Like most other kinds of writing, literary criticism is subject to its own successive spells of fashion, styles, and movements bred by the society it is born into. It seems a long time now since the days of the ideological critic: men like George Lukács on the European continent, Lionel Trilling in America, George Orwell and F.R. Leavis in England. They coincided in part with the New Criticism of T.S. Eliot and I.A. Richards and the tutelary spirits of Kenyon College, where both Robert Lowell and Anthony Hecht studied under that fine poet and teacher John Crowe Ransom. The next wave, as it were, consisted of the philosophers of “literary theory,” many of them French, like Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida. Now literary theory, too, seems to have had its day. There is not much trace of it, or indeed of combative ideology, in the three admirable books of criticism under review.
What they have in common instead is a gift of the closest attention to the artistic detail, to what Ruskin must have had in mind when he stated that the critic could not go wrong if he began by looking at and studying the smallest things. It is in this spirit that Denis Donoghue takes a close look at the idea of beauty, and Anthony Hecht shares with Christopher Ricks, the critic to whom he dedicates Melodies Unheard, an almost uncanny sense of the mysteries of poetic implication, of what we intuit and respond to without seeming actually to hear; or conversely, and to put it another way, what we are aware of in poetry without quite knowing how and why we are aware of it. Thomas Campion, the Jacobean poet and composer, believed that English poetry should not rhyme, and indeed wrote a treatise to that effect; but I nonetheless have the feeling, and I’m sure many other readers have it too, that in Campion’s poetry “rhymes” can nonetheless be heard, or rather unheard, by what Keats called “the spirit” rather than the “sensual ear.” They, the rhymes, seem to be invisibly or spiritually there, even as the poet-composer avoided them:
Rose-cheekt Lawra, come,
Sing thou smoothly with thy beawties
Silent musick, either other
Rhymes unheard are a kind of “silent musick,” as is the beauty itself of the young girl. Campion’s verse is a wonderful example of the poet-critic Anthony Hecht’s profound though deceptively simple thesis: that all poetry worthy of the name works on us not only through the sense of the poem on the page, but through something that can only be fathomed through the deepest, almost unconscious, symmetries of our own mental process. We read, respond to, perhaps enjoy the poem, but it has another and a different silent life in the mind, into which it may leap like a fish escaping into water, or may on occasion be rejected and left outside. This is why “Essays on the Mysteries of Poetry” is the …