Skip to main content

R. P. Blackmur: America’s Best Critic

ISSUE:  Autumn 1981

R. P. Blackmur, whom Allen Tate called our best American crritic, has been dead now for 16 years. This seems long enough to warrant a comprehensive look at his achievement, where achievement signifies the man he made himself not less than the books he wrote. Interest in Blackmur is on the upswing today. His criticism of poetry gets plenty of respectful attention. Harcourt, his old publisher, has recently brought out an abridged version of the huge manuscript he left on Henry Adams and at which he labored for more than half his life. In 1977, Princeton, where he taught for 25 years, published a collected edition of his poems. Critical studies have begun to appear, and a full-dress biography is in the works. All this activity speaks of success. But, in his own view, Blackmur died a failure. What kind of man was this who so disvalued himself, and how tenable is the judgment at which he arrived? Here is one man’s answer.

No question, Blackmur’s personal life ended in disaster. All the auspices were right for the ending. The once-genteel family into which he was born, Jan. 25, 1904, was on the way down. His mother ran a boarding house in Cambridge for Harvard boys, and without her incessant enterprise the family would have starved. They came close. Young Richard Blackmur was kicked out of high school in his junior year for quarreling with the headmaster. That was all the formal schooling he got. For years he drifted from one temporary job to another, always on the edge of poverty. At 24 he became editor of the Hound & Horn, the best of the little magazines, but he lost this job two years later. At 26 he married, but life with the painter Helen Dickson was a torment for both of them. Long before he died, his career as a poet had run into the sands. In his youth he aspired to write novels and plays. There also he made a valorous failure. Much of his criticism dates from the late twenties and thirties, his early period as a free-lance writer before he joined the faculty at Princeton. If you don’t like him, you will see the later criticism as vastly self-indulgent, and this hostile reading isn’t wholly off the mark.

It is easy to say that the university destroyed him. The harder truth is that he collaborated in his own destruction. Princeton was his fate and his desire. He was still a young man when he joined the faculty in the fall of 1940. On the rest of his life the university put its seal. It offered him a rostrum. He used it and became a famous literary person. His fame depended mostly on the sibyl-line style that grew to him in the later years. This dark muttering describes Blackmur in Princeton, not the early Blackmur, and is not only his hallmark but his vice. To distinguish between them is not exactly to winnow the chaff. There is plenty of chaff in Blackmur, but the good and great things are inseparable from it. In his life and work he is a parti-colored man. His sin is patched with virtue and his virtue patched with sin.

In the beginning he jibbed at the unvaried routine of academic life, so different from the helter-skelter of his own life. He liked his informal sessions with the Princeton boys and seeing Allen Tate and Caroline Gordon. He said he didn’t like anything else. Tate, the first director of the Creative Arts Program, had engineered his appointment. Later Tate came to regret this. He saw Blackmur as a cuckoo who had flown into his nest and fouled it, then taken the nest for himself. But Blackmur the ingratiating presence doesn’t bear scrutiny. He got too much obvious pleasure from poking fun at the academic mind, “putting an inch rule on it,” he said to Tate, “by way of amusement.”

On his students he was less severe, though he said in his journal how they ate him alive. Except to himself, he didn’t remonstrate. Lincoln Kirstein, remembering how he used to play professor to the Harvard boys when he clerked in the Dunster House Book Shop, thought him a born teacher. But formal teaching he found “a queer and monstrous thing.” Here at Princeton, he complained to Delmore Schwartz—mistakenly he supposed that Delmore was happier at Harvard—”I get dipped so deep in the adolescent bath all week that I begin to sweat behind my ears.” He was obliged to be “professionally stimulating, habitually seminal,” so “the chances of masturbation . . .[were] overwhelming.” What was he going to say “about Shelley’s West Wind or Crane’s Melville’s Tomb at two thirty tomorrow to make both those poems ring and wring, too, as they both should”?

After a while, he found things to say. “His speech was elliptical, inclining toward the runic, but his lectures were legendary—Poetics in the fall and Aesthetics in the spring, the same course, what he happened to bring to class in his Harvard bookbag—and once an hour he would come awake as from a private reverie with a dazzling penetration of text or motive. “To have him as a weekly presence in your life was everything,” said Geoffrey Wolff. Not unexpectedly, his special province was diction. Words to him were “rubies, emeralds, diamonds, dogshit.” Each possessed its own weight. The reality of language, he said, “is superior and anterior to the reality of the uses to which it is put.” He was prodigal with words but jealous of them too, venerating their anterior power, and his students loved and feared him for this. “We find ourselves closer to you than anyone,” two of them confessed in a letter of the fifties, “perhaps closer than you yourself realize.” But they had to struggle hard “to find a form or adjustment for even starting to talk” to the imperious presence.

