The Significance of the Sense of Fact in Literary Research

Research comprises creative work undertaken on a systematic basis in order to increase the stock of knowledge, including knowledge of man, culture and society, and the use of this stock of knowledge to devise new applications. There are several forms of research: scientific, humanities, artistic, economic, social, business, marketing, practitioner research, etc.

Literary research is the discussion of existing data and developments within a particular incidence or phenomena. It is aimed at revealing shortcomings, developments and ideas for future research in that field. Literary research usually shows the advancement of findings throughout time. It can take form when creative works are considered both the research and the object of research itself. It is the debatable body of thought which offers an alternative to purely scientific methods in research in its search for knowledge and truth.

It actually investigates and tests the purpose of gaining knowledge within and for our literary disciplines. It is based on artistic practices, methods and criticality. Through presented documentation, the insights gained are placed in a context. Thus it aims to enhance knowledge and understanding with the critical appreciation of the work of art.

Literary research is not only for those pursuing a higher degree. This can be said because many of the great literary scholars were actually self taught amateurs, who studied intensively during their spare time. However today the process of literary research is associated with a person who completes undergraduation with some interest in literature, after which becomes a post graduate and then struggles to pursue a doctorate degree requiring a thesis. It is as if after graduation a person enters a new state of being with a more serious approach. But the question posed by Fredrick Wilse Bateson (1901 - 1978), an English literary scholar and critic, at Oxford in his book titled The Scholar-Critic An Introduction to literary Research is “ Why must a young man or woman with research ambitions begin by learning undergraduate method?” Here Oliver Elton (the professor of English Literature at the University of Liverpool from 1900 to 1925) who himself had been an undergraduate student at the Oxford dismisses the kind of examination system which he found operating at the British universities. Accordingly, an undergraduate reluctantly has to go through an examination system which is nothing but a physical and mental endurance test of an undergraduate where two or two and half years of his study are theoretically scrutinized in three hour papers. Elton realized that this kind of scrutiny is “ not a test of his understanding or appreciation of literature, but of an agile brain, a good verbal memory and a ready pen”.

In such an examination system, the consultations of the proper authorities and texts are all denied to the examinee leading him sometimes to smuggle in notes and such other material. Elton makes a very bold statement when he says “What is “cheating” in an examination, the sin of sins, is “scholarship” in the adult world, to be applauded instead of being penalized.” Thus the flaw in the final examination system is that it tests adults by methods suitable only for adolescents.

Talking about the final examination system it has been observed that Creative people tend to do worse on grades at each level of schooling, yet their success measures can be very high in their fields. However, creative people can also be abject failures as a result of their creative natures; so we have no good metric that predicts how successful these people will be. Even trying to separate out creative people in schools is hard, as much of their behavior is similar to those who are just lazy, or are generally disruptive.

We often do not know the underpinnings of their behaviors until much later, and many may have been crushed under the molding systems of our` schools. For example I.A.Richards began his career without formal training in literature at all; he studied philosophy (moral sciences) at Cambridge University. This may have led to one of Richards' assertions for the shape of literary study in the 20th century — that literary study cannot and should not be undertaken as a specialization in itself, but instead studied alongside a cognate field (philosophy, psychology, rhetoric, etc.).

Even students that are labeled as having learning disabilities--do they really have learning disabilities? Maybe they just learn a different way! Maybe they have a different purpose in life than sitting in school hour upon hour and year after year until they are dead inside. They get frustrated and bored sitting there doing nothing meaningful or real. Maybe they could achieve their full potential by not being in school?

George Bernard Shaw had similar thoughts. He didn't like school so he became a playwright and co-founded the London School of Economics instead. He also received both a Nobel Prize for Literature and an Oscar. But he gave up on school at about 16. Does that mean he quit learning? No, absolutely not. He taught himself in the way need needed to learn and made something of his life as a result.

So the point here is that no doubt the craft of research requires immersion, passion, persistence, productivity, ethics and may other traits, but scholarly traits cannot be judged by an undergraduate examination and the craft of research is something quite unlike what is learnt at the graduation level and so the first step in research as pointed out by Elton is “to unlearn the undergraduate method”.

