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I. A. Richards (1893–1979)

When Ivor Richards was stricken with a terminal illness last spring, he was fulfilling a long, far-ranging, and exceptionally active career as a citizen of the world. During his eighty-seventh year he had been revisiting China, for him the beloved scene of educational ventures and recurrent interchanges many years before. Despite his failing strength, his lectures had been meeting with a triumphal reception. For five weeks he was treated with the utmost resources of Chinese medicine, and finally flown by the government with a medical escort back to Cambridge University, where he died in the bosom of alma mater on Friday, September 7. As a young student at Clifton and Cambridge he had been forced to drop out periodically by the hazard of tuberculosis, and in subsequently rebuilding his health had turned himself into an indefatigable mountaineer. It was on a mountain top that he met Dorothea Pilley, the accomplished alpinist who became his wife. Inseparable traveling companions, they spent most of their vacations in the Alps or in quest and conquest of more distant peaks. Even during their later years in New England, after Mrs. Richards had been seriously injured by a motor accident, they still went backpacking over the academic weekends.

Richards was a person who looked at life from the heights in panoramic exaltation. If he had professed an abiding religion, it would have been a kind of Wordsworthian pantheism. He signalized The Waste Land, when it appeared, as effecting a severance between poetry and belief—a view which T.S. Eliot could hardly accept, though their dialectical friendship was warm and longstanding. Richards viewed himself as a man “without Beliefs,” significantly capitalizing the noun; he was rather a man of attitudes, which were bound to change along with his protean development. Facing the problem of values under the early influence of G.E. Moore’s ethics, William James’s psychology, and C.S. Sherrington’s physiology, he proposed to resolve it on an empirical plane. It was not for nothing that he had taken his undergraduate honors in what was known as Moral Sciences, or that his first published article was addressed to the mediating theme of “Art and Science.” To the English Faculty, when it was established at Cambridge after the First World War, he brought a fresh approach which was philosophic and analytic, rather than conventionally oriented toward the philological and historical backgrounds of literature.

Literary studies at the time, both in England and in the United States, tended to be either antiquarian or impressionistic, and consequently at internal odds. Theory, redefinition of terms, and conceptualization of problems were matters of little concern within the academy, despite the occasional efforts of such freelances as Kenneth Burke or Herbert Read. The Marxist and the Freudian ideologies, for better and for worse, would be finding their respective critical applications. Linguistics, though seminally related to literature in the thinking of various continental schools, mainly went in its own specialized directions until the comparatively recent campaign for a rapprochement under the flashy banners of an imported Structuralism. Here the great exception has been Richards, who—more than half a century ago—was concerned with the sort of questions that have been cropping up in the latest issues of Tel Quel. The starting point was his collaboration with that nimble-minded impresario of ideas, C.K. Ogden, notably in The Meaning of Meaning (1923). There, in what would serve as a prolegomenon, Richards helped to survey the ground and lay the foundations, if not for a “science of symbolism,” then for an emphasis upon semantics as the mean between thought and language.

His first independent volume, Principles of Literary Criticism (1924), asserted its modernity in its opening sentence, echoing Le Corbusier: “A book is a machine to think with.” Richards would be still the technician when, publishing his first collection of essays some thirty years afterward, he entitled it Speculative Instruments (1955). He had meanwhile conducted a famous and influential experiment, with results that were announced in Practical Criticism (1929). Making the classroom his laboratory, he registered the unmediated responses of his students to a sequence of unfamiliar poems. The results were startling. By a systematic analysis of these psychological data, he was able to pinpoint the sources of misconstruction and to formulate a set of criteria for interpreting poetic texts, based upon his own gifts of explication. This at a moment when, with Eliot in both vanguards, poets had been getting more difficult for the common reader and critics had been rediscovering the ironies and ambiguities of the Metaphysical School and French Symbolists. Hence the Ricardian method of close reading could not have been more opportunely needed or more warmly welcomed. It had already become the basis of a spreading pedagogical movement in the United States when John Crowe Ransom brought out The New Criticism (1941), saluting Richards as a founding father.

