R(onald) S(almon) Crane Randall Jarrell

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Randall Jarrell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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[The Languages of Criticism and the Structure of Poetry consists of] lectures about the two most influential sorts of contemporary criticism, and about a very different kind, an Aristotelian kind, which would supplement and counteract these.

This word Aristotelian will make some of us grunt, some of us beam, and some of us exclaim, "Oh yes, now I remember—Crane's the man that's been starting that neo-Aristotelian school of criticism." So far as most of us are concerned, to hear of such a project is to hate it. We feel, more or less: "If it's a good thing to do, surely in all this time somebody would have done it"; and we remember that during a surprisingly large proportion of that time somebody was doing it. Mr. Crane's school of criticism comes to bat with, so to speak, two millennia against it.

But as we read we see that Mr. Crane is persuasive and judicious and reasonable, that his arguments aren't lofty sneers, or rhetoric, or appeals to prejudice, but real arguments; we dismiss this general prejudice of ours, and try to make specific judgments worthy of Mr. Crane and of ourselves. Most of us will be pleased when he warns us of his anti-Hegelian turn of mind, delighted when we see that he really does believe in seeing what great artists did, rather than in saying what they should have done. He is, most of the time, empirical. And he does not believe in some ideal form of criticism which has the virtues of all and the vices of none, but sees that the different ways of criticizing, languages of criticism, are themselves as different and contradictory as works of art are. (p. 191)

Mr. Crane divides modern critics of poetry into two schools: those who take an analytic, systematic interest in the language and meanings of poetry as these are differentiated from the language and meanings of prose; those who apply to poetry the insights of psychoanalysis and anthropology. Most of both sorts are New. Gazing at them from calm, distant, commonsensical eyes, Mr. Crane describes, with reflective detachment, his critics' midnight marches, routs, sieges, voyages, their all-but-mortal combats, their—I was about to say, their discoveries and victories … but these, alas! he does not describe. He does intelligent justice to their vices and exaggerations and absurdities—some of these pages are, in their mild, matter-of-fact way, crushing—but he neglects with methodical thoroughness the insight and imagination and affection that are so signally present in some of them, so signally absent in others. From his sensible, unfavorable, and rather unjust survey you can learn a great deal of what was wrong with the criticism of our time, and almost nothing of what was right with it.

And this is natural: Mr. Crane's analysis is, if not a vindictive one, a kind of preparatory one—he is setting the stage for his own special kind of criticism. He explains it, lists its limitations, honestly admits that it derives from a quite unorthodox interpretation of Aristotle; and then he talks, at length, with enthusiasm, about all that it would be, all that it would do for literature, criticism, education. (He can't talk about its faults because, after all, hardly any of it exists to be faulty.) Reading this celebration of the hypothetical virtues of an imaginary criticism, we smile, but it's a sympathetic smile; we all have a fellow-feeling for inventors, Utopia imaginers, and we enjoy Mr. Crane's enthusiasm and emotion—we had been troubled, earlier, by his calm tameness, his withdrawn, abstract, academic decorum. We wish him good luck with, good critics for, his new school of criticism. We wish it in a voice of perfunctory good will. (p. 192)

Randall Jarrell, "Aristotle Alive!" (reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1954 by Mrs. Randall Jarell, renewed 1982 by Mrs. Randall Jarrell; originally published in The Saturday Review, New York, Vol. XXXVI, No. 14, April 3, 1954), in his Kipling, Auden & Co.: Essays and Reviews, 1935–1964, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980, pp. 191-92.