Richards, I(vor) A(rmstrong) (Vol. 24)
I(vor) A(rmstrong) Richards 1893–1979
English critic, essayist, linguist, poet, and dramatist.
Richards's reputation as the forerunner of New Criticism derives from two of his earliest books. Principles of Literary Criticism, published in 1924, was his attempt to establish a criticism based upon scientific method. Of particular interest to Richards was the relatively new discipline of psychology, which he hoped would eventually justify his theory of value that the best art satisfies the greatest number of "appetencies." In Practical Criticism, published in 1929, Richards applied his theories to the study of literature. The method he introduced, asking students to comment on poems without benefit of background information, was for a time a widely accepted exercise in evaluating literature. Richards was especially concerned with the reader's reaction to the poem; he believed that only close analysis would reveal the complexity of great art and he warned against sentimentality and stock responses.
Richards is recognized for his perceptive theories of poetic language which maintained the importance of poetry, while reflecting the scientific approach of the modern age. His differentiation of language use—referential for scientific discourse and emotive for poetry—originated from his early pronouncement that poetry could offer only "pseudo-statements." This controversial issue prompted much discussion of the problem of belief and value in poetry as Richards analyzed it in Coleridge on Imagination. Richards also delineated four areas of meaning to be disentangled by the responsible critic: a poem's sense, its feeling, its tone, and its intention.
Even critical theorists who disagreed with Richards, or claimed that his literary practice did not logically follow from his psychological-neurological thesis, adapted some of his ideas and terminology. His study of metaphor, with its distinction between tenor and vehicle, and his commentary on irony and tragedy are especially notable. Although his theories at first were met with skepticism and misunderstanding, Richards's writings provided the New Critics with principles for close textual analysis and the impetus for a reexamination of the prevalent critical trends of the early twentieth century.
(See also CLC, Vol. 14 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 41-44, rev. ed., Vols. 89-92 [obituary].)
Some time ago, having occasion to outline a possible scientific approach to the problem of literary criticism, the present reviewer expressed a hope that a critic might appear who, possessed of both literary and scientific equipment, would attempt this task in extenso. Mr. Richards, in his "Principles of Literary Criticism," if he does not entirely fulfil this hope, at any rate makes an extraordinarily interesting beginning. He is erudite and he is intelligent; he makes the courageous attempt to be at the same time scientific and psychological; and he has the great advantage of having at his disposal a knowledge of semantics. Many of the principles employed in "The Meaning of Meaning" (in which he collaborated with Mr. C. K. Ogden) he is able to apply with excellent effect in his search for a scientific approach to criticism. (p. 585)
It will inevitably be objected by adherents of the purely "aesthetic" approach (which ought by now to be an exploded idea) that any such attempt must simply be an unwarrantable and fruitless substitution of one set of terms (psychological) for another set (literary)…. But no sensible person, who is not blinded by idolatry of the arts, will object to the substitution of a set of terms which is carefully defined for a set which—notoriously—is so vague as to be practically meaningless. In this regard, Mr. Richards's procedure is admirable. His terms are clear, useful, and conveniently few....
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T. S. Eliot
The Principles of Literary Criticism is a milestone, though not an altogether satisfactory one. Mr Richards had difficult things to say, and he had not wholly mastered the art of saying them; it is probable that what he has there said with much difficulty, he will be able to say better. The present little book [Science and Poetry] marks a distinct advance in Mr Richards' power of expression and arrangement. It is very readable; but it is also a book which everyone interested in poetry ought to read.
The book is notable not because of providing the answer to any question. Such questions as Mr Richards raises are usually not answered; usually they are merely superseded. But it will be a long time before the questions of Mr Richards will be obsolete: in fact, Mr Richards has a peculiar gift for anticipating the questions which the next generations will be putting to themselves…. Exactly what these questions are will cause us some trouble to explain. This book … is, first of all, an enquiry into a new and unexplored aspect of the Theory of Knowledge: into the relation between truth and belief, between rational and emotional assent. It is an essay in The Grammar of Belief; the first intimation that I have met with that there is a problem of different types of belief. It touches on the immense problem of the relation of Belief to Ritual. It sketches a psychological account of what happens in the mind in the...
