Book review / The critic's underneath the lot

ESSAYS IN APPRECIATION by Christopher Ricks, OUP pounds 25

Professor Ricks begins his newest collection as he means to go on. Without an introduction and pointedly without any declaration of theoretical allegiances, he plunges straight into Dr Faustus. But whose Dr Faustus?

Some years ago William Empson boldly added an extra speech to Dr Faustus. Marlowe should have written it to support Empson's reading of the play, but he somehow failed to do so. Ricks loves this effrontery but prefers to place his own addition in the air around Marlowe. A major theme of the play was, he argues, so obvious that Marlowe hardly bothered to mention it: this was the plague. If Dr Faustus had medical skills "whereby whole cities have escap'd the plague" that was tightening its grip on London in 1592-3, then he had great powers indeed. In a time of plague, Mephistopheles' offer of 24 years of guaranteed life would have been particularly tempting. This framing decreases the metaphysical import of Faustus's fatal choice, so that the play is less spikey, more of a piece. In the apparently weak middle of the play, Faust the voluptuary is pretty banal, but Ricks implies that this may be Marlowe's point. If you want life simply in order to be alive, then your desires must be trivial.

Faust's demeaning of himself leads into a theme which resonates through Ricks's criticism - the need for literature to express as full a spiritual and emotional range as possible. This is a criticism of high seriousness, in which poetry is a gift to be used for high purpose. When the betrayal of the humane enacts itself in art, it betrays art - and for Ricks in some moods, this is the worst sin of all. In The Force of Poetry (1984) Ricks admired Empson's fascination with Donne's "secret largeness of outlook". Now he argues that Donne, like Faustus, betrays himself. When Donne ends "Love's Alchemy" by declaring that women "are but mummy, possessed", his arbitrary misogyny seeps back into the poem's earlier lines and debases them. When Donne concludes that he can always apply "worm-seed to the tail" if he doesn't want to react to the "moving beauties" of mid-summer in "Farewell to Love", once again a "repudiatory bitterness" diminishes the poem. For Ricks these endings show Donne in flight, as if the wise exhilaration of his own poem had been too much for him to bear.

Ricks himself can't bear critics who evade the fierce gravity of poetry. One such target, Arthur C Marotti, finds "Farewell to Love" merely "mischievous, iconoclastic", while other major poems show merely "paradox", "teasing literary exercise" or "teasing anti-feminism" (even misogyny is too direct a word for Marotti). Having successfully savaged Marotti, Ricks then worries him through another dozen fatuous quotations. This diminishes Ricks: the prey has long since died.

But Ricks's principle - and principles - work. It was Ricks in T S Eliot and Prejudice (1988) who set the terms of the revived debate about Eliot's anti-semitism. When I was checking Ricks on Eliot against Eric Sigg's The American T S Eliot (1989), I found Sigg sliding past the problem by praising the way Eliot "flouted genteel literary conventions" in his quatrain poems. It is the genteel academic, however, who is the current danger. "Burbank with a Baedecker" with its notorious lines "The rats are underneath the piles / The jew is underneath the lot" does display a "group libel" for Sigg, but this is the result of a "most unfortunate link" with "the aesthetic writers of the previous generation". Well, that's all right, then. Perhaps the greatest punishment for a flawed poet is for his admirers to bland him to death.

Ricks doesn't throw out the poetic intelligence with the bigotry. Twice (since there are some repetitions in this collection) Ricks quotes a 1917 statement of Eliot's about the need for "intelligence, of which an important function is the discernment of exactly what, and how much, we feel in any given situation". This is Ricks's preferred Eliot, a much more resiliant, less dissociated sensibility than the man who wrote "Tradition and the Individual Talent", with its "escape from emotion". Although Ricks uses the quote as a general principle, this is also a specifically modernist Eliot, greeting Harriet Monroe's innovative anthology The New Poetry.

For Ricks, everything about literature matters. Tone matters. The "referential facts" of literature matter. Even mistakes matter: Keats's Cortez on his non-peak in Darien, Elizabeth Bishop betrayed by her non-existent 80-watt light bulb, Jane Austen's non-mistakes of abandoning surplus children by the story's wayside. It matters so much that academic critics are not to be trusted with it - except perhaps for Ricks. Oddly, for someone who edited The State of the Language with Leonard Michaels, Ricks's poets inherit their mantle happily and respond overwhelmingly - almost exclusively - to other poets, other monuments of unageing intellect. Each case is convincing, the total rather less so.

In the two concluding essays, Ricks takes on the theorists. Since he is a critic and scholar who works outward from the individual text (preferably the intense lyric) to the individual writer, he doesn't have much need for over-arching theories in his own work. What angers him is the smugness of critical professionalism, its jokey self- congratulation, its easy hits against the despised Dead White European Males, or DWEMS, about which he remarks, rightly, the cruellest word is "dead". Are we so strikingly different and so much more perceptive that we have nothing to learn from the dead?

Yet when Ricks says that theory requires the critic to take on an entire "elaborate concatenation", and to mimic philosophy's quest for truth, he is casting it in too large a mould and using too traditional a view of philosophy. It is precisely the unsystematic, the antifoundational, and the aphoristic in a writer like Jacques Derrida which is so seductive. It is also the case that culture and anarchy do have to be discussed somewhere, even if the goal is civic improvement rather than (as Ricks's defiantly fogeyish title puts it) "Essays in Appreciation".

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