Kermode and Theory

Hayden White

  • An Appetite for Poetry: Essays in Literary Interpretation by Frank Kermode
    Collins, 242 pp, £15.00, November 1989, ISBN 0 00 215388 2

Frank Kermode belongs to no sect of literary criticism, and he has founded no school. Like William Empson, whom he praises as a ‘genius’ of criticism, Kermode has always been more interested in a poetic than in a theoretic approach to the study of literature. He thinks that literature itself – rather than theories about it – is our best guide to how to read critically, and he has devoted the better part of a long career to this conviction. Kermode is a working critic and proud of it. When he does turn to the sustained consideration of questions of theory and method, it is almost always in the interest of identifying what is useful or illuminating, what can help us to read better, and what impedes us from doing so, in a given critical position or practice, rather than in elaborating a comprehensive theoretical perspective of his own. As for what ‘reading better’ consists in, Kermode would be fully justified in pointing to his own vast production of literary critical essays as a case in point: the bibliography of his works published between 1947 and 1988, appended to Poetry, Narrative, History[*], lists 308 items. Over a long career, Kermode has been a consistently patient, generous, informed, and above all intelligent reader of literature. We can say of him what he says of Empson: ‘He never loses class’.

This ‘class’ is amply displayed in An Appetite for Poetry, which consists of ten essays originally published between 1975 and 1989 and a Prologue, itself alone worth the price of the volume, which dilates on the current state of affairs in literary criticism and theory. The essays span the period marked by the composition of such books as The Classic (1975), The Genesis of Secrecy (1979), The Art of Telling (1983), Forms of Attention (1985), History and Value (1988) and Poetry, Narrative, History (1989), and they deal with topics and address questions that have concerned Kermode since the appearance of his first book, The Romantic Image, in 1957. Admirers will be pleased to find new appreciations of Eliot, Stevens and Milton and reconsiderations of such theoretical matters as the nature of symbolic language, the relation between fiction and history, and the notion of narrative. These familiar Kermode topics are utilised in this volume to focus attention on and reassess the issues animating current debates over the value of literature, the notion of the classic, the concept of canonicity and the nature of interpretation.

In Kermode’s view, the proper task of the critic is to read and to teach others to read attentively, not only because sustained attentive reading is very difficult, but also because some writing, the kind we used to call ‘literary’, is, pace many of the new theorists of literature, worth all of the care and attention we are capable of spending on it. Not that Kermode is ‘against theory’ per se. On the contrary, he knows that such an anti-theoretical position, when not simply meant to be mischievous, is anti-intellectual. Many of the essays in this collection – ‘Divination’, ‘The Plain Sense of Things’, ‘The Argument about Canons’, ‘The Bible: Story and Plot’, ‘Freud and Interpretation’ – address theoretical matters directly; the Prologue, which reflects on the relation between literary theory and reading, can be called a metatheoretical exercise. But Kermode’s purpose is to take us back to the basics of literary criticism, and he aligns himself with similarly inclined critics (Hugh Kenner, John Hollander, Richard Poirier, Lionel Trilling, and above all Empson) who use theory, when they use it at all, for the most part to clear the ground for attentive reading.

The phrase which serves as the title of the collection is taken from Paul Valéry’s remark about certain ‘men with no great appetite for poetry’ who nonetheless presume to study, judge and cultivate it. Kermode cites it in reference to certain older advocates of the scientific study of literature (Wellek and Frye) and some of the current purveyors of literary theory (Culler and Eagleton) who appear to see no difference between literary and ‘subliterary’ uses of language, or who, when they do see the difference, appear to have little need of and therefore no ‘appetite’ for literature itself. Kermode continues to believe not only in ‘literature’ but in its ‘value’ as well.

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[*] Blackwell, 124 pp., £19.95 and £7.95, 7 December 1989, 0 631 17264 5.