It is nearly impossible to summarize True Friendship: Geoffrey Hill, Anthony Hecht, and Robert Lowell Under the Sign of Eliot and Pound. Its method is one of accretion, of numerous small verbal echoes that may not appear much on their own, but add up to a profound and persuasive thesis. In this Ricks follows, as he acknowledges, Eliot whose critical idea it is. In this also Ricks follows, I think, the poets' working method, which lives on a predecessor's words and in turn gives life to them. Auden is right when he wrote that Ricks is the kind of critic every poet dreams of having.
Intellectually searching, Ricks does not propound an overarching theory of influence, in the manner of Harold Bloom. He is not after grand synthesis but quivering alertness. And so he shows that Geoffrey Hill is more generous and sympathetic in his poetry than in his prose towards Eliot. Ricks's defense of Eliot's late poetry against Hill's attack is thrilling to read. In the second of the three linked essays, he shows how Anthony Hecht grapples with both Eliot's poetry and anti-semitism. The ample quotation of Hill and Hecht's poetry not only supports Ricks's argument but also promotes an appreciation of both poets' strengths.
The essay on Lowell focuses more narrowly on his two sonnets about his friendships with Eliot and Pound, and the friendship between Eliot and Pound. The latter is the true subject matter. Ricks discusses the debt Little Gidding owes to Pound, as well as Dante. The familiar compound ghost is Ser Brunetto but he is also Pound. Eliot compounds hell and purgatory in the section, as if he could not condemn Pound to everlasting torment, but hoped for mercy for his old friend and master, as he hoped for himself. In this Eliot finally is different from Dante, who placed his sodomite teacher in Hell. Not that Dante was less feeling, but that Dante was more orthodox.
Again and again Ricks returns to the Brunetto passage in Dante to show its vital significance for all the poets he discusses in this book. He ends most poignantly by quoting Lowell's translation, which Pound read and recorded for his spiritual son. After walking with Dante for a while, because to sit and rest would burn with flames that cannot be brushed off, Brunetto has to let Dante go: "Give
me no pity. Read my Tesoro. In
my book, my treasure, I am still alive."
Then he turned back, and he seemed one of those
who run for the green cloth through the green field
at Verona . . . and seemed more like the one
who wins the roll of cloth than those who lose.
Elsewhere in the book Ricks pointed out the dignity of the damned man. He is lost but, seen through Dante's loving and sorrowful eyes, seems to win instead. The book closes with an exhortation to read the poets, but that is hardly necessary. Well before the close, Ricks's discriminating admiration for these flawed men is already enticement enough.