To adopt Johnson's method is, in truth, to misconceive the whole nature of poetry and of poetic imagination. The ideas that have shaped the work of one poet may act as guide and spur, but can never be a rule—far less a law—to the imagination of another. The idea, as it comes to an artist, is not a law imposing itself from without; it is a seed of life and energy springing from within. This, however, was a truth entirely hidden from the eyes of Johnson and the Augustan critics. To assert it both by word and deed, both as critics and as poets, was the task of Coleridge, and of those who joined hands with Coleridge, in the succeeding generation. Apart from the undying beauty of their work as artists, this was the memorable service they rendered to poetry in England.
It remains to illustrate the method of Johnson by its practical application. As has already been said, Johnson is nothing if not a hanging judge; and it is just where originality is most striking that his sentences are the most severe. If there was one writer who might have been expected to win his favour, it was Pope; and if there is any work that bears witness to the originality of Pope's genius, it is the imitations of Horace. These are dismissed in a disparaging sentence. There is no adequate recognition of Congreve's brilliance as a dramatist; none of Swift's amazing powers as a satirist. Yet all these were men who lived more or less within the range of ideas and tendencies by which Johnson's own mind was moulded and inspired.
The case is still worse when we turn to writers of a different school. Take the poets from the Restoration to the closing years of the American war; and it is not too much to say that, with the exception of Thomson—saved perhaps by his "glossy, unfeeling diction"—there is not one of them who overstepped the bounds marked out for literary effort by the prevailing taste of the Augustan age, in its narrowest sense, without paying the price for his temerity in the sneers or reprobation of Johnson. Collins, it is true, escapes more lightly than the rest; but that is probably due to the affection and pity of his critic. Yet even Collins, perhaps the most truly poetic spirit of the century between Milton and Burns, is blamed for a "diction often harsh, unskillfully laboured, and injudiciously selected"; for "lines commonly of slow motion"; for "poetry that may sometimes extort praise, when it gives little pleasure". [Footnote: Johnson's Works, xi. 270.]The poems of Gray—an exception must be made, to Johnson's honour, in favour of the Elegy [Footnote: In the bosom of "the Club" the exception dwindled to two stanzas (Boswell's Life, ii. 300).] are slaughtered in detail; [Footnote: Johnson's Works, xi. 372-378. Johnson is peculiarly sarcastic on the Bard and the Progress of Poetry.] the man himself is given dog's burial with the compendious epitaph: "A dull fellow, sir; dull in company, dull in his closet, dull everywhere". [Footnote: Boswell's Life, ii. 300. Comp. in. 435.]
But most astonishing of all, as is well known, is the treatment bestowed on Milton. Of all Milton's works, Paradise Lost seems to have been the only one that Johnson genuinely admired. That he praises with as little of reservation as was in the nature of so stern a critic. On Paradise Regained he is more guarded; on Samson, more guarded yet. [Footnote: The two papers devoted to Samson in the Rambler are "not entitled even to this slender commendation". "This is the tragedy that ignorance has admired and bigotry applauded" (Johnson's Works, v. 436).] But it is in speaking of the earlier poems that Johnson shows his hand most plainly. Comus "is a drama in the epic style, inelegantly splendid and tediously instructive". [Footnote: Johnson's Works, ix. 153.] Of Lycidas "the diction is harsh, the rhymes uncertain, and the numbers un-pleasing" [Footnote: Ib. 159.] As for the sonnets, "they deserve not any particular criticism. For of the best it can only be said that they are not bad; and perhaps only the eighth and twenty-first are truly entitled to this slender commendation.... These little pieces may be dismissed without much anxiety". [Footnote: Ib. 160. The two sonnets are those written When the assault was intended to the City, and On his Blindness.]
It would be hardly worth while to record these ill-tempered judgments if they were not the natural outcome of a method which held unquestioned sway over English taste for a full century—in France for nearly two—and which, during that time, if we except Gray and his friends, was not seriously disputed by a single man of mark. The one author in whose favour the rules of "correct writing" were commonly set aside was Shakespeare; and perhaps there is no testimony to his greatness so convincing as the unwilling homage it extorted from the contemporaries of Pope, of Johnson, and of Hume. Johnson's own notes and introductions to the separate plays are at times trifling enough; [Footnote: Compare the assault on the "mean expressions" of Shakespeare (Rambler, No. 168).] but his general preface is a solid and manly piece of work. It contrasts strangely not only with the verdicts given above, but with his jeers at Chevy Chase [Footnote: Ib. x. 139.]—a "dull and lifeless imbecility"—at the Nonne Prestes Tale, and at the Knightes Tale [Footnote: Ib. ix. 432.]
One more instance, and we may leave this depressing study in critical perversity. Among the great writers of Johnson's day there was none who showed a truer originality than Fielding; no man who broke more markedly with the literary superstitions of the time; none who took his own road with more sturdiness and self-reliance. This was enough for Johnson, who persistently depreciated both the man and his work. Something of this should doubtless be set down to disapproval of the free speech and readiness to allow for human frailty, which could not but give offence to a moralist so unbending as Johnson. But that will hardly account for the assertion that "Harry Fielding knew nothing but the outer shell of life"; still less for the petulant ruling that he "was a barren rascal". [Footnote: Boswell's Life, ii. 169. Diary and Letters of Madame D'Arblay, i. 91] The truth is—and Johnson felt it instinctively—that the novel, as conceived by Fielding—the novel that gloried in painting all sides of life, and above all in drawing out the humour of its "lower spheres"—dealt a fatal blow not only at the pompous canons which the Rambler was pleased to call "the indispensable laws of Aristotelian criticism", [Footnote: Johnson's Works, v. 431.] but also at the view which found "human life to be a state where much is to be endured and little to be enjoyed". It would be hard to say whether Johnson found more in Fielding to affront him, as pessimist or as critic. And it would be equally hard to say in which of the two characters lay the greater barrier to literary insight. Even Richardson—no less revolutionary, though in a different way, than Fielding—was only saved so as by fire; by the undying hatred which he shared with Johnson for his terrible rival. It was rather as moralist than as artist, rather for "the sentiment" than for the tragic force of his work, that Richardson seems to have won his way to Johnson's heart. [Footnote: See the passage referred to in the preceding note.]
Is not the evidence conclusive? Is it a harsh judgment to say that no critic so narrow, so mechanical, so hostile to originality as Johnson has ever achieved the dictatorship of English letters?
The supremacy of Johnson would have been impossible, had not the way been smoothed for it by a long succession of critics like-minded with himself. Such a succession may be traced from Swift to Addison, from Addison to Pope, and—with marked reservations—from Pope to Goldsmith. It would be unjust to charge all, or indeed any, of these with the narrowness of view betrayed in Johnson's verdicts on individual writers. To arrive at this perfection of sourness was a work of time; and the nature of Addison and Goldsmith at least was too genial to allow of any approach to it. But, with all their difference of temperament, the method of the earlier critics is hardly to be distinguished from that of Johnson. There is the same orderliness of treatment—first the fable, then the characters, lastly the sentiment and the diction; the same persistency in applying general rules to a matter which, above all others, is a law to itself; the same invincible faith in "the indispensable laws of Aristotelian criticism". It is this that, in spite of its readiness to admire, makes Addison's criticism of Paradise Lost so dreary a study; and this that, in an evil hour, prompted Goldsmith to treat the soliloquy of Hamlet as though it were a schoolboy's exercise in rhetoric and logic. [Footnote: Goldsmith, Essay xvi. The next essay contains a like attack on Mercutio's description of Queen Mab.]
And yet it is with Goldsmith that we come to the first dawn of better things. The carping strain and the stiffness of method, that we cannot overlook in him, were the note of his generation. The openness to new ideas, the sense of nature, the fruitful use of the historical method, are entirely his own. There had been nothing like them in our literature since Dryden. In criticism, as in creative work, Goldsmith marks the transition from the old order to the new.
Perhaps the clearest indication of this is to be found in his constant appeal to nature. In itself, as we have seen, this may mean much or little. "Nature" is a vague word; it was the battle-cry of Wordsworth, but it was also the battle-cry of Boileau. And, at first sight, it might seem to be used by Goldsmith in the narrower rather than in the wider sense. "It is the business of art", he writes, "to imitate nature, but not with a servile pencil; and to choose those attitudes and dispositions only which are beautiful and engaging." [Footnote: Goldsmith, Essay xiii.] But a glance at the context will show that what Goldsmith had in mind was not "nature to advantage dressed", not nature with any adornments added by man; but nature stripped of all that to man has degrading associations; nature, to adopt the words used by Wordsworth on a kindred subject, "purified from all lasting or rational causes of dislike or disgust". It may well be that Goldsmith gave undue weight to this reservation. It may well be that he did not throw himself on nature with the unwavering constancy of Wordsworth. But, none the less, we have here—and we have it worked out in detail [Footnote: As to oratory, poetry, the drama, and acting, Ib., Essays iv., xii., xiii.; The Bee, no. ii.]—the germ of the principle which, in bolder hands, gave England the Lyrical Ballads and the Essays of Lamb.
In an essay not commonly reprinted, Goldsmith, laying his finger on the one weak spot in the genius of Gray, gives the poet the memorable advice—to "study the people". And throughout his own critical work, as in his novel, his comedies, and his poems, there is an abiding sense that, without this, there is no salvation for poetry. That in itself is enough to fix an impassable barrier between Goldsmith and the official criticism of his day.
