rules state that an epic poem should have but one action, action meaning the plot, motivations and general motion of the poem. The action should be an entire action, with a beginning, middle and end; and it should be a great action, in that it should be of great significance. Addison uses comparisons of Paradise Lost with Iliad and Aenid both widely accepted as the two great heroic epic poems. By making comparisons to them, Addison makes a strong case for Paradise Lost to be included as a heroic poem.
* * *
Samuel Johnson takes minor issue with several of the weaknesses of Paradise Lost. The main flaw, in his opinion, is that the reader will not be given any information about Hell, Heaven or the basic plot line of the poem, as Johnson says, " . . . what we knew before, we cannot learn; what is not unexpected, cannot surprise." Johnson makes an assumption that the reader of Paradise Lost will be a devout Christian, but certainly, the poem can be appreciated by non-Christians, and by those who have devolved their faith. To the modern reader, Paradise Lost refreshes the biblical stories and makes them new. Paradise Lost does not suffer greatly from this flaw, as there are a minority of devout Christians in the world today.
Johnsonís other flaw is that the characters are un-worldly and cannot be related to by the reader. He feels that readers will not be able to identify with Adam, Eve and the preter-natural setting of the poem. This can only be seen as a minor flaw, if a flaw at all, since many stories take place in remote and fanciful settings. The great mythologies of Greece and China are so removed from the "real" world as to be more unbelievable than Paradise Lost, due to their displaced time and place. Moreover, a Christian reader will find Paradise Lost to be based on truth and not fiction, and thus, understandable.
The 20th century reader has become accustomed to science fiction mythologies like Star Trek and Star Warsówhich are more distant and unfathomable, perhaps, than Paradise Lost. Both of these fantasies have characters that are God-like and so alien to our way of thinking that they cannot be explained, merely accepted. The stories are about how human characters deal with their situations, and they are accessible because the morality is always based on human models. The reader of Paradise Lost can relate to its main characters because they are "related" to us in human terms. One may take exception to the character of God, but he is no more unfathomable than many of the characters of modern or ancient mythology. The reader can simply accept the rules of the story and suspend disbelief. Furthermore, Paradise Lost is an epic that is not so much about God as it is about Satan, Eve and Adam, so if there is any problem with the character of God, then it is a minor flaw at worst.
Response and criticism

Since Paradise Lost is based upon scripture, its significance in the Western canon has been thought by some to have lessened due to increasing secularism. This is not the general consensus, and even academics labelled as secular realize the merits of the work. In William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, the "voice of the devil" argues:
The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil's party without knowing it.
This statement summarizes what would become the most common interpretation of the work in the twentieth century. Some critics, including C. S. Lewis, and later Stanley Fish, reject this interpretation. Rather, such critics hold that the theology of Paradise Lost conforms to the passages of Scripture on which it is based.
The latter half of the twentieth century saw critical understanding of Milton's epic shift to a more political and philosophical focus. Rather than the Romantic conception of the Devil as hero, it is generally accepted that Satan is presented in terms that begin classically heroic, then diminish him until he is finally reduced to a dust-eating serpent unable even to control his own body. The political angle enters into consideration in the underlying friction between Satan's conservative, hierarchical view of the universe, and the contrasting "new way" of God and the Son of God as illustrated in Book III. In other words, in contemporary criticism the main thrust of the work becomes not the perfidy or heroism of Satan, but rather the tension between classical conservative "Old Testament" hierarchs (evidenced in Satan's worldview and even in that of the archangels Raphael and Gabriel), and "New Testament" revolutionaries (embodied in the Son of God, Adam, and Eve) who represent a new system of universal organization. This new order is based not in tradition, precedence, and unthinking habit, but on sincere and conscious acceptance of faith and on station chosen by ability and responsibility. Naturally, this interpretation makes much use of Milton's other works and his biography, grounding itself in his personal history as an English revolutionary and social critic.
Samuel Johnson praised the poem lavishly, but conceded that "None ever wished it longer than it is."
In Paul Stevens of University of Toronto's Milton's Satan, he claimed the Satan figure was one of the earliest examples of an anti-hero who does not submit to authority, but the actions are greatly based on his own arrogance and delusion. Stevens also claimed Paradise Lost was a story about Milton himself, who wrote in support of events that eventually led to English Civil War. That analysis was debuted in 2009 season of TVO's Best Lecturer series.

