The Critic in the Modern World: Public criticism from Samuel Johnson to James Wood
Bloomsbury, $39.99 pb, 246 pp
Aproaching Thomas Wyatt’s great but notoriously resistant poem ‘They flee from me that sometime did me seek / With naked foot stalking in my chamber’, poet and critic Vincent Buckley wrote, ‘The sense of purposive yet mysterious activity created in this opening stanza is also a matter of its sensuousness … The critical problem is to define this … sensuousness … [I]t is not to identify the kind of animal suggested in the analogy. I have heard deer, birds, and mice proposed for this purpose; my own preference is for racehorses, but it is as irrelevant as any other. It is far more important to identify their action than to identify them.’
When I first read this comment as a student, I remember feeling a surge of relief undercutting my anxiety at having to tackle Wyatt. Here was a human voice, a critic speaking, certainly, concerned ‘to present the work, not to enclose it’, but a voice nevertheless unequivocally and openly connected to the world that surrounded me as I pored over ‘They flee from me’; a world in which racehorses were alive and interesting, though not at that moment important.