Twentieth- Century English Literary Criticism

The present century has witnessed-and is witnessing a terrific deluge of literary criticism. Scarcely a day passes when quite a sheaf of critical writings does not make its appearance. To impose some sort of pattern on this tremendous mass of writing-even for the sake of discussion-is a desperate attempt.

Our ears are all too familiar with the bewildering cacophony of critical noises which are apt to overset our wits and defy all comprehension. Scarcely does a “school” of literary criticism appear when it finds another ready to measure swords with it. “Literary criticism” says Douglas Bush, “which for over two thousand years seemed to be a light-house radiating a fairly steady beam, has in recent times become a tower of Babel, or, to change the metaphor, a darkling plain where arrogant armies clash by night.” However, on the side of credit, it has to be admitted that some of modern literary criticism is indeed rarely illuminating, and does things undreamt of our ancestors who were unpossessed of the impressive (even though partly dubious) stock-in-trade of the average critic of today.

Some General Observations:
Some general observations about twentieth-century English literary criticism may now be profitably made, without, of course, losing sight of the fact that “it pertinaciously defies all neat lebelling or wholesale generalisation.
(i)         First, we have to take cognizance of America which has contributed to the critical output of the present century more than even Britain. Many critical schools-such as those of the New Critics and the Chicago Critics-and influential critics-such as T. S. Eliot-have sprung from the American soil. Many scholars of literature-notably some British professors-are rightly sceptical of the quality of much of American critical output, but credit cannot but be given to a good quantity of it.
(ii)        Secondly, we have to take into account, to use Stanley E. Hyman’s words in The Armed Vision “the organized use of non-literary techniques and bodies of knowledge to obtain insight into literature.” The sciences of psychology, anthropology, sociology, semantics, linguists, and even mathematics, and such techniques as that of psychoanalysis have been increasingly pressed into the service of literary criticism by many practitioners of this craft in the twentieth century, with sometimes dazzling, and as often, baffling, results.
(iii)       Thirdly, we are all too well aware of the complexity of modern iiterary-criticism-particularly of the American brand. Simplicity has “simply” gone out of fashion. Even in creative literature, complexity has come to be reverenced and even relished. There is substance in Donald Davie’s complaint. “The one thing,” says he, “that really distinguishes the critical pedantry of today is the high price set upon complexity…the more complex the work the better. The many works of wit, distinguished for massive simplicity, directness of approach, and unaffected lucidity of language are undervalued-or complexity is put upon them.”
Chief Trends and Schools:
The literary critics of the twentieth century are, mostly, independent thinkers, yet they can be roughly classified into so many “schools” or groups, some critics, however, stick to, more or less, Victorian modes of criticism, and therefore, may not be called “modern” or “modernistic,” and, consequently, ought not detain us here. This, category of critics includes Saintsbury, Chesterton, and many others like them, who are always entertaining and, now and then, illuminating but they seem unaware of the winds of change blowing across our age, necessitating a radical readjustment of values and attitudes. Let us confine our attention here to the truly “modern” schools and critics of our century.
The Psychological School:
The group of literary critics who study literature in the light of psychology is an influential one. They owe much to Freud, the greatest psychologist of modern times. His psychoanalytic techniques have been adopted by a number of critics for exploring the problems of literature. A psychoanalytic critic attempts to perform the task of piercing the social mask of the writer and studying the unconscious urges, frustrations, and motives behind his literary work. Even the characters in a literary work may be subjected to psychoanalysis. Thus Freud’s disciple Ernest Jones treats the famous prince of Denmark in A Psychoanalytic Study of Hamlet (1922). Miss Maud Bodkin, Herbert Read, Lionel Trilling, and Kenneth Burke-among others-have made use of Freudian psychoanalytic techniques in their discussion of literature and literary problems-often with interesting and edifying results.
