An Interview with Sir Christopher Ricks – Part II

The Literateur: You have been very insistent that literary criticism is important only because literature is important, and that criticism is of secondary importance.

Christopher Ricks: I wouldn’t deny that that there are critical works of genius. I make a difference between professorial professional people like me on the one hand, and Eliot, Coleridge and so forth on the other. There’s no reason why a work of criticism can’t become in itself a great work of literature. But on the whole, the greatness of literary criticism is in some way commensurate with, though not equivalent to, the greatness of the literature itself. It’s only great works of literature that call out great works of literary criticism. You don’t get great literary criticism about a poet who isn’t much good. It’s a little bit like singing, in relation to the wording of the song. Michael Gray will say that Dylan sings something absolutely wonderfully; he’s never sung better, but the song isn’t very good. That to me doesn’t make any sense. For me the greatest singing can be elicited only by a great song. The greatest acting comes when you’re given a great part to play. Though there can be immense skill and valuable risk-taking in converting a minor part into a great performance, in general that can’t be the thing.

I want to say that there is nothing that precludes literary criticism from becoming great literature but that’s not the world of me, or even of people I admire very much like Frank Kermode, Donald Davie, or Hugh Kenner.

TL: Following on from that, I want to ask a bit of a personal question…I was wondering why you haven’t written creatively yourself?

CR: Not any good at it. Wrote poems in the school magazine deploring Christianity — but not at all well. Wrote one sour poem about thirty years ago but yes, not any good at it.

Eliot said that artists should have the kind of knowledge of themselves that you expect athletes to have. He was astonished by the misjudgements that artists often make as to whether they’ll be any good at certain things. If you are an athlete, you know that the particular form of sprinting you’re good at is hurdling. You might wish to train yourself for other things But people suppose that they could write a novel when that is not their …

TL: Like Henry James and theatre…

CR: Yes, Henry James and theatre would do it, that’s right. It’s strange, strange. But yes, I’m not any good at any of the other things.

TL: That surprises me because you write…elegantly, almost creatively. I mean your prose is hardly workman-like.

CR: Well, I overwrite a lot. When I was younger, friends were much less busy, and I could ask them to read things that I’ve written; they would devote themselves to it and I would read theirs. I spent a lot of time reading the manuscript of Phil Horne’s very fine book on Henry James and revision; then dear Phil locked himself up in his room to deal with my immensely detailed notes; I think that he was at once heartened and disheartened about all this that I was asking him to consider. People used more often to do the same for me.

Every now and then I am really pleased with something that I’ve written, but I never like writing, though I like having written. I never enjoy writing. I still feel confidence sometimes that it will all be alright in the end but I don’t enjoy the actual writing.

TL: You say in your Panizzi Lectures preface that ‘the difference between high talent and genius is often made manifest in revision’. Sometimes it seems to me that often what makes a great writer is a combination of being able to write prolifically, and being in possession of such exquisite taste that you can sift out the brilliant from the merely good and mediocre. Do you think that a necessary quality for a great writer is the ability to judge one’s own work?

CR: I think so, while thinking too that ‘brilliant’ quite rightly carries certain reservations. It’s a bit like ‘clever’.

One of the reasons I went into scholarly editing was that a powerful figure within Oxford University Press – way way back when my Milton book had just come out or was about to, Dan Davin, a very interesting man who would get drunk sometimes, swayed in front of me at some English Faculty event and said to me, thickly: ‘You’re brilliant but unsound’.

Some little part of me thought that the way to be sound, you see, is to do things like editing. Editing doesn’t need to be brilliant, it needs to be sound.

