Richards, I(vor) A(rmstrong) (Vol. 14)
Richards, I(vor) A(rmstrong) 1893–1979
Richards, an English critic, poet, playwright, editor, and semanticist, was one of the most influential figures in modern literary criticism. His theories uniting the principles of science and literature are fundamental precepts of formalist criticism. He also had a continuing interest in language and semantic theory which he explored in several books and essays. It was after a long career devoted to the exegesis of literature that Richards began to write poetry. His subtly rendered verse evidences his finely honed critical sense and his delight in the power and pleasure of the written word. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 41-44, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 89-92.)
Goodbye Earth [Richards' first book of poetry] was begun when [he] was nearly sixty. It bristles with the difficulties of "mere mechanism," and is unique in not providing [an] exhibit of failure….
Richards writing poetry is not much like the usual good critic. He doesn't wave a heavy baton, castigate the indulgences of the age, or try to build classical and exemplary models of rightness. He doesn't steel himself, entrench, and give an impression of unbelievable toils met. He is willing to be conventional, casual, and innocent, if he can be ingenious and himself. Though worlds apart from the slovenly, egotistical sprawl of the Bohemian, he glories in ingenuity. (p. 77)
[His poems] are prefaced by long, deep, and curious quotations; in the appendix, notes explain alternate meanings of words, and give more long, deep, and curious quotations. The poems themselves are loaded with steep reasoning, archaic words, technical terms, slang, special knowledges, and cunningly-exploded echoes from other literature. Often teacher, sage, idealist, and humorist huddle in one line—all elbowing and gouging for dominance. Fascinated by a poem's moments, one often has no idea what it means.
Be here their prayer:
May may become
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The poems [in The Screens and Other Poems] are about how the soul acts without appearing to, how it influences without seeming to, how it changes and doesn't change, how it makes us who we are without our ever knowing who we are. These are delicate themes, vastly complicated and perhaps impossible of solution, but Richards does very well by them, according his vast knowledge of semantics and the difficult interchanges between words, selves, and things to his subjects in poems which are really more like verse essays: speculative, logical, and refreshingly open-minded in the midst of their intelligent discourse-like approach. They are not by any means the work of a born poet, but rather the productions of a highly intelligent and dedicated bystander who has seen, late in life, that he holds a lifetime of poetic knowledge and information in his hands, and has wished to see what he could do with it on his own. This is understandable and commendable, and the difficult and modest successes of the poems are real successes. Nevertheless, I doubt that I shall give them the second and possibly other readings that they and their notes require, for Dr. Richards's verse is of a kind that I cannot for the life of me like very much. Its overingenuity seems to me just that, and this quality is, I strongly suspect, the main reason for the decline of the audience that Richards deplores in the long essay he appends to the poems. Too many potential readers think...
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[Internal Colloquies] collects all Richards's verse. In one preface here reprinted he argues that there should be no discernible relation between a poet's practice and his critical theory; and although his poems (and their notes) do reflect some of his theoretical interests they are on the whole very unexpected in other ways. There is a dryness, a cerebral quality (often quite playful), which somehow lacks the tone of modernity as well as all sensuous appeal. The material is modern enough—meditations on grammar, on Wittgenstein—but the manner is Victorian. This is not simply a matter of archaism, though there's quite a lot of it. There's something about the solemn or mock-solemn teasing out of thoughts in bony, unsupple verses that takes one back a century….
One of the best of these poems, 'Retort', speaks for itself as 'an empty Ought spinning itself its clew', and rather touchingly describes its mode of operation in the reader:
I sing, who nevertheless...
No accents have or breath.
I neither live nor die.
But you, whom I possess …
You, you know life and death
And throughly know; so I
What void I fill thereby.
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I. A. Richards is a learned poet, a formal poet, a witty poet, and a philosophical poet. One thinks mechanically of "metaphysical," but I think Richards is more advanced in metaphysics (or at least epistemology, I have trouble telling which from which) than any metaphysical poet I can think of. His erudition ranges easily from the Bible and Plato through Shakespeare and Milton to Whitehead and Wittgenstein. His own philosophy and critical theory speak for themselves where he has expounded them in prose, but they live in the poetry, to which he came last. For he is the most distinguished of beginners (a published poet only since 1958) who makes many poets acclaimed as masters seem like beginners incompetent in their craft.
