100 Books to Maketh A Woman no 9 ‘Practical Criticism’ by I.A.Richards

The art of knowing where we are wherever, as mental travellers, we may go is the main subject of the book…

I’ve been reading what is – or was – in academic literary circles, an extremely  well-known book, I.A. Richards’ Practical Criticism and discovering that it is one of the books that has shaped me. This is where some of the ideas I solidified into ‘Get Into Reading’ originated and so I’m reading and  laughing in recognition of this text-based DNA like someone meeting a long-lost long-longed-for relative: so this is where it came from, that concentration on the words of the text itself, that sense of entering, inhabiting the text.

I’ve never read it before and yet it’s a key life text for me, its ideas are in me, are part of me.

This is one of the powers books have – the power of holding and spreading ideas, and they do it in symbiosis with people.  I was influenced by people who were influenced by this book.

I’m remembering two teachers : Ken Moss was Head of English at Liverpool Community College when I did A levels there in the late 1970’s, and his Practical Criticism class was my favourite thing in the college week. Tony Barley taught me on Practice of Criticism when I was first year undergraduate in the School of English at Liverpool – 2.00pm on Thursdays. What I was learning in both these classes, with engaged, enthusiastic teachers, was how to read, how to concentrate on and creatively enter a text.

They were two very different men but they shared a practice. And yet the practice, though rigorous, allowed flex room for individuality. There was nothing doctrinaire about it, and that was what I loved. It was real and happening now, it was responsive, alive. It did not feel like a ‘lesson’, though there were moments in both classes where I knew I was learning, and sometimes when I knew I was being taught. ‘Being taught’ is pretty much out of fashion now as a pedagogical idea but anyone who has been taught, when they wanted to learn, by a master or mistress of an art or science, will know that it is  one of the deepest and  most powerful human experiences, possibly on a par with  love or the existence of a new baby.

Certainly in Ken Moss’s or Tony Barley’s class, something like magic would happen. You began with marks on a page and ended with a lived experience. The poems (it was usually, but not always, poems we read) expanded under our concentrated gaze, came alive, filled the room and my headspace. I can remember where I was sitting in the classroom when I read my first Shakespeare Sonnet with Ken Moss, ‘They that have the power to hurt and will do none’, Sonnet 94:

They that have power to hurt, and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow;
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces,
And husband nature’s riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others, but stewards of their excellence.
The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet,
Though to itself, it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester, smell far worse than weeds.

We spent two hours as a class working our way through – or into – the poem. It’s a complex, shifting, mental, emotional model of being uncertain about someone else. Is this person  hurting (going to hurt) me? You can’t paraphrase it because it keeps moving, as our thoughts do. You have to enter it and  experience those  mental twists and turns. At the end of the class I knew I had had an experience that had changed the lights for me. That there could be so much in fourteen lines and that I could have  been part of  the process that  dug it all out!  It was like falling in love –  I  wanted to read and read more poems in this way. Luckily, as well as  our weekly Practical Criticism sessions, Ken was also teaching us to read Hopkins’  The Wreck of The Deutschland and Shakespeare’s King Lear. That year of study for A level was one of the most intellectually joyful and exhilarating of my life.

I never thought of this close reading process, as some people did, as ‘tearing it apart’. That seemed far too destructive a metaphor for what we were doing. We were investigating it, yes, putting it under some sort of microscope but we didn’t have to destroy it to do that, on the contrary, though we didn’t have the technical equipment to provide the metaphor in the 1970’s, it was more like what we now know as whole body scanning. It always offended me when people called it ‘tearing it apart’.  For we were actually building up. It was a process I’d liken more to making music – there is technique, and that’s vital, and you do break  pieces down, and rehearse them over and over, until you’ve got it, but only ever as part of a bigger building up process. We had to get inside the lived experience of the  poem itself. We had to be it. Reading like this was always a creative process, a new making.

I realise as I write that I am hitting up against  a perennial difficulty for us in The Reader Organisation: the problem of trying to describe what happens when people experience a Get Into Reading group. It’s like, as poet Les Murray says of poetry, like sex. Hard to define, and  covering a very large spectrum, but you know it whenever you experience it.

