Not in a Vacuum


Tradition and the Individual Talent, T.S. Eliot

Literary Criticism-- EL312

During our first class, something that Karissa has said stuck out as I read this selection. She said even though we should read stories objectively, not everyone reads in a vacuum. It is the same thing with writing, you might think that you may be doing your own thing but that is far from the truth. Eliot definetly understood that concept. He stated that " no poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone".

This means that no piece of literature is a category in itself. That is were literary criticism come in. We may not hit on exactly what the author meant..but again quoting T.S. Eliot: "Honest criticism and sensitive appreciation is directed not upon the poet upon the poetry."

It is the poetry itself that will live on and go though countless criticisms and will be read in countless Lit. Crit. classes. Through that poetry, we will be able to help determine, not completely determine the thoughts of the author.


That's a good point. Examining a poem as if its main purpose is to shed light on the author's life is just one of many ways to look at literature. Elevating the author's biography above the poem itself is something that Eliot disapproves of. You found a good quote that covers that core attitude.

"We may not hit on exactly what the author meant..." --I agree 100%. I personally don't think that there's any way to know exactly what the author intended to come out of a work. We can't read or write in a vacuum. It's impossible (even for hermits and recluses).

An author doesn't have control over a piece after it's published. Once it's in the hands of a publisher, reader, or critic, the text is dead--there is no explaining it. Not that I think too many people would listen to the explanation... they had all [insert number of lines or pages here] to explain this, so why didn't they? That's what I think.

(And a littler personal story to back that up: In Publication Workshop with Dr. Arnzen, we turned our short stories over to classmates to critique. When the next class came and peers read their critical remarks of the story, the author could not jump in to explain what was intended. We had to sit there, realizing that our intent isn't always as clear as we think.)

Thanks for quoting me, Kevin! :) I'm flattered.

I agree with both Kevin and Karissa.
I do believe that when we criticize a piece of work whether it is poetry or a piece of literature, we often try to help to interpret what the author's inital meaning was.
The line "no poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone" shows that there is more to poems and literature than the author's history and personal emotion put into it.

I also thought that Karissa's example showed that critcism often shows the other side of the story.

I also dislike when a reader interprets a poet's work based upon the poet's past. That allows for the reader to be somewhat biased when critcizing the poem only seeing that one thing is in the poem because it happened to the author.

Kevin, you provide a very solid argument. There is no one way to read a piece of literature, which IS why literary criticism is so important. If you look at a different piece of literature in one way, you miss out on the other ways to look. Think of Benito Cereno: Many would look at this piece historically or racially. But once we know that we can find a way to look at it aesthetically, we find another perspective to look at. Think of literary criticism as a way to look at a mountain. You stand on one side, and you see the same snow. But if you stand on the another side of the mountain, then you find yourself noticing that the there is an avalanche that we haven't seen. I hope that at least made some sense, because I thought it did.