Practical Criticism – the close study of texts, to reveal more about the way they mean, and the way they reveal things about our reading selves – is an essential part of reading English at Cambridge. It has been, formally, ever since I.A.Richards, a Fellow at Magdalene, published a book of the same title in 1929, and his habit of asking students to comment on poems stripped of their date of composition or publication or the name of their author has left its mark on the weekly class in which a group of students compare their responses to one or more short unseen texts. It remains one of the great pleasures of being an undergraduate here. It is, as the English Faculty’s Virtual Classroom observes, a relatively young discipline. But it has older roots, and it also continues to evolve, with every generation of students and teachers. These pages give you a taste of how, and also an opportunity to reflect on how practical criticism connects to and might shape and reflect the phrase with which it is now often bracketed, not least in Cambridge: critical practice.

Next page: Criticism into Practice: some examples from History