The Decline and Fall of Literary Criticism
The decline of literary criticism, an intellectual activity not so long ago thought of as culturally significant in America and England, has often been noted. What deserves more attention is the peculiar relation between the rise of theory and the fall of criticism. A generation ago, people involved in Anglo-American literary studies scarcely knew that literary theory existed. René Wellek’s and Austin Warren’s Theory of Literature (1949) was the first book in English to bear such a title, and this hitherto alien enterprise of describing how literature works as a system would not have been undertaken without the presence at Yale of Wellek, a Czech émigreé with a satchelful of European ideas.
In those innocent days, departments of literature were pigeonholed, like the old roll-top desks their members often used, into neat little slots containing 17th-century men, 18th-century men, and so forth (there were hardly any women then). You did your dutiful spadework on and around “your” authors—or, if you were a critic addressing a less specialized audience, like Lionel Trilling and Edmund Wilson in this country or F.R. Leavis in England, you made your pronouncements on the writer and society, literature and history—without puzzling your head about the dynamics of reader response, the nature of convention, the formation of literary canons, linguistics, and interpretive strategies.
How much things have changed in the three-and-a-half decades since the publication of Theory of Literature was vividly illustrated by a symposium called “Professing Literature” that appeared a little over a year ago in the (London) Times Literary Supplement (December 10, 1982). The symposium was occasioned by, and variously reflected, a much discussed feeling of recent years that literary studies—referred to as “English” on the other side of the water—were in a state of crisis. The symposiasts, including both Americans and Englishmen as well as one Australian, sharply split between those who believed that the addiction to theory was destroying “English,” or at any rate was the clearest symptom of its collapse, and those who argued that only theory could save the study of literature. Interestingly, René Wellek himself stood squarely on the anti-theoretical side of the barricades, complaining that young scholars now were too often being exposed chiefly to theory rather than to the primary literary texts, and objecting to fashionable theories (he clearly had in mind deconstruction, whose American capital is his own Yale) which “deny that there is correct interpretation and hence encourage sheer caprice, arbitrariness, and finally anarchy.”
Before speculating on the reasons for this hullabaloo about theory, let me hasten to distinguish between the intrinsic value of the activity and what has happened to it in becoming a vogue. For all the achievements of the conventional, sturdily commonsensical tradition of literary criticism in England and America, one must admit that on the whole it exhibited a singular lack of curiosity about the conceptual underpinnings of literature and interpretation. This absence of methodological self-scrutiny or philosophical reflection could lead to certain fundamental simplifications even on the part of acute thinkers, ranging from the New Critics’ celebration of the sublime semantic unity of the poetic artifact to Leavis’s ex-cathedra assertions about the presence of Seriousness and Life in a drastically select group of literary texts. To the extent that the new wave of interest in literary theory has opened minds to examine the problematics of literary expression as such, of reading, and of the systematic investigation of literature, it must be welcomed as a way of introducing new rigor, complexity, and fullness to the institutional study of literature.
In the actual surge of the vogue, however, the problem of the balance of emphases to which Wellek alludes is a very real one: it is by no means uncommon these days to meet people with Ph.D.’s in literature who have read every inscrutable word of the psychoanalytic-linguistic theorist Jacques Lacan but whose acquaintance with Balzac is limited to Le Père Goriot and “Sarrasine,” the story quoted by Roland Barthes in his eccentric semiotic study, S-Z. In any case, what concerns me here is not the practical issue of striking a balance in graduate training but the motives that impel those who began as students of literature to turn in such numbers from the stuff of literature to the sundry contemporary metalanguages that have been devised to talk about talking about literature.
To begin with, this eagerness for a whole new set of terms that can be maneuvered around and behind and beyond literature has the look of a program of system-wide retooling in an industry that has discovered it is antiquated. I borrow this sad technological metaphor from a TLS review by David Lodge of Tony Tanner’s Adultery and the Novel (1979), a book Lodge extravagantly overpraises for its author’s plunge from the surface world of British literary chitchat into the profundities of post-structuralism. (Lodge himself had made the plunge earlier, moving from a lucid 1966 study, Language of Fiction, to The Modes of Modern Writing, 1977, where he persuaded himself that Roman Jakobson’s much overworked distinction between metaphor and metonymy could be made a lever to lift all the world of modern fiction.) Perhaps the very proliferation of academic institutions in the first two postwar decades led to a sense that the élan of criticism when it was an elite activity could not be preserved, that in the mushrooming of articles and journals and university-press publications, one must abandon the hope of producing still another “perceptive” reading of Middlemarch and find radically new ways of approaching, or angling away from, literary texts. Add to that a certain Anglo-American cultural inferiority complex in the later postwar period: Englishmen and Americans, it was felt, were somehow not keeping pace with the best of the new Continental thought, were still producing the intellectual equivalents, of chugging Morris Minors and rumbling Buicks while the Europeans were devising miracles of engineering like the BMW and the Citroen. Instructively, literary theory after a decade and a half in fashion remains a European import. No American or English theorist has attained half the stature or a quarter the influence of Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, Jacques La-can, Gérard Genette, Michel Foucault, or, to cross the Rhine, Wolfgang Iser and Hans Robert Jauss; and Roman Jakobson, though he taught for decades at MIT, was, like Wellek, an immigrant bringing his intellectual baggage from Russia and Czechoslovakia.
