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’.

The essay on Gower starts by propounding one of those popular critical problems which have little bearing on the ordinary reader’s enjoyment of literature: are an author’s effects ‘the results of art or of accident’? That formulation is C.S. Lewis’s; Ricks goes on to examine a paragraph of John Aubrey who, he says, ‘thrusts upon us a choice between apprehending his prose as genius or as ingenuousness’. It is not a choice I have felt myself forced to make. Aubrey is a remarkable and delightful writer; ‘felicity’ – Ricks’s word – there certainly is, but what does it mean to ask whether or not this is transubstantiated clumsiness? What, even, is the meaning of the less metaphysical question Ricks asks about Gower: ‘Is he an ordinary writer, or one who uses the ordinary?’ A gloss on this is provided by what is said about Gower’s revision of certain lines, but the existence of earlier and later versions of a poem proves nothing about the self-consciousness of the poet’s technique; it suggests only that the poet looked at what he had written and was dissatisfied.

Ricks is not a Mediaevalist and he is careful to make a respectful gesture towards those of his colleagues who are. With Marvell and Milton he is on his own ground, and Marvell in particular must have given many a happy hour to rhetoricians since his works were exhumed, in a more innocent spirit, by Lamb and his contemporaries. It is in this essay that Empson first puts in a decisive appearance. Seven Types of Ambiguity is one of the few first-class critical works of the century; it has changed the way in which even people who do not know their Empson read poems. The author was entitled to say, at the end of it: ‘I should claim ... that, for those who find this book contains novelties, it will make poetry more beautiful, without their ever having to remember the novelties, or endeavour to apply them. It seems a sufficient apology for many niggling pages.’ Empson has been more followed in the niggling than in his readiness to let his criticism give way before the poetry. In the essays in this volume in which the poets are put up primarily in order to illustrate a particular aspect of language, the criticism does not disappear in this way. Having identified in Marvell a trick of going beyond ‘saying of something that it finds its own resemblance’ and saying instead, ‘more wittily and mysteriously, that something is its own resemblance,’ Ricks goes on to make this mode of speaking the basis of ‘an important affinity’ between Marvell and the ‘gifted group of Ulster poets: Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Derek Mahon, and Paul Muldoon’ – poets surely very unlike the Member of Parliament for Hull. He asserts that ‘many of these are creatively grateful to Marvell,’ and then suggests, even more extravagantly, that ‘it is likely that there is at least some relevance in the deep affinity between Marvell’s England and the poets’ Ulster.’ That is what might be called a long shot.

Wordsworth might seem to be a somewhat unprofitable subject for the kind of rhetorical examination at which Ricks excels, and the subtitles of the two essays on the poet are, from this point of view, hardly hopeful: the first has ‘A pure organic pleasure from the lines’ and the second ‘A sinking inward into ourselves from thought to thought’ – phrases respectively from the Prelude (1805) and the Friend of 1818. Ricks qualifies as ‘both defeatist and obscurantist’ Arnold’s observation – approximate, like all criticism – that Wordsworth ‘has no style’. No wonder! Fancy ‘the 20th-century critic’ admitting that so little can be said on the subject! When one looks at the shelf-loads of academic volumes which now stand between the student and his texts one cannot but think that Arnold was not really trying. Of the line from ‘Michael’, ‘And never lifted up a single stone’, he says simply: ‘There is nothing subtle in it, no heightening, no study of poetic style, strictly so called, at all; yet it is expression of the highest and most truly expressive kind.’ ‘The instance is a triumphant one,’ says Ricks in commentary upon Arnold, adding – as Arnold would not have done – that the triumph is the critic’s ‘as well as Wordsworth’s’. Ricks then goes on: ‘But if the line is to be a talisman and not just a shibboleth, we need some sense of how it effects its high and true expressiveness.’ But is it not as a talisman that we carry such great lines of poetry in our minds? For what they say, first of all, then as a touchstone against which we test the presumption of other poets? An analysis of the verbal ‘ups’ and ‘downs’, such as Ricks gives us here, may have its interest, but if we imagine that we are thereby saying anything about the poetry, or think such things a clue to the affinity between poets, we are surely mistaken.

One of the most interesting essays in this book is that on Beddoes, billed as examining ‘the vitality of language in relation to the celebration of death’. ‘Since death has much to be said for it,’ Ricks says – and presumably this is a clever and superficial way of saying that life has its drawbacks, for death does not really need anything to be said for it – ‘the art itself must incorporate some proper deathward declension,’ as what art or what life does not? Of all the poets treated in this volume, Beddoes is the one with whom Ricks seems to feel most sympathy, and this gives his remarks a depth which is lacking in many of his other explorations. For any poet’s work is in some sort characterised by his presence in every line, and if we do not seize him first in a single poem or a few lines no amount of reading or of explanation will ever get us there. Ricks’s essay on Beddoes begins in a – for him – unusually human manner: ‘In 1849 poison achieved what the razor had failed to achieve the year before. Thomas Lovell Beddoes succeeded in killing himself. Failure seemed to have become what Beddoes was best at.’ Ricks quotes the poet’s own words – ‘From the experiments I have made, I fear I am a non-conductor of friendship, a not-very-likeable person’ – and it is in the light of these general apprehensions of his subject that he goes on to explore what gives life to the poems. It is not that he gives up those technical inquiries which, in his view, are the proper function of the critic, but he pursues them with a full sense of the sort of man his poet is, his dispositions, his medical studies, his ‘bizarrely subversive and courageous polities’. The result is perhaps the best essay on Beddoes that we have – and the subject is a difficult one, at once both seductive and rebarbative. He goes from the observation that ‘no play of his was a true play,’ through some interesting remarks on the dramatic monologue, that ‘great invention of verse-talking’ at which ‘Beddoes did not quite arrive’, to the ‘relations of speech to silence’ as illustrated by the poet’s ‘And many voices marshalled in one hymn’. ‘What voice could answer the voice of such a hymn?’ Ricks asks. ‘What divine interlocutor could this hymn move from silence? ... Such a poem has a miraculous impunity, and its severed head still speaks.’

