Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB

down below the outer body of literature to the absolute heart of things. Mr. Gosse, in his recently published criticisms—“From Shakespeare to Pope"--has, in some respects, done the literary world an important service in bringing to light undiscovered facts relative to the classical school of English letters. We confess, however, to the untimeliness of the attempt, at this late date in modern letters, to exalt beyond all proper bounds the place and work of such inferior names as Davenant and Waller, and, once again to thrust upon the notice of modern critics the methods and results of that " mundane order" of authors. The procedure is devoid of that element of insight so eminently essential to correct conclusions. If, as Mr. Gosse himself finely states it, “ literature is the quintessence of good writing,” and not a mere technical obedience to statute, what is needed, above all, is to encourage the tendency of modern criticism in this higher direction. If it is the

quintessence ” we are seeking, then must insight both psychologic and ästhetic be applied, and the very soul of literary expression be revealed. In the absence of such insight lies the greatest deficiency of the widely versed Macaulay as a critic of letters, and, in its substantial presence, the just renown of such men as Coleridge and our American Lowell.

IV. We touch, here, upon that ever-pressing question of the precise relation of literary morality

a

to practical and personal morals; of ethics to esthetics. Is there such a connection as that of character and scholarship, or is the man of letters one person, and the man of ethical sensibility and aim another ? The tendency of modern thinking in the domain of art and letters is undoubtedly toward an ever-widening separation of these two departments of human activity. We are told that the littérateur has a sphere of his own, as the more alist has his, and that nothing more is demanded of either of them in relation to the other than the observance of common civility. Such a novelist as Ouida, in her unblushing portraitures, cannot express herself too strongly against what she is pleased to call the presence of Puritanism in literature, that revolting "church steeple” authorship which is wont to express its convictions only in view of the temple and the altar. The relation of criticism to conscience becomes, in view of such deliverances as these, one of the questions of special moment. We are using the term, conscientiousness, in this connection, in its most comprehensive sense, as including all those elements of character that go to make up the man of honor, uprightness, and ethical integrity. Pope, in his “Essay on Criticism,” especially alludes to it.

Mr. Arnold is nowhere more outspoken than just here. He protests against confining the word conscience to the moral sphere, and alludes to its exclusion from the sphere of intellectual endeavor as unscientific. The famous French critic, SainteBeuve, speaks in still stronger terms. “The first consideration for us is not whether we are pleased by a work of art. What we seek above all to learn is, whether we were right in being pleased with it." This is certainly high ground for the Gallic mind to assume, as it at once lifts the ethical above the merely ästhetic, and gives us therein one of the fundamental elements of all literary criticism, what we style, conscientiousness. As far as the present discussion is concerned, it may be said to include three distinct essentials.

1. There must be in the critic an absolute fidelity to the facts as they exist. The record is to be taken as it reads, as an historical and impersonal record, as a body of data given to hand for reference and use just as it stands. The critic is not to play the legitimate rôle of the novelist, shaping the facts to suit his particular purpose, but must hold himself in honor bound to the facts, regarding any substantial departure therefrom as a breach of literary trust. Whatever liberty may rightfully be accorded him in the special work of the interpretation of facts, the facts themselves must stand as they are. It is here that the wide departments of literary history and biography take on a new importance as related to literary criticism, in that they serve to furnish the data obtainable from no other sources, whereby literary work itself may be the more correctly judged.

2. Into the next essential, that of impartiality, enters the quality of courage, an undaunted estimate of merit and demerit as they stand revealed to the critic's discerning eye. Dr. Johnson's biographer has this in mind as he says, “Whoever thinks for himself and says plainly what he thinks, has some merit as a critic." We may term it, disinterestedness, a dispassionate, judicial regard to the thing in itself as quite unconnected with any ulterior end that might be subserved by it. Mr. Arnold would probably call it, justness of spirit. When Mr. Stedman speaks of Lowell as "a safe and independent critic,” he must refer to this impartial attitude of mind. Mr. Froude, in his honest statements concerning Carlyle, is a good example of this heroic order of critic, while Carlyle himself, though often erring on the side of undue severity, must be classed among those few men of letters who have had the courage of their convictions and been bold to announce them in the face of all opposition.

Nor is there any necessary conflict here between what we have called literary sympathy and literary courage of decision. The tenderest deference to the feelings of authors and the fullest appreciation of their discouragements may have proper place, and yet the high demands of literary justice be fully met. If, in some exceptional emergency an apparent conflict arises and a sacrifice must be made at some point along the line, there can be no question whatever but that an inflexible justice should prevail and conscience remain supreme over the affections. Nothing is more needed in modern

no

literature than this unbiased order of judgment, a positiveness of opinion and expression that leaves

room for debate. The very word criticism means decision. It is more than a mere discernment of truth and error, correctness and incorrectness. It is the specific deliverance of a conclusion without hesitation or evasion. Much of the

. practical helpfulness of criticism is found in such a fearless and final verdict as this. It tells us where we are, and affords us a basis for further procedure on intelligent methods. Better by far to err on

. the side of dogmatism with such open-faced censors as Arnold and Carlyle, than on the side of vacillating timidity with so many of the time-serving flatterers of the day. Pride of opinion, so it be candid and honest, is far more commendable in criticism than a craven deference to the supposed preferences of others. The surrender of one's personality is as unliterary and uncritical as it is unconscientious.

3. Conscientiousness in criticism assumes its most distinctive character as an ethical quality, an essential quality of high, moral aim. By this is meant, in general, a controlling regard to the demands of truth as truth. In the special department of literary criticism it means that, above all possible considerations of personal advantage, or the advantage of authors themselves, the great interests of literature should be uppermost. What will best subserve its deepening and broadening; what will purify and elevate its tone, and give it wider usefulness as a national educator ; how, in fine, it

« ZurückWeiter »