literary criticismFor all its shortcomings, literary criticism still provides the poet with the tools for self-evaluation and self-improvement. It introduces work of periods and cultures different in theme and treatment.

Literary criticism comes in various shapes and aims. At best it poses searching questions of the writer, and insists that he understands how the arts, the sciences and philosophy have different but coexisting concepts of truth and meaning. Art in the end cannot be divorced from contemporary life, and that consideration leads on to literary theory.


Literary critics have many skills, {1} but those which the practising poet needs to acquire are close reading, explication and evaluation. And the first two because most poems fail through lack of care. The originating emotion still clots the lines or, in striving for originality, the work becomes muddled, pretentious or incoherent. The incomprehensible can always be taken for the profound of course, and no doubt much get published for that reason, but only the beginner will see publication as the sole purpose of writing. Poems take too much of the writer's time and emotional lifeblood not to be made as good as possible, and dishonesty will spoil even the best talents. Poems grow through evaluation, that dialogue between what has been written and what was originally hoped for, between what the poems say now and what they might with further work. Self appraisal is inescapable.

But the critic's eye is a rare gift, rarer than sainthood, Housman thought, and matters have lately become more controversial. Criticism is not fashionable, and has been replaced by literary theory in many university departments. {2} The criticism that continues to be written naturally concentrates on established figures. The remainder, the reviewing/criticism appraising the great torrent that pours off the small presses, is often partisan, shallow and/or doggedly optimistic. {3} Even the aims of criticism seem somewhat doubtful. {4} No single critical approach seems invariably successful, {5} and insights from differing approaches do not necessarily cohere. Nothing brings finality of judgement, moreover, and one critic's findings can be undone by another's ingenuity. Much more damaging, the premises even of literary theory have been uprooted by radical theory. {6}

Purposes of Theory

What does literary criticism hope to achieve? There are many schools of thought, {7} but all take as their starting point the analysis of the reader's or listener's response. Poems may be complex, requiring a good deal of explanation or even correction of corrupt scripts, but there has to be an immediate impact of some sort: not very strong, and not blatantly emotional necessarily, but something that allows the critic to ask: how is this obtained? how significant is it? how does it compare with similar works? No impact and there is nothing to analyze. The work has failed, at least where that particular reader is concerned, and no amount of critical cleverness, literary allusions and information will bully him into responding to what he cannot feel.

But who is the reader? Each and everyone, as Stanley Fish might claim {8}, or Milton's "select audience though few"? Poets may not make money but they still have markets to consider. Whom are they writing for — the editors of leading magazines, friends, society at large, or themselves? And to say something significant about the world around them, to resolve personal quandaries, to gain a literary reputation with those who count? In an ideal world all aims might be served by the one work, but the world is not ideal, and aims needed to be sorted out.

It is the original intention or purpose of writing, that much historical and sociological analysis attempts to understand. In Shakespeare or Chaucer, and much more so in the poetry of ancient Greece or China, there are different conventions to appreciate, and many words cannot be fully translated. {9} The difficulties afflict more than the professional translator or literary scholar, as modern poetry very much uses recherché imagery and far-flung allusion. A simple word like "faith" would be very differently appreciated in the church-going communities of small-town America and the Nietzsche-reading intelligentsia of London's Hampstead. The meaning, the literal meaning of the poem, might be the same but not the insights that gave the poem its real subject matter.

With conventions come the expectations of the audience. Sidney wrote for the great country house, Shakespeare for the public stage; Middleton for the City. Their work is different in rhetoric, diction and imagery, and had to be. Social distinctions may be much less marked today, but the intellectual traditions continue. Poets are very choosy about their venues. Writers who live in California will keep a Manhattan address. {10} Poems that work well on the page will not necessarily rise to a public performance. All this is obvious, what professional prose writers think about before accepting a commission, {11} but is commonly overlooked by the beginning poet.

Is Objectivity Possible?

