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The King of Crit

Many of the graces of poetry may, I grant, be talked of in very intelligible language, but intelligible only to those who have a natural taste for it, or are born with a talent for judging…. To go about to pedagogue a man into this sort of knowledge, who has not the seeds of it in himself, is the same thing as if one should endeavour to teach an art of seeing without eyes.”

So Leonard Welsted, a minor poet himself, in his Dissertation Concerning the Perfection of the English Language and the State of Poetry, published in 1724.

I imagine that John Bayley would approve the sentiment. He has taste and a talent for judging, and as a critic and man of letters he makes his gifts available to a public with an informed interest in what used to be called belles-lettres. Yet for half a century, more or less, he has been an academic teacher of literature, and in that capacity must sometimes have felt that he was having a hard time trying to “pedagogue” the less gifted students into his sort of knowledge. Meanwhile, younger colleagues were peddling impressive substitutes for literary taste, encouraging forms of study that solved Welsted’s problem by substituting for aesthetic appreciation more systematically learnable approaches to literature, borrowed from other intellectual disciplines, such as history, linguistics, and psychology.

To understand Bayley’s position one really needs to consider what it has meant for this essentially unacademic man of letters, acquainted with many literatures, to be based in an academy where “solid scholarship” counted for more than enjoyment of art. He is, of course, not alone in this predicament, but he ranks very high among those who share it.

Welsted’s words serve as the epigraph to J. Palmer’s interesting book The Rise of English Studies, published in 1965. Palmer’s subject is the reluctant acceptance by Oxford of the idea that vernacular literature could be a proper subject of study in a university. He describes the arguments and compromises that in the long run made it possible for an accomplished literary critic like Bayley to thrive as a teacher without ceasing to behave as, in the best sense, an amateur.

The Oxford English School began its uneasy existence in 1894, and Cambridge followed suit, in its own distinctive but equally uneasy way, some twenty-odd years later. In both universities there was strong academic resistance to these innovations. Why should intelligent students require instruction in the literature of their own language? Wouldn’t this novel approach attract the wrong kind of student, choosing “English” as “a soft option,” avoiding the more rigorous classical disciplines, and thus wasting everybody’s time? Dilettante gossip, chat about vernacular literature and its authors, would surely be taken as a way of escaping the arduous study of Greek and Latin grammar.

Against probability, for the enemy was well dug in, the party of gossip and chat eventually prevailed. The idea that the working classes had a right of access to some kind of higher education had gained ground in the later years of the nineteenth century. Cheap editions made the vernacular classics available to all; English literature courses were taught at night classes, and, at a higher level, in such institutions as University College, London (which admitted dissenters and women), and in the new provincial universities. In the United States the motivation was different but the pressure of the vernacular, generated by the need to teach it to immigrants, was probably even greater. The big land-grant universities required a great many teachers, and soon a profession was born, with ambitions and achievements that went far beyond simple language teaching. Professions have their own standards and hierarchies; plain language instructors might in time become learned philologists, and eventually their literary and historical research might become more important than their teaching. So the academic literary critic was born, and as time went on his work came to bear less and less resemblance to the productions of nonacademic men of letters.

These academic professionals always had enemies within the academy. To avoid the charge that their subject lacked real substance they paid great attention to “facts.” As examiners they were less interested in critical flair than in evidence that candidates knew the plots of Gorboduc and Gammer Gurton’s Needle, and understood the elements of Germanic philology. This emphasis changed as the business of teaching the new subject came to depend on teachers who transferred from other subjects to English, and—which was finally more important—on the recruitment of well-known literary critics from outside the universities. Taste, and literary knowledge of a less crabbed variety, now came to count in the classroom, at any rate until the advent of new critical technologies, admittedly far from simple but accessible to people who face the study of literary theory with more equanimity than the study of literature.

Here, in short, was the origin of the great schism in modern literary studies. There now existed a profession of academic literary criticism; and the profession needed professionals. The study of literature, no longer a matter of urbane essays with titles like “hours in a library” or “from my study window,” grew more and more arcane. It aspired to a severity that would entitle it to a properly dignified place in universities more and more oriented toward the exact sciences. These new practitioners had little time for those they considered dilettanti; and persons of taste who were more deeply read in primary literature than in the techniques that sought to replace it returned their dislike with interest.