Among the 20th-century poets he discusses, Ricks appears to feel most sympathy with Housman. Here again it is the marrow of the poems, and not some superficial ingenuity, that interests him. ‘His poems often assert positions that are inadequate in ways suggested by calling them adolescent – inadequate not as utterly alien to our experience, or wilfully thought-up, but in the sense that we ought not to be in one mind about them, and should fear that they might be sirens ... in the best of Housman’s poems, the childishness of what is said is part of the effect, but only part, and is absorbed to produce something fine and true – though often something that is, quite legitimately, in two minds.’ There is something highly personal about Ricks’s preference for what might be called the more emotionally muddled poems, and there is a curious disowner in relation to many of ‘the most attractive and simple poems’ – attractive, one supposes that means, to other people. ‘These I rate less highly,’ he says, ‘not because they are simple but because they are not profound.’

A personal note is perhaps most difficult to avoid in writing of poets of or near our own time. ‘An ingénue is of interest only if you can’t be entirely sure’ is Ricks’s highly characteristic approach to Stevie Smith. With Empson he feels an affinity which makes his admiration more than discipular. ‘In Empson’s poems, as in the life of any sensitive person, the fear of commitment is entwined with the fear of the most daunting and exhilarating of all human commitments, the begetting of a new life.’ The theme is pursued in relation to Donne: ‘Empson remarks gruffly that “Donne says nothing in verse about his children because he found them merely a nuisance” ’ – perhaps not the same Donne who wrote ‘from the fire side in [his] Parler, and in the noise of three gamesome children’. ‘Empson’s giving up writing poetry dates more or less ... from his marriage in 1941 and his becoming a father in the following years.’ We are in a personal, not to say speculative, field, and far from the rhetorician of Ricks’s more professional moments. The lovers on another planet, in Donne, ‘freed from the claims of church and state’, say something to Ricks as well as to Empson. Geoffrey Hill’s poems, like Empson’s in a different genre, give almost too much scope to the ingenuity of the commentator, and the elaboration of comment tends to obscure the marvellous moments when the poet breaks out of the anxiety and scrupulosity which sometimes manifests itself in his prose and shows himself as – what he certainly is – one of the best poets of our time.

The last essay in this book is a discourse on American English. Would one be wrong in applying to Ricks the reflection that he makes on an earlier, once fashionable critic: ‘Among the many things which Pater evaded was any suggestion that he might be evasive’? Certainly a question as to what exactly Ricks is up to does cross one’s mind from time to time. What is one to make of the ambiguous qualification of Eliot as ‘the last – let us hope, the latest – great poet and great critic in English’ in an essay which seems to plead for the superiority of an American which is ‘inherently transitory’? To the young Eliot’s comment that such a manifestation ‘does not represent the evolution of a new language so much as the degeneration of an old one’ Ricks’s reply is: ‘If you can’t beat them because they have already beaten you, should you not join them?’ But as he points out on the next page, ‘every user of language, whatever his or her politics, is engaged not only in conversation but in conservation.’ One question – not susceptible of an exact answer but important nonetheless – might be how much conservation is necessary to make certain sorts of conversation possible. In a sense, a literature is a conversation, and there is reason to suppose that a language which loses its grip on the past must cease to have any literature worth the name. One has the impression that Ricks – if perhaps only out of a desire to enlighten us – is not much interested here in this side of the matter. Yet the only serious test of literature is its durability, and if what Ricks calls ‘British English’ ‘gives a less important role than does American English to the ephemeral or transitory or obsolescent’, that would be something for Americans to worry about. There is, however, probably little sense, at this time of day, in talking of the problem in terms of ‘American’ or ‘British’ English, for the political adjectives serve only to confuse the world-wide problem – one that is certainly not confined to the United States and the United Kingdom – of the inflation of that English which is unalterably, as a simple matter of fact, the historical root of the language now subjected to much wider use. It is fair enough to reprove the English writer who ‘will sometimes not even try to apprehend that a process of decay need not be toxic,’ or to extol ‘the unstrict phrase’ and to say that such words ‘can be used imaginatively to capture precisely the social functions of ... laziness, vagueness and evasion’: but that does not alter the fact that literature has to be judged according to a system of comparisons and analyses of the kind commended by Ezra Pound in How to Read. Where does that leave the rather tenuous inventions of Bob Dylan, whom Christopher Ricks so much admires?