On the Function of Criticism

Stephen Spender

From The Kenyon Review, Spring 1951, Vol. XIII, No. 2

Poetry is the use of certain techniques of language and certain forms in order to make vivid certain metaphors. The poet says “my experience is like this,” “my thought takes such and such a shape.” He creates the experience or the thought in language, so that the metaphor becomes a new experience, the experience of the poem. Yet, the poem, like an image in a looking glass, although seeming an enframed, separate world of the image, reflects a real world. Criticism reminds us of this. Besides judging the quality of the mirroring of the image, and the suitability of the frame, it relates the image in the mirror back to the real experience in a hierarchy of events having greater or lesser significance.

Criticism applies principles whereby the experience contained within the poem is judged. These principles are of three main kinds:

(1) Consideration of the justice and verisimilitude of the metaphor. Is the experience contained in the poem really like the poet’s experience in life which he is attempting to create?

(2) Consideration of the articulation of the related parts of the metaphor. This includes criticism of form and technique, since the metaphor is realized through these.

(3) Critical evaluation of the quality of the experience of the poem. Firstly, is the experience trivial, or is it important? But what matters more than this is whether the poet has made it significant. For what may seem trivial in the world of events may become immensely significant in the world of art.

Thus there is an ambivalence about the function of criticism. On the one hand, it is simply the analysis of a poem so that the critic may discover whether it fulfills rules for developing metaphor and pattern which are implicit within the content. But criticism also has to stand above poetry and assume a viewpoint superior to the poem. Poets judge and evaluate experience: critics have to judge and evaluate the judgments and evaluations of poets. At this point criticism becomes a desperate attempt of the critic to go deeper into the poet’s experiences than the poet has gone himself. We are confronted here by the impossibility of criticism: the impossibility of stating what is the best: for a position in which we could establish a hierarchy of critical values would be one of finality beyond the positions of the poets, which are the most final ones we know of.

If poetry be as Matthew Arnold said “a criticism of life,” then criticism must be “criticism of a criticism of life made by those (the poets) whom we assume to be the profoundest critics.” In other words the critic must have an insight into the development of the form of a poem beyond that of the poet himself who, as it were, lives and has his being within this form; an insight into the poet’s own experiences beyond his own; an insight into moral sensibility beyond his, and so on.

The perfect critic would be God. And without the existence of an absolute consciousness of what is good, bad, beautiful and true, there can be no absolute standards. Without such standards, the ultimate criterion of our judgment of value in our generation is not our superiority, but our need. If the 18th Century critics wanted to tidy up Shakespeare and could not tolerate the Elizabethan incoherence and untidiness, it is because they needed to view the universe as a tidy garden. If we today have insight into the horrific visions of Webster and Tourneur, it is because their expression of an awareness of chaos is of more value to us than the 18th Century illusion of an Age of Reason.

It is well to remind ourselves of the impossibility of absolute critical judgments. The ambitions implied in the idea of criticism are such that the critics need to be reminded of a certain absurdity in their aims. Nevertheless the idea that criticism really can lay down final judgments seems to give many critics a kind of power complex. They feel their implicit superiority to the poet.

You might think that the tendency of modern criticism to concentrate on a close examination of texts, and an analysis of imagery and technique, was a sign of critical humility. But on the contrary this minute examination and analysis seems to have given critics a feeling that they have got poets into their vice-like grip: so that Dr. F. R. Leavis can open a notorious discussion of Milton with the observation that “the dislodgement of Milton has been effected with remarkably little fuss”; while in his introduction to A Little Treasury of Modern Poetry, Mr. Oscar Williams can assert: “Extraordinary advances in critical method make the inspection of a poem to-day by a first-class critic as close and careful as a chemical analysis.” Mr. Williams here naively reflects an idea which to many must seem implicit in close textual analysis: that what can be completely analysed can be finally categorized, placed and explained.

