Page images
PDF
EPUB

mortals, he comes to consider that merely to get along is a current substitute for success. He finds that in this, as in other professions, the adroitness lies in making the least information go the greatest way:

The system is, perhaps, to be blamed rather than we unfortunates who are the victims of it. Poor Zoïlus must have bis chronic illuminations. He must be statistical, brilliant, profound, withering, scorching, searching, and slashing, once a quarter, or once a month, according to the demands of that insatiable demon of the press to whom he has sold himself. The public have paid for their seats, and, when the curtain rises, he must fulól the promise of the bills. He must dance, if it be to no better orchestra than Saint Vitus's fiddle. There is no such thing as returning the money at the door.

If Zoïlus encounter a book which happens to be beyond his comprehension, — are we going too far, or shall we make a clean breast, and acknowledge that this is no unheard-of contingency ? — and find it impossible to say what is in it, he must get over the difficulty by telling all his readers what is out of it, and by assuring them, with a compassionate regret, that they will not find this or that there. Whether they ought to be there or not is entirely out of the question. The intention of a book is just the last thing to be considered. It were a kind of impiety to suspect any marks of design in it.

The critic is debarred by his position from that common sanctuary of humanity, the confession of ignorance. Were Hamlet to be published anonymously to-morrow, he must tell the public their opinion of it. He may fly for refuge to the Unities. Or he may study the ancient oracles, and ensconce himself in a windier than Delphic ambiguity. Or he may confess to having only run over its pages, – a happy phrase, since there is scarce any truly living book which does not bear the print of that hoof which Pindar would have Olympicized into the spurner of dying lions. Moreover, it is considered necessary that every critical journal should have a character, — namely, for one-sidedness, though there is scarce a review that has existed for a dozen years which might not lay claim to as many sides as Goethe, if it were allowed to reckon the number of times it had shifted them. All reviews may be distinguished as Conservative or Liberal, and may be classed together as Illiberal. Ornithologically they might be described as, – ORDO, Accipitres ; Genus, Strix;

parcel of Scotchmen who smell of brimstone. Coleridge preaches, with Lamb for a congregation.

Ever the same old story. The poor poet is put off with a draft upon Posterity, but it is made payable to the order of Death, and must be indorsed by him to be negotiable. And, after all, who is this respectable fictitious paymaster ? Posterity is, to the full, as great a fool as we are. His ears differ not from ours in length by so much as a hair's breadth. He, as well as we, sifts carefully in order to preserve the chaff and bran. He is as much given to paying his debts in shinplasters as we. But, even were Posterity an altogether solvent and trustworthy personage, it would be no less a piece of cowardice and dishonesty in us to shift our proper responsibilities upon his shoulders. If he pay any debts of ours, it is because he defrauds his own contemporary creditors. We have no right thus to speculate prospectively, and to indulge ourselves in a posthumous insolvency. In point of fact, Posterity is no better than a Mrs. Harris. Why, we ourselves have once enjoyed this antenatal grandeur. We were Posterity to that Sarah Gamp, the last generation. We laugh in our sleeves, as we think of it. That we should have been appealed to by so many patriots, philosophers, poets, projectors, and what not, as a convenient embodiment of the eternal justice, and yet be nothing more than the Smiths and Browns over again, with all our little cliques, and prejudices, and stupid admirations of ourselves !

We do not, therefore, feel especially flattered, when it is said, that America is a posterity to the living English author. Let us rather wish to deserve the name of a contemporary public unbiased by personal and local considerations. In this way, our geographical position may tend to produce among us a class of competent critics, who, by practice in looking at foreign works from a point of pure art, may in time be able to deal exact justice to native productions.

Unfortunately, before we can have good criticism, it is necessary that we should have good critics; and this consummation seems only the farther off now that the business has grown into a profession and means of subsistence. Doubtless, the critic sets out with an ideal before him. His forereaching spirit shapes to itself designs of noble and gigantic proportions. Very early in life, he even conceives of reading the books he reviews. Soon, however, like other

is born. And, indeed, though man is said to be the only animal which comes into the world entirely helpless, it would seem that an exception might be made in favor of the critic. He is often fully as competent to his task on the day of his birth, as at any other period during his life ; we might even say fitter. For, let him but make any dithyrambic penscratches upon a piece of paper, and the Society of Northern Antiquaries would discover therein a copy of some Runic inscription ; whereas even that enthusiastic body of scholars might fail to detect any latent meaning in the seemingly clearer productions of his maturer years. If the writing of books belong to one sphere of art, the writing of reviews belongs to another and more ingenious one. The two accomplishments make a happy antithesis. If the author endeavour to show how much he knows, the critic, on the contrary, seems striving to prove how much he can be ignorant of. The comprehension of our own ignorance is the latest and most difficult acquisition of experience. Is the critic to be blamed, that he starts in life without it? There are some things which he understands, and some which he does not. The defect of his mind is, that he cannot distinguish with enough precision between these two classes of ideas.