Eliot also talks about something similar to this in the first chapter entitled “On the Development of Taste in poetry” in his book The use of Poetry and the use of Criticism. Here Eliot actually proposes four consecutive stages in the attitudes of male youth towards Poetry. He says that in the initial stages boys usually love martial or sanguinary poetry like some kind of border ballads or revenge poetry. Then comes a stage where a young boy of about 12 – 14 shows no actual interest in poetry. Next comes a stage in an age from 14-22 which Eliot describes as “the almost overwhelming introduction to a new state of feeling”. It is only this later stage which is characterized by a genuine critical or mature stage of enjoyment of poetry. However it is quite clear that the exact age at which each of the four phases occur will obviously vary from one boy or adolescent to another.

Thus Eliot describes the state where in ones early teens one is intoxicated by ones favourite author or poet. For example Eliot was intoxicated by Shelley’s poetry at the age of fifteen. Then comes a stage of critical disintoxication which is described by Eliot as “when our critical faculties remain awake; when we are aware of what one poet is expected to give and what he cannot.” At this stage an active critical awareness has at last been achieved where one is fit for a more mature and a more objective attitude to the serious reading of great literature.

But still this critical attitude in connection to research is complex and difficult to define. As Bateson says “ A researcher tends to be thought of as a futile antiquarian; and to be ‘critical’ is dismissed as to be merely critical, a niggling fault-finder, or at best a man who preens himself on his taste ”.

Matthew Arnold also tries to bring these concepts in conjunction in his The Function of Criticism at the Present Time. The central argument of the essay responds to what Arnold felt to be the prevailing attitude that the constructive, creative capacity was much more important than the critical faculty. Arnold's expanded definition of criticism, however--"the endeavour, in all branches of knowledge, theology, philosophy, history, art, science, to see the object as in itself it really is"--renders criticism a necessary prerequisite for truly valuable creation. Specifically, criticism is what generates "fresh" and "intelligent" ideas during a specific time and place in history, and Arnold claims that since literature works with current ideas (literature is "synthesis and exposition"), great works can only be generated in a climate of great ideas. Thus, Arnold argues that criticism prepares the way for creation.

He confirms that the creative power of poetry requires ideas and material to provide it with inspiration and achieve success. These ideas nourish the creative power. The critical effort tries to create a cultural environment rich with ideas. He goes on to equate the emotional experience of writing criticism with the emotional experience of writing creative work. He intends to undermine the typical opinion against criticism. He defends criticism against the opinion that believes that it serves no purpose, and that those who criticize cannot write something creative themselves.

Arnold sees that real criticism is essentially the exercise of the quality of curiosity. Curiosity is the disinterested desire for knowledge in all fields. It is an instinct that urges man to seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge. The creative activity must be preceded by criticism.

How can criticism show disinterestedness?

• Criticism should follow the law of its own nature which is freedom. Criticism should be a free activity which is not subject to any external influence.
• Criticism should refuse to submit to political or practical consideration.
• Criticism should serve nothing but itself

Arnold sees that practical considerations hinder faithful criticism and suffocates it. Criticism should be free of these considerations. It should be firstly a free play of mind. The free play of mind is much more important than any practical ends.

Arnold sees that the indispensable rule of English criticism is disinterestedness or objectivity. It also means independence of judgement. Talking of judgment he writes “ Again, judging is often spoken of as the critic’s one business, and so in some sense it is: but the judgement which almost insensibly forms itself in a fair and clear mind, along with fresh knowledge, is the valuable one; and thus knowledge, and ever fresh knowledge must be the critics great concern for himself. And it is by communicating fresh knowledge, and letting his own judgement pass along with it – but insensibly, and in the second place, not the first, as a sort of companion and clue, not as an abstract lawgiver that the critic will generally do most good to his readers.”

Thus from this it becomes clear that Arnold makes a point that fresh knowledge comes first and judgement only in the second place. Thus Arnold shows that the two faculties must certainly collaborate to generate fresh ideas for propogation.

