In the autumn of every year schoolchildren and university students buckle down to read imaginative books by dead authors. Undergraduates reading English at Cambridge may begin with an essay on Gawain and the Green Knight. At Oxford they tackle In Memoriam. O-Levellers could be confronting Romeo and Juliet and A-Levellers the poems of Herbert. The central question all of them ask of a work is what it means, and answering this question requires practice, effort, and the knowledge of more than the book alone.
The last point is oddly controversial. Facts about how the books originated are given in new editions, as though they matter. Meanwhile teachers of literature generally insist that reading well means ignoring such redundancies and learning to concentrate on the words on the page. Talent, imagination, observation, wit and insight are held to be enough for the good critic, and therefore also enough for the examinee. But on this point the teachers are plainly wrong, since they forget how much knowledge has come with the previous reading they have put in. Most works belong to specialised genres with fixed conventions, and to get much from a sonnet or a shocker you need to learn its rules. The mere fact of having been written in a particular place at a particular time also gives a book its own specialised language, a vocabulary, allusions and assumptions which the first readers understood, and which good later readers try, perhaps unconsciously and perhaps incompetently, to recover.
It’s curious to be so reluctant to help with this fact of professional life: that we are distanced by time from the books we most often want to discuss. Anthropologists worry about the impaired perspective that comes with alienation from the subject, critics generally don’t. Before literature was much studied academically, in the 18th century, critics were given to insisting that old books – the Bible, for example, and Homer – could be read with understanding only by those who considered the social conditions at the time of origin, and knew the individual early textual histories. Belated Enlightenment thinkers like Shelley and Marx soldiered on in this historical vein, which tends to become discussion of societies and of politics as well as discussion of books. Which is, of course, the main reason why the growing army of professional critics, creative writers and teachers forsook the historical method, in favour of approaches which were more specialised and less controversial. Romanticism was the first of a series of restrictive practices which declined to see history, society and politics as sources for literature. The first simple alternative was to instal centre-stage the poet, an autonomous genius who makes the poem as God made the world, directly from chaos.
Successive theories of literature have gone on illustrating the in-built tendency observable in all specialised disciplines, which is to address an ever more highly-qualified élite on increasingly technical problems. Each critical innovation in the 20th century has been a new method directed at the subtle decoding of texts, and the need for greater complexity at the centre has led to drastic pruning at the margins. The number and type of texts deemed worthy of professional attention has tended to get fewer, so that after the disappearance of society and history in the early 19th century, we have had the gradual vanishing from the syllabus of popular literature and minor literature in the 20th. Even the poet has gradually faded, like the Cheshire cat: his parents, homes, loves, frailties and diseases, favourite fields of Victorian inquisitiveness, still appear in semi-popular biographies but have become too vulgar to raise in the seminar-room. It’s a tenet common to the ‘New Critics’ of the 1940s and the New New Critics of the 1960s, to formalism, structuralism and post-structuralism, that we must purge professional discourse of what is ‘extrinsic’ – including what in vulgar language is nonprofessional or simply human. More than sixty years ago T.S. Eliot uttered his classic dictum barring amateurs: ‘we must consider poetry primarily as poetry and not another thing.’ When in the Sixties and Seventies Barthes, Derrida and others declared the poem to be an autonomous system of verbal signs, they were performing the same manoeuvre in more aggressively technological terms.
It’s an impressive consensus, but is it right? A desirable method of reading might include, among its characteristics, richness in describing the original book, and strength and independence of judgment by the modern critic. The method of close-reading the work-in-isolation encourages these qualities to develop and colleagues dedicated to it tend to accuse historical critics of being less rich and less independent. It’s supposed to be dry, antiquarian, and also somewhat innocent, to be preoccupied with reconstructing the book that belonged to a dead readership. ‘Translation’ or ‘paraphrase’ of this type submits the critic, a mere mediator, to the tyranny of the dead author.
But is it really impossible to imagine a historically rich reading that is also a modern rich reading? A proper account of a book within its own network of social relationships looks potentially richer in terms of ordinary life, and freer at least of academic authority, than all but the most ingenious chartings of signs. As for the rest, we are all, regardless of method, living writers addressing living readers, and sharing with them codes deriving from both professional experience and social experience in modern times. The good historical critic is also a modern critic, not an apologist for dead authors; he or she notices what the original work didn’t say, or where it lacked coherence, or where it might now seem wrong. A type of historical criticism is posited which is historical twice over, and thus as capable of being vigilant about modern critics, Us, as about old authors, Them.