The other main service rendered by Goldsmith was his return to the historical method. It is true that his knowledge is no more at first hand, and is set out with still less system than that of Dryden a century before. But it is also true that he has a far keener sense of the strength which art may draw from history than his great forerunner. Dryden confines himself to the history of certain forms of art; Goldsmith includes the history of nations also in his view. With Dryden the past is little more than an antiquarian study; with Goldsmith it is a living fountain of inspiration for the present. The art of the past—the poetry, say, of Teutonic or Celtic antiquity—is to him an undying record of the days when man still walked hand in hand with nature. The history of the past is at once a storehouse of stirring themes ready to the hand of the artist, and the surest safeguard against both flatness and exaggeration in his work. [Footnote: See Essays xiii., xiv., xx.; Present State of Polite Learning, in particular, chap. xi.] It offers, moreover, the truest schooling of the heart, and insensibly "enlists the passions on the side of humanity". "Poetry", Byron said, "is the feeling of a former world, and future"; [Footnote: Moore's Life, p. 483] and to the first half of the statement Goldsmith would have heartily subscribed. For the historical method in his hands is but another aspect of the counsel he gave to Gray: "Study the people". It is an anticipation—vague, no doubt, but still unmistakable—of the spirit which, both in France and England, gave birth to the romantic movement a generation or two later.
That zeal for the literature of the past was in the air when Goldsmith wrote is proved by works so different as those of Gray and Percy, of Chatterton and MacPherson, of Mallet and Warton. [Footnote: Percy's Reliques were published in 1765; Chatterton's Rowley Poems written in 1769; MacPherson's Ossian (first instalment) in 1760; Mallet's Northern Antiquities in 1755; and Warton's History of English Poetry—a book to the learning and importance of which scant justice has been done—from 1772 to 1778. To these should be added a work, whose fine scholarship and profound learning is now universally admitted, Tyrwhitt's Chaucer (1775-78). It will be noticed that all these works fall within the space of twenty years, 1755-1775] But it may be doubted whether any one of them, Gray excepted, saw the true bearing of the movement more clearly than Goldsmith, or did more to open fresh springs of thought and beauty for the poetry of the next age, if not of his own. It would be unpardonable to turn from the writers of the eighteenth century with no notice of a book which, seldom now read, is nevertheless perhaps the most solid piece of work that modern Europe had as yet to show in any branch of literary criticism. This is Burke's treatise On the Sublime and the Beautiful. Few will now be prepared to accept the material basis which Burke finds for the ideas of the imagination. [Footnote: Burke traces our ideas of the sublime to the sense of physical pain; our ideas of the beautiful to that of physical pleasure; identifying the former with a contraction or tension, and the latter with a relaxation of the muscles. Against this theory two main objections may be urged: (1) As, on Burke's own showing, the objects of the imagination, at least as far as poetry is concerned, are, and must be, presented first to the mind, it is (in the strictest sense of the term) preposterous to attribute their power over us to a purely muscular operation (2) The argument, taken by itself, is barely relevant to the matter in hand. Even where a physical basis can be proved—as it can in the case of music, painting, and sculpture (and of poetry, so far as rhythm and harmony are an essential element of it) it is extravagant to maintain that the physiologist or the "psycho physicist" can explain the whole, or even the greater part, of what has to be explained Beyond the fraction of information that purely physical facts can give us, a vast field must be left to intellectual and imaginative association. And that is the province not of physiology but of psychology, and of what the Germans call Aesthetik This province, however, is but seldom entered by Burke.
What, then, was it that drove Burke to a position so markedly at variance with the idealism of his later years? In all probability it was his rooted suspicion of reasoning as a deliberate and conscious process. Other writers of the century—Addison, for instance—had spoken as if men reasoned from certain abstract ideas (proportion, fitness, and the like) to individual instances of beauty, deciding a thing to have beauty or no, according as it squared or failed to square with the general notion This, as Burke points out, is more than questionable in itself, and it was certain to affront a man who, even thus early, had shown an almost morbid hatred of abstractions. In his later years, as is well known, he sought refuge from them in instinct, in "prejudice", in the unconscious working of the "permanent reason of man". In earlier days—he was still well under thirty—he found escape by the grosser aid of a materialist explanation (Burke's treatise was published in 1756 The Laocoon of Lessing, a work which may be compared with that of Burke and which was very probably suggested by it, appeared in 1766.)] But none can deny the skill with which he works out his theory, nor the easy mastery with which each part is fitted into its place. The speculative power of the book and the light it throws on the deeper springs of the imagination are alike memorable. The first is not unworthy of the Reflections or the Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs; the second shows that fruitful study of the Bible and the poets, English and classical, to which his later writings and speeches bear witness on every page.
If the originality and depth of Burke's treatise is to be justly measured, it should be set side by side with those papers of Addison which Akenside expanded in his dismal Pleasures of the Imagination. The performance of Addison, grateful though one must be to him for attempting it, is thin and lifeless. That of Burke is massive and full of suggestion. At every turn it betrays the hand of the craftsman who works with his eye upon his tools. The speculative side of criticism has never been a popular study with Englishmen, and it is no accident that one of the few attempts to deal seriously with it should have been made at the only time when philosophy was a living power among us, and when the desire to get behind the outward shows of things was keener than it has ever been before or since. But for Burke's treatise, a wide gap would have been left both in the philosophy and the criticism of the eighteenth century; and it is to be wished that later times had done more to work the vein which he so skilfully explored. As it is, the writers both of France and Germany—above all, Hegel in his Aesthetik—have laboured with incomparably more effect than his own countrymen, Mr. Ruskin excepted, upon the foundations that he laid.
IV. Johnson's Lives of the Poets was the last word of the school which the Restoration had enthroned; the final verdict of the supreme court which gave the law to English letters from the accession of Anne to the French Revolution. Save in the splenetic outbursts of Byron—and they are not to be taken too seriously—the indispensable laws of Aristotelian criticism fell silent at Johnson's death. A time of anarchy followed; anarchy plus the policeman's truncheon of the Edinburgh and the Quarterly. [Footnote: The first number of the Edinburgh appeared in 1802; the Quarterly was started in a counterblast in 1809.]
The ill-fame of these Reviews, as they were in their pride of youth, is now so great that doubts may sometimes suggest themselves whether it can possibly be deserved. No one who feels such doubts can do better than turn to the earlier numbers; he will be forced to the conclusion that, whatever their services as the journeymen of letters and of party politics, few critics could have been so incompetent to judge of genius as the men who enlisted under the standard of Jeffrey or of Gifford. There is not, doubtless, in either Review the same iron wall of reasoned prejudice that has been noted in Johnson, but there is a plentiful lack of the clear vision and the openness to new impressions which are the first necessity of the critic. What Carlyle says of Jeffrey and the Edinburgh may be taken as the substantial truth also about Gifford and the Quarterly, and it is the most pregnant judgment that has yet been passed upon them.
"Jeffrey may be said to have begun the rash, reckless style of criticising everything in heaven and earth by appeal to Moliere's maid: 'Do you like it?' 'Don't you like it?' a style which, in hands more and more inferior to that sound-hearted old lady and him, has since grown gradually to such immeasurable length among us; and he himself is one of the first that suffers by it. If praise and blame are to be perfected, not in the mouth of Moliere's maid only but in that of mischievous, precocious babes and sucklings, you will arrive at singular judgments by degrees." [Footnote: Carlyle, Reminiscences n 63, 64 ]
Carlyle has much here to say of Jeffrey's "recklessness", his defiance of all rules, his appeal to the chance taste of the man in the crowd. He has much also to say of his acuteness, and the unrivalled authority of his decrees. [Footnote: "Jeffrey was by no means the supreme in criticism or in anything else, but it is certain there has no critic appeared among us since who was worth naming beside him and his influence for good and for evil in literature and otherwise has been very great. Nothing in my time has so forwarded all this—the 'gradual uprise and rule in all things of roaring, million headed &c Demos'— "as Jeffrey and his once famous Edinburgh Review'—Ib ] But he is discreetly silent on their severity and short-sightedness. [Footnote: "You know", Byron wrote in 1808 "the system of the Edinburgh gentlemen is universal attack. They praise none, and neither the public nor the author expects praise from them."—Moore's Life, p 67.]
Yet this is the unpardonable sin of both Reviews: that mediocrity was applauded, but that, whenever a man of genius came before them, the chances were ten to one that he would be held up to ridicule and contempt. The very first number of the Edinburgh lays this down as an article of faith. Taking post on the recent appearance of Thalaba, the reviewer opens fire by a laboured parallel between poetry and religion. [Footnote: Edinburgh Review, No. 1, pp 63, &c ] With an alteration of names it might have been written by a member of the English Church Union, or of the Holy Inquisition.
"The standards of poetry have been fixed long ago by certain inspired writers, whose authority it is no longer lawful to call in question. Many profess to be entirely devoted to poetry, who have no good works to produce in support of their pretensions. The Catholic poetical Church too . . . has given birth to an infinite variety of heresies and errors, the followers of which have hated and persecuted each other as heartily as other bigots."
