Containing the power of language was Wordsworth’s intention when he wrote that “words are too awful an instrument for good and evil, to be trifled with; they hold above all other external powers a dominion over thoughts.” He was functioning here as a literary critic (the passage is from his 1810 Essay upon Epitaphs) and only incidentally as a prophet. Practiced at a certain level of intensity, literary criticism retains a verbal focus while encroaching without strain on moral, religious, philosophical, or other areas. T. S. Eliot and Lionel Trilling exemplify this tendency, as does the literary critic J. P. Stern, who was a close friend of Trilling’s.

Joseph Peter Maria Stern was born in Prague in 1920 and died in England in 1991. His father, Gustav, was an economist who fought in World War I and later...


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