Curiosities of Criticism
THERE is a growing tendency on the part of literary men to resent what they are pleased to consider the unwarrantable interference of the critic. His ministrations have probably never been sincerely gratifying to their recipients; Marsyas could hardly have enjoyed being flayed by Apollo, even though he knew his music was bad ; and worse, far worse, than the most caustic severity are the few careless words that dismiss our cherished aspirations as not even worthy the rueful dignity of punishment. But in former days the victim, if he resented such treatment at all, resented it in the spirit of Lord Byron, who, roused to a healthy and vigorous wrath,
In language such as gentlemen are seldom known to use,”
and by a comprehensive and impartial attack on all the writers of his time proved himself both able and willing to handle the weapons that had wounded him. On the other side, those authors whose defensive powers were of a less prompt and efficient character ventured no nearer to a quarrel than — to borrow a simile of George Eliot’s — a waterfowl that puts out its leg in a deprecating manner can be said to quarrel with a boy who throws stones. Southey, who of all men entertained the most comfortable opinion of his own merits, must have been deeply angered by the treatment Thalaba and Madoc received from the Edinburgh Review; yet we cannot see that either he or his admirers looked upon Jeffrey in any other light than that of a tyrannical but perfectly legitimate authority. Far nobler victims suffered from the same bitter sting, and they too nursed their wounds in a decorous silence.
But it is very different to-day, when every injured aspirant to the Temple of Fame assures himself and a sympathizing public, not that a particular critic is mistaken in his particular case, which we may safely take for granted, but that all critics are necessarily wrong in all cases, through an abnormal development of what the catechism terms “ darkness of the understanding and a propensity to evil.” This amiable theory was, I think, first advanced by Lord Beaconsfield, who sorely needed some such emollient for his bruises. In Lothair, when that truly remarkable artist Mr. Gaston Phœbus, accompanied by his sister-in-law Miss Euphrosyne Cantacuzene, — Heaven help their unhappy sponsors ! — reveals to his assembled guests the picture he has just completed, we are told that his air “ was elate, and was redeemed from arrogance only by the intellect of his brow. ‘ Tomorrow,’ he said, ‘ the critics will commence. You know who the critics are? The men who have failed in literature and art.'” If Lord Beaconsfield thought to disarm his foes by this ingenious device, he was most signally mistaken; for while several of the reviews were deferentially hinting that perhaps the book might not be so very bad as it seemed, Blackwood stepped alertly to the front, and in a criticism unsurpassed for caustic wit and merciless raillery held up each feeble extravagance to the inextinguishable laughter of the world. Even now, when few people venture upon the palatial dreariness of the novel itself, there is no better way of insuring a mirthful hour than by rereading this vigorous and trenchant satire.
Quite recently two writers, one on either side of the Atlantic, have echoed with superfluous bitterness their conviction of the total depravity of the critic. Mr. Edgar Fawcett, in The House on High Bridge, and Mr. J. R. Rees, in The Pleasures of a Book-Worm, seem to find the English language painfully inadequate for the forcible expression of their displeasure. Mr. Fawcett considers all critics “ inconsistent when they are not regrettably ignorant,” and fails to see any use for them in an enlightened world. “ It is marvelous,” he reflects, “ how long we tolerate an absurdity of injustice before suddenly waking up to it. And what can be a more clear absurdity than that some one individual caprice, animus, or even honest judgment should be made to influence the public regarding any new book ? ” Moreover, he has discovered that the men and women who write the reviews are mere “ underpaid vendors of opinions,” who earn their breakfasts and dinners by saying disagreeable things about authors, “ their superiors beyond expression.” But it is only fair to remind Mr. Fawcett that no particular disgrace is involved in earning one’s breakfasts and dinners. On the contrary, hunger is a perfectly legitimate and very valuable incentive to industry. “God help the bear, if, having little else to eat, he must not even suck his own paws ! ” wrote Sir Walter Scott, with good - humored contempt, when Lord Byron accused him of being a mercenary poet ; and we probably owe The Vicar of Wakefield, The Library, and Venice Preserved to their authors’ natural and unavoidable craving for food. Besides, if the reviewers are underpaid, it is not so much their fault as that of their employers, and their breakfasts and dinners must be proportionately light. When Milton received five pounds for Paradise Lost, he was probably the most underpaid writer in the whole history of literature, yet Mr. Mark Pattison seems to think that this fact redounds to his especial honor.
