An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory - Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle 2016


Thou art a monument without a tomb,

And art alive still while thy book doth live,

And we have wits to read, and praise to give.

Ben Jonson’s poem ’To the Memory of My Beloved, The Author, Mr. William Shakespeare, And What He Hath Left Us’ was originally published as a preface to the First Folio edition of Shakespeare’s collected plays in 1623, just seven years after the Bard’s death. In these lines Jonson addresses the topic of this chapter: the nature of the literary monument and the way in which the writings of living authors are posthumously transformed into monuments to those authors’ lives and work. The poet is, in Jonson’s seemingly paradoxical formulation, a ’monument without a tomb’, and is ’alive still’ despite his death. The paradox that Jonson explores involves the idea that the poet is both alive and dead: after his death the poet still ’lives’ through the ’life’ of his ’book’, which itself lives just as long as we read it and praise it. Exploring this paradox of the literary afterlife, the poem is performative. It performs an act of monumentalization, since it is designed not only to remind the reader of the value of Shakespeare’s work (the word ’monument’, we may remind ourselves, originates in the Latin monere, to remind) but also, in so doing, to establish that value. In fact, the publishing venture to which Jonson contributes his poem plays a crucial part in the monumentalization of the poet: the publication of a posthumous ’Collected Works’ is itself a sign of the importance of the dead poet’s work, an index of his genius. Contrary to Dryden’s sense that the poem was ’an insolent, sparing, and invidious panegyric’ (quoted in Donaldson 1988, 718), Jonson’s intention seems to have been to ’honour’ Shakespeare. This is the first stage in the poet’s transcendence of his time and in his establishment as a ’classic’. Shakespeare ’was not of an age’, Jonson asserts, ’but for all time!’ (l.43).

The Second Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, published nine years later in 1632, included an anonymous sixteen-line poem (written in fact by John Milton) entitled ’An Epitaph on the Admirable Dramatic Poet, W. Shakespeare’. Like Jonson’s poem, Milton’s begins by remarking on the fact that the poet had been buried in Stratford rather than, as might be thought more appropriate, Westminster Abbey (where, as Jonson notes, Chaucer, Spenser and Francis Beaumont are buried). Milton also plays on the opposition of life and death in the idea that Shakespeare has built for himself a ’live-long monument’. But he develops Jonson’s notion of the relationship between reading and monumentalization by exploring the idea that we, readers, through our ’wonder and astonishment’ at Shakespeare’s art, are made ’marble with too much conceiving’. For Milton, we ourselves are monuments to the poet’s genius, his living tomb:

What needs my Shakespeare for his honoured bones

The labour of an age in piled stones,

Or that his hallowed relics should be hid

Under a star-ypointing pyramid?

Dear son of memory, great heir of fame,

What need’st thou such weak witness of thy name?

Thou in our wonder and astonishment

Hast built thyself a live-long monument.

For whilst to the shame of slow-endeavouring art,

Thy easy numbers flow, and that each heart

Hath from the leaves of thy unvalued book,

Those Delphic lines with deep impression took,

Then thou our fancy of itself bereaving,

Dost make us marble with too much conceiving;

And so sepulchred in such pomp dost lie,

That kings for such a tomb would wish to die.

Both Jonson and Milton, then, articulate a series of questions around the idea of the monument, around the idea of the monumentalization of literary texts. How does an author enter the ’canon’? What is the relationship between monumentalization and reading? Do literary texts become static, frozen into their own tombs of eternity, or do they change with time and with each new generation? What is at stake in the literary critical process of canonization and monumentalization? What is gained and what lost? Literary texts, as the epitaphs by Jonson and Milton suggest, are themselves places where such questions are inaugurated, first posed and first pondered.

