Criticism: Its Nature and Function
The word criticism is derived from the Greek word meaning ‘Judgment’, and hence criticism is the exercise of judgment, and literary criticism is the exercise of judgment on works of literature.
Literary criticism is the play of the mind on a work of literature and it consists in asking and answering rational question about literature. Such an inquiry may be directed either towards literature in general leading to a better understanding of the nature and value of literature, and a better appreciation of the pleasure proper to literature. Such an inquiry by helping us to think rightly about literature enables us to gain the fullest enjoyment from it. In this way is built up a theory of literature, and the process of literary creation is examined and made intelligible.
Or, secondly, the inquiry may be directed towards particular works of literature, and its individual and distinctive qualities may be examined. The matter, the manner, the technique and language of a piece of literature may be put to searching examination and in this way its literary worth may be assessed. In this way may also be formulated certain rules which, when duly tested and examined with reference to similar works of literature, may help the reader to form a better idea of literary merit, and also facilitate the task of the writer. Thus the function of criticism is not fault-finding as it is supposed to be by the layman. Its function is not to pick holes in a given work of literature nor is it its function to eulogise or laud some favourite author. Indiscriminate praise is as bad as indiscriminate fault finding. Rather, criticism is the science of forming and expressing correct judgment upon the value and merit of works of literature. It is only through criticism that intelligent appreciation and clear understanding becomes possible.
The Changing Role of Critics and Criticism
Views regarding the functions of criticism and the role of critics have kept on changing through the ages. Every age has tended to assign a different function or functions to criticism. The earliest systematic critic, Plato, for example, was concerned with the problem of defining the utility of poetry in the educational system of his ideal state, found poetry wanting, and so banished poets from his ideal commonwealth. His approach was fundamentally utilitarian, and he condemned poetry as immoral and untruthful. Following Plato’s condemnation, critics for long centuries to come were pre-occupied with justifying imaginative literature, more specially poetry. Aristotle took up the challenge of Plato and asserted the superiority of Poetry over Philosophy, and Sir Philip Sydney wrote his famous treatise in defence of poetry. All through the Renaissance the chief motif of critical writing was to set up a defence of poetry, and to emphasise its moral value. All through the neo-classical age, criticism was concerned with demonstrating that poetry both instructs and delights.
Critics from the earliest times have also thought that the chief business of criticism was to teach the writer how to write effectively. The general statements of Aristotle and Horace were narrowed down to dogmatic ‘rules’ and writers were advised to follow them strictly. The Augustans were of the view that the chief end of criticism was to devise rules and regulations for the guidance of writers, and then to judge a work on the basis of these rules. Pope admirably sums up the classical view of criticism when he advises the writers to make the study of the ancients their chief delight, and learn from them the rules of good writing. Writers must adhere to these rules when they create, and critics must judge strictly on the basis of these ‘rules.’
However, such a view of the function of criticism soon became outmoded. With the rise of romantic individualism, the conception of the function of criticism underwent a radical change. It was now realised that the chief function of criticism is aesthetic, i.e. to promote appreciation and enjoyment of literature. The critic is a man of taste, he himself enjoys what he reads, and he tries to convey his own aesthetic pleasure to his readers. Highest criticism is the expression of the personal impression of an exceptionally gifted and sensitive individual; it is a record of his own aesthetic pleasure and response to a work of art and it stimulates and encourages the readers, and helps them to understand literature.
It was also during the romantic era that a number of critics wrote to promote a better understanding of the process of creation. The best of such critics have been the poets themselves, and they have written in order to convey their literary theories – their views of poetic creation – to their readers. Thus the purpose of Wordsworth’s criticism is to explain to his readers his own poetic theory, and in this way to create the taste by which his poems could be enjoyed. Coleridge, another poet-critic, made minute and subtle studies of the process of poetic creation and tried to formulate principles of poetic composition. In our own day, T.S. Eliot has given considerable thought to poetic creation and tried to formulate principles of poetic composition. In our own day, T.S. Eliot has given considerable thought to poetic theory, and through his criticism has done much to stimulate re-thinking. Criticism of such poet-critics is of much value and significance. It has been a great irritant to thought.
Romantic criticism often tends to be wayward and unbalanced. Therefore, the need was soon felt to discipline the personal likes and dislikes, prejudices and predilections, of the critic, and bring literary criticism in touch with the main currents of literary and social thought. Thus during the Victorian era, Matthew Arnold wrote that criticism is, “the endeavour to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world.” In this way, the scope of critical inquiry was much widened, and criticism became a handmaid to culture and education by propagating the best that is known and thought. Such criticism establishes a current of noble ideas, and thus creates the proper atmosphere in which great literature becomes possible. In this way, criticism promotes creation; critical activity of a high order is considered necessary for successful creation. Indeed, critics like T.S. Eliot are of the view that much critical labour must precede and accompany the labour of creation.
