Misgivings

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.

Hill, of course, has grievances against Ricks that are substantial – referred to amusingly by Ricks here, but not made light of – such as the suggestion that Ricks’s enthusiasm for Little Gidding may be misplaced. It was Ricks’s defence of what he had called ‘the generous common humanity’ of the clichés in Little Gidding that Hill took particular objection to. ‘I would ask him,’ Hill riposted with some sting in Style and Faith, ‘to place his “generous common humanity” within the field of Hooker’s common equivocation and to determine how much weight and pressure that generous humanity can sustain.’ And Hill was equally caustic about Ricks’s making the case for Larkin: ‘If I were to ask Ricks,’ Hill writes, ‘how it is that, against all the evidence his own unrivalled critical intelligence could bring to the process, he is pleased to be numbered amongst Larkin’s advocates, I anticipate that he might answer: “Because he speaks to the human condition.”’ Only God, presumably, has an ‘unrivalled’ critical intelligence, so this could be damning with great praise; and Ricks quotes this to turn it against Hill: ‘Once again, too, I am grateful for a good word (“unrivalled”!) while aware that rivalry is indeed at issue: not Hill’s with me, but Hill’s with Larkin now as well as with Eliot. With Larkin, perhaps, all the more rivalrous in that Larkin’s popularity has been a signal feature of Hill’s lifetime as a poet.’ The words Hill wanted to put in Ricks’s mouth were implausible, and mildly insulting, but Ricks’s turning of the tables is more gossipy than illuminating. It was Ricks’s willingness to be generous to Eliot (and to Larkin) that got to Hill, and this gets to something difficult in Ricks’s criticism, which is that the very real generosity of his criticism is, as it were, overdetermined, unrelenting, and too often confuses his being right with his being generous, and others being, in his view, wrong with their being ungenerous. If this first essay in the book sounds more like getting even than like true friendship, it is because Ricks wants Hill to see the error of his ways, and because Hill has exposed something about what Ricks might be backing in backing these particular poets in the way he does (reactionary accounts of the ‘human condition’, say, or the justification of prejudice under the cover of principle, or truth-telling). What Ricks calls the ‘resentment’ Hill supposedly feels about Eliot, and implies that he feels about Larkin, is a supposition made by someone in true opposition. Gratitude can be a shield and a weapon. There has always been in Ricks’s criticism – and it is particularly vivid in True Friendship – an abiding preoccupation with paying one’s debts, and with how this may not be as easy as it looks, especially when debts are to be paid in poems, and the critical appreciation of poems. Poets, in Ricks’s view, must pay their debts in words, and critics must keep their accounts.

True Friendship, though, like all of Ricks’s books, is a book to be grateful for, partly because he is a critic so alert to what poems are alert to; and partly because, as always in his canny and mannered writing, so much is at stake and in play. Not least the question of what the phrase ‘true friendship’ might mean both in its allusion to Blake – ‘Opposition is true friendship’ – and as a statement about the collaboration, or otherwise, between poets, and between poets and critics. The opposition alluded to by the title is sometimes Ricks’s real theme, though understandably it is the friendship bit he prefers and promotes. Indeed, part of the fascination of this book is the way Ricks can be so conciliating about disagreement, especially between Pound and Eliot, whom he describes as ‘almost always able to argue without quarrelling’; there was between them ‘the cut-and-thrust that is not out to wound but is something other than shadow fencing’.

