Terry Eagleton’s Critical Revolutionaries review – five reviews that changed the way we read | Literary criticism

In a famous experiment in the late 1920s, IA Richards assigned his Cambridge students the task of reading a series of short, anonymous literary extracts. They were asked to pay close attention to rhythm, sound, tone, texture and syntax before attempting to date each text. Richards conceived of this Practical Critique, as the methodology came to be called, as a resolute challenge to what had hitherto been considered literary criticism. In the pre-war period, university professors tended to make vague aesthetic judgments about the “beauty” or “soul” of a book before inserting a few comments about the author’s mother or on the editorial practices of the time. Richards’ students, on the other hand, were asked to exclude all such background chatter in favor of what they could infer from the words on the page.

In this inspiring book, Terry Eagleton describes the dramatic change in literary criticism that took place between the two world wars. The five intellectuals he focuses on here are inevitably men – besides Richards there are TS Eliot, William Empson, FR Leavis and Raymond Williams – because Cambridge, the university to which they were all linked, was not particularly welcoming to female scholars. Or, actually, anyone: most of the time, these men seemed to deeply hate each other and liked to say so. Indeed, Eagleton’s great achievement here is to look beyond the canvas of five tricky personalities to identify continuities in their work, which added up to a revolution in the way people – not just academics professionals, but the whole community of readers across the English-speaking world – thought and talked about books.

Richards’ experiments in practical criticism revealed that most of his students had a keen ear for nuance. It was not unusual for them to mistakenly identify a piece of Victorian sentiment as a passage from one of the scalpel-edged metaphysical poets of the 17th century. Richards’ intention was not to humiliate his students but to point out how their critical faculties had been blunted by the onslaught of modern mass media, particularly journalism and film. These are the same speeches that TS Eliot had so brilliantly pastiched in The Waste Land (1922), his sequence of dissonant verses, which Richards had influentially welcomed as “music of ideas”.

Not all of Richards’ original close readers were duffers. The smartest was William Empson, whose brilliant Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930) was written when he was just 22 years old. Here, Empson’s earlier training as a mathematician becomes evident as he unravels linguistic puzzles in the work of his favorite poets – including Shakespeare and Keats – in a way that multiplies the meanings available to the discerning reader. Empson’s rigorous methodology was exported to the United States, where it became the cornerstone of the hugely influential if somewhat frosty New Criticism.

Another of Richards’ original guinea pigs took a very different line. FR Leavis said reading was an intensely moral act and spent much of his time deciding which authors deserved and did not deserve membership in the Great Tradition, best understood as his own personal fantasy football team of English literature. Dickens was absent at first, but was later reluctantly allowed. Jane Austen, George Eliot and Joseph Conrad were all chosen for the first team. The captaincy, however, was reserved for DH Lawrence, whose work Leavis simply adored. At this point, Eagleton can’t help but raise a questioning eyebrow given the ample evidence of anti-Semitism, totalitarianism, and misogyny at work in Lawrence’s life and writing.

It would be hard to think of a writer more capable of exposing the dusts and loves of interwar literary culture than Terry Eagleton. His own critical interventions have always been distinguished by an exemplary clarity, without forgetting a generous humor. Here, for example, he shows us William Empson, a rambunctiously promiscuous man, who tries to extricate himself from an accusation for having pestered his taxi driver in Tokyo by claiming that he had difficulty distinguishing between men and women. Japanese women. Or TS Eliot, progenitor of the highly influential tradition and individual talent, whose favorite subject of conversation was the different routes of London buses. IA Richards, meanwhile, may have been an ace practical critic, but he was also a quick-thinking man of action, once fending off a bear in the Canadian Rockies by urinating on it. Eagleton’s purpose here is not to mock or diminish. His respect for these thinkers, in whose tradition he is perhaps the latest member (he was trained by Raymond Williams, the youngest of the Cambridge group) sparkles with gratitude and love on the page.

Critical Revolutionaries: Five Critics Who Changed the Way We Read by Terry Eagleton is published by Yale (£20). To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy from guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

Thelma J. Longworth