Criticism and Mr. Saintsbury


WHAT Montaigne said in his easy way of Man is no less true of the history of criticism: “certes c’est unsubiect merveilleusement vain, divers, et ondoyant.” Yet Mr. Saintsbury has adventured it nobly, and however far we may conclude to differ from the upshot of his trivoluminous work, no one who will thoroughly acquaint himself with it, and with the excellent series, Periods of European Literature, edited by Mr. Saintsbury, will fail to know him a very Paladin of critics. In considering the quality and import of Mr. Saintsbury’s recent work as a whole, the Periods are hardly second in significance to the History of Criticism itself. Two of the eight volumes already published are from his pen; and the other six display the views of the general editor in their sequence and plan, as in tone and manner they reflect something of his unquenchable animal spirits. They constitute the best complete and coordinated account of the general course of European letters that we have. Yet,full as they are of instruction, and — paradoxical as it may seem — of entertainment, we must seek from them here only an infrequent sidelight upon Mr. Saintsbury’s “ diploma - piece,” the History of Criticism and Literary Taste in Europe.

At the outset of the study of Mr. Saintsbury’s work considerable habituation is needed to establish peaceful relations with his extraordinary literary manner. He is rarely humorous, less rarely facetious; the common temper of his writing is of a certain erudite jocularity that runs over into footnotes and even into corrigenda. The diction of his great, sprawling periods is no less remarkable. He is a free-lover of words; he has explored the very bottoms of Babel; and his History is perhaps the most miscellaneous warehouse of queer phrase that we have had since Democritus Jr. poured all the verbal curios collected from his gigantic reading into The Anatomy of Melancholy. Mr. Saintsbury, like a third Democritus, has the audacity to quote from Thomas Wilson’s Art of Rhetoric the story of “Phavorinus the philosopher,” who “ (as Gellius telleth the tale) did hit a young man over the thumbs very handsomely for using over old and over strange words;” and then he proceeds to adorn his page with words like “legerdepied,” “pantopragmatic,” “diamondiferous,” “topsyturvyfication.” He is not exactly wordy, yet he wastes words in palaver with quite impossible imaginary objectors. He is, too, the reverse of single-minded in his quest. It is quite true, as he asserts in a preface, that in this great task of building a passable road through the wilderness he has turned aside to construct no Belvideres, to ascend no Pisgahs. Yet, if one may venture to employ Mr. Saintsbury’s own figure a little further, he has left his right line of survey more than once; now wantonly to demolish some ancient idol of the country, with little heed to its dignity or its beauty; now to climb some tall tree of excogitation; now to erect a curiously constructed shrine to some pet idol of his own. Yet these are but minor incidents in the long adventure of a theme so vain, diverse, and billowy. The reader does become habituated to them at last, and is perhaps rather grateful than otherwise for this relief from the tedium of a difficult and sometimes a dull matter. In any case, Mr. Saintsbury’s round “Ich kann nicht anders” is, at least, a plausible excuse.

A history of criticism may conceivably take one of two forms. It may take the form of that projected but unwritten work of Dr. Johnson’s noted by Boswell in his list of the Leviathan’s forty-odd dreamchildren in this kind, A History of Criticism as it Relates to the Judging of Authors, that is to say,of the definite applications of literary taste to literary productions; or, on the other hand, it may take the form of a history of critical theory, combining with this, by virtue of the natural gravity of the subject, a history of poetics, of the metaphysics of literature. Mr. Saintsbury’s affair is, in the main, of the former sort. He must perforce deal at times, despite his distaste for them, with “long-winded tractates hunting the red herrings of critical theory;” and in the helpful series of “Interchapters,” wherewith he lays down his course through his vast and billowy subject, he does occasionally take an observation of the heavens; but for the most part his concern is with the actual judging of authors, the development of literary taste, the evolution of literary self-consciousness.

On the criticism of Greece and Rome he is not quite at his best. He is himself — we shall see it more clearly as we go on — a vigorous rather than a fine critic; and none but a fine critic can be very sympathetic to the ideal and far-reaching principles, — notably of the typicalness of tragic character, of the generalizing power of the drama, and of the inseparableness of form, — that may be soundly deduced from the Poetics of Aristotle. But his knowledge of the texts is extraordinary, and his account of the “rhetoric” which was the staple of ancient criticism is, at least so it seems to one who must needs speak as a child in those matters, excellently adequate. When he comes to deal with Longinus on the Sublime, he is for a time at his very best. Longinus was perhaps the first great critic with a keen sense for the sudden glories of literature, for “the spurt of the match when soul of writer touches reader’s soul, the light and the warmth that follow;” herein he is a critic after Mr. Saintsbury’s owm heart, and if there is fault in the treatment of him, it is only that a little too much is made of him, in view of the fact that there is at least one chance in two that he did not write the treatise on the Sublime at all.

With Roman criticism, essentially prosaic as it was, Mr. Saintsbury is naturally less in sympathy, though on its two chief exemplars, Horace and Quintilian, he is very good. In defense of the latter we have a passage which is worth quoting, because it shows within a little space both Mr. Saintsbury’s notion of criticism and his conception of the nature of its development from Aristotle to the Renaissance : —

“Quintilian can only be despised by those who consider themselves defrauded if critics do not attempt the meteorosophia [ware your thumbs, dear sir] of the highest aesthetic generalizations. It is, on the other hand, certain that these airy flights, in this particular matter, have too often had the ultimate Icarian fate, and have not often met even with the temporary Icarian success. The ‘high priori way’ has never led to any permanent conquest in literary criticism; and is never likely to do so, because of the blessed infinity and incalculableness of human genius. It has constantly led that genius into deserts and impasses. Even things that look like generalizations firmly based on actual experience have to be cautiously guarded, and put forth merely as working hypotheses. You make, with the almost superhuman compound of learning and reason belonging to an Aristotle, a general theory of Poetry, and a special one of tragedy, which require, and command, almost universal agreement. In a few hundred years there drops in a graceless sort of prose tale-tellers, who, by establishing, slowly and uncertainly at first, but after a couple of thousand years unmistakably, the kind of prose fiction, sap the very foundations of your theory of poetry. Later still arises a more graceless sort of strolling actors, ne’er-do-weel university men in England, cavaliers or shavelings in Spain, who in the same way bring it about that your theory of tragedy has to acknowledge itself to be only a theory of one kind of tragedy.”

As he passes from the Roman decadence to the Middle Age, Mr. Saintsbury comes to the field wherein he is most happily at home. So the first volume ends with an admirable section upon the criticism, explicit in the prose, implicit in the poetry, of Dante, who, as Mr. Saintsbury says finely, “ expressed consummately all the enormous gain of dream, which the sleep of the Dark Ages had poured into the heart and soul of the world.”

In the second volume, which deals with the multifarious criticism of the Renaissance, with the crystallizing of the neoclassic creed, and with eighteenth century “orthodoxy,” our Paladin wins his way through a wilderness of books too vast and tenebrous and spectre-haunted to admit of any very satisfactory summary. For one thing, the case is here complicated by the changes in the national primacy of European letters. In the ancient period he had only to deal with the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome. In the Middle Age what critical writing there was, was cosmopolitan, and geography could be conveniently disregarded. And in both ancient and mediæval times actual critics were few. But from the Renaissance onward, not only were the critics legion, but there was a constant and bewildering succession in the hegemony of European literature. At first Italy was the source of all critical light and leading; in the later Renaissance England and Spain took the centre of the stage; in the Augustan Ages France and England were joint primates; in the time of the romantic revolt it was England, Germany, and France. In his progress through this dangerous international field, Mr. Saintsbury has not escaped some passages of sword-play with specialists who have done him no slight damage, yet there is little to abate from his conclusion and interpretation of this part of the whole matter: —

“And, yet once more, let us recognize that adjustment of criticism to creation — mysterious or simply natural as it may seem to different temperaments and different systems of thought — which we have observed before in the cautious check of Renaissance criticism on the heady exuberance of the great Renaissance creation, in the support given by Seventeenth-century classicism to such mediate powers and dispositions as those of Corneille and even Racine, of Dryden and even Pope; in the salutary deterrence of Eighteenth-century orthodoxy, which saved us from more Beatties and more Anne Radcliffes when the time was not ready for Keatses or for Scotts. For so also in literature — and even in that, as some would have it, not the divinest part of literature, Criticism — do all the works of the Lord, the lesser as well as the greater, praise Him and magnify Him forever.”

Mr. Saintsbury’s third and last volume is concerned only with the nineteenth century. Here again the oceanic amplitude of detail frustrates anything like adequate summary; but toward the close of the volume we have an able formulation of the modern catholic critic’s creed, which, coming as it does with the accent of Mr. Saintsbury’s personal adherence, will serve at once to hint at the substance of the volume and to furnish a definite brief for our disputation. Here is the Creed: —

“All periods of literature are to be studied, and all have lessons for the critic.

“ One period of literature cannot prescribe to another. Each has its own laws; and if any general laws are to be put above these, they must be such as will embrace them.

“Rules are not to be multiplied without necessity: and such as may be admitted must rather be extracted from the practice of good poets and prose-writers than imposed upon it.

“’Unity’ is not in itself uniform, but will vary according to the kind, and sometimes within the kind, itself.

The kind is not to be too rigidly constituted: and subvarieties in it may constantly arise.

“ Literature is to be judgedby the event:' the presence of the fig will disprove the presence of the thistle.

