Christopher Ricks

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Sir Christopher Bruce Ricks, FBA (born 18 September 1933)[1] is a British literary critic and scholar. He is the William M. and Sara B. Warren Professor of the Humanities at Boston University (US) and Co-Director of the Editorial Institute at Boston University, and was Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford (England) from 2004 to 2009. He is the immediate past-president of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics. He is known as a champion of Victorian poetry; an enthusiast of Bob Dylan, whose lyrics he has analysed at book length;[2] a trenchant reviewer[3] of writers he considers pretentious (Marshall McLuhan, Christopher Norris, Geoffrey Hartman, Stanley Fish); and a warm reviewer of those he thinks humane or humorous (F. R. Leavis, W. K. Wimsatt, Christina Stead). Hugh Kenner has praised his 'intent eloquence',[4] and Geoffrey Hill his 'unrivalled critical intelligence'.[5] W. H. Auden described Ricks as 'exactly the kind of critic every poet dreams of finding'.[6] John Carey calls him the 'greatest living critic'.[7]

Life[edit]

He was born in Beckenham and studied at Balliol College, Oxford, where he graduated with a first in English. He served in the Green Howards in the British Army in 1953/4 in Egypt. He was a Fellow and Tutor in English Literature at Worcester College, Oxford, moving in 1968, after a sabbatical year at Stanford University, to become Professor of English at the University of Bristol.

During his time at Bristol he worked on Keats and Embarrassment (1974), in which he made the then revelatory connection between the letters and the poetry. It was also at Bristol that he first published his still-definitive edition of Tennyson's poetry. In 1975, Ricks moved to the University of Cambridge, where he was King Edward VII Professor of English Literature, before leaving for Boston University in 1986. In June 2011 it was announced he would join the professoriate of New College of the Humanities, a private college in London.[8]

He was knighted in the 2009 Birthday Honours.[9]

Principles against theory[edit]

Ricks has distinguished himself as a vigorous upholder of traditional principles of reading based on practical criticism. He has opposed the theory-driven hermeneutics of the post-structuralist and postmodernist. This places him outside the post-New Critical literary theory, to which he prefers the Johnsonian principle.

In an important essay,[10] he contrasts principles derived empirically from a close parsing of texts, a tradition whose great exemplar was Dr. Johnson, to the fashionable mode for philosophical critique that deconstructs the 'rhetorical' figures of a text and, in doing so, unwittingly disposes of the values and principles underlying the art of criticism itself. 'Literature', he argues, 'is, among other things, principled rhetoric'. The intellectualist bias of professional theorists cannot but make their strenuously philosophical readings of literary texts discontinuous with the subject matter.

Practical criticism is attuned to both the text and the reader's own sensibility, and thus engages in a nuanced dialogue between the complex discursive resonances of words in any literary work and the reader's correlative sentiments as they have been informed by a long experience of the self within both the world and literature. In this subtle negotiation between the value-thick sensibility of the reader and the intertextual resonances of a literary work lies the tactful attunement of all great criticism. This school of criticism must remain leery of critical practices that come to the text brandishing categorical, schematic assumptions, any panoply of tacitly assumed precepts external to the practical nature of literary creativity. Otherwise, the risk is one of a theoretical hybris, of a specious detachment that assumes a certain critical superiority to the text and its author. Those theory-saturated critics who engage with texts that, by their nature, are compact of social and political judgements (and much more), assert covertly a privileged innocence, an innocence denied to the text under scrutiny, whose rhetorical biases, and epistemological fault-lines are relentlessly subjected to ostensible 'exposure'.

Works[edit]

Footnotes[edit]

  1. ^ Nicholas Wroe: "Bringing it all back home" The Guardian, Saturday 29 January 2005 [1]
  2. ^ Michael Gray (2006), The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, p. 571.
  3. ^ A collection is in Reviewery.
  4. ^ Hugh Kenner, A Sinking Island: The Modern English Writers, Knopf, New York 1988, p.245
  5. ^ Geoffrey Hill, Collected Critical Writings, OUP, Oxford 2008, p.379
  6. ^ "Oxford Book of English Verse", ed. Ricks, OUP 1999
  7. ^ John Carey in conversation with Clive James.
  8. ^ "The professoriate", New College of the Humanities, accessed 8 June 2011.
  9. ^ The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 59090. p. 1. 13 June 2009.
  10. ^ 'Literary Principles as against theory', in Christopher Ricks, Essays in Appreciation, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1996, pp. 311–332, p. 312.

External links[edit]