The Times Literary Supplement

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[Crane's main subjects of inquiry are suggested by the title of his book, The Languages of Criticism and the Structure of Poetry.] In the phrase "the languages of criticism" he refers to the different methods of critical investigation, which (as he insists) are necessarily limited in their usefulness and their results by the terms in which they work. He begins by proclaiming himself a "pluralist" in this matter: it is not his view that any one sort of criticism is right, other sorts wrong…. [Crane's] interest in distinguishing between different sorts of criticism, different critical "languages," is one of the threads that run through the book….

To a reader of Critics and Criticism it will come as no surprise that the critic to whom Mr. Crane and his friends most often look for guidance is Aristotle; and the second of his lectures is devoted to "Poetic Structure in the Language of Aristotle."… For Mr. Crane, interpreting the Poetics in terms of his own interests and needs, Aristotle is important primarily because he is concerned with "the structure of poetry"; more than any other critic, he believes, Aristotle avoids dealing with bits of poetry, and concerns himself with poems as organic wholes. No feature of this book, or of the writings of these critics as a school, is more welcome than this insistence on studying works of art separately, as things-in-themselves, in which no part can usefully be analysed without reference to the nature of the whole in which it occurs….

Mr. Crane's insistence on criticizing a work of art as an organic whole is to be understood as a reaction against other kinds of criticism. One of these, of which he says little, seems to be incidental to the academic study of literature—the tendency to concentrate on one aspect of a thing at a time; which often leads to the critic's losing sight of the whole in terms of which alone this aspect has any meaning. An example, unfashionable at present, is the old-fashioned History of Versification, in which such entities as the Heroic Couplet, Rhyme Royal and the Alexandrine take on a strange phantom-life of their own, independent of the poems in which they occur. The study of poetic images, in isolation from the contexts in which they occur, is a more recent aberration of this sort…. Another type of criticism in which the importance of the whole tends to be forgotten in the pursuit of parts and fragments, has spread more rapidly in America than here, although its origins may be found in the work of Dr. I. A. Richards and Mr. William Empson. This is the "concrete" or "practical" criticism in which the critic broods over a text—preferably with the minimum of "background" knowledge—and interprets it in terms of his own sensibility, with results that are frequently of more interest to the critic's own psychoanalyst than to readers interested in the poem. Against this last excess of romantic subjectivism—which seems to be spreading from one American university to another like bindweed in the garden, and which has already numerous proponents in this country—Mr. Crane's presentation of a neo-classical approach can only be salutary. He calls into question what is in effect the suppressed major premise of a great deal of modern criticism—that poetry is one and indivisible, something that can be recognized and judged by a trained observer, who need pay little if any attention (at least in the first instance) to questions of intention or genre….

It is evident throughout the book that Mr. Crane wants literary criticism to emulate such branches of knowledge as physics, linguistics and psychology. Unless literary criticism has revolutions and crises like these other disciplines, he feels, it will fall behind in the competition for the attention of the public…. It seems to be modern philosophy whose achievements Mr. Crane views with the greatest admiration, and this influence may be to blame for some ugly and unnecessarily difficult language…. If [difficult language] is the price that literary criticism must pay for having "the same kind of history" as philosophy or sociology or physics—if such a phrase as "a process of dichotomous division within some general body of traits," and words like "satirization" and "compendent" become obligatory—then there may be something to be said for trying to keep the old edifice of criticism in repair, instead of running up a new building. To some of us, indeed, it is a little tempting to see the great emphasis on "new directions" in recent American criticism as an intellectual manifestation of the desire to "keep up with the Joneses." Nor should it be thought malicious if one sees a connexion between Mr. Crane's lack of interest in Hazlitt and Arnold and his lack of interest in writing well; or to relate an occasional lack of precision in his work (more noticeable in that of some of his fellow-Aristotelians) to the fact that the French masters of literary criticism, who surely have something to contribute to this debate, are hardly ever cited. Such "conspicuous consumption" of critical terminology as characterizes the weaker work of the Chicago critics is something that other writers will do well to avoid….

When its faults have been perceived, however, this remains an important book.

"The Languages of Criticism," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1954; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 2745, September 10, 1954, p. 572.


Randall Jarrell


Northrop Frye