Denis Donoghue

  • Selected Essays by John Bayley
    Cambridge, 217 pp, £19.50, March 1984, ISBN 0 521 25828 6
  • Collected Poems: 1941-1983 by Michael Hamburger
    Carcanet, 383 pp, £12.95, March 1984, ISBN 0 85635 497 X
  • Poems: 1953-1983 by Anthony Thwaite
    Secker, 201 pp, £8.95, April 1984, ISBN 0 436 52151 2

One of Anthony Thwaite’s poems, ‘Tell it slant’, swerves from Emily Dickinson’s line ‘Tell all the Truth but tell it slant’ to settle upon an aesthetic procedure she would have been too nervous to enunciate:

Truth is partial. Name the parts
But leave the outline vague and blurred.

Dickinson thought the truth should dazzle gradually, and that the best ploy was ‘circuit’. She didn’t presume to trace the outline. The trouble with Thwaite’s advice is that you can’t know what a part is until you know the whole of which it is a part. Critics call this trouble the hermeneutic circle, and think it irksome but not vicious. Thwaite doesn’t trouble himself with it: he is content to assume that what seems to him a perception is indeed true and probably fits somehow into a grander truth. His poems, like Dickinson’s, are circuits, but he seems to know their direction in advance; she is wilder, more willing to be fey or crazy in a cause she doesn’t claim to understand. To Thwaite, poetry is a naming of parts; to Dickinson, the blow of phrase upon phrase, their cause as chancy as their end.

John Bayley, the most English of critics, looks for truth by resorting to foreign parts of it. Or by subjecting home truths to the stress of foreignness. Russia and the USA are his main resorts, the one for fulfilment, the other for provocation. But his criticism has always enforced a moral distinction, and has gone far afield to find it exemplified. About fifteen years ago he wrote an essay ‘Against a New Formalism’, partly a meditation on a passage near the beginning of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves where Rhoda says: ‘The world is entire, and I am outside of it, crying “Oh save me, from being blown for ever outside the loop of time!”.’ Bayley distinguished between those writers – he had Virginia Woolf and Henry James in mind – upon whom ‘a passionate and omnivorous interest in life’ is laid as a sacred duty, and other writers – Tolstoy and Jane Austen sustained this quality – who are too far inside life to find it ‘interesting’. The art of Tolstoy and Jane Austen, Bayley said, ‘is not showing us something but living something for us’. In Woolf and James, ‘communication is synonymous with the exhibition of an aesthetic object.’

Bayley’s hostility to formalism, new or old, arises from his conviction that ‘aesthetic theories of the autonomy of art are only formulated when the art of a genre is all that is left of it, and it is arguable that many art-forms are at their most powerful and centrally creative when they are not considered as art at all.’ The literature he admires tries to help us to get in touch, offers us ‘ways of aiding a relationship, not extruded objects which weigh down our consciousness by claiming a kind of coincidence with it’. The novel, he says, is ‘social intercourse by other means’.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in