As I Please
Tribune, 5 May 1944
For anyone who wants a good laugh I
recommend a book which was published about a dozen years ago, but which I only recently
succeeded in getting hold of. This is I. A. Richardss Practical Criticism.
Although mostly concerned with the general principles of literary
criticism, it also describes an experiment that Mr Richards made with, or one should
perhaps say on, his English students at Cambridge. Various volunteers, not actually
students but presumably interested in English literature, also took part. Thirteen poems
were presented to them, and they were asked to criticize them. The authorship of the poems
was not revealed, and none of them was well enough known to be recognized at sight by the
average reader. You are getting, therefore, specimens of literary criticism not
complicated by snobbishness of the ordinary kind.
One ought not to be too superior, and there is no need to be,
because the book is so arranged that you can try the experiment on yourself. The poems,
unsigned, are all together at the end, and the authors names are on a fold-over page
which you need not look at till afterwards. I will say at once that I only spotted the
authorship of two, one of which I knew already, and though I could date most of the others
within a few decades, I made two bad bloomers, in one case attributing to Shelley a poem
written in the nineteen-twenties. But still, some of the comments recorded by Dr Richards
are startling. They go to show that many people who would describe themselves as lovers of
poetry have no more notion of distinguishing between a good poem and a bad one than a dog
has of arithmetic.
For example, a piece of completely spurious bombast by Alfred Noyes gets quite a lot of
praise. One critic compares it to Keats.
A sentimental ballad from Rough Rhymes of a Padre, by Woodbine Willie,
also gets quite a good press. On the other hand, a magnificent sonnet by John Donne gets a distinctly chilly
reception. Dr Richards records only three favourable criticisms and about a dozen cold or
hostile ones. One writer says contemptuously that the poem would make a good
hymn, while another remarks, I can find no other reaction except
disgust. Donne was at that time at the top of his reputation and no doubt most of
the people taking part in this experiment would have fallen on their faces at his name. D. H. Lawrences poem
The Piano gets many sneers, though it is praised by a minority. So also with a
short poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins.
The worst poem I have ever read, declares one writer, while anothers
criticism is simply Pish-posh!
However, before blaming these youthful students for their bad
judgement, let it be remembered that when some time ago somebody published a not very
convincing fake of an eighteenth-century diary, the aged critic, Sir Edmund Gosse, librarian of the
House of Lords, fell for it immediately. And there was also the case of the Parisian art
critics, of I forget which school, who went into rhapsodies over a picture
which was afterwards discovered to have been painted by a donkey with a paint-brush tied
to its tail.
Under the heading We Are Destroying Birds that Save Us, the News
Chronicle notes that beneficial birds suffer from human ignorance. There is
senseless persecution of the kestrel and barn owl. No two species of birds do better work
Unfortunately it isnt even from ignorance. Most of the
birds of prey are killed off for the sake of that enemy of England, the pheasant. Unlike
the partridge, the pheasant does not thrive in England, and apart from the neglected
woodlands and the vicious game laws that it has been responsible for, all birds or animals
that are suspected of eating its eggs or chicks are systematically wiped out. Before the
war, near my village in Hertfordshire, I used to pass a stretch of fence where the
gamekeeper kept his larder. Dangling from the wires were the corpses of
stoats, weasels, rats, hedgehogs, jays, owls, kestrels and sparrow-hawks. Except for the
rats and perhaps the jays, all of these creatures are beneficial to agriculture. The
stoats keep down the rabbits, the weasels eat mice, and so do the kestrels and
sparrow-hawks, while the owls eat rats as well. It has been calculated that a barn owl
destroys between 1,000 and 2,000 rats and mice in a year. Yet it has to be killed off for
the sake of this useless bird which Rudyard
Kipling correctly described as lord of many a shire.