Practical Criticism : Series of Experiments by the Cambridge Critic I.A. Richards



“It is a perfectly possible means of overcoming chaos.”

I. A. Richards 
Science and Poetry

Practical criticism began in the 1920s with a series of experiments by the Cambridge critic I. A. Richards (English literary critic, semanticist, and educator). With the British psychologist and educator Charles Kay Ogden, Richards wrote The Meaning of Meaning (1923), a modern study of semantics viewed from a historical and critical standpoint. Principles of Literary Criticism (1924), Science and Poetry (1926), and especially, Practical Criticism (1929) changed radically the way English is studied and taught. In Practical Criticism  he described experiments revealing that even highly educated people are conditioned by their education, by handed-down opinion, and by other social and circumstantial elements in their aesthetic responses. Other writers have commented on the conditioning effects of tradition, fashion, and other social pressures, noting, for example, that in the early 18th century the plays of William Shakespeare were viewed as barbarous and Gothic art as vulgar. 


Thus , Richards emphasized the importance of close textual reading and warned against the dangers of sentimentality, generalizations, and lazy, careless reading. His work led to the New Criticism, which shaped literary analysis for much of the 20th century. His other writings include Coleridge on Imagination (1934), a study of the famous poet's theory of the imaginative faculty; Basic English and Its Uses (1943), which proposed that the entire world adopt 850 English words to facilitate worldwide communication; The Screens and Other Poems (1960); So Much Nearer (1968), a book of essays; and Internal Colloquies (1973), a collection of poems and plays.

I. A. Richards
 He gave poems to students without any information about the author, period or explanatory commentary and asked students to respond to poems that were thus completely stripped of their context. In  Practical Criticism (1929) he reported on and analyzed the results of his experiments. The objective of his work was to encourage students to concentrate on 'the words on the page', rather than relying on preconceived or received beliefs about a text. For Richards this form of close analysis of anonymous poems was ultimately intended to have psychological benefits for the students: by responding to all the currents of emotion and meaning in the poems and passages of prose which they read the students were to achieve what Richards called an 'organized response'. This meant that they would clarify the various currents of thought in the poem and achieve a corresponding clarification of their own emotions.

Practical criticism focuses on the text and text alone. Because of this exclusively textual orientation, it was an ideal programme for teasing out all the opposites- thought versus feeling, seriousness versus high spirits, resignation versus anger and so on, and for Richards,  these were reconciled  and transcended in poetry often through the use of irony. It spread the idea that the best poems created a vulnerable harmony out of conflicting perspectives and emotions. This view later develops into New Criticism in the 1940s and 1950s in the United States and becomes a major mode of criticism there.

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