Critical hors d'oeuvres

Renaissance Poetry - Byron - William Blake - The English Novel Volume One - The English Novel Volume Two - Andrew Marvell

November 19, 1999

Samuel Johnson, faced with the debilitating drug of books and the problems of selection and judgement, suggested that one of the roles of the critic was to provide assessments and summaries to direct useful reading: "A book may be good for nothing; or there may be only one thing in it worth knowing; are we to read it all through?"

A century or so later, Oscar Wilde languorously pointed out that one does not need to drink a whole case of wine to ascertain the quality of the vintage.

Such is the trade of the critical reader: to take the pith. And although neither Johnson nor Wilde are included in the current cohort of Longman critical readers, their time will come. Their critics will be sliced and served up on a pick'n'mix menu to train the delicate palates of students. Whole books are here dressed as spicy titbits in which the part speaks for the whole. Or, to put it another way, in such collections academic value seems to be assessed by measuring up critics against Orpheus's ability to thrive when dismembered into eloquent fragments. If an amputated bit can articulate the structure of an entire work (or appears able to do so), the critic is rewarded with, literally, readers. It is a sort of Romantic fallacy of organicism: extrapolating a whole cultural edifice from a prescient piece of DNA.

Despite the essentialist assumptions that govern critical readers, these by Longman are extremely good. They declare themselves to be for lecturers and teachers "urgently looking for guidance in a rapidly changing critical environment" who need help in grasping "the practical effects of the new theories in the form of theoretically sensitised new readings", and indeed they confidently occupy the ground between criticism and theory.

The books provide practical examples of the recent approaches to both individual authors (Marvell, Blake, Byron) and wider topics (Renaissance poetry, the English novel from 1700 to Austen).

The single-author readers prove to be the most successful volumes of the bunch, perhaps because such criticism is more focused, more monadic, and responds more rapidly to theoretical innovation. Jane Stabler's Byron , for example, is a textbook example of a textbook. She takes most of her pieces from work of the last decade, balances British with American contributors, and provides an exemplary survey of recent Byronics. Likewise, Thomas Healy's Marvell and John Lucas's Blake (the latter more idiosyncratic and rather less editorially exacting) are invigorating collections for lecturers and students alike. On the other hand, Richard Kroll's The English Novel (two volumes with - unfortunately - the respective covers transposed: Smollett wrapping 1700 to Fielding and Defoe on Smollett to Austen ) has no one from this side of the Atlantic in the first volume, and nothing from this decade in the second. Although Kroll's ambitions are titanic compared with those of the single-author readers, and he conveniently offers seminal pieces by, for example, Michael McKeon and Terry Castle, individual novelists are rapidly bustled in and out (one essay on Fielding, two on Austen) and the general theme of the 18th-century novel is eclipsed by the compilation of an academic greatest-hits package.

While Marilyn Butler is to be congratulated on having an evergreen piece on Jane Austen included here almost a quarter of a century after The War of Ideas was first published, her book set an agenda which is now under inspired revision.

These books do more than relieve the undergraduate of the toil of photocopying works held on temporary reserve in university libraries. Canonicity is the name of the game, the ubiquitous winner of which is David Norbrook, who scores with the same extract in both Andrew Marvell and Renaissance Poetry (albeit with four times as many footnotes in the latter). But surely canon forging carries with it some responsibility to be uncanonical, lest students simply rehearse archaic debates. While all the usual suspects are banged up in the house of theory - Marxists, sometimes in cahoots with Foucauldians and calling themselves New Historicists or materialists, post-structuralists, feminists and queer boys and girls - critical readers should be posthouses, prompting the question, "where to now?".

What these books demonstrate most convincingly is that there has been a wholesale re-evaluation of the historical record that has seeded new fields for literary reassessments, and that this process will continue. Publishing history, bibliography and the materiality of the book have not yet fully emerged in the classroom, despite the appearance of Jerome McGann here (indeed, Kathleen Raine occupies the place that Joseph Viscomi should have held in the Blake volume). But, almost perversely, it also transpires there are rich pickings in what could be called "retro-criticism", as demonstrated by Drummond Bone's taut essay on Byron's metrics.

Reading these six volumes gives the sense that one has indeed drunk the whole case of wine and that criticism is moving in every direction at once; the promise is that the best students of the next generation will be devouring what their supervisors dare not yet swallow.

Nick Groom is lecturer in English, University of Exeter.

Renaissance Poetry

Editor - Cristina Malcolmson
ISBN - 0 582 05092 8
Publisher - Longman
Price - £15.99
Pages - 293

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