Eliot also addressed this relation of the creative to the critical faculty in his own essay “The Function of Criticism”. Eliot deals with the problem of criticism in all its manifold aspects. In the very beginning, he comments upon the terms ‘critical’ and ‘creative’. He ridicules Matthew Arnold for having distinguished rather bluntly between the ‘critical’ and the ‘creative’ activity where Arnold does not realise that criticism is of capital importance in the work of creation. As a matter of fact, “the larger part of the labour of an author in composing his work is critical labour’, the labour of sifting, combining constructing, expunging, correcting, testing.” Eliot further expresses the view that the criticism employed by a writer on his own work is the most vital and the highest kind of criticism. Elsewhere, Eliot calls such criticism, workshop criticism. Its high worth and value cannot be denied, for a poet who knows from personal experience the mysteries of the creative process is in a better position to write about it than those who have no such knowledge. Eliot goes to the extent of saying that some creative writers are superior to others only because their critical faculty is superior. He ridicules those who decry the critical toil of the artist, and hold the view that the greater artist is an unconscious artist. He calls such concepts whimsical and pours his ridicule on such people. He comments those who, instead relying on the ‘Inner voice’, or ‘inspiration’, conform to tradition, and in this way try to make their works as free from defects as possible.

Can There be Creative Criticism?

It is a mistake to separate critical and creative activities. A large part of creation is in reality criticism. But critical writing cannot be creative. There can be no creative criticism. Creative criticism is neither criticism nor creation. This is so because there is a fundamental difference between creation and criticism. Creation, a work of art, is autotelic. It has no conscious aims and objectives. Criticism, on the other hand, is always about something, other than itself. In other words, it is not an autotelic activity, its aim being the commentation and elucidation of works of art. Hence it is that we cannot fuse creation with criticism as we can fuse criticism with creation. The critical activity finds its highest fulfillment when it is fused with creation, with the labour of the artist.

The Qualifications of an Ideal Critic: A Highly Developed Sense of Fact.

Eliot next proceeds to consider the qualifications of a critic. The foremost quality which an ideal critic must have is a highly developed sense of fact. The sense of fact is a rare gift. It is not frequently met with, and it is very slow to develop. “A critic must have a very highly developed sense of fact. The sense of fact is something very slow to develop, and its complete development means perhaps the very pinnacle of civilization.” The value of a practitioner’s criticism—say that of a poet on his own art, ‘workshop criticism’ as Eliot calls it—lies in the fact that he is dealing with facts which he understands, and so can also help us to understand them. Eliot’s own criticism is such workshop criticism, and Eliot is all praises for such critics and their criticism. There is a large part of criticism which seeks to ‘interpret’ an author and his work. But most of such interpretation is no interpretation at all. It is mere fiction; the critic gives his views, his impression of the work, and so is false and misleading. Eliot is against such impressionistic criticism; it gives us no insight into the work under study.

Sense of Fact: The Technical Aspects

True interpretation is no interpretation at all; it is merely putting the reader in possession of the facts which he might have missed otherwise. The true critic himself knows the facts about a work of art—its conditions, its settings, its genesis—and puts them before his readers in a simple and easy manner. Thus it is clear that by ‘facts’ Eliot means the various technical aspects of a work of art. To criticize a work of art, we are to collect as many facts about the work as possible, and yet all this may not guarantee our skill in criticism: “But there is no one to guarantee your competence, and once again we find ourselves in a dilemma.” One should be a real master of fact, if one wants to be a good critic, but a mere collection of facts will not do. Facts are simply tools that must be handled with care and skill. One has to compare and analyze the facts, as well as to interpret them: “Comparison and analysis need only the cadavers on the table; but interpretation is always producing parts of the body from its pockets, and fixing them in place.”

The Tools of the Critic: Comparison and Analysis.

Comparison and analysis are the chief tools of a critic. These are the tools of the critic, and he must use them with care and intelligence. Comparison and analysis can be possible only when the critic knows the facts about the works which are to be compared and analyzed. He must know the facts about the work of art—technical elements like its structure, content and theme—and not waste his time in such irrelevant fact-hunting as the inquiry into the number of times giraffes are mentioned in the English novel. However, the method of comparison and analysis, even when used injudiciously, is preferable to ‘interpretation’ in the conventional sense.

Significance of facts & Warning Against Fact-hunting

The importance of facts must not be overlooked : “ And any book, any essay, and note in Notes and Queries, which produces a fact even of the lowest order about a work of art is a better piece of work than nine-tenths of the most pretentious critical journalism, in journals or in books.”

