The Origin, of the Essay: Its Four Parts

The essay Function of Criticism 1923, arose out of a controversy. Eliot’s essay Tradition and Individual Talent was published a few years earlier in 1919. Middleton Murry challenged the opinions of Eliot in his essay Romanticism and the Tradition. The present essay is Eliot’s reply to Murry. The first part gives in brief the opinions expressed by Eliot in the essay Tradition and Individual Talent, in the second part, he gives a resume of the views of Middleton Murry, in the third part, these views of Murry are briefly dismissed, and in the concluding fourth part, the poet examines the different aspects of the nature and function of criticism.

Eliot’s Dynamic Conception of Tradition

Eliot begins the essay by referring to certain views he had expressed in his earlier essay, Tradition and Individual Talent, because they are relevant to the present essay. In the earlier essay, he had pointed out that there is an intimate relation between the present and the past in the world of literature. The entire literature of Europe from Homer down to the present day forms a single literary tradition, and it is in relation to this tradition that individual writers and individual works of art have their significance. This is so because the past is not dead, but lives on in the present. The past is altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past. Past works of literature form an ideal order, but this ideal order is disturbed if ever so slightly, when a really new work of art appears. There is a readjustment of values, resulting in conformity between the old and the new. Literary tradition is constantly changing and grow different from age to age.

Literary Tradition: The Value of Conformity

The literary tradition is the outside authority to which an artist in the present must owe allegiance. He must constantly surrender and sacrifice himself in order to have meaning and significance. The true artists of any time form an ideal community, and artist in the present must achieve a sense of his community. He must realise that artists of all times are united together by a common cause and a common inheritance. While a second rate artist assets his individuality because his distinction lies in the difference and not in similarity with others, the true artist tries to conform. He alone can “afford to collaborate, to exchange, to contribute.”

Definition of Criticism and Its Ends

Eliot’s views on criticism derive from his views on art and tradition as given above. He defines criticism as, “the commentation and exposition of works of art by means of written words’“. Criticism can never be an autotelic activity, because criticism is always about something. Art, as critics like Matthew Arnold point out, may have some other ends, e.g., moral, religious, cultural, but art need not be aware of these ends, rather it performs its function better by being indifferent to such ends. But criticism always has one and only one definite end, and that end is, “elucidation of works of art and the correction of taste.” In his essay The Frontiers of Criticism, he further explains the aim of criticism as, “the promotion of understanding and enjoyment of literature.”

The Need of Co-operation and Conformity

Since the end of criticism is clear and well defined, it should he easy to determine whether a critic has performed his function well or not. However, this is not such an easy taste. The difficulty arises from the fact that critics, instead of trying to discipline their personal prejudices and whims and composing their differences with as many of their fellow critics as possible and co-operating in the common pursuit of true judgment, express extreme views and vehemently assert their individually, i.e. the ways in which they differ from others. This is so because they owe their livelihood to such differences and oddities. The result is criticism has become like a Sunday Park full of orators competing with each other to attract as large and audience as possible. Such critics are a worthless lot of no value and significance. However, there are certain other critics who are useful, and it is on the basis of their works, that Eliot establishes the aims and methods of criticism which should be followed by all.

Murry’s Views or the Classic and the Romantic

In the second part of the essay, Eliot digresses into a consideration of Middleton Murry’s views on classicism and Romanticism. While there are critics who hold that classicism and romanticism are the same thing, Murry takes a definite position, and makes a clear distinction between the two, and says that one cannot be a classic and a romantic at one and the same time. In this respect, Eliot praises Murry, but he does not agree with him when he makes the issue a national and racial issue, and says that the genius of the French is classic and that of the English is romantic. Murry further relates Catholicism in religion with classicism in literature, for both believe in tradition, in discipline, in obedience to an objective authority outside the individual. On the contrary, romanticism and Protestantism, and social liberalism, are related, for they have full faith in the ‘inner voice’, in the individual, and obey no outside authority. They care for no rules and traditions.

Eliot’s Rejection of Murry’s Views

But Eliot does not agree with these views. In his opinion, the difference between classicism and romanticism is, the difference between the complete and the fragmentary, the adult and the immature, the orderly and the chaotic. To him the concept of the inner voice sounds remarkably like doing, What one likes. It is a sign of indiscipline leading to vanity, fear and lust. Neither does he agree with the view that the English as a nation are romantics and so ‘humorous’ and ‘non-conformists’, while the French are ‘naturally’ classical.

“Inner Voice”: Ironic Treatment of It

In the third part of the essay, Eliot summarily dismisses the views of Murry. The tone is one of light ridicule. He contemptuously calls the inner voice, whiggery. For those who believe in the ‘inner voice’, criticism is of no value at all, because the function of criticism is to discover some common principles for achieving perfection in art. Those who believe in the “inner voice” do not want any principles. In other words, they do not care for perfection in art, which can result only through obedience to the laws of art, and to tradition which represents the accumulated wisdom and experience of ages.

