JB: I wrote a book called the Identity of Man. I never saw the cover of the English edition until the book reached me in print. And yet the artist had understood exactly what was in my mind, by putting on the cover a drawing of the brain and the Mona Lisa, one on top of the other

The Poets Defence
by Jacob Bronowski

IF WE WISH to understand past criticism we must do more than read it. We must believe that its stiff and vague words were once as supple and exact as the words of science today. In this belief we must search for their meanings in the work of the time. We shall not understand what Wit meant to Dryden from his definitions; for their words are also strange to us. We shall only understand it from the poems in which Dryden wrote wittily. We shall only understand what Nature meant to Wordsworth from his poems. That is why the plainest past criticism is the criticism written by poets: because their poems tell us what their words and their standards mean. I have studied the criticism of poets to learn this.

I have held to this end fixedly; and I have perhaps made this book merely a history of the half-dozen words which have been the banners of poets and of critics. One is the word Poetry itself. Another is the word Imagination, which has most often stood in place of Poetry. Two others are the words Virtue and Nature. I have not niggled with the meanings of these words or listed the nigglings of others. Each word has been the core and the symbol of a vast belief of poets. I have looked for these beliefs and for the changes in them. And I have looked for them in these words beacsue the lasting words have stamped the thoughts of poets. For example, Shelley's Defence of Poetry is a frenzied play of the words Poetry and Imagination. And Coleridge's criticism springs from the sudden understanding of such words, which flashes when it is true, but which is often false and shoddy.
from The Poet's Defence, Cambridge University Press, 1939. pp. 5-7 I have found the meanings of these words in the work of the poets who used them. It is not to my point that these meanings have often been taken by them from other poets and critics. When Ben Jonson wrote of Nature he borrowed from Horace, Longinus, Aristotle and others. It is not my study how much of their meanings he kept and how much he changed. My study is what he meant; and nothing can tell us this but his own writings.

These beliefs are my study. I have tried to say nothing about the belief of a poet which I have not said in his own words. I have looked closely at the words which I have quoted. I have followed their meaning to the end...I have tried to write criticism as reasoned as geometry.

The Ascent of Jacob Bronowski

Copyright © 2000 by Stephen Moss. All rights reserved.