William H. Pritchard and the Twilight of Literary Criticism

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Ear Training
by William H. Pritchard
Paul Dry Books, 2023. 382pp. $29.95

Ear Training is a retrospective collection of writings by nonagenarian William H. Pritchard, the Henry Clay Folger Professor of English, Emeritus, at Amherst College. The author is an Amherst man through and through. He took the A. B. there in 1953 and returned in 1958 to teach for six decades: his graduate schooling included a false start in philosophy at Columbia followed by success at Harvard, where he joined the “Amherst contingent” and received his doctorate in English in 1960. Over a highly distinguished career, he has published books on Robert Frost, Randall Jarrell, John Updike, as well as on poetry, poets, and teaching. He co-edited the 1980 edition of The Norton Anthology of American Literature. This is his second book of collected essays and reviews.

At almost 400 pages, Ear Training is a large feast—a bit too large for my appetite, but it rewards the sessile hours with many good things: literary anecdotes whet the palate, dry wit seasons the prose, and fineness of perception nourishes the mind. A fare of miscellaneous essays and reviews lacks a dramatic structure, and Pritchard compensates for this deficiency by arranging his work into seven sections: “Novelists,” “Poets and Poetry,” “Critics, Criticism,” “Epistolary,” Music, Musicians,” “Teaching,” and “To the Students.” Personal reminiscence, which bubbles up throughout, dominates the book’s newly written Preface and its closing “Credo,” a Yale Review piece from 2010. A 1991 essay, taken from an in-house publication at Amherst, serves as Introduction. There are forty separate writings in all. The lion’s share date from the nineties and the aughts, with a handful of outliers, stretching as far back as 1976 to as recently as 2015. Neither the inclusion of six weeks’ worth of class commentaries from the Covid-plagued spring semester of 2020, nor the newly written Preface, can dispel the elegiac impression left by the whole.

The tutelary spirit of Ear Training is Frost, who taught at Amherst intermittently from 1917 to 1938. Pritchard is an exponent of what Frost called the “sound of sense.” He upholds the practice of reading aloud, of “(in Frost’s own words) seizing the special ‘posture’ needed to deliver” the poem correctly to the ear. Hence, “ear training.” As a classically trained pianist and lover of song, Pritchard is sensitive to the musical qualities of voice and verse. Throughout these pages, the word that does the most work in this respect is “tone.” Pritchard’s usage of tone, however, owes as much to I. A. Richards as it does to Frost. And this intellectual debt to Richards is a mixed blessing.

We read, for instance, that Philip Larkin honed “a technique of extended specification and delicately nuanced tone”; likewise, that Larkin “achieves an extraordinary intimacy of tone”; that Larkin deploys “a neutral tone” in his poem “The Building”; by contrast, his poem “The Old Fools” is “tonally aggressive.” Tone is Larkin’s friend. It is the more abstract friend of novelist Anthony Powell: “the pleasure lies in the complex mixture of feeling, the narrative ‘tone’ that constitutes Powell’s unique blend of things.” Here, as elsewhere in this collection, I find Pritchard’s use of quotation marks irksome and overly refined. I think Osric would have used quotation marks in such a manner. “When Elizabeth Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses” is said to move us “beyond ‘tone,’” I am not sure where that is. I can assent when Pritchard refers to T. S. Eliot’s pseudonymous “tones of voice” or to the “evenness of tone” of A. E. Housman’s letters. There is a proper specificity to “Bix Beiderbecke’s cornet tone.” I am not sure, though, what to make of the idea of a “surrounding protection of tone.” Do I lack the gear to perceive such exquisite wavelengths?

In his recent book Critical Revolutionaries (my full review is here), Terry Eagleton has this to say about Richards and tone:

It has been claimed that Richards was the first critic to attend to tone in poetry, tone being one of the chief ways in which feeling enters into language….Tone is not objective in the sense that a semi-colon is. We can argue over the tone of a passage, but not over whether it contains a semi-colon. Yet it is objective in the sense that we cannot just read any old tone we like into a series of words. It would be perverse, though not impossible, to hear Lear’s ‘I am a foolish fond old man’ as jovial or sarcastic.

