Christopher Ricks

Christopher Ricks is the author of Keats and Embarrassment, among other books. He is a professor of English at Cambridge University.

High Punctuation

Christopher Ricks, 14 May 1992

Fecund and jocund, well-earned and learnèd, wittily wily, But I digress is a delight and a treasure-house, alive with moving illumination and with benign warning, in short a delight-house of a book. It is the best work at once of literary criticism and of literary history I’ve read for many and many a day.


Christopher Ricks, 22 November 1990

Adrian Room has garnered umpteen dedications, and some of them are of interest, but what is the point of unrolling them alphabetically as something purporting to be a dictionary? Abbott opens, and Zangwill closes, yet the book is not a work of reference. It is an anthology. A lazy piece of work, or of relaxation, and not just because its compiler has declined the effort of an imaginative ordering and has instead fallen back on A to zzzz.

Appelfeld 1990

Christopher Ricks, 8 February 1990

The upright fiction of Aharon Appelfeld arises from the level facts of his anguished and brave young life. Like the novels themselves, a note on their author is laconic, lapidary and on oath:

Diary: Thoughts of Beckett at News of His Death

Christopher Ricks, 25 January 1990

Thoughts of Beckett at news of his death. The unforgettable Hardy title has been knocking. ‘Thoughts of Phena at News of Her Death’. It had previously come to mind at news of another death, Philip Larkin’s, because of his once pinpointing essentially the birth of his own art: the moment when he stopped condescending to Hardy’s. ‘As regards his verse I shared Lytton Strachey’s verdict that “the gloom is not even relieved by a little elegance of diction.” This opinion did not last long; if I were asked to date its disappearance, I should guess it was the morning I first read “Thoughts of Phena at News of Her Death”.’

Version of Pastoral

Christopher Ricks, 2 April 1987

The Enigma of Arrival: V.S. Naipaul’s title is the one at which Apollinaire enigmatically arrived, for the painting by Giorgio de Chirico. A detail of it illuminates Naipaul’s cover and his book: making their huddled way from a classical quayside (the scene bathed both in shadow and in sun), two stoled figures have their obscured faces towards us and their backs to a wall. Above the wall billows the sunlit summit of a sail.

Lyrics and Ironies

Christopher Ricks, 4 December 1986

Faintly repelled by elaborate theories of irony and by taxonomies of it, D.J. Enright has set himself to muster instances, observations, localities and anecdotes. There is no continuing argument, and not much argufying even, but there are plenty of penetrating glances. ‘Rather than theory, it is something resembling “practical criticism” that this book will concern itself with: the exploration of individual ironies as they are manifest in life as well as in literature.’ This is good-naturedly loose, the recipe for something resembling a scrapbook, a scrappy one. ‘When I was making notes for this book I came, before long, to see irony everywhere.’ Likewise when you were making a book for these notes.

Death for Elsie

Christopher Ricks, 7 August 1986

Patricia Highsmith has been praised by Graham Greene in the good old way as ‘a writer who has created a world of her own’. She can be even better than that – when she takes a world and makes it not only her own but ours. She lurks in the murk where you have to peer to check if this is an – or the – underworld. In her seething city-settings, paranoia may be the saving of you, and yet paranoia does have, too, a hideously masochistic alluring power. She is the poet of these death-bearing pheromones of fear.’

