Derek Traversi

Last surviving original member of the school of 'New Criticism'
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The Independent Online

Derek Traversi was the last living link with the group of critics who, in the years just before and through the Second World War and into the 1950s, founded and popularised what has since become known as "New Criticism".

Deeply influenced by T.S. Eliot and his re- evaluation and fresh analysis of the metaphysical poets of the early 17th century, writers such as I.A. Richards, William Empson, F.R. Leavis and the contributors to his journal Scrutiny - Wilson Knight and L.C. Knights in England, and later in America Cleanth Brooks, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren and many others - comprised a very loosely connected movement that formed in part as a reaction to the critical tendencies of the late 19th century and the early decades of the 20th. Though perhaps not the most famed of this company, for more than 45 years Traversi, especially through his work on Shakespeare, was a distinguished and enduring exemplar of some of the most fruitful developments and applications of this new critical approach.

Born in Caersws, in mid-Wales, of a landed Italian father and a Monmouthshire mother, Traversi was educated at Alleyn's School and Merton College, Oxford, and went on to University College, London, where he supplemented his degree in English Literature with first class honours in Italian. Rather than pursue immediately a university position, in 1939 he began work with the British Institute in Rome. Subsequent similar terms in Madrid, Uruguay, Chile and Tehran preceded his return to Madrid and, finally, to Rome in 1965 until his retirement from the British Council when he at last entered an academic career, teaching in the United States. Throughout his travels on behalf of British culture he continued to produce critical work that would have been the envy of any university-based scholar.

Eliot himself received Traversi's critical attention in his book T.S. Eliot: the longer poems (1976); his last major work, The Literary Imagination: studies in Dante, Chaucer and Shakespeare (1983), also showed the breadth of his interests. On his Shakespearean studies, however, often first published in Scrutiny, and developed throughout his career in successive expanded editions of An Approach to Shakespeare, beginning in 1938 and culminating in the two-volume edition of 1968-69, as well as the separate volumes on the last plays, the history plays, and the Roman plays, his reputation rests; and in them one may find the clearest statements and manifestations of his critical intent and methodology.

The introductory chapter of the second edition of the Approach, written in 1957 while Traversi was the British Council representative in Tehran, may stand as a general rationale for the necessity of a new critical model for the 20th century. The chapter begins with the assertion

It is impossible not to feel, at this date, that the great tradition of the 19th century - running from Goethe and Coleridge to Bradley's Shakespearean Tragedy, has reached something like the limits of its usefulness . . . the methods originally associated with the Romantic school have been little more than repetitions of what Bradley and his predecessors did with greater distinction


The very assumptions which served as points of departure are no longer entirely acceptable.

The "subjectivism of Romantic thought" led to a fascination with individual feelings that were attributed to the plays in ways that blocked the study of "a balanced poetic and dramatic construction."

The new critical solution to the problem of producing "a complete and consistent account of the Shakespearean experience", as Traversi puts it, "is, as far as possible, to define the experience which sought expression in the plays, and which makes them individual and valuable". That experience is to be found in the words and verse structures in which Shakespeare chose to express it:

To proceed from the word to the image in its verse setting, and thence to trace the way in which a pattern of interdependent themes is gradually woven into the dramatic action, unifying and illuminating it, is the most fruitful approach - the most accurate, and, if properly handled, the least subject to prejudice - to Shakespeare's art.

The play, in short, is to be treated primarily as a poem; dramatic action itself, in the most perfected plays, becomes an element of an organic poetic unity that fully expresses the intent and the moral intuitions of the author, what Traversi, in a revealing link to the poetry that engaged the attention of so many of his critical brethren, calls the "metaphysical content" of the plays.

The careful explication of the import of individual words and the insightful relation of the increasing complexity of thought and feeling they convey to the growing flexibility and varied expressiveness of Shakespeare's blank verse medium is perhaps Traversi's most enduring contribution to many readers' understanding of the plays. On the whole, however, though the kind of close reading his approach demands remains a primary tool for even the most radical of the post-modern critics, the uses to which they put it, and the contexts in which they situate those readings, find in their turn "the very points of departure for this school of criticism no longer entirely acceptable".

A look at three of these "points of departure" will suffice as a brief representation of the ways in which the critical wheel has turned since Traversi formulated and practised the revision of his own predecessor's work. The implicit assumption in Traversi's account of the growing complexity of feeling and thought in Shakespeare's career, that one may reliably detect the author's intention in his work, not through the biographical cross- references still sometimes sought, but by inference from the text itself, was deeply shaken by the attack in William K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley's The Intentional Fallacy, published in 1946.

The certainties concerning the Elizabethan world view, formulated most notably by E.M.W. Tillyard in 1943, underlie Traversi's understanding of the clash between fixed medieval values and societal structure with the emergence of a Renaissance sense of the autonomy of the individual, as well as the related conflict of reason and desire that defines his approach to the psychology of the individual and evolves into conclusions about Shakespeare's visions of good and evil. Though Tillyard's model may still serve as a useful guide to the meaning of some images and allusions in the plays, more recent historical scholarship and new historicist criticism have destabilised both the rigid periodicity and the philosophical categories upon which Traversi's arguments depend.

Finally, the very certainty about the meaning of the words that are the subject of analysis has been undermined not only by the almost unlimited interpretations of the same text produced by new critical close readers, but also by the post-Saussurean linguists' attacks on any notion of a fixed and transparent relationship between a word and what it may signify.

From these new "points of departure", most easily found in a work such as Catherine Belsey's Critical Practice (1980), Traversi's interpretations are seen not as the objective achievement of an "accurate" and "unprejudiced" description of Shakespeare's art, but only as one partial interpretation among many, bounded and limited by its own situation in a social and historical moment, and an individual mind. But even read in that spirit, indeed perhaps best read in that spirit, Traversi's work may still inspire a worthwhile and active engagement with the art he contemplates. And in the spirit of Eliot's notion of tradition and the individual talent, his body of critical work both redefines what went before and is redefined by what has come after.

On a personal note: I first encountered Derek Traversi's critical work in a Scrutiny article that I consulted while writing a tutorial essay on the final plays for the late R.E. Alton at St Edmund Hall, Oxford, in the mid-1950s. Some 20 years later, Traversi, upon his retirement from the British Council, became my colleague in the English department at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. He also taught at the University of California in Davis, and at Hofstra University, New York.

For some dozen years my family and I enjoyed the personal and intellectual friendship of Derek and his family. My sense of the value of his work is deeply influenced by the impact his teaching had on our department and on our students, and by my own experience of the depth and generosity of his mind and heart.