Categories: Literary Criticism

I. A. Richards: Meaning and value

Eliot’s rejection of the ‘lemon-squeezer school of criticism’ also adds an ironic twist to Tillyard’s claim that Eliot was himself a central figure in the development of such a school, promoting critical rigour and the need for the ‘minute exegesis’ of difficult texts. By 1956, Eliot had become con- vinced that criticism should be directed towards enjoyment as well as understanding, and was afraid that analysis would put the ordinary reader’s experience of the text in jeopardy, hinting at a level of difficulty that was not necessarily present. Yet this was also a view that Richards himself came to espouse. In a conversation in December 1968, Richards stated that ‘making [English] into an academic subject has not increased the amount of enjoyment taken in the poems […] I think we’re burying the valuables under a whole load of derivatives’.51 Eliot’s reduction of practical criticism to mere ‘lemon-squeezing’ was also based on a mis- reading of Richards’s aims. While Richards did indeed see a structured, analytical approach to literature as important to an understanding of the text, this was formulated not in specialised, academic terms, but as the only appropriate response to the crisis faced by literature in the modern world – a crisis that had also been perceived by Eliot himself. The precise extent of Eliot and Richards’s influence upon each other is difficult to isolate. John Paul Russo, Richards’s biographer, suggests that their effect on each others’ criticism and philosophy ‘cannot be asserted with assurance’, but nevertheless concedes that ‘it cannot be said that they arrived at certain positions without studying each others’ work’.52 Even so, critics have differed in their evaluation of this study. While Tillyard saw Eliot’s direction of attention to ‘more cerebral types of poetry’ as crucial to the emergence of practical criticism, John Constable has argued that Richards (unlike many of his Cambridge contemporaries) did not use The Sacred Wood as a ‘primary text’ in the development of his own critical method, with his textual annotations being ‘short and dismissive’.53 Eliot and Richards also disagreed on several points. In his Norton Lectures, Eliot was openly critical of Richards’s recommendation of a set of ‘spiritual exercises’ designed to heighten the reader’s response to poetry.54 Earlier, in an article in The Dial, he had heaped scorn on Richards’s belief that poetry ‘is capable of saving us’: ‘Poetry “is capable of saving us,” he says; it is like saying that the wall-paper will save us when the walls have crumbled.’55 Richards was more muted in his censure of Eliot’s work, but still disagreed with aspects of his style and practice, commenting in a marginal annotation in his copy of Eliot’s Homage to John Dryden (1924) that ‘T. S. E. always writes as tho’ he were God. Here the fact that HE is going to say some- thing about Dryden is going to alter everything for ever.’56 Yet importantly, both men saw criticism as a rigorous process that involved careful comparison and analysis, with Richards’s formulation of criticism as ‘the endeavour to discriminate between experiences and to evaluate them’ both echoing Pater’s emphasis on discrimination and foreshadowing Eliot’s description of the classification and comparison of experiences in The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism.57 In addition, both men also conceded that literary criticism had to involve a wider analysis of society and its values. While Eliot sought to protect poetry from the belief that it could be ‘religion or an equivalent of religion’, he later stated that ‘it is impossible to fence off literary criticism from criticism on other grounds […] moral, religious and social judgments cannot be wholly excluded’.58 And while Richards’s concept of ‘pseudo- statements’ led him to challenge the belief that poetry could offer the same kind of verifiable truths as science, he also emphasised that literature and morality were intimately related: ‘The common avoidance of all discussion of the wider social and moral aspects of the arts by people of steady judgment and strong heads is a misfortune.’59 Indeed, this philosophy of the arts came to underpin Richards’s sense of the importance of interpretation: for Richards, the interpretative act was central to a complete grasp of the value of all art. Nevertheless, Richards also shared with Eliot certain doubts about the value of academic literary study. He was convinced that interpretation should be the focus of academic attention, and was scathing about the cursory treatment it had previously been given, commenting in Practical Criticism that one would expect that our libraries would be full of works on the theory of interpretation, the diagnosis of linguistic situations, systematic ambiguity and the functions of complex symbols […] Yet, in point of fact, there is no respectable treatise on the theory of linguistic interpretation in existence, and no person whose profes- sional occupation it is to inquire into these questions and direct study into the matter.However, he also made it clear that such an inquiry should not be limited to the study of literature, pointing out that ‘direct training in reading’ would also be beneficial to ‘such studies as economics, psy- chology, political theory, law or philosophy’.61 In addition, the study of interpretation was not to be confined to academia, but extended to society at large through programmes of education at all levels. Indeed, Richards stated, at a meeting of graduate students at Harvard in 1969, that graduate programmes in English ‘should be dropped altogether’, as scholarship and criticism were a special calling that could only be enjoyed by a select few: global literacy and high-school teaching (of the kind promoted by Richards’s work on ‘Basic English’) were far more important than the specialist pursuit of writing ‘books-about-books-about-books and reviews of them’.62 The fact that the development of English as an academic discipline was not one of Richards’s specific aims means that his relationship with the subject is problematic. His belief in the importance of interpretation, and his formulation of a methodology for the systematic investigation of meaning, may well have helped to give literary criticism a rigour that it did not otherwise possess, focusing on the text itself rather than the investigation of sources, analogues and bibliographical matters that was emphasised by academic textual study. Yet Richards’s emphasis on interpretation was not strictly concerned with literature alone. Instead, it reached beyond literature into the wider sphere of experience, a sphere also stressed by the rhetoric of Hugh James Rose and John Churton Collins. Their desire to give criticism a wider role paradoxically hindered its achievement of the academic status that rested on its capacity for special- isation. In Richards’s formulation, the need for criticism and interpreta- tion to be of wider use creates a constant tension between specialism and utility – and in Richards’s own career, the latter eventually won. Richards’s sense of the importance of interpretation, expressed in both Principles of Literary Criticism (1924) and Practical Criticism (1929), was driven by the need to define a set of standards by which the value of the arts could be expressed. In Principles of Literary Criticism, this value is seen as being threatened by two specific forces: the ‘narrowing and restriction’ to which art had been subjected by aesthetic philosophy, and the more general debasing and commercialisation of culture that was taking place within contemporary society, resulting in the decreasing merit of ‘“best-sellers” […] magazine verses, mantelpiece pottery, Academy pictures, Music Hall songs, County Council buildings, [and] War Memorials’.63 These forces had brought about the urgent need for ‘a general theory of value’ that was able to account for ‘the place and function of the arts
in the whole system of values’, defending the arts from the values of both capitalism and an empty aestheticism.64 Richards’s sense of the importance of such a project is apparent in the metaphors of attack and defence in the following passage:

