C.S. Lewis on the Right of Private Judgment
A recent remark of Mr Eliot's poses for us at the outset the fundamental question whether we (mere critics) have any right to talk about Milton at all. Mr Eliot says bluntly and frankly that the best contemporary practicing poets are the only "jury of judgement"* whose verdict on his own views of Paradise Lost he will accept. And Mr Eliot is here simply rendering explicit a notion that has become increasingly prevalent for about a hundred years--the notion that poets are the only judges of poetry. If I make Mr Eliot's words the peg on which to hang a discussion of this notion it must not, therefore, be assumed that this is, for me, more than a convenience, still less that I wish to attack him quâ Mr Eliot. Why should I? I agree with him about matters of such moment that all literary questions are, in comparison,trivial.
Let us consider what would follow if we took Mr Eliot's view seriously. The first result is that I, not being one of the best contemporary poets, cannot judge Mr Eliot's criticism at all. What then shall I do? Shall I go to the best contemporary poets, who can, and ask them whether Mr Eliot is right? But in order to go to them I must first know who they are. And this, by hypothesis, I cannot find out; the same lack of poethood which renders my critical opinions on Milton worthless renders my opinions on Mr Pound or Mr Auden equally worthless. Shall I then go to Mr Eliot and ask him to tell me who the best contemporary poets are? But this, again, will be useless. I personally may think Mr Eliot a poet--in fact, I do--but then, as he has explained to me, my thoughts on such a point are worthless. I cannot find out whether Mr Eliot is a poet or not; and until I have found out I cannot know whether his testimony to the poethood of Mr Pound and Mr Auden is valid. And for the same reason I cannot find out whether their testimony to his poethood is valid. Poets become on this view an unrecognizable society (an Invisible Church), and their mutual criticism goes on within a closed circle which no outsider can possibly break into at any point.
But even within the circle it is no better. Mr Eliot is ready to accept the verdict of the best contemporary poets on his criticism. But how does he recognize them as poets? Clearly, because he is a poet himself; for if he is not, his opinion is worthless. At the basis of his whole critical edifice, then, lies the judgement "I am a poet." But this is a critical judgement. It therefore follows that when Mr Eliot asks himself, "Am I a poet?" he has to assume the answer "I am" before he can find the answer "I am"; for the answer, being a piece of criticism, is valuable only if he is a poet. He is thus compelled to beg the question before he can get started at all. Similarly Mr Auden and Mr Pound must beg the question before they get started. But since no man of high intellectual honour can base his thought on an exposed petitio the real result is that no such man can criticize poetry at all, neither his own poetry nor that of his neighbour. The republic of letters resolves itself into an aggregate of uncommunicating and unwindowed monads; each has unawares crowned and mitred himself Pope and King of Pointland.
In answer to this Mr Eliot may properly plead that the same apparently vicious circle meets us in other maxims which I should find it less easy to reject: as when we say that only a good man can judge goodness, or only a rational man can judge reasonings, or only a doctor can judge medical skill. But we must beware of false parallels.
(1) In the moral sphere, though insight and performance are not strictly equal (which would make both guilt and aspiration impossible), yet it is true that continued disobedience to conscience makes conscience blind. But disobedience to conscience is voluntary; bad poetry, on the other hand, is usually not made on purpose. The writer was trying to make good poetry. He was endeavouring to follow such lights as he had--a procedure which in the moral sphere is the pledge of progress, but not in poetry. Again, a man may fall outside the class of "good poets" not by being a bad poet, but by writing no poetry at all, whereas at every moment of his waking life he is either obeying or breaking the moral law. The moral blindness consequent on being a bad man must therefore fall on every one who is not a good man, whereas the critical blindness (if any) due to being a bad poet need by no means fall on every one who is not a good poet.
(2) Reasoning is never, like poetry, judged from the outside at all. The critique of a chain of reasoning is itself a chain of reasoning: the critique of a tragedy is not itself a tragedy. To say that only the rational man can judge reasonings is, therefore, to make the merely analytical proposition "Only the rational man can reason," parallel to "only the poet can make poetry," or "only the critic can criticize," and not at all parallel to the synthetic proposition "only the poet can criticize."
(3) As regards a skill, such as medicine or engineering, we must distinguish. Only the skilled can judge the skilfulness, but that is not the same as judging the value of the result. It is for cooks to say whether a given dish proves skill in the cook; but whether the product on which this skill has been lavished is worth eating or no is a question on which a cook's opinion is of no particular value. We may therefore allow poets to tell us (at least if they are experienced in the same kind of composition) whether it is easy or difficult to write like Milton, but not whether the reading of Milton is a valuable experience. For who can endure a doctrine which would allow only dentists to say whether our teeth were aching, only cobblers to say whether our shoes hurt us, and only governments to tell us whether we were being well governed?
Such are the results if we take the position in its full rigour. But of course if it is only meant that a good poet, other things being equal (which they often are not), is reasonably likely, in talking about the kinds of poetry he has himself written well and read with delight, to say something more worth hearing than another, then we need not deny it.1C.S. Lewis Preface to Paradise Lost (London: Oxford University Press, 1942) pp. 9-11