About being prolific: I enjoy working – which is a bit different from whether I enjoy writing when I’m doing it. But I don’t think it’s the case with great writers that they’re all prolific. My son David, my eldest child, thinks that it is often the case in the world of music; that is, the greatest composers have written an astonishing amount of music: Mozart, Beethoven, Handel, Haydn, Bach…extraordinary. That’s not so true I think of literature. Marvell did not write a lot and…

TL: Eliot…

CR: And Eliot did not write a lot, yes exactly. (Of poems, that is.) Thank you, that was well said. There have been great writers who have written a great deal, Wordsworth and Tennyson and Dickens and George Eliot, but there have been many for whom that simply isn’t true. I think that it is the same for critics. Have all the great critics written a great deal? I don’t know. Empson wrote a lot, Donald Davie wrote a lot…

TL: There is of course a difference between having published a lot and having written a lot.

CR: Yes, that’s true too. Keats speaks as if revision is an admission of weakness, but that’s not actually how he proceeded. There is that great letter in which he asks why should he afterwards sit down coldly and consider that which, at the time, came out with fierce vivid critical attention. That is the combination of criticism and creation. But of course we know he did revise. We have evidence that he did. Poetry should come as naturally as ‘leaves to a tree’, and yet you have to prune trees.

TL: Ha ha, that’s a very good point! Sorry, that sounds rather patronising…

CR: No no, not at all, not even matronising.

TL: You are noted of course for your anti-theory approach to literature and were one of the foremost defenders of the traditionalist approach during Cambridge’s so-called theory wars. How do you feel about the relatively new (2004) Cambridge MPhil in Culture and Criticism, which concentrates very much on cultural and literary theory?

CR: I don’t know enough about it, I really don’t. The theory wars are something else; they had a lot to do with what seemed to me to be wanton disparagement of what had previously been the case.

It suits people always to make out things were very bad in the old days so that there is need for new days. I’ve heard Empson and Eliot referred to as horse- and-buggy criticism. A lot of anger (mine and other people’s) in those matters had to do with mis-descriptions of the past. ‘We no longer believe in the myth of the solitary genius’. Now who did believe in the myth of the solitary genius? It’s the phrasing: ‘We no longer…’. ‘We are no longer naive empiricists’. Alright, now was Eliot a naive empiricist? It doesn’t look like it to me.

A colleague at Boston University (I’m not in the English department at Boston University anymore, partly to do with the presence of people like the one I’m about to quote) announced at a graduate class: ‘At least since [recent year slotted in], it has been necessary to think about literature.’ I mean, Aristotle didn’t? Coleridge didn’t?

This is, of course, what Eliot called a parochialism of time. But the dead hold shares; it’s not true that only the living hold shares. Who are the critics post-Eliot who most matter? For me, they are Empson, Trilling, Kenner, Davie, Yvor Winters. And the idea that these people represent totally antiquated positions, empty or used-up? The demon of progress in the arts, as Wyndham Lewis called it, led to the demon of progress in the humanities. In an essay of mine on ‘Literary Principles as Against Theory’, I quote all these people all the time saying that the only thing worth doing is theory, confident that everything else has been superseded or exposed.

What was the characteristic of the “theory” course at Boston University? That it was mandatory. I would have been happy to teach in it. But when I asked, for instance, what place there was in it for the study of literary biography, the answer was ‘None-na’. It was rather lovely, because the word ‘none’ was pronounced with a very strong emphasis on the end, it wasn’t just ‘None’ it was ‘None-na’.

So literary biography has no place at all within the world of theory? Well, this has recently changed, but only grudgingly.

One big enemy of literary studies is recency, an inordinate claim, proportionately, for contemporary or recent literature. So I’m against the invention by literary theorists of the term ‘post-contemporary’

TL: What does that even mean?

CR: It means being ahead of the minute. Being up to the minute is alright, but being ahead of the minute is even better.

TL: How can you be ahead of the minute? It seems a contradiction in terms.

CR: Prophecy! You prophesy to the wind! You say what is about to happen. Which of course you have to do in the word of technological advancement, you have to think what’s going to happen next.

TL: Because you’re thinking about it in the present, it’s never going to be in the future… You can’t be ahead of the present. It’s impossible.