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John Middleton Murry
Towards the end of his stimulating book, Principles of Literary Criticism, Mr. I. A. Richards discusses what he calls the 'revelation' theory of poetry; that is to say the theory that poetry, in its highest forms, does actually reveal somewhat of the else hidden nature of reality. The theory was first maintained in this country by the 'romantic' poets of the early nineteenth century. It is to be found also in Goethe. Centuries before that we find palpable hints of it in Plotinus; and the enthusiastic sometimes discover it adumbrated in Aristotle's famous dictum that 'Poetry is more highly serious and more philosophic than history.'
Mr. Richards is distinctly scornful of the suggestion.
The joy (he writes) which is so strangely the heart of the experience [of high tragedy] is not an indication that "all's right with the world," or that "somewhere, somehow there is justice"; it is an indication that all is right here and now with the nervous system.
He is ruthless, you see, with our little illusions. When we respond to King Lear or The Cherry Orchard, and leave them with the sweet solemnity of a Nunc dimittis sounding within our souls, a conviction that our eyes have seen our salvation, we are the victims of romantic delusion, pardonable perhaps in such foolish children of earth as we, but to be regarded by the cool-headed expert in...
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In two books, Principles of Literary Criticism and Science and Poetry, Mr. I. A. Richards had advanced the theory that the reading of poetry could and should replace for us the holding of religious and other fundamental beliefs.
He has now published [Practical Criticism], and, apart from a desire to restate his views, his reason for doing so is, I presume, that people had protested that they did not find reading poetry could be for them equivalent to holding fundamental beliefs, for in it he seeks to show to such people that the fault lies not with poetry, but with their way of appreciating or criticizing it.
The burden of the book is that we do not know how to appreciate or criticize poetry. (p. 97)
[Mr. Richards] provides directions for what would be, according to him, the proper appreciation or criticism of poetry. When we read a poem we should, he declares, 'respond' to it, and our 'response' ought to be sincere and independent…. In our dealing with a poem, we are, he insists further …, to disregard 'presuppositions and critical preconceptions': 'our acceptance or rejection of it must be direct'.
The view of appreciation or criticism, which appears to be disclosed by these statements, cannot be very different from the popular view. Most people, to judge from what is implied by the statements of the people one has met—most people believe that...
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I believe it can be shown that all Mr. Richards' troubles, all the weaknesses of his books, derive from [the] fundamental error of trying to cut off the organization and control of practical activity from science and bring it over into poetry. And first among these troubles I should mention the heavy labor it turns out to be, even for those vividly interested in the subject, to read his Principles of Literary Criticism. Rarely has a man rich in new and important thoughts produced a book so tiring to the mind. We emerge on the last page with a feeling that we have been wading and plunging through a vastly important jungle of ideas, every one so overlaid and entangled with exceptions, interpolations, affiliations, methodological asides, obiter dictums and addendums, that no clear impression remains even of those ideas which were—we vaguely remember—brilliantly well stated and defined. We emerge—only to learn in the conclusion, that Mr. Richards spent half of his own labor on the book "in simplifying its structure, in taking out reservations and qualifications"! Well, is not that what always happens when you try to insert a body of facts into a theory which does not fit them—or any other body into any other mismade receptacle? (p. 303)
Not only does Mr. Richards have to tend and tinker his explanation of poetry, plugging and caulking it continually with reservations and qualifications, but he has to admit that, when...
