Re-Readings

Chris Baldick

  • Poetry, Language and Politics by John Barrell
    Manchester, 174 pp, £21.50, May 1988, ISBN 0 7190 2441 2
  • Garden – Nature – Language by Simon Pugh
    Manchester, 148 pp, £25.00, May 1988, ISBN 0 7190 2824 8
  • Writing Ireland: Colonialism, Nationalism and Culture by David Cairns and Shaun Richards
    Manchester, 178 pp, £21.50, May 1988, ISBN 0 7190 2371 8
  • The Shakespeare Myth edited by Graham Holderness
    Manchester, 215 pp, £25.00, May 1988, ISBN 0 7190 1488 3

Academic publishers in Britain are relying increasingly upon the series of monographs, a form which permits the development of brand loyalty and which allows a few excellent literary introductions and re-interpretations to carry in their wake any number of inferior works. The rise of the series is most pronounced in the oppositional subculture of academic feminism, socialism and deconstruction which seeks in various ways to challenge traditional notions of method, of canon, and of the status of literature. Here the nature of the series monograph tends to encourage the production of instant off-the-peg reassessments or sample demonstrations of theoretical routines cried up as novelties. The series edited by Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield under the title ‘Cultural Polities’ has some twenty volumes in store already, covering popular fiction and music as well as canonical literature. Of these, the first four published titles present a mixed impression in which the more traditionally literary studies come off far better than the single excursion beyond letters. In this batch it is the excellence of John Barrell’s Poetry, Language and Politics which stands out, providing some compensatory cover for the shortcomings of its companion volumes.

Barrell’s fine study of language and power in English poetry takes issue with the enduring assumptions of traditional ‘practical criticism’, tackling them on their own ground of close textual scrutiny. He identifies the ideology of practical criticism as a universalising rhetoric which finds balance and unity of form and content in every poem it touches, dissolving in a blaze of transcendental individualism the historical conditions in which the poem was written. ‘It makes all poems tell the same dull story, of how an empty individuality easily escapes from an empty history.’ His own more historically-informed readings are put forward very modestly, but although Barrell claims to have no method to advertise, his analyses are indeed exemplary, and amount to a formidable, if noticeably courteous demolition of the universalising tradition in English poetic criticism.

Readers of the Pseuds Corner column in Private Eye will already have been informed that this book’s thesis hinges upon the placing of a comma in Shakespeare’s 29th Sonnet. To point out that in fact it is a semicolon that is at stake may not entirely dispel the suspicions of lemon-squeezing pedantry which thus arise, but a reading of Barrell’s chapter on Shakespeare certainly does: he is one of those rare scholar-critics who can make matters of punctuation genuinely interesting. The semicolon turns out to be a crux at which Shakespeare’s editors rescue his transcendent spirituality from the danger of an alternative reading which would make him an importunate and mercenary flatterer of his patron, as Barrell demonstrates in a meticulous explanation of the overlapping languages of patronage and love poetry.

In contrast with the practical criticism tradition, which has encouraged generations of readers to regard poems as strings of metaphors interspersed with onomatopoeia, Barrell restores the analysis of syntax to its rightful place in exegesis. Later chapters on Milton, Thomson, Clare and Wordsworth unfold an intriguing argument about the poetic effects of delaying a main verb: the pace at which readers are obliged to hurry through the ‘deferred syntax’ of Milton’s heroic sonnets is shown to reinforce the celebration of masculine virtues in these poems, while the elaborate syntax of The Seasons and ‘Tintern Abbey’ reveals a complex signalling of superiority over the allegedly simpler perceptions and languages of women and rural labourers.

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