We wish it to be distinctly understood, that we are speaking of criticism upon works of art alone. With mere rhymers the critic ought to have nothing to do. Time will satirize and silence them effectually enough. For it is only in regard to judgment upon works of art that inspiration is conceded to the critic. For this only, no natural aptness, no previous study, is deemed necessary. Here reigns an unmixed democracy. One man's want of taste is just as good as another's, and it is the inalienable birthright of both. To pass sentence on a President's Message, or a Secretary's Report, one needs to be up with the front of the time in his statistics and his political history. A half-hour's reading in Johnson's Lives of the Poets will furnish him with phrases enough to lay Wordsworth on the shelf for ever.

We have not alluded yet to the greatest stumbling-block in the

way of the critic. His position is not so much that of a teacher as of a representative. He is not expected to instruct, but rather to reflect, his constituency. He may be prejudiced or ignorant himself, as it happens, but he must be the exponent of their united ignorance and prejudice. What

they expect to be furnished with is their own opinion, not his. For, in a matter of æsthetics, it is pretty generally conceded, that instinct is a greater matter than any amount of cultivation. Then, too, the larger proportion of the critic's constituents are a mob who consider their education as completed, and there is no ignorance so impenetrable or so dangerous as a half-learning satisfied with itself. For education, as we commonly practise it, amounts simply to the rooting out of God's predilections and the planting of our own in their stead. Every indigenous germ is carefully weeded away, and the soil exhausted in producing a scanty alien crop. The safe instincts of nature are displaced by conventional sciolisms.

Accordingly, whenever Phæbus summons a new ministry, the critic finds himself necessarily in opposition. The only intrinsic evidence which any thing can bring with it, that it is fresh from the great creative heart of nature, is its entire newness. Nature never made anything old.

Yet are wrinkles the only stamp of genuineness which the critic feels safe in depending upon. He is delighted if he find something like Pope or Goldsmith, and triumphantly takes to task the unfortunate poet who is unclassical enough to be simply like himself. Original minds are never wedge-shaped. They thrust themselves with a crushing bluntness against the prejudices of a dogmatic public. Only the humorist can steal a march upon the world. His weapon has the edge of Mimer's sword, and many an ancient fallacy finds the head loose upon its shoulders in attempting to shake a smiling denial of the decollation.

It has been a fortunate circumstance for German literature, that those who first gave a tone to the criticism of poetry were themselves poets. They best could interpret the laws of art who were themselves concerned in the making of them. In England, on the other hand, those who should have been simple codifiers usurped a legislative function, and poetry has hardly yet recovered from the injury done it by such men as Gifford and Jeffrey. Poetry was measured by a conventional, not an absolute, standard, — the ocean sounded with a ten-foot pole! Uniformity supplanted unity, polish was allowed to pass muster for strength, and smoothness was an adequate substitute for depth. Nothing was esteemed very good, save what was a repetition of something originally not the best. The one drop of original meaning must go through

is born. And, indeed, though man is said to be the only animal which comes into the world entirely helpless, it would seem that an exception might be made in favor of the critic. He is often fully as competent to his task on the day of his birth, as at any other period during his life ; we might even say fitter. For, let him but make any dithyrambic penscratches upon a piece of paper, and the Society of Northern Antiquaries would discover therein a copy of some Runic inscription; whereas even that enthusiastic body of scholars might fail to detect any latent meaning in the seemingly clearer productions of his maturer years. If the writing of books belong to one sphere of art, the writing of reviews belongs to another and more ingenious one. The two accomplishments make a happy antithesis. If the author endeavour to show how much he knows, the critic, on the contrary, seems striving to prove how much he can be ignorant of The comprehension of our own ignorance is the latest and most difficult acquisition of experience. Is the critic to be blamed, that he starts in life without it? There are some things which he understands, and some which he does not. The defect of his mind is, that he cannot distinguish with enough precision between these two classes of ideas.

We wish it to be distinctly understood, that we are speaking of criticism upon works of art alone. With mere rhymers the critic ought to have nothing to do. T'ime will satirize and silence them effectually enough. For it is only in regard to judgment upon works of art that inspiration is conceded to the critic. For this only, no natural aptness, no previous study, is deemed necessary. Here reigns an unmixed democracy. One man's want of taste is just as good as another's, and it is the inalienable birthright of both. sentence on a President's Message, or a Secretary's Report, one needs to be up with the front of the time in his statistics and his political history. A half-hour's reading in Johnson's Lives of the Poets will furnish him with phrases enough to lay Wordsworth on the shelf for ever.

We have not alluded yet to the greatest stumbling-block in the way of the critic. His position is not so much that of a teacher as of a representative. He is not expected to instruct, but rather to reflect, his constituency. He may be prejudiced or ignorant himself, as it happens, but he must be the exponent of their united ignorance and prejudice. What

To pass

« PreviousContinue »