Christopher Ricks on Keats, embarrassment, and the separation of poetry and prose

Prof. Christopher Ricks lectured today for the students of CC201, on the subject of the John Milton. He is the author of Milton’s Grand Style (Oxford University Press, 1978). In the spring semester, he often lectures on the English Romantic poets. Students, with their Kerberos password, can access his packet of selected readings here. Today’s analect is drawn from his study of one of those poets, his book Keats and Embarrassment, published by Oxford University Press in 1974:

Embarrassment can be an antagonist whom even love may sometimes succumb to fearing: this seems to me a perceptive and seldom said.  It is not only those who suffer from ereuthophobia, a morbid propensity to blush or to fear blushing, who should acknowledge this.  The difference is the size of the self-recognition in Keats, and this has its bearing on the odd relationship of embarrassability to empathy. [page 24]

Ricks and other scholars participated in a panel discussion, sponsored by the Keats-Shelley Association of America, following a special screening of the movie Bright Star, based on events in the life of Romantic poet John Keats. An audio recording of that discussion is hosted by the Romantic Circles blog, and can be downloaded as an mp3. He also wrote in response to this film for the New York Review of Books.

An interview with Prof. Ricks can be found here, as published in the Spring 2010 issue of the Core Journal. In another interview, conducted by Sally Mapstone in Hilary Term 2009, and published in the second issue of the newsletter for the English faculty at Oxford, Prof. Ricks addresses the bothersome convention which separates poetry and prose into distinct categories of accomplishment:

When it comes to the lectures given by a Professor of Poetry, you can’t expect people to do any specific reading in advance, so naturally enough the lectures tend to concentrate on short poems. (Not that all short poems are lyrics.) So I think that there are distortions of literature, and of thinking about literature, that come from having a Professor of Poetry, and poets have on the whole colluded with this flattery. I think that it’s wrong – this was the subject of my first lecture – simply wrong of Coleridge to enjoin the distinction that he made: prose is the words in the best order, poetry is the best words in the best order. Shakespeare never wrote better (better words in a better order) than when he wrote the great sequence ‘Hath not a Jew eyes?‘ And there is the supreme prose of Hamlet to Horatio before the duel, and of Edmund on astrology. As to the related question of whether the Professor of Poetry has to be himself or herself a poet, I’d like to think that if there were a Professor of Prose, there wouldn’t be the assumption that it would have to be a novelist, say, as against a philosopher, historian, or John Maynard Keynes. I’m very much in favour of the holder’s often being, perhaps almost always being, a practising (as they say) poet, but this isn’t without its own difficulties or pressures. Granted, there have been many great poet-critics, and this Chair [of Professor of Poetry at Oxford] has enjoyed more than its share of them. But then there was Tennyson, and there was Hardy, and William Barnes, none of whom wished to be a critic and whose poetry in a way depends on their not being.

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