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, or academically detached. The voice did not read the words—Shelley’s words, Shakespeare’s words—as the words of an historical other—“Shelley,” that is, or “Shakespeare.” Instead, it treated poetry as a score for utterance—as a lieder singer treats a lied. The voice we heard uttered its own words. It said (through its medium Richards),

Who are these coming to the sacri- fice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with gar- lands drest?

The immediacy of the question was aided by Richards’s manner of teaching. The room was darkened, the shades pulled, and the stanza in question was projected on a screen above Richards’s head. His back was turned to the class, and in the darkness he was nearly invisible. A Druidic wand pointed to the screen, and the screen, so to say, spoke into the room.

Not only did the screen speak, it was “right” (as I then put it to myself). That is, Richards’s meditation on the poems he taught was so comprehensive that their words found, in his head, their best possible configuration, and they took on, when he spoke them, what seemed a definitive meaning. No one who had once heard a poem quoted by Richards could ever again entertain the notion that any interpretation is as plausible as any other. In fact, it was scarcely necessary to hear an interpretation once one had heard Richards read: the commentary was implicit in the shaded emphases of the words. To this day, thirty years later, I can hear the way he shaped the lines of the poems he taught.

How did he become what he was—a man with an appetite for almost all forms of learning (except the historical), a teacher who could say of himself, “Fundamentally, I’m an inventor,” a writer beloved in China and the United States as well as in England? The new biography by Professor John Paul Russo, a pupil of Richards, unfolds for the first time the episodes of Richards’s long, varied, and fruitful life, without concealing its eccentricities, ambitions, frustrations, and failures.


Richards was a born gadfly—unafraid, mocking, teasing, scorning—the very model (as we first see him in young adulthood) of a clever university boy ready to upset his elders and betters. What saved him from the shallowness often accompanying such cleverness was an earnest, stern, and self-directed moral idealism, a heritage perhaps from his mother. Richards’s father, a chemical engineer and factory manager, the son of a successful Swansea architect, died when Richards, the youngest of three brothers, was nine; his mother, the daughter of a wool and textile merchant, brought up her sons in a devout Anglican “well-disciplined, but cheerful” way.

At fourteen, Richards developed a serious case of tuberculosis and almost died; for a year, he had to remain out of school. He read ceaselessly during that year while he and his mother lived in lodgings near a sanatorium. The TB returned twice more: when Richards was nineteen he had to leave Magdalene College, Cambridge, for several months; and after a third attack at twenty-two he and his mother moved to the mountains of North Wales (where Richards met his future wife). The physical exercise then prescribed for TB patients led to Richards’s passion for climbing. The combination of the early death of his father, his own near-death, and World War I, from which he was barred by his illness, may have contributed to his seriousness about ultimate issues, about human fate, and about international strife, a seriousness that kept his omnivorous, rapid, and delighted intelligence from superficiality.

Richards, however, was a divided soul. I have no doubt at all, myself, that his greatest talent was what I can only call a linguistically poetic, or a poetically linguistic, one, about which I will have more to say. But the tradition of masculine work in his family (architecture, chemistry) pointed to the sciences, and at Clifton grammar school, where he and his two elder brothers were day boys, Richards changed from the classical to the “modern,” i.e., military and engineering, side, which his brothers had chosen before him. In the end, he went up to Cambridge, the “scientific” university, on a scholarship in history.

Passages from the diary of his first tutor, A. C. Benson, show us the eighteen-year-old Richards as he became gradually better known to the older man:

Nov. 9th, 1911. …Richards an able fellow an exhibitioner freshman declares himself an Anarchist—he says he won’t take up any profession, or accept any payment by Govt. He means to till a plot of land and preach non-resistance. He’s a silly boy with a mixture of Shelley and [Edward] Carpenter…. He wants to change his Tripos: he can’t bear History bec. it is the record of the Government, and that is all immoral.

Nov. 10th. I treated Richards respectfully and found him a sincere lover of liberty, even unreasonable liberty.

Nov. 20th. The odd Richards, the votary of liberty, came and talked.

13th Feb. 1912. [Richards] talked frankly and wisely, without any self-consciousness.

17th March 1914. Mallory [the future climber of Everest] and Richards to lunch—it was curious to see Richards who is very able, wellread, thoughtful and a delightful creature too, full of modesty, showing up so feebly as regarded conversation etc. by the side of the shallowminded, pretentious, self-assured and yet entirely pleasant and nice Mallory.

