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13 July 2021

Christopher Ricks: “Criticism is being good at noticing things”

The scholar and literary critic on embarrassment, Bob Dylan and being irritable.

By Leo Robson

Sir Christopher Ricks has been described (by WH Auden) as “the kind of critic every poet dreams of finding” and by a pseudonymous former student as “the kind of professor you would have if you went to Hogwarts”. Born in Kent in 1933, he studied English at Oxford, and has held positions at Oxford, Bristol, Cambridge and, since 1986, Boston University. His many books include studies of Beckett and Bob Dylan, and multi-volume editions of the work of Tennyson and TS Eliot. His new collection of essays, Along Heroic Lines (OUP), is concerned with the varieties of heroism and the relationship between poetry and prose, and covers many of Ricks’s own heroes, from Shakespeare and Samuel Johnson to Geoffrey Hill and Norman Mailer via George Eliot and Charlotte Brontë.

Ricks’s work inspires admiration and even awe. The historian Keith Thomas, a fellow undergraduate at Balliol College, Oxford, in the 1950s, calls Ricks “a genuine original”. Fellow critic John Carey, an Oxford colleague during the 1960s, remembers being “staggered” on reading Ricks’s first book, Milton’s Grand Style (1963), and feeling “wildly jealous” for some years afterwards. He said that Ricks can “take a text you know well and make you see it a completely different way. You think, ‘My God’.” When I asked the Harvard professor Helen Vendler – Ricks’s contemporary and perhaps chief rival as greatest living poetry critic – about Ricks’s contribution, she replied: “The genius of the Tennyson and Eliot editions, the defence of poetic tradition, the phenomenal learning, the love of puns, the alert humour, the insights of the critic – who could ask for anything more?”

But Ricks’s most powerful influence has been on later generations. Geoff Dyer recalls the excitement of Ricks’s occasional visits to Oxford during the 1970s, when he talked about Bob Dylan and lent Dyer some cassettes of bootleg recordings. James Wood, a student at Cambridge in the 1980s, when Ricks was the university’s King Edward VII Professor of English Literature, also remembers his lecturing style – the way he “swung from quote to quote, and wonderfully riffed on each one”. Wendy Lesser attended Ricks’s course on Victorian poetry, which he taught as a Bristol professor visiting Harvard for a year: “Though he was intimidatingly brilliant, he made me feel as if my pipsqueak ideas about Gerard Manley Hopkins were worth attending to.” Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, a specialist in Victorian literature and a professor at Oxford, told me that Ricks “changed the way I thought about reading, and writing, and indeed thinking itself”.

Now 87, Ricks continues to serve as the Warren Professor of the Humanities at Boston University. He has seven children, 15 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. During a recent Zoom conversation, he commented on my “face frondage” before covering a range of other topics.

On the origins of his classic first book 

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What I’ve hoped to do, and may sometimes have done, is explain to myself some puzzle or problem. With Milton’s Grand Style, it was: how can it be that Milton was held by TS Eliot and by FR Leavis to be bad in some crucial respects, when I had loved reading Milton since I was a schoolboy? Would I have to revise my finding them to be very good critics, or give up thinking Milton a very good poet, or what? Well, there are many reasons why Eliot would have been hostile to Milton, so the tricky bit was my gratitude to Leavis. He was such a revelatory analyst of the behaviour of words, the way that they compete with one another, cooperate with one another, thumb their nose at one another. His practical criticism is simply superb – repeatedly. My line of argument was that Leavis and Eliot were wrong about what Paradise Lost was up to – what it was like. The point about the grand style is that it’s half the time not grand at all. It’s the book of mine that’s best argued – and someone (true, he is a friend) did say, on the 50th anniversary, “It’s very unusual for a literary argument to be won.”

On becoming a “scholar-critic” 

Some things are just flukes. It was suggested I edited Tennyson by Freddy [FW] Bateson who was starting the Longman series. Freddy’s idea of the scholar-critic really meant the editor-critic. He was wonderful at saying, “You will fall short of being a really good editor unless you’re a critic, and you will fall short of being a really good critic unless you’re an editor.”

