A professor of mine at university who had studied under Christopher Ricks in the late 60s or early 70s at Oxford, told me that he admired him deeply still, after the academic skirmishes of the 80s, and that he told all graduate students that the single best book for learning how to read poetry was Ricks’ The Force of Poetry. He also sighed: “I just wish he cared more about history.”
For this professor, history was History, his being a Marxist, with a profound commitment to all that was humane and idealistic in that philosophy; for him it was a way of life. That remark struck me then because I wondered what it would mean for a critic like Ricks to invest himself more in history. It occurs to me that I know now what it would mean, that it is not what I imagined for a long time, training to become an ‘academic,’ that it was certainly not what that professor intended it to mean, and that, though I believe it is a limitation of sorts on his criticism, it is a limitation that is in turn a strength, as limitations often are.
Ricks’ idiosyncratic, essentially inimitable (though it is irresistible, and can be valuable, to imitate its more superficial mannerisms and habits) critical intelligent is manifest nowhere more than in his writing so well on a poetical figure that he was first to discover: the anti-pun. The term features centrally in his essay on Robert Lowell, where he hears echoes of violence in words that Lowell intimates but does not include, so as to make conspicuous to a reader what language or effects he has foregone. What is characteristic about Ricks and the anti-pun emerges in the difficulty one confronts in explaining whether Ricks discovered, invented, or first attended to the device (since Ricks’ Lowell essay, John Leonard has written on the anti-pun in Milton): it is, as Ricks would insist, a poet’s place to invent such a device, and even to discover it; but to speak of a critic’s detecting or identifying an anti-pun would suggest that such a category existed prior to the detection. Ricks’ critical gait let him stumble over something that others had stepped (too hastily) across, and also to say what was tripping him up. That felicitous tripping on language that protrudes is something akin to the sensitivity to words that a poet might possess, without the consequent creation whereby the language is fit to new form. That nearness to the poet’s receptivity, without the poetic activity, is the distinguishing characteristic of Ricks’ criticism. He is something of an anti-pun himself: the critic who recalls, but who is other than, the poet-critic, the hyphenated hybrid in whose tradition he stands, alongside his heroes Empson, Eliot, Davie, Arnold, Johnson. The pure critics who excite his imagination–Leavis, Trilling, John Jones–do not define principles as the poet-critics do. He is the critic-who-is-not-also-a-poet.
That matters for his sense of history, for were his criticism to be animated by a sense of history it would be the sort of historical sense that the poet-critics possess, which is very different from the sense of history driving academics. Theirs is not only or chiefly an awareness of history as historicism and historicizing, but also an awareness of history as something of which they are a part. Hence (to take the twentieth-century examples who wrote in an era of “historicism”) Davie, Eliot, Empson, and (more recently) Geoffrey Hill are fascinated by how poets (and other authors) conceive of their own public and private histories, are shaped by ideas that we would relegate to history, and are part of history, but with an eye to those poets forming a history of literature, literature as a public and historically motivated activity, of which they are a part. The consequence is often a sectarian dismissal of poets and movements of poetry from the past, the most famous example of which is probably Eliot and the Romantics (or Eliot and Milton), though Empson’s inability to read Stevens or James with seriousness, and Hill’s recalcitrance towards late Eliot and Larkin, might all be further examples; Davie’s strained relationship is with an array of Americans. Their criticism is occasionally invigorated, and occasionally vitiated, by these horizons; that Ricks’ criticism has horizons and blindnesses of its own goes without saying, in so far as Ricks is a human being; but the horizons and blindnesses of poets towards a past to which they are indebted or not, towards poets who may have engaged otherwise with politics, religion, and the divisions of public and private life, are not Ricks’.
Ricks could not write as he does with the historicism of academics of Marxist, or old philological, or whatever other persuasions; and not being a poet, he could not write as he does with the historical sense that poets, whether Marxist, liberal, conservative, or Tory reactionary, possess.
Whereas the assumption for the poet-critics is (even in the case of Empson, who is most catholic in his appreciation and understanding) that different poets are entering the fray of poetic activity from different sides, with different intentions and concerns, Ricks would tend not to take too seriously their own proclamations–here again, Empson is most similar to Ricks, pointing out in an essay that listening to poets talk about their views of poetry is a bit like listening to a man ordering drinks for the entire bar: not to be taken too seriously. For Ricks, there are a handful of principles upon which poets are to be received and appreciated; that he has managed to so carefully find and handle the principles, not from a priori theory, but from the experience of analysis, and comparison, is what sets him apart. He is, at his best, guided by the principles that one feels a poet must intuitively have at hand when judging, again intuitively, whether a work is going right.
They receive various articulation in Ricks’ work; in the later essays they are contained, implicitly almost, within key words, such as “gratitude” and “magnanimity,” but in the earlier work especially they are more fully spelled out. If I were to choose the one that has mattered most to me, that I would want to have most regularly at hand, it is from Keats and Embarrassment:
Can we praise and value works of imagination as we should praise and value behavior? I think that we can, should, and do. It is not just that writing is itself a form of behavior; nor that the generosity which I find in Keats’s poems is to me so strikingly like that which animates his letters–and letters, though they entail imagination, are not airily free from the contingencies of the actual: letters are directly behavior in the most ordinary sense….Art and imagination are not free to do as they like; they are indeed more free to choose than we often are in daily life, but the choices made are then inseparable from responsibilities.
This is as far from the priggish schoolmaster as could be, though it would be easy to mistake it for that, honing in on the word “responsibilities.” The key word, though, is “behavior.” It is a word that views literature under the auspices of anthropology (and so it is no wonder that Erving Goffman moves within the book), that sees the behavior of language in poems, letters, conversation as continuous with, and inextricable (even when read) from a consideration of other forms of behavior that are not verbal at all, and that are both social and individual. It is a principle of criticism that takes seriously what a poet is doing when he or she writes (behaving in a certain way), that behavior itself is often the subject of literature (the behavior of inanimate as well as animate matter even; the behavior of children as well as adults, of individuals as well as societies); that language in literature is no more a sculpture than a symphony, but that it shares with these a concern with how properties of the world and of social life behave (how light, sound, words, vision, hearing behave…), and so takes as its pivot not analogy but an axis on which much may turn; and that we ourselves behave when we encounter other behavior, that we try to understand and so must evaluate, in at least the thick descriptions and classifications we provide of the behaviors we encounter; and that we find our own minds and words behaving in ways that might very obviously be influenced and informed–though not in crass or obvious ways–by the behavior that we prize and despise. Most crucially, it holds central the thought that poets are themselves doing something when they write, whatever their writings might or might not do; that assumption is enough to encompass all writers, however much we want to imagine the material, economic, and social worlds they live in–all of which would matter considerably to Ricks, albeit under the hope that they would be humanely and relevantly described.
A friend of mine told me a story about Ricks attending a talk at Harvard where a speaker speculated on why Samuel Johnson carried a walking stick. After several minutes of what, in my friend’s account, was a waffling explanation without clear specifics, Ricks interrupted to point out that the walking stick would have been helpful in the streets of London at night, when there was some danger of assault. It was not a dissent from the speaker’s remarks (though it was met with some bristling by the speaker); it was rather the addition of a point to what seemingly had none, and it was not founded on a deep sense of history, but on a lightly historicized imagining of how someone else might have gotten through a daily routine that partially consisted of writing, alongside many others sorts of behavior.