Preliminary Essays

Preliminary Essays

Preliminary Essays

Preliminary Essays

Excerpt

Any collection of critical essays is rather like a diary. Over the years, the critic tries to clarify and express his view of the various books, authors, and topics that have, for one reason or another, compelled his attention. Finally the day comes when he gathers up a sheaf of these attempts and looks through them; if he has developed at all, he is bound to catch himself thinking, now and again, as he does so: 'Did I really say this?' But the mere fact of having developed has also taught him that it would be useless to begin tinkering, trying to bring every essay up to date in terms of his current ideas and preferences. It would take months, and at the end he would only be in the position of the men who are permanently employed in painting the Forth Bridge; the beginning would have to be done again, 'and so ad infinitum'. So he either gives up the idea of bringing out a collection, or leaves it as a diary, appending dates to the essays like the photographs in the family album.

Even working on this plan, I have to admit that one or two of these essays are frankly included as period pieces. The essay on Mr. Empson's poetry, for instance, is here because, clumsy as it is, it did something: it helped to trigger off the vogue for his work that has been such a feature of the literary history of the 1950's; it therefore has some interest as a document. In the same way, I thought it better to reprint my review of Dylan Thomas's Collected Poems than to start all over again with a new essay; my view of his work has not greatly altered, and I have a strong feeling (perhaps partly due to my academic training) that a comment made on the spot, while the thing was brand-new, has documentary value; it has the power to reveal something about the period it dates from, which the wisest retrospective comment may lack.

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