The Function of Criticism Once More

Robert Langbaum

I allude in my title to Matthew Arnold’s most famous essay, because I want to start by suggesting that the literary situation Arnold called for in Victorian England has largely come to pass in both England and America in our time. That is our problem. In “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time,” Arnold complained that the English of his day were indifferent to criticism and that this was why England had not produced an adequate modern literature. In modern times, at least, Arnold said, an intense critical effort is necessary to prepare the cultural climate out of which a great literature can be produced. And he suggested that it would be necessary in the immediate future to pour more energy into the writing of criticism than into the writing of poetry.

Now since the Second World War, we have been hearing a complaint which is just the opposite of Arnold’s. This is, we are told on every side, an age of criticism; and we are usually told this by people who do not like critics or criticism. Unlike Arnold, these people say that there is too much criticism, and that that is what’s wrong with poetry. Several years ago, Malcolm Cowley, in a book called The Literary Situation, called this a new Alexandrian age in which the creative writer has been displaced by the rhetorician. And shortly thereafter, the poet, Karl Shapiro, published a book, called appropriately In Defense of Ignorance, in which he blamed the critics for just about everything, but especially for getting in the way between the poet and his audience — an audience which left to itself would love and understand poetry. The critic is the scapegoat of the literary scene — blamed by the public for the bad state of literature, blamed by the writers for the bad state of the public.

In answer to Cowley, I would like to say that the present situation is unlike the Alexandrian in that the brilliant period of modern criticism beginning with Eliot and I. A. Richards in the early ‘twenties does not follow but coincides with the brilliant period of modern creative writing. If criticism is getting to look tired and academic nowadays, so are poetry and fiction. As for Karl Shapiro’s naïve faith in the possibilities of communication, anyone who has read Richards’s Practical Criticism will have seen how appalling were the untutored reactions to poetry of Richards’s students, who were among the best of the Cambridge undergraduates. But then anyone who has tried teaching poetry to undergraduates, or has himself had the experience of learning to understand and love a work of art, which may at first have seemed repellent, will have his own answer to Shapiro.

Critics of course have always been attacked, and not only by disappointed authors. We all resent them to some degree as the censors or superegos of the literary process — the enemies to spontaneity, creativity, life. Yet it is generally agreed that criticism is an issue in our day as it never has been before, and that modern criticism is in some way different from the criticism that has gone before.

What then is the difference? There are two ways of answering that question. We can take the easy way and say that the critics must live, that the bright young assistant professors must have their promotions. Certainly, the enormous expansion of the universities and of the funds available for research have enabled, and indeed encouraged, more men than ever before to devote themselves to criticism. But that doesn’t explain why so many men of the highest energy and intelligence, men who might have achieved distinction in any number of careers, should have chosen to devote themselves to criticism. It is easy enough to understand why a man who has the gift should want to write poems or novels. But to write books about other men’s books? This is hard to understand. Indeed, when one sees the army of intelligent men who nowadays devote whole careers to the explications of texts, the counting up of images, the tracking down of sources, and so on, one is tempted to exclaim that nothing short of the Bible could be worth that much attention.

In talking to scientists who work with computers, I have been amazed at how frightened they are of them.

But then one realizes that modern criticism really rests on the assumption — an assumption not fully brought to consciousness in many critics — that literature is a kind of continuing bible, that it is the only continuing source of revelation, the only value-making, as opposed to value-remembering or value-describing, force in the modern world. Aristotle, in answer to Plato’s attack on poetry in The Republic, established poetry as a mode of knowledge — knowledge of the order in nature. But modern criticism goes farther. It treats poetry as the creator of the very order to be known, as the only creator of values in a world where the other branches of knowledge have either ceased to deal with values or have limited themselves to analyzing and describing values.