Facts, even the facts of the lowest order, cannot corrupt taste, while impressionistic criticism, like that of Coleridge and Goethe, is always misleading. The function of criticism is to educate taste or, as Eliot puts it , to promote enjoyment and understanding of literature. Now facts, however trivial, can never corrupt taste; they can only gratify taste. According to Eliot, critics like Goethe or Coleridge, who supply opinion or fancy, are the real corruptors. Eliot says that we must be master of facts not servants of facts, i.e, we must reserve for ourselves the right to interpret the facts. A mere collection of stray, peculiar, unconnected facts and facts of apparently little importance – such as the discovery of Shakespeare’s laundry bills – we should not aim at, because there are no, or at the best of little, importance. Such trivialities and fact-hunting is not criticism. Nevertheless, Eliot also says that we don’t dump facts such as Shakespeare’s Laundry Bills into the dust-bin instead preserve them, for some day some genius may come to find out great importance in them.

Similarly, he warns us against the vicious taste for reading about works of art instead of reading the works themselves.

‘Lemon squeezer’ and Impressionistic Criticism: Eliot’s Condemnation.

Eliot’s emphasis on facts makes it clear that his critical stand is with such New Critics as F.R. Leavis and I.A. Richards. He commands textual criticism, but he is against the ‘lemon-squeezer’ school of critics who try to squeeze every drop of meaning out of words. A critic should concentrate on the text, compare and analyse, but he should never stoop to trivialities or empty hair-splitting. A good critic is objective, his judgment is based on facts, he is guided by tradition, the accumulated wisdom of ages and not by his, “inner voice”. He does not indulge in mere expression of opinion or fancy. These may divert the attention of readers from the works of art themselves, and because these may rather supply readers with performed ideas than sharpening and correcting their taste. But facts in themselves are neutral and free from such indiscriminations. The real corrupters are those critics who supply readers with their performed ideas. Eliot says that Goethe and Coleridge are not guiltless—for what is Coleridge’s Hamlet : is it an honest enquiry as far as the data permit, or is it an attempt to present Coleridge in an attractive costume?” Nevertheless “dull and tedious books” of criticism will continue to grow in number. Yet, we should not be afraid of that, because criticism is, says Eliot, a kind of cooperative activity where the truths, if it exists, will evolve out of the intercourse of the different endeavors and opinions. Eliot is against impressionistic criticism, but he does not expound any theories or lay down any rules and principles. Impressionistic criticism is erratic, while adherence to rigid theories hampers the critic and curtails his freedom.

Eliot’s Originality: Objective, Scientific Attitude.

The critic should be guided by facts and facts alone. He should approach the work of art with a free mind, unprejudiced by any theories or preconceived notions. Only then can he be completely objective and impersonal. It is in this way that criticism approximates to the position of science. It is only in this way that criticism becomes a co-operative activity, the critic of one age cooperates with critics of the previous ages in common pursuit of truth. Such truths are provisional, for ‘truths’ of one age are likely to be modified and corrected by truths discovered by future ages. In this objective-scientific attitude Eliot is different from all other previous English critics. Herein lies his individuality and originality. He is like a scientist working with an open mind and co-operating with others, for the realization of truth which he knows can only be tentative.

Thus according to Eliot, a critic should have a highly developed sense of fact and a critic’s task is to make the reader possessed of the facts. In matters of great importance, Eliot points out , the critic should not make judgements of worse and better, he must simply elucidate.

