Poisonous Frogs

Laura Quinney

  • Allusion to the Poets by Christopher Ricks
    Oxford, 345 pp, £20.00, August 2002, ISBN 0 19 925032 4

This book comes in two parts. The first, ‘The Poet as Heir’, investigates characteristic uses of allusion by major British poets of the 18th and 19th centuries: Dryden, Pope, Wordsworth, Burns, Byron, Keats and Tennyson. The second, ‘In the Company of Allusion’, is a collection of occasional essays on allusion in minor or contemporary poets, or on general topics related to allusion: there are pieces on A.E. Housman, Yvor Winters, David Ferry, plagiarism, metaphor and ‘Loneliness and Poetry’. Ricks has a fine ear, as he knows, and is happiest when demonstrating the unique resources and powers of poetry. His method is essentially evaluative, and it depends on precise examination. Milton’s Adam says, ‘[I] feel that I am happier than I know’, Wordsworth alters the line to ‘We feel that we are greater than we know’, and Ricks captures the decisive difference: ‘Wordsworth’s “greater” … is the grander word but the narrower thought.’ We can never have enough of such detail. It is when he moves to a higher level of argument that Ricks loses his judiciousness. He takes too protective a stance when he argues against those critics who seem to him to demean poetry.

The chapters in ‘The Poet as Heir’ give new refinement to the study of allusion by showing that each poet fashions his own allusive manner, and chooses a subject-matter: Dryden and Pope use allusion when writing about inheritance and succession; Burns, about coupling and love-children; Byron, about money; Tennyson, about winds, ghosts and solitude. These topics weren’t chosen at random: Ricks makes the interesting claim that ‘allusion can be self-delightingly about allusion.’ Allusions occur in passages that concern generation and sonship, or haunting and echoing, or secrecy and dalliance, because allusion itself can be described in these terms, as filial inheritance, or spectral reproduction, or covert intermingling.

The chapters on Wordsworth and Tennyson seem strongest because their styles of allusion touch on what is deep and distinctive in their work. Ricks shows that Wordsworth’s manner of alluding is to reverse the affect and import of the original, but not in the expected direction: he does not comically deflate the original, or use it ironically, or passionately enlarge its relevance. Wordsworth likes to take words from a context that is dreadful and render them benign. He turns ‘The wanton stings, and motions of the sense’ (Measure for Measure) into ‘Those hallowed and pure motions of the sense’. He softens ‘Duncan is in his grave’:

Mathew is in his grave, yet now,
Methinks, I see him stand,
As at the moment, with a bough
Of wilding in his hand.

Ricks provides many examples of this ‘reversal from evil’. They draw out, strikingly, something fundamental about the movement of feeling in Wordsworth: that he wistfully delivers dreams of benevolence. In my view, Wordsworth’s ‘reversals of evil’ are not confident but longing; they illustrate his tentative discipline of hope. Ricks sees the reversals as final: ‘What he does in this poem is what he loves to do: to transmute nightmares into dreams for kindly issues. Such redemptions, such feats of rescue and renovation, are characteristic of how his mind works with allusions, and not his mind only but his heart.’ Ricks doesn’t hear the undercurrents of doubt in Wordsworth, or doesn’t regard them as definitive.

Here we are divided by a matter of opinion. More questionable is Ricks’s choice of terms: words such as ‘restoration’ and ‘redemption’ are subtly prejudicial. They give Wordsworth’s use of allusion a Christian cast. Wordsworth’s allusive technique could have been described in more neutral terms – as a psychological or aesthetic strategy – but Ricks directs us to see a pious intention: Wordsworth’s ‘particular gift’, he tells us, lay in ‘reversing an ugly or unlovely impulse into a dignified chastening one’. Ricks is guided here by his general theme: in alluding, poets display ‘respect’ and ‘gratitude’ towards their predecessors. They are dutiful sons, who regard their distinguished elders ‘with unenvying generosity’, ‘with affectionate and independent respect’.

His stubborn affirmation of gratitude is directed against Harold Bloom, an antagonist whose views Ricks means to parry with vigilance. He derides Bloom for ‘his sentimental discrediting of influence’, and calls the theory of the anxiety of influence a ‘melodramatic sub-Freudian parricidal scenario’. He presents his account of allusion as a direct counter to the Bloomian view: his vocabulary of ‘generosity’ and ‘gratitude’ bestows moral dignity on the ‘dear dead poets’.

But this attribution of attitudes (hostile or generous) is not the real crux; to imagine the later poet as either respectful or ambivalent merely gives psychological colouring to interpretative choices. More important is the debate about what to hear in a passage of poetry: what are the resonances, the ghosts of feeling and meaning, raised by the presence, in some form, of earlier texts? On this question, their views do not clash, but rather pass each other in the night. It matters that Bloom’s central term is ‘influence’ where Ricks’s is ‘allusion’. Ricks restricts himself to poetic echoes that are manifestly conscious. At one moment in the book (and only one), in his essay on Winters, he writes of ‘unconscious intentions’, but the concept of ‘unconsciousness’ does not mean much so long as it is still paired with ‘intention’. His method is specifically averse to the idea of encountering something in a poem that the author, as master, did not mean to put there. Since Ricks’s definition of allusion excludes borderline cases in which it is not clear that the author is deliberately alluding, he has restricted his study to passages of relatively crisp resonance, such as the inversions of Milton in the mock-heroic poems of Dryden and Pope. Reading these poems, we recognise the parodic virtuosity of the allusions, and we know pretty well how to take them. Bloom’s theory, by contrast, turns on the notion of involuntary imitation, and (conscious or unconscious) resistance to it. The precursor’s influence is so great that the later poet cannot help imitating, and larger literary debts are incurred – the borrowings are not of individual lines and phrases. Conscious allusion is not significant material for Bloom. He is interested in signs of what the author cannot control (the ‘unconscious’ in that sense). Ricks quotes a passage from Tennyson’s ‘Armageddon’, which he wrote when he was 15:

I stood upon the mountain which o’erlooks
The valley of destruction and I saw
Things strange, surpassing wonder; but to give
Utterance to things inutterable, to paint,
In dignity of language suitable
The majesty of what I then beheld,
Were past the power of man. No fabled Muse
Could breathe into my soul such influence
Of her seraphic nature, as to express
Deeds inexpressible by loftiest rhyme.