But to return to I.A.Richards. When this book was first published in 1929, very few people read English at University, and most of those few were very well-educated public school pupils. Richards conducted a series of experiments, asking  those who attended his Cambridge lectures to read and then write about a selection of poems about which they knew nothing (neither the author nor historical context – they had  no context, only the poem). Without reputation or history, most of the respondents foundered, and in a way that I found (as someone who taught University level Practical Criticism in the 1980’s) amazingly familiar. But that  is not the big interesting thing about Richards’ book. No, the big thing  is his overpowering  sense of the value and underestimated importance of response to poetry.

In the Introduction he writes;

My second aim is more ambitious and requires more explanation. It forms part of a general attempt to modify our  procedure in certain forms of discussion. There are subjects – mathematics, physics and the descriptive sciences supply some of them – which can be discussed in terms of verifiable facts and hypotheses. There are other subjects – the concrete affairs of commerce, law organisation and police work – which can be handled by rules of thumb and generally accepted conventions. But in between is the vast corpus of problems, assumptions, adumbrations, fictions, prejudices, tenets; the sphere of random beliefs and hopeful guesses; the whole world, in brief of abstract opinion and disputation about matters of feeling. To this world belongs everything about which  civilised man cares most. I need only instance ethics, metaphysics,morals, religion, aesthetics, and the discussions surrounding liberty, nationality, justice, love, truth, faith and knowledge to make this plain. As a subject-matter for discussion, poetry is a central and typical denizen of this world. it is so both by its own nature and by the type of  discussion with which it is traditionally associated. It serves,therefore, as an eminently suitable bait for anyone who wishes to trap the current opinions and responses in this middle field for the purpose of examining and comparing them, and with a view to advancing our knowledge of what may be called the natural history of human opinions and feelings.

I was knocked out by that wonderful list – the vast corpus of the  middle ground between the facts of science and the rules of thumb of practical experience. That body is the body of what we ‘think’ but that verb – as Richards’ list shows! – is far too small for all the human activity that goes on under its name. It is, in fact, our inner life, and  those parts of it we are willing or able to share with others. Poetry gives us access to  and language for this sphere in a way that little else does.

The other big thing that Richards’ begins to do is to make the connection with psychology. In discussing the writings of the students ( he terms these writings ‘protocols’ maybe using the word in the sense of ‘draft’ ) he begins to see that people, their personality, their experience – cannot be  separated from their reading. (Of course they can be separated, if you make reading, as so often in formal literary learning, a formality. Set up hoops and watch the students jump. But here, because students were thrown back upon themselves, they had no  professional equipment with which to disguise themselves, and so can only -mostly- read as people) This personalisation is the beginning of a new field on intellectual inquiry, Richards guesses;

The indispensable instrument for this inquiry is psychology. I am anxious to meet as far as may be the objection that may be brought by some psychologists, and these the best, that the protocols do not supply enough evidence for us really to be able to make out the motives of the writers and that therefore the whole investigation is superficial. But the beginning of every research ought to be superficial, and to find something to investigate that is accessible and detachable is one of the chief difficulties of psychology, I believe the chief merit of the experi- ment here made is that it gives us this. Had I wished to plumb the depths of these writers’ Unconscious, where I am quite willing to agree the real motives of their likings and dislikings would be found, I should have devised something like a branch of psychoanalytic technique for the purpose. But it was clear that little progress would be made if we attempted to drag too deep a plough. However, even as it is, enough strange material is turned up.

His motive is literary and pedagogical, not psychological or psychoanalytic, but  he rightly wants to make a strong a connection between the two modes of inquiry. ‘Literature’ is never just an aesthetic thing in itself. Besides, I think, Richards is arguing for  literature, particularly poetry and our responses to it, as way of understanding what it is to be a human being.