But there are even worse things to be learned about the critic than that he sells his Opinions for food. According to Mr. Fawcett, he is distinguished for “ real, hysterical, vigilant, unhealthy sensitiveness,” and nurses this unpleasant feeling to such a degree that, should an author object to being ill-treated at his hands, the critic is immediately offended into saying something more abominable still. In fact, like an uncompromising mother I once knew, who always punished her children till they looked pleasant, he requires his smarting victims to smile beneath the rod. Happily there is a cure, and a very radical one too, for this painful state of affairs. Mr. Fawcett proposes that all such offenders should be obliged to buy the works which they dissect, rightly judging that the book notices would grow beautifully less under such stringent treatment. Indeed, were it extended a little further, and all readers obliged to buy the books they read, the publishers, the sellers, and the reviewers might spare the time to take a holiday together.
Mr. Rees is quite as severe and mucli more ungrateful in his strictures; for, after stating that the misbehavior of the critic is a source of great amusement to the thoughtful student, he proceeds to chastise that misbehavior, as though it had never entertained him at all. In his opinion, the reviewer, being guided exclusively by a set of obsolete and worthless rules, is necessarily incapable of recognizing genius under any new development : “ He usually is as little fitted to deal with the tasks he sets himself as a manikin is to growl about the anatomy of a star, setting forth at the same time his own thoughts as to how it should be formed.” Vanity is the mainspring of his actions : “ He fears to be thought beneath his author, and so doles out a limited number of praises and an unlimited quantity of slur.” Like the Welshman, he strikes in the dark, thus escaping just retribution; and in his stupid ignorance he seeks to “ rein in the wingèd steed,” from having no conception of its aerial powers.
Now this is a formidable indictment, and some of the charges may be not without foundation ; but if, as too often happens, the “ wingèd steed ” is merely a donkey standing ambitiously on its hind legs, who but the critic can compel it to resume its quadrupedal attitude ? If, as Mr. Walter Bagehot warned us some years ago, “ reading is about to become a series of collisions against aggravated breakers, of beatings with imaginary surf,” who but the critic can steer us safely through the storm ? Never, in fact, were his duties more sharply defined or more sorely needed than at present, when the average reader, like the unfortunate Mr. Boffin, stands bewildered by the Scarers in Print, and finds life all too short for their elucidation. The self-satisfied who “ know what they prefer,” and read accordingly, are like the enthusiasts who follow their own consciences without first accurately ascertaining whither they are being taken. It has been well said that the object of criticism is simply to clear the air about great work for the benefit of ordinary people. We only waste our powers when we refuse a guide, and by forcing our minds hither and thither, like navigators exploring each new stream while ignorant of its course and current, we squander in idle researches the time and thought which should send us steadily forward on our road. Worse still, we vitiate our judgments by perverse and presumptuous conclusions, and weaken our untrained faculties by the very methods we hoped would speed their growth. If Mr. Ruskin and Mr. Matthew Arnold resemble each other in nothing else, they have both taught earnestly and persistently, through long and useful lives, the supreme necessity of law, the supreme merit of obedience. Mr. Arnold has preached it with logical coldness, after his fashion, and Mr. Ruskin with illogical impetuosity, after his; but the lesson remains practically the same. “ All freedom is error,” writes the author of Queen of the Air, who is at least blessed with the courage of his convictions. “ Every line you lay down is either right or wrong : it may be timidly and awkwardly wrong, or fearlessly and impudently wrong; the aspect of the impudent wrongness is pleasurable to vulgar persons, and is what they commonly call ‘ free ’ execution.... I have hardly patience to hold my pen and go on writing, as I remember the infinite follies of modern thought in this matter, centred in the notion that liberty is good for a man, irrespectively of the use he is likely to make of it.”