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D. W. Harding
Conversational comments on Richards' work, favourable or unfavourable, seldom express opinions about his actual views; they seem more often than not to be reactions to the general tone of his writing. Nor can this aspect of his work be neglected in an attempt to formulate a more precise opinion: some peculiarity of tone, or some prevailing attitude, undoubtedly distinguishes him from most scientific and critical writers. It would be laborious to analyse this attitude in detail. As a handy label for it, the term 'amateur' (with some of its implications) will perhaps do. It is suggested for one thing by the slight acerbity with which so many 'professionals'—literary critics, psychologists, metaphysicians—dismiss him, together with the slight awe that he inspires in the virginally lay. But it has more important justification than this in two essential features of his work, namely in his insistence upon the significance for 'normal practical life' of his special interests, and in the buoyancy with which he rides over difficulties of detail by means of general principles.
Take, for instance, his basic hypotheses for criticism, and consider the difficulty and labour that would be involved in proving them. Only the spirit of the amateur could enable Richards to express them with as little inhibition as he does. (p. 349)
Three hypotheses, distinct although closely related, are expressed by Richards in [Principles of...
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Very few contemporary writers on aesthetics in English occupy Richards' authoritative position. Since the publication of The Principles of Literary Criticism his theories have gained increasingly in prestige among theoretical writers as well as among practical critics, and he seems in the process of gathering a school. Those interested in aesthetics or in practical criticism will generally admit, I believe, that his influence has already had some very salutary effects. He has been instrumental in sobering speculation; he has called attention to a number of problems hitherto inadequately dealt with, notably the problem of communication; and with profound conviction he has insisted on the need we moderns have of art. No doubt these achievements explain in part the prestige his doctrines enjoy. But the felt need, inchoate and confused, for a 'scientific' aesthetics, the meagerness of experimental results, and perhaps also the imperial manner Richards has of dismissiong as mere verbiage theories with which he disagrees and of bravely hacking at very difficult intellectual knots rather than patiently unravelling them, must also be accounted factors. A critical examination of his theories will, however, reveal that they often suffer from defects similar to those he has noticed in others. Under undoubted excellences one discovers a number of incoherences and confusions which need probing, and this all the more urgently on account of the militant...
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D. G. James
[Poetry] is the conveyance, by the imaginative use of language, of imaginative objects, the compulsion upon the reader by the poet of his own imaginative prehension of the world or of some aspect of or object within it. And it is only with poetry in this sense that criticism is concerned. Now the view of poetry as the expression of imaginative prehension is a sufficiently ordinary one, and is certainly not new. But there are grounds for believing that it is not wholly idle to repeat it. For example, [Mr. I. A. Richards' Principles of Literary Criticism] seems to be built up out of disregard for this simple and, one would have thought, obvious truth. So completely does Mr. Richards ignore it that his book is for the most part taken up by an attempt to describe the psychological and physiological conditions which he holds are necessary for the writing of great poetry. Now such an inquiry, could it be accomplished with any considerable degree of scientific precision, would have great interest. But such interest as it might have would be irrelevant to what alone is the concern of the critic, namely, poetry. Such knowledge as might be achieved by such an inquiry would have as much relevance to poetry as an attempt to inquire into the psychological and physiological condition of a scientist would have to what we call science. To know the psychology and physiology of a scientist is of no aid to a critic of his work, though it might have interest for...
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John Crowe Ransom
[Mr. Richards] brings into the account of poetry an unusual set of terms; and their principle seems to be that, if they are not quite physical terms, they will not be so very spiritual. I suppose they are orthodox terms in the new psychology. The analysis of a poetic experience given in Science and Poetry reads like the study of a brain. We encounter a surface—the impression of the printed words on the retina—and an agitation which goes deeper and deeper and involves images; then two streams, the bigger one composed of rushing feelings and emotions, the smaller one being the intellectual stream; then a great many "interests" clashing and balancing; and finally the attitudes, or outward-looking adjustments which complete the response to the original stimulus. Some of these terms are physical, some are physiological, and others are barely psychological. The importance of the term intellectual is played down. Mr. Richards partakes of the behavioristic aversion to the concept of thought. He writes that man "is not in any sense primarily an intelligence; he is a system of interests." (p. 149)
Mr. Richards emphasizes the complexity of a poetic experience. It is great, and he is right; his rightness is a reproach against many highly connected critics who have thought poetry was simple, and have been prepared to recite very promptly and in a few words what they define as the "meaning" of a poem. (It turns out to be only the...
