Beddoes’ Best Thing

C.H. Sisson

  • The Force of Poetry by Christopher Ricks
    Oxford, 447 pp, £19.50, September 1984, ISBN 0 19 811722 1

‘This is,’ as Professor Ricks says, in his rather baroque manner, ‘a gathering of essays, not a march of chapters’; each essay ‘attends to an aspect, feature, or resource of the language manifested in poetry’. The book is true to this prospectus insofar as the subject of most of the essays is some point to which the critic wishes to ‘give salience’, rather than the poet whose name appears in the title. The poets are Gower, Marvell, Milton, Johnson, Wordsworth and Beddoes, together with a handful of 20th-century poets from A.E. Housman to Geoffrey Hill. In Wordsworth we are to attend particularly to line-endings and to prepositions, in Marvell to ‘a particular figure of speech’, in Gower to ‘diction and formulae’. The sophistication of the critic is to be given its full range but the ‘force of poetry’ is to be restricted, in principle at least, to what can be achieved by the rhetorical peculiarities specified. This is perhaps something less than what Johnson had in mind in that passage from the Rambler from which Ricks takes the title of his volume. Johnson speaks of ‘that force which calls new powers into being, which embodies sentiment, and animates matter’.

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