Practical Criticism

Introducing Literary Criticism A Graphic - Owen Holland 2015

Practical Criticism

Practical criticism is a method of interpreting and scrutinizing texts pioneered by I.A. Richards (1893—1979) and colleagues in the Cambridge Faculty of English in the 1920s and 1930s. The Faculty was relatively young (established in 1911), which allowed its members to develop a new approach to literary criticism.


Practical criticism involves close reading of the “words on the page” in abstraction from wider contextual and historical information a method of reading that encourages careful attention to the technical matters of form, rhythm and style.

Richards outlined the guiding principles in Practical Criticism: A Study of Literary Judgement (1929), detailing a series of “experiments” in which undergraduates and other interested participants were presented with and asked to comment on a number of poems that were shorn of any reference to the author’s identity.

The anonymity of the material was designed to provoke liberty of expression and the results of the “experiments” were often surprising: a “canonical” poet like John Donne (1572—1631), for example, was reprimanded for his sonnet “At the round earth’s imagin’d corners, blow”, published in 1633.

… All whom war, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies, Despair, law, chance hath slain, and you whose eyes …


Too many monosyllables! How dull!

Richards listed stock responses, sentimentality, inhibition and basic incomprehension among the various errors made by his willing guinea pigs, whose reflections he quotes with varying degrees of wry amusement and ironic censure.


Practical criticism could advance knowledge of “the natural history of human opinions and feelings”. My book was “the record of a piece of fieldwork in comparative ideology”.

Richards’ methodology implied a claim to empirical and scientific objectivity, recalling Eliot’s assertion of “depersonalization” as a process by which “art may be said to approach the condition of a science”. But the extent to which Richards was, consciously or unconsciously, guiding the responses of his participants remains a matter of dispute. This is what an anthropologist might describe as the problem of participant observation.

The claim of critics such as Richards to scientific objectivity has sometimes been viewed as an unconscious anxiety to establish the respectability of a relatively young academic discipline by imitating the methodologies of more established disciplines in the natural sciences.

A recent turn in literary criticism towards cognitive sciences (including neuroscience) can be viewed in light of Richards’ attempt. This latest turn, however, has been at least partly motivated by the scramble for limited public funding in a system that prioritizes the more immediately obvious social utility of the sciences.


Hmm. Sprung rhythm produces a most interesting response in multiple regions of the brain …

Richards’ Principles of Literary Criticism (1924) is another significant attempt to systematize the study of literature. Richards discusses concepts including irony and balance, as well as offering ways of differentiating between poetic and other kinds of language.

William Empson (1906—84), who had previously trained as a mathematician, was a student of Richards in the Cambridge English Faculty. Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930) was an influential example of the practice of close reading, or the critical practice of practical criticism.


The seven types of ambiguity arise when:

1. A detail is effective in several ways at once

2. Two or more alternative meanings resolve into one

3. Two apparently unconnected meanings are given simultaneously

4. Alternative meanings combine to make clear a complicated state of mind in the author

5. Fortunate confusion occurs, i.e. the author discovers his idea in the act of writing or doesn’t hold the idea all in mind at once

6. What is said is contradictory or irrelevant, and the reader is forced to invent interpretations

7. The author’s mind is divided, thus offering a full contradiction.


Another influential exponent of practical criticism was F.R. Leavis (1895—1978). Leavis placed much more emphasis on criticism as a moral activity (more than just the words on the page). For this reason, he is sometimes likened to Matthew Arnold.


His book The Great Tradition (1948) sought to identify the major documents of the English literary canon. Documenting the canon is a necessarily exclusive and thus problematic exercise.

Leavis was critical of Victorian poetry, which he excluded from the canon, instead locating the main stream of English poetry in a line running through Donne, Pope, Johnson and T.S. Eliot. Milton was another notable exclusion. In fiction, Leavis saw the Tradition (with a capital T) embodied in the writings of Jane Austen (1775—1817), George Eliot, Henry James (1843—1916) and Joseph Conrad (1857—1924).

In the 1950s, a dispute broke out between Leavis and the Oxford-based literary scholar F.W. Bateson (1901—78). Bateson was founding editor of the journal Essays in Criticism, whereas Leavis was aligned with the Scrutiny journal. Their disagreement was indicative of a sharp divergence about ways of assessing literary value.

Bateson argued for a more rigorous approach, grounded in scholarly knowledge, which, he thought, could lead to “objective” (and, therefore, authoritative) criticism. Leavis replied by pointing out that the relationship between poem and “social context” is not so straightforward.


You practice a sheer subjectivism.

The critic’s choice of facts and contexts is itself a literary judgement.

Today, practical criticism is a skill all students of literature will bring to bear in the course of their studies. The close reading of texts is the bedrock of all literary interpretation, although many students (and professional critics) will now combine practical criticism with wider reflections.

Practical criticism can now be seen as the starting point for a critical reading of a literary work, belonging among a set of critical practices that are also informed by contextual, theoretical and interdisciplinary material.