For good or bad

Christopher Ricks, 19 December 1985

Geoffrey Hartman’s Easy Pieces can be hard going. ‘To see, oneself unseen, as at the movies, is only less than the ecstasy of an unseeing seeing: of going beyond the non-language of images to the non-language of non-images, or a glance that is not guilty, that is both knowing and pure.’ This is not incomprehensible, but it is not by any stretch easy either, and it tips a glance that is guilty. It invites the mild dismay of a poet to whom Hartman is prudently indifferent, Byron: ‘I wish he would explain his explanation.’ Yet it was Coleridge whom Byron was scorning there, and Hartman would not mind being tarred with the same brush as so myriad-minded a critic. But then again Coleridge didn’t go in for ingratiations, for titles like Easy Pieces, an act of calculated charm not compatible with the essential (in its essence) charmlessness which has to end an essay like this: ‘Even philosophy’s insistence on clear and distinct ideas may express this “ineluctable modality” of the perceptible that makes what we call representation the unexcludable middle between phenomenal reality and mind, between thinking in images and thinking by means of texts against them.’ This is a dour culmination, and it is a pity that Hartman’s sense of himself and of his enterprise will not entirely countenance honest dourness even of his own choosing – which is why he has to insinuate the easy piece ‘what we call representation’. What does it actually what we call mean to say ‘what we call representation’? This is manoeuvring, ‘I could an I would’, both knowing and impure: ‘propitiation’s claw’. For these pieces, like so much of recent Hartman, and unlike his large upright book on Wordsworth, are not easy but uneasy.’


Christopher Ricks, 21 November 1985

A.N. Wilson is something of an anachronism, and it was timely of him to make anachronism the nub of his new novel about the old days, Gentlemen in England. The title itself, in the England of 1985 where the new right spits even more zealously than the old left on the grave of the gentlemanly ideal, pushes anachronism and dislocation to the point of oxymoron. Gentlemen in England: there has not been so incredulous a title since A Chaste Maid in Cheapside. But then the title precipitates a fourfold chronicity: this novel, to be read in 1985, is set in the England of 1880, recalling a writer who in 1599 recalled the events of 1415:

Who whom?

Christopher Ricks, 6 June 1985

Trust a Director of Freshman Rhetoric to say that ‘the study of language is inherently interesting.’ He would, wouldn’t he? He trusts so. This big batch of language-books brings out that the most interesting argument going is, yes, the feud between conservatives and radicals about correctness and usage. The only snag is that this is also the most boring argument going, since it is not going anywhere. Like all feuds, it is, in being addictive, both interesting and boring. Partly this is because the enlistments are so briskly predictable: literature people are élitists or meritocrats more or less, and linguistics people are egalitarian or more. But mostly the argument is so grippingly tedious, a vice, because the terms of the antithesis – descriptive v. prescriptive – are metallically insensitive. As with the analogous grind of nature and nurture, the genuine interest of it all is never going to be released until someone comes along who is both knowledgeable and imaginative, not only about the inadequacy of the antithesis itself, but about some better way of speaking which would offer an advance. There is no sign that this is likely to happen. True, Sir Peter Medawar effected a brief release when challenging his field’s version of the nature-nurture antithesis with the instance of innate potentialities never to be actualised unless the environment were right. But feud is collusive, and the parties usually round on anyone who threatens their grim fun. Linguistic conservatives and radicals have no intention of stopping lobbing grenades at each other. Meanwhile there is increasing evidence, necessarily scattered evidence, of combatants on both sides who have lobbed the pin and kept the grenade securely in the mouth.’

It’s great to change your mind

Christopher Ricks, 7 February 1985

Of books darkened by being posthumous, this one of Empson’s, Using Biography, is among the most illuminatingly vital. Every page is alive with his incomparable mind, his great heart, and his unique accents. Profoundly comic and yet incandescent with convictions, Using Biography is so rammed with life that it shall gather strength of life with being. Inevitably his death, nine months ago when two years short of eighty, casts its shadow over all of a book which has as its poignant first words: ‘I am reaching an age when I had better collect the essays which I hope to preserve.’ There is the small accidental shock upon now meeting such innocent words as ‘She wanted to have no more bother,’ given that Empson came drily to relish as his own epitaph ‘No more bother.’ There is the resilience – down-to-earth, though – which acknowledges the arbitrariness of things, among them dying: ‘As so often, some bug happened to intrude.’ There is the gruffly laconic parenthetical annotation which now in retrospect has become half-elegiac, when he remembers seeing a clockwork-bird à la Byzantium:’

