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How to Write Critical Essays

How to Write Critical Essays

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Published by: cindy utomo on Aug 07, 2011
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A firm line is often drawn between scholarship as facts and
criticism as opinions. The information offered by a competent
literary historian or biographer is supposedly true even if of
debatable relevance. By contrast, criticism, the argument runs,
admits to making only partial and partisan contributions to a
continuing debate; so you should read it critically, feeling
sceptical and even downright suspicious about what it wishes
you to believe.

Yet even a textual editor, whom you at first take to be
fastidiously neutral and motivated solely by a wish to give you
the exact words of the text as its author intended, has to make
choices. The most elaborate variorum edition may still demote
some versions to a lowly and ghostly existence at the foot of the
page while privileging others above in a larger print as if these
form the only true text. Certainly some commentators would
now argue that literary history, like all history, is inevitably
partisan. Its author may never explicitly define—let alone
rationally defend—any theoretical premises. Yet limited space
will force selectivity. Many authors and texts will not be openly
attacked but just silently condemned as not even deserving to be
mentioned. The few that are judged admissible will be related
to each other in a patterned sequence: some systems of
connection and distinction will be given priority; others will be
quietly rejected. An implicit hierarchy of values will also emerge
in the varying amounts of space awarded to different texts.
More specifically, what aspects of any one text are
foregrounded and which ways of reading it are recommended

46How to write critical essays

will depend on the expert’s own convictions as to what a
culture should create or conserve.
The converse process by which certain emphases and
interpretations are censored is potentially even more costly. Of
course, a politically radical interpretation of Paradise Lost or
The Prelude need not be explicitly forbidden as wickedly
subversive. The scholar’s approach can just bypass it as
ignorantly tangential: a cul-de-sac fit only for the ill-informed
or the simple-minded. The English Civil War may be briefly
acknowledged as contemporary with Milton’s epic. The French
Revolution may be mentioned as close in time to Wordsworth’s
verse autobiography. Yet, in a guide to the origins of Paradise
Lost, Virgil and Dante might still be given overwhelmingly
more space than contemporary politics. An account of how The
Prelude discovered its substance and style may devote far more
pages to Wordsworth’s study of earlier poets (particularly
Milton himself, as it happens) than to his experience of
revolution in Paris or his later fears that England itself might
become unrecognizably democratic.
Literary history can in fact reduce itself to a mere history of
literature, as if the history of classes and nations had developed
in some wholly separate world. The influence of author upon
author may leave little room for the effect of major events upon
texts. It may leave none at all for the production or prevention
of major events by texts themselves.
You may think that texts simply do not have that kind of
power; you may think that they mirror, rather than create, the
beliefs which determine behaviour. Certainly, to seem
comprehensible to their contemporary readers, texts do have to
work within a given vocabulary. The parameters of that
vocabulary do perhaps reflect the prevailing political climate. A
text’s language must acknowledge those distinctions between
the meaningfully important and the meaninglessly trivial which
are accepted by the dominant culture. Nevertheless, within
these limits, an energetic work of literature may still make itself
sufficient room for manoeuvre to redefine its readers’
assumptions about what is conceivable or desirable. ‘Poets’, as
Shelley argues in his preface to Prometheus Unbound, ‘are in
one sense the creations and in another the creators of their age’.
So, too, are scholars and critics. Their preferences among
texts can be both cause and effect of what modern society

Researching an answer47

values in its past history. Shelley himself, for instance, wrote a
poem called ‘England in 1819’ about a major political event of
that year. Unarmed and peaceful demonstrators in Manchester
had been listening to speeches in favour of ordinary people
being allowed the vote. Cavalry with drawn sabres were sent in
to disperse them. Many men and women were injured. Some
were killed. Shelley in that year wrote more than one poem
which might have made the massacre an unforgettable
martyrdom to be remembered by any reader who values
freedom. The poems, like those whom they seek to
commemorate, are in fact now largely forgotten. Yet as an
attentive student of literary history, you may still learn to
remember 1819 as a crucial year because it was then that Keats
wrote odes to a nightingale and to a piece of ancient Greek
pottery.

Literary biography can be as tendentious as literary history.
Sentimental concentration upon Milton’s physiological
blindness or gossip about his personal difficulties in relating to
women are obviously distractions from the poetic texts. But
even the most sophisticated literary biographies encourage
certain responses to the text and discourage others. By
definition of genre, such biography implies that a text’s author
is a major issue; that discovering what a writer intended in
composing a text is possible and indeed profitable; that the
author’s own interpretation and even evaluation may
legitimately determine ours.
Moreover, personalizing a text as the product of some
interestingly individualistic intellect often leads to its content
being structured around other supposed individuals. A novel’s
characterization may be assumed to matter more than its
support for, or challenge to, the values of a given society. If a
playwright’s own idiosyncrasies of behaviour are emphasized,
then the voices of the dramatic text are likely to be explored as
interestingly deviant from, rather than typical of, a particular
social group or economic class.
The alliance of literary historians and biographers can be
exemplified by the reported superiority of Elizabethan to
medieval drama. Dr Faustus is often described as an advance on
Everyman less because it offers a subtler analysis of its society
than because it explores the idiosyncratic thoughts and feelings
of its individualistic characters. You are likely to be reminded—

48How to write critical essays

however discreetly—by scholars recommending this hierarchy
that Everyman is anonymous whereas Dr Faustus was written
by Kit Marlowe about whose life we know a few racy stories.
I am only suggesting that you should read historical and
biographical works critically—not that you should ignore them.
For many of the tasks undertaken early in a literary
apprenticeship, some mapping of the available texts and of the
ways in which they can be related is absolutely essential, and
learning about an author’s life may well stimulate you into
returning to the works with renewed curiosity. Moreover, an
intelligent biographer will offer you a portrait of the society
which formed the author’s so-called personality, and explain
what assumptions in the original readership the texts had to
anticipate. The language of the work that you mean to
appreciate is arguably the language of a particular tribe at one
time in its history. Of course, if you believe in genius and its
magically transforming power, you may want to concentrate
upon the originality with which a gifted author deploys that
vocabulary. Even this, however, requires some knowledge of
what all members of a given social group once defined as
sensible or senseless. Only those who have learnt to speak a
common language can measure the extent to which some texts
put it to uncommon use.

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