Criticism is a self-conscious understanding of another’s judgment: the judgments that issue forth as a text, an oeuvre, a work; the judgments of author and era. It does not seek to understand judgment in the abstract, as a philosopher would; it wants to understand judgment in its application of a medium.
Literary criticism is the study of the judgment as it works through language to imagine, as literature does, what is possible and probable, rather than what is actual.
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.
That, then, represents one starting point for approaching literature: the thought that it is in nature of literature to get within its judgments the condition of those judgments, where those judgments are both about what is possible and where, arranged into a grammatical unity, those judgments form a nexus of possibilities; take as a further starting point that the judgments in a work of literature, though not always about history or the body, are nonetheless conditioned by an openness to, and understanding of, history, and a consciousness of bodily life; and as a final starting point the thought that the judgments are effected through language and its formal arrangement.
Why make such a statement? In part, to orient reading practices, in part to orient judgments about literature so that it can be entered on its own terms. With such a statement, we are guided in what to read for, and we are offered suggestions for how to arrive at an understanding of a text—with room left for interpretation both in relation to the judgment to the conditions of judgments, and for articulating the relation of possibilities contained within a work.
Such analysis of judgment and the conditions it contains (the conditions that validate it) is one essential component of criticism: it tells us what standards a work sets for itself, what it tries to achieve, and how well it achieves them.
But the chief tools of criticism, as T.S. Eliot remarked are comparison as well as analysis. The other task of the critic is to determine what sort of thing a work is, or would be; to do so requires comparison with other objects.
In practice, comparison and analysis move in tandem, two legs steadying and propelling; we can better imagine what a work aspires to be, and how it succeeds, by comparing it with others; we can better understand what sort of work we are faced with if we analyze it and understand the conditions of the judgments that it implies.