Then, turning to business, the writer proceeds to apply his creed to Southey and all his works, not forgetting the works also of his friends. "The author belongs to a sect of poets that has established itself in this country within these ten or twelve years"—it would be hard to say for whose benefit in particular this date was taken—"and is looked upon as one of its chief champions and apostles". "The doctrines of this sect"—the Reviewer continues, with an eye upon the Alien Act—"are of German origin, or borrowed from the great apostle of Geneva". Rousseau is then "named" for expulsion, together with a miscellaneous selection of his following: Schiller and Kotzebue (the next number includes Kant under the anathema), Quarles and Donne, Ambrose Phillips and Cowper—perhaps the most motley crew that was ever brought together for excommunication. It is not, however, till the end of the essay that the true root of bitterness between the critic and his victims is suffered fully to appear. "A splenetic and idle discontent with the existing institutions of society seems to be at the bottom of all their serious and peculiar sentiments." In other words, the Edinburgh takes up the work of the Anti-Jacobin; with no very good grace Jeffrey affects to sit in the seat of Canning and of Frere.
So much for the "principles" of the new venture; principles, it will be seen, which appear to rest rather upon a hatred of innovation in general than upon any reasoned code, such as that of Johnson or the "Aristotelian laws", in particular. On that point, it must be clearly realized, Carlyle was in the right. It is that which marks the essential difference of the Reviewers—we can hardly say their advance—as against Johnson.
We may now turn to watch the Reviewers, knife in hand, at the dissecting-table. For the twenty-five years that followed the foundation of the Edinburgh, England was more full of literary genius than it had been at any time since the age of Elizabeth. And it is not too much to say that during that period there was not one of the men, now accepted as among the chief glories of English literature, who did not fall under the lash of one, or both, of the Reviews. The leading cases will suffice.
And first, the famous attack—not altogether undeserved, it must be allowed—of the Edinburgh upon Byron. "The poetry of this young lord belongs to the class which neither gods nor men are said to permit", and so on for two or three pages of rather vulgar and heartless merriment at the young lord's expense. [Footnote: Edinburgh Review, xi. 285. It is uncommonly hard to find any trace of poetic power, even of the imitative kind, in the Hours of Idleness. It is significant that the best pieces are those in the heroic couplet; an indication—to be confirmed by English Bards—of Byron's leaning towards the past.] The answer to the sneer, as all the world knows, was English Bards and Scotch Reviewers. The author of the article had reason to be proud of his feat. Never before did pertness succeed in striking such unexpected fire from genius. And it is only fair to say that the Review took its beating like a gentleman. A few years later, and the Edinburgh was among the warmest champions of the "English Bard". [Footnote: See the article on The Corsair and Bride of Abydos, Ib. xxiii. 198. After speaking of the "beauty of his diction and versification, and the splendour of his description", the reviewer continues: "But it is to his pictures of the stronger passions that he is indebted for the fulness of his fame. He has delineated with unequalled force and fidelity the workings of those deep and powerful emotions.... We would humbly suggest to him to do away with the reproach of the age by producing a tragic drama of the old English school of poetry and pathos." The amende honorable with a vengeance. The review of The Giaour, Byron thought, was "so very mild and sentimental that it must be written by Jeffrey in love".—Moore's Life, p. 191.] It was reserved for Southey, a pillar of the Quarterly, to rank him as the "Goliath" of the "Satanic school".
Let us now turn to the Quarterly upon Keats. Endymion, in spite of the noble self-criticism of its preface, is denounced as "Cockney poetry" [Footnote: The phrase was also employed by Blackwood, vol. iii. 519-524.]—a stupid and pointless vulgarism—and is branded as clothing "the most incongruous ideas in the most uncouth language". The author is dismissed with the following amenities: "Being bitten by Leigh Hunt's insane criticism, he more than rivals the insanity of his poetry"; and we are half-surprised not to find him told, as he was by Blackwood, to "go back to the shop, Mr. John; back to the plasters, pills, and ointment-boxes". [Footnote: Quarterly Review, xix. 204. See Blackwood, vol. iii. 524; where the Reviewer sneers at "the calm, settled, imperturbable, drivelling idiocy of Endymion".]
With this insolence it is satisfactory to contrast the verdict of the Edinburgh: "We have been exceedingly struck with the genius these poems—Endymion, Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, &c.—display, and the spirit of poetry which breathes through all their extravagance. . . . They are at least as full of genius as absurdity." Of Hyperion the Reviewer says: "An original character and distinct individuality is bestowed upon the poet's mythological persons. . . . We cannot advise its completion. For, though there are passages of some force and grandeur, it is sufficiently obvious that the subject is too far removed from all the sources of human interest to be successfully treated by any modern author". [Footnote: Edinburgh Review, xxxiv. 203.] A blundering criticism, which, however, may be pardoned in virtue of the discernment, not to say the generosity, of the foregoing estimate.
It would have been well had the Edinburgh always written in this vein. But Wordsworth was a sure stumbling-block to the sagacity of his critics, and he certainly never failed to call forth the insolence and flippancy of Jeffrey. Two articles upon him remain as monuments to the incompetence of the Edinburgh; the first prompted by the Poems of 1807, the second by the Excursion.
The former pronounces sentence roundly at the very start: "Mr. Wordsworth's diction has nowhere any pretence to elegance or dignity, and he has scarcely ever condescended to give the grace of correctness or dignity to his versification". From this sweeping condemnation four poems—Brougham Castle, and the sonnets on Venice, Milton, and Bonaparte—are generously excepted. But, as though astonished at his own moderation, the reviewer quickly proceeds to deal slaughter among the rest. Of the closing lines of Resolution and Independence he writes: "We defy Mr. Wordsworth's bitterest enemy to produce anything at all parallel to this from any collection of English poetry, or even from the specimens of his friend, Mr. Southey". Of the stanzas to the sons of Burns, "never was anything more miserable". Alice Fell is "trash"; Yarrow Unvisited, "tedious and affected". The lines from the Ode to Duty.
"Thou dost preserve the stars from wrong, And the most ancient heavens through thee are fresh and strong,"
are "utterly without meaning". The poem on the Cuckoo is "absurd". The Ode on Immortality is "the most illegible and unintelligible part of the whole publication". "We venture to hope that there is now an end of this folly." [Footnote: Edinburgh Review, xi. 217, &c.]
But the hope is doomed to disappointment. The publication of the Excursion a few years later finds the reviewer still equal to his task. "This will never do", he begins in a fury; "the case of Mr. Wordsworth is now manifestly hopeless. We give him up as altogether incurable and beyond the power of criticism." The story of Margaret, indeed, though "it abounds, of course, with mawkish sentiment and details of preposterous minuteness, has considerable pathos". But the other passage which one would have thought must have gone home to every heart—that which describes the communing of the wanderer with nature [Footnote: Excursion, book i.]—is singled out for ridicule; while the whole poem is judged to display "a puerile ambition of singularity, grafted on an unlucky predilection for truisms". [Footnote: Edinburgh Review, xxiv. I, &c. It is but just to add that in the remainder of the essay the Reviewer takes back—so far as such things can ever be taken back—a considerable part of his abuse.]
It would be idle to maintain that in some of these slashing verdicts— criticisms they cannot be called—the reviewer does not fairly hit the mark. But these are chance strokes; and they are dealt, as the whole attack is conceived, in the worst style of the professional swash- buckler. Yet, low as is the deep they sound, a lower deep is opened by the Quarterly in its article on Shelley; an article which bears unmistakable marks of having been written under the inspiration, if not by the hand, of Southey.
It is impossible to know anything about Southey without feeling that, both in character and in intellect, he had many of the qualities that go to make an enlightened critic. But his fine nature was warped by a strain of bigotry; and he had what, even in a man who otherwise gave conclusive proof of sincerity and whole-heartedness, must be set down as a strong touch of the Pharisee. After every allowance has been made, no feeling other than indignation is possible at the tone which he thought fit to adopt towards Shelley.
He opens the assault, and it is well that he does so, by an acknowledgment that the versification of the Revolt of Islam, the corpus delicti at that moment under the scalpel, is "smooth and harmonious", and that the poem is "not without beautiful passages, free from errors of taste". But the "voice of warning", as he himself would too generously have called it, is not long in making itself heard. "Mr. Shelley, with perfect deliberation and the steadiest perseverance, perverts all the gifts of his nature, and does all the injury, both public and private, which his faculties enable him to perpetrate. . . .He draws largely on the rich stores of another mountain poet, to whose religious mind it must be matter of perpetual sorrow to see the philosophy, which comes pure and holy from his pen, degraded and perverted by this miserable crew of atheists and pantheists."
So far, perhaps, the writer may claim not to have outstepped the traditional limits of theological hatred. For what follows there is not even that poor excuse. "If we might withdraw the veil of his private life and tell what we now know about him, it would be indeed a disgusting picture that we should exhibit, but it would be an unanswerable comment on our text. . .Mr. Shelley is too young, too ignorant, too inexperienced, and too vicious to undertake the task of reforming any world but the little world within his own breast." [Footnote: Quarterly Review, xxi. 460, &c.] For the credit of both Reviews it must be said that it would be difficult to find another instance of so foul a blow as this: [Footnote: Except in the infamous insinuations, also a crime of the Quarterly,]
Non ragioniam di lui, ma guarda e passa.
