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.

He doesn’t seek universal assent; for example, he has his favorites, who pop up in all sorts of contexts as touchstones of excellence: Pushkin is chief among them, but they also include Barbara Pym, John Betjeman, and Anthony Powell. Bits of W.H. Auden, long matured in his memory, turn up from time to time, and usually to some purpose. He greatly, and quite rightly, admires V.S. Pritchett for the keenness of his critical eye, the scope of his reading, and the economical beauty of his prose. He even says he would like to think he bears some resemblance to Pritchett, and up to a point—one can ask for no more—he does.

In a body of work as substantial as this one would think it ought to be possible to discern some characteristic tactics, some practiced expository procedures, but for the most part he assumes complete freedom to approach his topic just as he pleases, without expressing or investigating his own hidden methodological preferences. However, he does make it plain that he is extremely interested in the lives of writers, discussing them in much the same style as he does their works, and he will have nothing to do with critics who deplore such biographical emphasis. Despite his reverence for their art he will not be persuaded to treat it as if it were unrelated to the artists’ lives. For instance, he summarizes the facts of E.E. Cummings’s life, but feels obliged to admit that they have no relation to the poet and his poetry. “We cannot feel, as we do with most imaginative writers, that the life helps us to see more deeply into the art, to understand it better.” But he goes on to argue that this defect is not a sign that Cummings was an inferior artist: on the contrary, “he was a genuine original.”

It would have suited Bayley’s case better if this had not been so; but he simply goes on, in his charitable way, to claim that a factual biography, with its accumulations of pedestrian detail of no relevance to the man’s poetry—a biography that “could in a sense have been written about anybody”—may nevertheless still be “interesting in itself rather than for the light it throws upon its subjects.” The reader of such a biography need not be bored by its triviality and irrelevance; it is possible to take an interest in such passages as this: “There was some talk of their going again to Bangor that year but in the event they did not.” For Bayley, the inherent interest of all such details can relieve “purely” factual biography of the necessity of illuminating the poetry of Cummings, or whoever it might be, which provided the original reason for its existence.

Here Bayley cheerfully and characteristically wants it both ways; he is a welcoming critic, and won’t dismiss a biography just because it doesn’t fit in with his view of the proper relation between life and work. “Art, and its fulfilments,” he says, “care nothing about the artist’s own life, which is usually forfeited in the process”—as it happens, the remark is made apropos of D.H. Lawrence and George Orwell, but he adduces other evidence to its truth. Art may not care about life; but Bayley certainly does, and about its relation to art. He can distinguish between a suicide which is integral to a body of poetry and one which is not, using the examples of Sylvia Plath and Marina Tsvetaeva, “whose suicide cannot be seen, as Sylvia Plath’s could, as an aspect or requirement of her art.” He can say, rather gnomically, of W.H. Auden that

the poet is what the poetry seems; part of the art of the contraption is to make an impression of the man inside it. The uniqueness of Auden’s poetry lies in its being the result of an act of will…. That he turned out to be a brilliant poet does not conceal the arbitrariness of his decision to become one.

He might just as well have decided to be a doctor or an archaeologist. This is a tribute not to Auden’s general intellectual power but to the power of his will; but the choice of professions he might have willed himself to follow tends to conceal the point, and possibly obscures the further point that it may be possible to say of all poets who persist in being poets that there must be a comparable act of will; so that this way of expressing Auden’s singularity is less effective than it seems.

Bayley’s usual aim is to blend his consideration of the life and the work, a method consistent with his view that in the end the work should provide a kind of image of its writer. New ideas and information derived from the book under review are mixed with his existing stock of knowledge and opinion, and the results of this process are sharply written and instructive essays that (like Pritchett’s) rarely give the impression of having been thought up or cobbled together for the particular occasion.

This is the way his essays on Russian writers work, and it is hard to see how they could be improved. Pushkin has given him so much “sheer pleasure” that he says he might not find the like in “a lifetime with words,” and that pleasure is recalled when he finds that he can sense Pushkin’s presence in many later Russian authors. Bayley once wrote a book about Pushkin, and his continuing delight in that writer is reflected in the two essays here devoted to him. An interest in Pushkin’s life—“gambling with fashionable friends and making up to girls,” as well as getting himself killed in a duel—is perfectly consistent with an admiration for the Shakespearian openness of Pushkin’s characterization, his “genius for incompletion,” and the spontaneity and simplicity of his verse. Whatever one’s view on the life/art relation one would need to be an absurdly committed aesthete to dislike these remarkable essays.

Bayley doesn’t hesitate to offer ethical judgments on both the life and the works, but on the whole if he likes the work he is kind to the life. Thomas Hardy is another of his heroes, though he can no more than anybody else think of Hardy’s life as in itself inspiring, “mean and stark” as it was. Hardy said he “never cared for life,” and that attitude would not ordinarily have endeared him to Bayley, but with some help from Michael Millgate’s biography he can see “the cold, dominant will in [Hardy] coming into its unique relation in his life and art with his warm, receptive and wondering side.” He finds an allegory of this conjuncture in the collision of the Titanic and the iceberg in Hardy’s poem “The Convergence of the Twain,” the two brought into contact by the Immanent Will. It is a striking poem, but not the best of Hardy, as Bayley well knows.