There is of course nothing new in the idea that great works of literature are bibles. Blake said so, and so, in less explicit ways, did the other romanticists. Coleridge, the greatest of the English romantic critics, is the father of the modern criticism I am talking about, because he articulated most completely the romantic theory of the imagination — the theory of the imagination as the creative faculty, the faculty by which man brings something new into the world, something which was never there before. The theory of the imagination was conceived as an answer to the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century scientific view of man as entirely a product of his physical environment, as having nothing psychical inside him that had not come from outside. Science had rationalized the soul out of man, and the romanticists restored it by way of the secular concept of imagination. The imagination was for the romanticists, and it remains for us, the faculty which accounts for literature as revelation, as a maker of values.

It is interesting to note how the problem faced by the romanticists in regard to the seventeenth-century psychology of Locke has come up again in our time in regard to computers. In talking to scientists who work with computers, I have been amazed at how frightened they are of them and how in their conversation they tend to personify and even deify computers. This surprises me because having been given some idea of the way in which computers are “programmed,” I find myself far more impressed by the ingenuity of the programmers than by the computers. I have come to realize that the reason the computer men are so frightened of their Frankensteins is not that they don’t know all about computers — of course they do; it is that they don’t know enough about the human mind. They take too simple, too mechanical a view of it. And at the mechanical function, the computer will beat us every time.

Now Lockian man was like a computer in that he gave out only what had been “programmed” into him. The romanticists answer was that he didn’t exist, because man has a faculty, called imagination, which reaches out and creates the world it perceives. Every fact is a creation with a piece of mind, and therefore with value or significance, in it. (I have liked pointing out to the computer men that what they feed into their machines are created facts and not the raw flux of experience.) The main evidence for the romanticists that there is such a faculty as imagination, that man does put out things that cannot entirely be accounted for by what he has taken in — the main evidence was art. And sure enough, in all the fearful discussions about computers, the question that inevitably comes up is: will we ever be able to make computers that will paint great pictures or write great poems? In the modern world, art remains as the last great sign of man’s freedom or indeterminacy. And I cite this highly topical instance to show that if the idea of literature as revelation bears so closely upon the pressing question of computers, then it is not so difficult to understand why it is worthwhile to be a critic — to be one of the people who help explain what it is that is being revealed and what its implications are.

As a sign of how far the concept of literature as revelation has gone since Coleridge, I need only allude to the most ambitious work of criticism of recent years — Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism. Frye sees the forms — the images, that is, and myths — which the imagination projects into the world as giving value-making coherence not only to literature but to all verbal structures. Is it not true, he suggests at the end of his book, “that the verbal structures of psychology, anthropology, theology, history, law, and everything else built out of words have been informed or constructed by the same kind of myths or metaphors that we find, in their original hypothetical form, in literature?” Myths are, in other words, the mathematical equations of all possible verbal structures. Therefore the critic, says Frye — in a closing statement which should bring in many new candidates for so high an office — the critic, he says, holds the “keys to dreamland.” This means that the critic holds the master key to all forms of verbal discourse, and is in a position to reforge, as Frye says, “the broken links between creation and knowledge, art and science, myth and concept. . . . This will appear to be, with increasing obviousness,” Frye says, “the social and practical result of [the critic’s] labors.” Frye has completely articulated the ultimate aim of Coleridge’s vast and notoriously unfinished efforts. He has been able to describe even more completely than Arnold what in modern times the social function of criticism ought to be. For he has had at his disposal more psychology and anthropology and more comparative mythology than Arnold. He has also had in the work of Yeats, Joyce, and Eliot the example of that more adequate modern literature that Arnold was calling for.

I have often thought that the climate of ideas shared by these three twentieth-century writers — the climate made by Frazer, by Freud and Jung, by the dissemination of Hegel through Marx, and by the rediscovery of Vico — I have often thought that this climate of ideas was after all the fulfillment of the thing Arnold wanted criticism to provide. Arnold never intended that the ideas should be strictly literary ideas — I don’t think there are such things anyway. Nor did he ever think of criticism as a strictly literary activity.

