Literary Criticism After Arnold

Eliot begins his essay on The Perfect Critic by pointing out that Coleridge was the greatest of English Critics, and in a sense he was the last. No doubt Arnold came after Coleridge, and, no doubt, his work has enough of good sense, and it bridges the gulf between English Criticism and European Criticism, still Arnold was a propagandist for criticism rather than a critic, “a populariser of ideas, rather than a creator of ideas.” His mission was to correct his countrymen. Since Arnold’s times, English criticism has followed two directions. There has been (a) impressionistic criticism, and (b) abstract, or philosophic or verbal criticism. Eliot then proceeds to examine both these types of criticism, regards critics of both these types as imperfect, and holds out Aristotle as an example of a perfect critic.

Impressionistic Criticism

First, he examines impressionistic or aesthetic criticism, and points out that Arthur Symons and Swinburne are the two prominent exponents of this type of criticism in the modern age. In this respect, Arthur Symons is the critical successor of Walter Pater who was also an impressionistic critic. The mind of the impressionistic critic is sensitive like a sensitive camera plate. Just as a camera plate when exposed before an object takes an impression of that object, so also the mind of the impressionistic critic takes on the impression of the work of art to which it is exposed. His mind is more sensitive and more cultivated—more cultivated because of the impressions it has received and stored in from the critic’s wide reading and so its impressions are more numerous and more refined than those of a man of average sensibility. Further, these impressions are not photographic reproductions. The critic also translates and interprets, and in this way imposes his own impressions upon the impressions which he has received from the work of art. Thus impressionistic criticism tends to be personal and objective. Such is Arthur Symons’ criticism of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. The critic constantly recounts and comments upon the impressions he has received in his reading of the play.

Its Shortcomings

In other words, in Symons’ literary criticism his unfulfilled creative impulse mingles and modifies the impressions he receives from a work of art, or the emotions that are aroused by it. He does not faithfully record his impressions, he analyses and constructs, and thus creates something else. Swinburne, on the other hand, could satisfy his creative impulse in his poetry, so in his literary criticism he is entirely a critic who criticises, expounds and arranges, and does not interpret or translate. Both, are impressionistic critics, and both are imperfect for their criticism is emotional and not intellectual or scientific, but Swinburne is the better one of the two for reasons mentioned above. His effort is directed towards analysis and construction, and not towards creation. Symons, as matter of fact is, one of those critics who undergo violent emotional agitation as a result of their contract with a work of art. So, he makes something new out of his impressions, yet still there is some hidden, unknown obstacle in his nature, some lack of vitality, which prevents him from rising to the level of true creation. The sensibility of such critics can alter an object, but never transform it. Their reaction is that of an ordinary person, a mixed critical and creative reaction. Their criticism is made up of comment and opinion, and is also coloured by their own vague, personal emotions which have nothing to do with the work of art under consideration. Symons, therefore, is an instance of an imperfect critic. In a perfect critic merely personal emotions aroused by a work of art are fused and amalgamated with countless other emotions from “multitudinous experience”, and the result is the creation of a new object which in itself is a work of art. Swinburne is a better critic because his creative impulse finds satisfaction in his poetry, and does not overflow into his criticism; Symons’ unfulfilled creative impulse interferes fatally with his criticism and vitiates it. From this Eliot draws the general conclusion that poets make more dependable critics. Their criticism is criticism and not the satisfaction of a suppressed creative wish. Elsewhere, Eliot call such criticism, workshop criticism, and regards it as the most dependable type of criticism Poet-critics, as is Eliot himself are, therefore, better than those who are not themselves poets or creative artists.

Abstract Criticism

The other kind of criticism is abstract, philosophical or verbal. Eliot here uses the words ‘abstract’, ‘philosophical’ and ‘verbal’ in a derogatory sense. He uses them to mean a vague, unprecise, indefinite, or emotional use of words. Words have a tendency to grow corrupt and to lose their precise, definite meanings with the passing of time. They take on emotional overtones; instead of expressing thought they tend to express feeling. They become suggestive, and begin to express merely personal emotions. In order to explain the point, he quotes from a distinguished contemporary critic, who wrote in a newspaper article, “Poetry is the most highly organised form of intellectual activity”. Now this statement does not make it clear how poetry is a more highly organised activity than, say, astronomy or physics or mathematics. Such statements are mere string of words, having no real significance as criticism. Such verbiage shows that modern criticism has grown degenerate. Such statements convey no truth, except the writer’s own emotions about poetry.

