Christopher Ricks’ Along Heroic Lines is his best work of criticism since Essays in Appreciation, which is also the collection with which it shares most similarities. In all of his criticism, Ricks stands with the enduringly great critics in turning to, and returning us to, what is admirably extraordinary—granting that what is extra-ordinary might be deplorably or disappointingly so. There is, in Ricks’ criticism, an unparalleled (among contemporary critics) sense for what is extraordinary in language, in particular turns and twists of language, in the imaginative conduct that is literature and the imaginative conduct that characterizes so much else of life. This is everywhere in the criticism. It goes too far in one direction, and not far enough in many others, to say that for Ricks criticism is ethical as well as aesthetic; the bracing of those terms constrains as much as it suggests, as does the bracing of subjective and objective. The “admirably extraordinary” suffices in part because it respects what cannot prove sufficient: a theory or method for making sense of, and making defense on behalf of, that which is not regular or ordinary, and which therefore cannot be entirely regularized or completely generalized as a theory or method would aim to do. Principles for Ricks are the generalization that not only permits but invites exceptions, where the exception is of the essence in appreciating what is exceptional, in its own terms, with a recognition that the ordinary is of special value not only for the extraordinary but in so far as it is itself, of the awareness that nothing can be totally extraordinary without ceasing to be anything at all, that anything in extraordinary in one respect must sacrifice another respect, out of respect for the recalcitrance of things, and out of respect for its own limitations, so that there are tradeoffs for payoffs and also payoffs to tradeoffs. All of that is everywhere in the criticism.
But the criticism is not everywhere uniform, in achievement, aspiration, emphasis or motive. I suggest the following categories: the earliest criticism, including Milton’s Grand Style, the discussions of poems in Tennyson, the essays on Milton and symbols in Shakespeare in The Sphere History, the introduction to Arnold’s selected criticism, the essay on Great Expectations, and the introductory essay to Poems and Critics. In these, he enters into long-standing discussions and combines the influences chiefly of Eliot, Empson, Lewis, and Davie, with Lewis’ patient clarity carrying out Empson’s scrupulous eye for detail and magnanimous humanity and Donald Davie’s argumentative drive; there is a vein of Leavis too; and Eliot subterranean throughout.
Then there are the three pinnacles of the criticism: Keats and Embarrassment, The Force of Poetry, T.S. Eliot and Prejudice. Of these The Force of Poetry stands apart, drawing together essays that are concerned with elucidating specific techniques in verse: how poets do what they do, though the subtlety of analysis and evocation of all that various poems and poets do is nowhere greater, in any criticism I know. The other two are concerned with neither poems nor biographies, but with the shapes of the imagination of two men who discovered new forms of experience (to apply Eliot’s praise of Keats to Eliot himself): Ricks is concerned with two aspects of the judgment, that faculty of special importance not just to literature and criticism but to all of life, and the conduct of writing in any form. Keats and Eliot not only saw and felt the world differently from how others saw and felt it; they also saw and felt what it means to see and feel. For both, such awareness of seeing and feeling was inseparable from an awareness of other people that was both keen and original in how they felt and saw that awareness itself. In these works, Ricks attends to verse and prose, letters and publications, and the aim is not only to illuminate what is remarkable in Eliot and Keats but to illuminate what is remarkable in how life is apprehended. That verb, essential to Ricks’ criticism, is fully itself in these two works.
Third, there is a large group of works, Beckett’s Dying Words, Allusion to the Poets, and True Friendship, but also Inventions of the March Hare and the collected Eliot. These are most obviously virtuoso performances of memory, and of reading for absence as well as presence—for the presence of absences (the essay on Lowell fits here too, with its ghostly figure of the “anti-pun”), really, mostly in echoes of other poems, echoes of poetry that reside within the lines of a verse or even a single word. But most of all, these are works about remembering and what remembering poems in poetry, and what remembering absence in presence, can mean in language. The Beckett book fits here because it is so full of echoes, and because its central topic is the relation of dead language to living, to what is in some way not there to what is there.
Fourth are the works of and about textual scholarship and editing: the editions of Tennyson, Eliot, and Dylan, and Decisions and Revisions in T.S. Eliot. I would include here also Dylan’s Visions of Sin, since the entire enterprise of asking people to hear Dylan’s words in a certain light, under the aspect of carefully attending to words, is ancillary to the work of textual recovery; it is worth preserving these words, that book says, sometimes hearkening to allusion, at other times to technique, and always to Dylan’s power of judgment.
Which leaves Essays in Appreciation and Along Heroic Lines. These belong together as overtly, though obliquely, taking up why we ought to admire and appreciate the conduct of the imagination and language. They make the case for valuing—and in so doing make the case for discriminating what is extraordinary in one respect from one is extraordinary in another. That case is made by example and instance, so that both concern works and authors and imaginative occasions that might be overlooked: in Essays in Appreciation, George Crabbe, several works of Victorian life and letters, a little-read Hardy poem; in Along Heroic Lines, John Jay Chapman, the novelist-critic, the anagram, the relation of Byron and T.S. Eliot, Ion Bugan, and Norman Mailer (now eclipsed, largely unread).