There are mysteries in Hardy’s life, as in his work, and perhaps the greatest of them is the series of poems written after the death of his first wife, Emma. An old man remembers a woman with whom he shared a miserable marriage; but in death, she calls him to her like a ghost:

Thus I, faltering forward,

Leaves around me falling,

Wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward

And the woman calling.

That marvelous poem may be related very directly to a particularly complex experience of bereavement, suffered by a man often thought to be a cold egotist. But Bayley does justice to Hardy by describing him as a poet who “does not know how to be bogus.” The truth of this observation is borne out by the enormous possibilities of bogusness his kind of poetry offers. That he avoided them by trusting his own kind of simplicity entitles him to the measure of reverence Bayley always accords poets who are thus true to themselves, like his admired Russians.

In such matters of taste and discrimination he is almost always to be trusted. He mentions Wittgenstein’s fear of “literature’s rich dishonesty,” and his acceptance of that dictum implies some complicated thinking. He remarks that Keats’s “greatest poetic effects are founded on [an] instability, deep inside their verbal texture.” Dishonesty, instability—these are common faults. But he would not speak thus of Hardy or Pushkin or Larkin, whose popularity rests not on the misconceptions of critics but “on the sound unexamined expectations of a more general public,” who apparently recognize the honest and the stable when they see or hear it. Dr. Johnson might have said this.

Descriptions of an artist’s life may sometimes give rise to a less than enthusiastic account of his work. Rupert Brooke is one such; the insincerities of his “New Pagan” style of life are reflected in the “shoddy and embarrassing” language of his poems. I.A. Richards remarked that Brooke’s poetry had no “inside” to it; a failure of character can disable a poet, and not even early death is an excuse. For Bayley, Edward Thomas is a counterexample to Brooke, and is commended not only for his poems but because he became in his poetry “the sort of man he really was.”

Whether this amounts to more than a roundabout way of saying that Thomas was a better poet than Brooke as well as a man blessed with an “inside” is a question. Bayley is cold to Wordsworth, whom he finds to be, as man as well as poet, “morally and emotionally commonplace,” adducing biographical reasons for the judgment. But surely Wordsworth will strike some readers as having become, in his major poetry, the sort of man he really was, and not at all commonplace. The approach causes real problems when the fit of life to work is not obvious. Bayley shows some interest in J.C. Powys’s notion of the “Life Illusion,” a sense of one’s higher self, that may protect “human beings from the futility of the commonplace.” Presumably he believes that the quality, even the honesty, of that illusion has a bearing on the merit of the poetry, and Wordsworth’s life illusion, if he had one, was too weak to save him from the commonplace.

But it would not be like Bayley to seek some flat, universally applicable formula to use in studying the relationship of art and the artist’s life. That he looks for some correlation is evident enough, and in this selection of his work he twice quotes Mallarmé’s celebrated line on Poe: “Tel qu’en Lui-même enfin l’éternité le change.” (Roughly, his case was “such that eternity finally changed him into himself.”) A great line, indeed, and fit to be used of great writers. But though it is right to admire greatness, it is not enough. Cooler judgment is also critical duty. Bayley does not shirk this, though he is not always ready to perform it without equivocation. He endorses Ian Hamilton’s description of Robert Lowell as the “Mayflower screwball,” enjoying the oxymoron. Isaac Babel is “at once excited and blasé.” Evelyn Waugh depends on his combination of sentiment and cynicism. W.H. Auden’s poems can be “in a frustrating way both true and not true.”

Such comments may bewilder some readers. Auden’s verses have a “totally unintimate intimacy,” while their author has “a faith and a skepticism that…are almost identical” (which is admittedly less startling). Philip Larkin is “shameless and reticent…confidential yet invulnerably refined.” Robert Musil is twice commended “for something his own intelligence has with infinite subtlety concluded: that an idea or a person—anything in the world—can be simultaneously true and false, existent and non-existent.” When you think about it, this oxymoronic habit, this determination to find a and not-a in a fruitfully suggestive relationship, arises from a generous reading habit, a recognition that poetry is capable of such acts of philosophic defiance and an assumption that we should like it less if it were not so. “Anything in the world!”—it is an exhilarating claim.

Now and again, though, this habit of double-taking may deflect a reader’s attention from the point. It is not easy to see how Lyn Coffin’s translations of Akhmatova can be both “frequently” and “rather unexpectedly” effective. It is bewildering to be told that Jane Austen “both did and did not make a choice” between two kinds of life: Did she choose not to choose? But these puzzles or “aporiae” are part of the conversation Bayley carries on and what he has to say about Austen and Auden, Larkin and Musil, is criticism of quality, and always in the mode of intelligent and informed conversation.

In his introduction Bayley remarks that in a lifetime of reviewing he has sometimes felt it a special pleasure to be asked to take on an author he had largely forgotten, or even missed altogether (a rare event in his career). He is particularly grateful that he was asked to “take on” Bruno Schulz and Paul Celan. Essays on both writers are included in the present volume, and are further testimony to the seriousness of his critical enterprise. They are accompanied by reappraisals of authors he has known since childhood—Hardy, Kipling, Dickens—and loved without knowing why. Now he reads them again, or reads books about them, including of course biographies, and finds he loves them for different and expressible reasons. It seems a prescription for personal happiness: to back away neither from the old nor from the new, and to carry on into old age, taking them on, making informed and intelligent conversation about them. All good common readers are in his debt; and in this case the clever men, the professionals, don’t really count.