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Richards, I(vor) A(rmstrong) 1893–1979

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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.)

Robert Lowell

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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.

              In perpetuity
              Be here their prayer:
                May may become
                While would would waft
                Or let let be
              Our sum our raft our quay.

On one level, these lines are the joyful light fingerwork of a puzzle; on another, they ache with the growing pains of apprenticeship. An almost impossibly forbidding fancy for a poem to make a prayer out of is given an almost impossibly difficult metrical hurdle. The repetitions bang, the three rhyme words in the last line have a blasé disjunctiveness, waft is coyly archaic, let seems to split into two contradictory and emotionally annihilating meanings. Even here, however, I feel an airy assurance and the amused, didactic modesty of authentic style.

About half of Richards' poems are very hard. He has a Welsh streak that loves to jangle words in the manner of Dylan Thomas and to give simple passions a dazzling crackle. Beyond this, his mind, brimming with semantics, philosophy, physics, and strange bits of information, is miraculously quick and subtle. He is perhaps the only poet since Empson who deserves to be difficult intellectually and is even forced to be. His harder poems are too jerky, twisted, and abstract to quite come off. They are pioneering drives, grappling with new, intractable material—now getting in a sure, devastating thrust, now rocking apart. Perhaps success and failure are irrelevant. What remains and matters is the gallantry and doggedness of the mind refusing to desert its customary tools and targets, its promise to stay standing in the arena of the impossible….

He can put speculation, cosmic and grand enough for Lucretius, in a stanza that some late, rather Alexandrian troubadour might have invented as a problem of metrical acrobatics.

            Balanced up somehow on a ball
                  That spins
                       And spirals
                         As it plummets
            Newton walked to Stourbridge Fair
              And bought his prism
            That was to fell the founding wall
              Undo the
                     All
              Renew the
                     Fall
                     Bound through all limits
                     And far and here declare
              The mere abysm.

No other form could have encompassed this reasoning and given it the right tone of litheness and lightness and spellbinding daring and flat amusement. It is like attending a scientific experiment, one that can only be performed once. (p. 78)

Robert Lowell, "I. A. Richards As Poet," in Encounter (© 1960 by Encounter Ltd.), Vol. XIV, No. 2, February, 1960, pp. 77-8.

James Dickey

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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 that it isn't worth all that trouble. The other few readers, those hardy ones who have their diplomas in the course, spend their time grimacing at each other like gymnasts, saying, "I can get more out of a poem than you can: more meanings, more possibilities of meaning, more extensions, more suggestions, more primary and secondary and tertiary ambiguities than you can." In answer, the poet says, "I can get more in, and some, even, that none of you can come at." I can't shake off the conviction that verse so written—verse like Richards's and Empson's—has done much to drive the audience underground, into the beatnik coffeehouses, with its specialized references, its recondite images from physics and semantics, its metaphors requiring knowledge of photons, tensors, and the malfunctioning of the pancreas in diabetes, all things that notes must be required to "fill the reader in" on and without which the meanings—even one of them—can't be grasped or even guessed at. It seems to me that the way to the audience Richards wants is through a poetry which makes available not endless subtleties to hash over in graduate seminars but poetry written with what Benn calls "primal vision": not many levels of meaning—though one can, from anything written in words, even advertisements, extract tangential connotations ad infinitum—but a single overwhelming one…. I don't want an intelligent, sensitive, and dedicated man like Richards to come down to the level of the man on the street, who is none of these things and couldn't care less. But I am saying that that man, who might conceivably have something to gain from poetry were he to come at it his own way through writers he could comprehend more or less quickly and then, if he wished, read later for their complexities, is likely to be and undoubtedly is repelled by an initial contact with the overrefinement of the intellect in verse, and by poetry written for only the superintelligent, super-sensitive, and nuance-haunted audience which Richards posits, but which has not yet come into being. (pp. 180-82)

James Dickey, "I. A. Richards" (1962), in his Babel to Byzantium (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968 by James Dickey), Farrar, Straus, 1968, pp. 179-82.

Frank Kermode

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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.

Yet giving breath to these poems, or offering to be possessed by them, is an exhausting task. The notes, claiming to be helpful, are somewhat arbitrary. A not very important poem, 'Harvard Yard in April: April in Harvard Yard', has a commentary ten times the length of the text: others, though difficult, have no notes at all. Donnish allusions to other poems are unglossed, perhaps to avoid depriving dons of the easy pleasures of recognition….