Eagleton goes on to say why a “jovial or sarcastic” interpretation of Lear, as he recovers his wits in the healing presence of his youngest daughter, would be wide of the mark: “This is because feelings are in one sense as social as meanings. ‘In one sense,’ because some of our emotions are also natural.” In this one small bow to “natural” emotions, Eagleton skims the alternative cultural phenomenon that is C. S. Lewis’s Abolition of Man (1944), in which Lewis respectfully criticizes Richards on account of Richards’s appeal to denatured subjectivity. In the passage below, Lewis is reacting against Richards’s turn from nature’s moral exactions:

The most determined effort which I know to construct a theory of value on the basis of satisfaction of impulses is that of Dr. I. A. Richards (Principles of Literary Criticism, 1924 [sic, read 1929]). The old objection to defining Value as satisfaction is the universal value judgment that “it is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.” To meet this Dr. Richards endeavors to show that our impulses can be arranged in a hierarchy and some satisfactions preferred to others without an appeal to any criterion other than satisfaction….The only trace I find of a philosophical basis for this preference is the statement that “the more complex an activity the more conscious it is.” But if satisfaction is the only value, why should increase of consciousness be good? For consciousness is the condition of all dissatisfactions as well as of all satisfactions. Dr. Richards’s system gives no support to his (and our) actual preferences for civil life over savage and human over animal—or even for life over death.

Pritchard is similarly wedded to his subjectivity: his idea of tone conveys objective value only when it captures feeling and emotions that are rooted in nature. Otherwise, it is impressionistic and hierophantic (a priest of criticism in his Amherst temple), or, as Pritchard rightly acknowledges, “mysterious.” When his students have trouble communicating Shakespeare’s aural power, he reflects on their experience: “‘I can hear it in class when you read it aloud,’” said another student, the mysterious ‘it’ being (perhaps) the pace, the swing, the tonal achievement and human feel of a passage.” Mind you, I am not dismissing these terms as meaningless. In the classroom of such a gifted professor, they may well be edifying. But there may be good reason why students find them elusive. Shakespeare was trained as a rhetorician, and none of the Greek or Latin rhetoricians, nor their Elizabethan counterparts, wrote this way about their art.

If Pritchard is the last of the great English professors in the line of Richards, we should be willing to look for causes of their extinction. And the main cause seems to me this. Despite his erudition, his independence from critical fashion, his feats of analysis and perception, his stubborn and shrewd attention to the health of language, Pritchard works from—he assumes—an aesthetic superiority to nature.

Accepting no division between natural ethics and human aesthetics, Lewis did not linger over significant ambiguities that disturb nature’s authority. Because art was supposed to imitate nature, he found Eliot’s comparison of an evening to “a patient etherised upon a table” to be obscure and unnatural. It is a metaphor that interrupts the beauteous evening (“calm and free”) and reduces the human agent to an object in the physical world. Lewis’s quarrel with Eliot is a protest against the modernist denial of nature’s authority over our emotions, and against the modernist impetus to hand over that authority to art. All this, for Lewis’s first-rate logical mind, is a fallacy. Modern English studies, in which Richards played a key role, developed under the modernist volcano. It is a complex genealogy, but we can at least observe that Richards’ intellectual descendants won out, for a time. Lewis, the self-styled “dinosaur,” is almost a separate species, but he has sold 200 million books worldwide (80 million if we subtract the Narnia books), as the academy and the reading public continue to diverge over the boundaries of a healthy intellectual life.

Where does this leave us? What lessons can be learned? Am I suggesting that Pritchard’s aestheticism prefigured the twilight of English studies? That hardly seems fair, since he is a tough-minded crackerjack of a critic whose early attack against the deconstruction craze is a model of its kind. In this 1976 essay, “The Hermeneutical Mafia or, After Strange Gods at Yale,” Pritchard performs the type of community-service work that writer and editor John Gross called “the task of demolition.” He seizes on Geoffrey Hartman’s mind-torturing gibberish and drags it into the light of day: “his ear for the rhythm and tone of individual lines of poetry is a good deal less secure than his formidable ability to spins words around them.” And: “Such depressing high jinks are, I’m convinced, a consequence of Hartman’s desire to expatiate on all sorts of nonsubjects…we can well live without investigating.” Elsewhere, he resists dead-end approaches to Shakespeare that are “new historicist, psychoanalytical, materialist, feminist, or deconstructive.” He stands his ground against a mishmash of feminist readings of Dickinson that fail to do her justice, though whether Pritchard himself does her justice is another matter. His reassessments—Trollope over Dickens, Anthony Powell over Kingsley Amis and Evelyn Waugh—are worthy of consideration. Pritchard emerges from his battles and controversies as a Horatian-Augustan-Johnsonian defender of common sense, the common reader, and civilized values.