There’s no doubt that we are now hearing a great deal about the need for a revived, revised historical criticism, which would not return to the recent status quo before ‘theory’, but would try to stop the longer-term momentum that has narrowed the subject’s range. Matters have been brought to a head by two decades of hectic political disagreement in academe. Ending an apparent mid-century consensus in arts subjects, that academics were above politics, the new prophets of the Sixties accused their seniors of political interestedness, and have steadily urged us all to identify bias in, for example, the bourgeoisie and men, two prolific groups. Suddenly the very exclusivity and narrowness of reading the text-in-isolation looks shifty. Why did the mandarins choose this text, and agree to drop so many others? Are there connections, networks, interests, conspiracies, about who and what is in, which can be uncovered only with access to the culture-in-history we haven’t been looking at? These days the profession’s sustained reluctance to probe behind a work or a piece of criticism is more and more often represented as downright fishy.
But if the hidden ideological content of dead authors and old critics is to be held up to scrutiny, it must also become possible to ‘unpack’ the pronouncements of the latest technologists. They may represent themselves as radicals, but a New Wave marching under the banner of ‘There is nothing outside the text’ certainly isn’t affiliated to Militant or the TUC. What, apart from popularity with students, is the actual goal proposed by a type of radicalism which debates highbrow poems in an increasingly coterie language? The question has become more pressing now that the New New Critics have jobs too, now that their procedures look increasingly familiar, and ‘deconstruction’ emerges as ‘close reading’ by ingeniously inverted rules. It is, in fact, the need to get a better perspective on the present academic scene that has led to the call for a return to history. Or, in the translation for academics by W.T.J. Mitchell, editor of Chicago’s prestigious journal Critical Inquiry, the profession ‘now feels the need for a new historicism in order to scrutinise the values, interests and powers served by the proliferation of hermeneutic techniques’.
Jerome McGann and Olivia Smith are two good critics, both Americans publishing in England, who fall in with Mitchell’s injunction to ‘historicise’. Each regards a work of the past as both an individual literary performance and an event occurring in space and time. They think of writings of their overlapping periods, in McGann’s case the eighty years from 1780, in Smith’s the first half of that, as essentially political, and of contemporary readings of them as political too. Smith’s main topic is the rhetoric developed by English radicals in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic war period. McGann, more literary, discusses a number of highbrow poets from Crabbe to Christina Rossetti. They both write accessibly, and with a noticeable openness to the wider world, in the early 19th century and now. Half the point of reading either is lost if you don’t grasp, or know, that they mean to counter previous, narrower views of the same topics. Both brush aside the dictat that we don’t need to know what’s extrinsic to the text. McGann tends to undercut the long-fashionable stereotype of Romantic poets and poetry as ideal, unworldly and timeless. Smith bangs away at the lavish veneration post-war critics have bestowed on Samuel Johnson as a great authoritative grammarian of written English.
There’s plainly a controversial aspect to what both are doing, but also a welcome constructiveness. Publishers are flooding the market with rival interpretations, quick to write and easy to forget: here, in a scene in which there is a relative scarcity of genuine research, are two informative books it is better to buy than to borrow. In 1983 McGann published two shorter books, The Romantic Ideology and A Critique of Modern Textual Criticism, which he offered as discussions of the theoretical premises on which a modern historical criticism might rest. The Beauty of Inflections collects discrete articles written between 1977 and 1983, through which, by trial and error, the method and some of the principles were tested. And, in very interesting ways, they were sometimes challenged and modified.
The principle that a work has social relations is hard to gainsay. The problem for any practising teacher is that no method based on the social facts has the obvious classroom advantages of well-tried ahistorical procedures, which pare the subject down to the attentive reading of a strictly limited quantity of writing. McGann’s new book sees the problem facing historical critics in a more pragmatic light than he did in 1983, and the method he tries out is essentially a way of retaining close reading. He incorporates in his interpretation ideas and events extrinsic to the work, yet as particular to it as the text itself. McGann’s examples always relate to what he calls ‘the moment of socialisation’, or the book’s first appearance. This limits the notion of ‘context’ to a degree some will think drastic: to issues such as where, how and under what constraints a poem was published, and how its interpretative history after publication has moulded the way it is read.
Very few people have such a strict or literary understanding of the word ‘context’. His definition has obvious advantages over some types of explanation for literary phenomena, which explain nothing because they could explain anything: the class war, the rise of the bourgeoisie, patriarchy, power, commoditisation. It enables him to achieve arresting readings in the ‘extrinsic’ life of particular poems and books, and thus to match the richness and independence of rival ahistorical methods. As for the poem’s external relations in a wider sense, McGann is content here merely to demonstrate in principle that the poem is itself a historical event.
