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.’

This compelling and focused short essay is actually one of the most ‘ordinary’ of Ricks’s performances, though too good to be described in such terms. It makes the standard move of telling you what modern critics have thought; and what some of Marlowe’s contemporaries thought, by drawing on Dekker’s pamphlets for the imagined connection between the plague, the Devil and Hell. Ricks isn’t normally comfortable with a purely historical exercise, nor indeed with pedestrian talk of method, but on this occasion he takes as his model Emrys Jones’s account of ‘the pressure put by King James’s statecraft’ on Cymbeline, and gives a modest account of how such external knowledge may help the reader: ‘My claim is not that our apprehending this will make the play perfect but that it will make much of the play more explicable; the enterprise makes sense.’ Moderns might even glimpse something of what Hell must have looked like, to those who saw it anticipated all around them.

Other essays in the first half (‘John Donne: “Farewell to Love”’ and ‘Jane Austen and the Business of Mothering’) aren’t about death but do explore authors’ writings to elicit patterns of feeling or of the want of feeling. Though none of this is explained in principle, some explanation will be forthcoming three hundred pages on in an essay called ‘Literary Principles as against Theory’. There Ricks quotes two passages in which T.S. Eliot reflects on intelligence, distinguishes it from intellectuality and associates it (in English literary culture particularly) with the creative mind. In contemporary poetry, for instance, he isolates a quality of ‘intelligence, of which one important function is the discernment of exactly what, and how much, we feel in any given situation.’ The essays in the first half of Ricks’s book omit the reference to theory but already illustrate what can practically be done with Eliot’s principle.

In an essay on that apparently least poetic and least intellectual of poets, George Crabbe, the feeling in question is once more the fear of death. Crabbe was of an age with Wordsworth, but his slowness to publish made him a contemporary of the more flamboyant second Romantic generation, that of Byron. Crabbe looked all the more conservative and unglamorous as the poet of domestic and village life in the flatlands north of the Thames estuary. I encountered an undergraduate this summer, taking his final examinations at Oxford, who had been challenged by another tutor to test his ideas of the poetic on a difficult case – for instance, Crabbe. He was driven to a frenzy of impatience by the assignment, but Ricks is not. In ‘Crabbe’s Thoughts of Confinement’, a clever and brilliantly-observed essay, Ricks sets off armed both with Crabbe’s Poems and with the Victorian Life and Letters of the poet composed by his son and namesake, another Reverend George Crabbe. The biography discloses the morbid side of Crabbe’s relations with his environment, by relating two occasions in his youth when he nearly drowned in the slow grey waters. ‘Crabbe is among the many poets,’ says Ricks, ‘who notoriously live upon drowning, the stifling of breath and speech,’ and he quotes a grim example from The Borough:

That feeble Sob, unlike the new-born Note
Which came with vigour from the op’ning Throat;
When Air and Light first rush’d on Lungs and Eyes,
And there was Life and Spirit in the Cries;
Now an abortive, faint attempt to weep
Is all we hear; Sensation is asleep.

When in his stride, Ricks compares passage with passage to great effect; he is mindful of his own transitions and of Crabbe’s. After this quotation he immediately resumes: ‘Crabbe, who had known terror of suffocation and of drowning, was one whose apprehension gravitated naturally from the room narrowly without air to the ocean so widely without it, from (one stanza to the next) “Pale Weavers sat, of Air bereav’d”, to “Men dropt into the rav’nous tide”.’ Ricks can’t resist the pun for his poet’s idiosyncratic Art of Sinking, ‘Suffolkated’.

This is a virtuoso close reading by one of the best living practitioners of that skill; the performance resonates well beyond the particular page. Crabbe’s preoccupation with confinement helps shape the moral and social world his verse Tales realise. In sympathetically eliciting how imaginative and personal the poetry is, Ricks seconds the labour of love undertaken by the poet’s important Victorian interpreter, his son. So readers of Ricks’s book will have been exercised, without being aware of it, in preparation for the unmarked but essential 91-page central section of his book, dedicated to three more complex examples of the Victorian art of biography.