Moreover, if a poem can be chemically analysed into all its component elements, then it should also be possible to construct a synthetic poem. This idea, although not explicitly stated, is undoubtedly held by many people today. During the 1930’s in England a group of the Mass Observation movement tried the experiment of writing “collective poems”! I believe that one of these was published in New Verse. Such an experiment is perhaps less pernicious than the pervasive idea amongst many students that formulae for making poems may be found: so that to read the poems and then the critical articles in poetry reviews, is often like seeing a game being played according to the assumption that certain qualities in a poem are desiderata at one end of the magazine, and, at the other, the success or non-success of poets in attempting these is being discussed. It is assumed that poems should be complex in meaning, that technique should be involved and language ambiguous. In a word, poetry, to be criticizable, has to be clever, because unless it is clever there is very little to say about it. Yet the fact that a critic can say a great deal about a poem by Pound and Empsonand very little about one by de la Mare, does not necessarily make Pound and Empson better poets than de la Mare. It may even mean (though I do not suggest that this is the case) that Pound’s and Empson’s poems contain more ideological material extraneous to poetry than de la Mare’s.

Contemporary critics have written reams about Yeats, Eliot, Pound and Auden. They have written almost nothing about Edward Thomas, Walter de la Mare and W. H. Davies; and almost nothing, to any purpose that I have seen, about Robert Frost.

I happened to be with Mr. Dylan Thomason a memorable occasion when he had just received a copy of an American edition of his poems, which was prefaced by an Introduction in which some critic explained that unless one knew the Welsh “bardic runes” (I think it was the “bardic runes”), it was impossible fully to appreciate Thomas’ poetry—and a lot more in the same vein. Dylan Thomas exploded with anger. He said he had never read these Welsh classics and was quite unaware of other influences attributed to him in this introduction. Of course, the critic, if told this, would retort that Thomas was subject to all sorts of influences which came to him through his Welsh environment, without his being conscious of them. And it might also be said that Thomas (resembling Hemingway in this respect) is more learned than he lets on to be. Nevertheless there seems something wrong in attributing literary influences to a poet like Thomas, in the same way as one might legitimately to Eliot or Auden. There is an enormous gap between the mechanism of conscious influences and unconscious ones. On some level of his mind Whitman may have been as learned as Pope: but to discuss the influences on their work which may be discernible, as though they were mechanisms functioning in the same way, is surely wrong.

Goethe remarked to Eckermann that it was impossible today (and he meant in the beginning of the 19th Century) for a poet to attain the natural greatness of Shakespeare, who attained an unconscious, sleep-walker’s development: for the reason that today a poet is made conscious of his development at every stage, by the newspapers.

This is the kind of remark which people ignore, just as they contemptuously dismiss Yeats’s poem The Scholars in which he contrasts the passionate love-making of the poet, with the bald-headed analyzing of his poetry by the erudite critics. Of course we have to ignore Goethe’s remark, because he is entirely right, and there is nothing we can do about it. The problem for a poet is to write the kind of poetry he can write at each stage of his development. Anything which makes him aim at effects which lie not so much beyond his technical range as beyond experiences which justify them, or which makes him attempt to atone for deficiencies in his writing which are really deficiencies in his life, is wholly harmful to him. Most of the faults which the critics reveal in a writer’s work are not faults in his writing but in his life; and to attempt to resolve them in his writing is a far worse mistake than to have made them in the first instance. Nor is self-consciousness either in his life or his work likely to help his development.

A poet balancing words is like a juggler: and in order that he may perform his feat, it is necessary that his attention be entirely fixed on the illusion of the silver balls standing in the air which is the result of his technique. To have some- one explaining the technique or interpreting what it means, or for himself to act in such a way that he shows consciousness of technique and interpretation, is to break the illusion, to fill in the vacuum of held breath which is sustained between him and his audience.

Nearly all the criticism of contemporary poets which appears in reviews is destructive of the illusion of poetry. Poems are discussed in a way which reduces them to the level of the jargon of a critical vocabulary. Consider, for example, a critical article in which six volumes of verse are being discussed. Six entirely different worlds of poetic experience are all being broken down and reduced to the common denominator of the reviewer’s prose. The very fact that any one of the volumes under review can be broken down in this way and compared with any other, suggests already that the poet has created no separate experiential world, that his poetry really is opinions and journalism which can be laid side by side with other opinions and journalism. How absurd would seem a review of volumes by Keats, Leigh Hunt, Charles Dilke and Tennyson, in which we were told that Mr. Hunt’s technique was superior to that of Mr. Keats, that Dilke showed a mastery of narrative superior to that of Hunt, Keats or Tennyson, and in which half a dozen other such points were made. Yet if poetry is worth reviewing at all, it must be that often reviewers are making just such comparisons of totally unrelated talents.