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The influence of [Richards' "Principles of Literary Criticism"] has been at least as important on the negative as on the positive side. It has been largely responsible for the final breakdown of the "magical" view of literature, the view that literature, like art generally, is a mystical activity unlike any other. And this in turn has meant the gradual elimination from serious criticism of the simple "Oh, how wonderful" approach. On the positive side the influence has been less uniform. In grounding a theory of value upon description Richards has, all unwittingly, fathered a host of rather muddle-headed critics who seem to have been unable to see that only a psychological concept of function can bridge the gap between the descriptive and the normative. Using some of Richards' scientific tools (with tools from psychology generally) without his scientific method, these critics have confused a description of psychological origins with an assessment of value. (pp. 96-7)
But Richards cannot be held responsible for the confusions of those who may be utilizing some of his ideas, any more than he is to blame for the host of dilettante psychologists who regularly pass off impressionistic chatter for profound analysis simply by the use of psychological terminology…. More desirable and more important is the influence Richards has had on serious and informed critics who are interested in the problems of literary form, poetic imagery and meaning....
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John Crowe Ransom
Discussion of the new criticism must start with Mr. Richards. The new criticism very nearly began with him. It might be said also that it began with him in the right way, because he attempted to found it on a more comprehensive basis than other critics did. (p. 3)
Richards approaches poetry as a psychologist. A psychologist, I should judge, is a thinker who invades our discussions by telling us that what we think is knowledge testifies less to any objective referent than to our own subjective emotions and desires…. [He] asserts that the cognitions we have in the arts are not autonomous, and more often than not could not stand up under the rigorous standards of science, and that the real values of art are not cognitions at all, but the affective states which art induces and expresses. Richards is a psychologist in taking just this general position. (pp. 11-12)
But there are modes of psychology much "newer" than that, and Richards began by being thoroughly up to date. He has subscribed in passing to behavioristic psychology, which did not offer much application to aesthetics, and to neurological psychology, which seemed to offer more.
His devotion to neurological psychology, following The Meaning of Meaning, was long and faithful…. The vogue of neurological "psychology" is a left-handed tribute to the prestige of the physical and mathematical sciences. Psychologists too, if neurology...
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There can be little doubt that Coleridge's failure to get out of the dilemma of Intellect-or-Feeling has been passed on to us as a fatal legacy. If the first object of poetry is an effect, and if that effect is pleasure, does it not necessarily follow that truth and knowledge may be better set forth in some other order altogether? It is true that Coleridge made extravagant claims for a poetic order of truth, and it is upon these claims that Mr. I. A. Richards has based his fine book, Coleridge on the Imagination: Mr. Richards's own testimony is that the claims were not coherent. The coherent part of Coleridge's theory is the fatal dilemma that I have described. Truth is only the secondary consideration of the poet, and from the point of view of positivism the knowledge, or truth, that poetry gives us is immature and inadequate. What of the primary consideration of the poet—pleasure?
Pleasure is the single qualitative feature of Coleridge's famous definition; but it is not in the definition objectively. And with the development of modern psychology it has ceased to be qualitative, even subjectively. It is a response. The fate of Coleridge's system, then, has been its gradual extinction in the terminology of experimental psychology. The poetry has been extinguished in the poet. The poetic "effect" is a "response" to a "stimulus"; and in the early works of Mr. Richards we get for the first time the questions,...
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[To] many undergraduates of his generation the young Richards was a prophet. Not by accident, for it is a role he has always played. How was it possible to be a modern and still think poetry important? Most of Richards' early propositions may be regarded as answers to this question.
