Near the end of Terry Eagleton’s Critical Revolutionaries, there’s a sentence that made me stop for a moment in disbelief. Perhaps it was meant to. F.R. Leavis was by far the most dogmatic of the twentieth-century critics with whom the book is concerned, and Eagleton writes that the Cambridge don held that “literary criticism was the best training ground for the development of a free, unspecialised, disinterested intelligence, which could be brought critically to bear on social existence as a whole.” I read those words with something like wonder. The best…the whole? Really? I can’t imagine anyone today making that broad claim, even leaving aside the increasingly specialized nature of such criticism and our current skepticism about the very possibility of disinterestedness in itself. We wouldn’t have the confidence, or the nerve, though the objections hardly stop there. By “literary criticism” Leavis meant the study of English literature—all other traditions were ancillary at best—and though Eagleton is far from sharing those opinions he does an effective job of ventriloquizing his subject’s attitudes.

English studies stood for Leavis as the “centre of humane value and judicious judgement”; it was a discipline that when properly taught would produce a body of “cultivated administrators and civil servants,” along with a cadre of intellectuals who might exert some meaningful influence on public policy. Properly taught—that is, by him or his disciples, by his students or the contributors and readers of Scrutiny, the pugnacious quarterly that he edited from 1932 to 1953. The usual argument here is that the study of literature puts a unique emphasis on one’s ability to draw fine distinctions, to discriminate between closely related meanings and possibilities, even to entertain several conflicting ideas at once.

Yet I can’t see any but self-serving reasons why English might be thought to do that better than history, or political theory, or environmental science. Leavis held that critical debate began with one person saying, “This is so, isn’t it?” and another answering, “Yes, but…” Only here the answer has to be “No.” Not for all of us, and especially not when one thinks of the particular burden of Leavisite criticism, with its emphasis on the evaluation of individual texts, on the ranking of one writer or poem in relation to others. Even this reviewer wants to laugh at the idea that there is something crucial for our “social existence as a whole” in coming to the correct estimation of Pope or Shelley.

There’s a part of Eagleton that wants to laugh too, I suspect, and it’s to his credit that he doesn’t. Critical Revolutionaries recaptures the moment when literary critics in Britain began to see themselves as monitoring “the spiritual health of the modern age,” a job that put their responsibilities on a par with “those of the priest, prophet or politician.” That was especially true of Leavis, but in different ways the description holds for each of the figures discussed in the book. The others, all of them in some way associated with Cambridge University, are I.A. Richards, William Empson, the American-born T.S. Eliot, and the rather younger Raymond Williams, an outlier in his thinking as well, but someone with whom Eagleton worked closely.

All but Eliot spent their lives as university teachers, though none of them had conventional academic careers, and the work of all but Williams had its roots in Eliot’s early poems and essays. Together they represent both “a specific intellectual formation” and the tradition in which Eagleton was trained at Cambridge at the beginning of the 1960s. These were the critics who made him, however much that training was supplemented by both his Catholic schooling and his study of Marxist theory. I am younger and read only Eliot and Williams as an undergraduate. Still, the others were ever-present names on the lips of my teachers, through whom that tradition had filtered down to a Massachusetts college at the end of the 1970s. How much of it survives? What use or relevance does it have today?

Eagleton has published something like a book a year since the mid-1960s, and his early work included volumes on Shakespeare, the Brontës, Walter Benjamin, and Samuel Richardson. But he made his name with Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983), which remains both his best-known and his most consequential work. It is far more than an introduction. It begins by attacking the concept of disinterested value judgments for which Leavis spoke, and then proceeds to undermine the idea of literature itself. There is, Eagleton argues, no use of language that is always and only “literary,” and though his polemic relies far too heavily on extreme cases, it does at least earn its “Yes, but…” The book ends by suggesting that we substitute rhetorical for literary analysis, concentrating on a text’s “discursive practices” in the pursuit of a self-consciously political criticism, though it’s notable that this might draw on some of the same forms of attention as the study of poetry.


In between, Eagleton provides an exceptionally lucid account of the origins of English as a discipline, including the figures in Critical Revolutionaries along with the American New Critics, and then a reliable summary of the approaches that challenged its founding assumptions: the methods and questions loosely known as “theory,” from Russian formalism to the poststructuralism of Roland Barthes and beyond. Literary Theory says little about the then-new field of feminist criticism and nothing about the nascent terrain of postcolonial studies, but its conclusion bears on them both and I will return to it.