But he does go on writing, nevertheless, long after this slender stock of patience is exhausted, and in his capacity of critic he lays down Draconian laws which his disciples seem bound to wear as a heavy yoke around their necks. “ Who made Mr. Ruskin a judge or a nursery governess over us ? ” asks an irreverent contributor to Macmillan ; and why, after all, should we abstain from reading Darwin, and Grote, and Coleridge, and Kingsley, and Thackeray, and a host of other writers, who may or may not be gratifying to our own tastes, because Mr. Ruskin has tried and found them wanting? It is not the province of a critic to bar us in a wholesale manner from all authors he does not chance to like, but to aid us, by his practiced judgment, to extract what is good from every field, and to trace, as far as in us lies, those varying degrees of excellence which it is to our advantage to discern. In this way Mr. Arnold, working with conscientious and dispassionate serenity, has opened our eyes to new beauty, and has strengthened us against vicious influences ; he has added to our sources of pleasure, he has helped us to enjoy them, and not to recognize his kind aid would be an ungracious form of self-deception. If he is occasionally a little puzzling, as in some parts of Celtic Literature, where the qualities he detects fall meaningless on our ears, it is a wholesome lesson in humility to acknowledge our bewilderment. Why should the lines
Or mountain-built with quiet citadel,
Is emptied of its folk this pious morn ? ”
be the expression of a purely Greek form of thought, “ as Greek as a thing from Homer or Theocritus ; ” and
Stood Dido, with a willow in her hand,
Upon the wild sea-banks, and waved her love
To come again to Carthage,”
be as purely Celtic ? Why should
be Greek, and
be Celtic ? That harmless nondescript, the general reader, be he ever so anxious for enlightenment, is forced to confess he really does not know; and if his ignorance he of the complacent order, he adds an impatient doubt as to whether Mr. Arnold knows either, just as when he “ comes up gasping ” from a sudden plunge into Browning, he is prompt to declare his firm conviction that the poet never had the faintest idea what he was writing about.
But there is another style of enigma with which critics are wont to harry and perplex us, and one has need of a “ complication-proof mind,” like Sir George Cornewall Lewis, to see clearly through the tangle. Mr. Churton Collins, in his bitter attack on Mr. Gosse in the Quarterly Review, objects vehemently to evervarying descriptions of a single theme. He does not think that if Drayton’s Barons’ Wars be a “ serene and lovely poem,” it can well have a “ passionate music running through it,” or possess 44 irregular force and sudden brilliance of style.” Perhaps he is right; but there are few critics who can help us to know and feel a poem like Mr. Gosse, and fewer still who write with such consummate grace and charm. It is only when we pass from one reviewer to another that the shifting lights thrown upon an author dazzle and confuse us. Like the fifty-six different readings of the first line of the Orlando Furioso, there are countless standpoints from which we are invited to inspect each and every subject ; and unless we follow the admirable example of Mr. Courthope, who solves a difficulty by gently saying, 44 The matter is one not for argument, but for perception,” we are lost in the mazes of indecision. Thus Mr. Ruskin demonstrates most beautifully the great superiority of Sir Walter Scott’s heroines over his heroes, and by the time we settle our minds to this conviction we find that Mr. Bagehot, that most acute and exhausting of critics, thinks the heroines inferior in every way, and that Sir Walter was truly felicitous only in his male characters.
Happily, this is a point on which we should be able to decide for ourselves without much prompting; but all disputed topics are not equally intelligible. There is the vexed and vexing question of romantic and classical, conservative and liberal poetry, about which Mr. Courthope and Mr. Andrew Lang and Mr. Myers have had so much to say of late, and which is, at best, but a dimly lighted path for the uninitiated to travel. There is that perpetual problem Mr. Walt Whitman, the despair and the stumbling-block of critics, to whose extraordinary effusions, as the Quarterly Review neatly puts it, existing standards cannot be applied with exactness.” There is Emily Brontë, whose verses we were permitted for years to ignore, and in whom we are now peremptorily commanded to recognize a true poet. Miss Mary Robinson, who, in common with most female biographers, is an enthusiast rather than a critic, never wearies of praising the “ splendid and vigorous movement ” of Emily Brontë’s poems, “with their surplus imagination, their sweeping impressiveness, their instinctive music and irregular rightness of form.” On the other hand, Mr. Gosse, while acknowledging in them a very high order of merit, laments that such burning thoughts should be “ concealed for the most part in the tame and ambling measures dedicated to female verse by the practice of Felicia Hemans and Letitia Landon.” So far, indeed, from recognizing the “ vigorous movement ” and “ irregular rightness of form ” which Miss Robinson so much admires, he describes A Death Scene, one of the finest in point of conception, as “ clothed in a measure that is like the livery of a charitable institution.” “ There’s allays two ’pinions,” says Mr. Macey, in Silas Marner ; but we cannot help sometimes wishing, in the cause of perspicuity, that they were not so radically different.