As we have seen, Jonson and Milton both express a certain ambivalence in their sense of the value of the monument and the process of monumentalization. They assert that Shakespeare needs no physical tomb, a structure that is at once a reminder of life and signifier of death. The third and fourth lines of Milton’s poem sneer at the idea that Shakespeare’s ’hallowed relics should be hid / Under a star-ypointing pyramid’. The lines suggest that the act of remembering, of monumentalizing the poet, is also an act of hiding, disguising, defacing him, and they remind us that this is precisely what we do when we bury the dead: by burying them we honour them but at the same time we hide them from sight, as if they are as much objects of terror and taboo as they are of veneration and awe. As Jonson and Milton recognize, the acts of monumentalization in which they are engaged when they write on Shakespeare are also acts of burial. And it might be argued that we are engaged in a similar dynamic whenever we read, talk and write about literary texts — not least, of course, when we write works of literary criticism. As Paul de Man has argued in an essay on Shelley, the transformation of literary texts into ’historical and aesthetic objects’ involves a certain burial of those texts: what we do with dead poets, he remarks, ’is simply to bury them, to bury them in their own texts made into epitaphs and monumental graves’ (de Man 1984, 121). The impulse to honour the dead, that is to say, is at the same time an impulse to bury them, to do away with them, to forget them, to be done with them. This, it might be said, is the fundamental tension of the institution of literary studies, an irreducible conflict between at once remembering and forgetting the dead.

The paradox is broached rather differently in Frank Kermode’s The Classic (1975), a book that has itself become a minor classic in discussions of literary value, the canon and the nature of the institutionalization of literature. Kermode comments on the tension between endurance and changeability that constitutes the canon: ’the books we call classic possess intrinsic qualities that endure, but possess also an openness to accommodation which keeps them alive under endlessly varying dispositions’ (Kermode 1975, 44). Just as Jonson defines Shakespeare as ’not of an age but for all time’, so Kermode is attempting to think about the way that such a text or such an oeuvre ’speaks’ to all generations and is as such ’timeless’. But he also suggests that it can only be ’timeless’ by signifying differently at different times, so that it is, as such, time-bound. For Kermode, it is the possibility of a certain ’openness’ to interpretation, what he terms the text’s ’accommodation’, which allows what we call a ’classic’ to survive. Kermode evokes a sense of the classic as the living dead, surviving endlessly on or in new readers. His account has certain implications for notions of authorial intention and for ideas about the limits of interpretation: if a literary text can be read and reread at different times, in accordance with their varying (conscious and unconscious) interests, prejudices, ideas and conventions, then it would seem that the text cannot be limited to a single or univocal interpretation. If this position is correct, Kermode comments, we must somehow ’cope with the paradox that the classic changes, yet retains its identity’. And this has the further consequence that the text must be ’capable of saying more than its author meant’, even if it were the case that saying ’more than he meant was what he meant to do’. Strange as it might seem, a ’classic’ author may have meant what he or she cannot have known that he or she meant. Ultimately, Kermode suggests, ’the text is under the absolute control of no thinking subject’ and is ’not a message from one mind to another’ (Kermode 1975, 80, 139).

These ideas about the canon, about literary survival and about the nature of the ’classic’, bring us back to questions of meaning, interpretation and authorial intention which we address elsewhere in this book. But here we are also concerned with another question, one that is equally fundamental to this book and to the practice and discipline of literary criticism more generally: the question of literary value. Readers will no doubt have noticed the way in which Bennett and Royle repeatedly employs terms of valuation: we refer, for example, to Milton’s ’great epic poem’ in Chapter 1, to Elizabeth Bowen’s ’superb’ novel in Chapter 5, to the opening paragraph of Middlemarch as ’extraordinary’ in Chapter 8, to Sheridan’s The School for Scandal as ’one of the greatest eighteenth-century English comedies’ in Chapter 13. We also repeatedly use such terms as ’haunting’, ’powerful’, ’disturbing’, ’singular’ to suggest our positive valuation of texts, and seem to ascribe value, more or less explicitly, to aspects of texts that we see as funny, complex, undecidable, unsettling, and so on. In other words, Bennett and Royle, like any other work of literary criticism or theory, is benetted and embroiled in value judgements. This situation is unavoidable: even if we were to exclude value-laden terms from our critical vocabulary, we (have to) choose certain texts to read and talk about and such choices can in themselves be taken to imply judgements of value. Indeed, it may be said that the primary aim of critical discourse, the impulse for talking about books, is to persuade someone else to appreciate what the critic finds valuable about a literary text.

