A(lfred) Alvarez Essay - Critical Essays (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Alvarez, A(lfred) (Vol. 5)

Alvarez, A(lfred) 1929–

Alvarez is an influential British critic of modern poetry, a poet himself, and a novelist. Throughout his vigorous, idiosyncratic, and firmly subjective criticism, Alvarez examines and endorses the "extremist" artists, those like Plath and Lowell who will pursue their insights to the edge of breakdown—and beyond. His recent highly subjective study of suicide, The Savage God, has brought Alvarez' name to the attention of a wide and diverse audience. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Mr. Alvarez is that very welcome character, the subjective critic…. [In The Shaping Spirit, he] is in reaction against the New Criticism, while paying tribute to the tautening services it has rendered. For him every poet calls for a different approach, if we are to benefit fully from what he has to impart, even every poem….

What interests him compellingly is the use of language to produce the poetic effect….

Illuminating as Mr. Alvarez's generalizations are, a still greater pleasure is to be got from his sensitive approach to how individual poets use the language to impart their particular apprehension of existence….

[Whatever] disagreements the reader may have with Mr. Alvarez, he will find this an enjoyable book, informed by, to use a phrase of his own, "relish and vitality," an admirable example of that kind of criticism the object of which is "not to find fault, but to discover those beauties that will delight the reasonable reader."

"Flexible Criticism," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Time Newspapers, Ltd., 1958; reproduced by permission), May 9, 1958, p. 256.

There are two things that chiefly impress me about this critic. In the first place he accepts the full task of criticism. He not only defines and analyzes [in Stewards of Excellence], but he also assesses and evaluates. In the second place he impresses me with the acuteness of his sensibilities.

The result of the first point is that you sometimes violently disagree with him. Personally, I find his dismissal of Dylan Thomas as a man whose poetry is impressively poetic on its creator's tongue and so much "verbal preciosity" on the printed page, a good deal this side of the kingdom of truth. But on the other hand I applaud, from my personal opinions, the partial deflation of Pound and Auden, and the balanced appraisals of Stevens, Crane, and Empson. His championship of the work of D. H. Lawrence caused me to reread the poetry, and this is certainly one of the functions of criticism. I do not find myself completely won over by his arguments, but I am more amenable to the poetry than I was formerly. (pp. 125-26)

There is a thesis in the book: "… that 'modernism'—in inverted commas—has been predominantly an American concern, a matter of creating, almost from scratch, their own poetic tradition." This I find interesting, and effectively presented, but the greatest value of the work lies in its individual essays. These are brief, but in each case Mr. Alvarez hits upon a central core of definition that illuminates the entire work of the poet under consideration. Some of these points are well-known, but the critic italicizes them with perceptions and modes of expression that are uniquely his own….

Mr. Alvarez seems to me one of the finest of the younger critics. (p. 126)

Paul Petrie, in Poetry (© 1959 by the Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), November, 1959.

A. Alvarez offers The New Poetry [an anthology] as what "really matters" from the last decade and not as a complete guide to the English scene today. Our trouble, he thinks, is that the poetic upheaval which began with the experimental techniques of Eliot and Pound was prevented from coming to anything in this country by a series of "negative feedbacks". First we had the reversion to traditional forms in chic modern guise by Auden in the Thirties, then the high rhetoric and anti-intellectualism of the Forties, and finally the wry flatness of the Fifties Movement. In various ways these all helped to stem the revolution and re-foster our English beliefs in the essential order, politeness and controllability of life. And the result is that "the concept of gentility still reigns supreme" in our poetry. But this genteel stance gets more and more difficult to maintain in an age of mass evil and depth psychology, and the poets who matter now are those who can experience the real underlying disintegration and confront it with the necessary formal skill and intelligence. Those marshalled in this book include two Americans, Berryman and Lowell, and a selection of more recent British names.

We should salute Alvarez for his seriousness, but I don't think his Introduction really comes over as the piece of propaganda he wants it to be. It throws up ideas about verse-forms, emotion, evil, gentility and much else, but in the end does very little to distinguish or relate them all. So that when the "new seriousness" is eventually defined as "the poet's ability and willingness to face the full range of his experience with his full intelligence" we don't feel very much the wiser and have almost no cutting edge for the actual choosing of poems. The anthology itself is in fact far less partisan and more representative than its Introduction pretends: there are no wild inclusions, and if the decade's best poems are mostly here we are still left to our own criteria for picking them out from the rest. Sometimes the chosen poems even seem to conflict with the vague criteria we are given, but there is no attempt to explore this or to ask what it shows…. The questions multiply, and it would be silly to think they could all be met in a short introduction (or here). But the danger, if they are not even allowed to arise, is that we shall find ourselves driven back into the personal and irrational attitudes that the "new seriousness" was meant to save us from, while the "new seriousness" itself remains circular and unpersuasive…. (pp. 1-2)

Colin Falck, in The Modern Poet: Essays from "the Review," edited by Ian Hamilton (© Ian Hamilton), MacDonald, 1968; American edition, Horizon, 1969.

