15 December, 2004Issue 4.1FictionInterviewsLiterature

Email This Article Print This Article

‘A More Serious Literature’

Will May

Christopher Ricks
Dylan’s Visions of Sin
Penguin Books, 2004
528 pages
ISBN 0140073361

Author of books on Milton, Tennyson, Keats and Eliot, editor of many more, including The Oxford Book of English Verse, Christopher Ricks is among the most accomplished scholars of poetry still writing. The former Balliol undergraduate, who has also taught at Cambridge and Bristol, is now the Warren Professor of the Humanities at Boston University. In May 2004, he was elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford University.

The Professorship was established in 1708 by Henry Birkhead to give ‘keenness and polish to the minds of young men as well as to the advancement of more serious literature both sacred and human’. Unsurprisingly for Oxford, the remit has not changed so very much in the last 300 hundred years – the duties of the chair now include judging a poem on a sacred subject in addition to the more public duties of giving a termly lecture and speaking at the University’s honorary degree ceremony. Previous holders of the chair have included Matthew Arnold, Cecil Day Lewis and W. H. Auden.

Several eyebrows were raised in the press following Christopher Ricks’s nomination.1 As a non-poet, Ricks’s position is by no means unique – John Jones and A.C. Bradley are among the pure critics who have held this post in the last century. Yet, coming after likes of Paul Muldoon, James Fenton and Seamus Heaney, Ricks’s election over poets Peter Porter and Anne Carson seemed to declare resolutely that this post was not a chair in creative writing. John Carey defended Ricks’s nomination as being a breath of fresh air after ‘the rule of theory’2 but perhaps this did more harm than good, in that his comments seemed to politicize the election of the Professor of Poetry.

Those hundreds who attended Professor Ricks’s inaugural lecture must surely have had their doubts allayed. The first part of the oration, a defense of prose, was itself the achievement of that art form’s ambition- a judicious, persuasive, meaningful communication. His supple juxtaposition of predecessors Arnold and Muldoon – the latter foiling the former’s schematic underestimation of prose with his own prose work ‘To Ireland, I’ – was a pleasing and instructive congruity. It is tradition for Professors of Poetry to give space to their predecessors, often by way of tribute or homage, but few have confronted so directly and so honestly the substance of their intellectual contributions. Having shown, through argument and example that the relationship between ‘prose’ and ‘prosaic’ is only grammatical, Professor Ricks ended not on a rhetorical flourish, but with the recorded voices of poets reading their poetry. Due deference, and welcome, from the lectern of critical authority to the voice of artistic creation.

Will May: How do you view the role of Professor of Poetry?

Christopher Ricks: I think the terms are straightforward: to minister to and to encourage an appreciation of poetry. That is usually best done by poets who are themselves critics and as you know since they war they have almost all although not all been practising poets, but the earlier tradition was not I think an ignoble tradition.

WM: So as someone who has often argued for the inclusion of the creative artist in the academy, you didn’t feel there was a problem in standing for a position that has in recent years been filled by a practising poet?

CR: No I didn’t feel so. It wasn’t my idea to stand. It was put to me that I should stand and I look back and I see enough people who are not poets. There’s also the further question that there have been many good poets who have not had the ability to speak about their own or about other people’s poetry; that’s not quite the case with Tennyson because he made wonderful remarks about poetry and helped edit The Golden Treasury, one of the finest poetry anthologies ever made, but Tennyson wasn’t and wouldn’t have wished to have been thought of as a critic, neither I think was Hardy. I don’t think it’s necessarily true that the best poets have always written the best criticism.

WM: Do you feel optimistic about the state of contemporary poetry?

CR: I’m chary of the word optimistic partly because of its political implications and partly because I think both optimism and pessimism are misplaced. I take optimism to mean rather more hopeful than is altogether realistic. I think that one of the disadvantages of being my age is that a sense of new poetry is, to use a beautiful formulation by William Empson, one of the first things to go – the phrase makes it sound rather like a faculty, as if you are losing your hearing, or like getting rid of a grand piano when you have to move into a much smaller house. I think that this sense does go early and editing The Oxford Book of English Verse I stopped with Seamus Heaney for a series of reasons; one of which was not having the confidence to judge recent poetry. I do not think that the occupation of the Professor of Poetry is especially to encourage new writing. New and contemporary poetry may in fact be more visited, more welcomed and relished than poetry of the past, not least because lately there has been a lot of condescension toward the past – what the excellent historian E.P. Thompson called ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’. That means there may be something to be done by way of retrieval – I don’t use the word recuperation because that sounds like someone has been ill, but you know what I mean. It isn’t a chair in creative writing and it isn’t a chair to foster creative writing especially. The best way to get people to write well and to appreciate new poetry is to get them to read well and that includes reading the great poets, the great majority of whom are dead.