The effect of modern reviewing is to reduce the whole of modern literature to a common level of gossip, technical jargon, malice and literary politics. Yet in order that a poet may reach a wider public he has to put his work through this dirty washing machine in which his laundry is soiled in public. Yet it is possible that reviewing and articles about modern poetry defeat their own ends to some extent, and that if there is a reaction today against poetry, it is because a public outside the literary game is disgusted by the sheer squalor of literary discussions.

Poetry reviewing is a necessary evil, but it could surely be carried on in a way which did not give the impression that the work of all but those very few poets who, although the most discussed, are really beyond discussion, was as mediocre as the mind of the reviewer. It would be a good precaution on the part of editors not to send books out for review unless they were either worth seriously supporting or in need of serious attacking. There should also be far more quotation and less comment in reviews. If a reviewer has to review six volumes in one review, he should try to quote one whole poem (perhaps a short one) by each poet, and then comment on that poem which is set before the eyes of the reader.

The worst result of excessive critical self-consciousness is that critical activity may become identified with creative activity in the poet’s mind. A crude example of this is the attempt to write synthetic poems: but now I mean something far subtler and more dangerous. The poet may wish to write a poem which conforms to his critical idea of what a poem should be, rather than to each stage of his development. Yeats once said to me that he had spent years of his life trying to simplify his idiom. He had been brought up to write and think in the manner of poets like Dowson of the aesthetic movement of the ‘nineties, but at a certain stage of his development, while he still wrote in that style, intellectually he had rejected it. A poet less distrustful of intellectual processes than Yeats would have changed his style when he changed has critical attitude without apparent difficulty, but he would have lost the line of his “unconscious, sleep-walking” development in the process.

In an age when there is a definite and rigid style like the 18th Century, everyone knows what is meant by form and technique. Criticism therefore makes clear demands on poets, that they should write within certain conventions, and about a certain subject-matter. This means that certain writers attain the utmost excellence possible within the 18th Century conventions. When this has been achieved, the poets are driven into a revolt, which is really the search for a new style in which to excel.

But in our time, criticism is both dogmatic and vague. What, for example, does T. S. Eliot mean when he praises the extraordinary technical achievement of Pound in “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley”? He certainly cannot mean that Pound has discovered a form which is of service to other poets, and which can become the style of an age. Or if he does mean this, the disastrous exercises in the manner of “Mauberley,” by Bottrall and others, show that he is quite wrong. All he can really mean is that Pound has discovered in this poem a style exactly suited to the uses of Pound in this poem. This means that anyone who thinks that the technical mastery of “Mauberley” lies in the creation of an objective style, is mistaken. Yet in a period of transition, and in an age without an objective style, in which all we can truly say to a poet is that he must discover the style best suited to his own purposes, critics are inclined to be dogmatic, and to hold up certain poets as examples of technical accomplishment when they are really examples of no use to anyone but themselves. If Pound is an example of anything, it is of his achievement in having created a manner entirely his own. And perhaps the one of his contemporaries who owed most to Pound was really Yeats who revolutionized his own style largely as a result of Pound, and invented one of his own utterly unlike Pound.

It may seem that these notes are an attack on criticism, but I do not intend them as such. What I am trying to say is that the good critic is even more rare than the good poet: criticism implies an understanding of technique, subject-matter and moral judgments on the experiences contained in poetry beyond that of poets themselves. Criticism is the most dynamic force in literature, and in the hands of blunderers it is an extremely dangerous one.

The perfect critic of our time would be he who understood completely the problem of writing poetry in our time and who could envisage either the objective style which should be the common aim of poets in our age, or the styles most suited to different poets according to their experience and capacities. Without such understanding, criticism is dangerous because it leads to the laying down of dogmatic attitudes which are destructive or misleading, and because it heightens the self-consciousness of poets who would be more likely to develop their gifts if they were not so self-conscious.

