There is something intoxicating about reading excellent literary criticism. It has the decadence of Champagne: white wine is already lovely, and effervescence makes it lovelier. Perhaps, though, “decadence” is not the right word; perhaps it is really “gratuity.” The lavishing of words on words is a kind of gratuity that our technocratic, efficiency-obsessed world rarely offers, and when we encounter it, it can go straight to our heads.
This is, of course, only true for those who have cultivated a taste for it. Here my guiding metaphor wilts a bit, for who does not love Champagne from their first sip? In this way, literary criticism is a bit more like true grace, which takes time to learn to love.
Christopher Ricks, Oxford Professor of Poetry Emeritus and literary critic extraordinaire, would tear the preceding paragraphs to shreds. But after reading his collection Along Heroic Lines, this author would be honored by even that attention, for Ricks gives his attention only to what he deems is Best. And that attention, when he gives it, is a great and terrible thing. As Ricks writes in Along Heroic Lines’ essay on Geoffrey Hill:
A poet’s liberties are his or hers to take, but a critic has other responsibilities, for instance to differentiate the real thing from what (from overuse) sometimes became no more—or no other—than a habit, a recourse, a tick, a tic, or even a pathology, addiction to a diction.
This frames the craft of the critic: to love (for we cannot well criticize what we do not love at least a little) without becoming intoxicated by our love.
Ricks’ opening essay is based (I am not sure how rigidly) on the inaugural lecture of his tenure as Oxford Professor of Poetry (2004-2009). Here, he raises the specter of the question that haunts all attendants of the Muse: What Is Poetry? In dealing with this question (which he refrains from answering), his absolute command of the great practitioners of poetry in English shines through. Rarely, if ever, does Ricks raise a point without matching it with some apt snippet of verse. Or, rather, rarely does Ricks raise a point at all; instead he discovers, within the verses of poets, the point he himself would like to raise and consider, so that reading a Ricks essay can become a game of hide-and-seek as the critic dodges and peeks from between the curtains of carefully selected verse. Consider this excerpt from the essay “Geoffrey Hill’s Grievous Heroes” on Hill’s use of the -ble suffix:
This suffix confronts not just ‘the art of the possible’ (the Politician’s Tale) but the art of the impossible, both within art itself and within all else. For the hero may be thought of as someone who acknowledges, and who lives by, contrarieties that are both underfoot and aloft. … Heroism may be characterized by an exceptionally imaginative courage in the face of these pincer-jaws. The unremarkable suffix -ble is the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grind.
Ricks derives all this reflection on the largely lost virtue of heroism from the observation that Hill tends to use a particular suffix. From here the essay carries us through a consideration of some of Hill’s “heroes” and “anti-heroes”; a much-needed close reading of the setting for Thomas Carlyle’s famous description of Robespierre as “sea-green Incorruptible”; a technical examination of some elements of English grammar (“The polemical -ble misguides.”); and a forthright discussion of Hill’s famous cantankerousness, which has put off so many potential readers. “The unloved overused word, in Hill’s eyes and ears, was accessible,” says Ricks. “Overused by criticizers of Hill’s poems; overused, I should submit, by Hill in the flagrancy of retort.” Even heroes are not above reproach.
As Ricks writes in the Prefatory Note, “Saints and heroes have long been brought forward, often by themselves, as the two finalist contenders. Heroics, heroism, the heroic (leave alone heroics), are all contentious.” The essays in this book explore authors as varied as Dryden, Henry James, and Norman Mailer, but the subject is always the English heroic line, both the formal heroic line now commonly called “iambic pentameter” and the entire concept of the heroic within English prose and verse.
Even through the densest veil of quotations and references, Ricks the critic is always discernible. Alongside the verses he chooses to bring to us, he provides some of the finest close reading I have encountered. At the drop of a hat, Ricks can find more stashed away in a good line of verse than most of us have in the back seats of our cars, as when he mines “A Shropshire Lad XLI” for anagrammatic patterns of expansion and dilation. The lines in question read,
In my own shire, if I was sad,
Homely comforters I had:
The earth, because my heart was sore,
Sorrowed for the son she bore;
The earth is no more and no less than his heart, reconfigures and seen under a different aspect; and his heart’s being ‘sore’ … then finds itself dilated, and doubly so: first into the immediate expansion of ‘sore’ into ‘Sorrowed’, at the head of the line, and then into the expansion [… of] ‘sore’ into ‘son she bore.’
And so on.
