Adam Phillips

  • True Friendship: Geoffrey Hill, Anthony Hecht and Robert Lowell under the Sign of Eliot and Pound by Christopher Ricks
    Yale, 258 pp, £16.99, February 2010, ISBN 978 0 300 13429 2

In his first book, Milton’s Grand Style, Christopher Ricks showed us that Milton wanted his readers to be attentive to the fact that when our ‘first parents’ fell, their language fell with them. Paradise Lost could only have been written in the language we were left with after the catastrophe, but is partly about the language we started with, and what happened to it. Our words have a prior innocence; Adam and Eve meant what they said, and after the Fall they didn’t. The first language was innocent because there was nothing to be duplicitous about; there was no interpretation because there was nothing to interpret. This ‘play’, as Ricks called it, the drama within the larger drama of the poem, is difficult to be alert to, so immersed are we in the fallen world. The critic, like the poet, has to be a double agent, using the language of dire experience to remind us of our (lost) innocence. ‘It is easy to point to, though admittedly hard to substantiate,’ Ricks writes, in a distinction that runs through his work (he has always been mindful of just how unverifiable interpretation tends to be).

Take grateful, for instance. Sometimes it has the sense of ‘thankful’, sometimes of ‘pleasing’ (both are common 17th-century meanings). Perhaps Milton’s fondness for the word is a reflection of the fact that in a prelapsarian state there would be no distinction of this kind. Adam and Eve were thankful for what pleased them, and being thankful is itself a pleasure.

Ricks, too, is fond of the word ‘grateful’ – he uses it 23 times in this new book – and fond too of being thankful for what pleases him. This is not obviously a riveting quality in a critic, especially in a critic determinedly un-shy of using old-fashioned Paterian words like ‘lovely’ and ‘delicate’ and ‘beautiful’ (and ‘appreciation’), in a discipline so keen to be up to date in its jargon and theoretical presumptions. But for Ricks innocence and experience – the difference between being thankful and being pleasing, and the difference between wanting to be these things and being them – have always been the issue.

An insistence on gratitude, though, is not always something to be grateful for, as appreciation can so easily turn sanctimonious when it protests its importance, not to mention its innocence. So when Ricks writes in a prefatory note to this book about three late 20th-century poets and what they owe to Pound and Eliot, ‘it doesn’t seem to me that my arguments and appreciations, as appreciative argument, derive from or depend upon personal friendship or personal feelings. I have published for more than 40 years my gratitude for Hill’s art and for Lowell’s, and for 30 years my gratitude for Hecht’s,’ it is difficult not to feel that the repetitions override the disclaimers, and not to wonder what gratitude is when there is so much of it, and when it has been so insistently published. But Ricks himself wonders, as is proper, what the word for the right amount, or the right kind, of gratitude is. ‘Gratitude is a nub,’ he writes. ‘The English language recognises that there are such people as ingrates. We are to face the fact that there is not a corresponding noun for someone who is duly grateful. “What I dislike about you is that you are an ingrate.” But not: “What I like about you is that you are a grate, a great grate.”’ The English language recognises, as does True Friendship, that grateful is not something you can easily just be; and Ricks is good at recognising the sense that can be made by making a nonsense. But it is a blind spot of this book that Ricks doesn’t sufficiently acknowledge the range of things people might be doing to each other by being grateful (you would never guess from reading True Friendship that gratitude can be a persecution, a protection racket, a relief of guilt, or a burden). In True Friendship, there are not versions of gratitude, but a gratitude one must only be grateful for. Insisting on gratitude is an unsparing dogma, since it does not allow for the fact that people might want to come to their own conclusion about how they do their depending on the people they need.

So despite Geoffrey Hill’s misgivings about Eliot, reported in some detail in this book (Hill has talked about ‘the progressive deterioration of Eliot’s creative gifts’ in his later poetry), Ricks is determined, in the name of true friendship, that Eliot must not be forgotten by being dismissed. ‘Eliot’s memorial within Hill,’ he writes, ‘is to be found not in Hill’s prose but in his poems early and late, livingly grateful as they are to Eliot’s poems early and late.’ Hill has never said that Eliot was not an influence on his poetry; but Ricks suggests that Hill’s disagreement with him about Eliot’s prose and later poetry is a form of unacknowledged ingratitude. As though Hill isn’t owning up to something – undying gratitude? – which is then owned up to, in spite of himself, in his poetry. When Hill uses the admittedly unusual word ‘haruspicate’ in Speech! Speech! – ‘Hoarding,/looting, twinned by nature. Haruspicate/Over the unmentionable …’ – Ricks uses Hill’s words against him, because ‘haruspicate’ is a word notably used by Eliot. ‘Hoarding Eliot, looting Eliot … Twinned by nature with Eliot, Eliot as unmentionable, even while inescapable’: it is always revealing when poems can be shown to be interpreting themselves, commenting on their diction by the way they use it, but there is something relentless about Ricks’s need to make Hill pay.

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