This fascination with Continental horizons, at least for American literary scholars, was probably reinforced by the disruptive politicization of the university during the Vietnam era. As students occupied administration buildings and blue clouds of tear gas wafted over once tranquil quadrangles, many thought they were discovering that literature was not in the least “relevant,” as the New York critics associated with Partisan Review had led them to hope, or even a viable refuge in beauty from history, as the New Critics had encouraged them to imagine. At this point, there was an understandable appeal in Continental doctrines that categorically denied the privileged status of literary discourse, or, alternatively, that rediscovered the nexus between literature and society, literature and history, at a higher level of analysis than that of the essayistic Anglo-American critics.
Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory: An Introduction1 has been something of a university-bookstore bestseller this year and as such is surely a sign of the times. It has the double advantage of providing a skillful, often incisive survey of the theoretical scene while symptomatically reflecting both of the post-60’s aspirations I have just noted—to deny the distinctiveness of literature among modes of discourse, and to expose the hidden ligaments binding literature to society and to the political realm.
In most respects, Literary Theory is a surprisingly cogent and well-written book. Surprising, that is, to anyone who has read Eagleton’s previous books, like Literature and Ideology and Marxism and Literary Criticism, which are reductive in their Marxist insistences and so top-heavy with jargon and abstractions that one might wonder if the author was a native speaker of English. In refreshing contrast, Eagleton’s prose in Literary Theory is lucid, lively, at times witty or even breezily conversational; and his Marxism actually gives him, as I shall explain, a certain leverage on the theorists he discusses, so that one is almost prepared to brush aside little stylistic tics like his repeated use of “liberal humanism” and “late capitalism” as ultimate terms of opprobrium or his summing up one theorist after another by concluding that so-and-so failed to recognize that his solution was part of the problem.
I don’t pretend to know what it was that liberated Terry Eagleton from the chains of British New Left rhetoric when he sat down to write this book, but I would like to suggest that in general it may be easier to be sharp and brisk when you are exposing the underlying fallacies of theories than when you are writing about either critics or literature itself. (It is probably “no accident” that the weakest section of Literary Theory before its concluding chapter is when Eagleton turns from theorists to a text, trying to provide an illustrative psychoanalytic reading of Sons and Lovers.) That is, when you write about a great novel or poem or play, you have to contend, drawing on your own limited resources and orientation, with the terrific semantic density of the literary text, and in critical controversy, if you are debating, say, Cleanth Brooks’s reading of a poem by Donne, you must address yourself both to the inherent intricacies of the text and to the operations of a mind which, however misguided in your view, has scrutinized the text with considerable subtlety. By contrast, when you are discussing the shortcomings of a particular theoretical approach, which as theory offers a global account of literature and literary interpretation based on limited, perhaps narrow or even doctrinaire assumptions, it is rather easier to make telling points, unmasking pretensions and exposing absurdities.
This leads me to conclude that current debates over theory provide more congenial occasions for the intellectual expression of aggression than the controversies of the vanished era of criticism, when the struggles were over questions like whether Milton was a baleful or beneficent influence on English poetry. Here, for example, is Eagleton, in a fairly characteristic moment, complaining about the relentlessness with which deconstruction makes literature “testify to the impossibility of language’s ever doing more than talk about its own failure, like some barroom bore.” The dissolution of meaning then becomes the key to an academic game:
For you can be sure that if your own critical account of a text has left the tiniest grains of “positive” meaning within its folds, somebody else will come along and deconstruct you in turn. Such deconstruction is a power-game, a mirror-image of orthodox academic competition. It is just that now, in a religious twist to the old ideology, victory is achieved by kenosis or self-emptying: the winner is the one who has managed to get rid of all his cards and sit with empty hands.
