- How to Read a Poem
It is not just with coy irony that Terry Eagleton represents this book as an old-fashioned training guide to explicating poems. Throughout, he stresses that what gets said in a poem occurs within a context of literary form that is constitutive of meaning. Too many students in the humanities now neglect this context, he observes, when they merely search out a poem’s views on anti-colonial militancy, queer sexuality, or the like. For their teachers did the same when they went about applying poststructuralist theoretical models to canonical works of literature. Consequently, two generations of scholarly readers currently “do not speak the same language as the critic who said of some lines of T. S. Eliot: ‘There is something sad about the punctuation’” (3). As Eagleton laments, “Like thatching or clog dancing, literary criticism seems to be something of a dying art” (1).
In part, How to Read a Poem recovers ground trod many decades ago by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren in Understanding Poetry, that primer of New Critical pedagogy which denounced “the heresy of paraphrase.” Like Brooks and Warren, Eagleton insists on carefully sifting a poem’s language “in all its material density” (2). In a penultimate title-chapter, he even devotes full sections to the poetics of “Tone, Mood and Pitch,” “Intensity and Pace,” “Texture,” “Syntax, Grammar and Punctuation,” “Ambiguity,” “Punctuation,” “Rhyme,” “Rhythm and Metre,” and “Imagery.” And as in Understanding Poetry, the verse specimens he uses to carry out his explications range from the Anglophone metaphysicals to the moderns—from Donne to Doolittle, as it were.
Yet Eagleton has not suddenly turned retro-New Critic. Proclaiming himself still “a politically minded literary theorist” (8), he continues his work begun in Literary Theory of assessing the gains and losses of poststructuralism, while harnessing aspects of its thought for socialist ends. In that work, Eagleton had much negative to say about the poststructuralist turn of the 1970s. Memorably, he charged the movement with consigning rhetorical practice to a hermetic echo-chamber and with droning on “like some bar-room bore” about the inherent self-referentiality of language (Minneapolis: U Minnesota P, 1983; 146). In this guide, his balance sheet looks different. At the outset, he debunks the myth that poststructuralist luminaries are responsible for having brought the art of literary exegesis into decline. Behind it, he suggests, lies a caricature of [End Page 1188] them as robotic gurus purveying “soulless abstractions and vacuous generalities,” their “swollen brains” and “shrivelled hearts” having failed to respond duly to the poetry of literary texts (2). Whereas these politically conversant intellectuals belong in a long list of major philological critics who have been scrupulously concerned with questions of poetic form: “The Russian formalists on Gogol or Pushkin, Bakhtin on Rabelais, Adorno on Brecht, Benjamin on Baudelaire, Derrida on Rousseau, Genette or de Man on Proust, Hartman on Wordsworth, Kristeva on Mallarmé, Jameson on Conrad, Barthes on Balzac, Iser on Henry Fielding, Cixous on Joyce, Hillis Miller on Henry James, are just a handful of examples” (1–2).
Now Eagleton follows such poststructuralists in reckoning deeply with issues of poetic form, at the level of theory no less than exegetical practice. And in so doing, he is up to something political, although the agenda is not explicitly set forth. Notably in this work, he intimates that great things political, such as the fate of Marxism in our age of competing intelligentsias, can hang on the minutiae of sensuous literary form since such may be utilized as a propaganda device. In Literary Theory, Eagleton turned a spotlight on these “persuaders” in pointing to the success of pre-modern Christianity in the West in securing large-scale hegemonic control—a condition to which Marxism inevitably aspires: “Nothing was less abstract than God, heaven, sin redemption. Just as art fleshes out fundamental issues in sign, sound, paint and stone, so religion brought them home to everyday experience in a whole iconography, devotional sensibility, pattern of personal conduct and set of cultic practices” (London: Allen Lane, 2003; 99). Eagleton, in suggesting...