[Footnote: against the character of Currer Bell. See also the scurrilous attack on the character of Leigh Hunt in Blackwood, vol III 453]
Apart from their truculence, the early numbers of the Edinburgh and Quarterly are memorable for two reasons in the history of English literature. They mark the downfall of the absolute standard assumed by Johnson and others to hold good in criticism. And they led the way, slowly indeed but surely, to the formation of a general interest in literature, which, sooner or later, could not but be fatal to their own haphazard dogmatism. By their very nature they were an appeal to the people; and, like other appeals of the kind, they ended in a revolution.
Of the men who fixed the lines on which this revolution was to run, four stand out taller from the shoulders upwards than their fellows. These are Coleridge, Lamb, Hazlitt, and Carlyle. The critical work of all four belongs to the first thirty years or so of the present century; [Footnote: Some of the dates are as follows Lamb's Specimens of English Dramatic Poets was published in 1808, his Essays of Elia began to appear in the London Magazine, 1820, Coleridge's first Course of Lectures (on English poets) was delivered in 1808, his second Course, in 1811-12, his Biographia Literana in 1817 Hazlitt's Characters of Shakespeare's Plays was published in 1817, his Lectures on the English Poets in 1818, and on The English Comic Writers in 1819 Carlyle's Essays began to appear (in the Edinburgh and other Reviews) in 1827, that on Diderot—the last notable essay of a literary cast—in 1833 Hazlitt died in 1830, Coleridge and Lamb in 1834 By that time Carlyle had turned to history and kindred subjects] and of the four it is probable that Carlyle, by nature certainly the least critical, had the greatest influence in changing the current of critical ideas. Space forbids any attempt to treat their work in detail. All that can be done is to indicate what were the shortcomings of English criticism as it came into their hands, and how far and in what manner they modified its methods and its aims.
Till the beginning of the present century, criticism in England had remained a very simple thing. When judgment had once been passed, for good or evil, on an individual work or an individual writer, the critic was apt to suppose that nothing further could reasonably be expected of him. The comparative method, foreshadowed but only foreshadowed by Dryden, had not been carried perceptibly further by Dryden's successors. The historical method was still more clearly in its infancy. The connection between the two, the unity of purpose which alone gives significance to either, was hardly as yet suspected.
It may be said—an English critic of the eighteenth century would undoubtedly have said—that these, after all, are but methods; better, possibly, than other methods; but still no more than means to an end— the eternal end of criticism, which is to appraise and to classify. The view is disputable enough. It leaves out of sight all that criticism—the criticism of literature and art—has done to throw light upon the dark places of human thought and history, upon the growth and subtle transformations of spiritual belief, upon the power of reason and imagination to mould the shape of outward institutions. All these things are included in the scope of the historical and comparative methods; and all of them stand entirely apart from the need to judge or classify the works of individual poets.
But, for the moment, such wider considerations may be put aside, and the objection weighed on its own merits. It must then be answered that, without comparison and without the appeal to history, even to judge and classify reasonably would be impossible; and hence that, however much we narrow the scope of criticism, these two methods—or rather, two aspects of the same method—must still find place within its range. For, failing them, the critic in search of a standard—and without some standard or criterion there can be no such thing as criticism—is left with but two possible alternatives. He must either appeal to some absolute standard—the rules drawn from the "classical writers", in a sense wider or narrower, as the case may be; or he must decide everything by his own impression of the moment, eked out by the "appeal to Moliere's maid". The latter is the negation of all criticism. The former, spite of itself, is the historical method, but the historical method applied in an utterly arbitrary and irrational way. The former was the method of Johnson; the latter, of the Edinburgh and the Quarterly. Each in turn, as we have seen, had ludicrously broken down.
In the light of recent inventions, it might have been expected that some attempt would be made to limit the task of the critic to a mere record of his individual impressions. This, in fact, would only have been to avow, and to give the theory of what the Edinburgh and the Quarterly had already reduced to practice. But the truth is that the men of that day were not strong in such fine-spun speculations. It was a refinement from which even Lamb, who loved a paradox as well as any man, would have shrunk with playful indignation.
It was in another direction that Coleridge and his contemporaries sought escape from the discredit with which criticism was threatened. This was by changing the issue on which the discussion was to be fought. In its most general form, the problem of criticism amounts to this: What is the nature of the standard to be employed in literary judgments? Hitherto—at least to the Reviewers—the question may be said to have presented itself in the following shape: Is the standard to be sought within or without the mind of the critic? Is it by his own impression, or by the code handed down from previous critics, that in the last resort the critic should be guided? In the hands of Coleridge and others, this was replaced by the question: Is the touchstone of excellence to be found within the work of the poet, or outside of it? Are we to judge of a given work merely by asking: Is it clearly conceived and consistently carried out? Or are we bound to consider the further question: Is the original conception just, and capable of artistic treatment; and is the workmanship true to the vital principles of poetry? The change is significant. It makes the poet, not the critic, master of the situation. It implies that the critic is no longer to give the law to the poet; but that, in some sense more or less complete, he must begin, if not by putting himself in the place of the individual writer as he was when at work on the individual poem, at least by taking upon himself—by making his own, as far as may be—what he may conceive to be the essential temperament of the poet.
This, indeed, is one of the first things to strike us in passing from the old criticism to the new. The Edinburgh and Quarterly plunge straight into the business of the moment. From the first instant—with "This will never do"—the Reviewer poses as the critic, or rather as the accuser. Not so Coleridge and Hazlitt. Like the Edinburgh and Quarterly, they undertake to discourse on individual poets. Unlike them, each opens his enquiry with the previous question-a question that seems to have found no lodgment in the mind of the Reviewers—What is poetry? Further than this. Hazlitt, in a passage of incomparably greater force than any recorded utterance of Coleridge, makes it his task to trace poetry to the deepest and most universal springs of human nature; asserts boldly that it is poetry which, in the strictest sense, is "the life of all of us"; and calls on each one of us to assert his birthright by enjoying it. It is in virtue of the poet latent in him, that the plain man has the power to become a critic.
Starting then from the question as just stated: Is it within the mind of the individual poet, or without it, that the standard of judgment should be sought?—neither Coleridge nor Hazlitt could have any doubt as to the answer. It is not, they would tell us, in the individual work but in the nature of poetry—of poetry as written large in the common instincts of all men no less than in the particular achievement of exceptional artists—that the test of poetic beauty must be discovered. The opposite view, doubtless, finds some countenance in the precepts, if not the example, of Goethe. But, when pressed to extremes, it is neither more nor less than the impressionist conception of criticism transferred to the creative faculty; and, like its counterpart, is liable to the objection that the impression of one poet, so long as it is sincerely rendered, is as good as the impression of another. It is the abdication of art, as the other is the abdication of criticism.
Yet Hazlitt also—for, leaving Coleridge, we may now confine ourselves to him—is open to attack. His fine critical powers were marred by the strain of bitterness in his nature. And the result is that his judgment on many poets, and notably the poets of his own day, too often sounds like an intelligent version of the Edinburgh or the Quarterly. Or, to speak more accurately, he betrays some tendency to return to principles which, though assuredly applied in a more generous spirit, are at bottom hardly to be distinguished from the principles of Johnson. He too has his "indispensable laws", or something very like them. He too has his bills of exclusion and his list of proscriptions. The poetry of earth, he more than suspects, is for ever dead; after Milton, no claimant is admitted to anything more substantial than a courtesy title. This, no doubt, was in part due to his morose temper; but it was partly also the result of the imperfect method with which he started.
The fault of his conception—and it was that which determined his method—is to be too absolute. It allows too much room to poetry in the abstract; too little to the ever-varying temperament of the individual poet. And even that is perhaps too favourable a statement of the case. His idea of poetry may in part be drawn—and its strength is to have been partly drawn—direct from life and nature. But it is also taken, as from the nature of the case it must be with all of us, from the works of particular poets. And, in spite of his appeal to Dante and the Bible, it is clear that, in framing it, he was guided too exclusively by his loving study of the earlier English writers, from Chaucer to Milton. The model, so framed, is laid with heavy hand upon all other writers, who naturally fare ill in the comparison. Is it possible to account otherwise for his disparagement of Moliere, or his grudging praise of Wordsworth and of Coleridge?
It was here that Carlyle came in to redress the balance. From interests, in their origin perhaps less purely literary than have moved any man who has exercised a profound influence on literature, Carlyle was led to quicken the sense of poetic beauty, and by consequence to widen the scope of criticism, more than any writer of his day. He may have sought German literature more for its matter than for its artistic beauty—here, too, he brought a new, if in some ways a dangerous, element into criticism—but neither he nor his readers could study it, least of all could they study the work of Goethe, without awakening to a whole world of imagination and beauty, to which England had hitherto been dead. With all its shortcomings, the discovery of German literature was a greater revelation than any made to Europe since the classical Renaissance.
