Christopher Ricks teaches at Boston University in the Core Curriculum and the Editorial Institute and is a former president of the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers. From 2004 to 2009 he was Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford. His recent books include True Friendship: Geoffrey Hill, Anthony Hecht, and Robert Lowell Under the Sign of Eliot and Pound and Decisions and Revisions in T.S. Eliot.

Good Unclean Fun

A colored engraving of a couple in bed from Miracles de Notre Dame, fifteenth century
“Restricted: Language.” Meaning that what you are about to watch is not a silent film? No, a movie with a blue streak. What is a fabliau, exactly? The French dictionary says simply that it is a medieval story in verse, “popular in character, most often satiric.” But “broadly” may be …

In Support of the Author

UK LAUNCHES APPRENTICE SPY PROGRAM LONDON—How’s this for a job title: secret agent’s apprentice? The British government is recruiting teenage apprentice spies and codebreakers without university degrees in a bid to deepen the talent pool of its intelligence services for the era of cyberterrorism and cyberwarfare. The Foreign Secretary William …

Philip Larkin: Desired Reading

Philip Larkin, 1974
Those of us who have often invoked the great phrase of Keats—“the true voice of feeling”—have no less often been told that we are naive, since social and political contingencies mean that there is no such thing. Nevertheless, the true voice of feeling was what Philip Larkin sought and found, or rather the true voices.

Mixing Mystery and Ingenuity

Detail from The Ramsey Psalter, Anglo-Saxon illuminated manuscript, late tenth century
Here are 123 Anglo-Saxon poems, written between the middle of the fifth and the middle of the eleventh century, newly translated by seventy-three poets at the invitation of the poet Greg Delanty and the scholar Michael Matto.1 We can savor immediately one of the kinds of rare thing at …

Undermining Keats

Abbie Cornish as Fanny Brawne in Jane Campion’s film Bright Star, 2009
The Jane Campion film Bright Star, about the love that John Keats and Fanny Brawne had for one another (more particularly about the love that she had for him), does indeed exercise its imagination. Yet it does not truly exercise ours. [^1] This is because the film is mistaken to …

Keats’s Afterlife

The poet John Keats, in a painting by his friend Joseph Severn, who nursed him in Rome until his death from tuberculosis in February 1821. Severn said of this portrait, ‘This was the time he first fell ill & had written the Ode to the Nightingale on the morning of my visit to Hampstead. I found him sitting with the two chairs as I have painted him & was struck with the first real symptoms of sadness in Keats so finely expressed in that poem.’
Rome, November 30, 1820. John Keats, who at the age of twenty-five has less than three months to live, is writing to his friend Charles Brown in England: I have an habitual feeling of my real life having past, and that I am leading a posthumous existence. God knows how …

A Successful Defiance

Time, like many another governing body, hands out titles. So it is that an untitled Arthurian romance from the fourteenth century, in Middle English, has come to be known as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Well dubbed. Arise, Sir Gawain, and likewise the Green Knight. The existence of a …

The Case of the Crooked Bookman

Fifty years ago, two steady young men shook the literary world with a book that went under the most lethally equable of titles: An Enquiry into the Nature of Certain Nineteenth Century Pamphlets. John Carter and Graham Pollard were steadily brave, for their quarry was a man of crushing authority …

Phew! Oops! Oof!

Unruffled, the announcer said, “She’ll be performing selections from the Bach Well-tempered Caviar.” Erving Goffman’s Forms of Talk, his tenth book since he published The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life in 1959, is characteristically well-tempered in its understanding of virtually every kind of ruffle and unruffle. The essays collected …

Lost Allusions

“Much have I travelled in the realms of gold.” Frances Wingate, much-traveled and middle-aged, a famously successful archaeologist and a brisk brusque blithely fragile divorcée, is the heroine of Margaret Drabble’s The Realms of Gold. On first looking into The Realms of Gold, one sees at once that Miss Drabble, …

Fathers and Children

Many people, perhaps, will not be happy until their parents are no longer alive, no longer able to do them down or do them harm; and many of those people will perhaps even then not be able to be happy. In the words of a recent poem by Philip Larkin: …

Gigantist

An old Australian woman of eighty-six, inventive, malignant, capriciously generous, all but blind, lies in her bed. If Walter Pater’s words are true—“To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life”—then Elizabeth Hunter, at the brink of death, evinces more of life’s success …

