It is a commonplace that among I.A. Richards's first achievements was a modern defence of poetry. In the years following the Great War, he saw the world as entering an unprecedented historical crisis. He believed that the collapse of the old 'Magical View' of the world had left us in a condition of bewilderment, of deep privation, of affective destitution. People (I think he supposed them to be a minority) who were not content to 'live by warmth, food, fighting, drink and sex alone' must 'require other satisfactions': but the sources of such satisfactions had been stopped by the advance of knowledge. As throughout his life, he saw in trouble and disorder an immediate invitation to action, though, as at first conceived, this action was of a subtle kind, hardly to be distinguished from contemplation. 'A sense of desolation, of uncertainty, of futility, of the groundlessness of aspirations, of the vanity of endeavour, and a thirst for a life-giving water which seems suddenly to have failed, are the signs in consciousness of this necessary reorganisation of our lives.' What distinguishes this sentence from similar exclamations of dismay, which would not be hard to find in the literature of the period, is that it ends with the affirmation of a need to act. The rest of it owes most to Eliot's Waste Land, as Richards acknowledged in a famous footnote. He valued the poem, not only as an exhibition of disorder and desolation, but as affording us means to contemplate them in a valuable way; it was modern, belonging to a world that had outlived the Magical View; but it offered what must take the place of that view if our psychological privations were to be ended.
LRB 20 March 1980 | PDF Download