I. The General Nature of Criticism. What is Criticism ? —Common Objections to Criticism — Criticism as Literature — The Abuse of Criticism — The Use of Criticism. II. The Two Functions of Criticism. The Critic as Interpreter — ‘Inductive’ Criticism — Older Methods of ‘Judicial’ Criticism — Illustrations : Addison Johnson — Influence of the Modern Spirit on Criticism — The Need and Justification of Judicial Criticism. III. The Study of Criticism as Literature. Personal Aspects — Some Qualifications of the True Critic — His Equipment — Points for Study in a Critic’s Work. IV. Historic Aspects. The Comparative Method in the Study of Criticism — The Historical Study of Criticism — Changes in Opinion about Representative Authors — How to be Explained ? — The History of Criticism as a Supplement to the History of Literature — Criticism and Production. V. The Problem of the Valuation of Literature. Is all Judgment necessarily Personal?—Differences in Value in Personal Judgments — The Real Problem of Personal Enjoyment — Some Practical Aspects of this Problem — Is Criticism a ‘self-cancelling Business ?’ —
What does it mean when the Critics agree ? — How greatness in Literature is Proved — What is a ‘Classic’ ? — ‘Catholicity’ in
Literature— The Struggle for Existence, and Survival in Literature Why Some Books Survive — The Valuation of Contemporary Literature — The ‘Classics’ as Standards of Comparison.
In its strict sense the word criticism means judgment, i-nd this sense commonly colours our use of it even when it is mos; broadly employed. The literary critic is therefore regarded primarily as an expert who brings a special faculty and training to bear upon a piece of literary art, or the work of a given author, examines its merits and defects, and pronounces a verdict upon it. Yet when we speak of the literature of criticism we evidently include under the term more than the literature which records judgment. We comprehend under it the whole mass of literature which is written about literature, whether the object be analysis, interpretation, or valuation, or all these combined. Poetry, the drama, the novel, deal directly with life. Criticism deals with poetry, the drama, the novel, even with criticism itself. If creative literature may be defined as an interpretation of life under the various forms of literary art, critical literature may be defined as an interpretation of that interpretation and of the forms of art through which it is given.
The prejudice often expressed against criticism is thus easily explained. Our first business with a great author is with the author himself. It is his work that we want to understand, and to understand for ourselves. What, then, it is frequently asked, is the use of so many intermediaries ? Why should we consume time in reading what some one else has said about Dante or Shakespeare, which we might surely employ much more profitably in reading Dante and Shakespeare themselves ? We have so many books about books that our libraries are being choked with them, and our attention distracted. Nor is this the worst. The enormous growth in recent times of the parasitic literature of explanation and commentary has in turn bred a fast-multiplying race of secondary parasites—of critics who write about critics, and undertake to interpret their interpretation of the interpretation of life presented in real literature. We have therefore an ever-increasing number, not only of books about books, but also of books about books about books. We have histories of criticism ; we have analytical studies of the methods of this critic and that ; we have magazine articles in which such studies are summarised and discussed. We are thus tempted to get our knowledge of much of the world’s greatest literature at second-hand, or even at third hand. Scherer examines Paradise Lost. Then Matthew Arnold examines Scherer’s examination of Paradise Lost. We may be much interested in what Scherer thinks about Milton, and in what Arnold thinks of Scherer’s view of Milton, and perhaps in some other person’s view of Arnold’s opinion of Scherer as a critic of Milton. But meanwhile there is a serious danger lest, our whole leisure being devoted to Scherer and Arnold, Milton’s own work may remain unread. Is not the critic, therefore, a mere cumberer of the ground ? At best, the study of criticism can be no substitute for the study of the literature criticised. At worst, it may stand in the way of such study by inducing us to rest content with that superficial sort of knowledge about books and their authors, which, as I have already insisted, is a vitally different thing from personal knowledge of the books and authors themselves.
These objections are quite intelligible, and in an age when creative literature is undoubtedly in peril of being overlaid by, and practically buried under, a growing mass of exposition and commentary, due weight must certainly be given to them. Against the abuse of criticism, as a marked feature in the intellectual life of our time, a protest may therefore be very justly made. But we are not for this reason to deny the utility of criticism. It has its legitimate place and function.
Let me emphasise in passing a point which is commonly lost sight of. The distinction between the literature which deals directly with life, and the literature which deals with literature, fundamental as it may at first seem, is after all an artificial one. Literature is made out of whatever interests us in life. But personality is manifestly one of the chief facts in life, and one of the most profoundly interesting. It follows, therefore, that the critic who undertakes the interpretation of the personality of a great writer as it is revealed in his work, and of that work in all its varied aspects as the expression of the man himself, is just as truly dealing with life as was the poet or dramatist whose writings form the subject of his study. A noble book is as living a thing as a noble deed, and the processes of art are just as vital as those which are involved in any other of life’s many-sided activities. This view has been admirably expressed by Mr. William Watson, who, to the objection that he has too often sought “in singers’ selves”—in the work of other poets—his “theme of song,” replies that he has taken the great poets as his matter deliberately,
Holding these also to be very part
Of Nature’s greatness, and accounting not
Their descants least heroical of deeds.
So far as the current prejudice against criticism is based upon its supposed difference in kind from that creative literature which draws matter and inspiration directly from life, it has thus to be set aside. True criticism also draws its matter and inspiration from life, and in its own way it likewise is creative.
It is important therefore to distinguish between the abuse and the use of criticism. This fortunately is a problem which presents no serious difficulty. Ws can easily learn from our own experiences when the reading of criticism becomes a snare, and when it is of help to us.
To put the matter broadly, it becomes a snare whenever we remain satisfied with what some one else has said about a great author, instead of going straight to that author, and trying to master his work for ourselves. Short cuts to knowledge are now being rapidly multiplied in literature as well as in all other fields of study ; and in the rush of life, and the stress of conflicting interests, we are sorely tempted to depend upon them for information about many writers of whom the world talks freely, and of whom we should like to be able to talk freely too, but with whom we have not the time, or perhaps not the patience, to become acquainted on our own account. To read the Odyssey through is a task from which many of us may recoil on the ground that it is very long, and that there are so many other things that we are equally anxious to read. Such a handy little epitome of the contents of that wonderful old poem as is provided in the Ancient Classics for English Readers seems therefore exactly to suit our needs. Now it is not to be assumed, as it is in fact assumed too often by writers on the subject, that such dependence upon the literature of exposition is open to unqualified condemnation. The matter must be treated practically, and to say that we should try to read for ourselves every book in the world’s literature that is worth reading at all, is, so far as the majority of us are concerned, to lay down a counsel of perfection. If the question takes the form, as it often must, as to whether the Odyssey is to remain an entirely sealed book for us, or whether we are to get some idea of its story and characters at second hand, then I for one should not hesitate to answer that it is far better to know something about the poem from the briefest sketch of it, than to know nothing about it at all. Life is short, our margin of leisure generally limited, the special line of our individual interests often of necessity narrowly defined ; and thus out of the enormous mass of the world’s really great literature that portion which we can ever hope to make a personal possession is small indeed. Our curiosity concerning many important writers who lie beyond our opportunities or our chosen field of study, our wish to understand something of their character, production, place and influence, are perfectly natural and justifiable, and it would be absurd to argue that we should not freely turn to service what others have written about them, using this, if needs be, as a substitute_ for our own reading of their work, or perhaps as a guide for subsequent use to what is most valuable for us in it. Every one will admit, for example, that Voltaire is one of the greatest men of letters of the eighteenth century. As such, he is interesting both in himself and on account of the enormous place which he fills in the literary history of his time. About such a man, and about his work, certain questions, sooner or later, are sure to arise. What did he really stand for ? what were his aims ? his methods ? his achievements ? How much of his work is important only from the historical point of view ? How much of it has any permanent value, and why ? To such questions we should be glad to obtain at least a general answer. But Voltaire’s separate publications number upwards of 260 ; he wrote society verses and epic poems, dramas and dramatic criticism, history and biography, philosophical tales and philosophical treatises. For the ordinary English reader the mass of this immense and varied output must of necessity remain an unexplored territory. But meanwhile he will find in Lord Morley’s admirable volume of under 400 pages a compact and luminous study of the man, his milieu, his work ; and the careful perusal of this will give him a far better idea of Voltaire’s genius, power, limitations and accomplishment than it would be possible for him to derive from hasty and undirected efforts to acquaint himself directly with Voltaire’s own work. Again, among the countless minor writers in all literatures there are many who deserve some attention, because, as Matthew Arnold very justly says, being in their own way “real men of genius” and thus having “a genuine gift for what is true and excellent,” they are “capable of emitting a life-giving stimulus.” It is therefore “salutary from time to time to come across a genius of this kind, and to extract his honey,” for “often he has more of it for us…than greater men.” But to read many of these writers in their entirety for ourselves is manifestly impossible, and we may thus be grateful to the intermediary who extracts the honey for us and sets it before us in available form. Modest such service may be ; but it is of inestimable value, and we have every right to take advantage of it.
To say that we must never depend upon other people for our knowledge of authors and books is therefore to be guilty of gross exaggeration. But the general importance of the principle that our chief business is directly with literature, and not with even the best critical interpretation of literature, is nonetheless not to be impugned. “Some books,” as Bacon says, “may be read by deputy” ; yet, as he rightly adds, “distilled books are like common distilled waters, flashy things. If the primary aim of literary study be the cultivation of intimate personal relations between student and writer, then our too frequent practice of contenting ourselves with books about books can scarcely be too strongly deprecated. The essential virtue of a great book, its individual power, its ‘life-giving stimulus,’ can be felt in their fullness only through immediate contact. They cannot be transmitted, save in a very slight degree, by any agent or expositor. A well-known American professor once told me of a student of his who came to him with the question : What was the best book he could read on Timon of Athens, on which he was then writing an essay. My friend’s reply was : “The best book you can read on Timon of Athens is— Timon of Athens.” This was a view of the matter which apparently had not occurred to the inquirer, who went away a sadder and wiser man. It is a view which is too often neglected by most of us. No analysis or criticism of a book, let it therefore be repeated, can ever be an adequate substitute for our own personal mastery of the book itself. The labour which we bestow on a determined effort to gain such mastery is, as a means of literary culture, of infinitely greater value than any knowledge of the book which we obtain from the outside.
This suggests another danger inherent in our continual recourse to the literature of exposition and commentary. We are too apt to accept passively another person’s interpretation of a book and his judgment upon it. This danger is the more to be emphasised because it increases with the power of the critic himself. If he is a really great critic—that is, if he is a man of exceptional learning, grasp, and vigour of personality—he is likely to impose himself upon us. Painfully aware by contrast of his strength and our own shortcomings, we yield ourselves to him. He dominates our thought to such an extent that we take his verdict as final. Henceforth we look at the book, not with our own eyes, but through his. We find in it what he has found there, and nothing else. What he has missed, we miss too. Our reading runs only on the lines that he has laid down. Thus, in fact, he stands between us and his subject, not as an interpreter, but as an obstacle. Instead of leading us, he blocks the way. Personal intercourse with our author is prevented, and the free play of our mind upon his work is made impossible.