Criticism has always liked and needed to borrow from other disciplines. Literary Theory examines both linguistics and psychoanalysis, but something newly in play at the time it appeared was the history of science, in particular Thomas S. Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). Younger scholars looked to its concept of a paradigm shift as a way to jolt the overfamiliar interpretive fictions of their own fields in new directions. “Normal criticism,” we might say, stood in for what Kuhn called “normal science,” a period in which one works comfortably along on problems whose guiding assumptions are already known—so well known, in fact, that they barely need to be stated. Some problems are, however, anomalous. They can’t be resolved by remaining within the explanatory theories of a given age, and the resolution of the friction or struggle between those theories takes the form of a new paradigm in which one can begin to ask better questions.

Einstein replaces Newton; truth shifts, and often suddenly. Kuhn’s work was sometimes used to characterize a disturbance within a particular subfield. I remember a conference session in the early 1980s in which his terms were applied to antebellum American literature by scholars for whom the idea of an all-white and all-male “American Renaissance” no longer seemed sufficient. Often, though, that change is a larger one. Here “theory” itself, a critical revolution that in retrospect coincided with Eagleton’s book, stands as the best example: a paradigm shift that seemed fully emergent only at the moment of its consolidation, and even as its practitioners, in the American academy at least, felt that they were still insurgents.

Eagleton doesn’t use this language, but Critical Revolutionaries is meant to define an older shift, one in which what we still call criticism—evaluation and interpretation—replaced a set of earlier models in the study of English. Or perhaps we could call it “close reading,” a refusal to take “the words on the page” for granted and an attempt to offer instead what Eagleton calls “a rigorously detailed analysis of tone, pace, pitch, mood, rhythm, grammar, syntax, texture.” He gives a chapter apiece to each of his five figures, moving easily from text to text, quoting, paraphrasing, thinking his way inside their skin, and at times noting what their arguments miss. These aren’t chronological, book-by-book accounts of their work and thought; they’re portraits, sketches or summations of a sensibility, and written with both wit and asperity. But in sticking so closely to them, Eagleton often loses sight of the institutional history that made them possible. I’m willing to accept that what he calls “Cambridge English” represents a paradigm shift, and not only because its practitioners all agreed that they were doing something new. But just what was the ancien régime that these critical revolutionaries pushed aside?

“Genteel amateurism,” Eagleton says at one point, “impressionistic prattle” at another, and then “aesthetic waffle.” His bugbear is Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, the editor of The Oxford Book of English Verse. Quiller-Couch held the university’s most prestigious chair in English literature from 1912 to 1944, and his teaching, Eagleton writes, involved banging on “for an hour or so about the twin mysteries of the soul within and the exquisitely designed universe without.” Still, what gets said in the star turn of a public lecture is often different from the work of a seminar room or tutorial. Eagleton notes that the English curriculum had been the subject of a “radical reform” in 1917, in which Anglo-Saxon was pushed aside for a “course of study that was overwhelmingly modern, critical and literary (rather than linguistic) in orientation.”

That change made the work of Richards and his followers possible. But how did it happen, and what exactly was replaced by what? How did the material on which students were examined change, and how might that have shaped the revolution to come? After 1917 there was, one imagines, less than there had been in the way of literary history, of sources and influences; less about what was written when, and who insulted whom. Fewer facts for one’s notebook, less about Beauty, and less too about the history of the language, though philology would find a curious echo in the later work of both Empson and Williams. Here, however, one wants chapter and verse, and from Quiller-Couch too; one wants to compare how he works with a poem to the way Empson does. He may be just as bad as Eagleton says. Probably he is—but there’s something sketchily straw man about this account of the past.


The best Victorian critics almost never wrote in detail about the language of their subjects. Henry James might quote at length, but he didn’t need to linger over another writer’s sentences in order to capture their distinctive voice and tone. Yet a part of the critical revolution involved learning to trust—to insist on—the value of one’s own independent judgment rather than relying on some constituted authority, and for Eagleton’s figures the best way to do that was indeed by quoting. Set down a few lines and then say something about them. Don’t just admire. Put some pressure on the words you’ve chosen, as Eliot did in his essay on the metaphysical poets, singling out Donne’s alliterative “bracelet of bright hair about the bone” from “The Relic.” Eliot threw out one predecessor after another—Milton especially—before he became a constituted authority himself, and in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” he presented literary history as a series of paradigm shifts, a perpetual sequence of shocks in which the present remakes the past. He got his readers to look and to listen, and through a mixture of bluff and persuasion he made them share his tastes.

