No 6 - 1976
I. A. Richards
EARLY MODERN writers, Hulme, Pound and Eliot, had already aligned themselves against esoteric impressionism in poetry and criticism when l. A. Richards began his career. His ‘Art and Science’ was a philosophical reply to Roger Fry in an ongoing debate on that subject in the pages of Athenaeum. Its editor Middleton Murry placed it among ‘communications’. It was June 1919 and in a few months Richards would begin lecturing on ‘Modern Novels’ and ‘Theory of Criticism’ in the newly founded English School at Cambridge. He was setting down ideas on what would become an important opposition — or perhaps we should say pairing — in his work, poetry and science. ‘Art and Science’ is characterized by the terms of Cambridge realism and the experience of the moral sciences in which he received first-class honours four years before. No reference to an author or to a work of art may be found in this or his subsequent appearance in this journal. To pioneer experiments in the close reading of texts Richards needed the lecture-hall and discussion classes.
Many of the issues that Richards examined in later books come into focus in these pieces from Athenaeum: the cleavage between science and poetry, the concept of the ‘vehicle’, the need for method in criticism, multiple definition of words, the critique of expressionism and personality theories of poetry, the emphasis on works of art as in themselves ‘vastly complex systems’ and ‘wholes’, and the notion of truth in poetry. The terminology of Cambridge realism, itself a movement towards objectivity, is revealing. Richards adopts a philosophical vocabulary to unfold ideas similar to those that he puts forward in more elaborated form with a psychological vocabulary five years later, and in Coleridgean terms ten years after that. As he remarks in ‘Complementarities’ (1972), he has come to prefer the settings of multiple models in order to avoid becoming overly committed to any single model or critical metaphor for the mind’s activity. In Speculative Instruments he cited Oppenheimer’s phrasing of Bohr’s principle of cornplementarity: ‘a variety of models, each corresponding to a possible experimental arrangement and all required for a complete description of possible physical experience, stand in complementary relation to one another . . . each is a necessary part of the complete description.’
Now Richards probably would not think that a complete description could ever be offered, especially with such a shape-changer as critical consciousness, but complementarities as an idea is one of the most durable threads in his career. Though some would say that he took different models to do essentially the same things, a long view of his development might prove, against the critics of an early ‘behaviourist’ Richards, that he was not first a psychological critic and then a repentant convert to Platonist metaphysics. To be fair, however, it certainly might have appeared as such in the mid- 1930s and after — to Ransom, to R.S. Crane, to D.W. Harding and to Desmond MacCarthy. Increasingly he became sceptical towards any one complementarity or ‘speculative instrument’. We think critically with these instruments as well as about them, and he adds, ‘about only through thinking wittingly with them’. In what follows I outline some historical and critical relations in four key areas of Richards’s criticism: 1 Science or Poetry, 2 Functions of Language, 3 Belief and Doctrine in Poetry, and 4 Practical Criticism.
1: Science or Poetry
The cleavage between science (and discursive disciplines generally) and art, between analytical reasoning and creative synthesis, is well-established in the canons of Romantic-Symbolist thought. For the earlier Romantic writers a variety of solutions to this problem (seen also as a division among the higher functions of the mind) were actively pursued. For some writers there existed a pre-established relationship between art and science that one only had to discover. Values used to support this harmony might be drawn from associational psychology, or the transcendental philosophy, or from notions of Nature or Christian theology. At different times and in varying degrees of advocacy Coleridge absorbed and implemented all of these and finally made of art the mediatrix between man and nature, naturalizing man and humanizing nature. The creative Imagination is not seen as one separate faculty; it is ‘the whole soul’ of the individual ‘in activity’, drawing on the categories of the understanding which collect and analyse materials of sense perception, on the intuitions of reason into metaphysical truths, as well as on sense perceptions and the feelings themselves. Thus the imagination is a completing and synthesizing power, subsuming and going beyond the capacities of its various components.
As instruments of establishing and confirming truth and value, however, art and science have been seen as rivals, hostile or friendly, more often than not of unequal strength. Examples are plentiful, but some are particularly telling: this should not be seen as any simple division between descriptive and evaluative judgements. In the second Book of The Prelude Wordsworth disparages that ‘false secondary power’ of discursive reasoning, but in the ‘Preface’ to Lyrical Ballads he is quite tolerant. A poet, he advises, will follow ‘in ‘the steps of the Man of Science . . . carrying sensation into the midst of the objects of the science itself.’ In his ‘Essay, Supplementary to the Preface’, however, Wordsworth again warns the poet and the reader of the delusions and temptations that ensnare inexperienced interpreters:
The appropriate business of poetry, (which, nevertheless, if genuine, is as permanent as pure science,) her appropriate employment, her privilege and her duty, is to treat of things not as they are, but as they appear; not as they exist in themselves, but as they seem to exist to the senses, and to the passions.