The Braver Thing

Christopher Ricks, 1 November 1984

Peter Ackroyd has written a benign life of T.S. Eliot. Given the malignity visited on Eliot, this is a good deal. Fair-minded, broad-minded and assiduous, here is a thoroughly decent book. It has none of the sleazy sanctimony of Robert Sencourt’s biography, or the vanity of T.S. Matthews’. That it is a feat to be without spite is coincidentally manifested by the appearance of Geoffrey Grigson’s Recollections. Grigson’s jacket proffers, as a representative gnome: ‘I never heard T.S. Eliot laugh.’ Back in the book this stands on its lordly own in a section of ‘Items’. Some have never heard Geoffrey Grigson do anything but sneer. His Recollections are happy to rebuke everybody for sneering, especially at Eliot: ‘Eliot in those Thirties was still a name to earn a sneer’; Auden’s work ‘allowed for sneering much as Eliot’s The Waste Land only eight years before had allowed for the inimical sneering, which still had not died away’. Perhaps Grigson never heard Eliot laugh because Grigson’s company was inimical to laughter. Elsewhere Grigson likes to offer himself as better acquainted with Eliot than are those who wrongly suppose him a glum man. How gracefully the names are floated: ‘Braque might be there, or Jean Hélion, from Paris, or Eliot gayer than his reputation, actually singing “Frankie and Johnny”.’


Christopher Ricks, 18 October 1984

Someone has it in for Timothy Madden. Warned by a cop that the cops may be about to take an interest in his stashed cache of marijuana, Madden goes to exhume it. He finds instead a head. Blond, it doesn’t bear gazing upon, but it does have some resemblance both to Madden’s wife Patty, who recently upped and left him, and to Jessica Pond, a new consolatory excitement of his. The next time Madden turns to the scene of the crime (is it his crime? his drink-bludgeoned immemory is not the least of his worries), things have monstrously reverted to normalcy. ‘The head was gone. Just the footlocker with its jars of marijuana remained.’ This has its affinities not only with the world of a Chandler (which Mailer burns at both ends), but also with Romantic Gothic. The inhumed human head, the herb: Isabella, or the Pot of Pot. Some Keatsian byplay is kept up by the heroine’s being called Madeleine (almost right); and Madeleine Falco is an Italian not a Maltese Falco. Nomen est omen. The plot against Madden is on purpose laid to make the taker mad. Before long the revenger has decided that two heads are better than one.


Christopher Ricks, 2 August 1984

Faber & Faber have published a very good anthology of parodies. This is not it.


Christopher Ricks, 3 May 1984

The life of Swift by Irvin Ehrenpreis is a great act of consonance. But one reviewer has deprecated the fact that Ehrenpreis does not write with Swift’s genius. So the first thing to say is that Ehrenpreis, though he has the great good sense never to emulate the supreme Swiftian manner, does nevertheless command the steely style which T.S. Eliot praised. Deploring the symptoms of decay in the wording of the preface to the Revised Prayer Book, Eliot concluded: ‘And there was once a Dean (of St Patrick’s) who formed the purest, the most supple, the most useful type of English prose style.’ (Eliot’s parenthesis is a tacit rebuke to metropolitan and national vanity.)

Faber Book of Groans

Christopher Ricks, 1 March 1984

‘How,’ asked Dr Leavis, vaulting into his review of T. S. Eliot’s On Poetry and Poets, ‘can a book of criticism be at once so distinguished and so unimportant?’ Of Philip Larkin’s comparable and incomparable ‘miscellaneous pieces’, it might be asked: How can a book of criticism be at once so un-‘distinguished’ and so important? But then how can this Faber book of groans be so exhilarating? The open unsecret is: by being unremittingly attentive and diversely funny. Asked in an interview about his ‘secret flaws’ as a writer, Larkin levels his reply: ‘My secret flaw is just not being very good, like everyone else.’ Asked whether he consciously uses humour to achieve a particular effect, he obligingly particularises while generalising: ‘One uses humour to make people laugh.’ Deprecating untruth, he is a master at combining the Retort Courteous and the Quip Modest. You didn’t mention a schedule for writing … ‘Yes, I was afraid you’d ask about writing.’ Sometimes things are such that he does have to press on to give the Reply Churlish (‘Who’s Jorge Luis Borges?’), and the Reproof Valiant (What do you think about Mrs Thatcher? ‘Oh, I adore Mrs Thatcher’), and even the Countercheck Quarrelsome (‘Oh, for Christ’s sake, one doesn’t study poets!’). But like Touchstone, he is not cut out for giving the Lie Circumstantial and the Lie Direct. Like Touchstone, he is independent of mind, prepared to tell people when they are feigning; and, playing the Fool, he is of course licensed by all the authorities whom he banters, cajoles and outwits, countenanced and honest the while.