Most literature classes still work this way. We read a passage aloud and then go back over what we’ve read, sometimes word by word. We remind our students that in writing they need not only to quote but also to demonstrate that quotation’s relevance; gloss it, don’t simply take it as self-evident. And each semester I have to tell a few puzzled STEM kids that in my course those quotations are their data. Many of the questions we ask are different from the ones that interested Eagleton’s subjects, but the classroom protocols are much the same.

So it’s a bit of a shock to find that the most basic of them—look at the words on the page—originated in an act of remediation. As an instructor at Magdalene College, Cambridge, the young Richards devised an experiment in which he gave his students a sequence of poems from which all context had been stripped away—titles, authors, dates. He asked them to provide detailed comments on each poem and found that “the most literate section of the population was effectively unable to read.” They couldn’t reliably date those poems on the basis of internal evidence alone, distinguishing one century’s language from another, and they preferred what he saw as Victorian drivel to Hopkins or Donne. Their ears hadn’t been trained, and any pedagogy meant to provide that training would therefore have to begin by teaching them to read slowly—“the kind of reading,” in Eagleton’s terms, “which clings tenaciously to the shape of the sentences,” to the choice of this word and not that.

Practical Criticism (1929), the book Richards made out of this experiment, isn’t one to read for pleasure, not with its many chapters of quotations from student responses and Richards’s often repetitive analyses of their failings. It’s a book about education rather than about literature, and it was almost immediately superseded by one of those students, who showed that close reading needn’t be remedial at all. Empson was only twenty-four when he published Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930). It could just as easily have been four types, or fifteen, but seven is a lucky number and there are also the seven deadly sins. An ambiguity for Empson is “any verbal nuance, however slight, which gives room for alternative reactions to the same piece of language”; the types themselves are but a frame on which to hang a series of brilliantly playful accounts of English verse.

The young Empson is a showman, someone who does card tricks with words. He’s tremendously digressive, he likes and follows all linguistic loose ends, and at times he seems horribly pleased with himself. Eagleton describes him as “the closest reader of all,” the maker of the finest distinctions, but looking at his pages is exhausting, and for all his brilliance—because of his brilliance—I can take only so much at a sitting.

Still, Empson was right about the nature of the English language itself. Any piece of it seems susceptible to “alternative reactions,” or as Joseph Conrad once wrote, “No English word has clean edges.” They all, the novelist thought, carried so many connotations as to be little more than “instruments for exciting blurred emotions.” Eagleton’s subjects thought hard about the nature of that language. Richards spent years exploring the idea of Basic English, and Leavis thought that English vocabulary was something much more than referential. At its best—its most poetic—it seemed to him to grow from the land itself, and in consequence, Eagleton suggests, “it performs what it speaks of, creates what it communicates, so that you cannot slide a cigarette paper between the words and the experience they record.”

One of Williams’s best books is an idiosyncratic dictionary called Keywords (1976), a set of historicized definitions that explore both the derivations and the ever-shifting meanings of over a hundred central concepts in the social sciences—“hegemony,” say, or “jargon.” But Empson pushed that fascination the furthest, in a book that might have been written with Conrad in mind. The Structure of Complex Words (1951) examines not ambiguity as such but rather the relation between the “different but determinate meanings” of the same word, including some that seem simple indeed. “Dog” is one of them, “honest” too. Empson tracks that one through its different appearances in Shakespeare and finds that “he never once allows the word a simple hearty use between equals”; it’s always shaded by irony or used to mark a social difference. And sometimes both at once: “honest Iago.”

The Structure of Complex Words is a long book, and a hard one. At times Empson appears to rummage through the drawers of his mind, as if hunting for something he’s mislaid; he is an antiquarian of language, in search of a lost button of meaning. At others he becomes a character in his own argument, open-minded yet testy, garrulous, and marked by a self-deprecating confidence; he says that “I shall now put forward my little bits of machinery” before launching into a particularly difficult piece of logic.

Yet despite its difficulty, it keeps you reading, as Seven Types of Ambiguity does not, and I thought as I did so of his contemporaries, the American New Critics. Cleanth Brooks saw poetry as determined by “the language of paradox,” which stands as only one form of complexity, and not the most interesting. He claimed that paraphrasing a poem was a sort of heresy, and some of his purist contemporaries thought that neither the author’s intention nor the reader’s response could have any part in a proper critical argument. Empson has the flexible individual voice they lacked; he’s less rigid and rule-bound, more persuasive and more fun. Time hasn’t been kind to the written legacy of the New Critics, however much their pedagogical practices endure. The legacy of Cambridge English, however, looks stronger than ever.

