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Spring 2003

On Christopher Ricks As Critic

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P. N. Furbank

There was a type of Edwardian literary critic who felt compelled, as a matter almost of professional duty, to weave familiar tags into his or her prose, implying that the world apart from literature was a dingy affair, but if you wrapped yourself up in literature sufficiently you could ignore it. It was in a very different spirit that T. S. Eliot wrote, in an early number of Criterion: “It is the function of a literary review to maintain the autonomy and disinterestedness of literature, and at the same time to exhibit the relations of literature-not to ‘life,’ as something contrasted to literature, but to all the other activities, which, together with literature, are the components of life.” This is very finely put and is exactly the feeling we get from the prose style of William Empson, F. R. Leavis, and Eliot himself. Empson, from the beginning, adopted the plainest, most down-to-earth and straight-talking style; and at one time there was a fashion for abusing Leavis for talking about great literature in such a drab and un-“literary” language—an absurd complaint, for it was exactly his purpose to prevent any rivalry between his own prose and the works he was discussing.

By contrast, almost the first thing one notices about Ricks as a critic, though he often quotes those words of Eliot's, is that he has a “manner,” a set of idiosyncratic ploys—a bundle of tricks, if you like to call it so—very far removed from the “plain” style. Suppose one were asked to guess who wrote the following sentence: “For if it was Butler, not Byron, who first brought out how charmingly the word environ may environ the word iron, it is Tennyson who then brings out that Byron’s own name is in the environs.” The answer would be instant: “Ricks, of course, who else?” Likewise with “The currency that Keats’s predecessors enjoy within his work is never small change (as Byron's allusive largesse ringingly is)”—“ringingly” being a cunning play on two meanings, “emphatically” and “ringing as loose coins do in a pocket.” It is Ricks, one would surmise again, who would pun so outrageously, though cleverly, as in: “For this compelling photographer [he is referring to Robert Capa] was a compulsive liar. A Pathé logical one.” Who else would fancy making such a jingle as “But can Davie’s long love-affair with America be elided so glidingly”? Or would perpetrate such a Langland-like judder of “w”s as: “Yet Winters’s judgement on a critic whose memory we know, Cleanth Brooks, was less clear-cut than was Winters’s wont. With weird wit, Winters presented himself as ‘more hesitant’ than Brooks.”

One needs to consider these mannerisms of Ricks’s very patiently, for they are the key to the meanings and purposes of this brilliant critic. Let us take the “environs” passage. It comes in his new volume Allusion to the Poets, in which he explores the phenomenon of literary allusion (i.e., a writer's calling into play the words or phrases of a previous one) in all its varieties—deliberate and explicit, half-conscious and unconscious. He notes that Samuel (Hudibras) Butler was the first to see the charm of rhyming environ with iron (“Ay me what perils do environ / The man that meddles with cold Iron”) and that Byron follows him in Don Juan:

Ah! what is man? what perils still environ
The happiest mortals even after dinner!
A day of gold from out an age of iron...

Which brings us to an early poem by Tennyson, one that he never published, entitled “I dare not write an Ode,” in which he runs through the reasons why reviewers, and the Muse herself, will scorn him whatever he attempts to write. (“What countless ills a minor bard environ- / ‘You're imitating Whistlecraft and Byron’”) Ricks's alertness to such echoes is something amazing, but what I want to draw attention to is his incorporating the word environ into his own prose (“how charmingly the word environ may environ the word iron”), thereby making it do double duty. It is a very effective device and is more purposeful than it first appears.

For his theory is that allusions themselves tend to have a character of doubleness and of doing double duty. They occur (or function best) where the context, the subject-matter being written about, itself has affinities with allusion—for instance, inheritance or succession or father-and-sonship. That this is true at least with Dryden and Pope he has no difficulty in showing. Dryden never tired of speaking of Shakespeare as “the father of our dramatic poets” or of Chaucer as “the father of English poetry.” Though on the other hand he was faced with a problem. For Shakespeare and Ben Jonson and Milton were, as it were, giants from before the Flood. People liked to speak of “the sons of Ben,” but in fact there were no sons of “Ben,” and even more so no “sons of Milton.” It was not possible for a Dryden to write in the style of these predecessors, and hence paternal continuity with them had to be achieved by a new device: allusion. Allusion, says Ricks, is a way of “containing one's predecessors.”