The shock—for it was nothing less—came at a singularly happy moment. The blow, given by Carlyle as critic, was closely followed up by the French Romantiques, as creative artists. Nothing could well have been more alien to English taste, as understood by the Edinburgh and Quarterly, than the early works, or indeed any works, of Hugo and those who owned him for chief—if it were not the works of Goethe and the countrymen of Goethe. Different as these were from each other, they held common ground in uniting the most opposite prejudices of Englishmen against them. The sarcasms of Thackeray on the French writers speak to this no less eloquently than the fluent flippancies of De Quincey upon the Germans. [Footnote: See Thackeray's Paris Sketch Book, especially the chapters on Madame Sand and the New Apocalypse and French Dramas and Melodramas. See also De Quincey's Review of Carlyle's translation of Wilhelm Meister. Works, vol. xii.] Yet, in the one case as in the other—thanks, in no small measure, to Matthew Arnold and Mr. Swinburne—genius, in the long run, carried the day. And the same history has been repeated, as the literatures of Russia and of Scandinavia have each in turn been brought within our ken.
These discoveries have all fallen within little more than half a century since Carlyle, by the irony of fate, reviewed Richter and the State of German Literature in the pages of the Edinburgh. And their result has been to modify the standards of taste and criticism in a thousand ways. They have opened our eyes to aspects of poetry that we should never otherwise have suspected, and unveiled to us fields of thought, as well as methods of artistic treatment which, save by our own fault, must both have widened and deepened our conception of poetry. That is the true meaning of the historical method. The more we broaden our vision, the less is our danger of confounding poetry, which is the divine genius of the whole world, with the imperfect, if not misshapen idols of the tribe, the market-place and the cave.
Of this conquest Carlyle must in justice be reckoned as the pioneer. For many years he stood almost single-handed as the champion of German thought and German art against the scorn or neglect of his countrymen. But he knew that he was right, and was fully conscious whither the path he had chosen was to lead. Aware that much in the work of Goethe would seem "faulty" to many, he forestalls the objection at the outset.
"To see rightly into this matter, to determine with any infallibility whether what we call a fault is in very deed a fault, we must previously have settled two points, neither of which may be so readily settled. First, we must have made plain to ourselves what the poet's aim really and truly was, how the task he had to do stood before his own eye, and how far, with such means as it afforded him, he has fulfilled it. Secondly, we must have decided whether and how far this aim, this task of his accorded—not with us and our individual crotchets, and the crotchets of our little senate where we give or take the law—but with human nature and the nature of things at large; with the universal principles of poetic beauty, not as they stand written in our text-books, but in the hearts and imaginations of all men. Does the answer in either case come out unfavourable; was there an inconsistency between the means and the end, a discordance between the end and the truth, there is a fault; was there not, there is no fault." [Footnote: Carlyle on Goethe: Miscellanies, i. 295]
Nothing could ring clearer than this. No man could draw the line more accurately between the tendency to dispense with principles and the tendency to stereotype them, which are the twin dangers of the critic. But it is specially important to note Carlyle's relation, in this matter, to Hazlitt He insists with as much force as Hazlitt upon the need of basing all poetry on "human nature and the nature of things at large"; upon the fact that its principles are written "in the hearts and imaginations of all men". But, unlike Hazlitt, he bids us also consider what the aim of the individual poet was, and how far he has taken the most fitting means to reach it. In other words, he allows, as Hazlitt did not allow, for the many-sidedness of poetry, and the infinite variety of poetic genius. And, just because he does so, he is able to give a deeper meaning to "nature" and the universal principles of imagination than Hazlitt, with all his critical and reflective brilliance, was in a position to do. Hazlitt is too apt to confine "nature" to the nature of Englishmen in general and, in his weaker moments, of Hazlitt in particular. Carlyle makes an honest attempt to bound it only by the universal instincts of man, and the "everlasting reason" of the world. Thus, in Carlyle's conception, "it is the essence of the poet to be new"; it is his mission "to wrench us from our old fixtures"; [Footnote: Carlyle on Goethe: Miscellanies, i. 291.] for it is only by so doing that he can show us some aspect of nature or of man's heart that was hidden from us before. The originality of the poet, the impossibility of binding him by the example of his forerunners, is the necessary consequence of the infinity of truth.
That Carlyle saw this, and saw it so clearly, is no doubt partly due to a cause, of which more must be said directly; to his craving for ideas. [Footnote: See p. xciv.] But it was in part owing to his hearty acceptance of the historical method. Both as critic and as historian, he knew—at that time, no man so well—that each nation has its own genius; and justly pronounced the conduct of that nation which "isolates itself from foreign influence, regards its own modes as so many laws of nature, and rejects all that is different as unworthy even of examination", to be "pedantry". [Footnote: Miscellanies, i. 37, 38.] This was the first, and perhaps the most fruitful consequence that he drew from the application of historical ideas to literature. They enlarged his field of comparison; and, by so doing, they gave both width and precision to his definition of criticism.
But there is another—and a more usual, if a narrower—sense of the historical method; and here, too, Carlyle was a pioneer. He was among the first in our country to grasp the importance of studying the literature of a nation, as a whole, and from its earliest monuments, its mythological and heroic legends, downwards to the present. The year 1831—a turning-point in the mental history of Carlyle, for it was also the year in which Sartor Resartus took shape "among the mountain solitudes"—was largely devoted to Essays on the history of German literature, of which one, that on the Nibelungenlied, is specially memorable. And some ten years later (1840) he again took up the theme in the first of his lectures on Heroes, which still remains the most enlightening, because the most poetic, account of the primitive Norse faith, or rather successive layers of faith, in our language. [Footnote: See Lectures on Heroes, p. 20; compare Corpus Poeticum Borealt, i. p. ci. ] But what mainly concerns us here is that Carlyle, in this matter as in others, had clearly realized and as clearly defines the goal which the student, in this case the student of literary history, should set before his eyes.
"A History ... of any national Poetry would form, taken in its complete sense, one of the most arduous enterprises any writer could engage in. Poetry, were it the rudest, so it be sincere, is the attempt which man makes to render his existence harmonious, the utmost he can do for that end; it springs, therefore, from his whole feelings, opinions, activity, and takes its character from these. It may be called the music of his whole manner of being; and, historically considered, is the test how far Music, or Freedom, existed therein; how the feeling of Love, of Beauty, and Dignity, could be elicited from that peculiar situation of his, and from the views he there had of Life and Nature, of the Universe, internal and external. Hence, in any measure to understand the Poetry, to estimate its worth and historical meaning, we ask, as a quite fundamental inquiry: What that situation was? Thus the History of a nation's Poetry is the essence of its History, political, economic, scientific, religious. With all these the complete Historian of a national Poetry will be familiar; the national physiognomy, in its finest traits and through its successive stages of growth, will be dear to him: he will discern the grand spiritual Tendency of each period, what was the highest Aim and Enthusiasm of mankind in each, and how one epoch naturally evolved itself from the other. He has to record the highest Aim of a nation, in its successive directions and developments; for by this the Poetry of the nation modulates itself; this is the Poetry of the nation." [Footnote: Carlyle, Miscellanies, iii. 292, 293.]
Never has the task of the literary historian been more accurately defined than in this passage; and never do we feel so bitterly the gulf between the ideal and the actual performance, at which more than one man of talent has since tried his hand, as when we read it. It strikes perhaps the first note of Carlyle's lifelong war against "Dryasdust". But it contains at least two other points on which it is well for us to pause.
The first is the inseparable bond which Carlyle saw to exist between the poetry of a nation and its history; the connection which inevitably follows from the fact that both one and the other are the expression of its character. This is a vein of thought that was first struck by Vico and by Montesquieu; but it was left for the German philosophers, in particular Fichte and Hegel, to see its full significance; and Carlyle was the earliest writer in this country to make it his own. It is manifest that the connection between the literature and the history of a nation may be taken from either side. We may illustrate its literature from its history, or its history from its literature. It is on the necessity of the former study that Carlyle dwells in the above. And in the light of later exaggerations, notably those of Taine, it is well to remember, what Carlyle himself would have been the last man to forget, that no man of genius is the creature of his time or his surroundings; and, consequently, that when we have mastered all the circumstances, in Carlyle's phrase the whole "situation", of the poet, we are still only at the beginning of our task. We have still to learn what his genius made out of its surroundings, and what the eye of the poet discovered in the world of traditional belief; in other words, what it was that made him a poet, what it was that he saw and to which all the rest were blind. We have studied the soil; we have yet to study the tree that grew from it and overshadows it. [Footnote: Perhaps the most striking instances of this kind of criticism, both on its strong and its weak side, are to be found in the writings of Mazzini. See Opere, ii. and iv.]
In reversing the relation, in reading history by the light of literature, the danger is not so great. The man of genius may, and does, see deeper than his contemporaries; but, for that very reason, he is a surer guide to the tendencies of his time than they. He is above and beyond his time; but, just in so far as he is so, he sees over it and through it. As Shakespeare defined it, his "end, both at the first and now, was and is... to show the very age and body of the time his form and pressure". Some allowance must doubtless be made for the individuality of the poet; for the qualities in which he stands aloof from his time, and in which, therefore, he must not be taken to reflect it. But to make such allowance is a task not beyond the skill of the practised critic; and many instances suggest themselves in which it has, more or less successfully, been done. Witness not a few passages in Michelet's Histoire de France, and some to be found in the various works of Ranke. [Footnote: As instances may be cited, Michelet's remarks on Rabelais (tome viii. 428-440) and on Moliere (tome xiii. 51-85): or again Ranke's Papste, i. 486-503 (on Tasso and the artistic tendencies of the middle of the sixteenth century): Franzosische Geschichte, iii. 345-368 (the age of Louis XIV.).] Witness, again, Hegel's illustration of the Greek conception of the family from the Antigone and the Oedipus of Sophocles; or, if we may pass to a somewhat different field, his "construction" of the French Revolution from the religious and metaphysical ideas of Rousseau. [Footnote: Hegel, Phanomenologie des Geistes, pp. 323-348, and pp. 426-436.]
