I. A. Richards Richards, I(vor) A(rmstrong) (Vol. 24) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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].)

Conrad Aiken

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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. Whether they would in all items be approved by all psychologists is perhaps immaterial. The lay or literary critic can find here no cause for complaint. His disagreements can profitably be only on matters more general. (pp. 585-86)

Mr. Richards's book is a crowded one—perhaps too crowded for wholly successful statement, or for what he would term "communicative efficacy." On a great many points, and at a good many levels, of his theme, he is illuminating. On the function of rhythm, on the distinction between symbolic and emotive statement, in his destructive analyses of the many divergent views of art which have been held in the past, in his analysis of the mode of thought and its relation to language and art, he is extremely helpful. His...

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T. S. Eliot

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 process of appreciation of a poem. It outlines a theory of value. Incidentally, it contains much just observation on the difference between true poetry and false. (pp. 239-40)

[Mr Richards' importance] is not in his solutions but in his perception of problems. There is a certain discrepancy between the size of his problems and the size of his solutions. That is natural: when one perceives a great problem, one is the size of one's vision; but when one supplies a solution, one is the size of one's training. There is something almost comic about the way in which Mr Richards can ask an unanswerable question which no one has ever asked before, and answer it with a ventriloqual voice from a psychological laboratory situated in Cambridge. Some of his faiths seem to be knocking each other on the head. "… Our thoughts are the servants of our interests," he says on page 22: it is the up-to-date psychologist speaking. But as we read on we find our thoughts turning out to be very poor servants indeed. For it appears to be to our interest (what is to our interest, we ask) to hold some kind of belief: i.e. a belief in objective values issuing from objective reality. One would expect Mr Richards to maintain—and he does maintain in part—that "science" is purely a knowledge of how things work, and that it tells us nothing of what they ultimately are. "Science," he says…. "can tell us nothing about the nature of things in any ultimate sense." In that case, we should expect that science would leave "the nature of things in their ultimate sense" quite alone, and...

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John Middleton Murry

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 knowledge with a blend of amusement and pity.

And yet, I wonder … 'All is right here and now with the nervous system.' It is downright enough. Mr. Richards is obviously quite certain that he knows. Yet Goethe, Coleridge, Keats … were no fools either. We had better take another look at the new theory before we bid a long farewell to the old one.

'All is right with the nervous system.' Queer that we should read King Lear only to find out that. (pp. 177-78)

Probably we misunderstand Mr. Richards. The 'nervous system' sounds a very businesslike affair. No humbug about that, so to speak. And yet, I fancy, it is as vague and nebulous a conception as the 'soul.' In spite of his appearance of scientific rigour, Mr. Richards is saying no more than that the strange and profound satisfaction that comes to us through great tragedy is purely emotional and subjective. We feel it, and that is all. If that is what he means, he might have chosen a less ambiguous way of saying it. Simple things are best said simply.

But, in actual fact, he says more than this. He says that the profound satisfaction we derive from tragedy is an indication that all is right with the nervous system. Whether he meant this, we cannot tell. Perhaps his audacious pen ran away with him. For we must ask why the tragic satisfaction indicates that all is right with the nervous system? Is it because that strange satisfaction is the correct response to tragedy? But who is to determine what is the correct response? From the fact, on which Mr. Richards is so anxious to insist, that all we can say of great tragedy is that it calls forth a certain emotional condition in certain people, it is quite impossible to conclude that the presence of that condition is evidence that nothing is wrong with their nervous systems, or their souls, or their bank-accounts, or their drains.

Mr. Richards cannot have it both ways. He has chosen a complete subjectivism; then he must stick to it. He declares that the fact in question is that certain people, after reading or seeing King Lear, experience a strange satisfaction. Very good. But if we are to accept it as a statement of the fact, he must not go beyond it. The moment he attempts to make deductions from the fact, new and unwarrantable assumptions enter in. Mr. Richards' assumption is that to the people to whom this strange satisfaction comes it comes because their nervous systems are in order. First, it is an unwarrantable assumption; and it is a very doubtful one. It would be laughed at by nine neurologists out of ten, for the chances are that the soundest nervous systems belong to eupeptic Philistines, who would be bored to extinction if they were compelled to read, or even to see, King Lear.

Mr. Richards may reply that in his view the nervous systems of our friends the Philistines are not in order. But in that case he means by the nervous system something quite peculiar—never before described by that name. He means the very delicately refined sensibility which, he believes, is required in order to respond fully to...

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Montgomery Belgion

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Max Eastman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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D. W. Harding

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2937 words.)

Eliseo Vivas

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2491 words.)

D. G. James

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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John Crowe Ransom

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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David Daiches

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John Crowe Ransom

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Allen Tate

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 975 words.)

Eric Bentley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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....

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Stanley Edgar Hyman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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R. P. Blackmur

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 1172 words.)

John Wain

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Murray Krieger

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1608 words.)

Patrick Cruttwell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Richard Foster

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Gerald E. Graff

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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René Wellek

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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...

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Jerome P. Schiller

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Cleanth Brooks

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Basil Willey

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1578 words.)

Denis Donoghue

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In 1926] it was commonly understood that science was increasingly in possession of fact and truth. In Science and Poetry [1926] 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...

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Christopher Butler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 602 words.)