Everett’s English Poets

Frank Kermode

  • Poets in Their Time: Essays on English Poetry from Donne to Larkin by Barbara Everett
    Faber, 264 pp, £15.00, October 1986, ISBN 0 571 13978 7

Faced with the average book of modern literary criticism, the reviewer may wisely resolve to say nothing about the author’s skills as a writer of prose. If they ever existed, they would very likely have been dissembled, for many now believe that to write well is to act in bad faith, even to risk the charge of fascism. This belief may not at first glance seem compatible with the opinion that poetry and criticism are indistinguishable – both of them just writing; even less with the view that in our present situation literary criticism and theory are in fact the highest kind of poetry available.

I mention these paradoxes, not from any immediate desire to resolve them, but to suggest that Barbara Everett’s essays are on the face of it untimely. For what she attempts is impossible to anybody who declines, or is unable, to write well: her whole mode of proceeding depends on doing so. Yet she also appears to believe that in some rather mysterious way poetry is more important than criticism. Caught in this muddle, holding these deplorable and mutually conflicting opinions, she nevertheless carries calmly on as if unaware of the problem. Only rarely does she say what she thinks reading and writing ought to be – ‘individual inward apprehension of language’ – or what it is to read badly: ‘applying systematic method in contempt of the true nature of the subject’, a vice peculiar, she says, to ‘the Academy’. Since she thinks she knows ‘the true nature of the subject’, she can maintain rather boldly that ‘some people are much better readers than others’ – better in the sense of ‘truer’, more accurate, more revealing. For her part, it is enough to bring together ‘historical study and literary criticism’ on the assumption that in the work of ‘the great writers’ (a hierarchy ripe for deconstruction) ‘history speaks with a human voice’ (a revealingly phonocentric trope).

Faced with this seemingly reactionary volume, the reviewer has to find ways of explaining why it is quite exceptionally good, and he can hardly do so without comment on the way it is written. Everett is a connoisseur of styles, and has a distinctive style of her own; it shapes her sentences and is manifest also in her general approach to the poets she discusses. Donne, we are told, seems ‘to be involved in a stumbling, stammering battle with language from which a cadence or a tenderness will suddenly float free, as though friendship or civility or writing at all were a matter of working against the grain of things until the miraculous happens’. Here’s a crowd of metaphors – walking, talking, working wood, working miracles – and in the middle of it a technical term (‘cadence’) immediately caught up into a poetic reflection of the subject (‘a cadence or a tenderness’). The whole thing should sound a bit woozy but is somehow exact. It is a risky style, and occasionally it falls flat. So, too, with the design of the essays at large: it can seem perverse, over-elaborate to the point of irrelevance, altogether too laboured or too mannered, but when it works, it justifies the risks by getting across genuinely individual and inward apprehensions, so that one is left with clearer notions than ever before of the peculiar gifts of Browning, Auden or Larkin.

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