Rohan Maitzen on Virginia Woolf’s literary essays

From Open Letters Monthly:

CommonReaderFrom a certain perspective, Virginia Woolf did not write criticism at all. Her literary essays and journalism are truer specimens of belles lettres than of the kind of writing that surrounds Woolf’s Common Reader series on my university library’s shelves, books with titles like Virginia Woolf and Postmodernism, or Virginia Woolf and the Politics of Language, or Virginia Woolf and the Problem of the Subject, or Hellenism and Loss in the Works of Virginia Woolf. These are books written by and for specialists; their stock-in-trade is the relentless analysis of particulars, the meticulous interrelation of text and context–all self-consciously framed with theoretical abstractions. Associative leaps, bold assertions, insights born of intuition and experience rather than justified by detailed exegesis and authoritative citation: for today’s professional critics, these are as inadmissible as stolen evidence in a courtroom.

Against their painstakingly researched conclusions, Woolf’s commentaries seem—indeed, are—impressionistic, idiosyncratic, unsubstantiated. On what basis, with what justification, can she claim that Donne “excels most poets” in his “power of suddenly surprising and subjugating the reader”? What exactly does it mean to “subjugate the reader” anyway? Where are the quotations—where is the specific analysis of prosody and form, metaphor and imagery—to support that claim, or the claim that in “Extasie” “lines of pure poetry suddenly flow as if liquefied by a great heat”?

More here.