I. A. Richards Richards, I(vor) A(rmstrong) (Vol. 14)

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Robert Lowell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(The entire section is 3,397 words.)