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A New Victorian


by Christopher Ricks
Handsel, 386 pp., $30.00


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 against him. Four times, in something written only seven years before, Leavis had called Eliot heroic in some sense.

Of course there was no reason for Leavis not to change his mind, but if he had changed his mind about Eliot he should explain why, rather than denigrate him in “a nugatory descriptive aside.” Ricks is reminded of an occasion in 1938 when Eliot himself had rebuked someone for sneering at Leavis, and he quotes the passage, which ends: “To dismiss a man who has done such work, with the words, ‘Mr. Leavis, who can be trusted to come in on a good thing’—a knowing wink to the reader—is to make a sneer do the work of a demonstration.”

Writing in 1976, Ricks is asking Leavis to recall that almost forty years earlier Eliot had stood up for him. He is rebuking him a little before garlanding him, and—besides being a good hater and a champion quoter—Ricks is a rebuker to be reckoned with. I have to say also that, like certain children who are rough, he can do more damage than he intends—or than he seems to intend. I am sure he intends to praise Leavis, but he does not for a moment make me want to turn back to his writings.

The case is rather worse with Donald Davie, to whose virtues as critic and poet deference is often shown, but who emerges bruised and contused by Ricks’s appreciation. Davie has discovered in Czesl/aw Milosz, Ricks tells us, an “indifference to lyrical purity.” Davie has noted “the insufficiency of the lyric mode for registering, except glancingly, the complexity of 20th-century experience.” Ricks quotes this passage at length:

I have suggested, going for support to the writings of Milosz, that no concerned and ambitious poet of the present day, aware of the enormities of 20th-century history, can for long remain content with the privileged irresponsibility allowed to, or imposed on, the lyric poet. This is not a contention that will be readily accepted: for less earnest poets are grateful for this privilege, and jealous of it, and their publics are ready to ensure it for them, since it absolved the reader from ever taking his poets’ sentiments to heart, except as the poignant expression of a momentary mood.

To which Ricks retorts: “I see no reason to believe that the sentiments in, say, the lyrics of George Herbert need not be taken to heart except as the poignant expression of a momentary mood….” Well said. One might just ask both Davie and Ricks in what way the “complexity” and “enormities” of the twentieth century, so manifest to Milosz, were invisible to, for instance, W.H. Auden when he wrote the lyric poem “The Shield of Achilles.” Auden is not much of a presence in Ricks’s book; actually there is a rather insulting implication that Philip Larkin had Auden’s number. But there is not much point in raising the matter of English lyric poetry in the last century—pure or impure, whatever those terms mean—unless you are prepared to approach Auden without Larkin’s prejudices.

Milosz is indifferent to lyrical purity, says Davie: “But this of course is just what worried and diffident readers have said over two generations about Eliot and Pound, Charles Olson and Basil Bunting—an important point, since it reminds us that, if C.H. Sisson mostly chooses to stay within the conventions of the lyrical standpoint, there were English-language poets before him who had not.”

Ricks is rough with Davie at this point, asserting that “C.H. Sisson, irrespective of the insufficiency of lyric, is comically insufficient as an epitome of the last twenty years of poetry.” Since every word Ricks writes is carefully chosen, he won’t mind my saying that the word “comically” in that sentence betrays a contempt for Davie as a judge of contemporary poetry, for he knew perfectly well when he deployed it (or if he did not he had led a strangely sheltered life) that Davie and people in his circle took Sisson very seriously indeed. And Ricks thought that hilarious.

Elsewhere we find Davie engrossed with the idea that, as Ricks puts it, “the Englishman is the victim-beneficiary of a belief in the artist as amateur, and the American of a belief in the artist as professional”—the word “artist” meaning, presumably, poet or other kind of writer. We learn that Ezra Pound, who represents here the professionally minded American artist, would have liked, even at the age of forty-eight, to “enroll in [Lawrence] Binyon’s seminar if Binyon would only call it into being.” Binyon was a poet of modest accomplishment. Ricks’s comment is that “the sweet fatuity and credulity of the wish” ought to “make against Davie’s urging us to share it.” But Davie has this yearning for poets (of the past as well as the present, it seems) to enroll in ateliers, to seek out masters and learn from them as artists did of yore; and he tells us of his “consultancy sessions” at Stanford:

Here it seems to me that the relationship is that of a master to an apprentice. I like to think of it being like Ghirlandaio in his workshop. And as we all know, in that workshop (for which for some reason we always use the French word atelier), were young apprentices learning at the master’s feet.

Ricks holds off, in his comments on this passage, from underlining the “sweet fatuity” of Davie’s comparison of himself with Ghirlandaio. Were his apprentices at Stanford contracted to him by their parents? Did he feed them? Did he pay them in gold florins? Did they grind his colors for him? Did they learn by copying him? Did they in the fullness of time assist him in passages of his own works of art—plastering the walls for him, squaring up cartoons for him and pricking their outlines? Did they come to paint certain sections of his paintings for him—that is, write passages of his poems for him?