Yet serious as are the results which follow from the abuse of criticism, its real use in the study of literature is not for a moment to be called in question. To deny its service is tantamount to asserting either that no one else can ever be wiser than ourselves, or that we can never profit by another person’s deeper experience or superior wisdom. The chief function of criticism is to enlighten and stimulate. If a great poet makes us partakers of his larger sense of the meaning of life, a great critic may make us partakers of his larger sense of the meaning of literature. The true critic is one who is equipped for his task by a knowledge of his subject which, in breadth and soundness, far exceeds our own, and who, moreover, is endowed with special faculties of insight, penetration, and comprehension. Surely, it would be the height of impertinence to assume that such a man will not see a great deal more than we do in a given masterpiece of literature, and the extreme of folly to imagine that with his aid we may not discover in it qualities of power and beauty, a wealth of interest and a depth of significance, to which, but for that aid, we should in all probability have remained blind. The critic often gives us an entirely fresh point of view ; often, too, renders particular assistance by translating into definite form impressions of our own, dimly recognised indeed, but still too vague to be of practical value. He is sometimes a pathfinder, breaking new ground ; sometimes a friendly companion, indicating hitherto unperceived aspects of even the most familiar things we pass together by the way. Thus he teaches us to re-read for ourselves with quickened intelligence and keener appreciation. Nor is this all. He frequently helps us most when he challenges our own judgments, cuts across our pre-conceived opinions, and gives us, in Emerson’s phrase, not instruction, but provocation. If we read him, as we should read the literature of which he discourses, with a mind ever vigilant and alert, it will matter little whether we agree with or dissent from what he has to tell us. In either case we shall gain by contact with him in insight and power.
As already implied, criticism may be regarded as having two different functions—that of interpretation and that of judgment. It is indeed true that in practice these two functions have until our own time been generally combined, since the majority of critics, while conceiving judgment to be the real end of all criticism, have freely employed interpretation as a means to that end. Within recent years, however, the distinction has been forced into prominence by various students of literature, who, setting the two functions in opposition, have more or less consistently maintained the thesis that the critic’s chief duty is exposition, even if (and this, as we shall see, has been denied) he is ever warranted in venturing beyond exposition into questions of taste and valuation.
Accepting for the moment this view of the scope and limitations of criticism, we have to ask, what is it that the critic as interpreter should set out to accomplish? The answer will show that, even as thus defined, his task is both large and difficult. His purpose will be to penetrate to the heart of the book before him; to disengage its essential qualities of power and beauty ; to distinguish between what is temporary and what is permanent in it ; to analyse and formulate its meaning ; to elucidate by direct examination the artistic and moral principles which, whether the writer himself was conscious of them or not, have actually guided and controlled his labours. What is merely implicit in his author’s work he will make explicit. He will exhibit the interrelations of its parts and the connection of each with the whole which they compose. He will gather up and epitomise its scattered elements, and account for its characteristics by tracing them to their sources. Thus, explaining, unfolding, illuminating, he will show us what the book really is—its content, its spirit, its art ; and this done, he will leave it to justify and appraise itself. “To feel the virtue of the poet or the painter, to disengage it, to set it forth—these,” says Walter Pater, “are the three stages of the critic’s duty.”
In the execution of his task such a critic will, of course, follow his own particular line of exposition. He may confine himself strictly to the book in hand, and fix his attention wholly upon what he finds there. He may elucidate it by systematic reference to other works of the same author. He may throw light upon it from the outside by adopting the method of comparison and contrast. He may go further afield and seek his clue in the principles of historical interpretation. But whatever his plan, his one aim is to know, and to help us to know, the book in itself. He will pass no definite verdict upon it from the point of view of his own taste, or of any organised body of critical opinion.
An elaborate statement of the aims and methods of the critic as interpreter will be found in the long plea for a purely scientific kind of literary criticism with which Prof. Moulton prefaces his study of Shakespeare as a Dramatic Artist. “The prevailing notions of criticism,” Mr. Moulton points out, “are dominated by the idea of assaying, as if its function were to test the soundness, and estimate the comparative value, of literary work. Lord Macaulay, than whom no one has a better right to be heard on the subject” (this, I may say in passing, seems to me a much exaggerated view of Macaulay’s importance as a critic), “compares his office of reviewer to that of a king-at-arms, versed in the laws of literary procedure, marshalling authors to the exact seats to which they are entitled. And, as a matter of fact, the bulk of literary criticism, whether in popular conversation or in discussions of professed critics, occupies itself with the merits of authors and works ; founding its estimates and arguments on canons of taste, which are assumed as having met with general acceptance, or deduced from speculations as to fundamental conceptions of literary beauty.” In opposition to these ideas, Mr. Moulton advocates the principles of what he calls ‘inductive’ criticism. The name itself betrays the origin of the proposed method in the powerful influence of modern science ; and Mr. Moulton distinctly says that its avowed object is “to bring the treatment of literature into the circle of the inductive sciences.” Such criticism is, indeed, as he insists, to be regarded, not as a branch of literature, but as a branch of science. As such, it seeks scientific accuracy and scientific impartiality. “The treatment aimed at is one independent of praise or blame, one that has nothing to do with merit, relative or absolute.” The inductive critic, like the investigator in any other field of scientific research, with whom he boldly claims comradeship, therefore “reviews the phenomena of literature as they actually stand, inquiring into and endeavouring to systematise the laws and principles by which they are moulded and produce their effects,” and recognising “no court of appeal except the appeal to the literary works themselves.” Three important points of contrast may thus be indicated—we still follow Mr. Moulton—between the older judicial and the new inductive methods. In the first place, judicial criticism is largely concerned with the question of the order of merit among literary works. This question lies outside of science. “A geologist is not heard extolling old red sandstone as a model rock-formation, or making sarcastic comments on the glacial epoch.” As a scientist, the inductive critic knows nothing about differences in degree ; he knows only differences in kind. Contrasted literary methods—as, e.g., the method of Shakespeare and the method of Ben Jonson in the drama—are considered by him, not as higher and lower, but simply as distinct, “in the way in which a fern is distinct from a flower.” Such distinction allows “no room for preference because there is no common ground on which to compare.” The differences between author and author are therefore to be marked and formulated, but no attempt is to be trade to estimate their respective values. Secondly, judicial criticism rests on the idea that the so-called laws of literature are like the laws of morality or the laws of the state—that is, that they are imposed by an external authority, and are binding on the j artist as the laws of morality and of the state are binding on the man. For the inductive critic such laws do not exist. For him the laws of literature are precisely what the laws of nature are for the natural scientist—not conditions superimposed from without, but “facts reduced to formulae.” The laws of nature are merely a generalised statement of the order actually observed among phenomena. The laws of literature are to be taken in a precisely similar sense. They express what is, not what conceivably ought to be. Thus “the laws of the Shakespearean Drama are not laws imposed by some external authority upon Shakespeare,” and for obedience to which he has to be held responsible, “but laws of dramatic practice derived from the analysis of his actual works.” It is only in the language of metaphor, therefore, that we can properly say that Shakespeare ‘obeys’ such or such ‘laws’ of the drama, as it is only in the language of metaphor that we can properly say that the stars ‘obey’ the law of gravitation. The critic’s business is thus not to test Shakespeare’s practice by its conformity, or want of conformity, to certain abstract ideas of the drama or to rules independently drawn up, but simply to discover by direct examination of his plays the principles upon which they were written, and then to reduce the results of such examination to a generalised statement. This leads to the third point of contrast between the judicial and the inductive methods. Judicial criticism proceeds upon the hypothesis that there are ‘fixed standards’ by which literature may be tried and adjudged. These standards have varied greatly with different critics and in different ages, and this fact furnishes us with one reason why criticism in general has so frequently fallen into disrepute ; yet the existence of some such standards has none the less been assumed. Inductive criticism recognises no fixed standards, and indeed denies their possibility. Like all other phenomena dealt with by the sciences, literature is a product of evolution : its history is a history of unceasing transformations ; and thus the quest for permanent criteria is foredoomed to inevitable failure, since it postulates finality where in the very nature of things no finality will ever be found.
Thus, to sum up, “inductive criticism will examine literature in the spirit of pure investigation ; looking for the laws of art in the practice of artists, and treating art like the rest of nature as a thing of continuous development, which may thus be expected to fall, with each author and school, into varieties distinct in kind from one another, and each of which can be fully grasped only when examined with an attitude of mind adapted to the special variety without interference from without.”
According to this view of its functions, then, criticism has nothing whatever to do with the supposed or possible value of a piece of literary art, or with our personal feelings concerning it. Ignoring all considerations of individual taste and all questions of absolute or comparative merit, the critic, as scientist, addresses himself wholly to the labour of investigation. He is, as Taine once phrased it, a kind of botanist whose subject-matter, however, is not the phenomena of plant-life, but those of literature.
We have here, it will be seen, a theory of inductive criticism which carries us no further than this—that the law of each author’s work must be sought within that work itself : the implication being that the law so found can never be applied to the work of any other author, and therefore can never be used as a standard of judgment or even as a guide. This conclusion raises a problem which we shall have to deal with presently. In the meantime we must not fail to note that a conception of criticism is possible which, while denying the validity of the older judicial practice, does not necessarily entail the repudiation of the critic’s right to estimate and judge. The key to this conception is provided by the principle of the relativity of literature and the historical method of interpretation. For a succinct account of it we may turn to a great French critic already named—M. Edmond Scherer. Taking up the study of Paradise Lost, Scherer was struck by the diametrically opposed opinions of it of two such men as Voltaire and Macaulay, of whom the one indulged in unmeasured disparagement, the other is unqualified laudation. Is either the disparagement or the laudation, he asked, to be taken as a real verdict upon the poem ? Does either give us any true account of its greatness, its shortcomings, its place among the masterpieces of literature ? Certainly not. These are not unbiassed judgments at all ; they are merely expressions of personal idiosyncracies in the critics. They lack entirely that quality which beyond all others we should demand in one who sets up as a judge of literature—the quality of detachment and impartiality. They tell us what a brilliant Frenchman of the eighteenth century and what a clever Englishman of the nineteenth century respectively thought about Milton’s monumental work ; but they do not help us to form for ourselves a disinterested judgment upon it. As they stand, they simply cancel one another; our own prepossessions may impel us towards Voltaire’s view, or towards Macaulay’s ; but in themselves they leave us unconvinced and unenlightened. How then shall we ourselves proceed in the hope of establishing a point of view beyond personal feeling—a point of view from which, irrespective of any question whether we ourselves enjoy or do not enjoy the poem, we may see Paradise Lost as it really is ? By adopting, Scherer replies, the modern historical method. This method, he argues, is “at once more conclusive and more equitable” than that of the older schools of criticism, because it “sets itself to understand things rather than to class them, to explain them rather than to judge them.” Its aim is “to account for a work from the genius of its author, and from the turn this genius has taken from the circumstances amidst which it was developed.” Our first business in approaching the study of Paradise Lost, therefore, will be to eliminate as far as possible all personal bias, arising either from individual temperament and predilections or from the literary habits and tastes of our own time and circle, and to ‘account for’ the poem—to explain it as it is, in all its varied characteristics of matter and style—by an exhaustive analysis of Milton’s genius and environment—of the man himself and the sum total of the influences, intellectual, artistic, political, which whether we deem it to have been for good or evil, actually left their impress upon him. Upto this point the critic is still regarded as an investigator, though the elements of personality and milieu—factors which do not enter into Mr. Moulton’s scheme—are now brought forward for special emphasis. But here Scherer parts company with those who, like Mr. Moulton, decline to advance from interpretation to judgment. “Out of these two things,” he maintains—”the analysis of the writer’s character and the study of his age—there spontaneously issues the right understanding of his work :” and this right understanding in turn furnishes us with a criterion by which to estimate its position and value. “In place of an appreciation thrown off by some chance-comer, we have the work passing judgment, so to speak, upon itself, and assuming the rank which belongs to it among the productions of the human mind.”
