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THE FUNCTION OF CRITICISM AT THE PRESENT TIIYIE NoRTHROP FRYE T HE subject-matter of Jiterary criticism is an art, and criticism is presumably an art too. This sounds as though crjticism were a parasitic form of literary expressionJ an art based on pre-existing art, a second·hand imitation of creative power. The conception of the critic as a creator manque is very popular~ especially among artists. Yet the critic has specific jobs to do which the experience of literature has proved to be less ignoble. One obvious function of criticism is to mediate between the artist and his public. Art that tries to do without criticism is apt to get involved in either of twc fallacies. One is the attempt to reach the public directly through "popu]ar» ar:t, the as· sumption being that criticism is artificial and public taste natur_ aL Below this is a further assumption about natural taste which goes back to Rousseau. The opposite fallacy is the conception of art as a mystery) an initiation into an esoteric community. Here criticism is restricted to masonic signs of occult understanding, to significant exclamations and gestures and oblique cryptic comments. Thls fallacy is like the other one in assuming a rough correlation between the merit of art and the degree of public response to it, though the cor~ relation it assumes is inverse. But art of this kind is cut off from society as a whole, not so much because it retreats from life-the usual charge against it-as because it rejects criticism. On the other hand, a public that attempts to do without criticism, and asserts that it knows what it likes, brutalizes the arts. Rejection of criticism from the point of view of the public, or its guardians, is involved in all forms of censorship. Art is a continuously emancipat~ ing factor in societyJ and the critic, whose job it is to get as many people in contact with the best that has been and is being thought and said, 5s, at least ideally, the pioneer of education and the shaper of cultural tradition. There is no immediate correlation either way between the merits of art and its general reception. Shakespeare was more· popular than Webster, but not because he was a greater dramatist ; W. H. Auden is less popular than Edgar Guest, but not because he is a better poet. But after the critic has been at work for a while, some positive correlation may begin to take shape. Most of Shakespeare ,s current popularity is due to critical publicity. Why does criticism have to e..xist? The best and shortest answer is that it can talk~ and all the arts are dumb. In painting, sculpture, or music it ~ easy enough to see that the art shows forth, and cannot 2 THE UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY say anything. And, though it sounds like a frantic paradox to say that the .poet is inarticulate or speechless, literary works also are, for the critic, mute complexes of fac_ts, like the data of science. Poetry is a disinterested use of words: it does not address a reader directly. When it does so, we feel that the poet has a certain distrust in the capacity of readers and critics to interpret his meaning without assistance, and has therefore stopped creating a poem and begun to It is not merely tradition that impels a poet to invoke a Muse and protest that his utterance is involuntary. Nor is it mere paradox that causes Mr. MacLeish, in his famous "Ars Poetica,)) to apply the words "mute," "dumb/) and "wordless)) to a poem. The poet, as Mill saw in a wonderful flash of critical insight, is not heard, but overheard. The first assumption of criticism, and the assumption on which the autonomy of criticism rests, is not that the poet does not know what he is talking about, but that he cannot talk about what he knows, any more than the painter or composer can. The poet may of course have some critical ability of his own, and so interpret his own work; but the Dante who writes a commentary on the first canto of the...


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