“ The object of literature is Delight; its soul is Imagination; its body is Style.

“A man should like what he does like: and his likings are facts in criticism for him.”

To which the extremer men (with whom, apparently, Mr. Saintsbury would go only a part of the way) would add these, or some of them, or something like them:

“Nothing depends upon the subject; all upon the treatment of the subject.

It is not necessary that a good poet or prose writer should be a good man, though it is a pity that he should not be. And Literature is not subject to the laws of Morality, though it is to those of manners.

Good Sense is a good thing, but may be too much regarded: and Nonsense is not necessarily a bad one.

The appeals of the arts are interchangeable: Poetry can do as much with sound as Music, as much with colour as Painting, and perhaps more than either with both.

The first requisite of the critic is that he should be capable of receiving impres-sions: the second that he should be able to express and impart them.

There cannot be monstrous beauty: the beauty itself justifies and regularizes.”

Finally, we have but to add Mr. Saintsbury’s ultimate definition of criticism, and we shall at least have the root of the matter uncovered. “Criticism,” he says, “is the endeavour to find, to know, to love, to recommend, not only the best, but all the good that has been known and thought and written in the world.”


In Mr. Saintsbury’s dealings with his myriad of separate authors there is much that provokes dissent. It would be hard to imagine any happier lot than to sit down with him in some timeless slope of the further shore, and there dispute through the two thousand pages of his History, page by page. But here the stealing shadow upon the dial warns even critics to be brief. Yet it is hard to part from him without at least entering a protest against the full and complete acceptance of that final creed, and that last definition of the critic’s whole duty.

There is so much in Mr. Saintsbury’s muscularity of mind to recall the temper of those stout judges of literature, Jonson, Dryden, and Johnson, that one is surprised to find him, in his definition of criticism, making so little account of the actual “judging” of authors. It may well be that to find, know, love, and recommend all the good that has been known, thought, and written in the world means, by implication, to discover and damn what is not good. Yet surely, in this hour of the creamy “appreciation,” it had been well to say somewhat more of the wholesome rigors of the tenth Muse, to give us at least a brief discourse to that ancient text, “Judex damnatur cum nocens absolvitur.” It is a fact of the literary consciousness that the instinct to judge in this stricter sense is both universal and strongly impulsive, however it may be disguised by the brief fashions of a complacenl age. It is a historic fact, whether it denotes a causal relation or not, that in the golden ages of Athens and of the Renaissance, when the popular “judgment” of authors in the stricter sense was most ready and widespread, literature did most mightily flourish. Knowledge and love of “ the best ” produced more of “ the best,” more of “good” even, than the recommendations of “all the good” can ever compass.

The creed, like the definition, suffers, at least so it seems to the present writer, from partiality. In its more moderate form it summarizes tolerably well the critical doctrine of Sainte-Beuve and, a little less well, that of his liegeman, Mr. Arnold. In its more extreme form it represents roughly the articles of faith of Walter Pater, whom Mr. Saintsbury considers the chief critic of his generation, and almost precisely those of his liegeman, Mr. Arthur Symons. It does not, however, at all represent the temper of such excellent critical writing as that of Newman, who, by the way, is not mentioned by Mr. Saintsbury, or of the still not uncommon critic who holds with those who prefer an ordered literature to even a genial and romantic will-worship; who still steadfastly believe that there is a law in taste, a categorical imperative inherent in the very form of our common mind, to which, at the last, perverse individual likings must yield. Thoretically, doubtless Mr. Saintsbury would admit pretty much all of this, yet he has a native bias of taste in books, which, whether always consciously or not, makes him minimize all such considerations. We shall know better what allowance to make for this deflection of the needle, if we study for a little his literary prejudices.

Ostensibly Mr. Saintsbury is all for catholicity. “Charles Wesley,” he says piquantly, “ is not the less a poet because he is not Charles Baudelaire.” Yet throughout the three volumes we find him saying in effect over and over again, “Virgil is less of a poet because he is Virgil.” No sooner does he anywhere find a critic showing the least symptoms of the diseases of “ Virgilomania,” “Maronolatry,” or “Virgil worship,” than his irresistible impulse is to “ ’cave ’alf a brick at ’im,” so to say. It is needless here to offer anything in defense of those marvelously noble and tender poetic qualities which have given to our speech the rich adjective “ Virgilian.” But it is worth while saying something of the sempiternal potency of the “classic” mood in literature, and of that apostolic succession of poets drawing poetic sanctity from St. Virgil, against whom our non-conformist author is so loudly recalcitrant.

