Frank Kermode’s Magnificent Usefulness

Six months before his death Frank Kermode announced, mystifying everyone, that he would give a lecture on the shudder. It was expected to be about Shakespeare, somehow, but he told Mary-Kay Wilmers, the editor of the London Review of Books which was sponsoring the event, that he had no idea what it would be about.[1] Which was characteristically reticent if not entirely true. In the event the lecture was titled “Eliot and the Shudder” and turned out to be about Tennyson, or rather about an image T. S. Eliot used in reaction to Tennyson, and the sinuous trail of the word and the image in Coleridge, Yeats, Eliot himself, Baudelaire (where the shudder is a “frisson”), Huysmans (where it’s in “frémir”), and in others—including, finally, Shakespeare. Which was to say that the lecture turned out to be about the deepest kind of response to poetry, especially to moments of sudden visceral shock that have apparently little to do with pleasure. Eliot, Kermode writes, “seems to have used the word ‘shudder’ rarely but almost always in relation to experiences one would rather not have, and which are roughly anti- thetical to moments of ecstasy.” Kermode accepts Ronald Souchard’s phrase for it in Eliot’s Dark Angel, “the close connection in Eliot’s poetry between the rare moments of ecstasy and the recurring moments of horror.” By the end Kermode has elevated his conception of the shudder to the highest moments we have “experienced or endured” in art, Shakespeare’s for example—his illustration is taken from the climax of The Winter’s Tale—where “there are passages that possess extraordinary power to surprise and to ‘make one’s flesh creep with sincerity.’”

The essay is breathtakingly original; its learning seems even more effortless and brilliant than usual, its associational leaps are both graceful and astonishing, its sense of proportion is unfailingly astute, its tone affable and modest. It’s all conducted at the level of causerie rather than argument. When the essay was published in the LRB (May 13, 2010), one reader, himself a poet, wrote in to say, justifiably I think, that “the four pages of this essay [were] the finest I have read in the LRB, this issue or any other.” But Kermode was constitutionally unable to accept praise or take anything at face value. When Mary-Kay Wilmers sent him a copy, he replied, “What an odd fan letter that was. Still, no harm done.”

Unfortunately the essay does not appear in Bury Street Papers, the recent selection of twenty-nine essays and reviews—out of a total of almost 250—that Kermode wrote for the journal he founded in 1979 with Karl Miller.[2] The earliest is a review of J. F. C. Harrison’s The Second Coming, about millenarianism after the French Revolution (October 1979), amusingly titled “Apocalypse Now and Then”; the latest is an essay on Helen Small’s The Long Life, a book about old age and dying, whose ironic title “Not Just Yet” answers the question of when one would prefer to die (December 2007). It’s worth noting that the LRB’s editors supplied all the original titles, often finding them in phrases Kermode quoted in the essays. He clearly preferred it this way. What he wrote in the introduction to The Uses of Error (1991), another anthology of his essays, applies just as well to this one: “I have for the most part allowed the original titles to stand; they are almost always the creations of editors rather than authors, and I think they help to retain some of the flavour the producers had, or should have had, for their first consumers.” That flavor is even more distinct and consistent in this collection, whose title is a reference not to the Little Russell Street address of the magazine’s editorial offices but to the address of the LRB Bookshop around the corner at 14 Bury Place. Nothing is said about how these twenty-nine pieces were selected or by whom—presumably the Editorial Board, one of whom, Michael Wood, wrote the introduction. The jacket flap says simply that the selection “contains some of the finest pieces the LRB has published in the last 30 years” and—perhaps more to the point—Kermode “celebrates his 90th birthday this year.” That was in November, and in the following August he died.

Left to our own devices, it is tempting to find a teleological theme in the selection. From thoughts on apocalypse and millenarianism at the start to ruminations on old age at the end—with references to Eliot at his most elderly-sounding (“Little Gidding,” “Gerontion”) and Larkin at his most depressing (“The Old Fools”)—surely there’s a design here? One even finds in the final review Kermode repeating his central argument from The Sense of an Ending (1967), as if it were a comment on his own:

The larger claim is that endings can be thought of as part of a plot, that a life resembles, or ought to resemble, a narrative with a beginning, a middle and an end, the end being thought of as the completion of a “progress narrative.” But in fact the last years may not offer anything that could be called “completion.” They may contain “projects” . . . or they may be spent in idleness or even wickedness, having few virtuous connections with the rest of the life in question. . . .

