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 of recent novels that constitute imaginative literature for them.

Meanwhile, the postgraduate students feel demoralized by the lack of opportunity in the profession they would like to enter. For all their attachment to criticism and scholarship, they have no such certainty of an academic career as their forerunners possessed in the mid-Sixties. Many older, well-established scholars and teachers feel themselves competing with one another for a shrinking body of apprentices.

The effect is a loss of the uneasy confidence that supported the discipline in the past, and a search for new philosophies of culture that will refresh and strengthen the failing spirit. In such an atmosphere it is peculiarly unfortunate that literary journalism and academic instruction should be so remote from each other. The free-lance critic with some money of his own and an eagerness to win readers over to his judgments is less common than ever. When the academic scholar-critic writes for a miscellaneous audience, he is unsure of his ground. Spiritually, he remains in the lecture hall, or else he becomes a reporter, giving an account of a book that mixes a few impressions with a few facts.

Serious attention to literature tends to direct itself to an audience of specialist students and teachers. The school, rather than the marketplace, is the forum of discussion. Instead of appealing to persons of taste, curious about reappraisals of established works or wanting informed judgments of new ones, the critic speaks to readers with a vested interest in his professional discipline. It is against this background that one should ponder the extraordinary fascination of professors of literature—in France, Germany, Britain, and this country—with theories of criticism.

The nonspecialist reader of verse and fiction can find no nourishment in the controversies rising from the state of affairs I have sketched. If the defense of learning and culture must be made before an audience of priests and neophytes, it must take the form of partisan, esoteric discourse. The high aesthetic tradition of Western culture deserves a broader foundation.

Gerald Graff, in Literature Against itself, starts from an admirable position. He believes that the proponents of far-reaching reorientations of criticism and scholarship are destroying the values for which imaginative literature stands in the eyes of those who cherish it. The theorists whom he attacks belong together for sharing profound doubts about the possibility of interpreting or judging literature with any validity.

In the old view an author’s intention stood at the center of meaning of a literary work. The reader’s job was to come to terms with it. In the opinion of prominent theoreticians today, each reader establishes his own meaning and frees himself from concern with the author’s will. In the old view, the value of a literary work depended on a consensus of well-read, articulate judges. In the new view, judgment itself becomes suspect; the relativity of taste overwhelms the critic, and he sees no way of arriving at a common standard. The young people whom he harangues are invulnerable to rhythms and tones that delight him.

By eliminating the need to reach sound interpretations and assessments, the theoreticians would let all readers trust their immediate responses and enjoy the art of spontaneous criticism without tyrannical restraints. In his most powerful chapter, “How Not to Talk about Fictions,” Graff exposes the weakness of the permissive attitude. “There is a disparity,” he says, “between our theoretical talk about literature and our actual behavior in reading and discussing literary works.” The very critic who challenges the concept of meaning never doubts his own power to communicate meanings. He may praise readers who defy the authority of a poet, but his language does not relinquish the meaningful authority of a judge.

I recommend Graff’s doctrine. The crises of interpretation that he deals with are derived from the most general kind of theoretical speculation. When critics strive to produce a science of hermeneutics or interpretation, they want broad, abstract principles that will apply to many works of different genres. Once we turn from such ambitions to the actual experience of interpretation, the crises shrink into manageability. Away from the blackboard of the theoretician, they are barely visible.

In normal acts of literary interpretation, we select one from among several interpretations—often only two. Is Defoe ironical (we ask) in a scene from Moll Flanders, or is he not? The question we put is seldom which is the perfect interpretation but rather which of two interpretations is the more probable. Now the choice among two, three, or four interpretations can be argued more persuasively than the demonstration of a single one as utterly correct.


Besides, we do not address all possible listeners. In normal acts of interpretation we select an audience prepared for and concerned with the argument which we produce. When a critic declares that George Eliot was satirizing Mark Pattison in the character of Casaubon, he does not try to bring over listeners who have read no English novels of the nineteenth century.

