Dissertation > Literature > Literary Theory > Countries in Literature

A Study on I. A. Richards' Theory of Poetry Criticism

Author TangYing
Tutor YangDong
School Jilin University
Course Comparative Literature and World Literature
Keywords I. A. Richards Poetry Criticism Value Communication
CLC I561.072
Type PhD thesis
Year 2013
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I. A. Richards is a famous British literary critic in the20th century. He exertshimself to establish a “scientific”theory of literary criticism, and for this purpose heapplies psychological and semantic theories to literary criticism, which produces aprofound and far-reaching influence on British and American literary criticism in the20th century. And he enjoys great prestige in the world as the acknowledged “father”of New Criticism.This thesis aims to study Richards’poetry criticism for reasons that poetry hasalways greatly fascinated Richards and that his literay theory is mainly directed atpoetry. Richards believes that in this modern society where traditions are threatened todissolve and creeds are shaken, we can find comfort and support from poetry, so ourmind can attain a complete equilibrium through poetry experience. Therefore, poetrystill has great value in modern society as it did in the past. This idea is a legacy of theBritish Romantic Criticism. Since poetry is so important, critics are obliged to tellreaders what are good poems, and how to read and evaluate poems. But the opinionsyielded by the best minds since Aristotle, in Richards’eyes, are mostly conjecturesand whimsies. In addition, impressionistic and aesthetic criticisms prevail at thebeginning of the20th century, and the criteria of value judgement are confusing. Tobattle this trend, Richards determines to establish a “scientific” theory of poetrycriticism, and “scientific”, he understands, is to apply the latest development ofmodern science, specifically psychology and semantics to poetry criticism. Thisapproach demonstrates his intellectual courage and empirical tendency. So Richards isa mixture of empiricism and romantic idealism, a compromise and complementarityin which the one corrects for the limitations of the other.This thesis intends to make a comprehensive and systematic study on Richards’ theory of poetry criticism,especially his theory of value and of communication, forthey are the two pillars upon which his theory o f criticism rests. It will also examineRichards in the tradition of Western criticism, exploring the mutual influence ofRichards and other critics upon one another. Furthermore, this thesis will expoundRichards’affectionate contact with China. It is expected that this study will benefit thetheory and practice of modern Chinese literary criticism.The first chapter discusses what kind of thing a poem is, or what kind ofexperience a poem is. From the outset, Richards contradicts an assumption held in theaesthetic circle ever since Kant that “the aesthetic experience is peculiar and specific”.He claims that aesthetic experience is not fundamentally different from ordinaryexperiences, and they differ only in that the aesthetic experience is a furtherdevelopment, a finer organization of ordinary experiences, more complex, moreunified. Richards runs counter to the tradition for the purpose of applying generalpsychological theories to the study of literary activities. He describes the generalstructure of the poetic experience as follows. The impression of the printed words onthe retina sets up an agitation of impulses which goes deeper. The first things to occurare the sound of the words “in the mind’s ear”and the feel of the words imaginarilyspoken. Next arise various pictures “in the mind’s eye”. Thence onwards the agitationwhich is the experience divides into the intellectual stream and the emotive stream.The intellectual stream is made up of thoughts which reflect or point to the things thethought are of. The emotive stream is made up of emotions and attitudes. Emotionsare what the reaction, with its reverberations in bodily changes, feels like. Attitudesare the tendencies to action which are set ready by the reponse. Richards thinks thatthoughts in poetry are less important. They matter only as a means to direct and exciteemotions. Emotions are most important. To emphasize the place of emotions in poetry,Richards distinguishes two distinct uses of language. When we use words for the sakeof references they promote, this is the scientific use of language. When we use wordsfor the sake of the attitudes and emotions which ensue, this is the emotive use oflanguage. Richards claims that poetry is the supreme form of emotive language. Actually, he overstates the emotive functions of language in poetry andunderestimates the functions of cognitive factors in aesthetic activities.The second chapter discusses what kind of experience is valuble and how tojudge