« PreviousContinue »
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 Phoebus 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 any thing old. 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
endless homeopathic dilutions. That only was poetry which the critics could have written themselves. A genius was one whose habits shocked the prejudices of his less gifted fellowcitizens, and whose writings never did, — who was unlike every body else in his life, and exactly like every body else in his works. The annotation of some incautious commentator has dethroned the soul of Sir John Cheke from its mysterious excarnation in Milton's sonnet. But there is a sound in the name suggestive of such gentlest commonplace, that we can almost fancy its office to have been to transmigrate through many generations of these geniuses. We even think we could point out the exact locality of its present dwelling-place.
The system which erected ordinary minds into the judges and arbiters of extraordinary ones is quite too flattering to be easily overthrown. The deduction of a set of rules, and those founded wholly in externals, from the writings of the poets of any particular age, for the government of all their successors, was a scheme worthy of Chinese exactitude in sarneness. Unfortunately, too, the rules, such as they are, were made
from very narrow and limited originals. A smooth fidelity to the artificial, and not truth to nature, was established as the test of true poetry. So strict was the application, that even Doctor Darwin, who, but for this, might have been as great a poet as Hayley, was found guilty of an occasional extravagance.
That the criticisms on poetry which were written in the English tongue thirty or forty years ago were serious would seem incredible, could we not confute our doubts by reference to living specimens. Criticism is no more in earnest now than then. One phase of half-learning has only taken the place of another. It still busies itself about words and phrases, syllables, feet, and accents, still forgets that it is the soul only which is and keeps alive. Now, though we have been compelled to enlarge the circle of our poetical sympathies, whether we would or not, and to admit as even great poets writers who were originally received with a universal hoot of critical derision, the same narrow principle governs us still. We continue to condemn one poet by the merits of another, instead of commending him for his own, and, after vainly resisting the claims of Wordsworth and Coleridge, we endeavour to quash all new ones by a comparison with them. All that we would suggest to our brother critics is, that they should be willing to be
delighted, and that they should get rid of the idea that it is a weakness to be pleased. Let us consider if we have not esteemed it necessary to impress upon the poets a certain superiority of nature, lest they might combine to dethrone us. Have we not put ourselves somewhat in the condition of that Spanish commander who, having assured the savages that he was a child of the sun, was thenceforward constrained to express a contempt for whatever gold he saw, though that was the very thing he had come in search of ?
In the matter of versification, we have been especially incautious. Here, at least, was a purely mechanical process, where the ground was firm beneath our feet.
Hath not a critic ears ? Hath he not fingers on which he can number as high as ten, recounting the two thumbs for an Alexandrine? Do we not see in this a complete natural outfit, demanding only the coexistence of a mathematical proficiency to the extent we have hinted? There are critics yet living — we shudder to say it, but remember that Mormonism were incredible, had we not ourselves seen it. who sincerely believe that poets construct their verses by such digital enumeration. We might account on this principle (since it would be absurd to suppose them intentional) for the occasional roughnesses in Shakspeare. Perhaps he lost a finger in one of those poaching expeditions of his, and the bitterness with which he must have felt his loss, after he had taken up his final profession, will furnish the commentators with additional proof that all his stupid justices were intended as gibes at Sir Thomas Lucy. At the same time, the bountiful foresight of Providence in regard to our own ears might lead us to suspect the presence of such useful ornaments in the poet also.
If Sir Thomas Browne had suggested remorse for having attempted to define the limits of poetry as a reason for Aristotle's drowning himself in the Euripus, there had been at least some smack of poetical justice in the suicide. There never has been a great work of art which did not in some particular transcend old rules and establish new ones of its own. Newness, boldness, self-sustained strength, these are the characteristics of such works as the world will sooner or later take to its heart. Yet have we critics deemed it possible to establish a formula, by which, given pen, ink, paper, and subject, a wholly unknown quantity (and quality) of immortality
might be obtained. We would confine genius to what we can understand of the processes by which some other and perhaps inferior mind produced its results. We would, in fact, establish the measure of our own intellects as the measure of truth and beauty. For the law of elective affinities governs in the region of soul as well as in chemistry, and we absorb and assimilate just so much of an author as we are naturally capable of, and no effort will enable us to take up a particle
The rest of him does not exist for us, and yet may have a very definite existence notwithstanding. The critic, who tries every thing by his own peculiar idiosyncrasy, looks for and finds nothing but himself in the author he reviews; and the consequence is, that what he considers criticisms are nothing more than unconscious confessions of his own mental deficiencies. Instead of exchanging gifts with the poet, he finds himself in a state of war with him, and so, shutting up his mind like the temple of Janus, cuts off from the god within his view before and after, and limits him to such contemplation of his own walls as the darkness will allow.
We have been speaking of criticisms upon what truly deserve the name of works of art, and we consider art not as a quality innate in the soul of genius, but as a law transcending and governing that. It is in the faculty of obedience that genius is superior. Study and effort produce the adroit artificer, not the artist. Talent is capable of perceiving particular applications of this law, but it is only genius which can comprehend it as a harmonious whole. We do not mean to say that successful artifice does not give pleasure to the mind; but it is pleasure of an inferior kind, whose root analysis would discover no deeper than in the emotion of surprise. Construction includes the whole of talent, but is included in genius. It is commonly the last faculty of genius which becomes conscious and active. For genius apparently becomes first aware of a heavenly energy and power of production, and is for a time satisfied with the activity of simple development. We are struck with this fact in the earlier poems of Shakspeare. We find in them only a profuse life, a robust vivacity of all the senses and faculties, without definite direction. Yet very shortly afterward we hear him
“Desiring this man's art and that man's scope.” Genius feels a necessity of production, — talent, a desire to pro
duce an effect. The stimulus in the one case is from within, and in the other from without.
Are we to suppose that the genius for poetry is entirely exhausted ? Or would it not rather be wiser to admit as a possibility that the poems we are criticizing may be new and great, and to bestow on them a part at least of that study which we dare not refuse to such as have received the warrant of time? The writings of those poets who are established beyond question as great are constantly inculcating upon us lessons of humility and distrust of self. New depths and intricacies of meaning are for ever unfolding themselves. We learn by degrees that we had at first comprehended, as it were, only their astral spirit. Slowly, and, as it might seem, almost reluctantly, their more ethereal and diviner soul lets itself become visible us, consents to be our interpreter and companion. The passage
which one mood of our mind found dark and shadowy, another beholds winding as between the pillars of the Beautiful Gate. We discover beauties in exact proportion as we have faith that we shall. And the old poets have this advantage, that we bring to the reading of them a religious and trustful spirit. The realm of Shakspeare, peopled with royal and heroic shades, the sublime solitudes of Milton, bid us take the shoes from off our feet. Flippancy is abashed there, and conceit startles at the sound of its own voice ; for the making of true poetry is almost equally divided between the poet and the reader. To the consideration of universally acknowledged masterpieces we are willing to contribute our own share, and to give earnest study and honest endeavour. Full of meaning was that ancient belief, that the spirits of wood, and water, and rock, and mountain would grant only an enforced communion. The compulsion they awaited was that of a pure mind and a willing spirit.
The critic, then, should never compress the book he comments on within the impoverishing limits of a mood. He should endeavour rather to estimate an author by what he is than by what he is not.
He should test the parts of a poem, not by his own preconceptions, but by the motive and aim of the whole. He should try whether, by any possibility, he can perceive a unity in it toward which the several parts centre. He should remember that very many excellent and enlightened men, in other respects good citizens, have esteemed poetry to be, not only an art, but the highest of all arts, round which the