Alecture by the critic Christopher Ricks, now in his late eighties, is a properly theatrical affair. There is much leaning forward on the lectern, legs often crossed; hand frequently raised with intensity to brow (often furrowed, especially when quoting statements of folly); sheets of paper flipped away as though unnecessary to the performance (if you catch a glimpse of them they seem to contain little more than a word or a quotation), such paper flurries occurring particularly at times when in the sober medium of prose one might notice a hiccup or a rough conjunction in argument; meanwhile a building sweat, spreading from the armpits but also on the ample brow, conveys that this is stuff that gets the pulse racing. The words flow. Apt phrases from T.S. Eliot; some Bob Dylan; Samuel Johnson; much dazzle and many jokes; Keats-Byron-Tennyson-Dryden-Shakespeare-Beckett-Hill running giddily into each other; but each writer and observation given its space to illuminate and be illuminated into a radiant energy, which conveys, above all, that literature matters and that it also matters to get everything as right as one humanly can, and that probably if you really tried you could also feel these words in your body as intensely as the lecturer visibly does.
As a lecturee he’s almost as animated. I once sat behind Ricks while Geoffrey Hartman delivered a lecture which sliced all the fun and feline energy from Christopher Smart’s cat Jeoffry, and left the fur and paws of the poor creature clinically deconstructed on the lecture room floor. Ricks’s scalp, exposed in noble baldness from behind, was contorted in pain and contestation. Indeed, one might say, his body fought. I really felt for the cat, caught between two such minds.
Ricks’s early books – Milton’s Grand Style (1963), Keats and Embarrassment (1974), T.S. Eliot and Prejudice (1988) – each make a big claim and prove it by examples: Milton’s style is good; eliciting embarrassment is a vital part of Keats’s appeal; Eliot could make poetic use of prejudice by provoking the feeling in his readers. Ricks’s later works tend to be wider and more miscellaneous. They also make big claims (principles matter more than theory in criticism; poets can configure themselves as heirs to earlier writers in ways that are generous rather than aggressive; factual accuracy matters, even in fiction) but their reflexive prose style isn’t always kind on readers who can’t imagine the physical presence of Ricks giving force to the words. A single sentence from his most recent collection of essays, Along Heroic Lines, offers an example: we’re confronted not only with the phrase ‘the prodigious prodigality of it all’ but also ‘justification by works in which we can justifiably have faith’.
But if you keep your faith that the prodigious prodigality of verbal energy on display is worth it, then it is. Ricks states that ‘criticism is the art of noticing things that the rest of us may well not have noticed for ourselves and might never have noticed. It asks tact, of itself and of its readers, for it must neither state nor neglect the obvious.’ The things that Ricks notices are often verbal felicities, which for him are not simply sources of pleasure or mere accidents, but also a kind of emotional education which can capture and explain what is being felt, or expand the possibilities of feeling, ‘felicities being exactly such effects as happily befall by benign casualty’. So when Byron writes that he was glad to leave Cambridge because it made him ‘lemancholy’, this felicity captures the peculiar melancholy that arises from a lover (leman), and so is a verbal accident which encapsulates a passion.
Ricks regards literature as achieving in extended form a similar effect as a local felicity: it can speak thoughts and shape emotions we didn’t know we had. For him, as for his chief master William Empson, imaginative writing is a way of thinking and feeling to which you can and should react as to a person, with all the emotions and confusions and desires that being a person encompasses. As Ricks puts it in Keats and Embarrassment, ‘can we praise and value works of imagination as we should praise and value behaviour? I think that we can, should and do.’ Readers and writers are people, and judging, liking, relishing and occasionally resisting what one reads is as much a part of reading as judging, liking, relishing and resisting people is of living.
The unifying theme of Along Heroic Lines is heroism and its relation to the ‘heroic line’, which is Ricks’s preferred term for the iambic pentameter, since it implies ‘flexibility, elusiveness and variety, as against the schematic quasi-precision (and the classroom air) of “iambic pentameter”’. The collection includes pieces written for the most part over the past two decades on topics such as Dryden’s triplets, Shakespeare and anagrams, T.S. Eliot, Henry James, Byron, Norman Mailer, Ion Bugan, Samuel Beckett, Geoffrey Hill, and what Ricks argues is the non-distinction between poetry and prose. ‘Any claim to coherence has to be a mild one,’ Ricks says of the volume, since the two subjects, heroism and the heroic line, are not self-evidently one. Making them converge requires the critic to find heroic lines embedded within prose works (he finds a lot of them, some less heroic than others) and even to make sonnets from heroic lines embedded in the novels of Mailer. Heroic conduct treads a line between grandiosity and pusillanimity and has to stay this side of self-glorification, while heroic metrical lines require contrasts of stress and variation of a pattern, and run the risk – which is also potentially a benefit – of dissolving into prose:
As always, with any idea or ideal, the strict sense (with its danger of becoming narrow) must be held in tension with the wide sense (with its danger of becoming slack). The faith in heroism must resist both the hardening which would speak as if heroism can take one form and one form only, and the relaxing which would speak as if greatness, or even any abstention from pusillanimity, constituted heroism.
The heroic line of verse is not simply ti tum ti tum ti tum ti tum ti tum; the heroic line of conduct is not a path pursued by a juggernaut, or even necessarily the right path to follow, but a faint and dangerous trail which opens out in glimpses, with its moral divagations, its ups and its downs, and its traps at its ending. The title of the collection derives from The Portrait of a Lady – the moment when Isabel Archer, determined to marry the wrong person, ‘went on, having caught a glimpse, as she thought, of the heroic line and desiring to advance in that direction’ – and Ricks enlists ‘desiring to advance in that direction’ as itself a heroic line in the metrical sense.
There is throughout a notable sympathy for moments of high passion, and for the way heroes in extremis have to tread a delicate line between self-dramatisation and self-destruction. ‘T.S. Eliot and “Wrong’d Othello”’ defends Eliot’s notorious claim that Othello is ‘cheering himself up’ in his final speech. It does so partly by attacking those who have quoted Eliot’s phrase out of its setting, where it forms part of a much wider meditation on the ways in which people run the daily risk of self-heroisation. As Eliot puts it, ‘humility is the most difficult of virtues to achieve; nothing dies harder than the desire to think well of oneself.’ Ricks shows that Shakespeare uses the words ‘cheer up’ at moments ‘when the pressure of death is not only immanent (universal, human and more than human) but imminent’. He then follows the phrase’s migration into Eliot’s Fragment of an Agon (written the same year as the Othello essay), in which Sweeney ‘knew a man once did a girl in’, who is and is not Othello, and would ‘give him a drink and cheer him up’. The much quoted ‘cheering himself up’, when seen as part of the Eliot lexicon, and as itself a Shakespearean echo, has a lethal edge which is blunted by those who quote it out of context. The depth and delicacy of Ricks’s critical tracery – he both traces allusions and weaves them together – are enough to make one feel stupid for not having seen it all before.
Other less well-known figures of heroic passion are given their moment in the limelight. These include John Jay Chapman (1862-1933), who in 1887 beat a rival with a stick, then in repentance burned off his own hand. In Chapman’s heroically dispassionate words, he ‘plunged the left hand deep in the blaze and held it down with my right hand for some minutes’, after which he applied his coat as a tourniquet. A quarter of a century later Chapman wrote with passion about the burning alive of Zachariah Walker, an African American, in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, ‘chained to an iron bedstead, burning alive’. He said: ‘I knew that this great wickedness that happened in Coatesville is not the wickedness of Coatesville and of today. It is the wickedness of all America and of three hundred years – the wickedness of the slave trade.’ Ricks, in that baroque late manner of his, notes that John Jay Chapman is ‘no longer a name to conjure with, to adjure with, or to injure with’, but argues that the fact Chapman took off his coat and waistcoat when he burned his own hand in 1887 played some part in his heroic sympathy for a man tied down and burned in a place called Coatesville in 1911. Heroically speaking out against an injustice can have the trace of egoism that sympathy often, and perhaps necessarily, includes within itself.
So Along Heroic Lines is a great bag of Ricksian riches. But it also displays the main hazards of the Ricks style of criticism. The first of these could be crudely described as a woods and trees problem. His concentration on verbal felicities might imply that literary criticism is more akin to a nosegay of noticings (hearing the word ‘coat’ in Coatesville) than an attempt to convey a way of understanding or responding to an entire text, or period, or genre. And that brings with it a related and greater hazard. Is his criticism in danger of being as much about the critic’s brilliance in noticing as it is about literature?
