Terry Eagleton’s probes into English literature, conducted with tremendous fluency, humor, and the knowledgeable experience of a skilled diagnostician, continue apace with his latest book, Critical Revolutionaries. He looks at five literary figures whose names are no longer as familiar with students, or indeed a number of their teachers, as they once were. It is not that he exhumes them – they are not that dead – but he does awaken fresh interest in a tradition of literary criticism at risk of being forgotten in the career-driven haste to embrace whatever -ism or post- is currently academia’s flavor of the year.
Eagleton’s sense of humor can be droll, incisive, or just funny – recall his wicked ballad (sung to the tune of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’) with its sparkling first verse:
Chaucer was a class traitor– posted at the back of his collection of essays in Against the Grain (1986).
Shakespeare hated the mob
Donne sold out a bit later
Sidney was a nob
His writing is also characterized by the ability to deftly illustrate the weakness in a point of view with examples that are telling but rarely run-of-the-mill. Order and balance, the avoidance of chaos, he observes, are often viewed as positive but they needn’t always be so: ‘Scientology and the North Korean secret police are no doubt superbly organized as well, but this is no reason to admire them.’ He is equally adroit at drawing unexpected allegiances, as when noting how reciprocity is part of the deepest self-fulfillment, achieved in and through the self-realization of others: ‘The name we give to this mutuality at its most fruitful is love. The name Marx gives to it politically is communism.’
T.S. Eliot’s poetry is in no danger of being forgotten but the prose writings of this self-proclaimed royalist and reactionary, an American who became a ‘parody of a pukka Englishman’, are at risk. Eagleton tackles this head-on in his first chapter, going with the current of his thought and then swimming against it – drowning one moment and waving the next – in the hope of rescuing something worthwhile. For Eliot, Hamlet’s failure is due to the hero’s lack of an ‘objective correlative’, his term for an emotion crystallized in an external event or object. Eagleton, aligning such a state of lack with the way desire is always a condition in excess of its goal, adds that this is not a reason for censure and adduces Eliot’s own poem, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, to reinforce the point.
Eliot’s literary criticism is couched in the language of conservatism but it broke new ground with its attention to how literature registers the age it inhabits. Elizabethan and Jacobean writers did so by finding exciting ways to explore their sensibilities but a decline is seen to have set in after the Metaphysical poets. Such brush strokes can be too broad but Eagleton applauds the boldness of Eliot’s approach while subjecting his account of how new writing retrospectively changes the tradition from which it emerged, to critical interrogation. The questioning raises interesting concerns around poetics and politics and in the end, it is Eagleton and not Eliot who commands the reader’s attention.
I.A. Richards and William Empson
I.A. Richards, now far less well known than Eliot, is championed for the materialist approach to literature in his path-breaking Principles of Literary Criticism (1924) and Practical Criticism (1929). He sees language as essentially metaphoric, arising from the mind’s ability to categorize, pattern comparisons from differences, and model meaning through words and grammar. Nature itself is independent of language – the materialist’s premise – but not nature as we perceive and understand it. This truth was imbued by one of his students, William Empson.
For sheer cleverness Empson cannot be bettered yet Eagleton accurately describes his prose style as ‘depthless, off-hand’. Such incongruity is typical of a writer who found ambivalence at the heart of great literary texts (and political ones in his own life), memorably so in Paradise Lost, where he identified its God as a Stalinist but found the poetry sublime. Similarly, in Hopkins’ poem ‘The Windhover’, spiritual renunciation and enjoyment of physical beauty are held in tensional balance. Conflicts are not resolved – life is not so easy – but they can be worked through by the reader and this is what he unpacks with intricate and penetrating literary insight in Seven Types of Ambiguity and Some Versions of Pastoral.
Empson had a strong dislike of F.R. Leavis, the fourth literary critic put under the microscope by Eagleton, and the feeling was mutual. Their personalities and dispositions were opposed: the former was cosmopolitan in his personal and literary life whereas Leavis was a straight-laced, dyspeptic academic, rigidly exclusive in his choice of writers to champion. They were both nonconformists but Leavis was more the outsider.
Leavis responded to a certain kind of English – ‘sinewy, earthy, muscular, idiomatic’ – and it is what he wrote best about. He saw it as enacting experience through words and literature that failed to do so was deficient. Hence, his judgemental pronouncements: Milton was out because his poetry drew attention to itself, and Tennyson was also awarded a low ranking because the musicality of his verse was deemed an end in itself.
Leavis praised writers who communicated a sense of ‘life’ with sensitivity, intelligence, refinement, and robustness, and to be moral was to evaluate lived experience in these terms. This may seem quaintly old-fashioned in the age of critical theory and its assortment of orthodoxies and may even be judged objectionable when such language is deployed to commend the misogynistic, racist, elitist, homophobic D. H. Lawrence. But Eagleton defends Lawrence, arguing that he cannot be so simply dismissed. In an age when literary appreciation was regarded as a superior form of wine-tasting, Leavis analyzed literature with a critical edge that deserves recognition.
The final chapter is devoted to Raymond Williams, the critic who shares Eagleton’s understanding of what culture and cultural materialism mean. Like Williams himself (the son of a railway worker in a Welsh village), the word culture, the active cultivation of a natural growth that is spontaneous, has journeyed from the country to the city. Dickens is singled out for the exemplary way he communicates the nature of urban culture and this is luminously summarized by Eagleton.
Williams saw culture as under the threat of appropriation and exploitation by vested interests of the selfish kind but resistance is not futile and this is the symbolic meaning of the clenched fist. The clenching, Williams insists and Eagleton concurs, ‘should never be such that the hand cannot open and the fingers extend, to give shape to a new reality’. As with the other four critics, Eagleton dispenses praise and censure where due, pinning down the hostility to modernism in Williams and coming close to saying that his books have aged more than one would like to admit.
The Missing Chapter
The missing chapter in this book is one about Eagleton himself for he combines the strengths of the five critics he discusses and emerges as the most knowledgeable critical revolutionary of them all. His richly informed writing is enhanced by perspicacity, wit, and discrimination. He has learned from those he pays tribute to and at the end of the road in literary criticism, whatever path is taken, the issues he raises in his discussions of them are likely to be found waiting.