Since poets love their creations, and must do to continue writing, how objective can they be? Again, there is much disagreement. {12}

Some poets, stunned by yet another wrong-headed review, come to believe that they alone, or at least a small circle of like-minded poets, have any real critical ability. Only they really know what is good and not so good in their own work. And anyone attending workshops regularly may well agree.

But few academic critics will accept that poets make the sounder judgements. {13} Not a demarcation dispute, they say, but simple experience and logic. Artists are notoriously partisan, and look at colleagues' work to learn and borrow. And consider a Beethoven sonata: we can all distinguish between the beginner and the accomplished pianist even though possessing no piano-playing skills of our own. True, but the analogy is not exact. Poems are written in a language we all read and speak. Even to use language correctly calls on enormously complex skills, so that poetry may be but a small addition, a thin specialization. On that scale the differences between good and bad in poetry may be analogous to deciding between two almost equally good pieces of piano-playing. That exceeds the competence of most of us, and we hand over to the usual competition panel of musicians and conductors.

Certainly we can accept that critics and poets intend different things, namely articles and poems. And that there is nothing to stop the poet becoming an excellent critic (many have {14}) or academic critics from the learning the difficult art of writing poetry. {15} The experience may well be enriching for both. But the question is more insidious. What exactly is it that the critic produces in his article, and how does it shape the reader's response? An earlier generation (much earlier, that encountered by I. A. Richards in his pioneering reading experiments at Cambridge {16}) sought to make poems out of their responses. Artists do influence each other, and imitation is no doubt the sincerest form of flattery. But Richard's examinees, and perhaps inevitably, without the time and skills to do a decent job, turned in very juvenile work; Richards could dismiss the approach as entirely wrong-headed. Analysis was what was wanted — not adroit phrases but method, the careful reductive method of the sciences. By all means write up the exercise engagingly afterwards, but first read with great attention, asking the right questions. So was born the New Criticism, and few doubt that this was a large step forward. {17}

But that does not invalidate the question. The New Critics were now doing what every good poet does or should do — examining and reexamining the work from every conceivable angle: diction, imagery, meaning, shape, etc. Previous critics had rushed to judgement without putting in the fundamental spade work. But what the New Critics produced, the journal article or book, had none of the attraction of the original poem, and indeed became increasingly technical, employing a jargon that only fellow specialists could enjoy. The general reader was not catered for, any more than poets, most of whom were writing in different styles anyway, with different problems to address. Criticism retreated to academia, and eventually bred a poetry that had academia for its readership. {18}

More than that, criticism became an end in itself. {19} The intellectual gymnastics currently performed by the great names of American criticism are not grounded in the poem being analyzed, but in the tenets of radical theory. The poem may serve as the original impetus, as something about which to parade their skills, {20} but the criticism has detached itself and become somewhat like a Modernist poem. It draws inspiration from literary theories, and these can be nebulous or plainly wrong. Speculative theory — self-referencing, and as enclosed as medieval scholasticism — will not help poets working in other traditions, but does underline an earlier question: what is the status, the ontological status, of the critical article?

Schools of Criticism

Suppose we bear that question in mind in surveying the various schools of criticism. There are many, but could perhaps be grouped as:


Though perhaps Edwardian in style, this approach — essentially one of trying to broaden understanding and appreciation — is still used in general surveys of English literature. There is usually some information on the writer and his times, and a little illustration, but no close analysis of the individual work or its aims.

New Criticism

The poem (the approach works best for poetry, and especially the lyric) is detached from its biographical or historical context, and analyzed thoroughly: diction, imagery, meanings, particularly complexities of meaning. Some explanation of unfamiliar words and/or uses may be allowed, but the poem is otherwise expected to stand on its own feet, as though it were a contemporary production.


Rhetoric is the art of persuasion, and the rhetorical approach attempts to understand how the content of the poem, which is more than intellectual meaning, is put across. How arguments are presented, attitudes struck, evidence marshalled, various appeals made to the reader — all are relevant.


Style is the manner in which something is presented, and this approach concentrates on the peculiarities of diction and imagery employed, sometimes relating them to literary and social theory.


