A New Victorian


by Christopher Ricks
Handsel, 386 pp., $30.00
Christopher Ricks
Christopher Ricks; drawing by David Levine


Fifty reviews from the last four decades, dealing largely with writers from the twentieth century—reviews written for newspapers and magazines, and shading off a little in the direction of learned journals: journalism, in fact, and written for the most part to short deadlines. This, by Christopher Ricks, is the best journalism of its kind. Occasionally—but how astonishingly seldom—one feels sorry that, for instance, a coupling of books that was convenient for an editor has shaped an argument in an unfruitful way. Ricks reviewed Cyril Connolly’s journal along with the letters of J.B. Yeats, the poet’s father. He hates Connolly and loves the elder Yeats, but the comparisons between the two men are, though no doubt justly drawn, hardly of great moment, whereas the comparison lightly touched on, between J.B. and W.B. Yeats, is suggestive.

Ricks refers to “the loving stringency which [J.B.] bent upon his son the poet,” citing the following passage:

Willie has been out of sorts lately. He overworks himself, or rather over fatigues himself, seeing people and talking to people on various paradoxical subjects in which he believes or persuades himself he is interested.

Now the distinctions drawn between overwork (at some genuine task perhaps) and mere fatigue, and between believing oneself to be interested in a subject and persuading oneself that one is (in neither case, it seems, being actually interested)—one could imagine such differentiations fruitfully pursued. Ricks has written elsewhere about W.B. Yeats’s poetry, and with a less than loving stringency. We need critics of poetry who really are interested in the distinction between genuine and phony. Was Yeats interested in fairies? Or did he believe, did he have to persuade himself, that he was? Is there a point in pursuing his Byzantine speculations, or are they just Byzantine?

Ricks hates Connolly (and he is a good hater) for the same reason he hates Bloomsbury. He dislikes a world in which “a very special thrill attached to speaking ill of one’s friends.” It is a moral distaste, as felt by D.H. Lawrence and as amplified by F.R. Leavis in a passage Ricks quotes:

…They talked endlessly, but endlessly—and never, never a good thing said. They are cased each in a hard little 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.

One should revere someone, or something. Ricks reveres Samuel Johnson and T.S. Eliot, and, when he quotes an author he reveres, it is always well done. He is a champion quoter. When F.R. Leavis, in a late work called The Living Principle, decides to turn somewhat cool about Eliot (“Eliot himself was in no danger of being a tragic hero of that kind, or a hero at all”), Ricks, with deadly timing, deploys Leavis’s own words…

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