In the modern age, there has been a considerable widening of the scope of criticism. There is a bewildering multiplicity of views and theories regarding the scope and function of literary criticism. Broadly speaking modern criticism is of two kinds: (a) Extrinsic criticism, and (b) Ontological criticism. Extrinsic criticism is criticism which takes into consideration the current psychological, sociological and cultural concepts and relates a work closely to the life and age of its writer. It studies the impact of social conditions on literature, as also how far literature tends mould the age in which it is written. It enables us to judge a particular work in its social and biographical context. Ontological criticism, on the other hand, focuses its attention entirely and exclusively on the work under study. For an ontological critic or ‘New Critic’, the poem is the thing in itself and the text is minutely examined and studied, word for word, and line by line, without any reference to any other extrinsic considerations. Obscure allusions, references, quotations, etc., are thus explained away and a better and clearer understanding of the meaning of the text is promoted. Such Textual or Formalistic criticism is of great service to the reader; it serves to bring the reader closer to the mind of the author. It is explanatory and interpretative and so conducive to a healthier and more intelligent appreciation. Evaluation, interpretation and explanation are now considered as the chief function of literary criticism.
BRIEF HISTORICAL SURVEY
1. Earliest or Hellenic Phase
We have defined literary criticism (see above) as the exercise of judgment on works of literature, and this implies that criticism would follow creative activity. This is true in general, but in ancient Greece criticism began almost simultaneously with literary creation. In the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., Athens was the centre of literary and critical activity and Plato and Aristotle were the most important critics. This is the earliest or Hellenic (Greek) phase of criticism, and it forms the background to all subsequent literary inquiry. Aristotle is the first scientific critic, he is the first theorist of literature; he is a great irritant to thought, and his Poetics has influenced and coloured critical inquiry through the ages. A study of the Poetics is, therefore, considered indispensable for all students of literature.
2. Hellenistic Phase
By the close of the third century B.C., Athenian culture suffered a decline and a period of decadence now set in. In the centuries that followed, we find that Athens is no longer the centre of literary activity in the ancient world. New centres of art and culture have sprung up, the most prominent of which is Alexandria in Egypt. The second phase of criticism is antiquity known as the Hellenistic phase. It is a period of decadence in which very little original work is done. However, the scholars of this period did valuable service in preserving old texts, classifying them, and conducting patient research in the life and writings of the great writers of Greece. We are indebted to these painstaking scholars for much that we know of the art and culture of antiquity. However, much of their literary production is merely imitative, and their contribution to literary criticism is small.
3. Greeco-Roman Phase
The decadent Hellenistic phase was soon followed by the brilliant Greeco-Roman phase, Now Rome, the capital of the ancient Roman empire, was the centre of cultural and literary activity of a very high order. It was a brilliant age when Rome was not only the political and economic centre of the known world, but also its literary and cultural centre. The Roman scholars of this period were inspired by the ancient Greek masters whom they wanted to equal and excel. Instead of blind imitation, they aimed at originality. However, in practice, they could neither be original nor comprehensive. Their criticism largely consists of elaboration, interpretation and application of the rules and precepts laid down by the ancient Greeks, more specially, Aristotle. Their influence on subsequent criticism was far reaching for their interpretation and commentation was accepted as identical with that of their Greek originals. They often misunderstood and interpreted wrongly, and in this way much that Aristotle had never written was hoisted on to him. The purity of Aristotle’s criticism was thus clouded for centuries to come. Horace, Quintillian and Longinus are the most penetrating critics of the Greeco-Roman phase.
4. The Medieval Phase
The break up of the Roman empire around the fifth century A.D., under the onslaughts of barbarian hordes, put an end to the brilliant Greeco-Roman phase and ushered in the dark and obscure Medieval Phase. There was much confusion and dislocation and literary activity suffered. The rich literary treasures of antiquity, though not entirely forgotten, lay unused and neglected. Literary activity was confined mainly to Schoolmen, medieval scholars whose interests were theological and who indulged in meaningless, hairsplitting discussions. Literature was frowned upon as sensuous and pagan and Grammar, Rhetoric, and Logic were given the pride of place. With the spread of Christianity, the medieval torpor was a little shaken but the theological bias of the schoolmen continued to come in the way of healthy literary appreciation. Ancient masterpieces were studied, but they were interpreted allegorically and their aesthetic beauty and high literary merits were lost. ‘The dark ages’ are particularly ‘dark’ as far as literary criticism is concerned. Dante is the only ray of light that illumines for a while the all-enveloping darkness.