On the contents page the book’s centrepiece in fact includes a fourth essay, ‘George Eliot: She Was Still Young’. But this was given alone in both a broadcast and a journal version, in 1980, while the others (prefaced by ‘Literature and the Matter of Fact’) were linked as a series for the Clark Lectures at Cambridge in 1991. The three together make a discrete topic, for (unlike the George Eliot essay) they are each called after the Life of a great writer written by a friend or family member: ‘E.C. Gaskell’s Charlotte Brontë’, ‘Froude’s Carlyle’ and Hallam ‘Tennyson’s Tennyson’. Not just records but interpretations of lives, these more or less massive works (Froude’s amounted to nine volumes) enable Ricks to develop his exploration of literature’s concern with the feelings.

True to the pilot essays on Marlowe and Crabbe, the three biographies reveal a writer in extremity. Charlotte Brontë, Carlyle and Tennyson all experienced the death of the people they were closest to: Brontë, those of her mother and five siblings; Carlyle, that of his wife Jane Welsh Carlyle; Tennyson, that of his friend Arthur Hallam, and his first and third sons. The writers had the luck to find biographers who loved and admired them, but who also profoundly understood bereavement and loss – not only from observing it in their subject, at close hand, but from writing while themselves in mourning. To say they wrote with sympathy and, in the fullest sense, as an act of piety, inadequately conveys the special quality of these truly monumental books – which, as Ricks argues, need rescuing from modern academic condescension.

Ricks defiantly opens the third of these essays with Alfred Tennyson’s dictum, found in Hallam Tennyson’s Life: ‘The worth of a biography depends on whether it is done by one who wholly loves the man whose life he writes, yet loves him with a discriminatory love.’ Ricks supports the principle by ‘doubling up’ as a second narrator and in effect biographer: that is, by telling simply and powerfully the three stories of the deaths, and telling them again from the appropriate Life in the writer’s words and the biographer’s, all three versions of one story chiming with and answering the others.

Each of Ricks’s essays on Victorian biography is very moving, but also analytical: he distinguishes the way the biographers work, establishing that it can be the narrative presentation that gets at the truth, and makes the Life a masterpiece. Gaskell manages perhaps the greatest felicity in the writing, the most ambitious deployment of narrative and the most adroit introduction of herself onto the scene. Froude, bravely obeying Carlyle’s wishes to make the story known, published Jane’s letters before Thomas Carlyle’s Life and Letters was complete, so that readers could better understand Thomas’s devastation on learning from Jane’s letters after her death how unhappy in their marriage she had been. (It is Ricks’s careful elucidation of Froude’s strategy that alerts readers to his own use of this method in Essays in Appreciation.)

One hesitates to say that Hallam Tennyson is less visibly adventurous than the other two biographers, since Ricks is angered by later scholars’ condescension towards Hallam. To this reader at least, it is Alfred Tennyson’s words, not Hallam’s, that one remembers. Though Hallam’s abrupt change of subject, after (for example) Lionel Tennyson’s death at sea, reads as admirably reticent and stoical, this technique is conventional in a Life and derives from an episodic ur-form which is basically that of a diary. Even so, Hallam’s loneliness, as the only son to survive his parents, centrally bears on their story. To this extent he truly bears out Ricks’s contention that a biographer intimate with his writer-subject has access to feelings unavailable to strangers.

This isn’t really the last word on the issue of literary biography. The modern academic version has a valid role, as a way of testing the subject’s own perspective against those of his circle and of relevant contemporaries. But, though his adversarial style weights the argument unfairly against the moderns, Ricks could hardly have better illustrated the strengths of Victorian biographers than by adopting their methods, along with their respect and affection: a great critical feat, and also a triumph of historical imagination.

There are two gems in the book’s last section – ‘Austin’s Swink’, a potentially off-putting Chaucerian title for a tour de force on J.L. Austin’s wordplay, and ‘Literature and the Matter of Fact’, Ricks’s classic lecture on literary blunders, a small anthology he puts together so deftly that it is at least as good as the sum of its parts. No better, however; and though this is a familiar complaint aimed at a collection of lectures, it becomes more serious when the collection manifestly takes on the weightiness of a book. ‘Literature and the Matter of Fact’ is elegant, funny and thought-provoking, all that can be expected from the oral delivery of five thousand words, and more than most of us will ever achieve within the constraints. But like most good lectures it suggests far more than it states, and on reading the incompleteness shows. There isn’t room for Ricks to work hard or seriously enough on the difference between historical and fictional facts. And there’s far more to be said of ‘faction’, as much a 19th as a 20th-century form, than gets into the somewhat dismissive paragraph on Capote’s In Cold Blood.