Towards the end of the book Dante comes in as the poet in whom, as it were, all the poets meet: all admit, sometimes fulsomely, their indebtedness to him, often in the form of creative translation or imitation. Ricks is perhaps at his best in this book when writing about Eliot’s use of Dante, and Lowell’s allusions to and imitations of him (he refers at one point to ‘Lowell’s characteristic ability to call upon so much that does not have exactly to be vouched for’ – a good description of what it is to be, as Lowell so surely was, entitled, and what it is to write allusively; and how these things might be well connected). For Ricks gratitude transforms a debt into a gift; and friendship makes a collaboration out of a rivalry. His account of Lowell’s meetings with Pound and Eliot, in his poems and elsewhere, is among the most moving things in this book, partly because there are no misgivings about the indebtedness involved. ‘Under the Sign of’, as part of a subtitle, may suggest a different kind of influence, but the influences that matter to Ricks are prompts and inspirations; and in this sense Dante is the unifying force of a book that keeps going off in different directions, so packed is it with the implications of poems. The titles of Ricks’s books are usually short, without subtitles, and with one keyword to wake us up. The ungainly length of True Friendship’s subtitle intimates just how much work Ricks wants to do in this brief and incisive book about the now unfashionable tradition of high modernist poetry. And some of it, perhaps unsurprisingly, is about his own debts, and about the principles and prejudices of his own remarkable body of work as a literary critic.

Ricks has often been in opposition – mostly to other critics, of whom he is a great corrector – but he has also been unusually generous as a celebrator of the way poems, and poets, work; it is virtually impossible not to want to read a poem Ricks has written about, and not to feel something about the way he himself writes. No critic, other than Ricks’s mentor Empson, makes poems sound so interesting by drawing so much attention to the style in which he writes about them; and no critic insists more than Ricks that he is not to be compared to the writers he writes about. He consistently makes claims for a necessary modesty in the critic, to ward off any suspicion that the critic could in any way be rivalrous with or envious of the writers he depends on. At the beginning of this book, for example, he tells us that he never met Eliot, ‘but I like to think that in my two books on his art, T.S. Eliot and Prejudice (1988) and Decisions and Revisions in T.S. Eliot (2003), there was some meeting of minds, mine being the immensely smaller one.’ It is not always clear that this is true in Ricks’s writing on Eliot, nor is it obvious why it needs to be said unless there is some doubt (and the question about who might have an even smaller one is inevitably in the air). The humility that Eliot was so keen on, and that Ricks is so keen on in Eliot, often sounds like some kind of reproach to those who don’t feel it, or call it something else. About the Blake aphorism that provides half of his title, Ricks writes that it ‘would have told more truth (but would not have been as telling) if it had reduced itself to the thought that opposition may on occasion be true friendship’ and there is a certain amount of pride in just how good-natured (and unoppositional) Eliot and Pound and Lowell and Hecht could sometimes be, without any glossing over the rest of the well-known story. In his wonderful chapter on Hecht (which will do much to remind people of just what a shrewd and subtle and formally adept poet he was), after quoting Hecht’s eloquent misgivings about Pound and Eliot, Ricks adds some of his own. ‘Pound’s poems, some of them,’ he writes,

were worse than affected by his anti-semitism; they were infected by it. But then so were Eliot’s, some of them. I differ from Hecht as to the scale and the nature, and as to the endorsement (is it always that?) of the anti-semitic animosities within Eliot’s poems of 1920-22, but there is no ignoring any of this, and I have long been grateful to Hecht for making me not only think but rethink about it.

Ricks has always been at his measured best on the subject of Eliot’s anti-semitism; and we can be grateful for his refusal of blanket condemnations and his willingness to make distinctions (the Four Quartets are not anti-semitic poems; most of Pound’s poetry is not crazed and Fascist). People can be a bit anti-semitic, a bit racist, without necessarily being wholly bad, or needing to be disqualified tout court. Ricks wants the writers he admires to be as complicated as they might be (something that ‘theory’, in his view, can never allow for). The great interest of the book, of course, lies in the brilliant remarking on so many individual poems, and the infectious pleasure of the way Ricks writes about how poems write about each other – about how poems can be the best critics. Ricks wants us to fall for the poems he likes, but not to fall for them for the wrong reasons – because they seem to suit a critic’s ideological predilections or theoretical hobby-horse, say, or because they illustrate (and affirm) something already known by the reader. The innocent eye may see nothing but, for Ricks, the eye of experience is tempted to see too much, mostly too much of itself. Ricks’s close readings have an unpredictability that enthusiastic theoretical allegiances tend to inhibit.

