traditional literary criticism

Traditional literary criticism takes the humanist view, and looks for both technical skills and significant content, for a re-representation of themes that belong to the great commonplaces of human existence. On that count, the poem under discussion is not successful. Subtleties of outlook and expression can be teased out, but its outlook is strange and unconvincing.


There is no traditional school of literary criticism as such: criticism has been much too various to join under one roof, as a glance at any history of the subject will show. {1} But for the purposes of this guide, we call traditional that criticism which is above all concerned about the content of poetry. It is not overtly or rigidly moralistic. It does not paraphrase a poem to extract its "message" and then grade the poem on how well the truth or significance of that message is expressed. But it does see art as holding up some mirror to nature. A poem is valued for its ability to provide a heightened intellectual/emotional experience like no other, and for its literary skills in achieving that end, but there is also the tacit understanding that the writing and reading of poetry will be a civilizing experience, making us a little more perceptive, tolerant and thoughtful. {2}

Is that realistic? All notions of civilization have taken a battering in the last hundred years — in world wars, genocide, totalitarian repression — and examples are not wanting of individuals who combined exquisite literary sensibilities with unspeakable cruelty. Nor do writers exactly display in their private lives the qualities of their creations, especially the more driven and ambitious writers.

But perhaps the discrepancies shouldn't be exaggerated. Though Du Fu wrote against the horrors of the An Lu-shan rebellion, and Shakespeare's England was a police state, both poets wrote with a steady eye, acknowledging the worst while not denying the best. Good and bad is no doubt mixed in all of us, and only cynics deny goals and standards because humanity consistently falls short of them. Man is the measure of his world, acutely aware of his nature, and poetry that excludes the less attractive we feel is sanitized and sentimental.

But Humanism is not at heart a belief in man's perfectibility, but an attempt to give our lives significance by extending the great commonplaces of existence: the brevity of human existence, the joy of love and comradeship, the pain of separation and bereavement, and so forth. Ceaselessly these great themes are repeated in more subtle and telling ways. {3} The commonplaces are myths, compelling and self-reinforcing structures of understanding that give our lives purpose and coherence, but they seem also to reflect structures biologists recognize in neural physiology. {4} Even in the very different traditions of Indian and Chinese poetry something of the same themes appear, though expressed (in Chinese poetry) with a good deal more acquiescence and abnegation. {5}

Such a view clearly brings a respect for tradition, its themes and skills. Traditionalist poetry builds on the past. Perhaps only in this century, in Modernism with all its strains, has there been such esteem for inverting the process, of basing the larger world view on individual perceptions. Even the Romantics were well read in the classical languages, though the better poetry, or what we today regard as the better poetry, gradually separated itself from society and earlier literature as the century progressed. A hundred years later, and not only is much contemporary art unreal and solipsist, but its consumption requires blatant merchandising. British auction sales of art increased from £31 million in 1970/71 to £2.8 billion in 1989/90: a tenfold increase in lots and ninety-fold in prices. {6} Unfortunately, profits have not gone to artists but to middlemen. Serious writers and painters still find it very hard to make a living, and must follow a whirligig of fashion that is largely indifferent to quality. As prices rise, and works of art soar beyond the means of the average investor, so new areas of collecting are opened up — not all with aesthetic merit, and not usually contemporary work, or the best of contemporary work. Informed, perceptive judgement is rare in any field, and since only the really outré will provide the story line a reviewer needs, the ambitious artist may have to cultivate what he inwardly despises: the outrageous, the flashy, the up-to-moment scam. The jobbing writer knows the value of topicality, and the poetry world is not without its specious promotions.

Be that as it may, a good deal of criticism — proper criticism, not reviewing — is still broadly traditional. Many who criticized the animality of Ted Hughes's poetry, or praised U.A. Fanthorpe's insight into the draughty corners of the welfare state, were signed up members of Modernism but reverting to the older view that content is important, that poetry should reveal and extend something significant about ourselves. Our gaze goes through the poem to the world beyond. Audaciously original, we say, and compellingly written, but can we really accept the poem's outlook? Do we come away from the poem with a larger view of humanity, more clearly grasped, with a greater range of perceptions, sensibilities and thoughts coherently integrated? If not, then we mark the poem down.