Chief among these answers is his apotheosis of poetry, in which he finds all the ecstasies and joys of religion, all the props and stays of morality. His eulogies of poetry read like a decoding of Shelley's, a translation into psychological terms of what the Romantics had said in incandescent metaphor. Poetry was just as holy a flame, just as much a firebird, to Richards as to any Romantic: but he did not talk that way. Where Browning said "God's in his heaven, All's right with the world", Richards said "all's right with the nervous system"; each was speaking of the most perfect felicity he can conceive.
For Richards, poetry was "the most important repository of our standards." Richards is a master of the pseudo-statement. What could better evoke in the nervous system of the young modern attitudes of respect for poetry than this peroration with its skilled deployment of rhythmic clauses and its firm, insistent repetitions: "The arts are our storehouse of recorded values. They spring from and perpetuate hours in the lives of exceptional people, when their control and command of experience is at its highest, hours when the varying...
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Stanley Edgar Hyman
The achievement of Practical Criticism is such that it can hardly be canceled out by any subsequent defections. It was the beginning of objective criticism, the first organized attempt to stop theorizing about what people get when they read a poem and to find out. Its ultimate aim is no less lofty a one than the general improvement of reading, and as a consequence the general improvement of literary appreciation. (p. 315)
The tremendous value of Practical Criticism lies almost wholly in its data on how poetry is actually read by supposedly qualified people, counterpointed by Richards's own readings and amplified and generalized by him. He more or less recognizes the inadequacy of his recommendations at the end of the book, or in fact of any recommendations. The book proposes improvement through education: further experimentation in the universities, the teaching of interpretation as a subject…. Yet quis custodiet ipsos custodes—who will teach the teachers? As Richards recognizes, his protocol-writers are precisely the teachers of poetry in the next generation, and it is unlikely that they will be fundamentally altered by his course, this book, or the whole corpus of his books. Constant evidence from life makes it clear that the general inability to experience works of art intelligently and critically extends to the professionals in the field and others presumably qualified. (p. 323)
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R. P. Blackmur
[Some] critics deliberately expand the theoretic phase of every practical problem. There is a tendency to urge the scientific principle and the statistical method, and in doing so to bring in the whole assorted world of thought. That Mr. Richards, who is an admirable critic and whose love and knowledge of poetry are incontestable, is a victim of the expansiveness of his mind in these directions, is what characterizes, and reduces, the scope of his work as literary criticism. It is possible that he ought not to be called literary critic at all. If we list the titles of his books we are in a quandary: The Foundations of Aesthetics, The Meaning of Meaning (these with C. K. Ogden), The Principles of Literary Criticism, Science and Poetry, Practical Criticism, Mencius on the Mind, and Coleridge on Imagination. The apparatus is so vast, so labyrinthine, so inclusive—and the amount of actual literary criticism is so small that it seems almost a by-product instead of the central target…. His work is for the most part about a department of the mind which includes the pedagogy of sensibility and the practice of literary criticism. The matters he investigates are the problems of belief, of meaning, of communication, of the nature of controversy, and of poetic language as the supreme mode of imagination. The discussion of these problems is made to focus for the most part on poetry because poetry provides the only great monuments of...
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[Dr. I. A. Richards] has retained the intellectual adventurousness of an earlier and larger epoch, while everyone around him was giving way to dwarfish specialism. The result is that he stands out as an heroic figure, ready to have a go at anything, and able to draw up the most diverse sources of knowledge for his equipment. No task is too great for him to undertake, from clearing up the theoretical basis of literary criticism to reducing tension between the nations. To read Richards is a recognised tonic for the critic who has lost his nerve; he has the knack of saying something large and exhilarating in words that have a scientific flavour, so that one feels only a visionary fool would dispute it; he enables the literary man to feel that he is on the side of the big battalions of science….