He deplores the current cant word ‘text’ instead of ‘poem’. The new technicians use it to convey their brisk, undeluded concentration on the physical, literal object, the words on the page. Yet this vaunted precision is spurious, for the word ‘text’, unlike ‘poem’ or ‘book’, at the same time posits an ‘Ur-poem or meta-work whose existence is the Idea that can be abstracted out of all concrete and written texts which have ever existed, or which ever will exist’.
A prime example of a poem we had better stop calling a text is Keats’s ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’. Thanks to the intervention of two of Keats’s friends, the poem has come down to us in the questionable form of the poet’s fair copy, rather than the version the poet revised and published. With the other version, or both versions, as text(s), our understanding of the poem changes significantly: it becomes more sceptical and sexually adventurous. Byron’s two most important poems, Childe Harold and Don Juan, are also problematic texts, since they were censored and distorted, to a degree that significantly changed their direction, by the publisher Murray. Coleridge himself went on editorialising and re-interpreting ‘The Ancient Mariner’, which supplies McGann’s most intricate and fascinating example: ‘The Ancient Mariner’ becomes itself an elaborate commentary upon literary transmission, and a poem preoccupied with its own external features and its ‘history’. McGann portrays a Coleridge who proves at once poet and historical critic, as his subsequent revisions and additions fill in his ballad’s imagined progress – from an oral original form in pagan times to its modern meaning as a Christian allegory.
The three chapters on Keats, Byron and Coleridge are all important, at times brilliant. The first has a polemical quality, for Keats has long been a favourite poet of the formalists, as Helen Vendler’s accomplished but airless study of the Odes has recently demonstrated. In fact, Keats was his own first ahistorical, anti-political interpreter: both in his letters and in his subtle redeployment of hitherto political themes, the codes of the day, he signalled an idiosyncratic, innovative neutrality. McGann goes knowingly against most of the best Keats commentary in representing ‘To Autumn’ as making its own kind of public statement, given the circumstances in which the poem appeared in 1819. The choice of ‘Autumn’ is challenging, since the many critics who prefer it among all the Odes – Vendler is the latest example – do so precisely on account of its exclusions: it admits nothing but nature and the poet’s feelings. Though I think McGann is right to point out that Keats’s use of nature and experience here is anything but natural and experiential, he has made life difficult for himself by not sufficiently tying in ‘Autumn’ to Keats’s career and to other literary events. He might have made the same case more persuasively if, for instance, he had traced Keats’s gradual, calculating creation of a separate literary sphere for himself, safe from the internecine politics and brutal reviewing in which every other leading poet was currently caught up: a reconstructed world of Spenserean romance, presented with Shakespearean disinterestedness. A close reading of Keats’s career seen as more than the sum of its aesthetic choices reveals what the poem-in-isolation strives successfully to hide. If Keats chose his method for such reasons and by such a process, his word for his work, ‘disinterested’, can’t and shouldn’t satisfy the critic: it’s the starting-point, not the end, for an independent enquiry.
The Keats chapter appeared as an article in December 1979, and it has already come under attack from Romanticists. Here, in the context of the complete book, it seems less provocative. On this evidence, McGann is less concerned to assail individual practising aesthetes than to prove by example that historical knowledge will blend into a familiar-looking particularised criticism. It’s a middle-of-the-road book; and, though it’s hard to think of anyone who will agree with all of it, many people who normally differ from one another might well come away believing that McGann is broadly on their side.
For McGann to emerge from a period of controversy as a professional’s professional is not surprising, given his record. His career began as most post-war academics’ have done, with specialised studies of single authors: in the Sixties and Seventies he wrote one well-praised study of Swinburne’s poetry, followed by two of Byron’s. He is currently editing Byron’s Complete Poetical Works for Oxford. He thus straddles the divide which opened in the profession early this century, between critics and scholars, free-ranging interpreters versus meticulous, detached researchers and editors. Other leading figures also do both, including, in this country, Christopher Ricks and John Carey. But most critics in good repute don’t seem to want to edit, and wouldn’t be any good if they tried. The provocative element in McGann’s position for them will be his serious belief in the centrality of the role of the editor.
He goes back to the 19th-century term ‘philology’ to recall a time of consensus, when literary scholarship was broadly historical (though he doesn’t concede that it was already ‘historical’ in a specifically literary way). He refurbishes philology’s image, by remarking that there have been in practice two areas of philological work: the history of the text and the history of criticism. His essays give late 20th-century reasons why both kinds of history need to be kept in mind: past circumstances, even of minute kinds, and old interpretations, apparently forgotten, can still contaminate even the most insouciant modern reading. The Beauty of Inflections thus emerges as a kind of peace proposal, based on the heart-warming idea that we all need one another’s specialisms. On the other hand, the Modernist free interpreters who are really the majority will think that a peace kept by philologists is peace on fairly tough terms.