The bases on which judgements about literary value are made, however, are not easy to define. One of the most intriguing things about T.S. Eliot’s classic essay ’What is a Classic?’ (1945) is the way that he repeatedly uses the word ’mature’ as a kind of talisman to express what he sees as valuable in literary texts. Indeed, for Eliot, in this essay at least, it amounts to the very definition of a classic: ’If there is one word on which we can fix, which will suggest the maximum of what I mean by the term “a classic”, it is the word maturity’ (Eliot 1975, 116). He then goes on to use the words ’mature’ (as adjective and verb) and ’maturity’ a total of 23 times in the same paragraph: ripeness is certainly all, it would seem, as far as Eliot is concerned. Eliot’s essay was written in 1944. He was 56 in that year, which might be one reason why maturity seemed so attractive to him. But it would seem unusual now, in the twenty-first century, to find a critic so confident about the values to be ascribed to the notion of ’maturity’. In general, it might be said, ’mature’ is no longer part of the critical vocabulary of value. And what strikes us now about Eliot’s use of the word is the fact that he nowhere says what he means by it, what he means when he says that a literary text is ’mature’. We can all tell when a peach is ripe but can we tell a mature poem from an immature one? What do we do with it — squeeze it? Is Shelley’s Adonais mature? Is it more or less mature than Pope’s Essay on Man, or Spenser’s Epithalamion, or Eliot’s The Waste Land? Is maturity even seen as valuable any more? As a critical term, ’mature’ has become almost risible. And yet, for Eliot, it is crucial to his project of exploring the notion of the ’classic’ and to his concept of literary value. This is not to say that Eliot was foolish or irresponsible in his terminology: rather, it exemplifies the fact that critical vocabularies change over time while always being in any case somewhat porous, unstable, contentious. In the eighteenth century, the vocabulary of value included ideas of proportion, probability and propriety; the Romantics developed a vocabulary of the sublime, imagination and originality; while nearer to our time, the New Critics valued complexity, paradox, irony and tension in poems, and postmodern critics valorize disjunction, fragmentation, heteroglossia, aporia, decentring.

Alongside changes in critical vocabulary, there are changes in how literary monuments are perceived and valued. The most obvious example would be the reception of Shakespeare himself. While Jonson and Milton declared, very soon after his death in 1616, that Shakespeare had earned a place in the literary canon, in fact his reputation developed much more slowly and patchily than this would suggest. Indeed, during much of the eighteenth century his work was criticized as brilliant but faulty: he was seen as a poet of ’nature’ rather than learning, and was faulted for his versification and diction, his endless punning, his handling of plot and characterization, the improbability of his narratives, for not obeying the unities of time and place, and so on (see Vickers 1981, 1—86). It was only towards the end of the eighteenth century that an unalloyed and arguably uncritical sense of Shakespeare’s monumental and timeless genius became commonplace. Indeed, throughout the eighteenth and even into the nineteenth century his plays were regularly rewritten to iron out his faults and make him more amenable to contemporary tastes. Thus King Lear was never performed on the English stage in its original form during the eighteenth century because its ending was held to be too gloomy — a happier, more appropriate ending was written for it by Nahum Tate in 1681 and became the standard acting text. In the present day, the perception and valuation of Shakespeare remains deeply indebted to the Romantic conception of his work as sublime, even sacred. At the same time, this conception of Shakespeare has undergone radical demystification and deconstruction in the work of such critics as Terence Hawkes, Jonathan Dollimore, Joel Fineman, Catherine Belsey, John Drakakis, Margreta de Grazia and others.