Dr. Richards was coming out with [pronouncements attesting to the value of poetry] at a time when the trampling of the arts by the sciences was very much fiercer than it is now. It is quite plain, looking back, that in the Twenties and early Thirties the scientist had a monopoly of intellectual chic, and the only people who could command any respect were those who adopted his methods; this is one of the reasons for the idiotic cult of 'research' in the humane studies (to establish the precise date on which Chaucer moved from one house to another was useful because equally minute discoveries in bacteriology or entomology had proved...
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Even as Richards inadvertently paved the way for the study of poems as independent structures,… he created, as he meant to, several obstacles which his followers had to overcome in order to earn this position. It is impossible to conceive of the work itself as a self-contained entity when it is relegated to being a shadowy middleman that merely reflects the psychology of the two people who have to do with it, the poet and the reader. And it is reduced precisely to this status when Richards defines it solely in terms of the experiences of its readers and the experience of its author. So long as Richards maintains his concept of the interaction of contexts, so that the reader's life outside the poem is as crucial a factor in his aesthetic experience as is the life he discovers in the poem, he has left us a good distance from a consideration of the poem as a separate world. And if the poem is allowed to be no more than an almost featureless stimulus—which is all it can be if irony is not consistently treated as a characteristic of the poem rather than of the reader and if "a carpet or a pot or … a gesture" can be adequate substitutes for the poem—then any attempt at criticism, organic or otherwise, seems pointless. Certainly many transformations had to be worked in the theory if its useful features were to be applied soundly.
As an aid in these needed transformations, fortunately, the later critics had available a second kind of...
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As you read [Practical Criticism], a feeling grows that it was not one man who wrote it, but a whole committee: on which were serving a semanticist, an educationalist, a philosopher, a psychologist, a sociologist, a mystic and a moralist—and also (I had almost forgotten him) a literary critic. The members of the committee do not always, by any means, find themselves in agreement. The chairmanship changes hands with bewildering rapidity; now the critic sits at the head of the table, now he is under it. The philosopher has an engaging habit of donning the robes of Confucius and intoning with oracular gravity: 'What is true grows light; what is light grows true'…. The semanticist rises to proclaim his view that 'an enquiry into language' must 'be recognised as a vital branch of research'…. The educationalist, backing him up, adds the rider that 'in all ordinary schools' a 'Theory of Interpretation' must soon 'take the foremost place in the literary subjects'…. The sociologist says his piece about 'mechanical inventions' and their 'social effects'…. The mystic, invoking for our guidance 'the practices of divination and magic', recommends us to 'sit by the fire (with eyes shut and fingers pressed firmly on the eyeballs)', in that situation to meditate on 'the inconceivable immensity of the Universe'—and then to give that darned poem just one more reading and see if it can take it…. The psychologist warns us with sombre pride that very...
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To most observers the publication in 1935 of Coleridge on Imagination signaled a very important change in I. A. Richards' thinking as a literary critic. At the time, most other men of letters interpreted it as a shift away from "positivism." But what seems more interesting now is that it was also a shift toward a condition of mind that is pretty accurately described by the word "romanticism." It was indeed, as John Crowe Ransom once remarked, a kind of "conversion."
Of course, Richards was never a very good positivist—never a very pure one—and much less a scientist, as the standard protests against the pseudo-psychological machineries in the Principles of Literary Criticism have demonstrated. (p. 47)
[In] the Principles Richards wrote about the value of the arts in terms of their theoretically measurable and practical effect of "organizing" our minds, his theory being that through intelligent experiencing of the arts our minds pass from relative chaos to relative order, from a condition relatively wasteful of their inherent resources to one relatively complete in its realization of them. The way the mind gets ordered, whether or not by art, Richards presented as an essentially mechanical process, which was in accord with the nature of his theory. According to his theory, our thinking, as well as simpler sorts of action, is dependent upon the nature and relative organization of...
