Practical Criticism

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by Joshua Gang


IA Richards’ Practical Criticism: A Study of Literary Judgment, published in 1929, comprised something of a departure from Richards’ earlier pieces of literary theory, including The Meaning of Meaning (1923, with C.K. Ogden) and Principles of Literary Criticism (1926). Where these earlier works were concerned with more hypothetical examples of interpretation, Richards wanted Practical Criticism to focus on actual readings done by actual readers. Practical Criticism, Richards wrote, was “the record of a piece of field-work in comparative ideology."[1] Such field-work had three goals:

First, to introduce a new kind of documentation to those who are interested in the contemporary state of culture…Secondly, to provide a new technique for those who wish to discover for themselves what they think and feel about poetry…Thirdly, to prepare the way for education methods more efficient than those we use now…to understand what we hear and read. (3)

The method Richards employed to achieve these goals was fairly straightforward but unprecedented in literary criticism: Richards would present to his seminar of undergraduates at Cambridge thirteen poems wholly stripped of any identifying marks and then examine the ways his students interpreted these decontextualized texts. Richards hope was to move literary criticism away from historical and psychological studies of authors and reconvene it around the cognitive processes of “the general reader.” Practical Criticism was a catalogue of these readers’ interpretations, along with Richards’ comments about their interpretations and conclusions about his study’s findings. After reading the “stock responses” and “doctrinal adhesions” of his students, Richards claimed that most readers were unable to discuss their reactions to poetry with any objectivity or clarity. But the problem, he argued, lay not in the poems themselves but in “our feebleness in introspection and our ignorance of the general nature of feelings" (208). The solution to this problem, Richards concluded, was a psychology that would “ignore none of the facts and yet demolish none of the values that human experience has shown to be necessary. An account of poetry will be a pivotal point in such a psychology" (304).


Also included were four appendices. The first two appendices offered further comments about the nature of poetic language and interpretation. The third appendix presented identifications of the thirteen poems that Richards distributed while the fourth appendix comprised the full texts of these poems, though with any identifying marks once again removed. The thirteen poems were: an excerpt from Phillip Bailey’s Festus; Christina Rossetti’s “Spring Quiet”; John Donne’s “Holy Sonnet VII”; an excerpt from G.A. Studdert Kennedy’s More Rough Rhymes of a Padre; an excerpt from Edna St Vincent Millay’s The Harp Weaver; Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Spring and Fall, to a young child”; J.D. Pellew’s “The Temple”; D.H. Lawrence’s “Piano”; Alfred Noyes’ “For the Eightieth Birthday of George Meredith”; an untitled poem by G.H. Luce; Thomas Hardy’s “George Meredith (1828-1909)”; an excerpt from Wilfred Rowland Childe’s Ivory Palaces; and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “In the Churchyard at Cambridge.”


Richards’ approach in Practical Criticism proved to be enormously influential—not just in its methodological approach (New Criticism’s close reading was openly indebted to this element of Richards’ work) but also in its cognitivist approach to literary form and aesthetic experience. “There is no gap,” Richards wrote, “between our everyday emotional life and the material of poetry. The verbal expression of this life, at its finest, is forced to use the technique of poetry; that is the only essential difference" (300).


A complete copy of the 1930 reprinting of Practical Criticism can be found at http://www.archive.org/details/practicalcritici030142mbp.

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