On John Carey 

He’s wonderfully clever, very funny. Anyone who can describe John Betjeman as “portly and boatered”! It sounds exactly like a Victorian grocer’s in Cornmarket in Oxford. The essays on Renaissance prose [in the Ricks-edited Sphere History of Literature in the English Language] are extraordinary, moving at a wonderful pace through these things, and again and again noticing something. He was very brave as a young man. He hasn’t been a coward ever. 

On theory, philosophy and instances 

It’s true that a continuing thing for me is the suspicion – amounting to hostility, mounting to repudiation – of theory. The idea that Dr Johnson, not being a “theorist”, cannot have thought to much purpose – absurd. He thought very hard, and it did not issue in “theory” or in a theory. Johnson matters so much to me not only because of his humanity and his generous goodness, but because he is large, living evidence that somebody can be an extremely powerful critic while finding philosophy – in specifiable, particular ways – inimical to criticism. It’s not just an anecdote and Bishop Berkeley and kicking the stone. The lexicographical dedication or habit of mind says that if you think about words and concepts, you’ll quite soon reach the point where thinking further in an abstracting way won’t work, won’t help. The distinction between “courage” and “foolhardiness” is extremely important, but you will not arrive at it by philosophically cogitating – you’ll make your way to it only by thinking with well-informed imagination about the dictionary citations and the instances which catch the difference. 

On the late Harold Bloom 

He had amazingly little interest in close reading. He scarcely attended to the words at all. He quotes hugely and he often quotes very aptly. But he has nothing to say about the language of literature. He has a certain force of personality, but only the kind that goes with the word “force”. He clearly has no obligation to make good what he says in the very words he is quoting. Am I better than Bloom? Well I’m better than him at that

On being “irritable” 

I can’t let any professional thing pass. If I would just not jugulate the person who had just said that idiotic thing, who has friends in the department, I might get through what I wish to happen. Somebody at Boston University said, “We mustn’t appoint Geoffrey Hill because he’s probably the best poet now writing in English, and that would be to identify the university as valuing only one kind of poetry.” The terrible speciousness – I could not let it pass. This was somebody much loved in the department, though why, I can’t imagine. I can’t let any of those things pass. 

On reviewing Iris Murdoch 

I had a wonderful note from John Bayley [Oxford literary critic and Iris Murdoch’s former spouse] saying, “Iris never reads reviews of her work, but were she to do so, I’m sure she would be the first to appreciate your courtesy…” It didn’t make any sense at all. If she was the first to appreciate it, she would put down her pen and never pick it up again! 

On being “an embarrassment person” 

I can’t, for instance, refer to Judith as “my wife” – but you can’t say “the wife” unless you’re a British comedy on the radio. So I say “to whom I am married”, which some people think rather pompous. I will go a very long way rather than ask somebody the way to somewhere. That’s a male thing. They’ve proved that ­– it’s physiological. If the three wise men had been three wise women they’d have just asked the way. None of that “Is that a star up there?”. 

On the limits of his criticism 

Much of the time I have a general proposition which I put forward and don’t feel is inadequate. Keats and Embarrassment came from my puzzlement that lines like “Those lips, O slippery blisses, twinkling eyes” were held to be bad, yet they are very memorable. The book was about the misjudgement of embarrassment. I offer a contrast with Byron, who is unembarrassable and whose whole forte is an announcement of his unembarrassability. My friend John Gross [a former NS literary editor] could write Shylock or The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters with not only a general proposition and some lovely local analyses, but also a continuing argument or narrative, along with a mastery of a whole idiom that could get people who didn’t think they cared about the subject to find that they do care about it. When Donald Davie is talking about “purity of diction” and the English hymn, he has some sense of why Charles Wesley [the 18th-century Methodist leader who wrote more than 6,500 hymns] was of such worth – and it’s not just Davie’s attention to the instances, as it’s not just the instances of syntax in [Davie’s work on syntax in poetry] Articulate Energy. There’s a middle kind of writing which is not the reasserting of the general assertion all the time, nor is it just a matter of a series of instances. It’s something which fills in more of the story – by narrative or biography, literary history or history. It’s not a gift that I think myself vitiating-ly lacking in, but rather sadly lacking in.

