Originally published in Eliot’s own literary review, the Criterion, and later collected in Selected Essays in 1932, “The Function of Criticism,” along with “The Frontiers of Criticism” (1956) and “To Criticize the Critic” (1961), provides a cogent commentary on what Eliot sees to be the purpose of literary criticism, as opposed to its application to individual texts and authors or as a platform for mounting assaults on contemporary social and cultural issues. As such, the three essays, taken separately or regarded as a whole, map the development of Eliot’s ideas regarding the benefit of criticism to literary production and, more important, to reader receptivity to literary values. In the process, of course, Eliot also defines what he takes to be a correct critical method. Eliot, however, was never wont to compartmentalize the purely literary from other social and even political concerns, so the unwary reader of “The Function of Criticism” may quickly wonder what is going on.
After a measured and carefully considered opening, in which Eliot takes pains to define the critical process as it is distinguished from the creative, he suddenly launches into several pages of splenetic raillery against the critic J. Middleton Murry, whom he presents as the exemplar of the enemy camp. If it were a battle in the present culture wars, Murry and his ilk would be stylized as liberals; Eliot, in keeping with the epithets of his time, calls them Whigs. These critics adhere to the free-wheeling principles of the spirit of romanticism, with its anything- goes mentality, and are therefore opposed to its perceived nemesis, classicism, and that movement’s religious manifestation, Catholicism, with their interest in preserving the status quo for the sake of protecting traditional values and models of behavior and social propriety.
In 1923, when the essay was written, it was still some five to 10 years before Eliot’s famous declaration that he was a Catholic, a classicist, and a royalist in faith, taste, and politics. At virtually any time in modern history, those are all conservative postures to assume. Yet already here is Eliot, in the shadow of his radical modernist iconoclasm that had just the year before produced The Waste Land, attacking those who listen to the “Inner Voice” of romanticism and moral disorder, whom he caricatures as marching under the intellectual banner of “Muddle Through,” and he is doing so with the same restrained passion that he will bring to bear some 10 years and life-altering religious experiences later in After Strange Gods (1934). That later work would embarrass even Eliot for being perhaps too partisan in finding fault with those who did not agree with his own aesthetic and moral positions, which he himself perceived as traditionalist and conservative.
Fortunately, in this earlier essay, Eliot makes it clear in logical rather than merely rhetorical terms why he believes that the sloppiness of thought and feeling associated with romanticism—that love affair with the Inner Voice—does not lend itself to criticism, and such clarity of intent continues to form a great part of the essay’s value as a critical document. “Those who obey the inner voice.” Eliot contends, returning to his original topic, the function of criticism, “will not be interested in the attempt to find any common principles for the pursuit of criticism. Why have principles,” he asks, only partially tongue in cheek, “when one has the inner voice?”
Earlier in the essay, to establish the basic principle that criticism, in a literary context, entails “the elucidation of works of art and the correction of tastes,” Eliot had referred to the 19th-century English poet and critic MATTHEW ARNOLD. In 1851, in the landmark essay “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time,” a title Eliot’s title no doubt intentionally echoes, Arnold had hoped to give English literary criticism a more authentic intellectual pedigree, and he argued for basing criticism on principles drawn from observing an alternating cultural dynamic that required periods of objective critical analysis as much as periods of unbridled creative effort.
Now Eliot dares to modify Arnold’s original position in order to establish why he feels that those who rely on the inner voice of intuitive reactions to both the creative impulse and the critical response cannot possibly produce either an adequate critical literature or critical method. Arnold, Eliot claims, missed the point by separating the creative and the critical into two complementary but nevertheless different faculties. The creative writer, in Eliot’s view, is equally as engaged in a critical as a creative process as he or she composes, particularly if the writer is one who, like the classicists Eliot defends, does not rely on the “Inner Voice” but on the guidance of long-standing traditions and carefully considered poetic and aesthetic standards of both a technical and a thematic nature in the act of selecting and discarding the materials that eventually constitute the poem. Conversely, Eliot proposes, the opposite must be true as well. “If so large a part of creation is really criticism,” it follows that “a large part of what is called ‘critical writing’ [is] really creative.”
