Sunday, January 31, 2010


Among the English critics, Philip Sidney holds a very important place. His Apology for Poetry is a spirited defence of poetry against all the charges laid against it since Plato. He considers poetry as the oldest of all branches of learning and establishes its superiority.
Poetry, according to Sidney, is superior to philosophy by its charm, to history by its universality, to science by its moral end, to law by its encouragement of human rather than civic goodness. Sidney deals with the usefulness of other forms of poetry also. (The pastoral pleases by its helpful comments on contemporary events and life in general, the elegy by its kindly pity for the weakness of mankind, the satire by its pleasant ridicule of folly, the lyric by its sweet praise of all that is praiseworthy, and the epic by its representation of the loftiest truths in the loftiest manner).
Reply to four charges
Stephen Gosson in his School of Abuse, leveled four charges against poetry. They were : (i) A man could employ his time more usefully than in poetry, (ii) It is the ‘mother of lies’, (iii) It is immoral and ‘the nurse of abuse’ and (iv) Plato had rightly banished poets from his ideal commonwealth.
Sidney gallantly defends all these charges in his ‘Apology for Poetry’. Taking the first charge, he argues that poetry alone teaches and moves to virtue and therefore a man cannot better spend his time than in it. Regarding the second charge, he points out that a poet has no concern with the question of veracity or falsehood and therefore a poet can scarcely be a liar. He disposes of the third charge saying that it is a man’s wit that abuses poetry and not vice versa. To the fourth charge, he says that it is without foundation because Plato did not find fault with poetry but only the poets of his time who abused it.
His Classicism
Sidney’s Apology is the first serious attempt to apply the classical rules to English poetry. He admires the great Italian writers of Renaissance (Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarch). All his pronouncements have their basis either on Plato or Aristotle or Horace. In his definition of poetry he follows both Aristotle and Horace : ‘to teach and delight’.
Sidney insists on the observance of the unities of time, place and action in English drama. He has no patience with the newly developed tragi-comedy. (His whole critical outlook in the unities and the tragi-comedy was affected by the absence of really good English plays till his time). He also praises the unrhymed classical metre verse. Poetry according to him, is the art of inventing new things, better than this world has to offer, and even prose that does so is poetry. Though he has admiration for the classical verse he has his native love of rhyme or verse. His love of the classics is ultimately reconciled to his love of the native tradition.
The Value of his Criticism
Though Sidney professes to follow Aristotle, his conception of poetry is different from Aristotle’s. To Aristotle, poetry was an art of imitation. To Sidney, it is an art of imitation for a specific purpose : it imitates ‘to teach and delight’. (Those who practise it are called makers and prophets).
Sidney also unconsciously differs with Aristotle in the meaning he gives to imitation. Poetry is not so much an art of imitation as of invention or creation. (It creates a new world altogether for the edification and delight of the reader). This brings him again close Plato. According to him, the poet imitates not the brazen world of Nature but the golden world of the Idea itself. So, Plato’s chief objection to poetry is here answered in full. Sidney makes poetry what Plato wished it to be – a vision of the idea itself and a force for the perfection of the soul.


I.A. Richards was the first critic to bring to English criticism a scientific precision and objectivity. He was the first to distinguish between the two uses of language – the referential and the emotive. His well articulated theory is found in his Principles of Literary Criticism. The present extract is from his Practical Criticism which speaks about the four kinds of meaning. Richards is remembered for his modern way of teaching and studying literature. New criticism and the whole of modern tensional poetics derive their strength and inspiration from the seminal writings of Richards.
Richards begins the extract by pointing to the difficulty of all reading. The problem of making out the meaning is the starting point in criticism. The answers to ‘what is a meaning?’, ‘What are we doing when we endeavour to make it out?’ are the master keys to all the problems of criticism. The all important fact for the study of literature or any other mode of communication is that there are several kinds of meaning. Whether we speak, write, listen, read, the ‘Total meaning’ is a blend of several contributory meanings of different types. Language – and pre eminently language as it is used in poetry has several tasks to perform simultaneously. Four kinds of functions or meanings as enlisted by I.A. Richards are the following: (1) Sense, (2) Feeling, (3) Tone and (4) Intention.
(1) Sense
‘We speak to say something and when we listen we expect something to be said. We use words to direct our hearers’ attention upon some state of affairs, to present to them some items for consideration and to excite in them some thoughts about these items’. In short, what we speak to convey to our listeners for their consideration can be called ‘sense’. This is the most important thing in all scientific utterances where verification is possible.
(2) Feeling
The attitude towards what we convey is known as ‘feeling’. In other words, we have bias or accentuation of interest towards what we say. We use language to express these feelings. Similarly, we have these feelings even when we receive. This happens even if the speaker is conscious of it or not. In exceptional cases, say in mathematics, no feeling enters. The speaker’s attitude to the subject is known as ‘feeling’.