The chosen audience, offered two or three possibilities, constitutes a simpler challenge than the human mind under the aspect of eternity searching for the absolutely true explication of a crux in the Gospel according to St. John. Before an audience of students whose first analogies are with television plays and movies, any problem of literary meaning can swell into the size of a metaphysical dilemma.

So also in choosing among several interpretations, the nonacademic rarely turns to high rhetorical strategies, philosophies of language, or the concepts of phenomenology. He agrees with Dilthey that context is normally the best guide. When one tries to decide whether or not The Golden Bowl condemns Charlotte, at the end, to a terrible punishment, one will probably not reach a decision through the application of some grand analytical technique. One is more likely to ponder the situation of America at the time the novel was written—or James’s idea of that situation—and the attitude such a country would evoke in a woman like Charlotte.

An interpretative critic is persuasive when he asks his chosen audience to consider the actual, shared world to which a literary work refers—perhaps by recalling the occasions which gave rise to the work, perhaps by sketching the circumstances which the work invites the reader to take for granted. It is largely by such means that one decides whether or not Swift is satirizing all “projectors” (i.e., all advocates of schemes for relieving human misery) in A Modest Proposal.

The drawing out of implications depends on imaginative sympathy. A critic must feel he can put himself in the place of the poet (known or unknown) as the subject of an experience that both participate in. He must, as Dilthey says, penetrate the inner creative process itself and then proceed to the form—outer and inner—of the literary work. When one elucidates a sonnet by Shakespeare, one starts from a confidence that the author was supremely aware of the implications of his words, that he foresaw what a penetrating, sympathetic reader might make of his secondary meanings. In drawing out the implications of Shelley’s Adonais, one lacks that assurance.

Sympathetic penetration is a mystery and can be an object of skepticism. Yet it is easy enough to defend. As Schleiermacher observed, we never stop performing such acts during routine conversations with those around us, and human life would be impossible without them. We verify the acts by the consensus of our chosen audience—the person we talk to, or the listeners whom we try to persuade of the truth of an interpretation.

There is a mystery in one person’s intuitively grasping what another means when he says, “I see a green color,” or “I am hungry,” or in a woman’s understanding of a child who complains, “I feel lonely.” These mysteries are no smaller than the leap of imagination demanded of us when Wordsworth or Stevens responds to a woman’s song, or when T.S. Eliot responds to Sappho; for the purpose of establishing the context of meaning is, as Eliot says,

not primarily that we should be able to think and feel, when reading the poetry, as a contemporary of the poet might have thought and felt, though such experience has its own value; it is rather to divest ourselves of the limitations of our own age, and the poet, whose work we are reading, of the limitations of his age, in order to get the direct experience, the immediate contact with his poetry.

(The Frontiers of Criticism)

Graff argues that no sound interpretation is possible unless we believe that the literary work refers to a reality external to itself, which we as listeners, spectators, readers, may enter. Just as a landscape painting makes sense to us only as it relates to our experience of landscape (seen or pictured), so also a poem—I should say—makes sense only according to our knowledge (immediate or secondhand) of the emotions, relationships, values, or fantasies it deals with. Graff recommends that critics tie literary works to a historical context, and I agree. Even the study of contemporary works benefits from such a frame: only a historical view, says Graff, “provides a perspective from which to assess the richness and poverty of the contemporary.”


Unfortunately, those who agree with Graff on the referential nature of imaginative literature, and on the critic’s need for a historical context, those who agree that some interpretations are more valid than others, will not read his book with undiluted pleasure. I shall not complain at length about Graff’s heavy style, his repetitiveness, his awkwardness, his inflation of rhetoric. But I must question certain terms and principles that he takes for granted.

