The Frontiers of Criticism
quot;The Frontiers of Criticismquot; is a lecture given by T. S. Eliot at the University of
Minnesota in 1956. It was reprinted in On Poetry and Poets, a collection of Eliot's critical
essays, in 1957. The essay is an attempt by Eliot to define the boundaries of literary
criticism: to say what does, and what does not, constitute truly literary criticism, as
opposed to, for example, a study in history based upon a work of literature. The essay is
significant because it represents Eliot's response to the New Critical perspective which had
taken the academic study of literature by storm during Eliot's lifetime. It also presents an
analysis of some of its author's own poetic works, an unusual characteristic for modern
criticism—it has become far more usual today for poets and critics to be in separate camps,
rather than united in one individual. Perhaps even more importantly, it demonstrates the
progress and change in Eliot's own critical thought over the years between 1919 and 1956.
Prior critical work
Part of the reason for the importance of this particular piece in Eliot's body of work is the
position it holds as successor to an earlier (and probably better known) effort at defining
the critical endeavor, Tradition and the Individual Talent. In that earlier piece (first
published in 1919), Eliot made famous use of a metaphor drawn from chemistry to describe
the process of quot;depersonalizationquot; that Eliot claimed to be a necessary condition of poetic
creation. In this analogy, Eliot compares the poet him- or herself to a catalyst, whose
presence causes quot;feelingsquot; and quot;emotionsquot; to react with one another and combine in ways
not possible without the poet's mind.
The essay also makes the point that quot;No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning
alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets
and artists. . . . The existing [literary] monuments form an ideal order among themselves,
which is modified by the in troduction of the new (the really new) work of art among
them.quot; Eliot contended that while art never actually got better, it was in a continual state
Eliot and New Criticism
Eliot is often claimed by the New Critics as one of their founding fathers, an quot;honorquot; he
rejected for much the same reasons that he avoided expl cit theorizing on the subject of
literature: namely, because of his conception of the only true criticism as that of a poet
trying to better his art. In some of his work, Eliot had espoused the idea of criticism as
The evaluation of Eliot's criticism occurred relatively early; for example, an appraisal of his
work focusing exclusively on Eliot the critic (as opposed to Eliot the poet) appeared in
1941 in a book by I. A. Richards. Richards, participating in the New Critical tradition of
borrowing from Eliot, writes that
One of the best things in his influence has been his habit of considering aesthetic
effect as independent of religious effect, or moral, or political and social; as an end
that is beyond and not coordinate with these.
This is quite similar to the New Critical attitudes of such authors as W. K. Wimsatt and
Monroe Beardsley. In their theories of literary criticism, it is of vital importance to separate
the work in question from all other factors, both on the side of creation (i.e., the writer's
intentions) and on that of consumption (the reader's reactions).
Content of the lecture
Eliot's paper is a concise statement of his reactions to the new directions that literary
criticism had taken in the years since the publication in 1923 of his article quot;The Function of
Criticism.quot; In this way, the paper is also a more mature reevaluation of his own positions.
Much of its length is involved in this kind of self-study, both of his earlier critical work as
well as of his poetry.
Influences on later critics
Throughout, the essay demonstrates the influences Eliot had on the New Critics. While
Eliot states early on that he failed to see why he was deemed by current literary scholarship
to have given birth to New Criticism (106), he also uses the essay as a platform from which
to proclaim a number of principles that are quite similar to those of the New Critics:
the idea of the circumstances surrounding a work's creation as irrelevant (112)
the quot;danger . . . of assuming that there must be just one interpretation of the poem as a
whole, [and] that it must be rightquot; (113)
the lack of a need to assess the author's intent (113-14)
the unimportance of the quot;feelingsquot; of the reader (114)
the limitation of literary criticism to the study of the literary object, i.e., the work
However, at the same time, Eliot takes the opportunity to disavow that school of criticism.
He ridicules one of the methods of New Criticism, known today as close reading,
describing it thus:
The method is to take a well-known poem . . . without reference to the author or to
his other work, analyse it stanza by stanza and line by line, and extract, squeeze,
tease, press every drop of meaning out of it that one can. It might be called the
lemon-squeezer school of criticism. . . . I imagine that some of the poets (they are
all dead except myself) would be surprised at learning what the poems mean . . .
Eliot is here giving voice to one of the most common objections to New Criticism, namely
that it removes all the enjoyment from a work of literature by dissecting it. This essay
strongly asserts that enjoyment is an important component of the reading of literature. Eliot
makes no distinction between quot;enjoyment and understanding,quot; seeing the two not quot;as
distinct activities—one emotional and the other intellectual. . . . To understand a poem
comes to the same thing as to enjoy it for the right reasonsquot; (115). On the whole question
of enjoyment, Eliot diverges from the general trend of New Criticism, which primarily
concerned itself with interpretation. Eliot further distances himself from the New Critics
with his implication of the possibility of misunderstanding a poem (115), an idea that the
New Critics would consider heretical.
Difference between understanding and explanation
A large part of this lecture is devoted to Eliot's critique of what he calls quot;the criticism of
explanation by originsquot; (107). One of these is The Road to Xanadu, by John Livingston
Lowes, a work that is now virtually unknown. The other, however, is James Joyce's
Finnegans Wake, a work composed mostly what Eliot refers to as quot;merely beautiful
nonsensequot; (109) that has puzzled critics since its publication.
These works provide Eliot a springboard from which to launch an quot;analysisquot; of his own
poems. He takes an amused tone when describing his feelings on hearing what some
readers have thought about his various works, with primary reference to The Waste Land.
Eliot discusses the process by which the notes to that poem came to be, saying that, to his
regret, quot;They have had almost greater popularity than the poem itselfquot; (110). Eliot uses the
example of Finnegans Wake in order to illuminate the distinction between explanation and
Definition of literary criticism
Eliot, like the New Critics, distinguishes among types or classes of criticism, isolating (as
the lecture's title suggests) a certain area for literary criticism. Also like the New Critics, he
allows that there is merit to such studies. He credits Coleridge with bringing other
disciplines (e.g., philosophy, psychology) into the field of literary study. Eliot defines
specifically literary criticism as criticism written in order
to help his [i.e., the critic's] readers to understand and enjoy [a work of literature]. .
We can therefore ask, about any writing which is offered to us as literary criticism,
is it aimed towards understanding and enjoyment? If it is not, it may still be a
legitimate and useful activity; but it is to be judged as a contribution to psychology,
or sociology, or logic, or pedagogy, or some other pursuit—and it is to be judged
by specialists, not by men of letters. (116-17)
The argument of the essay is for a strongly individualist criticism, made clear by the
frequent references to the author's own works. quot;The best of my literary criticism . . .
consists of essays on poets and poetic dramatist who had influenced mequot; (106). In this,
Eliot has something in common with the style of literary criticism expounded by Matthew
Arnold, known for its emphasis on reading in order to make oneself a better writer.