Dark Tom

Christopher Ricks, 1 December 1983

‘The human craving to believe in something is pathetic, when not tragic; and always, at the same time, comic.’ The life of Sir Oswald Mosley was pathetic, tragic and comic, and his son’s humane deliberated biography is itself a notable contribution to ‘The Literature of Fascism’ which T.S. Eliot was judging with that sentence in 1928. In 1928 Oswald Mosley was still an up-and-coming Labour MP. It was the year after Eliot had made manifest that the something which satisfied his own craving to believe was Christianity. Mosley as Fascist soon came to crave this craving in others; he could always tap it, but he could never satisfy it for long, since the drugging or hypnoidal power would necessarily wear off and then the faithfully addicted would need a new fix of their idées fixes. What Mosley gives (to apply Eliot’s fearful evocation of history, in the immediate aftermath of the great mowing-down in 1914-1918) he gives with such supple confusions that the giving famishes the craving. To famish a craving is to incite a cycle of short-lived satisfaction and life-long insatiability.

Speaking well

Christopher Ricks, 18 August 1983

Unlike the publication in 1975 of the touching acute letters of Cyril Connolly to Noel Blakiston, the publication of Connolly’s Journal (1928-1937) does not serve him, except right. He found D.H. Lawrence insufficiently magnanimous (‘Notice how carefully Lawrence refuses to recognise virtue in anyone but himself’), and his sponsor David Pryce-Jones now finds F.R. Leavis much the same, so it may be legitimate to cite the famous excoriation of Bloomsbury that was voiced by Lawrence and amplified by Leavis: ‘they talked endlessly, but endlessly – and never, never a good thing said. They are cased each in a hard littte shell of his own and out of this they talk words. There is never for one second any outgoing of feeling and no reverence, not a crumb or grain of reverence: I cannot stand it.’ The reason why ‘never a good thing said’ was such a good thing to say is that it aligns speaking well with speaking well of others. In that world, a very special thrill attached to speaking ill of one’s friends.–

Short is sweet

Christopher Ricks, 3 February 1983

The alphabet does happy things. The first entry in the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs is able to give unforced priority to some of the most important properties of proverbs. ‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder.’ First, that it is more recent than you think (c.1850). Second, that nobody has ever heard of the talented person who endowed it with the anonymity of genius (T.H. Bayly). Third, that – divinely wise – it sprang full-grown from its creator’s head; perfect, just like that. Fourth, that it evokes what for some is the glory of proverbs and is their ignominy for others. The Observer in 1923 waxed: ‘These saws are constantly cutting one another’s throats. How can you reconcile the statement that “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” with “Out of sight, out of mind”?’ Later in the book, there appears another of the newspaper’s rhetorical questions: ‘What is the use of saying that “Many hands make light work” when the same copy-book tells you that “Too many cooks spoil the broth”?’


