Literary Criticism

   Literature is the art of written work and can, in some circumstances, refer exclusively to published sources. The word literature literally means “things made from letters” and the pars pro toto term “letters” is sometimes used to signify “literature,” as in the figures of speech “arts and letters”…

Henry James (1843-1916), author and literary c...

Henry James (1843-1916), author and literary critic (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    Criticism is the art (or science) of criticizing.”To criticize” is, etymologically, “to judge”, or “to analyze”. But the standards by which critics judge or cut or analyze vary greatly. Impressionistic critics hold that it is enough if the critic expresses his feeling, and that he need not analyze the work to see why feelings are thus aroused. As William Hazlitt says,”In art, in taste, in life, in speech, you decide from feeling, and not from reason; that is, from the impression of a number of things on the mind, which impression is true and well-founded, though you may not be able to analyze or account for it in the several particulars”. Here is a brief example: Emily Dickinson says,”if I read a book and it makes my body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.These are the only ways I know it.”Such criticism verges on autobiography, for the critic talks largely about emotional reaction (and is therefore an effective critic), but he also passes judgment on the work, and may, even as Remy de Gourmont says any sincere man will do “erect” into laws his personal impressions.” It is therefore unfortunate that critics who judge a work against allegedly enduring laws are sometimes distinguished by the term judicial critics. Judicial criticism seeks at least to be the product (as Henry James put it) “of opinion … that is capable of giving some intelligible account of itself.” Such criticism engages in analysis_the examination of the parts and their relation to the whole. Analysis in itself is sometimes held to be criticism but more often judgment is held to be indispensable to the critical performance. T.S.Eliot, in The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, says that criticism is “that department of thought which either seeks to find out what poetry is …or which assesses actual poetry.” 

Karl Marx (1818-1883)

    The theoretical critic is concerned with principles rather than with particular works, though like Aristotle he may touch on particular works.The practical critic is concerned with particular works_though  he may in fact be examining particular works to see how well they conform to his general theory. If a critic holds that there is only one right judgement, only one true verdict about a work of art, he is an absolutist. If he holds that values can change, and that a work may have been great for 18th century Englishmen but is not great for 20th century Americans he is a relativist. Note that the relativist may argue with others about views. He may hold that persons of, say, the same cultural environment and the same psychological make-up ought to agree in evaluating works; but he will insist that his views is true for eternity. If a critic holds that preferences are unarguable (as most impressionistic critics do), he is a subjectivist.                                                              

Sigmund Freud Quote

Sigmund Freud Quote (Photo credit: Psychology Pictures)

     Numerous adjectives have been affixed to “criticism”, denoting particular schools. There are, for example, Marxist and Freudian critics Marxist criticism varies with party line, but usually explains literature in terms of the kind of society that produced it, holding with Leon Trotsky (though not with Marx himself) that “Marxism alone can explain why and how a given tendency in art has originated in a given period in history.” Marxism often judges a literary work by the attitude it displays towards classes or by its ability to hold the attention of the proletariat. Thus, some Marxists have praised Shakespeare for depicting tyrannical noblemen and honest workmen or for interesting the ordinary laborer, while other Marxists have denounced him for his unflattering depictions of ignorant plebeians and his contemptuous references to the groundlings who paid only a penny to see his plays. A Freudian critic is in some measure a follower of Freud; he generally praises a work to the degree to which it recognizes the things (e.g., the Oedipus complex) that Freud recognized. Freudian criticism often veers into biography, finding in the literary work clues to the author’s personality, and explaining the work in terms of the occurrences in the author’s childhood. An interesting example is Van Wyck Brook’s The Ordeal of Mark Twain.   

Leon Trotsky

Leon Trotsky (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    The textual critic is perhaps better named the textual scholar. He seeks to establish the proper text for study, and thus must decide by knowledge and reasoning whether, for example, Hamlet wished his “solid flesh”  or “sullied flesh” or “sallied flesh” to melt. “Textual criticism,” in an entirely different sense, has occasionally referred to the new criticism, a school whose name was probably fixed by John Crowe Ransom’s book, The New Criticism (1941). “New criticism” is commonly applied to the methods practiced notably by Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, R.P. Blackmur, and Ransom himself_and sometimes by I.A. Richards, to some of whose writings these other men are indebted. Broadly, the new critics (deeply indebted to Coleridge and T.S. Eliot) hold that literature is not to be judged as ethics, science, theology, history, etc.; criticism is an act of analyzing and evaluating a work of literature, and is not concerned with the perceiver’s emotional reaction (here they differ from I.A. Richards), or with the biography of the writer, or with the influence of the work on later history. Cleanth Brooks points out, in the Kenyon Review, that although Hemingway reportedly considered “Across the River and into the Trees” his best novel, this statement is of interest to the biographer but not to the critic. Furthermore, the new critics in studying a piece of literature concentrate on the language of the piece (the old art of explication) rather than on any alleged over-all structure independent of the words. Thus, they do not begin an analysis of Gray’s “Elegy” by discussing the elegy as a traditional form of literature with a particular purpose and with certain devices appropriate to it; rather, they study the words in the poem and find the form in the total pattern of the language. They tend to place a high value on a paradox and irony, preferring poetry (such as that of the metaphysicals, e.g., John Donne) that has a good deal of complexity. The chief attacks on new criticism hold that it is too little concerned with the ethical content of literature, too arbitrary in its emphasis on complexity, too preoccupied with individual words. Among the chief opponents of the new critics are the historical critics, who assume the relevance of the literary tradition in which an author writes, as well as of his biography and social milieu. Generally the historical critic is a relativist. One can conveniently see some of the contrasting approaches of new critics (Brooks) and historical critics (Douglas Bush) in the varying interpretations of Marvell’s “An Horation Ode”.



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