As it is manifestly no part of our present plan to undertake any comprehensive discussion of modern theories concerning the purposes and methods of criticism, these two writers must suffice to illustrate the marked tendency of our time to regard interpretation as the chief, if not the only, end of the critic’s task. While Mr. Moulton rejects judicial criticism entirely, M. Scherer endeavours to find foundations for such criticism deeper and more stable than can ever be provided by a priori formulas or individual tastes. But the English critic and the French critic are at one in their desire to escape from the narrow, inflexible, haphazard methods of the older schools, and in their attempt to carry into the study of literature the larger, more flexible and more systematic methods of science.
It would not be easy to exaggerate the importance of the fresh leads thus indicated. We may follow them with an exhilarating sense that they will assure us of substantial results in a real and living knowledge of the things which concern us most in whatever work or author we may take up for our study. Lord Morley has rightly protested that it is nothing short of a disgrace to human intelligence that, generation after generation, learned men should have continued to dispute about the meaning of Aristotle’s famous dictum about tragedy, instead of going straight to the phenomena of tragedy and inquiring into their significance for themselves. But literary criticism, throughout its entire range, was long crushed in this way beneath the dead weight of authority and the tyranny of preconceived notions. The only way of escape possible from the fluctuations of individual tastes was supposed to lie in recourse to some established code. Every author had therefore to be judged by canons applied to his work from the outside, while the quality of any new departure in literature was to be estimated only by reference to models—to what had already been accomplished by other writers at other times. The superstitious veneration of the classics, which began with the Renaissance and lingers in scholastic circles even to-day, inspired a general belief in the value of the Greek and Latin writers as permanent standards of excellence ; and even when this particular theory broke down, the critic’s practice was still to appeal to some author or school of authors by whom the true laws of literature were assumed to have been exemplified once and for all. Thus criticism too often degenerated into pedantic disquisitions on matters of little real importance, and sterile efforts to keep production within certain prescribed bounds. It became conventional, dogmatic, arbitrary. It condemned all deviation from the lines it had chosen to lay down in advance; as in the familiar case of Shakespeare who, for a long time in France, and by a number of critics even in England, was pronounced barbarous and inartistic because his work did not conform to the laws of that ‘classic’ drama which had been postulated as the ideal type. Seeing its guidance mainly in the past, such criticism practically denied the principle of development and the right of the new spirit in literature to strike out into fresh paths for itself. It ignored the great fact emphasised by Wordsworth, and illustrated again and again in literary history, that “every author, as far as he is great and at the same time original, has had the task of creating the taste by which he is to be enjoyed”—and therefore, it may be added, of establishing the standards by which his work has to be adjudged.
The methods and results of this older kind of criticism may be studied to advantage in the writings of two of its best-known practitioners—Addison and Johnson.
Addison undertakes a systematic criticism of Paradise Lost. But he proceeds upon a plan very different from that advocated by Scherer. He does not seek a “right understanding” of Milton’s poem in “an analysis of the writer’s character and the study of his age.” His method is to “examine it by the rules of epic poetry, and see whether it falls short of the Iliad and the Æneid in the beauties which are essential to that kind of poetry.” How are we to discover these ‘rules’ of epic poetry? How are we to learn in what “the beauties which are essential” to it actually consist ? By the careful study of Homer, Virgil, and Aristotle. By the tests which they furnish our English poet must stand or fall. Now, it must not, of course, be forgotten that, in this particular instance, a certain justification for the critic’s procedure may be found in the fact that Milton avowedly fashioned his work upon the structural principles of the classic epic, and that the canons applied by Addison were such, therefore, as, in the main, he himself would have been willing to accept. There is thus a vital difference between the trial of Milton by “the rules of epic poetry” and the trial of Shakespeare by the canons of the classic drama. The dogmatic narrowness of the method is none the less apparent in many places ; as when the critic finds fault with Milton’s ‘fable’—as Dryden had done before him—because “the event is unhappy,” while Aristotle had laid it down as a general rule that an epic poem should end happily ; and when he complains of Milton’s allegories that they “rather savour of the spirit of Spenser and Ariosto, than of Homer and Virgil.” It is therefore the more curious to notice that in one case Addison recognises in passing the principle of development in literature and the consequent impossibility of taking even Aristotle’s dicta as definitive : “in this, and some other very few instances,” he writes, in concluding his survey of Milton’s characters, “Aristotle’s rules for epic poetry, which he had drawn from his reflections upon Homer, cannot be supposed to square exactly with the heroic poems which have been made since his time, since it is evident to every impartial judge his rules would still have been more perfect could he have perused the Æneid, which was made some hundred years after his death.” This incidental admission, prompting as it does the further question, would not Aristotle’s rules have been even more perfect still could he have perused not only the Æneid but also Paradise Lost, is manifestly fatal to the whole conception of finality in literature, and therefore to the fundamental assumptions on which Addison’s criticism rests.
Johnson’s criticism is equally instructive. As Macaulay says, he “took it for granted that the kind of poetry which flourished in his own time, which he had been accustomed to hear praised from his childhood, and which he had himself written with success, was the best kind of poetry.” So far as he depended at all upon criteria or precedents for his judgments, it was in this poetry that he sought them. Tacitly, if not expressly, it was to this poetry that he always appealed. The result was that he could see little meaning or merit in any poetry belonging to a different class. He thus failed to rise to the greatness of Shakespeare and Milton, was grossly unjust to Gray, and almost consistently opposed and ridiculed every movement in literature in which—as in the ballad revival of the later eighteenth century—he detected any signs of revolt against what was for him the orthodox literary creed.
If now we turn from Addison and Johnson, whom I have taken as popular exponents of the kind of criticism which prevailed in England down to comparatively recent times, to the writings of any representative critic of the Victorian age, we at once become conscious of an enormous change. The older view of the purposes of criticism is greatly modified even where it is not entirely abandoned ; the older methods are practically obsolete. It is not, of course, to be supposed that our critics have ceased to regard themselves, and to be regarded by others, as in a sense at once law-givers and judges, or that they no longer express personal preferences, which on occasion they support by reference to canons and models. It is only here and there that we find the new scientific conception carried out so rigorously that the legislative and judicial functions are altogether repudiated. Elsewhere, criticism continues to appraise, and, in appraising, to make free use of æsthetic principles and of standards of comparison. Thus even Matthew Arnold, with all his dread of abstract ideas and of system-making, was still pre-occupied with questions of the ‘grand style,’ which alone is to be pronounced truly ‘classic,’ and with the establishment of ‘touchstones’ of poetry; while in his horror of the vagaries of English thought he even went so far as to eulogise the French Academy as a “sovereign organ of the highest literary opinion, a recognised authority in matters of intellectual tone and taste. Nonetheless, the general transformation is unmistakable. The modern critic—and Arnold himself may be taken as a type—is for the most part more anxious to understand and interpret than to distribute praise and blame ; while that spirit of eclecticism, which is one of the salient features of our age, and the evolutionary methods which are fast invading every department of thought, have combined to give him a breadth of outlook, a catholicity of comprehension and sympathy, a sense of change and growth, of personality and historic relationship, all of which were conspicuously lacking in the criticism of the older schools.
With most of what Mr. Moulton says so forcibly about the ineptitude and futility of the criticism of the past, we of the present generation, bred in the new ways of thinking, must therefore cordially agree. At the same time it is, I believe, impossible to follow him to one of his principal conclusions. I do not for the moment discuss the general question whether, as he maintains, literary criticism can ever be reduced to a science in the same way as botany and geology have been reduced to sciences. My point of dissent is his total condemnation of judicial criticism as such. However valuable may be the results achieved by the inductive method, they are results with which the student of literature cannot, after all, be permanently satisfied. While this method may thus be welcomed as a most important instrument of criticism, it cannot be accepted as a complete substitute for all other methods.
The scientific critic of literature, let us remember, has, according to Mr. Moulton’s emphatic statement, “nothing to do with merit, relative or absolute.” Differences in kind he knows ; differences in degree he does not know. He seeks ‘the laws and principles’ of a given body of literature, like the Shakespearean drama, within the work itself ; having found them, he formulates them ; but he has no opinion to pass upon them. The questions whether the criticism of life contained in the Shakespearean drama is sound or unsound, and whether the artistic principles underlying its practice are good or bad, are questions which lie outside his field as a scientific investigator of the phenomena as they stand.
These questions, and all other questions of the same general character, are, however, both inevitable and legitimate. They force themselves upon our attention ; we cannot evade them ; if for no other reason than that we need guidance in our reading, we have a right to demand an answer to them. For here, as it must be evident, the parallel between literature and a natural science, like geology, collapses. Geology deals with phenomena which involve no elements of personality, truth and falsehood, emotional power, artistic effects. Such elements are of the essence of literature, which exists to interpret life under the forms of art, and which therefore, must be estimated by the quality both of the interpretation and of the art. In studying geology we inquire only what a given thing is and how it came to be what it is. We explain it; and with the explanation our interest ends. In studying literature, these inquiries lead straight to the further problem of the significance of the thing explained to us and to other people—to the problem, that is, of its human and technical merits and defects. It is useless, indeed, to insist that even for one who approaches the subject-matter of literature as he would approach that of geology, in the spirit of pure investigation,” merits and defects do not exist. They are assumed by the scientist himself ; Mr. Moulton assumes them ; for if he devotes a bulky and most stimulating volume to the inductive exposition of Shakespeare’s art, it is clear that he holds it worth while to do so because, like the rest of us, guided to begin with by some ‘canons of taste,’ he is convinced of Shakespeare’s supremacy as a dramatic artist, and thus believes that his artistic methods are interesting not only as Shakespeare’s methods, but also as methods which we may consider on the whole excellent in their kind. Otherwise, precisely as the geologist is indifferent to any considerations of ‘value’ in the rocks he studies, he might just as well have written at large on the dramatic art of Sheridan Knowles or even the author of Box and Cox. Mr. Moulton, however, picks out Shakespeare because he is admittedly ‘great,’ and his work is in fact designed to exhibit, not only his methods, but his greatness. A certain estimate or Shakespeare is thus postulated to start with. Merit, relative or absolute, is recognised.
