Auden on Criticism

I have a quotation for you tonight. This is by W.H. Auden (a favorite poet of mine) from “De Droite et de Gauche.” He published it in French in a French journal, and the translation here is done by Richard Howard. I found it in the latest Harper’s magazine. I think the entire quotation is great, but don’t miss the last paragraph in particular:

Criticism is tradition defending itself against the three armies of the Goddess Stupidity: the army of amateurs who are ignorant of tradition; the army of conceited eccentrics who believe tradition should be suppressed by a stroke of the pen in order that true art may begin with them; and the army of academicians who believe they maintain tradition by a servile imitation of the past.

The desire to link art to life, beauty to truth, justice to goodness, almost infallibly leads criticism to utter a host of stupidities; a critic who ignores or represses this concern and contents himself with being no more than an amateur or an historian of art avoids covering himself with ridicule, but at what cost. No one reads him.

Judging a work of art is virtually the same mental operation as judging human beings, and requires the same aptitudes: first, a real love of works of art, an inclination to praise rather than blame, and regret when a complete rejection is required; second, a vast experience of all artistic activities; and last, an awareness, openly and happily accepted, of one’s own prejudices. Some critics fail because they are pedants whose ideal of perfection is always offended by a concrete realization. Others fail because they are insular and hostile to what is alien to them; these critics, yielding to their prejudices without knowing they have them and sincerely offering judgments they believe to be objective, are more excusable than those who, aware of their prejudices, lack the courage to enter the lists to defend their personal tastes.

The best literary critic is not the one whose judgments are always right but the one whose essays compel you to read and reread the works he discusses; even when he is hostile, you feel that the work attacked is important enough to be worth the effort. There are other critics who, even when they praise a book, cancel any desire you might have to read it.


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11 responses to “Auden on Criticism

  1. What an excellent quote–there is a lot there to think about. I actually like the idea that a work a critic attacks might still be worthy of reading. Was this part of a longer article? I’ll have to go look for it if so.


  2. Yeah, it was a part of a longer article in Harper’s, and Harper’s only reprinted parts of it. The whole thing will be reprinted in Auden’s complete works, which will be coming out some time soon. It’s an interesting piece — full of short sections, like aphorisms.


  3. Each and every sentence is so perfect, no wonder you printed the whole textt. What I like is the fact that Auden appears to be such a generous soul. He even makes critics appear to be noble and important persons. Wouldn’t it be good if all critics envisioned their work in Auden’s light?


  4. What an excellent quote! I love the “armies of the Goddess Stupidity.” And I know exactly what he means in the last paragraph when he says that even when some critics praise a book, they still somehow manage to cancel out your desire to read it.


  5. What a great quote! Thanks for sharing this with us, Dorothy!


  6. This is a great excerpt. Something for us all to think about. I agree that criticism should have an “inclination to praise rather than blame, and regret when a complete rejection is required”. This whole quote is so well put — of course, it’s Auden!


  7. Lilalia — yes it would indeed be good if all critics thought as Auden does! That’s not exactly the way things are, though, unfortunately. But it’s a great ideal to aspire to, isn’t it?

    Stefanie — I like that line in the last paragraph too, and also his point that a good critic will get you interested even in something he or she didn’t particularly like. Now that takes skill!

    Litlove — you’re welcome! 🙂

    Melanie — I like the way Auden puts it — as “inclination to praise” — not that the critic always praises, but would rather praise something than not.


  8. Here, here! Melanie beat me to it. That is indeed a thought provoking section of the quote. I often strive against my tendency to criticize, so I can see great value in an “inclination to praise”.

    It reminds me of the sentiment from another good quote:

    “…whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.”


  9. verbivore

    I knew I should have spent the extra zillion and kept my Harper’s subscription when we moved overseas! Do you know which French journal it was originally published in? I would love to track it down and read the whole thing.

    I love that last paragraph.


  10. LK

    Oh, this is just great. Thank you so much for posting. I must say, the last paragraph gives one food for thought, doesn’t it?


  11. Bikkuri — now your more positive side and my more negative side are showing through! I do agree with you about the inclination to praise, but there is a part of me that thinks, “oh, but it’s so much FUN to criticize …” 🙂

    Verbivore — Harper’s didn’t say which journal it was! It just said “a French monthly.” They really should have documented better, right?

    LK — yes, it does! And you’re welcome 🙂


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