This brings me around to my next question, which is this. If Frye is completing the thought of Coleridge and Arnold, then what is new about modern criticism? Mainly, I would say, the large body of nonliterary concepts by which the modern critic is able to justify, elaborate, and apply the romantic intuitions about the existence of the imagination and about the truth of what the imagination perceives. The most important of these concepts derive from three areas of nonliterary thought. One, the dialectical view of history as expounded by Hegel and Marx, the view that mind evolves historically and that reality evolves with it, since each age makes its own imaginative construct of reality, has its own world-view, each true in the way that imaginative constructs are true. As one of the most genuine expressions of these world-views, literature becomes a book of historical revelation, which for Hegelians and Marxists would be ultimate revelation.

Two, the comparative study of mythology, in such works as Frazer’s Golden Bough. By revealing a common pattern in various mythologies, these studies suggest that all myths are true in the way imaginative constructs are true, and that they speak their own profound language. Thus, the modern critic is able to justify the romantic taste for the marvelous and the conviction of the romanticists that there was something profound in the marvelous, though they could not always say what it was.

Third, and by far the most important, Freud’s not so much discovery as naming and analysis of the subconscious. By making the subconscious an operational concept, Freud justifies the romantic conviction that the rationalists had left man only a portion of his mind. Imagination was the name the romanticists gave to the whole mind of man in operation. Romantic poetry might be said to specialize in giving us, through suggestive resonances, a sense of the hidden area of the mind; but the nineteenth-century critics had not the vocabulary to say much about that hidden area. They could respond sensitively to its presence in a poem, and talk about their response. They could practice, in other words — as Arnold did with his famous “touchstones,” and as Pater did after him — impressionistic criticism.

Impressionistic criticism has a very bad name nowadays. It is the technique the modern critics have reacted most violently against. Yet impressionism was the only way to get at the subconscious resonances of a poem, until Freud gave critics the concepts by which to analyze the thing they were sensing. Freud not only gave a name to the hidden area of the mind, but explained its workings in detail. His studies of errors, of wit, of dreams, all suggested that there was a special “logic” of the subconscious, which looked to critics very like the “logic” of the imagination and of art. Here was a gold mine to be exploited — a way to talk about the literary work itself, not the biography of the author, or the history of the times, but the very work itself, and in talking about it to be able to think with all the depth, swiftness, subtlety, suppleness and complexity of art itself — far beyond the possibilities of ordinary discursive thought. Some of the liveliest minds in England and America jumped in to exploit that mine, and they gave us perhaps the liveliest period of criticism we have yet had. By the time people began complaining about the age of criticism, a few years after the end of the Second World War, the mine seemed to have been used up. It looked as though the best modern criticism had been written.

To get back to our question: what then is new about modern criticism? Modern criticism may be defined as that criticism which found itself in a position to take up where Coleridge left off. The exploitation of the new nonliterary concepts accounts for what we have considered to be the two main schools of modern criticism — that which works from outside in on a literary work, and that which works from inside out. I define both schools by the same definition to suggest that there never were two schools, that the second, the so-called New Criticism, was a local divergence from the main stream, and that they are both parts of the main stream of moral, psychological, and social criticism that goes back through Arnold to Coleridge, and from Coleridge through the great classical critics to Aristotle.

It is the New Critics who are usually meant when modern criticism is attacked. The New Critics are attacked because they seem to stress words over ideas. They point out that the paraphrasable prose meaning of a poem is often the least interesting thing about it (“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,” for example, or “How time has changed me”), but that the real meaning of a poem is in the action of its words upon each other. They point to the kind of poem that takes two opposite stands at the same time, thus negating the possibility of meaning in a prose sense in order that it may mean in a poetic sense. All this, to people interested in the human element in poetry, sounds very academic, very anti-life. But what the New Critics are saying is that poetry is about a complex state of consciousness of which ideas are only one, very inadequate expression.

