A Critic on a Critic

— Taste and training will make a critic. For taste is nothing but a kind of ear for the echo of passion ; a power of hearing faintly where passion has spoken plainly ; a kind of sympathetic vibration born in the man, and capable of much improvement under careful cultivation. Take a man endowed with a certain sensibility of this sort, and give him leisure to wander over Europe and sojourn in Italy, and diligence to read all the polite literature of ancient and modern times ; let him write books and essays till he acquires a fluent style, and you have John Addington Symonds. This class of man will naturally be more at home in literature than he is in any of the other arts, for it is the only art he practices. He will have tried his hand at sonnets, plays, lyrics, and translations, and will really know something about the art of literary composition. He will think, however, that he really knows something about the other arts, painting, sculpture, music, and architecture. He will vibrate sympathetically to these, and write charming books about them ; and he will become so sensitive in his feeling towards them in their different forms and phases that the echo and paraphrase which he gives in his books will be worth reading, and, provided we read them armed with a knowledge that they are mere literary paraphrases, perhaps worth studying.

The essential fault in such a man is that he thinks he understands these kindred arts. He thinks they can be translated into literary form. He conceives of them as something meant to be written about and admired. His attitude towards them is one of patronage and exposition. He explains their beauties, and comments on their growth and development. He is a critic.

Now, a critic is not a man who is overcome with the mystery and power of his subject. He is a man who has a desire to say something about his subject. If it is passion at all that moves him, it is literary passion. If he breaks into a strain of admiration ending with an “ O altitudo,” and does it well, it is a good piece of writing, it is a fine literary frenzy; but it has no more to do with the statue or the picture that moves him to it than a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

The literary men of all ages have cultivated themselves in the kindred fine arts, no man more so than Goethe. They have played with the echo that comes to them from painting and sculpture, and said fine things of it. They have been clever over it, and sentimental, and bombastic, and reflective, and ingenious. Goethe said of the Ludovisi Juno that it was like a canto of Homer; somebody else — was it Madame de Staël ? — called architecture frozen music ; and there is no flight of fantastic exaggeration that writers have not ventured on, in an endeavor to express themselves. Keats in his Grecian Urn has done for sculpture what poetry can do for sculpture, and Shelley in his lines to Constantia singing has done for music what poetry can do for music. The force of translation, we might think, can go no further. And what have we ? A fair witticism from Goethe and two most wonderful poems from Keats and Shelley, but no word from sculpture or music. These speak for themselves only, to their lovers alone ; and to those who hear them—not their echo, but themselves — come a hush and a reverence foreign to critics. The sound of their voices stills the desire to write. The impossibility of giving back their thought in words is not thought of, because words are not thought of, literature is not thought of. To those whose feelings are open to the direct impact of other arts than literature, it is not only the masterpieces of those arts which speak in this way, but also the lesser works in a lesser degree, not differing in kind.

We have few criticisms and essays upon music. That is because music is at present more understood than any other of the arts. People think music is meant to listen to, not to write books about; and we shall be able to forecast the rise of painting or sculpture by the premonitory falling off of treatises upon the great masters and the classic statues. It may be that the present age of criticism is the dawn before the rising for these arts, and that the echo heard by the critics and heralded abroad by them will be followed, and will lead men back to the arts themselves.

At present, then, let us not disparage these cultivated gentlemen, nor grow irritated at their irreverence. Some of them have very fine machinery inside of them, and its vibration probably represents some reaction in the real world. As for their irreverence, I wot that through ignorance they do it.