Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

The other books are also available from the author William Seaton. Write seaton@frontiernet.net.

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Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Every Reader's Herrick

This is part of a continuing series of essays meant to introduce (or re-introduce) readers to the work of important poets. In these essays I limit my focus to the discussion of only three or four of each writer’s best-known works while providing a bit of context and biography, eschewing most byways and all footnotes.

Until the Renaissance most poetry was performed. Epics were chanted and lyrics were sung in elegant courts no less than in peasants’ farmyards. During Elizabethan times and afterwards poets like Dowland, Morley, and Campion wrote music as well as words. In the seventeenth century the Cavalier poets wrote lyrics which, though not made literally for presentation with music, were nonetheless outstanding for verbal melody. Among the poets of this generation, Robert Herrick may be the most musically accomplished.

Herrick was allied to the throne through the apprenticeship he served for his uncle, a jeweler to the king, before attending Cambridge as well as through his ordination as an Anglican priest. During the Protectorate he lost his position due to his Royalist sympathies and his refusal to accept the Covenant institutionalizing the Scottish church, but regained his vicarage after the Restoration. Best known for the carpe diem theme of his most popular lyrics, he also wrote epitaphs, religious poems, and reflections on mortality as well as pieces praising various members of the nobility, relatives, and Ben Jonson, whose classicism he admired and imitated. Most of these themes are noted in “The Argument of his Book” which serves as preface to his only published volume Hesperides.

I sing of brooks, of blossoms, birds, and bowers,
Of April, May, of June, and July flowers.
I sing of May-poles, hock-carts, wassails, wakes,
Of bridegrooms, brides, and of their bridal-cakes.
I write of youth, of love, and have access
By these to sing of cleanly wantonness.
I sing of dews, of rains, and piece by piece
Of balm, of oil, of spice, and ambergris.
I sing of Time's trans-shifting; and I write
How roses first came red, and lilies white.
I write of groves, of twilights, and I sing
The court of Mab, and of the fairy king.
I write of Hell; I sing (and ever shall)
Of Heaven, and hope to have it after all.

The catalogue significantly opens with “pretty” topics most prettily stated. The love poems by this lifelong bachelor are justified as treating “cleanly wantonness” and the Horatian advice to “seize the day” is called “Time's trans-shifting.” With the final two lines he seeks to place his values in an ultimately Christian framework, though his devotional works, the “Noble Numbers,” have never been as popular as those widely read as Epicurean.
Perhaps the most anthologized of these is “To the Virgins, to make much of Time.”

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
To-morrow will be dying.
The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he's a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he's to setting.
That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.
Then be not coy, but use your time,
And, while ye may, go marry:
For having lost but once your prime,
You may forever tarry.

The encouragement to make the most of love-making in youth is familiar from a great many Greek and Roman poems, though many elders today would question whether mature life is a long slide downhill even in terms of sensuality – was youth really “warmer”? The theme is, of course, also familiar from Ecclesiastes 8:15, “Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry.” The semi-canonical Wisdom of Solomon 2:8 provides an even closer parallel for Herrick’s opening phrase: “Let us crown ourselves with rosebuds, before they be withered.” An appetite for food, like an appetite for love, is to Herrick no sin but rather a celebration of creation requiring no apology.

He seems rather a wet than a dry Epicurean. As one of the “Sons of Ben” Herrick would have known the “Leges Conviviales” Jonson had engraved over the chimney in the Apollo or Old Devil Tavern at Temple Bar where the writers gathered. In the English version, “Rules for the Tavern Academy or, Laws for the Beaux Esprits,”

Let the learned and witty, the jovial and gay,
The generous and honest, compose our free state;
And the more to exalt our delight whilst we stay,
Let none be debarr'd from his choice female mate.

A similar genial acceptance of human nature and the measured pursuit of pleasure characterizes his “Farewell to Sack” in which he declares that in the future, while he will not drink, he will nonetheless “admire” and “love” wine.