Thus what Elton calls as ‘Research’ and Arnold as ‘Knowledge’ and Eliot as ‘Sense of Fact’ are entwined and related to something identical. For criticism and judging a work of literature it is imperative that a critic first understands it correctly. As Bateson says “ A works significance presupposes a comprehension of its meaning.” Also for any kind of serious criticism to take place it is essential to look at a work of art in the light of realism. So in that sense, criticism is an intellectual activity rather than an emotional stimulus. “The enthusiasms of adolescence are genuine and intense, but they are liable to be intemperate and mistaken because the schoolboy or undergraduate misreads the immediate object of his enthusiasm, unaware of the wider contexts in which his favourite book or author must be read.” Not only during adolescence but even when one is writing as a mature critic one comes under influences and can be mistaken. For example T.S. Eliot is a very great critic. He is a critic of comprehensive taste and does not hesitate or feel shy in revising his critical opinions and attitudes. When the light of new experience is cast upon, he shows his readiness to look at a work of art from a different angle. Being impressed and guided by Ezra Pound, Eliot at one stage attached importance only to criticism of critics who are themselves poets and practitioners. Later on, Eliot got rid of his bias and modified his views. In ‘ The Function of Criticism’ Eliot stresses the fact finding duty of a critic and opines that a future critic may put even the laundry bills of Shakespeare to some use. Eliot is in favour of storing a piece of fact, even of the lowest degree. But in “The Frontiers of Criticism”, he is very critical of the source-hunting and genesis-seeking aspect of a critic. He advises the critic to go directly to a work of art and analyze it and appreciate it, instead of indulging in extraneous details. That Wordsworth secretly loved Dorothy Wordsworth may be true, but it does not, as Eliot says, add to our enjoyment and understanding of the Lucy Poems. Eliot is critical of the explanation of poetry by examination of it sources. "For myself, I can only say that knowledge of the springs which released a poem is not necessarily a help towards understanding the poem: too much information about the origins of the poem may even break my contact with it.”

Thus, we can see that Eliot’s critical mind had solidity, comprehensiveness, awareness and range. His critical sensibility was always developing and widening its frontiers and gaining richness and complexity. Hence from this we can say that Eliot as a critic was developing as a scholar to become a better critic.

Hence it is necessary to develop first a scholarly outlook, a researchers' tendency to look at things objectively in order to become a good critic. Thus a good critic is a scholar on the first hand. According to Bateson, the first essential quality of a scholar-critic is scholarship. The scholar-critic must be a scholar, a researcher, before he can become a really competent critic. But again dry objective criticism is monotonous and so the definition of a scholar-critic necessarily includes the pleasure that he and the readers derive from a work of art.

These two different ways of judging a work of art are referred to as objective and subjective. Objective criticism focuses on the work of art and seeks to analyze it in terms of observable features. Paintings are broken down into lines and colors, novels into structure, theme, setting, and imagery, and music into theme, counterpoint, and resolution. By the detached and careful examination of parts, the objective critic arrives at a general evaluation. The subjective critic is less interested in analyzing the work of art than in expressing his personal reactions to it. He depends on feeling and impressions rather than on set standards, and he often writes in a poetic and imaginative language. Famous examples of subjective criticism include Walter Pater's description of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa and Thomas De Quincey's essay “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth”.

The concept of "intersubjective" is used as something distinct from both objective and subjective. A quality is labeled intersubjective when it holds in reference to more than one subject. Thus, it is not purely subjective, but it is also not regarded as completely objective, either. When a teenager shows a liking for a poem it is not that he is completely subjective and merely under emotional influences because his preference is also influenced by his prior knowledge about some conventions of poetry and his knowledge of the English language. So his judgement about poetry is in part non-subjective. Also poetry or any work of art cannot be judged completely objectively. As Bateson says “However conclusive the external evidence surrounding it may seem to be, a literary object can never have the strict objectivity of a physical phenomenon.” Thus the study of literature provides us with intersubjectivity. “A sensitive scholar- critic’s concern, on the other hand, is with an intersubjectivity that approaches a total comprehension potentially available to all the sane human beings living in a single society.”

Also it is important to keep in mind that a fact is inseparable from taste. Also a fact is very essential to bring out the true meaning of a work of art and if a critic is unable to get his facts correct then he is addressing a non-existent meaning or a make believe meaning. Even the minutest finding of a scholar, keep the true meaning of an art grounded to human reality. Today literary scholarship also has to keep in mind scientific historiography because study of literature cannot remain aloof to the influence of new scientific historians. But at the same time, it is important to note that a literary critic is not a literary detective and that literary criticism is something more than just an accumulation of precisely accurate and historically verifiable facts. Literary criticism has to meet the purpose of serving the aesthetic ends too. A literary critic has to fully grasp the meaning of an artwork, has to study the linguistic features and bring out the true facts in an orderly manner like a scholar and blend it with the aesthetic pleasure to be derived from such an artwork like an ideal critic. As Bateson remarks “The literary critic who aspires to be something more than a journalist or a reviewer must be – at least within the area of his special interests – something of a scholar.”

