The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Edith Rickert – A Memoir

Fred B. Millett
Whitman, Massachusetts: The Washington Street Press, 1944

Edith Rickert was born at Dover, Ohio, on July 11, 1871, the daughter of Francis E. and Josephine (Newburgh) Rickert. She received her elementary education in the public schools of Chicago, entered Vassar College in 1887, and was graduated there in 1891. She taught at the Lyons Township High School, of Cook County, Illinois, from 1891 to 1894, and at Hyde Park High School, Chicago, from 1894 to 1896. In the meantime, she had been taking graduate courses in English at the University of Chicago, and in 1896 went abroad for a year of study, chiefly in England. On her return, she joined the English Department at Vassar, where she taught until 1900. She took her doctor’s degree at Chicago in 1899. Her dissertation, an edition of the romance of Emaré. indicated her already lively interest in mediaeval literature. It was published privately in a revised form in 1907, and re-appeared as an “Early English Text Society” publication in 1908.

In the summer of 1900, Miss Rickert had visited the Hebrides, and she sent a vivid account of her impressions of these remote islands to the New York Evening Post (July 7, 1900). The sensitivity of her observations appears in the following passage:

When you set out from your cottage to explore the island, you find a perpetual charm in its surprises. Perhaps you tramp across the moors, knee-deep in heather, then suddenly ankle-deep in bog; your progress becomes a series of leaps from rock to rock. Following a lonely sheep-track across the bracken, you unwittingly come upon the flock and send them pattering down the slopes; with a sudden bend you are on the verge of an opalescent island-studded sea. If the day be clear you count thirty or forty of the Cuchullin Peaks of Skye, hanging like shadows in mid-air. Or again, as you scramble up the shoulder of a hill, a turf-grown, Norse round-tower, perhaps a thousand years old, juts up before you. Descending, you come out upon the loch with St. Clair’s Castle lying black and dim on its sluggish hill-shaded waters. -

You sit basking in the sunny bit of garden, among the beets and carrots and sweetwilliams, with the brown nets blowing in the wind, and you hear how the “Annie Jane” lang syne went down off Vatersay and three hundred souls were lost. You hear whispered about how madness and the lust of wreck fell upon folk, and they did unholy deeds. Even as they are talking, you gaze away at Barra Head yonder, where a good brig has been beating herself to death these six weeks and more. She is pretty well bought up now. Peter has the lining of the Captain’s cabin, solid mahogany, says he, and wonders what he will do with it. Ian staggered off with the wheel and compass the other day; Seumas bought the galley stove, and says that he must now build a new house and use this as one wall. We agree that the captain should have taken soundings —and what right had such a young fellow to be captain at all, when Angus, who wull be mate, ay, twenty year and more, and kens the coast from a babby, is the better man, whateffer, though no scollard?

During the first decade of the century, Miss Rickert was busy with two very different kinds of literary work: the writing of novels and the editing of mediaeval texts. In addition to a considerable number of short stories, she wrote and published five novels. The first, Out of the Cypress Swamp (1902), was a rather melodramatic tale with a Louisiana setting. In The Reaper (1904), against the background of life in the Shetland Islands, she depicted Terval Saeinundson, a crofter with some scholarly ambitions, first rebelling against, and then becoming reconciled to the limitations of his lot. Of it, the Boston Transcript (October 12, 1904) said, it is “a work which at one moment seems to meet all the requirements of a novel and at another is an acute archaeological and sociological study of the Shetlanders as they were and are . . . . So impressive are Miss Rickert’s accounts of the Shetland character, so vivid her pictures of their alternating happy and sordid lives, so faithful her study of the racial personal influences that move them, that we may accept The Reaper as one of the notable novels of the season. It is something more than fiction it gives a realistic, poetic, imaginative view of a wonderful and curious people.”

Her next novel, Folly (1906), had a modern English setting and a familiar triangular situation, the relations between a high-strung young wife, her complaisant husband, and a dying artist. The material did not give play to Miss Rickert’s romantic imagination, and the book was rather roughly handled by the reviewers. The critic on the New York Tribune (May 6, 1906) described the heroine as “an hysterical young married woman with uncontrollable affections for the wrong people.” The New York Times (May 9, 1906) critic was kinder — “Except for a certain artificiality in the handling of certain situations and the resulting dialogue, the story is a good one and well told.”

