Terry Eagleton’s new book, Critical Revolutionaries, contains a short preface and five long chapters, on T. S. Eliot, I. A. Richards, William Empson, F. R. Leavis and Raymond Williams; each provides a vivid intellectual portrait. Eagleton is no stranger to any of them. Eliot, Leavis and Williams, in particular, have accompanied him throughout his fifty-year career as a Marxist literary theorist and critic. At times, these figures have seemed to goad or haunt him; at others, they have inspired his respect. In Critical Revolutionaries, his approach to them undergoes a step-change: now they are re-cast as thinkers and practitioners in a vital literary-critical tradition which he fears is in danger of falling into neglect today, although we can and should still learn from it how to be better readers and critics ourselves.

Eagleton’s return to a specifically English thread of literary criticism—the critical milieu which helped to form him, as he says—is part of his larger turn towards the problem of reading. In his field-altering Literary Theory: an Introduction (1983), it was the sister articulation—the problem of literature—which held him. Twenty-odd years later, at the height of neoliberal globalization, he worried that we needed to sharpen how we read literature if we were to have any hope of understanding why we did so. How to Read a Poem (2006) was the first full demonstration of this concern. There, Eagleton tackled head-on the then common rebuke that a literary theorist had no business fretting about critical reading practice. The idea that literary theorists had killed poetry because they were incapable of spotting a metaphor, let alone a tender feeling, was ‘one of the more obtuse critical platitudes of our time’:

The truth is that almost all major literary theorists engage in scrupulously close reading. The Russian Formalists on Gogol or Pushkin, Bakhtin on Rabelais, Adorno on Brecht, Benjamin on Baudelaire, Derrida on Rousseau, Genette or de Man on Proust, Hartman on Wordsworth, Kristeva on Mallarmé, Jameson on Conrad, Barthes on Balzac, Iser on Henry Fielding, Cixous on Joyce, Hillis Miller on Henry James, are just a handful of examples.

The concern with how to read stemmed from what he saw as a lack of interest in reading for form. Close reading had become closer to sociological ‘content analysis’, while language practices were ignored. For Eagleton, matters of punctuation have never been separate from matters of politics, and How to Read a Poem contained chapters on punctuation, syntax, rhythm, metre and tone as well as dexterous close readings of the formal patterns of ‘nature’ poems from William Collins, Wordsworth, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Edward Thomas. It was a rich response to the question literature undergraduates frequently ask: what is form? In How to Read Literature (2013), these concerns were addressed to narrative. Again, the impulse was clear: ‘one cannot raise political or theoretical questions about literary texts without a degree of sensitivity to their language.’

Eagleton’s return to the work of his forebears should be read in part as a continuation of this thread. It is not a rejection of the need for theoretical work but rather a deeper grounding of it, not least through attention to pedagogies of form. The tradition of reading founded and contested by his quintet is laid out for critical consideration, as a repertoire of practices that are still highly relevant today. If it can be dubbed ‘Cambridge English’—and Cambridge was where Eagleton, who hailed from Salford’s Irish-Catholic working class, studied with Williams in the 1960s, attended Leavis’s last lectures and gazed with awe at Richards, glimpsed at a garden party—the book makes plain that the tradition was elaborated ‘in spite of Cambridge’, as Leavis said, and in many respects against it. Indeed, T. S. Eliot, Eagleton’s founding figure, had no connection to the place. Rather, his importance lies in his supremely contradictory role as high-conservative critic and revolutionary-modernist poet—for both modernism and the new literary criticism were products of the same historical crisis.

Eliot, a scion of the New England intellectual aristocracy, was born in St Louis, Missouri, in 1888. Educated at Harvard, where he encountered French Symbolism, he left for Paris, then England, where he met Pound. ‘The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock’ was published in 1915 and ‘The Waste Land’ in 1922 in the first number of Eliot’s vanguard literary quarterly, the Criterion. Richards, born in Cheshire in 1893, was the son of a works manager and chemical engineer and himself had a strong scientific bent, as a linguistic philosopher and psychologist, as well as an internationalist one; after transforming the Cambridge English Tripos in the 1920s, he taught in China and Japan, then Harvard. Empson, born in 1906, was the son of a Yorkshire landowner. Sent down from Cambridge for the scandal of having condoms in his room, he made a living as a bohemian freelancer in London, writing for Eliot’s Criterion and drafting Seven Types of Ambiguity, before following Richards to China and later teaching at Kenyon College, Ohio, alongside Robert Lowell, John Crowe Ransom, Cleanth Brooks and Delmore Schwartz. Leavis was born in 1895 in Cambridge, where his father ran a musical-instruments shop, and spent four years as a stretcher-carrier in the First World War; he taught English at Downing College, founding Scrutiny with his wife Queenie Leavis in 1932. Williams was a railway-worker’s son, born in 1921 in rural south Wales, who taught for a decade in adult education before warily taking up a Cambridge chair.

Their political outlooks, Eagleton stresses, were as varied as their backgrounds: Eliot an Anglo-Catholic royalist, Richards a liberal, Empson a maverick social democrat; Leavis drifting rightwards from a more radical inter-war stance, Williams a student communist who moved left from the 1960s. Their styles were a study in contrasts, too: