Book review: What the reviewer thunder said; Lessons from the past

Terry Eagleton, in the book in question, wrote about five British critics of the last century who together revolutionized the reading of English literature before the so-called theoretical revolution took hold from the years 1960. These criticisms have now been forgotten in academia. Eagleton wishes in his book to recall these pre-theoretical critics, TS Eliot, IA Richards, William Empson, FR Leavis and Raymond Williams. He claims that it still makes a lot of sense to see literature, as these five did, as an index of the moral health of society, and to develop a feel for the words themselves in which that moral sense has been articulated.

It will be remembered that TS Eliot, IA Richards, William Empson, FR Leavis and Raymond Williams helped end the era of what have been called “the easy-going connoisseurs and inaugurated the era of professional criticism, marked by rigorous analysis. All except the first character, TS Eliot, were associated with the University of Cambridge. Products of the Tripos reform at Cambridge in the second decade of the 20th century, they, in turn, played a stellar role in establishing English literature as a serious subject of academic study at Cambridge. The project was then implemented in the rest of England and spread widely. In India in the 1960s and 1970s, for example, Eliot and Leavis were iconic figures and were cited by every English teacher to land an argument. Leavis’ Cambridge pupil, CD Narasimhaih, who became a formidable English teacher and champion of Commonwealth literature, avidly circulated his teacher’s critical ideas.

The critical tools mobilized by these critics included “tradition”, impersonality “and the unification of sensibility” (Eliot), “practical criticism”, “close reading” (Richards), “ambiguity” ( Empson), “the concrete”, “the living feeling”, “literary criticism” (Leavis) and “structure of feeling” (Williams). Strictly speaking, the last named, Raymond Williams, who arrived late, did not contribute to this formative period as such, but an heir and a sustainer of the legacy of those Cambridge critics. Later, he rebelled against her trying to practice his socialist beliefs. Eagleton emphasized the importance of Williams’ distinctive contribution to the now prevalent “historicist paradigm” in the final chapter of his book, while not forgetting to point out how deaf he is to literary music.

The core of the book, however, consists of the first four chapters on Eliot, Richards, Empson and Leavis. The focus is on how they contributed, in their various ways – Eliot was an anti-romantic who nurtured a romantic core, Richards and Empson were rationalists, and Leavis was an instinctualist – to the development of what is called it a “critical paradigm”. ‘ Certainly he told this story in some of his acclaimed earlier books, but from a theoretically informed ideological analysis, imported mainly from France, which mainly served to discredit these pioneers for their elitism, their sexism and their “small Anglo-Saxon” (the last-named charge was mostly evened against FR Leavis). Williams was first lumped in with them and abruptly dismissed, but was later resurrected and hailed as a pioneer of several new trends that morphed into the much-talked-about positions of cultural and ecological study today.

The revolution, wrought by the first four – a project which Williams helped to extend – was one that saw the arts and humanities rise to a central position in the education system through their vitalist and moral concerns which lacked obviously science and others not. – literary subjects. This is best illustrated by two defining statements, one by TS Eliot (“poetry purifies the dialect of the tribe”) and the other by IA Richards (“there is a relation between our appreciation of the arts and our general aptitude to a human existence’).

The philosophy dictated a method of reading known as “close reading” to which all five lent deep allegiance, although the term was Richards’ own. The essence of “careful reading” was this: the rich and complex experience that poetry or art embodies is embedded in “non-denotational” language, marked by what Empson called “ambiguity” and Richards the “pseudo-declaration”. It can therefore be demonstrably brought out by rigorous attention to the “words on the page”. The ideal—or the ideology, if you will—of literary study is thus fully formulated and the royal road is set up for the study of literature as a “discipline of thought”.

The term above is that of Leavis. Eagleton provides an excellent summary of how the poetics of Eliot, Richards and Empson received a pedagogical formulation from Leavis: “The way to reform a degraded society, then, was through education. The main driver of education was the university; at the heart of universities are the human sciences; the queen of the humanities was literature, and the royal road to literature was literary criticism (p. 250). Surely no better justification for the study of liberal arts and literature has been offered since. The theoretical revolution also sticks to this intuition in its dismantling of the division between literature and criticism.

The critical revolutionaries, celebrated in Eagleton’s book with “five expert pen portraits,” were exemplary here. They kept a close eye on every trick and ploy the market used and found in literary language a model of critical and moral intelligence that could see through manipulation. By paying a stirring tribute to Eliot, Richards, Empson, Leavis and Williams, Eagleton has revived this golden age of modern criticism and demonstrated its renewed relevance.

critical revolutionaries. Five reviews that changed the way we read. Terry Eagleton. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022. Pp. 323.

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