In a curious passage Wordsworth insists on the need for a new kind of critic whose mind will be ‘at once poetical and philosophical’. Why at once? Only such a critic will be able to comprehend the assumptions and method of the new poetry with regard to questions of truth and value.
Such, then, is an outline of the division. Despite efforts to maintain some kind of harmony between poetry and science the rift only widened. From the standpoint of language, of course, it was not a division between a poem and a piece of prose. It was between the poetic and the prosaic. The criterion was not one of external form, but one of an imaginative vis-à-vis an analytical process of composition, method and verification. Many and varying terms were employed to label what had come to be, and for many still remains, an unbridgeable strait separating two continents.
Another way the situation presents itself is that confrontation in the early twentieth century between the absolute Idealists Bradley and McTaggart and the young generation of Cambridge realists Moore and Russell. This situation is highly germane because Richards was an undergraduate at Cambridge between 1911 and 1915; McTaggart was his first supervisor in moral sciences, and Richards attended Moore’s lectures regularly for some seven years. For the Idealists time was unreal and the Universe was a mysterious, organic whole. In this Universe all relations between things were in some way, ultimately, connected to all other things. As Bradley wrote, every relation is intrinsical in that it ‘essentially penetrates the being of its terms’. That is, in Ayer’s words, ‘every relation in which an object stands to any other is necessary to its being what it is’. A scientific description of the world could only be abstractive; it could not possibly depict all the vital and necessary links between things. It was bound to be partial, distorting, thereby falsifying the world. Could any symbolic system capture the contextual organicity of the Universe and render its meaning? Probably not — who could read these symbols?
Thine earthly rainbows stretched across the sweep
Of the aetherial waterfall, whose veil
Robes some unsculptured image
(Shelley, ‘Mont Blanc’)
Who can read that image? The Universe remains a mystery to all but itself. And Art provided the closest analogy to the nature of this Universe, since art was not a description of nature, but an enactment of a universe as ultimately mysterious and organic as the Universe itself. In his Oxford lecture ‘Poetry for Poetry’s Sake’ (1901) A.C. Bradley, brother of the philosopher, described the work of art as a ‘world by itself, independent, complete, autonomous; and to possess it fully, you must enter that world, conform to its laws, and ignore for the time the beliefs, aims and particular conditions which belong to you in the other world of reality.’ McTaggart believed that only philosophy and poetry could reveal truths about the ultimate nature of reality; the one way employed logic, deductive or dialectic, and was ‘systematic’; the other, symbolism and was not ‘systematic’ in this sense.
The Fry-Richards debate (in ‘Art and Science’) and the Murry-Richards debate (‘Between Truth and Truth’) both concern the relations of truth to science and to poetry: the topic re-emerges in ‘Emotive Language Still’ and ‘Complementarities’. Fry had argued that the aesthetic value of a theory of science did not depend on the truth or falsity of the facts upon which it was built. Indeed the ‘highest pleasure’ in observing a scientific theory or in appreciating a work of art is identical, namely a ‘unity-emotion’, an emotion accompanying the ‘clear recognition of unity in a complex’. He distinguishes this unity-emotion from a lesser but specifically aesthetic emotion by which ‘the necessity of relations is apprehended, and which corresponds in science to the purely logical process’, and from the various physiological pleasures of, say, seeing certain colours or hearing certain sounds. Fry did have his doubts and betrayed his suspicion that even the aesthetic value must come to terms with truth: ‘I suspect that the aesthetic value of a theory is not really adequate to the intellectual effort entailed unless, as in a true scientific theory (by which I mean a theory which embraces all the known relevant facts), the aesthetic value is reinforced by the curiosity value which comes in when we believe it to be true.’