On the limits of his learning 

I couldn’t begin to give a good lecture, or talk even, on Victorian religion. I don’t know nearly enough about it. One of the great pleasures of my friend [the late Cambridge academic] Eric Griffiths, a pleasure enjoyed by him and ruefully enjoyed by me, was his always saying, “You don’t know nearly enough about… theology.” Well, I don’t make free with the names very much. You don’t often hear me say “Tillich”, for example. So I’m not cheating. But I’m very deficient.

On Samuel Beckett

The outcry that his work was no more than, in the terms with which Larkin attacked all modernisms, “mystification and outrage”: this seems to me a flagrant misdescription. I was pleased to have written about Beckett in 1955, for [Oxford’s student magazine] Isis, in a series about present-day under-valued writers. I think he became a great writer when he incorporated in his writing his awareness that death has great creative possibilities, and is, in its way, benign. If there’s a lot to be said for death, why is it right to praise a writer’s language simply as “alive” – which is what Beckett had said in 1929 about Joyce? Beckett sorted it out by realising (making real) what sort of life there ought to be in your language if you thought that death had not enjoyed a fair crack of the whip.

On what he hasn’t written 

I think criticism is being good at noticing things. If I write about a particular work of literature, I do have to believe – not always, as it turns out, rightly – that I have noticed something about it. Something true and, to some degree, new. So there are countless songs by Dylan that I find delightful or poignant, as to whose workings and playings I have never noticed anything that is at all likely to have gone unnoticed by others. So, nothing to set down. I can’t see that I have anything large to say about Henry James that is likely to have escaped others. Again, believing as I do that Wordsworth is the greatest English poet, I am of course happy in the mild conviction that I did notice some worthwhile things, for instance about the omnipresent line-ending, or the workaday feats of the modest preposition: “Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart”. But with Wordsworth, any noticings by me have been on a modest – pretty limited – scale. I couldn’t possibly write a book about him.

On anecdotage in criticism 

I more and more dislike and disapprove of book reviews that begin with these personal anecdotes, though I must sometimes have gone in for it. Eliot says of a book about Blake that one cannot have too much enthusiasm, but your enthusiasm ought not to be your subject – that is, enthusiasm should be the element which makes it possible for you to speak, but your breath is not your subject. The personal is the political, so I am going to become politically wise and politically heard if I keep saying “I… I… I…” all the way through. It’s the same problem with identify with. Shelley talks about “a going out of our own nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own”. Well, if you’re identifying with it, you’re not going out of your own nature. You’ve got out of your own nature and then – how charming – you find it’s you! All this pretence has made me love again, and more than ever, DH Lawrence’s poems about other creatures, other species. Such reminders of the limits of the sympathetic imagination. 

On criticism and creativity

I think William Empson is a genius, and Johnson writes so deeply and so well that it would be worse than foolish to deny that the Lives of the Poets must be held a masterpiece of literature. I’m not in that class. I’m without genius. If the alternative to the creative is the destructive, I don’t think that much of my writing is actively destructive – probably not enough. I had a reproof from a dean at the end of a meeting that had been presented with a document in corp-speak: “Can you never say anything positive?” And I, ineffectually: “Hygiene is positive.” My writing is meant to serve. You might catch this in terms of genre. What I write is literary criticism, which stands un-tall in the hierarchy of genres, and is the wiser when it knows so.  

On the future 

Along Heroic Lines will be my last book of essays. I can’t imagine another. I’ll be 88 in a few months. I teach five days a week, pretty well every semester. I have a very nice room. I like enough members of the faculty. I still love editing. I think the editions that I’ve done will last longer than any criticism I’ve written. I have joined in the wish that Oxford will do a proper edition of Tennyson – proper in the sense that it would record all variants of wording. I sort of blessed it, in this rather lordly way. But my 1987 edition of Tennyson has lasted quite well. And the Eliot edition will last quite well, if Faber will allow us to correct and augment it. I’m currently one of the general editors of the selected prose of James Fitzjames Stephen. He’s only mentioned these days as Virginia Woolf’s uncle, and known as “the Gruffian”, which has taken on a new life for me because of The Gruffalo. My volume will be finished in a couple of months. And I’m going to publish all of Empson’s letters to me, and, in smaller print, my letters to him, and things I’ve written about Empson. He cared greatly about me, and I cared greatly about him. It won’t be a big book.

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