(3) Tone
The speaker has an attitude to his listener. ‘He chooses or arranges his words differently as his audience varies, in automatic or deliberate recognition of his relation to them. The tone of his utterance reflects his awareness of this relation, his sense of how he stands towards those he is addressing. Thus ‘tone’ refers to the attitude to the listener.
(4) Intention
Finally apart from what he says (sense), his attitude to what he is talking about (feeling), and his attitude to his listener (tone), there is the speaker’s intention, his aim (conscious or unconscious) - the effect he is endeavouring to promote. The speaker’s purpose modifies his speech. Frequently, the speaker’s intention operates through and satisfies itself in a combination of other functions. ‘It may govern the stress laid upon points in an argument. It controls the ‘plot’ in the larger sense of the word. It has special importance in dramatic and semi dramatic literature. Thus the influence of his intention upon the language he uses is additional to the other three influences.
If we survey the uses of language as a whole, predominance of one function over the other may be found. A man writing a scientific treatise will put the ‘sense’ of what he has to say first. For a writer popularising some of the results and hypotheses of science, the principles governing his language are not so simple; his intention will inevitably interfere with the other functions. In conversation, we get the clearest examples of the shifts of function, i.e. one function being taken over by another.
Towards the end of the essay, I.A. Richards says that it is much harder to obtain statements about poetry than expressions of feelings towards it and towards the author. Very many apparent statements turn out to be the indirect expressions of Feeling, Tone and Intention.


Empson is the first analytic critic to apply the principles of I.A. Richards on the nature and function of language consistently and with gusto to particular passages of poetry. The objections raised in his Seven Types of Ambiguity are still valid. James Smith points out that Empson’s analyses are interesting only as revelation of the poet’s or Empson’s ingenious mind. He complains about the vague nature of ambiguity. While it is possible to show that Empson’s method often leads to critical irresponsibility as pointed out by Elder Olson in his ‘William Empson, Contemporary Criticism and Poetic Diction’, Empson is one of the sharpest and the most sensitive of modern critics.
Seven Types of Ambiguity presents the different kinds of ambiguity or ‘types of logical disorder in the order of increasing distance from simple statement and logical exposition. In the essay, ‘The Seventh Type of Ambiguity’, Empson takes up the seventh type of ambiguity which, to him, is ‘the most ambiguous that can be conceived’. It ‘occurs when the two meanings of the word, the two values of the ambiguity are the two opposite meanings defined by the context so that the total effect is to show a fundamental division in the writer’s mind’.
Empson provides Hopkins’s The Windhover as an example of poetry to convey an indecision and reverberation in the mind. Though I.A. Richards has excellently written about it, Empson’s analysis adds to his. Hopkins became a Jesuit and burnt his early poems on entering the order. There may be some reference to this sacrifice in the line : ‘Buckle! AND the fire that that breaks from thee then’.
According to Empson, Hopkins conceives the active physical beauty of the bird as the opposite of his patient spiritual renunciation. The statements of the poem appear to insist that his own life is superior, but he cannot decisively judge between them; he holds both with agony in his mind. The phrase ‘My heart in hiding’ implies that the life of the windhover is more dangerous than the life of renunciation which is the more lovely as evidenced in the last three lines of the poem.
The word ‘Buckle’ admits of two tenses and two meanings: ‘they do buckle here’, or ‘come, and buckle yourself here, ‘buckle’ like a military belt, for the discipline of heroic action and ‘buckle’ like a bicycle wheel, ‘make useless, distorted and incapable of its natural motion. The word, ‘here’ in the line : ‘Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here’ may mean ‘in the case of the bird’, or ‘in the case of the Jesuit’; the word, ‘then’ in the next line means ‘when you have become like the bird’ or ‘when you have become like the Jesuit’. ‘Chevalier’ in the third line of the sestet personifies either physical or spiritual activity; Christ riding to Jerusalem or the cavalry men ready for the charge; Pegasus or the windhover. Thus in the first three lines of the sestet, Empson says, we have a clear case of the Freudian use of opposites – where two things that are incompatible are spoken of simultaneously by words applying to both. The last three lines of the sestet convey the conflict more strongly and more beautifully.
After analyzing Hopkins’s ‘The Windhover’, Empson interprets George Herbert’s The Sacrifice as a poem having conflicts though the business of this doctrinal poem is to state a generalised solution of them. The speaker in this poem is Jesus Christ. As interpreted by Empson, the speaker is speaking with pathetic simplicity, an innocent surprise that people should treat him so, and a complete failure to understand the case against him:
They did accuse me of great villainy
That I did thrust into the Deitie;
Who never thought that cry robberie;
Was ever grief like mine?
The word ‘rased’ applies to the two opposite operations. Moreover, the refrain (a quotation from Jeremiah) refers to the wicked city of Jerusalem, abandoned by God for her sins and not to the Saviour. There is a fusion of love of Christ and the vindictive terrors of the sacrificial idea in his advice to his deal friends not to weep for him, for, because he has wept for both, they will need their for themselves. (In his agony, they abandoned him):
Weep not dear friends, since I for both have wept
When all my tears were blood, the while you slept
Your tears for your own fortunes should be kept
Was ever grief like mine?