Navigation, in fact the art of knowing where we are wherever, as mental travellers, we may go is the main subject of the book. To discuss poetry and the ways in which it may be approached, appreciated and judged is, of course, its prime purpose. But poetry itself is a mode of communication. What it communicates and how it does so and the worth of what is communicated form the subject-matter of criticism. It follows that criticism itself is very largely, though not wholly, an exercise in navigation. It is all the more surprising then that no treatise on the art and science of intellectual and emotional navigation has yet been written ; for logic, which might appear to cover part of this field, in actuality hardly touches it. That the one and only goal of all critical endeavours, of all interpretation, appreciation, exhortation, praise or abuse, is improvement in communication may seem an exaggeration. But in practice it is so. The whole apparatus of critical rules and principles is a means to the attainment of finer, more precise, more discriminating communication. There is, it is true, a valuation side to criticism. When we have solved, completely, the communication problem, when we have got, perfectly, the experience, the mental condition relevant to the poem, we have still to judge it, still to decide upon its worth. But the later question nearly always settles itself ; or rather, our own inmost nature and the nature of the world in which we live decide it for us. Our prime endeavour must be to get the relevant mental condition and then see what happens. If we cannot then decide whether it is good or bad, it is doubtful whether any principles, however refined and subtle, can help us much. Without the capacity to get the experience they cannot help us at all. This is still clearer if we consider the use of critical maxims in teaching. Value cannot be demonstrated except through the communication of what is valuable.

In 1929, under the influence still of Matthew Arnold, literary criticism felt much if its task was to judge whether something was good or bad. The protocols are funniest when the writers take on this task with only their straight faces to cover their ignorance. (Thus one very self-assured reader writes, “The impression received was one of the self-satisfaction of the author (I do not say ” poet “) : a spinster devoted to good works, and sentimentally inclined, or perhaps Wordsworth.”). That fashion is less overtly with us these days and anyway is based on different ideas of what ‘good’ might  be. But it seems to me that  our first act as a reader is still too often to judge: much of what we practice in Get Into Reading is the patience of holding off, waiting, reading a bit more. Learning to read more slowly is learning to read more fully. Richards’ sense of the necessity for this fullness in the face of an acceleratingly developing technical world is powerfully apposite to our current situation and fantastically useful reminder of why, humanly,  literature matters.

Not that anyone who has been reading this blog would need such a reminder. But there are very few of  you! That a book like this should be languishing so totally out of fashion, almost utterly unused, unbuilt-upon is a  dire indictment of the state of English Literature.

You can glance at it here but I’d advise getting hold of a paper copy. Read it and let’s meet sometime, somewhere, to discuss it. It is a manifesto of sorts. And god knows, we need one.

The economy, human feeling and the cost/value of ‘English’

Ex-banker and Fund Management guru Nicola Horlick,  famous for being Director of a city bank at 28, has been featured in an article in The Times Magazine (12.05.12), under the heading ‘What I’ve Learnt.’ Nicola is about to open a restaurant, Georgina’s, in remembrance of her daughter Georgina, who died of leukaemia in 1998, aged 12.

I’m no fan of celebrity gossip but I had been mildly interested in Nicola Horlick for years because it seemed she had broken through one of the glass ceilings, and because she’d done it while having six children. All right, I know, incredibly privileged background, very wealthy, nannies etc., etc., but we all need models and she’d been spectacularly successful in a very male world and so I’d been mildly interested. Would I have bought a biography of her? No. Would I stop to read a short article in the magazine while having my morning coffee? Yes. Especially under the heading ‘What I’ve Learnt’ because I am interested in what anybody thinks are the major lessons of life. Nicola says,

I don’t need or want a lot of the money I’ve made. Throughout my career, I’ve given away about 25 per cent of everything I make. It’s very important to help others. The reason my daughter survived for ten years after she was diagnosed with leukaemia was because of all the work other people had done supporting medical charities.

I’m immediately thinking, could NH become one of The Reader Organisation’s philanthropists? One or two people have given us large sums of money which we have spent on – for example – our Apprentice for Life programme.  I’m thinking 25% is quite a lot to give away. And selfishly, I’m thinking, she won’t want to give it to The Reader because it will all be going to cancer charities. (Which is, of course, a good thing, but  ‘good’ is so difficult to see clearly in such a multidimensional world. All the same, I have to acknowledge 25% is good, better than I manage, wherever it goes).

I’m also wondering if NH is a Christian, because not many people give away about 25% of what they earn. And behind that, I’m fleetingly wondering if she is a Christian, what do Christians think about making money out of money, but that’s a thought I have to pass over quickly. It might make me go mad. The place where ideals and the world meet is a tough and complex junction.