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Gerald E. Graff
[The critics] who have popularized the theory of the later Richards' conversion [to a chastened theorist] are literary critics who were dismayed by the positivism of the early works, and who applaud in the later works what they take to be a more congenial attitude toward truth and knowledge as constituents of poetry. The general contention of these interpreters is that in Coleridge on Imagination (1934) and his subsequent works, Richards repudiated his earlier positivist view of poetry as pseudo-statement and came to see poetry as a special kind of truth and knowledge, that "unique mode of knowing" so often celebrated—if not defined—by the later New Critics and others. (p. 50)
The passage that is most frequently cited … to support the claim that Richards reversed his position is [one] from The Philosophy of Rhetoric (1936) [in which he defines language as "no mere signalling system"]…. Here again, if the interpreters are correct, is the essence of the New Richards, emancipated at last from his positivist bondage. As Allen Tate puts it, "There is, in this passage,… an implicit repudiation of the leading doctrine of The Principles of Literary Criticism" [see excerpt above]…. Tate further interprets Richards' disparagement of "sensation" and "intuition" in the passage as an implicit repudiation of the behaviorist approach to language interpretation. [Richard Foster (see excerpt above)] also quotes the...
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There is something gallant but also quixotic in Richards' great faith in the power of a general theory of language and poetry from which he expects "new powers over our minds comparable to those which systematic physical inquiries are giving us over our environment."… Nothing seems to point to such a future. Richards' theory of poetry as long as it is entangled in his psychology and operates with the simple concept of emotive language seems to me an impasse in criticism. But where he managed to look at texts, gave an account of misreadings, analyzed observable traits of a work of art, Richards found his way back to the organistic tradition of poetic theory descending from Aristotle through the Germans to Coleridge. But emphasizing these insights we assimilate him to something known before and deny what, after all, however extravagantly, was the stimulating novelty of his theory: the radical rejection of aesthetics, the resolute reduction of the work of art to a mental state, the denial of truth-value to poetry and the defense of poetry as emotive language ordering our mind and giving us equilibrium and mental health.
"Perhaps," says Stanley Hyman, "more than any man since Bacon, Richards has taken all knowledge as his province, and his field the entire mind of man." But this seems wildly exaggerated: Richards is, on the contrary, not a Bacon or a Hegel, or even a Dilthey or Croce but a specialist...
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Jerome P. Schiller
The tone of I. A. Richards' writings on language and literature is so striking, so obtrusive, that the reader cannot help picturing the author as he reads: the brash, impatient, perhaps glib, but always clearheaded iconoclast behind such works as Principles of Literary Criticism (1924) and Science and Poetry (1926); the wise, unassuming, somewhat vague guide behind the essays in Speculative Instruments (1955). Without the advantage of Richards' own discussion of tone …, the reader might wonder whether the author underwent severe alterations in personality between writing the earlier and the later works; with it in mind, he need only assume that Richards sensed a change in his audience which demanded a different stance. In any event, tone remains perhaps the most memorable feature of Richards' writings, and the one which will ensure their continuing appeal.
Nevertheless, the obtrusiveness of his style is unfortunate, for it is partly to this that we can attribute the dearth of supporters for Richards. A good indication that his views on literature are rarely taken as seriously today as they should be is his widespread reputation as one of the founders of the New Criticism, that is, as one who has had a very important influence on that critical movement. This portrayal of Richards suggests that his work is primarily of historic interest, rather than of contemporary significance, a suggestion born out in the...
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[My] purpose is to examine the role of I. A. Richards in calling attention to several important (and related) questions; the fact of disparity in poetry, the kinds of unification possible and desirable, and the positive values of a poetry that makes use of tension as its structural principle.
Richards has exerted during the last fifty years a powerful influence on our understanding of these matters—perhaps the most powerful influence of all. In the pages that follow I shall suggest some parallels between his thinking and that of other men of letters of our time, Yeats and Eliot in particular. The fact that in his stress upon a hard-won unity Richards is flanked by men who come at the same problem from quite different intellectual backgrounds makes evident that the problem is central to our culture. A concern for tensional structure does not spring from a narrow ideology or serve a special literary bias.
