The function of Criticism.  TS. Eliot is as famous for his works in the field of criticism as for those in the field of creative art. His essay ‘The Function of Criticism’ was published in 1923 and is one of the most well known of his works as a critic. This essay was a response to Middleton Murry’s challenge to the opinions that Eliot had presented in one of his earlier essays, namely ‘Tradition and Individual Talent’. This essay had been published in 1919 and Murry had opposed the views therein in his own essay titled ‘Romanticism and the Tradition’. In ‘The Function of Criticism’, Eliot has revised his views presented in ‘tradition and Indivi

dual Talent’; presented the opposition suggested by Murry to those views; expresses his opposition to Murry’s views; and, also presents his views about different aspects of the tendencies and functions of criticism. So, the essay has been divided into 4 parts each one dealing with one of the four features mentioned above, respectively.

Eliot’s views on Tradition

At the beginning of the essay, Eliot refers to the views he presented in ‘Tradition and Individual Talent’. The most unique aspect of his theory about tradition has been that he identifies a direct and strong relationship between the literature of past and present. He believed that European literature, right from the very beginning of literature to the present day, formed a single literary tradition without any break. He also states that individual writers and individual literary works have significance only when seen in relation to this tradition. The present merely alters the past and past directs the present. New works of art disturb the order of already existing literary works but soon conforms to this order. So, literary tradition continues without a break though it keeps on changing.

Another aspect of literary tradition, as per Eliot, is that every writer has to owe allegiance to the authority of tradition. Only surrender to the literary tradition could give meaning and significance to a writer’s work. The writers of all time form a singular ideal community and they all are united by a common cause and a common inheritance.

Eliot’s views about criticism also follow his views about art and tradition. However, works of art could have different ends like moral, religious or cultural but criticism has only one end- i.e., “elucidation of works of art and the correction of taste.”Criticism, thus depends on art and could not be an independent activity.

To determine the success of a critic in his performance should be easy considering that the end of criticism is clear and well defined. However, Eliot states that in reality it is not that simple. The basic reason he identifies is that critics believe in asserting their individuality rather than conforming to the fellow critics. He states that critics trying to attract audience by competing with others have no value or significance. However, he also believed that some critics did prove useful on the basis of their work.

Murry’s Views

In the second part of the essay, Eliot takes on Middleton Murry’s views on Classicism and Romanticism.  Murry had stressed on the belief that Classicism and Romanticism differ very clearly and no one could follow both at the same time. Eliot opposed Murry when the latter related the difference between classicism and romanticism to the difference in French and English, respectively. Murry also related Catholicism to classicism for believing in tradition, discipline and obedience to an objective authority outside the individual. According tohim, Romanticism and Protestantism are related to social liberalism, for having full faith in the ‘inner voice’, in the individual, and no restriction to follow outside authority or fixed rules and traditions.Eliot objected to Murry’s views by stating that his concept of inner voice was like advocating doing what one likes. He says that the difference between classicism and romanticism is equivalent to the difference between the complete and the fragmentary, the adult and the immature, the orderly and the chaotic. He also disagrees that the French and the English could be compared to Classics and romantics, respectively.

Eliot’s views about Murry

In the third part, Eliot dismisses Murry’s views that he highlighted in the second part. Eliot’s attitude in this dismissal seems to be that of ridicule. He states that criticism’s function is to discover some common principles for perfection in art. This function could be served only with obedience to the laws and tradition of art which have been derived from the experience of ages. Thus, someone believing in the ‘inner voice’ could not value criticism. He calls the inner voice ‘whiggery’.

Eliot’s views about Criticism

Link between Criticism and Creativity

In the fourth part, Eliot analyzes various aspects of criticism. First of all, he comments about the terms ‘critical’ and ‘creative’ and also ridicules the way Matthew Arnold bluntly distinguished the two.

Eliot says that ‘critical’ activity is of great importance for works of creation. The major part of the effort of an author in composing his work is ‘critical labour’ which includes ‘the labour of sifting, combining constructing, expunging, correcting, testing.’ Eliot considers the critical effort done by a writer on his own work to be the highest kind of criticism. He believes that creative writers having superior critical faculty are superior to other writers.

Creative Criticism

Eliot opposes one of the basic beliefs of literary studies that critical and creative activities are separate. According to him, criticism forms a large part of the effort undertaken for creation. However, he states that critical writing cannot be creative. Because there is a fundamental difference between creation and criticism, an effort for creative criticism would be neither creative nor critical. Creation has no conscious aims but criticism has fixed purpose concerned to something other than itself. Criticism could not be autotelic and is aimed at elucidation of works of art.

Qualifications of a Critic

Eliot also mentions the qualifications of a critic. He considers a highly developed sense of fact to be the most important quality of a critic. The sense of fact is a rare gift and is very slow to develop. Eliot also states that ‘workshop criticism’, i.e. criticism by a person who practises creative art himself is most valuable. He also says that the part of criticism attempting interpretation of an author or a work is false and misleading.

According to Eliot, true interpretation is giving the possession of the facts to the reader. The true critic puts his knowledge about facts about a work of art before the reader in simple manner. He also suggests clearly that by the term ‘facts’, he means the technical aspects concerned to a work of art.

Critic’s tools

Eliot considers comparison and analysis to be the chief tools of a critic that should be used with care and intelligence. A critic needs to be fully aware of the facts about a work to employ comparison and analysis. He believes that the method of comparison and analysis is preferable over the conventional interpretation even if used injudiciously.

Eliot’s Suggestions to Critic

Eliot states that even trivial facts cannot corrupt taste. However, critics like Coleridge and Goethe corrupt by offering opinions and fancy. Eliot also cautions against obsession for facts. Trivial facts should not be chased. He also says that critics should read the works themselves rather than reading views about the work.

Eliot also opposes ‘lemon squeezer’ critics, i.e. the critics who try to squeeze too many meanings from the text. He says that a critic should not get indulged with trivialities.

So, as per Eliot, a good critic follows tradition, judges on the basis of facts and is objective. He should not be prejudiced on the basis of preconceived theories.

Further Reading