Christopher Ricks, 2 December 1982

These ‘Critical Heritage’ volumes on T. S. Eliot get off to a bad start, and persevere. The chosen items are ‘printed verbatim’, ‘apart from the silent correction of spelling errors and other minutiae’. Why then preserve ‘elegaic’ and For Launcelot Andrewes? Did F.L. Lucas really write, unremarked, that Eliot may have been indebted to something called ‘Childe Harold to the Dark Tower Came’? Yes he did, actually. But the editing and printing of these books are so slovenly that, half-unjustly, one is inclined to give everybody else the benefit of the doubt. Meeting a critic called Cleanth Brook, or a title The Romantic Image, or an Eliot work called ‘Eeldrop and Applepex’, one is in danger of what would here be called apopexy. French words are usually, though not with the assurance of invariability, docked of their accents. English words mutate into such forms as ‘notive’, ‘wordly’, ‘myseries’, and ‘conrete’. Sometimes you start to wonder whether it is the original author (in the following case, Harriet Monroe) or the editor (Michael Grant) or you yourself who must be getting giddy: ‘While stating nothing, it suggests everything that is in his rapidly moving mind, in a series of shifting scenes which fade in and out of each other like the cinema. The form, with its play of many-colored lights on words that flash from everywhere in the poet’s dream, is a perfect expression of the shifting scenes which fade in and out of each other like the cinema. The form, with its play of many-colored lights on words that flash from everywhere in the poet’s dream, is a perfect expression of the shifting tortures in his soul.’ Come again? Or rather, let the middle sentence go.


Christopher Ricks, 16 September 1982

Donald Davie’s critical arguments are often happily reminiscential, and his reminiscences are often happily argumentative, so the difference in kind between these two admirable books doesn’t make for any great difference of temper. The critical essays which make up Dissentient Voice: Enlightenment and Christian Dissent are an act of making good; they fulfil the promise and they repair the deficiencies of Davie’s earlier book on Dissent and culture, A Gathered Church. The recollections gathered as These the Companions are an act of making permanent, with such permanence as time has; they fulfil a promise often made and often kept in Davie’s poems but which these days asks, too, for the expatiating element of prose: the exercise of ‘the faculty of pious memory’.


Christopher Ricks, 17 June 1982

‘He is stuck on himself. It isn’t all that easy to see why. He is, after all, only a literary journalist.’ Clive James hardily dispatches someone who is a television celebrity as well as a journalist, Malcolm Muggeridge.


Christopher Ricks, 20 May 1982

‘Women are bitches.’ It was odd and ugly of J. R. Ackerley to put it like that, since both the sentence before this terse rancour and the one after it dote upon a bitch, his dog Queenie. Much-loved Joe Ackerley was not much-loving, but he did love his dog, loved her even more than he loathed his sister Nancy. Nancy loathed them both back. She also loathed their old aunt Bunny, whom Ackerley only intermittently hated. When Ackerley took a break, he contrived a busman’s Roman holiday, since he went to stay with Siegfried Sassoon, who was fully occupied loathing his wife, as she him. ‘He was obviously very wrought up over her emotional persecution of him, and described at much length her jealous rows, resentments, emotional blackmail, etc. He was describing Nancy.’ Nancy was chagrined at not having been invited, so Ackerley gave it her straight:

Playing with terror

Christopher Ricks, 21 January 1982

Ian McEwan’s tale is as economical as a shudder. It never itself shudders, which is one reason why it makes you do so. By staying cool in the face of the murderous madness which it contemplates, it precipitates an icy sweat. What it does even with equanimity is not to display it. A characteristic McEwan sentence is one of which it might be said (here in Venice revisited) that the law allows it and the court awards it. ‘She loved him, though not at this particular moment.’ This means what it says, exactly. It is not a warrant for sarcasm’s burliness, for inferring that she didn’t really love him at other moments, or that she really disliked him at this particular moment. Grim, laconic and humorous, it is a bracing sentence, a short, sharp shock.


Christopher Ricks, 19 November 1981

‘Authors are not the solitaries of the Romantic myth, but citizens.’ The spirit of Marilyn Butler’s excellent book on the Romantics is itself that of citizenship: of belonging to a civilised community, cultural and intellectual, which one helps to sustain and is sustained by, and which makes possible the truest duties, rights and privileges. Rewards, too, and the rewards of this radiating and radiant book are great. For if from one point of view Marilyn Butler is the citizen of a smallish community within a community – those within universities who speak of English literature – from another she is importantly and not self-importantly a citizen of the world. The term naturally has its good-natured comedy, and she describes it – when conferred by Goldsmith on his visiting Chinaman, a penetrating watcher of 18th-century English civilisation – as ‘a phrase both levelling and universal’. (One, incidentally, which itself helps to sustain a community of the like-minded, since Goldsmith shares the right to it with his fellow citizens Caxton and Bacon.) Dr Butler is a citizen of the world not only in that she does not – cannot, in pursuit of her essential questions – limit herself to English Romanticism; and not only in that she writes with a witty clarity, humane and free, such as makes her book uncondescendingly open to a much larger world than the academic one; but also in that her preoccupation is the pressure of the great world upon Romantic literature – the pressure, in particular, of national and international affairs.

