The Teacher as a Critic

Austin Warren

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

Like Newman, who so deeply influenced my youth and who continues to be one of my points de repère, I can most naturally exposit my present convictions by sketching the history of how I came by them.

Never, in high school, college, or graduate school, had I a proper teacher of literature,—that is, one capable, against a background of history, literary history, philosophy, and theology, of analysing the specifically aesthetic organization of a literary work and providing, either intuitively or conceptually and systematically, the bases for judgment of a literary work of art. My teachers of literature—the best of them—were either grammarians or moralists.

Thrust into an English classroom, I had to make what practical working adjustment I could of two disciplines which, even in my youth, retained some rationale and method,—theology and music. The piano teacher in my New England village was not only an artist but a priestess,—a professional representative of an ancient art. The village clergyman was at least an amateur theologian, and required to be such by the standards of his older parishioners, who still held something of the intellectual rigor which Mrs. Stowe (in Oldtown Folks) attributed to the Yankee laity: he had, too, to possess some skill at Biblical exegesis (doubtless the archetype of our literary “close reading” of texts). The village musician and the village pastor alike possessed also some sense of the need for both theory and practice. A good pianist knew harmony and counterpoint and musical history; he knew also the technique of his instrument; and he studied critically the interpretation of particular musical works—Chopin nocturnes or Beethoven sonatas. “Reading at sight” and “playing by ear,” both of which I should want to defend, were, relatively, either subordinated or attacked as incompatible with accurate muscianship. That is to be regretted. None the less the young pianist was required to bring, in combination, his theory and his technique and his musical sensibility to bear upon what he was prepared professionally to play.

The specific example which theology affords a critic is its complex of responsibilities,—like those of criticism itself. By comparison with philosophy, theology is “impure”: it has to do justice to religious experience and to the Scriptures as well as to abstract thought. “Philosophy of religion” more specifically attempts the reconciliation of religion with the other disciplines,—is a Summa Contra Gentiles; but Theology, like “literary theory” or poetics, must always, even in its most speculative and systematic reaches, hold itself accountable to the consensus fidelium,—be applicable, finally, to exegesis and to the spiritual life of Christians. As Joubert says, “Il faut craindre de se tromper en poésie, quand on ne pense pas comme les poètes, et en religion, quand on ne pense pas comme les saints.” But the equilibrium between the conceptual (as well as the institutional) aspects of religion and the primitively creative elements,—das Heilige, religious experience and mystical—is always precarious,—as the most profound philosopher of religion in our time, Friedrich von Hugel, innocently admitted. The Church and dogmatic theology feel as uncomfortable about the mystics and the saints, yet (upon prudent reflection) as dependent upon their having existed, as the University and literary theory and literary criticism are embarrassed by what was once called “creative writing” and now (or a few years ago) “imaginative writing.”

The well-being of criticism (in general, or my own) depends, I think, on managing a necessary, constantly shifting, balance between, on the one hand, “scholarship” (the minimal experience of past literature, and even awareness of its existence, though one has not experienced it) and literary theory (the “philosophy of literature,” the “apologetics” of literature, the rationale of its “public relations”), and, on the other, the experience of literature: a perception of the sociological and psychological torments and gladnesses which prompt its creation; an interest—if possible sympathetic, but at least empathetic—in the literature of our own time (which I don’t limit to the rabbinical exegesis of “spoilt priests” like Joyce, Yeats, and Eliot) ; the love of the creative, which the aging can most soundly test their degree of by seeing what they do with the young poets and novelists committed to their pedagogic or patronal care.

The training for a university—or a high school—teacher of literature and the right training for a practising critic of literature seem to me most responsibly judged by whether or not they have preserved this flexible, sensitive balance—not to be administratively or curricularly achieved—between knowledge about literature and the first-hand, precarious experience of it. I have never thought of the functions of teacher and critic as different, save in mode. Though I have practised and shall continue to practise “scholarship” as an operation preliminary to sound teaching and critical writing as, at minimum, a negative assurance that one isn’t speaking foolishly or fatuously, I can’t think of “scholarly research” as what the literarily,—or spiritually—hungry sheep are to be fed, or as sustaining fare for shepherds. Teaching literature and writing critically of literature ought to be indistinguishable, save that the teaching, if a lecture, is necessarily thinner,—so that when a teacher comes to write out what he has said or might say, he must cross out at least every other sentence,—and that if the teaching is (as the best teaching is) Socratic or catechetical, the questions put and the answers made may both be too elementary. Whether theoretical or practical, the best criticism is, however, nearer to the catechetical than to the expository. The best criticism is the critic asking himself questions he finds hard to answer, and giving the most honest (even if tentative or uncertain or negative) answers he can.

