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them. Though the poet cannot make us witnesses of the future recompense of that virtue, which here struggles and suffers, he can cause us to feel, in the midst of its very struggles and sufferings, that it is eternal. He makes the principle of immortality manifest in the meek submission, in the deadly wrestle with fate, and even in the mortal agonies of his noblest characters. What, in true dignity, does virtue lose by the pangs which its clay tenement endures, if we are made conscious of its high prerogatives, though we do not actually behold the immunities which shall ultimately be its portion? Hereafter it may be rewarded; but now it is triumphant. We require no dull epilogue to tell us, that it shall be crowned in another and happier state of being; for our souls gush with admiration and sympathy with it, amidst its sorrows. We love it, and burn to imitate it, for its own loveliness, not for its gains. Surely it is a higher aim of the poet to awaken this emotion—to inspire us with the awe of goodness, amidst its deepest external debasements, and to make us almost desire to share in them, than to invite us to partake in her rewards, and to win us by a calculating sympathy. The hovel or the dungeon does not, in the pictures of a genuine poet, give the colouring to the soul which inhabits it, but receives from its majesty a consecration beyond that of temples, and a dignity statelier than that of palaces. For it is his high prerogative to exhibit the spiritual part of man triumphant over that about him, which is mortal—to show, in his far-reaching hope, his moveless constancy, his deep and disinterested affections, that there is a spirit within him, which death cannot destroy. Low, indeed, is the morality which aspires to affect men by nothing beyond the poor and childish lesson, that to be virtuous is to be happy. Virtue is no dependant on earthly expediencies for its excellence. It has a beauty to be loved, as vice has a deformity to be abhorred, which are unaffected by the consequences experienced by their votaries. Do we admire the triumph of vice, and scoff at goodness, when we think on the divine Clarissa, violated, imprisoned, heart-broken, dying? Must Parson Adams receive a mitre, to assure us that we should love him 1 Our best feelings and highest aspirations are not yet of so mercantile a cast as those who contend for “poetical justice” would imagine. The mere result, in respect of our sympathies, is as nothing. The only real violation of poetical justice is in the violation of nature in the clothing. When, for example, a wretch, whose trade is murder, is represented as cherishing the purest and the deepest love for an innocent being—when chivalrous delicacy or sentiment is conferred on a pirate, tainted with a thousand crimes—the effect is immoral, whatever doom may, at last, await him. If the barriers of virtue and of evil are melted down by the current of spurious sympathy, there is no catastrophe which can remove the
mischief; and while these are preserved in our
feelings, there is none which can truly harm us. The critics of the age of Dennis held a mid
time, and their living successors. The men who first exercised the art of criticism, imbued with personal veneration for the loftiest works of genius, sought to deduce rules from them, which future poets should observe. They did not assume the right of passing individual judgments on their contemporaries—nor did they aim at deciding even abstract questions of taste on their own personal authority—but attempted, by fixing the laws of composition, to mark out the legitimate channels in which the streams of thought, passion, and sentiment, should be bounded through all ages. Their dogmas, therefore, whether they contained more or less of truth, carried with them no extrinsic weight, were influenced by no personal feelings, excited no personal animosities, but simply appealed, like poetry itself, to those minds which alone could give them sanction. In the first critical days of England—those of the Rymers and the Dennises—the professors of the art began to regard themselves as judges, not merely of the principles of poetry, but of their application by living authors. Then commenced the arrogance on the side of the supervisors, and the impatience and resentment on that of their subjects, which contemporary criticism necessarily inspires. The worst passions of man are brought into exercise in reference to those pure and ennobling themes, which should be sacred from all low contentions of “the ignorant present time.” But the battle was, at least, fair and open. The critic still appealed to principles, however fallacious or imperfect, which all the world might examine. His decrees had no weight, independent of his reasons, nor was his name, or his want of one, esteemed of magical virtue. He attacked the poets on equal terms—sometimes, indeed, with derision and personal slander—but always as a foe to subdue, not as a judge to pass sentence on them. Criticism, in our own times, has first assumed the air of “sovereign sway and masterdom” over the regions of fantasy. Its professors enforce, not established laws, contend no longer for principles, attack poets no more with chivalrous zeal, as violating the cause of poetic morals, or sinning against the regularities of their art. They pronounce the works, of which they take cognisance, to be good or bad—often without professing to give any reason for their decision—or referring to any standard, more fixed or definite than their own taste, partiality, or prejudice. And the public, without any knowledge of their fitness for their office— without even knowing their names—receive them as the censors of literature, the privileged inspectors of genius ! This strange supremacy of criticism, in our own age, gives interest to the investigation of the claims which the art itself possesses to the respect and gratitude of the people. If it is, on the whole, beneficial to the world, it must either be essential to the awakening of genius—or necessary to direct its exertions—or useful in repressing abortive and mistaken efforts—or conducive to the keeping alive and fitly guiding admiration to the good and great. On each of these grounds, we shall now very
dle course between their predecessors of old, briefly examine its value.
