Review of Helen Gardner, The Business of Criticism.

[Review of Helen Gardner, The Business of Criticism. Modern Language Review 55.2 (1960): 255-6.]


Edwin Muir, thinking of the mysterious vitality that works of art have, said that ‘all things truly made preserve themselves through time in the first freshness of their nature’.  The same is true of criticism: that much critical writing of the last twenty-five years is turgid, evasively obscure, grotesquely unlovely, tediously un-compelling, suspiciously importunate, may tell us simply that the criticism is not ‘truly made’.  Miss Gardner’s two series of lectures here brought together – ‘The Profession of a Critic’ (University of London, 1953) and ‘The Limits of Criticism’ (University of Durham, 1956) – make one’s heart leap up; for they have the spring and certainty of what is understood with a learned affection and made clear in the humility of delight.

Literary criticism since the ‘twenties has certainly extended its resources, rendering its methods more exact and subtle than before.  But as criticism has become a ‘professional’ business, there is to be found less and less of what Johnson called ‘the common sense of readers uncorrupted with literary prejudices’.  In the twentieth century, literary prejudice has commonly assumed two forms: the desire to make criticism into a ‘science’, and the attempt to find a single formula for critical interpretation.  Anybody who considers that the aim of criticism is to enjoy and understand individual works of art and to communicate that understanding and enjoyment, will see criticism-as-science as evading the value judgements in which criticism begins and by which it is sustained; and he will consider that interpretation-by-formula is an attempt to find meaning without paying respect to the intention or needs of the individual work.  Miss Gardner’s view, rather, is that ‘the primary critical act is a judgement. . . .The rudiment of good criticism is. . .the power to respond to a good poem. . . .Elucidation, or illumination, is the critic’s primary task.’

The first set of lectures is on literary criticism purely; the second, on the relation between literary criticism and biblical criticism.  In both, Miss Gardner urges the necessity of ‘an historical approach’ to works of art.  There is no question that Miss Gardner is offering in this a single solution to all critical problems.  ‘The historical approach’, she says, ‘takes us toward the meaning and can explain much. . . .[but] The total meaning of a work of art cannot be analysed or treated historically.’  And in both sets of lectures – whether elucidating Hamlet or examining the limitations of Dean Farrer’s ‘pattern criticism’ of St Mark’s gospel – Miss Gardner shows how the work of art itself indicates the sort of questions that are fruitful and decides what of all possible things brought into its presence is illuminating.  The activity of criticism is a rhythmic movement in and out of the field of the poem, and constitutes ‘the art of bringing fresh knowledge and fresh experience of life and literature to it’.  What is needed is a technique of questioning; for ‘the beginning of the discipline of literary criticism lies in the recognition of the work of art’s objective existence as the product of another mind, which exists not to be used but to be understood and enjoyed’.

Miss Gardner’s critical position is a traditional view, refined and clarified by all the resources of modern critical method and strengthened by an intimate respect for the best practice of the past: it assumes that the function of criticism is to enlarge our understanding and enjoyment of literature and so of life.  Quasi-scientific criticism habitually looks to power as the end of knowledge.  Miss Gardner’s lectures represent an attitude more ancient, and (because not instrumental) more civilized: that the end of knowledge is awareness; that as knowledge focuses attention in a correct (that is, fruitful) area, even ignorance becomes (like space in typographical design) a positive value.  The critic’s first resolve is to respond appropriately and so to be controlled by the poem.  His first prayer is not perhaps so much that he may understand but that he may have the grace not to misunderstand.