Defining The Poet as Critic

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“To judge of poets is only the faculty of poets.”

      It might be argued that since the best critic of engineering is an engineer, and of gardening a gardener, so the artist is the only licensed critic of poetry. Ben Jonson was not the first, nor yet the last, to hold such an opinion. He was but echoing Seneca and, in more recent times, Whistler said, “I hold that none but an artist can be a competent critic”. T. S. Eliot, in our own day, held a similar view, but was rebuffed by C. S. Lewis who said (in A Preface to Paradise Lost) that while good reasoning can be recognized by a good reasoner, it is not true that good cooking can be recognized only by a good cook. Poetry would appear to be a type of product, in part like reasoning, in part like cooking, which offers at least a considerable resistance to the theory that only a poet can be a critic of poetry.

      So it turns out that the dictum is only a half-truth. Criticism is both an art and a science. The critic, it is true, in his turn becomes a creator. Starting from where the poet ended (i.e. Form) the critic retraces the poet’s footsteps and arrives at the poet’s experience. In other words, his task consists in reconstructing the vision that was the poet’s. For this he needs the artist s sensibility and imagination. But the critic and the artist part company here. The identity between the creative and critical processes ceases at this point. For, though both need the same kind of imaginative insight for their task of creation or re-creation, their processes are different. The poetic process is essentially that of synthesis—that of assembling disparate strands of experience; the critic’s function consists in analyzing the ground of our delight in literature. The critic is an interpreter, a guide to our emotions, telling us why we enjoy a certain work of art, as also what we ought to enjoy.

      A further task of the critic is also to evaluate literature by bringing it into meaningful relationship with life. In other words, he must judge — judge of the worthwhileness of the artist’s experience, the truth of the picture of life presented, the technical performance in terms of success or failure of communication. These are tasks beyond the pale of the poet. The poet turned critic may find himself out of sympathy with other kinds of work than his own, in which case his judgment is bound to be impaired. He may even wrongly judge his own. He cannot be impartial to his own work and know its defects. Criticism is a branch of scholarship, and the poet very often may not possess it. The critic comes to his task not only with a special talent but also with a special training. He is the man of taste who possesses a vast and varied literary background. As such he is in a position to compare, and know where to place a new author or book. A poet who is wrapped up in his own thoughts and in love with his own dreams may not be quite up to the requirement.

      True, there have been great poets who were also great critics, like Dryden, Coleridge, Arnold and Eliot. They may be taken as exceptions. And even here a distinction may be noted. Where these critics deal with questions of literary aesthetics, like the nature of imagination, or of poetic causation, they command greater authority and carry easier conviction, because they bring the evidence of first-hand experience to bear on the subject. But where value judgments are concerned, they are less reliable. Where, however, these poet-critics have excelled both in creation and criticism, they have done so by reason of the fact that their poetry itself was a kind of critical activity (like T. S. Eliot’s). For the rest, there have been poets, and many of them quite as great as those mentioned above, who were no critics at all. They were silent upon their own works as well as those of others (except where they owned their discipleship or were paying customary tribute). They left their works for others to judge. As long as communication and not mere self-expression is the end of literature, the artist must submit his work to others for valuation. So the diction is at best a half-truth and at worst a proud and peevish self-assertion of poets, amounting to: ‘What do they (the critics) know of literature that they sit in judgment over us? Those that have not written a single line of poetry have no right to judge of those who have!’

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