[If] there is any meaning left in a label like "modern intellectual," Alvarez merits it…. His issues are vital and engaging, if only because they are ours today.

All this is not to imply that Alvarez is an avid apologist for whatever is new. What is impressive about [Beyond All This Fiddle], in fact, is that … he is neither an attacker nor defender of current trends. Like Matthew Arnold, whom he obviously admires, his aim is to see things as they are, in the widest possible contexts, and to help create a climate of ideas in which art can flourish. Like T. S. Eliot, he believes that in literary criticism "the only method is to be very intelligent." "What the professor is in theory," he says, "the critic is in practice: an intellectual. He is, I mean, someone to whom ideas are emotionally important, who responds to experience by thinking for himself."

In speaking about Alvarez, one would, were space available, inevitably have to turn to the substance of his ideas, to counter or support them. One wants to quote him, and at length, to communicate how intense his ideology is. A thinker himself, he spurs thought in his reader. And what causes his ragtail collection of subjects to hang together—including essays on three private passions: films, mountaineering, and travel—is not the force of his personality, as with Greene, but the fluidity of his language and ideas, his denseness of texture, his willingness to take chances with great sweeping propositions, his fundamental, clear-headed sanity. His own essay on James ends fittingly: "And he was, after all, one of the most intelligent men who has ever written." The statement typifies Alvarez's consistent dedication to independent thought. (pp. 26, 31)

Robert Maurer, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1969 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), August 2, 1969.

["Beyond All This Fiddle"] is impressive, much more so than are most collections of book reviews, for, despite the diversity of books and topics discussed, it has the unity that comes from the strongly felt, all-pervading presence of a decided and decisive personality. "Beyond All This Fiddle" reminds us of something we tend to forget: that we read good criticism as much for the critic as for the works he deals with. It shows us too just how and why A. Alvarez is so important a figure in contemporary British criticism.

In one of these essays Alvarez takes Dr. Johnson as an example of the writer of what he calls primary criticism, "criticism which, as rationally, deliberately and lucidly as possible, gives a sense of what the poetry is like." He goes on:

"This means it describes not only the mechanics of the verse, the interaction of the various complex elements, meter, imagery and the rest; it also judges the work and sets it down within some scale of values. The values may never be set out formally, but they are everywhere implied in the critic's tone, reasons and choice of words."

This is the critic Alvarez himself aspires to be, and in the last analysis it is his values that give him the peculiar authority he has in British literary journalism at the present time….

[His values] have their being, it seems to me, in his realization of what it has meant to be a Jew in our time, which can be summed up in the words "concentration camp." In his essay "The Literature of the Holocaust," a survey of the imaginative writing that has come out of the camps, he says: "For the rest of us, there was the far obscurer guilt of being Jews who had never been exposed to the camps at all." Elsewhere, in the essay "Beyond the Gentility Principle," which first appeared as the introduction to his anthology of modern verse "The New Poetry," having noted that in our time "mass evil (for lack of a better term) has been magnified to match the scale of mass society," he goes on to suggest that "the forcible recognition of a mass evil outside us has developed precisely parallel with psychoanalysis; that is, with our recognition of the ways in which the same forces are at work within us."

It is within this context that Alvarez conducts his evaluation of contemporary writing. England was scarcely affected by the concentration camps, and the Gentility Principle is, of course, the English principle, the belief that "life, give or take a few social distinctions, is the same as ever, that gentility, decency and all the other social totems will eventually muddle through."

In "Beyond the Gentility Principle" he calls for "a new seriousness" in English poetry. This he defines "simply as the poet's ability and willingness to face the full range of his experiences with his full intelligence; not to take the easy exits of either the conventional response or choking incoherence." It is illuminating that his contemporary heroes in poetry are Robert Lowell, John Berryman and Sylvia Plath, whom he sees as an "imaginary Jew."