A few of his epigrams were sufficiently racy to be exiled to a “detachable appendix” by a Victorian editor. His appreciation for women was generally expressed in an exquisite and refined manner, yet could be far more erotic than the obscene works of the second Earl of Rochester a little later in the seventeenth century.

Upon Julia’s Clothes

Whenas in silks my Julia goes,
Then, then, methinks, how sweetly flows
The liquefaction of her clothes!

Next, when I cast mine eyes and see
That brave vibration each way free,
—O how that glittering taketh me!

In the first the insistent triple rhymes and the excited repetition of “then” suggest the intensity of the persona’s admiration. The unexpected scientific term “liquefaction” sounds nearly alchemical, expressing a feeling altogether beyond ordinary experience. (Indeed “vibration” was also a word unrecorded before the middle of the seventeenth century.) The lady appears in the second stanza as though she were an apparition, nearly too dazzling to behold. The observer’s enthusiasm leads him to what most readers find to be conventional hyperbolic praise of the beloved. Some readers see the figure enriched and complicated by a semi-submerged fishing metaphor, linking “liquefaction” with “cast” and then the closing verb “taketh,” suggesting capture.

Delight in Disorder

A sweet disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness;
A lawn about the shoulders thrown
Into a fine distraction;
An erring lace, which here and there
Enthrals the crimson stomacher;
A cuff neglectful, and thereby
Ribands to flow confusedly;
A winning wave, deserving note,
In the tempestuous petticoat;
A careless shoe-string, in whose tie
I see a wild civility:
Do more bewitch me, than when art
Is too precise in every part.

Some would take this poem as approving a particular sort of art that conceals art, English gardens rather than French, for example, or colloquial verse in preference to highly artificial rhetoric. Yet surely the primary meaning is the particular erotic charm of the beloved in deshabille. Like a blazon in its progress downwards, one item of dress succeeds another, while – after the lady is placed with the referenced to “the shoulders” parts of the body are never mentioned, but only seven accessories to the lady’s dress. These inanimate objects are said to be “wanton,” erring, “enthralling, “neglectful,” and “tempestuous,” all of which are more likely said of human behavior than of the drape of costume. In fact, of course, the reader is never in doubt that the looseness of the lady’s laces and sashes betokens a similar complaisance in affairs of love. It is close to a via negativa of erotic desire – the beloved herself being ineffable, she can only be praised in terms of her attributes.

In a clear case of form’s identity with content, the poem opens with Herrick’s typical conversational iambic tetrameter, the most natural meter in English, but the first foot of the second line is a trochee, adding energy to launch a line that ends with a languishing luxurious “wantonness,” over which the tongue lingers, expressing the persona’s admiration of the lady. Line eight repeats this variation with “confusedly” as the lengthened word, intensifying its implication. The majority of the couplets use not rhymes but half rhymes, providing sonic analogue for the beloved’s elegant insouciance.

Herrick’s reputation has suffered since Eliot expressed a preference for the Metaphysicals. His wit was perhaps not as philosophical as Donne’s and his style, even in his own age, may have seemed old-fashioned, but I would second the opinion of Swinburne, another poet who valued melody more highly than poets and critics seem to do today. In his preface to an 1898 edition of Herrick Swinburne says, “His work is always a song-writer’s; nothing more, but nothing less, than the work of the greatest song-writer -- as surely as Shakespeare is the greatest dramatist – born of English race.”

Odin and Poetry

an introduction with a thesis; an essay without

Some years ago I heard William Arrowsmith deliver a paper on a poem in French by Eliot. [1] I had admired Arrowsmith’s translations but knew nothing of the rest of his work. His paper was in the form of a colloquy among a number of faculty members, each more or less representative of a recognizable type. His performance was highly entertaining, his drama was effective, and the paper in the end demonstrated its point no less logically and at least equally convincingly as most such studies.