As for the pure absurdities of criticism, they may be culled like flowers from every branch, and are pleasing curiosities for those who have a liking for such relics. Were human nature less complacent in its self-sufficiency, they might even serve as useful warnings to the impetuous young reviewers of to-day, and so be not without their salutary influence on literature. Whether the result of ignorance, or dullness, or bad temper, of national or religious prejudices, or of mere personal pique, they have boldly challenged the ridicule of the world, and its amused contempt has pilloried them for all time. When Voltaire sneered at the Inferno, and thought Hamlet the work of a drunken savage, he at least made a bid for the approbation of his countrymen, who, as Schlegel wittily observes, were in the habit of speaking as though Louis XIV. had put an end to cannibalism in Europe. But what did Englishmen think when Hume informed them that Shakespeare was “ born in a rude age, and educated in the lowest manner, without instruction from the world or from books ; ” and that he could not uphold for any time “ a reasonable propriety of thought ” ? How did they feel when William Maginn brutally declared that Keats
In that he died so young,”
was but a cockney poet, who wrote vulgar indecorums, “ probably in the indulgence of his social propensities ” ? How did they feel when the same Maginn called the Adonais “ dreary nonsense ” and “ a wild waste of words,” and devoted bitter pages to proving that Shelley was not only undeserving, but “ hopeless of poetic reputation ” ? Yet surely indignation must have melted into laughter, when this notable reviewer — who has been recently reprinted as a shining light for the new generation — added serenely that “ a hundred or a hundred thousand verses might be made, equal to the best in Adonais, without taking the pen off the paper.” This species of sweeping assertion has been repeated by critics more than once, to the annoyance of their friends and the malicious delight of their enemies. Ruskin, who, with all his gifts, seems cursed with what Mr. Bagehot calls “ a mind of contrary flexure, whose particular bent it is to contradict what those around them say,” has ventured to tell the world that any head clerk of a bank could write a better history of Greece than Mr. Grote, if he would have the vanity to waste his time over it; and I have heard a man of fail attainments and of sound scholarship contend that there were twenty living authors who could write plays as fine as Shakespeare’s.
Jeffrey’s extraordinary blunders are too well known to need repetition, and Christopher North was not without his share of similar mishaps ; Walpole cheerfully sentenced Scandinavian poetry in the bulk as the horrors of a Runic savage ; Madame de Staël objected to the “ commonness ” of Miss Austen’s novels ; Wordsworth thought Voltaire dull, and Southey complained that Lamb’s essays lacked “ sound religious feeling ; ” George Borrow, whose literary tastes were at least as erratic as they were pronounced, condemned Sir Walter Scott’s Woodstock as “tiresome, trashy, and unprincipled,” and ranked Shakespeare, Pope, Addison, and the Welsh bard Huw Morris together as “ great poets,” apparently without recognizing any marked difference in their respective claims. Then there is Taine, who finds Pendennis and Vanity Fair too full of sermons ; Mr. Dudley Warner, who compares the mild and genial humor of Washington Irving to the acrid vigor of Swift; and Mr. Howells, who, perhaps in pity for our sense of loss, would fain persuade us that we could no longer endure either the “ mannerisms ” of Dickens or the “ confidential attitude ” of Thackeray, were we happy enough to see these great men still in our midst.
Imagine, ye who can, the fiery Hazlitt’s wrath, if he but knew that in punishment for his youthful admiration of the Nouvelle Héloïse a close resemblance has been traced by friendly hands between himself and its author . Think of Lord Byron’s feelings, if he could hear Mr. Swinburne saying that it was greatly to his — Byron’s — credit that he knew himself for a third-rate poet! Even though it be the only thing to his credit that Swinburne has so far discovered, one doubts whether it would greatly mollify his lordship, or reconcile him to being classed as a “ Bernesque poet,” and the companion of those two widely different creatures, Southey and Offenbach. Perhaps, indeed, his lively sense of humor would derive a more positive gratification from watching his angry critic run amuck through adjectives with frenzied agility. Such sentences as “ the blundering, floundering, lumbering, and stumbling stanzas of Childe Harold, . . . the gasping, ranting, wheezing, broken-winded verse, . . . the hideous absurdities and jolter-headed jargon,” must surely be less deeply offensive to Lord Byron’s admirers than to Mr. Swinburne’s. They come as near to describing the noble beauty of Childe Harold as does Southey’s senseless collection of words to describing the cataract of Lodore, or any other cataract in existence ; and, since the days when Milton and Salmasius hurled “ Latin billingsgate ” at each other’s heads, we have had no stronger argument in favor of the comeliness of moderation.