We're used to being reminded that the guides and commanders of this century's studies were nurtured in the civilisation that preceded it. Richards remembers, when he writes poetry, the great poets of his youth: he founds his verse on them as, in a sense, he founded his criticism on Coleridge and Arnold. He would be quick to point out that this does not constitute an adverse criticism: always adventurously modern, he distrusts easy modernism. His poetry, like his criticism—and perhaps his mountaineering, often celebrated in the poems—belongs to a continuous tradition, which does not exclude boldness and novelty, but will not accept them as good in themselves. Yet in stressing the 19th-century aspects of the poetry I suppose I am trying to find out why it leaves me unsatisfied (as do [his] plays, Tomorrow Morning, Faustus! and Job's Comforting). It's not that they take a bit of unravelling, nor that they lack interest. I think it must be that for all their sprightliness and the hard thinking that went into them they somehow lack genuine energy and authority—qualities we take for granted in the poet's prose. (p. 88)

Frank Kermode, "A Helping Word," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1972; reprinted by permission of Frank Kermode), Vol. 88, No. 2260, July 20, 1972, pp. 87-8.

Richmond Lattimore

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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 wiggles. "How daunting is divine Autonomy" is how we end, echoing Milton…. But I find this optimism unusual. Sometimes it seems as if philosophy were nothing but a mess of cruxes, and the stuff of Richards' philosophy and of his poetry is one and the same…. Of his own poetry, Richards says: "Around every phrase—behind, on all sides, and ahead—there are other phrases: ready to compete or support, or recklessly bent on having their own way." Self and poetry alike are surrounded in a swarm of throwaways, discards, unwritten versions, unperformed acts and unthought thoughts, possibles, escaping dimensions. Yet the very constant dynamic failure to solve the insoluble is what generates the excitement of the quest and of the poetry. (pp. 304-06)

Richmond Lattimore, "Prospero," in I. A. Richards: Essays in His Honor, edited by Reuben Brower, Helen Vendler, and John Hollander (copyright © 1973 by Oxford University Press, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Oxford University Press, New York, 1973, pp. 303-06.

Bernard F. Dick

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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 characters….

Richards's critical ideas,… even in their inchoate form, bear the hallmark of genius.

Bernard F. Dick, "World Literature in Review: 'Complementaries: Uncollected Essays'," in World Literature Today (copyright 1977 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 51, No. 3, Summer, 1977, p. 447.

Helen Vendler

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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 notably from previous ones, whether in form or in concern: they maintain a metaphysical reflection on a number of subjects, ranging from an annual club dinner to political war in Ulster to a poem of W. B. Yeats. When a natural object appears—a goose here, an angler there, a fading letter on a desk—it is at once converted to emblematic use. (p. 50)

In his crabbed lines, Richards often resembles his master Hardy, ringing changes on the jests of the President of the Immortals: "No right without a wrong … / No wrong without a right." Like Hardy, Richards engages in a defiant transvaluation of values, declaring "our dauntless Eve the original Saint" for her disobedience, and offering to canonize her. Richards' sturdy position-taking precludes a flexible verse: we do not possess for contrast any poetry from his youth, which he touchingly remembers as "my day-spring all bewilderment, so slow / Until noon toughened me to muddle through." Bewilderment and muddle alike have vanished from the uncompromisingly perplexed assertions of resistant will. (p. 51)

Competent testimony from the years after eighty is almost unheard of in literature. We may bridle at Richards' scolding of Yeats for saying "The intellect of man is forced to choose": Richards replies that the intellect is "no serf to force," and rebukes Yeats for self-pity. A poet, we think, may be allowed some self-pity; but Richards' stoic bravery forbids it, and his essentially sanguine temperament wakes, even in its ninth decade, to invent new exertions for itself:

                  Then re-dispose
                  Some lingering strength
                  To some old task;
                  Try to revive,
                  At length,
                  Some yet unshaken
                  Aim; regain
                  Or re-contrive
                  Some breath of morn
                  Reborn.

If the sense of task and aim is Miltonic, the phrases are reminiscent rather of Herbert, who, with the other metaphysicals, is echoed in these pages…. [The poetry his philosophy] produces arises not so much from a "new rhythm haunting the ear" (Hopkins) or "a vision" (Yeats) or a myth (Crane) or even from "a personal grudge" (Eliot) as from timeless, impersonal, and intellectually formulable questions (however deeply felt in private experience). A firm moral hope in the evolution of mind looks toward a human behavior less brutal than that now prevalent in the world, and keeps Richards' metaphysics warm. The life of the senses, when it enters the book, enters as a fleeting thing, subsumed in the strenuous or overshadowed by the life of the mind. "We, / Before the senses were / And after their despair, / Are what no eye can see." That assertive "are," independent of the senses, hangs in the invisible pre-existent Platonic life where these poems find their true home. (pp. 51-2)

Helen Vendler, "Still Journeying On," in Poetry (© 1979 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), Vol. CXXXIV, No. 1, April, 1979, pp. 49-52.

D. Rogers

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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 (copyright 1979 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 53, No. 3, Summer, 1979, p. 512.

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Richards, I(vor) A(rmstrong) (Vol. 24)