Its creativity, however, is necessarily derived from an intense interaction with the creative work with which it is engaged, and that enagement cannot take place unless a critic has a “very highly developed sense of fact.” This respect for the externals of the creative process, as it were, cannot possibly accompany an attitude toward creative endeavors that makes of them inviolable utterances inspired not by tradition or technical virtuosities but by attending on the amorphous guidance provided by an inner voice and a muddle-through approach.
Comparison and analysis rather than responding with how one feels are the critic’s “chief tools,” Eliot says, but one then has to know what to compare and what to analyze. There processes of interpretation come into play, but they must be guided facts, as he calls them, that are then put into the reader’s possession. The result may seem “arid, technical, and limited,” Eliot readily admits, but it is, in his view, the only kind of criticism that can lay true claim to being such—in his definition, the elucidation of texts and the correction of tastes. Such a criticism, he admits, may make readers more interested in reading critical texts rather than the primary sources, the poems and novels and plays. Still, Eliot asserts that facts cannot corrupt taste, although opinion can.
Overall, and from the vantage point of nearly a century of further refinements in critical theory later, Eliot may seem to be doing little more than arguing in favor of carefully balanced, informed readings of a text, even when such a reading may seem to be cold and detached. His definition of criticism contrasted the impassioned gushings of a literary impressionism that had dominated what passed for literary criticism for much of the 19th century, against which Arnold had proposed his own analyses of the cultural dynamics represented by the creative and critical impulses.
To read Eliot’s position in that way, however, misses the pointed attack on some contemporary critical strategies that he had felt free enough to disparage with an intellectual vigor in the earlier pages of his essay. Eliot had begun with a favorable allusion to his earlier, celebrated essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” implying that the present essay would elaborate on principles first enunciated there. In “The Function of Criticism,” too, after everything is said and done, Eliot is ultimately asserting the primacy of tradition over individual tastes and practices, of objective judgment over subjective responses, and of the whole over the part.
This abhorrence of his for the notion that the self is the final arbiter of all values and valid judgments eventually led him to embrace ultimate tradition in the Catholic Christian foundation of the Anglo-American culture that bred him. Ironically enough, this same foundation, with its emphasis on the sacrosanct relationship between each soul and its creator, had also bred the profound respect for the individual as the court of last resort in matters of aesthetic, moral, ethical, and spritual judgments of which Eliot himself seemed to be more and more mistrustful the more his own creative and critical instincts and talents matured.
In essence, Eliot casts his vote in favor of a critical methodology that relies on judging a work’s relative merits in terms of generally accepted standards of taste and technical virtuosity rather than on the basis of one’s individual taste and opinions. Never an intellectual purist, Eliot realizes that that may often mean finding great merit in a work that flies in the face of current practices, and minimal merit in one that does little more than repeat past performances. But that is not what is at issue here. Rather it is that both works have been judged in relatively objectified terms, not according to the vagaries of the critic’s personal fancies, however “tasteful” they may appear to be. In the same way, Eliot will gradually ally himself with belief systems and political ideologies that mitigate personal preferences for the sake of enduring foundational values.
It is this seamless nature of Eliot’s intellectual approach to contemporary concerns that makes him such an interesting thinker. Whether one agrees with his positions or not, he enlarges on them, refining and extending them into all corners of his individual interests, the spiritual and moral as well as aesthetic and critical, without ever altering his essential belief in conforming oneself to the overriding and underlying social and cultural structures and strictures out of which human values emerge. As the decades continued, ideas on the value of order and tradition only vaguely expressed in an essay such as “The Function of Criticism” became more and more integral elements in his poetry and criticism and eventually plays.