As one could predict from these entries, Richards abandoned the collective record of human immorality after one term and moved into philosophy, or, as it was then called with Victorian confidence, “moral science.” He received firstclass honors in 1913; his examiners were his erstwhile tutor the neo-Hegelian J. M. E. McTaggart (Yeats’s “profound McTaggart”) and G. E. Moore (“my old mentor—no, my old dominator,” as Richards was later to call him). After philosophy, Richards studied medicine for a while, with a view to becoming a psychoanalyst; then, with the opening of the new (1917) English literature tripos at Cambridge, he was invited by his friend Mansfield Forbes to begin teaching literature. In 1922, Magdalene made him a lecturer in English and moral science; in 1926, a fellow of the college. He would teach literature, both poetry and “great books,” in England, China, and the United States until he retired from his last teaching post, at Harvard; and he would return, for his last years, to a house owned by Magdalene, as its oldest living fellow.


In 1927, on their honeymoon, Ivor and Dorothea Richards visited Peking and climbed in the Himalayas. Two years later, Richards was invited to become a visiting professor of English literature at Tsing Hua National University in Peking; his time there was the first of his several teaching stints in China. These stimulated a lifelong interest in China and in Chinese philosophy. In 1931, Harvard made Richards a visiting lecturer for a term (he was among the first to teach Ulysses). After some years of shuttling between England and China, Richards came once again to Harvard in 1939, sponsored by a $50,000 five-year grant from the Rockefeller Foundation for research “in the field of criticism and in the uses of language”—foundationese for Basic English, the method of teaching English as an international second language which Richards’s friend the linguistic scholar C. K. Ogden of Cambridge had invented in 1929, and which he and Richards had been developing for ten years. Richards stayed on at Harvard, in the School of Education, and did not leave the American Cambridge until 1974.

Basic English—the repository of Richards’s best energies from forty to eighty—never did succeed as he had hoped. And yet Richards’s heterogeneous, restless, and scattered life, as one follows its eighty-six years, remains a commanding example of a life lived according to a principle best expressed in this century in Yeats’s “Vacillation”:

No longer in Lethean foliage caught
Begin the preparation for your death
And from the fortieth winter by that thought
Test every work of intellect or faith,
And everything that your own hands have wrought,
And call those works extravagance of breath
That are not suited for such men as come
Proud, open-eyed and laughing to the tomb.

Richards, by this principle, began in midlife to enroll his talents in the service of the planet rather than simply in the service of literature. He was a missionary of world intercultural literacy, with a Victorian missionary zeal. As his biographer points out, he was incorrigibly futureminded, always thinking of a world that, with improved technological communication, was bound to become a global village. I heard him prophesy, in the Fifties, a day when every African and Chinese village would have its television set relentlessly bringing the West to the East—and he added that the reverse would be bound to follow. He foresaw, as well, the increasingly dominant position that would be assumed in world exchange by English, the lingua franca of scientists and businessmen. “Think of the planet!” he urged us. We scarcely knew, thirty years ago, what he meant.

But Basic English—in part because it was seen as yet another arm of the British Empire in its colonial expansion—did not win world support. Richards, of course, did not urge it in a politically expansionist way. Rather, he was distressed by the sheer wastefulness in the English-language teaching methods he observed in China and elsewhere, and even more distressed by the fact that Chinese teachers who knew “English” faultlessly (with respect to vocabulary and grammar) could not understand and respond appropriately to the literature of the language they theoretically possessed. He frequently told the story of the Chinese teachers of English who laughed and clapped when he read them the tragic ending of Tess of the D’Urbervilles (“She was a wicked girl, rightfully punished for disobeying her elders,” they said in explanation).

Richards saw that cultural presuppositions had to be learned along with the elements of language if one were to comprehend an alien literature; and he proposed, in the interest of world understanding, that texts fundamental to any given culture (e.g., for the West, Homer, Plato’s Republic, the Book of Job) should be translated into the 850-word vocabulary of Basic so that new language learners, instead of reading “The cat is on the mat,” might, during elementary language training, get the gist of indispensable cultural foundations. It is not a bad idea. Who would not prefer to learn French from a simplified version of, say, Candide rather than from the awful subliterary touristic conversations of pattern drills? Basic English, it is true, is weird to read, and one does not learn from it the true taste of a language; but Richards intended it only as a beginning aid. The language-through-pictures texts that he developed (drawing his own stick-figures at first) were successful, and modifications of them are still in use in ESL classes around the world.

The pages in Russo’s biography devoted to Richards’s Chinese experience are among the most interesting, biographically speaking. Richards’s last extended teaching stint in China, between March 1937 and October 1938, saw the Japanese invasion and bombing of Peking. The Richardses, accompanied by Richards’s ex-pupil William Empson, abandoned Peking and made a seven-week “three-thousand-mile journey by train, boat, plane, bus, and back-pack” to Yunan in the southwest, barely escaping the bombardment of both Hong Kong and Kweilin. The Richardses naturally went climbing in the southern peaks (“All goes well up to 15,000 feet and then you get into this diabolical and ceaseless blast of Arctic air,” reported Dorothea). After their return to England in the fall of 1938, the Richardses could not return to China until 1950. During their last trip, in May 1979, Richards fell ill after strenuous days of lecturing, spent five weeks in a Peking hospital in and out of coma, and was then flown back to England by the Chinese government, who sent along a doctor and a nurse to attend him. In Cambridge, he lingered awhile, and died of liver failure. A photograph showing Richards lecturing, at eighty-six, to eager Chinese faces is, among the many included here, the most moving.