For Richards, however, ‘the notion of truth is the decisive notion, not only for the scientific value of theory, but for its aesthetic value as well . . . any aesthetic worth considering must have truth as its main instrument.’ He might well have said truths, for truth in scientific theory and truth in art have differing modes of verification. Richards’s initial discussion owes a debt to Moore and Russell on language, in particular to Russell’s theory of descriptions. Richards defines the term ‘proposition’ negatively as neither a mental state, nor a fact, not a sensible form (a word or an image). Not a mental state: Richards follows Moore and Russell in rejecting the ‘Idea-ism’ of Locke, Hume and Mill whereby propositions are a ‘part of our minds, or produced by our minds’. Not facts: ‘for we may apprehend what is false, and then there is no fact for us to apprehend.’ Not a sensible form: for the form is only that by which the proposition is apprehended. Otherwise, a proposition is defined as an objective ‘complex of terms’ in relation to one another. The terms may be called ideas provided that ‘no confusion is allowed between the images and sensations which are in some sense “occurrences in our minds”, and ideas which are not in our minds in this sense, but things which by means of these occurrences the mind gains access to or thinks of.’
How does the mind gain access to propositions, to complexes of terms? For both art and science ‘vehicles’ are required: some sensible form, ‘either of words or of imagery or of sensations’. Richards introduces a term which in somewhat altered definition would gain wide currency in literary criticism of the thirties and forties. Since science is the ‘systematic connection of propositions’, it is concerned with propositions whose connections can be traced accurately. ‘The vehicles of science for this reason are composed of signs, words for the most part, arbitrarily assigned as names to defined ideas.’ Science contains connected terms or complexes of terms to which objects or complexes of objects correspond, and this correspondence is its test of truth.
With art, on the contrary, the truth of propositions does not depend ultimately on systematic connection between them. (The propositions may, one notes, be connected but this is not their test of truth.) ‘Art is interested in propositions for their own sake, not as interconnected.’ The two phrases bear examination: ‘for their own sake’ and ‘not as interconnected’. The first is almost certainly derived from Moore’s discussion of goodness in Principia Ethica. Goodness is finally unanalysable; it cannot be broken down into any parts more basic: it can be known only by direct intuition. So Moore argued, but he added that there are some things ‘worth having purely for their own sakes’ (his italics). These are ‘certain states of consciousness which may be roughly described as the pleasures of human intercourse and the enjoyment of beautiful objects.’ That such states are unanalysable meant that they too could not be broken down and reduced to something else. As Richards goes on to say in ‘Art and Science’: those propositions ‘which are most worth considering for their own sake are not those whose connections we have the best hope of tracing.’
The second phrase, ‘not as interconnected’, is formidable. In what sense are aesthetic propositions not necessarily connected? If the propositions are not connected, does this mean that the ‘vehicles’ are not connected? And if this is so, then are the facts themselves prior to the vehicles not connected? Science requires systematic connection for its propositions and thus for its facts: gold and mountains exist in separate states, but not golden mountains, for golden mountains do not correspond to the facts. Richards’s assertion that art contains unconnected propositions puts us in the land of contradictions. Again, Russell’s theory of descriptions proved to be helpful when Richards and Ogden wrote The Meaning of Meaning. Russell had shown that one could differentiate between meaning something and denoting some thing. Meaning and naming were not identical and he illustrated his argument in an amusing way. When George IV asked whether Scott was the author of Waverly, we could be reasonably assured that the first gentleman of Europe was not interested in the law of identity (i.e. that Scott was Scott). ‘The author of Waverly’ and ‘Scott’ both denote the same object but mean different things. Frege, who anticipated Russell on this point, used the Evening Star and the Morning Star as his example(s).
What makes a true proposition, in art or science, true? The answer is that it corresponds to fact. Can the grounds of art have contradictory fact? Richards’s nominalistic solution to this dilemma is given in The Meaning of Meaning. In ‘Art and Science’, however, he expands upon the middle area between propositions and facts, that is, vehicles. There are facts in the objective world which cannot be contradictory and ‘facts’ of the vehicle which may be contradictory. Often these ‘facts’ carried by the vehicle (the metaphor is one of moving from one area into another) are facts in the objective world — we have Zola’s meticulous description of a mine and Joyce’s portrayal of the sleeping Molly Bloom down to the latitudinal and longitudinal axes of her legs. But factual veridicality has less to do with the poetic effect than we suppose:
The vehicles with which art approaches propositions are as a rule vastly complex systems, composed of sensations and images of all kinds and of the feelings and emotions provoked by and provoking these sensations and images. The whole experience which we call ‘contemplating a work of art’ is the vehicle. Through this we apprehend a proposition.
