Magazine article The Spectator

A Virtuoso without Vanity

Magazine article The Spectator

A Virtuoso without Vanity

Article excerpt


by Christopher Ricks

The Other Press, L22.50, pp. 400, ISBN 1590510194

Placed in the somewhat invidious position of having to review a book of reviews entitled Reviewery - a book which includes, among other things, reviews of other people's collections of reviews one's conscience forces one to ask at the outset, Why? What use, all this criticism, all these reviews?

The question arises more and more often these days - every time John Updike, for instance, puts out another of his gargantuan tomes of silkily professional reviews, or when homegrown talents such as Martin Amis or Peter Ackroyd gather up their own `odd jobs' behind portentous titles such as The War Against Cliche or, simply (Ackroyd) The Collection. `At your best,' wrote Randall Jarrell in an essay on criticism, `you make people see what they might never have seen without you; but they must always forget you in what they see.' One of the virtues of this new collection by Christopher Ricks, then, is its modesty, starting with the title: Reviewery perfectly captures the jobbing tone. We are in the hands, it announces, of a critic who has no illusions about what he does, and who will not let rhetoric or affectation get in the way of good, discerning reading and sharp commentary.

Of course, Jarrell, Amis and Updike are (or were) all artist-critics, whereas Ricks is that uneasy but mostly edifying thing, an academic critic with a high profile in the public domain. He is Warren Professor of the Humanities at Boston University, where he has taught since 1986, and before that he was King Edward VII Professor of English Literature at Cambridge. Despite the daunting pedigree, he is far from stuffy. His twin abiding passions - the sages he refers to time and again throughout this collection - are T. S. Eliot (Ricks wrote the highly acclaimed T S. Eliot and Prejudice in 1988) and grizzly old Bob Dylan. These two sentences, both from the same page of a review of Paul Delany's The NeoPagans, give a good idea of the sort of thing to expect: `Many of them were wounded in love, but more - to adopt Bob Dylan - were wounded in hatred.' `But then Eliot was rightly scornful of the cult of youth by which the Neo-Pagans affected to live, their determination to sport in nature and never, never to grow up, their Peter Pantheism. …

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