I'm enjoying this how-to book quite a great deal. Eagleton combines close reading of famous poems with a quick overview of poetic theory and criticism, in the belief that close reading and theory must inform each other. He is particularly good on the semiotics of Yury Lotman. The style is witty and opinionated.
Eagleton defines a poem as "a fictional, verbally inventive moral statement in which it is the author, rather than the printer or word processor, who decides where the lines should end." He readily admits that the definition sounds "unpoetic to a fault," but defends it as "the best we can do."
I am particularly intrigued by the element of morality in his statement. He writes,
...morality in its traditional sense, before the advocates of duty and obligation got their hands on it, is the study of how to live most fully and enjoyably; and the word 'moral' in the present context refers to a qualitative or evaluative view of human conduct and experience. Moral language does not only include terms like good and bad, or right and wrong: its lexicon extends to such epithets as 'rash', 'exquisite', 'placid', 'sardonic', 'vivacious', 'resilient', 'tender', 'blase', and 'curmudgeonly'.
Later in the same section, Eagleton continues,
Poems are moral statements, then, not because they launch stringent judgements according to some code, but because they deal in human values, meanings and purposes. So another opposite of the word 'moral' here might be 'empirical'.
His words express a vague feeling I've always had that a poem conveys a moral vision, whether it is "The Inferno" or "Jabberwocky." By "moral vision," I don't mean a coherent moral philosophy or a moral code, but a certain angle of looking at human behaviour. Another art, say, painting, may not have that moral vision at its heart. I can enjoy fifty paintings of apples in a bowl, for what they tell me about apples, but I cannot enjoy fifty poems about apples without wondering what they have to do with me.