Frank Kermode (1919–2010) was a British critic and literary theorist. Born on the Isle of Man, he taught at University College London, Cambridge, Columbia and Harvard. Adapted from a series of lectures given at Bryn Mawr College, Kermode’s Sense of An Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction remains one of the most influential works of twentieth-century literary criticism.

A Bold New Bible

Jörg Breu the Elder: ‘Pontius Pilate washing his hands,’ 1502, one of eight panels formerly decorating the altar at the Melk Abbey Church, Austria
This heroic enterprise, an expansive single-handed edition of the New Testament, is a substantial addition to the sixty-odd publications of the poet and translator Willis Barnstone. It appears in company with the fourth edition of a collection called Ancient Greek Lyrics, which contains practically all of Sappho and a large …

The Dear, Dear Friend

Samuel Palmer: Moonlight, a Landscape with Sheep, circa 1831-1833
The Wordsworth family was gentlemanly. John W. Wordsworth, father of the poet and three more sons, as well as a daughter, Dorothy, was an attorney and the agent of a rapacious magnate who, on the father’s early death, declined to pay his children a large sum that had been due …

Heroic Milton: Happy Birthday

Celebrations of the four hundredth anniversary of the birth of John Milton in December 1608 have been modest and largely academic. He was born, and for the most part lived, in the City of London, now the financial district. Nationalistic sentiment in those days was such that the idea of …

You Can’t Take It with You

E.M. Forster, who was sometimes criticized for scattering deaths too wantonly over his own plots, complained of “the studied ignorance of novelists” and advised them to “recapture their interest in death.” He considered that interest to be a necessary element in true creativity. The novelist Julian Barnes easily eludes this …

Ezra Conquers London

The history of literature is punctuated by differences of opinion sometimes too strong to be regarded as mere literary quarrels. The most important and probably the most painful American example was the row over the award, in February 1949, of the first Bollingen Poetry Prize to Ezra Pound for his …

Wars Over the Printed Word

James Simpson’s book, Burning to Read, is a lively and detailed study of the early-sixteenth-century reformers (here described as “fundamentalists”) who believed the Bible and not the papacy to be the sole authority in matters of religious faith. His object is not merely to offer a new look at an …

The Sharpest Thorn

During his years as literary editor and columnist on the left-wing weekly Tribune George Orwell wrote, in addition to his journalism, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. The Tribune suited him very well, letting him do as he pleased, offering a measure of political agreement but also a background against which …

Lives of Dr. Johnson

Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, as it first appeared in 1755, occupied two huge and very expensive folio volumes. A glance at the familiar Vanity Fair illustration will prove that the school-leaving copy thrown out of her coach window by Becky Sharp was not the whole dictionary but …

Arguing with God

Jesus and Yahweh adds one more to the long list of books in which Harold Bloom demonstrates that a formidable degree of learning can coexist with exceptional boldness of imagination. His prose style is by now familiar to a largely admiring readership: it could be described as at once dogmatic …

A New Story of Stories

The first five books of the Bible, traditionally the work of Moses, and the core of Jewish law, retained authority in the Christian tradition and have probably been translated into more languages than any other book. English versions date back to the first stirrings of the Reformation in the fourteenth …

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 …

Art Among the Ruins

New Historicism emerged as an influential movement in the 1980s with Stephen Greenblatt’s early studies in Renaissance culture, and Greenblatt, who reluctantly takes credit for inventing the label, remains its most eminent practitioner. Broadly speaking, New Historicism is a way, or a bundle of ways, of writing about literary history …

But Could She Cook?

This mistitled book contains a “generous selection” of Queen Elizabeth’s letters, speeches, poems, and prayers. It does not include her translation of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy and other surviving translations, arguing that they are already available to scholars “in fairly convenient forms.” Yet the present volume is intended not for …

The Geat of Geats

The Old English poem Beowulf tells, in a little over three thousand lines of verse, the story of a great hero of the Geat tribe, which long ago inhabited what is now part of Sweden. Beowulf hears of the protracted sufferings of the neighboring Danes at the hands of a …

The Midrash Mishmash

The interpretation of Scripture, as practiced by learned rabbis from the first century of the present era, is called midrash. Midrash concerned with the Law was called Midrash Halacha; the other kind, which dealt with nonlegal parts of the Bible, was called Midrash Haggadah. The terms are properly used only …

Advertisement for Himself

To read the surviving ancient examples of apocryphal gospels is to see how impressive the canonical ones usually are. The apocrypha, sometimes clever, sometimes silly, try to elaborate or continue those originals, thus following, with varying degrees of irresponsibility, the example of the Evangelists themselves. All manner of strange things …

The World Turned Upside Down

The publishers of this large double-columned book, throwing modesty to the winds, as publishers perhaps must in these hard times, claim that it “provides what every American needs to know as we enter the next century.” The editors, “two of our most esteemed scholars,” offer “the global citizen’s guide to …

Getting Even

The first part of the title of John Kerrigan’s book makes one think of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, of Hamlet, naturally, but also of such works as The Revenger’s Tragedy, perhaps by Cyril Tourneur, perhaps by Thomas Middleton; let us favor Tourneur. His hero is actually called Vindice, and most …

The Pleasure of the Text

David Denby is the film critic of New York magazine, a man by his own admission professionally deformed by movies. Off duty he is normally busy with everything a successful journalist, husband, and father living in New York is likely to be busy with. Not the kind of man, one …

The Wild Goose Chase

The Search for the Perfect Language is published in a series called “The Making of Europe,” of which the general editor is the eminent medieval historian Jacques Le Goff. Other volumes are by Peter Brown (The Rise of Western Christendom), Aaron Gurevich (The Origins of European Individualism), and Ulrich Im …

Howl

Checking through the old Roth paperbacks, one notices how many of them make the same bid for attention: “His most erotic novel since Portnoy’s Complaint,” or “his best since Portnoy’s Complaint,” or “his best and most erotic since Portnoy’s Complaint.” These claims are understandable, as is the assumption that Roth …

The Wonder of Mozart

Mozart was famous in his day, first as an infant prodigy, later as a pianist and composer, especially of opera, and although his reputation later had its ups and downs it cannot be said that he has ever been neglected. There is consequently a huge bibliography, and the quantity of …

Sound and Fury

Garry Wills’s new book is of a type that raises some general issues in addition to the particular ones addressed. Should we try to find out how writers, composers, and performers originally did it, and what they originally meant by it? Or dismissing such ambitions as futile and impossible, should …

The Old New Age

The Bible is a collection of ancient writings, and, except to believers in plenary inspiration, it is a rather random, miscellaneous, and fortuitous compilation. It is possible to regard it as in some sense a unity, but that unity has been imposed by history, by the fact that its parts …

The High Cost of New History

An influential group of American academic literary critics has decided that, history—cultural history—so long neglected, it is said, by earlier influential groups, is now its most urgent business. They are called “the New Historicists.” The English Renaissance has apparently been chosen as the period promising the best return on this …

Obsessed with Obsession

Julian Barnes is an English writer still in his thirties. His first novel, Metroland, appeared in 1981, his second, Before She Met Me, in 1982. With his third, Flaubert’s Parrot, he is beginning to attract the kind of attention reserved for serious novelists. Yet he is still, I should say, …