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Critical Revolutionaries: Five Critics Who Changed the Way We Read, by Terry Eagleton (Yale University Press, 2022)

In his latest title, Terry Eagleton acquaints the reader with a quintet of mid-twentieth-century English literary critics, scholars and/or poets whose thoughts and sometimes strident opinions dominated the post-Second World War intellectual landscape. Nearly all have become icons, each in his own distinctive way: T. S. Eliot, I. A. Richards, F. R. Leavis, William Empson and Raymond Williams. Not all are equally well-known today, so Eagleton’s brisk summaries of their legacies afford a window into a time of sudden and tumultuous change both in modern Western culture at large and within the cloistered environs of academic literary criticism.

In Eagleton’s reckoning, these five figures were responsible for establishing criticism as a self-aware and necessary discipline in its own right. Eagleton is himself a next-generation inheritor of their achievements. Few are household names today. Most readers will at least recall that Eliot wrote poetry, some fewer that Leavis’s ideas prompted occasionally fierce factional strife in English departments around the world during the 60s and 70s. Only hardball fans of the Inklings could tell you that C. S. Lewis, late in his career, was lured from Oxford to Cambridge to play vieux grincheux to Leavis’s enfant terrible. Richards, Empson and Williams, names to conjure with in their day, have since receded into differing degrees of obscurity, their work still represented in anthologies of literary criticism and critical theory but little read outside academic circles.

With amiable ease, Eagleton conducts detailed reviews of his five subjects, geared towards a present-day audience unlikely to be familiar with the cultural and intellectual landscapes they traversed. He blends shapely and concise biographical detail with trenchant epitomes of each critic’s thought. His great strength is the vigour and clarity of his engagement with his matter, which has characterised his work across more than fifty books. In any unit on literary theory that I have taught, a bit of Eagleton on the reading list always afforded a welcome respite from the rigours of having to untangle the Delphic utterances of Derrida, Cixous and Foucault, among many other continental mischief-makers. He wears his own Marxist sensibilities lightly, allowing them, where appropriate, to deepen the economic and political chiaroscuro behind his accounts. In essence, he is a modestly charismatic storyteller, and in Critical Revolutionaries he spins the tales of five princes who once wielded great power and authority in the fabled realm of academia.

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Like a proper student of dialectal materialism, Eagleton begins with a summary of the antitheses, dichotomies and outright contradictions that played tautly across T. S. Eliot’s psychic skin. His old-wealth background in St Louis, Missouri became threatened by mounting tides of crass commerce ‘as a philistine middle class rose to power’. Once he’d translated himself to England, he cultivated many literary acquaintances, and after stints as a schoolteacher and a banker became a director at Faber & Faber. He was an old-world sort of American, conscious of his genealogy’s deep roots in colonial New England, which encouraged his adoption of a new/old identity that he later characterised as ‘classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion’. Eagleton maps the polarities that energise the different personae Eliot wore.

His earlier poetry, especially his signature modernist pieces ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ and ‘The Waste Land’, established him as a radical new voice: spiky and rebarbative, able to leap the tall boundary-fences of convention at will. Yet in his literary criticism, published in books from The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (1920) to Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948), he developed a nuanced but fundamentally conservative (if not outright reactionary) aesthetic that identified the artist’s task as a negotiation between innovation and tradition, which in Eliot’s vision should inform and inflect each other mutually (if not exactly equally). Eagleton can be refreshingly tongue-in-cheek about Eliot’s eventual conversion to the Anglican confession and his penchant for ex cathedra cultural diktats: ‘The more he attracted he was to incense, the more his own reputation was wreathed in its fumes’.

Though something of an odd man out among Eagleton’s gallery of critical apple-cart-overturners, Eliot presides like a Janus-faced figurehead over the others’ stories, auguring the new as a poet while toiling to conserve the old as a critic.

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In I. A. Richards, Eagleton finds a temper more attuned to his own. As Eagleton tells his tale, Richards wrote against the comfortable certainties of late nineteenth-century culture, both in and out of the academic sphere. These had produced such authorities as John Ruskin, Matthew Arnold and, in Richards’s time, Arthur Quiller-Couch, for whom literature was an art best appreciated by a properly-educated reader’s refined taste. To promote a system or schema of evaluation courted a kind of ungentlemanly vulgarity—a workmanlike rough handling of delicate treasures whose qualities ought to be self-evident to cultivated taste.

