specialized age, being a Man of Letters seems dilettantish or daring. John Wain, Poet, novelist, autobiographer, short story writer and critic remains as unruffled as, say, that cinema cowboy whose name sounds like his own. Besides which, he thinks. Wain's forte, his criticism, has two modes: the commonsense tradition of Johnson and the textualist modernism of Empson to whom, not surprisingly, the new book is dedicated. For the most part these modes work inevitably there is a lot to be chewed over and Wain engages in a number of razzerry assertions: e.g., in the face of the currently fashionable interpretations of Lear, he concludes with a beautifully simplistic statement. And elsewhere he goes Eliot one better and calls Hamlet ""too much."" Metaphorical chapter headings control the commentary and its design: ""Lovers Apart"" means a reading of Romeo, Othello, Cleopatra; ""Blindness"" treats Macbeth, Hamlet, Lear. A sturdy appreciation.