Prophets

Roger Sale is an independent critic because he looks for himself. He uses his eyes (and they are not glazed), and what he is looking for is himself: discovering his sense of being a certain person, with established but (if need be) changeable allegiances, convictions, impulses, and experiences. He has …

Beckett First and Last

At the very end of Endgame, Hamm grates out his gratitude to his bloodstained handkerchief: “Old stancher! You…remain.” It is what you want to say by way of gratitude to Beckett himself: “Old stancher.” How right that after a conscientious pause Hamm should come up with the bleak minimum of …

Horror Show

When Anthony Burgess published A Clockwork Orange ten years ago, he compacted much of what was in the air, especially the odd mingling of dismay and violence (those teen-age gangs) with pious euphoria about the causes and cures of crime and of deviance. Mr. Burgess’s narrator hero, Alex, was pungently …

Youth and Asia

“The whole generation-gap idea’s just an invention of the media and the Yanks. You obviously don’t know the first thing about youth in the true sense. You’ve no conception what it’s like, what it knows, what it can do.” So says Sir Roy Vandervane, nearly fifty-four, symphonic conductor, fashionable randy …

Flopsy Bunny

Rabbit Redux brings back after ten years—and brings back to health (Webster’s Dictionary, quoted on the blurb)—Rabbit Angstrom, now thirty-six. He’s with his wife Janice, but cold and stale. What then happens is that she commits adultery; Rabbit lets her go, and takes up with a classy addicted hippie, Jill, …

Playboy of the Western Word

These essays of George Steiner about modern culture and modern barbarism were the T. S. Eliot Memorial Lectures, and their subtitle, “Some Notes Towards the Redefinition of Culture,” alludes to Eliot’s Notes (1948). Or, in Mr. Steiner’s conscious prose, is “intended in memoration of Eliot’s Notes.” So I was reminded …

Death of the Family

What have the following in common: Chaucer, Francis Bacon, Donne, Bunyan, Herrick, Jonathan Swift, Smollett, Lamb, Keats, and Shelley? They are the names of characters in the novels of Ivy Compton-Burnett. In her final novel, now posthumously published as The Last and the First, there is even a Miss Murdoch.

Convulsive Throes

What are the roots that clutch American fiction? Nearly 150 years ago, William Hazlitt seized a gist—or at any rate what an Englishman repeatedly returns to as a gist. No roots; stony rubbish? The map of America is not historical; and therefore, works of fiction do not take root in …

Out of Order

Nomen est omen. Christened Morse, he was likely to find himself in semiology, sign behavior. (The Morse code surfaces in his arguments.) The intellectual experience which he offers has its similarities to that offered by another polymath professor who has chafed his way out through the confines of the English …

At Sea with Ernest Hemingway

“You’re going to write straight and simple and good now. That’s the start.” The faded adjuration in Islands in the Stream is from one half of Hemingway to his other half—from the lonely uncorrupted painter Thomas Hudson to the companionable corrupted novelist Roger Davis. “That’s the start”: and Islands in …

Female and Other Impersonators

Four women novelists: Eudora Welty, Jean Rhys, Carol Hill, and “Lawrence Durrell.” They can usher in the graceful words with which Sir Walter Scott bowed out, after praising Fanny Burney, Maria Edgeworth, Jane Austen, and a great many more: It would be impossible to match against these names the same …

Man Hunt

In 1855, Charles Dickens criticized a short story by his friend W. H. Wills, sub-editor of Household Words: the story is all working machinery, and the people are not alive…. It is very difficult to explain how this is, because it is a matter of intuitive perception and feeling; but …

The Unignorable Real

Fiction can do almost everything with its not being fact, except ignore the matter. None of these four books can risk the supreme self-consciousness of claiming not to be self-conscious at all. At one extreme are Peter Taylor’s stories, faithful renderings of small-town infidelities, almost (but only almost) asking to …

Follies

The true novelist may be obliged to outrage his readers; the shrewd novelist will settle instead for being “outrageous.” The true satirist will regret the fact that satire is a sort of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own; the shrewd satirist will welcome such complacencies, …

Pale Fire

For Thomas Carlyle, the feast on the Champ de Mars during the French Revolution came to little more than “an effervescence that has effervesced….” And Carlyle himself, that effervescer? After his death, his friend Alfred Tennyson celebrated him—and repudiated the biographical revelations made by J. A. Froude—in a poem called …