He didn’t mean to be imperious. Detesting authority, he gave the students free rein. Perhaps his own bitter experience of school underlay the permissive manner and the insistence that you had to do it all on your own. Easy judgments were beneath him, however, and he made a tough critic of the fiction his student writers submitted. Wolff was one of these students. Having completed a first novel, he went to Blackmur for sympathetic counsel. “Put it in your desk drawer,” Blackmur said. This, Wolff supposed, was the old Horatian chestnut. Leave the manuscript alone for a while, then come back to it fresh? “No,” Blackmur said, “that is not my advice to you. My advice is to put it in your desk drawer, lock your desk drawer, lose the key to your desk drawer. However, keys are sometimes found, returned to their owners. This could happen, so I would set fire to your desk.”

The rigor was real enough; partly, the tough-guy pose was just that. If you sought out this teacher not from weakness but strength, you didn’t find it all that hard to get behind the indurated exterior. Strength in Blackmur answered to strength in his students. He liked them because their minds had not yet closed—always he felt drawn to what he called the “hospitable intellect”—also because with young people he didn’t have to be on stage. He resented the compulsion “to act a series of caricatures of oneself, and then, in self-defense, to add to the series: it is as if one had always to keep the extracted promise and were never permitted to keep the given promise.” On a lecture trip to the Middle West, he looked up a former student who had gone on to graduate school at Minnesota. They spent three hours together. They sat on the grass and talked about dogs—”dogs he had known—dogs I had known as a child.” Later, at parties given him by the faculty who were there to kiss his hem, he said practically nothing. What on earth had the two of them to say to each other, his frustrated colleagues wanted to know. The student was hard put to answer.

The newly minted academic remained an alien presence in the academy. Some colleagues took him up, and some of them became his close friends. This failed to appease his sense of alienation. In his letters he said how distasteful it was to cater to the social whims of the faculty, buy evening clothes, entertain people he didn’t want to know. He made them aware that he didn’t want to know them in that Calvin Coolidge way he had, the taciturnity that complemented the monologues. The “wonderfully expansive” man, said W.S. Merwin, was also a man “wonderfully Yankee reserved.”

Princeton stimulated both sides of his nature. He thought “you’d have to live here to like it.” He didn’t want to live in Princeton, neither did Pomfret his cat. The receptions and the lectures induced boredom, so did the “flat, Polish” terrain of Mercer County. He himself presented New England, and Irving Howe recalled how he played “the role of small-town feller” to his cosmopolitan associates. He liked to highlight the contrast between his own education, a crazy-quilt-made anyhow, and that starchier thing they dispensed at Old Nassau. He was Ben Franklin, the type of the autodidact, and he had got on despite the absence of the usual advantages, maybe because of their absence. Along the way, to hear him tell it, he had been blowing up the neighborhood with his chemistry set.

This role he played more easily since, on one side, he remained a provincial all his life. Confronting “the sharp abysmal difference that Princeton shows,” he felt like a transient set down in a hotel. “You can have it,” he wrote to the musicologist Rob Darrell. He looked back with regret to his three-story apartment on Chambers Street in Boston—dirty but palatial compared to Linden Lane with its bedbug brown furniture veneered with boxwood on pulp—and his footloose life as a poet and critic. He had rather—”not starving”—live as he and Helen had lived in the thirties. “I shall hope to return to doing so.” That was how he ended his morose reflections on the new life.


The trouble was starving. Blackmur’s early poverty left him profoundly respectful of money. In the boarding house in Cambridge, there wasn’t always enough to eat. His mother, once a beautiful woman, became emaciated as she got older. She suffered from malnutrition, and so did he. Matthew Josephson remembered the brilliant youngster of 19 or 20 to whom Jack Wheelwright introduced him—”skinny, emaciated-looking, very poor.” He got through the thirties thanks partly to Helen his wife and the paintings she did for the WPA. The forties had “looked very bad” to him, failing the help of Allen Tate. So he was grateful to Tate for “the wonderful title” of Associate in Creative Arts at Princeton, and nervous when he heard that the English Department had considered replacing the two of them with T.S. Eliot. Never mind his scorn for the academy; he wanted to be reappointed, he even played politics a little to that end, and after one semester he thought he could stand the “loneliness and academic gossip” for “one more year.” He got the reappointment, and he never left Princeton.

