Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Some thoughts on literary criticism

Lately, I've been giving some serious thought to literary criticism. In part, it stems from my investigation into the life of Jane Austen, who is the subject of my work-in-progress: a retelling of her life using period verse. It probably won't qualify as serious biography despite the phenomenal amount of research I've done (and continue to do), because owing to the nature of the beast, it attributes thoughts and emotions to various persons, some of which are based on inference rather than concrete fact.

But whilst I've been working away at my poems, I've been reading a number of books as well. The occasional contemporary book from my reading pile (some of which I've reviewed here), a fairly substantial number of books about Jane Austen (or including substantive discussion on her), and a number of books about poetry, whether it's late 18th- and early 19th-century poetry (i.e., from the time in which Austen lived, to get the "feel" right) or more contemporary writing, including the Collected Poems of Louis MacNeice and On Poetry and Poets, a collection of essays by T.S. Eliot.

In an essay called "The Frontiers of Criticism", which was first published in 1956, Eliot discusses the changes in literary criticism that occurred between 1923 and 1956, largely as a result of the branching out of literary criticism to inclue the social sciences, linguistics and etymology, and semantics within its purview. Based on the tendency of literary critics to look at the lives of the poets they were studying (often in minute detail) in order to explain the "meaning" of the poems, (which he called "the criticism of explanation by origins," Eliot called into question its usefulness, and I've been much struck by his argument. And so, lucky you, I've decided to blather on about it today.

Eliot used two representative texts to challenge the usefulness of "explanation by origins":

1. The Road to Xanadu by John Livingston Lowes: Lowes attempted to explain the "source" of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poems by reconstructing a bibliography of all the books that Coleridge ever read as a means of identifying "source material" for the creation of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan. According to Eliot, "Lowes showed, once and for all, that poetic originality is largely an original way of assembling the most disparate and unlikely material to make a new whole. The demonstration is quite convincing, as evidence of how material is digested and transformed by the poetic genius. No one, after reading this book, could suppose that he understood The Ancient Mariner any better; nor was it in the least Dr. Lowes's intention to make the poem more intelligible as poetry."

2. Finnegan's Wake by James Joyce: Eliot offered Finnegan's Wake as an example of what critics "would like all literary works to be." Eliot sees the book as a monstrously long prose poem, full of lots of bits that can be isolated, tracked down and sorted out (with a helping of "merely beautiful nonsense" along the way), but claims that such a book gives "support to the error, prevalent nowadays, of mistaking explanation for understanding." Knowing where something comes from does not necessary offer any true enlightenment.

Here's the bit that stopped me cold the other night: Eliot used Wordsworth as an example of a poet whose life has been poked at, and offered some of the juicier tidbits (the mistress in France, his suspected love for his sister). And then he said this:

It is relevant if we want to understand Wordsworth; but it is not directly relevant to our understanding of his poetry. Or rather, it is not relevant to our understanding of the poetry as poetry. I am even prepared to suggest that there is, in all great poetry, something which must remain unaccountable however complete might be our knowledge of the poet, and that that is what matters most. When the poem has been made, something new has happened, something that cannot be wholly explained by anything that went before. That, I believe, is what we mean by 'creation'. (italics from the original; bolded emphasis mine)*

It reminded me that when I started writing about Jane Austen, I'd only read two of her novels, some time ago, and seen three movies, and nothing more. Poems about her life were easier to write then, because I started by learning her life, and then moved on to her art. But once I got to her art, I was enthralled, a word which here means not just "captivated," but also "enslaved"; my admiration for her writing bound me up for a while, and I found it hard to write because of a feeling that I couldn't do her justice. (And hey, maybe I can't, but that's a separate issue.) I can move forward again now that I've freed myself from feeling that I need to impart an understanding of her art to my readers. I'm trying to help my readers understand Austen; separating those threads has made it easier for me to move ahead. Thank heavens for my own diverse reading, or I'd still be stewing in a state of stasis. (How'd you like that alliteration? Too much, right?)

*As a Billy Collins fan, I'm reminded of his poem "Introduction to Poetry", which concludes:

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

More on this later (you've been warned!). Safe travels to those of you taking to the highways, railways and airways for the holiday.

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