I’ll work till I drop. What I do interests me too much…I’m incapable of sitting still. I can’t go on beach holidays or watch TV without doing Sudoku or knitting.

I like this and feel for her non-stop liveliness. Life’s very short. Don’t waste it watching TV. If watching, knit. Sew. Sudoku. If on beach read, swim.

And then comes the killer,

I’m quite negative about the UK economy. The fixes are very long term – they’re about educating people properly and encouraging them to do the right kind of degree so we can go out and compete in the world – which means more maths and science and less English and media studies. If I were in charge, I’d bring in a fee system where you paid £3,000 a year to study engineering and £15,000 a year to do English.

Because of my anomalous position (outside the world of academic English, a teacher dedicated to getting people to read great books and to making sure everyone understands the human value of Shakespeare, The Divine Comedy and George Eliot) I read this last couple of sentences in a sweat. She’s right! We’re wasting our money on English! We need people who invent things, people who can make stuff, we need practical visionaries!

My unconscious picks up the refrain and I dream about someone physically making books, then wake at 6.05 a.m. with Nicola’s remarks about ‘English’ still in my mind. Her assumption is that while there is an economic value in Engineering, there is none in English. So go ahead, pay £15,000 for a self-indulgent 3 years of me-time if you’ve got the money. But the country, the economy, needs engineers, they make things happen. They make money. But Nicola, we have to ask, is more money what we want our economy to produce? You say yourself you don’t need or want all you’ve earned. Why can’t we begin to think about ‘the economy’ differently? I am an entrepreneur who has built a Social Enterprise, employing 60+ people, turning over £1m+, out of ‘English’. Out of, essentially, an idea. The idea? The stuff in ‘English’ is humanly valuable and we’re currently wasting it.

In the same issue of The Times Magazine there is an article by Rhys Blakely about Stanford University, there on the edge of the future, at Silicon Valley (‘They call it the billionaire factory: welcome to Silicon Valley’s feeder school’). So what are the brightest, richest people of the world studying at Stanford? More than 25% of undergraduates are studying Engineering, and more than half its graduate students. And alongside Engineering? Entrepreneurship. But is this taking us where we want to go? Blakely writes,

A scathing critique has come from Peter Thiel, the contrarian tech investor who made a fortune out of PayPal and was the first outsider to back Facebook. Thiel studied at Stanford and occasionally teaches there, but his venture capital firm, Founders Fund, has published an arch online manifesto with the subtitle, ‘We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” He believes the tech boom has delivered plenty of dinky gadgets but no solution to America’s job crisis; no silver bullet for climate change; no answer to global poverty; no cure for cancer. His conclusion? “You have dizzying change where there is no progress.”

As the great SF writers have always known, we ain’t going to solve the world’s problems through technology: read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 this week. It is about our world and why humanity ought to be taught in every department of every University, and why the way to do that is to get people to read books. The text you need alongside 451 is Wendell Berry’s essay ‘The Loss of the University’ (Standing on Earth, Golgonooza Press 1991). Read it and weep. No – rather, read it and sign up for the educational revolution. Berry asserts that ‘the thing being made in a University is humanity …responsible heirs and members of human culture.’

And he goes further,

The common denominator has to be larger than either career preparation or preparation for citizenship. Underlying the idea of a university – the bringing together, the combining into one, of all the disciplines – is the idea that good work and good citizenship are the inevitable by-products of making a good – that is, a fully developed – human being.

I reread Nicola Horlick’s article and think, her sense of the problem is right: we need people who can reinvent the economy, creative, practical thinkers. But she is wrong in that despite saying education is the long-term fix, she is too short-sighted. If ‘the economy’ is to survive we also need creative practical thinkers who can envisage a world economy based on human needs. Those people won’t necessarily come through cheap engineering courses. We need thinkers who can work across and between subject boundaries, blurring their career paths, to see the much bigger, world-sized, picture, people who can think  about the micro-level too, about what all this means for struggling individual lives. Read George Eliot’s Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda to experience a really bright human doing just that.

