Professor Christopher Ricks came over to Oxford from Boston University (where he has been based for many years and is currently Professor of Humanities) to speak on 21 June at the final event of the Taylor Institution Library's Beckett festival. The previous day he gave a public address during the University’s honorary degree ceremony, Encaenia; this is one of the duties of the Professor of Poetry, a five-year elected post. Professor Ricks was elected in 2004; see www.admin.ox.ac.uk/po/040515.shtml.
At the Taylor Institution (also known as the Taylorian) Professor Ricks gave a dense, rich analysis of Beckett which covered everything from Beckett's own pronunciation (he sounded the 'h' in 'wh' words, for example), and his complex, intriguing and playful use of language (what is it we actually mean when we say someone 'comes to', 'comes back', 'comes round', and how were these meanings played with by Beckett?). He included a consideration of Beckett’s play fragment Human Wishes and recited Beckett's little-known prose-poem, 'Ceiling' (1981).
The audience was ‘spellbound’, according to Liz Baird of the Taylor Institution Library, who helped to organize the festival. Those present included many Beckett specialists, one of whom, Professor Jim Knowlson (left in the photo--Emeritus Professor of French at the University of Reading and founder of the Beckett Archive), was a friend of Samuel Beckett for twenty years and his authorized biographer.
One of the best known living critics of English and a Fellow of the British Academy, Professor Ricks is author and editor of many books; he edited poetry anthologies including The Oxford Book of English Verse and, more recently, examined the lyrics of Bob Dylan in his book Dylan's Visions of Sin. He has been said to hold the whole of English poetry in his head; W.H. Auden once described him as ‘the kind of critic every poet dreams of finding’.
The Oxford Chair of Poetry originated in 1708 following a bequest by Henry Birkhead, a Berkshire landowner, and is held for a five-year term. The Professor, who is elected by members of Congregation, gives three public lectures per year during the honorary degree ceremony, and on alternate years the Creweian Oration, a speech in praise of the University’s benefactors. The Professor also sets the theme for, and judges, the Newdigate Prize and the Chancellor’s English Essay prize; in general he encourages student poetry in the University. Previous Professors include John Keble, Matthew Arnold, Cecil Day Lewis, W.H. Auden and Seamus Heaney.
The small free exhibition at the Taylor Institution (www.taylib.ox.ac.uk) features drawings by the artist Bill Prosser inspired by marginal scribbles in Beckett’s manuscript of Human Wishes. It is open until 31 July: Monday-Friday 9-5; Saturday 10-1.