Donne’s Will to Power

Christopher Ricks, 18 June 1981

Donne’s powers are, for John Carey, a matter of power, the poems being ‘the most enduring exhibition of the will to power the English Renaissance produced’. The praises of Donne in this critical work of amazing flair and obduracy are single-minded: Donne is here valued, supremely, for the power and tenacity of his ego, for his imaginative energy, for his desire to dominate or his rage for supremacy, and for the obsession with which he registered the contrarieties and contradictions of life ‘in all their urgent discord’. For Carey, these powers, these sheer strengths, sweep everything before them, razing moral questions to moralism, spiritual values to pietism, and critical reservations to prissiness. Carey’s book is itself alive with the kind of energy which it attributes to Donne, and since he can think of no higher compliments than those he pays Donne, he will presumably be very happy to have them returned to him.

In theory

Christopher Ricks, 16 April 1981

Is there an honourable, thoughtful alternative to literary theory? Literary theory at present dishonourably pretends that there is not. So the case against literary theory begins with its overbearing insistence that there is no genuine case for anything else. The advocates of theory often declare that we are all theorists whether we realise it and acknowledge it or not. This stratagem is an easy extension of the announcement that we all have an ideology whether we realise it or not – an announcement which has had too easy a ride, since the choice of the word ‘ideology’ is itself the reflection of an ideology. To choose another word – ‘faith’, for instance – and to announce that everyone has a faith whether realising it or not, would be to tilt the implications away from the political incitement to which the word ‘ideology’ ministers.

Hallo Dad

Christopher Ricks, 2 October 1980

The last word of the reissue of Mr Nicholas, Thomas Hinde’s exquisitely glum and fearingly funny novel of 1952, is probably a misprint. At least, it is minutely different from the last word in the Penguin book in 1962, the issue which brought Hinde’s consummate first novel to an even more widely appreciative public. One tribute to the novel’s exact art is that it matters whether the book ends, as it did then, with the exchange,

A House and its Heads

Christopher Ricks, 7 August 1980

An ambitious novel about ambition and ambitions, Setting the World on Fire is in two minds. It embodies the minds in two brothers, Piers Mosson and Tom Mosson: the one with his head in the clouds, fated to become a red-carpet knight of the theatre, sure of his direction and of his directing; the other, with his feet on the ground, ready, steady, and going to be a lawyer. Each has sense and sensibility but in different proportions. These proportions, antagonistic and complementary, are built into the great house, hard by Westminster Abbey, which is likely to be theirs or at least the elder brother’s: Tothill House, which was begun by the sober genius of the architect Pratt and was completed or wrested by the intoxicating genius of Vanbrugh. The loving rivalry of the brothers flashes and bickers in their championing the competing claims; Tom finds himself in the ordered regularity of Pratt’s handiwork, and so is nicknamed ‘Pratt’; Piers, whose identity exists to stage and shape that of others, finds his freedom from self in the dramatic energy of Vanbrugh, and so has the name nicked down to ‘Van’. The great house is sparsely populated by their great-grandfather, by his daughter-in-law (their grandmother), and by their pompous circumstantial uncle. Their widowed mother, brave and tearful and intermittent, threatens the decorum of it all. Behind the contrasting frames of mind and styles of architecture, there loom the twined ancient families: the Tothills, who had been flamboyant and had even perhaps figured in the heated antics of the Hell Fire Club, and the Mossons, whose fires had been securely banked.