Published Examples

John Press's The Fire and the Fountain: Essays on Poetry (1955)
Christine Brooke-Rose's A ZBC of Ezra Pound. (1971).
Anthony Thwaite's Twentieth Century English Poetry: An Introduction (1978)
Blake Morrison's The Movement: English Poetry and Fiction of the 1950's (1989)
X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia's An Introduction to Poetry (1994).
John Lennard's The Poetry Handbook: A Guide to Reading Poetry for Pleasure and Practical Criticism (1996).
Tom Furniss and Michael Bath's Reading Poetry: An Introduction (1996).
Mark Stroud and Eavan Boland's The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms (2000).

Analysis: What's it Saying?

What is the poem saying, or trying to say? Remarks on other matters — organization, rhythmic energy, imagery, emotional appeal, etc. — are secondary to at least a rough paraphrase. Here is the poem:

The Architects

But, as you'd expect, they are very
Impatient, the buildings, having much in them
Of the heavy surf of the North Sea, flurrying
The grit, lifting the pebbles, flinging them
With a hoarse roar against the aggregate

They are composed of — the cliffs higher of course,
More burdensome, underwritten as
It were with past days overcast
And glinting, obdurate, part of the
Silicate of tough lives, distant and intricate

As the whirring bureaucrats let in
And settled with coffee in the concrete pallets,
Awaiting the post and the department meeting —
Except that these do not know it, at least do not
Seem to, being busy, generally.

So perhaps it is only on those cloudless, almost
Vacuumed afternoons with tier upon tier
Of concrete like rib-bones packed above them,
And they light-headed with the blue airiness
Spinning around, and muzzy, a neuralgia

Calling at random like frail relations, a phone
Ringing in a distant office they cannot get to,
That they become attentive, or we do — these
Divisions persisting, indeed what we talk about,
We, constructing these webs of buildings which,

Caulked like great whales about us, are always
Aware that some trick of the light or weather
Will dress them as friends, pleading and flailing —
And fill with placid but unbearable melodies
Us in deep hinterlands of incurved glass.


Our first response is probably bewilderment. The subject appears to be buildings, which are invested with echoes of the natural processes that created their constituents. But in the third stanza the focus shifts to the buildings' occupants, and then in the fifth stanza — possibly, the referents are very unclear — the voice comes from those who designed or constructed the buildings, which is indeed what the title suggests. Along the way, and introduced obliquely, without clear connection to the main theme of the poem, are various images: aggregate, North Sea, stormy days, hard lives, bureaucrats, light-headedness, frail relations, whales, hinterlands of incurved glass. The links by free association are obvious enough, but what precisely is the poem saying? That we, the architects, are imprisoned by our own creations? Possibly, but why then the strong evocation of the sea, the burden of hard days, the bureaucrats who remain unaware of these matters? And who is the "they" in line 19 — the bureaucrats, architects, ourselves?

Until recently such a poem would be returned to its author with instructions to sort out, clarify, explain what is meant by. . . But before we dismiss the thing as hopelessly inept, we should acknowledge that some of the images are striking, that the rhythm variously evokes the subject matter, and that a discreet tone of melancholy pervades the piece and gives it a strange coherence. Since none of these can be achieved randomly, without a vestige of skill, there may be something beyond first appearances.