A modern Johnsonian with a leavening of Frost: that is an impressive combination. When I knew her, critic and poet Marie Borroff used to refer to the intellectual stretch by which she navigated between medieval literature and modern poetry as her “straddle.” Pritchard has his own straddle. It gives him considerable reach, but the resulting sensibility, the taste and appetite, however flexible and admirable, is not for everybody. In keeping with his blend of neoclassical solidity and refinement of perception, he stands aloof from the fiercer antics and irreverent blows of satire. He praises The Rape of the Lock and contributes to our understanding of that endlessly rewarding poem. But he overlooks Pope’s most savage couplet: “The hungry judges soon the sentence sign / And wretches hang that jury-men may dine.” It may be Pritchard’s formalist sensibility that leads him away from these lines; or it may be his willingness to embrace Wyndham Lewis’s remark, “The Greatest Satire is Non-Moral.” This “non-moral” position is ascendant—Eagleton admires how Martin Amis “refutes the old cliché that satire requires a stable standard by which to judge”—but I think it is wrong because it assumes that literature operates independently of human nature. In other words, if I am forced to choose, I’ll take the traditionalist C. S. Lewis over the modernist Wyndham Lewis.

Though Pritchard favors Eliot’s impersonal approach to literature, he makes an exception in the case of Waugh, whose letters he reviews in a short essay from 1981 entitled “Impossible.” He does not harvest the literary remarks in the Letters of Evelyn Waugh, such as a significant comment on the 1964 recension of The Sword of Honor trilogy: “no nippers for Guy & Domenica in Penguin.” Instead, there is Waugh’s “impossible personality.” Odd, that in the world of Mozart, Baudelaire, Dickinson, Rimbaud, Van Gogh, Wilde, Pound, Fitzgerald, Robert Johnson, Picasso, Faulkner, Miles Davis, Kavanagh, Kingsley Amis, Larkin, Lowell, Bishop, and any number of drug addicts, sex addicts, and alcoholics, Waugh should be singled out for being “impossible.” Then there is the awkward patronizing note: “at moments, Waugh’s ‘simplicity,’ his stubborn refusal to accede to the social and psychological imperatives by which the liberal conscience directs its life, result in strikingly new and valuable perspectives.” The assimilative powers of the “liberal conscience” are never in doubt, though their limits are, at this point in our history, obvious as gangrene—or Graham Greene, now that you mention it. Pritchard deals in his fashion with Waugh’s Roman Catholicism,

of which there is of course much in the letters and in respect to which he is at his most serious, most fierce….Unfortunately, at least for this reviewer (a lapsed Protestant and worse yet, an American) much of the in-chat among those of the true church is less than gripping….Left outside this charmed circle, I’m eager to hustle on to the next letter, when suddenly the convert sounds something more: “I heard a rousing sermon on Sunday against the dangers of immodest bathing-dresses and thought that you and I were innocent of that offence at least.” Saved by the comic bell.

I experience some feather-ruffling, mainly in the dorsal region, when the critic intrudes himself parenthetically. More disinterestedly (if that is possible), I want to suggest that something has gone wrong here. Call it a failure of imagination. Theology was important to Beckett, though he did not believe in it. It was important to Milton, who did believe in it. Newman remarks that theology is “the secret assumption, too axiomatic to be distinctly professed, of all our writers.” Bertrand Russell comments: “in Plato, Saint Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Descartes, Spinoza, and Kant there is an intimate blending of religion and reasoning, of moral aspiration with logical admiration of what is timeless, which comes from Pythagoras, and distinguishes the intellectualized theology of Europe from the more straightforward mysticism of Asia.” It would be unfair to press Pritchard too hard on his post-Christian worldview. He has every right to it, including the integrity of his own mind. At the same time, it seems to me that there is something provincial about a literary critic who is so obviously impatient with the peculiarities of the practitioners of a major religion. After all, they’re Waugh’s letters.

Christ did the tribe of satirists a good turn when, seated on his buttocks during the Sermon on the Mount, he delivered the parable of the Mote and the Beam. The Book of Jonah is, in a similar vein, slyly satirical of the prophetical mindset. But we can ponder the curious relationship of satire and religion a little more. It is one thing when a farmer falls from a hayloft into a stinking pile of horse manure. It is comedy of a higher order when he falls into it from “the true church.” Pritchard quips about being “saved by the comic bell.” But he prescinds the comic bell from its indispensable setting.

