On Poets & Poetry
by William H. Pritchard ’53, the Henry Clay Folger Professor of English (Swallow Press)
Review by Christopher R. Miller ’90
William H. Pritchard’s new collection of essays might well be entitled, On Critics & Criticism. Granted, On Poets & Poetry sounds more fun (better dinner companions, more nourishing desert-island reading), but poets and critics are closely intertwined here; indeed, by Pritchard’s lights, the best kind of criticism achieves poetic qualities of wit, compression and vocal personality. (Woe betide the critic who falls short of this rubric: a biographer of Wordsworth is faulted for “an absence of literary taste, and an inability to listen to her own sentences.”) The book contains appreciations of T.S. Eliot, Donald Davie and Hugh Kenner, as well as reviews of critical biographies and monographs, and it liberally invokes memorable observations and judgments of other critics, from the 18th century through the present day. All professional literary scholars are obliged to nod in the direction of predecessors, but usually in order to advance a revisionary argument, a new theoretical premise or a previously overlooked historical context. This is not Pritchard’s game: he is more apt to cite another critic’s remark for its trenchancy or wit. And if a critic shows flashes of “mischief” (a term of high praise in Pritchard’s lexicon), so much the better.
Pritchard’s genially ecumenical approach to the critical tradition is on display throughout this collection. The first essay, on the poetry of John Dryden, begins with an epigraph from Alexander Pope that exalts Dryden’s “full resounding line,” then proceeds to survey numerous appraisals—among others, Kingsley Amis’s profanity-laced dismissal of the poet as a second-rate journalist, C.S. Lewis’s characterization of “a gross, vulgar, provincial, misunderstanding mind,” Samuel Johnson’s comparison between Dryden and Pope, and T.S. Eliot’s cryptic suggestion that learning to enjoy Dryden promises “a new freedom.” Somewhere between Pope’s eulogy and Lewis’s put-down, Pritchard situates his own estimation of Dryden’s accomplishment, and quotes from passages he likes—citing one for an elegiac stoicism “behind which one feels a great deal stirring.” Pritchard prefers poets who keep such stirrings just below the surface, so it is fitting that one passage reminds him of a later master of formal restraint, Philip Larkin. Such transhistorical connections are to be found throughout Pritchard’s book, and they give the essays an allusive richness and amplitude.
What is at stake in this kind of literary criticism comes into sharp focus in Pritchard’s review of Stanley Fish’s 2001 book How Milton Works. Pritchard finds that Fish’s brand of rhetorical persuasion tends to overlook the nuances of Milton’s poetry as artfully composed verse. In the spirit of Fishian pugnacity, I might protest that if I want to consult a study of Paradise Lost in the context of 17th-century science or Puritan theology, I do not insist that the author have an exquisite ear for poetry. I don’t need someone pointing out a tricky enjambment or plangent phrase; I’ll do that on my own time. But Pritchard would prefer to have both wide-angled views and close readings in one critical package.
Pritchard does allow for the rightness of some of the critic’s judgments. More than that, he admires “the vigor of Fish’s prose,” which “carries us along not so much through head-nodding assent to his ‘points’ as by the crisp, unshakeable confidence of the sentences that make them.” His backhanded praise of Fish is a sly turning of the tables: it nudges aside Fish’s arguments in favor of the stylistic power of Fish’s prose. This is the revenge of the aesthetic: in Pritchard’s eyes, literary criticism is redeemable mainly for its literary qualities—its stylistic verve, its capacity for irony, its irrepressible voice.
Pritchard is disarmingly candid about his own literary tastes. On 20th-century American poetry, for instance, he declares a strong preference for the “satisfying and life-changing” lines of Robert Frost over the more exotic pleasures of Wallace Stevens, and he speculates that “one’s heart and head can’t be fully committed, equally, to both.” Despite a deep respect for Wordsworth, he feels no compunction about saying that the poet can bore him, and he pulls Thomas Macaulay off the shelf to bolster the point: in short, The Prelude is full of “dull, prosaic twaddle.”
On the other hand, a good critic knows when to fall silent before the mysterious or astonishing, and Pritchard cites T.S. Eliot’s commentary on a two-word exclamation in Antony and Cleopatra as a case in point. Eliot admires the line as inimitably Shakespearean, but he admits that he cannot articulate its potency. “A lesser critic,” Pritchard remarks, “could not have gotten away with this, much less done it triumphantly by making the very inability to put something into words—surely the critic’s task—an indication of how powerful is the dramatic and poetic effect.”
Not surprisingly, Pritchard’s considerations of style evoke the experience of being in Pritchard’s classroom. In his roles as critic and teacher, he makes you notice things that you might not have seen on your own, but he is sparingly unobtrusive in suggesting what you ought to think about them. Above all, he hates pomposity and solemnity. His class on British Romantic poetry gave me permission to make fun of Wordsworth—or, more precisely, to have fun with him. I still notice a line that Pritchard pointed out in Wordsworth’s “Michael,” a poem about a shepherd whose son leaves for the city before the two can build a sheepfold together. The line concerns the old man’s habit of daily visiting the site of a broken dream and doing nothing: “And never lifted up a single stone.” I have no recollection of what we were supposed to get out of this line, and in any case, I don’t know that my 20-year-old self could have fully appreciated its understated poignancy—the stoically iambic time-keeping, the bittersweet mixture of hope and failure, the metonymic glimpse of futility—as much as I do now. What I know for sure is that both Pritchard’s classes and Pritchard’s prose offer an intellectual atmosphere in which such recognitions have light and space to thrive. And it doesn’t hurt that they also help you to recognize twaddle when you see it.