Terry Eagleton on close analysis of language | The Oxonian Review

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Rosemary Sutcliff’s work was never, to my knowledge, the object of Marxist literary theorist Terry Eagleton’s attention. But books written with her close and careful attention to language deserve the “close reading” and “close analysis of language” of which Eagleton speaks in a recent interview, connected with his new book  Why Marx was Right. (I used to read avidly and closely, without I fear ever wholly understanding, his marvellous primer Literary Theory, from 1983).

I’ve got a book coming out called something banal like How To Study Literature because I fear that literary criticism, at least as I knew it and was taught it, is almost as dead on its feet as clog dancing. That is to say, all of the things that I would have been taught at Cambridge—close analysis of language, responsiveness to literary form, a sense of moral seriousness—all of which could have negative corollaries… I just don’t see that any more.

Somewhere along the line that sensitivity to language which I value enormously got lost. I didn’t really know about this because I had moved up in the echelons of academia and I wasn’t close enough to the undergraduate ground as it were to be aware of this. But when I got to Manchester [Eagleton began teaching at the University of Manchester in 2001], I was appalled by the way that people could be very smart about the context of a poem, but had no idea about how to talk about it as a poem. Whereas even if one did that badly or indifferently, it was still something one automatically did, in my day. This book coming out next year is really an attempt to put literary criticism as I see it back on the agenda. And to talk about questions of things like value, what’s good, what’s bad, form, theme, language, imagery, and so on.

Source: The Oxonian Review | An Interview with Terry Eagleton.

6 comments

  1. I’ve been sharing the substance of this post with colleagues who teach English (I am pretty much semi-retired,) and am so grateful to Anthony for sharing Mr. Eagleton’s comments. Once again, I must say how much I enjoy this blog. It makes me admire (more) a treasured author from my youth. Mr. Lawton is also quite a wonderful man, very smart and soulful. Let me tell you how finding a HB/DJ copy of Eagles at a yard sale on a day when I was to see a troubled former consort was the delight of the day!

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  2. Anne, thank you for posting that. I shall ask my local inter-library loans service for it.

    Language use in historical fiction is something I’m very intrigued by. It’s so difficult to get over, while using readable English, the fact that at certain times (let’s say 1189) English-below-nobility would have been using English all the time, nobility would have been using French (sometimes English if they also happened to /be/ English), and clergy would have been using Latin on top of anything else they knew, depending where they came from. And then there was Scots. And Welsh. And regional English on a scale with much wider differences than today.

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  3. Rosemary Sutcliff’s use of language was the particular subject of Miriam Youngerman Miller’s article, “The Rhythm of a Tongue: Literary Dialect in Rosemary Sutcliff’s Novels of the Middle Ages for Children”, published in the “Children’s Literature Association Quarterly” Vol.19, No.1, Spring 1994, pp. 25–31.

    I do have a copy, but for copyright reasons can’t add it here. A sample:
    http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/childrens_literature_association_quarterly/summary/v019/19.1.miller.html

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  4. That was fascinating! I had no time at all for TE when I was at university (graduated ’83) – I’m sorry, now, that I felt like that.

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