You might think Kermode, a profound skeptic especially about his own life and its “projects,” was thinking about his own old age. Yet nearly the opposite is true. As he remarks of the Eliot and Larkin poems, “These resonances tempt us to join in the complaining but somehow they don’t go deep enough to drain our reserves of cheerfulness.”

Michael Wood rightly cautions in his introduction that “Frank Kermode is too multifarious a writer to have anything as dogged as a theme in his critical work; too sane and stealthy to boast of anything as limiting as an obsession.” By “stealthy” I think Wood means subtle, given to irony and understatement, unobtrusive qualification, and humor. But the editors of Bury Place Papers were not stealthy in displaying Kermode’s critical affinities: no less than three of these essays are about his great predecessor, William Empson, and another deals at length with I. A. Richards, whom he admired differently but just as much. In “Educating the Planet” in 1980, Kermode gives historical perspective to Richards’ quasi-Shelleyan defense of poetry. He quotes the following, which sheds as much light on Kermode’s values as it does on Richards’:

Because the Universe as it is known to us is a fabric whose forms, as we alone know them, have arisen in and through reflection; and because that reflection, whether made by the intellect in science or by “the whole soul of man” in poetry, has developed through language . . . the study of the modes of language becomes . . . the most fundamental and extensive of all inquiries.

Kermode comments that “we may hear [in these words] a note of exaltation that will sound strange to anyone who thinks about the teaching of poetry in modern universities.” He credits Richards with being first to recognize the dearth of moral vision in the New Criticism of the thirties. You feel Kermode’s deep sympathy and affection for Richards. “Like the Old Testament prophets he liked to quote in his epigraphs—on the whole a disappointed body of men—he found us duller of apprehension and more apt to backslide than he had hoped.” He believed, says Kermode, that “poetry could arduously satisfy human needs no longer met by religion and ignored by science,” and he belonged to “an élite capable of strenuously and courageously sitting still.” (Note the echo of Eliot’s “Teach us to sit still.”) Kermode’s admiration for “the gay, calculated audacity” of the man is palpable. The essay concludes with praise not just for Richards’ prophetic vision of an “interanimated whole” and “human peace” achieved through language, but a vision that was meant for everyone, not the privileged few. In Richards’ words, “the salvation we are seeking is for all.” Kermode responds, echoing The Tempest, “It is hard to conceive of a nobler magic and Richards never abjured it.”

The three Empson essays are “On a Chinese Mountain” (1986), “Cold Feet” (1993), and “Disgusting” (2006), and they are of equal interest in revealing Kermode’s deepest critical values. The latter two focus on Empson’s quirky misconceptions of Donne, whose poetry he admired fiercely and tried to separate from the doctrines of Christianity, which Empson found categorically disgusting. He did the same in Milton’s God, arguing that the poet’s “feelings are at war with barbarous Christian theology.” Despite these ferocious idées fixes, Empson is still the greatest critic of his time for Kermode. This is clearest in the 1986 review, where Empson’s mentoring influence is summed up. Theories have come and gone (as they do now), but Some Versions of Pastoral, writes Kermode, “taught a generation to read well and to feel good about it.” Of the man himself, what Kermode recalls most clearly is “a morose geniality of manner, an amiability isolated and wary. But above all one thinks of him with affection and deep respect, the one genius that the modern explosion in the critical population has produced.” As he does with Richards, Kermode applauds Empson’s resistance to New Critical anti-intentionalism:

In fact, he is the most convinced of intentionalists, and although he does a certain amount of unfair sneering at his opponents, his most ravishing, as well as his most wrongheaded, interpretations are always meant to be about what happened in a poet’s head.

He finds in Milton’s God a passage rebutting Pascal’s famous wager about the existence of God which, “above almost anything else in this writer gives one an impression of the genuine moral power of his criticism.” After quoting the passage, Kermode allows that Empson “has many more subtle points to make but it does warm the heart to hear [Pascal’s] line of argument dismissed as simply dishonourable.”

The terms of value are unmistakable—reading well, moral power, true genius, good old-fashioned honor, and, in the essay’s final passage, awareness of class. Kermode locates that in what Empson wrote in a long essay about Hamlet late in his career: “Hamlet never loses class, however mad. He also keeps a curious appeal for the lower classes in the audience as a satirist on the upper class.” Note the definition: real class is moral, not social; Hamlet has class by being able to step aside from his class. Kermode repeats Empson’s words and the Hamlet parallel in his closing tribute to the critic: “He never loses class. And take him for all in all, we shall not look upon his like again.”

Kermode’s acute awareness of class runs throughout his criticism and stems in part from his humble, not-quite-British origins on the Isle of Man, where his father worked in a dockside warehouse and his mother was a tavern waitress. From that unlikely position he would seem to have made himself into the ultimate English insider, escaping home via scholarships and a six-year stint in the Navy, ascending a ladder of university appointments in Liverpool, Reading, Manchester, and Bristol, to become Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London in 1967, and then—most prestigious of all—King Edward VII Professor of English Literature at Cambridge in 1974, an appointment (as the New York Times obituary points out) made by the Crown at the suggestion of the Prime Minister. He was then knighted for his services to literature by Queen Elizabeth in 1991. Yet in some fundamental ways Kermode remained an outsider, mindful of his past, skeptical of all his achievements and honors, possessed of a morose amiability, like Empson’s, isolated and wary. Entitled to designate himself Sir Frank Kermode, he never did. In fact his autobiography in 1995, a sardonic catalogue of all his failures and misjudg- ments, was pointedly called Not Entitled. Its epigraph came from Coriolanus: “He was a kind of nothing, titleless.”

This consciousness of social difference—perhaps Manxian, perhaps just temperamental—generates a great deal of Kermode’s criticism. Some of the best moments in Bury Place Papers are redolent of it. Listen to the tone of the following, from a review of Noel Annan’s Our Age: Portrait of a Generation:

Lord Annan makes it clear that he speaks of, and inevitably to a great extent for, this small élite [those educated at university], into which one got by being exceptionally clever, or well-born, or usefully connected, especially with that intellectual aristocracy which occupied the commanding academic and cultural heights in a previous generation—a class upon whose constitution and habit of intermarriage the present author long ago enlightened us.

The scorn is so much better for its understatement. Soon, however, it comes out more directly. The “single, most irritating thing” about Annan’s book, says Kermode bluntly, is his tedious repetition of the phrase “our age,” which is always conveniently “saying this or that, being found guilty of this or that . . . , virtually running the show and having a lot of fun doing so, being powerful yet negligent.” Anger seems to whet Kermode’s appetite for irony. He points out that Lord Annan, for all his talk about the gentleman of Our Age, “does not find it necessary to use the word ‘selfish.’” Who can fail to enjoy an outrage so artfully contained as this? Kermode concludes, perhaps most scathingly of all, that Lord Annan and his ilk might have realized that they put the country “on what they now know to have been all along the primrose path, the road to ruin.”

Reviewing Richard Ellman’s biography of Oscar Wilde in 1987, and thinking about the capacity of the British public for persecuting its victims in fits of self-righteous moralism, Kermode quotes the following from Macaulay on the “public savaging” of Byron:

He was excluded from circles where he had lately been the observed of all observers. All those creeping things that riot in the decay of nobler natures hastened to their repast; and they were right, they did after their kind. It is not every day that the savage envy of aspiring dunces is gratified by the agonies of such a spirit and the degradation of such a name.

It is almost as if Kermode had that passage in mind for years, waiting to use it at the right moment, in sympathy with Wilde, of course, but also with Ellman’s purposes. In a similar but more amused vein, reviewing a biography of Harold Nicholson in 2005, Kermode comes to realize that the man he once thought admirable was in fact despicable:

A favourite word of Nicholson’s was “bedint,” which somehow derived from the German and signified a person of servile status. . . . In its usage . . . “bedint” could be extended to mean any sort of person the speaker felt it right to despise or patronise or avoid.

