Few English literary critics command more respect than John Bayley, Warton Professor of English Literature in the University of Oxford. The author of six full-length critical studies,footnote1 as well as of numerous articles and reviews, Bayley has not only become established as a revered figure within the literary academic world; he has also become an influential force within ‘metropolitan’ literary culture, controlled as that apparatus largely is by Oxford English graduates. That Bayley should be honoured as an authoritative, almost patriarchal figure within literary circles is in one sense unsurprising. In a University Faculty undistinguished for its critical vigour, stubbornly pre-Leavisian in ideology, timorously enclosed in traditional literary scholarship, Bayley’s work stands out for its imaginative idiosyncrasy. In an English critical milieu still strikingly parochial in its interests—the residue of that militant patriotism which helped to give birth to ‘English’ as an academic discipline—his close familiarity with Russian, French, German and American literature is particularly impressive. Relatively untainted by Oxford academicism, and apparently unidentified with
It is, moreover, work which at its best can be quite remarkably perceptive. Working with the flimsiest theoretical scaffolding, Bayley nevertheless succeeds in producing critical insights which are rarely less than interesting and on occasions brilliantly provocative. His ‘feel’ for the quality of a literary text, for its distinctive flavour and nuance, is difficult to match within contemporary criticism; himself the author of an early novel,footnote2 he displays a novelist’s sensitivity to the ‘intentions’ of the writers with whom he deals. Disowning any facile schematism or reductive ‘content analysis’, Bayley can show himself superbly aware of the constraints and potentialities of literary form; and within the limits of his own critical ‘theory’, he is perhaps more intriguingly unpredictable in the accounts he will produce of a writer than almost any other English critic of comparable eminence. Much of his criticism of Shakespeare, Keats, Kipling, Lawrence, Hardy and others contains local insights of considerable acuity, worked through with an almost painful honesty and clear-sightedness; his generosity of spirit combines with a bracing alertness to the intransigencies of a text, so that his best work seems at once tolerantly open and discriminatingly shrewd. He is, perhaps, one of the most inimitable critics in England today, nobody’s fool and nobody’s camp-follower, free at once of slick professionalism and gauche amateurism in his resolute devotion to the business of criticism. The whole body of his work is caught within a spurious belief that the truth of a text resides in the consciousness of its author: it is this relationship, between work and authorial intent, which he has explored again and again, in an enviably wide acquaintance with literature. Yet it is remarkable to what illuminating uses this discredited theoretical doctrine is turned, in his accounts of, say, Yeats, Auden, Tolstoy and Hardy; few better examples could be found within contemporary criticism of the uneven relations between theory and practice.
Bayley’s work, moreover, has the virtues of consistency. It is characteristic of the Oxford English school that its more publicly known members lead a double life. The racy iconoclasm of their journalistic output contrasts tellingly with the bland caution of their scholarly productions. All that unites the two is a shared absence of personal conviction. Intellectual seriousness is reserved for the editing of texts; criticism functions as a little light relief from such sober enterprises, an occasional display of Colour Supplement cleverness. It is symptomatic in this respect that the present Merton Professor of English Literature at Oxford devoted much of his inaugural lecture to demonstrating the futile subjectivism of his own discipline. Bayley, however, makes no such adjustments: his literary style, which (true to his own critical premises) seems consciously to sacrifice any facile brio of form to a felt sincerity of content, survives unruffled from critical study to newspaper review.
Doggedly courted though he is by almost all of the major metropolitan literary periodicals, he writes for them only on his own admirably uncompromising terms. In this sense, he emerges as a distinctively ‘old-fashioned’ critic, estranged in tone and sensibility from the brittle modishness of his younger epigones. Part of that estrangement is a matter of social background. What distinguishes Bayley from most prominent English critics is the impeccable ruling-class orthodoxy of his social upbringing and career. Born in 1925, he was educated at Eton and New College, Oxford, became an officer in the Grenadier Guards and served in Special Intelligence during the war; he was then elected a Fellow of three Oxford colleges in succession, and has remained at Oxford ever since as the occupant of a University Chair. He is married to the novelist Iris Murdoch, herself of haute-bourgeois Anglo-Irish provenance, who became an Oxford academic after a high-ranking career in the Civil Service. It is, then, particularly intriguing that Bayley continues to exercise such ideological power, in a literary world where others of his sensibility and ‘social tone’ are undoubtedly marginal.
Something of the secret of that power can be discovered in Bayley’s first published book, The Romantic Survival, a study of Yeats, Auden and Dylan Thomas. In praising Romanticism for its ‘power of investing ordinary objects with wonder and strangeness’, he nonetheless enters a caveat about the ‘Romantic imagination’ as such. It is likely to be overburdened with the abstracting, integrative drive of a singular, self-conscious vision; in its obsession with a ‘conscious unifying aim’, it lacks the relaxed, half-random ‘naturalness’ of a Shakespeare. Such a case implies a definite hostility to the ‘modernism’ of a Hulme, Pound or Eliot, whose ‘rather prim and devitalized concepts’ contrast tellingly with the ‘enormous, if disorderly’ nineteenth-century cult of the ‘creative imagination’. There is a correlative suspicion of the ‘analytical’ criticism with which such modernism is habitually coupled. Bayley professes himself disconcerted by the proposal that the task of criticism should be the analysis of meaning rather than the description of enjoyment, and protests that the poem, ‘like a human being, [has] a life of its own which is ultimately mysterious and irreducible’ (p. 69). The Romantic critic, furnished with his ‘experience and flair’, can just see whether a poem is ‘good’, ‘whereas the analyst will not admit that it is good until he has seen exactly what is in it, what it may mean’ (p. 70). This brutal insistence on knowing exactly what it is you are appreciating must be rejected for ‘a whole-hearted submission to a poetic experience before we begin to analyse it’ (p. 72).