Most news accounts led with the knighting of another Christopher, Lee, but readers are gratified to learn Christopher Ricks has been named a Knights Bachelor for “service to scholarship.” Ricks, 76, was, until recently, Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford, and remains Professor of The Humanities at Boston University. Name another critic who reads the words of others with so acute an ear and whose own words so please the same organ. Sometimes his mentor, William Empson, but as a poet-critic he came hyphenated. Ricks is a hyphen-less critic who merely writes as a poet ought to write, with precision, concision and wit:
“What kind of poems? Well (well and good), short poems. Agreed. These are short poems that are not – the critics have rightly insisted – epigrams exactly, or (rather) are exactly not epigrams. A different kind of wit is at work. Or aphorisms, really. A different kind of wisdom is at work. Yet these are poems that do belong within wisdom literature, that of the Psalms, say, or of Blake’s shorter poems (Menashe often offering moreover not Proverbs of Hell but Proverbs of Heaven). Apophthegms, I’d say. Menashe, who relished the shorter forms of things (including words), would be likely to prefer the form apothegm.”
That’s from his introduction to Samuel Menashe: New and Selected Poems, edited by Ricks for the Library of America in 2005. It’s typical of Ricks, in introducing a poet new to many of us, to enter into the spirit of the poet’s work, to celebrate it as the poet might himself and not get puffed up with pretensions: “Well and good.”
My favorites among Ricks’ books – not counting his editions of Tennyson, Housman and Eliot – are Milton’s Grand Style (1963) Keats and Embarrassment (1974), Beckett’s Dying Words (1993) and Allusion to the Poets (2002). He’s probably best known for championing the words of Bob Dylan, a longtime admiration that culminated in Dylan’s Visions of Sin (2003). In that volume he humbles himself as a critic before the artists he celebrates:
“…I believe that an artist is someone more than usually blessed with a cooperative unconscious or subconscious, more than usually able to effect things with the help of instincts and intuitions of which he or she is not necessarily conscious. Like the great athlete, the great artist is at once highly trained and deeply instinctual. So if I am asked whether I believe Dylan is conscious of all the subtle effects of wording and timing that I suggest, I am perfectly happy to say that he probably isn’t. And if I am right, then in this he is not less the artist than more.”
Gratitude in a critic is always unexpected and worthy of our gratitude as readers. If a critic writes badly, how can we trust him? But is it possible for a critic to write too well? Merely formulating such a question honors Sir Christopher.