Critical Reception
Milton's poetic contemporaries were generally awed by his achievement. John Dryden, the leading poet of Restoration society, remarked that in Paradise Lost Milton had outdone any other poet of his time: “This man has cut us all out, and the ancients too,” he was reported to have said. Some scholars have verified Dryden's assessment, suggesting that the decline of the epic genre was the direct result of Milton's supreme achievement, making any further efforts in the epic impossible and superfluous. Although in many ways Milton was very much out of step with his contemporaries—religiously, politically, and artistically—his accomplishment in Paradise Lost was readily acknowledged, and his stature as a poet only increased through the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth, perhaps reaching a peak during the Romantic era. Romantic poets, including John Keats, William Blake, and Percy Shelley, celebrated Milton's genius and drew heavily from his influence. By the early twentieth century, however, some literary scholars began to question Milton's talent. Inconsistencies in the poem became a target for the criticism of such luminaries as F. R. Leavis and T. S. Eliot. Milton's artistry and reputation was already established, however. Criticism of the later twentieth century falls generally into three broad schools: political readings of the work, stylistic readings, and thematic interpretations. Scholars take for granted that Paradise Lost reflects Milton's frustration with the failed Revolution. Joan Bennett has argued that Milton's depiction of Satan has strong connections to Charles I, linking his exploration of tyranny in Paradise Lost to his prose writings on the tyranny of the monarchy. More broadly, historian Christopher Hill has suggested that the Fall of Man was for Milton analogous to the collapse of the Commonwealth government, each constituting a failure of humanity to choose the right path. Criticism on the form of Paradise Lost has investigated Milton's innovations with the epic: Mary Ann Radzinowicz has detailed the poet's adaptation of psalm genres to the epic form, and Barbara Kiefer Lewalski has found that Milton appropriated a wide variety of genres to create the multiple voices of his characters, particularly in the difficult task of characterizing God. Among the studies of the major themes in the poem, scholarship on Milton and women has been dominant. Opinions on Milton's misogyny or feminism have varied widely, with some scholars declaring that Milton was obsessed with the inherent wickedness of women, and others finding Milton to be a true champion of women's worth. More nuanced readings of Paradise Lost have acknowledged Milton's insistence on women's subordination while also observing how the poem portrays women as independent humans with free will. Diane Kelsey McColley's study of Eve in Paradise Lost was among the first important studies attempting to strike a balance in the interpretation of Milton's depiction of the first woman. Other critics, such as Maureen Quilligan, have noted that much of the movement of the poem depends upon Eve and her use of free will. And, as Linda Gregerson has argued, Milton's narration of Eve's coming to selfhood makes Eve, and not Adam, the model for human subjectivity.
The first important criticism of Milton's epic was provided by his good friend the poet Andrew Marvell, in a commendatory poem published in 1674 along with the second edition of Paradise Lost. It invites comparison with later prose criticism by Addison (NAEL 8, 1.2485) and Samuel Johnson (NAEL 8, 1.2769).

Johnson’s “Life of Cowley”

