I. A. Richards’ Principles of Literary Criticism| I. A. Richards as a Critic of Critics

Ivor Armstrong Richards (26 Feb. 1893-7 Sept. 1979), now popularly known as I. A. Richards is an inventor of new methods and techniques in literary criticism, a contributor in the foundation of New and Practical Criticism; a celebrated critic who could generate a considerable followers and influence them for a longer time. He was one of the most influential modern literary critics who earned praise of many other equally influential critics like William Empson, F.R. Leavis to whom he was direct teacher and mentor; other critics include T.S. Eliot, Cleanth Brooks, Allen Tate, Ransom, etc. He was the student of psychology and philosophy which is intimately reflected in his theorization of poetry—his major principles of criticism are the manifestation of his ability to correlate and expose the working of poet’s and at the same time reader’s mind to discover ‘a system of impulses’. Following are his major critical books which include his principles of literary criticism:
1. The Foundation of Aesthetics (1922, collaboration with C. K. Odgen and James Wood)
2. The Meaning of Meaning (1923, collaboration with C. K. Odgen)
3. Principles of Literary Criticism (1924), highly discussed book in modern criticism.
4. Science and Poetry (1926)
5. Practical Criticism (1929), yet another discussed book which set the new ways and foundation of the practical criticism based on close reading.
6. Coleridge on Imagination (1934)
7. The Philosophy of Rhetoric (1936)
There is a vast body of his critical opinions spread across his writings which here, in this short article is impossible to cover but we’ll go by his most common, often remembered and studious ideas of criticism. He must be given the credit of turning the branch of literary criticism into a science which can be analysed on every level. In a way, somehow, he could become able to touch and eliminate the mysteries and arbitrariness of poetry (literature), not completely but up to some extent.
1. His Views on the Nature of Poetry: as he was trained in psychology, he dissects the working of human mind to examine the nature of poetry. According to him, ‘human mind is a system of impulses’. It responds to the outer stimulus whenever it gets opportunity. For him, the questions ‘what kind of activity poetry is?’ and ‘what is its value?’ are more central and significant. Poetry is the experiences of such happy impulses; it reaches its culmination when the impulses are organised in a systematic way. Human mind is filled with conflicting instincts and appetencies i.e. desires which many a time become the cause of bad or undesired experience resulting in uneasiness. A poet should take the call from happy impulses and combine them into his poetry or literature to impart emotional balance, equilibrium or peace and rest. Poetry should help to organize quickly the happy impulses to avoid mental distress. It must work as a systematic organiser of human impulses. Let’s consider his own words:
“It is never what a poem says which matters, but what it is. The poet is not writing as a scientist. He uses these words because the interest which the situation calls into play combine to bring them, just in this form, into his consciousness as a means of ordering, controlling, and consolidating the whole experience.”
Here he distinguishes between a poet and scientist and confirms the task of a poet i.e. to combine his experience (in poetry) into an order, control it and consolidate the same for greater effect.
2. His Views on Imagination: he discusses this point in the chapter ‘The Imagination’ in his book Principles of Literary Criticism where, first, he dissected the word imagination having six different connotations: imagination means:
1. Production of vivid images.
2. Use of figurative language i.e. figures of speech and other language devices.
3. Reproducing and communicating emotional states of mind.
4. Combining odd things or inventiveness.
5. Scientific imagination—definite use and purpose of words.
6. The synthetic and magical power.
Based on this factor of imagination, there is difference between a poet and a common man. Common people are not able to synthesise the emotions but the poet. A poet is bestowed with the power of managing and synthesising emotions or impulses into a whole. This experience he presents to the common people through his art or poetry. Common men find manifestation of their suppressed sensitivity in the art. He states two ways of organising the impulses:
1. By exclusion and inclusion
2. By synthesis and elimination
The highest order of poetry is that kind of poetry which is ironical means bringing the opposite elements—the poetry of synthesis and elimination.
3. His Views on Poetic Communication: for Richards, poetry cannot be devoid of communication though it is not the part of poet’s work:
“The two pillars upon which a theory of criticism must rest are an account of value and an account of communication. We do not sufficiently realize how great a part of our experience takes the form it does, because we are social beings and accustomed to communication from infancy….But the effects of communication go much deeper than this…man has been engaged in communicating for so many hundreds of thousands of years….An experience has to be formed, no doubt, before it is communicated, but it takes the form it does largely because it may have to be communicated.” (Richards, pp. 31-32)
Thus communication is inseparable from experience and it is a significant element in poetry.
4. His Views on Language: it is his foremost concern that what kind of language does poetry or literature use? He clearly distinguished two kinds of languages—referential or scientific and emotive or appealing. Poetry or literature uses emotive kind of language which is appealing one. To explain the point, he has provided an example of the word ‘fire’. The word has certain associations when used scientifically and a different connotation in poetry—fire is fire but ‘a heart on fire’ evokes different experiences, refers to an excited state of emotions. According to him, the word is based on the truth and a real statement but in poetry it becomes pseudo-statement. A statement always includes truth and verified by a reference of its original object or meaning. When poet uses such words, his/ her purpose is to evoke the emotions and not the truth or reality associated with that word. It is an indirect use of words;
“Poetry speaks not to the mind but to the impulses; and it speech, literal or unliteral, logical or illogical, is faithful to its experience to the extent to which it includes a like experience in others.” (Prasad, pp. 243-44).
5. The Value of Poetry: it is his reply to the allegations thwarted upon poets and poetry by Thomas Love Peacock in his ill-famous book Four Ages of Poetry where he notoriously stated that:
“A poet in our time is a semi-barbarian in a civilized community. He lives in the ways that are past. His ideas, thoughts, feelings, associations, are all with barbarous manners, obsolete customs, and exploded superstitions. The march of his intellect is like that of a crab, backward.” (literarycriticismjohn.blogspot.com.)
These are very serious charges against poetry to which Richards thought he must answer in a way. He denounced all these charges on various grounds that in this age of science and inquiry and interrogation, poetry is firm and constant has its unbound value. It plays the role of perfect balance of experiences, impulses in the life of individual and society. Poetry nourishes our feelings and instils the humanitarian values in us. Our life is made up of both experiences, good and bad. We don’t like bitter experiences. He further states that the impulses are of two kinds i.e. ‘appetencies’ (desires) and ‘aversions’ (dislikes); the human instinct wants the satisfaction of appetencies and this has been satisfied by the poetry and ultimately it has moral value. The poet only considers the appetencies and not aversions in poetry. And hence he strongly says, ‘in the mind and heart so enlightened by poetry there lies the hope of civilization.’
6. His Practical Criticism: Richards carried out a series of experiments with his students in which he used to provide them poems and prose passages without the knowledge of poet or author, even the name of poem. He asked them to find out meaning and use of language; to which received varied kinds of responses which required to organise. He collected this responses in his seminal work Practical Criticism (1929) and analysed them and formed the method of close reading which later became the foundation of practical criticism. Today, we practice the said method right from teaching-learning to evaluations in examinations. He wanted to test the response of students to words or text without the name of poet or author or any background information. He encouraged students to look at the words closely to form an opinion about that text. He got a great response from students and we received next two influential critics, William Empson and F.R. Leavis.

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