In some respects it was the perfect job. The faculty of the English Department would not have put up with him had they considered him “just like themselves.” But they were willing to put up with a man who was merely a writer. Blackmur said to his cousin how this expressed their indifference to writing. He cared for little else and cared terribly. In his lonely dedication he defined the outsider, in Irving Howe’s phrase a man “gallant, passionate, strange.” The scruple of his mind drove him outside, at the same time gave value to his eccentricity. His colleagues dwelt on the eccentricity, missing the rest. So he became their butt, and they cautioned their students against him. A Ph. D., they supposed, “gave them a special place in the world.” Blackmur had no Ph. D., and his place was mysterious. But as they despised him they didn’t fear him, so left him alone. He saw the beauty of it, “that no one like me can be considered a professor au carrière.” No matter how long he stayed in Princeton, he knew it would always be on a temporary basis. He called that a very good arrangement—”not because it diminishes responsibility but because it concentrates. . .[responsibility] entirely on what I teach.” He wasn’t vexed with the busy work that preoccupied the rest of the department. “I am able, if I want,” he told his cousin, George Anthony, “to keep myself on my toes precisely for my own work.”

The sense of one’s work takes color from the environment in which the work is performed. No environment is more seductive than Princeton’s, not least if you feel yourself an alien presence. Einstein, living across town from Blackmur at 112 Mercer Street, felt equally “estranged from the society here.” Unlike Blackmur, he had no yearning for it, being more nearly secure in himself. Princeton he thought “a wonderful little spot, a quaint and ceremonious village of puny demigods on stilts.” That is not what Blackmur’s colleagues were saying when, in the mid-forties, they gathered to discuss the relationship of the writer and the academy. “Why assume that life in a university is necessarily stultifying?” one of them asked. The question was rhetorical. “Princeton,” said Professor X, “with its east end, west end, Italian section, Negro section, etc. . . .could provide a Trollope with material for a life time of work.” Blackmur, unhappily, put in his oar. “Or a Balzac!” he said.

Balzac and Blackmur’s approbation notwithstanding, he had a tough time catching on. Isolated among “the bland and heavy scholars” who ran the department to which he was only nominally attached (that is how his young friend A. Alvarez remembered him), he found his cronies mostly among sports like himself. Often they were Jewish—this, though you could say that Blackmur was anti-Semitic, not a particularly interesting thing to say. Almost “everyone” from Sheridan to Hemingway was unreflectively like him in this. Partly in his occasional bêtises he was aping the snobbish talk of his early friend March Wheelwright (as filtered through his reading of the arch-snob Henry Adams), partly he was having on his liberal colleagues. They might have hooted him down, and they didn’t. Anyway, some of his best friends were Jews. “You and I have a lot in common,” he said to Philip Roth. “I’m a Maine Yankee and you’re a New York Jew.” Roth said, “Newark Jew.” Score one for Roth. But Blackmur meant seriously the asserting of a tie between them. He was different himself, so cultivated difference in others. He liked Irving Howe, “this odd bird with a radical background who aspired to literary things” and suffered from the chilliness of academic Princeton when he lived there in the forties and fifties. The professors of English who gave him the back of their hand had their reasons, Howe thought. “I was a New Yorker. I was connected with the Partisan Review group, which made them uneasy. . . . And I was Jewish.”

Professor X, in the Princeton that Trollope might have described, does not distinguish a Jewish community. Still Princeton had always accommodated Jews. One of them—he came from New York—lived in “12 Univee” with Amory Blaine, the hero of Fitzgerald’s first novel. Amory recalled how one night “they filled the Jewish youth’s bed with lemon pie.” This was fun. The Priceton Jew, like Robert Cohn in The Sun Also Rises, was a figure of fun, sometimes a boor, by definition a little outré. The sprinkling of Jews who went to Princeton in Blackmur’s time was left high and dry by the annual Bicker or fraternity rush, which denied them a bid to join the eating clubs on Prospect Street. Some became angry young men, like Ralph Schoenman, subsequently Bertrand Russell’s private secretary, parading with his picket in front of Nassau Hall. No picket line formed behind him. Others, more or less fortunate, merged with the Princeton society that scorned them, effacing from their personality every trace of the nice Jewish boy from Bayonne. Blackmur, who was Anglo-Saxon all the way through, was also this nice Jewish boy. Later, in his essay on Joyce’s Ulysses, he told how the Jew is Everyman the outsider and how, “in each of us, in the exiled part, sits a jew.” He was thinking of himself.

To palliate the life of the exile, he made himself an ultramontanist, more papist than the Pope or more zealous “in the nation’s service” (the motto of the university) than T. Woodrow Wilson, ‘74, who coined the phase in his tenure as president of Princeton. This misapplied zeal—it denotes the man who is looking over his shoulder—accounts partly for the shift in Blackmur’s writing from the meticulous criticism of the thirties to the vatic pronouncements that characterize the Old Pretender.

In the small community to which he came in the middle of his life, there was more intelligence per square foot than anywhere else in America. Intelligence argues laissez-faire. John Wheeler the physicist, speaking into his portable Dictaphone as he walked along Springdale Road, was an unself-conscious figure. Nobody marked him—or Wigner or Oppenheimer or Panofsky. This was Princeton on its democratic side. Another side was Presbyterian, and on that side everyone marked you, like the colleague who got divorced and was sent away to Philadelphia. He was Ovid among the Goths. Time passed and the scandal cooled, and they let him come back again.

