Edward Clarke ponders the musings of Dr Johnson

During the winter months of the academic year in Oxford my students might have the impression that I am pondering Wordsworth’s supposed pantheism or Shakespeare’s covert Neoplatonism when, in fact, I am merely daydreaming that I am afloat on the Mediterranean. Now that I spend my days mostly floating on the Mediterranean I find myself, now and then, daydreaming about academic work in Oxford.

Even while I’ve been talking to Italians about food, I’ve been thinking to myself about the vanity of literary criticism. Obviously, I have no intention of actually writing any this summer. It’s quite enough of an imposition to find myself thinking about it at all.

Only this afternoon, words of the great eighteenth-century gentleman of letters Samuel Johnson have been resurfacing in my long vacation mind: “Criticism is a study by which men grow important and formidable at very small expense”. A quick search on my smartphone puts me out of the misery of partial recollection: “every man can exert such judgment as he has upon the works of others; and he whom nature has made weak, and idleness keeps ignorant, may yet support his vanity by the name of a critick.”

Johnson must have been referring to contemporary journalism and not the critical activity of professors: English literature was not really studied at university with much seriousness until the beginning of the twentieth century. Nonetheless, his words may well be applied to professors of poetry today.

A couple of weeks ago I climbed down from Lago Longet in the Alps to wander around the mountain village of Chianale. I was disconcerted to find that I had joined large gangs of other gormless tourists engaged in exactly the same activity. As I investigated the Romanesque church while others crowded into small gift shops to buy expensive and completely useless handcrafted objects, it occurred to me that we were behaving just like literary critics.

In fact, the last few academic books that I’ve read have wandered around great works of our past in exactly the same bemused, half-respectful and ineffectual manner. Disassociated from the arduous traditions that have produced anything of beauty in our culture, we now have the leisure to wonder in ignorance at their greatness.

A related thought occurred to me as I was strolling around the pedestrianised streets of Saluzzo a few days later. Why is Cornmarket in Oxford so ugly in comparison? I asked myself. Why have we let fast food chains from America into the centre of our beautiful old city? How did the Italians resist such incursions?

While I have the utmost respect for the Germanic learning of Martin Heidegger and can almost delight in Jacques Derrida’s French playfulness, to think that you can deal with any great work of English literature from the perspective of one or another literary theory, is to crave fast food when you are in Piedmont, the very centre of the slow food movement.

Time I Googled The Vagabond Spirit of Poetry to find out its latest ranking on Amazon.