What, then, is the test of truth in art? In the end Richards takes both a formalist and intuitionist position: the work of art ‘is such that in no other way could we apprehend it’, that it is ‘inevitable’, and that it is ‘self-evident’.
The reason why Richards left artistic propositions unconnected is crucial. Introspection must remain free from determinative or logical systems or theories that might impose their own exclusive standard its own requirement, its own defiance of complementarity. (After all, it is of the essence of assertion that it claims the field for the moment.) Thirty years later, in ‘Emotive Language Still’ he would define the bifurcation of referential and emotive uses of language as
1) ‘factual veridicality or consistency’, a matter of logical relationships, with regard to scientific statements; and as 2) ‘undertaking or engagement of the will’ by poetic statements. But at this time he was no longer employing the terms and concepts of his teachers Moore and Russell. He is rather closer to the Coleridge who wrote of the ‘reconciliation of opposites’ instead of unconnected propositions. That reconciliation is achieved in a ‘middle state of mind’, Coleridge remarks, ‘more strictly appropriate to the imagination than any other, when it is, as it were, hovering between images. As soon as it is fixed on one image, it becomes understanding; but while it is unfixed and wavering between them, attaching itself permanently to none, it is imagination.’
2: Functions of Language
The disjunction of art from matter-of-fact disciplines is central to Richardsian criticism. The tendency of many writers was to reject or to subordinate one to the other. Max Eastman elevates science over poetry, Middleton Murry poetry over science, and in his review of Eastman and reply to Murry, Richards considers the insufficiency of their solutions. He writes contra Eastman that poetry is not exquisite euphoria: ‘If “heightened consciousness” is all we are to ask for, what is wrong with lumbago?’ Poetry may perhaps be the ‘impassioned look upon the face of Science’ (Wordsworth), but the two disciplines have none the less their own spheres, their own ‘very different procedures of verification’. He chides Murry for thinking that the poet and the scientist are in a contest for the best description of a primrose. Like many eighteenth-century critics, Richards hoped to find some common area between science and art in psychology, some third term capable of relating one to the other. Principles of Literary Criticism represented the most concentrated endeavour to forge this relation. A more profitable approach proved to be his methodology of contexts.
Already in his early essays there are hints that the direction Richards would take would be in close language analysis. The method he developed was perhaps his major contribution to English criticism. One proof of this method must have been soon apparent; it could cope with the special uses of language and thematics in modernist poetry of the Pound-Eliot stamp. It is well known that a chief goal of the 1910-20 avant-garde was to secure the technical and formalistic underpinnings of their poetics and to defamiliarize artistic content. How does a reader of Housman’s A Shropshire Lad or Brooke’s war elegies treat the tonal and rhythmic complexity of Pound’s Homage to Sextus Propertius?
When, when, and whenever death closes our eyelids,
Moving naked over Acheron
Upon the one raft, victor and conquered together,
Marius and Jugurtha together,
one tangle of shadows.
Modernist poetry made large, some would say excessive, demands upon its readers. And it was not simply unpopular and destined, like its nineteenth-century predecessors, to win gradual acceptance by a broad audience. So went the argument of Ortega y Gasset in ‘The Dehumanization of Art’. The new ‘artistic art’ did not cultivate an open idiom. It was anti-popular. Whether or not we agree with the rest of Ortega’s thesis, that such art was a dehumanization (because it stylized and so derealized) is quite another matter. The modernist writers had come down firmly against making the poem the servant of ‘other’ interests. They spoke of something dense, definite, and carefully crafted, an inclusive form (as Richards wrote in Principles) that was protected from the reader’s irony by being itself ironic. A poem was a lyrical object as durable and admirable as a crystal. In this way Hulme prophesied the coming age of classical verse. It was true, they were employing classical metaphors to support Romantic-Symbolist ends. However, Hulme’s demand for ‘hard, dry verse’ was taken as the necessary antidote to the soft, wet emotionality of a prevailing taste in poetry and criticism. It was craft and the thing, as Pound insisted in 1914, but whether it was an objective or a subjective thing did not really make a difference.