But Princeton was not exhausted in its dour morality. There was the bibulous Princeton, of which Blackmur was a mainstay, “the pleasantest country club in America.” One of his former students, having it dinned into him that the university epitomized the life of the mind, believed at first that “student” derived from studeo. This proved a piece of simplicity. However, he wrote to Blackmur, “if you want a wife, a home, a car, a lot of names for cocktail parties (what a job Art 303 does), fine food at a Princeton eating club, it is still one of the top two or three universities.” President Patton saw this Princeton, in an inspired gaffe, as dedicated to high living and plain thinking.

In Blackmur’s Princeton, aesthetics and morality declared their connection. “Learning without piety is pernicious,” said President Witherspoon when the university was mewing its youth. No one used just those words to Blackmur the novitiate. In the imagery of official pronouncements their sense was residual, though. Blackmur was not offered a teaching job at Princeton. He was “called,” as to a clerical cure. His vocation, unsuspected by himself, was charismatic. It was like the accession of grace. Other men were not so lucky. Edmund Wilson, the favorite candidate of his old teacher Christian Gauss, never heard the call. Blackmur’s associates found Wilson contentious. Francis Fergusson didn’t suit them, so they sent him away. Erich Auerbach was lost to Yale. It was a wonder, thought Robert Fitzgerald, “that Princeton didn’t hang on to him.” But Princeton was a small pond, so looked mistrustfully on the exotic species.


You wonder how Richard Blackmur made the grade. He had no formal credentials. In appearance he struck no sparks except for his dandyism, and that counted against him. An acquaintance of his in Cambridge would not have put him on a list of the hundred persons he thought most likely to succeed. The young man Scan O’Faolain first encountered as an editor of the Hound & Horn was substantially the man who came to Princeton ten years or so later, “slight, slim, reticent, patient, rather romantic looking.” O’Faolain looked around for his Keatsian or Rossettian mistress. There wasn’t any mistress.

At social functions the young man did not circulate; he sat because “he was too thin to circulate, too thin in the rear, being but a flat bag under the coattails.” This description, from an unpublished story Blackmur wrote in his twenties, is just right, except that as he got older he developed a compensating paunch. His own ear instructed him that “he declaimed in a voice whose very restraint was sonorous,” the voice of the old lion emitting what Blackmur called the hymn in the throat. But the tiny dime-shaped mouth—Blackmur’s early sweetheart thought she heard it saying “piss and prunes”— was too small for the long words that came out of it. Dick, said Jack Wheelwright, “had a mouth so small he had to feed himself with a pin.” Above the mouth bristled the dark moustache, the smallest moustache Mark Van Doren ever saw.

The appearance, bristling and constricted, reflected the man who took shelter behind it. This man was beleaguered. You meet him in his cramped orthography, tiny, immaculate, as tight as the phone book. The autograph versions of his two novels so crowd the small quarto pages he used as to make your head spin when you read them. These manuscripts are finished in every detail, and run only half as long as the typewritten copies he prepared for his literary agent. He didn’t blot a line but had nothing about him of the poet’s fine frenzy. Words, when he composed, came with agonizing slowness, like birdlime from frieze. “It always takes me time to think thought,” he wrote apologetically to William Phillips at the Partisan Review. This vice as he saw it was also a virtue. His best writing fairly breathes deliberation. But the writing, as it is costive, speaks of the man who could never bring himself to throw anything away. The power to discriminate wasn’t part of his power, a strange thing to say of this absolute critic. He suffered, said Eileen Simpson, from paralysis of the will. Merest trivia weighed with him as heavily as heartfelt recollection, and when he died his house was cluttered with yellowing injunctions, like that from the Boston Five Cents Savings Bank, telling how payment of rent was expected for the dwelling at 50 Chambers Street “now occupied by you.” It had been 25 years since he lived there.

Northrup Frye sensed about him a deep insecurity. Frye was touched, however, by the fact that he never tried to conceal this “but made it an integral part of his relationships.” Partly this meant a disingenuous candor. He told tales on himself as if he were letting you in on his secret. Mostly, the tales were fictitious. Princeton afflicted him, so did his wife and mother, but he leaned on them all for emotional support. He feared driving a car, Francis Fergusson said. So he never owned a car but took cabs as a gentleman should. He hated to move, and when he ventured out of Princeton to teach at Cambridge University in 1961—62, he barely made it through the year. Friends who saw him in England wrote how the year away gave him fits. Middle age overtook him before he could bring himself to travel abroad. He did this twice, in 1952—53 and again four years later. He might have been Marco Polo, the way he went on about his travels.

