The Method of Practical Criticism

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      You know, verse is the usual form of poetry, but, you will allow, not all that is written in verse form is poetry. For example, the following verse cannot be called Poetry (It is only doggerel): “I put my hat upon my head And walked along the Strand; And there I met another man, Whose hat was in his hand” It is a parody of versification, not of the art, but of the craft—the business—of verification.

      Now, ‘appreciation’ may be defined as estimating the worth or value of a given poem. But appreciation is not the same as criticism; so to give it the status of criticism, we use a term like ‘critical appreciation’. Criticism proper is judging the worth or excellence of a given poem. Modern critics may call it only ‘descriptive’ analysis. Even so it should show where the poet has succeeded and where he has not (if that is the case, too). That is, the critic should point out the faults as well as beauties of the given poem. To apportion blame as well as praise is his business.

      We may now try to find out some of the reasons why a poem gives us the pleasure it does: maybe, the secret lies in the rhythm or the musical sound of the words, or the pictures it calls up in our minds, or the beautiful thought it expresses etc. We have seen that verse and poetry are not the same thing, that verse is the usual form of poetry. We may add that verse is the body, and poetry the soul.

Essential Characteristics of Poetry:

      Word-music: We can see the difference between prose and verse when the latter is read aloud. The first point that we notice about poetry, apart from the way it is printed, is its more or less regular rhythm, which is absent in prose (If the rhythm is too regular, it becomes monotonous, and if it is exaggerated in reading, it becomes “sing-song”). Rhythm then is an essential characteristic of verse, as distinguished from prose.

      The poet’s medium of expression, as you know, is words. Now words are not merely symbols for objects, ideas and feelings but are sounds, too. The prose-writer chooses words simply to express his meaning as clearly and convincingly as possible. The poet instinctively chooses words that are pleasing to the ear (or, deliberately, discordant sounds, if that is what he wants: e.g. ‘Roll’d round in earth’s diurnal course, With rocks and stones and trees’) and so arranges them that the words harmonize in sound, and create “word music” (this suits the subject, the mood and the tone).

      Word sounds and rhythm together create what we call “word music”. The meter by its slow or quick, light or heavy, smooth or jerky movements, represents the mood or reinforces the sense.

      While speaking of word music, we are apt to make too much of alliteration, rhyme, the use of liquid sounds or sibilants or of Onomatopeia. We should take care not to make too much play of these things.

      The Inspirational Quality - A poem is born out of a vision, and the excitement which this has aroused in the poet. The poet never says, “I will write a poem on such and such a subject”. He is “inspired” to write it. In a sense the poem writes itself, the poet being only a medium, an instrument, an Aeolian harp exposed to the winds of inspiration, as it were (to use a Shelleyan comparison). The structuring of the poem should, therefore, seem’ a moment’s thought’, not a product of stitching and unstitching.

      Structure-There is what we call a ‘structure’ to a poem, and, in a successful poem, this will seem an “inspired” ordering. The poet will have organized the theme, the thought-emotion complex, the ‘meaning’ of the poem, into a perfect shape. The inversion of normal syntax, the repetition— of words or of ideas in variant forms—the ‘deviant’ expressions and other features—all help towards ‘foregrounding’ (bringing to the fore, or “highlighting”) the subject. The subject thus comes to us wrought with all manner of nuances which the poet finds in his armory. The language of metaphor, which the poet chiefly relies on, opens up to him a new dimension of the expressive power of language. It helps concretize, sometimes dramatize, an idea which the poet wants to put across. It may even be part of the ‘deviance’ (departure from the normal) of the poem’s diction (as when a poet speaks of the ‘green fuse’ that runs through all living things). One has, therefore, to examine not only the syntactical structure of the poem — the verb fewer predictions as well as the verbs that are made to do ‘heavy duty’, but also the structure of narration or picturization or dramatization.

      Texture: There is also the ‘texture’ of a poem to be taken note of. What is the nature of the poet’s response to the subject or experience? Is the subject offered to us ‘plain’ or clothed in irony? Or is it tinged with some color - rose or green or gray? The texture of the poem may be one of the plain statements with ‘no comments’; it may otherwise be one of enthusiastic acceptance or joyous discovery or ‘celebration’, or yet it may be one of qualified approval or one of ironic detachment.

      Tone: Then there is the tone of the poem to be determined — whether the approach is casual and free from posturing/attitudinizing or whether there is a serious attempt on the part of the poet to come to grips with the experience, so as to master it, to be able to look beyond his immediate involvement, etc. etc.