Criticism and the Creative Faculty

In the fourth part, Eliot deals with the problem of criticism in all its manifold aspects. In the very beginning, he comments upon the terms ‘critical’ and ‘creative’. He ridicules Matthew Arnold for having distinguished rather bluntly between the ‘critical’ and the ‘creative’ activity. He does not realise that criticism is of capital importance in the work of creation. As a matter of fact, “the larger part of the labour of an author in composing his work is critical labour’, the labour of sifting, combining constructing, expunging, correcting, testing.” Eliot further expresses the view that the criticism employed by a writer on his own work is the most vital and the highest kind of criticism. Elsewhere, Eliot calls such criticism, workshop criticism. Its high worth and value cannot be denied, for a poet who knows from personal experience the mysteries of the creative process is in a better position to write about it than those who have no such knowledge. Eliot goes to the extent of saying that some creative writers are superior to others only because their critical faculty is superior. He ridicules those who decry the critical toil of the artist, and hold the view that the greater artist is an unconscious artist. He calls such concepts whiggery and pours his ridicule on such people. He comments those who, instead relying on the ‘Inner voice’, or ‘inspiration’, conform to tradition, and in this was try to make their works as free from defects as possible.

Can There be Creative Criticism?

It is a mistake to separate critical and creative activities. A large part of creation is in reality criticism. But critical writing cannot be creative. There can be no creative criticism. Creative criticism is neither criticism nor creation. This is so because there is a fundamental difference between creation and criticism. Creation, a work of art, is autotelic. It has no conscious aims and objectives. Criticism, on the other hand, is always about something, other than itself. In other words, it is not an autotelic activity, its aim being the commentation and elucidation of works of art. Hence it is that we cannot fuse creation with criticism as we can fuse criticism with creation. The critical activity finds its highest fulfilment when it is fused with creation, with the labour of the artist.

The Qualifications of an Ideal Critic: A Highly Developed Sense of Fact

Eliot next proceeds to consider the qualifications of a critic. The foremost quality which an ideal critic must have is a highly developed sense of fact. The sense of fact is a rare gift. It is not frequently met with, and it is very slow to develop. The value of a practitioner’s criticism—say that of a poet on his own art, ‘workshop criticism’ as Eliot elsewhere calls it—lies in the fact that he is dealing with facts which he understands, and so can also help us to understand them. Eliot’s own criticism is such workshop criticism, and Eliot is all praises for such critics and their criticism. There is a large part of criticism which seeks to ‘interpret’ an author and his work. But most of such interpretation is no interpretation at all. It is mere fiction; the critic gives his views, his impression of the work, and so is false and misleading. Eliot has no use for such impressionistic criticism; it gives us no insight into the work under study.

Sense of Fact: The Technical Aspects

True interpretation is no interpretation at all; it is merely putting the reader in possession of the facts which he might have missed otherwise. The true critic himself knows the facts about a work of art—its conditions, its settings, its genesis—and puts them before his readers in a simple and easy manner. Thus it is clear that by ‘facts’ Eliot means the various technical aspects of a work of art.

The Tools of the Critic: Comparison and Analysis

Comparison and analysis are the chief tools of a critic. These are the tools of the critic, and he must use them with care and intelligence. Comparison and analysis can be possible only when the critic knows the facts about the works which are to be compared and analysed. He must know the facts about the work of art—technical elements like its structure, content and theme—and not waste his time in such irrelevant fact-hunting as the inquiry into the number of times giraffes are mentioned in the English novel. However, the method of comparison and analysis, even when used unjudiciously, is preferable to ‘interpretation’ in the conventional sense.

Warning Against Fact-hunting

Facts, even facts of the lowest order, cannot corrupt taste, while impressionistic criticism, like that of Coleridge and Goethe, is always misleading. The function of criticism is to educate taste or, as Eliot puts it elsewhere, to promote enjoyment and understanding of literature. Now facts, however trivial, can never corrupt taste; they can only gratify taste. Critics like Goethe or Coleridge, who supply opinion or fancy, are the real corruptors. In the end, Eliot cautions us not to become slaves to facts and bother about such trivialities as the laundry bills of Shakespeare. Such fact-hunting is not criticism. Similarly, he warns us against the vicious taste for reading about works of art instead of reading the works themselves.

‘Lemon squeezer’ and Impressionistic Criticism: Eliot’s Condemnation

Eliot’s emphasis on facts makes it clear that his critical stand is with such New Critics as F.R. Leavis and I.A. Richards. He commands textual criticism, but he is against the ‘lemon-squeezer’ school of critics who try to squeeze every drop of meaning out of words. A critic should concentrate on the text, compare and analyse, but he should never stoop to trivialities or empty hair-splitting. A good critic is objective, his judgment is based on facts, he is guided by tradition, the accumulated wisdom of ages and not by his, “inner voice”. He does not indulge in mere expression of opinion or fancy. Eliot is against impressionistic criticism, but he does not expound any theories or lay down any rules and principles. Impressionistic criticism is erratic, while adherence to rigid theories hampers the critic and curtails his freedom

Eliot’s Originality: Objective, Scientific Attitude

The critic should be guided by facts and facts alone. He should approach the work of art with a free mind, unprejudiced by any theories or preconceived notions. Only then can he be completely objective and impersonal. It is in this way that criticism approximates to the position of science. It is only in this way that criticism becomes a co-operative activity, the critic of one age cooperates with critics of the previous ages in common pursuit of truth. Such truths are provisional, for ‘truths’ of one age are likely to be modified and corrected by truths discovered by future ages. In this objective-scientific attitude Eliot is different from all other previous English critics. Herein lies his individuality and originality. He is like a scientist working with an open mind and co-operating with others, for the realisation of truth which he knows can only be tentative.


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