The First World War, of course, dealt Victorian complacencies about culture and civilisation a far more savage blow than any could have anticipated. After his graduation from Cambridge in 1915, Richards served as an intelligence officer in the British Army, and his subsequent career saw him teach at Cambridge and at universities in China during the 1930s. Eventually he held a professorship at Harvard, where he taught from 1939 to 1963. Eagleton notes Richards’s early introduction of a ‘disciplined critical intelligence’ into a Cambridge milieu then characterised by ‘literary gossip, good taste and elegant belles lettres’, and gives due attention to the wide scope of his other interests and passions. Across his long career, Richards wore many hats. In addition to teaching, he was an avid mountaineer and advised postwar governments on schemes of international relations, championing what he called ‘Basic English’, a simplified form of received English with a smaller vocabulary and more consistent grammar, to serve the postwar world as a potential lingua franca. His promotion of English-language studies around the world remains a foundation of ESL teaching to this day.

As a literary critic Richards’s reputation rests on two early works: Principles of Literary Criticism (1924) and Practical Criticism (1929), in which he develops his method of ‘close reading’—a phrase closely associated with the critical practice he promoted, which rejected airy aesthetic abstractions (as Richards regarded them) in favour of closely-argued inferences drawn exclusively from the text itself. Eagleton characterises him as a kind of iconoclast literary Leveller, passionately concerned to rescue literature from both privileged platitude and philistine degeneration.

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William Empson’s life and career afford both contrasts and parallels with Richards’s, which Eagleton carefully triangulates:

Like Richards, Empson is a rationalist who has a briskly dismissive way with Symbolist, Imagist or New Critical notions of the poem as a self-enclosed object cut adrift from everyday life and language. He is a relentless demythologiser of such doctrines …

He devotes substantial time to discussion of Empson’s signature work, Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), and quotes an exemplary passage in which Empson draws a tumbling riot of allusion and association from the ‘Bare ruin’d choirs’ of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, observing its element of ‘the precocious undergraduate show-off’ that piles insight upon insight in headlong profusion: ‘There is something implacable about the way the passage refuses to take a breath’. Yet he also reads profound nuance in Empson’s careful explorations of poetic ambiguity. Some of the Seven Types chapters were developed from Empson’s undergraduate essays, and he was only twenty-four at the time of its publication, yet it has been regarded by most as a landmark achievement, both then and to this day. Eagleton observes that its sevenfold taxonomy of ambiguity, which lends the book its title, is itself ‘a kind of joke’ that tropes on the idea of seven as a magic number, ‘from seven dwarfs to seven sacraments’.

Empson conducted a famous long-running feud with the Western godhead of both Jewish and Christian tradition, most virulently in Milton’s God (1961), where he characterises Milton’s cosmocrator as ‘a pompous old buffer’. Eagleton wryly points out that Empson’s war work in the propaganda section of the BBC (where he served alongside George Orwell) also lent him a grudging regard for the otherwise detestable tyrant of heaven as an effective propagandist.

Eagleton notes both Richards’s and Empson’s immense charisma as lecturers, which drew audiences in unprecedented numbers. As critics, both pursued programs that were simultaneously exclusive and inclusive: on the one hand pitched against the complacent pieties of the academic establishments they took issue with, while on the other keen to share their insights with students and other interested parties without fear or favour.

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Eagleton allows that, as radical as some of their work may have been, Eliot, Richards and Empson were all insiders of a sort, relatively at home in the literary, social or academic circles in which they moved. Each was alert to the limitations of his milieu and could criticise it sharply at need, but F(rank) R(aymond) Leavis’s contrarian tendencies were of a wholly different order. While he and Empson share a degree of nonconformist passion, Eagleton presents Empson more as an amiable eccentric, while Leavis emerges from Eagleton’s account as a far spikier and more difficult character—practically the secular embodiment of a censorious low-church divine. At least in part: Eagleton also notes Leavis’s passionate desire to promote literature as a kind of cultural psychopomp, a guide who can conduct us up the steep ascent towards a condition of authentic civilisation and culture. His almost evangelical fervour and sometimes fierce rejection of opinions or values that ran counter to his own won him few friends among his colleagues, though like Richards and Empson, Leavis could be a charismatic and popular lecturer.