So far as it employs literature to give the key to the outward history of a nation or to the growth of its spiritual faith, it is clear that the historical method ceases to be, in the strict sense of the word, a literary instrument. It implies certainly that a literary judgment has been passed; but, once passed, that judgment is used for ends that lie altogether apart from the interests of literature. But it is idle to consider that literature loses caste by lending itself to such a purpose. It would be wiser to say that it gains by anything that may add to its fruitfulness and instructiveness. In any case, and whether it pleases us or no, this is one of the things that the historical method has done for literature; and neither Carlyle, nor any other thinker of the century, would have been minded to disavow it.
This brings us to the second point that calls for remark in the foregoing quotation from Carlyle. Throughout he assumes that the matter of the poet is no less important than his manner. And here again he dwells on an aspect of literature that previous, and later, critics have tended to throw into the shade. That Carlyle should have been led to assert, and even at times to exaggerate, the claims of thought in imaginative work was inevitable; and that, not only from his temperament, but from those principles of his teaching that we have already noticed. If the poetry of a nation be indeed the expression of its spiritual aims, then it is clear that among those aims must be numbered its craving to make the world intelligible to itself, and to comprehend the working of God both within man and around him. Not that Carlyle shows any disposition to limit "thought" to its more abstract forms; on the contrary, it is on the sense of "music, love, and beauty" that he specially insists. What he does demand is that these shall be not merely outward adornments, but the instinctive utterance of a deeper harmony within; that they shall be such as not merely to "furnish a languid mind with fantastic shows and indolent emotions, but to incorporate the everlasting reason of man in forms visible to his sense, and suitable to it". [Footnote: Miscellanies, i. 297.] The "reason" is no less necessary to poetry than its sensible form; and whether its utterance be direct or indirect, that is a matter for the genius of the individual poet to decide. Gott und Welt, we may be sure Carlyle would have said, is poetry as legitimate as Der Erlkonig or the songs of Mignon.
In this connection he more than once appeals to the doctrine of Fichte, one of the few writers whom he was willing to recognize as his teachers. "According to Fichte, there is a 'divine idea' pervading the visible universe; which visible universe is indeed but its symbol and sensible manifestation, having in itself no meaning, or even true existence independent of it. To the mass of men this divine idea of the world lies hidden; yet to discern it, to seize it, and live wholly in it, is the condition of all genuine virtue, knowledge, freedom; and the end, therefore, of all spiritual effort in every age. Literary men are the appointed interpreters of this divine idea; a perpetual priesthood, we might say, standing forth, generation after generation, as the dispensers and living types of God's everlasting wisdom, to show it in their writings and actions, in such particular form as their own particular times require it in. For each age, by the law of its nature, is different from every other age, and demands a different representation of the divine idea, the essence of which is the same in all; so that the literary man of one century is only by mediation and reinterpretation applicable to the wants of another." [Footnote: Ib., p. 69. There is a similar passage in the Lectures on Heroes (Lec. v.), p. 145. In each case the reference is to Fichte's Lectures Ueber das Wesen des Gelehrten (1805), especially to lectures i., ii., and x,; Fichte's Werke, vi. 350-371, 439-447.]
The particular form of Fichte's teaching may still sound unfamiliar enough. But in substance it has had the deepest influence on the aims and methods of criticism; and, so far as England is concerned, this is mainly due to the genius of Carlyle. Compare the criticism of the last century with that of the present, and we at once see the change that has come over the temper and instincts of Englishmen in this matter.
When Johnson, or the reviewers of the next generation, quitted—as they seldom did quit—the ground of external form and regularity and logical coherence, it was only to ask: Is this work, this poem or this novel, in conformity with the traditional conventions of respectability, is it such as can be put into the hands of boys and girls? To them this was the one ground on which the matter of literature, as apart from the beggarly elements of its form, could come under the cognizance of the critic. And this narrowness, a narrowness which belonged at least in equal measure to the official criticism of the French, naturally begot a reaction almost as narrow as itself. The cry of "art for art's sake", a cry raised in France at the moment when Carlyle was beginning his work in England, must be regarded as a protest against the moralizing bigotry of the classical school no less than against its antiquated formalities. The men who raised it were themselves not free from the charge of formalism; but the forms they worshipped were at least those inspired by the spontaneous genius of the artist, not the mechanical rules inherited from the traditions of the past. Nor, whatever may be the case with those who have taken it up in our own day, must the cry be pressed too rigorously against the men of 1830. The very man, on whom it was commonly fathered, was known to disavow it; and certainly in his own works, in their burning humanity and their "passion for reforming the world", was the first to set it at defiance. [Footnote: See Hugo's William Shakespeare, p. 288.]
The moralist and the formalist still make their voice heard, and will always do so. But since Carlyle wrote, it is certain that a wider, a more fruitful, view of criticism has gained ground among us. And, if it be asked where lies the precise difference between such a view and that which satisfied the critics of an earlier day, the answer must be, that we are no longer contented to rest upon the outward form of a work of art, still less upon its conventional morality. We demand to learn what is the idea, of which the outward form is the harmonious utterance; and which, just because the form is individual, must itself too have more or less of originality and power. We are resolved to know what is the artist's peculiar fashion of conceiving life, what is his insight, that which he has to teach us of God and man and nature. "Poetry", said Wordsworth, "is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge; it is the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all Science." [Footnote: Preface to Lyrical Ballads by Wordsworth: Works, vi. 328.] And Wordsworth is echoed by Shelley. [Footnote: "Poetry is indeed something divine. It is at once the centre and circumference of knowledge; it is that which comprehends all science, and that to which all science must be referred."—Shelley, Defence of Poetry, p. 33.] But it is again to Carlyle that we must turn for the explicit application of these ideas to criticism:—
"Criticism has assumed a new form...; it proceeds on other principles, and proposes to itself a higher aim. The grand question is not now a question concerning the qualities of diction, the coherence of metaphors, the fitness of sentiments, the general logical truth, in a work of art, as it was some half-century ago among most critics; neither is it a question mainly of a psychological sort, to be answered by discovering and delineating the peculiar nature of the poet from his poetry, as is usual with the best of our own critics at present: [Footnote: A striking example of this method, the blending of criticism with biography, is to be found in Carlyle's own Essay on Burns. The significance of the method, in such hands as those of Carlyle, is that it lays stress on the reality, the living force, of the poetry with which it deals. It was the characteristic method of Sainte-Beuve; and it may be questioned whether it did not often lead him far enough from what can properly be called criticism;—into psychological studies, spiced with scandal, or what a distinguished admirer is kind enough to call "indiscretions". See M. Brunetiere, L'Evolution des Genres, i. 236. This book is a sketch of the history of criticism in France, and cannot be too warmly recommended to all who are interested in such subjects,] but it is—not indeed exclusively, but inclusively of those two other questions—properly and ultimately a question on the essence and peculiar life of the poetry itself. The first of these questions, as we see it answered, for instance, in the criticisms of Johnson and Kames, relates, strictly speaking, to the garment of poetry: the second, indeed, to its body and material existence, a much higher point; but only the last to its soul and spiritual existence, by which alone can the body... be informed with significance and rational life. The problem is not now to determine by what mechanism Addison composed sentences and struck out similitudes; but by what far finer and more mysterious mechanism Shakespeare organized his dramas, and gave life and individuality to his Ariel and his Hamlet? Wherein lies that life; how have they attained that shape and individuality? Whence comes that empyrean fire, which irradiates their whole being, and pierces, at least in starry gleams, like a diviner thing, into all hearts? Are these dramas of his not verisimilar only, but true; nay, truer than reality itself, since the essence of unmixed reality is bodied forth in them under more expressive symbols? What is this unity of theirs; and can our deeper inspection discern it to be indivisible, and existing by necessity, because each work springs, as it were, from the general elements of all thought, and grows up therefrom into form and expansion by its own growth? Not only who was the poet, and how did he compose; but what and how was the poem, and why was it a poem and not rhymed eloquence, creation and not figured passion? These are the questions for the critic." [Footnote: Miscellanies, i. 60, 61 (1827).] And, a few pages later: "As an instance we might refer to Goethe's criticism of Hamlet.... This truly is what may be called the poetry of criticism: for it is in some sort also a creative art; aiming, at least, to reproduce under a different shape the existing product of the poet; painting to the intellect what already lay painted to the heart and the imagination." [Footnote: Ib. p. 72.]
Instances of criticism, conceived in this spirit, are unhappily still rare. But some of Coleridge's on Shakespeare, and some of Lamb's on the Plays of the Elizabethan Dramatists—in particular The Duchess of Malfi and The Broken Heart—may fairly be ranked among them. So, and with still less of hesitation, may Mr. Ruskin's rendering of the Last Judgment of Tintoret, and Mr. Pater's studies on Lionardo, Michaelangelo, and Giorgione. Of these, Mr. Pater's achievement is probably the most memorable; for it is an attempt, and an attempt of surprising power and subtlety, to reproduce not merely the effect of a single poem or picture, but the imaginative atmosphere, the spiritual individuality, of the artist. In a sense still higher than would be true even of the work done by Lamb and Ruskin, it deserves the praise justly given by Carlyle to the masterpiece of Goethe; it is "the very poetry of criticism".