“ The most part of Mr. Swinburne’s criticism,” hints a recent reviewer, “ is surely very much of a personal matter, — personal, one may say, in expression as well as in sensation.” He has always a “neat hand at an epithet,” and the “jolter-headed jargon” of Byron is no finer in its way than the “ fanfaronade and falsetto of Gray.” But even the charms of alliteration, joined to the fishwife’s slang which has recently so tickled the fancy of Punch,1 cannot wholly replace that clear-headed serenity which is the true test of a critic’s worth and the most pleasing expression of his genius. He should have no visible inclination to praise or blame ; it is not his business, as Mr. Bagehot puts it, to be thankful, and neither is he the queen’s attorney pleading for conviction. Mr. Matthew Arnold, who considers that Byron was “ the greatest natural force, the greatest elementary power, which has appeared in our literature since Shakespeare,” presents his arguments plainly and without the faintest show of enthusiasm. He does not feel the need of reviling somebody else in order to emphasize his views, and he does not care to advance opinions without some satisfactory explanation of their existence. Mr. Courthope may content himself with saying that a matter is one not for argument, but for perception ; but Mr. Arnold can always give a reason for the faith that is in him. Mere preference on the part of a critic is not a sufficient sanction for his verdicts, or at least it does not warrant his imparting them to the public. Swinburne may honestly think four lines of Wordsworth to be of more value than the whole of Byron, but that is no reason why we should think so too. When Mr. George Saintsbury avows a strong personal liking for some favorite authors, — Borrow and Peacock, for instance, — he modestly states that this fact is not of itself a convincing proof of their merit; but when Mr. Ernest Myers says that he would sacrifice the whole of Childe Harold to preserve one of Macaulay’s Lays, he seems to be offering a really impressive piece of evidence. The tendency of critics to rush into print with whatever they chance to think has resulted in readers who naturally believe that what they think is every bit as good. Macaulay and Walter Savage Landor are both instances of men whose unusual powers of discernment were too often dimmed by their prejudices. Macaulay knew that Montgomery’s poetry was bad, but he failed to see that Fouqué’s prose was good; and Landor hit right and left, amid friends and foes, like the blinded Ajax scourging the harmless flocks.
It is quite as amusing and far less painful to turn from the critics’ indiscriminate abuse to their equally indiscriminate praise, and to read the glowing tributes heaped upon authors whose mediocrity has barely saved them from oblivion. Compare the universal rapture which greeted “ the majestick numbers of Mr. Cowley ” to the indifference which gave scant welcome to the Hesperides. Mr. Gosse tells us that for half a century Katherine Philips, the matchless Orinda, was an unquestioned light in English song. 11 Her name was mentioned with those of Sappho and Corinna, and language was used without reproach which would have seemed a little fulsome if addressed to the Muse herself.”
Do in thy verses see
Both improved sexes eminently meet;
They are than Man more strong, and more
than Woman sweet.”
So sang Cowley to this much-admired lady ; and the Earl of Roscommon, in some more extravagant and amusing stanzas, asserted it to be his unique experience that, on meeting a pack of angry wolves in Scythia,
Not only can their fierceness tame,
But, if that mighty word I once rehearse,
They seem submissively to roar in verse.”
“It is easier to flatter than to praise,” says Jean Paul, but even flattery is not always the facile work it seems.
