The Pause in Criticism -- And After

WE are most of us conscious of an insufficiency in literary criticism to-day. Never were more opinions printed about books than now; the publishers’ lists swarm with the titles of manuals, essays, compendiums ; our schools, our colleges, pride themselves on providing instruction in literature; even the daily press rescues an occasional column from the chronicles of crime and politics, and devotes it to notices of current publications. And yet, despite all these evidences of apparent critical activity, we are conscious of a lack, which few of us define. Amid a babel of conflicting utterances, we listen for an authoritative voice, but we hear none. Why is this ?

One might dismiss the question with the remark that great critics, like masters in any sphere, are rare, and that this happens to be a time when none flourish ; but it may be possible to indicate a reason, more general in its nature and less dependent on chance, which accounts in part for the present condition of criticism, without reference to the dearth of great critics. Genius regarded singly can never be explained, but from the principles which guide workers we can often deduce helpful conclusions as to the success or failure of their work.

About the middle of this century, men began to apply the methods of the evolutionist to the study of literature. That application gave a most salutary impetus to criticism, but the time has come when the stimulus has about spent itself. The change wrought by the evolutionist method can be understood at a glance, if we remember that fifty years ago critics were disputing over the relative rank of authors, — whether Homer were superior to Dante, Wordsworth to Byron, Molière to Calderon ; and in the long run it appeared that the verdict rested, not on established laws, but on the taste of the individual critic. “ Is it not wonderful,” asks Fitzgerald, after reading the Life of Macaulay, " how he, Hallam, and Mackintosh could roar and bawl at one another over such Questions as Which is the Greatest Poet ? Which is the greatest Work of that Greatest Poet ? etc., like Boys at some Debating Society ? ”

The evolutionist treatment put an end to such questions, and busied itself in tracing the historic development of literature, and in discovering the heredity and environment of individual authors. It inquired where a man belonged in the historic series, whom he came after, whom he preceded? — quite unconcerned as to his standing on an arbitrary ranklist. It compiled literary pedigrees, — works which have a value similar to that of herd-books and stud-books. Its investigations have been immensely profitable, leading to the classification in proper chronological order of the various worldliteratures,— a classification in which both the serial interdependence of individual authors and the mutual relations between different literatures are clearly set forth. To such good purpose has a generation of scholars devoted itself to this task that now the thinnest manual suffices to contain the chief literary pedigrees, and the formulas which were strange and hard only a little while ago are the commonplaces of our schoolrooms to-day. A Freshman can tell you just where each poet or novelist fits into his sequence; how Tennyson derives from Keats and Wordsworth, and Aldrich from Tennyson ; how Realism in fiction descends from Stendhal to Zola; how the Italian Renaissance inspired first Wyatt and Surrey, who communicated the inspiration to Sidney and Spenser, through whom it kindled one Elizabethan after another, until its last bright glow in Ben Jonson’s Faithful Shepherdess and in Milton’s Comus.

Thus have the masterpieces of literature been reëdited, the annals rewritten, the conditions of production carefully surveyed. A latter-day tyro can visualize the skeleton over which each literature has worn a body; nay, with the evolutionist formula to direct him, he can take the skeleton apart, and mount it again, bone by bone, in exact articulation. Cuvier confidently reconstructed an extinct animal from a single fossil vertebra ; the archaeologist will deduce a vanished civilization from two fingers and a toe of an otherwise destroyed statue : not less skillful than these, the literary anatomist would not despair of reconstructing the entire literature of a bygone race from but one of its books. Skeptics, indeed, — men who perceive that " our knowledge is as a drop, and our ignorance is as an ocean,” — may be surprised that any one can be so learned in details where every one must be so ignorant of ultimates ; but even skeptics heartily recognize the great benefit which the application of the evolutionist method to literature has brought. The gain has heen precious ; it will be permanent; for it has reduced to convenient form many facts which criticism may use for a further advance.

But progress never long pursues a straight line. After going a certain distance in one direction, it turns and moves in the opposite. The curve not more exactly typifies beauty than the zigzag represents progress. The course changes from generation to generation, but the men of all generations have a common characteristic in that they believe their own course to be all-important. Theology and science, classicism and romanticism, authority and self-government, — these are some of the ideals towards which the ship of Progress has steered on its tacks over the sea of life, yet not one of them has led to the final haven. After a while, it may be centuries, the wind changes, the helm must be put about, and again all on board thrill with the belief that this new course surely will bring them into port.