1. It is evident, that the art of criticism is As criticism had no share in producing the not requisite to the development of genius, be- | Homeric poems, so also did it contribute nocause, in the golden ages of poetry it has had thing to the perfection of the Greek tragedies. no portion. Its professors have never even | For those works—the most complete and constructed the scaffolding to aid the erection highly finished, if not the most profound, of all of the cloud-capped towers and solemn tem- human creations—there was no more previous ples of the bard. By his facile magic he has warrant, than for the wildest dream of fantasy. called them into existence, like the palace of No critic fashioned the moulds in which those Aladdin, as complete in the minutest graces exquisite groups were cast, or inspired them of finishing as noble in design. Long before with Promethean life. They were struck off the art of criticism was known in Greece, her in the heat of inspiration—the offspring of rhapsodists had attained the highest excellen-' moments teeming for immortality—though the cies of poetry. No fear of a critic's scorn, no slightest limb of each of the figures is finished desire of a critic's praise, influenced these as though it had been the labour of a life. consecrated wanderers. Nature alone was
their model, their inspirer, and their guide.
delicate branchings of the grove, reflected in profitless scrutinies.
the calm waters, imbued them with a perception of elegance beyond the reach of art. No pampered audiences thought themselves entitled to judge them : to analyze their powers; to descant on their imperfections; to lament their failures; or to eulogize their sublimities, as those who had authority to praise. Their hearers dwelt on their accents with rapturous wonder, as nature's living oracles. They wandered through the everywhere communicating joy, and everywhere receiving reverence—exciting in youth its first tearful ecstasy, and kindling fresh enthusiasm amidst the withered affections of age. They were revered as the inspired chroniclers of heroic deeds— the inspirers of national glory and virtue—the depositories of the mysteries and the philosophic wisdom of times which even then were old. They trusted not to paper or the press for the preservation of their fame. They were contented, that each tree beneath which they had poured forth their effusions, should be loved for their sake—that the forked promontory should bear witness of them—and the “brave o'erhanging firmament, fretted with golden fire,” tell of those who had first awakened within the soul a sense of its glories. Their works were treasured up nowhere but in the soul—spread abroad only by the enthusiasm of kindred reciters—and transmitted to the children of other generations, while they listened with serious faces to the wondrous tales of their fathers. Yet these poems, so produced, so received, so preserved, were not only instinct with heavenly fire, but regular as the elaborate efforts of the most polished ages. In these products of an era of barbarism, have future bards not only found an exhaustless treasury of golden imaginations, but critics have discovered all those principles of order which they would establish as unalterable laws. The very instances of error and haste in their authors have been converted into figures of rhetoric, by those men, who represent nature herself as irregular and feeble, and a minute attention to rules as essential to the perfection of genius.