Sir Walter Scott, who was strangely disposed to undervalue his own merit as a poet, preserved the most genuine enthusiasm for the work of others. When his little daughter was asked by James Ballantyne what she thought of The Lady of the Lake, she answered with perfect simplicity that she had not read it. “ Papa says there is nothing so bad for young people as reading bad poetry.” Yet Sir Walter always spoke of Madoc and Thalaba with a reverence that would seem ludicrous were it not so frankly sincere. Southey himself could not have admired them more ; and when Jeffrey criticised Madoc with flippant severity in the Edinburgh Review, we find Scott hastening to the rescue in a letter full of earnest and soothing praise. “ A poem whose merits are of that higher tone,” he argues, “ does not immediately take with the public at large. It is even possible that dining your own life you must be contented with the applause of the few whom nature has gifted with the rare taste for discriminating in poetry. But the mere readers of verse must one day come in, and then Madoc will assume his real place, at the feet of Milton.” The mere readers of verse, being in no wise responsible for Milton’s position in literature, have so far put no one at his feet; nor have they even verified Sir Walter’s judgment when, writing again to Southey, he says with astonishing candor, “ I am not such an ass as not to know that you are my better in poetry, though I have had, probably but for a time, the tide of popularity in my favor.” The same spirit of self-depreciation, rare enough to be attractive, made him write to Joanna Baillie that, after reading some of her songs, he had thrust by his own in despair.
But if Sir Walter was an uncertain critic, his views on criticism were marked by sound and kindly discretion, and his patience under attack was the result of an evenly balanced mind, conscious of its own strength, yet too sane to believe itself infallible. He had a singular fancy for showing his manuscripts to his friends, and it is quite delicious to see how doubtful and discouraging were their first comments. Gray, when hard pressed by the “ light and genteel ” verses of his companion, Richard West, was not more frugal of his doled-out praises. But Scott exacted homage neither from his acquaintances nor from the public. When it came — and it did come very soon in generous abundance — he basked willingly in the sunshine ; but he had no uneasy vanity to be frightened by the shade. He would have been as sincerely amused to hear Mr. Borrow call Woodstock “ tiresome, trashy, and unprincipled ” as Matthew Arnold seems to be when pelted with strong language by the London newspapers. “ I have made a study of the Corinthian or leading-article style,” writes the great critic, with exasperating urbanity ; “ and I know its exigencies, and that they are no more to be quarreled with than the law of gravitation.” In fact, the most hopeless harrier to strife is the steady indifference of a man who knows he has work to do, and who goes on doing it irrespective of anybody’s opinion. Lady Harriet Ashburton, who dearly loved the war of words, in which she was sure to be a victor, was forced to confess that where no friction was excited, even her barbed shafts fell harmless. “ It is like talking into a soft surface,” she sighed, with whimsical despondency; “ there is no rebound.”
American critics have the reputation of being more kind-hearted than discriminating. The struggling young author, unless overweeningly foolish, has little to fear from their hands ; and, if his reputation be once fairly established, all he chooses to write is received with a gratitude which seems excessive to the more exacting readers of France and England. If he be a humorist, we are always alert and straining to see the fun ; if a story-teller, we politely smother our yawns, and say something about a keen analysis of character, a marked originality of treatment, or a purely unconventional theme ; if a scholar, no pitfalls are dug for his unwary feet by reviewers like Mr. Collins. Such virulent and personal attacks we consider very uncomfortable reading, as in truth they are, and we have small appetite at any time for a sound kernel beneath a bitter rind. Yet surely in these days, when young students turn impatiently from the very fountain-heads of learning, too much stress cannot be laid on the continuity of literature, and on the absolute importance of the classics to those who would intelligently explore the treasurehouse of English verse. Moreover, Mr. Collins has aimed a few well-directed shafts against the ingenious system of mutual admiration, by which a little coterie of writers, modern Della Cruscans, help each other into prominence, while an unsuspecting public is made " the willing dupe of puffers.” This delicate game, which is now conducted with such well-rewarded skill by a few enterprising players, consists, not so much in open flattery, though there is plenty of that too, as in the minute chronicling of every insignificant circumstance of each other’s daily lives, from the hour at which they breakfast to the amount of exercise they find conducive to appetite, and the shape and size of their dining-room tables. We are stifled by the literary gossip which fills the newspapers and periodicals. Nothing is too trivial, nothing too irrelevant, to be told ; and when, in the midst of an article on any subject, from grand-dukes to gypsies, a writer gravely stops to explain that a perfectly valueless remark was made to him on such an occasion by his friend such a one, whose interesting papers on such a topic will be well remembered by the readers of such a magazine, we are forcibly reminded of the late Master of Trinity’s sarcasm as to the many things that are too unimportant to be forgotten.