Inspired, I later sent out a call for papers for an academic conference to be united by no theme but rather by a formal principle: each paper submitted should eschew the usual thesis/proof format and instead use any alternative form that might serve the topic. I noted that it seemed ironic, given the acceptance by critics of the significance in aesthetic texts of formal patterns and conventions, that they inevitably chose the same old pattern for discussion among themselves. [2] As it happened no one submitted an appropriate proposal. And I like all my colleagues continued writing in the manner I had learned in school.

Recalling this incident, I decided recently to try again to break the tyrannical mold with a more experimental essay on passages on Odin and poetry in Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda. This is a work which in spite of a good command of German and Old English and a year of classroom study of Old Norse I read in an English translation (the Penguin edition translated by Jesse Byock). My knowledge of Icelandic texts is broad but shallow, certainly not that of a specialist. Might I yet turn up something useful if I were to discuss the work casually, as though I were speaking to a friend over wine, not so much an innovative form in intention as no form at all? Or perhaps this piece would, without this preface, be indistinguishable from what seems to me the more conventional essay.

* * * *

My introduction above sketches what is still an unfulfilled ambition. As my monthly deadline approaches, I find the conventional form strong enough to continue to leave little room for alternatives. Noting ideas without preconception I ended with nothing finer than a list of data like that any reader might compile when beginning to study a work. Numerous theses might have potential dealing with the relation between poetry, suffering and knowledge, the roles of intoxication and of sacrifice, or the place of poetry in earlier societies and in the present day. Yet I have only a bag of notes. Is the thesis/proof model taught in English 101 inevitable?

Anyone with experience of the poetry scene either in print of live performance will be amused at the mention of “the bad poets’ portion” expelled from Odin’s rear while he is regurgitating the mead of good poetry for the use of humans. I thought of the opening of Juvenal’s first satire, describing the annoying proliferation of poets each of whom wishes to spout. Of course, I imagine we leave DNA behind on our excrement, and, like it or not, we leave a sort of genetic code of consciousness on our writing. Vomited mead is only relatively less disagreeable than anal mead. Piero Manzoni, who claimed to have himself produced the contents of the cans that constituted his 1961 work Artist’s Shit, said that his father had told him his work was shit.

Odin in the Skáldskaparmál is a culture hero. He is semi-divine and semi-historical in the Gylfaginning’s relation of his trip to the northlands, impressing the less advanced inhabitants with the splendor of his retinue, imposing law upon them, and founding the Yngling dynasty. He is said not to have created poetry but rather to be the one who delivered it to humankind. Poetry originated in a sort of dialectic, a play of opposites figured in the bowl of spit collected by the Aesir and Vanir as a ritual of peace resolving their differences just as poetry interrogates contradiction, ambivalences, and mysteries, and renders life livable for our species which often feels half-brute and half divine. Of this spittle emerges a seer, Kvasir, whose name signifies all alcoholic beverages and by extension the individual embodying by their intoxicating power with all its shamanic and convivial implications.

Of course, though old Germanic texts use the words for ale, beer, and mead inexactly, mead is made of the product of flower nectar which has been regurgitated by bees, and many people have made fermented drinks after chewing and spitting out the basic ingredient. [4] Drinking was an essential part of feasts in Old Norse society (called symbel in Old English and sumbl in Old Norse) and was particularly associated with verbal facility, and the convivial composition of toasts, taunts, brags, and verbal competitions. [3] Even in Valhalla the heroes drink daily.

The body of Kvasir is not, however, the sole source of wisdom in the Edda. Gjallarhorn, for instance, or “yelling horn,” which sounds as though it might represent poetry or music, is the source of Mimir’s learning, again inherent in mead. Odin is far from an omniscient deity. Not only must he acquire intelligence. As Odin is a seer this trade cannot fail to make one think of Homer, Tiresias, or the Graeae, and perhaps also of blues poets like Blind Blake, Blind Gary Davis, Blind Lemon Jefferson and others. To some the motif may suggest Paul de Man’s Blindness and Insight.