The satiric liveliness of the prose is suited to, and perhaps inspired by, the subject, while the cutting edge of the critique is the concept of ideology, which appears explicitly here, as it does in scores of related passages in the book, just when the writer is introducing his most telling point. As a Marxist, Eagleton is acutely aware that no intellectual activity, however self-enclosed it may seem or claim to be, is really innocent; that what you teach, the way you write, what you consider literature to be, are inevitably bound up with encompassing systems of value and ultimately reflect in some fashion the distribution and exercise of power in the larger political realm.
The great methodological trap for Marxists in this mode is an overspecification of the nexus between literary movements and political attitudes or historical events, and Eagleton is sometimes guilty of this. Thus, he claims that “post-structuralism”—which means chiefly, though not exclusively, deconstruction—was a direct consequence of the Paris événements of May 1968: “Unable to break the structures of state power, post-structuralism found it possible instead to subvert the structures of language. . . . The student movement was flushed off the streets and driven underground into discourse.” This sounds clever, but it glides over various untidy details like the fact that the two seminal volumes of the movement by Derrida were published and enthusiastically received in 1967, that the movement was created by elder statesmen of French intellectual life, not students, and that it has flourished most abundantly in New Haven and Baltimore and Ithaca, among literary scholars quite untouched by the political upheavals in Paris in May 1968.
Fortunately, such moments of overspecification are a good deal less frequent than one might have feared, and Eagleton’s analysis is often quite bracing in laying bare the ideological implications of attitudes toward literature. He makes a convincing case for the idea that “English” was invented as an academic subject in the 19th century to serve as a substitute religion and a basis for solidarity in a society actually tense with class conflict and haunted by the specter of social alienation. (George Gordon, an early 20th-century professor of English at Oxford whom Eagleton quotes, baldly announced that “England is sick, and. . . English literature must save it.”) This ideologized notion of literature begins preeminently with Matthew Arnold, who in turn draws on the redemptive vision of poetry spun out of the romantic movement. One could say that Eagleton’s most basic critique of the various currents of modern literary theory, especially as they have wound their way through England and America, is that they have extended this early modern cult of literature as refuge and salvation, or alternately have mimicked the technocratic and managerial procedures of an alienating modern society—swinging between the Charybdis of aestheticism and the Scylla of scientism.
The critics of the 30’s and 40’s grouped around F.R. Leavis’s Scrutiny in England and the contemporaneous New Critics in America are both said to reflect “the ideology of an uprooted, defensive intelligentsia who reinvented in literature what they could not locate in reality.” And for the New Criticism in particular, with its Southern Agrarian base, “poetry was the new religion, a nostalgic haven from the alienations of industrial capitalism.” Structuralism is in most respects the chief representative of the scientistic alternative to such aestheticism, replacing in its analysis of literature all the old-fashioned human subjects with a new subject—“the system itself, which seemed equipped with all the attributes (autonomy, self-correction, unity, and so on) of the traditional individual.” Ingeniously, but I think persuasively, Eagleton proposes that Northrop Frye, whose 1957 Anatomy of Criticism was the early trailblazer for the North American interest in theory, unites both ideological trends: “The beauty of [his] approach is that it deftly combines an extreme aestheticism with an efficiently classifying ‘scientificity,’ and so maintains literature as an imaginative alternative to society while rendering criticism respectable in that society’s [technocratic] terms.”
Since so much of Eagleton’s analysis is devoted to exposing the escapism and self-delusions of literary theory, the various ways it spins its wheels while pretending to go somewhere, one may wonder what point he sees in the whole enterprise. Literary Theory is very much a weathervane for prevailing intellectual winds in deriving from its survey of contemporary theorists two leading ideas: the destruction of the illusion of realism and the destruction of the illusion of literary tradition.
Back in the heyday of Partisan Review in the 40’s and early 50’s, it was often asserted that the novel “brought us the news” about our society, that a reading of The Princess Casamassima or The Charterhouse of Parma could cast a uniquely penetrating light on the fine workings of both human nature and of the sundry political and social frameworks that encompass it. In the post-Vietnam era, this notion was widely dismissed as a naive reflectionist fallacy, perhaps for some critics because of a wounded sense that their faith in literature had been misplaced. Literature was increasingly thought of not as a mirror held to nature but as an agent of society, in covert complicity with it even when seeming to be its overt critic. Eagleton approvingly summarizes the influential view of Barthes on this issue (and I suspect that Foucault is hovering somewhere behind the summary):
Signs which pass themselves off as natural, which offer themselves as the only conceivable way of viewing the world, are by that token authoritarian and ideological. It is one of the functions of ideology to “naturalize” social reality, to make it seem as innocent and unchangeable as Nature itself. Ideology seeks to convert culture into Nature, and the “natural” sign is one of its weapons. . . . In the ideology of realism, words are felt to link up with their thought or objects in essentially right and uncontrovertible ways.