Donald Davie and the English

Christopher Ricks, 22 May 1980

‘Since Byron and Landor, no Englishman appears to have profited much from living abroad.’ So said an American who rightly believed himself to be profiting from living abroad, T.S. Eliot in England in 1918, honouring the American who had likewise profited and who had then become – as Eliot would – an Englishman: Henry James. ‘The fact of being everywhere a foreigner was probably an assistance to his native wit.’

Mailer’s Psychopath

Christopher Ricks, 6 March 1980

Gary Gilmore robbed the unresisting service-station attendant, told him to liedown, and then shot him in the head. Twice, fast. The next day, Gilmore robbed the unresisting motel-manager, told him to lie down, and then shot him in the head. Once only, because the gun jammed, and so the man died slowly. Convicted, Gilmore chose to die as quickly as the law would allow, and chose to be shot. He had spent 18 of his 35 years locked up, and he wanted no more of it, knowing that whatever lifetime he might gain could be only a death-watch.He waived his right of appeal, and flung himself on the justice of the courts. That shook them. But in the end, in January 1977, after every stay of execution had been prised off by the combined efforts of Gilmore and his prosecutors, Gilmore’s bad life came to a good end. He was then brave. He was dignified. Generous, too, giving his eyes to someone young who needed them, and giving his pituitary gland to the sick child of his cousin Brenda, the woman who, though she still loved him and had been the one to get him released on parole only nine months earlier, had since turned him in and had given her undeviating testimony. Gilmore was generous, and humorous with it. ‘Well,Moody, I’m going to leaveyou my hair. You need it worse than Ido.’ Thy need, or necessity or whatever, is greater than mine.

A Novel without a Hero

Christopher Ricks, 6 December 1979

Jamie Mangan, left at 36 by his wife and then suddenly left all her money, takes it into his heart to go off from New York to Ireland to find out whether or not he is the great-great-grandson of the poet James Clarence Mangan. Jamie’s father had once halfheartedly tried this, but he wasn’t prey to a sufficiently insatiable hunger for the quest. But then it is Jamie, not his father, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the man in an heirloom daguerrotype which has ‘J.M. 1847?’ on the back of it. The resemblance – a newly missing tooth, for instance – eerily increases once Jamie is in Ireland, entangled with disreputable Mangans who are probably his cousins (ah, how treacherously and sluttishly lovely, and how erotically practised, is 18-year-old Kathleen Mangan), and likewise with respectable Mangans who are very guarded (and what are they guarding?). Jamie starts to sense that the daguerrotype is not so much a passport to a past world as a death-warrant in a present world.

The Mouth, the Meal and the Book

Christopher Ricks, 8 November 1979

Those of us who have never swallowed an oyster have presumably never lived life to the full. The Augustan poet was not merely mocking the heroic when he said that the man must have had a palate coated o’er with brass who first risked the living morsel down his throat. Seamus Heaney offers ‘Oysters’ (‘Alive and violated’) as his opening. Opened at once are the oyster, the mouth, the meal and the book. It is at the start a delicious poem, not least in its play of the obdurate against the liquid:


What if?

20 August 1992

Henry James’s letter to Sarah Orne Jewett about the ‘historical novel’ was tellingly quoted – twenty lines of it – by P.N. Furbank in his review of Hilary Mantel (LRB, 20 August). ‘The case against the historical novel could hardly be better put.’ But what needs to be put right, after all these years and after Leon Edel’s repeated retailings, is the text...

Plain Speaking

10 November 1988

Mary-Kay Wilmers’s memory is as long as it is false. Reviewing the Faber Book of Seductions (LRB, 10 November 1988), she ‘was reminded of Christopher Ricks saying twenty years ago, in an article about the sexual revolution of the Sixties, that he was against the whole thing on the ground that the new free-for-all was unfair to plain women. (What about plain men? Are women pleased to get...