Richards’s ethical dissatisfactions were one source of his admiration for Chinese culture. His deep conviction that the West had to find a better ethic than the retributive Judeo-Christian one was reinforced by his reading of Confucius. He may for this reason have idealized Chinese values and behavior—he died before the full horror of the Cultural Revolution was revealed. His detestation of the supernatural machinery of Christianity and its Judaic myth of divine wrath and punishment dated from his youth (he had refused to be confirmed) and partly sprang from his reading of Shelley and Swinburne. In his uncompromising atheism, Richards’s scientific pragmatism and his fierce human idealism converged. At the age of sixteen he gave a course in the Book of Job at the Bristol Adult School, and Job remained for him a text exemplifying the wickedness of the biblical deity. The Western notion of a single revealed truth was antipathetic to one whose breadth of knowledge recognized, in East and West, the socially conditioned nature of cultural works, and whose deepest insights into language suggested the fallible nature of most interpretation.

Richards’s early immersion in the highly codified language of poetry probably led to his interest in language in general, and in communication in particular. His studies in philosophy during the era of Russell and Wittgenstein persuaded him that philosophical questions were based in language, and resulted in his collaboration with C. K. Ogden on The Meaning of Meaning (1923); but though he pursued the study of linguistics, neurology, and psychology, he did not find that problems in human communication could be entirely described in the terms offered by these sciences. He discovered, too, that the usual educational efforts to teach the young to read did not make them competent receivers of complex written communications.

In his single quasi-scientific experiment in the 1920s, which made him notorious in university circles, Richards asked his students in “practical criticism” at Cambridge to write comments on poems (both good and bad) to which no author’s name had been attached. The scandal Richards produced by printing in his book Practical Criticism (1929) the mostly fatuous and mistaken “protocols” of his students—who loftily patronized Hardy, Lawrence, and Hopkins, misread the texts, registered enthusiastic appreciation for drivel, and in every way showed themselves utterly unequipped to read and judge poems from their own culture—led to a revolution in university teaching, which in our day is encountering its own backlash.

Richards himself did not approve of all the results that issued from his plea for better teaching. He wanted, it is true, an improved capacity for reading in university students, but he never intended that teachers should laboriously publish their every thought about a text in printed “explications.” When he himself wrote about texts, his practice (visible in some of the essays in Poetries, 1974) was to dwell on words that bear a good deal of the freight in a given poem and show how they “interinanimate” each other. He borrowed that word from Donne’s poem “The Ecstasy,” where it is used to describe the process by which an abler “third soul” arises from the union of two lovers’ souls; for Richards the word meant that a poetic phrase amounted to something greater than the sum of its component parts. In his commentaries, therefore, Richards was not interested in a descriptive inventory of all literary parts: he was indicative, querying, and provocative rather than exhaustive, explanatory, or didactic. His comments were not so much a form of instruction as they were reports from his own journey to the interior of a poem. He said, on this point,

I remember being extraordinarily happy reading The Garden long before I ever had to talk about it to anyone. It was only when I found myself preparing a lecture on it that many of these background things occurred to me…. All this sort of commentary is only a way of trying to bring out the flavours in the words.

Richards felt the “flavours” in words as poets feel them; and he experienced the same “extraordinary happiness” in reading poems that poets find in making them up. (In later life, he published poetry himself, but it was, though honest and intelligent, insufficiently musical.)

Of all my teachers, Richards was the only one whose delectation in words was the substance of his courses. But the delectation was moral as well as semantic. For Richards, every word comes trailing clouds of glory from all its past uses, meanings, and contexts; as a word interacts with its fellow words in a poem, there begins that “prodigious activity between the words as we read them”:

Following, exploring, realizing, BECOMING that activity is…the essential thing in reading the poem. Understanding it is not a preparation for reading the poem. It is itself the poem.

The becoming-that-is-understanding has the same moral consequences, Richards insists, as any other experience of becoming: in that truth lies the link between poetry and living. It is unthinkable to him that genuine art should be other than moral in its effect. So, in commenting on a poem in which Donne praises exemplary virtue, Richards adds a significant and characteristic coda. Donne is addressing his female exemplar of virtue, the dead Elizabeth Drury, calling her life a divine pattern proclaimed to the world. The poet is the herald of that proclamation:

Since His will is, that to posteritie
Thou should’st for life, and death, a patterne bee,
And that the world should notice have of this:
The purpose, and th’authoritie is His;
Thou art the Proclamation; and I am
The Trumpet, at whose voyce the people came.

