Mr. Woodberry's Criticism

IT is a commonplace that literature is to be apprehended by a direct appeal to it, and not by the diligent study of books about literature. Criticism, as a form of literary art, is no exception to this rule. If we would know the force of critical power, our business is to place ourselves under the direct critical rays. The difficulty in doing this arises in part from the double action of the mind when engaged in this exercise. Supposing we have immediate acquaintance with a piece of literature, — and it is only then that we derive the greatest advantage of criticism upon such a piece, — we are embarrassed by our effort to exercise the judicial function ourselves. While we are listening to the judgment, we are aware of another voice appealing to us from the work under trial. We find ourselves sitting in judgment, as a sort of court of final appeal, and this consciousness of ultimate authority has a tendency to make us undervalue the judgment of the lower court.

Nothing, therefore, sets the mind so free to enjoy criticism as a quick apprehension of the judicial temper in the critic. If, upon early inquiry, we note the large elements of fairness, honesty, sanity of temper, freedom from prejudice, absence of quibbling, we lay aside our own judicial robes and step down from the bench, leaving our other selves in full possession of the power to enjoy the insight, the discrimination, the breadth of view, the learning, which the judge who is speaking may have to display.

It will not take the reader of Mr. Woodberry’s volume of essays 1 long to settle himself into this attitude. The subjects treated are mainly literary, but, in the discussion of literary art, Mr. Woodberry is never out of sight of personality. Nothing impresses us more, in the general view which he takes of literature and men of letters, than his refusal to regard the subject as dissevered from vital relations. With him literary art is not an air plant, detached from visible connection with this too solid earth; and when he sets himself the task of determining the sources of a man’s literary power, he looks for them less in the influence of other literary art, or even in the general impression produced by the man’s environment, than in the original constitution of the man himself, and in so doing he gets farthest into the secrets of the man’s being. His article on Browning, called out by the poet’s death, is an excellent example of this humane criticism, and the special application of the principle of choice, which inheres in a man’s nature, to the form of art in which he is at his best is well set forth in the following passage : —

“ There is a compensation for these deficiencies of power in that the preference of his mind for a single passion, or mood, or crisis, at its main moment, opens to him the plain and unobstructed way to lyrical expression. His dramatic feeling of the passion and the situation supplies an intensity which finds its natural course in lyrical exaltation. It may well be thought, if it were deemed necessary to decide upon the best in Browning’s work, that his genius is most nobly manifest in those lyrics and romances which he called dramatic. The scale rises from his argumentative and moralizing verse, however employed through those monologues which obey the necessity for greater concentration as the dramatic element enters into them, up to those most powerful and direct poems in which the intensity of feeling enforces a lyrical movement and lift; and akin to these last are the songs of love or heroism, into which the dramatic element does not enter.”

In the more direct studies of human life, where the question of art does not present itself, the peculiar strength of Mr. Woodberry’s critical power is distinctly seen. The paper on Darwin, especially, brings into prominence that power of grasping wholes which is, one may say, the final test of a man’s critical ability. The simplicity of treatment in this paper makes it easy for one to perceive the masterly manner in which the subject is handled. Scarcely less intelligible are the papers on Landor and Shelley ; and here, the subjects on which these men expended their force, the forms which they employed, bring the men themselves more directly within the range of Mr. Woodberry’s own tastes and interests. The temptation is all the greater to temper judgment with favor, and possibly the reader may detect a slight disposition to give Shelley the benefit of doubt; but the evenness of mind displayed in the treatment, the fine sense of proportion in the measure of the man, especially in the Landor paper, are so manifest that one is well aware that he is listening to a judge, and not to an advocate.

The absence of rhetorical splendor or of epigrammatic decisions will disappoint those who like to take their criticism hot and well spiced ; but such absence is symptomatic of a criticism which is, in the long run, most serviceable and most to be depended on. The direction in which Mr. Woodberry’s critical power tends is toward that comprehensive judgment which not only regards a life or a work of art as a whole, but brings to the test a comparison of the life or the work with the ideal to which it aspires. This can be had only when one’s mind is catholic, and refuses to take a merely contemporary view of life and art. Under these conditions, criticism, upon whatever expended, becomes, if couched in clear, melodious English, itself a work of art, to be enjoyed for its own sake as well as for the interpretation which it offers.

  1. 2Studies in Letters and Life. By GEORGE EDWARD WOODBERRY. Boston and New York : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1890.