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.

Just as stimulating in a different way is the chapter on Pope, written with Harriet Guest. Here the benefits of abandoning practical criticism’s assumptions of organic unity become startlingly evident as the authors ponder the frequency with which longer poems of the 18th century flatly contradict themselves on major points of moral doctrine. The ‘Epistle to Bathurst’ and related works are shown to meet a standard of coherence which allows for privileged doublethink of a kind which contemporary readers would not have sought to question, trained as they were to read these poems for isolated choice passages.

Not the least of the virtues to be admired in Poetry, Language and Politics is its unfailing clarity of exposition. Each stage of the argument is laid out patiently and lucidly, each theoretical concept justified and explained. In a series which aims to be comprehensible to students and general readers, Barrell’s is the only book so far to pass that test unmistakably. More important, it is a book from which much can be learned by anybody interested in poetry’s languages and political implications. While the common vice of series monographs is that they provide theoretical ‘positions’ rather than substantial instruction, Barrell’s work, grounded in a thorough knowledge of pastoral verse and patronage, is a richly informative and enlightening achievement.

In the opposite camp of anti-Enlightenment remystification belongs Simon Pugh’s Garden-Nature-Language, from which hardly anything is to be learned, even about the single garden (that of Rousham in Oxfordshire) which it discusses. The historical and factual account of Rousham and the development of English landscape gardening is relegated to a short appendix, while the main text is given over to aimless musings on the cultural status of ‘the garden’. There is a certain learned elegance about Pugh’s writing, but even this is undermined by a refusal to perform that repression of semiotic free-play known as proof-correction. As its paratactic title suggests, this book aspires to the condition of Roland Barthes’s Image-Music-Text, if not of the children’s game Stone-Paper-Scissors, with which its circular inconsequentiality bears comparison. It belongs to that dismal genre of theoretical dressage in which a sequence of specious paradoxes is decorated with knowing allusions to Barthes, Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, Marcuse and Adorno.

For Pugh, ‘the garden is, essentially, a linguistic concept,’ a narrative, a discourse, a representation of pleasure, a no-place of signification in which ‘shit has no smell.’ This will come as news to dog-owners, and indeed to dogs, who will have to start shitting in the kitchen instead, unless that, too, is merely another linguistic construct. The ruse indulged in here is a familiar kind of levitation in which the inescapable medium of culture and language is used as a pretext for annihilating what Kristeva or Lyotard (or was it Wordsworth?) called ‘rocks, and stones, and trees’. It is hard not to feel patronised by repeated reminders that the apparently natural is after all culturally-constructed; as if we all gullibly believed that gardens materialise without constant human effort. As with many works in this vein, the theorist’s sophistication relies upon a prior ascription of implausible naivety to the reader, in a strategy which reproduces the dualities (simplicity/complexity) of pastoral while ostensibly deconstructing them.

The tiny kernel of an argument which emerges from this book is sensible enough: ‘The paradox of the “natural” garden is that if it is to look as if nothing had been done to make it, a great deal had to be done to achieve this effect.’ The way in which the gardens of country estates disguise the exploitative social relations sustaining them has been analysed before, and more persuasively, by Raymond Williams and others: Pugh adds little more except page after page of Barthesian whimsy. Eager to translate the language of gardens into the terminology of every prestigious anti-Enlightenment thinker, he embraces the paranoid vocabulary of Foucault’s work on clinical and penal institutions: the ‘panoptic surveillance’ of criminals and lunatics is equated with the carefully designed prospects of the country garden so that nature itself becomes a victim of the fearful totalitarian Gaze. Eighteenth-century landowners had good cause to keep an eye out for poachers and Papists, but a mutinous rising of the vegetables cannot really be said to have alarmed them.

A work deserving far more respect is the intricate and soundly-researched exploration of Irish cultural ‘otherness’ by David Cairns and Shaun Richards in Writing Ireland, although it is clogged in parts by awkward efforts to align its arguments with those of the European masters: Foucault, Lacan, Gramsci and Althusser are all invoked at length in the opening pages, and are thereafter often quoted misleadingly as if they were actually discussing Irish culture. Some crucial theoretical distinctions – notably between Gramsci’s ‘expansive’ and ‘transformist’ versions of hegemony – are presented in most unhelpfully tangled formulations; the word ‘access’ is used repeatedly as a verb; and there are several passages in which it would take a John Barrell to unravel the tortured syntax. But once the theoretical genuflections have been performed, Writing Ireland does come to life as a coherent and interesting account of the politics of cultural identity under British colonial power.

After a brief and unsatisfactory stab at Spenser and Shakespeare, these authors undertake a study of the strategies by which intellectuals of the Protestant Ascendancy attempted to establish their cultural leadership through various mythic models of nationality, repeatedly running up against the obstacles of Catholicism and the familial code of the farmers. From Samuel Ferguson’s efforts in the 1830s to claim full Irishness for Protestants, to the Celticism of O’Grady and Yeats, these unstable and contradictory versions of nationhood and cultural continuity are analysed with some subtlety of discrimination. Particularly valuable is the attention devoted to the various meanings given to the figures of the Celt and the Gael as ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ models of Irishry. Cairns and Richards write convincingly and with a renewed fluency as they approach the Revival and the Easter Rising, offering some fascinating pages on the immolation of Patrick Pearse. Dominating the book, not surprisingly, is the figure of Yeats, although these authors have succeeded here in turning back on its feet that inverted perspective of most British and American literary study which makes the Easter Rising a minor footnote to Yeats’s lyrics. Their reading of Yeats’s cultural politics leads them away from the sharp division often drawn between his 19th-century Celticism and his post-1900 cult of aristocracy, to stress instead the continuities between these phases as ‘an attempt to enable the fusion of the Anglo-Irish with the people-nation’. Later chapters include interesting defences of Synge’s view of sexual liberation and of O’Casey’s critique of nationalism, and a brief but cogent summary of the Free State’s cultural paralysis, although little is made of Joyce’s response to this or, in the final pages, of the prospects for Seamus Deane’s Field Day project. But this is a work which does much to illuminate the mystique of the Irish Revival, and may yet do something to redress British ignorance of its complexities.