This is only what we might expect. However much we may talk about a science of criticism, judgment in literature is universal. The schoolboy judges, in his own simple fashion, when he pronounces a book ‘jolly’ or ‘slow’ ; his sister judges when she speaks of a story as ‘pretty’ or the reverse. No one can read intelligently without forming some opinion as to the value of what he reads ; and one of the first questions that we put to a friend who brings a new book to our notice is the question what he thinks of it. As we go further in our study of literature the problem of valuation necessarily becomes increasingly complex and difficult ; more and more we find ourselves bound to reserve judgment where once we pronounced a dogmatic opinion ; to reconsider where formerly we had assumed a view as final. The failure of the critics themselves to come to any agreement upon matters which seem fundamental often induces a mood of scepticism, sometimes a mood of disgust. But not for these reasons shall we ever be tempted to abandon the problem, or to adopt the wholly impartial and non-committal attitude of the scientific investigator. What the inductive critic gives us we shall always accept with gratitude ; but we shall nonetheless turn to the judicial critic in the hope that he may complete the work of induction by helping us, on the basis of the results obtained, to distinguish between what is excellent in literature and what is not. Differences in degree do exist, and ” ’tis to mistake them, costs the time and pain.” Unless we take up the position that, as to the geologist all kinds of rockformation are of equal importance, so to us as ‘scientific’ which case it can hardly matter whether we spend our lives over masterpieces or trash—the great problem of literary values remains as urgent as ever. This being so, judicial criticism—the criticism which seeks to solve this problem—however numerous its past errors may have been, however certain the failures which in the future will continue to testify to the countless difficulties which beset its path—will thus have a place to fill and a duty to perform.
Thus far we have dealt with the literature of exposition and judgment from the point of view only of its connection with the literature which forms its theme. Another aspect of our subject has now to be introduced.
While in the first instance we shall probably have recourse to a given piece of criticism because of our interest in the book or author discussed in it, we shall soon be led to realise that it has at the same time another claim upon our attention Arnold’s Essays in Criticism, for example, may appeal to us, to begin with, only as aids to the fuller appreciation of Wordsworth or Byron, of Shelley or Keats. But apart from the help they may give us in this way, apart therefore from their subordinate significance as means to an end, they have a substantial value of their own as an expression of the critic himself—of his personality, thought, methods, aims. Even if we should find Arnold’s utterances on this or that poet unsatisfying, even if they prove of little or no service to us as means to an end, they will still remain interesting as his utterances ; and what is true in regard to Arnold is equally true, of course, in regard to all great critics. This implies that criticism, though it may be conceived primarily as an instrument in the study of literature, is not to be conceived as an instrument only. It is itself a form of literature, and as such it deserves to be considered for its own sake.
In the study of the literature of criticism we shall naturally follow the lines already indicated for the study of literature in general, we start, of course, with the critic himself. Our chief occupation will now be with his fitness for the post of interpreter and judge. It is evident that his report upon book or author can have no real interest for us unless we have some assurance that he speaks as one having in respect of the particular matter in hand a special right to be heard. Various questions regarding his qualifications will, therefore, have to be considered, upon the more important of which only it will be necessary here to touch.
In the first place, how far does he approximate in intellectual composition and temper to what we may define as the perfect critical ideal ? And, since approximation only is humanly possible, to what extent and at what points is it requisite that we should make allowance for his deficiencies ? The true critic must be mentally alert and flexible, keen in insight, quick in response to all impressions, strong in grasp of essentials ; he must, moreover, as Matthew Arnold will tell us, be able to see a thing as it really is, and not distorted through a mist of his own idiosyncracies and prepossessions ; which means that he must be entirely disinterested and free from bias of all kinds—bias of individual tastes, bias of education, bias of creed, sect, party, class, nation. Now since, as we say, we can never expect to have these conditions completely fulfilled—since, in fact, even the greatest critics, even a critic like Lessing, fail only too conspicuously to fulfil them— it will be needful for us to watch carefully for every sign of disturbance in the free play of the critic’s mind upon his subject, to trace it if we can to its sources, to ‘account for’ it, as Scherer would seek to account for the qualities and limitations of Milton’s genius, and to estimate the range of its influence and the bearings of its results. A critic’s attitude to his author—the attitude, for example, of Arnold to Wordsworth and Shelley respectively— will often lead us to question whether this attitude is not to be explained by some peculiarity in the critic himself. We shall find that in many instances criticism which, within certain limits, is marked by vigour of understanding and sound sense is, outside those limits, sadly marred and sometimes rendered wholly untrustworthy by some dominant habit of mind or ingrained prejudice. A striking illustration is afforded by Johnson, who was, according to his lights, an admirable judge of literature when he was in sympathy with his author’s aims and principles, but quite the reverse of admirable when he had to deal with writers with whom, for one or another reason, he was out of sympathy. Thus we get the best of his work—and very good of the kind this is—in his lives of such men as Pope and Addison, who were exponents of the literary ideals which he esteemed ; and the worst of it—and very bad this is—in his treatment of Milton and Gray, where his judgment was perverted, in the one case by political, in the other by personal and literary antipathies. In Coleridge, again, while in the faculty of insight and poetic intuition he is entitled to take rank with the greatest of English critics, the power to see things as they really are was often destroyed by metaphysical pre-occupations and a veneration for certain chosen authors as irrational and superstitious as that of the pseudo-classic theorists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries for the literatures of Greece and Rome. He has been greatly praised for his criticism of Shakespeare ; yet that criticism, stimulating and suggestive as it frequently is, is nonetheless characterised by the wildest extravagances. It is Coleridge, for instance, whom we in England must hold primarily responsible for the long-standing unhistorical and wholly ‘subjective’ treatment of Shakespeare, and for the popularity of the nonsense which is still talked about Shakespeare’s ‘universality,’ or complete independence of all conditions of time and place. “When Coleridge writes a criticism of Shakespeare,” says Mr. Arthur Symons, “he is giving us his [Coleridge’s] deepest philosophy.” True. But we must never forget that it is his philosophy that he is thus giving us, not Shakespeare’s. In following his interpretations we must always be alive to the importance of distinguishing sharply between what he reads out of Shakespeare and what he reads into him. We shall thus often find it necessary to clear Coleridge’s “deepest philosophy” altogether out of the way in order to see the work of Shakespeare, the Elizabethan dramatist, as it really is—as the product of his genius and his age. A third case in point is provided by none other than Arnold himself, and this is, of course, particularly instructive, because Arnold made it his mission to preach disinterestedness, and certainly did his utmost to practise it. Yet even in him traces of a distinct bias are frequently apparent—a bias due mainly to his early Oxford training and his rather too narrow academic culture. This led him to exaggerate the value of the Greek master and to overstate the claims of classical studies as a school of taste. It even caused him at times to revert to the older notions of absolute criteria and of finality in literature ; as when he called Scott’s poetic style “bastard epic,” though, as he ought to have remembered, it is not ‘epic’ at all, and tested the Wizard’s narrative poems by what he termed the “highest standards”—meaning the standards furnished by the epics of classical antiquity—in defiance of the fact that Marmion and The Lady of the Lake are poems of an entirely different kind from the Iliad and the Odyssey, and that, as Mr. Moulton would have told him, the ‘laws’ of their composition are therefore to be sought in themselves, and not in the practice of Homer.
It is unnecessary to adduce further examples of the disturbance in judgment caused by the various kinds of bias, which are apt at times to interfere with the steadiness of a critic’s vision and the impartiality of his views. Enough has been said to enforce the principle laid down, that in our study of a critic’s writings it is important to take stock of his prepossessions, to observe their influence upon his thought, and, in estimating the value of his work, to make due allowance for them.
A critic’s qualifications do not, however, depend only upon his natural gifts, and thus a second question arises in regard to his equipment for his work. Most of us have known persons of meagre scholarship and no technical training, whose instinctive feeling for what is good in literature has nonetheless given them a surprising power of discernment and appreciation. The honest judgment of a capable general reader on a book, like the honest judgment of a capable amateur on a picture, is never to be despised ; it has often in fact a great value if only because it is fresh, independent, and free from the insidious influence of that perhaps most wide-spread of all forms of bias—the professional. At the same time, for systematic criticism, scholarship and technical training are clearly requisite. “No more in literature than elsewhere,” writes one of the ablest of modern French critics, “has the chance-comer the right to pronounce upon the value of work done, nor, whatever one may say about it, to judge of art without a long and laborious education of his taste. If aptitudes are not necessary”—though it is difficult to see how their necessity can, upon any hypothesis, be denied— “at least an apprenticeship is.” This, perhaps, is rather too strongly put, and smacks a little too much of the tendency of the academic critic to regard literary appreciation as the business of an exclusive ‘Brahmin cast.’ But the general truth of the statement cannot be questioned. For the critic of literature, as for the critic of art, a special education is essential ; and by education we must here understand, as always, both acquisition of knowledge and discipline of mind. The critic needs knowledge to give him breadth of view and to provide a proper basis for his judgment. He needs discipline of mind to make that knowledge serviceable. Other things being equal, his competence as interpreter and judge will be in proportion to his knowledge and discipline ; and if these are lacking, his opinions, however interesting and suggestive, will carry little weight.
Thus, to illustrate by extreme cases, though we cannot go with Addison in his belief that the Iliad and the Æneid furnish the final rules of all epic poetry, we must still hold that a writer is but poorly qualified to discuss the art of Paradise Lost who is not himself familiar with the work of Milton’s own masters ; while a thorough and comprehensive acquaintance with the world’s greatest productions in the drama and prose fiction may safely be postulated as indispensable for anyone who would undertake to pass formal judgment on a play or a novel. We can hardly dissent from Arnold’s view that a knowledge of “one great literature, besides his own, and the more unlike his own the better,” is the irreducible minimum of scholarship necessary for a critic’s preparation ; while there is nothing really extravagant in his further contention that a “proper outfit” must comprise a knowledge of what is best in all European literatures, ancient and modern, and even of the literature of Eastern antiquity. Too exclusive devotion to any one kind of literature is certain to result in narrowness and obliquity of judgment.
It is worth while to insist upon the critic’s need of training and discipline, for the matter has a practical bearing. One of the most curious and discouraging features of current newspaper and magazine criticism, at any rate in England and America, is its general want of measure, sobriety, and perspective. A new novel is published—a book perhaps with various admirable qualities and well deserving a word of cordial recognition. We turn to a notice of it in this or that journal, and we find the reviewer almost beside himself in a frenzy of wonder and excitement. The work is hailed as a masterpiece, its author pronounced on the spot a consummate artist compared with whom—if we are to take his language at anything like its literal meaning—Scott was a bungler and Dickens a mere novice. A few years go by ; the great book and its author disappear from sight or drop back into the rank of the ephemerals ; and the reviewer, who seems incapable of learning from experience, unblushingly breaks forth into another paean over the arrival of another masterpiece from the pen of another genius of the first order. These vagaries of periodical criticism point, of course, to a general laxity in contemporary taste. The average reviewer is so little impressed by the responsibilities of his office, and so little solicitous for the true interests of literature, that he does not pause to weigh his words or to consider the real significance of his opinions ; while a public which reads current literature with the object (if the signs do not mislead us) of getting through as much as possible as quickly as possible and then forgetting it, naturally imposes no restraint upon him. It cannot, of course, be alleged that this deplorable laxity would be overcome merely by an increase of knowledge and discipline in those who set up as guides to popular taste in literary matters. But increase of knowledge and discipline would certainly help to secure some sense of that measure, sobriety, and perspective without which criticism is worse than useless.