Aristotle, the Perfect Critic

Such degenerate, abstract criticism is entirely different from the criticism of Aristotle, criticism which is scientific and precise. His disciples regard him as a very God. The approach him in a canonical spirit and so fail to appreciate his real merit and greatness. Aristotle was a man with a universal intelligence. By ‘universal’ intelligence Eliot means that he had an intelligence which he could apply to any subject. An ordinary man is good only for certain subjects. He can apply his intelligence to poetry, or science or to any other particular subject in which he may be interested. But Aristotle could apply his mind successfully to every possible subject. Moreover, the average man’s judgment is coloured by his personal emotions and predilections. Aristotle’s judgment was entirely free from accidents of personal organisation. He always looked “solely and steadfastly at the object.” His Poetics is the eternal example of “intelligence swiftly operating, the analysis of sensation to the point of principle and definition.”

Aristotle and Horace

Aristotle is the perfect critic because he never lays down any laws or rules. He analyses the impressions he has received from a particular work of art and presents his conclusions in the form of general principles and definitions. In order to bring out the superiority of Aristotle, Eliot contrasts his method with that of Horace, a critic who was the model for literary criticism upto the 19th century. He gives us precepts, and this shows that his analyses of his perceptions is not complete. “A precept is an unfinished analysis.” Horace is an example of a dogmatic critic, a critic who asserts, with lays down rules and laws, the value of which he affirms and which he says, must be followed. But a true, scientific critic, as Aristotle is, does not coerce. He does not make judgments of worse and better. He simply elucidates, and leaves the readers to form their own judgments.

Dryden and Campion

Aristotle is neither a dogmatic critic like Horace, nor a technical or legislature critic like Campion and Dryden. The aim of a legislative critic is a narrow one. His aim is merely to impart lessons to the practitioner of an art. As his aim is limited, his criticism does not constitute the disinterested exercise of intelligence. For this reason, even the mind of such a great critic as Dryden is not a free mind. It is hampered and limited by his narrow aim. In such critics, “there is always a tendency to legislate rather than to inquire, to revise accepted laws, even to overturn, but to reconstruct out of the same material. And the free intelligence is that which is wholly devoted to inquiry.”


Even Coleridge, a man of great ability, did not have an intelligence completely free. It was hampered and restrained by his metaphysical interests. In his literary criticism, the emotions aroused by a work of art are mixed up and modified by his metaphysical interests or emotions. But a literary critic should have no other emotions except those aroused by the work of art under study. Coleridge’s emotions are ‘impure’. Everything that Aristotle says illuminates the piece of literature concerned; Coleridge can illuminate in this way only now and then. His criticism shows the evil effects or emotions, emotions other than those which are aroused by the object under study.

Sainte Beuve

As a matter of fact, Aristotle had the scientific mind or better still a mind of general or universal intelligence. While the interests of a scientist are narrow and limited, the interests of Aristotle were not limited in this way. His was really an intelligent mind. Sainte Beuve, no doubt, is a great modern critic, but his mind, like the mind of an ordinary scientist, was limited by his interest, in physiology. Of all modern critics, Remy De Gourmont alone has the universal intelligence of Aristotle. He has the qualities which a perfect or ideal critic should have. According to Eliot, these qualities are superior, “sensitiveness, erudition, sense of fact and sense of history, and generalising power.”

The Ideal Critic: His Qualities

As regards superior sensibility—or the capacity to receive impressions from a work of art—Eliot simply says that it is a natural gift. A true critic possesses it in a greater degree than an ordinary individual. Erudition or wide reading is also necessary for a critic. Reading certainly increases understanding and widens the mental horizons. But the real value of erudition is that the previous impressions derived from reading are modified and altered by the new ‘impressions’. In this way older impressions are refreshed by new impressions, and such renewal or refreshment is necessary even for the existence of the earlier impressions. In this way is formed a system of impressions, and such a system finds expressions in a generalised statement of the beauty of a work of art. It is erudition which enables the critic to see an object as it really is in itself without its being coloured by the personal emotions of the critic. Eliot explains his point through a concrete example. Even an uneducated reader can enjoy Dante’s Divine Comedy, But his reaction would be “emotional. His reaction would be purely an indulgence in personal emotions, an indulgence which has been stimulated by the beauty of the poem. His reaction would be quite different from that pure contemplation, which is entirely free from personal emotions. It is only erudition which makes such pure contemplation, such exercise of intelligence, possible. Wide reading, therefore, is of the utmost importance. Erudition is necessary also because it alone can give use, a sense of fact and a sense of history. From a study of Eliot’s other essays we know that by a ‘sense of fact’ Eliot means a knowledge and understanding of the technical details of a poem. By the historical sense he means, what he elsewhere calls, a sense of tradition, a sense of European literary tradition extending from Homer down to our own times.

It is erudition alone which can give to the critic his generalising power. It is through erudition that the successive impressions received by the critic form themselves into a structure. Successive impressions do not accumulate in his mind like a formless heap or mass. Rather, they are organised and systematised, his sensibility is developed and intensified, and is expressed in the form of generalised statements about the beauty of a work of art. In his criticism there is no expression of personal emotion, for his personal emotions have been removed or impersonalised by his erudition. The criticism of such an ideal critic is entirely unemotional. It may hot be liked by emotional people, but it is true, scientific or intellectual criticism.


