Literature and Its Professors

By THOMAS PURNELL. London : Bell and Daldy.
A CULTIVATED intellect, a fair degree of shrewd perception, an inviolable conscientiousness, a common sense frankly self-satisfied, are some of the qualifications which Mr. Purnell brings to the discussion of literature as seen in modern journalism, and in the lives of Giraldus Cambrensis and Montaigne, — of Roger Williams, the literary statesman, — of Steele, Sterne, and Swift, essayists, — of Mazzini, the literary patriot.
Many of the conditions of literary journalism alluded to in these essays are unknown in our country, where literature has not yet become merely a trade, and where we cannot see that literary men are sinking in popular esteem, and deservedly sinking, as being no better informed, or better qualified to control opinion, than their non-writing neighbors. We can better understand Mr. Purnell when he speaks of the imperfections and discrepancies of criticism, but are not better able to sympathize with all his ideas. The trouble is not, we think, that “critics who conceive themselves to be men of taste give their opinions fearlessly, having no misgivings that they are right,” and “if a book is bad, feel it is bad,” without being able to refer to a critical principle in proof, but that many who write reviews have not formed opinions and have not felt at all, and have rather proceeded upon a prejudice, a supposed law of aesthetics applicable to every exigency of literary development. A sense of the inadequacy of criticism must trouble every honest man who sits down to examine a new book ; and if might almost be said, that no books can be justly estimated by the critic except those which are unworthy of criticism. Upon certain points and aspects of an author’s work the critic can justly give his convictions, and need have no misgivings about them ; but how to present a complete idea of it, and always to make that appear characteristic which is characteristic, and that exceptional which is exceptional, is the difficulty. Still, criticism must continue: the perfect equipoise may never be attained, and yet we must employ the balance, or nothing can be appraised, and traffic ceases.
It appears to us that criticism would be even more inadequate than it is, however, if as Mr. Purnell desires, it should have “to do solely with the disposal of the materials, and but incidentally with the quality of the materials themselves.” If the German critics whom we are asked to imitate have taught us anything, it is to look through form at the substance within, and to judge that. When criticism was supposed a science, it declared with a mathematical absoluteness that no drama was good or great which did not preserve the unities. Yet Shakespeare has written since, and no critic in the world thinks his plays bad or weak, —thanks, chiefly, to the German criticism, which is an art, and not a science, as Mr. Purnell desires us to think it. In fact, criticism is almost purely a matter of taste and experience, and there is hardly any law established for criticism which has not been overthrown as often as the French government. Upon one point—namely, that a critic should judge an author solely by his work, and never by anything known of him personally — we think no one will disagree with our essayist.
We hardly know how much or how little to value the clever workmanship of these essays, which is characteristic of a whole class of literature in England, though we suspect it has not much greater claim to praise than the art possessed by most Parisians of writing dramatic sketches of Parisian society. It seems to come of a condition of things, rather than from an individual faculty. Still, it is remarkable, and even admirable, though in Mr. Purnell’s case it is not inconsistent with dealing somewhat prolixly with rather dry subjects, and being immensely inconclusive upon all important matters, and very painfully conclusive on trivial ones. Our essayist says little that is new of Montaigne, and does not add to our knowledge of Steele, Swift, and Sterne, though he speaks freshly and interestingly of Roger Williams as the first promoter of religious toleration. He requires seventeen pages (“Literary HeroWorship") to declare that a great poet ought not to be thought great because he is not a great soldier, and vice versa ; he is neat and cold, and generally doubtful of things accepted, and assured of things doubted, — and, without being commonplace himself, he seems to believe that he was born into the world to vindicate mediocrity of feeling.