Secondly, there is a sourish taste about many of the examples once in print, even though from the platform they were, like Leavis’s famously insulting asides, much what you’d come for. With time at your disposal for reflection, you begin to wonder whether Ricks conceivably thinks himself infallible on points like these, or whether by literalising theorists’ scepticism into wholesale warfare against fact he hasn’t merely shaped a handy tool for belabouring anyone he doesn’t much approve of. For this elegant, intriguing theme, so natural to a man with Ricks’s eye for detail, comes towing its own ideological baggage:

I realise that there are those, especially in universities and especially in English departments, for whom the distinction between fact and fiction was long ago exploded. It seems that any such distinction was only ever an abuse of power anyway, and that there are no such things as facts, only those inverted-comma ectoplasms, ‘facts’. (Such literary relativists, though, can always be caught slipping into saying that in fact ...)

The last dig doesn’t add up to much, and what precedes it is as much a travesty of what theorists believe as theorists’ simplifications of Ricks’s own alleged position: that, according to him, anyone of his mind is naive, innocent, unphilosophical, unthinking, or mistakenly waiting for it all to blow over.

Ricks overextends himself, to put it mildly, in the group of theoretical essays he leaves to the end of his volume, in defiance of the usual convention to ‘theorise your position’ at the outset. Of the four essays falling into this explanatory category, it is plainly the second, ‘Literary Principles as against Theory’, that matters most for this volume as a whole. The principles spelt out in the opening pages of that essay are central, for, in addition to Eliot on feeling, they include Hopkins on the need to teach rhetoric, which is to poetry ‘as grammar is to speech’, and Eliot, in his role as editor of the Criterion, on the importance of maintaining the distinctness of intellectual activities such as literature and, presumably, philosophy.

Up to this point the book is holding together; after the middle of page 315, it plunges into a form of underworld activity reminiscent of bear-baiting – though it can’t have been usual to unleash one mastiff, of admittedly boundless energy, on a whole pitful of bears. The speed and violence of the mêlée that develops, the array of biteable bodies and the small attention-span available for any of them, makes the event (like most unfamiliar sports) strictly impossible to follow. Individuals and notions subject to attack include Fish, Hartman, Kermode, theory in general and Pyrrhonism and professionalism in the hardly more particular. Ricks seems to draw blood when he lampoons John Guillory’s rhetoric, with its frequent recourse to the problematic, but he tells one story of a fight in his own institution which might induce some of his readers to root for the other side:

A colleague of mine ... being as they say ‘empowered’ to set the allocations within a mandatory graduate course which was called ‘Introduction to Literary Study’, specified the first six-sevenths of the course (readings in – natch – Marx, Freud, structuralism, post-structuralism, Lacanianism, and feminism French and American), and then added, not deigning now to specify: ‘plus a couple of weeks for the old verities’.

  Is this all that everything from Aristotle to Trilling, from Horace and Sidney to Eliot and Empson, amounts to? The old verities? I find this lacking in verity.

But few students taking up graduate work in literature are starting from scratch; as undergraduates they will have studied literature but not, if Ricks has his way, theory. On the evidence of this book, a typical student coming up within the institution would have received instruction in English literature, including the critics, and no doubt it would be inspirational if by Ricks himself. The graduate-school convenor still means to take them back to these ‘old verities’ after introducing them to less familiar ideas (not all of which represent Ricks’s bugbears from the Sixties and after). So what is Ricks really asking for? No exposure to intellectual traditions which have impinged on literature throughout the 20th century? Not even in the graduate school? Under such a regime of exclusion, how would the graduate school recruit students? Ricks should instead have rejoiced that his colleague had the humour (or concessiveness) to use the old word ‘verities’.

Perhaps the issue arising from these later pages is one of tone. Caught in what he perceives as a fracas, Ricks has unwisely taken to shouting: ‘theory ... is characterised by its degree of elaboration, concentration, completeness, abstraction, self-consciousness, explicitness, regression, recession and technicality.’ Or he hits the note of hurt pride: ‘It is a short step from the risky handy proposition that to think at all is to theorise, to the oppositely risky handy one that only theorists think at all. At this point, admittedly, my opposition to such claims for theory move into resentment.’ Manifest resentment has a way of conveying vulnerability rather than righteousness. Ricks in this vein forgets himself – that is, he forgets the elementary purpose of rhetoric, to persuade, and of principles, that they’re for sticking to.