Johnson’s description of [metaphysical wit] begins with introducing Metaphysical poets; he accuses them of being a bunch of showing off versifiers rather than true poets whose verses are mere celebration of their extreme knowledge of the world and scientific studies. In fact, Johnson and his contemporaries did not use the term “metaphysical” equal to “spiritual” or in opposition to “physical”; it rather connotes the philosophical and scientific aspect of the poetry rich with strange conceits such as compasses, ether, etc. only at hand for a scholar, not a poet. Johnson condemns these poets of being too much concerned with rhyme. Poetry, he believes, is what engages men’s hearts and opens up their eyes to the “softness of love” as in the poetry of Shakespeare and Milton.
Johnson then attacks the poetry from two different angles: mimetic and pragmatic. The Metaphysicals’ first failure, according to Johnson, could be found out through Aristotle’s criteria for true poetry – as imitative art: Metaphysical poetry is far from truth by copying neither “nature” nor “life”. He then approaches the poetry from another angle and that is its failure to affect the reader the way true poetry does. In other words, Johnson attempts to prove that Metaphysical poetry, though admirable, is not able to please the reader as a harmonious, unified, and beautiful piece of poetry, soothing the minds of the readers. In order to prove so, he questions the central anchor of Metaphysical poetry, namely “wit”:
He first confirms that the true value of their poetry only lies in the merit and extent of their wit. Even Dryden admitted that he and his contemporaries “fall below Donne in wit, but surpass in poetry”. But in order to attack this anchor, he wittily provides two different definitions of ‘wit’. According to Pope, wit is what “has been often thought, but was never before so well expressed”. Based on this definition, Metaphysical poets have failed to such wit, since they “just tried to get singular thought, and were careless of diction”, and language. Here Johnson wittily and boldly questions even Pope’s definition, and provides a new concept of ‘wit’, as being “at once natural and new”. Thus Metaphysical thoughts “are often new, but seldom natural”. In fact the unnaturalness of their poetry is what makes them unpleasing to the mind of the reader.
Having put the two previous definitions of ‘wit’ aside as not working in the case of metaphysical poets, Johnson then takes a step further to define their wit as an example of discordia concors; “a combination of dissimilar images, or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike”. He decries their roughness and violation of decorum, the deliberate mixture of different styles, this kind of wit they have “more than enough”.
Johnson may seem to condemn the pragmatic failure of metaphysical poetry as “not successful in representing or moving the affections”, but is actually leaving the ground for the values of their poetry but providing subjective definitions for pragmatic and mimetic values of true poetry:
If by a more noble and more adequate conception, that be considered as wit which is at once natural and new, that which, though not obvious, is, upon its first production, acknowledged to be just; if it be that which he that never found it, wonders how he missed; to wit of this kind the metaphysical poets have seldom risen.
Johnson here knowingly emphasizes the significance of the reader in producing the final poem, and if by any chance Metaphysical conceits fail to prove “natural”, “just” or “obvious”, they may turn to be so in another time and place, as it really happened in the 20th century and the strange conceits and fragmentation of images seemed so natural to the shattered subjects (readers) of the post-war time. As Goethe remarks, “the unnatural, that too is natural,” and the metaphysical poets continue to be studied and revered for their intricacy and originality because of the very naturalness of images found in their once supposed far-fetched conceits. Such evaluations totally depend on the context, the understanding of the reader, and the time it is being read.
Johnson’s other criteria for wit was being “new” to the reader, but how could a conceit prove new if over-used? In fact, if a conceit or thought become a dead metaphor, it will lose all its magic and wit; and this factor is also dependant on the time and era in which it is read.
His ending, however, is that of a fair judgment and sometimes admiration rather than condemnation: “if they frequently threw away their wit upon false conceits, they likewise sometimes struck out unexpected truth; if their conceits were far fetched, they were often worth the carriage”. Apart from finding a kind of ‘truth’ in their poetry, he also confirms a number of valuable features in their poetry such as “acuteness”, “powers of reflection and comparison”, “genuine wit”, “useful knowledge”, and finally “more propriety though less copiousness of sentiment”.
Johnson’s view of Metaphysical poets, though not totally confirming, proved to be fair and influenced by his own era’s literary canon – which valued imitativeness and unity over fragmentation and metaphysical expressions. We should keep in mind that metaphysical poetry was a reaction against the deliberately smooth and sweet tones of much 16th-century verse, a courageous act even against the literary canon of their own time. And that is why the metaphysical poets adopted a style that seems so energetic, uneven, and rigorous and much appealing to the fed up 20th century reader.