Of course they were not apprentices in these ways at all—they were apprentices only in the sense that Davie alludes to: they were young and they learned “at his feet.” When Wagner in Die Meistersinger satirized the values of the guild system as applied to the fine arts, he really thought about the historical meaning of the terms he was using. But I doubt whether Davie considered for a moment the historical meaning of the terms “master” and “apprentice,” let alone workshop, studio, or atelier. He was probably thinking of some passage in The Agony and the Ecstasy.

When Ricks is out to destroy, he is very effective. A 1968 review of a book by Norman Podhoretz, a 1982 encounter with Leslie Fiedler (the review’s peroration affects to see Podhoretz as a Fiedler nom de plume), a 1981 examination of a text by Stanley Fish—all these are notable additions to the public stock of harmful pleasure. When he is being judicious about something with basic merits but unavoidable shortcomings, as say Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Eliot, or as in the opening review of a biography of Gerald Manley Hopkins by Robert Bernard Martin, he is generous to an exemplary degree before making his major objections.

One of Ricks’s objections, and a good one, I think, like his attitude to Yeats, is to a too-easy acceptance of Hopkins’s poetry, its extremeness, bizarreness, its rebarbative way with language. Ricks does not want to do any more than pay attention to “that critical tradition of resistance to Hopkins which has brought into unusual concurrence such superb poet-critics as A.E. Housman, T.S. Eliot, Yvor Winters, and Donald Davie, all insisting on the sheer price that Hopkins paid for the solitude of his powers and the intransigence of his innovations.” He quotes Housman’s letter to Robert Bridges, on receipt of Hopkins’s poems:

I value the book as your gift, and also for some good condensed lines and an engaging attitude of mind which now and again shines through. But the faults which you fairly and judicially set forth thrust themselves more upon my notice; and also another. Sprung Rhythm, as he calls it in his sober and sensitive preface, is just as easy to write as other forms of verse; and many a humble scribbler of words for music-hall songs has written it well. But he does not: he does not make it audible; he puts light syllables in the stress and heavy syllables in the slack, and has to be helped out with typographical signs explaining that things are to be understood as being what in fact they are not. Also the English language is a thing I respect very much, and I resent even the violence Keats did to it; and here is a lesser than Keats doing much more. Moreover his early poems are the promise of something better, if less original; and originality is not nearly so good as goodness, even when it is good. His manner strikes me as deliberately adopted to compensate by strangeness for the lack of pure merit, like the manner which Carlyle took up after he was thirty.

It is, Ricks suggests, “Housman’s sense of things…which constitutes one unignorable, albeit not unanswerable, critique of Hopkins.”


Ricks’s championing of Housman has been, like his earlier advocacy of Tennyson, which involved the splendid labor of editing him, one of the great good things in English scholarship of the last half-century. His questioning of Hopkins here (it is not after all an assault, but a plea for the poet’s critics to be attended to) is in my opinion a small but also good thing. That Housman himself never did violence to the English language I would not argue. One has only to compare the verses beginning

The rainy Pleiads wester,
Orion plunges prone

with the Greek lines that inspired them to see that there was something wrong, not with the language Housman spoke but with the lyric form he thought suitable for his version—and not just with the form but with the attitude Housman brought to the possibilities of the form. Nevertheless Housman survives, his lyric survives: it survives even the complexities and enormity of the nineteenth century that nurtured it. And Ricks is one of those who made it that bit harder to sneer at.

Housman’s strictures against Hopkins’s marking his own scansion are interesting. Perhaps he is right. That Ricks might think so is suggested by the fact that when he discovered his own eccentric nineteenth-century poet, James Henry, and decided to bring him before a modern audience, he made a firm editorial decision to remove his stress marks from the text. Henry (1798–1876) thought that “even ordinary poetry” should always be printed “with such helps, without which it is impossible for any one who has not a well practised poetical ear, to know where the ictus of the voice falls, in any measure which deviates, even in the slightest degree, from the accustomed jingle.” For my part, I find I always have to force myself to read a poem so marked up with its scansion: I am allergic to such a practice. And I would not be at all surprised if a part of Henry’s obscurity—his poems were, it seems, appreciated by no one, and notably not by friends who had a high opinion of his other achievements as a scholar and doctor—were due to his eccentricity of presentation.

He is palpably obscure as a figure: the bibliography Ricks offers us consists of only four items, one not yet published. Until I read his Selected Poems I had not realized how unknown the poem “My Stearine Candles” was, for I had been told about it as a child, in a rather self-conscious conversation about books with the then dean of Durham. There was a man, the dean told me one evening in the deanery at the end of a kindly talk on Trollope, who wrote something to the effect that the three greatest inventions of mankind were the X, the Y, and what he called the self-snuffing candle. And he explained to me that the scissor-like items that one found in antique shops were used to trim the wicks of beeswax candles, which needed this attention regularly, whereas the other, newer kind of candle did not. The dean’s explanation remained in my mind, more for its technological than its poetic interest. I made myself soon afterward a beeswax candle with a string wick, and found that it did indeed need regular trimming.

