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We have to look at the figures of speech a writer uses, his images and symbols […] Above all, we have to look at the total design of a writer's work, the title he gives to it, and his main theme, which means his point in writing it, to understand that literature is still doing the same job that mythology did earlier, but filling in its huge cloudy shapes with sharper lights and deeper shadows. [From The Educated Imagination]
So, here's where my ideas about centripetal and centrifugal work get a little profound. I'm not saying that one way of looking at literature is more important than an other; I'm just encouraging my dear readers to consider literature as more than just an expression of one author's ideologies and politics.
We must savor the words on the page—for they were chosen carefully and wisely. This is not a 5-paragraph essay written under the influence of Red Bull at 2AM. This is grand literature, and the images and symbols brought out by the language are there to be savored.
Now, your assignment is not over yet. In addition to deriving pleasure from the language in front of you on the page, try to mull over the relationship between that piece of literature and all literature that came before and it, 'kay? Mythology has expressed these ideas before, and they will be expressed again. How has this work breathed new life into old themes?
What the critic as a teacher of language tries to teach is not an elegant accomplishment, but the means of conscious life. Literary education should lead not merely to the admiration of great literature, but to some possession of its power of utterance. The ultimate aim is an ethical and participating aim, not an aesthetic or contemplative one, even though the latter may be the means of achieving the former. [From The Well-Tempered Critic]
When you're reading a book, you aren't just reading a book, though it may feel very much like that's what you are doing. Don't be fooled. You are accessing worlds and histories and mythologies. This is timeless and deeply profound stuff. Literature is not there simply to amuse you, though congratulations if that's what it does. Literature cultivates your "conscious life," giving you deeper insight into the use and value of language.
The benefits of reading exceed what you get out of reading that one actual book. Forgive me for being an idealist, but great literature should make us more ethical, more connected to the world. And, well, if you are amused, too, all the better: you've had it both ways.
I wrote Fearful Symmetry during the Second World War, and hideous as the time was, it provided some parallels with Blake's time which were useful for understanding Blake's attitude to the world […] one of the most hopeful signs is the immensely increased sense of the urgency and immediacy of what Blake had to say. [From the Preface to the 1969 edition of Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake]
Look, my deal is that the more things change, the more things stay the same. Blake grew up during the French and American Revolutions—the times they were a-changin'. He also witnessed mobs and riots in the streets, and he grew very critical of tyrannical kings and of war. A lot of these attitudes emerge in his poetry—check out Songs of Experience, for example. When I wrote this preface, I was reflecting on the violence and brutality of World War II, which I am sure Blake would have had some choice words about, too.
A reader […] who dislikes Hamlet because he does not believe that there are ghosts or that people speak in pentameters, clearly has no business in literature. [From "Literal and Descriptive Phrases," Anatomy of Criticism]
You know how your teacher assigns some book, like Uncle Tom's Cabin, and someone in the class says he didn't like the book because Simon Legree is mean? Well, I'm here to say—that ain't criticism.
Books (and any other kinds of texts, for that matter) aren't there for you to "like." They're there to get you to think, to imagine, to expand your mind, and to learn about the long and changing history of the human condition. It doesn't matter if Hamlet saw a ghost; it matters that he thinks he saw a ghost; that the ghost is a projection of his fears and anxieties; and that the ghost compels him to avenge the death of his father.