To apply this figure to criticism, can we not discern in the present conditions a sign that the evolutionist method has sped us almost as far as it can, and that we must soon look for a favoring breeze from another quarter? Is it not evident that a process which seeks to prove the continuity of a long series will pay greater heed to those points of resemblance which enable each part to be fitted into the series than to those qualities by which each part differs from the rest? If you give an anatomist a heap of bones to mount, he exerts himself to find where the humerus joins the scapula or the tibia the femur, without regard to their special functions. In like manner, the evolutionist critic not only emphasizes the lines of junction or blending, whereby he hopes at last to show the structural continuity of literature, but he also magnifies resemblances, and takes as little note as may be of differences. He even supplies missing links, hot from the forge of analogy. And he labors so successfully that his system, emerging out of the mists of theory, stands visible to us all.

When knowledge has reached this stage, where it can be packed into formulas, one of two things happens : either the formulas are easily learned and repeated mechanically, which leads to petrifaction, or they serve as new points of departure from which the untrammeled spirit sets out on a higher quest.

Of the former case we need no better example than rhetoric. I do not recall that a single master in literature mentions his obligation to the rhetoric books as aids by which he moulded his style; yet the biographies of men of genius are full of acknowledgments of their indebtedness to the poets and thinkers, the romancers and essayists, who fired their imagination, spurred their ambition, or taught them by example the art of utterance. Is there in the non-professional works of the expounders of rhetoric a single passage, except perhaps a page here and there in Whately, which rises above self-conscious mediocrity? Read but a little in any of them, and presently the vision of an egg-dancer, painfully, cautiously, picking his intricate way, will float before your eyes. Take up Longinus, and you will soon perceive that here is the undertaker come to measure the corpse of classic literature for its coffin. Could you set Rudyard Kipling at one table, and a coalition of all the rhetoric teachers extant at another, from which should you expect, at the end of a given time, a vigorous, clear, charming, original sketch ? Assuredly, all this does not mean that the facts or laws of rhetoric may not, conceivably, be of some use, or that the rhetoric teacher may not be a worthy member of society, — no one denies the respectability or the usefulness of the undertaker, — but it illustrates how, when the laws of an art or of a science have long been formulated, petrifaction is likely to supervene. And in passing be it remarked that the rhetoric teacher can no more impart the secret of living literature than can the dissector who operates to such good purpose on a cadaver create a living soul. The dissector, indeed, never pretends that he can create living beings, but nearly all rhetoric teachers harbor the delusion that they possess not only the art of dissection, but also the secret of creation.

How different is the aspect of those sciences and arts in which classification neither implies arrested development, nor marks the limit beyond which progress cannot be made ! We need cite as an illustration only the mathematics, one of the branches of knowledge in which fixed laws were earliest formulated, and the science above all others in which absolute accuracy can be attained at every step : age for it does not mean senility ; rules are not shackles. The laws of his science lift the mathematician into the very empyrean of knowledge. They enable the physicist to bridge the Mississippi and to harness Niagara. They give the astronomer wings wherewith he follows comets in their courses, tracks the constellations weaving their patterns on the floor of heaven, and moves a freeman among the wonders of sidereal space and through the vistas of incalculable time.

Let us ask, now, to which of these examples the evolutionist study of literature should be likened. Can there be any doubt that, having demonstrated the process of development, the structural growth, the serial continuity, of literature, the evolutionist has accomplished nearly all that his method is fitted to accomplish in this field ? Evolution led us out of the old and sterile formalism ; but what will that avail us if it leaves us in a formalism of its own ? Merely to go on repeating results which nobody denies cannot help us, — that is petrifaction, not growth. Along which road, then, can we advance ? One way beckons very clearly, and it is this. Equipped with the knowledge of the general growth of literature which the evolutionist supplies, let us proceed to the interpretation of representative masters as individuals. Instead of laying chief stress on the analysis of externals, — of form, of structure, of the accidents of time and place, — let us seek to penetrate the inner meaning, the spiritual significance, the absolute value, of authors.