Perhaps the healthiest aspect of modern criticism is the concentration on the examination of the qualities of single lines, the articulation of metaphors and the exactness of images. But even here a critical attitude can be misleading if it results in dogmas. T. S. Eliot has recanted his earlier views on Milton and still more recently on Shelley. It is good that he should change his views, but one may regret that they were so dogmatically stated in the first instance.

A correspondence which took place in The New Statesman during the 1930’s, raises the question whether we can be too dogmatic even about imagery. Eliot criticized the lines of Shelley in To A Skylark:

Keen as are the arrows Of that silver sphere,
Whose intense lamp narrows In the white dawn clear,
Until we hardly see, we feel that it is there

What sphere did Shelley mean, he asked, challenging the image? A good many readers wrote to The New Statesman, suggesting the moon, planets, and so on. The assumption behind Eliot’s criticism was that if the reader is not sure what heavenly body is being referred to, the image must be imprecise, and therefore bad. On this assumption, his objection was sustained, in that many readers seemed to disagree about what Shelley meant. Yet it seems to me that
Eliot’s view of the image was perhaps too narrow and literal on this occasion. For Shelley’s image does make a vivid picture in my mind; and does this have to be too clearly defined? If I saw a painting of a misty dawn at sea by Turner or Monet, would it worry me because I was not sure whether a diffused glow in the sky was a planet, the moon, or even a lamp?

Modern criticism in addition to studying the mechanics of technique, imagery and metaphor, might do well to revive interest in the concept of the natural. For naturalness, although difficult to define, and impossible to be dogmatic about, is what should qualify the other aims of a poet, and what justifies his use of style and his selection of imagery. To be natural is to limit one’s aims to the capacity of one’s nature. Yeats did not allow his critical-intellectual admiration of modernism to make him into a modernist, because the ‘ninetyish style of his youth had become the most natural way of writing to him. Change was to him a problem of growth, not a decision of his will.

The lines of Shelley which Eliot attacks have a quality of natural description which considerably atones for the lack of precision which may justly be criticized. If Eliot had made allowance for this, perhaps his implied judgment would not have been so absolute.

Of course, what is natural and what not natural, is highly disputable. One cannot argue about it with the certainty with which one can lay down the law that a metaphor is incorrect. However, criticism might be better if it were shifted onto more disputable and less dogmatic territory. Samuel Johnson praises Shakespeare’s comedies and finds them better than the tragedies, because the language and situations are more natural. One may not agree, but this is worth arguing about. George Orwell says that certain writers (he cites Wyndham Lewis) seem praiseworthy by every critical standard one can apply, and yet one does not want to re-read them: it is as if, he observes, some vitamin, essential to literature, were lacking. This would seem to be true of much modern poetry, and the reasons for it are worth thinking about.

One cannot read contemporary criticism without being struck by the thought that the critic often invents reasons for admiring something which he feels he should admire, whereas, according to his intellectualized set of rules, he should not admire it at all. The example of the critic admiring Dylan Thomas’ poetry for influences he found in it, and asserting that without knowing of such influences, one could not understand Thomas at all, is a case in point. To my mind naturalness is a connecting idea which explains why a critic should admire things which are vastly different. For the task of the critic should be not to apply his rules but to discover (a) whether a poem develops according to discoverable laws of its own nature and (b) whether this separate growth, the poem, is in a relationship to an outside life, which we recognize as natural: just as Johnson felt Shakespeare’s comedies to be natural, but the speeches of King Lear to be in some sense monstrous growths, although of course developing within their own nature. The concept of the natural would enable criticism to relate the poetry of a de la Mare or an Edward Thomas to the intellectualized poetry of other poets about whom it has so much more to say. I should add that I do not consider myself a professional critic. I offer these notes only because, in that I do occasionally write reviews, I feel that it is only honest, when asked, to state my principles. Their interest may well lie more in revealing my ignorance than in making any useful contribution to this discussion. But I assume that there is some purpose in letting readers know where the writers stand who have been asked to contribute.

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