Selected Essays, 1917-1932

by T. S. Eliot

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Function Of Criticism

What is the function of criticism according to T. S. Eliot's Selected Essays, 1917-1932?

In his 1923 essay “The Function of Criticism” in Selected Essays, 1917–1932, T.S. Eliot expands on views expressed in a previous essay in order to defend them from rejection by the British literary critic Middleton Murry. This essay presents Eliot's response to the British critical establishment. In Eliot's conservative view, criticism performs “the commentation and exposition of works of art” towards the single goal of “the promotion of understanding and enjoyment of literature."

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In this reserved yet scathing refutal of the British literary critical establishment, Eliot dismisses the enduring influence of nineteenth-century Romanticism on his detractor's thinking. According to Eliot, critics like Murry and his illustrious Victorian-era forebear Matthew Arnold have misunderstood the nature of purpose of modern criticism, as well as the role of the critic.

Too often, great critics like Arnold put their own ideas and “impressions” ahead of the works they were writing about, and this showed Eliot that they had a fundamental misunderstanding about the relationship between the critical and creative. Arnold drew a rough distinction between the two activities, but Eliot saw criticism as an essential element of the individual creative process. In fact, Eliot asserted that “the larger part of labour” during a creative project is “critical labour.”

Eliot here is pointing out that the Romantic preoccupation on the felt, subjective, and spontaneous places the locus of creation within the detached individual, divorced from continuity within a formal tradition. Because modern literature with its Romantic influence still privileges the “Inner Voice” as the sources of the creative impulse, the created work cannot be objectively evaluated according to a factual standard.

Eliot questions the value of any work of art that defies categorization within a shared artistic continuum and defies an impersonal, non-”interpretive” qualitative analysis based on recognized criteria. For Eliot, these kinds of “impression” and “inspiration”-based motives “elucidate” little about the text in itself and thus cannot qualify as proper criticism.

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Eliot argues that the function of criticism is “elucidation of works of art and the correction of taste.” He sees criticism as an impersonal process, and argues that rather than expressing a critic's emotions about or impressions of a work, criticism is grounded in fact.

Although criticism for Eliot is not philology, and its goals are not simply discovery of historical or biographical background, the critic must be intimately acquainted with an author's work, the background to that work, and the traditions within which the author was working.

Eliot emphasizes that one of the main tasks of the critic is to understand how a work fits within the tradition of literature and how it advances the development of poetic technique. When, for example, he writes about Jacobean playwrights, he emphasizes the particular strengths and weaknesses of the ways they handle various figures of speech and the blank verse line.

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Eliot believes emphatically that the true purpose of criticism is for the critic to present the facts of the work being assessed to the reader. In this he means the technical facts related to the work itself and not facts about its creator. Such details are insignificant. The true critic is objective and open-minded and turns attention from the artist to his work. The critic therefore assesses the work itself and is not concerned about or influenced by any factors related to the artist.

In this regard then, it is essential that the critic is knowledgeable about the 'facts' related to a work of art, i.e. its setting, structure, origin etc. This knowledge, Eliot emphasises, is a rare gift and can only be developed over an extensive period of time.

Furthermore, the critic should have a highly developed sense of tradition. Eliot viewed all forms literature, from the past to the present, as forming part of the same stream and the critic should understand this connection. A work of art therefore, is not isolated from its tradition or history.

The function of the critic is to not just criticize a work of art or to pass judgment, but to present the facts so that the reader may make his or her own judgment. The critic should be able to compare different works of art and present his findings objectively. In this manner, the critic provides the reader the opportunity to develop his or her own aesthetic sense and intellect. As such, the reader would have greater insight into the work and have a deeper appreciation thereof.

Therefore, the function of criticism is to inform and educate (within the parameters provided above) and not to judge.  

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In his formulation of literary criticism, T.S. Eliot reacted against the ideas of Romanticism which stressed the importance of emotion. On the contrary, Eliot's criticism points out that writers should understand works of the past to produce new oeuvres that can continue artistic tradition. The personality and emotion of the writer should be toned down in favor of those of the writer's era. Tradition and the suppression of emotion ("a continual extinction of personality") play a crucial role in Eliot's criticism, whose function is to provide literary and moral guidance in how to assign value to literary works. In addition, the collection of essays points to the importance of Christianity in the creation and assessment of literary works.

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