The Golden Hawk (1907) had as setting a sun-baked village in Provençe, and as hero a gay young braggart who starts out from Avignon, to see life and to conquer the world. Of Miss Rickert’s treatment of this character, the New York Evening Post (May 11, 1907) said, “What she fully understands is the way in which the impulses of such light-hearted beings ebb and flow, their uncertain gusts of enthusiasm and satiety, and the dangerous moments when a rift of doubt threatens to crumble the entire edifice of their immense self esteem.” Replying to the New York Times critic’s charge that the story was too “bizarre” to be true, Miss Rickert wrote: “Happily ‘bizarre’ is the very word that would describe in English the Provençal spirit, with its extraordinary mixture of romance and realism, humor and pathos, extravagance and practical common sense, almost, one might say, tragedy and comedy, not strange when one remembers the old races — Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Ligurian, Gothic, Arabic — that enter into its composition.”

Her final novel of this period, The Beggar in the Heart (1910), one critic described as “the love story of a Yankee spinster?’ Its settings ranged from New England to Paris and London, and its tone is indicated by the same critic’s words in the New York Tribune (May 28, 1910): “The book is a fairy tale, pure and simple and sweet, with a most fantastically matter-of-fact, realistic twentieth century setting.”

During this period of intensive novel writing, Miss Rickert was building a firmer reputation as the translator and editor of mediaeval literature. This phase of her work began with the charmingly translated Lays of Marie de France (1901), and was continued with the series of volumes she contributed to the “New Mediaeval Library”: The Babees Book, Early English Romances of Love, and Early English Romances of Friendship, all of which appeared in 1908, and Ancient Christmas Carols, which appeared in 1910. As one leafs through these little volumes, he finds constant evidence not only of the translator’s sound scholarship but of her exquisite taste, expressing itself in the stories and texts chosen and in the mediaeval illuminations which illustrate the texts. This interest in the fine arts and the desire to link them closely to literature was to result years later in her collecting and presenting to the University of Chicago a large number of lantern slides of mediaeval life which she had made from manuscripts, many of them hand-colored or color-photographed. It also showed itself in the reproductions of Holbein’s drawings which hang in the corridors of Wieboldt Hall at the University and in the magnificent series of rubbings of English sepulchral brasses which adorn the stairway of that building.

Miss Rickert’s first editorial service to contemporary literature appears in the collection of American lyrics she edited with Miss Jessie Paton in 1912; from that year until 1915, she also served on the editorial staff of the Ladies Home Journal. In the summer quarters of 1914, 1915, and 1917 she taught courses at the University, and it was during this period that she began to gather the material which ultimately was to appear in her manuals for the study of contemporary literature. The publication of these works was, however, to be delayed until after the War, because from 1918 to 1919 she served with Professor John Matthews Manly and other members of the University faculty in the Cryptographic section of the Military Intelligence Division of the General Staff in Washington. The story of that adventure is still to be told, but this interest in secret service codes was by no means so alien and so transitory as might at first appear. Professor Manly had long been critically interested in the cryptographs which allegedly demonstrate Bacon’s authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, and some years after the War he and Miss Rickert were still putting their enthusiasm for intellectual puzzles to good use, as a letter from Mr. Ralph D. Kellogg (Chicago, ‘15) entertainingly indicates. The time was January 1926; the place, a cabin cruiser of the Blue Star Line, on an eleven-day crossing from New York to Liverpool. Miss Rickert, overhearing Mr. Kellogg talking with a young Spaniard from Havana, had asked him if he could lend her a Spanish dictionary. “The purpose of the Spanish dictionary was not clear until Miss Rickert explained that she and Dr. Manly were not working on a crossword puzzle but were attempting to decipher a message written in code by Don Hernan Cortes in the sixteenth century. The writer proved to be a minor office holder in a remote part of the conqueror’s realm. The original document, I believe, had been entrusted to Dr. Manly and his associate with the hope that some one might discover the secret code which had been used. Neither Dr. Manly nor Miss Rickert knew Spanish for purposes of conversation, but they did know the roots of most of the Spanish words, whether of Latin or Arabic origin, and apparently they also knew a good deal about the frequency of letters in the Spanish tongue. My own contribution was not great, as you can well imagine, but with the help of the dictionary Miss Rickert and Dr. Manly were able to decipher most of the code before our arrival in Liverpool.”

