Abbildungen der Seite

ity.” The judicial censor of books and writers is rather expected to play the part of an executioner, to have nothing to do with what Mr. Disraeli styles, the amenities. To criticise is, of course, to impale the author on the point of the critic's pen, to magnify faults and overlook excellences.

Volumes might, indeed, be written on unsympathetic criticism without going beyond the bounds of our own literature. In the days of the English bards and Scotch reviewers, it was sufficiently conspicuous. It was just here that the "Dunciad" overreached itself, and in its aim at the humorous, entered the province of the captious and cynical. It is here that the formal and fastidious school of classical poetry in the age of Dryden sadly erred, that the imperious Dr. Johnson violated the dictates of propriety, and that such a gifted man as Carlyle vitiated much of his rightful literary inAuence. What a sorry picture does Poe afford us in his personal vituperation of the authors of his time, who in many particulars were his superiors! What a lack of literary courtesy and good-will appears in the haughty depreciation of American poets by the infallible Whitman! Benedix, in Germany, and Voltaire, in France, were such critical cynics in their respective judgments of Shakespeare: nor is Taine, with all his merit, without deserved rebuke in this particular sphere of hypercriticism.

If we inquire more specifically as to what is meant by this element, we remark, a kindly regard for the feelings, the circumstances, and the purpose of the author under review. Mr. Arnold would call it, “ urbanity.” “A critic," writes Mr. Stedman, “must accept what is best in a poet and thus become his best encourager,” a principle, we may add, as intrinsically true as it is finely illustrated in the author of it. Of all men, the literary critic should be a man of a humane temper of mind, full of a genuine fellow-feeling for those whose intellectual work he is called to examine. It is his duty to take as charitable and catholic a view of authors and authorship as possible, based on a wide survey of those peculiar difficulties that lie along the line of anything like original work in letters.

Here we come in contact with a distinct literary principle closely applying to the subject in hand. It maintains that, for the best results in this department of criticism, the critic and the author must be one, confirming thus the couplet of Pope:


“Let such teach others who themselves excel,

And censure freely who have written well.”

The mere critic, in the technical sense of the word, is the least fitted to sit as a censor in any province of original production, and, most especially, in that of literature, where the most delicate phases of personal character appear, and where words are so influential over sensitive natures.

In the literature of our vernacular it is suggestive to note the large number of critics who have reached their eminence through individual authorship. One has but to run down the long list of those gifted writers who have in hand the “English Men of Letters Series " to see such a combination of style and criticism most happily exemplified. In such men as Morrison and Masson, Shairp and Hutton, Patterson and Ward, Ainger and Trollope, it would be difficult to say which was the more prominent-their critical acumen or their actual productive power as writers. If we extend this principle to the authors themselves, who are the subjects of criticism, such as Addison, De Quincey, Coleridge, and others, the result is equally striking. Of the nine American poets discussed by Mr. Stedman, the same principle is apparent in the critical work of Lowell and Taylor, much of the secret of whose power is found in the fact of their genial sweetness of temper as induced by a personal knowledge of the author's trials and discouragements. The temptation to unfeeling criticism is far too potent to be ignored. When most stoutly resisted, it will still be present with sufficient efficacy. If once allowed to control the method and spirit of critical work, it will, in the end, but defeat the very purpose of such work, and magnify the personal element above the great interests of literary art. Criticism is one thing, censoriousness is another. Keats and Henry Kirke White are not the only poets who will rise up in judgment against heartless reviewers.

It may be emphasized here that the ever-recurring errors of opinion among the wisest critics should be enough to induce in all who are called to such duty a spirit of humility and charity. It is well known in what comparative disesteem England's greatest dramatic poet was held in the seventeenth century, while scores of second-rate versifiers were lauded beyond all claims of merit. Later in our history, Edmund Waller was pronounced “the most celebrated lyric poet that England ever produced.” Thomas Warton goes out of his way to compliment Hammond, and Burns must content himself with ploughing and gauging. The mere recital of England's poet laureates from 1660 on to the time of Southey is enough to awaken within us the serio-comic sentiment. Dryden excepted, the roll of honor reads as follows: Davenant, Shadwell, Tate, Rowe, Eusden, Cibber, Walton, Whitehead, and Pye, and these were the masters of literature for a century and a half after the Restoration ! Fortunately for our national honor, the list opens with the name of Spencer and closes with that of Tennyson.

Critics apart, however, criticism itself as a literaary art must have something of “the milk of human kindness in it. Even Carlyle, in his essay on Burns, goes so far as to say: “Criticism, it is sometimes thought, should be a cold business. We are not so sure of this,” while in the very essay referred to the captious fault-finder forgets awhile his prevailing methods and is full of benignity. How genial as a literary judge is the kindly Charles Lamb, as he discusses the productions of our earlier English dramatists! Sidney Smith, Christopher North, and the brothers Hare are eminent here, while one of the most attractive elements in that masterly treatise on English Letters now preparing by Henry Morley is that urbanity of temper under whose subduing influence all the rough edges of the critic's work are made to disappear.

Nor are we contending here, as we shall see hereafter, for any such thing as laxity of judgment or a sentimental deference to the character, work, and opinions of authors coming under judicial inspection. We simply maintain with Pope, that the critic and the man are one, that any order of literary judgment which separates itself from the reach and play of human sympathies is thereby devoid of one of the prime conditions of all true literary decision. Diogenes the cynic has no function in such a sphere. That truly cosmopolitan spirit, so germane to every man of letters, would forever exclude him. It is refreshing to hear the genial Richter, in speaking of Madame de Staël's “ Allemagne,” declare—“What chiefly exalts her to be our critic is the feeling she manifests.” Richter himself was a notable example of such kindliness of spirit, adjusting all differences, subduing all enmity, and, while defending the highest canons of literary art, still applying them with suavity and grace. There is a criticism that disarms criticism. There is such a thing as the humanities in the world of letters,

« ZurückWeiter »