The Verity of Verity

Marilyn Butler

  • Essays in Appreciation by Christopher Ricks
    Oxford, 363 pp, £25.00, March 1996, ISBN 0 19 818344 5

Christopher Ricks’s new book makes available many of his distinguished lectures given in the Eighties and Nineties. The essays retain a sense of occasion, and of a star performance on Ricks’s part, while the book has been designed with the aggressive sobriety that signals a class act. Presumably it was the author who decreed that the title, in defiance of commercial logic, should give no clue to the contents, and who dispensed with routine enticements such as a subtitle and Preface, so that there’s no short-cut to finding what the book is about. The contents page, impassively giving each lecture’s title, doesn’t section off genres or centuries. There is one merciful concession to academic convenience, an index of proper names.

Whether academics who are still alive to look themselves up should rush to do so is another matter. Ricks is notable among literary critics for bestowing only brief attention, and most of that negative, on anything currently going on. He is more likely to cite a colleague for achieving a howler than an insight, and indeed much of the fun to be had from reading Ricks derives from his favourite pursuit of spot-checking his colleagues’ work for mistakes. In this book perhaps a score of scholars are courteously acknowledged for a piece of information or a useful edition; Emrys Jones is praised for a model political reading of Cymbeline, as is D.J. Enright for a poem that is also an act of criticism. But the level of citation of others’ work is low, especially by American standards, and with the single exception of Hugh Kenner no practising fellow academic earns the accolade of even approaching classic status. Ricks’s sympathy and magnanimity, two great ‘principles’ of his criticism (of which more anon), are reserved here for the dead.

Ricks does indeed appreciate, as his title promises, the creative writers Marlowe, Donne, Clarendon, Crabbe, Austen, George Eliot, Lowell and Hardy; the historian Clarendon, the philosopher Austin and the biographers Gaskell, Froude and Hallam Tennyson; and, throughout, the line of great dead critics – Johnson, Coleridge, Arnold, T.S. Eliot, Trilling and Donald Davie. If, as I believe, this volume does add up to a book, in fact a considerable one, it is artfully shaped as a study of bereavement and of commemoration – not least, as a tribute paid by one of the living to great artists.

An essay on Marlowe sets the scene, though the devious Ricks does not point up this function. ‘Dr Faustus and Hell on Earth’ has, as its and the book’s opening pronouncement: ‘One context for Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus is so obvious as to have become largely invisible.’ What offers to become a fashionable ‘contextualisation’ turns out in practice to be something rather different. Ricks, basing his argument on a notion of Empson’s, claims that something about the plot of Marlowe’s play has become obscured, because at the time it was too obvious to need stating. That something was the plague – the outbreak in London of 1593, which caused an estimated fifteen thousand deaths, and probably coincided with the play’s composition. Contemporaneity does not make the plague the play’s ‘subject’: Ricks does not believe that art can represent catastrophes – a plague, the Holocaust. He prefers to call plague the play’s ‘element’, since it was the play’s environment for its first audiences as well as for its author. Faustus is, after all, introduced as a famous doctor, a healer who might cure any visitation less terrible than this one:

Are not thy bills hung up as monuments
Whereby whole cities have escaped the plague
And thousand desperate remedies been cur’d?

‘First, the literal plague of the first scene,’ says Ricks, ‘last, the eternal plague that is Hell ... At the very end [Faustus] contemplates his undying soul: “But mine must live still to be plagued in Hell.”’ The feeling explored in the play is that of profound fear; one man’s response to the nearly universal death about him is to buy himself half a lifetime. (But, Ricks observes, ‘the premium is damnably steep.’) Other critics complain of the crude scenes of horseplay brought in from Marlowe’s source, and the inadequacy of Faustus’s imagination when compared with his rhetoric. Ricks resists this, as unimaginativeness on our part: ‘Let us at least think of what it is to live in terror of the plague, and in terror of Hell; and let us (later) think too of their likeness and unlikeness.’

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