From the end of the period of Miss Rickert’s stay in Washington until her permanent appointment at the University of Chicago, she and Professor Manly found time to produce a series of textbooks in fields quite remote from their consuming interest in mediaeval literature. The most important of these were The Writing of English (1919), Contemporary British Literature (1921), Contemporary American Literature (1922), and The Writer’s Index of Good Form and Good English (1923). The contemporary bibliographies and study outlines grew out of the need Miss Rickert felt in her courses in modern literature for systematic collections of information about major and minor authors. At the time, courses in contemporary literature were not in very good repute, and such obvious and necessary tools were not to be found. The first slim volumes associated with the names of two distinguished scholars played no modest part in pointing the way to serious scholarly studies in the contemporary field.

In 1924, Miss Rickert was appointed an associate professor of English in the University of Chicago, and in 1930 she was elevated to a full professorship. She devoted the Summer and Autumn Quarters to teaching and the rest of the year to working in England on Chaucer and the life of his period. Her favorite courses were Chaucer and contemporary British literature. As she developed her ideas concerning the scientific analysis of modern prose styles, she gave seminars in this technique, and in 1927 published her results in New Methods for the Study of Literature. She was an amazingly stimulating teacher; she worked tirelessly herself, and she expected her students to work as incessantly and eagerly as she did. Not content with her regular assignment of courses, she volunteered to assist groups of students interested in developing their acquaintance with paleography and the reading of mediaeval manuscripts. Even during the half-year which she spent abroad, she found time to keep up a correspondence with students who needed her advice with their personal projects.

But from 1924 until the day of her death, Miss Rickert’s major interest was “the Chaucer project,” the collecting, photostating, and collating of all the discoverable manuscripts, the study of their genealogical relationships, and the establishment of an authoritative text, of the Canterbury Tales. To this end, Professor Manly and Miss Rickert kept a staff at work in both Chicago and London throughout the year, and they themselves spent the first half of each year in indefatigable and concentrated activity in England. The task was infinitely laborious and exhaustive in terms of time, money, and strength, and as the years passed, Miss Rickert was heard to say that it would never be completed if they worked like normal human beings.

Perhaps as a relief from the increasing tension of this enterprise, Miss Rickert wrote in the later years of her life three children’s stories: The Bojabi Tree (1923), The Blacksmith and the Blackbirds (1928), and The Greedy Garoo (1929), and one novel, Severn Woods (1930), which was published in England under the title Olwen Growing. The novel, which was said to have been written while Miss Rickert was waiting in the morning for the British Museum to open, combined her love for primitive and unspoiled settings and her interest in psychological relationships. She was happiest in her description of the English woodland village in which the heroine Olwen is growing up. She was less skillful in her account of the girl’s contentious and tragic love for a cynical and unworthy man. But toward the end of the book, there is an effective synthesis between the setting and the spirit of the heroine, as, after her husband’s defection, she sees her life and the life of her child as a part of the natural processes of her world.

Of the last years of Miss Rickert’s life I can do no better than quote Professor Manly’s moving account in the preface to The Text of the Canterbury Tales.

“During the autumn of 1935 Miss Rickert carried her work with great difficulty, and the brief voyage to England gave only temporary relief. In March of 1936 she suffered a heart-attack which we feared would prove fatal. As soon as she recovered even a small measure of strength she insisted on resuming her work, although confined to bed and able to work only a few minutes at a stretch. But she fought on for life and strength, returning helpless to Chicago in October in the vain desire to undertake the teaching she had promised to do.

