Criticism into Practice: some examples from History

Richards studied the work of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and it was Coleridge, in 1817, who coined the phrase, in his long, dense but occasionally luminous book Biographia Literaria. Coleridge was convinced that we were never more intensely conscious of ourselves in the world than when writing or reading poetry, which ‘has a logic as severe as that of science; and more difficult, because dependent on more, and more fugitive causes.’ So he was determined to explore the fundamental principles that governed both writers and readers when they were brought together over a page. These principles were, he thought, ‘logic, grammar and psychology’, and it took him many rather dry pages to chase them down. It was only in the closing chapters of his book that he set about ‘the application of these principles to the purposes of practical criticism, as employed in the consideration of works more or less imperfect.’ That sounds severe, even bleak – though W.H. Auden said that a poem is never finished, only ever abandoned, can it really be the case that poems are all only ‘more or less imperfect’?   It provides an early taste of the tensions between close reading and expansive theory that came to inflect much academic criticism in the latter twentieth century.

But much earlier in the century, ten years in fact before Richards published his book, T.S. Eliot made it clear that such issues were not just confined to academic writing, or even to writing of any kind. ‘Criticism is as inevitable as breathing,’ he wrote, ‘and we should be none the worse for articulating what passes in our minds when we read a poem and feel an emotion about it.’ It’s here that criticism – and critical practice – starts, whether or not we are, as Coleridge, Richards and Eliot all tended to assume, reading a poem or some other kind of text. Feeling an emotion is an essential preliminary of understanding poetry, but it may also affect and shape our reading of narrative or discursive prose too. It may be a simple, inarticulate emotion: a murmur of surprise or pleasure, a grunt of frustration at something confusing or difficult. The challenge, for Eliot, and even the opportunity for improving ourselves, comes in ‘articulating what passes in our minds’ during and after this immediate and inevitable emotional response. ‘Articulating’ means putting into joined up expression; how we do so, and the factors that we consider in employing it, and the effectiveness with which we exclude other pressing but irrelevant demands on our consciousness as we pursue that matter of ‘what passes in our minds when we read’, all shape our own critical practice: the way we criticise, both before we put pen to paper and once we’ve started.

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