The Function of Criticism by T.S. Eliot Summary


The essay The Functions of Criticism written by T. S. Eliot was published in 1923. It was a response to Murry who challenged the ideas of Eliot presented in her previous work “Tradition and Individual Talent” (1919) in his work “Romanticism and Tradition”. This essay has been divided into four parts:

  1. Part 1 deals with Eliot’s views on critic and the critical work of art.
  2. Part 2 deals with Murry’s views on Romanticism and classicism and Eliot’s contradiction with it.
  3. Part 3 deals with Eliot’s criticism of Murry.
  4. Part 4 deals with the relation of criticism with the creative work of art.

Part 1

T. S. Eliot says that it is commonly believed that criticism is an autotelic activity. However, it is quite a wrong statement because a creative work of art requires great efforts and hard work.  

Those who consider criticism as an autotelic activity should be strictly criticised.  Following are the opinions of Eliot regarding critics and his creative work of art.

  1. A creative work of art is judged through its words.
  2. A good text cannot be produced by having a particular aim in mind. The writer thus does not write consciously but instead spontaneously.
  3. A critic should have one aim in mind i.e. to make the text good to the taste for the readers and he should elucidate it accordingly.
  4. All the critics are humans and thus can have different opinions and methods to respond to the literary text. However, the ultimate aim of every critic should be to enlighten the mind of the reader through the text.
  5. The aim of every critic should be the same: to try and compose differences with the other critics. A critic should not be a blind follower of other critics.
  6. He should be capable of explaining and justifying why should the text be preserved for the future generation. In other terms, why should a literary text possess continued readership in future? 

Part 2

1. Murry believed that classicism and romanticism cannot go side by side. He further says that classicism is the feature of French and romanticism is the feature of England and as he is from England,  romanticism is more important for him than the other. Eliot criticises the orthodoxy of Murry as he does not give significance to classicism.

2. Murry believes that tradition (literature+religion) and morality can co-exist simultaneously. However, Eliot disagrees with this statement saying that we should either choose morality or spirituality. One cannot choose both of them side by side.

3. Murry believes that a critic should hear and follow a natural instinct that he feels, as it is correct for him. He suggests that rules are made to be broken (by listening to the inner voice that makes them unable to listen to the others). Such free play can lead to doing what one likes which means the emergence of violence. Thus Eliot criticises Murry’s attitude for rejecting the dignity of the others.

Part 3

Murry believes that there exists “Outside Authority” which is spiritual and divine. Opposed to the “inner voice” (Whiggery), the Outside Authority guides us towards the right path. It is perfect and the inner voice must struggle to achieve perfection. 

Thus he draws a line between human desires and divine authority.  However, Eliot disagrees with this statement. According to him, search for perfection is small and petty thinking as it bounds one to conform oneself to unquestioned authority.

According to Eliot, the function of criticism is to quest for some common principles for the perfection of art. This function can only be served when the tradition of art is followed which has been derived from the long experience of ages.

Part 4

In the final and concluding part of the essay Eliot says that some intellectually weak people like Arnold and Murry consider criticism better than the creative art. For Eliot, all arts have creativity- desire to produce something from creative imaginations which come.

A creative text can be produced only through criticism which includes analysis, evaluation, construction of his work. Hence criticism and creative art co-exist and go hand in hand.

A critic, as opposed to a writer, analysis the creative text only and then writes. Criticism is possible only if creative aspects are present. Hence criticism itself is not creative. Thus Eliot here questions Arnold’s preference for critic rather than the writer.