In addition the Hávamál relates how Odin won some wondrous mead along with runes, songs, and spells as well as a storehouse of prudential wisdom by hanging on the great tree Yggdrasil for nine days without refreshment, a sacrifice of himself to himself. Many have noticed the parallel here with the Christian crucifixion – Odin is even like Christ pierced in the side by a sword during his ordeal. [5] Surely it is relevant as well that Tacitus describes human sacrifices dedicated to Odin (whom he calls Mercury).

Presumably the import of such an episode is that, as the Greeks taught, “suffering teaches.” One might read Odin’s experience as paralleling the dangers of mythic quests or the grueling psychedelic experience of shamans. It is certainly the case that the Northern deities were intrinsically vulnerable in contrast to Christ who is said to have voluntarily assumed human limitations. Not only will they ultimately face defeat in Ragnarök, but on a daily basis the Sun is followed by the wolf Skoll in hot pursuit while another wolf Hati Hrodvitnisson chases the moon. Meanwhile the dragon Níðhöggr chews constantly at the root of the world tree. Germanic mythology is considered grim for good reason.

In pointy of fact, human and animal sacrifice is attested by many sources in association with trees. According to Tacitus human sacrifices were offered to Odin (whom he calls Mercury). Similar practices are described by the Landnámabók as well as by outside observers such as Ibn Fadlan and Adam of Bremen who states that at the temple of Uppsala in Sweden the victims’ bodies are hung in a sacred grove where the corpses of horses, dogs, and humans are placed “their bodies hanging jumbled together.”

The story of Odin in the Grímnismál presents a parallel to the ordeal on the tree. Here Odin is tortured and then bound between fires for eight days before the child of his tormentor King Geirröth Agnar brings him a drink which stimulates him to prophesy. When Odin identifies himself, Geirröth seeks to free him but slips on his own sword and dies.

As in all preliterate societies the poet was the repository of all information, the sole “library” recording all that was known of history, science, engineering, theology, psychology, the past, present, and future. “No one could ask him a question that he could not answer.” The Raven Hugin (Thought) and Mumin (Mind or Memory) sit on his shoulders in Valhalla, bringing him information about the entire world.

In the Heimskringla Odin speaks only in verse. The first king of the Yngling dynasty, he is presented in many ways as a mortal king, as indeed in the Gylfaginning as well, though he is always victorious and possesses magic abilities. Apart from supernatural powers, he is called “the cleverest” and is credited as well with having brought all the arts useful to people and having established a rule of law.

Odin’s poetic role, however, was passed on to his son, the oldest next to Thor, Bragi whose very name signifies poetry. Most probably the name is cognate with the English word “brag” due to the importance of praise songs. (One might compare the old Northern practice with the Old Occitanian boasting songs called gab or the Yoruba praise songs called oriki.) In the Sigrdrífumál runes are said to be inscribed on Bragi’s tongue as well as on such surfaces as a bear’s claw, wolf’s tongue, and eagle’s beak from which they are then scraped into mead which can then, like the Kvasir mead, be distributed to Aesir, elves, Vanir, and humans. Though Bragi excels in verbal skill rather than fighting, the same text says that a warrior should “winning-runes learn, if thou longest to win,/ And the runes on thy sword-hilt write.

Old Norse models impressed English poets at the time of Romanticism. Translations were published in 1770 (Paul Mallet’s Northern Antiquities), 1797 (A. S. Cottie’s Icelandic Poetry or the Edda of Saemund) and 1804 (William Herbert’s Select Icelandic Poetry). Carlyle’s 1840 lecture “The Hero as Divinity” popularized the Northern deities in the United States, and both Emerson and Longfellow had copies of Mallet and of George Dasent’s 1842 version of The Prose or Younger Edda. Longfellow visited Scandinavia in 1835 and published numerous poems on Norse themes. To him Hiawatha was “an Indian Edda.” Celtic, Germanic, and Finnish antiquities were often not clearly distinguished.

The Nazis made us of Germanic mythology in their propaganda, one of the odder results being the use of Odin as the true form of Santa Claus. To Jung Hitler was a sort of avatar of Odin. Yet today some white supremacist groups blather about Odin.

