A Summary and Analysis of T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Function of Criticism’

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

‘The Function of Criticism’ is an influential 1923 essay by T. S. Eliot, perhaps the most important poet-critic of the modernist movement. In some ways a follow-up to Eliot’s earlier essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ from four years earlier, ‘The Function of Criticism’ focuses on the role of the critic as opposed to the creation of new works of art, although Eliot also draws some valuable comparisons between creative and critical work.

You can read ‘The Function of Criticism’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of Eliot’s argument below.

‘The Function of Criticism’: summary

Eliot begins his essay by quoting from his 1919 essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, which we have analysed here. In that essay, Eliot argued that no writer has their meaning alone, and their work has to be viewed in relation to the wider literary tradition of which it forms a part. It is a problem of ‘order’, and Eliot asserts that the function of criticism is a question of order, too.

Eliot argues what seems like a counter-intuitive paradox: that the greatest artists are the ones that can afford to ‘surrender’ themselves to a shared unconscious community of artists, and lose themselves in something bigger and broader than themselves. A second-rate artist, by contrast, has to assert their individuality because they need to keep reminding us of the minor details which make their work slightly distinctive, and distinct from their contemporaries.

Like a socially insecure person trying to impress people, the second-rate artist cannot afford to surrender the floor to other people in their group; someone who is more secure in their talents and more at ease with their art is like a generous conversationalist, listening, involving others, drawing on others’ conversation to aid and improve their own.

If someone holds this view of art – and Eliot does – then the same is true of literary (or art) criticism. Criticism should be ‘autotelic’: that is, it is agreed that, unlike art, criticism needs to have an end or goal, a reason for its existence. Art can exist just for us to enjoy it, to prompt us to think about life, the world, or the human condition; but criticism exists to explain works of art and to correct public taste.

Eliot then takes up a view put forward by another critic, John Middleton Murry, who made a distinction between Classicism in literature – characterised by a writer’s belief in something outside of themselves, or higher than themselves, which might be called an Outside Authority – and what might be called the Romantic view, which involves trusting the Inner Voice found within the writer’s own mind.

Eliot proposes to call this Inner Voice ‘Whiggery’, after the old Whig party in English politics (a political party which opposed the authority of an absolute monarch). The problem with the ‘Inner Voice’ approach to criticism is that, Eliot argues, you don’t need to have principles which you hold to when appraising works of art: all you have to do is listen to, and trust, your Inner Voice.

By contrast, there are those who trust in tradition and ‘the accumulated wisdom of time’. Eliot argues that much of the work of the creative artist is, in fact, critical labour: sifting, rewriting, expunging, correcting, testing, and so on. The ‘whiggery tendency’ in criticism tends to ignore just how much critical work an artist has to perform upon their own work of art before they can finish it.

The chief quality required from a good critic, Eliot concludes, is a ‘highly developed sense of fact’. The best function that criticism can perform is to present facts to a reader which will help them to understand or appreciate a work of art.

‘The Function of Criticism’: analysis

As we remarked at the outset of this analysis, ‘The Function of Criticism’ is a kind of sequel to Eliot’s 1919 essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’. In that essay, Eliot had argued that no artist has their meaning alone, and that every great artist uses the literary tradition (from Homer to Shakespeare and beyond) in the creation of their new work of art.

In many ways, that essay is a riposte to what we might call the ‘Romantic’ approach to artistic creation, which is founded on the idea that all a great artist need do is ‘look within’, wait for inspiration, or trust their ‘inner voice’.

Eliot, by contrast, adopts what we might call a ‘Classical’ view, following the distinction between Romanticism and Classicism made by T. E. Hulme in an influential essay: that is, every great artist looks outside of, and beyond, themselves in the creation of a new work of art. This is clearly true of Eliot himself – his poem The Waste Land draws on numerous earlier writers, such as Shakespeare, Spenser, Ovid, and many others – but it is true of all artists.

And in ‘The Function of Criticism’, Eliot makes a comparable argument for the most worthwhile criticism of literature and art. If great works of art bear the stamp of other works of art, then great critics also look beyond themselves and their own ‘Inner Voice’ and endeavour to work towards a shared goal, which is illuminating those works of art so that critics can collectively – and, to use Eliot’s word, ‘co-operatively’ – arrive at some shared notion of ‘truth’.

This is why objective facts about a work of art, which the critic can present to readers in such a way as to enlighten them about an artist’s creation, are more valuable than subjective opinions which stem from some unreliable ‘Inner Voice’. The great critic, like the great artist, should look outside, rather than within.

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