For nearly two years longer her strong constitution and her unconquerable willpower enabled her to live, and, when she was at all able to do so, to take part in the work. On May 20, 1938, she handed me a paper setting forth the views she had long held on the preservation of some traits of Chaucer’s early drafts by the Fitzwilliam MS. She was very happy at having accomplished this and full of confidence that she would live to see the whole work completed and published. But alas! the next evening, after a quiet and unexciting day, she suffered a sudden stroke, which left her speechless and only half-conscious. From this she did not rally, but passed quietly away during the following night” [May 23]. No one knew better than Professor Manly the accuracy of his final comment, “She was as sweet and fine as she was strong.”

But, despite Miss Rickert’s death, Professor Manly and the staff they had trained persisted in the work against great odds, and the years of devotion and sacrifice were crowned in January 1940 by the publication of the eight volumes of The Text of the Canterbury Tales, studied on the basis of all known manuscripts. Professor Manly himself survived the publication of the great work by only a few months. Something of its significance may be gleaned from the comments of the critic in the (London) Times Literary Supplement (June 22, 1940) under the headlines: Heroism in Scholarship,” “Colossal Labour on Chaucerian Text”:

“In these days, when events move on so vast a scale, it is well to be reminded that scholarship also has its colossal achievements. . . Assuredly the achievement of that incomparable pair of scholars, Professor John Matthews Manly and Professor Edith Rickert, deserves the epithet ‘prodigious’. . . . The great merit of this vast accomplishment does not consist merely in the fact that it makes possible a better text of the Canterbury Tales than any which has hitherto been published. It marks an epoch in the development of the art of editing a classical text from a large number of manuscripts. . . . The textual critic may say, as Dryden said of the Canterbury Tales themselves, ‘Here is God’s plenty.’”


Edith Rickert possessed, to an extraordinary degree, three great gifts,— beauty, vitality, and intelligence. Any one of these gifts would have made her a striking and memorable person. The combination of these powers made her unique.

It was Miss Rickert’s beauty of which I first became aware in the days — twenty-odd years ago — when as a graduate student I used to see her rapidly running through cards in the catalogue room of Harper Library, or making the stir of a miniature cyclone as she swept down the narrow aisles of W41, the crowded Modern Language Reading Room, high in the West Tower. Her fine broad brow, her thick slightly graying hair, parted in the middle and drawn loosely back over the ears, the fine dark eyes, the erect and handsome carriage, the deft and expert hands, gave her appearance grace, distinction, and beauty. The speed and certainty of her gestures and the intentness and concentration of her activity made one aware, even in fleeting glimpses, of an alert intelligence and an aggressive spirit within the lovely appearance.

Miss Rickert’s beauty and intelligence would have been less compelling if it had not been for her incredible vitality and energy. For years, her energies seemed inexhaustible. I have never known any one who was capable of such sustained and high-powered exertion. Her normal working day was twice the length of that of most of her Colleagues. She was the embodiment of a passion for constant intellectual activity. In her later years, friends and colleagues, physicians and servants frequently urged upon her the necessity for rest and relaxation. Toward the end of her life, she seemed to feel as though the great work on which she was engaged would not and could not be completed without her last exhausting efforts. Her energy, industry, and tremendous will-to-work inspired not only admiration but something like dismay and awe. I am sure that I should have enrolled as a student in one of her courses if I had not feared being swept up into the course of her tornado-like progress. Certainly, her devoted students found her impassioned intellectual enthusiasm contagious, and under its influence discovered themselves to be working at a pace and with a devotion of which they had not dreamed themselves capable.

Miss Rickert’s intelligence was remarkable not only for its range but for its quality. It was as resourceful as it was tireless. She had the first-rate scholar’s determination to discover the final and most inaccessible fact and his capacity for endless devotion to the indispensable minutiae of historical investigation. But her mind was superior to most scholarly minds in its fecundity in producing hypotheses. Sometimes these hypotheses were breath-taking in their audacity. Despite the array of evidence, I have never been quite convinced that she was successful in demonstrating a connection between King James I and the character of Bottom in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. Her New Methods for the Study of Literature (1927) was the product of another startling hypothesis. She had come to realize acutely that, while some progress had been made by scholars in the development of a technique for the analysis of poetic style, most supposedly critical comments on prose style were impressionistic and unscientific. In this book, she set forth in exhaustive detail a method of analysis which should furnish reliable objective criteria for distinguishing the characteristics of diverse prose styles. The aim here was an admirable one, the attack was highly intelligent, and the methods outlined and illustrated were enormously suggestive. The application of this elaborate and cumbersome technique demanded a vast patience and a high degree of statistical skill. Even though few of her students had the courage to apply her methods of analysis, and then, frequently, under the pressure of her own relentless enthusiasm, this book demonstrated finally the absurdity of any preceding attempt to analyze prose style with scientific reliability.