the value of a poem. Richards uses the psychological concept “impulse”toexplain the value of experiences. Stimuli that can serve some need of the organism arereceived, and result in responses. This process is called an impulse. A valuableexperience is one in which as many impulses as possible are engaged, and as littleconflict as there can be. Interfering and conflicting impulses are conciliated into astable equilibrium. This is entirely a psychological criterion. Richards emphasizesexperience and objects to any attempt to apply external moral canons to judge thevalue of a poem. He is against abstract dogmas. According to the above criterion,Richards thinks that good poems are “inclusive poems”, which organize the impulsesby inclusion and synthesis, and win stability and order through widening the response.Richards thinks that the equilibrium of opposed impulses is the ground-plan of themost valuable aesthetic responses. And tragedy most clearly shows the balance orreconciliation of opposite and discordant qualities. It is the most general, all-accepting,all-ordering experience.This balanced poise is not peculiar to Tragedy. It is a generalcharacteristic of all the most valuable experiences of arts.Chapter Three studies Richards’theory of communication. Richards declares thatthe arts are the supreme form of the communicative activity. Artistic activity is aprocess in which the author communicates his experiences to the reader. Artsdistinguish themselves from other valuable experiences in that artistic experiences arecommunicable. The poet through his supreme power of ordering experience makes hiswork embody the precise experience upon which its value depends, and thus arousesimilar experiences in the reader. Impulses which commonly interfere with oneanother and are conflicting in him combine into a stable poise. This synthetic andmagical power, Richards appropriates the name of imagination, reveals itself in thebalance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities.Richards tells us that tojudge a poem we must distinguish the communicative aspects and the value aspects of it. Sometimes art is bad because communication is defective, and sometimes becausethe experience communicated is worthless. But it is known that the vehicle and theexperience can not be separated. Richards thinks that if the reader through reading agood poem can attain simiar experience with the poet, and have uniform response,then the poem is successfully communicated, on condition that he approaches thepoem in the proper manner. How to read a poem will be dealt with in Chapter Four.Chapter Four expounds the ten difficulties that are likely to make readersmisunderstand a poem, so that readers will overcome the difficulties and developproper reading habits, and thus obtain the author’s experience. Based on a years-longexperiment he makes in Cambridge University where he teaches Enlglish poetry,Richards finds the principal difficulties that students often encounter and lists them inan order of ten items. The first difficulty is that many readers fail to make out thepoem’s sense and misapprenhend its feeling, its tone, and its intention. The seconddifficulty is that readers can not understand the importance of sound, the form ofpoetry, and they don’t know how to judge the rhythm of a poem. The third difficulty isto judge a poem by the images that arise in the reader. The fourth difficulty is theintrusion of some particular memory of the reader’s personal biography or someirrelevant association, which has nothing to do with the meaning of the poem. Thefifth difficulty is that much writing and reading of poetry is governend by stockresponses. The sixth difficulty is sentmentality. A response is sentimental if it is toogreat for the occasion, or it is crude, rather than refined, or it is inappropriate to thesituation that calls it forth. The seventh difficulty is inhibition, through which someaspects of experience that our mental health needs disappear. The eighth difficulty isdoctrinal adhesions. Richards advocates that poetry is independent of beliefs.Theninth difficulty is technical presuppositions. They interfere whenever we suppose thatthe means a poet uses are valuable for their own sake, or they can be prescribedwithout reference to his aim. The tenth difficulty is general critical preconceptions,which cause the reader to make prior demands upon the nature and value of poetry.Chapter Five demonstrates Richards’influence on William Empson, F. R. Leavis and American New Criticism. This chapter also elaborates on Richards’affection toclassical Chinese philosophy and his influence on modern Chinese potery criticism.Ransom comments that Richards’writing amounts to a complete aesthetic ofpoetry. Indeed, Richards’theory has its weakness and contradiction. But we can stilllearn from him.

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