Enjoy an audio version of this article.

T. S. Eliot’s essay “The Function of Criticism” (1923) is a work of angry intelligence: it reads as if it were written under duress. Apparently Eliot would prefer to be writing about anything else, or to be silent. He accepts that criticism includes, unfortunately, every form of discursive writing from the most leisurely book-review to a supreme work of criticism such as Sainte-Beuve’s Port-Royal. In “Religion and Literature,” (1935) he says—in poor taste, admittedly—that we should not leave criticism “to the fellows who write reviews in the papers.” It is difficult to designate a function for a plethora. Given such a field of literary criticism, Eliot would like to see most of its wandering inhabitants ejected. In happier conditions, literary criticism would be rarely needed:

I have had some experience of Extension lecturing, and I have found only two ways of leading any pupils to like anything with the right liking: to present them with a selection of the simpler kind of facts about a work—its conditions, its setting, its genesis—or else to spring the work on them in such a way that they were not prepared to be prejudiced against it. There were many facts to help them with Elizabethan drama: the poems of T. E. Hulme only needed to be read aloud to have immediate effect.

The conditions that obtained in the literary milieux of London and Paris in the early twentieth century prompted Eliot to believe that the best kind of literary criticism arose when a poet applied his most intense critical consciousness to the first draft of his poem, to make it as good as he could make it. “I maintain even that the criticism employed by a trained and skilled writer on his own work is the most vital, the highest kind of criticism; and . . . that some creative writers are superior to others solely because their critical faculty is superior.” The next best conditions occur when a poet, on request, studies the first drafts of a friend’s poem as carefully as if they were his own or adjacent to his own. Eliot found these latter conditions when he asked Ezra Pound to read “He Do the Police in Different Voices.” Pound’s criticism and Eliot’s own turned the poem into “The Waste Land.”

This felicity rarely came about. When it didn’t, Eliot hoped that criticism would be a modest affair, and would benefit from that quality:

And any book, any essay, any note in Notes and Queries, which produces a fact even of the lowest order about a work of art is a better piece of work than nine-tenths of the most pretentious critical journalism, in journals or in books.

I take a little feeble comfort from this sentence. Many years ago I submitted two brief notes to J. C. Maxwell, editor of Notes and Queries. He accepted one, rejected the other: not a bad percentage. Eliot enlarged the scope of criticism when he said:

The critic, one would suppose, if he is to justify his existence, should endeavour to discipline his personal prejudices and cranks—tares to which we are all subject—and compose his differences with as many of his fellows as possible, in the common pursuit of true judgment.

“The Common Pursuit” entered into general literary reference when F. R. Leavis used it as the title of a selection of his essays; which in turn became the title of a play about Leavis and his Cambridge circle. “Judgment” was what Leavis called “evaluation.” His methods in criticism were those that Eliot recommended, “comparison and analysis.” What makes a critical judgment true is still a quandary. Eliot and Leavis exempted themselves from “interpretation,” which Eliot declared to be “only legitimate when it is not interpretation at all, but merely putting the reader in possession of facts which he would otherwise have missed.” This sentence marks a typical rhythm in Eliot’s critical mind: he tends to say that an exalted something is nothing but something mean to which it may decently be reduced.

Eliot is at his angriest in the second section of “The Function of Criticism,” where he is provoked by this sentence of John Middleton Murry’s:

The English writer, the English divine, the English statesman, inherit no rules from their forebears; they inherit only this: a sense that in the last resort they must depend upon the inner voice.

Eliot’s reply, which I quote only in part, is a telling example of his polemical irony:

This statement does, I admit, appear to cover certain cases: it throws a flood of light upon Mr. Lloyd George. But why “in the last resort”? Do they, then, avoid the dictates of the inner voice up to the last extremity? My belief is that those who possess this inner voice are ready enough to hearken to it, and will hear no other. The inner voice, in fact, sounds remarkably like an old principle which has been formulated by an elder critic in the now familiar phrase of “doing as one likes.” The possessors of the inner voice ride ten in a compartment to a football match at Swansea, listening to the inner voice, which breathes the eternal message of vanity, fear, and lust.

It is the old quarrel with Murry about Classicism and Romanticism, but even in anger, Eliot’s last sentence is outrageous. He avoids naming the elder critic, Matthew Arnold, because he wants to keep the focus on Murry; though in passing he strikes a blow with “an old principle.” “Ten in a compartment,” the cheapest seats. It is a blatant lapse of taste on Eliot’s part to claim that he knows the eternal message breathed by the inner voice—to which he never listens. “Vanity, fear, and lust”: how would he know these deliverances well enough to distinguish them?