The rocks and
These eternal works were complete—the spirit
divine,” may choose modes of composition
unsuited to the most appropriate display of his powers;–his images may not be disposed in the happiest arrangement, or may be clustered around subjects, in themselves, dreary or mean, but these fantasies must be in themselves harmonious, or they would not be beauteous, would not be imaginations. Genius is a law unto itself. Its germs have, within them, not only the principles of beauty, but the very form which the flower in its maturity must expand. As a wavy gleam of fire rises from the spark, in its own exquisite shape, so does imagination send forth its glories, perfect by the felicitous necessity of their nature, exquisite in form by the same impulse which gives them brightness and fervour. But how can the critic, in reality, acquire any jurisdiction over the genuine poet? Where are the lines by which he can fathom the depths of the soul; where the instrument by which he can take the altitude of “the highest heaven of invention ?” How can he judge of thoughts which penetrate the mysteries of humanity, of fancies which “in the colours of the rainbow live, and play in the plighted clouds,” of anticipations and foretastes by which the bard already “breathes in worlds, to which the heaven of heavens is but a veil 1" Can he measure a sunbeam, or constrain a cloud, or count the steps of the bounding stag of the forest, to judge whether they are grace
ful? Has he power even to define those gigantic shadows reflected on the pure mirror of the poet's imagination, from the eternal things which mortal eyes cannot discern ? At best, he can but reason from what has been to what should be; and what can be more absurd than this course in reference to poetic invention? A critic can understand no rules of criticism except what existing poetry has taught him. There was no more reason, after the production of the Iliad, to contend that future poems should in certain points resemble it, than there was before the existence of that poem to lay down rules which would prevent its being what it is. There was antecedently no more probability that the powers of man, harmoniously exerted, could produce the tale of Troy divine, than that, after it, the same powers would not produce other works equally marvellous and equally perfect, yet wholly different in their colouring and form. The reasons which would prevent men from doing any thing unlike it, would also have prevented its creation, for it was doubtless unlike all previous inventions. Criticism can never be prospective, until the resources of man and nature are exhausted. Each new world of imagination revolves on itself, in an orbit of its own. Its beauties create the taste which shall relish them, and the very critics which shall extol their proportions. The first admirers of Homer had no conception that the Greek tragedies would start into life and become lasting as their idol. Those who lived after the times when these were perfected, asserted that no dramas could be worthy of praise, which were not fashioned according to their models and composed of similar materials. But, after a long interval, came Shakspeare—at first, indeed, considered by many as barbarous and strange—who, when his real merits are perceived, is felt to be, at the least, equal to his Greek predecessors, though violating every rule drawn from their works. Even in our short remembrance, we can trace the complete abolition of popular rules of criticism, by the new and unexpected combinations of genius. A few years ago, it was a maxim gravely asserted by Reviews, Treatises, and Magazines, that no interesting fiction could effectively be grafted on history. But “mark how a plain tale” by the author of Waverley “puts down” the canon for ever! In fact, unless with more than angel's ken a critic could gaze on all the yet unpossessed regions of imagination, it is impossible that he should limit his discoveries which yet await the bard. He may perceive, indeed, how poets of old have by their magic divided the clouds which bound man's ordinary vision, and may scan the regions which they have thus opened to our gaze. But how can he thus anticipate what future bards may reveal—direct the proportions, the colours and the forms, of the realities which they shall unveil—fix boundaries to regions of beauty yet unknown; determine the height of their glory-stricken hills; settle the course of their mighty waters; or regulate the visionary shapes of superhuman grace, which shall gleam in the utmost distance of their far perspectives? 3. But it may be urged, that criticism is
useful in putting down the pretensions of those who aspire, without just claim, to the honours of genius. This, indeed, in so far as it is unfavourable, is its chief object in modern times. The most celebrated of literary tribunals takes as the motto of its decrees, “Judex damnatur cum nocens absolvitur;" assuming that to publish a dull book is a crime, which the public good requires should be exposed, whatever laceration of the inmost soul may be inflicted on the offender in the process. This damnatory principle is still farther avowed in the following dogma of this august body, which deserves to be particularly quoted as an explicit declaration of the spirit of modern criticism : “There is nothing of which nature has been more bountiful than poets. They swarm like the spawn of the cod-fish, with a vicious fecundity that invites and requires destruction To publish verses is become a sort of evidence that a man wants sense; which is repelled, not by writing good verses, but by writing excellent verses;–by doing what Lord Byron has done;—by displaying talents great enough to overcome the disgust which proceeds from satiety, and showing that all things may become new under the reviving touch of genius.” —Ed. Rev., No. 43, p. 68. It appears to us, that the crime and the evil denounced in this pregnant sentence are entirely visionary and fantastic. There is no great danger, that works without talent should usurp the admiration of the world. Splendid error may mislead; vice linked to a radiant angel, by perverted genius, may seduce; and the union of high energy with depravity of soul may teach us to respect where we ought to shudder. But men will not easily be dazzled by insipidity, enchanted by discord, or awed by weakness. The mean and base, even if left to themselves unmolested, will scarcely grow immortal by the neglect of the magnanimous and the wise. He who cautions the public against the admiration of feeble productions, almost equals the wisdom of a sage, who should passionately implore a youth not imprudently to set his heart on ugliness and age. And surely our nerves are not grown so finely tremulous, that we require guardians who may providently shield us from glancing on a work which may prove unworthy of perusal. It is one high privilege of our earthly lot, that the best pleasures of humanity are not balanced by any painful sensations arising from their contraries. We drink in joy too deep for expression, when we penetrate the vast solitudes of nature, and gaze on her rocky fortresses, her eternal hills, her regions “consecrate to eldest time.” But we feel no answering agony while we traverse level and barren plains; especially if we can leave them at pleasure.—Thus, while we experience a thrilling delight, in thinking on the divinest imaginations of the poet, we are not plunged, by the dullest author, into the depths of sorrow. At all events, we can throw down the book at once; and we must surely be very fastidious if we do not regard the benefit conferred on printers and publishers, and the gratification of the author's innocent and genial vanity, as amply compensating the slight labour which we have taken in vain.
