Marxist Criticism - Poetry Analysis

Emergence of poetry

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Given its interest in larger socioliterary movements and its belief in the interdependent relationship between literature and society, it is not surprising that much earlier Marxist criticism focused not on individual poems, but on the emergence of poetry as a literary genre. One of the first full-length studies of the origins of poetry was Christopher Caudwell’s Illusion and Reality: A Study of the Sources of Poetry (1937), in which the young British Marxist, who died fighting in the Spanish Civil War near the time his book was published, mixed insights into the sources of poetry with some rather crude analyses. George Thomson was a major disciple of Caudwell, and his Marxism and Poetry (1945) was a much more developed study that argued the organic relationships between work and consciousness, between inspiration and collective expression. Even the rhythm of poetry, Thomson argued, could finally be traced to the use of tools in work.

Probably the best study of the origins of poetry appeared in the Austrian critic Ernst Fischer’s Von der Notwendigkeit der Kunst (1959; The Necessity of Art: A Marxist Approach, 1963), which describes the history of the arts from a Marxist perspective and includes, in its analysis of everything from the collective origins of art to the modern conditions of alienation and mystification, a number of poetry topics, including William Shakespeare and the Romantic poets. (See “The world and language of poetry,” in Fischer’s chapter “Content and Form.”) A similarly valuable work a few years later was Raymond Williams’s study of English literature that touches on various poets and poetic forms over thousands of years. Fischer and Williams proved how valuable Marxism could be in exploring the complex and symbiotic relationship between art and literature (including poetry), on one hand, and the societies out of which they came, on the other.

Theories of poetic form

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The development of theories of poetic form, beyond the study of the emergence of poetry as a genre, began around the mid-twentieth century. The prolific American critic Margaret Schlauch wrote Modern English and American Poetry: Techniques and Ideologies (1956), which illustrated, as much as anything, the multiple pressures Marxist criticism suffered during the Cold War years between 1947 and 1991. A few years later, however, Peter Demetz published Marx, Engels, und die Dichter: Zur Grundlagenforschung des Marxismus (1959; Marx, Engels, and the Poets: Origins of Marxist Literary Criticism, 1967), which established the interest in poetry the founders of Marxism had, looking in particular at Marx and Engels’s comments on Shakespeare, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Honoré de Balzac. Henri Arvon’s L’Esthéthique marxiste (1970; Marxist Esthetics, 1973) firmly established the importance of formal questions in Marxist criticism, and the following year, Fredric Jameson published his groundbreaking Marxism and Form: Twentieth-Century Dialectical Theories of Literature (1971), a work that would have a profound influence, not only on Marxist critics but also on much poststructuralist criticism as well. Drawing on the twentieth century Marxist theory of Theodor Adorno, Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, Ernst Bloch, Jean-Paul Sartre, and other critics, Jameson developed what he called a dialectical criticism. Jameson...

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Poetry and ideology

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Rarely does literature reveal its own ideological biases, but older poetry tends to give them up more easily than contemporary verse. In 1839, for example, the American Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published “A Psalm of Life,” and this hymn of faith and courage (“Life is real! Life is earnest!/ And the grave is not its goal”) was to become one of the most popular poems in the English language over the next century, with its famous concluding stanza, “Let us, then, be up and doing,/ With a heart for any fate;/ Still achieving, still pursuing,/ Learn to labor and to wait.” Viewing the poem in terms of its ideological content, the Marxist critic would be able to link the poem’s values to an emergent industrial capitalism in the first half of the nineteenth century, for the poem was clearly encouraging the development of a work ethic needed in the textile mills of New England, as elsewhere.

Forty years later, Eliza Cook, in a poem titled “Work” that appeared in McGuffey’s Fifth Eclectic Reader in 1879, urged, “Work, work, my boy, be not afraid;/ Look labor boldly in the face;/ Take up the hammer or the spade,/ And blush not for your humble place.” This might strike the modern reader as a rather crude job-recruitment poster for child labor, but by the twentieth century, such blatant hymns to work would be harder to find. More common might be a poem like “The Golf Links” (1917), where Sarah N. Cleghorn could write, with much irony, “The golf links lie so near the mill/ That almost every day/ The laboring children can look out/ And see the men at play.” Here social classes and the tensions between them are revealed, and the inequities that gap signifies are made the subject of the poem, heightened by the incongruous inversion of roles (boys working, adults playing). The ideological assumptions of Longfellow and Cook and other earlier American writers have been turned on their heads in Cleghorn’s poem, to reveal what an unchecked industrial capitalism had become by the end of the nineteenth...

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(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Eagleton, Terry. Marxism and Literary Criticism. 2d ed. New York: Routledge, 2002. A cogent summary of the major areas of present-day Marxist criticism. Includes a new preface by the author. First published 1976.

Eagleton, Terry, and Drew Milne, eds. Marxist Literary Theory: A Reader. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1996. An extensive collection of principal texts in the Marxist literary tradition. An introduction by Eagleton traces the evolution of Marxist criticism and speculates as to its future. In a second introduction, Milne examines the relationship between Marx’s writings and the Marxist movement.

Goldstein, Philip. The Politics of Literary Theory: An Introduction to Marxist Criticism. Tallahassee: Florida State University Press, 1990. A comprehensive overview of both Marxist theory and opposed critical theories, from the New Criticism of Cleanth Brooks and René Wellek; through those of feminism, reader-response, Raymond Williams, and Fredric Jameson; to recent “Marxist versions of deconstruction” (Eagleton, Michael Ryan, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak).

Haslett, Moyra. Marxist Literary and Cultural Theories. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. Divided into two parts, “Key Theories” and “Applications and Readings.” The second section includes the long chapter “A Labouring Woman Poet...

(The entire section is 594 words.)