I realise it’s not really Nicola I am mad at: it’s ‘English’. Because ‘creative thinkers’ could be got from ‘English’. The whole point of ‘English’ (which I’d prefer to call ‘literature’) is to get an education which connects your mind with all the greatest minds of the past. What happens after that?  You apply your now expanded mind to various problems – to the ecological problems involved running Marks and Spencer, to be human cost  involved in running an efficient Fire Service or to the complex balancings required of the CEO of an NHS Trust, to the ethics of running a bank, running a country.

But ‘English’ doesn’t recognise any of that. ‘English’ for all the years I have been involved in my love-hate relationship with it, has snootily cocked it’s nose in the air and claimed to have nothing to do with anything practical (that’s for the new universities, surely?). It is enough that there should Professors professing, students being taught to regurgitate the opinions of said professors’ pointless books, as if the academic discipline itself were the subject. As if the sports pages were the sport. No, no, no. But let me not be mad.

Wendell Berry says this in a much more measured way than I can manage,

Our language and literature cease to be seen as occurring in the world, and begin to be seen as occurring within their university department and within themselves. Literature ceases to be the meeting ground of all readers of the common tongue and becomes only the occasion of a deafening clatter about literature. Teachers and students read the great songs and stories to learn about them, not to learn from them. The texts are tracked as by the passing of an army of ants, but the power of the songs and stories to affect life is still little acknowledged, apparently because it is little felt.

When did you last hear someone in an English department talk about feelings?  Literature is real and practical. It is something we do, not something to be studied at a distance, and it is something to be done with our more of our human liveliness at work than in any other discipline. I’m so mad at ‘English’ for not living up to this, for not having self-belief. Fancy allowing yourself to become completely worthless!

So much to be done, so little time to do it in. As Nicola says, the first step is education. That is why I set up The Reader Organisation, to get great books out of the university and into the hands of people who need them.

But now I am starting to think we must go much, much further. We have got to re-think public education and make it new, make it better. Remember John Holt? Read Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine. Hear Frank Cottrell Boyce talk about pleasure as the deepest form of human attention (Inaugural Professorial Lecture at Liverpool Hope University, May 2012, to be published in The Reader magazine). We need an educational revolution to bring this about, because our broken modelled-on-factories schools, working en masse, with children going through the machine, can’t do it. Tinkering with the system isn’t going to do it. Education is personal and it must be personal or it isn’t education. That is why I want to set up a school. That is why I am looking for a philanthropist to back it.

(Above: Chester, 9 months, with a book. He’s just as interested in books as he is with building blocks, practical engineering, dust, animals, people, the washing machine, food…)

If we got genuine education right in schools many people would go into Engineering. (And they would go into dance and heart-surgery and city planning and transport and molecular biology and cancer research, too.) They would not be afraid of the gorgeous satisfaction of hard deep engaging work, work of the sort Nicola enjoys, and which I count as one of the three great pleasures of being human (food, sex, and work and not necessarily in that order). If we got basic education right, there would be no need to control it with price fixing, as Nicola suggests; it would self-regulate. And along with al the other useful, important areas of work, some students would go into Literature. There they would read and wonder and be moved by texts such as Dickens’ Dombey and Son.  Later, these students of literature would, as readers, take that great novel into City boardroom reading sessions, where our future bankers (because even in the new Jerusalem we’re going to need someone to mind the money) will remember the great example of Nicola Horlick who broke the glass ceiling in a male world but said,

‘A child dying is the worst thing that can happen to you. You can never recover. The distance of time only increases the pain. It’s a strange feeling moving on, when they’re stuck there, frozen in time.’

Nicola, that most serious part of life is the business of literature. Read The Winter’s Tale, and see how the loss of Perdita and Mamillius scar their parents. Or read  Dombey and Son, it isn’t about you, but it will certainly be about some parts of life you know, for the pain of losing a child is a big part of its subject. As is being a very successful business person, and the difficult relation between business and family. Here is young Paul, (the ‘Son’ of the book’s title) very ill, preparing to leave his boarding school, and thinking of the spaces and gaps that will be left when he is gone. Being ill, he is no longer required to attend lessons, and thus is free to think.