In the systematic study of the work of any critic there are thus several points to be kept in view. We have to inquire into his personal qualities and equipment, and the extent to which they are likely to have aided or impeded him in his task of adjudicating upon a particular book or author ; we have to watch for every indication of bias, and to consider both its sources and its bearings ; we have to examine the foundations of his judgments and the standard to which, expressly or by implication, he makes his appeal. Nor must we overlook the important question of the general spirit of his work. A critic may write with an honest desire to understand his author, to interpret him, to do justice to him ; or he may write with the too evident purpose of exhibiting his own learning and cleverness at his author’s expense ; he may be sympathetic, temperate, and anxious chiefly to see what is good ; or he may be carping, censorious, and determined to hunt out faults and dwell on failings. Whatever otherwise we may think of Addison’s criticism, for example, we must at least acknowledge that its tone is admirable. Holding, as he did, that the “true critic” ought to seek rather “excellencies than imperfections,” he regarded it as his principal duty “to discover the concealed beauties of a writer, and communicate to the world such things as are worth their observation.” The tone of Lord Jeffrey’s criticism, on the other hand, is too frequently the reverse of admirable ; his idea apparently being, as Prof. Saintsbury has put it, that “an author necessarily came before the critic with a rope about his neck, and was only entitled to be exempted from being strung up speciali gratia”—an idea, Mr. Saintsbury rightly adds, which, “as presumptuous as it is foolish, is not extinct yet, and has done a great deal of harm to criticism, both by prejudicing those who are not critical against critics, and by perverting and twisting the critic’s own notion of his province and duty.” No one will deny that there are many cases in which critical severity is amply justified, or that, if arrogance is always wrong, mere weak and undiscriminating clemency can never be right. But this is not now the question. For the moment we have only to insist upon the importance of including the spirit of a critic’s writings among the characteristics of his work, and of observing the way in which it enters into and often colours his judgments.
In the study of criticism, as in the study of other kinds of literature, we shall proceed next to extend and render more definite our knowledge of the individual writer by recourse to comparison and contrast. We shall place his work beside that of other critics who have dealt with the same subjects—the same books, authors, periods, or classes of literature ; and in this way we shall seek to realise, more fully than would be possible were they considered separately, the powers and limitations of each. No longer satisfied, as in casual reading we are apt to be satisfied, merely to note agreement or disagreement in the judgments pronounced, we shall examine carefully all points of similarity and difference in the things which lie behind judgment—in personal attitude and proclivities ; in the line of approach adopted ; in the particulars emphasised or neglected ; in methods, manner, standards, temper, taste. The results achieved by such comparative study will be found not only interesting in themselves, but also of special value in helping us to trace the qualities of each critic’s work to their ultimate sources in character, education, and aims.
The further we go afield in this comparative study the more certainly we shall be struck by the extraordinary diversity of critical opinions, and by what I have already described as the failure of the critics to come to any agreement among themselves in respect of even essential matters. It is this which, as I have said, has been largely responsible for the contempt with which criticism has frequently been treated, and for the odium which it has incurred. Particularly perhaps has the wide-spread notion of the fundamental futility of all criticism received a certain amount of justification from the notorious fact that contemporary judgments concerning new works, whether in the way of praise or condemnation, have failed so signally in giving any true measure of the permanent value of such works that they have often been completely reversed by posterity.
In many cases, of course, these differences in critical opinion are personal differences only ; as such they must be accepted ; as such, it is scarcely necessary now to add, they are in themselves interesting. But it will also be found, as might be anticipated, that differences and agreements alike often fall into groups. A certain amount of general conformity—of approximation to unanimity—is commonly observable among critics of the same epoch and school, and a certain amount of general nonconformity, or want of unanimity, among critics of different epochs and schools. Individual characteristics may thus to some extent be subsumed in the characteristics of the class to which each critic belongs. This is only the inevitable result of that dependence of literature upon the life of the age which produces it, of which I have spoken at length in a former chapter. No less than all other kinds of literature criticism, while never ceasing to be the vehicle of personality, is also in part the expression of the spirit of the epoch out of which it comes.
We are thus led from the consideration of individual critics to the historical study of criticism—a field of immense interest, because the history of criticism contains the record of the changes which from age to age have come over men’s conception of literature, of its aims and principles, its matter and methods, of the things which are to be sought and avoided in it, and of the standards by which it is to be judged.
A simple plan, and one which will naturally suggest itself to every student, is that of following and collating the variations which have taken place in critical opinion about particular representative authors. One most notable illustration—that furnished by the history of Shakespeare criticism from the restoration to the time of Coleridge, or even later—stands ready to hand ; but this has been so often used that I prefer to set it aside for one less familiar. but not in its own way less instructive. This is provided by the case of Bunyan. The eighteenth century, with its dominant notions of dignity literature, its narrow conceptions of art, and its general inability to recognise the value of naturalness and simplicity, as a matter of course gave little critical attention to the Elstow tinker ; so far as professed students and exponents of taste took cognisance of him at all, they regarded him (with few exceptions, of whom Swift and Johnson may be reckoned the most important) as a writer for the ‘illiterate’ and the ‘vulgar’ only. Thus, for example, Young, in one of his satires, links “Bunyan’s prose” with “Durfey’s verse”— a proverbial type of sheer doggerel ; Hume indulges in a passing expression of contempt for him ; Burke talks about the possibility that a certain class of readers might perhaps enjoy the Æneid “if it were degraded into the style of The Pilgrim’s Progress” ; in the reprint of this work in Cooke’s Pocket Library (1797), it is distinctly stated that “it cannot come under the Denomination of a Classic Production” ; while Cowper testifies to the current taste of the time when in his Tirocinium he writes of its author:
I name thee not, lest so despised a name
Should move a sneer at thy deserved fame.
We pass abruptly into the thirties of the nineteenth century, and we find Macaulay eulogising Southey’s edition of The Pilgrim’s Progress, as “an eminently beautiful and splendid edition of a book which well deserves all that the printer and engraver can do for it” ; proclaiming it a “wonderful” book, which “obtains admiration from the most fastidious critics” ; and speaking of its style—its “depraved” style—as “delightful to every reader” ; after which, to cite two only from among recent enthusiastic critics, Mr. Gosse pronounces this style “perfection” in its kind, and roundly declares that Bunyan’s “allegory is successful above all other allegories in literature” ; while Mr. Stopford Brooke writes of his bestknown book : “Its form is almost epic : its dramatic dialogue, its clear types of character, its vivid descriptions, as of Vanity Fair, and of places, such as the Valley of the Shadow of Death and the Delectable Mountains, which represent states of the human soul, have given an equal but a different pleasure to children and men, to the villager and the scholar.” How shall we explain the immense general change of attitude and judgment thus exemplified— for a general change it manifestly was ? Clearly, the explanation is not to be found in the idiosyncracies of this or that particular critic. It must ultimately be sought in a consideration of all the influences within literature which during a century and a half had combined to transform its methods and spirit, and of all the forces outside literature which had done much to generate these influences through the immense alteration which they had wrought in the moral and religious ideals and temper of the English people. So intimately are all the phenomena of literature and life bound up together that it would thus be impossible to set out in full the story of the rise of this once-neglected writer in critical estimation to the rank of an acknowledged master, without continual reference to the history both of English literature and of English society. Professor Saintsbury has touched in a suggestive way on the interesting problem of Bunyan’s posthumous fame. The Pilgrim’s Progress, he writes, “has long been, and it may be hoped will always be, well enough known in England. But for something like four generations after its first appearance, its popularity, though always great, was, so to speak, subterranean, and almost contraband. It is probable that even when it was most sniffed at by academic criticism, it was brought by means of nursemaids to the knowledge of children. But it was not till quite the end of the eighteenth century, or even the beginning of the nineteenth, that it was free of the study as it had long been free of the cottage and the nursery. Orthodoxy objected to Bunyan’s dissent; dissent to his literary and artistic gifts ; latitudinarians to his religious fervour ; the somewhat priggish refinement of Addisonian and Popean etiquette to his vernacular language and his popular atmosphere ; scholars to his supposed want of education. And so the greatest prose-book of the late seventeenth century in England had, for nearly a hundred and fifty years, the curious fate of constantly exercising influence without ever achieving praise, or even notice, from those whose business it was to give both.” This brief epitome of some among the many causes which long stood in the way of Bunyan’s recognition by the critics, itself, as will be seen, indicates the nature of the changes in many directions which had to be effected before his standing in our literature could be made so secure that a place was found for him in the series of English Men of Letters.
The history of critical opinion thus broadens out on every side until it becomes a comprehensive supplement to the history of literary production. It is as such a supplement that we may therefore study, for example, the criticism of the eighteenth and the first decades of the nineteenth centuries in its connection with the whole movement of literature from the period of dominant classicism to that of established romanticism and naturalism. In the gradual shifting and final reversal of judgment concerning Pope, the central figure of our Augustan age, and what Pope pre-eminently had stood for in poetry, we may follow in the clearest possible way some of the main lines in the great transition. For Dr. Johnson, the doughty champion of the Augustan ideals at a time when the attack upon them had already begun, Pope’s work, though after his manner he picked innumerable holes in it, was still the last word in poetic art. “New sentiments and new images others may produce, but to attempt any further improvement in versification will be dangerous. Art and diligence have now done their best, and what shall be added will be the effort of tedious toil and needless curiosity. After all this,” the writer concludes, “it is surely superfluous to answer the question that has once been asked, Whether Pope was a poet, otherwise than by asking in return. If Pope be not a poet, where is poetry to be found ? To circumscribe poetry by a definition will only show the narrowness of the definer, though a definition which shall exclude Pope will not easily be made. Let us look round upon the present time, and back upon the past ; let us inquire to whom the voice of mankind has decreed the wreath of poetry ; let their productions be examined, and their claims stated, and the pretensions of Pope will be no more disputed.” These sentences, it will be noted, have the ring of apology. Why ? Because the pretensions of Pope had already been disputed, and the question to which Johnson alludes, and which he deems it superfluous to answer save by a rhetorical counter-question, had been definitely raised by Joseph Warton (who, as a poet, takes an important place among the early romanticists) in an Essay on the Genius and Writings of Pope, the first part of which was published in 1756, or only a dozen years after Pope’s death. Warton strikes a distinctly new note by boldly declaring—the point is of the utmost importance as indicating a change of view concerning the essence of poetry—that Pope was a great wit rather than a great poet, since the largest part of his work “is of the didactic, moral, and satiric ; and, consequently, not of the most poetic species of poetry ; whence it is manifest that good sense and judgment were his characteristical excellences rather than fancy and invention.” Lowell describes this essay as “the earliest public and official declaration of war against the reigning mode.” In the sense that it was the first open attack upon the great master of the reigning mode, this is correct. But ten years before, in his preface to a volume of poems published when the writer was only twenty-four, Warton had written in the same strain : “The public has been so much accustomed of late to didactic poetry alone, and essays on moral subjects, that any work where the imagination is much indulged, will perhaps not be relished or regarded. The author therefore of these pieces is in some pain lest certain austere critics should think them too fanciful or descriptive. But as he is convinced that the fashion of moralising in verse has been carried too far, and as he looks upon invention and imagination as the chief faculties of a poet, so he will be happy if the following odes may be looked upon as an attempt to bring back poetry into its right channel.” Indirectly, this is, of course, a challenge to the followers and admirers of Pope. From these utterances we learn that while a few poets at the time were more or less unconsciously experimenting in various kinds of poetry different in matter and manner from that to which Pope had given vogue, romantic criticism was making a preliminary attempt to formulate principles and outline a programme of its own. Without entering into details we may now see why the steady decline of Pope’s reputation during the second half of the eighteenth century, and the acceleration of that decline as the century ran its course, are facts of capital importance for the student of literary history. They are unmistakable signs of the rise of the new school of poetry. As we enter the nineteenth century we find the battle waxing hot about the claims, qualities, and position of this long-acknowledged master of English verse. In this battle nearly all the leading critics took part on one or the other side ; but the issue was the rout of the supporters of the Augustan tradition. Bowles’s severe strictures— the first shot in what has been called a “thirty years’ war”— drew forth the angry reply of Byron, the last of Pope’s “uncompromising devotees” ; but in Byron’s untempered eulogy “we already recognise the note of half-conscious exaggeration usual in the defenders of a no longer tenable cause.” With the triumph of the new school all along the line, the last vestiges of the eighteenth century superstition of Pope’s supremacy were destroyed, and Warton’s heterodoxy passed into the orthodox literary creed. Then, as Macaulay’s essay on Byron (1831) suffices to show, extravagant admiration gave place to depreciation almost, if not quite, as uncritical. “The time has gone by,” says a most judicial writer, “for Pope to be ranked among the master-geniuses of our literature.” From this judgment few would now dissent. Yet it is to be regretted that, as a consequence of such sweeping reaction, it is difficult to-day, as for many years past it has been difficult, to appreciate properly Pope’s many substantial merits. In 1756 he stood at the zenith of his fame, and Warton had to be cautious in calling attention to his defects. A hundred years later he was at his nadir, and men like Carruthers, Mark Pattison, and, more recently, Professor Courthope, have found it hard work to convince their public that there is anything deserving praise in him.