But, perhaps, it is the good of the aspirants themselves, rather than of their readers, which the critic professes to design. Here, also, we think he is mistaken. The men of our generation are not too prone to leave their quest after the substantial blessings of the world, in order to pursue those which are aërial and shadowy. The very error of the mind, which takes the love for the power of poetry, is more goodly than common wisdom. But there are certain seasons, we believe, in life—some few golden moments at least—in which all men have really perceived, and felt, and enjoyed, as poets. Who remembers not an hour of serious ecstasy, when, perhaps, as he lay beneath some old tree and gazed on the setting sun, earth seemed a visionary thing, the glories of immortality were half revealed, and the first notes a universal harmony whispered to his soul ?—some moment, when he seemed almost to realize the eternal, and could have been well contented to yield up his mortal being?—some little space, populous of high thoughts and disinterested resolves—some touch upon that “line of limitless desires,” along which he shall live in a purer sphere? —And if that taste of joy is not to be renewed on earth, the soul will not suffer by an attempt to prolong its memory. It is a mistake, to suppose that young beginners in poetry are always prompted by a mere love of worldly fame. The sense of beauty and the love of the ideal, if they do not draw all the faculties into their likeness, still impart to the soul something of their rich and unearthly colouring. Young fantasy spreads its golden films, slender though they be, through the varied tenour of existence. Imagination, nurtured in the opening of life, though it be not developed in poetic excellence, will strengthen the manly virtue, give a noble cast to the thoughts, and a generous course to the sympathies. It will assist to crush self-love in its first risings, to mellow and soften the heart, and prepare it for its glorious destiny. Even if these consequences did not follow, surely the most exquisite feelings of young hope are not worthy of scorn. They may truly be worth years of toil, of riches, and of honour. Who would crush them at a venture—short and uncertain as life is—and cold and dreary as are often its most brilliant successes? What, indeed, can this world offer to compare with the earliest poetic dreams, which our modern critics think it sport or virtue to destroy?
“Such views the youthful bard allure,
He deems their colours shall endure Till peace go with him to the tomb.
