The Function of Criticism

By Donoghue, Denis | New Criterion, April 2017 | Go to article overview

The Function of Criticism


Donoghue, Denis, New Criterion


T. S. Eliot's essay "The Function of Criticism" (1923) is a work of angry intelligence: it reads as if it were written under duress. Apparently Eliot would prefer to be writing about anything else, or to be silent. He accepts that criticism includes, unfortunately, every form of discursive writing from the most leisurely book-review to a supreme work of criticism such as Sainte-Beuve's Port-Royal. In "Religion and Literature," (1935) he says--in poor taste, admittedly--that we should not leave criticism "to the fellows who write reviews in the papers." It is difficult to designate a function for a plethora. Given such a field of literary criticism, Eliot would like to see most of its wandering inhabitants ejected. In happier conditions, literary criticism would be rarely needed:

   I have had some experience of Extension lecturing,
   and I have found only two ways of leading
   any pupils to like anything with the right liking:
   to present them with a selection of the simpler
   kind of facts about a work--its conditions, its
   setting, its genesis--or else to spring the work on
   them in such a way that they were not prepared
   to be prejudiced against it. There were many
   facts to help them with Elizabethan drama: the
   poems of T. E. Hulme only needed to be read
   aloud to have immediate effect.

The conditions that obtained in the literary milieux of London and Paris in die early twentieth century prompted Eliot to believe that die best kind of literary criticism arose when a poet applied his most intense critical consciousness to the first draft of his poem, to make it as good as he could make it. "I maintain even that die criticism employed by a trained and skilled writer on his own work is the most vital, the highest kind of criticism; and ... that some creative writers are superior to others solely because their critical faculty is superior." The next best conditions occur when a poet, on request, studies the first drafts of a friend's poem as carefully as if they were his own or adjacent to his own. Eliot found these latter conditions when he asked Ezra Pound to read "He Do die Police in Different Voices." Pound's criticism and Eliot's own turned the poem into "The Waste Land."

This felicity rarely came about. When it didn't, Eliot hoped that criticism would be a modest affair, and would benefit from that quality:

   And any book, any essay, any note in Notes and
   Queries, which produces a fact even of the lowest
   order about a work of art is a better piece of work
   than nine-tenths of the most pretentious critical
   journalism, in journals or in books.

I take a little feeble comfort from this sentence. Many years ago I submitted two brief notes to J. C. Maxwell, editor of Notes and Queries. He accepted one, rejected the other: not a bad percentage. Eliot enlarged the scope of criticism when he said:

   The critic, one would suppose, if he is to justify
   his existence, should endeavour to discipline his
   personal prejudices and cranks--tares to which
   we are all subject--and compose his differences
   with as many of his fellows as possible, in the
   common pursuit of true judgment.

"The Common Pursuit" entered into general literary reference when F. R. Leavis used it as the title of a selection of his essays; which in turn became the title of a play about Leavis and his Cambridge circle. "Judgment" was what Leavis called "evaluation." His methods in criticism were those that Eliot recommended, "comparison and analysis." What makes a critical judgment true is still a quandary. Eliot and Leavis exempted themselves from "interpretation," which Eliot declared to be "only legitimate when it is not interpretation at all, but merely putting the reader in possession of facts which he would otherwise have missed." This sentence marks a typical rhythm in Eliot's critical mind: he tends to say that an exalted something is nothing but something mean to which it may decently be reduced. …

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