(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Although Christopher Ricks furnishes no subtitle to his book, an appropriate one might be “Beyond the New Criticism,” for he writes primarily in the new critical tradition. This school of critics became popular during the 1940’s through the writings of Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, and numerous others. More a methodology than a critical theory, the movement stressed the integrity of the individual text over biographical, historical, or generic influences. It suggested that through explication—a systematic analysis of plot, characterization, style, tone, and themes of a poem or work of fiction—one might gain a more reliable understanding of the text. While the new critics did on occasion use their analytical approach to call attention to defects of a literary work, their chief aim was to uphold the organic unity and artistic integrity of a poem or short story. Their system of criticism, though it did not supplant other critical and scholarly approaches, became the primary pedagogical approach in English departments for more than two decades.

While it largely achieved its original purposes, the New Criticism revealed certain weaknesses. By ignoring biographical analysis, rejecting consideration of outside evidence of authorial intention, and downplaying conventions of literary genre, it sometimes appeared too narrow in its approaches. Further, its emphasis upon subtlety and irony in individual texts worked to the detriment of specific groups of authors, most notably those of the Neoclassic and Romantic periods. More important, meticulous analysis of all parts of a work meant that dramas, novels, and long narrative poems presented tasks too formidable for thorough explication. One came to expect that the New Criticism would explicate poems and short stories and little else. Later critics in the tradition met this objection by limiting their analyses to one or two approaches. Ricks belongs to the generation of new critics who attempt close but limited analysis of texts. One could, for example, analyze an epic poem such as Paradise Lost through a close reading of style, as Ricks did in Milton’s Grand Style (1963).

The word “Appreciation” in the title is also important, for Ricks at his best enhances the reader’s appreciation of literature by exploring meanings and stylistic subtleties that might otherwise be overlooked. Among his predecessors in twentieth century criticism, he has consistently admired William Empson, Donald Davie, F. R. Leavis, T. S. Eliot—indicating his allegiance to Great Britain—but his effort to enhance appreciation reveals an allegiance to a legacy that extends to Matthew Arnold, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Samuel Johnson.

Essays in Appreciation is a collection of essays, most previously published, beginning with literature of the Renaissance and ending with twentieth century works and critical controversy. The book analyzes a diversity of poems, prose works, and dramas by major authors such as Christopher Marlowe, John Donne, George Eliot, and Jane Austen, as well as by lesser-known writers such as George Crabbe, the Earl of Clarendon, and E. C. Gaskell. In his writings on lesser-known works in particular, Ricks seems intent on pointing out merits that have been overlooked.

Only one selection, “A Note on Hardy’s A Spellbound Palace,’” offers a fully realized explication of a poem in the manner of New Criticism, and even in that selection Ricks moves on from explication to compare Hardy’s poem with T. S. Eliot’s “Sweeney Erect.” Citing similarities in the diction and imagery of the two poems, he amasses a number of close analogies, suggesting that the aging Thomas Hardy borrowed from Eliot. More typical of Ricks’s critical analysis is the book’s opening essay, “Doctor Faustus and Hell on Earth,” an analysis of Christopher Marlowe’s best- known tragedy. What one expects in Ricks is identification of recurrent words or phrases that somehow reveal important points of emphasis or meanings that have been previously obscured. By doing so he presents a sharply focussed critical discussion and often makes sometimes exciting discoveries about the meaning of a work. In his discussion of Marlowe’s drama, he centers upon references to the plague, the “hell on earth” of the title. Historical analysis of the plague during Elizabethan times and references in other fiction and drama suggest that the disease was deeply fared, with good reason. Thus, Ricks suggests, when Mephistopheles assures Faustus twenty-four more years of life in exchange for his soul, the bargain would not have seemed as trivial to Faustus and Marlowe’s audience as it does to modern readers. Given the grim realities of the time, Marlowe’s hero could not have expected to live twenty-four additional years, and thus his fatal bargain becomes more plausible.

When Ricks turns to longer works, his criticism is necessarily even more tightly focused. Three essays concern...

(The entire section is 2032 words.)