Inside the covers: I. A. Richards

Last week with the summer sun blazing down and the sprinkler systems creating a wonderfully refreshing mist in Second Court; I escaped the heatwave to begin our College Library stockcheck in Right Cloister. For the next few weeks Annie and I will be scanning the barcode inside the front cover of ca. 26,000 books, and then uploading this information into our Heritage circulation system. The system will generate a printed report to identify missing books and other anomalies which we can investigate and correct.

This is a fantastic opportunity for Annie and I to get to know the collection better and I was delighted to discover in our Greek Philosophy and Religion section some ex-libris books that once belonged to renowned College alumnus and Honorary Fellow Professor I. A. Richards, C.H., received in July 1968 and available to borrow in the College Library.

One of the most important scholars produced by Magdalene College in the twentieth century, Professor I. A. Richards (1893-1979) was an influential English literary critic who employed psychological elements to study language. His theories and emphasis on close reading revolutionised textual analysis and he is often considered the ‘founding father’ of modern literary criticism.

I. A. Richards

I. A. Richards, from Richards archive, Magdalene College Old Library

Ivor Armstrong Richards was born on the 26th of February, 1893, in Sandbach, Cheshire. He came to Cambridge in 1911 and was educated at Magdalene College, where he graduated with honours in Moral Sciences (Philosophy) and became one of the first official Fellows in English in 1926.

Whilst lecturing at Magdalene from 1922 to 1929, Richards collaborated with linguist and philosopher Charles Kay Ogden (1889-1957) and authored his most significant and ground-breaking works in rhetoric, semiotics and prose interpretation, such as The Meaning of Meaning (1923), Principles of Literary Criticism (1924) and Practical Criticism (1929), all of which influenced the critical movement known as the ‘New Criticism’.

In Practical Criticism (1929), Richards reported on a series of experiments that he carried out in the 1920’s. He believed that meaning was contextual and gave poems to his students without providing any information about the title, date or author. He encouraged students to focus on the words rather than preconceived beliefs about the text, in order to clarify various patterns of thought contained in the poem and reach an ‘organised response’. During his time as lecturer Richards mentored and influenced the outstanding pupil William Empson (1906-1984), who wrote his seminal work Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930) whilst still an undergraduate at Magdalene.

In the 1930’s Richards and Ogden sought to develop the teaching tool ‘Basic English’, (acronym for British American Scientific International Commercial), a condensed version of English with an 850 word vocabulary intended to become a universal and international language. Richards travelled to China as a visiting Professor at Tsing Hua National University in Peking (Beijing) in 1929 to advocate this program and in 1938 he published A First Book of English for Chinese Learners in ‘Basic English’ followed by a translation of Plato’s Republic in 1942.

A keen mountaineer and ambitious man, Richards was offered a position as lecturer at Harvard University and he relocated to America in 1939 to further develop his international program of ‘Basic English’. Richards constantly sought to better world language training and he undertook numerous experiments in new media such as visiting the Walt Disney Studios to learn how to draw cartoons. He remained in Harvard for 35 years and in 1963 he became Emeritus Professor. Around this time he began to concentrate on writing his own poetry and in 1974 he decided to return to Cambridge. He died on the 7th of September, 1979, after returning to Cambridge following a lecture tour in China. Significantly, Professor I. A. Richards developed a suitable theoretical framework to help establish the new Cambridge English Tripos in the 1920’s and initiate the study of English as an academic discipline.

I.A. Richards Annexe, Old Library (photograph by Sophie Connor)

I. A. Richards Annexe, Old Library. Photograph by Sophie Connor

In addition to the books donated to the College Library, an annexe was opened in Magdalene College Old Library in 1982 to house I. A. Richards collection of books, notebooks, papers, audio-visual materials, slides and Chinese artefacts. Whilst doing the stockcheck we were excited to uncover some annotations on the front board of our College Library book, classmark 2.F.40A, The Poetics of Aristotle, edited with critical notes and a translation by S. H. Butcher (1920). Comparing the handwriting against I. A. Richards notebooks in the Old Library however it seems unlikely the annotations belong to the original owner. Who then could have annotated this book?

EDIT 29/07/14: Since publishing this post we have discovered that the annotations are most probably by I.A. Richards, as his handwriting changed significantly throughout his life.

2.F.40A, The Poetics of Aristotle, edited with critical notes and a translation by S. H. Butcher (1920)

2.F.40A, The Poetics of Aristotle, edited with critical notes and a translation by S. H. Butcher (1920) Photograph by Sophie Connor

Once our annual stockcheck is complete, Annie and I hope to undertake a project to include provenance information in catalogue records for all the books donated to Magdalene College Library to build a complete picture of our rich collection. We hope to feature more donated books in the Magdalene Libraries’ blog in the future.

By Sophie Connor


Cunich, Hoyle, Duffy and Hyam. A History of Magdalene College Cambridge, 1428-1988. Cambridge : Crampton & Sons, 1994.

Hyam, Ronald. Magdalene Described: A guide to the buildings of Magdalene College Cambridge, 2nd edition. Cambridge : Magdalene College Publications, 2011.

Storer, Richard. ‘Richards, Ivor Armstrong.’ ODNB Online. Oxford University Press. Accessed 21 July 2014.

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