Christopher Ricks’ Luminous Imagination

On November 30, Professor Christopher Ricks of Boston University delivered his lecture “T.S. Eliot and the Auditory Imagination,” part of the Plutzik Centennial and the George Ford Memorial Lecture Series at the University of Rochester. Jenny Boyar, a first year Ph.D. student in Medieval literature at the U of R, offers her reflections.

In one of many thoughtful digressions to his talk, Christopher Ricks drew a distinction between the critic and the scholar; the latter, he claimed (somewhat in jest) has a habit of assuming or feigning knowledge. Of course, Ricks himself is a contradiction to his own classification: he has been referred to as both critic and scholar in equal measures of high praise, and it takes only minutes of listening to him speak to recognize that his knowledge, conveyed with the ease of true brilliance, is no pretense. Indeed it seems that for Ricks, the scholar-critic pair must naturally expand to include the poet. Not just the poet as subject–which Ricks illuminates with a lyricism that penetrates words to access soul–but also Ricks himself, in whom the roles of scholar and critic are seamlessly tied to a profound poetry of observation and insight.

In keeping with his written work, which ranges from editions of Paradise Lost and Tristram Shandy to criticism on blushing and the atrocities of the tongue, Ricks’ talk was less a driving argument about T.S. Eliot than a sweeping meditation on poetry, prose, scholarship, and, occasionally, Bob Dylan. Ricks took Eliot’s concept of the “auditory imagination” and described its manifestations, or reverberations, in a range of poetic devices: the way meaning can exist in a network of rhythms, the way a phrase can change dramatically by a simple alteration of its words, or the way words can reflect not necessarily the thing to which they refer but the sensation of that thing. These larger claims were supplemented by equally enlightening close readings, as when Ricks described the -ing endings that shape the meaning of Eliot’s “Little Gidding,” or when he observed how Milton in Paradise Lost takes the “h” sound and aligns it with words like “hail holy” and “hell” as a subtle implication that the damning can become, in the breath of an utterance, devastatingly attractive. It’s common to conceive of poetry as being governed by image, but what Ricks seemed to be arguing was that the music of the word itself is image. To imagine, then, is to both see and hear in the mind. The auditory resides not in the conscious but in its underlying sense, what resonates across authors and beneath the surface of their words. Ricks’ ideas can get involved, but they work in the same, intuitive way poetry is often read and understood.

Ricks’ points about pronunciation—important to any consideration of the auditory–were especially fascinating. A modern and unknowing ear would not, for example, catch how Eliot’s choice in “The Dry Salvages” to rhyme “salvages” with “assuages” situates the poem in Cape Ann, Massachusetts during the time of Eliot’s childhood. Something that Ricks did not address, but what seems like a natural consequence of his point, is how pronunciation can render a poem transient, its auditory force inextricably bound by time and place. This is of course frustrating, but also part of poetry’s allure. As readers we are left only with the sense of what a poem might have been, and so we seek to recapture that memory as if it were ours to inhabit, to discover what was lost.

Still, Ricks repeatedly returned to the idea that the reader is in a much greater position to find than to lose. There were several times Ricks claimed that we as readers have the capacity to grasp more about a poem–or prose–than the author (a point that was supported with Dylan’s quote, “I’m the first person who’ll put it to you and the last person who’ll explain it”). To rely on an author’s description alone can be futile, perhaps muffling what we ought to be hearing for ourselves. Ricks’ talk, then, was just as much a celebration of the reader as it was the author and critic.

One of Ricks’ concluding points was that the word “auditory” lacks a suitable verb; to “hear” misses something and “auditorialize” is not even a word, and sounds like an especially vindictive form of tax collection (my comparison, not Ricks’). But based on Ricks’ discussion, it seems the verb for “auditory” would be found not in a phonetic derivative but rather the space of the word “imagine:” the sense of seeing and hearing that is perhaps best described as feeling, which is–as Wordsworth once observed–the province of poetry. And if poetry is by means of the auditory endowed with authority, then it is something Christopher Ricks makes us all feel like we inherently possess.

Jenny Boyar

5 thoughts on “Christopher Ricks’ Luminous Imagination

  1. Jenny, I loved Christopher Ricks’s book on Milton when I read it MANY years ago, and you have not only reminded me of my pleasure in his analysis but also helped me understand why I loved it. Wow. What a beautiful essay!

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