Eagleton’s broad contrast between Empson and Leavis speaks volumes about both critics:

In many respects, Empson and Leavis were antitypes: whereas the former was cosmopolitan, non-moralistic, upper-class, humorous, versatile in his literary interests and bohemian in lifestyle, the latter was provincial, austere, moralistic, largely humourless (at least in print) … It was a classic case of the Cavalier versus the Roundhead.

Leavis, in Eagleton’s words, regarded the work of the traditional literary scholar as being ‘incompatible with the imaginative, subtly perceptive mind’ of the literary critic, whose sympathies demand imaginative engagement with his subject. The ‘literary scholar’, as Leavis would have regarded him, undertook the stern disciplines of philology and textual criticism that were essential to the editing of classical texts. The literary critic, on the other hand, engaged with analysis and interpretation, exploring what literary texts mean and how they express themselves. Great literature ‘allows us to feel more intensely alive, more supremely fulfilled in our creative capacities than anything else’.

Here Eagleton allows a sceptical note to colour his characterisation: ‘One might retort that if we feel at our most alive only when reading Middlemarch or The Rainbow, we must be in pretty poor shape’. The majority of Leavis’s contemporaries responded to his pronouncements with comparable reservation or outright hostility, and along with his partner, Q(ueenie) D(orothy) Leavis, F. R. ploughed a contested path across mid-century literary criticism that courted no easy recognition or acceptance. His books ranged from the sometimes contentious but compelling assessments of the English novel in The Great Tradition (1948) to the more strident social polemics of later titles such as Nor Shall My Sword (1972), and his founding and editorship of the critical journal Scrutiny left his mark on subsequent generations of scholars and critics—a contested legacy that, like its author, refused to sit quietly in anyone’s corner.

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Raymond Williams is best known today as a seminal figure from the early years of what’s now known as ‘Cultural Studies’—a wide-ranging discipline that, as practiced by Williams, incorporates elements of sociology, politics and psychology into its approach to literary texts. Eagleton characterises him simply as ‘the greatest socialist thinker of post-War Britain’. He recounts how Williams, after completing his degree at Cambridge, took ‘a political decision’ to teach in the Workers’ Educastional Association, later becoming involved in the early New Left movement and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. His Culture and Society 1780–1950 (1958) discusses the works of writers and essayists from Edmund Burke and William Blake to F. R. Leavis and George Orwell, examining how economic realities inflect the literary imagination. The intersection of economics, politics and literature formed the focus of much of his subsequent work, which included books such as Culture and Society (1958), Communications (1962), The English Novel (1970) and Marxism and Literature (1975), among many others.

Eagleton reviews Williams’ interventions in the realms of drama and popular culture at some length, as well as his critiques as a restive scholar of the university sector of his time:

He warned prophetically of the dangers of universities falling victim to a bone-headed utilitarianism which measured outcomes in the manner of a biscuit-factory. He was also a superb teacher, deeply devoted to his students … His conception of literary studies was unusually generous for the time, shading into history, religion, economics, sociology and anthropology.

I scarcely need observe how William’s concerns ring with an ironic prescience in our twenty-first-century moment of the outcomes-obsessed and management-ridden university.

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In a review of this length I can give only a fleeting taste of Eagleton’s account of these five figures’ careers and achievements, which relates more in the way of incident and idea than I can rehearse even in brief. Those details are ample, well-chosen and revealing. Eagleton moves with equal ease between magisterial summa and racy anecdote, making Critical Revolutionaries both a pleasurable read and an encyclopedic resumé in small of its subjects’ formidable, if not always widely recognised, impact on the history of twentieth-century thought.

About the author

Robert DiNapoli

Robert DiNapoli is a poet, translator, essayist and erstwhile lecturer on English language and literature. His books include A Far Light: A Reading of Beowulf (2016), Engelboc (2019) and Reading Old English Wisdom: The Fetters in the Frost (2021).

More articles by Robert DiNapoli

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