True Friendship: Geoffrey Hill, Anthony Hecht, and Robert Lowell Under the Sign of Eliot and Pound, by Christopher Ricks. Yale University Press, 272 pp, $28.00.
For readers uneasy with literary criticism, fearing they squander finite reading time when not attending to the objects of criticism (fiction, essays, poetry) but instead their parasitic offspring, allow me to ease the anxiety by suggesting they read the work of Christopher Ricks. His almost half-century of books dedicated to figures as various as T. S. Eliot and Bob Dylan constitute literary criticism in both senses—that is, their subjects are literary and they are literary, attuned equitably to language, thought and posterity. Ricks belongs to that elite coterie of critics (Johnson, Coleridge, Eliot, Kenner) whose work is worthy, like all works of literature, of criticism.
At least two of Ricks’s books—Keats and Embarrassment (1974) and Beckett’s Dying Words (1993)—are essential reading for common readers with an uncommon interest in their subjects. From the start, Ricks’s method was to administer a full-body CT scan to a writer’s corpus. He possesses an unnerving knack for noting minute connections, often at the level of single words, in works separated by time and, in some cases, dulled by over-familiarity. He has perfect pitch for allusion (in 2002 he published Allusion to the Poets, itself an allusion).
The main and sub-titles of True Friendship: Geoffrey Hill, Anthony Hecht, and Robert Lowell Under the Sign of Eliot and Pound both allude, and demonstrate Ricks’s way with words, his poet’s gift for deploying them with a nimbus of resonance. Blake writes “Opposition is true friendship,” and Ricks spends three pages demonstrating it is not, at least some times. In a 1939 letter, Eliot tells a correspondent only three of the poems in Prufrock and Other Observations were written “sous le signe de Laforgue,” under the sign of Laforgue. Ricks devotes True Friendship to the tricky, misunderstood, often simplistic notion of poetic influence.
True Friendship started life as the Anthony Hecht Lectures in the Humanities at Bard College in 2007. Ricks’s challenge is to keep from tangling so many threads on his loom—five writers and all their possible pairings and treblings—but there’s nothing grim or workmanlike about his ambitious task. Among his other virtues, Ricks is a grateful, happy critic:
It would please me if, after all these years and all that is owed to these poets, the five of them were to form for others as well as for me the mysteriously persuasive shaping that Sir Thomas Browne delighted in: the quincunx. But I should of course settle for something along less far-fetched lines, such as the dear, down-to-earth way of putting it that William Empson came up with: the right handle to take hold of the bundle. Or rather, merely a right handle to take hold of the bundle.
Seldom do audacity and humility so charmingly mingle in a critic. Ricks begins with Hill, a poet he has championed for more than forty years. Hill’s work is unimaginable without Eliot’s example, but the friendship is never true—or uncomplicated. Ricks notes that Hill’s poetry is suffused with Eliot’s, but his critical work is often dismissive of his great precursor. Hill goes so far as to call Eliot’s late work “demonstrably bad,” but Ricks notes that “the grudging respect that Hill has for Eliot remains respect, even on the occasions when it is palpably outnumbered by the grudging or even the grudges.” For example, Ricks cites a passage from section 29 of Hill’s Speech! Speech! (2000):
The sanctuary hung with entrails. Blood
on the sackcloth. And still we are not
word-perfect. HARUSPICATE; what does that
say to you?
The odd-sounding upper-case word means inspecting animal entrails for purposes of divination, but Hill isn’t merely showing off his Latinate vocabulary. Ricks writes: “Well (since you ask), what this says to me is that (among much else) the entrails of a poem by Eliot are being inspected.” Then he cites an echo from “The Dry Salvages” section of Four Quartets:
To communicate with Mars, converse with spirits,
To report the behavior of the sea monster,
Describe the horoscope, haruspicate or scry,
Observe disease in signatures . . .
The spell-check software on my computer recognizes neither “haruspicate” nor “scry” (crystal gazing), but Ricks recognizes Hill recognizing Eliot, and a good reader recognizes a small gift from a good critic.
Ricks reviewed Hecht’s The Venetian Vespers when it was published in 1979, praising him then as “a poet of the widest apprehensions ["Apprehensions" being the title of a poem in Hecht's Millions of Strange Shadows, 1977] and comprehension.” The strongest chapter in True Friendship is devoted to Hecht, whose “mellifluous fluency,” Ricks writes, “has been held against him, as though such an appeal is never that of poetry but of poesy.” His placing of Hecht in the exalted company of Eliot and Hill is itself a generous act of criticism, the recovery of a great poet reduced by uncomprehending critics to the poesy ghetto.
Ricks revels in language the way other critics revel in Big Ideas. Like a poet—in particular, like Hecht—he is unusually attentive to the sound of words. He makes puns and appreciates their pungency in others. Writing of “A Certain Slant” from Hecht’s final collection, The Darkness and the Light (2001), Ricks says:
In its precise finesse, in its unembarrassed self-consciousness, the effect is echt Hecht. (I know, I know, but our poet did advocate “mens sana in men’s sauna,” and he metamorphosed Horace’s “Pyrrha” into “piranha,” as well as Wallace Stevens’s “Le Mononcle de Mon Oncle” into “Le Masseur de Ma Soeur.” And he is the justly proud author of Civilization and Its Discothèques.)
Ricks, however, can’t ignore more serious issues in dealing with his difficult quincunx. He addresses directly the anti-Semitism of Eliot and Pound in his chapter on Hecht, a Jew and member of the U.S. infantry company that liberated the concentration camp at Flossenberg. Ricks (author of T. S. Eliot and Prejudice, 1988) observes that Hecht the poet engaged Eliot’s poems throughout his career, but quotes a letter in which Hecht describes well-known lines in those poems as “provoking and humiliating,” and “personally wounding.” About Pound, Ricks quotes Hecht, “I still find him for the most part, unrewarding, when not infuriating, to read.” Ricks adds:
Unrewarding not only to Hecht the reader but Hecht the writer. Pound, so fertile in himself and for many other poets, was never to be the cause of fertility in Hecht. (For another story, think of Pound’s effect upon Louis Zukofsky and upon Basil Bunting.)
Immense critical understanding and tact—toward Hecht, Pound, and the reader—went into those forthright sentences. Only in his devotion to Lowell, to this reader’s taste, does Ricks’s own taste and tact falter. Lowell is a significantly less-gifted poet than Hill or Hecht, and of the trio the most overtly beholden to Eliot and Pound, prompting Ricks to devote inordinate attention to the latter, though he remains unforgiving:
At St. Elizabeth’s Pound had become an old man. . . . Pound, who had devoted such attention to the wording of [Eliot's] ‘Gerontion,’ attention that Eliot almost entirely resisted. Pound, of whom there could be no more telling inquiry than [from 'Gerontion'] ‘After such knowledge, what forgiveness?’
Ricks fulfills a critic’s highest calling by returning us to a writer’s work with renewed energy and appreciation, and polishing our readerly lenses so we can read the familiar anew. His work, listened to attentively, might be judged a hearing aid. Ricks finishes True Friendship with this friendly flourish:
But read their treasures. Read Eliot and Pound. Read Geoffrey Hill, Anthony Hecht, and Robert Lowell, whether or not under the sign of Eliot and Pound.
Patrick Kurp is a writer living in Bellevue, Washington, and the author of the literary blog Anecdotal Evidence.
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