T. S. Eliot’s “Metaphysical Poets”

Quite impressed by Grierson’s new interest and insight into Metaphysical poems of 17th century, and especially Donne’s, Eliot picks up the material in a few of his articles, and specifically in “Metaphysical Poets” and examines it from a new angle. He calls the virgin realm of Metaphysical poetry “the work of a generation more often named than read, and more often read than profitably studied”. Eliot therefore attempts to make a serious critical, or better say ‘analytical’, survey of the poetry in order to attract attention to its potentialities and the now-lost association of sensibility.
Eliot begins his article with a very good question quite untouched by the kind of abuse which has long shadowed the name and work of the metaphysical poets:
The question is to what extent the so-called metaphysicals formed a school (in our own time we should say a ‘movement’), and how far this so-called school or movement is a digression from the main current.
In order to define the school, he first categorizes the poetry of the so-called metaphysical poets into different classes, admitting that such term is too vague and general to cover the varied range of different and sometimes opposing styles and subject matters: the poetry of John Donne, according to Eliot, is “late Elizabethan, its feeling very close to that of Chapman”. The ‘courtly’ poetry of Jonson is Latinate and a different story. And finally there is “the devotional verse of Herbert, Vaughan and Crashaw” with more intrinsic differentiations.
Eliot’s next step is to find common grounds for such school of vast styles, discovering that what makes them distinguished from other kinds of poetry is “a development by rapid association of thought which requires considerable agility on the part of the reader”. He later elaborates more on the term and comes up with a definition of associated sensibility. “The language of these poets”, Eliot remarks, “is as a rule simple and pure“; but the structure of the sentences is “sometimes far from simple” which is due to their “fidelity to thought and feeling”, and not a vice. Comparing Donne with other poets of previous and later ages, Eliot realizes that the difference is not that of ‘degree’, but “between the intellectual poet and the reflective poet”. Eliot writes of Donne quite admiringly that
A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility. When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.
This amount of concentration and juxtaposition of discordant images is what T. S. Eliot as a man of 20th-century alienations and fragmentations would ideally admire – a consciousness of the fact that the life itself is a great paradox and inherently paradoxical; it is this paradox that manifests itself in the poetry of the Metaphysicals and can finally mingle thought and sense. This realization is of course not appealing to the taste of the Neoclassics – who still enjoyed the illusion of a harmonious world of accords.
Eliot’s article is in fact a response to Johnson’s remarks in “Life of Cowley”. In Eliot’s article, these two voices – of Augustans and of 20th century – make a dialogue with each other, at times approving and sometimes opposing one another. His strategy is a clever and well-planned one. In fact, Eliot claims that he is going to define the Metaphysical poets by their very failures previously shown by Johnson, and manages to transform them to a distinguished concept of paradoxical unity. Somewhere is the article Eliot writes,
If so shrewd and sensitive (though so limited) a critic as Johnson failed to define metaphysical poetry by its faults, it is worth while to inquire whether we may not have more success by adopting the opposite method: by assuming that the poets of the seventeenth century (up to the Revolution) were the direct and normal development of the precedent age; and, without prejudicing their case by the adjective ‘metaphysical’, consider whether their virtue was not something permanently valuable,… Johnson has hit, perhaps by accident, on one of their peculiarities, when he observed that ‘their attempts were always analytic’; he would not agree that, after the dissociation, they put the material together again in a new unity.
As seen in the above witty phrase, Eliot himself does not tend to wholly “reject the criticism of Johnson” – which is considered by Eliot to be “a dangerous person to disagree with”. Having left the Johnsonian canon in peace, Eliot manages to skip the danger of totally rejecting his pragmatic and still-perfect touchstones while cautiously developing his own point of discussion by giving depth and insight to the long ignored value of discordia concors.