People fed on sugared praises cannot be expected to feel an appetite for the black broth of honest criticism. There was a time, now happily past, when the reviewer’s skill lay simply in the clever detection of flaws ; it was his business in life to find out whatever was weak or absurd in an author, and to hold it up for the amusement of those who were not quick enough to see such things for themselves. Now his functions are of a totally different order, and a great many writers seem to think it his sole duty to bring them before the public in an agreeable light, to say something about their books which will be pleasant for them to read and to pass over in turn to their friends. If he cannot do this, it is plain he has no sanction to say anything at all. That the critic has a duty to the public itself is seldom remembered ; that his work is of the utmost importance, and second in value only to the original conception he analyzes, is a truth few people take the pains to grasp. Coleridge thought him a mere maggot, battening upon authors’ brains ; yet how often has he helped us to gain some clear insight into this most shapeless and shadowy of great men ! Wordsworth underrated his utility, yet Wordsworth’s criticisms are among the finest we can read ; and, to argue after the fashion of Mr. Myers, the average student would gladly exchange The Idiot Boy, or Goody Blake and Harry Gill, for another letter upon Dryden. As a matter of fact, the labors of the true critic are more essential to the author, even, than to the reader. It is natural that poets and novelists should devoutly believe that the creative faculty alone is of any true service to the world, and that it cannot rightly be put to trial by those to whom this higher gift is rigorously denied. But the critical power, though on a distinctly lower level than the creative, is of inestimable help in its development. Great work thrives best in a critical atmosphere, and the clear light thrown upon the past is the surest of guides to the future. When the standard of criticism is high, when the influence of classical and foreign literature is understood and appreciated, when slovenly and ill-digested work is promptly recognized as such, then, and then only, may we look for the full expansion of a country’s genius. To be satisfied with less is an amiable weakness rather than an invigorating stimulant to perfection.
Matthew Arnold’s definition of true criticism is familiar to all his readers ; it is simply “ a disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world.” But by disinterestedness he does not mean merely that a critic must have no distinct design of flattering either his subject or his audience. He means that in order to recognize what is really the best a man must free himself from every form of passion or prejudice, from every fixed opinion, from every practical consideration. He must not look at things from an English, or a French, or an American, standpoint. He has no business with politics or patriotism. These things are excellent in themselves, and may be allowed to control his actions in other matters ; but when the question at issue is the abstract beauty of a poem, a painting, a statue, or a piece of architecture, he is expected to stand apart from his every-day self, and to judge of it by some higher and universal law. This is a difficult task for most men, who do not respire easily in such exceedingly rarefied air, and who have no especial taste for blotting out their individuality. With Macaulay, for instance, political considerations frankly outweigh all others ; he gives us the good Whig and the wicked Tory on every page, after the fashion of Hogarth’s idle and industrious apprentices. Mr. Bagehot, while a far less transparent writer, manifests himself indirectly in his literary preferences. When we have read his essay on Shakespeare, we feel pretty sure we know his views on universal suffrage. Mr. Andrew Lang has indeed objected vehemently to the intrusion of politics into literature, perhaps because of a squeamish distaste for the harsh wranglings of the political field. But Mr. Arnold is incapable of confusing the two ideas. His taste for Celtic poetry and his attitude towards home rule are both perfectly defined and perfectly isolated sentiments ; just as his intelligent admiration and merciless condemnation of Heinrich Heine stand side by side, living witnesses of a mind that holds its own balance, losing nothing that is good, condoning nothing that is evil, as far removed from weak enthusiasm on the one hand as from frightened depreciation on the other.
It is folly to rail at the critic until we have learned his value ; it is folly to ignore a help which we are not too wise to need. “ The best that is known and thought in the world ” does not stand waiting for admission on our doorsteps. Like the happiness of Hesiod, it “ abides very far hence, and the way to it is long and steep and rough.” It is hard to seek, hard to find, and not easily understood when discovered. Criticism does not mean a random opinion on the last new novel, though even the most dismal of light literature comes fairly within its scope. It means a disinterested endeavor to learn and to teach whatever wisdom or beauty has been added by every age and every nation to the great inheritance of mankind.
- “ But when poet Swinburne steps into the
And slangs like a fish-wife, what, what can
one say ?”↩