The Grounds of English Literature

The Grounds of English Literature

The Grounds of English Literature

The Grounds of English Literature


The centuries just after the Norman Conquest are the forgotten period of English literary history. In fact, the years 1066-1300 witnessed an unparalleled ingenuity in the creation of written forms, for this was a time when almost every writer was unaware of the existence of other Englishwriting. In a series of detailed readings of the more important early Middle English works, Cannon shows how the many and varied texts of the period laid the foundations for the project of English literature. This richness is for the first time given credit in these readings by means of aninnovative theory of literary form that accepts every written shape as itself a unique contribution to the history of ideas. This theory also suggests that the impoverished understanding of literature we now commonly employ is itself a legacy of this early period, an attribute of the single form wehave learned to call 'romance'. A number of reading methods have lately taught us to be more generous in our understandings of what literature might be, but this book shows us that the very variety we now strive to embrace anew actually formed the grounds of English literature-a richness we onlylost when we forgot how to recognize it.


Matter smiled at man with poetical sensuous brightness.

(Karl Marx)

Suppose Hegel was right and spirit was a phenomenon, thought an informing principle, and thinking an instrument for shaping the things of the world. Suppose, too, that Marx was Hegel's most ardent disciple in this matter, and, despite his later disgust with Hegel's conclusions and champions, what he took from Hegel was a belief in the determinate presence of thought in the form of every made thing. One way in which we would have failed to appreciate the implications of such an earnest and general formalism is in our study of that category of things we call 'literature'. Rather than seeing formal description as a dispensable part of literary analysis—the sprinkling round of observations about 'versification', 'metre', 'image', and 'genre' in the course of more important investigations—we would believe that all accounts of meaning were accounts of form. Rather than projecting formalist rigour onto a single mode of criticism (Marxist, say), we would accept that any act of reading was formalist. We would still look at a poem and see its 'whole body' as the 'dancing of an attitude', as did Kenneth Burke, but we would not have to feel that such a vision necessitated a return to that mode of criticism so latterly 'New' that it was now quite old. We would once again have a method of reading we could call 'practical', not because it could do without immediate reference to other writing, but because

See e.g. Fredric Jameson, Marxism and Form: Twentieth-Century Dialectical
Theories of Literature
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971). Although
Jameson's project in this volume is also to recapture the Hegelianism latent in Marxist
thinking, his conception of 'form' is more precise (often addressed explicitly to 'liter
ary' form rather than form as such) and, therefore, less practical for the broad revalu
ation I attempt here (for an instance of the salient difference see e.g. the distinction
Jameson makes between 'form and content', 327–59).

Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action
(Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press, 1941), 9.

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