John Bayley belongs absolutely to the party of taste and has no time for theoretical innovators. His large collection gives impressive evidence of his long and deep acquaintance with English, American, Russian, and other literatures, and, inevitably, of his distaste for professionals who dislike and would happily outlaw his kind of criticism. He finds it difficult to write many pages without taking a shot at these people. That he is himself an academic English teacher of many years’ standing does not affect his belief that he is by vocation a man of letters whose critical practices are proudly different from those of the academic professional. Departments of English, he says, have “downgraded the idea of responding to the ‘beauty’ of poetry.” Instead they practice what he disparagingly calls “the higher criticism.” Sometimes he expands their membership to the point where they can be identified with “the intellectual classes,” sometimes they shrink and can be represented simply as “the clever men at Yale.”

Everywhere Bayley seeks and finds evidence of “the comparative pointlessness of academic criticism.” He devotes a lecture, given as a Trilling seminar at Columbia, to a sustained assault on what he sees as falsely detached attitudes to history, sharply reproving “the high-tech men” generally, and singling out for special censure Roland Barthes, Julian Barnes, and David Lodge, in all of whom, even in the elegant though difficult Barthes, I would naively have expected him to take some pleasure. In a review of Edward Said’s The World, the Text, and the Critic, which inevitably though understandably gives an imperfect impression of that author’s work as a whole, he remarks that

it is a singular reflection on our academic culture that to establish what is simple and obvious Mr. Said’s book has to masquerade as yet another daring display of critical theory.

Disliking “experts,” he distinguishes between “the ‘close reading’ of the expert” and the “hooked absorption” of the enthusiast, which he greatly prefers. Like T.S. Eliot before him, he echoes Henry James’s dictum that the true critic has only one weapon, “the exercise of his intelligence… which, like taste, cannot be taught. For professionals, everything in a literature course can and must be taught.” (This sounds like Welsted, though he presumably never faced a class of unteachables.) As an accomplished literary generalist, Bayley can take as his motto a useful expression of John Ashbery’s: “I will show you fear in a handful of specialists.”

In a sense he is in such passages re-enacting within his own writings the century-old quarrels between men of letters and academic critics. And he can claim with some justice that he has always held his ground against the “smart academic critics” who, over many years of changing critical fashion, have been his colleagues. His brief introduction to this collection maintains that his two principal activities, teaching and reviewing, always “went well together”—they seemed to be “complementary activities.” He always felt he was happy to address an intelligent general audience, and claims that this did not interfere with his job of teaching undergraduates. Needless to say, he did not think it his business at any point in his career to interest himself in the technological fashions that from time to time preoccupied so many members of his profession, and his challenges to them are mostly not so much invitations to debate as casual put-downs.

Yet he has thrived in both of his worlds, inside and outside the academy—which makes one wonder whether the warm welcome academic critics have given to successive waves of “theory” is perhaps in itself a proof that they were prepared to tolerate variety, dissent, and even the relative novelty—for such it became—of a rather old-fashioned critical style, especially if the dissenter was manifestly intelligent and lively and almost certainly a better reader and a better writer than all but a few of them. Or perhaps, after all, they never quite had the power to insist on conformity. Anyway, people like Bayley—and there were a few others—could simply go on producing their own variety of criticism to their own and their readers’ hearts’ content.

The new collection, made by Leo Carey, offers specimens of Bayley’s literary-journalistic work over forty years, much of it from these pages, and is impressive testimony to the range and depth of his literary interests. It has sections on English, American, and Russian literature, on Eastern European writers, especially Poles such as Czesl/aw Milosz and Witold Gombrowicz, and on major novelists—Proust, Stendhal, Conrad, and Musil share a section with Patrick O’Brian and Angela Carter. A section rather vaguely named “Correspondences” contains essays on Henry and William James, Milan Kundera and Jane Austen, Balzac and Barthes, Pushkin and Byron, Dostoevsky and J.M. Coetzee, Leo and Sofia Tolstoy. Miscellaneity is only to be expected. And although the final section of the book is for some reason headed “Review Work,” that description shouldn’t be taken as disparaging; “review work” of quality is one means, possibly the most important, by which a literary public survives, and anyway this entire collection is review work in the best sense.

It is for that kind of work—roughly speaking, work intended for the eyes of the kind of people who read this journal—that Bayley is so exceptionally well equipped. Enormously well read, he has a remarkable memory and assimilates new information without apparent effort. He writes fluently and for the most part plainly. That he knows Russian gives him an enviable advantage over most Anglophone critics. He is normally generous and knows how and whom to praise. He is rarely dismissive, except when dealing routine blows at the “clever men” and their “higher criticism”; and on the rare occasions when he does disapprove of other writers and critics he gives his reasons. He knows what he likes, and also gives his reasons for liking it.

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