5. Renaissance Criticism
With the Renaissance, which was ushered in by the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, and the consequent western movement of literary masterpieces of antiquity, one witnesses an unprecedented spurt of literary and critical activity. There is a widening of mental horizons, the shackles of medievalism are broken, and there is a renewal of zest for life and the enjoyment of beauty. The Great works of ancient Greece and Rome are translated into vernaculars all over Europe, and scholars throng to the great centres of classical learning. There is a desire to emulate and excel the literary exploits of haughty Greece and insolent Rome, and this results in the growth of national literatures, and the flowering of genius, and critical activity goes on hand in hand with creation. In Renaissance England, critical inquiry evolves rapidly through four successive and overlapping stages. First, there is a study of style and language in the manner of ancient rhetoricians, and then there is an attempt to introduce classical metres into English poetry. In the third and most important phase, there is an attempt to justify imaginative literature against the attacks of Puritans and moralists. The result is the publication of numerous apologies and defences, the best of which is Sidney’s Apology for Poetry. In the next phase, English criticism grows self-conscious and attempts are made to devise rules and principles to guide would-be poets, and to curb the excesses of the romantic Elizabethan literature. Ben Jonson is the most important critic of this phase; he is the first champion of neo-classicism in the country.
6. Neo-Classical Phase
While Ben Jonson’s classicism was, ‘liberal classicism, aiming at curbing the excesses and absurdities of his age, this classicism becomes more rigid and stringent with the passing of time. Aristotle now becomes the literary dictator and his ‘rules’, as interpreted by the French critics of the day, became a ‘must’. They are applied with increasing rigidity. For over a hundred years – from Dryden to Dr. Johnson – Neo-classicism reins supreme in England. Dryden, Pope, Addison, Dr. Johnson, are some of the greatest critics during this period.
7. The Romantic Phase
Just as Neo-classicism was the result of a reaction against the excesses of the Elizabethans, so the very rigidity and stringency of Psuedo-classicism soon breeds a reaction against it. French Revolution and German Idealistic philosophy also contribute to the rise of romanticism. ‘Individuality’, ‘subjectivity’, individual freedom of expression, ‘inspiration’ etc. are increasingly emphasised. The hollowness of ‘rules’ and their evils are exposed, and attention is turned to the creative process, and the part played by imagination and emotion in the process of creation. Wordsworth’s Preface to the Lyrical Ballads is a landmark in the history of English criticism, and so is Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria. Wordsworth and Coleridge are too of the greatest of the romantic critics. Valuable work was done during the romantic phase, and a better understanding of the creative process was achieved. New light was shed on the old English masters, and new beauties were discovered.
8. Victorian Criticism
However, Romantic criticism had its own faults. It was too individualistic and mood dictated. Its emphasis on aesthetic appreciation, to the entire disregard of rules and principles, resulted in many excesses and absurdities. The result is that in the Victorian age, there is a re-action against it, and efforts are made to introduce, once again, order and discipline in literary criticism. There is tremendous critical activity in France and Germany, and it cannot but influence criticism in England. An exalted view of the function of criticism is taken, and it is brought closer to life. Thus Matthew Arnold, the leading critic of the Victorian phase, defines criticism as, “a disinterested endeavour to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world.” Towards the close of the Victorian age, we witness in England the rise of the aesthetic movement, largely as a consequence of the influence of French symbolists, Baudelaire and others. “Art for art’s sake”, is the cult of the aesthetes, and in England, Walter Pater gives to this movement a noble and restrained expression. The criticism of the aesthetes is impressionistic, expressive entirely of their own enjoyment of a work of art.
9. Critical Scene To-day
The critical scene in the 20th century is complex and varied. During the early years of the century, both the Arnold-tradition and the Pater-tradition continue to be followed. There are also academic critics, who are professors and profound scholars, rather than original thinkers and innovators. The Reviews do much to diffuse critical knowledge. There are also the neo-classics – the most illustrious of them being T.S. Eliot – who seek to counter the faults of impressionistic criticism by appealing to tradition and authority. The approach of I.A. Richards, on the other hand, is psychological. In more recent times, we see, the rise of the ‘New Critics’, who emphasise the study of the text to the entire exclusion of other concerns, biographical, historical, sociological, etc. This emphasis on the study of the text – word and line by line – has resulted in new and valuable interpretations of existing masterpieces. In England, F.R. Leavis is one of the most competent critics of this Textual school. There are also various other approaches to criticism, such as Moral, Sociological Archetypal, Symbolistic, Expressionistic. Such immense variety is bewildering and chaotic, and it is too early to predict which particular approach has a permanent validity and significance, and which is merely ephemeral.