Richards’s experimentation with readers had been extended into prose through Interpretation in Teaching (1938). In The Philosophy of Rhetoric (1936) he had updated the classical models for such key figures of speech as metaphor. Scrutinizing the processes of communication as a whole, he had been shifting his focus from the receiving to the transmitting end. The reader’s mind was more accessible, in the light of his responding “protocols” and the texts that prompted and controlled them. But how would it be possible to take soundings of the writer’s imagination? Human guinea pigs would no longer have much to contribute. Richards took the unaccustomed step of consulting authorities, and none but he would have chosen two mentors so far apart. Mencius on the Mind (1931) reverts to the wisdom of the East, incidentally highlighting the quandaries of translation and intercultural dialogue. Coleridge on Imagination (1934) refers this overwhelming question to the poet-critic whose struggles with it marked a retreat from the associationist psychology of Hartley to the transcendental idealism of Kant. Richards, who had begun his study as a self-confessed “Benthamite,” seems to have moved backward with his subject from the positivistic tendency of British empiricism toward the metaphysical allure of neo-Platonism.

In 1926 Poetry and Science had attempted to reconcile Bentham with Arnold through the validating concept of poetic truth as “pseudo-statement.” Dissatisfied before long with his original argument, Richards revised and qualified it in a second edition (1935). The third edition, appearing after a longish generation, indicated by the reversed and now plural nouns of the title how far his position had been changing: Sciences and Poetries (1970). Insofar as he distinguished the sciences (“what is done, or can be done”) from the humanities (“what should be done”) at an interdisciplinary conference, he emerged unequivocally as a humanist. In the interim his main attention had been turning from “Theory of Literary Criticism” to “Design of Instruction in Reading.” He had been enlisted for the latter cause when his old collaborator, C.K. Ogden, invented Basic English. Richards, as a cosmopolitan pedagogue, had been attracted by its potential for reaching wider regions of verbal expression, necessarily at lower levels. As the critic of poetry who had done so much to emphasize connotation, Richards was fascinated by this arbitrary language of strict denotation. Limited and simplified to the point where there could only be one way of saying anything, it could be a tool for discriminating “plain sense” from associations, overtones, and modulating contexts.

Thus, though he kept moving on, he never abandoned his earlier interests. During the Twenties and the Thirties he was employed primarily as a Fellow of Magdalene College and a University Lecturer at Cambridge. For a somewhat longer stretch during the Forties and Fifties, and throughout an active retirement in the Sixties, he was a University Professor at Harvard. Though he was free to teach whatever and wherever he wished, to the regret of his colleagues in the Yard he stationed himself at the School of Education. Indeed he wryly spoke of having “backed out of literature” to settle down on the other side of the tracks. His sense of mission was intensified on transferring his base of operations. A speech by the visiting Winston Churchill in 1943 must have made Richards feel that further work on Basic English was regarded as his expatriate contribution to the war effort. Churchill’s support, according to William Empson, gave “the kiss of death” to any hopes for the adoption of Basic as a world language, since it could thereafter be tagged as an agent of British imperialism. Nothing could have been farther from Richards’s intentions. Cheerfully he continued with his research staff, devising manuals for foreign use and paperbacks ingeniously combining Berlitz techniques with comic strips, in the spirit of postwar decolonization.