Graff employs a number of elusive, difficult words as if they were in the class of words like “lead,” “sleep,” and “sunshine,” which seldom require definition even though their exact sense may vary. He talks about “art,” “capitalism,” and the “bourgeoisie” with a freedom that startles me. He calls the notion that freedom means the refusal of community “a bourgeois definition of freedom.” He speaks of the “essence of capitalist reality.”

Graff alludes to art and the artist in terms that let him mention “the homelessness, impotence, and marginality which capitalism thrusts on the artistic intellectual.” What would Dante and Tasso have said to that? What would Faulkner have said?

The ill-digested lumps of social philosophy that bob up in the flow of Graff’s argument could only survive on more learning and intellectual power than he can command. Hegel and Nietzsche together could hardly provide the analyses required by what Graff calls one of his “central arguments,” viz. that “advanced capitalism, with its built-in need to destroy all vestiges of tradition, all orthodox ideologies, all continuous and stable forms of reality,” is the true avant-garde.

To anyone living a day’s journey from Williamsburg, to anyone who knows the history of American art museums or of the New York Public Library, to anyone familiar with Harriet Monroe’s method of launching Poetry Magazine, this doctrine must sound like a comic defiance of reality.

Underlying all these positions is the assumption that great imaginative literature naturally assumes an “adversary role in society,” by which I take Graff to mean that creative genius intuitively opposes itself to the established social order. The proposition has the appeal of a singing commercial. I don’t doubt that those who like it are capable of finding evidence to support it in the work of Homer, Shakespeare, and Dostoevsky. But my own information does not reveal that literary talent necessarily feeds on any particular attitude toward society.

Graff laments that “postmodern” critics have made art seem to be “a form of complicity” with the established social order. Alas, art by most definitions has indeed commonly been a form of complicity. Does Graff suppose that Horace and Ariosto were trying to subvert their patrons?

In the eighteenth century a number of English poets liked to play with the doctrine that tyrannical, corrupt governments stifle the literary imagination while honest, free governments give it life. Unfortunately, the France of Louis XIV and Louis XV lowered over their idealism. Today, a clear retrospect of the last hundred years in Western Europe and the United States will hardly produce a neat generalization about the connection between poetry and ideology.

But whatever doubts one may harbor about Graff’s socio-economic doctrine are as motes and specks beside the feelings started by Justus Lawler’s Celestial Pantomime. Lawler’s theoretical argument will appeal to persons of a religious temperament who sympathize with phenomenology. Others are likely to back away.

Lawler draws parallels between religious, aesthetic, and sexual experiences, sometimes adding historical process to the complex. He invokes a “myth” (as he calls it) about essential human nature which defines man as a creature moving from unity through multiplicity to a higher unity. Those terms, for Lawler, bear connotations of finitude and infinity as well. In excellent poetry, Lawler finds patterns of rhythm, sound, imagery, and syntax which (he says) embody the elements of the myth.

So he has a chapter on corpuscular and wavelike patterns—i.e., lines broken up into detached items and lines that undulate coherently, often overflowing into the next line. Poets do of course like to balance these two patterns against each other—the disjointed and the unbroken. Lawler claims that in doing so, the best of them often suggest that man is a mysterious union of the corpuscular and the wavelike. I refrain from comment.

Again and again Lawler tries to show that various rhythmic designs or sequences of sounds have a natural affinity with certain meanings, and that the connection is not learned but innate. Primitive man, he speculates, found certain sounds adequate to certain responses. The poet at the deepest level of creative process calls up such correspondences.

To support Lawler’s theory, the various instances of form suiting meaning must not be the result of the reader’s learning to respond to patterns by long experience of verse. To be useful to the reader, the instances must be illuminating and convincing. It is a question how often Lawler succeeds in either of these enterprises.

For example, he says that half-rhymes suggest passivity. Now it is true that a reader habituated to full rhymes will feel let down by half-rhymes; and the flicker of frustration is akin to passivity. But anyone accustomed to modern free verse and every kind of approximate rhyme will feel pleasantly satisfied to meet a half-rhyme. So if there is a response, it is learned and not innate; and anyhow, the response is not consistent. Some half-rhymes evoke satisfaction, others frustration.

