“Socrates was the first person to distinguish between the ability to criticize literature and the ability to compose it.”  –Abercrombie

Is old criticism still “good” criticism?

“The realm of criticism is occupied by the activities of three distinct powers: the power to CREATE; the power to ENJOY; the power to CRITICIZE.

“The powers to criticize can be acquired, with process and system to be studied, and deliberately put into practice.

“There are no principles which will tell you how to create literature, nor how to enjoy it.”

“Criticism consists in asking and answering rational questions about literature.”

Basically two kinds of criticism, or critical inquiry, can be determined: studying the function of literature, the nature of literature, the theory of literature (aesthetics).  The second, criticism proper, may be called practical criticism (studying unique qualities in actual concrete examples of literature).


“The history of criticism has been very largely the history of attempts to formulate rules for criticism.  But rules derived from some particular instances in one kind of literature…have been found wanting.

“Only the principles which express the nature, and define the function, of literature in general can determine what is essential in any kind of literature; and only by appealing to what is essential can criticism provide itself with trustworthy rules.”


So where does one begin?  At the beginning: “The first and most celebrated of all systematic theories of literature?  Aristotle’s Poetics.”  [That’s old.]

“Aristotle raises almost all the problems out of which emerge the principles required by criticism for its security.”  (But he doesn’t always solve the problems satisfactorily, yet he compels us to consider them exactly.  How could he ever imagine a Catcher in the Rye or À la recherche du temps perdu–or even Joyce’s Ulysses?)



“A critic is one who expresses a reasoned opinion on any matter especially involving a judgment of its value, truth, righteousness, beauty, or technique;  one who engages often professionally in the analysis, evaluation, or appreciation of works of art or artistic performances.”  [standard dictionary definition]

But what gives them the right to say those things?

They have the job!  We do not…

We give them the power over us–or at least over what we read, see, and hear.  Nevertheless, they are also expressing their own opinions–as we have opinions.

Whom to believe?  For the most part, it’s a matter of taste and style.  A good critic likes what we like and hates what we hate, writes the way we would like to and reviews the things we like to read about.  A bad critic doesn’t.


Yet we can look at training in the field of alleged expertise and the ability to communicate effectively when judging the critics we read or listen to.

And what about their reputation among peers?  the effort they expend?  their “readability”?

We have to decide whether we want to read the work of others.  We must be critical of the critics, though, if we have our own standards.  And standards we MUST have.


“Every effective…critic sees some facet of…art and develops our awareness with respect to it; but the total vision, or something approximating it, comes only to those who learn how to blend the insights yielded by many critical approaches.”  –David Daiches

GOOD PEDAGOGY: “Tell ‘em what you told ‘em”:  [See ] HISTORICAL (H): concerned with historical “facts”; FORMALISM (F): concerned with the text (alone); SOCIO-CULTURAL (S): concerned with the text as social commentary; PSYCHOLOGICAL (P): [FREUD]: studies author/artist, work/characters, reader/viewer; MYTHOPOEIC (M): [JUNG]:  tries to present a work as the verbal aspect of ritual. 

CRITICAL READING SKILLS: Seeing/reading what’s there for sure; understanding what we put there; and what it means to us in the greater scheme of things, the “big” picture.”

Finally, review “Comprehension and Critical Reading”:


“Critical Reading and Skills”:


“The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art–and, by analogy, our own experience–more, rather than less, real to us.  The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means.”  — Susan Sontag


“Every effective…critic sees some facet of…art and develops our awareness with respect to it; but the total vision, or something approximating it, comes only to those who learn how to blend the insights yielded by many critical approaches.”  –David Daiches

What is New Criticism?  Deconstructionism?  Formalism?  Historicism?  Psychoanalytical?

Here is perhaps a simplified (not simple) help that a reader or viewer might use to bring to a work of art (mostly literature and film, that might use “standards”) to help with some understanding, beyond the first impression–which is normal: “I liked it!” or, “Thumbs up!” or, “Five stars!”  What to say next?

So begin (if you care to):

HISTORICAL (H): concerned with the text, language, biography, influences, historical “facts” (then); Is this the real accurate text?

FORMALISM (F): concerned with the text (alone): its form, style, structure, meaning, effect (from text), the “textual approach”

SOCIO-CULTURAL (S): concerned with the text as social commentary (needs to be a historical first); about morality, economics, and cultural beliefs (then, primarily).  Sees the text as a document of political influence.

PSYCHOLOGICAL (P): [FREUD]: studies author/artist, work/characters, reader/viewer.  The “on-the-couch-method” that is rich, looking for motivation, for answers to the whys of actions or of likes and dislikes.  (Does not always have to be about dreams and cigars.)

MYTHOPOEIC (M): [JUNG]: by using all four previous approaches, uncovers or tries to discover patterns of ritual or seasons, to present a work as the verbal aspect of ritual with archetypal patterns.  Within a work “myth” is the narrative”; archetype is the “significance.”  Hand washing in a film may not be simply hand washing….  What is the book Hansel and Gretel doing in the film I, Robot?  (The most complex but, perhaps, the richest approach to literature.)   






“And poetry [is] still the underwear of the soul.”  –Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Do we REALLY know what poetry is?  Can/will it ever be defined?  Adequately?

“Poems don’t just happen.”  –William Stafford

“Poetry is the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds.”      –P. B. Shelley

“I would define, in brief, the Poetry of words as the Rhythmical Creation of Beauty.  Its sole arbiter is taste.”  –E. A. Poe

“…poetry…the best words in the best order.”  –S. T. Coleridge

“We read poems for pleasure; they entertain us.  And we read them for instruction; they enlighten us.”  –Robert DiYanni

“Poetry takes all life as its province.  Its primary concern is not with beauty, not with philosophical truth, not with persuasion, but with experience.”  –Laurence Perrine

Poetics involves the theories about the forms and purposes of poetry.

“We’ve been reading poems in school, but I never understand any of them.  How am I supposed to know which poems to like?”   “Somebody tells you.”  –Charles Schulz

“Poetry is the art of uniting pleasure with truth, by calling imagination to the help of reason.”  –Samuel Johnson

“Poetry is the language that tells us, through a more or less emotional reaction, something that cannot be said.”  –E. A. Robinson

* * *

 “since feeling is first” –E. E. Cummings

 “Do not go gentle into that good night, …” –Dylan Thomas

 “Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone, …” –W. H. Auden

 “When I consider how my light is spent, …” –John Milton

 “The sea is calm tonight.”  –Matthew Arnold

 “Come live with me and be my love, …” –Christopher Marlowe

“A poem should not mean//But be.”  –Archibald MacLeish

“When lilacs last in the dooryard bloomed, …” –Walt Whitman

“The curfew tolls the knell of parting day, …” –Thomas Gray

“The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”  –G. Manley Hopkins

“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, …”     –E.  A.  Poe

 “Why so pale and wan, fond Lover?”  –Sir John Suckling

 “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, …” –Robert Frost

 “I know what the caged bird feels, alas!”  —Paul Laurence Dunbar

 “Little Lamb, who made thee?”  –William Blake

 “Sundays too my father got up early…” –Robert Hayden



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