Practical Criticism – An Introduction

Dr Colin Burrow thinks about how we judge the quality of poetry. Is Shakespeare really such a good author?

How do we judge poetry? Is a poem known as a ‘great’ poem because of its intrinsic merits – or does the reader simply judge it on the author’s reputation? Would people really respect Shakespeare’s plays so highly if they didn’t already believe that Shakespeare was a genius?

In the 1920s, a Cambridge academic, I.A.Richards, began a series of experiments with students studying literature. He gave poems to students without any information about who wrote them or when they were written. His aim was to encourage students to concentrate on ‘the words on the page’, rather than relying on preconceived or received beliefs about a text. Richards’ account of his experiment in a book called Practical Criticism, was described by George Orwell (yes, the author of 1984 and Animal Farm) as perfect “for anyone who wants a good laugh”.

“for anyone who wants a good laugh”

What did Orwell find so funny? He felt that the experiment showed “that many people who would describe themselves as lovers of poetry have no more notion of distinguishing between a good poem and a bad one than a dog has of arithmetic”. Out of fifteen people given a little-known sonnet by the highly regarded poet John Donne, only three felt positively about it, and twelve were cold or negative: one reader reported “I can find no other reaction except disgust”. Richards felt that this showed that students rarely thought about poems carefully, but relied on the judgements of others.

By making the students analyse the poem in detail, Richards hoped that they would become better critics. He also hoped that it would have psychological benefits: by thinking carefully about their emotional response to a poem, so that it became an “ordered response” Richards felt that they would clarify their own feelings.

Ignoring History?

In the work of Richards’ most influential student, William Empson, practical criticism provided the basis for an entire critical method, known as ‘New Criticism’ (though, since this was the 1930s, New Criticism is now old). Empson and his followers saw poems as elaborate structures of complex meanings. New Critics paid little attention to the historical setting of the works which they analysed, treating literature as a sphere of activity of its own, and dismissed the author’s intentions as unknowable and irrelevant.

Influential as it was, New Criticism was challenged in turn. For example, Marxist critics felt that literary criticism could not ignore the economic situations that shaped the author and the poem. Others felt that the beliefs of the New Critics about what made a ‘good’ poem were too restrictive, and that they in turn were allowing preconceptions to shape their response to poetry.

Where does that leave us today?

Practical Criticism today

Today, practical criticism is usually treated as a useful ancillary skill rather than the absolute foundation of a critical method. For example, as a student interested in poetry at Henry VIII’s court, your essay might argue a historical point about the way in which courtiers used poetry to show their social status. However, in order to demonstrate your argument, your essay would almost certainly need to include a close reading of the poems. You’d be using the skill of practical criticism, but within a historical context. (Take a look at an article about Elizabethan law and drama to see this in practice)

Practical criticism a part of many examinations in literature at almost all levels (though it’s often called by other names), and is used to test students’ responsiveness to what they read, as well as their knowledge of verse forms and of the technical language for describing the way poems create their effects.

However, you might argue that being trained in practical criticism affects how you respond to literature.

It might be seen as encouraging readings which concentrate on the form and meaning of particular works, rather than on larger theoretical questions. The process of reading a poem in clinical isolation from historical processes also can mean that literature is treated as a sphere of activity which is separate from economic or social conditions, or from the life of its author.

What’s your opinion?

What do you feel about the role of practical criticism for students of English literature? Take a look at some of the resources which are designed to introduce you to some of the methods and vocabulary of practical criticism, and to give some practical advice about how you can move from formal analysis of a poem and of its meaning to a full critical reading of it. They are accompanied by a glossary of critical terms, to which you can refer if you want to know what any of the technical terms used in the classes mean.

Above all, however, the classes are intended to raise questions about how practical criticism can be used.

Do poems look different if they are presented in isolation from the circumstances in which they were written or circulated?

Do our critical responses to them change if we add in some contextual information after we have closely analysed them?

Do our views of a poem change if we hear it read, if we see the original manuscript, or if instead of simply seeing the words on a page, as I. A. Richards would have imagined them, we see words on a screen?