Dryden is the first major poet in English to allude extensively...to poetry in English; creating his own meanings by bringing into play the meanings of other English poets. He does so without malignity or belittling, and yet to do so is necessarily to do something about what might otherwise be the crippling burden of the past.

Dryden’s MacFlecknoe, which alludes so funnily and memorably to the poet Cowley, is, of course, ferociously belittling to its victim Shadwell, who is being consecrated as the poetical “son,” the legitimate successor, of the famously bad poet Richard Fleckno. The poem is thus all about succession, which is a kindred idea to allusion. But its marvelous comic transmutation of lines from Cowley (“Where their vast Court the Mother-waters keep, / And undisturb’d by Moons in silence sleep, etc.”) into “Where their vast courts the Mother-strumpets keep / And undisturb’d by watch, in silence sleep,” is not intended to belittle Cowley.

Pope, so Ricks argues, had much the same attitude towards allusions as Dryden; and when, in the Dunciad, he describes Cibber enthroned among his dunces,

His Peers shine round him with reflected grace,
New edge their dulness, and new bronze their face.
So from the Sun's broad beam, in shallow urns
Heaven's twinkling Sparks draw light, and point their horns

—lines which make evident allusion to the following ones from Paradise Lost,

Hither as to their Fountain other Starrs
Repairing, in their gold'n Urns draw Light,
And hence the Morning Planet gilds her horns

—he is far from making fun of Milton. He is, indeed, doing just what Milton’s stars are doing, drawing light from an even greater source of energy and illumination (i.e., from Milton the master poet). “Pope’s lines describe the nature of an allusion in the act of making one,” says Ricks, and moreover “they breathe the right spirit, ‘the generous spending of an inheritance.’”

In Allusion to the Poets, in addition to the chapter on Dryden and Pope, there are lengthy chapters on Burns, Wordsworth, Byron, Keats, and Tennyson, identifying in each a particular personal and ideological attitude towards allusion. Critics have sometimes wanted to regard Burns as an inspired original, a force of nature without literary origins. “His light is of nature, like sunshine, and not reflected,” wrote Allan Cunningham in 1834. Ricks’s answer to this, in its verbal play on “reflect” and “reflection,” is supremely Ricksian. “Reflect on how poets have enjoyed bringing their allusive illuminations into relation with the light of the moon, allusion itself being a reflection from and upon a borrowed light, something that may be a lesser light but is not less light for having been borrowed.” He examines Burns’s specific allusions to Pope, Young, Shakespeare, Goldsmith, etc., but goes beyond this to describe the poem “Nature’s Law,” with its epigraph from Pope, as being full of words and phrases that would be appropriate to allusiveness: “multiplies,” “Be fruitful and increase,” “share,” “future rhymes,” “To emulate his sire.” For Burns, argues Ricks, allusion is a friendly, generous, companionable act. Ricks, here and elsewhere, is combating Harold Bloom’s theory of the “anxiety of influence,” according to which the relationship of new poets to old is a bitter Oedipean conflict.

In the prose of the Burns essay there are many examples of Ricks’s cherished “doing double duty.” In a poem (“Epistle to J. L--k”) in which Burns invites the warmhearted to “come to my arms,” Ricks describes the rhyming of “others” with “brothers” as “an embrace of a rhyme.” Of the last two lines of “Epistle to a Young Friend,” he says that they “do not turn on their heel; they turn away, with good will in their farewell.” We are clearly in the general area here of what Leavis called “analogical enactment,” as when he writes, about Donne’s

On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and hee that will
Reach her, about must, and about must goe;

that “The words seem to do what they say”; and, conversely, so Yvor Winters would say, indulging in “the fallacy of imitative form.” (Winters held it to be a critical sin, for instance, to justify bad writing as a valuable imitation of a bad state of affairs.) Ricks, however, at least in my two Burns examples, is less strict than Leavis, more fanciful, more inclined to depend on our indulgence, wanting as he does to argue that for Burns allusion itself is an embrace and an act of goodwill.

