An elegant work of literary criticism

An elegant work of literary criticism

The Critic in the Modern World: Public Criticism from Samuel Johnson to James Wood

by James Ley

Bloomsbury, $39.99 pb, 246 pp, 9781623569310

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.

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Published in October 2014, no. 365
Brian Matthews

Brian Matthews

Brian Matthews is the author of short stories, essays, and biographies. He was a weekly columnist for the Weekend Australian Magazine (1997–2001) and has been a monthly columnist for Eureka Street since 1997. His memoir A Fine and Private Place (2000) won the inaugural Queensland Premier’s Award for non-fiction and his Manning Clark: A Life (2008) won the National Biography Award in 2010.

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