Both collections might seem at first to bring together strays, but this is a feature and not a bug, since they aim at expanding our sense of what appreciation might do, and where the heroic might inconspicuously reside. In another sense, both collections recurringly attend to limits: the limits of argument and imagination, the limits that are limitations, and the limits that are mistaken for limitations, and the limits of praise. Carlyle appears throughout Along Heroic Lines, always with respect for his enormous powers, and with a pitying and undaunted reckoning of where those powers cease to be generative and instead turn to waste or malignancy. The essay on Mailer, attuned to the harmonies of Mailer’s and Carlyle’s minds, achieves much the same equilibrium of praise and sober appraisal of Mailer’s rhetorical insobrieties. A great writer of limits (of the figures of speech that imply limits and of the limits of speech and understanding), Henry James similarly figures prominently in Along Heroic Lines, with one of the great critical turns of the screw coming in Ricks’ rebuttal of Leavis’ complaint against James’ declining to show, or trying to understand, how Isabel Archer could have said yes to Gilbert Osmond; Leavis has failed to appreciate James’ respect for the limits of what even he, the novelist, can know. In Essays in Appreciation, the essays on Donne’s endings, on Austen and mothering, on Lowell’s translation of Racine, and on the presumptions of professionalism, in its theoretical pursuits and canon controversializing, are all sharply attuned to knowing what is enough, and what going too far can cost thought and feeling.
But there are real differences between these two collections, for all that. Collections that owe to Ricks’ drawing out, in Along Heroic Line, a unity that the essays possess by virtue of being his own. For it is not “greatness” that he takes up (noting Carlyle’s sense of the difference of the great and the heroic, despite the risk that the latter will grossly be swallowed by the former), or the appreciation for the remarkable, or admiration, but instead the heroic as a distinct form of greatness—one that depends upon courage, upon the sense, to which Ricks appeals, that in the same situation, I likely would not, could not, have acted thus. The heroic is exemplary, but an example of a certain kind, attuned to risk, to fear, to conduct that is itself set apart for its relation to circumstances that are set apart from others. It is the extraordinary in relation to the extraordinary. And then there is the plural of the title, and the play of words in the preposition: “along those lines,” not exactly that, but more or less, the realization that what that is cannot be exactly had, is always open for potential disagreement, or else could not be thought heroic at all. Heroes, public as they are in their actions and consequence, are often intensely privately considered heroes, “my mind’s heroes,” as Geoffrey Hill writes. “Along heroic lines” too because the heroic is aspired to, but asymptotic in some sense: an ideal reached, but not entirely or forever. Ricks cautions us, and himself, against Carlyle’s “hero-worship” and expresses, with Eliot, un-ease at heroics. He writes on authors who are in some sense heroes, but who are in other senses, evident in the essays on Carlyle (or essays involving Carlyle, as he is involved and surrounding many in the book) and Mailer, very short of heroism in their failing to adequately defend themselves from their own notions.
Then there is the plural “lines.” The cinching technique of the book—the most remarkable of Ricks’ apercus, since it is so subtle as to inspire the doubt that it is so common as to be without much significance, appearing as it does in nearly every author Ricks takes up, but also so undeniably present as to be evidently a natural resource of the language, commonly called upon, shockingly unnoticed by critics till now—is the heroic line, a cadence of ten syllables, not exactly the iambic pentameter, but the truer to voice and experience realization of that not only in poetry but in prose. Along heroic lines, plural, because there is no one heroic line, as the term “iambic pentameter” would suggest; but there is instead, as Ricks writes, a family resemblance between various lines called heroic. And along heroic “lines” because the lines are both in verse and prose, one of the best pieces of the lecture being the inaugural lecture of Ricks’ time as Oxford Professor of Poetry, in which he asserts the glories and claims of prose against not poetry exactly, but against those who would insist, unthinkingly, that poetry is the greater of the two.
The presence of the heroic line—the cadenced unity of ten syllables that constitute a relatively independent sense unit—is found most quietly in the prose that Ricks quotes with judicious generosity: always the right passage, always long enough to admit us into the world of its words. “Is found” should be “is heard” or “is permitted to us to hear”—but on the silence of the page? The first essay, on prose and verse, was first a spoken inaugural address, and the essays are consistently vigilant to the balance of ear and eye that the greatest writing, in prose and verse, sustains—this like the balance, Ricks might say, of heart and mind. To assist us in hearing the heroic line, Ricks invents—a genuine critical invention, of which there are few—a form of punctuation to set apart and attune us to the ten syllable unit: ~ set on either side of the line. This mark, along with the suspended ellipses (indicating an editor’s elision rather than an author’s own), forged for the edition of Eliot co-edited with McCue, speaks to and of what is central to Ricks’ textual scholarship, uncannily fine ear for the words on the page, and finely judged sense of how to accomplish the most elementary and valuable of critical tasks: drawing attention, and getting out of the way. Ricks’ own writing, as baroque as its qualifications and reverberating puns and phonetic play, is aimed at helping us hear, not only the words that he sets down, setting them up in performance to dislodge them from dulled rote writ, but also the words that he moves around, between, over and upon. He is always inviting us to, sometimes insisting that we, hear anew.
In Along Heroic Lines, Ricks has assembled essays that are not merely on his literary heroes, but his heroes of heroism; those whose thoughts on heroism serve as touchstones for how the heroic might be conceived and appreciated. And yet it is nowhere the case that Ricks suggests that we only ought to, or should, admire heroes; heroes, he knows, ought to elicit healthy ambivalence and skepticism, and he quotes Orwell on saints, “that they should always be presumed guilty until they are proven innocent,” and he suggests that heroes warrant the same scrutiny. Not all authors we admire or appreciate are heroes or often heroic, but some are; and more still might have much of value to say about heroes as we find, and sometimes need, sometimes regret, them in all of those parts of life that are not literature. And when they do, we should listen, not only to what they tell us, but to how their words rise towards a measure of the heroic in language commensurate but not equivalent to the heroic in action and deed.