The exemplary critical essay “The Function of Criticism” is penned by T.S. Eliot. Of all the contemporary critics, Eliot is the most significant and productive (fructifying). He comes from a long line of poet-critics that begins with Dryden and Ben Jonson and continues through Dr. Johnson and Matthew Arnold. In this essay, Eliot looks at the nature of criticism and its purpose. Eliot mentions some of the opinions he had voiced in “Tradition And Individual Talent” at the opening of the essay. In this essay, he had pointed out that there is an intimate relation between the present and the past in the world of literature. There is a single literary tradition that encompasses all of Europe’s writing from Homer to the present. Individual writers and artistic creations are significant only in relation to this tradition. This is so because the past is not dead, but lives in the present.
According to Eliot, literary tradition is the external authority that a contemporary artist needs to submit to. He must constantly surrender and sacrifice himself in order to have meaning and significance. The true artists of anytime form an ideal community. He must realize that artists of all times are united together by a common cause and a common inheritance. While a second rate artist asserts his individuality, the true artist tries to conform. Eliot’s views on criticism derive from his views on art and tradition as given above. He defines criticism as “the commendation and exposition of works of art by means of written words.” Criticism can never be an autotelic activity because criticism is always about something. Art as critic like Matthew Arnold point out, may have some other ends i.e. moral, religious or culture. But art need not be aware of these ends. It can perform its function better by being indifferent to such ends. The only function of criticism, as Eliot points out, “is elucidation of works of art and the correction of taste.” In “Frontiers of Criticism”. Eliot further explains the function of criticism as “the promotion of understanding and enjoyment of literature.”
Since the end of criticism is clear and well-defined, it should be easy to determine whether a critic has performed his function well or not. However, this is not an easy task. The difficulty arises from the fact that critics instead of trying to discipline their personal prejudices and cranks. express extreme views and vehemently assert their individuality. As a result of this, criticism has become no better than a Sunday park full of contending orators. Such critics are a worthless lot of no value and significance. However, there are certain other critics who are useful and it is on the basis of their works and Eliot establishes the aims and methods of criticism.
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In the second part of the essay. Eliot digresses into a consideration of Middleton Murry’s views on Classicism and Romanticism. There are critics who hold that classicism and romanticism are the same thing. But while making distinction between the two. Murry observes that one cannot be a classic and romantic at one and the same time. In this respect Eliot praises Murry but he does not agree with him when he makes the issue national and racial and says that while the genius of the French is classic, that of the English is romantic. Murry further relates Catholicism in religion of classicism in literature for both believe in tradition, in discipline, in obedience to an objective authority outside the individual. On the contrary, romanticism and Protestantism are related for they have full faith in the “inner voice”, in individual and obey no outside authority. They care for no rules and traditions. But Eliot does not agree with these views. In his opinion, the difference between classicism and romanticism is “the difference between the complete and the fragmentary, the adult and the immature the orderly and the chaotic: ”
In the third part of the essay, Eliot summarily dismisses the views of Murry. In the fourth part. Eliot deals with the problem of criticism in all its manifold aspects. In the very beginning, he comments upon the term ‘critical’ and ‘creative. He ridicules Mathew Arnold for having distinguished rather bluntly, between the critical and the creative activity. He further expresses the view that the criticism employed by a writer or his own work is the most-vital and the highest kind of criticism. It is a mistake to separate critical and creative activities. A large part of creation is in reality criticism. Eliot next proceeds to consider the qualifications of a critic. The foremost quality which an ideal critic must have is a highly developed sense of fact. The sense of fact is a rare gift. It is not frequently met with, and it is very slow to develop.
“Comparison and analysis”. as Eliot point out, “are the chief tools of a critic.” These are the tools of the critic and he must use them with care and intelligence. Comparison and analysis can be possible only when the critic knows the facts about the works which are to be compared and analysed. Eliot’s emphasis on facts makes it clear that his critical stand is with such New critics as F.R. Leavis and I.A. Richards. He commends textual criticism. But he is against “Lemon squeezer school of criticism.” A good critic, according to Eliot, is objective. His judgement is based on facts. He is guided by tradition and not by his “inner voice”. The critic should be guided by fact and facts alone. He should approach the work of art with a free mind. He should be unprejudiced by any theories or pre- conceived notions. Only then he can be completely objective and impersonal. It is in this way that criticism approximates to the position of science.