This is a central emphasis in most of the fashionable French theorists. It can be detected in the structuralist Genette, the psychoanalytic Lacan, the structuralist to post-structuralist Barthes, the deconstructionist Derrida, and, of course, in Foucault, who makes “discourse” and its supposedly repressive modalities the major force of historical causation. There is an intrinsic connection between this denial of the authority or authenticity of literary realism and the turn from criticism to theory, as one plainly sees in The Pursuit of Signs (1981), Jonathan Culler’s way-station to doctrinaire deconstruction, which categorically renounces interpretation as a legitimate activity of literary studies. Why, indeed, undertake a “reading” of Anna Karenina when your intellectual responsibility is to unmask its pretense to represent reality, to show how its notions of causality and personality and psychology merely replicate the arbitrary and coercive values that govern society as a whole?
I would seriously question this direct isomorphic correspondence between the literary use of language and the domination of ideology that is assumed by so many of the French theorists and their Anglo-American followers. Indeed, the correspondence theory about literary language and political ideology may in its seemingly sophisticated way be more naive than the old reflectionist theory of literary mimesis. To think about this issue in more concrete literary-historical terms, if one scrutinizes the masterworks of the realist tradition—which includes, after all, writers like Cervantes, Fielding, Sterne, Diderot, Stendhal, Thackeray, Melville, and Joyce—one may have doubts about the source of this model of realism as a use of “signs which pass themselves off as natural, which offer themselves as the only conceivable way of viewing the world.” The French are in the habit of talking categorically about “the classic narrative,” by which they generally mean everything before Proust, but the more one looks at premodern fiction—and the argument could be taken all the way back to the Odyssey—the more this notion of the “authoritarian” realistic narrative as a reflection and instrument of oppression seems like the fabrication of an adversary ideology. Even central 19th-century realists like Balzac and Dickens in certain ways delight in the arbitrariness of their own inventions, sometimes pretending the signs they use are natural but also flaunting their unnaturalness; and realism as a general mode has richly and variously anticipated contemporary theory in embodying a self-critical awareness of the ambiguity of mimesis in the fullness of the mimetic act. What I am suggesting is that the “authority” of traditional realistic texts is rather a more complicated affair than some theories in vogue would lead us to imagine, and that before we leap too quickly to generalizations about the politics of classic narrative, there is much still to be explored and better understood in that body of narrative itself.
If realism is suspect for many of the new theorists, there is a still more fundamental suspicion about the general category, literature. Terry Eagleton is himself an eager participant in this process of unfrocking literature, and in this crucial respect the relation of his book to contemporary theory becomes symptomatic rather than analytic. He begins in an introductory chapter by asking what literature is, and concludes, with a certain plausibility, that it is not a stable entity because value judgments will lead to different decisions at different times and places about what is to be thought of as literature. In his survey of theories, he shows how every attempt to define “literariness,” beginning with the Russian formalists in the 1920’s, involves some inherent contradiction. True, we have firmly viewed Shakespeare as literature for three-and-a-half centuries, but, it is argued, one can imagine a future transformation of society in which people would get nothing out of Shakespeare, where “Shakespeare would be no more valuable than much present-day graffiti.” Ergo, we cannot think of literature as one, definite, reasonably stable entity.
The transparent silliness of this reductio ad absurdum surely says something about the writer’s determination to deny the intrinsic category literature at all costs. Anyone is of course free to entertain the most fantastic science-fiction hypotheses he wants to about the future, imagining societies where the Manhattan telephone directory will be read as an epic and Spinoza’s Ethics as random doodlings. This hardly means, however, that within the empirical scope of our actual historical experience it is not perfectly legitimate to distinguish quite sharply between philosophy and less reasoned and rigorous forms of expression, or to find it useful to consider the Iliad literature, as has been done these past 2,700 years, in strong contradistinction to other lengthy assemblages of names or words.