Years later, Ricks was in the Cambridge University Library, researching his New Oxford Book of Victorian Verse (1987), when he became amused by the existence of an author called James Henry, as opposed to Henry James. Taking one of his books down, he found its pages uncut. “Intrigued,” says Ricks, “I took the book out, and wielded a paper knife. Straightaway I loved the way in which James Henry wielded words.”

We have every reason to be glad that Ricks carries such a knife with him and is unafraid to wield it, and I have this personal reason to be grateful, since I now know once again what the three great inventions were. The poet praises Prometheus first for his theft: fire. The second unnamed deity is Athena, who gave to Athens the olive tree: it was the olive oil in their lamps that allowed the philosophers to read in bed (but I bet they did no such thing). The third figure also has a name, as given by the Oxford English Dictionary: “In June, 1825, M. Gay Lussac obtained a patent in England for making candles from margaric and stearic acids, improperly called stearine.” To which Ricks retorts: “Improperly be damned.” (He is a good retorter.)

Here is the poem:

He’s gone to bed at last, that flaring, glaring,
Round, red-faced, bold, monopolizing Sun,
And I may venture from their hiding-place
To bring my pair of stearine candles forth
And set them, firmly stayed, upon my table,
To illuminate and cheer my studious evening.
Thou hast my praise, Prometheus, for thy theft,
And, were I to idolatry addicted,
Shouldst be my God in preference to Buddh,
Brahma, or Thor, or Odin, or Jove’s self.
Her of the olive branch I’d hold to thee
The next in honor, and before her shrine
In gratitude would keep for ever burning
A lamp of such Athenian oil as Plato,
Demosthenes, Pythagoras, and Solon
Were wont in bed to read by, after midnight.
The third, last person of my Trinity
Should be th’ inventor of the stearine candle;
He that enabled me to sit, the long
Midwinter nights, in study, by a light
Which neither flickers nor offends the nostrils,
Nor from the distance of a thousand miles,
Or thousand years, or both perhaps, keeps ever
And anon calling me—like some bold child
The mother’s hand—to come and snuff and snub it;
But steady, cleanly, bright and inodorous,
Than tallow more humane, than wax less costly,
Gives me just what I want, and asks back nothing.

I referred to Henry as an eccentric poet, but there is nothing eccentric in his poetic form here: it starts like one of Coleridge’s conversation poems, and it has lines that are not so far from Frost. The ending, the tribute to the art of the candle, reminds Ricks of art itself. But one does not have to take this as the clue to the poem’s meaning. Henry sees in the candles a quality of giving undemandingly, and it is this that he admires. The point is simple and comes sooner than one expects.

Eccentricity figures more in the life than the art: it was a matter of taking principle further than most people would. According to J.P. Mahaffy in the 1876 obituary that Ricks reprints, Henry, a doctor, “even advanced to the shocking heresy that no doctor’s opinion was worth a guinea, and accordingly set the example of charging five-shilling fees, an unheard-of thing in Dublin in that day.” Not surprisingly, he became at odds with his profession, which he left when a large legacy allowed him to do so. He took up travel, in pursuit of manuscripts of the Aeneid, on which he wrote a commentary. His wife and daughter accompanied him.

Here is the untitled poem in which he presumably memorializes his wife:

She never in her whole life wrote one stanza,
She knew no Greek, no Latin, scarcely French,
She played not, danced not, sang not, yet when Death
His arms about her threw, to tear her from me,
I would have ransomed her, not Orpheus-like
With mine own song alone, but with all
Music and dance, philosophy and learning
Were ever, or to be were, in the world.

After his wife’s death, his daughter, whom he educated, learned to assist him in his research on Virgil. Mahaffy tells us that

it was the habit of this curious pair to wander on foot, without luggage, through all parts of Europe, generally hunting for some ill-collated MS. of Virgil’s Aeneid, or for some rare edition or commentator. Thus they came to know cities and libraries in a way quite foreign to the present hurrying age; they came to know all the men learned in their favourite subject, and all the librarians of the great libraries; in Florence, in Leghorn, in Dresden, in Heidelberg, in Dublin, these quaint and familiar figures will long be remembered. Seventeen times they crossed the Alps on foot, sometimes in deep snow, and more than once they were obliged to show the money they carried in abundance, before they were received into the inns where they sought shelter from night and rain.

The commentary on Virgil grew too large ever to be published in full. Mahaffy says that “it is like the work of a sixteenth-century scholar, of a man who studied and thought and wrote without hurry or care, who loved his subject and scorned the applause of the vulgar crowd.” But even he found little to praise in the poems of James Henry, some of which he found “more curious than beautiful.” So Ricks is not in this volume reviving the reputation of Henry’s verses: he is giving them their first readership. “Show me,” he challenges, “anything at all like Henry’s best poems in Victorian poetry, or anywhere, come to that.” He has a point, as ever.

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