what criticism does (one view)

As an exemplary instance of criticism, take Geoffrey Hill’s words on Keats:

When Keats, in Book I of the first Hyperion, is endeavoring to reveal his poisonous now to the Titan in his decline are the ‘spicy wreaths | of incense’ offered up by mortal men, he focuses on the central impression of pollution. Suddenly we find:

                        Instead of sweets, his ample palate took

                        Savour of poisonous brass and metal sick.

 Our question can be put as follows: what is contributed to the quotation by the word ‘savour’? First, it is getting within the judgment the condition of the judgment, ‘savour’ being so to speak the normative focus of eating or drinking; second, though Hyperion is in one sense helpless, a sufferer, a degree of petulance within the suffering is perhaps suggested by the verb form ‘took savour’ and by the moment of enjambment in which, presumably, he might have come up with some alternative less satisfyingly wounded.

With the phrase, “getting within the judgment the condition of the judgment,” Hill alludes to F.H. Bradley, and sets out an essential aspect of literary criticism’s task. On such a view, the interpretive task of a critic becomes not an explication of meanings or “readings” but a working out of the judgments a poet makes in the choice and arrangement of words and topic, as well as a working out of the conditions of those judgments, as conveyed in the same choice and arrangements; the evaluative task of the critic emerges, implicitly or explicitly from the interpretive task, as the commentary turns to rightness of the judgments in light of the conditions of judgment.

The end and value of literature is the very encounter with literature; it is an encounter with self and other, with a whole weight and flood of experience, judged, ordered, communicated. Do with it what you will; the fact that such an encounter is possible is strange and worth valuing, and how else to know the fact except through the experience itself.

And what is being encountered exactly? It is another, but not another person as we meet others at parties or hallways. It is an encounter with the way another person judges what is possible for human life, embodied and feeling as it is, and an encounter both with the judgment of what is possible and with what grounds justify that judgment, all at once.

It might be that what distinguishes literature is only its containing within its judgments the conditions of those judgments, and it might be that this is only possible when writing about what is possible rather than actual,  and further, that such a possibility must always be delimited by the finite possibilities of bodily experience; but that encounter with possibility, with judgment, and with the sensuous and sensory that literature offers is distinct and irreplaceable, as are any of the arts.

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