Locally, so far as England is concerned, Alvarez is a salutary figure. "The New Poetry," which is essentially a critical anthology, together with its introduction, seems to me a seminal document in the history of recent English poetry, for it sharply rebukes the provincialism and even escapism so strong in English writing today. It is the index of Alvarez's range of reference that he invokes not only American writers as examples of how to cope with the situation of our times but also East European poets and critics, as the essays on Miroslav Holub, Zbigniew Herbert and Jan Kott show. (p. 4)

His favorite adjective of praise, it strikes one as one reads ["Beyond All This Fiddle"] is "intelligent." He gets it, I think from Eliot's formula for criticism: "The only method is to be very intelligent." It is a method Alvarez has made his own. (p. 24)

Walter Allen, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1969 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 17, 1969.

One wishes that Alvarez were more discursive, had more idiosyncrasies, kept a little less strictly to the point [in The Savage God]. He writes briskly and sensibly, with a genuinely sympathetic understanding of the subject [suicide], with a ready control of quotation, and a nicely quizzical way with a good story. But these sturdy virtues don't always prove themselves a match for the gigantic puzzle of self-extinction. Too often the problem of suicide slides elusively from Alvarez's deft, commonsensical scrutiny.

By far the best things in his book are the prologue, a personal memoir of Sylvia Plath, and the epilogue, his account of his own attempted suicide. In these chapters, he lets the details flood in; picks up, like a novelist, the hum and buzz of the ordinary as it converges on its shocking, yet inevitable, climax…. The memories are flat, disjointed. They fall into the grammar of the short sentence and the semi-colon—they revive the stale mechanics of seasonal jollity with none of their emotional charge. It's a very precise form, this grammar of anomie, and Alvarez writes it with a moving blend of conviction and control…. It's a style of narration in which the impulse to impose oneself on top of the details that press on one has died; a style very close in tone to that of suicide itself.

Most readers will, I imagine, tackle the beginning and end of Alvarez's book first. When they come to the centre of the sandwich they will be disappointed. For it is little more than a summary dossier on suicide through the ages, its literature, sociology and psychoanalysis. Durkheim is glossed, rather too casually. Freud pops in and out of the narrative like a useful if somewhat distant uncle. A number of Professor Xs are exhibited, and made to stand in the corner. In the long 'Suicide and Literature' section, Alvarez is very good, in a non-committal, informative way, on Cowper, Chatterton and the Young Werther craze. But his quick, analytic, journalist's prose cannot entertain the play of the random that is so important in his accounts of Plath's suicide and his own attempt. Suicide, despite the warnings he puts up in his preface, turns into an act, something that people do, for simple, explorable reasons. (p. 701)

Alvarez's ability to categorise and sort things out leads him to some conclusions that I find merely baffling. In the final chapter of the central section, called 'The Savage God', he extends the argument that he first outlined in his preface to the Penguin New Poetry; the direction of modern literature is into the dimension of death, through an art of risk and violence. And he identifies the two key styles of our time, 'Totalitarian Art' and 'Extremist Art'. On 'Totalitarian Art' I find him wholly plausible. If literature itself suffers a 'psychic numbness' under the pressure of 20th-century history, and enters the closed world of the suicide on his passage to self-extinction, then its symptoms are likely to be silence, exhaustion, and the appearance of ravaged, minimal styles with which to confront head-on the deadly facts of modern experience…. In [such] work, we watch literature relinquishing its existence in a deliberate, moral gesture of self-immolation.

But Alvarez confidently couples this style, in an easy other-side-of-the-coin strategy, to the 'extremism' of his famous four, fielded now as bravely as ever before; Lowell, Berryman, Hughes and Plath. It is an axiom of the Alvarez position that these four writers work as a team, dicing with death like crack speedway stuntmen. But do they? Lowell's immersion in his tradition, his quarrying of the past in search of the possible, makes him proudly and profoundly assertive of life. Death exists in his work to be countered, not diced with. And in Sylvia Plath's last poems there is a continuous note of manic triumph, a joy in the achievement of the verse itself, even a kind of jollity, that makes her actual suicide seem more of a terrible contingency than 'a risk she took in handling such volatile material'. Of course she faced her own death in her poems, but it is hard to think of any poet of stature who has not done so, especially if one's criteria are as elastically symbolic as Alvarez makes them in his book. But it seems to me that Tennyson, a writer to whom Alvarez does not refer, comes more dangerously close to the impulse to self-extinction in In Memoriam than many of Alvarez's 20th-century risking heroes. (pp. 701-02)

Our century, in contrast to the Victorian age, has been notoriously bad at facing death at all, and we are both in danger of overvaluing those artists who manage to do so, and, worse, of isolating their treatment of death until it swells out of all proportion to the rest of their work. For Tennyson, the contemplation of suicide was entirely natural; for Sylvia Plath, it meant breaking a taboo. The Savage God shares her excitement and, like her poems, it sometimes achieves art out of questionable arithmetic. (p. 702)

Jonathan Raban, "Prospect and Horizon Gone," in New Statesman (© 1971 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), November 19, 1971, pp. 701-02.