However, the most notable of all psychological critics is I. A. Richards-both in stature and influence. “Richards,” says George Watson, “is simply the most influential theorist of the century, as Eliot s the most influential of descriptive critics.” Richards’ works-The Foundations of Aesthetics (1921), The Principles of Literary Criticism (1924), and Practical Criticism (1929)-have considerably contributed to, and influenced, modern literary criticism. Richards rejected the view that poetry has only the aesthetic value. He averred that it has psychologically therapeutic value, though no cognitive importance. Further, he popularised the concept of “anonymity in literature” by directing the attention of the reader from the poet to his poetry. He struck a note of dissent with the strict Freudians who gave primary importance to the comprehension of the psychology of the poet. Thus he was instrumental in lessening the popularity of “biographical” and “historical” criticism which ruled the roost before the twentieth century, and promoting the techniques of close reading and verbal analysis adopted by the so-called New Critics years later. Watson says: “Richards claim to have pioneered Anglo American New Criticism of the thirties and forties is unassailable. He provided the theoretical foundations on which the technique of verbal analysis was built.”
The New Critics:
The New Criticism arose in England in the late twenties and spread to the United States in the years following the Second World War, to dominate academic criticism in the forties, and. partly, the fifties. John Crowe Ranson, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, R. P. Blackmur, Yvor Winters, and Cleanth Brooks are the most important New Critics. They discredited the historical and biographical background of a poem, to concentrate on the poem itself. “Their ideal programme”, says Irving Howe in Modern Literary Criticism, “posited-and in practice they sometimes achieved—a close and patient description of what the poem is.” Their neglect of the historicity of a work of literature was both a disadvantage as well as an advantage. Lionel Trilling asserts “that the literary work is ineluctably a historical fact, and what is more important, that its historicity is a fact in our aesthetic experience.” The New Critical methods were useful only while dealing with lyrical poetry which, as Trilling puts it, is “a genre in which the historical element, although of course, present, is less obtrusive than in the long poem, the novel and the drama”
A word here may be added about a brilliant but somewhat controversial critic-William Empson, once a student of I. A. Richards. Empson is not, strictly speaking, a New Critic; but in his technique of brilliant verbal analysis, he comes close to some New Critics. His major works are Seven Types of ‘Ambiguity (1930), Some Versions of Pastoral (1935), and The Structure of Complex Words (1951). The irst mentioned is the most important of all. With concrete analyses-many of them extremely brilliant and illuminating—he points out in this work the various shades and nuances of meaning the understanding of which is essential for the appreciation of the total poetic statement. Empson is often subtle, but sometimes looks too fussy and quibbling, and even “ambiguous.” We owe him the vogue of “difficult” poetry, for ambiguity is tacitly exalted by him as the test of the greatness of a poem. Objections to such a position have come from many quarters. Here is F. L. Lucas’: “In a recent work with the apocalyptic title, Seven Types of Ambiguity, it has been revealed to an admiring public that the more ways a poem can be misunderstood, the better it is.”
The Impressionistic and Romantic School:
The impressionistic critics are concerned with recording their personal impressions when they are in contact with a given work of art, “without attempting to generalize or draw inferences.” “Criticism,” says an impressionistic critic M. Jules Lemaitre, “whatever be its pretensions, can never go beyond defining the impression which, at a given moment is made on us by a work of art wherein the artist has himself recorded the impression he received from the world at a certain hour.” The impressionistic critics are impatient of all dogmas and processes of labelling and codification. Thus they are, in a sense, “romantic” in their attitude. The most important of impressionistic romantic critics is John Middleton Murry who waged for years in his journal, the Adelphi, a debate on behalf of what he called the “inner voice” and “romanticism” against the “classicism” of T. S. Eliot.
The Sociological Critics:
The twentieth century has also seen the emergence of a group of critics who emphasize the sociological context in the study of a work of literature or even art in general. Most of them are avowed Marxists, and their approach to literature, therefore, is propagandist and prejudiced. “They,” as Rene Wellek says in Theory ofLiteratwe, “tell us not only what were and are the social relations and implications of an author’s work but what they should have been or ought to be. They are not only students of literature and society but prophets of the future, monitors, propagandists: and they have difficulty in keeping these two functions separate.” The sociological approach (both Marxist and anti-Marxist) has many more adherents in America than England. Christopher Caudwell, Raymond Williams, Lionel Trilling, Edmund Wilson, W. H. Auden, and Stephen Spender are some of the most mportant critics whose critical approach is markedly sociological The Marxian critic of today is Terry Eagleton.