Suppose we fasten on the melancholy and question its source — contextual source, not the falling rhythms and somewhat drifting focus. Perhaps we could assume that one of the great commonplaces is being evoked, that of the brevity of human life in the unchanging face of nature. But nature is not unchanging in this poem, but seems an urgent and overwhelming force. The urgency appears in the North Sea sections, floats off into the blue yonder in the middle of the poem, and then returns subterraneously (or subaqueously) at its conclusion where the speaker is tormented by the homesick voices of the very materials with which the very buildings constructed. This is a very odd view. Rilke, that most lonely and rootless of men, saw the poet's task as giving inanimate nature a fuller existence through artistic creation, but no such ambition is manifest here. The speaker, like a fly in amber (though alive and acutely conscious), is held in the deep hinterlands of incurved glass — glass being silica, the main constituent of the harder rock-forming minerals.

But what about the opening line? To what end are the buildings impatient, and why should we expect them to be? Because we are also part of their inanimate nature, just so much calcium, carbon, phosphorus and the lighter elements? Perhaps so: our complicity with nature is inescapable. But why does the impatience continue throughout the poem — in the bureaucrats waiting for post and meetings, the blue airiness spinning about, the frail relations calling at random, the phone ringing, the "we" constructing great webs of buildings, the whales pleading for something?

Because it's in the nature of such things. There is no further reason. Only "pointless, witless nature" as Housman called it. We are hurried on, as all nature is hurried on, to ends we cannot foresee and cannot understand. Certainly this is an ancient commonplace, though it's not one of Humanism.

How Effective is the Language?

No doubt other interpretations are possible, but the poem does make some sense when viewed in this light. Or could be construed so. For what is strikingly absent is a connecting argument, something open to paraphrase. Interpretation has not been used to extract or summarize, but more to fill out the poem's hollow centre. Nothing is very clearly connected, and we do not know precisely who the speakers are, or why they're responding in this way.

Should we? Poetry is usually a compressed language, a code that avoids specifics so as to expand into a wider range of different readers' consciousness. But this poem is more tenuous than compressed, and its vacancies seem part of its effect. An emptiness lies at the heart of all things, and such an emptiness is the scene of intense affections that implicate us but lead to no ultimate purpose.

Accept that, at least for the moment, and look at the techniques employed to render impatience, emptiness, a complicity with nature. First is the rhythm: compelling in the first stanza, becoming disjointed in the second, then fining out until gathering into smooth fullness in the last few lines. The metre is not regular — though generally possessing five stresses to the line — so much as modulated with the content. And within this overall movement there appear shorter intervals of generally falling rhythm, so that on both scales the rhythm seems redolent of waves breaking endlessly on a beach: a fairly traditional stage prop. Not only the imagery, moreover, but the very texture of the lines reinforces the overall shape of the rhythm: the wetness of pebbles in aggregate, the splintery alliteration of lines 9 and 10, the open assonance of lines 16-17, the back-of-the-throat vowels of the concluding lines. And so on. The rhythm would benefit from a detailed analysis, which is indeed conducted under Stylistic Literary Criticism, and so not repeated here.

How is the emptiness conveyed? By displacement. The first line is perfectly idiomatic, but the buildings follows after the two striking phrases, which therefore hang unexplained. Then there is flurrying which refers to surf of course, but by its position seems to attach itself to the buildings. Cliffs refers back to aggregate, but less securely, and thereafter the connections become very tenuous indeed. Burdensome, underwritten, part of the silicate, intricate as the whirring bureaucrats — to these and many others a referent can be found, but they are far from obvious at first reading, so that the images are vivid without obvious shaping. Then comes So perhaps it is only.. Which is baffling if not downright insulting. The previous stanza trailed away into a vagueness, from which nothing follows very certainly. The poem began as though half way through a discussion, and this So also refers to something undisclosed. A similar disconnectedness pertains to they and we. The last line has a solid, concluding fullness to it, the S's rounding off stressed phrases — Us, hinterlands and glass — but the Us is not simply the person being filled with melodies in the previous line, but the speaker implied throughout most of the poem. The technique used to open the poem also brings it to a close. The syntax is not incorrect, but does seem very stretched and thin.