Lawler’s theory depends on a number of propositions which follow the shape of those in Chinese fortune cookies. They are self-demonstrating because the terms are open to so many meanings that the applications cannot be proved wrong. For example, he hopes to show that the use of parenthesis suggests a crossing of the infinite with the finite in human experience. One would expect him to define “parenthesis” carefully, go over a variety of examples, and explain how each can be described as the intersection he has in mind.

Instead, he takes us through a number of passages which he believes illustrate the concept of finitude-infinitude in some mildly or strongly interruptive expression, and he then simply declares that each expression is a form of parenthesis. At the same time, the crossing of finite and infinite undergoes remarkable transformations and becomes as vague as the device supposed to embody it.

Lawler’s approach admits of contradictory interpretations of the same pattern. Circularity, for him, starts out as being peculiarly divine. But then it also appears to be essentially human. By an easy transition, Lawler declares it may also represent Satanic evil. No one meaning seems to exclude another.

The evidence is highly selective. Lawler associates enjambment (lines which do not pause at the end but run over into the next line) with the experience of “transcendence”; and he informs us that sexual love is the fundamental medium of transcendence. He then proceeds to connect both sexual love and transcendence with enjambment.

Now it is true that after a series of end-stopped lines, enjambment suggests impetus or motion. If transcendence is conceived as a kind of motion, enjambment can suggest it; so also sexual impulse can take this form. But of course poets use enjambment to suggest hostile and downward forms of motion as well: military attacks, storms, falls, drowning, murder. A study of enjambment in Dryden’s verse might tell Lawler something about the range of its applications by a genius.

Lawler tries to relate enjambment particularly to kissing. Yet Donne (a common source of Lawler’s examples) has many poems in which he uses enjambment for motion, indebtedness, sitting, etc., but not for kissing—even though kisses occur in the poems (“The Relique,” “The Expiration,” “Jealosie,” etc.).

Lawler anticipates the force of the innumerable exceptions to his generalizations by arguing that while the analyses are sound, the patterns he considers can also work in different ways. Enjambment, for example, particularly suits the experience of transcendence but, he says, has many other applications. By hedging and sounding tentative here but delivering confident assertions elsewhere, Lawler tries to disarm the objectors to his argument and yet preserve its strength. But the effect is merely to bewilder those readers who seek a coherent, consistent, persuasive theory.

By Lawler’s definition there are few devices and figures of poetry that cannot be expressed in some variation of the theme of finite-infinite or unity-multiplicity. Cosmic irony, we are told, springs from “the juxtaposition of the infinite and finite” (a definition traceable to German Romanticism). Then there are historical irony and personal irony, which depend on other but related juxtapositions. After expounding the three approaches, Lawler arrives at a generalization that excludes Swift and Jane Austen.

An improbable, general theory can produce valuable, particular insights; and Lawler might serve us well if his separate acts of interpretation were fresh and revealing. But too often they seem merely wrongheaded. The book abounds in misunderstandings caused only in part by the author’s carelessness. He wishes to be original, striking, and to fit verse patterns into his grand scheme. So he punishes meanings until they bow to his demands.

In Henry King’s “Exequy” the poet contrasts the monotonous solitude of his widowerhood with the hope of rejoining his dead wife in a resurrection that will give back to him every atom of her body. Lawler calls this a “journey through multiplicity to unity.” In Herbert’s poem “Vertue” the line “Then chiefly lives” refers to salvation in the midst of destruction. Lawler rejects this familiar and correct reading, and tries to impose another on the line (making it an allusion to the process by which coal is formed) which is not only improbable but also clashes with the rest of the poem.

At one point Lawler mistakes the syntax of a passage by John Cleveland in order to overextend what we are told is a parenthesis but what is really a nonrestrictive adjective clause. Marvell’s drop of dew, according to Lawler, is flawed in shape (because circles have to be lopsided on earth), although the poet himself is at pains to describe it as perfect.

