Literary Criticism

From Terry Eagleton’s How To Read A Poem

If you are familiar with Terry Eagleton’s commentaries and criticism at the London Review of Books, you know he is an extraordinarily gifted and prolific writer. This is an excerpt from his book, How To Read A Poem, whose thesis argues for close and slow reading as a means to discover the intricate life of great literary texts. At the same time, Eagleton enlightens us on the cultural value of literary criticism, as well as the inherent bias of critical opinion:

It is the hallmark of some of the twentieth century’s towering literary scholars: Mikhail Baktin, Erich Auerbach, Walter Benjamin, Ernst Robert Curtius, Kenneth Burke, Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, Edwards Said. For almost all of these critics, there is a politics implicit in the painstaking investigation of the literary text. It is no accident that William Empson, who analyzed poems more scrupulously that any critic had ever done before, was also a political liberal with socialist leanings, who was expelled from the University of Cambridge for supposed sexual misconduct and subsequently taught in conditions of considerable hardship in China and Japan. Empson’s alertness to poetic ambiguities was also an openness to conflicting kinds of cultural meaning, including those which might well seem alien to most English gentleman of his kind. A son of the Yorkshire landed squirearchy Empson rebelled against his hunting-and-shooting background to become an oddball, a dissident and an outsider; and his fascination with textual dissonances and multiple meanings was closely bound up with this spiritual nonconformism.

In a similar way, F. R. Leavis’s focus on the sensuous detail of a poem reflected among other things his opposition to an industrial order which was governed, so he felt, by abstraction and utility. Poetry, however indirectly, was thus a form of political critique. For I. A. Richards, the delicate equipoise of a poem offered a corrective to an urban society in which human impulses were no longer harmoniously integrated. All of these critics, along with the others I have mentioned, were deeply responsive to social history, in however nostalgic, or idealist a fashion. Yet all of them, to adapt a phrase of Fredric Jameson, felt at the same time an ‘obligation to come to terms with the shape of the individual sentences themselves’. [1] It is just that in their view, this obligation also involves coming to terms with the forces which helped shape sentences, forces which include a good deal more than the author. For these critics, there was no simple-minded option between ‘history’ and ‘the words on the page’. As philologists or ‘lovers of language’, their passion for literature was bound up with engagement with entire civilizations. What else is language but the bridge which links the two? Language is the medium in which both Culture and culture — literary art and human society – come to consciousness; and literary criticism is thus a sensitivity to the thickness and intricacy of the medium which makes us what we are. Simply by attending to its own distinctive object, it can have fundamental implications for the destiny of culture as a whole.

Another great philologist, Friedrich Nietzsche, constantly preached the value of knowing how to read well. He presents himself as a teacher of ‘slow’ reading, and regards this as cutting against the grain of an age obsessed with speed.[2] Close reading for Nietzsche is a critique of modernity. To attend to the feel and form of words is to refuse to treat them in a purely instrumental way, and thus to refuse a world in which language is worn to a paperlike thinness by commerce and bureaucracy. The Nietzsche and Superman is not an e-mail user. Yet this relation between politics and textuality goes a good deal further back — all the way, in fact, to the oldest form of literary criticism we know, the rhetoric of the ancient world.

1. Fredric Jameson, Marxism and Form (Princeton, NJ, 1971), p. xii.
2. See Keith Ansell Person, Nietzsche (London, 2005), p. 2.

From How To Read A Poem, Terry Eagleton (Wiley-Blackwell 2006), pp. 9-10


3 comments on “From Terry Eagleton’s How To Read A Poem

  1. I just bought Eagleton’s “How to Read Literature.” I first read him in my Lit Theory class, where I read Leavis too.

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