The Critics

The task of criticism—as an evaluation of literature—is, first, to work out which poems or novels “get the conditions of judgment within the judgments themselves,” which entails interpreting them to make sense of how the language and form contains both judgment and validating ground—or not—and then, secondly, as a matter of comparison, to work out the limitations or reach of the judgments themselves: whether the judgments are conditioned by narrow or broad experience, whether they are in themselves persuasive and subtle. Criticism, in the first sense, is not optional for a reading of literature; to read literature well is to engage in such criticism. Criticism, in the second sense, is not demanded by reading any particular work, but is integral to arranging works in an order, to comparing them, and often happens by necessity in the course of a full hermeneutic recovery of a work, when a reader feels what a work can and cannot answer about life.

Anything like a pantheon of critics is inevitably a personal matter, and for some the critics that matter most will not seem to do what I’ve suggested all critics must do. Below, at any rate, are notes on the strengths of the critics who have meant the most to how I have read. I try to explain how each deepens my sense of how judgment is alive in a work of literature, and beyond.

William Empson:

William Empson is the greatest reader of the twentieth century, but his powers as a reader and critic are often difficult to fully appreciate because they are subsumed beneath other purposes. His three major works of criticism—Ambiguity, Pastoral, and Complex Words—are interested in establishing, demonstrating, and exploring several modes by which literature is capable of compounding competing, often conflicting, judgments about the world: the level of syntax, of genre, and of word. The aim, then, is not to discuss this poem or that—even where, as in Pastoral, several chapters are given to exegeses of several works, but to demonstrate the simultaneity of judgments in those works. That might seem to amount to the same thing, but it would be more accurate to say that involves the same thing; it is not the same thing in so far as his goal is not a full sense of what the poem is, but a fuller sense of how judgment operates, psychologically, verbally, and socially; he is more than a critic, in that ambition, but he was not trained as a psychologist, a linguist, or an anthropologist, and so, as informed as he was about any of those fields, he hangs his arguments upon works of literature, sometimes conceding that those works are extraordinary achievements of intellectual and social processes at work in everyday life. But because it is the intellectual and social process, the achievement of the human mind (collective and individual) rather than the achievement of a particular work, that most fascinates him, his criticism is sometimes so glancing or so rapid as to be difficult to follow. That, in part, owes also to his affectation; he said once that in his final stage of revision he removed the polish, and the bluff and colloquial tenor of the criticism can seem to be both an aristocratic disdain for academic professionalism and a reaction against T.S. Eliot’s occasional coyness. None of that explains just why Empson is as great as he is: his capacity to imagine the mind behind a work balanced by a strong understanding of the cultural and historical forces that themselves made up a great deal of whatever mind he imagined, allowing him also to do justice to texts that are genuinely social creations, accrued over generations or products of collaboration; an admiration both for the strong individual judgment and for the powers of civilization upon which it could draw, and which it could be transcend or by which it could be transcended; a willingness to cede an author’s shortcomings without fuss or pity, and to celebrate their strengths without empty praise; most of all, because of his central preoccupation with the extraordinariness of the impersonality of human judgment, Empson had the rarest apprehension of intelligence itself, in the broadest, socially-active, historically situated sense, so that his explications of texts were also demonstrations of their intelligence, the proof of their goodness in the pudding of his reading, as it were. Even Empson’s reading of Milton, though it is fueled by anti-Christian polemic, is ultimately a fascination with how such a mind as Milton’s could have welded together Puritan Christianity and the Renaissance; Milton is the hero of the book not because of the beauty of the poem but because of the power of Milton’s mind, which is evident in the poem, but not entirely on its surface, so that Empson must read into passages more than other critics are willing. He justifies himself on the grounds that the clear evidence for the strength of Milton’s thought demands no less than such a charitable, albeit imaginative, account of what his mind must have been up to elsewhere in the poem. Though his greatest works of criticism are Pastoral and Complex Words, the essays on literature in Argufying have the advantage of being focused on poems and novels in and of themselves, without as much space permitted for Empson’s broadest ambitions.

Christopher Ricks:

