restricted access I. A. Richards and the Philosophy of Practical Criticism
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Hugh Bredin I. A. RICHARDS AND THE PHILOSOPHY OF PRACTICAL CRITICISM IN much of the English-speaking world, an essential component of literary studies is the exercise known as "practical criticism." The name, and to some extent the practice, originated in a book by I. A. Richards, Practical Criticism, 1 in which he described an experiment conducted by him at Cambridge and elsewhere. In the experiment, undergraduate students of English were given a number of unfamiliar poems, whose authorship was not revealed, and were asked to read and to submit written comments upon them. The result, in the words of one account, "was horrifying. Magazine poetasters were extravagandy praised, Donne, Hopkins, and Christina Rossetti firmly damned; every felicity was ridiculed, and every absurdity praised, by large minorities and even majorities."2 Richards himself did not respond to his discoveries in quite such a marked fashion as this, but he did betray the concern of someone in whom a longheld fear had been confirmed. He suggested that members of the Royal Society of Literature would have fared no better, and argued in general that an ability to read successfully — that is, with correct understanding and appropriate sensuous and emotive response — was rare and intermittent in even the most highly educated products of our schools and universities. He discerned a worsening of language performance compared with a few generations earlier, and advocated, as a corrective measure, widespread study of the theory of interpretation, and widespread training in the techniques thereof. This project he initiated himself in a subsequent work, Interpretation in Teaching.3 Richards's recommendations have not been adopted in general education practice, but they have been extremely influential in the pedagogy of literature; and it is generally said about other writers, such as Leavis, 26 Hugh Bredin27 Empson, and Brooks, that they have reinforced this influence. Practical criticism, as a teaching device, means the close and attentive reading of literary texts, usually poetry, usually by a small group, under the guidance of a tutor. As an examination method, it means the kind of test originally undergone by Richards's undergraduates. The end result ofthe practice — a result which, presumably, may or may not occur in the examination hall — is alleged to be "an opening up of the poem for what it can really be for us: a unique and fascinating experience, carefully wrought by its maker, and fully available only to those with the patience, as well as the sensibility, to recreate."* Practical Criticism is a most interesting work. The variety and divergence of views on the poems used for the experiment reveal unexpected and musty corners of the human spirit. Richards's diagnosis of the factors which may lead to errors in judgment and understanding is acute. His proposals for remedial action win our approval. What is puzzling, however, is that the result of the experiment should be a cause of surprise or dismay to anyone. What other result could there have been? Richards himselfremarked that "the precise conditions ofthis test are not duplicated in our everyday commerce with literature," and upon "the difficulty of judging verse without a hint as to its provenance."5 Yet he makes no concession to the fact that these conditions, with their attendant difficulty, must bear primary responsibility for the failings displayed by his students. His conviction was that the conditions helped to reveal defects in reading, and not, as seems more likely, that they helped to produce them. Any written text requires a context if it is to be fully understood. This is of course true of spoken language as well; and the extra complexity of poetry makes it especially susceptible to misinterpretation and misjudgment if taken in isolation. The first thing that any competent teacher will do with a poem is to provide a context — a period, a chronology, a social, political, religious, and intellectual background, a body of similar and contrasting works, works by the same and by related authors, linguistic and stylistic conventions, the relevant conceptions ofart and literature and their role in the world — all of this, and more. He will take it for granted that, as the student grows more deeply familiar with context, a context which...


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