Their view of language — the view of language developed by Richards — is also psychological rather than logical, in that they consider that words have in their contexts — their contexts in individual and collective experience — an organic life like that of consciousness. Of this organic life, any specific meaning of the word is, like meaning in poetry, only one inadequate expression. Poetic discourse uses more of the organic life of the word than prose discourse does.

I am not going to defend the New Criticism because as a movement it is, I am convinced, dead — dead of its very success. We are all New Critics nowadays, whether we like it or not, in that we cannot avoid discerning and appreciating wit in poetry, or reading with close attention to words, images, ironies and so on. “The term ‘The New Criticism,’” as T. S. Eliot has pointed out in his essay “The Frontiers of Criticism,” refers to such a wide variety of critics that its currency would seem simply to be a recognition “that the more distinguished critics of to-day, however widely they differ from each other, all differ in some significant way from the critics of a previous generation.” One sees now that the New Criticism was a necessary divergence from the main stream of criticism, a necessary time out for retooling. It was new precisely because it was making the tools necessary to exploit for literature the new gold mine of nonliterary concepts. Now that the New Criticism has done its work, we can return with these tools to the main stream of criticism.

Before I go on to this main stream, I would like to indicate the connection between the New Critical tools and the new nonliterary concepts I have been talking about. The New Critics take off from the idea — which is the fruit of all these nonliterary concepts — that there is a special “logic” of the imagination. They go on to show that there is consequently a special language of poetry distinct from, but for its purposes just as exact as, the language of discursive prose. The New Critics have done their best work with poetry, and they have done more than any critics since Coleridge to reestablish, after the challenge of science, the intellectual validity of poetry, to rescue poetry from the general modern sense of it as a kind of inexact prose decorated with metaphors and “souped up” with emotion.

Now the New Critics’ case for the exactness of poetic language rests on the new nonliterary concepts, especially psychological concepts and especially — as the movement developed from Richards to Empson to the American New Critics — Freudian concepts. The idea of subconscious processes leads to the idea of other dimensions of reality. Images or symbols are pre-conscious and pre-analytic modes of thinking. When used consciously in poetry, they are, far from being mere decoration, the most exact modes for thinking with both the conscious and unconscious mind about the whole of reality.

Most of the favorite New Critical terms and ideas can, I think, be accounted for by this connection of poetry with the subconscious. Ambiguities of meaning and ambivalences of judgment are, for example, good things, because all possible meanings of a word operate at the same time in dream or free association, where connotation is usually more important than denotation. And as for ambivalance, one object can in a dream symbolize opposite things; subconsciously, we can both love and hate the same person. Freud has shown the psychological “logic” by which such anomalies can be understood, and this psychological “logic” is analagous to the “logic” of art, to the orchestration of meanings by which certain art communicates.

Even the so-called anti-romantic revolution against the resonating, suggestive style of nineteenth-century poetry, and in favor of a witty, a metaphysical poetry — even this so-called “classical” revolution in taste is, I think, connected with the new interest in the subconscious. For the kind of wit the New Critics like is just the kind Pope and Dr. Johnson did not like. The New Critics like the psychological wit of Donne, the kind of wit so brilliantly analyzed by Coleridge when he pointed out that Hamlet is most witty when he is most disturbed emotionally. Dr. Johnson’s description of metaphysical wit, as a yoking together of the most heterogeneous ideas, resembles Coleridge’s description of the synthesizing power of the imagination. The New Critics like, in other words, the kind of wit which is not merely a rhetorical device but which is an equivalent for emotion — which is, as Freud showed in his study of wit, rooted in subconscious processes.

I don’t know whether there is such a thing as pure poetry, but I am sure there is no such thing as pure criticism.

