William Empson remembers I.A. Richards

The death of I.A. Richards has at least endangered an opportunity which he had accepted with eager energy. In 1937, the Chinese Ministry of Education had decided to use Basic English in the schools, for the first years of English there, but just as the details were being fixed up the Japanese launched an all-out attack and captured Peking. One might argue that this was the right time to introduce a far more economical method: but it would require a great deal of organising from the centre, and to organise the refugeeing of the west-coast universities to the interior was already imposing an almost unbearable strain. There were some local centres where the method was already in use, and contact had to be maintained with them as far as possible; I was able to go with Richards to Kweilin and meet a distinguished headmaster. This seems worth recalling, as Richards returned to Kweilin on the final tour, 42 years later, and was soon afterward struck down. Touring the schools in provincial cities, and speaking in each of them, would be the most exhausting part of the work. He had been warned by a friend that the visit would probably kill him, but after all he had for years been risking his life on mountains, and this occasion might make all the difference (for him) between dying in triumph and dying as a failure.

There had been another exasperating bit of bad luck in Ghana, where Richards had made all the arrangements, touring the schools and so on, and was just going contented to his aeroplane when he was tapped on the shoulder and told it was all off: the dictator Nkrumah had been angered by a careless word from the sponsor (not from Richards) and had used this rejection for a punishment. ‘It is a new way to fail,’ said Richards, from his wide experience: but it would not be so painful, as the Chinese had understood the principles and taken an interest. Meanwhile there was always a barrage of vilification from the rival firms. It seemed when he retired from Harvard that he must admit that he had failed to launch Basic; and he took up other interests, continuing to be very good company; but his face when alone had come to look very grim, even soured. Interview and article, however, remained stubbornly optimistic, assuming that the cause could not have been lost; and indeed the Chinese invited him back as soon as they settled down after the departure of the Japanese, the defeat of Chiang Kai Shek, and the death of Mao. Let us hope they had already made up their minds, so that the heroic death of Richards in their service will merely help to make welcome the agreed procedure. They could have given him no death that would make him happier.

Mrs Richards allowed me to visit him in hospital and he seemed so full of life that I felt sure he would recover: but he was delirious, and not much could be understood. Two recurring sentences were clear: ‘It’s time for me to go’ and ‘I ought to come back,’ meaning he was ready for death except that the work was incomplete. I said, ‘Of course you must come back; you are urgently needed,’ and he looked at me quizzically, entirely himself for a moment. He was doubting my competence to pronounce upon the question. This of course was charming, but also, taken with some other phrases, suggested that he had done as much on this visit to China as he could usefully do. A too sustained pressure becomes irritating, he had long understood; they must now have time to think it over. He was struggling for life, with the tireless support of Mrs Richards, but he did not feel an immediate exasperating regret.

This fighting aspect of him is not what is most admired in his books, but it lay near the root of his achievement, and I had been eager for anything he let drop about his life in the mountains. He was firmly unboastful, but felt it all right to praise a technique; there was a flavour of H.G. Wells. Asked whether he had slept in an igloo, he said: ‘Of course; those were the only comfortable nights we spent in Alaska.’ It was only to explain how easy the thing is, once you know the trick, that he recalled what can surely not be a standard bit of life-saving. A fellow climber had broken his leg, and could not be carried down the cliff; one of the party went to get help, and Richards and another stayed with him. The important thing was to find a rock of the right size, which even the crippled man, after being planted out of the wind, could receive and pass on. They handed it round all night, ‘and did not even catch cold’.

Professor Basil Willey, in a festschrift for the 80th birthday of Richards (1973), said that he not only founded modern literary criticism but supplied it with a vocabulary which has become accepted currency for so long that its origin is often forgotten. I now think this is true, but it was not clear to me when he was my supervisor. Willey was present at the first lectures by Richards at Cambridge, which became the Principles (1924), whereas I (then a Math student) attended one or two of the lectures which became Practical Criticism (1928). His position had become familiar. My literary faction (Bronowski, for instance) accepted Richards as a great liberator who had made our work possible: but he kept telling us that each of his doctrines was only common sense, and that somebody had said it in the 18th century. Like the Mona Lisa of Pater, we imagined ourselves to be older than the rock on which we sat. Also he was then expecting an intellectual revolution from Psychology. While I was having a weekly supervision from Richards, in my final year, I was listening to the James Smith group, who favoured T.S. Eliot and Original Sin. After each of his supervisions, as I remember, though I had enjoyed and learned from them enormously, I would goad the enemy by reporting some theologically absurd remark, typical of an expert on Scientism. Within a year, I was defending him in some periodical against a particularly gross attack, so I was not actively disloyal: but it would be a mistake to suppose that Cambridge ever agreed on a monolithic acceptance of the views of Richards. He found himself warmly accepted by audiences but fiercely attacked in magazines, and there was the same contrast after he had moved over from literary theory to teaching procedures. He was by nature a negotiator, and on principle did not expect any doctrine to be more than an approximation to the truth; but his analytic power always made people regard him as an extremist.

This must partly explain his immense success as a lecturer: in my time, no lecture hall was big enough for him, and he enjoyed making ad hoc arrangements. And yet most of what he was saying was negative, and it was said rather drily. He never played the fashionable game of ‘revaluation’, switching round the price ticket, upping Donne and downing Milton, for example. He was concerned with a bafflement about what happens when people read, or about the aesthetic experience in general; it is important to realise that they are usually reading wrong, but apart from that, when is the effect a good one? The difference between a deadlock and a balance of the impulses must be crucial, but what can it be? Some satisfaction of other impulses perhaps, or a general readiness; but we must hope for Psychology to cast some light. Before trying to taste a literary work, he advised in Practical Criticism, it would be a good thing to clean the palate from previous assumptions by reflecting on the ‘enormity’ of time and space, and the ‘oddity’ of human birth and death. This advice was met with fierce ridicule by the professional literary critics, who seem to me now even more absurd than they did then. No wonder the audiences liked him for taking the guff out of the experts, and his dry manner was suited to it. But the only definite part of the programme, it seems fair to say, was the removal of obstacles.

Such was the appearance, but I have to add that he was a spellbinder, not at all shy about being Welsh. In his later writings he depends upon Plato rather than science yet unborn, but even there a reader could hardly guess that he had this extra power. Nor was he above calculating his effects. When he visited Peking after the Communist victory, he required among other props a folding card-table at the side of the stage, not an easy thing for the British Council to find, and he used it by leaning upon it, as he went out from his lecture, to say: ‘In my end is my beginning.’ He would not have done this in either of the Cambridges, but the Chinese students would find hearing English a serious effort, and would need a bit of action; it went over very well. He was expounding something about Plato, as I remember, but he literally did mean to return to Peking.

The point is not at all that he would weaken or coarsen a doctrine to placate his audience; audiences had always been his friends, to whom he would tell things he dared not say in print. Only a few years ago, I heard him lecture on ‘Complementarities’ in London, and I was spellbound. When the book of that name came out, it reported only a slighter lecture elsewhere on the same topic. I wrote and begged him to restore what had been omitted, and received no reply. The big lecture, as I remember, had made no rash attempt at a solution, but merely quoted a much wider range of startling examples (of such findings as that light consists at once both of waves and of particles). He had written an introduction to the milder lecture, for the book, and here for once he sounds exasperated by the silliness of his opponents. It had always been central to his mind that an apparent intellectual conflict need not be a practical obstacle. He had not felt ready to print more at the time, but probably he would have gone further with this extremely uneasy topic if he had survived his call to China.