Words & Music

The Lyric Impulse

by C. Day Lewis
Harvard, 164 pp., $4.25

There is an apocryphal story, dating from 1933, about some of the New(ish) Critics who stumbled discomfited from A.E. Housman’s lecture at Cambridge University on The Name and Nature of Poetry. Discomfited, and muttering that the lecture put the clock back twenty years. Housman was full of years (in his seventies), of honor, and of wickedly brilliant perversity. There he stood, devolving his rounded periods, all to the effect that the best poems were lyrical poems and that they were so good precisely because their meaning was unimportant or nonexistent. And how do we know that those lyrics (by Blake or Shakespeare) are so good? “Experience has taught me, when I am shaving of a morning, to keep watch over my thoughts, because, if a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that the razor ceases to act.” All of which was widely understood as a tacit snub to professional literary criticism (T. S. Eliot, I. A. Richards, F. R. Leavis). And to the academic study of literature. If Housman were right, then the final examination ought to give the grade A to the candidate whose skin bristled best.

That was the lecture in honor of Leslie Stephen in Cambridge in 1933. Over to C. Day Lewis, in Cambridge, Mass., with his lectures in honor of Charles Eliot Norton. The Lyric Impulse is very much an attenuated and watery version of The Name and Nature of Poetry, now re-told for our times. Mr. Day Lewis fears, with urbane despondency, that the academic study of literature and the professionalizing of criticism have produced a context in which there is a morbid dread of the truest kind of poetry: the lyric. The very simplicity and directness of the lyric make it unsatisfying explication-fodder. Poetry, it seems, is more and more cutting itself off from its true source, “the lyric impulse,” and from its manifestation, “the singing line.”

The historical part of the book has little that is new about it. Once again the progress of the lyric and of the ballad is traced, “country lyrics” are displayed as at a flower-show, and there is an agreeable murmur of quotations, tastefully chosen and gracefully deployed. All rather slight. But behind the slightness there is a devout, almost parsonical, tone. We are hearing a sermon about the dangers of extra-lyrical intercourse. Or perhaps not a sermon, a jeremiad.

The trouble with the argument is partly that, as with all such jeremiads, one can’t help suspecting that Jeremiah rather enjoys delivering them, that indeed he wouldn’t be himself without them. The history of literary opinion is strewn with grim warnings about the fact that poetry or the novel or the drama is dooming itself by pursuing irresponsible courses. The warnings die and are forgotten (the dog it was that died), and poetry and the novel and the drama somehow seem to go marching on. After all, the clearest and most indisputable evidence that there really was something gravely wrong with new…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.