We need weapons with which to repel and over-throw misconcep- tions. With the increase of population the problem presented by the gulf between what is preferred by the majority and what is accepted as excellent by the most qualified opinion has become infinitely more serious and likely to become threatening in the near future. For many reasons standards are much more in need of defence than they used to be […] To bridge the gulf, to bring the level of popular appre- ciation nearer to the consensus of best qualified opinion, and to defend this opinion against damaging attacks […] a much clearer account than has yet been produced, of why this opinion is right, is essential. […] The expert in matters of taste is in an awkward position when he differs from the majority. He is forced to say, in effect, ‘I am better than you. My taste is more refined, my nature more cultured, you will do well to become more like me than you are’. It is not his fault that he has to be so arrogant. He may, and usually does, disguise the fact as far as possible, but his claim to be heard as an expert depends upon the truth of these assumptions. He ought then to be ready with reasons of a clear and convincing kind as to why his preferences are worth attention.65
Such language attests vividly to Richards’s sense of threat, and also to a certain insecurity about the role of the ‘expert in matters of taste’, whose uneasiness is presented as ample justification for the theory of value Richards proposes. Significantly, while this ‘expert’ is not defined in academic terms, it is important to note that what Richards is calling for is a means of securing expert authority and defining it as concerned with something that is more objective than the simple assertion of personal taste. Richards was some way from formulating the detailed methods of analysis proposed in Practical Criticism, but he was, never- theless, carrying out what Francis Mulhern has described as a ‘deliberate repudiation of the amateurism of belles lettres’, emphasising the need to shift criticism onto more objective grounds.66 Richards’s work on interpretation, seen by Ian MacKillop as providing ‘new, basic concepts for criticism’,67 aimed to secure this objectivity by drawing on his belief that language could be analysed according to clear, scientific principles. Such a belief would help to locate judgement

(and therefore evaluation) in the process of analysis, a meticulous inves- tigation of the text’s formal properties and their shaping of meaning. Richards’s 1926 work Science and Poetry (later reissued as Poetries and Sciences) argued for a dramatic change in the way in which the language of poetry was discussed, complaining that ‘we think and talk in terms which merge and confound orders which must be distinguished’.68 To combat such confusion, Richards proposed a method of inquiry that would unite psychology and literature in a task for which neither the professional psychologist nor the man of letters had so far been equipped: a systematic analysis of the experience of reading. Richards’s attempts to outline this process of inquiry show a clear desire to estab- lish a set of scientific principles appropriate to the description of literary meaning. His set of specialised quotation marks, developed in How to Read a Page (1943) and included in his 1970 Commentary to Poetries and Sciences, represents an attempt to distinguish between different types of meaning, such as ambiguities, specialised meanings, and words requiring particular attention.69 In addition, his description of the reading process demonstrates his desire to draw on the language and conceptual models of psychology, with reading being defined in terms of a process of ‘agitation’ set up by ‘the impression of the printed words on the retina’, and continuing with the separation of this ‘agitation’ into intellectual and emotional streams. For the mind, ‘a system of very delicately poised balances’, each experience requires a rearranging of thought and emotion in order to achieve a state of harmony, with poetry being regarded as particularly effective in creating a state of mental equili- brium.70 The poet’s capacity for ordering speech, and the reader’s ability to interpret this order, thus become central to Richards’s concept of poetic value: poetry is, in effect, representative of a wider capacity for the ordering of experience that is essential to the attainment of mental stability. It is important to note here that Richards’s theory of value differs from a concept of value that is based on the morality inherent in the literary text, of that kind envisioned in the Marxist model of English studies as an aggressive means of promoting a certain kind of culture. His description of critical method rarely turns to individual authors; and indeed in Practical Criticism he shifts the focus of questions of value from the text itself to the mind of the reader:
Instead of an illusory problem about values supposed to inhere in poems […] we have a real problem about the relative values of different states of mind, about varying forms, and degrees, of order in the