The Moralists:
Now we come to a group of literary critics of the present century whom Watson classifies as “the moralists.” They include D. H. Lawrence, George Orwell, even F. R. Leavis, and Murry-with some others of less importance. The moralists are occupied with the problem of discriminating between good and bad in literature. They lack, however, the certitude of Dr. Johnson and the past critics of his ilk. Watson says: “Modem moralism, by contrast, is more often agnostic, exploratory, and self-consciously elitist: its tone is not that of the common preacher anticipating assent: it is more often embittered and embattled.” D. H. Lawrence who in Leavis’ opinion, was the greatest literary critic of the present century, fought in his novels a savage battle against the taboos of society, civilisation, and Christianity. He brought something of the same fighting spirit to his critical works. The moralists are all fighters and disciple-makers, even when they find much difficulty in their way. They despise hoity-toity behaviour. Says Watson: “George Orwell, aggressively pouring his tea into his saucer in the B. B. C. canteen may be taken as the eternal model of the modern English moralist.” The influence of the moralists is, however, now on the wane, though what they (particularly D. H. Lawrence) had to say is of the same significance today as it was when it was said.
Eliot and Leavis:
T. S. Eliot has been the most influential of the American-born literary critics of the present century. In his critical works he has thrown out, to quote G. S. Fraser, “a number of suggestive or disturbing ideas-ideas often compressed into a single phrase-that have fertilized the thinking of other critics. Empson has wittily described him as a penetrating and inescapable influence, rather Hke an eastwind.” His views regarding tradition versus the individual talent, poetic drama, impersonality in poetry, the “dissociation of sensibility,” and a hundred other themes and problems have to be taken cognizance of by every literary commentator worth the name. Much of Eliot’s literary criticism is, indeed, an extension of his poetry work-shop, for it deals with the issues he has to tackle as a poet. However, it has proved to be of much wider significance. Such twentieth-century literary phenomena as the “revival” of Donne and Dryden and the devaluation of Milton, and such vogues as that of the placement of every writer and every writing with reference to a tradition, and that of the appreciation and admiration of “difficult” poetry issue mainly from T. S. Eliot. The New Critics also acknowledge their debt to Eliot.
F. R. Leavis is a controversial disciple of Eliot. He is to be acknowledged, however, as the most influential of the British-born literary critics of the present century. No doubt, he later quarrelled with even Eliot and rather spitefully affirmed that Lawrence was a better critic than he, but Eliot’s influence on him cannot be denied. Leavis is so influential that, to quote Watson, “there are probably few Departments of English in the Commonwealth which do not boast, or conceal, at least one disciple.” His disparagement of Milton and Shelley, and exaltation of Pope and Marvell have wrought a change in the critical thinking of today. Among the English novelists, he points out Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, Conrad, and Lawrence as the ones who make up “The Great Tradition.” Leavis is extremely adept at verbal analysis which, however, is not his usual, not to say the only, method. His approach is, fundamentally, that of a moralist who is carefully looking for reverence to life. G. S. Fraser says: “The ‘quality of life’ is what Leavis is primarily interested in and in literature as serving that, but he is a moralist who refuses to generalize.” Leavis’ energetic responsiveness, his penetrative analysis, and intellectual alacrity are his great assets, but his rigidness and pontifical self-aggrandisement cannot be defended. Among his disciples the most important are David Daiches and L. C. Knights (a really great critic in his own right), not to speak of the numerous band who wrote for Scrutiny.
As regards literary criticism, the scene today 1995) is a very confused one-one incapable of being reduced even to a semblance of order. We face a whole welter of literary theories and critical approaches. All of them make up a formidable body of literary aesthetics, but we have to wait long for their profitable application to actual literary works.

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