How does Eliot define ‘The Frontiers of Criticism’?

“The Frontiers of Criticism” is a representative of T.S. Eliot in the field of English literary criticism. This essay was written in 1956. Thirty years ago. Eliot had written the essay entitled ‘The Function of Criticism In this essay he had defined functions of criticism. Even after the gap of so many years, he does not find any substantial change in his view regarding the nature and function of criticism. In his critical writings, Eliot’s main thesis is that critical truths are not permanent and universal. They cannot be valid for all times and ages. Every new generation has its own values and creates its own critical truths. As the title indicates, the thesis of this essay is that there are limits exceeding which is one direction literary criticism ceases to be literary and exceeding which in another. it ceases to be criticism.

Eliot’s The Function of Criticism was published in 1923 and Richard’s Principle of Literary Criticism In 1925. A great deal has happened in literary criticism since the publication of these two influential critical works. Criticism has developed and branched out in several directions. The new critics differ in some significant way from the critic of the previous generations. Many years ago Eliot had said that every generation must provide its own literary criticism because “each generation brings to the contemplation of art its own categories of appreciation, makes its own demands upon art and has its own uses for art.” It is so because each generation is affected in its attitude by a greater number of influences than those which bore upon the previous generation. Eliot illustrates his view by taking the examples of Johnson’s “Lives of the Poets and Coleridge’s “Biographia Literaria”. Comparing Johnson and Coleridge as critics he says that while Johnson represents a literary tradition to the end of which he himself belongs, Coleridge is defending the merits and criticising the weakness of a new style. Coleridge brought to bear on his discussion of poetry a wide variety of interests. He established the relevance of philosophy, aesthetics and psychology. To appreciate Johnson an effect of historical imagination is needed. The criticism of today may be said to be in direct descent from Coleridge.

As Eliot points out, criticism in the modern age has become very rich and diversified. But its very richness and variety may make it loose sight of its own goal. Eliot has been generally believed to be the father of the New Criticism. But he denies any such claim, though as editor of The Criterion he has given some encouragement to the new criticism. Then he tells us his own contribution to literary criticism and its limitation. He says, “The best of literary criticism apart from a few notorious phrases which have had a truly embarrassing success in the world consists of essay on poets and poetic dramatists who had influenced me. It is a byproduct of my private poetry-workshop or a prolongation of the thinking that went into the formation of my own verse. “The workshop criticism suffers from two limitations. Firstly, what has no relation to the poet’s own works or what is antipathetic to him, is outside his competence. Secondly, the critics judgement may be unsound outside his own art. These are the shortcomings of Eliot’s criticism also.

Also Read : 


There is a type of criticism which is very common and popular in the present century. Eliot calls it as the criticism of explanation by origins. In this type of criticism, the critic traces the origin and sources of a poem in the unconscious and sub-conscious recesses of the poet’s mind. Livingston Lowes’s “The Road to Xanadu” is an example of such type of criticism. In this book Lowes has succeeded in searching out all the books which Coleridge had read before writing “Kubla Khan” and “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. This type of criticism, according to Eliot, is beyond the frontier of literary criticism.

There are other methods of criticism also such as I.A. Richards’s school of psychological interpretation and William Empson’s school of vertical analysis. A recent tendency has also developed which has its origin in the class-room method of Richards. This type of method has been shown in a book entitled “Interpretations”. This book contains twelve essays by the younger English critics. Each critic analyses one poem of his own choice. The method is to take a well-known poem without reference to the author or to his other work, analyse it stanza by stanza and line by line. The critics extract, squeeze, tease, press every drop of meaning out of that one can. Eliot calls in a “Lemon squeezer school of criticism.” Such critics find out meaning in the poem which is quite different from that which the poet wanted it to mean .

Thirty years ago Eliot had asserted that the essential function of literary criticism was “the elucidation of a work of art and the correction of taste, “But in this essay, Eliot slightly revises his opinion. According to him the function of literary criticism is “to promote understanding and enjoyment of literature.” He does not think of enjoyment and understanding as distinct activities one emotional and the other intellectual. The difference between the literary critic and the critic who has passed beyond the frontier of literary criticism is not that the literary critic is “purely” literary. The critic accordingly is a literary critic if his primary interest in writing criticism is to help his readers to understand and enjoy.

In The Frontiers of Criticism (1956) T.S. Eliot revises his views and makes it broad-based. He holds that the critic should teach the reader how to understand poetry and also to enjoy it. Eliot concludes that the function of Criticism is to provide the understanding and enjoyment of poetry.
According to Eliot, the personality of the critic should be wide and all pervasive. The ideal critic should not merely be specialist in literature. he should be a critic of general, social, political, religious and cultural values. As Matthew Arnold points out, literature is at bottom a criticism of life and as such a critic should also be an interpreter of life, a spectator of life.

Thus T.S. Eliot has become for more liberal in this essay (1956) than in his earlier essays on the Function of Criticism (1923). This essay is remarkable because, here, Eliot expresses his view that a poet has other in ests beside poetry. But he is a poet because his dominant interest has been in turning his experience and thought into poetry. Similarly, a critic has also other interests beside poetry and literary criticism. But he is a literary critic because his primary interest in writing criticism is to help his readers to understand and enjoy the poetry of a particular poet. He must not have any extra-literary interest. Thus here Eliot limits the frontiers of literary criticism.



Leave a Comment