The Savage God's praise of articulate despair is perhaps at times in danger of romanticising suicide, but there is nothing sensational or indulgent about its style, its attitudes, or its conclusions. Alvarez speaks movingly about Burton's rambling mixture of science, pedantry, fable, and personal obsession, and his own book, in some senses also a miscellany, idiosyncratic to breaking-point, has something in common with the Anatomy of Melancholy. (pp. 890-91)

Even while he gives full scholarly and critical attention, learned, tolerant, respectful, to suicide, it is the astonishing belief in fortitude that gives the book its dignity and value, that preserves it from melodrama or voyeurism. It helps us to tolerate, too, if not to like, the overconfident simplifications. This treatise on suicide pays very little attention to the economic or the somatic causes. Alvarez works towards (or from) a poetics of suicide….

If the book doesn't always seem in perfect control of its direction, if we are tempted to wonder if Alvarez is "hitching a lift"—his image—from Sylvia Plath, if the psychological and literary judgements are complacent, the human details sometimes reduced or unsympathetic, these apparent flaws are a low price to pay. Perhaps the book's form is a defensive structure, the personal narrative dignified and magnified by history and literary criticism, the Plath memoir providing a particularity which compensates for the sketchiness of his own confession, the confession itself establishing his right to the venture. The Savage God is a novel and genuine case of the breakdown of the old stable ego of criticism, more untidy, uncertain, and unstylish than Alvarez's literary criticism, a most moving experiment. This is personalised criticism, blurring the lines between fiction, memoir, autobiography and literary analysis, and revealing its personal concern and motive. We now see, for instance, why the response to 'A Nocturnall upon S. Lucies day' in The School of Donne was so impressive. It is a tribute to the book's seriousness to admit that I feel rather ashamed of finding its actual form so interesting. Like so much of the extremist literature it discusses, it is dislocated and fragmented, and while using narrative forms evasively or reticently, it is nakedly exposed as the study of literature seldom dares to be. It is literary criticism become broken and relevantly self-conscious in a way we should praise and emulate. (p. 891)

Barbara Hardy, "Anatomy of Despair," in The Spectator (© 1971 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), December 18, 1971, pp. 890-91.

The eternal triangle is at its most bleakly geometric in ["Hers," Alvarez's] novel of sex and self-contempt at an "ancient and famous" British university. In one corner is Sam, a graduate student on the verge of abandoning the academy with a bitter "Goodbye to All That." Opposed to him are his mentor Charles Stone, an eminent literary scholar, and Julie, Stone's cool and wayward German wife. The young man is hungry and sardonic, the older worried about keeping his power and prestige intact….

Sam is hardly a likable character in any of [his several] roles. Since many details of his portrait resemble Alvarez's own background, we are given a choice between two equally uncomfortable interpretations of the book: either Alvarez himself identifies uncritically with Sam's distasteful mixture of opportunism and sentimentality, or else a ritual purgation of the author's self-contempt is being conducted, at which we must be uneasy spectators. In any case, this uncertainty of focus suggests a failure of nerve on Alvarez's part, an unwillingness to test the limits of his subject.

Through his critical essays and "The Savage God" (a study of literature and suicide) Alvarez has become a leading advocate of what he has termed the "Extremist" poets—Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, John Berryman, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath—who have dared to explore in their art private obsessions with madness, suicide, political terror. "Hers" has some pretensions to being an extremist novel, a making public of private agonies. But the heart of the matter—the truly painful and contradictory nature of sexual freedom—it avoids by sliding away, at the crux, into a very different mode: what Alvarez himself has called "the modern 'cool' style, the art of controlled and detached delinquency."

The apparent sexual extremism of "Hers" comes down to little more than the familiar English obsession with occupying the high ground in the status war—a war that the more spirited prefer to wage in the bedroom, the only place outside the constraints of a pseudo-civility that deadens every other kind of human relation….