      We have noted, among several definitions of poetry, one which says that if literature is words working hard, poetry is words working hardest. Then our business as serious students of poetry or as critics (critics-in-the-making, if you please!) is to see how words have been made to work hard in a given poem, that is, how the potentialities of language have been exploited by the poet in order to express something which is not ordinarily expressible in terms of the dictionary meanings of words alone. The dictionary may define ‘liquefy’ as the verb form of ‘liquid’, and ‘lique I action’ as the Noun form thereof. But the idea of the breeze playing with the skirt of the sweetheart and giving it ‘a wavy look’ could not have been better picturized than in the way that a Cavalier poet did it: ‘The sweet liquefaction of her clothes’

      Here is an example of the creative use of language, and poetry is, therefore, in one way, defined as metaphoric (or metaphorized) thought. Because ordinary language is either inadequate or too debased to answer to our requirements, in moments of deep insight or under great emotional stress, poets are forever trying to stretch their expressive power, annex new territories won from the Arctic of the inexpressible. We speak of poets as language makers and this is true not only in the sense that they are comers of new words that were a felt need at one time (but the number of words in any language that have been deliberately coined is very, very small. Language is a social product, and words that fill the need of the hour originate somewhere, in some mysterious manner and float into currency), but also in the sense of creative users of the language.

      Tyndale, who found that neither ‘love” nor ‘kindness’ alone would answer his purpose to describe a certain feeling that partakes of both the states of feeling, coined a compound word ‘loving-kindness’.

      Of course, poets are not the only coiners of words, or ‘makers’ of new words or combinations of them. But it is chiefly their need; and they keep forever extending the frontiers of the expressible. There is something special about what they have perceived, apprehended. If they saw only as much as we do, there would be no need for them to make a poem. It is because they have either seen something extra, some new face of truth or beauty, something new or uncommon in the common and every day, that they want to enshrine the vision in a poem. It is because they feel they can give classic expression to what has often been thought but never so well expressed, that they want to put it down in memorable form. Words in such a combination make a catchy phrase or line, and fix themselves on our tongue; so we keep humming them as children keep humming a nursery rhyme or a movie-song tune. Consider the rhythm of the following lines, which may seem to have nothing special about them except their rhythm, a rhythm that reproduces the sense of the lines or reinforces the mood underlying them: “Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore So do our minutes hasten to their end”

      But the image, in its own right, seizes hold of the poet’s imagination, and he develops it in subsequent lines, as far as the similitude can be stretched. Similarly: “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought I summon up remembrance of things past,” where, apart from the metaphor of session, which gives to the whole expression a concrete vividness (picturizing the hours of recollection in tranquillity), the rhythm too is by itself note­worthy.

      In that sonnet on the definition of true love, when Shakespeare is done with defining love, negatively, as being not that which alters when it finds an alteration (a change in the lover’s status or circumstances), the pace takes on an impassioned breathlessness. ‘O no’, says the poet, ‘it’s an ever-fixed mark... It is a star....’ When we come to Love’s not Time’s fool, we have, at the back of the line, the image (however faint) of a tyrant king regaled by his Fool (the King’s Fool)... By the time the poet has come to the final couplet, the power of his eloquence rings out in subdued tones, by way of challenge to those who may question the truth of his utterance:

“If this be error, and upon me proved I never writ, nor no man ever loved”,

      The poet would disown all his writings, forswear his claim to hardship, to being a poet, a seer, if this testament is proved false. (This is where the poet’s ego swells up unconsciously even when he is speaking in the persona—assumed identity—of a humble lover of the Dark Lady, who has a friend and patron in the Earl of Southampton). It is the pulse of the passion that we feel behind the words, not any melody which we are accustomed to hearing at a musical session.

      We are likely to make too much of the sound effects of words, but we should give it no more than its due place in poetry.

      The whole of a poem may not be of even texture, all of air and fire’ compact; ‘poetry’ may be glimpsed in a phrase, in a line, a set of lines. A poem, maybe, begins sombrely, on a subdued note, but it may take wing all at once, where the poets passion suddenly accomplishes an outreach of vision, a penetration into the depths of objects, or vouchsafes him a glimpse of something hidden before.

      When in Act II Sc. I of Julius Caesar Portia is tackling her husband Brutus, anxious to know the secret preying upon his mind, she asks,

“Within the bond of marriage, tell me, Brutus
Is it expected I should know no secrets
That appertain you? Am I yourself
But, as it were, in sort or limitation
To keep with you at meals, comfort your bed
And talk to you sometimes?”

      Then, in the next line, suddenly, the poet’s imagination ‘ignites’ and translates the essence of the whole thought, by means of one metaphor, and that is ‘suburbs’:

“Dwell I but in the suburbs of your good pleasure”

      Being a wedded wife, and an equal partner with her husband, she hates to think that she lives somewhere on the outskirts of his life without sharing the concerns of his heart (to which she has a right, in terms of the marriage bond). She hates to think of herself as but the slave of her husband, or worse, as his chattel (By the way, how many Indian wives would be able to ask that question of their husbands?)

      When, again, a poet is hard put to determining the relative strength of two conflicting loyalties, he may couch the problem in such terms as Shakepeare’s Brutus did:

‘Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more’.

      (The line is from Brutus’ funeral oration, most of which is poetic, though in prose). What Bmtus talks isn’t logic, nor mathematics, but poetic truth. When one can’t decide as to which is the stronger loyalty between the two, one lends oneself to talking paradox.