1. I find that Arrowsmith’s piece was published in The New Criterion, October 1, 2 (October 1982) as “Eros in Terre Haute: T.S. Eliot’s ‘Lune de Miel.’” Part of its charm for me was the performative aspect through which I heard it. I have not read it since.

2. I exaggerate here. Some of the most adventurous of the post-structuralist journals were publishing essays in freer forms, but these rarely descended from the empyrean to comment on actual literary works in a useful way.

3. Though the Hávamál and other texts also include numerous references to the debilitating effects of overindulgence. Odin’s good advice was doubtless often forgotten. As far back as Tacitus’ Germania the Germanic tribes were known for their heavy drinking. In Christian times the Gulaþing Law required farmers to reserve grain for major festivals. The word öl (ale) was used itself to indicate a celebration such as gravöl (a wake, or "funeral ale"), barnöl (a christening, or "child-ale"), and taklagsöl (a barn-raising, or "roofing-ale"). In the Eddic Grímnismál Odin is said to live on wine alone. Paul Bauschatz in The Well and the Tree discusses the early Germanic ritual feast.

4. This is the traditional process for chicha in Peru. Spit is particularly useful for non-sweet bases as its enzymes make sugar of the starch. Masato made from yucca and early sake from rice are among the many other drinks made in the same fashion.

5. The benevolent Baldr associated with light and love who is killed by a weapon of mistletoe is also a Christ figure.

Prof. Wellek, Prof. Leavis, and Prof. de Man

The exchange between René Wellek and F. R. Leavis nearly eighty years ago on the role of philosophy in literary criticism prefigured to some extent the discussions of the role of “theory” (or even, for both enthusiasts and opponents “Theory”) in more recent polemics. The comparison of the earlier dispute with its later form reveals dramatically the shifting of the parameters of the issue. To many more modern practitioners Wellek himself was far from sufficiently theoretical; indeed he and Leavis would be placed in the same camp by more recent post-structuralists. On the other hand, Wellek and Leavis would doubtless join in regarding deconstruction, for instance, as an unrewarding method. A review of the old contention, juxtaposed then with the ideas of Paul de Man in “The Resistance to Theory” (1982), clarifies the issues involved and suggests a curious similarity between the two critics of the three who would seem most at odds.

F. R. Leavis was known for pugnacity in his professional life, but it remains slightly startling to encounter his aggressive assertion of what amounts to impressionistic autonomy in his essay “Literary Criticism and Philosophy.” [1] Writing in response René Wellek’s generally positive review of his Revaluation, Leavis, who regularly claimed that evaluation was the principal end of criticism, insists on his own judgments accompanied by no evidence beyond his magisterial voice.

Their exchange came at a pivotal time for literary criticism. When they exchanged views in 1937 most writing about literature was historical, textual, or narrowly philological. Both journalistic and scholarly value judgments tended to be either unapologetically impressionistic or based on vague concepts like “universality” or the simple assertion of formal beauty if not on tradition alone. By the middle of the twentieth century New Criticism with its rigorous close readings already implied dissent from unsubstantiated “taste” or impressionism. Wellek and Warren as well as William Empson, I. A. Richards, Kenneth Burke, Northrup Frye, the Southern Agrarians, and others had set out a variety of proposals for defensible ways to view literature as literature.

Even apart from the merits of new critical theories, many had come to realize that every critical enterprise implies general ideas about all literature. As Wellek mildly pointed out, Leavis, and indeed all critics who have produced a sufficient body of judgment to allow generalizations, does have a theory. The most insidious theory is that of which the practitioner is honestly unaware, because it is then neither acknowledged nor explicit, but rather in masquerade as “common sense” or in some other way “given.” [2] Of course these assumptions will by no means be the focus of every literary essay, but they will form the foundation for every act of practical criticism.