Modernist art was obscure, ambiguous, allusive and, in Eliot’s prescriptive term, difficult. And the Richardsian method of language analysis — sense, tone, form, intention, attitude, irony — was developed in the 1920s to encounter obscurity, ambiguity and allusiveness. It also dealt with sentimentality, ‘sincerity’, stock responses and doctrine in poetry. Of course this was not the sole justification of the method, only its immediate historical context. The method aimed at clearing blockages in the communications of any writer, past or present. Since poets from the authors of Genesis and Homer onward are the master-manipulators of language, only by close reading could error be avoided or at any rate not counted against the poet. (Sometimes the stock responses were the poet’s own, were foisted upon the reader by tradition or bad teaching or both, and were expected to be relished by the reader.) The aim of the method as a whole was to come to terms with value.
A number of questions in an interview conducted in 1968 draw Richards out on the origins of his and Ogden’s account of two uses of language, the emotive and the referential. In their formulation, referential meant the language of expository prose; it conveyed knowledge; economy and clarity of the relation of word (or sign) to referent (or object) were essential. If the question ‘Is this true or false in the ordinary strict scientific sense?’ were relevant, then the language was referential. Emotive language was not concerned with ‘knowledge’ in this sense (‘It tells us, or should tell us, nothing’ — this was one of the odd notes for many readers of The Meaning of Meaning ). Emotive language was used to stimulate attitudes, certain states of awareness, interest and purpose. Besides these two uses, there is a further distinction into five functions which are present in varying degrees when language is used. ‘Most or all of these five “functions” are present’, explains T.C. Pollock, ‘in every language transaction, no matter what its “use”.’
1. Symbolize a reference (cause a thought of the referent)
2. Express an attitude toward a listener
3. Express an attitude toward the referent (what is thought of)
4. Intention of some sort promoted by the utterance
5. Manage the whole process with efficiency or ‘ease’
Almost immediately in subsequent books Richards pointed out difficulties in the original model. He modified and developed his thinking on the subject and concentrated on characterizing the linguistic functions and on analysing language in context. Emotive language to which little attention was paid in The Meaning of Meaning could be in the hands of poets the repository of our values. Communications of attitudes set in this language were ‘deeper than those with which references are concerned’, deeper in the sense depicted in the spring-mattress diagram of impulses, references and attitudes in Principles (p.116). Attitudes, like widely-flung nets, draw upon broad areas of our experience, organizing and bringing temporary equilibrium and stable poises. The method concerned the separation and paraphrase of the various functions (particularly with regard to metaphor) within the fluid stream of context. Since all the devices of language are as much the tools of propagandists as of poets (as Plato warned), part of the critic’s task was ethical judgement. I recall his once saying in a Clark Lecture that poetry was a very dangerous endeavour. One or two times I have felt he would take Plato’s side.
Many writers on Richardsian semantics gave rather less study to the later schema. It was specially unfortunate that the original formulation was sometimes branded as one between emotion and intelligence. Language does not divide into two uses, ‘but it has, in almost every utterance, different jobs to do together, and one contrast between these jobs may usefully be indicated by the pairs of words ‘‘emotive’’ — ‘‘descriptive’’; “influential’’ — ‘‘referential”.’ Six functions of language are elaborated in ‘Emotive Language Still’. There is nothing magical about the numbers. One may choose as many functions as one likes provided that each is given its properly defined work within the utterance. All jobs are in some way ‘in progress simultaneously, and interdependently, whenever we use language’. For this reason he notes affinities between his work and the recent formulation of Justus Buchler’s where exhibitive v. assertive judgement is similar to the emotive-influential v. descriptive-referential pairing.
Can emotive language, can poetry possess truth? Richards once made this defence to Middleton Murry: ‘that the experience is rare and desirable, important to us, that it meets deep needs in our nature. That it is to be accepted and integrated into the fabric of our personality as a positive determining influence (accepted for “true”?) . . . But this “adequacy as a guide to the experience concerned” is, I think, the only non-emotive use of “truth” which comes in here.’ In other words, poetic truth is tested through its ‘backwash effect’ upon us (the phrase is Richards’s) as it confirms, denies, strengthens or criticizes us. It is ultimately a matter of poetic faith — which leads us to another key area in Richards’s work.
3: Belief and Doctrine in Poetry
Advances in neurophysiology had contributed towards Richards’s early model of mental organization; a much longer tradition of philosophical psychology led to his studies on belief. Coleridge had taken up belief in the Biographia Literaria when he gave some conditions necessary for reading ‘The Ancient Mariner’: ‘a willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.’ It is a complex metaphor, not just faith, but poetic faith, and the singular state of suspension is that ‘unfixed and wavering’ moment of consciousness ‘more strictly appropriate to the imagination’. For Coleridge there was a pre-existent harmony between man, nature and spirit. And yet with all its supernatural reliances his poem made more claims on a reader’s credibility than those other poems ‘of things of every day’ by Wordsworth, and so he had to ask for some concession.