At Balliol Nicholson did not quite fit in, says Kermode, “partly because of the unexpected presence in the college of ‘blacks and Rhodes scholars’ and, outside it, of impudent women students.” Then too there were Jews: “Meeting a Jewish lord mayor of London made [Nicholson] say he felt some sympathy for Eichmann.” And “among other humans he could not bear were the Japanese, Turks, Persians, Arabs, Slavs, and Catholics.” It seems to be characteristic of Kermode’s recent LRB essays that, without surrendering any reticence or decorum, they express freer, more vigorous, and more frankly moral judgments.

Still another design of Bury Place Papers is its curiosity about writers of contemporary fiction. Reviewed here are Martin Amis’ essays, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower, Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist, Raymond Carver’s Call If You Need Me, and the experimental novels of B. S. Johnson. But these are no mere reviews; Kermode knows the complete works of each of these writers, and each essay offers a comprehensive view of their achievements, an elegantly compressed synthesis of their distinctive ideas, techniques, and talents. What he values most in DeLillo’s fiction, for example—Underworld as a “heroic,” “colossal,” and “complicated image of the desperate condition of the United States”—differs utterly from what is best in Ishiguro—The Unconsoled as an “artist’s nightmare,” about a novelist’s experience of failure to write the novel we are reading. The essay on Penelope Fitzgerald is so good it was used, with few modifications, as the introduction to an Everyman Edition of the novel. The same happened with Kermode’s earlier reviews of Muriel Spark; unfortunately, neither of his LRB essays on her work is reprinted here. In a recent interview, Kermode was asked which of the novelists discussed in Bury Place Papers were most important to him. He replied, with a touch of mischief,

I’m certainly a devoted admirer of Penelope Fitzgerald. As I was of a slightly more sleazy personality, Muriel Spark. Spark was a friend, whereas Fitzgerald was someone I admired from a respectful distance. And I admire Philip Roth intensely. But I think he’s writing some pretty bad books at the moment. Sabbath’s Theater is his finest book—certainly the maddest and most extravagant. He needs to be like that.[3]

It is useful to keep in mind that Kermode has been reviewing recent fiction ever since the 1950s. His first collection of essays, Puzzles and Epiphanies (1962), included review essays on Pasternak, Isherwood, Beckett, Powell, Nabokov, Golding, Waugh, and others. But his attitude toward reviewing, or rather toward professional academic writing versus reviewing, was different. There is “little room for doubt,” he wrote in the preface, “that [these works] can easily be identified as—to borrow an unpleasant expression of Valéry’s—sales baisers du professeur de littérature.” He also claimed, lest anyone think him pleased with these dirty kisses, that the only unity of his book was “imposed upon it by a limited mind of promiscuous habit.”

By 1968 his mind had changed. He had contributed much more frequently to The New Statesman and come to appreciate its gifted editor, Karl Miller. He had also come to understand the example of Edmund Wilson. In the preface to his second collection of essays, Continuities (1968), he apologized for its unevenness, but defended the genre he was using:

. . . this does not mean that I regard the kind of criticism reprinted as anything but serious, though the level of seriousness varies a bit; and when I find it subjected to routine academic censure I find myself wondering whether the complainant is not one of those who might himself benefit from its peculiar discipline, and occasionally pass on the benefit to his pupils in graduate school, where it is not always easy to distinguish the solemn from the barbaric. Good literary journalism is valuable and rare.