McGann writes to be read, to be understood, to be helpful. But, though he would plainly like to, he can’t really offer a universal model for reading the poetry of the past, because his knowledge is specialised, it was largely won in scholars’ libraries, and it took years to get. The historical critic Edward Said has recently reflected of Eliot and the New Critics, now so widely reviled for conservatism and élitism, that in one respect at least they were populists when they began: they argued that you didn’t need scholarly or philological knowledge, you had only to read the poem. After half a century of seeing where this critical laissez-faire gels us, we may be tempted by the historical study of production and reception, since it has some limited certainties to offer, and many larger insights into the life of books in society. But it doesn’t meet all the needs of mass education – those needs which toppled the massive structure of philology in the first place.
Some unevenness in McGann’s book bears witness to the strenuousness of what he is asking professionals to do. If he is outstanding on Byron, but on Crabbe and Christina Rossetti merely shrewd and pertinent, that is because of the density of what he knows about Byron. McGann himself, as one of a new breed of self-critical critics, would presumably like this difficulty brought up and pondered on. Those of us who argue that we should like to democratise criticism, and write in order to be understood by A-Level students, are in the same difficulty as Emma Woodhouse, guiltily wishing she could be a little more like Harriet Smith: ‘it was rather too late in the day to set about being simple-minded and ignorant.’
Olivia Smith’s Politics of Language is also densely informative in a very particularised way. Its heroes are the popular rhetoricians Paine, Cobbett, Spence and Hone; its leading theorist, John Horne Tooke. A book concerned with so many minor figures may seem discouragingly narrow, not perhaps to political and social historians, but to most critics, even those who specialise in Romanticism or in language in the aftermath of Johnson’s Dictionary. But Smith’s book is one of those pint pots that holds a quart, several quarts, and many prior conceptions should be changed by reading it.
Her central objective is to represent late 18th-century theories of language and practices of writing in a political light. Her book develops the subject and historical method of James Boulton’s very good study of 1964, The Language of Politics; her cunning play with his title means that she sees the politics as much more pervasive. Even before the French Revolution, books proliferated on grammar, vocabulary, and the history of language back to its origins, and these fields of knowledge, says Smith, ‘were centrally and explicitly concerned with class division’ and ‘cannot be entirely understood without their political component being taken into account’.
Linked with such theorising was the practice of the new breed of political journalists and polemicists who emerged in the 1790s, headed by two men of humble English origins and recent American experience, Tom Paine and William Cobbett. Their innovation was to develop a tone and style which sounded more like the spoken language of the mass of the people than like the Latinate written discourse of the educated orders. Most of Smith’s chapters are studies in the use of this ‘intellectual vernacular language’, the medium through which political ideas could reach a popular readership in the French Revolution period and beyond.
The leading authority and champion of a Classically-based English high style was Samuel Johnson. The Preface to his great Dictionary of 1755 draws a distinction between the language of books, where the best English is naturally to be found, and the spoken language of ‘the laborious and mercantile part of the people’, who represent the majority of living users. ‘This fugitive cant’ is how Johnson describes the spoken tongue, while denying that its vocabulary belongs among ‘the durable materials of a language’. Johnson’s conservative political sympathies also influenced some of his definitions: he left out the political connotations of words in vogue in oppositional writing, such as ‘equal’, ‘rights’ and ‘liberty’. The Dictionary defines ‘liberty’ as ‘opposed to slavery’ and ‘opposed to necessity’, but not as ‘opposed to arbitrary power’. Smith lists other genteel authorities, such as Scottish academics and students of primitive languages, as supporters of a view of language similarly biased in favour of the educated.
Her first champion of a democratised rhetoric is Paine, whose Rights of Man appeared in two parts in 1791 and 1792. She shows how Paine invites a new type of reader into political discussions. General abstractions which had seemed to belong only to the discourse of the élite – crown, constitution, church and state – are brought down by homely metaphors to the level of vulgar experience. ‘By engendering the church with the state, a sort of mule-animal, capable only of destroying, and not of breeding up, is produced, called the Church established by Law.’ Less effective rhetorically, but very significant in the medium they adopted, were journalists like Thomas Spence and Daniel Eaton, who aimed at establishing a regular readership among the just-literate with their racily named but not always racily written weeklies, Pig’s Meat and Hog’s Wash. The man who combined the rhetorical skill of Paine with the journalistic enterprise of Eaton was Cobbett. It was not until after the Napoleonic wars that a popular political press became too well-entrenched to be uprooted, and then it was Cobbett, in the cheap tuppenny version of his weekly Political Register, who showed other radicals how to write.