But the insecure man could fix you with a look wry or quizzical that made you squirm. His eyes were astonishing, not the mad electric eyes of Kenneth Burke or mad Shelley but imperious eyes that danced and flared with pain or malice. “When I start talking too much,” said Delmore Schwartz to Blackmur, “let your eyes blaze at me as I have seen them do.” Ask him about poetry—a question couched in capital letters—and he looked down his moustache at you, not deigning to reply. You remembered the twist of his mouth, though. To those he loved he was often cruel, not loving them less. When the black bile rose in him, he could annihilate a friend. Kingsley Amis, he said, looked at the upper classes through a periscope. In public he flayed the skin from R.W.B. Lewis, another of his Gauss Seminarians. Dick Lewis, he demonstrated, didn’t know Virgil, the pot calling the kettle black. But the cruelty represented a turning outward on the world of the cruelty he turned mostly on himself.

His loyalties were fierce but parochial. People came first with him, then the places they had lived in. He knew that if you put together beauties not human—the stones of Venice, the twin towers of Chartres—they bred beauty into the human. “But where are your holy places in America?” asked the son of Sir Herbert Read. This in its effrontery was typical English, but Blackmur took the point. At dinner after a lecture at the University of Keele, he waited out an attack on his absent friend David Daiches. Then he said to the room: “I like Daiches, I like his wife, and I like his dog.”

This intellectual lived much in his blood. He had no country but the country of the mind and was deeply and instinctively patriotic. As Pearl Harbor came closer, he found his students surprised at the attitude with which he awaited his own involvement— “that as I share the peace I must share the war of my society.” He had no brief for government, but the government could have him if it wanted. He did not profess religion. His antecedents were nothing special; he was an American. But piety flamed in him. You imagined him saying, without irony either, that his blood had not passed through any huckster’s loins. Like Henry Adams, whose avatar he was in his complexity and in his simplicity, he impressed on you “the consciousness that he and his people had a past.”

He was a gentleman, and of course he was a snob. His manners were grave and studied, and he used them like a sword. King Pandar in his first novel has these manners. Meeting an obnoxious acquaintance, he “rose and bowed. His bow being unimpeachable where the impeachable was in order, was meant to be the perfect insult.” One night when his host made a scurrilous remark to a woman, the cheap and easy scurrility that passes for wit, he paled and stiffened and would not speak. A breezy but affectionate colleague having clapped him on the shoulder and addressed him as Dick, he made his patented stabbed-in-the-back face. He was a great panjandrum, that was what his manner said, and you were wise as you kept your distance. Partly the distance between him and others constituted the expense of greatness, and partly in his loneliness he grudged the expense.

When he grew passionate in argument, he used his hands. He was always proud of them, said Rob Darrell, “this well before the larger concern with Gesture became explicit.” The hands sought to render speech with a life of their own. Working, they let you see that words and ideas were as palpable for him as the soil he worked in his gardens. Abstraction was nothing unless—in a phrase he took from Wallace Stevens—abstraction blooded. He was an expert gardener; and he was, until he fell foul of greatness, absolutely concrete in his prose, finding his proper nutriment in “fidelity to the actual.” He held to the proposition that in poetry and the novel, “in the art of words, every economy and every expense of structure and conception is validated, if at all, in the particular words that render them.” This was pious, also provident. “Words verge on flesh”— quoting from an early poem of his—”and so we may, someday, be to ourselves the things we say.” Sensibility, he thought, consists in “an arduous fealty to facts.” A novelist like Steinbeck, for want of this fealty, will not do. His sensiblity was “not slowed enough by its subject matter.” With the subject matter—not the idea, instead call it matter-of-fact—early Blackmur begins and ends. This does not mean that he is a nominalist among the critics, rather that he is an opportunist, a word meant in praise, willing to follow patiently where the facts take him.

Opportunism and patience come together in the famous or notorious definition of the dictionary as “that palace of saltatory heuristics.” The word he had written was “salutary,” Blackmur said. When the printer got it wrong, he thought he would let the printer have his way. It makes a good story. Anyway the story declares the opportunist or saltatory man whose mind “leaps or jumps from place to place as best it can.” Heuristics means learning as well as teaching and begins with the dictionary as first of all you must honor the word, submitting yourself patiently to the entire range of meaning it discloses. Professor X, here personated by Harry Levin, a first-rate second-rate man, so a model of the academic mind, is impatient of the word, most of all as the word is made flesh. You find him nipping at Blackmur’s heels from the beginning, as when in 1940 he reviews The Expense of Greatness and complains that “Mr. Blackmur has a dictionary.” The trouble with the dictionary, from the point of view of Professor X, lies in its solidity and matter-of-factness. What he calls “the rarefactions of New Criticism” start the venom flowing in him exactly as the New Critics are not rarefied but substantial. Tenuity is where he lives. Substantiality sticks in his craw. That is why he denounces Blackmur, who cannot live in thin air, for his “distrust of reason.” Blackmur thinks “we have not so much of reason that we can afford to lose any of it.” Only, in his robustness, he wants to make room for “the quick and very membrane of style.” Professor X is Ransom’s “Painted Head.”

