Inventor

Richard Luckett

  • I.A. Richards: His Life and Work by John Paul Russo
    Routledge, 843 pp, £40.00, May 1989, ISBN 0 415 03134 6

‘Bless you’ was Ivor Richards’s characteristic farewell in his last years, an envoi which never failed to convey the careful omission of ‘God’. Yet it also recalled, because what he said, though not what he wrote, was often highly allusive, his choice in life of

                    Whatever most can bless
The mind of man or elevate a rhyme.

Was he the last romantic, both in the vulgar sense, that he believed that mankind, animated by a reasoned but finally intuitive search for truth – the ‘informed heart’, the ‘feeling intellect’ – might arrive at concord and achieve some higher goal, and in the precise sense, that his thinking was grounded in that of Wordsworth and, to a far greater extent, Coleridge? His debts to Bentham and Mill, even to Arnold, were largely those of a debater who picks up whatever may usefully be gleaned from the other side of a discussion which, in Coleridge on the Imagination, he deliberately took back to first principles. The man who, at the onset of his literary career, had presumed a conflict of Science and Poetry subsequently rewrote the book as Sciences and Poetries, an infiltration of plurals which entirely changes the nature of the conjunction.

Richards, who was born in 1893, died at the age of 86. He was vigorous to the end of his life. His energy, and the speed with which he could write, was always astonishing. He worked polythematically: at linguistic, aesthetic and critical theory, at the application of these theories, and at their transmission through education. He translated, with much assistance but always to great interpretative effect, from the Chinese and from the Greek. He concerned himself, theoretically and practically, with the peace of nations. In his later years he turned increasingly to the composition of plays and poems. For fifty years he promoted the cause of Basic English.

It should not be supposed that the interaction of Richards’s concerns led to the creation of any single, unified system. Perhaps if it had, his work would not have suffered that neglect of which he himself was conscious from at least 1951 (and matters were to get worse). But it would also have been untrue to itself. Harry Levin described Principles of Literary Criticism as a ‘methodology of doubts’. At the same time as extolling the richness of signification in poetic language, Richards endeavoured to devise systematic means of reducing that potentially plethoric wealth. In all his early work Richards appears to oscillate between an emotive and a naturalistic theory of value.

He played a vital part in the formation of the Cambridge English School, but by his last decade had come to doubt the value of that and of other such institutions, at least as they had developed. His work on education emerged from his work on literature, but was also a criticism of it. To the fury of C.K. Ogden, he used the principles of Basic English as a means of expediting the learning of foreign languages, an exploitation Ogden considered a betrayal of the purpose for which it was devised. A brilliant lecturer, coping, at Harvard, with audiences of up to a thousand, he derided the lecture as a mode of teaching. He loathed the history of mankind ‘because it was full of things that ought not to have happened’, yet was fascinated by the history of words. Despite his interest in psychology (as well as drawing heavily on psychological theory in his own work he also wrote part of Ogden’s The Meaning of Psychology), he was contemptuous of biography.

Now ten years after his death, at a time when comparatively few of his books are in print, we have the Life and Work of I.A. Richards, over eight hundred pages long, the composition of which began with Richards’s knowledge and with his co-operation. John Paul Russo explains his side of this: ‘My probe of the hegemonic anti-biographical, anti-historical bias in New Criticism led me to one of its main sources in Richards. I intended to elucidate as systematically as possible the historical, biographical and intellectual context of his thought. This would be to apply his principle of contextuality to a point where it would be sufficiently grounded not only in 19th and 20th-century history of criticism, but also in social reality.’ In other words, why not give New Criticism a healthy dollop of the medicine it has declared to be poison, and see what happens?

Quite against the odds, this is a good and valuable book, but not as any consequence of the homeopathic experiment. The patient’s notion of what he was going to be in for was not at all the doctor’s. By 1971 Richards was aware that Russo, a valued graduate assistant and friend, hoped to write his life. Russo thought it possible that Richards’s British publishers, Routledge, might undertake it. Richards, heart against mind, supported this approach. What he anticipated was a biography of his thought. It is questionable whether such a project could have come off. If the trick of writing an intellectual biography has ever succeeded it has been as autobiography – and perhaps ‘intellectual biography’ is only tolerable or indeed practicable as autobiography, as self-excision. The history of any man’s thoughts leads to that of his past: even Descartes could not avoid his German winter quarters and his room with a stove. That past can be discarded, but a knowledge of it is as necessary to the presentation of a lively account of an individual’s ideas as is undisclosed background to a playwright’s characters. It is the lack of it that makes attempts at straightforward ‘intellectual biography’ so tedious. When Russo, in 1977, published an essay on Richards’s mountaineering and his poems about mountains, Richards strongly objected to what he claimed was the excessively personal element involved, not to mention the technical inaccuracies.