Technique, though vital, is not all, but it gives me a starting point…. If there is any such thing as "mere" technique (does Swinburne prove that there is?), there is more than that [in Court of Appeal]: the synoptic eye, the concentrated vividness of the snake, the texture of idea. There is much delight in word-play, for words themselves are magic pieces, and this poetry is anything but non-verbal; but the very pun-sequence can express a wry and witty pathos…. (pp. 303-04)
Such a chameleon nature of words accords with the whole fluid world of Richards. Alaskan Meander, written in elegant terza rima, enforces order on apparent wilful confusion; God or the world directs the...
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Bernard F. Dick
That I. A. Richards was the progenitor of the New Criticism is now fairly well established; for the doubters [Complementaries: Uncollected Essays] will make it clear that as early as 1919, Richards thought of emotion as entering a work of art through a vehicle, a term that is now part of the critical vocabulary. These essays are important for another reason: they reveal an awesomely rational mind that is not afraid of schemata, equations or distinctions (art versus science, verifiable belief versus imaginative assent, the suggestion of poetry versus the coercion of prose). It is a mind much like Aristotle's, which also reveled in classifications and divisions … and as a result accomplished the primary task of criticism: elucidation.
The essays also include examples of practical criticism. When Richards explicates a text, he has few rivals. Serenely, he blots up all the ink that has been spilled over "Ode on a Grecian Urn" by reminding us that the urn was a burial urn and thus the poem is concerned with death and immortality. Hence the final verses, so often quoted and misinterpreted, depict Beauty and Truth as the end result of life, the culmination of Plato's ladder of ascent where Love and Knowledge become one. In a few paragraphs he solves the problem of belief in Dostoevsky by arguing that Dostoevsky had the feelings of religion without the corresponding beliefs, a tension that also recurs among his...
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[I. A. Richards' poetry] is a poetry of speculation, taking as its subject states of mind and feeling experienced in the later years of a long life. Richards is gnomic, epigrammatic, and conclusively inconclusive: "What," "Whence," "Whither," and "Why" are the cardinal points of his compass of interrogation. "What do, what should, I want?" one poem inquires; "Why re-awaken?" asks another; "Whereto? Wherefrom?" echoes a third, thinking about Frost's two diverging roads. The persistence of questioning betrays Richards' conviction that query is still a viable form of thought…. One of Richards' best known "early" poems, reprinted [in New and Selected Poems], was called, in a very satisfying chiasmus, "Harvard Yard in April: April in Harvard Yard": it enunciates a firm, if tender, rejection of the shows of things in their classically appealing forms … for the "degrees of loneliness" of the thinker-spectator. The paradox of all of Richards' work in verse lies in his unshakable decision that life is a journey, with a direction, to a place, one of significance, in an hour, one of accomplishment. The mere fact that the hour does not declare itself, that the place remains indistinct, that the journey seems endless, that the results of the effort are problematic, does not in itself refute the model, but it does make the poems the work of a Tantalus. (pp. 49-50)
The new poems (1971–77) in [New and Selected Poems] do not depart...
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I. A. Richards's poems are not easily read, but they repay reading. [New and Selected Poems] is his fourth book of poems and includes selections from the first three as well as a selection of recent work.
I do not think Richards has written better than in Goodbye Earth (1958). In "The Solitary Daffodil" the poet is beckoned from "committee doodled day" by "the cocktail roar." The flower welcomes him "And almost opened me a door / Through which I may still step to be / In Recollected Company." The "almost" prevents any identification with Wordsworth and underlines his modernity. To me "Lighting Fires in Snow" is a more perceptive comment on poetry than the recent "Ars Poetica." Fires are compared to poems. Both are most quickly killed by smothering. "Resign! Resign!" and "Conditional" are both from The Screen and Other Poems (1960). Both derive from experiences during mountain climbing. There is "no crest too tall / For our impertinence." What is gained? "The bootprint in the dust." But even that must be resigned. Climbing is a symbol for life, of which we are not bereft but which we must leave once we have lived….
Richards's most recent work is, I think, too intellectually contrived to be good poetry. It lacks the spontaneity of the mountain poems.
D. Rogers, "World Literature in Review: 'New and Selected Poems'," in World Literature Today...
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