Blackmur fills an ampler role. Dwelling in his palace of saltatory heuristics, he throws back insistently to the words on the page. Adams, for example, is defined by his scruple. “The etymology of the word refreshes the meaning.” There is the Latin scrupulus, “a small sharp stone, a stone in one’s shoe, an uneasiness, difficulty, small trouble, or doubt.” The passage goes on like that. The end is elucidation. No critic has ever written in English, not from the beginnings of criticism in the Renaissance, who did his homework with such assiduity. Tick them off on your fingers, the few great critics (they are rarer by far than great poets)—Johnson, Coleridge, Eliot—each casts a longer shadow than Blackmur. In this respect, however, none of them comes near him. Beyond all others in his trade, he was responsive to the facts. This defines responsibility in criticism—the playing on words is his—and explains how he realizes the ideal to which he aspired, an activity “as objective, indeed almost as anonymous” as any pursued by the Bureau of Standards.


The anonymity makes Blackmur our closest reader of poetry. At the same time, it circumscribes his critical achievement. But the achievement is not of a piece. Anonymity describes the practical critic who wrote to Robert Penn Warren in 1936: “I take it that the final use of criticism is to elucidate the facts.” To this Blackmur there succeeds the full-throated and nearly autonomous figure who longs to be freed from poetry, who contends against this longing and makes inspired criticism from the contention. Last of all, there is the King over the Water—the title of his essay in dispraise of Ford Madox Ford—who shows you what it means to say: “I am myself alone.” On one side, in one kind Blackmur is only litmus paper, instrumental to the job. That is one definition of the critic’s job of work. Often in his judgments of poets and particular poems, the pH is just right, where in Dr. Johnson it comes out all wrong. But Johnson is incomparably the greatest English critic. Santayana says: “It is the temperament that speaks; we may brush aside as unsubstantial, and even as distorting, the web of arguments and theories which it has spun out of itself.” This seems unfair but accounts for primacy in criticism. Temperament, writ large, is Dr. Johnson’s possession.

When temperament grew more imperious in Blackmur, the result was not practical criticism or not chiefly that, like the work of Brooks and Warren in their New Critical manifesto to the classroom. The result was a creative meditation worthy to stand with the poetry that affords it a point of departure as much as a reason for being. This Blackmur is the critic as artist. The culmination of his artistry is the book he called, deliberately, Language as Gesture (1952), on which his permanent reputation will depend. He thought that “when the language of words most succeeds it becomes gesture in its words.” In this ultimate work, a pulling together of essays that had first appeared as early as The Double Agent, he managed the becoming, so defined the virile man thinking.

One talent at least never left him. This was explication. But the best of the book transcends explication and is not as yet crochety, evangelizing, or merely personal. “In the gloom, the gold gathers the light against it”— remembering Pound’s line on which Blackmur dwells and builds his own edifice or adjunct to the Muses’ Diadem. Meaning is not to seek, but meaning is elusive. It looms over the horizon and heaves like the sea-swell under the bows, and you feel how the critic is also a poet and making a rival construction. The sensiblity that declares itself in these essays on poetry partakes of the genius that is its occasion. Intellect has climbed to its highest pitch, is so fastidious, is working with such intensity as to achieve incandescence. Of filler there is hardly any. All that is burned away. Blackmur wanted from his teens to be a true creative artist. After all, he didn’t fail.

His colleagues were not looking for a rival construction, and mostly they liked their poetry under glass. It was Blackmur’s personal tragedy, the kind that waits on the autodidact, that he came to identify with them. In his own words, harder perhaps than a reader would use, he acquiesced in “the substitution of the authoritarian for the authoritative, of violence for emotion, frenzy for passion.” The unrivalled consciousness turned to omnicompetence, the provisional faith to plenitudo potestatis. The professor manqué, having no degrees, took to writing learned papers “in solicitude and critique.” The critique is poorer for the solicitude. “In these papers, neither is the fog in the fir trees nor is the salt on the briar rose.” Ideas, the kind that dance in air, exert their fatal fascination. The validity of the criticism came increasingly “to depend on the validity of the ideas in that vacuum which is the medium of simple assertion.” Increasingly the voice you hear is the modulated voice of Professor X the belletrist, not Old Rocky Face but a leader writer in the Times.