Metaphysical Poetry Today
Eliot’s revaluation of Metaphysical poetry and of the association of thought and sense was a great influence on the poetry of twentieth century after him. Eliot himself was quite influenced by Donne’s conceits and far-fetched similes whose trace is easily found in his most outstanding poems, such as “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock”. Interest peaked after Eliot with the New Critics School around mid-century, though it declined afterwards.
One of the main reasons for such revival, apart from the interest and taste of the time’s literary canon, could be traced in the revolutionary ideas of Freud and Darwin as well as what the terrors of the World War left on the minds of the people alienated both from themselves and nature. Meanwhile, Freud’s deconstruction of the unified image of the self as shattered into ego, id, and superego could be considered a main factor in increasing the value of the kind of poetry which is not only conscious of these fragmentations, but actually acts as an agent to gather the broken and shattered pieces of self and universe in a harsh and violent way, in hope for an ultimate resolution.
Years after the decline of the New Critics, with the emergence of a newer voice of Deconstructionism – pioneered by Derrida – interest in Metaphysical Poetry tempered off a bit. The deconstructionists no more believed in the old-fashioned stuff of both Johnson and Eliot; their new literary canon triumphed in questioning the tyranny of language as well as its free play of signs which fails to mean what it struggles to mean. Based on the new waves of critical theory there could be no essential superiority in a text over the other; all texts make but a deferred process of signification which fail to provide an essential truth about the world. Enslaved in numerous discourses and signification systems, the more they try to give us an illusion of unity and harmony the more paradoxical and vulnerable they become.
Thus there might be no essential difference or superiority between the text of Metaphycals and any other text. Nevertheless, Donne and Herbert seem to have survived the critical whirlwind and are still studied from newer perspectives: their texts have proved to be ideal of deconstructive analysis due to the kind of premature consciousness they show towards language and various discourses they apply. Donne’s poetry is quite self-deconstructive and self-consciously tends to celebrate a threshold – a kind of undecidability in the kind and definition of ‘love’ he attempts to reach in his Sonnet Sequences but paradoxically defines it by not finding a determined definition for it. Herbert’s language also provides a perfect and witty fusion of different discourses, among which faith and love are the most outstanding and getting into the critics’ nerves. Another interesting feature of Herbert’s poetry from a Post-structuralist point of view is the amount of discourses he has consciously applied in addressing and describing his God.

Conclusion

In a conclusion, I should remark that there is necessarily no question of wrongs and rights, or failures or success – as being debated by Johnson and Eliot and over ages – about Metaphysical poetry. Having lost all its distinctions of ‘physics’ or ‘metaphysics’, the word metaphysical has lost its magic and strangeness to the postmodern reader and has actually become an overused and therefore absurd signifier. Thanks to the deconstructive theories of Derrida, I find no more distinction between these binary oppositions and the text itself has rightly proved to be an amalgam of everything in the universe from spirit to matter and from nature to culture.
As explained before, the critical canon of the day can find any kind of text worth studying and therefore the Metaphysicals do not gain any superiority even over the meanest nursery rime. Though still fascinating and surprising, the contemporary reader is not much shocked – if not bored – with the metaphysical conceits. This reveals how much Eliot’s and Johnson’s time is over and how much out-fashioned – though still admiring and truthful – their literary canons have become ■
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Literary Criticism

• Literary criticism is the evaluation, analysis, description, or interpretation of literary works. It is usually in the form of a critical essay, but in-depth book reviews can sometimes be considered literary criticism. Criticism may examine a particular literary work, or may look at an author's writings as a whole.

• Literary criticism or literary analysis can be defined as,

“An informed analysis and evaluation of a piece of literature”.

OR

“A written study, evaluation and interpretation of a work of literature”.

The literary criticism is a concept, formed on the basis of critical analysis and primarily estimates the value and merit of literary works for the presence or quality of certain parameters of literary characteristics.

The practice of describing, interpreting, and evaluating literature (Morner and Rausch, 1998:121)

• the art or practice of judging and commenting on the qualities and character of literary works. (Oxford dictionary)


Examples of Literary Criticism

Some popular topics and areas for literary analysis are:
Literary Criticism for Oedipus the King
• Literary Criticism on the Metamorphosis
• Literary Criticism on Keats John
• Literary Criticism on James Joyce’s Novel Dubliners
• Literary Criticism on Gothic the Wasp Factory
• Literary Criticism on the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn



Literary Criticism and Theory


There are many different approaches to literary criticism today. This briefly explains some of the most common.

Traditional Approaches

Type of criticism that dominated until the 1930s.
Study of literature was mostly biography or history.

Two types: historical-biographical or moral-philosophical.

Historical-Biographical

Art seen as a reflection of author’s life and times (or of the characters’ life and times)
Necessary to know about the author and the political, economical, and sociological context of the time period to understand a work.

Moral-Philosophical

The larger purpose of literature is to teach morality and probe philosophical issues.