Other lines of inquiry running parallel to this, and throwing light repeatedly upon it, will naturally suggest themselves to the student of the same period of our literature. Let me indicate just one of these. Among the most important movements in English poetry during the eighteenth century are those which are known as the Spenserian and the Ballad Revivals. Both of these did much in helping to bring the romantic spirit back into our literature, while the latter also exercised a powerful concurrent influence in breaking down the Augustan ideals of poetic style, and spreading a taste for naturalness and simplicity. Now each revival was, as might be anticipated, accompanied by a great deal of critical theorising and discussion, out of which came here and there some work of real and permanent significance ; such as Thomas Warton’s Observations on the Faerie Queene, and (instructive if only on account of the editor’s timidity in introducing what proved to be an epoch-making work) Percy’s preface to his Reliques. If we want to gain a clear idea of what these two movements meant, therefore, it will be an excellent plan to consider carefully the praise and blame which they incurred, the help they received and the opposition which they encountered, the questions to which they gave rise, the controversies about literary principles and ideals which they precipitated, among the critics of the time.
It would be easy of course to multiply illustrations ; but enough has, I think, been said to make good the thesis that the history of criticism as a record of changing ideas concerning every aspect and quality of literature provides an almost indispensable supplement to, I may even go so far as to say a valuable commentary upon, the history of literary production. It is, in fact, to the history of criticism that we must often turn if we would discover the rationale of the changes which we have to follow in studying the history of literature.
Several general considerations of some importance may here be mentioned. Criticism, as I have said, has habitually been conservative; it has sought guidance mainly in the past ; it has rarely favoured experiments or new departures : its power has commonly been exercised to hamper and restrain. In every period of change, therefore, a struggle has of necessity arisen between the forces of production and those of criticism. This struggle is only one phase of the conflict which is ever going on in all departments of life and thought between liberty and authority, originality and tradition, individuality and rules, the old and the new. In literature as elsewhere, therefore, times of concentration and quiescence, during which the critical spirit predominates and men move only along well-beaten ways, alternate with times of expansion and adventure, during which the creative energy reasserts itself, and impatient genius goes forth in quest of “fresh woods and pastures new.” In literature, as elsewhere, too, while critical opinion always tends to harden into dogmatic creeds, the process is repeatedly interrupted by the rise and spread of heresies, which, denounced in one generation, become accepted tenets of orthodoxy in the next. And in literature as elsewhere, as we must not fail to remember, if the abuse of authority ends in despotism, liberty may too easily run into licence. Again and again history has proved that the best interests of literature have been subserved by open defiance of the critic’s “this will never do.” Yet the influence of Criticism as a controlling power is not therefore to be despised. If the critics had had their way, there would have been no Shakespearean drama and no Romantic movement. But, on the other hand, no one will deny that some of the conspicuous excesses which characterised both the Shakespearean drama and the Romantic movement might have been checked, and with much advantage, had more attention been paid to the rules of the critics.
It must, however, be borne in mind that, save in the way of restraint and guidance, criticism has played little part in the development of literature. It has seldom given any originative impulse or broken new ground. Occasionally a fresh movement has been accompanied or even preceded by a critical programme, as was to some extent the case with the Romantic movement in France. But generally creative genius leads the way, and criticism follows. Indeed, when this relation is reversed, the results are seldom very satisfactory, since literature written to order and in accordance with a definite code, is almost certain to be characterised by a certain quality of premeditation and strain. Even where a poet is critic as well as poet, it may be laid down as a general law that he works as a poet best when he works on the natural promptings of his genius, and without thought of illustrating any preconceived theory ; as such writers as Wordsworth, Matthew Arnold, and Walt Whitman may be cited to prove. In the general evolution of literature, therefore, criticism will be found habitually to lag behind production. Each new movement is likely at first to meet with more or less pronounced critical opposition. But by little and little, theory overtakes practice. Thus criticism gradually adjusts itself to the new ideas and principles ; and then it becomes one of the critic’s chief functions to draw them out and formulate them, to investigate their foundations, and to explain their meaning.
I have now indicated some of the main lines of inquiry which have to be followed in the methodical study of criticism, and some of the principal questions to be considered by the way. It remains for us to deal with the problem of the valuation of literature in its practical bearings.
Two facts stand out clearly. On the one hand, despite all modern theories as to the possibility of a purely ‘scientific’ kind of criticism in which no effort will be made to pass from interpretation to appraisement, judgment, universal in the past, must still be regarded as one of the proper functions of criticism. On the other hand, the results attained by the exercise of judgment have, on the whole, been so variable, uncertain, and inconclusive, that while its title cannot be impugned, its utility may well be called in question. In view of these facts we cannot be surprised if a very common idea about criticism comes somewhat to this—that every critic has of course a perfect right to hold his own opinion, and to do what lies in his power to persuade other people to agree with him ; but that as, in the words of one of Montaigne’s favourite mottoes, “to every opinion an opinion of equal weight may be opposed,” criticism as a whole has proved a mere “self-cancelling business,” and has accomplished little or nothing towards any final establishment of literary values. It is well enough to talk about a critic’s ‘judicial’ faculty. But, it may be asked, is a critic, strictly speaking, a judge? Is he not rather, and in the very nature of the case, an advocate?
We are thus brought round to the full significance of the contention, often urged, that all judgment in literature is, whether avowedly or not, necessarily personal in source and character.
Now, who shall arbitrate ?
Ten men love what I hate,
Shun what I follow, slight what I receive ;
Ten, who in ears and eyes
Match me ; we all surmise,
They, this thing, and I, that : whom shall my soul believe ?
If I express a certain view concerning the value of a book I have just been reading, this, it is said, is my view, and no more. If some one else expresses a view which absolutely contradicts mine, then we have only one person’s individual judgment set against another’s. If a third person intervenes in the discussion and agress with either or neither, he only adds one more individual judgment to increase the confusion. Now here, it may be argued, we have an illustration in little of the processes of criticism at large. “No two persons ever read the same book,” and each one can talk only of the book that he has read. The professional critic may pose in a judicial role, employ a technical language, and make a vast parade of principles, standards, and authorities. But as he can never escape from himself, his opinions, like those of the first man we may find airing his ignorance and philisti-nism in a railway carriage, may ultimately be traced back to a purely personal origin. And can criticism ever be redeemed from the charge of mere arbitrariness and caprice which thus vests upon it ? Can it ever be more than the registration and formal statement of tastes, likes, dislikes, which fluctuate with the critic’s changing moods, and depend on temperament, education, bias? De gustibus non est disputandum.
Among critics themselves there are not wanting those who take up the position that, however much principles and criteria may be invoked, whatever efforts may be made to eliminate the personal factor, all criticism is fundamentally subjective and impressionistic. Thus Mr. Andrew Lang declares that the only criticism worth reading is that which “narrates the adventures of an ingenious and educated mind in contact with masterpieces” ; and thus M. Anatole France insists that a lecturer on literature, if he were really honest, instead of using the time-honoured exordium— “Gentlemen, I am going to speak to you to-day about Pascal, or Racine, or Shakespeare,” should rather begin his discourse with the words—”Gentlemen, I am going to speak to you to-day about myself in relation to Pascal, or Racine, or Shakespeare.”
Here, undoubtedly, we come face to face with a real difficulty. Yet it must be observed that even if the extreme view so cleverly put by the brilliant Frenchman be accepted—even if, for the sake of argument, we decline, with him, to acknowledge the existence of any principles which are not mere products of individual taste, and may therefore be of service in controlling and guiding it—we are not necessarily committed to universal nihilism. Looking at the subject for the moment in the broadest possible way, we may fairly maintain that in the vast majority of cases there is an appreciable difference in value between judgment and judgment, for the simple reason that there is an appreciable difference in value between judge and judge. This, indeed, has already been made clear. Every man may be entitled to his own private opinion on questions of literature, as on all other subjects ; but there is no subject (and if there be, that subject is certainly not literature) on which one man’s opinion can be deemed as good as another’s. Mr Lang’s likes and dislikes in the matter of books may often seem to some of us a trifle whimsical and even perverse ; but they are always worthy of more consideration than those of the man in the street just because he is Mr. Lang and has “an ingenious and educated mind”; and we listen with greater attention to M. Anatole France when he talks of himself in relation to Pascal, or Racine or Shakespeare, than to some chance acquaintance who talks of himself in relation to the same theme, because, knowing M. France as we do, we feel assured to begin with that whatever he may have to tell us about his personal impressions will be marked by exceptional insight and sagacity. “As the object of poetry is to give pleasure,” wrote Lord Jeffrey in one of his essays on Scott, “it would seem to be a pretty safe conclusion, that that poetry must be the best which gives the greatest pleasure to the greatest number of readers”; after which the critic proceeded to argue (rather feebly it must be confessed) against what he called this ‘plausible’ proposition. But is any argument required to exhibit its absurdity ? Is it really in the least plausible ? A hundred persons may enjoy The Absent-Minded Beggar for one who enjoys Lycidas ; but would any one of the hundred have the temerity to draw the inference to which the suggested “safe conclusion” points ? No one, I think, would venture to apply the Benthamite maxim to matters of art ; no one would undertake seriously to contend that popularity is the final test of merit, or that a piece of literature, or a picture, or a musical composition, is to be estimated by its power of appeal to the uneducated multitude rather than to the educated few. It is reported that at the present time one of the most widelyread of English novelists is a certain manufacture of sporting stories, whose works are probably devoured by a public fifty times larger than that which knows and esteems The Egoist or The Ordeal of Richard Feverel. But is our confidence in the immeasurable superiority of Mr George Meredith in the least shaken ? On the contrary, our comment simply is—so much the worse for the fact. Those who emphasise most strongly the infinite variation of taste in regard to all aesthetic questions must therefore admit that the element of quality enters into the variation, and that a distinction is to be drawn between trained and untrained taste, between good taste and bad.