The truth is that Mr. Saintsbury is an extreme partisan of Romance, whose spirit, as he says in the conclusion to his Flourishing of Romance, “makes classical grace and finish seem thin and tame, Oriental exuberance tasteless and vulgar, modern scientific precision inexpressibly charmless and jejune.” And at the very end of his History of Criticism he lays down as the sum of the whole matter that the end of all criticism is to help one “to listen when the horns of Elfland blow.” The trouble here is that the spirit of one great section of literature is unfairly offset against the mere external form of another, and that Mr. Saintsbury sometimes forgets that il tromba rimbomba with the breath of Tasso as well as of Turpin. Nor is the whole judgment anything else than an obiter dictum. The present writer has not been deaf to the horns of Elfland, nor even to the barking of Cain’s dog from the moon; he is as prompt as the next man to thrill with the wonder and freshness of the romantic world, to feel the glamour of old fairy-lands forlorn, to tremble with the passions of Venusburg or of Montsalvat; yet he confesses without shame that for him the little finger of Roman Virgil, lord of language, weighs heavier than the thigh of any burly Longobard of them all, whether his name be Robert de Borron or Robert Browning. For him Tasso even, a pseudo-classic — if you will —with his melodious propriety of speech, his artful manner that shows us this dusty, surging world as if through an inverted opera glass, cool, composed, clear, and far away, — makes all but the very greatest in the other kind seem “inexpressibly charmless and jejune.”

It is, in short, a temperamental matter whether one prefers the romantic or the classic mood, purple light or white light, excitement or self-possession; but the choice between classic and romantic form, between the classic and romantic kinds of unity, between precision and suggestion, is an intellectual matter, and it is the business of the critic and of the historian of criticism to grasp it firmly and state it fairly; and this Mr. Saintsbury does not quite do. He is, as he freely acknowledges, “a nasty Hedonist.” What he seeks in poetry is “the instant and mirific kiss of the spouse,” the poetic moment rather than the poetic hour in which one learns to know some complete, wisely-ordered, and harmonious poem, finding

“ Nothing but well and fair
And what may quiet ns.”

Now this dalliance with the poetic moment is pleasant business for a miscellaneous reader, but it is a dangerous affair for the critic. In the end it will bring him to subscribe to that perverse creed of the extreme moderns set down above, and it will lead him to turn more and more to a single section of literature, namely Romance, and it wall cause him to read constantly more with his mood, and constantly less with his mind. Finally, this excessive preoccupation with romantic literature, and with romantic qualities in literature, is likely to lead a working critic to sad blunders. The romantic manner may conceal second or even third-rate stuff for a considerable time. An excellent example is the case of Alexander Smith, whose meteoric poetry afforded instant and mirific kisses, if not of the spouse, at least of an amiable lady who did beguile the best judges in England. The true classic manner, on the other hand, admits of no such disguise, for the third-rate classic will seduce no one past his literary teens.

All this is directed rather against the implication of the whole of Mr. Saintsbury’s work than against its explicit teaching in any part. In his concrete dealings with the false classicism of the Augustan Age, a classicism of the understanding rather than of the imagination, he contrives to remember that it was the age of Bossuet as well as of Boileau, of Swift as well as of Pope. And so, after stating in set form the neo-classic creed, he adds: —

“You may fly in the face of almost every one of these precepts and be a better poet for it; fly in the face of almost any one of them in prose, and you must have extraordinary genius if you do not rue it.”

The poet is always in some sense exceptional. In the long run the general march of the human affections and human ideals, captained though it be by poets militant below, is expressed in prose. If, as seems not unlikely, the growing comparative and historical study of literature shall bring in a new and greater classicism, and, as also seems not unlikely, in large measure a classicism of prose, even Mr. Saintsbury and his critical heirs may come to sec that perfection is not so bad a quality in literature, even when it springs from so shameful an attribute as self-possession. From all of which it appears that we have but illustrated, perhaps too amply, the lesson of that essay of Montaigne’s where from at the beginning we took a scrap to bless us, “Par divers moyens on arrive a pareille fin.”

  1. A History of Criticism and Literary Taste in Europe. From the Earliest Texts to the Present Day. By GEORGE SAINTSBURY. 3 vols. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co. 19001904.
  2. Loci Critici. Passages illustrative of critical theory and practice from Aristotle downwards. Selected, partly translated, and arranged with notes. By GEORGE SAINTSBURY. Boston: Ginn & Co. 1903.
  3. Periods of European Literature. Edited by GEORGE SAINTSBURY. I. The Dark Ages. By W.P. KER. 1904. II. The Flourishing of Romance. By GEORGE SAINTSBURY. 1897. III. The Fourteenth Century. By F. J. SNELL. 1899. IV. The Transition Period. By G. GREGORY SMITH. 1900. V. The Earlier Renaissance. By GEORGE SAINTSBURY. 1901. VI. The Later Renaissance. By DAVID HANNAY. 1898. VIII. The Augustan Ages. By OLIVER ELTON. 1899. IX. The Mid-Eighteenth Century. By J. H. MILLAR. 1902. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.