Well you can-you can- well, no, of course you’re right, you can’t. Anyway, ‘the proper study of mankind is everything.’ That’s fine. Is it worth attending to The Simpsons? Yes of course it is worth attending to. Do you give the same kind of attention – I’m not saying the quality of attention but the same kind of attention – as you give to King Lear? I think, on the whole, not. I think sociology and anthropology, and cultural studies, are manifestly worth undertaking, but is the right aegis for them the English Department?

It’s partly the inheritance of Leavis’ belief that study of the literature in one’s own language is the queen of the sciences. Once upon a time it was theology. Then for Marxists it becomes economics. One thing that is at once the foundation for everything and the crown of everything. There has long been this gigantism about English Studies. The world could be saved if people took English Studies seriously.

TL: What you said about the difference between ‘None’ and ‘None-na!’ reminded me of what you say in ‘Literature and the Matter of Fact’. You wrote that ‘one of the reasons why Britain won the war (with a little help from our friends) against Nazi Germany was Churchill’s refusal to pronounce the word Nazi as the Nazis might have wished’ but as Nar-zee. This is an extraordinary claim. It is evident from your writings that you have an incredibly sensitive ear to words. Do you think that everyone is as reactive as you are but that they are simply less aware of it?

CR: I don’t think it’s my thought. I mean, it was not my idea that simply how you pronounce something puts up or doesn’t put up a resistance. The pronunciation either concurs with how they see themselves, or dissents from them. It’s a tiny example but if I say that ‘one of the reasons we won the war was Churchill’, that can’t be in doubt, and one of the essential things about Churchill was his oratory. When it was said by the enemy that England will have her neck wrung like a chicken, ‘Some chicken! Some neck!’ Now that’s absolutely wonderful, that sticks its neck out. The vividness of the colloquialism. But back to Nar-zee: I do think that a terrific lot can be affected simply by how you pronounce a word.

Geoffrey Hill’s decision, a major decision, to take the italics off the word ‘voyeur’: he originally prints ‘voyeur of sacrifice’ with italics on ‘voyeur’. To take off the italics is to escape the complacency that thinks that voyeurism is foreign to us. We’re English, it’s an English poem. To italicize is to Frenchify it. To let us off. In the nineteenth century, someone said of the word schadenfreude that we don’t have a word for it in our language, we don’t get sick pleasure out of other people’s discomfiture. But of course we enjoy schadenfreude, we just also enjoy saying that we don’t have word for it. To have to go into German somehow makes it clear that it’s not a national propensity on our part, this gloating at somebody’s discomfiture. I used to like it when waiting outside Blackwell’s bookshop for it to open, some person- a self-important little twit?- comes up and tries the handle but it doesn’t open and he looks very irritated. There is a sort of pleasure you can get in his discomfiture. Does he think we are standing out here because we’re smokers or because we have nothing to do? We’re standing out here waiting for the shop to open.

If you think we wouldn’t have won the War if it weren’t for Churchill, then it’s quintessential to Churchill to not go along with some things which would give comfort to the enemy. ‘We are not interested in the possibility of defeat’ is the position to maintain. We are not interested! It’s not saying that there isn’t a possibility.

I remember Maurice Bowra who was given an honorary degree in the States and all three of his names, Cecil Maurice Bowra, were mispronounced. They couldn’t find out how to pronounce any of his names, and that’s how they honour him?

TL: Talking of words that we don’t have in English, do you know this book Tingo?

CR: No.

TL: It’s a lexicon of foreign words of which there is no one-word equivalent in the English language.

CR: Oh, very good! What’s the title again?

TL: Tingo. It’s an Easter Island word meaning ‘to take things from a neighbour’s house one by one by asking to borrow them’.