Alvarez is further handicapped by his uncertain grasp of the basic skills of a novelist. "Hers" is his first published novel, and it shows….

[But in] spite of its verbal clumsiness, its reliance on tired clichés like dragging in a motorcycle gang as symbols of mindlessly violent youth, this studied, perverse love story still has a sour but definite taste. By its insistence on the eternal contrariness of sexual attraction, it imparts to the relations between its characters a moral strenuousness that is in refreshing contrast to the soggy recitals of sexual victimization now so much in vogue. The combatants in "Hers" are at least evenly matched, the issue between them in suspense; a pity, then, that there is so little reason for the reader to care which fighter can claim to have won. (p. 5)

Paul Delany, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 30, 1975.

It is not unlike A. Alvarez to venture out of the ordinary. Best known as a literary critic and a poet, Alvarez often introduces and supports the work of avant-garde, sometimes angry young poets, and, in his famous study of suicide, The Savage God, he explores one of the darker sides of literature and of the self. In Hers, his first novel, Alvarez quietly plays with inversion and the hidden dimensions of the commonplace. The story is mundane and familiar: a brief, rather dull love affair in one of England's "ancient university" towns (read Oxford). But the relationship is between a professor's wife and one of her husband's students, not the one between the lecherous aging male teacher and the nubile young female pupil that so many "university" novels have trundled out for us. In a damning portrait of the groves of academe, where competitiveness, hypocrisy, and opportunism grow as abundantly as in the outside world, Alvarez shows three people who finally decide to risk a sexual or psychological search for the self rather than just becoming footnotes to the text of existence, thumbing through life as if it were a shelf of books.

That life is not a sunny one. Alvarez heard from his savage god that an awareness of suicide and self-destructive urges can enrich the meaning of life. In Hers people seem already dead, wandering like zombies through set social patterns and professional behavior. It has been said that the passion for destruction is a creative passion; the sad thing here is that it only destroys. The overwhelming sense is one of disgust: distaste for the trappings of the everyday behind which people hide, an unbridgeable gap between the new generation and the old, self-loathing and unsuccessful attempts to shake this feeling through love for others.

A craving for some kind of solution triggers mental journeys into the past. The solution the past offers: resignation, conscious acquiescence instead of despairing passivity. Resignation is probably all we should expect from any character Alvarez cares to create. Like the poets he admires most, these people seem cursed with "open nerve ends." They are excruciatingly aware of what is wrong, but don't have the power to right things—only the strength of a critical sensibility.

Sensitivity of this type is skillfully filtered through Alvarez's intelligence; the story shimmers with the small talk and small thoughts of bright but pedestrian people, and it bears the touch of the poet. An unassuming but interesting novel, Hers is also a pessimistic one. It doesn't just spring from a private vision of Alvarez's, however—from his fascination for the "core of darkness" in everyone. The university is the world, and the conditions of the characters universal. How can we wonder at an Englishman telling a darkling tale at this point in time, or balk at the grim grimaces he pulls at what he sees? Alvarez insists that "the real resistance now is to an art which forces its audience to recognize and accept imaginatively … not the facts of life but the facts of death and violence." Here is a modest contribution to that form of art. (pp. 26-7)

Celia Betsky, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1975 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.: reprinted with permission), April 5, 1975.

The meaning and the value of Hers both depend on you. Come to the book fresh from life and be exhilarated; read it with a head full of abstractions, you may be let down. It is not that Alvarez is anti-intellectual in his first novel. Having taught at Princeton, Oxford and the University of New Mexico, he respects the dynamism of ideas and, as shown by his many quotations from authors like Shakespeare, Marvell and Auden, he believes in the interrelatedness of life and literature….

Though Alvarez knows both the jargon and political infighting of academe, he seats Hers in the family. The attention he pays to close spontaneous living makes Hers a work of domestic realism in the vein of D. H. Lawrence. His insights into personalities under stress also reveal a fresh, conceptless grasp of everyday life that recalls Lawrence. A very first-hand book, Hers accepts life without forcing it into a system of philosophical imperatives.

Conveying this acceptance is a style with real lift and bounce….

Alvarez's ability to weld style to his appreciation of the everyday includes dialogue. (p. 25)

A learned novel that, ironically, stresses the limits of learning, Hers celebrates both the openendedness and renewability of life. To read it is to join in the celebration. (p. 26)

Peter Wolfe, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), April 5, 1975.