I can understand Richards’s anger, but I do not believe it justified, nor do I think that, given the existence in print of so much information about his climbing activities, he can realistically have expected that they would escape comment. This was in the nature of a warning shot. As it has turned out, one of the things that helps anchor Russo’s book is recurrent reference to, not mountaineering in specific terms, but mountaineering for its symbolic value, and for this Richards himself, in a memorable talk, had provided the cue. Nevertheless, in other respects, Russo has gone far beyond what Richards took to be his brief, yet it is difficult to see how he could have failed to have done otherwise. ‘A city that parlies is half gotten,’ and attempts to inhibit or manipulate biographers and editors in the long run always rebound, since they excite the curiosity they seek to quell. So there are three sections in this book – an account of Richards’s early years, an account of his last years in China, and an account of his final years and death – which are decidedly personal. There is also the evidence provided by a personal friendship which lasted some twenty-two years. But all in all these elements make up a small proportion of the whole, and they depend on the fortuitous availability of material. They cannot be said to construct the dimension of ‘social reality’ that would have provided Russo with the test case for which he had apparently hoped.

Here he had bad luck. Richards’s marriage was remarkable, his wife Dorothea a subject for biography in her own right, as Russo observes (amongst the notes, where he hides much valuable information). She guarded their privacy with a vigilance vouchsafed only to those with a strong interest in their neighbours’ doings. She was fiercely protective of her husband, though her devotion did not imply comprehension. Richards was careless of possessions, she intensely retentive, a compulsive hoarder. After his death Dorothea was reluctant to reveal that she had preserved far more personal material than his principles, or the circumstances of life in three continents, or the accidents of fire and flood, had rendered probable. After her death (technically, during her lifetime, but she could not bear to part with them), all his and her papers came to form a special collection in the Old Library of Magdalene College, Cambridge, to which Richards had gone as an undergraduate in 1911, thus beginning an association which lasted a lifetime. Russo may have guessed at the existence of this material, but its full extent became apparent, and access to it possible, only after he had completed the bulk of this book. He was, at a late stage, able to consult the collection, but its size precluded detailed examination and some of the problems it presents, notably the identification of Richards’s contributions to his wife’s diaries, are considerable. The references to this material here, therefore, are in the nature of dips into a bran tub, and this can be corroborated by internal evidence in his book, particularly the slight but revealing dislocations of text, notes and index. I should say clearly that these in no way detract from the pleasures and instruction to be gained from reading Russo.

Despite Russo’s intention to do with the biography something of which he knew Richards would have disapproved, he has ended up writing a book not unremoved from that which Richards envisaged, but with enough biographical material to ensure that, whilst he cannot achieve what he set out to do (although, as we know now, the materials exist), he escapes being simply a taxidermist of ideas. Richards would not have been pleased by the painstaking intellectual genealogy that frames each chapter, because he could never have accepted that this was how his ideas came to him. When he protested his ‘ignorance’ and ‘lack of formal study’ he was in earnest, though it would be foolish to underestimate the significance of his magpie reading at lightning speed. I doubt he would have cared, either, for the way Russo further places his work in the context of a history of trends in academic criticism in North America. Richards was no more interested in what his ideas might have offered Wimsatt, Wheelwright or Brooks than he was in what he himself might have culled from John Stuart Mill. As he once observed, ‘respectable’ maps of influence took no account of the way in which people actually picked up ideas. His first encounter with Coleridge’s criticism (rather than his poetry) was through that very odd book, Arthur Machen’s Hieroglyphics. He was concerned with propositions for their own sake, for their utility. Always the efficacious collaborator and co-author, he was not bothered by the origins of ideas. He did not feel that much, except for muddle, could emerge from such investigations. When, after a great deal of provocation, he found himself forced to answer the calumnies of C.K. Ogden, whose bizarre egoism had come so to inhibit a great mind, he scrupulously avoided the personal element he might justifiably have introduced. In old age, at the instigation of his wife and friends, he embarked on a set of reminiscences, which was to be called Nine Lives. This depended on the impersonality of the anecdote – in moments of danger what had happened, not what it felt like. But he soon abandoned it.

