University Studies of the University of Nebraska


Date of this Version



University of Nebraska Studies : New Series no. 25


Published by The University at Lincoln


There seems now to be widespread agreement in the otherwise disputatious world of letters that literary criticism is one of the most difficult and one of the least generally successful of all undertakings. 1 As a science it is (and has always been) constantly frustrated by the absence of principles and applicable theories. As a service it has been regularly ignored. As an art it has usually found recognition only in disguise. The reasons underlying this undistinguished record are many: ignorance, shortsightedness, bigotry-all such imperfections on the part of the critics have contributed their share; they, with the passage of time and the emergence of new ideas, have often, while rebuking the criticism of the past, choked out life from any new development by mutual bickering and incompatibility. Critics who praise are frequently too flamboyant to be taken seriously; those who condemn are seldom constructive; the critics who guard against either extreme are apt to end up with essays of great caution and little substance. Such pitfalls are apparent, more quickly apparent to the critic himself, if he is at all sensitive, than to the reader, and they are but a sampling. The basic difficulty of literary or artistic criticism can never be overcome: it must try to express in rational terms appreciation or explanation of creativity the full explanation or appreciation of which, to judge from the evidence, cannot be rationally stated. That is to say, the most exhaustive analysis of the content, form, and style of a Theocritean idyll does not begin to explain its "immortality." Even after one adds to this analysis a study of the emotional impact of single words and phrases, plus an evaluation of the psychology involved in the poet's motivation, still the endearing quality of the poem is left untouched. The great mass of learned literature ultimately comes no closer to the heart of the idyll than do a few lines of simple and personal poetry which with innocent freedom of critical acumen reflect how the poet sang

Of the sweet years, the dear and wished-for years, Who each one in a gracious hand appears To bear a gift for mortals, old or young.

It may be argued that Theocritus, Sappho, and all such poets are especially difficult for critics because they appeal almost exclusively to the emotions. It is not, however, the emotional interference in a work of art alone that makes us inarticulate. It is the culmination of all the powers within the work which cast their influence upon every receptive area of our minds and bodies, hitting us in memory, in conscience, in intellect, as well as in any or all of the emotions which underlie our make-up. Rare and wonderful would be that critic who could detect in detail the manner in which a piece of writing affected him. His summary would stand as a masterpiece of criticism, even though he made no effort to rank, challenge, or praise the work in question. Unfortunately a blend of shyness, shame, and lack of understanding stifles most men when they are confronted by art which greatly moves them, so that the "masterpiece" is seldom attempted and then only imperfectly in memoirs and confessions. But these same men who cannot express their reaction in words still know most keenly when they have been affected, and proceed to relate to each other and to the world, if only by incoherent mumblings, that they have struck upon something great, something important-in a word, art. Thus literature is perpetuated in spite of the critics: it lives to influence, to overpower, to be understood and misunderstood by each new generation.