These considerations help to clear away some misapprehensions which certainly exist, and often crop up in conversation, about the problem of the valuation of literature. It is ture that they leave untouched the old difficulty of the differences in judgment among the experts themselves. To this we will return directly. One important point in connection with our own personal attitude to literature must first be made.
If I express a certain view as to the value of a book I have been reading, then—as I put it just now—it is sometimes argued that this is my view, and nothing more. In that view, it is, moreover, assumed, I must rest, and whatever importance it possesses only as an indication of one person’s individual taste. But here a question arises which at once puts this fact of individual taste under a fresh light. Is the opinion I have formed about the said book necessarily final, even for me ? Is it an opinion which I myself have to accept as, so far as I am concerned, completely satisfactory ? I say—I have enjoyed this book ; it has amused, pleased, touched me ; and there the matter ends. But does the matter end there ? Certainly not. As Sainte-Beuve pointed out, the real question to be examined is, not whether we have enjoyed a particular work of art, whether it has amused, pleased, touched us, but whether we were right in enjoying it, in being amused, pleased, touched by it. Beyond the question of our pleasure in a given piece of literature, there lies therefore the further question of the justification of that pleasure and the quality of it. We have our likes and dislikes, and these, when analysed, may be found to strike their roots so deep down into the subsoil of temperament, and to be so closely entangled with all the intellectual and moral elements which make up character, that to control them may seem difficult, to eradicate them, impossible. Yet which of us does not realise that there is a world of difference between liking or disliking a thing, and feeling satisfied that we ought to like or dislike it ? The majority of people think so lightly of their relations with the various forms of art, and are so apt to assume that their own immediate pleasure is for them the final criterion of value, that they will hardly pause to note the implication of the distinction. But once noted, they open up a wide field for consideration. We know perfectly well that when we pronounce judgment upon a book in terms only of our private likes and dislikes, and without making any attempt to transcend these, we are really passing judgment not so much upon the book as upon ourselves. In this case, then, M. Anatole France’s view of the significance of our judgment is entirely sound. But we know also, though it may require some courage to confess it, that in such judgment we often define our own limitations. Thus we may recognise the existence of great qualities in a given piece of literature even when we are unable to enjoy it ; indeed, it may frequently happen (and of this too we are all aware), that it is by reason of its great qualities that a piece of literature may fail to amuse, please, touch us—may even baffle and repel us ; for the enjoyment of greatness in art needs strenuous effort which, through indolence or apathy or want of preparation, we may be unwilling or unable to put forth ; and we may, therefore, prefer to rest among lower things—among the things which, because they are lower, give us less trouble to understand and enjoy. But if we think of literary culture as a matter of serious import in life, it is not among these lower things—these things which give us the least trouble—that we shall be content always to rest. Now, if we make a practice of looking back at what we have read, with the determination to detach ourselves from the feelings aroused at the time of reading, we shall find it possible to examine these feelings critically, to weigh them, and to decide whether we are satisfied that they were aroused with good cause, and whether the pleasure we have taken in a book was worthily taken in worthy things. A further test—a test proposed centuries ago by one of the earliest critics—may also be applied : if the longer we read a book the less we think of it, and if the effect it produces is “not sustained beyond the mere act of perusal,” then we may be certain that, however much we may have enjoyed it at the moment, it is after all a slight and trivial thing. The truth, which can never be too often repeated, will thus be brought home to us, that our personal pleasure is one thing and our estimate of our personal pleasure another. They may correspond ; but also, they may not ; and where they do not, it is clearly our duty to make a resolute and systematic attempt to over-rule the one by the other. To start with the assumption that we must take our likes and dislikes as we find them, and allow them, unchallenged, to dictate to us, is to negative in advance all hope of growth in critical power, insight, appreciation. In matters of literature as in all other matters, we stand in imperative need, as Mr. Bosanquet has said, of “training in enjoyment.” That to a certain extent we are bound to acknowledge the reality of some standards of value, even for us, outside of our own personal feelings and independent of them, is now evident. Our great aim must therefore be to read with these standards always in mind, to appreciate frankly our deficiencies and limitations, and by submitting ourselves patiently and wholeheartedly to the discipline of the things which we recognise as best worthy of our attention, however far they may, for the time being, seem to lie beyond us, to lift ourselves little by little towards their level, and so to educate ourselves in judgment and taste. Such self-culture in the enjoyment of literature is possible for those who will take themselves seriously in hand ; and no one who from experience has learned anything of the results will deny that, if the labour is often great, great also is the reward.
So much for this question of tastes and standards as it directly concerns ourselves. We have still to consider the problem, so frequently referred to already, of the continual and often astonishing differences in judgment which we find among the professed critics and arbiters of taste.
Thus far we have tacitly taken it for granted that the commonly accepted extreme view is correct and needs no qualification ; that criticism is a ‘self-cancelling business’ ; that its history is little more than a record of quarrels and contradictions, assertions and denials, standards set up only to be knocked down again. But is this really a fair statement of the facts ? Are the results attained by the exercise of judgment in literature quite so variable, uncertain, and inconclusive as they are often alleged to be and may at first sight appear ? The answer must be, that though the commonly accepted extreme view contains a great deal of truth, it does not by any means contain the whole truth. Nothing is easier than by a judicious selection of telling examples (and they may be found by the score) to make out a strong case against the utility of criticism. But it must never be forgotten that while the history of criticism does exhibit the strangest oppositions of taste and the most violent fluctuations of judgment even in regard to subjects of fundamental importance, it exhibits also from time to time a well-marked tendency among the critics to come to a substantial agreement on essential points, and here and there, even more notably, a long-standing and almost complete unanimity as to the significance and value of particular ‘masterpieces’ of literature. If divergences are picked out and made much of, agreement and unanimity, wherever they are found, must surely not be left out of account.
Let us try to understand exactly all that is implied by the existence in certain cases of a practical concensus of critical opinion.
I am, we will suppose, anxious to substantiate or correct the judgment which I have privately formed concerning a particular book, or perhaps, finding it difficult to form any judgment, I feel in need of help in coming to a decision regarding it. I therefore lend the book to half a dozen friends successively, asking each to give me honestly his own opinion upon it ; and in order to make my experiment as broad and searching as possible, I am careful to choose persons whose views I shall necessarily hold in respect, but whom I know to be most widely divergent in temperament, interests, ideas of life and literature, and training. Now the chances are that when my six reports come in, I shall find them almost hopelessly at variance with one another, and that therefore, though they may be of interest and assistance to me as expressions of individual tastes, they will have little value in any other way. But suppose that of the six readers who, according to our hypothesis, have studied the book from six very different points of view, and have brought six markedly different types of mind to bear upon it, five, though their reports may vary much in matters of detail, practically agree in their sense of its value, and lay their emphasis upon the same qualities of matter and treatment. In this case I shall feel, and rightly feel, that to some extent the element of mere personality and bias has been eliminated, and this feeling will grow stronger in proportion as the agreement is more and more close among those whose individual differences of taste are the most pronounced. As for the one dissentient, though, if it were a question of setting him individually against any one of the other five, I might hold his opinion at least equally worthy of my attention, the weight of the authority of the other five being against him, I shall most probably treat him merely as a dissentient, and perhaps at my leisure shall proceed to inquire into the grounds of his non-conformity. I have here, then, to work upon a general consensus of opinion where difference rather than agreement was to be looked for; and whether such opinion harmonises with my own or not, I shall accept it as a substantial indication of the real qualities of the book under consideration.
What is the moral of this suppositious case ? It is so clear that it hardly needs to be pointed out. The experiment which I have imagined to be made on a very small scale, has actually been made on an immense scale, and the general concensus of opinion among those who might be expected to disagree, which I have conceived as possible, has in sundry cases in fact been reached. In other words, in regard to the value of a certain amount of literature, we are neither left to the isolated judgments of individual authorities, speaking each only for himself, nor confounded by the contradictions of supporters of rival creeds. We have instead a practical concord among critics, not only of very different characters and education, but also of different nations, epochs and schools ; and against such general concord all occasional utterances of dissent, though often not to be ignored, avail but little. What is the inference ? Such literature has been tried repeatedly, and by the most various tests and standards, and under every fresh scrutiny it has only revealed some hitherto unperceived elements of strength and beauty. It has maintained its place amid the most sweeping fluctuations of taste. The rise and fall of critical dynasties have left it almost untouched. Its qualities, therefore, are no longer matters of mere personal opinion. Its greatness has been proved. For the secret of such stability and persistence, of such universal and permanent appeal, can be found only in essential greatness—in transcendent vitality and power.
We have, therefore, to recognise as one fact of capital importance in the history of literature what Hume describes as “the durable admiration which attends those works that have survived all the caprices of mode and fashion, all the mistakes of ignorance and envy.” The perennial life of the Iliad and the Odyssey may be cited in illustration. “The same Homer who pleased at Athens and Rome two thousand years ago, is still admired at Paris and at London. All the changes of climate, government, religion, and language, have not been able to obscure his glory.” These words were first published in 1742, and how completely our whole conception of literature in general and of Homer in particular has been transformed since then, is made clear if we remember that to us to-day Pope’s “drawing-room versions” of the Homeric poems seem almost like some eighteenth century travesty of the originals. Yet the declaration remains as true now as it was when Hume penned it. We may therefore read the Iliad and the Odyssey, or we may set them aside in favour of the last new novel, hot from the printing-press, the talk of the hour, and certain to be forgotten to-morrow ; if we read them, we may enjoy them or not as the case may be ; we may consult this critic and that, and discover multitudinous differences in detail in the opinions expressed ; we may make the most ample allowance for that academic bias which, as I have said, still leads a particular class of writers to attach an exaggerated importance to anything and everything that has come down to us from Greek and Latin antiquity. But one fact stands out. The imperishable interest of these poems furnishes overwhelming evidence of their real greatness and supremacy. And of the real greatness and supremacy of other bodies of literature—of the Greek drama, for example, and the plays of Shakespeare, and the work of Dante and Milton—we have similar evidence almost as overwhelming. These works then, so tried and so proved, we may accept as ‘classics’ ; for a ‘classic’ may be simply defined as a book which has stood the test of time, and by its stability and permanence, and the universality and persistency of its appeal, has given unmistakable assurance of immortal life.
A principle of the utmost significance in the valuation of literature is thus established—the principle of Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus. “In general,” as Longinus wrote, “we may regard those words as truly noble and sublime, which please all and please always. For where the same book produces the same impression on all who read it, whatever be the differences in their pursuits, their manner of life, their aspirations, their ages, or their language, such a harmony of opposites gives authority to their favourable opinion.”