Miss Rickert’s intimate knowledge of contemporary literature was another manifestation of her omnivorous intellectual curiosity. Out of this interest grew such pioneering ventures as the Contemporary British Literature and Contemporary American Literature. Long after she had relinquished any immediate responsibility for the successive editions of these books, she continued to discover, through some sixth aesthetic sense, the significant novelties among the new writers, and thus was able to make helpful and suggestive comments on the proofs of my introduction to the 1929 edition of Contemporary American Literature. A letter she wrote me from Paris, after a train journey from the Riviera and “a long afternoon of shopping entirely in French” gives a vivid impression of her intellectual and aesthetic eagerness:

Herewith — under separate cover — about half the galleys that we have received; the other half will follow by the next mail if possible. We have all had a go at them (including Mrs. Patrick); but you will regard our various remarks as much or as little as you please. Those made on the train coming from the Riviera you may not be able to read.

We have been for the last two weeks — nearer three — at Beauvallon near Saint Raphael. The morning sun from my loggia, with sea and mountains outspread and the fishing village of St. Tropez across the bay, was a thing to remember. And it is rather nice, as you lie in bed, to watch the sun climb over the hills and redden the sea and to go to sleep in the friendly winking of a lighthouse. But it is good to be back in Paris.

For seven or eight hours a day Mr. Manly and I worked on the classification of the Chaucer MSS. We have almost all the monkeys pretty well settled now on the family tree, although some of them still chase their own tails. Before the end of the winter we hope to have as solid and as solemn a pedigree as any English noble family can boast.

The most memorable and significant object of her intellectual devotion was Chaucer, his works, and fourteenth century life and literature generally. When I joined the staff of the Department of English in 1927, Miss Rickert and Mr. Manly were already spending six months of the year in England, but, whether in London or Chicago, their major concern was the advancement on every front of our knowledge of the life of the fourteenth century, the life of Chaucer and his friends, and the incredibly complicated history of the manuscripts of the Canterbury Tales. When I last saw Miss Rickert in London in the spring of 1936, her health was already breaking down, but she could not be lured away from her tremendous project by my account of the exciting production at Stratford of a play of such great interest to her as Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. It is a matter of tragic regret that she could not live to see the publication of the results of her immense labor of love for Chaucer.

When I try to summon from memory the glowing vision that Edith Rickert was, I find the early glimpses of her in the catalogue room in Harper or in the crowded aisles of W41 are the most distinct. Familiarity has blurred and blended the later images. I think of her, too, and sadly, as the ghostly inhabitant of the apartment at the end of the fountain-court of LaFlorida which constituted her Chicago pied-a-terre. Though she was too intent on her work to pay much attention to the stage furniture of her life, that apartment bore the unmistakable impress of her numerous artistic and scholarly interests. The furniture was a casual and rather battered accumulation from her and others’ lives. There was a small but extremely diverse collection of books. The grand piano and the music-cabinet were laden with the classical music to which she was deeply devoted. On the walls hung the original drawings made by Benda for some of her early novels. Along the plate rail in the dining room stood her own record in water-colors of the places she had visited and loved. Here and there were unobtrusive pictorial and plastic representations of mediaeval persons, places, and events. For a time, there was also her magnificent Persian cat, Geoffrey Chaucer, and, in the background, the faithful and adoring Amanda.

From this haunt, her dynamic and impassioned spirit has vanished, but her energy and beauty and intelligence are only in a superficial sense inoperative. Edith Rickert has won the scholar’s immortality she would have wished,— the persistence of her bright image and glowing example in the lives and works of her students and colleagues, and the eternal association of her name with that of her beloved Chaucer.

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