His commitment to pedagogy drew him closer to home academically during the mid-Forties, when the Faculty of Arts and Sciences was confronted by an explicit need for curricular renewal. Richards thereupon recrossed the tracks to put his experience and his expertise at the service of the working committee and into the drafting of its celebrated report, General Education in a Free Society. As an educator he was interested in every stage of instruction, and the programs in great books at the University of Chicago and elsewhere had engaged his sympathies and his reservations. When their categorical publicist, Mortimer Adler, wrote a simplistic book called How to Read a Book, Richards maintained the priorities with an ironic yet modest caveat, How to Read a Page (1942), implicitly suggesting that true literacy resided in a mental process rather than in the acquisition of a highly advertised bookshelf. Under the Harvard program he would make his effective reappearance as an undergraduate teacher, lecturing to freshmen and sophomores on Homer, Plato, and selected books of the Old Testament. As a by-product of this return to the ancient classics at an introductory level, he retranslated, adapted, and streamlined his own versions in usum Delphini of The Iliad, The Republic, and four Socratic dialogues.

He was approaching sixty when he proceeded, in his own description, “From Criticism to Creation.” Criticism had been “comments on endeavors”; his educational undertakings had become “a new endeavor”; and then, perhaps because they had placed him at a farther remove from literature itself, he came back to it directly by writing poems and plays. Here again he found inspiration in Coleridge, even though his myriad-minded predecessor had been going in the very opposite direction. Richards’s poetic voice, not unexpectedly, turns out to be gnomic if not didactic. The verse is tightly constructed and neatly turned; the diction is always simple but succinct. His accumulated reserves now enabled him to express more freely—what is increasingly manifest in his discursive prose—the interplay of emotions with ideas. He was much preoccupied, like the later Yeats, with the elegiac mood and the detaching insight of old age; accordingly the title of his first collection, published twenty-one years before his death, is Goodbye Earth and Other Poems. Not all of the plays that he composed, during so fruitful a reprieve, have yet been printed. Two of these cosmic comedies were tried out through amateur productions in which he enacted a characteristic part: that of the Conjuror in A Leak in the Universe and the title role in Tomorrow Morning, Faustus!

It is revealing not only that he engaged in dramatics upon occasion, but that—on those two occasions—he was type-cast. In his varying scientific curiosities, his propensity for diagrams and gadgets, his handling of the electronic media, his adjustment to the Age of Space, he differed strikingly from most of his fellow humanists. Yet he remained, in temperament and talent, not a technologist but a mage. To hear him speak in public was to be reminded of his Welsh ancestry, and to suspect a strain of wizards, bards, and preachers. Not that he was capable of indulging in declamation. Quite the contrary, as one hearer put it, “He poured on the restraint.” This capacity for conveying an impression of powerful forces kept so beautifully under control, it would seem, had something to do with Richards’s skill as an analyst of rhetoric. Whenever he read a poem aloud, in his precisely cadenced Cantabrigian English, it was an artistic performance; it was likewise a virtual explication in itself. His persona was never far removed from his more intimate personality. Gentle, sympathetic, and whimsical by nature, he had acquired the mountain-climber’s virtues: patience, fortitude, and an admixture of carefulness and daring. Many American friends will be missing a vivacious host and guest, an endearing neighbor and colleague.

Of the more than sixty different books that carry Richards’s name on the title page, a considerable number are textbooks and handbooks worked out with linguistic collaborators under his methodological guidance. Those that bear his unique stamp as a critic also seem to retain his stance as a lecturer, teacher, and educator. Readers who have ever listened to him will recognize the style, and may visualize the platform and the blackboard. Some of his techniques of demonstration have been transposed through a series of typographical devices. Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, with its leaps from quotation to formulation, its collage of stylistics and metaphysics, its juxtaposition of anecdotes and theories, proved to be a problematic model. The great elucidator, in his preoccupation with the subtleties and complexities of his material, may not present the most lucid reading matter himself. Richards, dealing concretely with a text, could be the most percipient and perspicuous of commentators. When he took what he termed “the Copernican step,” substituting the telescope for the microscope, he was perforce an explorer rather than a guide. The wonder was that, like few other literary critics, he should so often think in planetary dimensions. No other single individual, over the past two generations, has had more impact on the teaching of English or on the interpretation of poetry.

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