      In Milton’s Sonnet on his Blindness the PARADOX that the poet faces is spelled out —then the conflict is resolved into a formula of compromise, so to say:

‘They also serve who only stand and wait’.

      The sonnet dramatizes the debate that has taken place in the mind of the poet, with the attendant anguish and the peace of the resolution. In his other Sonnet, that on his late Spouse, it is the IRONY of the poet’s situation that leaves us distressed, at its close, by its poignancy and pathos.

‘I wak’d, she fled and day brought back my night.’

      One Indian poet spoke of the ‘heart-prints’ (he coins the word on the analogy of ‘footprints’ left on the sands of time) left by his wife (gone home to her parents, for a short space, in the early days of married life) on everything in the house.

      These are some illustrations of the creative ways in which a poet uses language, the way his mind has apprehended an aspect of things in terms of a striking image, the way he makes the rhythm reinforce or echo the sense of the lines or his mood. Note, for example, the vague sense of melancholy, associated with the unhappy events of the past, that the line in Wordsworth’s ‘ Solitary Reaper,’ creates in the reader, by its vowel­arrangement and rhythm:

‘For old, unhappy, far-off things. And battles long ago;

      Or it may yet be the way that the idea, all at once, ‘ignites’ when the poet takes recourse to the metaphoric mode of expression. Alternatively, it may be the principle of irony or paradox on which the poet builds the structure of his verse. The ironic counter-statement gives a roundedness to the vision. When Donne speaks of the ‘Imagined comers of the round earth’, he speaks at once as a poet for whom the myth of the four corners of the world is still valid, and as one living in a world whose faith in the Biblical story of creation has been shaken by science. The poet’s consciousness works upon a multiple level. It is a unified consciousness.

      Incidentally, the metaphysical element in Donne may, sometimes, remain at the level of mere ‘ingenuity’, as in the poem where he speaks of a flea, that has bitten both him (the lover) and his sweetheart, as their ‘bridal bed’, but it can sometimes give us the perfect image as in his ‘A Valediction: forbidding mourning. The image of a pan of compasses to which the lover and the lady-love, bound in wedlock. Hemant Kulkarni are compared to fit the husband-wife relationship to perfection. The outer leg can describe a ‘just’ circle only as long as the home-keeping counterpart is steadfast and true. Both lean towards and hearken after each other—the words ‘lean’ and ‘hearken after’ dramatize, and fill with a life and a sentiment, the mechanical learning of the legs towards each other at the top. That is where the image ‘takes wing’ and helps the poem soar into a transcendental beauty of expression.

      Hopkins’s imagination, as it were, takes wing from a contemplation of words. His thought soars upward, shooting from word to similar­ sounding word. In ‘God’s Grandeur’, for example, the word ‘God, brings to mind the word ‘rod’, God’s commandment, his disciplining ‘rod’. ‘Rod’ suggests to Hopkins’s mind, again, the word ‘trod’ and then ‘trade’. ‘Generations of men have trod the earth, have trod, have trod, have trod’. The repetition enforces the sense of the futility of it all. This treading has seared everything with ‘trade’. Nothing binds man to the earth of which he is a part—he is alienated from her; his feet being shod, he scarcely feels the throb in the womb of the earth—it brings him no thrill.

      Though the soil is bare now, nature is never spent, but Hopkins, far from meaning to say there is a renewal in earth every year,’ shifts gear’ and begins to speak in terms of a spiritual renewal. And this rebirth will, he believes, come from the East, as it did once from the West. And his optimism, even in the midst of the surrounding darkness, is sustained by his faith in the Holy Ghost who, like the mother bird, broods over the spent-seeming earth with ‘a warm breast’ and ‘bright wings’. We are never far from the ‘loving-kindness’ and ‘glory’ of God!

      Now, after ranging far and wide over the field (as much as the scope of this book permitted), we come down to ‘brass tacks’—the practical business of practical criticism.

      The questions that one should ask oneself, when called upon to criticize a given poem, then, are: What is the poem about? That is, what is the central idea, or theme, of the poem? But we should not run away with the idea that a (prose) Paraphrase is the equivalent of (or a substitute for) the poem.

      What is the genesis of the poem—object, person, incident, experience, idea How does the poet look at the subject Does he look into it, beneath it, around it?

      And then, from what angle does the poet present the subject (‘Bird thou never wert’ or ‘Thou art but a wandering voice’). What new facets of the subject are revealed to use. Does the poet’s mind move lineally, or does his consciousness operate on more than one level? What are the twists and rums of the thought? What byways of thought does the poet explore?

      Then, has the poet’s imagination dramatized the subject, or metaphorized it?

      Next, how has the poet used ‘language’, or handled the expressive part of the craft. What creative touches do you find in his use of words? What is the ultimate structure of the poem—the organization of the thought-feeling complex. The way the poet has ‘structured’ the poem should give us an idea of the vision that inspired the poem. If we can relate the parts to the overall vision and fit them into it, unfolding the novelty, the felicity, the appropriateness, of one or the other of the different aspects of the poem, as we go along in our analysis, then our job is done.

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