The woods and trees problem is relatively easy to hack down. An unstated premise of Ricks’s method is that a well-chosen local observation about a text can lead to a broader understanding of it or its author’s nature. His essay on ‘Geoffrey Hill’s Grievous Heroes’ is a case in point. It picks out a tiny detail – Hill’s penchant for the suffix -ible/-able – of which there are many instances (art ‘reconciles the irreconcilable’, ‘Each distant sphere of harmony forever/Poised, unanswerable’). Noticing this ‘indispensable suffix’ leads Ricks to the heart of Hill, who so often presented himself as resisting the ‘accessible’, deploring the deplorable, or excoriating the unconscionable, and in so doing tended to present himself as a heroic opponent of insupportable inanity. Or as Ricks puts it:
The hero may be thought of as someone who acknowledges, and who lives by, contrarieties that are both underfoot and aloft. To one side, a greater-than-usual refusal to grant the world’s insistence that such-and-such is impossible (or indisputable or inescapable or inevitable … ). To the other, a greater-than-usual refusal to be broken – or broken in – by the insistence of things, the fact that such-and-such is, yes, impossible (or indisputable … ). Heroism may be characterised by an exceptionally imaginative courage in the face of these pincer jaws. The unremarkable suffix -ble, is the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grind.
The essay praises Hill for putting himself through that grind, but goes on to criticise him for overusing the overusable -ble constructions: ‘A poet’s liberties are his or hers to take, but a critic has other responsibilities, for instance to differentiate the real thing from what (from overuse) sometimes became no more – or no other – than a habit, a recourse, a tick, a tic, or even a pathology, addiction to a diction.’
When Ricks makes that criticism of Hill it’s hard not to notice a dusting of soot on the pot that criticises the kettle. The phrase ‘addiction to a diction’ (can’t you hear the audience chuckle?) is the kind of punning recoil on his own words to which Ricks – who often brings out the ‘tic’ in critic – is a little too much himself addicted. And that takes us to the problem of the relationship between the critic’s brilliance and that of the text. Does a critic who is as skilled at making literature interesting as Ricks risk becoming the hero of his own story?
This problem is thornier than the woods and trees. The line between seeing things (in the sense of observing things which are there) and seeing things (in the sense of imagining things which are not there) is a finer one in literary criticism than it is in life in general. But the boundary between the two matters in several ways. Only a really good critic can take you up to that boundary and make you wonder which side you’re on. Bad critics tell you what you already knew, or else stride obliviously over the boundary between the noticed and the imaginary into their own fantasy realms of implausible readings. Good critics make you see things. They do it by redescribing texts, or paintings, or music, or posters, or advertisements, or cultures, so that something which was not fully visible before becomes legible. That act of making visible could be a matter of saying ‘look how the brushwork here creates a glowing shadow,’ or even ‘look at this correlation between poverty and the spread of disease,’ or it could be ‘look at all those -ibles and think about what they tell us.’ Criticism is an especially contentious discipline because the criteria for distinguishing the seen from the invented are themselves contentious. The plausibility of a particular piece of criticism depends in part on the persuasiveness of the critic and the willingness of an audience to see things a particular way, with facts and data also playing their part, but not a much more determining part than the judgment of the audience. That means an ultra-plausible critic like Ricks can create a kind of supernova of brightness which eclipses the texts he’s analysing and makes it hard to see the boundary between what is him and what is them.
This might seem an unfair thing to say, since one of the many things that makes Ricks so wonderful to hear and to read is his overt warmth towards the writers he reads: he is grateful to them for having given the gift of thought-filled words, appreciative of their beauty and delighted with an almost childlike intensity by their felicities. He thinks literature thinks and feels things for us. But in his earlier collection Essays in Appreciation (the title of which is not just retro-chic but a genuine expression of gratitude to writers for having written) he expressed this opinion in a strange but revealing way: ‘Very often my beliefs have been best expressed by others; this is for me not an admission but an acknowledgment, since it makes thought about literature continuous with literature, where too I repeatedly find my beliefs best expressed by others.’ There is gratitude and modesty in that acknowledgment, but the repetition of ‘my beliefs’ might suggest that literature is a source of external validation for attitudes that Ricks already has, rather than a place for discovering things he would not have otherwise thought, or for experiencing what he could not otherwise have conceived – as though literature is not the best that has been thought and said, but the best possible expression of his own pre-existing opinions.
Along Heroic Lines sidles around this problem. It is preoccupied with people who risk putting themselves forward too much – the self-dramatising Othello, or the even more self-dramatising Byron, or the over-reachingly ambitious Shaftesbury in Dryden, whose fiery soul is so full of energy that it ‘o’erinformed the tenement of clay’ and spills beyond the heroic couplet into a heroic triplet – and with heroes who are heroic because they are also critics. The narrator in Henry James’s ‘The Next Time’ is treated as a critical self-representation of James the author, over-squeamishly sensitive and ‘wincing at words, and mincing them … everything about the narrator that is both becoming and unbecoming is an act of judgment, sometimes self-criticism, by the author.’ In another essay, ‘The Novelist as Critic’, Ricks explores how novels can be acts of criticism of earlier novels, and suggests that ‘creation is itself the highest, widest and deepest form of criticism.’ That’s another formulation of which the overt humility (criticism is by contrast not the highest, widest or deepest thing) masks a nearly equal and opposite potential for aggrandisement: creation is – no more than? – criticism widened and deepened. Entirely uncritical readers might indeed tend not to be very good writers, though not all good writers need to be critics as good as T.S. Eliot or Henry James; but critics do need to remember, I think, that creation requires something other than and beyond criticism. In saying this, I believe I have God on my side, since ‘Let there be light’ is not a critical statement. The implied prior act of criticism (‘I’m getting a bit sick of all this darkness’) requires the additional power of creation in order to make something new. Once that power has done its stuff God becomes a critic again, and sees that it is good. But it’s the bit in between – the making – that matters most, even though it might pain a critic to confess it.
