Criticism: The Foundations of Modern Literary Judgment

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

I. A. RICHARDS: Science and Poetry*

The future of poetry is immense, because in poetry, where it is worthy of its high destinies, our race, as time goes on, will find an ever surer and surer stay. There is not a creed which is not shaken, not an accredited dogma which is not shown to be questionable, not a received tradition which does not threaten to dissolve. Our religion has materialised itself in the fact, in the supposed fact; it has attached its emotion to the fact, and now the fact is failing it. But for poetry the idea is everything.--MATTHEW ARNOLD


1
THE GENERAL SITUATION

MAN'S prospects are not at present so rosy that he can neglect any means of improving them. He has recently made a number of changes in his customs and ways of life, partly with intention, partly by accident. These changes are involving such widespread further changes that the fairly near future is likely to see an almost complete reorganization of our lives, in their intimate aspects as much as in their public. Man himself is changing, together with his circumstances; he has changed in the past, it is true, but never perhaps so swiftly. His circumstances are not known ever to have changed so much or so suddenly before, with psychological as well as with economic, social and political dangers. This suddenness threatens us. Some parts of human nature resist change more than others. We risk disaster if some of our customs change while others which should change with them stay as they are.

Habits that have endured for many thousands of years are not easy to throw off--least of all when they are habits of thought and when they do not come into open conflict with changing circumstances, or do not clearly involve us in loss or inconvenience, Yet the loss may be great without our knowing anything about it. Before 1590 no one knew how inconvenient were our natural habits of thought about the ways in which a stone may fall; yet the modern world began when Galileo discovered what really happens. Before 1800 only persons thought to be crazy knew that ordinary traditional ideas as to cleanliness are dangerously inadequate. The infant's average "expectation of life" has increased by about 30 years since Lister upset them. Nobody before Sir Ronald Ross knew what were the consequences of thinking about malaria in terms of influences and miasmas instead of in terms of mosquitoes. The Roman Empire might perhaps have still been flourishing if some one had found this out before A.D. 100.

With such examples all about us we can no longer, in any department of life, so easily accept what was good enough for our fathers as good enough for ourselves or for our children. We are forced to wonder whether our ideas, even upon subjects apparently of little practical importance, such as poetry, may not be dangerously inadequate. It becomes indeed somewhat alarming to recognize, as we must, that our habits of thought remain, as regards most of our affairs, much as they were 5,000 years ago. The Sciences are, of course, simply the exceptions to this rule. Outside the Sciences--and the greater part of our thinking still goes on outside the Sciences--we think very much as our ancestors thought a hundred or two hundred

____________________
*
"Science and Poetry" first appeared in 1926, and is reprinted here by permission of the publishers, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York; copyright, 1926, by the publishers. I. A. Richards (b. 1893) is a co- author of The Foundations of Aesthetics ( 1922) and The Meaning of Meaning: A Study of the Influence of Language upon Thought and of the Science of Symbolism ( 1923), and the author of Principles of Literary Criticism: A Study of Literary Judgment ( 1929), Mencius on the Mind: Experiments in Multiple Definition ( 1932), Basic Rules of Reason ( 1933), Coleridge on the Imagination ( 1934), How to Read a Page ( 1942), and of various experiments in Basic English.

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