In recent years, much attention has been given to the construction of the literary canon. In particular, critics have explored the ways in which the canon is bound up with questions of education, class, economics, race, ethnicity, colonization, sexual and gender difference, and so on. This has led to a large-scale reassessment of both the canon itself and how evaluations take place. The notion of literary value as an inviolable essence has disintegrated. Our sense of the apparently impersonal and autonomous realm of the aesthetic has been irrevocably complicated. More than ever we are made aware of how far our own individual judgements are subject to social, political and institutional constraints. More than ever we are made aware of how far the canon is a fabrication. Thus, for example, critics have devoted much energy in recent years to discovering or rediscovering women writers and writers from different racial and ethnic backgrounds whose work has been neglected. In the case of women writers, it is often argued that such authors have been overlooked precisely because they are women, since, with a few notable exceptions (Austen, the Brontës, Woolf, Plath, for example), the patriarchal ethos of the literary-critical establishment has tended to efface or marginalize women’s writing in general. The publication of such anthologies as Gilbert and Gubar’s Norton Anthology of Literature by Women (1985), Paul Salzman’s Early Modern Women’s Writing (2000), Roger Lonsdale’s Eighteenth-Century Women Poets (1989), Andrew Ashfield’s Romantic Women Poets (1995, 1998), and Angela Leighton and Margaret Reynolds’s Victorian Women Poets: An Anthology (1995), have altered the shape of the canon in and beyond the academy. More generally, what Elaine Showalter calls ’gynocriticism’ and publishing ventures such as Virago and the Woman’s Press have altered our literary historical maps by rediscovering numerous forgotten (or never recognized) authors, and critics have devoted a great deal of energy to the work of re-editing their writings, as well as to the critical, biblio- and biographical tasks of new evaluations.

Such reassessments and rediscoveries force us to face a series of difficult and complex questions concerning literary value and critical evaluation. Is literary value eternal and unchanging or is it contingent and dependent on readers and the institutions of criticism? Are we simply constructing new, exclusive canons when we discover ’neglected’ writers, or are we rethinking the whole idea of ’the canon’ and canonization? Is there such a thing as literary value? If so, how can it be described and defined? What are we doing when we make such judgements? Is there, as Steven Connor argues, an ’imperative’ or ’necessity’ of value (Connor 1992, 8)?

The ongoing recent rethinking of the canon, then, has involved both a reassessment of which texts should be in the canon and a rethinking of the idea of the canon itself. Such reassessments have hardly gone unchallenged. One of the most stubbornly provocative challenges to what, in his view, had become the modern critical orthodoxy was Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon from 1994. A brief account of Bloom’s rear-guard action against the ’opening up’ of the canon might be helpful. Bloom’s ’single aim’ is to ’preserve poetry as fully and purely as possible’ against the politicizing of what he calls the ’school of resentment’. For Bloom, the school of resentment is typified by those critics who argue that the literary critical institution has valorized the work of ’dead white males’ at the expense of the work of marginalized writers — women, say, or Afro-Caribbeans or Hispanics or gays or the working classes (Bloom 1994, 18). For these ’resentful’ critics, the work of criticism cannot be disengaged from the work of social and political critique since the traditional canon operates as an ideological justification of the values (often racist, heterosexist, patriarchal, colonial and elitist) of the male, Western, establishment figures which it enshrines. For Bloom, by contrast, literature is and should be an antisocial body of work. Literary texts, he argues, even work against political and social improvement: indeed, for Bloom, great writers ’are subversive of all values’. Reading their work with a view to forming our ’social, political, or personal moral values’ would merely make us ’monsters of selfishness and exploitation’ (29). The canon, for Bloom, is elitist and discriminatory or it is nothing. Accordingly, his book is itself elitist. Bloom lists the 3,000 books and authors that he claims make up the Western canon. He then narrows this down to 26 books/authors to which his volume is devoted. In the final analysis, though, Bloom’s canon comes down to a single author by whose work all else must be judged. You will not be surprised by now to learn that that author is William Shakespeare. Bloom’s argument for the Western canon relies, finally, on Shakespeare’s unique genius:

Shakespeare’s eminence is, I am certain, the rock upon which the School of Resentment must at last founder. How can they have it both ways? If it is arbitrary that Shakespeare centres the Canon, then they need to show why the dominant social class selected him rather than, say, Ben Jonson, for that arbitrary role. Or if history and not the ruling circles exalted Shakespeare, what was it in Shakespeare that so captivated the mighty Demiurge, economic and social history? Clearly this line of inquiry begins to border on the fantastic; how much simpler to admit that there is a qualitative difference, a difference in kind, between Shakespeare and every other writer, even Chaucer, even Tolstoy, or whoever. Originality is the great scandal that resentment cannot accommodate, and Shakespeare remains the most original writer we will ever know. (Bloom 1994, 25)