The stress of the main meaning is on the loving – kindness of Jesus. But the last verse contains as strong and simple a double meaning. As per the evaluation of Empson, in this verse, Christ may wish that his own grief may never be exceeded among the humanity he pities; he may incidentally wish that he may be sure of recognition and of a church that will be a sounding board to his agony. Empson gives this double meaning as just a possibility though it may sound blasphemous. A memory of the revengeful power of Jehova gives resonance to the voice of the merciful power of Jesus:
‘Herod in judgement sits, while I do stand
Examines me with a censorious hand’.
‘me’ is made to ring out with a triumphant and scornful arrogance. It implies that he will be far more furious in his judgement than his judges.
Empson quotes a few more stanzas from George Herbert’s doctrinal poem and brings out the conflicts and contradictions in the poem. He quotes specific examples from the poem to prove that the supreme act of sin is combined with the supreme act of virtue in the person of Christ. The final contradiction presented is found in the lines :
‘Lo here I hand, charged with a world of sin
The greater world of the two . . .
as the complete Christ; scapegoat and tragic hero;
loved because hated; hated because god like;
freeing from torture because tortured;
and torturing because merciful.


T.S. Eliot begins the essay with Dr. Johnson’s use of the phrase ‘metaphysical poetry’ as a term of abuse or as the label of quaint and pleasant taste. The main concern of this essay is to what extent the so called metaphysical formed a school and how far this school or movement is a digression from the main current. He also points out the characteristic fault of the metaphysical poets.
Eliot says that it is extremely difficult to define metaphysical poetry and to decide what poets practise it in which of their verses. The poetry of Donne is late Elizabethan. Its feeling is often very close to that of Chapman. The argument put forth by Eliot is that there is no precise use of metaphor, simile or other conceits common to the metaphysical poets. Moreover, there is no common style important enough to isolate these poets as a group. But Donne and Cowley employ a device which is sometimes considered characteristically ‘metaphysical’ : The elaboration of a figure of speech to the furthest stage. Cowley’s comparison of the world to a chess board (To Destiny), and Donne’s comparison of two lovers to a pair of compass. In these poets, instead of a mere explication of content of the comparison, there is a development by a rapid association of thought. Donne’s most successful and characteristic effects are secured by brief words and sudden contrasts.
Dr. Johnson employed the term ‘metaphysical poets’ keeping in mind Donne, Cleveland and Cowley. He remarked that in them ‘the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together.’ Eliot says that often the ideas are yoked but not united and if we are to judge styles of poetry by their abuse, enough examples are found in Cleveland to justify Johnson’s condemnation. He quotes Lord Herbert’s Ode and says that nothing in the poem that fits Johnson’s general observation on the metaphysical poets.
According to Eliot, the language of these poets is as a rule simple and pure. Herbert’s verse has simplicity. Unlike the eighteenth century poems, the seventeenth century poems (metaphysical poems) like Marvell’s Coy Mistress and Crashaw’s Saint Teresa are dissimilar in the use of syllables. In the former, there are short syllables to produce an effect of great speed and in the latter, long syllables are used to effect an ecclesiastical solemnity.
In Eliot’s opinion, Johnson has failed to define metaphysical by its faults. One has to consider whether the metaphysical poetry has the virtue of permanent value or not. In fact, it does not have it. Johnson’s observation is that the attempts of these poets were always analytic. Eliot says that in the dramatic verse of the lat Elizabethan and early Jacobean poets, there is a development of sensibility. In Jonson, Chapman and Donne, there is a recreation of thought into feeling. That is, there is ‘unification of sensibility’. Eliot makes a distinction between the victorian poet (reflective poet) and the metaphysical poet (intellectual poet). Poets like Tennyon and Browning think but do not feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose. A thought to Donne was an experience. It modified his sensibility. The disparate experiences are amalgamated and they form new wholes.
The poets of the 17th century are the successors of the 16th century dramatists. They are simple, artificial, difficult, fantastic as their predecessors were. In the 17th century, a dissociation of sensibility set in and this was aggravated by the influence of the two most powerful poets of the century - Milton and Dryden. These poets performed certain poetic functions so magnificently well that the magnitude of effect concealed the absence of others. There was improvement in language. While the language became more refined, the feeling became more crude. In one or two passages of Shelley’s Triumph of Life, in the second Keats’s Hyperion. There are traces of a struggle toward unification of sensibility.
Now the question is that what the fate of ‘metaphysical’ would have been if the current of poetry descended in a direct line from them? They would not, certainly, be classified as metaphysical. Like other poets, the metaphysical poets have various faults. But they were trying to find the verbal equivalent for states of mind and feeling. Eliot concludes the essay by saying that Donne, Crashaw, Vaughan, Herbert, Cowley at his best are in the current of English poetry.