The White-Garnett Letters
Whenever university administrators or professors are trying to extract money to finance some new development, they declare how essential it is for the university to keep pushing forward the frontiers of knowledge. It might be all for the good if they were asked: “And how do you propose to get your students to help push?” It can sometimes happen. Back in the 1920s in Cambridge, England, when the New Criticism was being born, I. A. Richards, struggling with the fundamental problems of meaning and value in poetry, handed his audience of undergraduates a sheet of a dozen poems, date and author unrevealed, and asked them to say what each poem was about and whether it was a good or bad poem. The results of this inquiry were startling. A poem by Longfellow was thought superior to one by Hardy, and the verses of Ella Wheeler Wilcox and of a First World War army chaplain, known as Woodbine Willie, were preferred to Hopkins and Lawrence. There was not the faintest agreement about the meaning of any one poem: a greeting to Meredith on his birthday was confidently asserted to be a cavalier drinking song. Richards drew some conclusions on the causes of this singular lack of success. Not only had his audience read too little poetry, not only were they unable to construe their own language, not only were they immature, but they brought to the text a mass of preconceptions and—most fatal of all—stock responses. They lacked sincerity of feeling. They responded to poems as if they were advertisements. They had never let the poem penetrate to the heart, nor let the heart be guided by the informed use of their intelligence.
Among the audience was an undergraduate a little older than his contemporaries. Most than a year before he had been found to be in the early stages of tuberculosis, and his friends got up a subscription to send him to Southern Italy for a year. He had returned cured and was to obtain the exceptional honor of a first class with distinction in his final examinations. In a sense, T. H. White lived the rest of his life according to his own interpretation of I. A. Richards’s teaching. What mattered was your feelings and whether they were genuine and personal, and not second-hand aphorisms. White doubted whether truth existed or could be deduced by reason. He did not doubt, however, that being true to what you felt and taking the utmost trouble to express those feelings as exactly as possible in words, were of supreme importance.
But what happens if you feel with perfect sincerity most deplorable things, or, worse, are unable to feel what you think you ought to feel? Are sense and sensibility never to discipline the feelings or give them a profounder meaning? Or should you act out your feelings without regard to the feelings and claims of others? Faced with this dilemma most of us stagger along making compromises of one …