Professor Christopher Bruce Ricks
Doctor of Letters
Christopher Ricks is one of the greatest literary critics of our times. Currently Warren Professor of the Humanities and Co-ordinator of the Editorial Institute, Boston University, and an Honorary Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford, Worcester College, Oxford, and of Christ's College, Cambridge, he has also professed English here at Bristol, and it is a deep pleasure for the Faculty of Arts, and the Department of English in particular, to be able to express our gratitude and admiration to somebody who has done so much to sustain and transform the study of English literature, and particularly of English poetry, over the course of a long career, the remarkable energy of which shows, we are all thankful, no signs of abating.
Let me begin by celebrating the enormous historical range of Professor Ricks's writings. He has worked on earlier English drama, including Shakespeare. He has published, in Milton's Grand Style, a vastly influential book on a poet whom many believe to be the greatest in the English language. His work on Tennyson, including his literary life of the poet and his copiously annotated text of the poet's works, is indispensable to scholar and student alike. His engagement with T.S. Eliot, which is among the many strands of his work that still continues and is becoming ever more fruitful, is exemplary. He has written, from the Clarendon lectures of 1990, what some consider to be the best book written on Samuel Beckett, Beckett's Dying Words. But the vast scope of his work emerges perhaps most clearly in his collections of essays, such as Essays in Appreciation and The Force of Poetry. Of the latter he says, 'This is a gathering of essays, not a march of chapters, but the essays have some interdependence in that each attends to an aspect, feature, or resource of the language manifested in poetry'; and this could be said overall of his life's achievement.
I have thus far stressed his attention to canonical authors; but this is only part of the story. We might cite the titles of two more of his books, Keats and Embarrassment and T.S. Eliot and Prejudice, as demonstrations of the acuteness, perhaps we might even say 'athwartness', of the perceptions he brings to bear on these great writers. In these books he looks squarely at his chosen poets, but the features on which he concentrates are distinctive, unusual, perhaps even idolatrous.
For Christopher Ricks is a critic who has always shunned the traditional wisdom; or rather, he has read and absorbed that wisdom, but it has strengthened his ability to take his own path. One could cite his very recent work on the otherwise little-known poet James Henry (a name that for perhaps obvious reasons frequently confounds library catalogues). More famously or notoriously, according to taste, there is his work on Bob Dylan, work that demonstrates that is fully possible to apply academic literary criticism to a figure otherwise regarded as iconically non-canonical. Fully possible, but there is of course a caveat; only fully possible to a critic of the stature and brilliance of Christopher Ricks.
T.S. Eliot and prejudice; Bob Dylan as a major literary figure. What such engagements illustrate is that Christopher Ricks is, among many other things, a controversialist. His work is not designed to sit sequestered upon library shelves, but to treat literary history as a living, continuing process. His criticism is always part of a conversation, and it is a conversation which, as many of his reviews and articles have demonstrated, is central to Western culture. Here are the words of three critics in response to the Eliot book: 'A book that is literally haunting. You can't stop thinking about it, even when you feel it's wrong; even (especially) when you don't know why you feel it's wrong'. 'It stirs and provokes and teases in a way little criticism of Eliot's poetry does'. 'This book will aggravate, stimulate and sometimes provoke the lowest reaction occasioned by brilliance: envy'.
Envy, perhaps; admiration, certainly, for the way in which Christopher Ricks is capable of entirely reshaping our responses to individual poets and to the history of poetry in general. And yet even this is only part of the story. For to Christopher Ricks the study of poetry does not consist only of astute and challenging commentary on texts; it entails also a profound understanding of history and of past cultures, and it has also entailed a deep and close attention to the ways in which texts have been transmitted, which has necessarily involved him in some of the most valuable editorial work - on Tennyson and Eliot, among many others - of the twentieth century.
Christopher Ricks has wryly commented that there have seemed to be times recently when the last thing students of English literature seem to want to do is to study English literature, when the allure of other relevant literatures, American, for example, or postcolonial, or of simply contemplating and developing other theories of literature rather than looking with a clear eye at the texts themselves has seemed to threaten to occlude the body of the canon. Yet alongside this ongoing commitment to the central ground, there have always been other interests, other excitements; it is no accident that he is also co-editor of The Faber Book of America.
I have saved, though, perhaps the best until the last; for the supremacy of Christopher Ricks's critical genius lies not only in his scholarship and depth of knowledge, it lies also in the remarkable style of his own writing. 'Reading Professor Ricks's comments and observations convinces me that he is exactly the kind of critic every poet dreams of finding'; it wasn't I who said that, it was a person whose word carries considerably more weight: W.H. Auden.
Let me give you two examples of sentences which only Christopher Ricks could have written, and which at the same time give something of the flavour of his own critical stance. Here is Ricks on Walter Pater: he has a 'conviction that criticism, like creation for him, is not a loss of self, joyful or otherwise, but is a matter of never finding yourself at an end rather than of acknowledging that there is a point at which you end and at which someone, something, else begins'. And here is a more general comment: 'It is the peril of literature, but also its glory, that values, convictions, beliefs and profound enduring agreements constitute not only its nature but its medium, language; such is one reason, admittedly, why literature and language are not enough in this life. [But] far from its being noble to seek to transform the study of literature into 'a science', it is the clerk's highest treason'.
Literature, then, for Christopher Ricks, has, indeed is, its own kind of life, distinct from any other and yet indispensable to the human project. Literature is in a constant state of movement, of flux; to engage fully with it the critic, and the reader, needs not only scholarship but also a certain 'readiness', a readiness to defend, a readiness to argue and provide evidence for argument, a readiness to learn. This, I suggest, is one way of regarding a man who lives literature to its fullest. Christopher Ricks may speak, with marvellous acumen, of 'Beckett's dying words'; but what he continues to give us is literature as living words, his own words sparkling with life and wit on the page while engaging with the great voices of the past, the otherwise little-heard voices of a multitude of lesser-known writers, the voices of the imaginary interlocutors who are his readers and, perhaps above all, his students, many of whom who would no doubt queue to add to this brief oration their own testimony to a great critic, a great man of letters and a great teacher - and withal a man of modesty. On the form he was asked to complete for this ceremony, he was, naturally given the circumstances, asked his hat size. His reply was 'Medium?'; and, in brackets, 'I don't have a hat'.
Mr Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Christopher Bruce Ricks as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Letters honoris causa.