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.

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