Eliot thought one of criticism’s major functions lay in “the correction of taste.” That claim now sounds stuffy, and taking it seriously can quickly become absurd; Leavis’s once-influential The Great Tradition (1948) not only argued that there were just five major English novelists, but also that much of their work was inadequate. Still, I wonder. Let’s go back—forward—to 1983 and Eagleton’s closing suggestion in Literary Theory that criticism should refound itself on the study of rhetoric, should return to its ancient origins and consider “discursive practices…as forms of power and performance.” Here’s a short list of some lasting works of criticism produced around that time in the American academy: Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic (1979), and Stephen Greenblatt’s Renaissance Self-Fashioning (1980). One stands as a founding text of postcolonial studies, another is an early masterpiece of feminist literary history, and the third is the central document of what became known as New Historicism, in which the close reading of the New Critics was explicitly brought to bear upon questions of “power and performance.”

But Said does that as well, and Gilbert and Gubar too. They each bend theory back toward historical scholarship, exposing the unspoken assumptions of the texts they write about, and the question of rhetoric is central to them all, of “speaking and writing,” in Literary Theory’s terms, “as forms of activity inseparable from the wider social relations between writers and readers.” So Eagleton was right, he found his moment’s current, and we are living and writing in it still. Though so, in a way, was Eliot. All these books effect a “correction of taste,” however much they overstate their arguments. They shift our sense of what matters; they change our feel for the past, our understanding of what Eliot called the tradition; and they do it by asking a new set of questions, not just of individual works—Jane Eyre, say—but of the entire discursive field in which those works have their being.

And in that disruption a once-occluded history may find a new currency. Eagleton claims in the first sentence of Critical Revolutionaries that his purpose is the recovery of “a vital tradition of literary criticism [that] is in danger of being neglected.” That’s true enough, and yet it’s not the only story we could tell about the study of English in the 1920s and 1930s. The men in Virginia Woolf’s family had all gone to Cambridge; so had her husband and most of her male friends. In the fall of 1928 she was invited to lecture at Girton and Newnham, the university’s two women’s colleges. We know the results as A Room of One’s Own (1929), her great book about the relation of women to the institutions of English literature and to the whole of the social world around them; it begins by describing her inability, as an unaccompanied woman, to enter the library of Trinity College in order to consult a manuscript her own father had donated.

One of the things Woolf calls for, in the printed version of those talks, is the gathering of a “mass of information” about women’s lives. She wants to fill the shelves with “books that were not there,” to learn the history that nobody has thought to write, and suggests that that might indeed be a job for “some brilliant student at Newnham or Girton.” One of the young women listening to her at Girton was Queenie Roth, a recent graduate who was just beginning a Ph.D. under Richards’s supervision. A year later she was married to Leavis and soon afterward began publishing as Q.D. Leavis. Her dissertation appeared under that name as Fiction and the Reading Public (1932), and it does indeed gather “a mass of information,” not about women’s lives per se but rather about the history of publishing, the literary marketplace, and both the changing audience for and language of popular fiction.

She described her work as “anthropological,” and it stands as a pioneering example of what today is called book studies. It’s also something to push against; for both Leavises held, in essence, that taste was less in need of correction when fewer people could read. Still, nobody had done her kind of research before, and she went on to write a long series of still-valuable essays about nineteenth-century fiction, Austen and the Brontës in particular. Her husband was an astonishingly good reader of the poetry he liked but quarrelsome about everything else, Woolf included. She was too, but her interests were broader and her scholarship more probing. She had the historical imagination he lacked, and the story of Cambridge English is incomplete without her.

As for Woolf, the question now barely needs to be asked. Her connections with Cambridge were far more sustained than Eliot’s, and yet however formidable her presence she did not have his influence, on academic criticism in particular—not immediately. But the feminist scholarship of the 1970s and after is inconceivable without her. She laid down its program, even as that scholarship allowed for the revaluation of her own achievement. Paradigms shift, and the past and present remake each other. None of Eagleton’s chosen figures can match the free intelligence of her prose, and not even Eliot’s essays are as widely read or quoted today. She too was a revolutionary, and A Room of One’s Own does indeed speak to our “social existence as a whole.” It’s not only the most important work of literary criticism to have emerged from Cambridge, but the most necessary of its century in English.