Russo’s account plots Richards’s life and work according to a parabola derived from his standing in what might be thought of as imaginary academic opinion polls. There is the effervescent brilliance of youth, the steady accomplishment of maturity, and adversity in old age. Richards was certainly sufficiently attached to his ideas, though not to personal popularity or worldly success, to make this plausible. The chief question it raises, however, is whether the central problem of Richards’s life and work is his rejection of, his refusal to attend to, history. At times this has about it a degree of crazy heroism, and it is surely not coincidental that Richards’s favourite fictional character was Don Quixote. Who else (except, in totally different circumstances, Bonhoeffer or Munk) would have written, in 1943: ‘even the immense collective crimes of the present have their encouraging side. In committing them and combating them, men are exhibiting immense virtues – intelligence, courage, steadfastness, initiative’? Richards had himself, passionately, taken sides. In 1939 he had wished to train British troops in mountain warfare, but had been persuaded by Stephen Gaselee and Eliot that he would be better employed in helping, through his work at Harvard, to bring the United States into the War. He set himself to the task, and was baffled by the resistance he encountered. The tragedy, as ever, was that his insights were impeded by the conviction that problems implied solutions; as Eliot wrote of Science and Poetry in 1926, ‘such questions as Mr Richards raises are usually not answered; usually they are merely superseded.’ Nothing in his life so grieved him or caused him such despair as the failure of Basic English, yet Bentham, from whose work the idea had stemmed, had written, of the elimination of ‘word-magic’, towards which The Meaning of Meaning and Basic were directed: ‘ere this auspicious tendency should have been perfected in effect, how many centuries, not to say tens of centuries, must have passed away.’

The matter of history embraces that of religion. Here Russo’s account is particularly valuable. His book, so careful, even cumbrous in its comprehensiveness, has one notable weakness: its summary treatment of Mencius on the Mind. Mencius might seem a sport – Kenner has noted its ‘pleasant 17th-century flavour’ – but actually brings together Richards’s concerns more comprehensively than any other work and is, besides, the most responsible and sustained assault on ethnocentricity to have been published in English in this century (the only point of comparison I can see is the poetry of Charles Olson). There is, however, a compensatory strength, evinced in the full and compelling treatment of Richards’s last book, Beyond. Here Russo takes his finger off the pulse of academic acclamation and responds with quiet conviction to a work which fits into no school or tendency of thought, unless it is one that transcends mundane temporality and leaps from Coleridge to Arnold to Richards. Beyond, published in 1974, was not helped by its presentation, bedight with Richards’s elaborate diacriticals, his final attempt to combat the imbecility of readers – perfectly logical and, in its logicality, absurd. In Beyond Richards considers a sequence of texts: Homer, the Book of Job, Plato, Dante, Shelley, essentially religious in their bearing. Its governing impulse is in its concern with ‘the Scripture over us’, the texts that adumbrate the other, the ideal and the possibility of survival beyond death – a topic which is also strikingly evident in Richards’s poems. It proceeds by means of both close and general criticism; in another context Russo notes, wryly, that it is an odd aspect of Richards’s work that he seldom deployed his preferred critical methods in practice. But as an originator, a man who could, in his seventies, proclaim without more than a touch of bravura, ‘I am an inventor,’ Richards was not inclined, until his final, reflective period, to move within the restricted realms of exegesis and comment. Russo sees, I am sure rightly, the weakest section as the discussion of, and terza rima commentary upon, Dante: this he attributes to Richards’s insensitivity to historical and religious issues, and it has to be added that this insensitivity was maintained in the face of a close friendship with Charles Singleton. Despite this, as Russo points out, what Beyond chiefly involves is deep speculative insight into the nature of the sacred. It concludes by quoting Blake from Jerusalem, ‘Giving, receiving and forgiving each other’s trespasses’ – which is at the core of Richards’s attitude in 1943 (and, it should be said, throughout two decades in China).

Russo’s exploration has its false turnings and roads not taken. He chides Richards for failing to mention, when discussing the theory of grammar in Interpretation in Teaching, Wittgenstein’s language of games; this is because he is thinking in terms of his own endeavour to assimilate Richards to trends in the received history of ideas. The effect is condescending. Richards needed no footnotes and would not have wished to clog down an impassioned plea that took a lien on clarity with references to a man whom he may, by the Seventies, have come to see as a ‘Strayed Poet’ or ‘Dubious Angel’, but in the Thirties thought a purveyor of word-magic. Russo’s book is far too long; its length diminishes the force of Richards’s ideas and dulls the presentation of their development, which is convincing but, as things stand, has to be excavated from the mass. Many of his topics do not require the painstaking commentary provided, given the audience which the book appears to presume: familiarity with Kant’s theory of autotelic art suggests that précis of Plato may be irrelevant. Its virtues are its fidelity to its subject, the clarity with which it is written, the spirit of critical admiration in which it is conceived and, not least, its lack of concessions to Richards’s current critical neglect. But I must enter a final protest. Richards’s funeral service was not held in Magdalene College Chapel. He would not have been seen dead in it.