Wellek sketched out what seemed to him Leavis’ theoretical base in carefully chosen, if casual, phrases. For Leavis, he said, poetry must “have a firm grasp of the actual, of the object, it must be in relation to life . . . it should not be personal in the sense of indulging in personal dreams and fantasies, there should be no emotion for its own sake in it . . .but a sharp, concrete realization, a sensuous particularity. The language of your poetry must not be cut off from speech, should not flatter the singing voice, should not be merely mellifluous.” Wellek sees in Leavis a rejection of the “merely” affective and aesthetic and the privileging of the impersonal and the concrete. [3]

From Leavis’ response one might hardly guess that Wellek had said he read Revaluation “with admiration and much profit,” and found it to be teeming “with acute critical observations and brilliant interpretations of texts.” Leavis replied only to Wellek’s request that he “defend this position more abstractly and to become conscious that large ethical, philosophical, and, of course, ultimately, also aesthetic choices are involved.“

Leavis indignantly answers that Wellek seeks such a theoretical basis because he is a philosopher and that Leavis, being instead a literary critic, has no need to provide them. He here elides the distinction between a philosopher who presumably treats questions of epistemology, logic, and the like that apply to all of human experience and the critic who might legitimately suggest generalizations true only of the single field of literature (or the broader one of art in the case of critics who do not confine themselves to the written word).

In spite of the unbroken tradition that literature bears some relation to lived experience, though always a mediated, refracted, or otherwise complicated one, Leavis cheerfully discards all thematic comment as extra-literary, a sort of “queering one discipline with the habits of another” [4] Leavis is quite satisfied with a sort of assertive obscurantism, noting, for instance, that “the reading demanded by poetry is of a very different kind from that demanded by philosophy. I should not find it easy to define the difference, but Dr Wellek knows what it is.” The reader is equally in the dark about Prof. Leavis’s position after his account of what to him constitutes an adequate literary reading. It occurs, he says , when a new text settles into the tradition in the critic’s mind, “when things that have found their bearings with regard to one another.” It is unclear how this happens so automatically among the jostling “things” in the mind, yet to Leavis such a reading is ever so much better than a philosophic one; it is a ‘fuller-bodied response” arising from “completer responsiveness;” indeed, “the critic’s aim is to realize as sensitively and completely as possible this or that which claims his attention.” It sounds suspiciously like a magician “realizing” a rabbit in a hat. While on the other shore of mystification it is also unclear In just what way this realization differs from more mundane realizations by scientists and salesmen is left unexplained.

The giveaway to Leavis’s vulnerability is his ill-temper and his use of insults. To him Wellek’s reading of his views is “clumsy,” then, again, “clumsy and inadequate,” while he himself is by contrast “precise.” [5] Repeatedly he claims that Wellek, rather than in fact disagreeing, must have misunderstood him. Poets with whom he is on the outs fare no better. Shelley is “repetitive, vaporous, monotonously self-regarding and often emotionally cheap, and so, in the long run, boring.” [6]

Leavis’ arrogant refusal to account for his judgments is irresponsible and adds nothing to knowledge of literature, [7] though his individual comments and analyses are very often highly useful, opening a wide variety of texts in new ways. Wellek was in fact bushwhacking his own way in literary theory. He was not far from wrong when he said in the 1940s that students are “offered no wider choice than between the ‘historical method’ (not the same as literary history) and dilettantism.” [8] He, a Prague Structuralist, and Warren a self-described “old New Critic,” made enormous strides in laying a foundation and setting forth some likely issues while acknowledging “we are only beginning to learn how to analyse a work of art in its integrity.” Yet the results are sometimes little more compelling than Leavis’s sidestepping. Their conclusion on the role of art, for instance, is “its prime and chief function is fidelity to its own nature.” While applauding the groundbreaking contribution of their book, one cannot help but agree that it betrays its origins very close to the origin of modern thinking about literary theory.