Many persons will doubtless urge that the interpretative method has never been abandoned ; they will assert that teachers and critics of literature employ it at least as often as the evolutionist method, and they will quote one contemporary writer or another to fortify their assertion. But the evidence is against them : the evidence, first, of the literary manuals and commentaries, which are always valuable indications of prevailing, accepted methods, because orthodoxy alone is permitted in the schools ; next, the evidence of such recent critical essays as may be regarded as typical ; and finally, the evidence furnished by the very lack of an authoritative voice, the tone of uncertainty, and the inharmonious mingling of various methods, observable in a great part of our current criticism. Moreover, the way in which men trained in one school practice the principles of an opposite school can never do full justice to the latter. The quality of the interpretation in recent works must, accordingly, have been affected by the evolutionist sources from which it sprang. But in truth, since Lowell and Arnold died, what great interpreter, writing in English, has arisen? In France, — unless we except M. Brunetière, — have the successors of Taine, the man of letters who, it seems to me, got the richest possible results from the evolutionist method, turned away from his brilliant example ? Long is it since Germany has bred a critic of international reputation, but you need examine only a small fraction of the commentaries poured out each year by the painstaking German scholars in order to detect the methods which dominate them. The heredity and environment of an author, and his place in his series, are still the chief concern of criticism.

Interpretation,— that, then, to state much in a single word, is the means by which advance is to be sought. The evolutionist, aspiring to formulate general laws, rightly investigates the common characteristics of great masses, and extends his scrutiny over long periods. But literature is the expression of individuals, — the domain where masses do not count, the highest example of an undebased aristocracy. By no addition or multiplication of masses can you produce the equivalent of Shakespeare. To understand him, you must approach him as an individual, and not merely as a writer occupying a certain place in the development of the Elizabethan drama. To know his structural significance is interesting, and may be important, but it is not indispensable. Only by treating him absolutely, as a poet of individual utterance, who produces a different effect on you than any or all others produce, can you interpret him. Your interpretation, moreover, will measure yourself not less than him : it will reveal to us how much of Shakespeare you are capable of holding. After all, the test of utterance is, How does it affect us ? The academic world is populous with men who can assign his proper place to every author from Homer to Hugo, but who have been stirred by none, — a barren erudition! For to know where Burns belongs in the pedigree of literature is as irrelevant to the effect his songs produce on you as to know the ornithological pedigree of the oriole who showers his inimitable lyrics from the elm by your roadside. Who will deny that this absolute treatment is the natural treatment ? You do not look upon yourself, and your father, and your friends as simply units in a sequence, but as distinct persons, each possessing qualities which create for him an absolute individuality. Neither can the great companions to whom literature introduces us be comprehended until they mean more to us than mere links in a chain.

It follows, therefore, that to the two objects of criticism promulgated by Taine, and still pursued by most of the critics of literature, we must add a third : besides the moment and the milieu, we must seek to understand the message. Otherwise we cannot rise from the plane of classification to that of interpretation.

The models left by the best critics admonish us that this is the true method. Goethe and Coleridge, Carlyle and Lowell and Arnold, were interpreters : some of them lived and died before the doctrine of the milieu and the moment had been broached, and yet their criticism still stands. To Goethe, bent on penetrating to the very heart of Hamlet and drawing out its message, such questions as Shakespeare’s place in the development of the English drama, or who were his ancestors, or what he ate and wore, had but a casual interest, — such an interest as he might have felt, when he listened to a violoncello concerto, in knowing what wood the instrument was made of, or the maker’s name and date. In like manner, the interpretative critic chooses to expound for us Dante’s theology, rather than to add another to the many discussions of how much of his theology Dante borrowed from Thomas Aquinas. To this method, also, we owe Carlyle’s wonderful essay on Samuel Johnson, and Emerson’s transcendental exposition of Plato and Montaigne; out of this came Arnold’s revelations — for such, indeed, they are — of Marcus Aurelius and Joubert and Heine. Criticism of this supreme sort is as the rod wherewith Moses smote the rock in Horeb and living waters gushed forth.