Having nothing to learn now, he thought of this frequently; though not so often as he might have done, if he had had fewer things to think of. But he had a great many; and was always thinking, all day long.

First, there was Florence coming to the party. Florence would see that the boys were fond of him; and that would make her happy. This was his great theme. Let Florence once be sure that they were gentle and good to him, and that he had become a little favourite among them, and then the would always think of the time he had passed there, without being very sorry. Florence might be all the happier too for that, perhaps, when he came back.

When he came back! Fifty times a day, his noiseless little feet went up the stairs to his own room, as he collected every book, and scrap, and trifle that belonged to him, and put them all together there, down to the minutest thing, for taking home! There was no shade of coming back on little Paul; no preparation for it, or other reference to it, grew out of anything he thought or did, except this slight one in connexion with his sister. On the contrary, he had to think of everything familiar to him, in his contemplative moods and in his wanderings about the house, as being to be parted with; and hence the many things he had to think of, all day long.

He had to peep into those rooms upstairs, and think how solitary they would be when he was gone, and wonder through how many silent days, weeks, months, and years, they would continue just as grave and undisturbed. He had to think—would any other child (old-fashioned, like himself) stray there at any time, to whom the same grotesque distortions of pattern and furniture would manifest themselves; and would anybody tell that boy of little Dombey, who had been there once? He had to think of a portrait on the stairs, which always looked earnestly after him as he went away, eyeing it over his shoulder; and which, when he passed it in the company of anyone, still seemed to gaze at him, and not at his companion. He had much to think of, in association with a print that hung up in another place, where, in the centre of a wondering group, one figure that he knew, a figure with a light about its head—benignant, mild, and merciful—stood pointing upward.

At his own bedroom window, there were crowds of thoughts that mixed with these, and came on, one upon another, like the rolling waves. Where those wild birds lived, that were always hovering out at sea in troubled weather; where the clouds rose and first began; whence the wind issued on its rushing flight, and where it stopped; whether the spot where he and Florence had so often sat, and watched, and talked about these things, could ever be exactly as it used to be without them; whether it could ever be the same to Florence, if he were in some distant place, and she were sitting there alone.

He had to think, too, of Mr Toots, and Mr Feeder, B.A., of all the boys; and of Doctor Blimber, Mrs Blimber, and Miss Blimber; of home, and of his aunt and Miss Tox; of his father; Dombey and Son, Walter with the poor old Uncle who had got the money he wanted, and that gruff-voiced Captain with the iron hand. Besides all this, he had a number of little visits to pay, in the course of the day; to the schoolroom, to Doctor Blimber’s study, to Mrs Blimber’s private apartment, to Miss Blimber’s, and to the dog. For he was free of the whole house now, to range it as he chose; and, in his desire to part with everybody on affectionate terms, he attended, in his way, to them all. Sometimes he found places in books for Briggs, who was always losing them; sometimes he looked up words in dictionaries for other young gentlemen who were in extremity; sometimes he held skeins of silk for Mrs Blimber to wind; sometimes he put Cornelia’s desk to rights; sometimes he would even creep into the Doctor’s study, and, sitting on the carpet near his learned feet, turn the globes softly, and go round the world, or take a flight among the far-off stars.

In those days immediately before the holidays, in short, when the other young gentlemen were labouring for dear life through a general resumption of the studies of the whole half-year, Paul was such a privileged pupil as had never been seen in that house before. He could hardly believe it himself; but his liberty lasted from hour to hour, and from day to day; and little Dombey was caressed by everyone. Doctor Blimber was so particular about him, that he requested Johnson to retire from the dinner-table one day, for having thoughtlessly spoken to him as ‘poor little Dombey;’ which Paul thought rather hard and severe, though he had flushed at the moment, and wondered why Johnson should pity him. It was the more questionable justice, Paul thought, in the Doctor, from his having certainly overheard that great authority give his assent on the previous evening, to the proposition (stated by Mrs Blimber) that poor dear little Dombey was more old-fashioned than ever. And now it was that Paul began to think it must surely be old-fashioned to be very thin, and light, and easily tired, and soon disposed to lie down anywhere and rest; for he couldn’t help feeling that these were more and more his habits every day.

Read Dombey and Son here.

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