This passage comes from the most fun essay in the book, “Anagrams,” in which Ricks regales us with example after example of the use—both older and more contemporary—of that sporting little figure. This essay reads less like literary criticism than like conversation at a decent party; Ricks’structure of the sentence and its poetic sliding from “providence” to “provision.”
Along Heroic Lines is not providence, but it certainly is provision, most noticeably through Ricks’ innocent joy in extending the gratuity of criticism. By this I mean that he does not hesitate to write simply glorious criticism of other criticism. In the essay “T.S. Eliot and ‘Wrong’d Othello’,” Ricks gives us a close reading of T.S. Eliot’s maligned reading of Othello. Ricks’ attention goes to anything well-written; usually this is verse but often it is criticism of verse, or even, in a glimpse of literature unfolding like Dante’s Paradiso, criticism of criticism of criticism (Ricks writing about Empson writing about Eliot writing about Othello).
At this point, some of you may be thinking that this sounds less like Paradise and more like Hell, and I understand why you might feel that way. Words about words about words is madness! But think of it this way: it is a little bit like creation, isn’t it? Once there exists something rational besides God, there begins an endless— delightful or tortuous, depending on our spiritual posture—contemplation of existence, and that contemplation is bound to be fruitful. That is the whole premise of art. Creation leads to more creation. We cannot leave what we love unimitated; it is a reflex, one that we must learn to control, but not one to be crushed out.
I heard a rabbi say once—and perhaps he was quoting someone else, I am not sure—that if it were not for the Fall, Moses would have walked on the moon. The image has stayed with me: Moses of the long white beard, feeling with his unsandaled feet not the red deserts of Midian but the white dust of the Moon—or perhaps the Moon herself is fruitful, in that innocent universe: why not?— and the Burning is not confined to the Bush but rather the Sun, the Stars, the entire Universe are alight with the Presence that walks among them in the evening: all Creation burning with—yet not consumed by—her passion for her Lord.
The rabbi’s point was that, contrary to the arguments of the Satanists, humanity’s creative and exploratory capacities have been hampered, not unleashed, by the Fall. The fiery swords that drove us from Eden have ringed round us on the little planet we cursed, and those swords blaze in all the difficult laws of nature that confine us, keeping us this time not out of something, but in.
However (and here I confess my confessional stance), the whole doctrine of Christianity is that God brings good out of evil. The evil is that creation has become a trap, a blind maze, a machine we do not understand and cannot control though we try so very hard. Included in creation is the word. The good, perhaps, is this kind of Ricksian festooning, this beautifying the beauty that others scribble on the walls of the prison.
For language has become a prison. Wittgenstein knew it when he said, “The limits of our language are the limits of our world.” He did not mean this in some kind of exuberant sophomoric humanist way (learn more words and the world will be yours!); he knew that limits are essential, built-in, unavoidable, that any advance is an advance into ever-narrower limits, that excellence (morally, linguistically, philosophically, whatever) depends on submission to our limits.
Geoffrey Hill knew this; he borrowed from W. H. Auden the phrase “The Lords of Limit” as the title of an essay collection. Eliot knew it; so did Dryden, and Beckett, and Milton, and so does Ricks. Limits are even more pressing for literary figures than for other artists, too, for what do we have but words? We compose poems with words, then others turn words (sometimes those same words) against our creations to destroy them. The musician can take shelter from written criticism behind music, the painter behind his oils, but what do poets have? Only words and silence.
To return to the question ‘What is Poetry?’, let us recall the sentence we already quoted: “Shakespeare is like Donne, not like Herbert: the anagram is not God’s providence but is a provision; not providential, but provisional.” This sentence is prose, surely … surely? Or is it? Let us examine it closely: three sense-units (“Shakespeare… Herbert: the anagram … provision; not … provisional”), each of which has a caesura (commas in 1 and 3, “but” in 2), and each of which uses language in a way that cloaks difference in similarity, or similarity in difference (“like” and “not like” in 1, “providence” becoming “a provision” in 2 and “providential” transforming into “provisional” in 3). But there are no line breaks! we cry. No rhymes! No meter! Yet could we not be excused if we called this sentence “poetic?”
Ah, well, Ricks offers no straightforward answer, so I do not feel an obligation to do so either. But I will offer this: that great poetry is irradiating. Through its meticulous attention to the limits of its own language, it frees other language, so that by association with its bright glory, even criticism can be transfigured into more than just words about words.
This essay appears in the Summer 2022 edition of The European Conservative, Number 23: 76-79.