CR: Oh very good, yes. That useful process. The only reference book I have read straight through – you’ll see the train of thought I hope – is the Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs, which is a really wonderful thing. There was a phrase ‘Gloucestershire kindness’ – giving something to somebody that you yourself don’t want. But what’s good about it is that it’s an irony, not a sarcasm. It’s not giving somebody something that’s worthless. It might be worthless, I suppose, but you don’t have to rule on that. There’s a recent book by Jerome McGann that I passed on to somebody as an act of Gloucestershire kindness. If you have certain interests you will care about this book, but I don’t care about it.

TL: One might think that having a word that expresses something that other languages don’t have is revealing on some level.

CR: The difficulty is that having a word may – but only may ­– mean that you recognize the existence of a phenomenon, that it is real to you. Or, of course, since we use words often to disguise phenomena from us, it may mean exactly the opposite.

My students tend to think that something is most potent when you’ve got a word for it. That is, once we got the word ‘rationalise’ – we didn’t have the word for a long time – we must be wiser about rationalisation for now we have a word for it. But we often use words actually to nail things down that are not nailable down. Having a word for it is often a bit like doing that [claps hands as if dusting off a job done] to it; you know, we’ve placed it.

It’s like making a list of the money that you owe – Dickens is very good on this – it’s as if you’ve paid it, in a way. Are you more aware of it? Maybe you’d be more aware of it if you hadn’t just tidied it up into feasibility.

The word ‘reify’ – not a word that comes lightly to my lips – there, you’ve tidied it up into a clear thing. You’ve got a name for it. In a way people may have been more sensitive to what sympathy was when it hadn’t branched off into empathy as well. Maybe these things are not as distinct as having a separate word for it might suggest.

TL: On the topic of teaching at Cambridge you have said that ‘Except by showing off, you cannot retain an audience. Why should people go to lectures at all if it doesn’t affect their mark or their standing with the people who write references for them?’

CR: Did I say that? Gosh, how coarse of me!

TL: Do you think that perhaps the lecture system in some universities needs to be overhauled in that perhaps academics should start lecturing on things which are directly relevant to what the students are studying at that particular time? Or would this lead to stale and forced lectures?

CR: Well I’m not happy with my having put it like that, but I certainly thought that the role of lectures at Cambridge, indeed of all university teaching in Cambridge, was insufficiently thought out. Nobody has (or at any rate had) to attend any lectures at Cambridge. I attended very few lectures at Oxford when I was an undergraduate. I sat in my room reading and reading and re-reading and so on and I didn’t go to many lectures. I had weekly tutorials. There were advantages in that. But when I did go to lectures, unless it was someone remarkable as a lecturer… Oddly, C.S.Lewis, though he was very remarkable as a writer, he was not as a lecturer. Tolkien was the worst lecturer I’ve ever heard. Took no trouble at all about anything, it was amazing how indolent he seemed to me to be. But meanwhile, of course, he was actually laying up his immense treasure.

TL: You said you hardly ever went to lectures at Oxford but you have described yourself as having been a ‘morbidly conscientious’ student.

CR: Oh, I guess I suppose I was. I don’t remember having said that but…

TL: Oh, I know you better than you do!

CR: Exactly, you have my dossier. You probably know my blood group and my astrological sign.

TL: As a scholar what do you say to the general idea that too much study is unhealthy?

CR: Well, too much anything is unhealthy; it’s built into the ‘too much’. ‘Too much of a good thing’ — can you have too much of a good thing? Yes.

TL: Well, ‘a lot of’ then, the idea that a lot of study is unhealthy.

CR: I think that a price is paid for absolutely everything in life. That we’re sitting here, you and I, means that I’m not sitting in a sunken sauna and you’re not having a gin and tonic. Everything we do must mean not doing something or other.

I think study is professional. But it must not become simply professionalised, it must keep in touch with amateur virtues without yielding to the amateurish. So that’s a Scylla and Charybdis.