In some ways, Bloom is compelling. The apparent continuity in the valuation of Shakespeare from the eighteenth century to the present does indeed seem to validate such a judgement of his work as a unique and uniquely original phenomenon, and this is confirmed by what seems to be our instinctive sense on reading him that we are encountering something original, unique, ’for all time’. It is hard to get round our sense on reading Shakespeare, that his work is simply, unquestionably richer, more complex, more endlessly fertile, than that of other writers, even of other ’canonical’ writers.

And yet, and yet … Still we might have nagging doubts. How do we know that our ’intuition’ is not itself a learned response, that our ’instinctive’ sense of Shakespeare’s genius is not, itself, a result of our schooling? If we see our appreciation of Shakespeare as an effect of social conditioning, we might feel that his work does not have the eternal qualities we thought it did. Moreover, we might notice that Bloom’s ’explanation’, his offering of the case of Shakespeare as a final arbiter for his judgement about aesthetic judgement, tells us nothing about the grounds for such claims: indeed, the questions that Bloom poses for the ’school of resentment’ might also be asked of his own work, since his account of Shakespeare as different, as original and so on, is no more an explanation than the ’history’ or ’class’ which his opponents offer. Bloom’s is, finally (and proudly), a monumentalizing gesture: his very language allies Shakespeare with the material of the tomb itself in its metaphor of the ’rock’, and eternalizes him and abstracts him from history in its comment that he is ’the most original writer we will ever know’. We are led back, then, to the question with which we began this chapter: is that what we want of our writers? Monuments?

It might seem ironic that what would appear to be the deeply conservative, reactionary, elitist position of Harold Bloom should find confirmation in the writings of that monument of socialism, Karl Marx. And yet Marx himself affirms the sense that, as far as art goes, the crucial question is not how artists reflect on or are influenced by their time but rather just the strange fact of their survival:

the difficulty lies not in understanding that the Greek arts and epic are bound up with certain forms of social development. The difficulty is that they still afford us artistic pleasure and that in a certain respect they count as a norm and as an unattainable model. (Marx 1973, 111; quoted in Guillory 1993, 322)

This, then, is what remains to be explained: the way that literary works remain with us, haunt us, still, beyond the conditions of their production, whatever may be our legitimate concerns for human and social justice. Just this remaining, this endurance of the haunting singularity of the literary text, is what keeps us coming back to it as our preoccupations, desires, prejudices and commitments change. What baffles and enthrals — what Bloom is responding to in his provocative defence of the canon — is the singularity and uncanny force of the literary. It is this characterization of Shakespeare as a ’monument without a tomb’ — a monumentalizing and anti-monumentalizing phrase — that Bloom shares with Jonson. And it is the undecidable nature of such gestures, the sense that we bury poets as we raise monuments of reading to them and our sense that, still, they hold over us an uncanny, haunting power, that brings us to them, brings us back to them.

Further reading

Much, often highly polemical work, has been published on the so-called ’canon wars’ in recent years, evincing the high institutional and pedagogical stakes involved in how canons are formed and regarded. Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s Contingencies of Value (1988) offers a persuasive proposal for a pragmatic sense of literary value and the canon. John Guillory’s Cultural Capital (1993) is a densely argued polemic for the ’inevitability of the social practice of judgement’ and of the inextricability of aesthetic and economic ’value’; Guillory is influenced by the work of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, whose Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1984) offers an important account of the social, cultural, economic and political issues embedded in decisions about the value of literary and other works. Henry Louis Gates’s Loose Canons (1992) engages with issues raised in this chapter, especially regarding racial and ethnic difference. On postcolonialism and the canon, see John Thieme, Postcolonial Con-texts (2001). For studies of the creation of the English canon, see Kramnick, Making the English Canon (1998) and Ross, The Making of the English Literary Canon (1998). On the canonization of Shakespeare, see Michael Dobson, The Making of the National Poet (1992), and Gary Taylor, Reinventing Shakespeare (1990).