The concept of tension is embedded in a nexus of related concepts. Thus, as we shall see, it is impossible to talk about tension without also talking about the limits of metaphor and the possibility of (and perhaps the necessity for) incorporating the unpleasant, the ugly, and the evil into the art work. A discussion of tension must impinge on other matters also: the degree of detachment proper for the artist to adopt and its relation to the degree of his personal involvement; the whole problem of decorum and, with...
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Richards is not only a pre-eminent Coleridgean but is himself, in many important senses, the Coleridge of our time. Like Coleridge, he has taught us that there can be no criticism without reconsidering fundamental conceptions; that we must watch our minds as well as use them, attending especially to what we are doing when we use words like "word," "meaning," "knowledge," "truth," "belief" etc. Like Coleridge, he sees poetry as bringing the whole soul of man into activity, at the same time imposing upon it a more than usual order; and like him, he teaches that to experience poetry fully is to enjoy the bliss of "the rectified mind and the freed heart." Unlike Coleridge, he does not subordinate his critical and psychological insights to an over-riding metaphysical and religious programme; but in his impassioned defence of life-values in a world gone cold and inanimate he has more than a little of the prophetic character too. (p. 227)
Richards not only founded modern literary criticism, but supplied it with a vocabulary which has become accepted currency for so long that its origin is often forgotten. Who but he coined phrases like "stock responses," "pseudo-statements," "disguised imperatives," "storehouse of recorded values," "private poem," "bogus entities," "scientific versus emotive language," "objectless belief," "valuable experience" and many more? It is in itself a mark of genius to be capable of putting such memorable and...
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[In 1926] it was commonly understood that science was increasingly in possession of fact and truth. In Science and Poetry  science gets a better press than poetry for that reason: science makes statements, poetry makes pseudo-statements. In later years, and in essays gathered now in Complementarities, Richards tried to take the harm out of this distinction. What he meant, and what his readers refused to understand, apparently, was that pseudo-statements are statements which, whether true or false, gain in the poem by being neither: they are free statements, mobile, suggestive, and they are such that the question of their truth, in that particular context, does not arise. In science, statements are made for the sake of their reference, so they are either true or false, the question of truth cannot be evaded. In poetry, language is used "for the sake of the effects in emotion and attitude produced by the reference it occasions".
Richards now maintains that the distinction between statements and pseudo-statements is neutral, disinterested, and not at all invidious: it was wrongly taken to mean that science was true and that poetry was gorgeous nonsense. It might have been more prudent if he had associated the statements of science with logic and those of poetry with rhetoric, but I don't suppose that version would have deflected the wrath of his opponents. In The Meaning of Meaning  poets are urged to...
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Critical theory always seems to be in semi-conscious alliance with the contemporary—thus deconstructive criticism, so perversely applied to a poem by Shelley, will work very well for Robbe-Grillet or American experimental fiction. (p. 197)
Richards's underlying values are worth looking at precisely because they are in such sharp contrast to current preoccupations. His aim was to show that literature could resolve conflict, bring the whole soul of man (however differently conceived in different periods) into activity, and produce a harmonious reconciliation. Literature is thus good for us, and criticism, as equally concerned with the 'health of the mind', is its ally. The New Critics too could hope that they were making better men and women of us…. But critics nowadays are immensely suspicious of any such 'idealising' function, which assumes and seeks for unity in literature. The old equation between unified work and unified response has been turned inside out. For Marxists and post-structuralists alike many of the works we had thought to be triumphs of integration are 'really' fissured, full of gaps, self-contradictory, using a type of language which denies their own assertions, potentially self-erasing, and above all doubtful in every sense. They are open to that hermeneutics of suspicion which is now seen to descend from Nietzsche and Heidegger. And of course if works of art can be 'deconstructed' along these lines, so can we, as...
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