When the unhealthy question comes up: I believe it is unhealthy as a professional to believe that the professional hasn’t paid a price. It is not true that the professional study of literature just makes people more sensitive to literature. It makes them in some respects more sensitive and in other respects less sensitive.

One trouble with teaching is that it mostly rests on the assumption that having re-read things umpteen times over a long period means nothing but gain. So there is almost no attempt to build into studies undertaken by young people the advantages of the season of Spring against the season of Autumn. It’s all to be autumnal. (Sometimes it is actively wintry.) But anyway it’s clear that we don’t have blossoms and fruit at the same time.

I think the unhealthy thing is people’s kidding themselves that there is nothing but gain in study.

Of course, if I didn’t think there were real gains from study I would seek an honourable other kind of work. But doctors are both more and less sensitive to pain, generals are both more and less sensitive to the horrors of war, and yet there’s a reluctance in people who study – whether it’s the students or the teachers – to acknowledge that what we are trying to do is maximize the ways in which things have been gained and minimize the ways in which things have been lost. But if you never ask yourself what you’ve lost, then you can’t be effective about minimizing this.

I use my brother as an example in this case. Donald cared about poems in ways which are no longer possible for me. There is an academic pretence that somehow we’ve got something which is all gain. I think that’s unhealthy.

TL: You once said very honestly that “Like many-

CR: [starts giggling]

TL: Ah. You once…

CR: Yes…I was… [laughs] OK, hmm…

TL: Well, usually you’re incredibly insincere but you once said very honestly…

CR: (Am I always authentic?)

TL: …that ‘Like many people I sometimes had to protect myself at school, and I did it partly through snobbery. And that included thinking that I must be the only person at school who was reading Paradise Lost for pleasure’. How would you respond to the suggestion that partly the reason why people enjoy highbrow literature is that it gives them the feeling of belonging to an exclusive club?

CR: The uniqueness of oneself (not the same as belonging to a club, clearly): I think this weighs less with me than with some other people. I’ve never had an identity crisis or anything like that. I don’t mind being a type. It’s one of the difficulties about talking about stereotypes. A lot of people apparently don’t like being a type; I like being a type. I wouldn’t like to be only a type, but it’s fine for me to be a septuagenarian bald English lover of Bob Dylan. There are lots of us- although it’s not so much that there are many of us, as that we’re a particular type.

The Wordsworthian word commonalty, ‘of joy in widest commonalty spread’. Now, if I were nothing but in common, or interchangeable with other people, that would be depressing, but being markedly oneself all the time? I don’t like such selfhood as an ideal.

The Eliot phrase, that about everything there hangs the shadow of the impure motive. If we were really determined to extirpate all the impure motives that pervade everything, where would we be? There’s nothing inherently wrong in liking the idea of belonging to a group of people that is, in one sense, exclusive. Empson was always very good on that. Although it was sad and sometimes bad that people had recourse to snobbery, it wasn’t as bad as their having recourse to some other things. His brother of course had been knighted. That was alright. Was it alright for him to be Sir William Empson? Yes, it was fine.

I don’t know…We all need protection against things. You just say to yourself, what price is paid for this particular self-protection?

TL: Just one more question, what is the proudest moment of your career?

CR: [long pause]

Well you’d better not print it…


It ought to be when I got a letter saying ‘Would you like to be knighted?’ It had better be that, for it would be rather insulting, would be lèse-majesté, to say that it was not. So it’s a tricky one. But I think the election to the Professorship of Poetry at Oxford was wonderful in ways that nothing else has been. In a way, the letter that had been most intense was the one that simply had ‘10 Downing Street’ printed in the corner. (Nothing about London.) That was Mrs. Thatcher, saying that it was her duty to recommend a name to the Queen for the King Edward VII Professorship at Cambridge, and would I…?

But I think the Professorship at Oxford was the one that was really it.

TL: Professor Ricks, thank you very much.

CR: Thank you, you’ve been very nice to me.

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