Metaphor enters into consideration in most approaches, but here the emphasis is deeper and more exclusive, attention focusing on the ways that metaphors actually work: metaphors are not regarded as supporting or decorative devices, but actually constituting the meaning.


Here the writing is related to underlying patterns of symmetry which are held to be common to all societies. Evidence is drawn from sociology and anthropology, and the approach attempts to place the work in larger context rather than assess its quality.


In contrast to the New Critics approach, which stresses interdependence and organic unity, the Poststructuralist will point to the dissonances and the non sequiturs, and suggest how the poem works by evading or confronting traditional expectations.

Myth Theory

The approach derives from Northrop Frye and attempts to place poems into categories or subcategories into which all literature is divide by archetypal themes — e.g. the myth of the hero, his subjugation of enemies, his fall. The approach somewhat anticipated structuralism, draws on various psychologies, and is less concerned with isolating what is special than showing what it has in common with works in a similar category.


Not only is the diction examined for sexual imagery, but the whole work is seen through Freudian concepts: struggles of the superego, the Oedipus complex, with the repressed contents of consciousness, etc. The aim is illumination of psychic conflicts, not aesthetic ranking.


Jungians search for recurring poetic images, symbols and situations in poems, but their aim is not to categorize poems as Northrop Frye does but to relate them to larger patterns in society, whether native peoples or high civilizations.


Poems are placed in their historical context — to explain not only their allusions and particular use of words, but the conventions and expectations of the times. The approach may be evaluative (i.e. the critic may suggest ways of responding to the poem once the perspective is corrected), or may simply use it as historical data.


As with the historical approach, a poem may be used to illuminate the writer's psychology, or as biographic data. No less than the correspondence, remembered conversations, choice of reading matter, the poem is analyzed for relevance to its author.


Here the focus is on society as a whole, and critics assess the social factors at work in a poem, which may be everything from the attitudes a writer inherits from his social background to the markets which supported his literary efforts.


It may be the political movements the poet supported which interest the critic, but more commonly the poem is assessed on political lines: how fairly or effectively it promotes political action or attitudes.


The poem may be assessed on its political correctness — on its support for workers against capitalist exploitation — but most Marxists praise work that analyses or describes the injustices which Marxist societies aim to overcome.


Many poets have strong ethical or religious convictions, but the moralist critic usually has a broader interest. Literature has a humanizing or civilizing mission, and the critic values work which furthers that end: promotes tolerance, social justice, sensitivity to individual wishes and talents, etc.

Cognitive Scientific

In contrast to others, which generally possess an humanities orientation, that of cognitive science attempts to relate poems to patterns of brain functioning. The approach is in its infancy, but holds some promise in the fractal self-similarity exhibited by works of art.

Testing the Approaches

Which approach is best? That which proves the most illuminating is the usual answer. The various approaches are not entirely distinct, and one can aim for a wise eclecticism {21}, incorporating several approaches in the one article. Certainly this adds length and multiple perspectives to the critical article, but are the individual approaches sound in themselves? They may provide more matter to ponder, but that is surely no proof of value.

Suppose that the critical approach employed was not only shaky but fatuously offensive. An extreme example might be a Nazi appraisal of German writers which graded them crudely on their genetic makeup, from blonde Aryans (good) to eastern Jews (atrocious). Would we add this approach to the others? If we say emphatically not, then we must accept that critical approaches need support that we can independently assess. And this innocuous request raises the ominous problems of truth and meaning.

These are real and important. If literature had no truths to convey, there would be nothing to distinguish it from recreation or entertainment. Governments might support the arts to keep a restless society off the streets, but truth would remain the province of science, where bureaucrats went for information to back policy decisions. But in fact art, logic and science all have truths, different and no doubt wary of each other, but not fundamentally at loggerheads. Art aims at fullness and fidelity to human experience, and therefore includes the wider social spectrum.