He plainly told his newspaper readers in 1817 that it was partly by controlling the language that the aristocracy held on to power. The knowledge of grammar was monopolised by the knowing ones, and they had been too successful in persuading those ignorant of the ‘learned languages’ that they were disqualified from discussing great issues. ‘The very use of this appellation’ – ‘learned’ – ‘is a cheat; a trick, intended to impose upon the mass of mankind, and to keep them in a state of unnecessary, and therefore unjust, subjection.’
Cobbett followed up such observations with a grammar intended to dispel the notion that only those who knew learned languages were capable of handling their own. In doing so, he was following a strong late 18th-century tradition of work in what we would call alternative culture. Smith tells a good and important story, but it is a weakness in her book that she begins her narrative late, and greatly underestimates the quantity and range of politicised, class-aware writing on popular culture in Johnson’s England.
It was in the era of the American Revolution, not the French, that Thomas Spence began advocating a simplified spelling, Tooke a drastically simplified grammar, both for political reasons. The proposition that language was an instrument of power was sufficiently familiar for a latent political content to surface in much apparently innocent discussion of popular culture in the 1780s and 1790s. Francis Grose’s dictionaries of vulgarisms and provincialisms, which appeared in the 1780s, should be part of Smith’s story. She might also have mentioned Joseph Ritson’s anti-genteel commentaries on the popular ballad, and the collections of customs and beliefs compiled by scholars like John Brand of Newcastle, or contributed by many amateurs to the Gentleman’s Magazine. Even at the most grandly theoretical level, primitivists of language like the Celticists James Macpherson and William Owen Pughe in their own day rated the term ‘opposition men’, and they certainly can’t be counted in the establishment conspiracy, the cultural monolith that is the villain of Smith’s piece.
Smith misrepresents what was actually being written in the late 18th century, though admittedly the standard literary histories, which err in favour of the polite, appear to support her case. She seems convinced that élite poets will either be on the wrong side, or will lend the popularisers faint support. When William Hone was tried in 1817 for parodies based on the prayer-book, she observes that he was disgusted by the conservatism of the leading literati of the day, including Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey and Scott. Fair enough, but she doesn’t add that Hone had been busy pirating Byron, whom he regarded as a liberal, and that after the trial Byron returned the compliment, by introducing his own parody of the Ten Commandments into Canto I of Don Juan.
More worrying is the chapter on the Lyrical Ballads, which is argued more weakly than the rest of the book. Smith wants to represent in a particular light the intellectual relationship between Coleridge and her star radical theorist of language, John Horn Tooke. She wants to demonstrate that Coleridge was an admirer, even a disciple, of Tooke in 1800, though he refers to him only briefly and dismissively in the Biographia Literaria in 1817. In order to do this, she argues that Coleridge, rather than, as is usually held, Wordsworth, instigated the celebrated Preface to the Lyrical Ballads of 1800. And, once again, she underestimates the currency of notions of popular language and literature, and their potential to interact. Wordsworth and Coleridge as poets were after all composing ballads. It is true that previous discussions of their sources have been too confined to the genteel tradition. But by her narrow focus on the popular movement only at its most manifestly revolutionary, Smith ends up repeating positions which were key ones for that orthodoxy she sets out to question. She confirms the Johnsonian view that our literary heritage has belonged securely to the élite, that it has worked as an autonomous series, and that the theories of Coleridge represent the Lyrical Ballads – rather than the demotic language in which the poems themselves are written.
Smith sketches a scenario as simple as a woodcut in one of her favourite books, in which the champions of a popular intellectual discourse arise like Spence’s hero Jack the Giant Killer, to defy the giant Hegemony. Radical buzz-words like the Gramscian term ‘hegemony’ have the effect of curtailing discussion in historical criticism, as in history proper; they assume that the general nature of a society or culture is already known. McGann would not make this mistake. His more sophisticated method will no doubt be condemned by some because it stays within the discipline’s parameters, but it’s noticeable that he’s more consistently suspicious of received opinion of all hues than is Smith. Yet his fidelity to individual poems within the canon of what we call literature denies him Smith’s larger social perspectives, as well as an element many will find more questionable, her open political commentary. The two are hardly in competition, they are so different. The gap between them shows that, though the revival of historical criticism is being confidently proclaimed, its method and its range remain open questions.