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CRITICISM is a valuation of forces, and it is indifferent to their direction. It is concerned with them only as force, and it is concerned only with force in its kind and degree.
The aim of criticism is to distinguish what is essential in the work of a writer ; and in order to do this, its first business must be to find out where he is different from all other writers. "It is the delight of the critic to praise ; but praise is scarcely a part of his duty. He may often seem to find himself obliged to condemn; yet condemnation is hardly a necessary part of his office. What we ask of him is, that he should find out for us more than we can find out for ourselves : trace what in us is a whim or leaning to its remote home or centre of gravity, and explain why we are affected in this way or that way by this or that writer. He studies origins in effects, and must know himself, and be able to allow for his own mental and emotional variations, if he is to do more than give us the records of his likes and dis- likes. He must have the passion of the lover, and be enamoured irof every form of beauty; and, like the lover, not of all equally,
but with a general allowance of those least to his liking. He will do well to be not without a touch of intolerance : that intolerance which, in the lover of the best, is an act of justice against the second-rate. The second-rate may perhaps have some reason for existence : that is doubtful ; but the danger of the secondrate, if it is accepted "on its own merits," as people say, is that it may come to be taken for the thing it resembles, as a wavering image in water resembles the rock which it reflects.
Dryden, a poet who was even greater as a critic than as a poet, said, “True judgment in poetry, like that in painting, takes a view of the whole together, whether it be good or not; and where the beauties are more than the faults, concludes for the poet against the little judge." Here, in this decision, as to the
proportions of merit and demerit in a work, is the critic's firsı task; it is one that is often overlooked by careful analysts, care per less of what substance they are analysing. What has been called by the historical method is responsible for a great deal of these post. st mortem dissections. How often do we not see learned persons engaged in this dismal occupation, not even conscious that they w are fumbling among the bones and sinews of the dead. Such a critics will examine the signs of life with equal gravity in living in insignificances. But to the true critic a living insignificance is already dead.
And so, as in a dead man all the virtues go for nothing, no s merit, no number of merits, of a secondary kind, in a writer who has been adjudged “not to exist," can avail anything. The critic concerns himself only with such as do exist. One of these, it may be, exists for a single book out of many books, a single » poem out of many volumes of verse ; an essay, an epigram, the preface to a book, a song out of a play. No perfect thing is too * small for eternal recollection. But there are other writers who, be though they have never condensed all their quality into any quite final achievement, live by a kind of bulk, live because there is in them something living, which refuses to go out. It is in his tho judgment of these two classes of writers, the measure of his skill wh in finding vital energy concentrated or diffused, in a cell or Ba throughout an organism, that the critic is most likely to show si his own quality. Charles Lamb is one of the greatest critics of " Shakespeare, but the infallibility of his instinct as a critic is on shown, not so much when he writes better about Lear than any one had ever written about Lear, but when he reveals to us, for the first time, the secret of Ford, the mainspring of Webster.
Criticism, when it is not mere talk about literature, concerns itself with the first principles of human nature and with fundamental ideas. There is a quite valuable kind of critic to whom a book is merely a book, who is interested in things only as they become words, in emotions only as they add fine raptures to printed pages.
To such critics we owe rules and systems; when they tabulate or clucidate metre or any principle of form they are doing a humble but useful service to artists. Their comments on books are often pleasant reading, sometimes turning into a kind of literature, essays, which we are content to read for their own charm. But there is hardly anything idler than literary
si criticism which is a mere describing and comparing of books, a ce mere praise and blame of this and that writer and his work. ed When Coleridge writes a criticism of Shakespeare, he is giving Et us his deepest philosophy, in a manner in which we can best ens apprehend it. Criticism with Goethe is part of his view of the ey world, his judgment of human nature, and of society. With ch Pater, criticism is quickened meditation ; with Matthew Arnold, og a form of moral instruction or mental satire. Lamb said in his is criticism more of what he had to say of “what God and man is,"
with more gravity and more intensity, than in any other part of no his work.
And thus it is that, while there is a great mass of valuable he criticism done by critics who were only critics, the most valuable
criticism of all, the only quite essential criticism, has been done le by creative writers, for the most part poets. The criticism of a be philosopher, Aristotle's, comes next to that of the poets, but is do never that winged thing which criticism, as well as poetry, can O, be in the hands of a poet. Aristotle is the mathematician of te criticism, while Coleridge is the high priest. in When Dryden said “poets themselves are the most proper, is though, I conclude, not the only critics,” he was stating a fact ill which many prose persons have tried, though vainly, to dispute. o Baudelaire, in a famous passage of his essay on Wagner, has w said with his invariable exactitude, “ It would be a wholly new of event in the history of the arts if a critic were to turn himself
into a poet, a reversal of every psychic law, a monstrosity; on In the other hand, all great poets become naturally, inevitably, to critics. I pity the poets who are guided solely by instinct ; they of seem to me incomplete. In the spiritual life of the former there
must come a crisis when they would think out their art, discover the obscure laws in consequence of which they have produced,
and draw from this study a series of precepts whose divine purà pose is infallibility in poetic production. It would be impossible ay
for a critic to become a poet, and it is impossible for a poet not
to contain a critic." And in England we have had few good en poets who have not on occasion shown themselves good critics. ey
What is perhaps strange is, that they have put some of their
criticism into verse, and made it into poetry. From the days 778
when Lydgate affirmed of Chaucer that “he of English in For making was the best,” to the days when Landor declared of ry
"Since Chaucer was alive and hale,
down, indeed, to the present days, when Swinburne has repaid Landor all his praise of poets, almost every English poet has been generously just to his contemporaries, and almost every poet has found the exact word of definition, of revelation, which the prose critics were laboriously hunting for, or still more laboriously writing round. To take a single example, could any. thing be more actually critical, in the severest sense of the word, than these lines of Shelley on Coleridge, lines which are not less admirable as verse than as criticism?
“You will see Coleridge ; he who sits obscure
In the exceeding lustre and the pure
A hooded eagle among blinking owls." Those seven lines are not merely good criticism : they are final ; they leave nothing more to be said. Criticism, at such a height, is no longer mere reasoning ; it has the absolute sanction of in. tuition.
And, it will be found, the criticism of poets, not only such as is expressed, deliberately or by the way, in verse, but such as is set down by them in essays, or in letters, however carefully or casually, remains the most valuable criticism of poetry which we can get; and, similarly, the opinion of men of genius on their own work and on their own form of art, whatever it may be, is of more value than all the theories made by “little judges.” The occasional notes and sayings of such men as Blake and Rossetti are often of more essential quality than their more ordered and elaborate comments. The essence they contain is undiluted. They are what is remembered over from a state of inspiration and they are to be received as reports are received from eye. witnesses, whose honesty has already proved itself in authentic deeds.
The Biographia Literaria is the greatest book of criticism in English, and one of the most annoying books in any language.