We have now reviewed the whole circle traversed by criticism during the present century, and are in a position to define its limits and extent. We have seen that a change of method was at once the cause and indication of a change in spirit and in aim. The narrow range of the eighteenth century was enlarged on the one hand by the study of new literatures, and on the other hand by that appeal to history, and that idea of development which has so profoundly modified every field of thought and knowledge. In that lay the change of method. And this, in itself, was enough to suggest a wider tolerance, a greater readiness to make allowance for differences of taste, whether as between nation and nation or as between period and period, than had been possible for men whose view was practically limited to Latin literature and to such modern literatures as were professedly moulded upon the Latin. With such diversity of material, the absolute standard, absurd enough in any case, became altogether impossible to maintain. It was replaced by the conception of a common instinct for beauty, modified in each nation by the special circumstances of its temperament and history.
But even this does not cover the whole extent of the revolution in critical ideas. Side by side with a more tolerant—and, it may be added, a keener—judgment of artistic form, came a clearer sense of the inseparable connection between form and matter, and the impossibility of comprehending the form, if it be taken apart from the matter, of a work of art. This, too, was in part the natural effect of the historical method, one result of which was to establish a closer correspondence between the thought of a nation and its art than had hitherto been suspected. But it was in part also a consequence of the intellectual and spiritual revolution of which Rousseau was the herald and which, during fifty years, found in German philosophy at once its strongest inspiration and its most articulate expression. Men were no longer satisfied to explain to themselves what Carlyle calls the "garment" and the "body" of art; they set themselves to pierce through these to the soul and spirit within. They instinctively felt that the art which lives is the art that gives man something to live by; and that, just because its form is more significant than other of man's utterances, it must have a deeper significance also in substance and in purport. Of this purport Criticism of life—the phrase suggested by one who was at once a poet and a critic—is doubtless an unhappy, because a pedantic definition; and it is rather creation of life, than the criticism of it, that art has to offer. But it must be life in all its fulness and variety; as thought, no less than as action; as energy, no less than as beauty—
As power, as love, as influencing soul.
This is the mission of art; and to unfold its working in the art of all times and of all nations, to set it forth by intuition, by patient reason, by every means at his command, is the function of the critic. To have seen this, and to have marked out the way for its performance, is not the least among the services rendered by Carlyle to his own generation and to ours. Later critics can hardly be said to have yet filled out the design that he laid. They have certainly not gone beyond it.
ENGLISH LITERARY CRITICISM.
SIR PHILIP SIDNEY.
I. AN APOLOGIE FOR POETRIE.
The Apologie was probably written about 1580; Gosson's pamphlet, which clearly suggested it, having appeared in 1579. Nothing need here be added to what has been said in the Introduction.
When the right virtuous Edward Wotton and I were at the emperor's court together, we gave ourselves to learn horsemanship of John Pietro Pugliano: one that with great commendation had the place of an esquire in his stable. And he, according to the fertileness of the Italian wit, did not only afford us the demonstration of his practice, but sought to enrich our minds with the contemplations therein, which he thought most precious. But with none I remember mine ears were at any time more laden, than when (either angered with slow payment, or moved with our learner-like admiration) he exercised his speech in the praise of his faculty. He said, soldiers were the noblest estate of mankind, and horsemen, the noblest of soldiers. He said, they were the masters of war, and ornaments of peace: speedy goers, and strong abiders, triumphers both in camps and courts. Nay, to so unbelieved a point he proceeded, as that no earthly thing bred such wonder to a prince, as to be a good horseman. Skill of government was but a pedanteria in comparison: then would he add certain praises, by telling what a peerless beast a horse was. The only serviceable courtier without flattery, the beast of most beauty, faithfulness, courage, and such more, that, if I had not been a piece of a logician before I came to him, I think he would have persuaded me to have wished myself a horse. But thus much at least with his no few words he drove into me, that self-love is better than any gilding to make that seem gorgeous, wherein ourselves are parties. Wherein, if Pugliano his strong affection and weak arguments will not satisfy you, I will give you a nearer example of myself, who (I know not by what mischance) in these my not old years and idlest times, having slipped into the title of a poet, am provoked to say something unto you in the defence of that my unelected vocation; which if I handle with more good will than good reasons, bear with me, sith the scholar is to be pardoned that followeth the steps of his master. And yet I must say that, as I have just cause to make a pitiful defence of poor poetry, which from almost the highest estimation of learning is fallen to be the laughing-stock of children, so have I need to bring some more available proofs: sith the former is by no man barred of his deserved credit, the silly latter hath had even the names of philosophers used to the defacing of it, with great danger of civil war among the muses. And first, truly to all them that professing learning inveigh against poetry may justly be objected, that they go very near to ungratefulness, to seek to deface that which, in the noblest nations and languages that are known, hath been the first light-giver to ignorance, and first nurse, whose milk by little and little enabled them to feed afterwards of tougher knowledges: and will they now play the hedgehog that, being received into the den, drove out his host? or rather the vipers, that with their birth kill their parents? Let learned Greece in any of her manifold sciences, be able to show me one book, before Musaeus, Homer, and Hesiodus, all three nothing else but poets. Nay, let any history be brought, that can say any writers were there before them, if they were not men of the same skill, as Orpheus, Linus, and some other are named: who having been the first of that country, that made pens deliverers of their knowledge to their posterity, may justly challenge to be called their fathers in learning: for not only in time they had this priority (although in itself antiquity be venerable) but went before them, as causes to draw with their charming sweetness the wild untamed wits to an admiration of knowledge. So as Amphion was said to move stone with his poetry, to build Thebes. And Orpheus to be listened to by beasts indeed, stony and beastly people. So among the Romans were Livius Andronicus, and Ennius. So in the Italian language, the first that made it aspire to be a treasure-house of science were the poets Dante, Boccace, and Petrarch. So in our English were Gower and Chaucer.
After whom, encouraged and delighted with their excellent foregoing, others have followed, to beautify our mother tongue, as well in the same kind as in other arts. This did so notably show itself, that the philosophers of Greece durst not a long time appear to the world but under the masks of poets. So Thales, Empedocles, and Parmenides sang their natural philosophy in verses: so did Pythagoras and Phocylides their moral counsels: so did Tyrtaus in war matters, and Solon in matters of policy: or rather, they being poets, did exercise their delightful vein in those points of highest knowledge, which before them lay hid to the world. For that wise Solon was directly a poet, it is manifest, having written in verse the notable fable of the Atlantic Island, which was continued by Plato.
And truly, even Plato, whosoever well considereth, shall find, that in the body of his work, though the inside and strength were philosophy, the skin as it were and beauty depended most of poetry: for all standeth upon dialogues, wherein he feigneth many honest burgesses of Athens to speak of such matters, that if they had been set on the rack, they would never have confessed them. Besides, his poetical describing the circumstances of their meetings, as the well ordering of a banquet, the delicacy of a walk, with interlacing mere tales, as Gyges' ring, and others, which who knows not to be the flowers of poetry, did never walk into Apollo's garden.
And even historiographers (although their lips sound of things done, and verity be written in their foreheads) have been glad to borrow both fashion, and perchance weight, of poets. So Herodotus entitled his history by the name of the nine Muses: and both he, and all the rest that followed him, either stole or usurped of poetry their passionate describing of passions, the many particularities of battles, which no man could affirm: or if that be denied me, long orations put in the mouths of great kings and captains, which it is certain they never pronounced. So that truly, neither philosopher nor historiographer could at the first have entered into the gates of popular judgments, if they had not taken a great passport of poetry, which, in all nations at this day where learning flourisheth not, is plain to be seen: in all which they have some feeling of poetry. In Turkey, besides their law-giving divines, they have no other writers but poets. In our neighbour country Ireland, where truly learning goeth very bare, yet are their poets held in a devout reverence. Even among the most barbarous and simple Indians where no writing is, yet have they their poets, who make and sing songs which they call areytos, both of their ancestors' deeds, and praises of their Gods. A sufficient probability, that, if ever learning come among them, it must be by having their hard dull wits softened and sharpened with the sweet delights of poetry. For until they find a pleasure in the exercises of the mind, great promises of much knowledge will little persuade them, that know not the fruits of knowledge. In Wales, the true remnant of the ancient Britons, as there are good authorities to show the long time they had poets, which they called bards: so through all the conquests of Romans, Saxons, Danes, and Normans, some of whom did seek to ruin all memory of learning from among them, yet do their poets, even to this day, last; so as it is not more notable in soon beginning than in long continuing. But since the authors of most of our sciences were the Romans, and before them the Greeks, let us a little stand upon their authorities, but even so far as to see what names they have given unto this now scorned skill.