One may add that it is no wonder that Ricks idolizes the comic draughtsman Saul Steinberg, on whom he has an essay in an another new book of his, Reviewery, it being one of Steinberg’s favorite ploys to make words or the letters of the alphabet do double duty, as immaterial signs and as objects in the physical world. Ricks reproduces his rueful drawing of a small yes, on wheels, careering helplessly down a slope towards a large and menacing BUT.

I have wanted to emphasize Ricks’s idiosyncratic method, and we may learn something from an occasion where the method goes wrong. He is an admirer of the poet-translator David Ferry, and in an essay “David Ferry and the Shades of the Dead,” in Allusion to the Poets, he examines a curious enterprise of Ferry’s, to translate a neo-Latin poem by Samuel Johnson, “In Rivum a Mola Stoana Lichfeldiae diffluentem.” Here is the best I can do in the way of a literal translation:


There wanders hither through flourishing meadows
the glassy stream in which as a
boy I would often bathe my tender limbs;
here I frustrated my deluded arm with
unpractised movements, whilst my father,
in a gentle voice, instructed me how to
swim. Branches made a hiding-place, and in
the twilit day a “weeping” tree hid the
secret waters. Now the old shadows have
perished under hard axes, and the bathing-
place lies open to distant viewers. The
water, however, pursues unweariedly its
perennial course, and where it once ran
under cover it now flows open to view.
Heedless of what swift age brings from
outside, or what it wears away, you too,
Nisus, do what is yours to do.

And here is Ferry's version:

from the Latin of Samuel Johnson

The stream still flows through the meadow grass,
As clear as it was when I used to go in swimming,
not good at it at all, while my father’s voice
gently called out through the light of the shadowy glade,
trying to help me learn. The branches hung down low
over those waters made secret by their shadows.
My arms flailed in a childlike helpess way.

And now the sharp blade of the axe of time
has utterly cut away that tangle of shadows.
The naked waters are open to the sky now
and the stream still flows through the
meadow grass.

Ferry's is an attractive poem. Ricks calls it “radically unJohnsonian,” and this no doubt is true, but it hardly matters. But to boost Ferry, who is not yet a classic, Ricks slightly overworks his critical method. He makes rather much of Ferry’s changing “meadowgrass” to “meadow grass” and his introducing a space between lines 7 and 8. “The sequence,” writes Ricks, “is open (‘open to the sky now’), is cut and opened up, there upon the page.” In praising Ferry’s mastery of transitions, he adds, “but then translation partakes of transition” (I don’t quite get that); and he claims that Ferry always shows “an entire respect for the integrity of the poem he is translating.” But does he? After all, he drops Johnson’s last two lines, addressed to “Nisus,” in their entirety—Ricks’s explanation being that “the lesson feels too admonitorily that of a dominie.”

But the point is that Ricks, with all his magnificent conversancy with English poetry, has for once missed a trick. The all-important allusion inspiring the poem must certainly be the memorable lines in Ezra Pound’s Homage to Sextus Propertius,

Moving naked over Acheron
Upon the one raft, victor and conquered
Marius and Jugurtha together,
one tangle of shadows.

It is from Pound that Ferry gets his own “tangle of shadows,” and indeed it is because of Pound, not Johnson, that he plays on the double meaning of the word “shades,” as both shadows and ghosts, as alluded to by Ricks in the title of his essay. There are no ghosts in the Johnson.

