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Christopher Ricks
London: Penguin, 2003.
£9.99, 386 pages, ISBN 0-141-01298-6.

Jennifer Kilgore
Université de Caen

With what sorcery should one approach Reviewery? How to find fault with the fellow Auden quipped was “exactly the kind of critic every poet dreams of finding?” Of course, one remembers some of those other works: Milton’s Grand Style (1963), English Drama to 1710 (1971), Keats and Embarrassment (1974), Beckett’s Dying Words (1993), The Force of Poetry (1995), Essays in Appreciation (1996), Allusion to the Poets (2002), Dylan’s Visions of Sin (2003), as well as that new edition of The Oxford Book of English Verse (1999), and The New Oxford Book of Victorian Verse (1987). Well, the people at the Andrew W. Mellon foundation seem to be quite aware of the accomplishment: Mr. Ricks (and ergo the Editorial Institute of Boston University) is the recent recipient of their Distinguished Achievement Award with its stipend of one and a half million dollars. Clearly, to go for Mr. Ricks’s jugular would require more artistry (or even stupidity) than I can muster. To vamp a bit of his talent is perhaps the best any reader could hope for, and I do remember with gratitude the day my thesis advisor first praised one of my drafts, saying I had been to the school of Christopher Ricks. But since I didn’t graduate from there summa cum laude, I hope the readers of this review will settle for a reminder of a few of his obsessions.

America is one of his recurrent subjects, and in Reviewery, Saul Steinberg is a star. The 1993-94 review of The Discovery of America stands out in this collection, with its two sloping illustrations (the only illustrations of the volume)—of Sisyphus running uphill with the ball fast behind him, of a “YES” careening downhill right into a wall of “BUT.” The latter was first described by Ricks in his 1976 essay on F.R. Leavis [p. 151]. In the Steinberg review, you will learn of his admiration for Magritte, of his job with NASA—and here, Ricks corroborates Steinberg’s preference for spending time with “the honky-tonks around Cape Canaveral” [p. 342]—of his study of architecture, of his talent as a writer and art critic, of his propensity for philosophy, and of those Steinberg drawings “where he gives a visual embodiment to the words people utter” [p. 341]. Not just about “yes” and ‘but,” they illustrate:

Virtue well-disposed towards Vice. Art and Commerce. Science and Industry. War and Peace. Crime and Punishment. Fame and Fortune. On a plinth, S. Freud finds himself balanced by S. Claus. At the center, in the front, Uncle Tom is shaking hands with Uncle Sam. And there are our old friends Law and Order. The law of gravity, the order of levity. [p. 341]

The same Ricks who wrote “the only way to speak of a cliché is with a cliché” in “Clichés” [The Force of Poetry p. 356], is using them to create “a bizarre vitality.” One of the great pleasures when reading Reviewery is that the reader can tell the author is having a great time and is inclined to want to enjoy it along with him. Of course, this is a rather sophisticated kind of fun, but, like Steinberg, Ricks “is not out to cow, and he writes [...] with easy hard-won authority” [p. 342]. Popular culture meets high culture here, keeping the reader alert and amused as well as enlightened. Steinberg’s presence occurs in the most unlikely places, such as in Bloomsbury. Here comes the American cartoonist to inspire Rick’s imaginative description of the guests at Lady Ottoline Morrell’s Garsington:

The stage army of high culture had trooped through her halls. The jamboree starts to feel like a Saul Steinberg march-past. Here come the Poets, among them Siegfried Sassoon, back from the trenches, alongside T.S. Eliot, buttoned-up, desperate to be invalided out of the war between the sexes. [p. 41]

How did Ricks catch his American interest? Was it on that 1964 trip to look at the Tennyson manuscripts or was it from Mr. Eliot, as his 1980 review of Donald Davie’s Trying to Explain would suggest? Eliot wins the prize for the highest number of indexed pages in Reviewery. It was the young American in London that so intrigued Ricks—see his edition of the early poems, Inventions of the March Hare: Poems 1909-1917 (1996). But think also of T.S. Eliot and Prejudice (1988). Or, as Eliot himself puts it in “Five Finger Exercises” (a poem from 1933): “How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot! / (Whether his mouth be open or shut).” Still, Eliot speaks for America in The Faber Book of America (1992, co-edited by Ricks with William L. Vance), with the poem “Virginia” and “Distinctively American,” an excerpt from “American Literature and the American Language” (To Criticize the Critic, 1965). Ricks and Eliot share that passion for language, evident also in The State of Language (1980), co-edited by Ricks with Leonard Michaels. In the 1976 review of F.R. Leavis, Ricks notes how the last half of The Living Principle is about “the paradoxical contradiction between how Eliot urges and what he urges” in the Four Quartets where he is using the creativity of language to deny human creativity [pp. 147-148].

