One of the few literary critics I both respected and always enjoyed reading has died at 90: Frank Kermode, for whom John Mullan wrote a good obituary in The Guardian. A few excerpts:
This was what he did best, and with grace: unravelling the ways in which ideas worked in literature. Some of the poets to whom he was most drawn were, indeed, self-consciously difficult: John Donne, on whom he published a book in 1957; Wallace Stevens, whom he, in effect, introduced to an English readership in a study published in 1960, and whose “lucid, inescapable rhythms” often return in Kermode’s criticism.
While at Reading he also wrote his major work of the 1950s, Romantic Image (1957), which secured his intellectual reputation. It was an account of the continuities between Romanticism and Modernism, with the poetry of Yeats at its heart. With its easy erudition, but not a footnote in sight, this book seems a long way from today’s average academic output. In range it is huge, reaching into European and classical literature, aesthetic philosophy as well as poetry, verse from the Renaissance as well as the 19th and 20th centuries – yet in tone it is modest, provisional (it calls itself an essay). Learning with a certain lightness was his style. [...]
He had become surer and surer that literary theory, which he had once invited into the seminar room, was strangling the understanding and love of literature. He had come to think that many university teachers and leading critics of literature, particularly in America, had no “appetite for poetry”. Earlier works from the 80s, Forms of Attention (1985) and History and Value (1988), had explored the need for a literary canon – a core of especially valuable works of the imagination to which we can keep returning. Now he believed that theory, frozen into formula, was the addiction of academic critics “who seem largely to have lost interest in literature as such”. Thus, a final irony: a man who had been one of the country’s leading literary theorists became a scathing critic – sometimes satirist – of literary theory’s self-importance.
Via Helen DeWitt’s paperpools.
Addendum. Like Helen, I had been saying ker-MODE all my life (and that is the only pronunciation given in the BBC Pronouncing Dictionary of British Names), but apparently Kermode pronounced his name with stress on the first syllable, so I shall retrain myself.