Advantages

Works for some works obviously political or moral in nature.
Helps place allusions in proper classical, political, or biblical background as well as to consider the themes of works.
Recognizes that the message of a work—not just the vehicle for that message—is important.

Disadvantages

“The Intentional Fallacy”—The New Critics’ term for the belief that the meaning or value of a work lies in determining the author’s intent, which, unless the author has put into writing his/her intent, is not reliably discernable.
New Critics believe such an approach reduces art to the level of biography and makes art relevant to a particular time only rather than universal.
Some argue that such an approach is too judgmental.

Formalistic Approach (New Criticism)

Close reading and analysis of elements such as setting, irony, paradox, imagery, and metaphor.
Reading stands on its own.
Awareness of denotative and connotative implications.
Alertness to allusions to mythology, history, literature.
Sees structure and patterns.
Primarily used during the first two-thirds of the 20th century.
This is the “AP” style of analysis, involving a close reading of a text and the assumption that all information necessary to the interpretation of a work must be found within the work itself.

Advantages

Performed without research.
Emphasizes value of literature apart from its context.

Disadvantages

Text is seen in isolation.
Ignores context of the work.
Cannot account for allusions.
Tends to reduce literature to just a few narrow rhetorical devices, such as irony, paradox, and tension.

Psychological Approach (Freudian)

Most controversial, most abused, least appreciated form.
Associated with Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and his followers.
Emphasis on the unconscious aspects of the human psyche.
Experimental and diagnostic; closely related to biological science.
All human behavior is motivated ultimately by the prime psychic force, libido.
Because of the powerful social taboos attached to sexual impulses, many of our desires and memories are repressed.
The psychoanalytic critic tends to see all concave images as female symbols and all images whose length exceeds their diameter as male symbols.
Such activities as dancing, riding, and flying are symbols of sexual pleasures
Pitfalls: the practitioners of the Freudian approach often push their critical theses too hard at the expense of other relevant considerations; they often simplify and distort.

Advantages

Helpful for understanding works whose characters have psychological issues.
A valuable too in understanding human nature, individual characters, and symbolic meaning.

Disadvantages

Psychological criticism can turn a work into little more than a psychological case study, neglecting to view it as a piece of art.
Critics tend to see sex in everything, exaggerating this aspect of literature. Some works simply do not lend themselves to this approach.

Mythological and Archetypal Approaches

Appeals to some very deep chord in all of us.
Illuminates dramatic and universal human reactions.
Concerned with the motives that underlie human behavior.
Speculative and philosophic; affinities with religion, anthropology, and cultural history.
Myth is ubiquitous in time as well as place, unites past with present, reaches toward future.
Interested in prehistory and the biographies of the gods.
Probes for the inner spirit which gives the outer form its vitality and enduring appeal.
Sees the work holistically, as the manifestation of vitalizing, integrative forces arising from the depths of humankind’s collective psyche.

Advantages

No other critical approach possesses quite the same combination of breadth and depth.
Takes us far beyond the historical and aesthetic realms of literary study—back to the beginning of humankind’s oldest rituals and beliefs and deep into our own individual hearts.
Works well with work that is highly symbolic.

Disadvantages

Because this approach is so interesting, must take care not to discard other valuable instruments; can’t open all literary doors with the same key.
Myth critics tend to forget that literature is more than a vehicle for archetypes and ritual patters.

Feminist Approaches

Sees the exclusion of women from the literary canon as a political as well as aesthetic act.
Works to change the language of literary criticism.
Examines the experiences of women from all races, classes, cultures.
Feminist criticism reasserts the authority of experience.
Exposes patriarchal premises and resulting prejudices to promote discovery and reevaluation of literature by women.
Examines social, cultural, and psychosexual contexts of literature and criticism.
Describes how women in texts are constrained in culture and society.
Gender is conceived as complex cultural idea and psychological component rather tan as strictly tied to biological gender.
Always political and always revisionist.
Feminist literary criticism has most developed since the women’s movement beginning in the early 1960s.

Advantages

Women have been somewhat underrepresented in the traditional canon; a feminist approach to literature helps redress this problem.