The pre-existent harmony had been lost for Arnold and George Eliot when the Higher Criticism of the Bible eroded the historical foundations for belief. For historicism is the great harbinger of relativism. In Literature and Dogma, for example, Arnold had to separate belief from what he termed extra-belief. In a transvaluation of language, belief became almost scientific: our conviction regarding ‘what can and should be known to be true’. Extra-belief, from the German Aberglaube, became belief ‘beyond what is certain and verifiable’ or ‘what is beyond the range of possible experience’; it is hope and anticipation, it is also conveyed by imaginative or mythic vision and should be wedded to moral awareness. Goethe was quoted on the crucial page from ‘Aberglaube Invading’: ‘Extra-belief is the poetry of life.’ Extra-belief could be dangerously misleading especially when taken for belief. Arnold left for the future to determine how poetry and eloquence might exercise the power of relating the results of natural (and social) science to our ‘instinct’ for conduct and beauty. ‘And here again I answer that I do not know how they will exercise it, but that they can and will exercise it lam sure.’
The work of James Ward and his student G.F. Stout were read at Cambridge by the young Richards. Both had mounted strenuous attacks on the passive consciousness of the British associational philosophers, though as one commentator remarked their own thinking is soaked in that tradition and their language proves it. The effort of Ward and Stout went towards ‘saving’ consciousness, towards a concept of active attention and conation, toward end-states and ‘attitudes of consciousness’. Richards has been sharply criticized for his early adoption of behaviourist psychology. But his early guides in psychology had long since qualified or repudiated the associational position and established a Kantian division between the empirical and transcendental ego in their own terms. ‘We know intellectually what we are as experiments’, writes Ward. ‘We may not observe consciousness, but we have it or are it (in some as yet undetermined sense)’, Richards remarks in a review of the behaviourist John Watson, ‘and in fact many of our observations of other things require it.’
The relation of Ward and Stout to Richards’s psychological model is difficult to assess; and what they offered would be superimposed on a model of the ‘final common path’ from the neurophysiology of Charles S. Sherrington. Ward’s noteworthy article on Psychology in the ninth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica in 1886 was the first time Psychology was granted a separate entry (the section it superseded by H. L. Mansel was placed under Metaphysics). When Ward finally published his Psychological Principles (1918), his ideas had long been diffused, challenged and themselves superseded by a wide variety of investigators. Ward had set down his argument for belief in a section of his book entitled ‘Faith and Moral Certainty’. He differentiates between belief in an ‘objective situation’ and faith in a ‘subjective attitude’. In the first instance ‘facts convince us, the seen and the actual hem us in’; in the second, ‘we — reaching beyond towards the ideally possible — create them.’ For me the use of ‘beyond’ in this context (as well as Arnold’s use of it to describe extra-belief) bears a close affinity to Richards’s choice of Beyond as the title for his recent humanistic study (1974). ‘Now we have from the first regarded experience’, Ward continues, ‘not as simply passively moulded by circumstances but as also actively shaped by our own endeavour towards self-conservation and betterment.’ We are given finally an ‘objective situation’ in the world and a ‘subjective attitude’ towards it ‘with all the moral ends and aspirations which that attitude implies’ and this gives rise to ‘religious faith in a transcendental Ideal, as Kant called it’.
As influential as Ward’s notions were to Richards, William James provided Richards with a pragmatic justification of belief. James did not contrast belief with disbelief, but with doubt. Belief and disbelief are both affirmed positions, cessations of intellectual activity; they are linked to a ‘preparedness to act’ as Bain had said. But doubt is theoretical activity, the deliberative mental state which precedes this readiness to act. Richards contrasts belief, not with doubt but with its artistic equivalent, ‘unfixed and wavering’ imagination. How may we read great poems whose fundamental world-pictures we cannot believe? To deny it as a problem or to expend one’s critical efforts on formalistic considerations alone is mere acquiescence. There is something ‘a little ridiculous, at least, in admiring only the rhythms and “word-harmonies” of an author who is writing about the salvation of his soul.’ The notion of taking up temporary belief, then dropping it, is also discredited, for there is something covered by the belief of major artists that is immensely important and not to be played with’. Richards wants to connect the import of those art-works with our own practical experience, with James’s ‘readiness to act as though it were so’ definition of belief. He finds that there is room within James’s definition for several kinds of belief, depending on the precise terms in which the results of the action are evaluated. This is the ‘backwash effect’ or ‘feedback’; very precise backwash of the scientific kind leads to verifiable belief. Here ‘readiness to act as if it were so’ involves clearly-defined junctures with actualities. But with philosophical, religious and poetic beliefs there are no precise junctures. What can be the relation between these beliefs and action, between poetry and the ‘readiness to act’?