No doubt, to return to Germany, we could argue that our example would not happen in practice. The Nazi article would not in any way clarify our responses to German writers. But suppose it did? A critic appealing to nationalist sentiments might very well have been plausible to his contemporary audience. We ourselves might even find some merit in the judgements. Unless we were very insensitive to Jewish problems in thirties Germany, and lumped all German writers together, we would not be able to help noticing differences in setting and outlook which had a material bearing on the writing. It might be a fearfulness or hopelessness in the outlook or actions of the main protagonists, and we should have to ask ourselves whether the work presented a true view of humanity, or was simply an historical aberration. Wider issues always obtrude, and we have either an ethos to defend, or to find a theory independent of time and context.

The latter was one hope of radical theory, which undercut the varied and apparently successful criticism of the nineteen fifties and sixties by adopting the approaches of philosophy and science. Not only cutbacks in university tenure, or the end of the publishing boom, {22} but an unexamined belief in its right to exist, led to the downfall of traditional literary study. Of course it is possible to argue for a liberal, pluralist, democratic approach, but the argument leads through to philosophical, political and sociological matters, and here the radical critics seized the armoury. The New Critics had dismissed the larger context of literary criticism, and the moralists carried little weight. The radicals demanded that poetry represent its age, and that age they viewed through the spectacles of left-wing and continental philosophic concerns.

Their arguments, though perhaps not the tactics, were certainly needed. Approaches do matter, and they must justify themselves before a wider tribunal if art is to be more than make-believe. Hence the Theory Section of this guide. A descriptive critic may simply note the characteristics of the new poetry capturing academic interest, {23} even its declining readership, but the practising poet needs to examine the theories underlying and supporting new work. If simply faddish and incoherent, then the poems are unlikely to possess any lasting value.

Is Criticism a Sham?

But does criticism really work? Do we analyze carefully and consult our books on theory before responding to a work? Not usually. Impressions come first. But we then have to think why and how we are responding in a certain way. Is the poem strained, hackneyed, overworked, etc.? And if so, by what criteria? In setting out thoughts on paper, and then attempting to substantiate them, we are honing essential skills.

Perhaps a good deal of academic criticism is suspect. The goal is already known: certain authors are to be esteemed, and criticism has simply to find additional support. Often the canon intervenes crudely. Literature is divided into essential writers (which all students must read, and other works be compared to), the acceptable (enjoyable but not to be taken too seriously) and the bad (which no one will confess to liking). The canon is consulted, and reasons found for praising or condemning the writer concerned. Literary guides are replete with examples, and argument is often puerile — the dismissive sneer, the appeal to the knowledgeable, right-thinking majority, the comparison of a poor poem by the despised author with a good one by the favoured. But the inanities only underline the need for sharper and independent reading skills. Background and temperament ensure that there will be some writers we shall never like, but we do not have to concoct false reasons for our own tastes.

Practical Critiquing

Now a change of tone. Suppose we look at criticism in practice, at what a young poet might be told, who's pleased with his poem, and doesn't need analysis to know it's good. Tactfully and more modestly than in these notes, we might have to say:

But have you checked — got a colleague to read it through, asked a tutor, presented the piece at a poetry workshop? Readers are perverse creatures, and will cavil in strange ways. Anticipate. Criticize the piece yourself, in your own time, from all angles, before the wounding remarks bring you up short. Remember that evaluation is not a handing down of judgments, but a slow acquisition of essential writing skills.

Appraisal needs honesty and independent judgment, plus a whole battery of techniques that literary critics have developed over the centuries. The better libraries will have long shelves devoted to literary criticism, which you must read and absorb. Indeed you must put pen to paper yourself, and write your own notes and essays. As in everything literary, perception develops with your ability to express and reflect on that perception.

What are the techniques of poetry analysis, and which are worth acquiring? Even on a simple poem you will find a wide range of comments, many of them perplexing if not downright daft. Which critics can you trust for sensible and enlightening comment?

You must make your own judgments. That is the nature of literary criticism. Moreover, until you can appraise the various critical attitudes, weighing up the strengths and shortcomings of each approach, you are not evaluating but just borrowing undigested material for the student essay. That may win you good grades, but it won't help with unfamiliar work, or develop the skills needed to rescue your own productions.