Critics see things but do not make things. That doesn’t make them useless sops or fantasists, because it’s sometimes the case that what only one person can see at a particular moment turns out to be what everyone comes to see as self-evident a little later: John Jay Chapman, with his acute sensitivity to the burning pain of racially motivated violence, fuelled by the earlier incineration of his own hand, is a heroic case in point. So seeing things that other people don’t or can’t or won’t is not just a symptom of error, but can be a sign of far-sightedness.
But there are times when one might reasonably say to even a brilliant critic: ‘I just don’t see it that way.’ An instance. I disagree with what Ricks says in Along Heroic Lines about anagrams in Shakespeare’s sonnets. Ricks confesses that this essay, which was originally a British Academy Shakespeare lecture, doesn’t quite fit into the collection’s general concern with ‘some versions of the heroic’, though he does note that anagrams can reveal the villain within a hero by turning, for instance, Tony Blair MP into ‘I’m Tory Plan B’ or Harold Wilson into ‘Lord Loinwash’. He gives my edition of the Sonnets some genial stick for emphasising their oral and performative aspects (I was just trying to get people to read them), rather than dwelling on how their letters dance into different visible forms in anagrammatical abundance on the page. The essay is wonderfully alive to the role of the eye in reading, where the presence of a word within a crowd or the anagrammatical affinity between a silent person and one who listens may make the eye pause and the mind hear hidden resemblances. With his infinite energy Ricks takes us through so many instances of anagrams in Byron and Housman and Lucretius and elsewhere that even reading the essay you can more or less hear the sheets of paper being cast vigorously aside by the lecturer as he charges through the canon, creating by the impetus of his charge the strength of his case. His main claim for regarding anagrams as a significant poetic effect is that ‘an anagram is no more and no less arbitrary than a rhyme,’ and ‘an anagram is a coincidence, true – but you should hear the voice of the bard, and take what you have gathered from coincidence.’
Coincidentally, when I first heard Bob Dylan sing ‘take what you have gathered from coincidence’ I heard it as ‘take what you have gathered from cold winds that dance.’ The mishearing makes a bit more sense if you listen to the record rather than read the words – Dylan gives ‘coincidence’ a real twang – but it’s clearly wrong. Coincidences can be illuminating but they can also be things heard or seen which are not there, or in which the ear or eye of the observer unduly diverges from the object of observation. Sometimes these divergences can be more illuminating and delightful because they are accidents. A schoolfriend of mine when reading aloud the line ‘Bare rn’wd quiers, where late the sweet birds sang’ from an unmodernised text of Sonnet 73 accidentally pronounced it as ‘Bare ruined queers’, whereupon our wonderful gay English teacher applauded the misreading because, he said, ‘bare ruined queers’ more or less summed up the whole sequence. The fact that the letters of the word ‘critic’ are all present and in the correct order within ‘Christopher Ricks’, for instance, is a wonderful coincidence that might make you think that he was born, or at least baptised, to do what he does so well. However it is an arbitrary and probably uninteresting coincidence that a full anagram of ‘Christopher Ricks’ is ‘chic sport shirker’, since Ricks isn’t so far as I know famous for skiving games while sporting a Versace tracksuit. Distinguishing a coincidence from the cold winds that dance is not an easy matter, and if you’re drawn towards felicities it is even more of a challenge since a coincidence can be felicitous and illuminating at the same time as being an illusion.
Yes, it is a coincidence that ‘love’ and ‘glove’ rhyme, and it is also a coincidence that ‘love’ lurks within ‘vole’. It’s a more usable coincidence that love also figures (inverted) within malevolence, and that male violence is only an egotistical ‘I’ away from the same word. But the difference between an anagram and a rhyme is that in a rhyming poem the rhymes are visibly marked as mattering by their position (usually) at the ends of lines, and that fact about the conventional shaping of poems licenses the ear to give them weight elsewhere, and to give weight also to all the other phonic games to which poems sensitise their readers’ ears and eyes. The dance of a letter through a line can be part of the cohesion of a poem, of what simultaneously holds it together and pulls it apart, but unless some formal property of the poem or cue within it says to a reader ‘look out for letters that dance around here’ they probably warrant less attention than other kinds of lexical accident.