Eschewing historicism, but not the historical sense, Pritchard deftly frames individual poems with a combination of anecdote, biography, chronology, and the history of criticism. In the classroom, his method is to keep things interesting: Swift “died of what we now call Menière’s Syndrome, a disease of the ear causing vertigo.” We need our formalists, and Pritchard is exemplary among them. But if formalism is always preferable to the debauching of literary studies by crude politics, we must be wary of isolating literature “under the shelter of academic bowers” (Samuel Johnson, qtd. by Pritchard).

Of course, no one can be a pure formalist who approves Arnold’s dictum that poetry is “the criticism of life.” The Christian Eliot, pillorying the agnostic Arnold, reminds us of the limits of that conception (in The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism). Theology enters “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” conspicuously in line three, because the question of agency belongs to “the intellectualized theology of Europe.” In fact, theology permeates the epigraph as well, and crops up continually throughout the poem. Shakespeare’s great tragedies quiver with skin-crawling evil, which is a theological concern. The only time Pritchard uses the word evil, he rises above it: “unhappy families prove better subject than happy ones, and ‘evil’ characters seem more interesting that good ones.” Edmund Burke brings things back down to earth: “There is no safety for honest men, but by believing all possible evil of evil men, and by acting with promptitude, decisions, and steadiness on that belief.”

Among the poets who commanded the public eye after World War II, Pritchard prefers his Amherst colleague Richard Wilbur, Larkin, Bishop, Merrill, and Updike, with honorary mentions going to Randall Jarrell and Anthony Hecht. He ignores Geoffrey Hill and depreciates John Ashbery. It is only Pritchard’s high valuation of Updike that strikes me as controversial, since the loyalists of Hill and Ashbery are used to enduring negative remarks and I cannot imagine that Pritchard’s veto will tilt the balance.

I noticed a strange phenomenon, extending in the pages of Ear Training from “Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose and Letters” (2008) to “James Merrill Collected” (2001): the word “little” occurs in every block quotation from every poem running from page 118 to page 124: “little” supplies an uncommented thread from Bishop’s “Poem” (once), to her “Five Flights Up” (twice), to Merrill’s “A Tenancy” (twice), to his “Victor Dog” (twice). I suppose this has something to do with an observation I once ventured to make, while gauging the post-Eliotic situation of Bishop and Merrill: “postmodernism shows a tendency to domesticate history, and thus to abandon its public aspect.” Adding to this, I see now the resurgence of a related tendency among the Georgian poets, in whom, Eliot wrote in 1917, the “emotions must be either vague (as in Wordsworth) or, if more definite, pleasing. Thus it is not unworthy of notice how often the word little occurs; and how the word is used, not merely as a necessary piece of information, but with a caress, a conscious delight.” Eliot supplies examples. From Rupert Brooke: “Just now the lilac is in bloom / All before my little room….” From Ralph Hodgson: “The little black cat with bright green eyes….And his little frame grew stout / And his little legs grew strong….” Exactly how the Georgians compare to Wilbur, Larkin, Bishop, Merrill, and Updike is a matter for another time. But I don’t think the basis of such a comparison is in doubt. Moreover, it throws light on Eliot’s success, and on my argument that English studies needed that success, needed Eliot’s literary greatness, needed his theological, philosophical, biblical, and historical breadth and depth, in order to compete (as it no longer can) with science, politics, and business.

I apologize if I have not done full justice to Pritchard’s very real achievement. I am moved by considerations that trouble me every day: I cannot ignore the state of literary criticism decades after these highbrow essays and reviews were written. I have failed to mention a stimulating essay on Edmund Wilson, a moving tribute to critic Hugh Kenner (a Roman Catholic), and a profound appreciation of Clive James. Pritchard’s humorous despair at the “Poetry Game” remains painfully relevant: “I found myself straining for terms of approval that couldn’t be confused with an enthusiastic advertising blurb.” The book is an embarrassment of riches—embarrassing for those of us who do not have time to give them their due. I tapped my toes in delight to Pritchard’s wonderful section “Music, Musicians.” Between the essays therein and the marvels of digital technology, the music of the spheres seemed to cross my windowsill. I agree with Pritchard, surely, in his defense of Duke Ellington. Sinatra, after another absorbing discussion, has never sounded so good.

My own life and experience had led me to compare the past and the present, and to ask, how can we go forward? I suggest that literary humanists—religious or secular—resume the ancient conversation about the objective moral order and the nature of good and evil, about the need for that order, about its ambiguities and its historical and potential abuses. Otherwise, we will never escape the propulsive centrifugal scattering of atomized subjectivities, our consequent dehumanization by the tidal forces of science, politics, and business, and an existential thinness like that of shadows in a torchlit cave.