Among the Romans a poet was called vates, which is as much as a diviner, fore-seer, or prophet, as by his conjoined words vaticinium and vaticinari is manifest: so heavenly a title did that excellent people bestow upon this heart-ravishing knowledge. And so far were they carried into the admiration thereof, that they thought in the chanceable hitting upon any such verses great foretokens of their following fortunes were placed. Whereupon grew the word of Sortes Virgilianae, when, by sudden opening Virgil's book, they lighted upon any verse of his making, whereof the histories of the emperors' lives are full: as of Albinus the governor of our island, who in his childhood met with this verse
Arma amens capio nee sat rationis in armis:
and in his age performed it; which although it were a very vain and godless superstition, as also it was to think that spirits were commanded by such verses (whereupon this word charms, derived of Carmina, cometh), so yet serveth it to show the great reverence those wits were held in. And altogether not without ground, since both the oracles of Delphos and Sibylla's prophecies were wholly delivered in verses. For that same exquisite observing of number and measure in words, and that high-flying liberty of conceit proper to the Poet, did seem to have some divine force in it.
And may not I presume a little further, to show the reasonableness of this word vates? And say that the holy David's Psalms are a divine poem? If I do, I shall not do it without the testimony of great learned men, both ancient and modern: but even the name Psalms will speak for me; which being interpreted is nothing but songs. Then that it is fully written in metre, as all learned Hebricians agree, although the rules be not yet fully found. Lastly and principally, his handling his prophecy, which is merely poetical. For what else is the awaking his musical instruments? The often and free changing of persons? His notable prosopopeias, when he maketh you, as it were, see God coming in His majesty? His telling of the beasts' joyfulness, and hills leaping, but a heavenly poesy: wherein almost he showeth himself a passionate lover of that unspeakable and everlasting beauty to be seen by the eyes of the mind, only cleared by faith? But truly now having named him, I fear me I seem to profane that holy name, applying it to poetry, which is among us thrown down to so ridiculous an estimation: but they that with quiet judgments will look a little deeper into it, shall find the end and working of it such as, being rightly applied, deserveth not to be scourged out of the Church of God.
But now, let us see how the Greeks named it, and how they deemed of it. The Greeks called him a poet, which name hath, as the most excellent, gone through other languages. It cometh of this word poiein, which is, to make: wherein I know not, whether by luck or wisdom, we Englishmen have met with the Greeks, in calling him a maker: which name, how high and incomparable a title it is, I had rather were known by marking the scope of other sciences, than by my partial allegation.
There is no art delivered to mankind, that hath not the works of nature for his principal object, without which they could not consist, and on which they so depend, as they become actors and players, as it were, of what nature will have set forth. So doth the astronomer look upon the stars, and by that he seeth, setteth down what order nature hath taken therein. So do the geometrician, and arithmetician, in their diverse sorts of quantities. So doth the musician, in times, tell you which by nature agree, which not. The natural philosopher thereon hath his name, and the moral philosopher standeth upon the natural virtues, vices, and passions of man; and follow nature (saith he) therein, and thou shalt not err. The lawyer saith what men have determined. The historian what men have done. The grammarian speaketh only of the rules of speech; and the rhetorician, and logician, considering what in nature will soonest prove and persuade, thereon give artificial rules, which still are compassed within the circle of a question, according to the proposed matter. The physician weigheth the nature of a man's body, and the nature of things helpful, or hurtful unto it. And the metaphysic, though it be in the second and abstract notions, and therefore be counted supernatural, yet doth he indeed build upon the depth of nature: only the poet, disdaining to be tied to any such subjection, lifted up with the vigour of his own invention, doth grow in effect another nature, in making things either better than nature bringeth forth, or quite anew forms such as never were in nature, as the heroes, demigods, cyclops, chimeras, furies, and such like: so as he goeth hand in hand with nature, not inclosed within the narrow warrant of her gifts, but freely ranging only within the zodiac of his own wit.
Nature never set forth the earth in so rich tapestry, as divers poets have done, neither with pleasant rivers, fruitful trees, sweet-smelling flowers: nor whatsoever else may make the too much loved earth more lovely. Her world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden: but let those things alone and go to man, for whom as the other things are, so it seemeth in him her uttermost cunning is employed, and know whether she have brought forth so true a lover as Theagenes, so constant a friend as Pylades, so valiant a man as Orlando, so right a prince as Xenophon's Cyrus: so excellent a man every way, as Virgil's Aneas. Neither let this be jestingly conceived, because the works of the one be essential, the other, in imitation or fiction; for any understanding knoweth the skill of the artificer standeth in that idea or fore-conceit of the work, and not in the work itself. And that the poet hath that idea, is manifest, by delivering them forth in such excellency as he hath imagined them. Which delivering forth also is not wholly imaginative, as we are wont to say by them that build castles in the air: but so far substantially it worketh, not only to make a Cyrus, which had been but a particular excellency, as Nature might have done, but to bestow a Cyrus upon the world, to make many Cyruses, if they will learn aright, why and how that maker made him.
Neither let it be deemed too saucy a comparison to balance the highest point of man's wit with the efficacy of Nature: but rather give right honour to the heavenly Maker of that maker: who, having made man to his own likeness, set him beyond and over all the works of that second nature, which in nothing he showeth so much as in poetry: when, with the force of a divine breath, he bringeth things forth far surpassing her doings, with no small argument to the incredulous of that first accursed fall of Adam; sith our erected wit maketh us know what perfection is, and yet our infected will keepeth us from reaching unto it. But these arguments will by few be understood, and by fewer granted. Thus much (I hope) will be given me, that the Greeks, with some probability of reason, gave him the name above all names of learning. Now let us go to a more ordinary opening of him, that the truth may be more palpable: and so I hope, though we get not so unmatched a praise as the etymology of his names will grant, yet his very description, which no man will deny, shall not justly be barred from a principal commendation.
Poesy, therefore, is an art of imitation, for so Aristotle termeth it in his word Mimesis, that is to say, a representing, counterfeiting, or figuring forth: to speak metaphorically, a speaking picture: with this end, to teach and delight; of this have been three several kinds. The chief both in antiquity and excellency, were they that did imitate the inconceivable excellencies of God. Such were David in his Psalms, Solomon in his Song of Songs, in his Ecclesiastes, and Proverbs: Moses and Deborah, in their hymns, and the writer of Job; which, beside other, the learned Emanuel Tremilius and Franciscus Junius do entitle the poetical part of Scripture. Against these none will speak that hath the Holy Ghost in due holy reverence.
In this kind, though in a full wrong divinity, were Orpheus, Amphion, Homer in his hymns, and many other, both Greeks and Romans: and this poesy must be used by whosoever will follow St. James his counsel, in singing psalms when they are merry: and I know is used with the fruit of comfort by some, when, in sorrowful pangs of their death-bringing sins, they find the consolation of the never-leaving goodness.
The second kind, is of them that deal with matters philosophical; either moral, as Tyrtaus, Phocylides, and Cato: or natural, as Lucretius and Virgil's Georgics; or astronomical, as Manilius, and Pontanus; or historical, as Lucan; which who mislike, the fault is in their judgments quite out of taste, and not in the sweet food of sweetly-uttered knowledge. But because this second sort is wrapped within the fold of the proposed subject, and takes not the course of his own invention, whether they properly be poets or no, let grammarians dispute; and go to the third, indeed right poets, of whom chiefly this question ariseth; betwixt whom and these second is such a kind of difference, as betwixt the meaner sort of painters (who counterfeit only such faces as are set before them) and the more excellent; who, having no law but wit, bestow that in colours upon you which is fittest for the eye to see; as the constant, though lamenting look of Lucretia, when she punished in herself another's fault.
Wherein he painteth not Lucretia whom he never saw, but painteth the outward beauty of such a virtue: for these third be they which most properly do imitate to teach and delight; and, to imitate, borrow nothing of what is, hath been, or shall be: but range, only reined with learned discretion, into the divine consideration of what may be, and should be. These be they that, as the first and most noble sort may justly be termed Vates, so these are waited on in the excellentest languages and best understandings, with the fore-described name of poets: for these indeed do merely make to imitate: and imitate both to delight and teach: and delight to move men to take that goodness in hand, which without delight they would fly as from a stranger: and teach, to make them know that goodness whereunto they are moved, which being the noblest scope to which ever any learning was directed, yet want there not idle tongues to bark at them. These be subdivided into sundry more special denominations. The most notable be the heroic, lyric, tragic, comic, satiric, iambic, elegiac, pastoral, and certain others. Some of these being termed according to the matter they deal with, some by the sorts of verses they liked best to write in, for indeed the greatest part of poets have apparelled their poetical inventions in that numbrous kind of writing which is called verse: indeed but apparelled, verse being but an ornament and no cause to poetry: sith there have been many most excellent poets that never versified, and now swarm many versifiers that need never answer to the name of poets. For Xenophon, who did imitate so excellently, as to give us effigiem justi imperii the portraiture of a just empire under the name of Cyrus (as Cicero says of him), made therein an absolute heroical poem.
So did Heliodorus in his sugared invention of that picture of love in Theagenes and Chariclea, and yet both these wrote in prose: which I speak to show, that it is not rhyming and versing that maketh a poet, no more than a long gown maketh an advocate: who, though he pleaded in armour, should be an advocate and no soldier. But it is that feigning notable images of virtues, vices, or what else, with that delightful teaching which must be the right describing note to know a poet by: although, indeed, the senate of poets hath chosen verse as their fittest raiment, meaning, as in matter they passed all in all, so in manner to go beyond them: not speaking (table-talk fashion, or like men in a dream) words as they chanceably fall from the mouth, but peyzing [Footnote: weighing.] each syllable of each word by just proportion according to the dignity of the subject.