John Searle, in a recent polemic against Derrida (New York Review of Books, October 27, 1983), has made the interesting suggestion that Derrida’s way of thinking appeals to literary people because they seem to prefer neat, mutually exclusive categories, and if they cannot have them that way, they are happy to be persuaded that all category distinctions are ultimately reversible and hence meaningless. But, as Searle argues, many of our most useful categories in fact have fuzzy boundaries. This makes them tricky to work with in borderline cases, but by no means implies that they do not designate coherent phenomena. I would say this is true both of literature as an entity and of many of the key concepts current in literary analysis. As values shift, one might debate whether Augustine’s Confessions, Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, or Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams should be thought of as literature, but that does not compromise the soundness of identifying Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Spenser, Goethe as literature. In the same way, generic concepts like the novel, modal concepts like realism, even structural concepts like plot, have their notorious ambiguities and fuzzy boundaries, but we would be tongue-tied if we threw them out, and for all their problems, they repeatedly help us to make valuable distinctions and to grasp individual cases better.
Eagleton, however, is so persuaded that the existence of literature has been disproved that in his concluding chapter he can announce, “This book is less an introduction than an obituary,” and then proceed to propose that departments of literature be abolished, to be replaced by something that might be designated departments of discourse studies. If one accepts the supposed demonstration that Shakespeare and graffiti are in principle interchangeable under the aspect of eternity, then one should no longer teach Shakespeare as part of literature, which has no real existence, but together with graffiti, prison journals, television commercials, and business memoranda, as one kind of “discourse.”
Lest readers suspect me of satiric exaggeration, let me quote Eagleton’s own words in his proposal “to develop a form of study which would look at all the various sign-systems and signifying practices in our society, all the way from Moby-Dick to the Muppet Show, from Dryden and Jean-Luc Godard to the portrayal of women in advertisements and the rhetorical techniques of government reports.” The death of literature, like that of God, would appear to make everything permissible. The ideological goal Eagleton has in mind is transparent, and the departments he is proposing might as well be called discourse-insurgency centers. The imperial impulse of this call to action is breathtaking. The literary critic-theorist, having lost faith in the object of his own inquiry—indeed, having announced its demise—aspires to plant his flag wherever language and images are used, to set up as a universal expert on all forms of human communication, and by stages to change the world through his universal wisdom, at last offering solutions that will not be part of the problem.
As a teacher and critic, I must confess that I have singularly little interest in what any of my literary colleagues might have to say about images of women in advertising, though I might learn a good deal from some of them about Paradise Lost or the novels of Flaubert. As a matter of currently observable fact, quite a few literary scholars, in the wake of deconstruction, Lacan, and related phenomena, have begun producing elaborate interpretations of Freud and Nietzsche as they might of Rilke and Joyce, without the benefit of a professional grasp of either psychoanalysis or philosophy, and the results have not been encouraging.
What I would argue is that literature does have its own distinctive language, however much the borders may shift or blur into other languages, and that someone who has devoted nearly a decade to the formal study of literature in the course of professional training may have a certain special competence to be usefully exercised on literary texts, and that is not especially relevant to other kinds of texts. To be sure, no specialized language develops in isolation from other languages in currency within a culture, and I don’t mean to propose a hermetic isolation of the object of literary inquiry from other modes of expression or from society at large. One will no doubt find overlaps between the Muppet Show and The Tempest, but the “discourse” of the latter is not only immeasurably more complex, it is also simply different, and the analyst with the skills and knowledge to illuminate The Tempest may not be able to tell us much about the Muppet Show—and vice versa with a vengeance.
Let me conclude by offering one brief example of this distinctive language of literature, which may indicate why obituaries for literature are premature, and why it may still be possible to speak of a discipline of literary studies that appropriately takes as its object something different in kind from the objects of linguistics, philosophy, psychology, sociology, and media studies.
Here is a quatrain by W.B. Yeats entitled “The Nineteenth Century and After,” which appears in his 1933 collection, The Winding Stair:
Though the great song return no more
There’s keen delight in what we have:
The rattle of pebbles on the shore
Under the receding wave.
These lines can obviously be defined formally as a poem since they exhibit both meter (iambic tetrameter) and rhyme (abab). But are they poetry, which is to say, a subcategory of a distinctive kind of discourse called literature? One can cite uses of language that share formal features with our text but are not literature: advertising jingles, for example, possess both rhyme and meter (in some instances, this very rhyme-scheme and meter), and yet are not poetry, as I think this text clearly is. The differences are multifarious, having to do with audience, intention, subject, frames of reference and allusion, and the complexity with which the properly literary text marshals the resources of language for multiple purposes. A line like “O, Wheaties make you feel so good” is nearly identical rhythmically with “There’s keen delight in what we have,” but most people would deny it is literature because they recognize that, after all, it serves no purpose but to sell Wheaties. Literature obviously sometimes has a manipulative aspect as well but is never reducible solely to manipulation. The mechanical iambic tetrameter of the Wheaties line is a means for soothing or lulling consciousness while imprinting a seller’s message on memory; the same metrical pattern in Yeats’s line, as we shall see in a moment, serves much more complicated ends.