WM: Could you tell me something about your inaugural lecture, ‘Many Voices: From the French’?

CR: People are terribly interested in the election but then not terribly interested in the lecture which I’m afraid is life. The Oxford and Cambridge boat race always seems to attract more attention than Oxford and Cambridge education. The purpose of the first lecture is to say something about what the speaker takes poetry to be so that I think that there’s necessarily a preamble. ‘Many voices’ is meant to be partly about the voices of different language or different regions – I will be talking about the regional poet William Barnes.3 It also wants to be something about the different voices of poetry and prose, because I think that to say what one believes poetry to be in relation to prose it is necessary to place the start of literature. There’s a Nobel prize for literature and that includes everything, but the Professor of Poetry needs to know where he or she stands in relation to all the great literature that is not poetry. I want to say something about where the voice of prose and the voice of poetry come from, and I want to say something about French influence on that matter – poets as great as Valéry and Baudelaire have points of view about the difference between poetry and prose. I don’t believe their point of view but it’s a very important tradition.

WM: You have described literary theory as ‘inimical to undergraduate teaching’ .4 What is at stake in the teaching of English literature?

CR: Undergraduate teaching largely has to be practised not with indifference to theory but theory’s claims to bring political and educational salvation were overblown. That said, I don’t at all mean to use this post in order to attack theory. I only mention this to you now because you ask me. On the other hand, people can say that if a liberal humanist is going to give lectures then they are necessarily political, and that might be true.

My tutor at Oxford John Bryson believed that there was not a great deal to be said for explicit examination of the raison d’être of what one was doing. The point of studying English literature was to give you a lifetime of reading for enjoyment. You created with other people something extraordinary; you could share with other people something that was both individual and had a great commonalty – what Wordsworth called the joy ‘in widest commonalty spread’. [Bryson] didn’t feel, unlike Matthew Arnold fifty years earlier, that literature would take the place of religion.

One of the most difficult things about teaching in an American system that is democratic and plutocratic is to get people to be respectful of genius. There is always a temptation to attack genius because it creates envy within the student. Part of studying English Literature is to be respectful of genius. In this sense, it’s a very old-fashioned place that I’m coming from.

WM: Does the poet make a good literary critic?

CR: Well, I think the greatest poets made good critics. In my introduction to The Oxford Book of English Verse, I left out F.R. Leavis quite deliberately although he was a great critic because what I wanted to do there was talk about the extraordinary combination of the poet-critic. The novelist-critic is much rarer – I think Henry James may be the only example. George Eliot was not a great critic and neither was Dickens, but I certainly don’t think the poets have the monopoly in talking about poetry. T.S. Eliot very wisely wanted to submit to the judgement of his peers. It is their opinions that he cared most about. Poetry shouldn’t be left to poets, although you’d be right to pick up a faint air of defensiveness in my tone here. Dame Helen Gardener would have made a good Professor of Poetry, as did A.C. Bradley. That said, it would be a pity if my election was seen as a regressive move and was allowed to interfere on this occasion with the post.

Will May is a DPhil student in English Literature at Balliol College, Oxford. His dissertation explores the writing of the works of the British author Stevie Smith. He was recently awarded the Lord Alfred Douglas Memorial Prize for poetry.


  1. Polly Curtis, ‘Oxford professor seeks to prove the times they are a changin’ in The Guardian, 13 May 2004, <http://education.guardian.co.uk/higher/news/story/0,9830,1216049,00.html>, accessed 9 Nov. 2004.
  2. John Carey talking to Mark Lawson on Front Row, BBC Radio 4, 17 Feb. 2004, <www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/arts/…/frontrow_20040217.shtml>, accessed 8 Nov. 2004.
  3. See his selection of William Barnes’ poetry in The New Oxford Book of Victorian Verse ed. by Christopher Ricks (Oxford, 2002).
  4. Christopher Ricks, ‘Literary Principles as Against Theory’ in Essays in Appreciation (Oxford, 1996), p.332.