American identity and English identity are at the core of the discussion of Donald Davie’s Trying to Explain, where he receives a final complimentary comparison with Eliot:

Davie writes, tacitly and touchingly, as if it were the final perfection of an Englishman to become, not an American, but a born-again pre-1776 American, an Englishman who happens to live overseas, something which no born American can become. [p. 191]

The inquisitiveness about American identity also appears in an Eliot letter quoted in the 1984 review of Ackroyd’s biography of Eliot:

Some day I want to write an essay about the point of view of an American who wasn’t an American […] who […] was never anything anywhere and who therefore felt himself to be more a Frenchman than an American and more an Englishman than a Frenchman and yet felt that the USA up to a hundred years ago was a family extension. [p. 67]

America, America, God shed his grouse on thee... Ricks summed up the situation of African-Americans in his scathing 1964 critique of Sartre’s Saint Genet, in reaction to Sartre’s comments on Negroes’ hatred of America “the Negro, if he loves America, does so in spite of its contempt for him, and he wants to change America” [p. 172].

Language at play (while working) keeps Reviewery lively at all times. For example, Bloomsbury was “too horribly entertaining and too entertainingly horrible” [p. 46]. The intelligent handling of words, showing how different ideologies work, gets gold stars for Norman Mailer’s treatment of Gary Gilmore in the 1980 review of The Executioner’s Song. An overly casual use of language, as well as ideas, could be one of the reasons Ricks was so severe with George Steiner, in his 1971 review:

I believe […] that anybody who really wants to conceive of the possible relationships between traditional culture, the Christian religion, and the death camps—anybody, that is, who realizes that it will be only an unusually creative intelligence that will here be able both to notice and to speak—should defer the reading of In Bluebeard’s Castle and should instead engage with Geoffrey Hill’s “Ovid in the Third Reich”. [pp. 136-37]

Now, take those initials, GWH, swing them with an “Oopsadaisy!” [cf. p. 100], and you get GMH. Robert Bernard Martin’s biography on Hopkins is taken to task for not respecting the poet’s faith engagement. The review ends scathingly with Ricks imagining a letter from Hopkins to the biographer, and using an excerpt from a letter that Hopkins did actually write to Bridges concerning religious dedication:

It is long since such things had any significance for you. But what is strange and unpleasant is that you sometimes speak as if they had in reality none for me. [p. 10]

But in my opinion the greatest language score Ricks makes in Reviewery is when he collides with Stanley Fish in his 1981 review of Is There a Text in This Class?. Here we have a grammar of dissent: “The one thing about the word ‘interpret’ which cannot be ignored is its propensity to be a transitive verb” [p. 194]. Yes indeed, people interpret something written by somebody.

And when it comes to the reviews by Christopher Ricks, that somebody is usually masculine. Only four of the forty-eight review essays—spanning the almost forty years from 1963 to 2000—in Reviewery are concerned with women (Miranda Seymour’s Ottoline Morrell, Ivy Compton-Burnett’s The Last and the First, Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children—and a sociological study by Jennifer Platt, Realities of Social Research: An Empirical Study of British Sociologists). Someone is bound to notice that Reviewery is another in a series of Ricks books about the proper uses of DWEMS (ah, those “dead white European males”). Now, to be fair, the book also happens to include a few fellows who are American and a few who are still alive, and also contains a piece on One Fat Englishman by Kingsley Amis. But the lack of female parity in this volume carries over to the index, even though the several dozen female writers mentioned there demonstrate that Mr. Ricks also reads texts by women (especially if they happen to be dead). So machos everywhere, take a sip, and say “Hip Hip” to the brewery of Reviewery! However, if one transposes political correctness into Dickinsonian terms, “The Bible is an antique Volume—/ Written by faded Men” (Emily Dickinson #1545), this tale, this Reviewery, has “a warbling Teller” and it captivates. After all, Reviewery rhymes with poetry. Even women will want to read every page.

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