“To read the poem rightly,” Richards adds, “would be to hear and come.”

Such a statement is very far from the common caricature of “the New Criticism,” by which Richards’s alert, pregnant, and morally strenuous notions of poetry are assimilated to a know-nothing attitude and to the sterile and feeble “readings” and “explications” produced by a host of imitators lacking Richards’s wide learning, sensitivity to language, and deep moral earnestness. Richards and the poet-critics in America (Ransom, Tate, Jarrell) who were associated with “the New Criticism” (Ransom’s phrase) knew ancient and modern languages, literatures, and mythologies, and expected such learning in any serious reader of poetry as the only guarantee that the poet’s words would “mean” in any complex and “interinanimating” way.

The New Critics never argued that students should not bring to their reading the history, philosophy, languages, cultural mythology, and so on that they had learned in or out of courses in such subjects. They argued in fact that any interesting discussion of what words do together in a poem could only be undertaken by those who already knew the necessary mythological, philosophical, philological, and grammatical contexts of those words. Not only that—a good reader had to have acquired a standard of judgment through previous encounters with complex and ambitious works which could be compared to the work now being contemplated. Of course such a process is circular, always self-reinforcing and self-critical.

The pedagogical conviction on the part of the New Critics that poetry is primarily an art form, and that teachers should teach it as such, rather than as an abbreviated history of its author’s life and times, or as an exemplification of ideological ideas, or as a source of detachable moral or political truths—all processes common in classrooms of Richards’s day, and ours—must still be persuasive to anyone convinced of the profound interest and continuing mystery of aesthetic practice.

It is probable, however, that critics who begin, and continue, as readers of novels find the interchanges between art and historical or ideological circumstance of more interest than do critics whose primary response is to verbal “interinanimation” as such. Richards’s retelling of an anecdote of his adolescence shows how strongly he belonged to the latter class, the class to whom words and rhythms, rather than ideas, are primary. In his family’s twenty-volume International Library of Famous Literature, Richards came across the Battle Chorus from Swinburne’s Erechtheus:

About ten lines later I couldn’t see the book…. I had to lie down on my back on the hearth-rug with the book propped up on my chest to keep the tears out of the line of vision.

Although what the young Richards knew of Greece, and what he had experienced of personal suffering, no doubt played a part in the response he felt, that response could be released in him only by the specifically formal intensity of words used with poetic compression, complexity, and expressive power. Such a physical reaction to verse (which has been attested to by poets like Housman and Dickinson) may well reflect a form of special neurological patterning comparable to that which produces an intense response to music in very young musical prodigies. This involuntary and intense response is not reckoned with—or, one guesses, even experienced—by many who teach literature. But Richards had to teach from it, since it was his primary intuition about poetry—that words did things in poetic texts, and had powers in poetic settings, that they did not do, or have, in ordinary language. Those who teach literature by other methods work, no doubt, from equally indisputable primary intuitions of other sorts.

John Paul Russo has conceived of his biography as an intellectual history of Richards’s career. Though this is a defensible conception, it is taken to the unreadable length of eight hundred pages. Each of Richards’s intellectual paths is described, and his books and articles are paraphrased, in slow and often laborious summary. A book half as long, and more vividly written, would better have served Richards’s own dashing character and style. To Russo’s credit, it should be added that his research into Richards’s intellectual progress appears both comprehensive and well ordered, especially in sorting out such complicated matters as the history of Basic English, the peripatetic Richards’s world travels, and the critical reception of Richards’s many books. Russo’s portrait of Richards—mischievous, ardent, curious, hospitable, stern—will ring true, I should think, to most of those who had the privilege of knowing Richards.

I want to add to the story of Richards’s life one anecdote that does not appear in the biography. On a night when the Richardses had invited me to dinner, the other guests were a visiting middle-aged poet and his young wife, who had, with the Richardses, attended the annual Harvard Signet Society dinner the night before. The talk turned to the previous night’s debacle. Adrienne Rich, who was to read her poetry at the Signet, had observed (I was told) the toastmaster’s off-color jokes and the ritual patronizing toast to the summoned waitresses. When the time came for her to read, she declared that nothing she had seen in the treatment of women that evening suggested to her that this audience could respond to her poetry, and she therefore declined to read. At the Richardses’ house, the visiting poet and his wife spent some time deploring Rich’s behavior: after all, they said, people had come to the dinner to hear her and to enjoy themselves, and Rich had self-indulgently spoiled their good time and disappointed her hosts. Richards, who had been silent, broke in with the sternness he rarely exhibited except when he felt an important moral principle was at stake: “But don’t you see,” he said with great weight, “she had to do what she thought was right.”

This Issue

April 27, 1989