Imaginative assent is the term fixed to that form of belief where the agreement with reality is ‘a matter of the development of thought, feeling, will and conduct in accordance with one picture of the world or another.’ We are in the area between the poetic effect on a conscience and ethical action:
But at no point will [imaginative assent] entail an act or an assertion sufficiently definite for actuality to test its truth or falsehood. Such belief, it is true, may be successful or unsuccessful and so be said to be tested by experience. But the success will be in ordering the growth of the personality or in aiding the good life.
This is positive, but cautious, and for some like Leavis, it was not enough. The tendency towards increased order is the value to which we apply our imaginative assent. In ‘Doctrine in Poetry’ from Practical Criticism, our obedience towards that tendency is sincerity’, and Richards adopts a notion from Confucius: ‘In hewing an axe-handle, the pattern is not far off.’ In this way we translate the communications of past writers whose doctrines and natural systems of thought have been otherwise superseded: We withhold our intellectual or verifiable belief. We offer our emotional belief or imaginative assent. The inner adjustments made in our consciousness by the communication, what is accepted and what rejected (for we are not passive acceptors of their communication, referential or emotive), the tendency and shaping of the will, such results from our contact with literature and the fine arts. The power of art is confirmed by its ‘adequacy as a guide’ for our endeavours.
4: Practical Criticism
In the end psychology did not prove to be as powerful an instrument as Richards may have hoped for, that third term capable of narrowing the cleavage between science and poetry. None the less psychology did provide a common critical language and enabled Richards to relate them both to action. The importance of this problem of belief is explored in his essays on Hopkins, Forster and Dostoevsky. Hopkins is found to be ‘cogged and cumbered’ by beliefs, and his intelligence fails to remould its materials sufficiently. His best poetry seems to be that in which he moves out from his theological circle and into conflict with life. Richards interprets the ambiguous ‘My heart in hiding’ from ‘The Windhover’ as in hiding from life and sheltered by faith. Just as plausibly the conflict might be between inner consciousness and outer striving (an example of the manner by which emotional belief is granted where the intellectual system no longer pertains). ‘The greater danger is that to which the moral hero is exposed.’ While the best poems hang on the tension between faith and danger, the reconciliation of opposites cannot come about. Hopkins is too willing to opt intellectually, if not emotionally, for the stoic acceptance of sacrifice. Saints and debauches, one recalls a Voltairean remark in Principles (pp. 52-3), are poorer models of equilibrium and harmony.
Hopkins very nearly made the link between contrasting states that would have developed a mental attitude instead of constricting one. The case of E. M. Forster is more problematical. In Howards End two aims conflict, the one a vague and half-mystical survival theme, the other a grim sociological thesis. The Schlegels represent the contemplative, imaginative aim; the Wilcoxes, the competent and practical. As with Hopkins, a dialectical unity cannot be obtained. What results is an emotional forcing and wrenching improbabilities in plot line. The two strains cannot be harmonized; the society of the Wilcoxes cannot find transcendental significance; the Schlegels the much-needed contact with the forces of the times. A sociological critic like Lukács would have said that Forster was being true to reality since British society in the Edwardian period did not allow for such ‘unity’ or ‘totality’.
Dostoevsky’s solution to the problem of belief is most successful. He acknowledged himself to be a ‘child of unbelief and scepticism’, and so is ripe for artistic transvaluation. And yet he is consumed by the desire to believe. The emotional dilemma he sustained in a ‘lifelong and appalling’ struggle, the stages of which are his major novels. In a digression Richards writes that matters of feeling and emotion have been too often remoulded to, misinterpreted as questions of thinking and subsequently have become rationalized as forms of intellectual belief. The knowledge of feeling comes in an immediate sense of clarity, serenity, and energy’. Perhaps psychology will in the future illuminate what is happening; for now we must rest content with something less than half-knowledge. The attempt to rationalize is seen as dangerous because these ‘beliefs’ have from age to age been overthrown, and we have attached to these beliefs what is most valuable, what is most worth preserving, the feelings. A definition of ‘unnatural’ as applied to beliefs is given: beliefs which ‘no longer spring from Man’s needs’. The Arnold of ‘The Study of Poetry’ is most in evidence here.