Eliot is honor-bound to say what the function of criticism is, however reluctant he is to claim that it has one. He drives himself toward the statement by contrasting art and criticism in their different characters, a contrast hardly necessary since no one has ever confounded them:

No exponent of criticism . . . has, I presume, ever made the preposterous assumption that criticism is an autotelic activity. I do not deny that art may be affirmed to serve ends beyond itself; but art is not required to be aware of these ends, and indeed performs its function, whatever that may be, according to various theories of value, much better by indifference to them. Criticism, on the other hand, must always profess an end in view, which, roughly speaking, appears to be the elucidation of works of art and the correction of taste.

Hard to say how roughly the speaking proceeds. Criticism that “must always profess an end in view” doesn’t sound rough or approximate, it knows exactly what it must do. Eliot is anxious to attach the hard word “autotelic” to art, and to let criticism do the best it can with its secondary character. Many people, including the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary (1991 reprint with corrections), have lived useful lives without once speaking the word “autotelic.” In Eliot’s use it has the force of “No Entry” or “Keep Off the Grass.”

But Eliot’s double formula is doubtful. Imagine how he would have reacted if someone—I. A. Richards, for instance—were to submit to the Editor of The Criterion an essay called “An Elucidation of The Waste Land.” He would have snorted and said: “The Waste Land does not need to be elucidated, it needs to be read aloud by a competent speaker, just as I, in my teaching days, read aloud Hulme’s ‘The Embankment,’ ” a poem prefaced by Hulme with the words, in parenthesis, “(The fantasia of a fallen gentleman on a cold, bitter night.)”:

Once, in finesse of fiddles found I ecstasy,

In the flash of gold heels on the hard pavement.

Now see I

That warmth’s the very stuff of poesy.

Oh, God, make small

The old star-eaten blanket of the sky

That I may fold it round me and in comfort lie.

If I were to read that poem in one of my poetry classes at nyu, I feel sure that three or four students would ask a question along these lines: isn’t this a poem in Free Verse? If it is, why does Eliot quote it again in his essay on Free Verse? Doesn’t he normally affirm that there is no such thing as Free Verse? My answer: No, he doesn’t deny that there is Free Verse, he quotes Hulme’s “Embankment” because of its beauty and because “the charm of these lines could not be, without the constant suggestion and the skilful evasion of iambic pentameter.” Note too that the first and last lines have twelve syllables, as if the iambic pentameter were extended by an extra iambic foot. And two of its seven lines are standard iambic pentameters. Why we have “poesy” instead of “poetry” would be a hard examination question.

Eliot does not say what the impact of “Embankment” was on the class to which he read it. Perhaps he could not produce evidence, except to say that the poem gave pleasure. Maybe he urged the class to listen as if they were listening to a piece of music. If we have a chance to hear András Schiff playing Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, we do not say anything, unless we are musicologists or professional music critics: anything we would say would be banal, our response is not a discursive one. It is not an occasion for saying. It may be analogous to the experience that Eliot adumbrates at the end of “The Dry Salvages” of

music heard so deeply

That it is not heard at all, but you are the music

While the music lasts.

—if such a degree of transformation is possible.

This is probably enough to show that “elucidation” is not the right word in Eliot’s phrase “the elucidation of works of art.” By calling works of art “autotelic,” he protected them from improper comment, but he did not say what form a proper comment would take. “The Correction of Taste” is more intelligible. I take him to mean that if something is in bad taste it should be corrected by appeal to good taste. To pick up a phrase he used earlier, taste is the custom by which we like something with the right liking. That is the direction of good teaching. It is easy to like something for the wrong reason. Many of us like trash for no good or right reason. Trying again: the function of criticism—as of good teaching—is to lead our students, our readers—to like something for the right reason. What is the right reason? That is what we have to know and to be able to show.

Some of these showings are easy. Take again Eliot’s sentence about the soccer fans in the train to Swansea. Suppose Eliot, in the company of the upper-middle-class men and women who were his frequent companions, were to speak that sentence about the inner voice, surely someone would at least protest “I say, Tom, tut, tut.” That would be an appeal to the imperative of Taste. What further penalty would be imposed, that is hard to say. The sentence would hardly merit Eliot’s exclusion from polite society. Is there a lapse of taste in “Morning at the Window” when Eliot writes: “I am aware of the damp souls of housemaids/ Sprouting despondently at area gates.” How could he be aware of such entities, and know them to be damp, and see them sprouting? In “Sweeney Erect” the ladies of the corridor “Call witness to their principles/ And deprecate the lack of taste.” What they deprecate is the absence of a direct, assured operation of custom in the surrounding social behavior. As well they might, since this absence compels them to call witness to their principles. Taste, like manners, has no laws to which to appeal. If custom does not operate, the game is lost.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 8, on page 12
Copyright © 2017 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com

Popular Right Now