The Golden Age of the English Poet-Critic

Today we have academics and professional critics as well as novelists and poets who moonlight as critics. But prior to the establishment of literary study as an academic field in the twentieth century, nearly all criticism in English was written by creative writers, often poets. Their criticism is characterized by autobiographical arguments that make little use of outside opinion, and are stylized enough to be called poetic. Their criticism is literature. Of course, poet-critics are still with us (see: James Fenton, Charles Simic), but no longer are they as highly regarded as they were from roughly the mid-sixteenth to the mid-twentieth century. This list is a tour d’horizon of the golden age of the English poet-critic.

“The Defense of Poesy” by Sir Philip Sydney

Sidney’s apology is by common acknowledgment the first significant critical essay on English literature. It begins with an anecdote about the poet’s 1574 visit to Maximilian II’s Viennese court, where an equerry’s discourse on horsemanship convinced the poet that “self-love is better than any gilding to make that seem gorgeous wherein ourselves are parties.” What Sidney means is that one’s ability to persuade others of the beauty of an activity is enhanced by actual participation. Although the essay is mainly remembered for the assertion that the “poet, he nothing affirmieth, and therefore never lieth” (a reply to a Puritan attack on poetry’s immorality), it also lays out a potent argument for the superiority of practitioners’ criticism, paving the way for all poet-critics to come.

The Major Works by Samuel Johnson

Johnson was truly polymorphic, working variously as a biographer, critic, lexicographer, poet, and romance writer. His wife especially enjoyed his criticism, about which she once said, “I thought very well of you before this; but I did not imagine you could have written any thing equal to this.” In an essay on fiction for The Rambler, he notes that although the writers of his time are becoming more adept at documenting everyday life, the “most important concern that an author…ought to have before him” is the moral effect of his writing upon the young. Illustrating the point, in a preface to Shakespeare’s plays, Johnson exonerates the playwright for breaking the unities of place and time for the sake of action. Johnson’s work, in short, is a reminder of the critic’s duty to inculcate principles.

Selected Letters of John Keats

Keats’s critical pronouncements were made not in standard essay form but through intensely passionate letters. Penned before his death at the age of 25, Keats’s theories of poetic truth are somewhat contradictory. He writes to a friend, “axioms in philosophy are not axioms until they are proved upon the pulses.” But he describes Wordsworth as an egotist “peacocking” over “speculations,” and his infamous concept of “negative capability”—the poet’s willingness to inhabit irresolution—is less a sensual than an intellectual demand. Keats never fused his beliefs in emotional engagement and detachment, and, anyway, he thought all such theories provisional. But despite all the tossing and turning, his criticism is a pleasure to read. As T. S. Eliot observed, “His letters are what letters ought to be; the fine things come in unexpectedly, neither introduced nor shown out, but between trifle and trifle.”

Studies in Classic American Literature by D. H. Lawrence

Lawrence’s father was a miner who, by his son’s admission, hated books. His mother, a former schoolteacher, sparked Lawrence’s love of literature. These essays fall somewhere between the two by radiating a contempt for what Lawrence views as the “merely literary.” For him, art is foremost a “mine for practical truth,” and the artist’s responsibility is to guard against sentimentalization. In this vein, Lawrence responds to Hector St. John Crèvecœur’s posture as a “child-of-nature-sweet-and-pure” with the retort, “Hector St. John, you are an emotional liar.” (Crèvecœur is best known for writing Letters From an American Farmer, a series of vignettes about the rustic life in Colonial America.) Similarly, Lawrence finds Whitman at fault for identifying with all of nature; his poems are “post-mortem effects. The individuality has leaked out of him.” James Fenimore Cooper’s depiction of the friendship between a hunter and a Native American is described approvingly: a “stark, loveless, wordless unison.”

Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot

In The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, Eliot is identified as the “first non-academic critic who sounds like an academic critic.” While Eliot wrote on the cusp of the close-reading movement, his intellectual curiosities—which stretched back to the Metaphysical poets—were deeply idiosyncratic, and his dry, “scholarly” style was the result of temperament, not training. His best essays bear directly on his poetry. When he says in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” that the poet should write out of the feeling that the “whole of the literature of Europe… has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order,” he may as well be describing his own ambition. When he defends John Donne by suggesting Donne’s extravagant conceits are “compelled” into poetic unity, Eliot is clearing space for his own experiments in collage. Beneath Eliot’s impersonal veneer were carefully wrought beliefs.

Tayt Harlin has written for The Village Voice and The Los Angeles Times.