Disadvantages

Feminist critics turn literary criticism into a political battlefield and overlook the merits of works they consider “patriarchal.”
When arguing for a distinct feminine writing style, feminist critics tend to regulate women’s literature to ghetto status; this in turn prevents female literature from being naturally included in the literary canon.
Often too theoretical.

Criticism 2

Formalist Criticism: This approach regards literature as “a unique form of human knowledge that needs to be examined on its own terms.” All the elements necessary for understanding the work are contained within the work itself. Of particular interest to the formalist critic are the elements of form—style, structure, tone, imagery, etc.—that are found within the text. A primary goal for formalist critics is to determine how such elements work together with the text’s content to shape its effects upon readers.

Biographical Criticism: This approach “begins with the simple but central insight that literature is written by actual people and that understanding an author’s life can help readers more thoroughly comprehend the work.” Hence, it often affords a practical method by which readers can better understand a text. However, a biographical critic must be careful not to take the biographical facts of a writer’s life too far in criticizing the works of that writer: the biographical critic “focuses on explicating the literary work by using the insight provided by knowledge of the author’s life.... [B]iographical data should amplify the meaning of the text, not drown it out with irrelevant material.”

Historical Criticism: This approach “seeks to understand a literary work by investigating the social, cultural, and intellectual context that produced it—a context that necessarily includes the artist’s biography and milieu.” A key goal for historical critics is to understand the effect of a literary work upon its original readers.

Gender Criticism: This approach “examines how sexual identity influences the creation and reception of literary works.” Originally an offshoot of feminist movements, gender criticism today includes a number of approaches, including the so-called “masculinist” approach recently advocated by poet Robert Bly. The bulk of gender criticism, however, is feminist and takes as a central precept that the patriarchal attitudes that have dominated western thought have resulted, consciously or unconsciously, in literature “full of unexamined ‘male-produced’ assumptions.” Feminist criticism attempts to correct this imbalance by analyzing and combatting such attitudes—by questioning, for example, why none of the characters in Shakespeare’s play Othello ever challenge the right of a husband to murder a wife accused of adultery. Other goals of feminist critics include “analyzing how sexual identity influences the reader of a text” and “examin[ing] how the images of men and women in imaginative literature reflect or reject the social forces that have historically kept the sexes from achieving total equality.”

Psychological Criticism: This approach reflects the effect that modern psychology has had upon both literature and literary criticism. Fundamental figures in psychological criticism include Sigmund Freud, whose “psychoanalytic theories changed our notions of human behavior by exploring new or controversial areas like wish-fulfillment, sexuality, the unconscious, and repression” as well as expanding our understanding of how “language and symbols operate by demonstrating their ability to reflect unconscious fears or desires”; and Carl Jung, whose theories about the unconscious are also a key foundation of Mythological Criticism. Psychological criticism has a number of approaches, but in general, it usually employs one (or more) of three approaches:

1. An investigation of “the creative process of the artist: what is the nature of literary genius and how does it relate to normal mental functions?”

2. The psychological study of a particular artist, usually noting how an author’s biographical circumstances affect or influence their motivations and/or behavior.

3. The analysis of fictional characters using the language and methods of psychology.

Sociological Criticism: This approach “examines literature in the cultural, economic and political context in which it is written or received,” exploring the relationships between the artist and society. Sometimes it examines the artist’s society to better understand the author’s literary works; other times, it may examine the representation of such societal elements within the literature itself. One influential type of sociological criticism is Marxist criticism, which focuses on the economic and political elements of art, often emphasizing the ideological content of literature; because Marxist criticism often argues that all art is political, either challenging or endorsing (by silence) the status quo, it is frequently evaluative and judgmental, a tendency that “can lead to reductive judgment, as when Soviet critics rated Jack London better than William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Edith Wharton, and Henry James, because he illustrated the principles of class struggle more clearly.” Nonetheless, Marxist criticism “can illuminate political and economic dimensions of literature other approaches overlook.”