Three feelings, all ‘products of religion’ are spiritual pride or the sense of immortal destiny, nostalgia for the ultimate or love of God, and self-abasement or fear of God. Without their concomitant beliefs these feelings turn into destructive forces and Stavrogin serves as a limit. Richards ruminates on the then recently-published Confession of Stavrogin, found among the author’s papers, and so has an advantage in interpreting The Possessed not enjoyed by earlier commentators like Middleton Murry. Now Richards need not look upon Stavrogin’s experiments with individuals merely as tests of his conscious will, but as a reaction to his beliefs. Dostoevsky does not permit him to have a final conversion, effecting a solution that would be false with regard to his own deepest artistic belief. And so the decay of Stavrogin is left to go the limit, and the artist in Dostoevsky wins out over the prophet, the philosopher or the teacher. Any other path but Stavrogin’s death would have revealed impulses to edification, optimism, preaching a simpler attitude to the problem of salvation. As a thinker, Dostoevsky never could separate his quest for a way of life from his belief in the existence of God. ‘If God does not exist, then everything is permissible’ is an intellectual dilemma, a highly-charged ‘verbal ambiguity’; it belongs to Ivan and it is aesthetically appropriate. But as a larger matter of feeling in the whole of the novel, ‘the divine’ is a way of life, the supernal strategies of the mind, a system of values which reposes upon ‘our needs as social human beings’.
In the course of describing some of the interrelated themes of Richards’s criticism I do not pretend to have touched on a number of others: the concept of definition, change of meaning, translation and stylistics. The essay on Dostoevsky may serve, however, as a bridge to Richards’s more recent humanistic thought, expressed most notably in his Beyond (1974) and in the Clark Lectures of 1974 (‘Some Futures for Criticism’). He describes the contemplation of the character of Stavrogin in The Possessed, the shaping of the development of our response, as our being placed in the presence of beauty. We need not lose that word ‘beauty’ and it may be defined as the experiencing of an expansion to a fuller and more complete life even as Stavrogin’s is choked to nothingness. As a model for this growth Richards offers the testament of Dostoevsky himself who, late in his career, wrote that his only cure and refuge were art and creative activity. ‘For those who are less creative,’ Richards affirms, ‘the answer is the same.’ A way of life, a refuge and a cure present us with some of the symbols of a poetic faith.
We are left considering in these dilemmas — the humanistic counterpositions — whether artistic endeavour, the presence of beauty, the way of emotionalized thought, may become a religion. Once, the loss of traditional theological concepts precipitated the quest for the meaning of Meaning and a ‘secular equivalent for God’. Equi . . . valent: one may wonder whether art can provide the measure of rightdoing and wrongdoing, that ‘universal legislation’ that was the legacy of the greater Romantic poets and thinkers. I am left in a state of doubt, and the will to doubt, but I would hope it is honest doubt. Richards refers to this quest (and question) as ‘ our chief mystery’ and reflects on the modes by which personal ‘reflections’ on the subject mirror themselves; re-flection, when its Latin roots are uncovered, is seen as a lively metaphor for the very process. One could apply the same technique to religion. Some ancient scholars found its etymology to be crossed between a word for bond (as a communal bond) and words for a ‘re-reading’ (as of the texts of a pontifex). In an essay on Marcus Aurelius, Arnold gave to religious feeling, to inspiration, to the sublime in poetry, that special power to light up morality, to supply a necessary spiritual quality ‘in those ages most especially that walk by sight, not by faith, but yet have no open vision.’ That last phrase, but yet have . . . , witholds much from us and is as applicable to our time certainly as it was for Arnold’s, but he concluded his essay on Virgil’s longing note — ‘tendentemque manus ripae ulterioris amore’.
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Grosseteste Review
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
- Painted, spoken
- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review, The
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
- Poetry Wales
- Private Tutor
- Purple Patch
- Rain Dog
- Reach Poetry
- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
- Strange Faeces
- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
- Wolf, The
- Yellow Crane, The