So much for Ricks's style and method. He is also a serious moralist and—something not unconnected—an untier of knotty problems. For instance regarding plagiarism. The received line on plagiarism is that it is hard to define: that there is a grey area around it and there is no clear-cut way of distinguishing it from imitation, adaptation, or legitimate borrowing. To this Ricks very rightly answers that, on the contrary, there is no problem in defining plagiarism. It is a borrowing done with intent to deceive, and moreover a thing that one should never try to find excuses for. The problems it poses lie, rather, in deciding whether, in a given instance, plagiarism has taken place; “but the difficulty of deciding is not the same as the difficulty of defining.” This, for me, more or less clears the matter up.

Another awkward question that Ricks explores is what our reaction should be when a poet or novelist makes an error of fact—as when Keats depicts Cortez “silent, upon a peak in Darien,” when he should really have said Balboa. Ricks’s instinct as well as his principles tell him that it is wrong to hush the matter up, and doubly wrong to offer bogus excuses for doing so, such as that a poet or novelist enters into no contract to respect fact and truth. So far so good, and one would agree. But there is a difficulty. For Ricks cannot tell us what we should feel, or how we should proceed, in the face of such a writer's error—indeed this could never be reduced to a rule. It is right that we should have been told about the Cortez/Balboa mix-up, if we were too ignorant to spot it for ourselves; all the same, we have a sneaking wish that we had not been.

But Ricks comes out even more strongly on this matter of fact in an essay on the war photographer Robert Capa. It would appear from Capa's biographer that he was a flagrant liar and fantasist, and this raises the question whether his photos were the faithful record of fact that they purported to be; and in particular whether his most famous photograph, of a falling soldier in the Spanish Civil War, might not have been faked. His biographer is happy to leave the matter undecided.

To insist upon knowing whether the photograph actually shows a man at the moment he has been hit by a bullet is both morbid and trivializing, for the picture's greatness ultimately lies in its symbolic implications, not in its literal accuracy as a report on the death of a particular man.

Ricks, very rightly, takes great exception to this. “No, this is irresponsible and itself trivializing,” he writes. “Would the photograph really have effectively, affectively, the same symbolic implications if Capa had hired an actor for his shot?…we take the force of it because we take the photographer’s word for it.”

But actually I would go further than Ricks. He seems to allow that the photograph of a falling soldier could, if genuine, be symbolic, and I would deny that a photograph can be symbolic. The unspoken justification for any photograph is that it records something that really happened. If Julia Cameron photographs her friends in Arthurian costume, the photo is not about King Arthur and his knights but about the dressing-up (which will be all the more appealing if Gladstone or Tennyson takes part in it). A photograph might superficially seem to have qualities in common with a symbol, for instance to be enigmatic; but in the case of a photograph the solution to the enigma, quite unlike the case of a symbol, would lie in matters of fact-of who or what was photographed, and why. The train of thought that is set off by a photograph is predominantly about the photographer: about how, as with Capa’s falling soldier, he came to be ready with his camera at such an extraordinary moment, or what kind of man his “eye” for the accidentally bizarre or alluring or anecdotal would reveal him to be. Elsewhere this is known as “the biographical fallacy.”

That Ricks has valuable insights into the human psyche and the “moral life” is proved by his very attractive Keats and Embarrassment, a work of literary criticism of a quite original kind. A sentence in it, about blushing, hits off its theme exactly: “The blush too could sum up much of what was rightly felt about spontaneity and the extent to which the deepest feelings are somehow involuntary and yet are our responsibility.”

Once at least, however, in the Allusion essay “A. E. Housman and ‘the colour of his hair,’’ he seems to go amazingly wrong, both ethically and literarily. If there were space it would be nice to sort out the perversities of this essay at length. But very briefly: it is concerned with the poem which Housman wrote, though did not publish, at the time of the Oscar Wilde trial.

Oh who is that young sinner with the hand-
cuffs on his wrists?
And what has he been after that they groan
and shake their fists?
And wherefore is he wearing such a
conscience-stricken air?
Oh they're taking him to prison for the colour of his hair.