Mythological Criticism: This approach emphasizes “the recurrent universal patterns underlying most literary works.” Combining the insights from anthropology, psychology, history, and comparative religion, mythological criticism “explores the artist’s common humanity by tracing how the individual imagination uses myths and symbols common to different cultures and epochs.” One key concept in mythlogical criticism is the archetype, “a symbol, character, situation, or image that evokes a deep universal response,” which entered literary criticism from Swiss psychologist Carl Jung. According to Jung, all individuals share a “‘collective unconscious,’ a set of primal memories common to the human race, existing below each person’s conscious mind”—often deriving from primordial phenomena such as the sun, moon, fire, night, and blood, archetypes according to Jung “trigger the collective unconscious.” Another critic, Northrop Frye, defined archetypes in a more limited way as “a symbol, usually an image, which recurs often enough in literature to be recognizable as an element of one’s literary experience as a whole.” Regardless of the definition of archetype they use, mythological critics tend to view literary works in the broader context of works sharing a similar pattern.

Reader-Response Criticism: This approach takes as a fundamental tenet that “literature” exists not as an artifact upon a printed page but as a transaction between the physical text and the mind of a reader. It attempts “to describe what happens in the reader’s mind while interpreting a text” and reflects that reading, like writing, is a creative process. According to reader-response critics, literary texts do not “contain” a meaning; meanings derive only from the act of individual readings. Hence, two different readers may derive completely different interpretations of the same literary text; likewise, a reader who re-reads a work years later may find the work shockingly different. Reader-response criticism, then, emphasizes how “religious, cultural, and social values affect readings; it also overlaps with gender criticism in exploring how men and women read the same text with different assumptions.” Though this approach rejects the notion that a single “correct” reading exists for a literary work, it does not consider all readings permissible: “Each text creates limits to its possible interpretations.”

Deconstructionist Criticism: This approach “rejects the traditional assumption that language can accurately represent reality.” Deconstructionist critics regard language as a fundamentally unstable medium—the words “tree” or “dog,” for instance, undoubtedly conjure up different mental images for different people—and therefore, because literature is made up of words, literature possesses no fixed, single meaning. According to critic Paul de Man, deconstructionists insist on “the impossibility of making the actual expression coincide with what has to be expressed, of making the actual signs [i.e., words] coincide with what is signified.” As a result, deconstructionist critics tend to emphasize not what is being said but how language is used in a text. The methods of this approach tend to resemble those of formalist criticism, but whereas formalists’ primary goal is to locate unity within a text, “how the diverse elements of a text cohere into meaning,” deconstructionists try to show how the text “deconstructs,” “how it can be broken down ... into mutually irreconcilable positions.” Other goals of deconstructionists include (1) challenging the notion of authors’ “ownership” of texts they create (and their ability to control the meaning of their texts) and (2) focusing on how language is used to achieve power, as when they try to understand how a some interpretations of a literary work come to be regarded as “truth.”

Aristotle vs Plato
Plato makes it clear, especially in his Apology of Socrates, that he was one of Socrates' devoted young followers. In that dialogue, Socrates is presented as mentioning Plato by name as one of those youths close enough to him to have been corrupted, if he were in fact guilty of corrupting the youth, and questioning why their fathers and brothers did not step forward to testify against him if he was indeed guilty of such a crime (33d-34a). Later, Plato is mentioned along with Crito, Critobolus, and Apollodorus as offering to pay a fine of 30 minas on Socrates' behalf, in lieu of the death penalty proposed by Meletus (38b). In the Phaedo, the title character lists those who were in attendance at the prison on Socrates' last day, explaining Plato's absence by saying, "Plato was ill" (Phaedo 59b).
The relationship between Plato and Socrates is not unproblematic, however. Aristotle, for example, attributes a different doctrine with respect to the ideas to Plato and Socrates (Metaphysics 987b1–11), but Plato never speaks in his own voice in his dialogues. In the Second Letter, it says, "no writing of Plato exists or ever will exist, but those now said to be his are those of a Socrates become beautiful and new" (341c); if the Letter is Plato's, the final qualification seems to call into question the dialogues' historical fidelity. In any case, Xenophon and Aristophanes seem to present a somewhat different portrait of Socrates than Plato paints. Leo Strauss calls attention to problem of taking Plato's Socrates to be his mouthpiece, given Socrates' reputation for irony.
The precise relationship between Plato and Socrates remains an area of contention among scholars.
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