I need not dwell here upon the rare qualities demanded of the critic as interpreter. Like every one who pierces beneath the outer shows of things, he must have insight. The evolutionist’s most necessary faculty is observation ; the interpreter requires imagination. Scanning the masters of literature face to face, dwelling with them as an individual among individuals, he cannot regard them impassively, as he might count so many telegraph-poles or links in a chain ; neither will he see in them only illustrations of abstract laws, — formulas ill concealed behind a thin veil of flesh ; but he will recognize that they are the highest embodiments of varied human nature. Accordingly, his criticism will be personal, human, concrete. Evolutionist critics, on the contrary, end with a mechanical classification ; they establish the series they had in view ; they pay their tribute to logic ; and yet they leave us conscious of the lack of creative genius in themselves, and in their system of the complexness and elasticity and surprise of life. We may be nothing but automata, society may be only a colossal mechanism operated by inflexible laws, but nature at least hides this from us in an illusion of spontaneity. Critics of the moment and the milieu, in making too visible the boiler and piston and rods, too audible the roar of wheels and the hissing of valves, fall far short of nature.

Whenever a system arrives at the conclusion that man is a machine, we may be sure that the system itself is mechanical. For man is a spirit, and literature, the supreme form of his self-manifestation, must be interpreted spiritually. When we appeal, therefore, for a return to the method of interpretation, we do not counsel a retreat ; we point to the surest road for advance. The knowledge acquired in other schools will not be wasted, but will contribute whatever it can towards a higher interpretation. We can foresee, of course, that among a large number of interpretations few will have value, and that there will seldom he unanimity, even among the best. But what of that? Every so-called law was originally only the opinion of one man. I doubt whether any universal laws will ever be deduced for literary criticism. I suspect the critic who so confidently trusts to a foot-rule. The utmost that the best critic can do for me is to show me the utmost he has found in a given author ; I shall agree with him or not according as my understanding and insight and needs correspond to his. Voltaire saw little in Shakespeare ; consequently his opinion of Shakespeare carries no weight among those who see much. Many readers think Don Quixote only an amusing satire on books of chivalry ; Coleridge discerned in it an allegory of the conflict of the idealist with a matter-of-fact world, — and his interpretation will endure until somebody shall suggest a better. The man who tells us that Dante wrote the Inferno in order to have the satisfaction of taking vengeance on his enemies furnishes valuable elucidation — about himself.

That the interpretative method may bear a large crop of extravagances and absurdities argues nothing as to its validity. We do not judge a system by its worst representatives. We do not declare evolutionist criticism inadequate because it bears such works as Düntzer’s Life of Goethe, in which the biographer, patiently striving to “ explain ” Goethe by his moment and his milieu, gravely records the poet’s bills of fare, and would fain describe, if space permitted, the mine which supplied silver for the poet’s shoe-buckles ; but when evolutionist criticism, as practiced by a genius so clear and learned and alert as Taine, constructs a vast machine and assures us that this is life, — life, which is so plastic, so immeasurable, so full of surprise and mystery, — then we may well pronounce it inadequate. And we need not fear lest, having bidden forth interpreters, we have in reality hastened the coming of chaos in criticism. Better even the whims and puerilities of a method which may lead to the highest results than the orderliness of a method which does not aim at the highest.

If literature be no more to you than amusement, then will you regard its Shakespeares and Dantes as but toymakers ; if it be but a verbal quarry, you will work in it, like the philologist or the grammarian, for material to construct a schoolhouse ; if it be but the record of serial development, then you will make of it a museum like that wherein the naturalist exhibits specimens, fossil or recent, showing the growth of organisms. But literature is more, infinitely more, than any of these. It is the book, more enduring than tables of stone, wherein is written the revelation of mankind ; it is the memory of the race, making the past present, without which the experience of all our yesterdays would profit us nothing, and we should begin, each morning, like the Papuan, a dull round of half-brutish life, incapable of advance. To every one of us, even the dullest or shallowest, come Joy and Grief, Sin and Failure and Death, each with his challenge, What do I mean to you ? " Literature embodies the replies which the spokesmen of the race have given to these supernal questioners. To interpret their replies, — that is the mission of the critic.

William Roscoe Thayer.