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The Frontiers of Criticism

    '''"The Frontiers of Criticism"''' is a lecture given by T S. Eliot at the University of Minnesota in 1956 It was reprinted in ''On Poetry and Poets'' a collection of Eliot's critical essays in 1957 The essay is an attempt by Eliot to define the boundaries of literary criticism: to say what does and what does not constitute truly ''literary'' criticism as opposed to, for example a study in history based upon a work of literature The essay is significant because it represents Eliot's response to the New Criticism|New Critical perspective which had taken the academic study of literature by storm during Eliot's lifetime It also presents an analysis of some of its author's own T S. Eliot#Eliot's Poetry|poetic works an unusual characteristic for modern criticism—it has become far more usual today for poets and critics to be in separate camps rather than united in one individual Perhaps even more importantly it demonstrates the progress and change in Eliot's own critical thought over the years between 1920 and 1956


    Prior work

    Part of the reason for the importance of this particular piece in Eliot's body of work is the position it holds as successor to an earlier (and probably better known) effort at defining the critcal endeavor Tradition and the Individual Talent In that earlier piece Eliot made famous use of a metaphor drawn from chemistry to describe the process of "depersonalization" that Eliot claimed to be a necessary condition of poetic creation In this analogy Eliot compares the poet him- or herself to a catalyst whose presence causes "feelings" and "emotions" to react with one another and combine in ways not possible without the poet's mind

    Eliot and New Criticism

    Eliot is often claimed by the New Critics as one of their founding fathers an "honor" he rejected for much the same reasons that he avoided explicit theorizing on the subject of : namely because of his conception of the only true criticism as that of a poet trying to better his artT S. Eliot "The Perfect Critic" The Sacred Wood (1920) In some of his work Eliot had espoused the idea of criticism as necessarily impersonal The New Critics seized upon this approach and made use of it in order to establish their own doctrines One of these that is often cited is ambiguity as demonstrated by this passage from New Critic Cleanth Brooks:

    Yet there is a sense in which paradox is the language appropriate and inevitable to poetry It is the scientist whose truth requires a language purged of every trace of paradox; apparently the truth which the poet utters can be approached only in terms of paradox . .

    I am interested . . . in our seeing that the paradoxes a poem spring from the very nature of the poet's language: it is a language in which the connotations play as great a part as the denotations And I do not mean that the connotations are important as supplying some sort of frill or trimming something external to the real matter at hand I mean that the poet does not use a notation at all—as the scientist may properly be said to do so. The poet within limits has to make up his language as he goesCleanth Brooks "The Language of Paradox" The Well Wrought Urn (New : Harcourt Brace 1947)

    The evaluation of Eliot's criticism occurred relatively early; for example an appraisal of his work focusing exclusively on Eliot the critic (as opposed to Eliot the poet) appeared in 1941 in a book by I A. Richards Richards participating in the New Critical tradition of borrowing from Eliot writes that

    One of the best things in his influence has been his habit of considering aesthetic effect as independent of religious effect or moral or political and social; as an end that is beyond and not coördinate with theseI A. Richards The New Criticism (Norfolk CT: New Directions 1941) p. 138

    This is quite similar to the New Critical attitudes of such authors as W K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley In their theories of literary criticism it is of vital importance to separate the work in question from all other factors both on the side of creation (ie the writer) and on that of consumption (the reader)

    Content of the lecture

    Eliot's paper is a concise statement of his reactions to the new directions that literary criticism had taken in the years since the publication in 1923 of his article "The Function of Criticism" In this way the paper is also a more mature reevaluation of his own positions Much of its length is involved in this kind of self-study both of his earlier critical work as well as of his poetry
    Throughout the essay demonstrates the influences Eliot had on the New Critics However at the same time Eliot takes the opportunity to disavow that school of criticism: Eliot ridicules one of the methods of New Criticism known today as close reading describing it as taking

    a well-known poem . . . without reference to the author orto his other work analyse it stanza by stanza and line byline and extract squeeze tease press every drop of meaningout of it that one can It might be called the lemon-squeezerschool of criticism . . . I imagine that some of the poets(they are all dead except myself) would be surprised atlearning what their poems mean . . . (113)


    • T. S. Eliot "The Frontiers of Criticism" On Poetry and Poets (London: Faber and Faber 1957)