Punishment for having hair of the wrong color is a long-established commonplace, and Housman’s meaning here is perfectly clear: penalizing Wilde for homosexuality is a grievous perversion of justice. But as Ricks reminds us, Housman went on to write and publish two more poems at the same time, “Shot? so quick, so clean an ending?” and “If it chance your eye offend you,” prompted by a newspaper report about a young Woolwich cadet who had committed suicide out of shame at realizing he was homosexual. The poems praise the “lad” for “playing the man” in taking himself out of the world “Undishonoured” and “clean of guilt,” exterminating “The soul that should not have been born.”

Now the point that leaps out at one here is the fearful falsity and Pecksniffery of Housman’s attitude. To treat the suicide as an expression of the honor and decency of a simple-minded “lad” evidently sprang from a sense of guilt on Housman’s part—that, though homosexual himself, he had no intention of following the lad’s example. The deep incompatibility of these two poems with the one about “the colour of his hair” helps to explain why, for all the unforgettability of Housman's verse, one cannot consider him a great poet.

Ricks, however, sides with Housman. Undoubtedly, it always takes courage to commit suicide, but Ricks speaks of the young soldier’s action as a gesture of “healthy courage.” Now, that suicide, for any reason, should be called “healthy” seems to me a very shocking idea. Ricks wants to see wisdom in Housman’s view of the young soldier’s action as being a prophetic warning against “any emancipated or enlightened insistence that there is in homosexuality no dishonour or guilt of which one should yearn to be ‘clean’”; and this leads him on, through a learned history of the commonplace about “the colour of one’s hair,” to seem to be arguing (though of course this must be an illusion) that there might after all be something to be said for penalizing people for having the wrong-colored hair. (Was not Judas red-headed?)

What one might also go on about at length, were there room, is Ricks’s implacable resistance to “theory.” In place of “theory” he offers “principles,” on the grounds that principles are more flexible and less inclined to lend themselves to dogmatism and imperialism. “Principles permit of counter-principles, as proverbs do. A theory, because its reputability is constituted of elaborated concatenation, cannot accomodate a counter-theory.” What he says about principles makes great sense. Nevertheless, his wilful, and truculent, shutting of his mind against theory, making a bogey of it as Protestants used to do about “popery,” does him harm. One of his great strengths has always been getting his facts right, but in his dealings with theory, at least in one instance, he gets things astonishingly wrong. He is arguing that theory, like Paterian aestheticism, craves “to remove literature from any obligations to referential fidelity or correspondence…For has not language itself (the medium of literature) been proved, by Saussure and his set, to be entirely without referential fidelity or correspondence?” Actually, I have met with this notion before, but it is very absurd, a kind of folk myth, and one would look in vain for anything remotely to that effect in Saussure's Cours de linguistique générale. It must arise from misunderstanding Saussure when he says what is obvious but has important implications: that the literary “sign” is entirely arbitrary, there being no natural or intrinsic link between words and what they designate—in other words, that it is in no way anomalous that an English speaker will say “tree” where a French speaker will say “arbre.” I would add that it is not very clear what Ricks can mean by Saussure’s “set,” seeing that the great man died in 1913.

But further, how can a man of Ricks’s dazzling intelligence not have been at least excited, forty or so years ago, by Barthes’s Mythologies and S/Z, or Foucault’s great exegesis of Flaubert’s La Tentation de Saint-Antoine, let alone his astounding Les Mots et les Choses? (Perhaps he was, and even wrote about them, but I do not remember his doing so.) Perhaps it was because of a delusion that Barthes and Foucault, and soon afterwards Derrida and Paul de Man, were writing literary criticism; whereas, in so far as they were discussing literary matters at all, it was to establish the basis of the concept of “literature.” Ricks has always been a literary critic, concerned ultimately with value judgments, so he may have felt, and perhaps rightly, that these writers could be of no help to him.

P. N. Furbank's most recent book is Behalf. He is also the author of Diderot and, with W. R. Owens, A Critical Bibliography of Daniel Defoe.

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