In order to understand the true sense of the sense of fact it is important to understand what can be called failures and faults in the sense of fact in the study of English literature. Here Bateson talks about various factual errors committed by research scholars by giving many examples. First he brings out the inaccuracy of a doctoral candidate whose thesis he was once invited to read and which he felt compelled to reject. It was so not because the thesis was grossly imperfect, but because of a general imprecision and diffused if minor inaccuracy that betrayed an ignorance of scholarly methods and standards. He cites the first sentence of the anonymous thesis to show how the facts presented in that single sentence are infected with self–evident faults, the index of inaccurate or imprecise thinking, and the more the information that it tries to convey, the more it is checked, the more errors, inconsistencies or improbabilities the sentence turns out to contain. The sentence cited by Bateson consists of about thirty-five words in which there are no less than eleven errors or near-errors, and it provides no evidence at all to substantiate any of its various statements. There is not one footnote or reference. He also lists out the various imprecise statements and points out errors and improbabilities in them. Not only this, he also presents a more scholarly version of the sentence after correcting the factual errors to justify his accusations. Though the number of words in his version has increased from thirty-five to one ninety, but his version is accurate and is also supported by footnotes. Bateson says “Footnotes, or their equivalents are indispensable in scholarly writing because they make it possible for the reader to check for himself the facts, dates or quotations on which the argument depends. A series of statements unsupported by such references is unscholarly, if the research necessary to determine the truth or adequacy of the information has to be left to the unassisted reader.”

Then the next example given is from Matthew Arnold’s ‘ The General Introduction’ now generally referred to as ‘ The study of Poetry’ , the title given to it by Lord Coleridge, the editor – when it was reprinted in Essays in Criticism: Second Series (1888) soon after Arnold’s death. In this essay Arnold suggests that an ideal student of poetry should avoid the pitfalls of the false estimates of literary history and private preferences and concentrate his attention on ‘real estimate’, ‘ the class of the truly excellent’. But here Arnold misses to show how reality is different from ‘real estimate’ and how ‘true excellencies’ can be distinguished from fallacious estimates. Bateson writes “In the absence of a theoretical definition a real estimate, one that is objectively valid, may seem to end up, in fact, in being the personal estimate disapproved by Matthew Arnold. Arnold’s sense of fact deserved a better justification. Nevertheless, even as a practical critic, Arnold could sometimes be demonstrably wrong.” Also in case of the Prioress’s Tale, Arnold is factually mistaken in the genre that he implicitly assigns the poem to. Unlike the Second Nun’s Tale and the other pieces in Rime Royal in the Canterbury Tales, all of which are without any ironic intentions, the Prioress’s Tale is a pastiche. Arnold has missed an important critical point in failing to recognize what Chaucer’s literary intention in it was. Thus Arnold’s failings occur due to the deficiency of a ‘ very highly developed sense of fact’ which Eliot rightly demands in a critic.

Bateson presents a complementary example from the writings of Sir Walter Greg. Greg was the dominant figure in the English scholarship of his period. But even Greg was not faultless. Nevertheless a moral which can be drawn out is “It is just as limiting to be a pure scholar as it is to be a pure critic”. Thus the criteria of aesthetic appreciation and to promote enjoyment and understanding of literature are as much a literary fact as the minute textual and bibliographical accuracy. What is needed is collaboration in both because both kinds of facts are somehow interconnected. A good critical judgement not only requires accuracy in detailing facts such as the authorship of a work, its date, or its best text, etc. but also in determining the true understanding and correctness of a text, in judging good literature from bad, or the better elements in a poem or a novel from a less good one etc.. Thus the true sense of fact is a combination of literary enthusiasm coupled with a more responsible and sensitive approach to the study of literature. This kind of criticism having a true sense of fact possesses value and can be communicated to develop and enhance taste. Hence objectivity or to put it best intersubjectivity is a prerequisite for a scholar-critic and scholarship is a requirement through which a critic can reach a stage of mature criticism.



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Prof. Sapna Desai
Assistant Professor in English, Vanita Vishram Women’s College of Commerce