A good deal had changed by the time Paul de Man’s essay on “The Resistance to Theory” was published in 1982. By this time I was enrolled in a Comparative Literature program dominated by Derrida, de Man, and those associated with them. In the loftier realms of Cambridge where Leavis had taught, a young student had, a few years earlier, found the “dead Leavisites” replaced by “the Parisian post-structuralists and their caravanserai.” [10] De Man echoes Wellek in his sensible declaration that “even the most intuitive, empirical and theoretically low key writers on literature [make] use of a minimal set of concepts (tone, organic form, allusion, tradition, historical situation, etc. ) of at least some general import,” but he could not resist the habitual tic he made his signature by declaring the opposite as well, quoting Schlegel to the effect that “it is equally fatal to have a system or not to have one at all.”

Reveling in hermetic paradox, de Man considers literary theory to be no aid to a rich and coherent reading of a text but rather as “resistance to reading.” Furthermore “resistance to theory is resistance to language.” The primary focus of literary theory in his account is “the impossibility of its definition.” Its pursuit “must end in confusion.” Whether the discipline he describes is in any sense real, it seems hardly likely to convey information about literature in the way that study of entomology provides knowledge about insects.

Leavis was quite right that the literary critic should be confined to conclusions about literature and need make no pronouncements about philosophy. The greatest problem for de Man is that literature itself is for him “epistemologically highly suspect” and not a “source of information about anything but its own language.” To him literature is not susceptible to “truth and falsehood, good and evil, beauty and ugliness, or pleasure and pain.” [11] This he claims as an advantage, a “freedom from referential restraint.”

If literature’s very capacity to bear any meaning at all is so highly problematized, why then does appear in all human societies? Does the written word as a whole form an enormous self-dissolving knot concerned only with the question its own existence? The sole positive value de Man mentions apart from raising the question of its own existence is the “unmasking of ideological aberrations,” though how this can be when it can mean nothing beyond “its own language” is obscure.

The error that de Man makes is similar to Leavis’s failure to distinguish between generalizations about literature (constituting literary theory) and those about reality as a whole (philosophy). De Man so doubts the existence of literature itself that he keeps eliding his inquiry into a focus on language as a whole, saying theory is “wholly linguistic.” Literary theory is neither philosophy nor linguistics and must be built from observations about literary texts just as botany is built from observations of plants. All literature is constituted from language so any generalization about language itself would affect literature, but only by making the same observations in every case, and therefore offering no useful information about an individual work distinct from all others or even about the category of the literary as opposed to the non-literary. Indeed, this lack of specificity is precisely what one sees in de Man’s work. In Blindness and Insight, for instance, his acuity and ingenuity allow him to offer many valuable observations along the way, but his final point is virtually the same for all the critics under discussion, thus vitiating the project as literary criticism and, incidentally, rendering the essays more boring even than Leavis’s idea of Shelley.

De Man like Leavis uses vituperation to mask his arguments’ weaknesses. He sounds grandiose when he says that the “most important attribute” of the schools of the 60s was resistance to theory. He pathologizes his intellectual opponents, claiming that they (whom he calls in this very aggressive attack “the aggressors”) suffer from “anxiety” (this word is repeated a number of times); they feel “threatened.” Those who disagree offer only “crude” misunderstandings and suffer from “systematic non-understanding and misrepresentation.” (This error is then conflated with mortality!)

A final similarity between Leavis and de Man is their propensity to offer simple impressions as reasoned judgments. Ironically, de Man takes a whack at Leavis’ ideal, T. S. Eliot, saying his appeal was based only on his “ambivalent decorum” which offered certain “complacencies and seductions.” So Eliot’s admirers are in a wholly unsubstantiated phrase, condemned as complacent fall guys.

A review of the controversy from the 1930s, placed alongside de Man’s essay from the 80s, at least proves the passion with which critics debated these fundamental issues. The sometimes belligerent tone of Leavis and de Man not only enlivens the prose; more significantly, it suggests that the issues really have meaning. With their varieties of high-spirited engagement all three authors have earned the reader’s attention more than a great many academic scholars. And each makes a contribution. Wellek was a pioneer in seeking a more solid base for literary studies; Leavis cares passionately about his texts and makes many insightful and stimulating observations about individual works; de Man offers a philosophic challenge to language itself which those engaged with literature must confront.