These ideas were first formulated in Kermode’s 1965 essay, “A Modest Tribute to Edmund Wilson,” reprinted in Continuities. He had not only reread Wilson’s reviews, collected in The Shores of Light and Classics and Commercials, but he was particularly struck by one of them, “The Literary Worker’s Polonius,” Wilson’s 1935 essay on the business of literary journalism. You feel the shock of recognition as Kermode describes Wilson’s call for something more than reviewers and columnists, for writers who could be what he called Reviewer Critics: “These last are extremely rare, and to earn the title an aspirant should ‘be more or less familiar, or should be ready to familiarise himself, with the past work of every important writer he deals with. . . . He should also be able to see the author in relation to the national literature as a whole and the national literature in relation to other literatures.’” Wilson was of course describing himself, but Kermode saw in it a clarification and confirmation of what he wanted to do. When the opportunity came to found a new literary periodical in 1979, Kermode and Karl Miller jumped at the chance. As he formulated it later, in the introduction to The Uses of Error (1991), his third and largest collection of essays, “It is one thing to be bright, brisk and summarily fair in the six or eight hundred words on an ordinary newspaper review, quite another to control, without looseness of argument, the six or eight thousand words sometimes allowed by such journals as The New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books.” He added this about academics who write critical reviews, that it’s good for them “if only because the work keeps them sane. It also reminds them that they have a duty, easily neglected, to make themselves intelligible to non-professors.”

Many of these principles were reiterated in the preface to Kermode’s fifth collection of essays, Pieces of My Mind (2003), whose title is another tribute to Edmund Wilson.[4] But it offers some further thoughts on academic criticism versus a more enlightened kind, especially when criticism itself is under attack:

If we respond with the old claim that criticism is or may be an art, we shall do so in some embarrassment, for most criticism is now produced on academic assembly lines and is usually derivative, mechanical and very hard to read, which in any case you do only when you have to. . . . . [But] the business of explanation—of elucidation and comparison—has to go on as long as art goes on, for not being able to speak for itself it always needs someone to speak for it, about it. The clearer and more lucid the commentary the better for art. So criticism can be quite humbly and sometimes even quite magnificently useful. And in paying tribute, or even when caviling, it can, it must, also give pleasure, like the other arts.

Pause for a moment to consider how well a book like Shakespeare’s Language (2000)—to take just one of Kermode’s more recent works—fulfills the criteria set forth above. It’s not just that the “business” of elucidating Shakespeare’s poetry and comparing it with its sources is done expertly (John Carey said it was “formidable”; James Wood said it was “rammed with scholarship”; Muriel Spark said it was “profoundly studious”; Declan Kiberd called its author the “acutest interpreter of linguistic complication” since Empson). The work’s success could not have hinged on its scholarship alone, however awesome its depth and range. It was rather the clarity and lucidity of Kermode’s language that made it accessible to readers of every sort (as virtually all of its reviewers commented), and that helped greatly to make it a bestseller in the UK. But it was something more as well. Readers called it “stunning” and “inspiring” and “beautiful” and “the best book on Shakespeare I have ever read” because, I venture to suggest, it was “quite humbly and . . . even quite magnificently useful.” Perhaps the key term here is humility. Without that, no magnificent usefulness would have been possible.

It is no accident that Kermode also remarks, offhandedly, “Reviewing is actually a rather unselfish occupation.” He goes on to pay tribute particularly to the LRB:

It is a privilege to write for that journal pieces that fall comfortably between the newspaper notice and the seven-thousand-word lecture or essay. The genre has many virtues, and some writers, myself included, find it more congenial than any other.

Might it not be said that the issue for Kermode was not really length at all but the humble origins of literary journalism—and of all good criticism too, but particularly his own? What was congenial, for him, was the unselfishness of the occasion. Not every critic or reviewer sees it that way.

It has become customary when characterizing the man to call him self-deprecating. Surely that must be true of one who insisted, relentlessly, that he was “not entitled.” But perhaps self-effacing would be a better term, or even self-condemning. Kermode’s autobiography, it should be noted, says nothing about his being a husband and a father. No word whatsoever is uttered about his marriage in 1947 to Maureen Eccles, or about their twin children, or their divorce in 1970. Nothing at all is said about Anita Van Vactor, who became his second wife, even though they were married when Not Entitled was written (they divorced sometime after she helped him edit Pieces of My Mind in 2003), nor did he ever in his later years mention the twins, his grown-up daughter and son. In a memorial essay after Kermode’s death, Stefan Collini recalled this characteristic evasiveness:

He would sometimes talk about his own past, reticently, sardonically. Key moments in his life would be elided with a deliberately restrained or oblique phrase (“My private life was becoming disorderly”), and terms like “disaster” and “fiasco” peppered all reminiscence. . . . So why did he then move [from UCL where he was happy] to Cambridge? “Vanity, I expect; ignorance. Terrible mistake, obviously.”[5]

It is not rare for writers to be reticent or evasive in their memoirs—think of Graham Greene’s A Sort of Life or William Trevor’s Excursions in the Real World—but Kermode’s negation of himself is in a class by itself. His private life may well have been a fiasco and a disaster; after all, how could such a voracious reader and prolific critic, reviewer, editor, scholar, teacher, lecturer and department chairman have had any time at all for a wife and family? Perhaps he chose not to say anything about his private life because he knew it was a failure. Or perhaps not. He did know, as Not Entitled makes clear, that autobiograpies—selective memories and the stories we spin from them—are never to be trusted. Yet another reason the writer had better be humble.

Despite all that, or because of it, the Kermode that so many people knew was genial and open, an unassuming man who was charmingly diffident. Adam Phillips describes it particularly well:

But what was fascinating to me, on first meeting . . . was that he was at once impersonal and affectionate. It was not a shyness that was really a slyness, but what felt like a rather poignant fear of effusiveness. He wanted to value people and things without having to make great claims.

Michael Wood singles out something similar, a quality of discreetness that he found the most intriguing thing of all about him:

I am trying to read from memory an expression on Frank Kermode’s face. He is pleased, friendly, even laughing rather than smiling, in a quietly disciplined way. But there is a diffidence in the pleasure, and something else in the diffidence. It’s not a secret meaning, although he did love secret meanings. He’s not hiding anything, only being discreet. I like the expression because it resembles his writing, and I feel that if I could read it better . . .

But whatever it is remains elusive; Wood just finds it deeply enjoyable. And so do I, having quoted a fair number of examples of it in this essay. I will mention just two of them. When Kermode said of Puzzles and Epiphanies that whatever unity the book has was “imposed upon it by a limited mind of promiscuous habit,” was he being falsely modest? Ironic? Wary of any taint of egotism, but perhaps clowning a little—very discreetly indeed? As if his “promiscuity” has not been one of the chief glories of his art? Whatever the truth may be, he enjoyed putting it that way. When he said about the letter in praise of “Eliot and the Shudder,” telling Mary-Kay Wilmers, “No harm done,” was that said tongue-in-cheek? Was he guarding against praise, or the vanity in himself that praise could evoke? Or was it simply a complete evasion? A witty reversal of expectations, harm being the last thing you would expect praise to cause? Or was it ironic about the cliché itself, using it in jest? Or was it—I almost like this possibility best of all—an allusion to The Tempest (I, ii, 15–16), in which Prospero reassures Miranda:

No more amazement: tell your piteous heart

There’s no harm done.

Such questions arise because Kermode taught us to read that way. In this, as in so many other ways, he never loses class. Take him for all in all, we shall not look upon his like again. Let the reader decide exactly who said these words about whom.

[1] Mary-Kay Wilmers, “Frank Kermode,” London Review of Books, Sept. 9, 2010, p. 20.

[2] BURY PLACE PAPERS: Essays from the London Review of Books, by Frank Kermode. LRB Limited. £14.99. The book has not been reviewed in this country, except for Charles Rosen’s brief comments in an omnibus review, “The Revelations of Frank Kermode,” The New York Review of Books, June 9, 2011, pp. 34–36.

[3] See Jonathan Derbyshire at the New Statesman website posting for August 18, 2010.

[4] A fourth collection of his reviews, Pleasing Myself: From Beowulf to Philip Roth, appeared in 2001.

[5] See “Memories of Frank Kermode,” London Review of Books, Sept. 23, 2010, pp. 9–11. Other reminiscences included are by Karl Miller, Adam Phillips, Jacqueline Rose, James Wood, Michael Wood, and Wynne Godley.