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  • Formal (Re)Introductions: New Criticism of Yeats
  • Joseph Valente (bio)
Nicholas Grene, Yeats’s Poetic Codes, Oxford University Press, 2008
Helen Vendler, Our Secret Discipline, Harvard University Press, 2007
Michael Wood, Yeats and Violence, Oxford University Press, 2010

A recent clusterof book-length essays on the poetry of W. B. Yeats heralds the return of formalism, as both an analytic and an axiology, to Irish studies. This after a decades-long age of (new) historicism, in which issues of colonialism, nationalism, gender politics, class formation, print culture, and sectarianism have been treated as both the objects or referents of Yeats’s poems and as the contextual force field crystallized therein. As these studies—Yeats and Violence, Our Secret Discipline, and Yeats’s Poetic Codes—make abundantly clear, formalism comes (back) not to bury historicism (as new historicism un-apologetically came to bury formalism) but rather to supplement it. Michael Wood, robustly; Nicholas Grene, less vocally; Helen Vendler, less categorically, all convey an awareness that the new critical enthronement of poetry as an autotelic enterprise or tradition cannot pass intellectual let alone political muster after all that Foucault and his progeny have taught us about the complex algorithms of cultural determination, performance, and agency. The act of supplementarity, however, does imply a weakness to be strengthened, a type of errancy to be corrected, and so an element to be replaced. According to Helen Vendler, that element would be nothing less than the very hermeneutics of historicism, which has induced a neglect of “Yeats’ labors as a master of formidable techniques” or, more bluntly, an inattention to the poetic text as such (2). Pronouncing himself “happy to join the fight” that Vendler proposes (89), Michael Wood devotes the entirety of Yeats and Violence to an unpacking, albeit an occasionally intertextual unpacking, of a single poem, “Nineteen Hundred [End Page 269] and Nineteen,” an instance of taking the text in itself seriously if ever there was one. In this regard, Vendler and Wood echo, in deed still more than word, prominent critics of the historicist/cultural-studies approach, such as Jane Gallop, who have decried the substitution of contextual information for textual signification and the corresponding decline in academic “close reading.” The return to formalism promoted and modeled in Vendler, Wood, and, less programmatically, in Grene is less a counterblast to historicism as an exegetical theory than to the endemic failure of historicist-identified work to sustain a compelling exegetical practice. To the extent that formalism can be thus conflated with an ideal of close reading, with what Wood calls the “finest attention and observation” (88), it is entirely vindicated in the studies under consideration here, and particularly in Our Secret Discipline and Yeats and Violence, both of which simply brim with insights into the prosodic and generic strategies, the dramatic choices and tensions, and the conceptual and emotional complexity at work in Yeats’s verse.

Having said that, the extent to which formalism should be conflated with close reading is a good deal more limited than the extent to which it actually is. To be sure, assuming the mantle of exegetical care and scruple helps in the necessary task of bolstering formalism’s profile relative to the still overwhelmingly dominant school of literary and specifically Irish studies, all the more so since historicist literary criticism has over time increasingly incurred the charge of textual inadvertence. Without naming names, I myself recently read a reasonably well-regarded essay on Joyce’s “Ivy Day in the Committee Room,” whose argument did not substantively require the story to have ever been written at all. But at the same time, so many treatments of poetry, from a classic like Marjorie Levinson’s Wordsworth’s Great Odes to a Yeats-study landmark like Marjorie Howe’s Yeats’s Nations, remind us that historicist close reading is not a contradiction in terms but an especially worthy order of criticism, no less achievable for being too frequently waived. Formalism does not, that is to say, have any proprietary claim on reading well, whatever its tradition of “fine attention and observation.” Indeed, to define it strictly in these terms is, by a dialectic paradox, not just to cede but...


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pp. 269-279
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