What might the student of literature do to account for the fullness of meaning of this poem that he could not do with a text of the Muppet Show, and that someone without specialized literary knowledge would not be equipped to do? He could begin with the title, which points to a large, traditionally literary subject (the passing of an era) and to a characteristically literary way of imagining the experience of the moment through long, recapitulative historical perspectives. The title also provides one initial clue to a famous 19th-century poem about an irrevocable historical transition, Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” The speaker of that poem stands at the shore listening to “the grating roar / Of pebbles which the waves draw back,” thinking of the Aegean of Sophocles and of how classical greatness has devolved into modern confusion.
It is by no means pedantic to introduce “Dover Beach” into our consideration of Yeats because literature as a language is intrinsically and densely allusive, Yeats in this case defining his meanings by citing the Arnold poem and marking a certain distance from it, making a kind of affirmation instead of Arnold’s plangent complaint and eschewing the declamatory aspects of Arnold’s rhetoric for a haiku-like compactness and concreteness he sometimes favored, along with Pound and other modernists. In any case, the larger meanings and cultural memories hinted in the sea imagery are activated by the recollection of Arnold’s poem. But the quatrain involves a generic as well as a textual allusion, being a 20th-century version of a poetic genre called recusatio that goes back to the late Roman republic and is the poetic validation of a particular kind of style by an illustrative renunciation of a preceding, antithetical, and “grander” style (here, the “great song,” perhaps ultimately alluding to the Homeric epics, that will return no more).
In keeping with its function as an instrument of recusatio, the diction of “The Nineteenth Century and After” is plain, unpretentious, with monosyllables predominating, and only a few bisyllabics, the sole trisyllabic being the participle “receding” in the last line. At the same time, the subjunctive mood of the verb that controls the first line is the signal of a more formal diction, and the poem is characteristic of the mature Yeats in combining colloquial vigor and directness with a certain traditional stylistic decorum. The interplay between traditional form and modernist freedom also strongly marks the use of meter and rhyme. The only regular line of iambic tetrameter is the second, though it is the metrical ground against which the whole poem works. The first two metrical feet of the poem are a trochee and a spondee which have the effect of isolating and heavily emphasizing “great song” and making us experience the emergence of the iambic pattern in “return no more” and in the next line’s assertion of keen delight as a kind of springing loose from the pressure of constraining forces. The concrete focus on the shingle in the last two lines brilliantly mimics the sound of pebbles shifting under the rhythmic movement of waves, and to that end, not only are stress patterns freely rearranged but the third line is allowed nine syllables instead of eight and the last line given only seven syllables and three stresses.
The very prosody, then, enacts the transformation of the great song into a less harmoniously symmetrical music. It is beautifully apt for the poem’s statement about a diminished modernity that the concluding image should be of a receding wave, and the off-rhyme of “have” and “wave” closes the poem on a slightly dissonant note that is the perfect phonetic equivalent of what is being asserted: no grand resonances now, no oceanic harmonies, but the muted, scraping music of humble things within hand’s reach.
I don’t pretend that I have said everything worth saying about these four lines, or that all the interpretive inferences I have drawn from formal features of the poem are inevitable ones. What I do hope to have shown is that the quatrain uses a language which can properly be called a distinctive language of poetry, and that in order to see fully what is going on, we have to know something about how this distinctive language is conjugated and declined, which involves not only sound, syntax, and grammar but also prosody and literary history We make sense of the poem by recognizing on various levels the ramified ways in which it belongs to literature, though of course there are other recognitions to be made as well.
It is true that literature has come to seem more problematic in regard to its nature and boundaries than it did even a generation ago, and that is probably to the good. But reports of the death of literature seem greatly exaggerated If literature exists as a coherent entity, criticism is the informed art—never quite a science—of explicating and evaluating literature, and theory might better serve as guide and counsel to criticism instead of seeking to usurp its place, or to push it into the labyrinth of all possible forms of discourse.
1 University of Minnesota Press, 244 pp, $29 50.