In the end, Eliot expresses the view that the so-called ‘historical’ and ‘philosophic’ critics are not critics at all; they are merely historians and philosophers. Also, he does not agree with those who would like to separate ‘criticism’ and ‘creation’ into two watertight compartment. In his view, the creative and the critical sensibilities are not opposite but complementary. Therefore, it is desirable that the critic and the creative artist should frequently be the same person. Poets are likely to make the best critics. There should be no “dissociation of sensibility” in this respect. A ‘unification’ of the creative and critical sensibility is likely to show the best results.


In his essay the Perfect Critic, T.S. Eliot lists the following different types of critics and criticism.

Impressionistic or Aesthetic Criticism

First, there is the impressionistic criticism or aesthetic criticism. The critic exposes his sensitive and cultivated mind to the work of art concerned, and records the impressions received in this way. However, this record is not entirely objective, for it is coloured by and mixed up with the critics own emotions. Such impressionistic criticism in itself may be of two kinds. In the one, the criticism begins to be creative, but stops short of true creation as if some deficiency in the critic’s personality has hampered and frustrated creation. In the second, there is no attempt at creation, for the creative impulse of the critic has found satisfaction in his poetry. Arthur Symons is an example of the former, and Swinburne of the later type. Both these types of impressionistic criticism are unsatisfactory, for both of them are emotional, while criticism of the highest order is entirely unemotional.

Abstract or Philosophical Criticism

Secondly, there is the abstract or philosophical or verbal criticism. T.S. Eliot has here used these words in a derogatory sense. It is the type of criticism in which words are used in a vague, indefinite sense; instead of conveying some definite concepts, they convey the indefinite and vaguely realised emotions of the critic. Thus when a critic says, “poetry is the highly organised form of intellectual activity”, he conveys nothing precise and definite except his own emotions regarding poetry. He does not make it clear in what sense poetry is a more highly organised activity than say astronomy or physics. The critic has merely substituted for thought his own emotions regarding poetry. Such criticism is mere verbiage, a mere string of words. It is sign of corruption and degeneracy.

Dogmatic Criticism

Thirdly, there is dogmatic criticism represented by Horace and Boileau. The critic lays down percepts and rules, and affirms values. He makes judgments of worse and better. He is not content merely to elucidate and leave the reader to form his own judgment.

Legislative Criticism

Fourthly, there is the technical or legislative criticism. The aim of such a critic is a narrow one. His aim is to impart lessons to the; practitioners of an art. His criticism is not disinterested, and the narrowness of his aim prevents him from achieving the impersonality or generality necessary for true criticism. Dryden is the best, example of a legislative critic. Despite all his greatness, he is not a free mind. The free or disinterested play of intelligence in his case is hampered by the narrowness of his aim. In all the critics of the 17th century, there is a tendency to legislate and this hampers free inquiry. The critics try to revise, even overturn accepted laws, but they always reconstruct out of existing material.

Historical Criticism

Fifthly, there is the historical criticism. Instead of having a ‘sense of fact’, and writing with his eyes steadily fixed on the work of art, the critic tries to judge it in its ‘historical context’. Critics who depend upon biographical, sociological or historical knowledge, are not literary critics at all. They may better be called historians and philosophers. A work of art is the thing in itself and it must be studied and elucidated on its own merits, without bringing in of any extraneous considerations.

Workshop Criticism

Sixthly, there is the ‘workshop’ criticism or criticism coming from the pen of poet-critics. Such critics have satisfied their creative impulse in their poetry. Therefore, their criticism is criticism and not the satisfaction of a suppressed creative wish, which often, in other kinds of critics, interferes fatally with criticism. Moreover, such poet-critics, as Eliot tells us elsewhere, have a first hand knowledge of the mysteries of their art, a truer appreciation of poetic beauty, and hence are likely to make better critics. In their case, there is no ‘dissociation’ of the critical and creative faculties. This unification makes them more dependable critics.

Scientific Criticism

However, the best kind of criticism is the scientific criticism, and its best exponent in ancient times was Aristotle and in modern times, Remy De Gourmont. Such a critic has a free and open mind. He looks solely and steadfastly at the object. He does not lay down any laws or prescribe any rules or precepts. He does not make any judgment of better or worse. His intelligence operates swiftly, analyses sensations and perceptions, and this analysis is carried to the point of general principles and definition. From the particular the critic constantly rises to the universal and the general. Such a critic illuminates and elucidates and so is conducive to a better appreciation and understanding of the work of art. In his criticism accidents of personal emotion are removed, and we see the object as it really is. Aristotle had such an intelligent or scientific mind, and his Poetics is the eternal example of scientific criticism. He looks, “solely and steadfastly at the object”, “everything that he says illuminates”, and so Eliot regards him as a perfect or ideal critic.


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