But there is nothing tenuous about the complicity of the speaker with nature. It is boldly assumed: As you'd expect... Silicate of tough lives. . So perhaps... Will dress them as friends... The tone is confiding, and the confidence rests on nothing. But because there is never pause for reflection, the impatient rhythm and sinuous syntax carry us on until we — with webs, Caulked, dress, fill and deep — are immured in the facticity (as Heidegger might have put it) of inanimate things. Uncomfortably immured, we should add, having been rough-handled by the syntax, and our reference frames removed.

How Significant is the Poem?

A good deal of craft is evident — consult other critical approaches for further evidence — but the question traditional criticism always asks is: has it been worthwhile? Is the outlook sufficiently generous and persuasive? Have the boundaries of the sayable been extended in any way, or traditional territory retraced with greater depth or clarity?

It is hard to think so. The poem is certainly intriguing, and no doubt a welcome change from so many contemporary offerings that dress up hackneyed thoughts in lumpen everyday speech, but the outlook is very unpersuasive. Poets with their paper-thin sensibilities may indeed posses an extra level of consciousness that attunes them to the siren songs of inanimate nature, but such intimations are foreign to most readers. An interesting novelty, we might say, but not significant.

Suggested Improvements

Here traditional criticism stops. Much could and should be investigated in detail, but the poem will remain an oddity, something beyond most readers' interest. A certain amount of clarification would not hurt — we should like to know who the "they" and "we" are, and have some of the drifting imagery of the central sections tied down — but the poem could not be made into the traditionally acceptable without major surgery or recasting. Being neither traditional (nor entirely Postmodernist, as other pages will show) the poems will not easily find a home in the small presses. To the aspiring author we would probably say: either produce a considerable body of such work so that we can see where the approach is going, or return to the common interests of human beings.

Some of the shortcomings have been corrected in a new version, now entitled Office Workers.

This and other pages in the Literary Criticism section are now available as a free pdf ebook from Ocaso Press entitled 'Ten Approaches to Literary Criticism'.


1. George Watson's The Literary Critics (1986).
2. Chapters 3 and 7 of David Daiches's Critical Approaches to Literature (1981) and H. Bloom's The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages. (1994).
3. Walter Nash's Rhetoric: The Wit of Persuasion (1989).
4. R.O. Becker and AA Marino's Electromagnetism and Life. (1982).
5. J. Liu's The Art of Chinese Poetry. (1962) and Kalyan Sen Gupta's Indian Aesthetics entry in David Cooper's A Companion to Aesthetics (1992).
6. Christopher Wood's The Great Art Boom (1997).

Internet Resources

1. Quarterly Literary Review of Singapore. Non-partisan and free online.
2. The Constant Critic. Tri-weekly poetry reviews.
3. Contemporary Poetry Review. Excellent reviews of poetry both sides of the Atlantic.
4. Romanticism and Contemporary Poetry and Poetics. Lisa Steinman (Ed.) Detailed and contemporary literary criticism.
5. The Cambridge History of English and American Literature. 1907-21, but still useful.
6. Schools of Literary Criticism. Brian Bauld. Short listing: traditional.
7. Perspectives in American Literature. Paul P. Reuben. Oct. 2003. pal/table.html. Searchable database of bibliographies.
8. Literary Encyclopedia. Author profiles.
9. Reading Poetry. James R. Elkins. Jan. 2004.
. Listings of useful articles and interviews.
10. Literature Classics. Jan. 2004. Online texts and more.
11. Literary History. Jan Pridmore. Jan. 2004. Index of critical articles.
12. Literary Criticism. Library Spot's listing.
13. Comparative Literature and Theory. Stephen Hock and Mark Sample. Jun. 2003. Essential listings.
14. Literary Resources on the Net. Jack Lynch. Jun. 2003. s Extensive as usual.
15. Internet Public Library. Jun. 2002. Listing of critical and biographical websites.
16. English Literature on the Web. Mitsuharu Matsuoka. %7Ematsuoka/EngLit.html. Very extensive listings.


C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if cited in the usual way.