Lyrics and Ironies

Christopher Ricks

  • The Alluring Problem: An Essay on Irony by D.J. Enright
    Oxford, 178 pp, £12.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 19 212253 3
  • Czeslaw Milosz and the Insufficiency of Lyric by Donald Davie
    Cambridge, 76 pp, £15.00, September 1986, ISBN 0 521 32264 2

Faintly repelled by elaborate theories of irony and by taxonomies of it, D.J. Enright has set himself to muster instances, observations, localities and anecdotes. There is no continuing argument, and not much argufying even, but there are plenty of penetrating glances. ‘Rather than theory, it is something resembling “practical criticism” that this book will concern itself with: the exploration of individual ironies as they are manifest in life as well as in literature.’ This is good-naturedly loose, the recipe for something resembling a scrapbook, a scrappy one. ‘When I was making notes for this book I came, before long, to see irony everywhere.’ Likewise when you were making a book for these notes.

The lure of the abstract has not altogether been extirpated. The generalising title, The Alluring Problem, isn’t good: partly because it is dry until colonically irrigated with ‘An Essay on Irony’; partly because you can’t understand it until you meet Mann’s epigraph (‘the problem of irony, beyond compare the most profound and most alluring in the world’); partly because the relation of the title to the epigraph is uninciting (is Enright dissenting from the ‘most profound’ bit? Or just not much bothered?); and partly because it is far from clear what the problem of irony is exactly. Enright, putting a brave face on his title, announces in his first paragraph that the obvious problem is to gauge how effective an irony has proved. This can mean plastically anything. Enright fortunately spends most of the book knowing no such liberty. But he’d have done better to go even further towards a gathering of instances and reflections. ‘Anyone who has propounded a theory or compiled an anthology on a particular theme ...’: the editor of The Oxford Book of Death may have flinched from an Oxford Book of Irony, but he might have taken as a model Aldous Huxley’s lovely lasting book Texts and Pretexts, with its fine title (modest and radiating) and with its responsible freedoms as to when to quote, and how much, and with what flankings of commentary.

The unnourishing servings within The Alluring Problem (a book of 160 pages divided into 28 sections each then cravenly carved into chicken McNuggets of information) are those where you find yourself sure that either the arguments should have been digested or they shouldn’t have been broached. The TLS furore or fury about Peter Reading’s poem ‘Cub’ – anti-semitic, or dramatising anti-semitism? – isn’t appropriately or commensurately to be engaged with in two pages of musings (under the aegis ‘Or Only Funny and Sad?’), ending with: ‘Tone is a fearfully difficult thing not to get wrong, short of doing without it altogether. Who can be wise, amazed, temperate and furious, loyal and neutral, in a moment – and tactful as well? But I am not a Jew.’ The tone of the allusion is unfathomable (what are we supposed to do with the murderous mendacity of Macbeth?), and the tone of the last half-dozen words comes out not as a shouldering but as a shrugging.

Tone has to do a great deal of the work – complemented by principle – once the enterprise is not only non-theoretical but anti-theoretical. Enright’s tone, I should judge, is at its best when genially sturdy, when, for instance, he deplores Flaubert’s craving to score off his characters, and – worse – the craving of his commentators to egg him on:

When Bovary’s horse stumbles as he enters Les Bertaux, the farm owned by Emma’s father, ‘the possibility of an ill omen immediately occurs to us,’ Miss Furst remarks, ‘though not to the unimaginative Charles.’ It isn’t hard for the reader to be cleverer than Charles. But what would we think of a suitor who turned back because his horse stumbled at the threshold of his loved one’s home? Or rather, following the text, what would we think of a doctor who hesitated because his horse, frightened by dogs, shied as he was on his way to treat an unknown farmer who happened to have a daughter? A stumbling or shying horse is no more than an unbrushed, ill-educated coincidence.

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