In an essay on criticism written more than 150 years ago, Matthew Arnold quotes William Wordsworth as follows:
"...if the quantity of time consumed in writing critiques on the works of others were given to original composition...it would be much better employed...and it would do infinitely less mischief."
After making it clear that he disdains "false and malicious" critiques, Arnold spends the next 20 or so pages quietly disagreeing with Wordsworth and eloquently defending the role of criticism as having the power to "make the best ideas prevail."
What do you, as contributing writers, poets, and critics to this site have to say? I am very interested in whether you lean more towards Wordsworth's opinion, or that of Arnold.
Someone once said that the relationship of a critic to an author was like that of a dog to a lamp-post. On the other hand, A.E.Housman said that the ability to practice criticism was a very rare and valuable attribute. There are people with the ability to appreciate developed to a high level but without the ability to create. Some have both qualities. Critics I have enjoyed and learned from include: Dryden, Johnson, Arnold himself, Eliot, Empson, Fussell, Ricks. They have all taught me things I would probably not have learned otherwise. All write well themselves.
A good critic is a TEACHER who can introduce a book or a writer (movie or filmmaker, etc.) to a new audience. A good critic can rescue neglected work and get it the attention it deserves. A good critic can also denounce work that is being called "great" when it is merely trendy.
A good critic cannot please everyone, and must occasionally enrage some.
A bad critic is a whole nuther thing.
Henry Fielding's feelings about "modern critics" of his own time is aired in this chapter from TOM JONES:
IN WHICH THE HISTORY GOES FORWARD ABOUT TWELVE HOURS.
Chapter i. - Containing instructions very necessary to be perused by modern critics.
Reader, it is impossible we should know what sort of person thou wilt
be; for, perhaps, thou may'st be as learned in human nature as
Shakespear himself was, and, perhaps, thou may'st be no wiser than
some of his editors. Now, lest this latter should be the case, we
think proper, before we go any farther together, to give thee a few
wholesome admonitions; that thou may'st not as grossly misunderstand
and misrepresent us, as some of the said editors have misunderstood
and misrepresented their author.
First, then, we warn thee not too hastily to condemn any of the
incidents in this our history as impertinent and foreign to our main
design, because thou dost not immediately conceive in what manner such
incident may conduce to that design. This work may, indeed, be
considered as a great creation of our own; and for a little reptile of
a critic to presume to find fault with any of its parts, without
knowing the manner in which the whole is connected, and before he
comes to the final catastrophe, is a most presumptuous absurdity. The
allusion and metaphor we have here made use of, we must acknowledge to be infinitely too great for our occasion; but there is, indeed, no
other, which is at all adequate to express the difference between an
author of the first rate and a critic of the lowest.
Another caution we would give thee, my good reptile, is, that thou
dost not find out too near a resemblance between certain characters
here introduced; as, for instance, between the landlady who appears in
the seventh book and her in the ninth. Thou art to know, friend, that
there are certain characteristics in which most individuals of every
profession and occupation agree. To be able to preserve these
characteristics, and at the same time to diversify their operations,
is one talent of a good writer. Again, to mark the nice distinction
between two persons actuated by the same vice or folly is another;
and, as this last talent is found in very few writers, so is the true
discernment of it found in as few readers; though, I believe, the
observation of this forms a very principal pleasure in those who are
capable of the discovery; every person, for instance, can distinguish
between Sir Epicure Mammon and Sir Fopling Flutter; but to note the
difference between Sir Fopling Flutter and Sir Courtly Nice requires a
more exquisite judgment: for want of which, vulgar spectators of plays
very often do great injustice in the theatre; where I have sometimes
known a poet in danger of being convicted as a thief, upon much worse
evidence than the resemblance of hands hath been held to be in the
law. In reality, I apprehend every amorous widow on the stage would
run the hazard of being condemned as a servile imitation of Dido, but
that happily very few of our play-house critics understand enough of
Latin to read Virgil.
In the next place, we must admonish thee, my worthy friend (for,
perhaps, thy heart may be better than thy head), not to condemn a
character as a bad one, because it is not perfectly a good one. If
thou dost delight in these models of perfection, there are books enow
written to gratify thy taste; but, as we have not, in the course of
our conversation, ever happened to meet with any such person, we have
not chosen to introduce any such here. To say the truth, I a little
question whether mere man ever arrived at this consummate degree of
excellence, as well as whether there hath ever existed a monster bad
enough to verify that
----nulla virtute redemptum
 Whose vices are not allayed with a single virtue
in Juvenal; nor do I, indeed, conceive the good purposes served by
inserting characters of such angelic perfection, or such diabolical
depravity, in any work of invention; since, from contemplating either,
the mind of man is more likely to be overwhelmed with sorrow and shame
than to draw any good uses from such patterns; for in the former
instance he may be both concerned and ashamed to see a pattern of
excellence in his nature, which he may reasonably despair of ever
arriving at; and in contemplating the latter he may be no less
affected with those uneasy sensations, at seeing the nature of which
he is a partaker degraded into so odious and detestable a creature.
In fact, if there be enough of goodness in a character to engage the
admiration and affection of a well-disposed mind, though there should
appear some of those little blemishes "quas humana parum cavit
natura", they will raise our compassion rather than our abhorrence.
Indeed, nothing can be of more moral use than the imperfections which
are seen in examples of this kind; since such form a kind of surprize,
more apt to affect and dwell upon our minds than the faults of very
vicious and wicked persons. The foibles and vices of men, in whom
there is great mixture of good, become more glaring objects from the
virtues which contrast them and shew their deformity; and when we find
such vices attended with their evil consequence to our favourite
characters, we are not only taught to shun them for our own sake, but
to hate them for the mischiefs they have already brought on those we
And now, my friend, having given you these few admonitions, we will,
if you please, once more set forward with our history.
[c opied from the PROJECT GUTENBERG edition at:
With fear, I recently critiqued a short story my brother wanted to submit.
Since he asked, I did it-with trepidation. I was honest and found much
to say. I love that quote from the movie Restoration-by Hugh Grant.
" It's excresence-burn it-don't show anyone." It's natural to fear
that we might harm, but I suffer less from criticism than from my friends
unwillingness to read my work. Perhaps it's no good. They are mostly
unwilling to read-I think-for fear of affronting me when I ask for their
opinion. There is a lot of trash out there-I've done some. If my work
is trash I would rather a kindly soul informed me than continue on
ignorantly, blissfully, writing gobbley gook.
My brother recognized the truth of my critique and appreciated my
help-He is bigger that life perhaps. I like to think I also can take
honest criticism-even when harsh-but it's hard. So there are two
things happening here; honest criticism and honest self reflection.
When these two are present, improvement can happen.
Personaly I think it's worth the risk-from both sides. dlc
All good critics. I'd add Coleridge to the list.
Other critics that come immediately to mind are I A Richards, Northrop Frye and Cleanth Brooks. There are many more but each of these have taught me a lot about understanding.