Like theology and philosophy, criticism has to proceed dialectically, not pursue with steady zeal a single line. The Christological controversies of the Patristic period, in the speculatively-minded Near East (Alexandria, Antioch, Byzantium) operated by polarity,—extreme development corrected by its rival heresy. Orthodoxy is, strictly, incapable of strict statement: its function is, by the deep, communal operation of intellect and sensibility, to protest against those opposite, neat, simplifying statements which attempt to reduce the Faith to something less than religious experience. To the Church’s experience of the God-man, to its meditation, the Nestorian reduction is false; false also is the Monophysite “exalting” reduction.

To study the history of literary criticism, as that of theology, is sombre and disheartening if one cannot see that what is living moves, not by the mere preservation of dogma and still less by the mechanical or political compromise, ordinarily some verbal formula compounded of evasive terms) but by the thrust and counterthrust of positions engaging men’s devotion, of interests successively obsessive. At each historical moment, at each crisis of culture, there is a new need, a new direction to be followed. The life of literary criticism, as of religion, is tested by its faith that it can deal with the present moment and speak prophetically (or “programmatically”) for the future of the art to which it is dedicated.

Past criticism (an acceptable academic course) is unprofitable to a literary man unless he can relate the document studied to its philosophical justification and its creative fulfillment (its theoretical location and its practical aesthetic). It must be taught, that is, with constant reference to the history of philosophy (metaphysics, ethics, politics, aesthetics) on the one hand, and on the other to the works of literary art which the critic (e.g., Aristotle, Longinus, Horace, Boileau, Coleridge) had before him as objects from which to generalize and which to evaluate hierarchically. A few critical works—notably (from before the 19th Century) Aristotle’s Poetics and, to a lesser degree, Longinus’ essay on the nature of literary greatness—justify themselves without such philosophical and poetic placement, but only a few; and we may doubt their total exemption.

From this contextual and engaged character of criticism I do not draw the “moral” drawn by some of our most refined and scrupulous scholars,—though doubtless the history of criticism stands in little danger of being “‘kidnapped”—the metaphorical charge applied by Merritt Hughes as well as by others to 20th Century “creative” interpretations of Donne and Marvell. But in any case criticism needs to keep starting again from its permanent stance, that of adjustment between its object of study (literary works and their nature) and our best current total standards of judgment. Instead of being praised as a safe and immutable thing, it must be celebrated as the audacity of adventurers, willing to risk experiments and adopt positions which may later have to be given up.

No neat prescription for the critical future satisfies me. On the one hand, I believe that literary teachers (or critics) should be at least as well trained in the theory and the history of their interest as priests and musicians; and my eager—and self-educative—part in writing Theory of Literature was motivated by that belief, as is my devotion (more manifest in my teaching than in my published work) to “close criticism.” But I am even more concerned, as a teacher (and learner) that the priestly transmission of the past (of “past revelation”) shall not suppress, or take the place of, or be mistaken for, the poetic and the critical equivalents of the prophetic and the mystic vocations, from which alone the priestly derives its claims to respectable and even necessary usefulness. The theologians and philosophers of religion who intellectually reared me (the Christian Platonists of Alexandria and of Cambridge, Bishops Butler and Gore, and Baron von Hügel) have given me a steady and ecumenical faith (not at all mine by temperament) in the diversity of spiritual gifts needful to society as well as faith in the dialectic of critical history.

The practical conclusion isn’t that we, as critics, should refrain from current polemics or expression of present conviction, prompted by present need, and, instead, utter generalities which, in a general kind of way, are always true—if one knows what they mean. It is rather that, with whatever sense of the past we really, and not merely “notionally,” have, we should participate as teachers and critics in that archetypal balance which is tension, not compromise.

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