The Explorer

I. A. Richards: His Life and Work

by John Paul Russo
Johns Hopkins University Press, 843 pp., $39.95

Ivor Armstrong Richards (1893–1979) was perhaps the last of the Victorian sages. Like Ruskin or Mill, he tried to contain within himself the chief currents of his time: the state of the world, the state of scientific learning, the state of ethics, the state of art. Because of his training in philosophy and in science, he was a firm advocate of method, proof, and verification; he disbelieved in any physical force (e.g., God) unsupported by physical evidence. As a humanist (who became a lifelong teacher of literature) he admired the cultural achievements not only of the West, but also of the East (especially China). An indomitable advocate of international understanding, he broke his life on the rack of international misunderstanding in his forty-year effort to establish Basic English as a universal means of intellectual communication.

Richards was also a man of dauntless physical spirit, a climber of the highest Alpine peaks (and the near-highest Himalayan ones), a tireless walker even in his eighties. His wife, Dorothea, a notable mountaineer, climbed with him even after an automobile accident left her lame, even after a hip-replacement operation limited her to easy hills. Together they made a striking couple, who stood out in any room.

I first noticed them when, as a college student in Boston, I went to poetry readings at Harvard. They were a constant in almost every audience, and I wondered who they were: the “old man” (as I then thought him, though he was only sixty) with the resonant and courteous voice, his wife with old-fashioned plaits pinned into circles at her ears. When I arrived at Harvard a few years later, I audited Richards’s undergraduate course in poetry, and continued to note his steady attendance at poetry readings (where professors of English were rarely to be seen). Richards—in one of the many anomalies attending his life—was not a member of the department of English, but rather was a university professor based in the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

At the time I did not know anything about Richards—who he was, where he came from, what he was doing in the School of Education. What I did know was that I had at last found a teacher who (as I then put it to myself) “taught poetry.” My other teachers rarely talked in detail about poems they had assigned: they talked about history, or politics, or theology, or literary movements, or archetypes—but not about those radiant and annihilating complexes of words that seemed to me to be crying out for attention, so inexplicable was their power and so compelling their effect.

In Richards’s classes, the poem got its due. It was read aloud, all of it, in a voice that was eloquent, musical, and capable of great range in pitch; at the same time the voice avoided any hint of declamation or the histrionic. The voice had absolutely nothing in common with the voice of an actor reading poetry—“projecting,” “dramatizing,” “reaching the audience.” Nor was it toneless, shy,…

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