Later centuries are treated as mercilessly. In the poem “In the Valley of the Elwy,” by his favorite Hopkins, Lawler finds a conflict of terms within the octave when in fact the poet is opposing the harmony of air and people in the octave to the discord of land and people in the sestet. Similarly, he misreads a familiar lyric by Yeats and believes that the phrase “a little sadly” in “When You Are Old and Gray” refers to the flickering out of the poet’s anguish and despair when of course it refers ironically to the lady’s final appreciation of his love.

Nor does Lawler spare his fellow countrymen. The meaning of “noon” in Stevens’s “Motive for Metaphor” received an essentially sound explanation from Northrop Frye—as the reality which the poet keeps striving to grasp. Lawler insists it refers to the monistic, prose world which the poet dissolves through metaphor, “red and blue,” etc. But no one who appreciates the tone of Stevens’s words or follows the syntax of his lines will fail to see that the epithets which Lawler opposes to “noon” are by Stevens admiringly applied to it.

Lawler’s style, ostentatiously allusive, hardly lightens the burden of getting at his meaning. He can say of a particular form that “this structure is a kind of sphragis stamped by the pervasive agency of the heuristic myth on the psyche of every poet aware of the latent tragedy in a contingent being that is driven to aspire to the absolute.” He affects words like “limns” (noun), “kenotic,” “syzygy,” and “immote”; and he uses “envision” where a careful stylist would use “envisage.”

Lawler enjoys dipping into Greek, Latin, French, and German, for the most part unnecessarily. In a single paragraph he can name or allude to Nicholas of Cusa, Marsilio Ficino, Pseudo-Pythagoras, Keats, Earl Wasserman, Marvell, T.S. Eliot, Kenneth Burke, Aristotle, and “a Platonic lambda.” He is also a parenthetical quotation-dropper. The following specimen is not uncharacteristic:

“Death, thou art swallowed up in victory”: we are here at the heart of that paradox where, again, the poetic myth converges with that of religion and philosophy. “The way up is the way down”—a text universal from the Upanishads to the Kabbalah to Pascal. “Unless a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone.” For the priest-poet Herbert, like the priest-poet Donne, like the priest-poet Bossuet, like the priest-poet Hopkins, indeed, like the priest-poet Mallarmé—since at this point all myths converge and all poets are priests—the tragic cycle of trapped lark and swan is broken precisely by “imping” the broken creaturely wing to the wing of that phoenix of the absolute which some call Yahweh, others the “not yet,” others “being’s ground,” and so on.

Finally, there is the question of taste. Any theory that establishes the superlative merit of Lionel Johnson’s poem on the statue of Charles I (“Somber and rich, the skies / Great glooms, and starry plains”) calls itself into doubt. In Lawler’s judgments we meet Rupert Brooke, Stephen Spender, and Charlotte Mew solemnly flanking Milton and Shakespeare.

An agreeable feature of Lawler’s book is its devotion to Connecticut—being, as it is, published in that state, dedicated to two residents, and recommended by a third, and also quoting with approval a series of present and former dwellers therein. The tenderness thus suggested stands out by contrast with the author’s judgment of other communities. George Williamson and Elder Olson, both of Chicago, receive cunning dispraise; Douglas Bush, of Cambridge (Mass.), is firmly corrected; Northrop Frye, of Toronto is at times conscientiously opposed. But Messrs. Bloom, Hartman, Martz, R.P. Warren, and Wimsatt, of New Haven, appear only to be acknowledged with gratitude. Nor can this be provinciality, for Mr. Lawler belongs himself to the state of Illinois. In one of the “myths” that fascinate him, an appropriate comment occurs: “The nakedness of thy father, or the nakedness of thy mother, shalt thou not uncover” (Lev.18:7).

This Issue

June 28, 1979