Less substantial as an exercise in cultural demystification is The Shakespeare Myth, a collection of interviews and essays by divers hands, or, in the words of its editor Graham Holderness, an ‘infrastructure’ characterised by its ‘polyphonic medium’. The idea of this book is at first sight attractive as an attempt to get beyond textual interpretation and confront the ludicrous cultic aura and the mountain of tourist kitsch which surround the man on the £20 banknote. And there are indeed some mischievously entertaining debunkings here, notably Simon Shepherd’s consideration of the question ‘was the Bard queer?’, in which he tortures the sacred name in all possible permutations from Shagspier to Sheikspare and accompanies his lively essay with a photograph from a 1950s ‘physique’ magazine featuring a naked youth contemplating himself in a mirror alongside Schlockspewer’s 104th Sonnet. The book has an uncertainty of direction about it, though. Most of the contributions are inconclusive ‘position’ papers, ranging from Derek Longhurst’s cautionary notes on Shakespeare in TV comedies and lager ads to John Drakakis’s definition of the Shakespearean text as ‘the locus of a distinct, politically dynamic sequence of intersecting discursive practices’. I bet he drinks Carling Black Label.

Of the position papers, the most confidently stimulating is Alan Sinfield’s essay on dramatic reworkings of Shakespeare, which awards two cheers to Charles Marowitz, none to Stoppard. The only solidly informative piece, though, is Ann Thompson’s review of recent feminist works on Shakespeare, which points out incidentally but revealingly that no woman has ever been admitted to the exclusive club which edits the major tragedies. Unlike Michael Bogdanov, who claims that The Taming of the Shrew is unquestionably a feminist play, Thompson maintains a sound sense of critical caution, pointing out, for instance, that ‘Elizabethan audiences would not have awarded plays their unqualified ideological assent any more than modern ones do.’ This problem of Shakespeare’s audience is one which exposes some disarray among the contributors to The Shakespeare Myth. David Margolies, in a populist essay complaining of critics who make Shakespeare ‘irrelevant to the lives of ordinary people’, endorses the ‘democratic’ assessment of the Elizabethan audience advanced in 1941 by Alfred Harbage, and mocks a recent dissenting account as critically Reaganite. John Drakakis, on the other hand, argues that Herbage’s work ‘requires radical overhauling’ because its assumption of democratic community overlooks antagonisms within the audience. If consistency still means anything, radical critics of Shakespeare will have to make up their minds about this important issue, which cannot be decided by blithely attributing reactionary motives to those who see the leading playwright of the King’s Men as anything less than a virtuous democrat. It requires a patient and responsible assessment of the evidence, but the kind of radical culture whose chief concern is to insist, over and over, that all ‘facts’ are only ideological constructions is not yet equipped to make such an effort.

Interspersed among the essays in The Shakespeare Myth are several interviews with leading Shakespeareans, many of them cornered as representatives of the Established priesthood and invited to incriminate themselves as accomplices of the tourist racket or as hopeless humanists. Most of them emerge from the interrogation with their ankles unbitten (particularly the energetic Jonathan Miller), although it is still astonishing, as Terry Eagleton notes in his afterword, how many of them fall back unquestioningly upon the sweet swan of Avon’s ‘universality’ and ‘timelessness’, those reflex mystifications of high Bardolatry. The absurdities of such a universalising doctrine as propounded in the movement misnamed as ‘progressive’ education are exposed ruthlessly by David Hornbrook in an essay which looks exaggerated until one turns to read the interview with John Hodgson, a dramatic educationalist who advises that ‘you mustn’t sit the kids down to read the text, that is the quickest way to lose their interest’: instead they should be sent to walk around Southwark letting their creative imaginations roam. Rightly impatient with such modernising versions of Shakespeare-without-tears, Michael Croft of the National Youth Theatre insists upon confronting his pupils with the difficult rhetorical intricacy of Shakespeare’s language.

The disappointments of this book have much to do with the way that language as an object of detailed attention has all but disappeared from it. The project proceeds from a certain impatience with the limits of critical reinterpretation, and a desire to challenge more directly the institutions through which Shakespeare is reproduced: but the results – rarely as convincing or as witty as Terence Hawkes’s That Shakespeherian Rag, a far better book on the cult and the industry – seem to show that impatience to be premature. Alan Sinfield writes that ‘re-reading does not disperse cultural authority; on the contrary it produces a radical Shakespeare alongside the others.’ This is a pessimistic simplification of recent critical approaches which seems to assume that they have no awareness of the institutional context of bardolatry, and further implies that there is some route to the deconstruction of cultural authorities which can bypass their texts and their languages. It is an odd statement from the co-editor of a series which includes the refreshing, liberating re-readings of Shakespeare, Wordsworth and other canonical authors in John Barrell’s Poetry, Politics and Language, Perhaps he should re-read it.