I need not take space to show in what sense this principle of ‘catholicity’ has to be understood, and what qualifications have to be introduced into the statement of it in order to prevent any careless confusion of the truth on which it rests with the wholly false notion, already mentioned, that the value of literature can in the least degree be inferred from its popularity with certain classes of readers at any given time. One point, however, calls for special attention. A chief ‘note of catholicity’ in literature is, as we have now seen, its lasting power—its power of continued life. But this power of continued life depends upon qualities quite different from those which commonly ensure immediate general success. This fact has some important implications.
Throughout the whole range of life, as we all know, the struggle for existence results in the survival of what is fittest to survive. The persistence of any organism in this struggle is possible only through its capacity for adaptation to its environment ; where an organism fails to adapt itself to a changing environment, it perishes ; while the higher the organism the greater its power of adaptation to perpetually changing and increasingly complex surroundings. These are familiar biological truths, and I recall them now because of their bearing upon the problem of survival, and therefore of fitness, in literature. A book, like any other organism, succeeds in the first instance by reason of its adjustment to its conditions ; in other words, it succeeds by its power of interesting the particular body of readers to whom it is addressed ; and its immediate success is, of course, to be measured by the extent of the interest which it arouses. A book which enjoys an enormous vogue does so because, as we say, it hits the popular taste ; because, that is, for one or another reason, it falls in with and expresses the mood of the hour, deals with the things which people are thinking and talking about, and is in consequence exactly the kind of book for which the public is ready, and which it is most eager to read. But the adaptation which thus secures immediate success may be an adaptations only to conditions which are local and transitory. If so, then, when the mood has passed, when the things which people were thinking and talking about at the time have ceased to interest them, the book becomes obsolete ; they no longer read it, and very probably, if they concern themselves about it at all, they marvel greatly at the enthusiasm with which it was first received. Any piece of art which is merely timely must sooner or later perish of its timeliness, for having nothing in it which transcends the fashions from which it drew its nourishment, it inevitably dies with them. Thus the very causes which gave it a temporary popularity operate against its continued life. Such is the history of many books which have flourished for a season, but whose place a new generation knows no more. But there are other books which, as I have said, possess the power of surviving all changes of fashion, taste, and even civilisation. Why is this ? Because they are capable of continuous adjustment and re-adjustment to the ever-developing conditions of our moral and intellectual life. They had a message and meaning for their own age ; they have a message and meaning for us still. Such books may have been, in a large number of cases they undoubtedly were, in the narrowest sense of the word, timely. But they do not survive in virtue of their timeliness, but rather in despite of it ; for whatever they carry with them which belonged only to the place and time of their birth, is an obstacle to their endurance and not a help, though it was very probably a help to their first success. They survive because, however much they may originally have appealed to interests which in the nature of things could not but be local and transient, they contain elements which, now that these special interests are long since dead, have still the power to delight, move, inspire. And here, perhaps, the analogy between the phenomena of biology and those of literature partly fails. For the literature which survives all changes of fashion, taste, and civilisation does so, not so much because it actually adjusts itself to new modes of life, thought, and speech, as because in its essential composition it was from the outset adapted to what is primary, elemental, and uniform in human nature and experience, and therefore to conditions which persist, independent of place and time. It is certain that, save in a very few instances, such literature was produced by men whose thought was fixed, not upon posterity or the things which are permanent in life, but upon their own public and the facts and problems of the hour. To the making of such literature, therefore has always gone a large amount of purely local and temporary matter. But it is the peculiar mark of the books which are endowed with the secret of continuous life that in them even the local and temporary is so handled, and with such insight, and grasp, and power, that it is made to partake^of the significance of the universal and permanent. It has been said of Herodotus that he had the knack of taking interest in the things which have continued to interest people for twenty-three hundred years. This statement is true not only of the Father of History ; it is incontestably true of all those who have written books which live ; for it is just because their books deal with unrivalled insight, grasp and power, with the things which are universally and permanently interesting— with the experiences, motives, and passions, the struggles, joys and sorrows, which belong to the common foundations of human life, everywhere and at all time—that “age cannot wither” them “nor custom stale” their “infinite variety.” What is merely accidental in a great book—what appertains only to the trappings of life, to the circumstances and conditions of the age and society out of which it came—will interest us in it just as such things interest us in any other piece of literature. But when we penetrate beneath these we come upon the explanation of its enduring vitality in its wonderful adaptation to all that is most essential and stable in life at large. To measure the distance in everything but the essential and stable which separates us to-day from the Book of Job, the Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, the Homeric poems, the tragedies of Shakespeare, is to gain some sense at least of what it is in the world’s greatest literature which has lifted it above the reach of the destroying influences of time.
In the light of this somewhat protracted discussion of the problem of survival in literature, we ought to be able to understand the full meaning of the statement that there is a considerable amount of literature which we may regard as lying outside the region of personal opinion, and the greatness of which has been proved. To this statement we will now return since, as will doubtless have been anticipated, it provides us with a certain sure footing amid all questions and controversies concerning literary valuation.
The principal test of greatness in literature—that of its lasting power—is manifestly one which it must be left to time to apply. But meanwhile, what of the literature which has not yet been so tested ? We cannot venture to forecast the result of the sifting processes of the centuries, nor can we say with any degree of certitude how this or that now famous work may look when, like Shakespeare’s plays, it has stood the wear and tear of three hundred years. Only as we are able to step away from a piece of literature, and to see it in perspective, is it in the vast majority of cases possible to distinguish between essential interest and accidental interest, between the success which is merely timely and that which has in it the promise of endurance. It is difficult for us to conceive that what appeals intensely to us may not perhaps outlast our generation, for that which at the moment seems most vital will hardly fail to assume in our minds the characteristics of universality and permanence. In respect, then, of the literature which still lies near to us, and in respect especially of contemporary literature, we are necessarily left to ourselves and to the guidance, such as it is, offered by our critics. Yet let it be said emphatically that such literature—the literature which grows out of the life that we ourselves live, is fed by all the influences which belong to our surroundings, and deals with the facts and problems which directly concern us as creatures of our own place and time—must inevitably have an interest for us quite different from that possessed by even the greatest literature of the past, and in many ways much deeper and keener than this. The advice that when a new book is published we ought to read an old one, is therefore not advice that any of us need take seriously. No man can properly be said to belong to his own generation who is not eager to keep abreast of its literature. Even the books which, as we may feel assured, are of merely ephemeral significance, may thus often have a real claim upon our attention. Nonetheless, entirely justified as is our interest in all kinds of contemporary literature, since that literature is enormous in quantity and of varying degrees of excellence, and since, moreover, every reader should regard it as part of his duty to encourage what is good and discourage what is bad, it is of fundamental importance that we should read “the new works of new days” with a constant sense of relative values, and a desire always to discriminate so far as possible between what is genuine and what is factitious.
And here, as I believe, a knowledge of the ‘classics’ may be of practical help to us. If in them we have recognised examples of literary greatness in various forms, and if therefore they admittedly possess a certain rank and authority, we ought to be able to use them as standards of comparison. By this I do not in the least mean that we should seek to employ them in the narrow, pedantic, and inflexible way in which the Greek and Latin classics were employed by the academic critics of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Nor do I propose that we should try to make systems and rules out of them. Above all, I do not suggest that we should invoke them to check originality, hamper experiment, or define in advance the lines which the literature of our own time should or should not follows. To imply that even the greatest things of the past are to be set apart as models for the present and the future would be against the whole drift and spirit of my argument throughout this chapter. The literature which really counts, as I have more than once insisted, is the literature which is made, not out of other literature, but out of life ; and for a living literature no models will suffice. If, therefore, on the one hand, we must never allow ourselves to be misled into exaggerated estimates of contemporary productions by the noisy approbation of the general public or the injudicious praise of reckless reviewers, on the other hand we must not fall into the opposite error of supposing that all the great work in literature has been done, that there can be no new prophet in our own generation and country, and that the acknowledged masterpieces of bygone ages spell finality. What I mean, and all that I mean, by saying that we can use these acknowledged masterpieces as standards of comparison, is this : as their qualities are not matters of speculation, but, as we believe, of fact—as their greatness has been proved—we can by analysis of them discover something at least of what constitutes essential greatness, power, and beauty in literature, and can utilise the knowledge so gained in a practical way in our examination of the merits and defects of other pieces of literature belonging to the same general class. We are thus brought back to a point already made—that a thorough and comprehensive acquaintance with the world’s greatest work in poetry, the drama, and fiction may safely be postulated as indispensable for any one who would undertake to pass judgment upon, or, as we may now add, would seek to appreciate the real qualities of, any poem, or play, or novel. In this work of comparison we shall seldom, in all probability, be able to proceed by any formal methods, nor is it necessary that we should try to do so. Our interest is in the spirit, and not in the letter ; and it is enough for us to know that familiarity with great and good literature will quicken in us an instinctive feeling for what is great and good, wherever we may meet with it, and in whatever new forms it may be embodied. Matthew Arnold’s theory of the use of “touchstones” of poetry—of selected lines and passages by which to try “the presence or absence of high poetic quality, and also the degree of that quality, in all other poetry which we may place beside them”—will probably seem to most readers, as it seems to me, rather fantastic and unconvincing. But the underlying idea is incontestably sound and fruitful. It is not by abstract theorisings about power and beauty, about standards and tests, but by simply living as much as possible, and as sympathetically as possible, with the best that the world’s literature has to give us, that our taste will be attuned to excellence, and our judgment trained for its appreciation.
Difficult as this whole question of the valuation of literature admittedly is, and superficial as our present treatment of it has necessarily been, it may still be hoped that we may now close upon certain positive results. An admirable French exponent of the doctrine of discipline in art, M. Nisard, in the spirit of extreme revulsion from the anarchy threatened by the spread of mere impressionism, once asserted that the true purpose of criticism is to free literature from the tyranny of the notion that there is no disputing about tastes. There is not the slightest ground for hope that this purpose will ever be completely achieved. Criticism cannot be reduced to a science ; it cannot be made into “a sort of botany applied to the works of man.” We talk, with Arnold, about “seeing the thing as it really is.” But this is only a fashion of speech. To see the thing as it really is, is impossible ; for we can see it only in our own minds ; and since our minds are “steeped and infused in the humours of the affections,” we can see it only through the atmosphere of our own temperaments and characters. We can clear away the mists of prejudice ; we can make due allowance for predisposition ; we can do a great deal of correct bias. But that is all. Literature grows out of personality, and addresses itself to personality. It deals with many subjects in many forms. It is of its very essence that it should enlist sympathy, stir feeling, arouse passion. Thus it appeals to variable elements, and variation must inevitably characterise our response to it. From this conclusion there is no escape. We cannot eliminate the individual factor from criticism, and the differences which arise from the play of many minds upon the same phenomena must be accepted as matters of course. I see no reason to regret this ; rather am I glad that a colourless uniformity in literary appreciation is never likely to be reached. Yet though in the last analysis we are thus thrown back upon our own taste and judgment, the great fact remains that to a large extent, I would venture to say to an extent quite incalculable, taste may be trained and judgment controlled, disciplined, and directed. Thus in our own relations with the problem of literary valuation, we have, after all, a principle of practice to start with, and to this we shall certainly look for illumination and guidance, if we desire to make our study of literature of the utmost possible service to us as a means both of enjoyment and of life.