There is a prelapsarian Ricks – mostly in evidence in True Friendship – whose pleasure and moral imperative is to appreciate and celebrate wherever possible (and sometimes to be too persistingly benign); and there is another Ricks who is radically dismayed by so much that is wrong, and has gone wrong – by so much ingratitude, and by inaccuracy as a form of ingratitude (a great editor, Ricks has always been a stickler for scholarly accuracy, which traditionally gives people a good cover story for their own severity, and sometimes gives them the opportunity, rare in the humanities, to be right). One of the things that famously went very wrong for Ricks was the rise and rise of so-called ‘theory’ in so-called ‘literary studies’; and the increasing animus against Eliot as a too high and mighty modernist and an anti-semite. Ricks has devoted himself – not too strong a word – to the promotion and defence of Eliot. (And to a strange idealisation of him: ‘Eliot,’ he writes in True Friendship, ‘always took to heart his own words as well as those of others.’ ‘Always’? ‘As well as’?) He has also wanted to replace an interest in theory with an interest in allusion (poems read as referring to each other rather than being referred for theoretical redescription). True Friendship insistently does both things at once, gratitude being, as it were, the hinge.

Eliot, as he makes abundantly clear in all his writing, was occupied and preoccupied by the Fall, and True Friendship, like most of Ricks’s writing after Keats and Embarrassment, alludes, often tacitly, to the fall-out and the fallings-out in literary studies after the advent of theory and the rise and fall and rise of Eliot. What people are defending dictates what they attack, and how; what Ricks is defending is gratitude for the literature he values, as much as the literature itself. Dante and Eliot, and to an extent Pound, are the great progenitors here. What he is attacking is unacknowledged debts, and failures of detailed appreciation in the reading of literature. This, of course, is Milton’s story of the Fall, when explanation was preferred to celebration – theory to appreciation – and terrible things happened as a consequence. Any great tradition for Ricks has to be a great tradition of gratitude.

In a rightly famous essay, ‘Literary Principles as against Theory’, Ricks again had recourse to the Fall – ‘not the story of pure gains, but of great gains and great losses’ – in defending the supposed innocence of critics before the theory revolution (‘reports of the innocence of critics prior to the “revolution” … have been much exaggerated, like reports of the death of the author or of God’). For Ricks the fall into theory had not been fortunate because theory, like ingratitude, like the Fall, was above all divisive. The pre-theory critics had not been simply naive, and the ‘theorists’, like secularisers everywhere, had overestimated the enlightenment of their enlightenment; they were insufficiently appreciative of the literature they read, and of its audience. Even though theory was often no more than an attempt, although sometimes a rather coercive one, to demystify preconceptions in the reading of literature, Ricks preferred what he called, after Johnson, ‘principles’ (‘The task of criticism,’ Johnson wrote, as quoted by Ricks, was ‘to establish principles’). ‘Theory,’ he argued, ‘in its professionalised and systematic intellectuality, widens the gap between critics and non-professional readers; between critics and writers; between critics and scholars; and – smaller of scale but professionally germane – between graduates and undergraduates.’ ‘Theory … seeks exactly to generalise,’ Ricks wrote in his exacting way, generalising about theory and theorists, while honourably defending the common reader from the specialist reader and the particularity of principle against the non-local knowledge of theory. He wasn’t the only person who felt that it wasn’t the great modernists who had stolen literature from its readers, but the academic theorists who came – and went – after them.

We need to know some of this in reading True Friendship because even though Ricks’s grievance against ‘theory’ has never been the most interesting thing about his work, it has taken up a lot of space in his writing, in which battle lines are drawn and between the lines battles are going on that the common reader – the reader Ricks has been so eloquently defending – doesn’t always know about. The reason to read Ricks has always been the startling inventiveness and erudition of his close reading. He was once a wonderful reviewer of contemporary poetry, and is an extraordinary teacher and lecturer; and he is at his best, as often in this book, when he takes his eye off the positions he feels he has to defend, and just shows us how he reads. And so one of the many interesting things about True Friendship is its suggestion, against Ricks’s earlier strictures, that even principles may be overreaching and distracting in the appreciation of the arts. The ‘principle’ of art being ‘self-reflective’, i.e. too much about itself, Ricks writes, ‘like all others, has always been tempted to escalate its claims, to make itself the one thing necessary, as if art’s own nature were the only thing with which art were ever occupied’. True Friendship is mindful of the fact that to make poetry too much a matter of allusion, and reading too much a matter of recognising allusion, is to be in thrall to one thing at the cost of so many others.