To sum up, then, the contribution of the New Criticism. If we start with the idea that there is a special “logic” of the imagination and that poetry is a serious body of knowledge, even of revelation, then it behooves us to find out and to be able to talk about what the poem itself is saying. For what it is saying will be more complex than anything you could learn about it through a study of its sources, or of the period in which it was written, or of the author’s life and ideas. The sort of procedure from which it has delivered us is that of the old-time English professor who, in teaching Marvell’s “Coy Mistress,” would talk about the English Civil War and about Marvell’s life, his Puritanism, his reading, his friendship with Milton, and finally, just as the bell rang, would say, “And as for the poem, gentlemen, beautiful, beautiful.” The story explains why the New Critics had to adopt their particular strategy of combat.

What then are the limitations of the New Criticism? It has been insufficiently critical of itself. Although I gather from a recent talk of Cleanth Brooks’ that this is changing, the New Critics have not until now seemed sufficiently aware that their method would work better for some kinds of literature than for others, and that it would work for some kinds not at all. Nor have they shown a sense of how much of their method could be applied where. Their method works best for a highly intense lyric poetry, and well, though less well, for the kind of fiction and drama that share the characteristics of a highly intense lyric poetry (less well because fiction and drama do not so easily lend themselves to microscopic analysis). Their method works best for modern, metaphysical, and — oddly enough, since they are supposed to be so down on it — romantic poetry; they have done some of their best work on romantic poems. The fact is that the New Criticism works best, is indeed necessary for, the literature that deals with the subconscious and with a multi-dimensional reality, but deals with them as psychological experience, and not — like Dante or Spenser — as allegory. This may be because the allegorical poet has himself done the critic’s work of analysis and given us the result.

The main limitation of the New Criticism, however, is that it has been an incomplete criticism. That is why it has been insufficiently aware of the specifically modern grounds of its own methods and taste, and insufficiently aware of its own connection with the main stream of criticism. The New Critics have confined their aim to understanding the text — which was, as I have indicated, a necessary strategy. Understanding the text is a matter of technique, and the New Critics have liked to think of themselves as technicians. But the technician must always in the end put his tools at the service of the man who knows what he wants to use them for. And understanding the text, if we may judge by the best criticism of the past, is where criticism begins, not where it ends.

That brings me around to what I consider to be the main stream of modern criticism. It is defined rather more by ends than methods. In the open acknowledgment of our ends, of what we are at least potentially trying to do, lies I think the answer to the questions raised by our age of criticism. T. S. Eliot, who is often held responsible for having got all this burst of critical activity started, has now asked the crucial question about it in the 1956 essay I have already quoted, “The Frontiers of Criticism.” After acknowledging the unprecedentedly large scope of modern criticism, which traces its descent from Coleridge just because it was Coleridge who first introduced into literary criticism the outside disciplines of philosophy, esthetics, and psychology: after acknowledging all this, Eliot goes on to wonder whether the “very richness and variety” of modern criticism has not obscured its ultimate purpose. “I wonder,” he says, “whether the weakness of modern criticism is not an uncertainty as to what criticism is for? As to what benefit it is to bring, and to whom? . . . Every critic may have his eye on a definite goal, may be engaged on a task which needs no justification, and yet criticism itself may be lost as to its aims.”

That is a very good statement of the problem. On the solution, however, I part company with Mr. Eliot. For his answer is to define the limits of literary criticism — he uses frontiers in the European sense of limits, whereas I would use the word in President Kennedy’s American sense. Eliot would keep literary criticism from passing over into something else — into biography and source-hunting on the one side, which does not, he says, promote the understanding of poetry as poetry, and into excessive analysis or “lemon-squeezing” on the other, which does not promote its enjoyment. When Eliot says that biographical information is relevant to our understanding of Wordsworth but not to our understanding of his poetry, I feel we no longer need that kind of strategy, that we can now afford to admit that our understanding of Wordsworth is bound to have some bearing on our understanding of his poetry. And when Eliot speaks disparagingly of people who want poetry to be “explained to them in terms of something else,” I ask how anything can be explained except in terms of something else. I don’t know whether there is such a thing as pure poetry, but I am sure there is no such thing as pure criticism. For the critic’s job is to translate from one mode of discourse to another. His job is to analyze, and you analyze by applying concepts to an object.

