Criticism: The Foundations of Modern Literary Judgment

By Mark Schorer; Gordon McKenzie et al. | Go to book overview

not placed them yet, and since we are critics-- only critics--we must try to place them, to catalogue the rainbow. We have already peeped and botanized upon our mothers' graves.

The numbering of the warp and woof of the rainbow must accordingly be attempted and we must now bring our minds to bear on the subject of fantasy.


E. M. W. TILLYARD: The Two Village Greens*

JOHNSON in attacking Lycidas provided a classic example of criticism that errs through a false assumption. Lycidas is an elegy; an elegy professes to lament the death of a revered or beloved person; and Johnson assumes that an elegy should be judged by the standards it professes. He found that Lycidas did not fulfil its professions:

It is not to be considered as the effusion of real passion; for passion runs not after remote allusions and obscure opinions. . . . Where there is leisure for fiction, there is little grief.

Johnson assumed that Lycidas is what I shall call "direct" poetry or the poetry of "statement," and by such a standard he found it wanting. Actually the poem is far other than what it professes to be. Its main concern embraces vastly more than grief at the death of Edward King. It expresses a personal mental experience and a general moral truth. And it does so not by direct statement but obliquely by implication. This distinction between "direct" and "oblique" poetry will be elaborated in the next section. It suffices here to say that Johnson's attack is invalidated from the start because he has put the poem in the wrong category.

Critics today are not likely to make Johnson's specific error, but they are not always clear in their minds what degree of directness or obliquity they assume the poems they are judging to possess. They run the risk of going astray initially, just as Johnson did. And the danger of being deceived today by a specious obliquity may not be less than the converse one of being deceived by a specious directness. The distinction between "direct" and "oblique" poetry is not new, and must be familiar enough in some form or another, but as an important initial criterion I doubt if it has been clearly formulated or consciously applied to critical practice. This book suggests a scale ranging from the greatest possible directness to the greatest possible obliquity in poetry. Between the two extremes the gradations are of course innumerable; and the scale is only of the roughest. But still it should help to eliminate the mistake of judging poems by standards to which they have no reference.

But when you have fixed your poem in the scale, you have not begun seriously to criticise it. All you have done is to put it in a position where you can see it without a certain preliminary distortion. Now if you conclude that a poem is oblique, you are not likely to get very far with it until you discover what it is that has been given oblique expression. In writing a book on Milton I was confronted with this problem when I came to Lycidas, and flattered myself that I had got a little way behind that poem's façade. At any rate I was attempting a kind of criticism of which there is too little and whose possibilities are large. One object of this book is to exploit this kind of criticism through a series of practical demonstrations.

The relations of direct and oblique poetry

____________________
*
"The Two Village Greens" is the Introductory section of Poetry: Direct and Oblique, first published in 1934 and published in a revised version in 1945. The later text is here reprinted by permission of the author and the publisher, Chatto & Windus. Mr. Tillyard (b. 1889) is also the author of Milton ( 1930), The Miltonic Setting, Past and Present ( 1938), Shakespeare Last Plays ( 1938), The Elizabethan World Picture ( 1944), Shakespeare History Plays ( 1944), and, with C. S. Lewis, The Personal Heresy, a Controversy ( 1939).

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