1 December 1983

SIR: Lora Weinroth accuses me (Letters, 19 January) of a facile irony such as manifests anti-semitism. But I did not write that ‘“Jews could be forgiven …" for not deducing Oswald Mosley’s anti-semitism from his pronouncement that Jews stink worse than oil.’ The simple point was the opposite one, not of Mosley’s anti-semitic guilt but of his bogus claim to innocence:...


20 May 1982

Christopher Ricks writes: Mr King has his own way of admitting that his sentence was in error and was ignorant. I had suspected as much. In my own words: ‘if Mr King is to be exactly believed … If Mr King has got it right (odd of him to say “in her own words")’.

Hallo Dad

2 October 1980

Christopher Ricks writes: Authors’ intentions are elaborately slighted these days; this is usually foolish, and when it comes to textual matters, it is absurd. So I unreluctantly accept both the principle and the facts of Thomas Hinde’s letter. There are two textual readings for the last word of Mr Nicholas: one of them has authorial authority, and there would indeed be no point in claiming...

Ti tum ti tum ti tum: Chic Sport Shirker

Colin Burrow, 7 October 2021

If one suspects, at times, that one’s eye is being led on a dance, it is at least always a merry one, and Christopher Ricks is a fine enough critic to worry whether he might have crossed the invisible...

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T.S. Eliot’s mind was a vast, labyrinthine echo chamber, and perhaps more than any other canonical poet of the English language he was conscious of the previous uses by other writers of the words...

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Misgivings: Christopher Ricks

Adam Phillips, 22 July 2010

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...

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Forget the Dylai Lama: Bob Dylan

Thomas Jones, 6 November 2003

A scene from a concert: on stage, a young Jewish-American folk singer/ songwriter, accompanied only by his own guitar and the harmonica around his neck, with a forceful, nasal voice and...

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This book comes in two parts. The first, ‘The Poet as Heir’, investigates characteristic uses of allusion by major British poets of the 18th and 19th centuries: Dryden, Pope,...

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Elegant Extracts: anthologies

Leah Price, 3 February 2000

Anthologies attract good haters. In the 1790s, the reformer Hannah More blamed their editors for the decay of morals: to let people assume that you had read the entire work from which an...

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When Emerson wrote to Whitman that there must have been ‘a long foreground’ preceding the composition of Leaves of Grass, he expressed the curiosity every reader feels when coming...

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The Verity of Verity

Marilyn Butler, 1 August 1996

Christopher Ricks’s new book makes available many of his distinguished lectures given in the Eighties and Nineties. The essays retain a sense of occasion, and of a star performance on...

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Leases of Lifelessness

Denis Donoghue, 7 October 1993

Near to death in Malone Dies, Malone says: ‘I wonder what my last words will be, written, the others do not endure, but vanish, into thin air.’ Beckett’s Dying Words is not a...

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Good enough for Jesus

Charlotte Brewer, 25 January 1990

The second edition of The State of the Language, published ten years on from the first, contains 53 essays and nine poems, each by a different author. The dust-jackets of both editions are almost...

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Negative Capability

Dan Jacobson, 24 November 1988

T.S. Eliot and Prejudice. Keats and Embarrassment. The parallel between the title of Christopher Ricks’s new book and that of his earlier study of Keats is not accidental. In each case he...

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John Bayley, 2 June 1988

On 9 May 1933, A.E. Housman, Professor of Latin at Trinity College, Cambridge, and a scholar worshipped and hated for his meticulous standards and his appalling sarcasms on the unscholarly,...

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Tennyson’s Text

Danny Karlin, 12 November 1987

Writing in 1842 to his friend Alfred Domett, who had emigrated to New Zealand, Robert Browning enclosed ‘Tennyson’s new vol. and, alas, the old with it – that is what he calls...

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Beddoes’ Best Thing

C.H. Sisson, 20 September 1984

‘This is,’ as Professor Ricks says, in his rather baroque manner, ‘a gathering of essays, not a march of chapters’; each essay ‘attends to an aspect, feature, or...

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English Changing

Frank Kermode, 7 February 1980

That language changes, and that we cannot prevent it from doing so, is a fact known to all, though some of us can no more contemplate it with resignation than we can death and taxes. It is two...

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