Historical knowledge can act as a principle of thrift in the proliferation of meaning, and, being a principle of thrift, it can also be a bit mean. But the early modern poetic instances of overtly anagrammatical poems which Ricks cites tend to be anagrams of names, and almost all occur in encomiastic contexts: Ben Jonson anagrammatically praised Charles James Stuart (James VI and I) as one who ‘claimes Arthur’s seat’, the letters I and J being interchangeable then. Encomiastic and onomastic anagrams often involve a bit of cheating, which helps to create the impression that poets are bending over backwards to please their princes. George Chapman dedicating his Homer to ‘Henry Prince of Wales’ anagrammatised his patron’s name into ‘OVR SVNN, HEYR, PEACE, LIFE’ by splitting the W of Wales into two constitutive Vs and then deeming them able to serve as Us, which again was doable then. This is done Very Visibly in the original printed text in order to show the reader something odd is going on, though Ricks, when he quotes it, makes it look even more like a cheat by replacing the original’s ‘V V ALES’ with a simple ‘Wales’. Call me an old grumpus if you like, but I don’t think this encomiastic use of nameagrams in the 17th century is a reason to elevate potential anagrams in all words from the period, no matter what class or condition they might be, to an analogous function or status as rhyme. It might indeed suggest that the anagram was a very particular type of poetic performance, and its methods were sealed (though not with absolute impermeability, since different components of a culture don’t have valves which cut one part off from another) within specific social conventions.
The things Ricks notices going on with reassembled letters in Shakespeare’s Sonnets should probably be called intergrams (words hiding inside other words) or paragrams (which the OED defines as ‘a play on words in which a letter or group of letters in a word is altered so as to produce or suggest another word’) rather than anagrams. But even if he were to retreat from the word anagram I would still think that many of his instances of para or intergrams would depend, paradoxically for such intrinsically inaudible textual phenomena, on the vigorous animation of his delivery as a lecturer to make one see them as being really there. There can be a joy to these noticings. When Ricks quotes the description of the poet’s eye in Sonnet 114 ‘Creating euery bad a perfect best/As fast as obiects to his beames assemble’ and says of it ‘How conclusively assemble assembles those beames,’ I’m willing to see what he sees, partly because the poem is describing how the eye sees what it wants to see, and how it can make things better by doing so, and there seems a kind of justice in making the poem better by doing to the poem what it says the eye does anyway. But with Sonnet 55 I come over all thrifty and pedantic:
When wastefull warre shall Statues ouer-turne,
And broiles roote out the worke of masonry,
Nor Mars his sword, nor warres quick fire shall burne:
The liuing record of your memory.
‘Am I imagining things,’ Ricks asks, ‘or was – more valuably – Shakespeare doing so, with a turne upon “ouer-turne”, when he had “the worke of masonry” (there in the Conclusion of the line) succeeded at once by two words that are the rubble of masonry: “Nor Mars”?’ My churlish answer to the first of these rhetorical questions would be ‘yes’ and to the second ‘no’, largely because I want to ask why (oh y) should the Y in masonry not form part of its rubble, and conversely why should the letter R figure twice among the ruins but only once in the masonry? Is not the point more that Mars, sword, wars are taking the phonic energy of the line and screaming out that they all belong together, and that the rhyme on ‘masonry’ and ‘memory’ retrospectively rebuilds the overturned masonry into a living memory of the young man, all of which energetically going on means that readers and maybe even an author as remarkable as Shakespeare don’t have much circuitry or processing power left to watch letters assembling and disassembling from and into heaps? But Ricks’s circuitry, let alone Shakespeare’s, is superior to my tangled threads of neurons; so if he sees things we might want to try to see them too. If one suspects, at times, that one’s eye is being led on a dance, it is at least always a merry one, and he is a fine enough critic to worry (‘am I imagining things?’) whether he might have crossed the invisible line between noticing things that are there and seeing things that aren’t just at the moment when, to my eye, he has done so. The wider point of the essay, that ‘the Sonnets depend upon ceaseless realisations of the way in which the eye’s reading is other than oral reception,’ is substantial and well made, and, like everything Ricks says, should provoke serious thought – even if the eye, as Shakespeare well knew, can sometimes have a whale of a time with a cloud.