With the ascendancy of this voice and this prescriptive personality—benevolent but not beneficent— Blackmur’s professional ascendancy began. The academy acknowledged him as one of its own—always with residual suspicion—as he put away the microscope and began to flourish his optic glass. What things he discovered in it! An equivalent, though still “putative,” for the seven parts of the trivium and quadrivium of the Middle Ages—-here he is the educational statesman beloved of nice people who deplore the two cultures and want to build a bridge between them—or a modus vivendi inspired by the question (he was false to his genius as he raised it) “What should be done?”—here, God help us, he sounds like Chernyshevsky.

Some of this stuff is fun and does really declare the great man before whom, with affection and exasperation, you throw up your hands. For example (Blackmur has been lucubrating, something like that, on a Latin phrase that recurs in the letters of John Quincy Adams): “It is a phrase from, I think, the eighth line of the third ode in the fifth book of the Odes of Horace. I may have that reference not quite right. I speak from memory.”

He rifled memory and old books; he made himself a coat out of old mythologies, here the Numen, there the Moha. This outlandish garment he wore in the world’s eye. It brought him growing acclaim. His patrons made him a fellow of the Institute for Advanced Study, appropriately—for he personified the polymath—in the School of Economics. He did not expect to be richly rewarded. He took it for granted that he would be patronized, and was. In time he became a patron himself. He brought John Berryman to Princeton, later Randall Jarrell, Delmore Schwartz, Saul Bellow, others. The National Institute of Arts and Letters elected him a member, then the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The universities acclaimed him, too, conferring on him belatedly the academic credentials he had decided as a young man he didn’t want and didn’t need. Rutgers but not Princeton gave him an honorary degree. Cambridge named him Pitt Professor. He prefigured the peregrine professor of a later time and was sought after constantly on the lecture circuit. His public lectures were mysterious, not more magnificent than dim.

At home in Princeton he hobnobbed with the great and famous. He spent evenings with Oppenheimer and Ben Shahn. When he dined at the Lucius Wilmerdings, he didn’t leave until two or three in the morning. Until he left, he didn’t stop talking. John O’Hara, whom he met frequently at parties, paid him a particular compliment. “He not only dislikes me,” Blackmur said, “but detests me.” The detestation was that of one Great Cham for another.

His salary grew, and his tastes followed, then exceeded his salary. If you wore a hat, it had better be a Borsalino. You got the best neckware at that shop on the via Condotti. Sometimes at dinner he served his guests Romanée-Conti. He drank his bourbon in tumblers black almost to the top. “Why are there no second acts in American literature?” someone is supposed to have asked Thurber, who answered: “Because writers after 40 can afford to buy their liquor by the case.”

More than any other member of the faculty, he made himself familiar with the mysteries of the budget. He could calculate to the penny, from a generalized account of university housing, the amount of rental increase against a colleague’s house on Broadmead or Fitzrandolph. Why should he have done this? The answer is buried in his penny-pinching youth. Faculty politics engrossed him, and he blew them up out of all proportion. Generally he got them all wrong. On the floor of the faculty he might have been wearing a toga. It would have become him more than most. Now he was the Younger Pliny, a laudator eloquentissimus. At Lahiere’s, the best restaurant in Princeton, he held court five days a week. He had his own chair against the north wall. And now he was Ben Jonson, inviting a friend to supper. There is a line he used to quote, derisory of famous men: “What then?” sang Plato’s ghost. “What then?”

For a long time the prophet went unhonored in his own place. The English Department did not want to promote him. Then Blackmur’s patrons intervened. They were Christian Gauss, the dean of the college, John Marshall, the associate director of the Rockefeller Foundation and a close friend from early days in Cambridge, the economist Walter Stewart, a Rockefeller trustee and a permanent member of the Institute for Advanced Study, Lucius Wilmerding, another fellow in the School of Economics. In the city he belonged to the Century Club. So did President Dodds. Every appointment to a professorship at Princeton had to carry the President’s personal recommendation. Finally Harold Dodds decided to put his name on the line. He let it be known that he was for Blackmur. The English Department saw it had no option, and in 1951 the man who never completed high school was promoted to full professor.

You wonder did he hear the dirge in the bells of his accession? Like Paraday, the famous writer in James’s story, “The Death of the Lion,” maybe like James, assuredly like Adams, he shows us in his life how renouncement depends on recognition. The flame which is the life attains its highest point, then the snuff which lives within it abates it. Blackmur had pushed to the point of success. But he had written long before how “success is not the propitious term” for a life, for a work. The propitious term, he said, is failure. Richard Blackmur was a dust-and-ashes man, self-convicted of what he called “that fundamental condition of the mind known as ennui.” He never permitted himself to taste his honors before they sated; he never omitted to drink to the lees every drop in the cup of his dejection. In an early essay he drew on Pascal, “the great scrupulous mind of the 17th century,” with whose night thoughts he lived on intimate terms. “We combat obstacles in order to get repose, and, when got, the repose is insupportable; for we think either of the troubles we have, or of those that threaten us; and even if we felt safe on every side, ennui would of its own accord spring up from the depths of the heart where it is rooted by nature, and would fill the mind with its venom.” Maybe Blackmur rejoiced in his triumph. Its entail was insupportable to him. In his self-contempt, he took care that it would be.