Writers and critics develop at their own pace, and the more precocious are not always the more lasting. Talented authors commonly write from something buried deep within, from something that is ungraspable but troubling, and which seems not to fit any of the established criteria. Progress in such cases is bound to be slow, and perhaps should be if the issues are being properly addressed. But you're not working against a stopwatch: you have a lifetime to appreciate the great writers, and to understand what you are attempting yourself.


1. Start with the literary criticism of poems you know and love. You will be more engaged by the arguments, and start to understand how criticism can open unsuspected levels of meaning and significance.

2. Read literary criticism of contemporary work and, if at all possible, of poems similar to your own, which will at least help you anticipate the reception likely from editors and workshop presentations.

3. Research has moved from literary criticism to literary theory, which is not written for ready comprehension. Nonetheless, you will need to know where critics are coming from, and therefore the theoretical bases of their remarks.

4. Don't despise the elementary grounding provided by schoolbooks. University texts have much to do with academic reputations and tenure, but those for younger students aim more to help and encourage.

5. Be severe but not over-severe with your creations. You enjoyed writing them, and that pleasure must still be on the page to enthuse, challenge and enchant your readers. The merely correct has little to commend it.

6. Use a checklist. For example:

title — appropriate to subject, tone and genre? Does it generate interest, and hint at what your poem's about?

subject — what's the basic situation? Who is talking, and under what circumstances? Try writing a paraphrase to identify any gaps or confusions.

shape — what are you appealing to: intellect or emotions of the reader? What structure(s) have you used — progressions, comparisons, analogies, bald assertions, etc.? Are these aspects satisfyingly integrated? Does structure support content?

tone — what's your attitude to the subject? Is it appropriate to content and audience: assured, flexible, sensitive, etc.?

word choice — appropriate and uncontrived, economical, varied and energizing? Do you understand each word properly, its common uses and associations? See if listing the verbs truly pushes the poem along. Are words repeated? Do they set mood, emotional rapport, distance?

personification — striking but persuasive, adds to unity and power?

metaphor and simile — fresh and convincing, combining on many levels?

rhythm and metre — natural, inevitable, integrate poem's structure?

rhyme (if employed) — fresh, pleasurable, unassuming but supportive?

overall impression — original, honest, coherent, expressive, significant?


Why practise criticism at all? Because it's interesting, and opens the door to a wider appreciation of poetry, particularly that in other languages.

It's also unavoidable. Good writing needs continual appraisal and improvement, and both are better done by the author, before the work is set in print. Most academics write articles rather than poems, but there seems no reason why their skills should not deployed in creating things which by their own submission are among the most demanding and worthwhile of human creations. Nor should poets despise professional literary criticism. In short, the approaches of this section should give poets some of the tools needed to assess their work, and to learn from the successful creations of others.


1. Parts 2 and 3 of David Daiches's Critical Approaches to Literature (1981).

2. Chapter 6 of Wendell Harris's Literary Meaning: Reclaiming the Study of Literature (1996), and p.187 of Bernard Bergonzi's Exploding English: Criticism, Theory, Culture (1990).

3. pp. 6-12 in Dana Gioia's Can Poetry Matter: Essays on American Culture (1992).

4. p. 206 in George Watson's The Literary Critics (1986).

5. pp. 396-398 in Daiches 1981, and p. 204 of Watson 1986.

6. Catherine Belsey's Critical Practice (1980).

7. M.H. Abrams's Poetry, Theories of entry in Alex Preminger's (Ed.) The Princeton Handbook of Poetic Terms (1986).

8. Stanley Fish's Is There a Text in the Class? (1980).

9. Chapter 16 of Daiches 1981.

10. pp. 63-64 in Gioia 1992.

11. D. Crofts's How to Make Money from Freelance Writing (1992).

12. Chapter 15 in Daiches 1981..

13. pp. 13-14 in Watson 1986.

14. pp. 15-17 in Gioia 1992.

15. p. 194 of Bergonzi 1990.

16. pp. 177-182 in Watson 1986, and I.A. Richard's Practical Criticism: A Study of Literary Judgement (1929).

17. Chapter 15 in Daiches 1981.

18. p. 2 of Gioia 1992.

19. Chapter 7 of Bergonzi's 1990.

20. Imre Salusinszky's Criticism in Society (1987).

21. p. 204 in Watson 1986.

22. pp. 214-215 in Watson 1886.

23. Chapter 15 of Alastair Fowler's A History of English Literature (1987).

Internet Resources

1. The State of Literary Criticism. Roger Shattuck. Oct. 1995. http://www.mrbauld.com/Shatuck1.html. A plea to return to the study of literature as literature.

2. English Literature on the Web. Mitsuharu Matsuoka. http://www.lang.nagoya-u.ac.jp/ %7Ematsuoka/EngLit.html. Very extensive listings.

3. Literature Webliography. Mike Russo. Jul. 2003. http://www.lib.lsu.edu/hum/lit/lit.html. LSU Libraries useful listings.
4. Poetry Criticism: What is it for? Mar. 2000. http://www.poetrysociety.org/journal/offpage/ vendler-perloff.html. PSA symposium with Vendler, Perloff and others.NNA

5. Quarterly Literary Review of Singapore. http://www.qlrs.com/. Non-partisan and free online.

6. The Constant Critic. http://www.constantcritic.com/. Tri-weekly poetry reviews.

7. Contemporary Poetry Review. http://www.cprw.com. Excellent reviews of poetry both sides of the Atlantic.

8. Romanticism and Contemporary Poetry and Poetics. Lisa Steinman (Ed.) http://www.rc.umd.edu/praxis/poetics/index.html. Detailed and contemporary literary criticism.

9. The Cambridge History of English and American Literature. http://www.bartleby.com/cambridge/. 1907-21, but still useful.

10. Schools of Literary Criticism. Brian Bauld. http://www.mrbauld.com/litcrits.html. Short listing: traditional.

11. Narrative Theory & Literary Criticism. James R. Elkins. Dec. 2003. http://www.wvu.edu/~lawfac/jelkins/ lawyerslit/theories.htm. Eclectic but useful listings.

12. Perspectives in American Literature. Paul P. Reuben . Oct. 2003. http://www.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/table.html. Searchable database of bibliographies.

13. Literary Encyclopedia. http://www.litencyc.com/. Author profiles.

14. Literature Classics. Jan. 2004. http://www.literatureclassics.com/. Online texts and more.

15. Introduction to Modern Literary Theory. Kristi Siegel. Jan. 2003. http://www.kristisiegel.com/theory.htm. Introduction to types, bibliographies and Internet listings.

16. A Glossary of Literary Criticism. May 1996. http://www.sil.org/~radneyr/humanities//litcrit/gloss.htm. Brief but useful.

17. Feminist Literary Criticism and Theory. http://www.cddc.vt.edu/feminism/lit.html. NNA. Essentially booklists, little online.

18. General Literary Theory and Criticism Guides. John Phillips. http://courses.nus.edu.sg/course/elljwp/ literarytheorylinks3.htm. Listings for course.

19. Literary History. Jan Pridmore. Jan. 2004. http://www.literaryhistory.com/index.htm. Index of critical articles.

20. Guide to Literary Theory. Michael Groden and Martin Kreiswirth. http://www.press.jhu.edu/books/guide/. Johns Hopkins online guide: free access limited.

21. Literary Criticism. http://www.libraryspot.com/litcrit.htm. Library Spot's listing.

22. Comparative Literature and Theory. Stephen Hock and Mark Sample . Jun. 2003. http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/Complit/Eclat/. Essential listings.

23. Literary Resources on the Net. Jack Lynch. Jun. 2003. http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/%7Ejlynch/Lit/. Extensive as usual.

24. Internet Public Library. Jun. 2002. http://www.ipl.org/div/litcrit/. Listing of critical and biographical websites.

25. Voice of the Shuttle. Alan Liu et al. http://vos.ucsb.edu/browse.asp?id=2718. Literary theory section.


C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if cited in the usual way.