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This review is taken from PN Review 12, Volume 6 Number 4, March - April 1980.

QUESTIONS REMAIN Edgell Rickword, Literature in Society: Essays and Opinions (II) 1931-78, edited by Alan Young (Carcanet) £6.90

The common theme of many of the best essays in this book is summarized in a short piece on T. S. Eliot's criticism. "It must be every ambitious critic's aim to resolve the dichotomy between life and art." Rickword does not retreat into the ivory tower of aesthetics. For him the best literature is above all the product of its age, and needs to be read against its historical background. Purely literary values he takes for granted. He eschews the modern fashion for painstaking textual analysis as much as the older, vaguer tradition of belles-lettres.

The earliest essay in this volume, on Verlaine, displays the preoccupation with the relationship between life and art. Verlaine's emotional innocence and spontaneity are bared in his poems. In a memorable phrase, Rickword refers to the "absence of any central control" of his feelings: Verlaine "was all epidermis". He stresses the contrast between the poetry and the sordidness of Verlaine's private life, especially in his later years, and draws attention to the decline in his poetic powers after he saw the Light: "his conversion was certainly, among other things, a great piece of aesthetic tragedy." In fact, though, his falling-off might well have occurred anyway, as a result of the combination of the after-effects of Rimbaud, drink, and what was quite likely V.D. Rickword is on surer ground with Wordsworth, when he states that "the very harmoniousness of his relations with Mary (and the providential dispensing of legacies and a sinecure) were, ...


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