Fortunately for us, Eliot has not himself stayed within the limits he prescribes for literary criticism. His criticism has been connected with a social and religious position. He has written on all these matters and shown their connections. Yeats’s criticism is part of an even more elaborately worked-out metaphysical, historical, and political position. Whether they intended to follow Arnold or not, Yeats and Eliot are just the sort of critics Arnold had in mind — critics who have brought together ideas from the past and the present and from diverse cultures in such a way as to show us our connection and disconnection with the past and the price at which cultural unity might be achieved in our time. Since Aristotle, the greatest critics have been those whose criticism has been part of an articulated world-view. It is this sort of criticism that is in the main stream. The modern critics who have consciously followed Arnold — Eliot himself, for all his protest against Arnold; also Edmund Wilson, F. R. Leavis, Lionel Trilling — have been consciously in the main stream. The others have been in it to the extent that they contributed to a complete criticism.

When I speak of a complete criticism, I do not mean that each critic must do the whole job himself. Each critic ought, however, to understand what criticism as a whole is doing, so he can know where his own work fits in. Let me sketch out briefly the sort of thing a complete criticism might do. In addition to explaining texts, a complete criticism would go on to explore the questions that inevitably occur to the serious reader who has understood a text. Such a reader wants to know how this particular work relates to and modifies the literary tradition, and how it relates to and modifies other branches of knowledge. He wants to understand the relevance of the work to its time and to him and his time, the reasons he likes or dislikes the work, and what his liking or disliking tells him about himself and his time. The modern reader, at least, wants to place both himself and the work historically, and to determine, as a consequence, what the implications of the work are for his politics, his religion, and his life style — for such questions as whether he ought to be a proper citizen or a bohemian, how he ought to raise his children, whether he ought to live in the city or the country (nobody ever recommends the suburbs). He will also want to read back from his cultural situation to the work to ask whether, fine as the work is, or important as it was in its time, it has anything to say to him now; and he may have to wait for some critic to discover for him—by reseeing the work through new concepts, a new vocabulary—its modern relevance. Modern relevance does not necessarily mean finding modern topics or attitudes. It might mean a certain relevant otherness that helps us by contrast to define our own modernity. The relevance of Dante is an example.

A complete criticism, I would say, completes the literary process by dealing not only with the text, the part of the literary process over which the author has control, but also by dealing with that part of the literary process over which the author has little control — the part that takes place before the author begins to write and after he finishes, the part that takes place before the reader opens the book and after he closes it. It is legitimate, for example, to use literature as a source for studying the nature of the creative process and thus of the mind. A complete criticism takes care of that part of the literary process which the author cannot take care of himself. The complete critic must, like the creative writer, know not only literature but life.

If the work of art is, as so many modern critics like to tell us, a self-contained entity, a revelation, a private affair between writer and reader — and this is truer of some works than of others — then the critic’s job is to turn the work of art into something that can be thought about and talked about. His job is to do, in the most intelligent, learned, and disciplined manner possible, the thing that must happen in any case just to the extent that the work lingers in our minds after we have closed the book. His job is to turn the work of art into a cultural acquisition. This has always been, and it remains, the function of criticism, and it is to the continuance of this function that the newest critics will undoubtedly bring all their latest techniques. In performing this function, the newest critics will show that, apart from its service to literature, criticism has in modern times a special importance of its own as, in an increasingly technological age, the application to all the affairs of life of what we may call the literary or humanistic, as opposed to the technical, mind.

Robert Langbaum (1924–2020) was the author of The Poetry of Experience and The Gayety of Vision: A Study of Isak Dinesen's Art.
Originally published:
December 1, 1964


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