Irvin Ehrenpreis (1920–1985) was the Linden Kent Memorial Professor of English Literature at the University of Virginia. In 1984 he received the Christian Gauss Award from Phi Beta Kappa for the final volume of his trilogy, Swift: The Man, His Works, and the Age.

The Seductive Journalist

When James Boswell was twenty, he ran away from the University of Glasgow and went to London. There he meant to become a Roman Catholic, perhaps a monk. But an attentive friend of a friend diverted him with the pleasures of the town; and instead of entering a monastery, Boswell …

Art, Life, and T. S. Eliot

Among T.S. Eliot’s friendships, the longest-lived attachment to a woman was his connection with Emily Hale (daughter of a Bostonian architect who was also a minister), which began when he was a student at Harvard. Miss Hale (1891–1969) became a teacher of speech and drama, and the pair met during …

The King of Correspondence

Don’t be put off by the opulence of the Yale edition of Horace Walpole’s letters. Pull down volume eighteen, open it as if you were Titian approaching a canvas, and read about the Duke of Beaufort’s private parts. The Duke had a wife whose connection with Lord Talbot became scandalous.

Unheard Melodies

When Keat’s brother Tom was dying, and the poet was falling in love with Fanny Brawne, he wrote to a friend, I never was in love—Yet the voice and the shape of a woman has haunted me these two days—at such a time when the relief, the feverous relief of …

Three-Part Inventions

Edward Said’s new book is a disconcerting example of a rational position sapped by alarming faults. As a practical and theoretical critic of literature, Said sacrifices accuracy and good sense to self-indulgent carelessness. His collection of essays deals with a range of writers from Swift to Conrad, with philosophers from …

The Two Robert Brownings

In his new biography of Browning, Donald Thomas takes us no great distance into the nature of the poet or his work. Yet the connection between the private man and the poems will tantalize anyone who examines Browning’s career. At the center of the dramatic monologues is usually a revelation …

Whose Life Is It, Anyway?

A woman who, when nearing fifty, finds a handsome, talented man of twenty-seven coaxing her into marriage might well become the subject of an interesting story. If she was born in a two-room log house but persuaded her admirers that she grew up in a mansion occupied by four generations …

The Other Sylvia Plath

The habit of reading Sylvia Plath’s poems biographically is so common that one forgets how many of them are dramatic monologues, how many are spoken by imaginary characters who have no obvious connection with the poet. The new, long-awaited edition of The Collected Poems brings together many such pieces, balancing …

Digging In

Only the most gifted poets can start from their peculiar origin in a language, a landscape, a nation, and from these enclosures rise to impersonal authority. Seamus Heaney has this kind of power, and it appears constantly in his Poems 1965-1975. One may enter his poetry by a number of …

All-American Bard

It was Walt Whitman, at the age of forty-five, who finally took his elder brother Jesse to a lunatic asylum in Brooklyn and left him there. As Justin Kaplan reports in his brisk and accurate biography of Whitman, Jesse had an unstable, violent nature, and Walt early became their mother’s …

Otherworldly Goods

Anyone who wants evidence that James Merrill has held on to his formidable gifts as a poet should look at a few sections of his recent books, Mirabell: Books of Number (1978) and Scripts for the Pageant. Merrill’s versatility and inventiveness fill a description of the small town of Stonington, …

The Powers of Sympathy

The American poet wants all the attention he can get, along with some cash rewards. American critics are seldom patrons, able to put money in his hand. But they must feel as their overriding duty the need to give him intelligent appreciation. Anyone who reads much of modern criticism comes …

The Long and the Short of It

In 1811 a nephew of Thomas Jefferson nearly chopped off the head of a young slave named George. The seventeen-year-old boy had broken a pitcher belonging (we are told) to the deceased mother of his master, Lilburne Lewis. The drunken master, with the help of his own brother Isham, dragged …

The Powers of Alexander Pope

Near the source of Alexander Pope’s work is an anxiety understandable when we consider his health and religion. As a Roman Catholic in a Protestant nation, Pope suffered maddening penalties. He could not attend a university or hold a civil office. He paid double the normal tax on land, and …

Lit in Trouble

In colleges and universities today, the study of literature is a troubled discipline. Undergraduates drawn to it press into courses dealing with the twentieth century. The competition of other kinds of entertainment has narrowed their experience, and the diversified curricula of their high schools have not supplemented the meager diet …

Jane Austen and Heroism

Anyone familiar with the novels of Sir Walter Scott knows how much his contemporary, Jane Austen, leaves out of her work. Austen hardly describes the physical appearance of her characters. In Pride and Prejudice we never learn the color of Elizabeth Bennet’s eyes or of Darcy’s hair. Austen does not …

The Music of Suffering

At the end of the year 1914, when T.S. Eliot was twenty-six and living in England, he wrote to a friend about the unpleasantness of meeting sexual opportunities in the street and feeling his own refinement rise up to obstruct them. Eliot thought he might be better off if he …

At the Poles of Poetry

The appearance of new books by Anthony Hecht and Ted Hughes raises the question of the merits of two kinds of writing, the poetry of limits and the poetry of extremes. Hecht makes a good representative of the one, Hughes of the other. The poetry of limits depends on form, …

Mr. Eliot’s Martyrdom

The strength of T.S. Eliot’s poetry depends on insights that mediate between morality and psychology. Eliot understood the shifting, paradoxical nature of our deepest emotions and judgments, and tried to embody this quality in his style. “All that concerned my family,” he once said, “was ‘right and wrong,’ what was …

The Triumph of Dr. Johnson

W. J. Bate has produced a superb biography of Samuel Johnson. His sympathy admits the reader to Johnson’s uneasiest emotions without harm to the hero’s dignity. Even when he discusses sexual intimacies—Johnson’s pathetic relation to a wife who refused to sleep with him, Johnson’s soliciting of caresses from his wife’s …

The Moral World of Robinson Crusoe

Peter Earle, in a comprehensive new book on Daniel Defoe, fits one of the most prolific authors of all times into the social and economic history of his own era. As Earle does so, he gives thoughtful attention to the effect of religion and social class on Defoe’s work; and …

Inside Auden’s Landscape

The fat new volume of Auden’s Collected Poems, superbly edited by Edward Mendelson (and hideously produced by the publisher), gives us extraordinary opportunities to notice the persistence of the poet’s themes and devices. Even in the dark, portentous poems of Auden’s early career, there were clear designs, the language of …

Lowell’s Comedy

Going through Robert Lowell’s Selected Poems, one realizes again how funny and witty his work can be—“With seamanlike celerity, / Father left the Navy, / and deeded Mother his property.” Lowell’s comic power was manifest in Life Studies. But as the poet moved into middle age, humor became a subtler …