Birthdays were always important to him, an occasion for summing up. On the occasion of his 19th birthday, he looked back on the years of adolescence when, as he put it, “I stepped out alone”—not rodomontade by a long shot—happy in the awareness of “true genius” in himself, “sure of my victory.” His elation didn’t last. “I’m less sure now,” he wrote. “If it turns out that I fail as creative artist, then I shall know I have only a swim for a life ahead of me.” In middle age, he supposed it had turned out that way.

By all odds, it should have turned out that way. Disorder and early sorrow mingle their spurs in Blackmur’s story, and he conformed in age to the bent imparted in his beginnings. Against this bent or impairment he struggled all his life, but neither as boy nor man could he escape what he called the great grasp of unreason, and failure looked unshunnable for him. His story is exhilarating, as he didn’t fail.

In Blackmur’s papers at Princeton, this note in his own hand survives: “The right question to ask about a man of size, once he is dead and all his motion done, all his growth and his deterioration stopped, is always some form of the question: What good was he? What was the goodness in him that he amounted to—the goodness, the very virtue, that he was?” Blackmur in these questions was trying to make sense of the life of Henry Adams. But let the questions address his own life, or better, his achievement, now that the life is done. In the “very virtue” of this achievement, limitation participates. When Blackmur was still in his twenties, he wrote: “Our vices father our virtues, and in intent are indistinguishable.” This swapping back and forth is how it was with him. The insecure man had great courage, and the man of many weaknesses was endlessly fertile in discovering new sources of strength. He triumphed as he made his weakness feed his strength.

In the medieval song of Coeur d’Lion, Blondel the minstrel cries,

O Richard! O mon Roi!
L’univers t’abandonne

The Mozart-sound of Grétry’s opera only amplifies the pathos of these lines. Blackmur found them in Adams, for whom they conveyed his own suffering in a “pattern of acceptance, rejection, and expression.” In this pattern Blackmur also composed the sense of his life. The pattern mirrors the life and distorts it. In his view of himself, the acceptance he won counted far less than rejection. Only rejection was sure. Also he considered it just. “I used to say that I had never known above one or two persons who had not at some crucial point let me down. Nothing could be further from the truth. In no instance I can think of among those which used to trouble me had I any right of firmer expectation than to have been—not let down—but let go; and so it was.” Everyone with whom he got close at some crucial point let go. Out of rejection, whether real or imagined, came the work by which he lives, also the privation that diminishes the work. There is the expressive song the minstrel sings beneath the prison walls, then there is the prison in which King Richard lies captive. In the trembling jar between, his very virtue was engendered.

Perhaps, as his friend Francis Fergusson thought, Blackmur was losing his critical gift about the time he came to Princeton. It seems right to present his artistic career, anyway on one side, as describing a downward curve. This is surprising only as you overlook the imposition he carried with him. The greater surprise consists in the magnitude of what he achieved. The achievement is figured in the image of the gyres, familiar from his master Yeats. As one source of energy waned in him, another and a different source of energy supervened. He abdicated the life of a free lance; you could say he quit on his talent. But he made himself a great teacher, and his impact on a generation of students, many of whom became famous in the arts and in public affairs, was still perceptible long after he died.

Blackmur aspired to the role of lawmaker, and in later years he tried the catechistic manner and the legislating voice. The ability to conceptualize was beyond him, however. It wasn’t in his genes. So he was unlucky but lucky, too. He told the truth but told it aslant. This precluded the chance for general statement. Also it predicted the fragmentary nature of his work. He passed judgment on the work in preface to his Eleven Essays in the European Novel, “Fragments of an unfinished ruin” was the self-denigrating phrase he employed. The denigrating is just. But the provisional bias you discern in the work gives Blackmur his charter. Debarred from acquaintance with the capital-letter thing, he dealt almost exclusively in lower-case things. For want of a better, his mode was observation. Looking hard, he said what he saw. In this way he made his small body of permanent poetry.

His meticulous temper verged on morbidity and played into the criticism with unexpected results. Out of his impairment, he fashioned an instrument almost preternatural in its acuteness. His essays in criticism— they include the life of Adams—present the man who couldn’t manage a total performance. What he gives you is not an integer but a series of provisional approaches— essays, precisely, in the sense that his hero Montaigne used the word. Life as he saw it was essentially discrete, and this was impairment, too. He missed the Pisgahsight or unified theory. So he lowered his eyes and became our best American critic.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading