Book Review: What The Critical Thunder Said; Lessons From The Past

Terry Eagleton, in the book under review, has written about five British critics of the last century who, by general consent, revolutionized the reading of English literature before the so-called theoretical revolution held sway from the 1960s. These critics have now been forgotten in academia. Eagleton wishes in his book to recall these pre-theory critics, T.S. Eliot, I.A. Richards, William Empson, F.R. Leavis and Raymond Williams. He claims that it still makes an awful 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 was articulated.

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It may be remembered that TS Eliot, IA Richards, William Empson, FR Leavis and Raymond Williams helped to end the era of what has been called ‘easygoing connoisseurs and usher in the era of professional criticism, marked by rigorous analysis. All of them, except for the first figure, TS Eliot, were associated with the University of Cambridge. Products of the Tripos Reform at Cambridge in the second decade of the twentieth century, they, in their 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 world wide. In India in the 1960s and 1970s, for instance, Eliot and Leavis were iconic figures and were quoted by every English teacher to clinch an argument. Leavis’s student at Cambridge, CD Narasimhaih who became a formidable professor of English and a champion of Commonwealth Literature, circulated his teacher’s critical ideas avidly.

The critical tools marshalled by these critics included ‘tradition’, impersonality’ and unification of sensibility’ (Eliot), ‘practical criticism’, ‘close reading’ (Richards), ‘ambiguity’ (Empson), ‘the concrete ’, ‘felt life’, ‘literary criticism’ (Leavis) and ‘structure of feeling’ (Williams).  Strictly speaking, the last named, Raymond Williams, coming late, was not a contributor to this formative period as such, but an inheritor and sustainer of these Cambridge critics’ legacy. He later rebelled against it in trying to act out his socialist convictions. Eagleton has brought out the significance of Williams’s distinctive contribution to the now prevalent ‘historicist paradigm’ in the last chapter of his book, while not forgetting to point out how tone-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 diverse ways —Eliot was an anti-Romantic who nourished  a Romantic core, Richards and Empson were rationalists, and Leavis was an instinctualist—to the development of what has been called a ‘critical paradigm.’ Admittedly he told this story in some of his acclaimed earlier books but from a vantage ground of theoretically informed ideological analysis, imported mainly from France, which served mainly to discredit these pioneers for their elitism, sexism, and ‘little Englandism’ (the charge last named was mainly levelled against F.R. Leavis). Williams was initially lumped together with them and brusquely dismissed, but was later resurrected and hailed as a pioneer of several new trends which morphed into today’s much talked about stances of cultural study and ecology.

The revolution, wrought by the first four—a project which Williams helped to extend—was one which saw the arts and humanities rise to a central position in the education system thanks to their vitalist and moral concerns which were conspicuously lacking in science and other non-literary subjects.  This is best exemplified by two defining statements, one by T.S. Eliot t (‘poetry purifies the dialect of the tribe’), and, the other by I.A. Richards (‘there is a relationship between our appreciation of the arts and our general fitness for a humane existence’).

The philosophy dictated a reading method known as ‘close reading’ to which all five paid deep allegiance, though the term was Richards’. The essence of ‘close reading’ was this: the rich and complex experience that poetry or art embodies is enshrined in a ‘non-denotational’ language, one marked by what Empson termed ‘ambiguity’ and Richards called ‘pseudo-statement’. It can, therefore, be demonstrably brought out through rigorous attention to the ‘words on the page’. The ideal—or ideology if you like—of the literary study was thus fully formulated and the royal road was put in place for the study of literature as a ‘discipline of thought’.

The above term is Leavis’s. Eagleton provides an excellent summing up of the way in which the poetics of Eliot, Richards and Empson received pedagogical formulation by Leavis: “The way to reform a degraded society, then, was through education. The main engine of education was the university; at the core of the universities lay the humanities; the queen of 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 proposed since. The theoretical revolution too abides by this insight in its undoing 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 their alert eye on every trick and stratagem that the market used and found in literary language a model of critical and moral intelligence that could see through the manipulation.  In paying a spirited 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 Critics Who Changed the Way We Read. Terry Eagleton. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022. Pp. 323.

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