There is what looks like an example of Ricks going against his new better judgment in this book – his being too wedded to the principle of poetry as above all allusive in its workings – when he quotes from Hill’s sequence The Triumph of Love the lines ‘a field corner where the flies/gather and old horses shake their sides’, and then suggests that ‘had it not been for Larkin, it is to be doubted that Hill’s poem would have taken the precise form it took.’ The lines from Larkin’s ‘At Grass’ are: ‘Do memories plague their ears like flies?/They shake their heads.’ Ricks strains credulity further by proposing that Larkin got ‘shake’ from Yeats’s lines about how Pride and Truth ‘shake their wicked sides at youth/Restraining reckless middle-age’. To use words that are in other poems, as all poems can’t help but do, might seem rather like allusion in a trivial sense. No one could possibly know where poets get their lines from, any more than anyone can know where they get their thoughts from, but it is presumably possible that Hill and Larkin could have got their lines from looking at horses. But then, to add possible insult to possible injury, Ricks writes one of his marvellous nonsense prose poems, setting aside (and parodying) what was once called the ‘heresy of paraphrase’ that literary criticism has all too easily been given to. ‘Larkin, They shake their heads; Hill, shake their sides; Yeats, To shake their wicked sides. Larkin, plague; Yeats, plague. Hill, age; Yeats, middle-age, age. Hill, where; Yeats, Where, where.’ Look after the sound and the sense will take care of itself.

Ricks is the funniest critic, and he observes Frost’s principle without worrying whether it is applicable to critical prose about poems. The links make you think, and in a way that not drawing attention to them would not. They make you think about poems as echo chambers, and of reading poetry as a way of hearing things; and about the fact that in the reading of poetry associations cross one’s mind that one is inclined to dismiss. If the ‘shake’ example seems peculiarly ill-judged when everywhere else in the book Ricks is scrupulous to substantiate his claims in a different way – often by making more complicated and intricate links – it’s because it suggests that even a single, simple word in a poem is worth hearing as a pointer to other poems with which it is inexplicitly involved. Ricks unfailingly makes poems sound as interesting as they are, which is not true of most critics, theory-bound or otherwise. There is more to poets than the poems they have read, as Ricks’s intricate title reminds us. But there is also more to poems than the sense we can make of them. Theory is, and was, just another set of languages to write about literature in, some more appealing than others, but it did rescue writing about literature from connoisseurship, and extend the boundaries of what may or may not be literature. Ricks’s misgivings about it were excessive in their generalised dismissal, but also salutary in their reminder that theory can also narrow the mind down to its all too conscious allegiances.

In True Friendship there are no theorists, very little generalising – the citing and collecting of ‘instances’ to substantiate particular points as opposed to the making of grander claims – and no recondite or technical jargon; there are close readings, aperçus and jokes (lots of good jokes). There are also the familiar touchstones: Arnold, Leavis, Empson and Davie; but above all Empson. And this means, as it sometimes does with Empson, that a certain amount of rhetorical work has to be done on prejudices to make them sound like principles, and on principles to stop them sounding like theories. This, for its sheer ingenuity, is worth reading True Friendship for.

Ricks ends his book with a wide regret, a commentary, yet again, on Eliot: ‘It is bitter to have loved and lost. For all concerned.’ And then, with an ungrand dismissal of himself: ‘Read Eliot and Pound. Read Geoffrey Hill, Anthony Hecht and Robert Lowell, whether or not under the sign of Eliot and Pound.’ What Empson wonderfully said of Eliot, quoted in this book, could be said of Ricks by many people, at least of my generation, who read literature at university, or who just read: ‘I do not know for certain how much of my own mind he invented, let alone how much of it is a reaction against him or indeed a consequence of misreading him. He has a very penetrating influence, perhaps not unlike an east wind.’