Ivor Armstrong Richards profoundly influenced the way that English is taught, especially at the college level. Although best known as a literary critic, he took interest in all aspects of language, including the subjects of semantics and basic English, both of which he helped to define.
Educated at Cambridge University, Richards studied philosophy at a time when British philosophers concentrated on language, and he learned from them that most problems in philosophy were really problems of language. He collaborated with C. K. Ogden on The Meaning of Meaning, the first serious attempt to explore semantics and its relationship to effective communication.
Fascinated with the nuances of words, Richards thought that students could learn more by reading poems closely than they could by learning facts about the lives of poets and the history of the language. His lectures on poetry at Cambridge drew record crowds in the 1920’s and resulted in a critical trilogy: Principles of Literary Criticism, Science and Poetry, and Practical Criticism. In the first of these volumes, he stated his basic theory of poetry and of criticism. Science and Poetry examined the role of poetry in life and forecast its future, while the final book was an application of the precepts explicated in the first two.
The critical system outlined and applied in the three volumes has often been misunderstood; Richards has been accused of dismissing the imaginative aspect of poetic creation. His interest in the neurological aspects of aesthetic appreciation has been interpreted to mean that the enjoyment of poetry rests solely upon minor interactions of brain waves.
Richards’s critical precepts are, in fact, quite different from the coldly scientific position often ascribed to them. He attempted to place the poetic act on a scientifically sound basis. It is important to recall that his work appeared in reaction to Romantic critics, who emphasized the reader’s ineffable emotional feelings. Richards denied the validity of such an approach to criticism. Rather, he said, the poem as an art object was a completed whole that communicated experience directly to the reader. A poet was a creator whose organization of experience was more efficient and more meaningful than that of ordinary men.
Richards also taught in China, where he wrote about the philosopher Mencius. In 1939, he left China for Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he taught at Harvard University until retirement. He became increasingly concerned with problems of education; his late work had relatively little influence, though it was in many ways a return to his early concern with communication. In retirement, he continued his passion for poetry as a writer of poems and of plays about...
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