In these lines, Ricks finds echoes of Milton – ‘Distance inexpressible’, ‘loftiest rhyme’ – which could be deliberate. But he does not note that we may also hear the general imitation of Wordsworth’s mode. Tennyson must have had in the back of his mind this, or some similar passage from Wordsworth:

The picture of the mind revives again:
While here I stand, not only with the sense
Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts
That in this moment there is life and food
For future years. And so I dare to hope,
Though changed, no doubt, from what I was, when first
I came among these hills . . . I cannot paint
What then I was.

Tennyson is unlikely to have intended to echo Wordsworth in this way – to echo, that is, not identifiable expressions, but Wordsworth’s manner of adapting Miltonic blank verse to personal reflection. In fact, this form of imitation is not allusion in Ricks’s sense; it is influence, in Bloom’s. By choosing the unambiguous cases, Ricks has answered in advance a large part of the question of what there is to hear.

Ricks appears to regard poetry as a place of perfection and he resents Bloom for attempting to insinuate into it some of the squalor of ordinary life. The essays are implicitly linked by Ricks’s view of poetry as providing intimacy with the dead, a solace and comfort in our necessary isolation. Allusion does in particular what poetry does in general, intertwining the contemporary voice with the welcome voice of the predecessor: ‘In the face of lonely suffering and anxiety, these allusions embody the comfort of company.’ There is pathos in this claim, but it is only half-true. What Ricks leaves out is adumbrated by a telling development in his Tennyson chapter. He quotes a passage from Tennyson:

But some have hearts that in them burn
With power and promise high,
To draw strange comfort from the earth,
Strange beauties from the sky.

Ricks hears an echo of Coleridge:

This heart within me burns.
I pass, like night, from land to land:
I have strange power of speech.

And he comments: ‘Tennyson is sensing his own power and promise high, while drawing strange comfort not from the earth but from the strange beauties of The Ancient Mariner.’ The word ‘strange’ is key here, but as Ricks goes on to explore Tennyson’s literary inheritance and the spectral presence of others within his verse, the sense of strangeness disappears. None of the odd, contradictory, provocative, inexplicable, troubling features of literary experience – or of allusion – features in his analysis. He uses the words ‘haunted’ and ‘haunting’ in describing poets and their poems, and yet nothing unnerving makes its way into his account. The presence of the dead poets is an elusive one: they are not really there, so their presence (in absence) cannot temper loneliness. It must exacerbate solitude as much as it soothes. Gibbon spiked a sentence with characteristic piquancy when he wrote in his Memoirs: ‘Each year the circle of my acquaintance, the number of my dead and living companions was enlarged.’ It is certainly very odd, and disconcerting, to feel a tantalising, paradoxical intimacy with words on a page. Poetry does exert a ‘strange power of speech’. But Ricks simplifies: he expunges strangeness as well as ambiguity.

Since Ricks regards poetry as a sanctuary, he naturally wishes to guard it. He circles the wagons, deploying platitudinous theses and bossily defending them. The most rash of his polemical essays, ‘The Pursuit of Metaphor’, argues that theoretical discussions of the nature of metaphor ought to be abandoned because, however fascinating, they are futile. He takes the opportunity to chastise what he calls ‘philosophy’: he speaks of ‘philosophy’s unsupple obduracy’, characterises ‘philosophers’ as ‘pursuers who are tempted to set no limits to elaborated pursuit’, and complacently advocates ‘salutarily’ setting a ‘limit to the philosophising drive’.

The words ‘respect’ and ‘gratitude’, or ‘generous’ and ‘responsible’, appear constantly in ‘The Poet as Heir’. Ricks also insists on the ethical propriety of ‘gratitude’ and ‘generosity’, invoking them with a sanctimonious air: ‘The beauty of Pope’s assimilation is its openness, its recognition of a due gratitude.’ (The word ‘due’ gives the sentence a priggish twist.) Then he advances on his reader: ‘A critic ought to participate in such gratitude’; ‘Gratitude became him, and it becomes us.’ One finally shrinks away from this harrying.

I wonder what Ricks expected us to make of this anecdote:

I once asked a friend what would be wrong with my describing the tie I was wearing, one decorated with poisonous frogs, as a metaphor for my enemies within the university ‘community’. Sharing my dislike of those particular people, he gratifyingly answered ‘Nothing.’ Gratifyingly, and yet precariously. I pounced – for the tie is not the metaphor: the metaphor is the relation between the tie and those people.

This story is supposed to illustrate a common misuse of the term ‘metaphor’, and Ricks perhaps took himself to be showing a frank charm in telling it, but its wit is sour.

Ricks’s forte is identifying effective poetry, and explaining why it works. In his chapter on David Ferry, he discusses ‘The Lesson’, Ferry’s touching adaptation of a poem Samuel Johnson wrote in Latin, ‘In Rivum a Mola Stoana Lichfeldiae diffluentem’. As Ricks points out, Ferry’s poem is deliberately awkward and, at least at first, anti-lyrical. Its diction is plain, and Ferry deletes Johnson’s concluding moral. But the homeliness works well. It is as if a hidden Johnson, a man of common sadness, has emerged from behind the fateful, impersonal style:

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 helpless 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.