Keats and Embarrassment is about the nature of a judgment that is first pre-conscious and then conscious: it is exactly the line of creative judgment that can be appreciated and recognized only if one is attuned to compounding instances, any one perhaps slight or doubtful, but together forming a probability. That sort of probabilistic reasoning that cannot be quantified is similarly exemplary of the principled criticism of which Ricks is a proponent: no theory, no proof, no objective answer can provide a definitive foundation—there is further description, evocation, comparison, further instantiation, and the analysis of reading only. But this nature of judgment that arises in the pre-conscious only to be apprehended in the consciousness of art  is at the center of Ricks’ critical art: the rhymes in Milton, Keats and his readers’ relationship with embarrassment, Eliot and prejudice, Lowell and the anti-pun, Dylan and cliché. These represent Ricks at his most penetrating and persuasive. The same fascination with the relation of the pre-conscious and conscious judgment lies in Ricks’ interest not only in “using biography” but in the art of biography: the judgment of behavior, and the behavior of judgment, are fascinating to him, allowing him to stress the humane generosity requisite to apprehend and place the variety of either active in human lives—where works of art represent only one sphere of their activity. The words “apprehend” and “place” suggest what is, if not the deepest, at least what is the distinctive forebear of Ricks’ criticism, perhaps by way of Eliot: Henry James. It is Henry James who exploited the scope and depth of the words, and who suggests that art, rather than a matter of comprehension, is a matter of something less easily translated into philosophical argument or ideation: a taking hold of, a situating, an adherence to the fundamental principle that words, deeds, feelings, and people must be shown in place and set in place if they are to be seen and known for what they are, and that such placing is the responsibility of art and artists. The critic, James’ own practice shows, will stand or fall on how attuned she is to where and how words are placed. Ricks’ critical work takes seriously that it is among the critic’s tasks to bring home the force and consequence of how a work places its words; it is a task to be effected by quotation, by juxtaposition, by description, as well as by commentary and analysis. The effect is sometimes baroque, at other times a mannered obliquity; the aim, sometimes, is to illuminate and serve what the author has achieved, to lead us towards a principle of artistry, and sometimes to explicate their apprehension, a matter quite different from explicating comprehension. The effect is a sudden clarity, an attunement to the words on the page. Ricks’ central critical principle concerns principles: that they–rules of thumb, flexible, applicable or not as a situation demands, or doesn’t–should guide us in our reading. To advocate for principles is to advocate for judgment that can be educated and trained but not guided step-by-step with pre-ordained guarantee of outcome or success. In Ricks’ work, principles are most saliently, variously, and broadly articulated and applied in The Force of Poetry. Among the principles that guides his work more generally, upon which he rests his success as a critic, is that many descriptions of  and responses to texts must be placed within more considered descriptions or responses. Another is the Aristotelian ethical insight that the virtue of a work of literature depends on its navigating a course between extremes that must nonetheless be brought into play as possibilities.

Donald Davie:

Donald Davie’s criticism is impelled by a desire to explicate a work of literature, and its successes, as well as he can understand them, with his prejudices and preferences foregrounded, but he does so within the context of an author’s ambitions, where that word encompasses both the intention of a particular word or phrase but also set of beliefs about what a poem should be and do and why. That willingness to entertain that poems not only are and do many different things, but that poets mean for them to be and do many different distinct, sometimes mutually exclusive, sorts of thing, makes for the strength of Davie’s criticism; his disagreeing as to what they should be and do can weaken his criticism—but the disagreement is usually grounded on what he feels such a conception of poetry yields on the page, and it is transcended when he acknowledges, in a doubling back, that whatever sorts of thing an author wants a poem to be or do, it can be nonetheless understood and appreciated on more general terms and principles. Davie’s incredible capacity to notice sets off his occasional blindness or short-sightedness: making the wrong thing of what he has noticed, as in the remarkable essay on Milton’s syntax. But at other times, his prejudices, as against Shelley, set into relief features of the poetry that must be reckoned with for a full understanding, even if Davie’s angle of approach does not allow him to do so. He is at his strongest when he feels out the connotations of words, the degree of heat in metaphors, the pulse of abstraction, and the relationships, discrete or continuous, established by syntax between them. His sense for the beliefs poets hold about poetry allowed him to imagine possibilities in language and between units of language that others cannot see; his own practice as a poet sharpened his sense for the connotations of words. For all of his dedication to understanding poems and poets in light of the beliefs poets hold about what they are and can do, he does not suggest poetry and literature themselves hold out hope to save us; they are, in his final analysis, what they are, their goodness a goodness of human conduct, which though worthwhile, is not sufficient. Davie is at a tug-of-war with himself, with the authors he reads, and with language; what a poem is and what it would be, what a word or phrase does and what it might be doing, these are ultimately sources of energy and vitality in his criticism. There is no critic like Davie for making a seemingly dead poem come alive.

Geoffrey Hill: 

“Judgment” itself as a supreme faculty of the creative and critical mind is an explicit subject of Hill’s criticism, but the criticism, though it serves as a ground for polemic and apologia on behalf of Hill’s own poetry and poetry in general, is found most richly and rewardingly in Hill’s engagements with the moral heroism of the authors towards whom he feels both admiration and misgivings. They are authors first and foremost of self-consciously reckoned failure—where that reckoning is woven into their language, and is simultaneously felt as a resistance to that language, which is implicated in, even if not entirely responsible for, what has failed. And what has failed? A proper attunement to the connotations, an exacting grasp of a circumstance and sense, a disproportion squandering harmony, or the assumption of simplicity and facility where none can be had; what fails for Hill is first and foremost the attention owed to words, and to the world that words reveal and possess, and through which authors know all of the world that is not words. Hill savors literature that registers how far a poem or novel can be from setting the world to right, but that nonetheless sets itself aright in its calibration of judgments about the world. In Hill’s criticism, literature is pre-emptively on the defense, defending its own being, defending itself from the inevitable charges, inane or intelligent, of what it is not or does not do (the “antiphonal heckler”); it is language that must justify itself for being set down without, as he argues his great apologia “Our Word is Our Bond,” effecting anything, and it does that by being an interrogation and realization of judgment itself. The virtue of literature, for Hill, is that it does not need to afford to be complaisant, and that it is less beset by the demands of compromise than other forms of expression, representation, and communication—though his criticism does not assume that compromise is beneath or beyond literature, and he is one of the best critics of those authors who have written under duress and threat from power. In an essay on Eliot, Hill retrieves from the maws of obscurity, Bradley’s principle that he calls essential to all critics, the notion that a work of art gets within its judgments the conditions of its judgments. In that phrase, the practice of the best critics is brought into starkest relief.