personality. […] It is less important to like ‘good’ poetry and dislike ‘bad,’ than to be able to use them both as a means of ordering our minds.71
Crucially, it is this sense of order that is of lasting benefit to the reader, and which will be carried out into the world at large. In the closing pages of Practical Criticism Richards expresses this philosophy through a quotation from Matthew Arnold: a ‘commerce with the ancients’ appears to Arnold to produce, ‘in those who constantly practise it, a steadying and composing effect upon their judgment, not of literary works only, but of men and events in general’.72 Richards’s emphasis on the ordering of experience also recalls Eliot’s focus on the reordering of tradition, with both processes foregrounding the need for impersonality and discrimination. For both Eliot and Richards, the importance of poetry lay in its rigorous organisation of both language and experience, rather than in the crude communication of a definite set of morals and values. Poetries and Sciences, then, represents Richards’s attempt to formulate a model of reading that was based on scientific principles, drawing on his background in the moral sciences – a background that gave Richards a unique position within Cambridge’s English Faculty – to ‘evaluat[e] the precise activity of the human mind’.73 However, in Practical Criticism, Richards acknowledged that communication and interpretation are not always precise, straightforward processes. His study of the ‘protocols’ produced by his audience uncovers and enumerates the different types of ‘misreading’ that occurred amongst his group of respondents, classifying these into such categories as ‘stock responses’, ‘technical presuppositions’, sentimentality and inhibition.74 Yet while Richards was concerned with the number of misreadings that his respondents produced, he also believed that ‘the deficiencies so noticeable in the protocol writers […] are not native inalterable defects in the average human mind. They are due in a large degree to mistakes that can be avoided, and to bad training.’75 To address this lack of analytical training, Richards proposed a model of reading that turned the study of texts into a question of exegesis, involving ‘an intellectual analysis of the Total Meaning’ into its contributory components of sense, feeling, tone, intention and form.76 This method of reading diverged radically from the Cambridge model of ‘literature, life and thought’, as it isolated the text from its historical and biographical contexts and placed the emphasis firmly on the reader’s interpretative capacity. This anti-historicism was perhaps inevitable, given Richards’s dislike of history as both an academic discipline and a way of understanding the world, and his mistrust of biographical approaches.77 Even so, it did not prevent his critical method from being adapted by the new Cambridge English Faculty when it was founded in 1926. The revised English Tripos of that year gave a central place to practical criticism, in the form of a compulsory paper entitled ‘Passages of English Prose and Verse for Critical Comment’.78 This was to be the first stage in a process that would see practical criticism becoming a staple method in the teaching of English at both school and university level, offering self-contained exercises that emphasised rigour, difficulty and exactitude. Richards has subsequently come to be seen as a central figure in the development of English critical method- ology, offering ‘a precisely articulated theory of criticism, together with an analytical method for its classroom use’.79 Indeed, in the words of Wallace Martin, Richards’s conception of criticism is ‘almost without precedent in the English-speaking world’: innovative, far-reaching, and a crucial contribution to the disciplinary development of English.80 Such claims on behalf of Richards are common, and it is sometimes difficult to see him in any other light than as the founder of modern English studies, contributing a precise, scientific method to a subject that had still not found a unified academic identity. Nevertheless, it is important to recall Richards’s own intentions in formulating practical criticism. He did not want his techniques to be applied in a program- matic manner, and felt that criticism required a ‘subtle sense’ of meaning and intention rather than the crude application of a fixed method.81 He also expressed a profound mistrust of approaches that offered ‘statistical inquiries into the “efficiency” of different forms of composition, into types of imagery, into the relative frequency of verbs and adjectives’.82 His vision of interpretation was one that he wished to communicate to society at large, rather than restricting it to the narrow world of academia: it is important to note that it was a theory of interpretation per se, and not specifically one of literary interpretation. However radical it may have been, a critical method that had no influence outside the universities would have been a failure, judged by Richards’s own criteria. As a result, Richards’s contribution to the academic study of English must be assessed with caution. Practical criticism was an important innovation in critical method, especially in a faculty that was increasingly concerned with the need to bring rigour and objectivity to English studies.83 Yet Richards intended it to be a generalist technique rather than part of a specialist programme of study. The uncovering of meaning, through a meticulous process of interpretation, was essential to Richards’s  conceptions of value, experience and the mind, and was therefore central to his hopes for the regeneration of humanity: it could not be seen as a mere scholarly pursuit.

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