The central issue is the propriety of literary theory. Leavis resists Wellek’s desire for a theory of literature which defines the field and orders the facts concerning it, refusing to admit his own biases and assumptions. Theory’s champion de Man depicts himself as the investigator of fundamental theoretical questions from which others flee from in fear, but which must be examined before any other comment is possible, yet Both Leavis and de Man support their polemics with a false dilemma. To Leavis any theoretical statement makes one a philosopher and not a critic at all and to de Man those who disagree with him must reject therefore theory altogether. Neither is correct. Theory must finally be judged just as it is in the science: by the adequacy of its accounting for known data and by the degree to which it opens routes to further knowledge, in the case of literature, to richer readings of specific texts.

It is no means the truth, that one must choose between no theory at all or an extreme, indeed paralyzing, theory that claims total hegemony. Every critic operates from theoretical base whether or not it is disclosed. It is little wonder that many competent critics prior to Leavis had written useful work while consciously ignoring general questions. Yet de Man’s sort of theory which may set forth provocative possibilities about language as a whole, disables fruitful analysis of texts even while emphasizing the rhetorical and literary qualities of literature. If one restricts theory to theory of literature, it can be the basis of more productive practical criticism. The anti-theoretician Leavis who rejected of theory out of hand and the arch-theoretician de Man who insisted on one particular theory end in similar culs-de-sac. While recognizing the substantial contributions of Leavis and de Man to discussions of the role of theory, it is Wellek in the end whose route proved more productive.

1. First published in Scrutiny 5 (June 1937), 375–83., reprinted in The Common Pursuit.

2. Similarly political activists in the 60s were skeptical of “objectivity,” considering that there is no way to step out of history. One who takes no action to oppose the Vietnam War is a de facto supporter of it. Thoreau had said the same a hundred years earlier.

3. I will confine my own objections to this approach to this note. First, if the text is purely imitation of lived reality, there is no need for literature. As Plato said long ago, why bother about what is a mere imitation, and a dangerous one at that? Further, to me the use of “sensuous” to qualify “particularity” accepts pleasure as an end of poetry and is thus inconsistent with the rejection of melody a few words later.

4. This peculiar expression hints of homosexuality and miscegenation. Is a physicist who presents experimental results with the ordinary theoretical assumptions of science about cause and effect, reproducibility, and the like similarly “queering”?

5. One can tell that this is a highly positive term because we find that Blake also is “precise.” He clearly believes the opposite of the view he attributes to philosophers and proceeds to ridicule: that poets put loosely what philosophers formulate with precision.

6. To condemn a poem as boring might seem to suggest assent to the ancient and commonsensical notion that pleasure is a necessary end of poetry.

7. Oddly, Denis Donoghue says that he “never met” anyone who thought Wellek was right! See “The Use and Abuse of Theory” in The Modern Language Review, vol. 87, no. 4 (Oct., 1992), pp. xxix-xxxviii.

8. From Chapter 20 “The Study of Literature in the Graduate School” which was omitted from editions later than 1949.

9. Published in Yale French Studies no. 63, The Pedagogical Imperative: Teaching as a Literary Genre (1982), pp. 3-20. With typical perversity, de Man, when asked to provide an essay on theory for the MLA Introduction to Scholarship in the Modern Languages and Literatures, produced instead an essay about people’s not liking theory. As it happens Theory has since conquered academia. For a dissenting voice, see James Seaton's Literary Criticism from Plato to Post-Modernism.

10. See Stephen Fry, The Fry Chronicles (2010). He recalls considering Leavis “a sanctimonious prick.”

11. In the same vein he says that “literariness” is neither aesthetic nor mimetic, that is, contra Keats concerned neither with truth nor beauty. Of course de Man would allow for the existence of tropes of verisimilitude that mimic truth and perhaps also of beauty, mimicking pleasure. He does allow in some ill-defined sense for referentiality.