And let hum nurse his fond deceit, And what if he must die in sorrow:— Who would not cherish dreams so sweet, Though care and grief should come to-morrow?” But, supposing for a moment that it were really desirable to put down all authors who do not rise into excellence, at any expense of personal feeling, we must not forget the risk which such a process involves, of crushing undeveloped genius. There are many causes
which may prevent minds, gifted with the richest faculties, from exerting them at the first with success. The very number of images, crowding on the mirror of the soul, may for a while darken its surface, and give the idea of inextricable confusion. The young poet's holiest thoughts must often appear to him too sacred to be fully developed to the world. His soul will half shrink at first from the disclosure of its solemn immunities and strange joys. He will thus become timid and irresolute —tell but a slight part of that which he feels— and this broken and disjointed communication will appear senseless or feeble. The more deep and original his thoughts—the more dazzling his glimpses into the inmost sanctuaries of nature, the more difficult will be the task of imbodying these in words, so as to make them palpable to ordinary conceptions. He will be constantly in danger, too, in the fervour of his spirit, of mistaking things which in his mind are connected with strains of delicious musing, for objects, in themselves, stately or sacred. The seeming commonplace, which we despise, may be to him the index to pure thoughts and far-reaching desires. In that which to the careless eye may seem but a little humble spring—pure, perhaps, and sparkling, but scarce worthy of a glance— the more attentive observer may perceive a depth which he cannot fathom, and discover that the seeming fount is really the breaking forth of a noble river, winding its consecrated way beneath the soil, which, as it runs, will soon bare its bosom to the heavens, and glide in a cool and fertilizing majesty. And is there not some danger that souls, whose powers of expression are inadequate to make manifest their inward wealth, should be sealed for ever by the hasty sentences of criticism The name of Lord Byron is rather unfortunately introduced by the celebrated journal which we have quoted, into its general denunciation against youthful poets. Surely the critics must for the moment have forgotten, that at the outset of the career of that bard, to whose example they now refer, as most illustriously opposed to the mediocrity which they condemn, they themselves poured contempt on his endeavours! Do they now wish that he had taken their counsel ? Are they willing to run the hazard, for the sake of putting down a thousand pretenders a few months before their time, of crushing another power such as they esteem his own Their very excuse—that, at the time, his verses were all which they had adjudged them—is the very proof of the impolicy of such censures. If the object of their scorn has, in this instance, risen above it, how do we know that more delicate minds have not sunk beneath it? Besides, although Lord Byron was not repelled, but rather excited by their judgment, he seems to have sustained from it scarcely less injury. If it stung him into energy, it left its poison in his soul. It first instigated his spleen;–taught him that spirit of scorn which debases the noblest faculties—and impelled him, in his rage, to attack those who had done him no wrong, to scoff at the sanctities of humanity, and to pretend to hate or deride his species:
And, even if genius is too deep to be suppressed, or too celestial to be perverted, is it nothing that the soul of its possessor should be wrung with agony! For a while, criticism may throw back poets whom it cannot annihilate, and make them pause in their course of glory and of joy, “confounded though immortal.” Who can estimate those pangs, which on the “purest spirits” are thus made to prey
“as on entrails, joint, and limb,
The heart of a young poet is one of the most sacred things on earth. How nicely strung are its fibres—how keen its sensibilities—how shrinking the timidity with which it puts forth its gentle conceptions ! And shall such a heart receive rude usage from a world which it only desires to improve and to gladden 4 Shall its nerves be stretched on the rack, or its apprehensions turned into the instruments of its torture? All this, and more, has been done towards men of whom “this world was not worthy.” Cowper, who, first of modern poets, restored to the general heart the feeling of healthful nature—whose soul was without one particle of malice or of guile—whose susceptible and timorous spirit shrunk tremblingly from the touch of this rough world—was chilled, tortured, and almost maddened, by some nameless critic's scorn. Kirke White— the delicate beauties of whose mind were destined scarcely to unfold themselves on earth— in the beginning of his short career, was cut to the heart by the cold mockery of a stranger. A few sentences, penned, perhaps, in mere carelessness, almost nipped the youngblossoms of his genius “like an untimely frost;” palsied for awhile all his faculties—imbittered his little span of life—haunted him almost to the verge of his grave, and heightened his dying agonies! Would the annihilation of all the dulness in the world compensate for one moment's anguish inflicted on hearts like these ?
We have been all this time considering not the possible abuses, but the necessary tendencies, of contemporary criticism. All the evils we have pointed out may arise, though no sinister design pervert the Reviewer's judgment—though no prejudice, even unconsciously, warp him—and, even, though he may decide fairly “from the evidence before him.” But it is impossible that this favourable supposition should be often realized in an age like ours. Temper, politics, religion, the interests of rival poets, or rival publishers—a thousand influences, sometimes recognised, and sometimes only felt—decide the sentence on imaginations
the most divine. The very trade of the critic himself—the necessity of his being witty, or brilliant, or sarcastic, for his own sake—is sufficient to disqualify him as a judge. Sad thought !—that the most sensitive, and gentle, and profound of human beings, should be dependent on casual caprice, on the passions of a bookseller, or on the necessities of a period! 4. It may be perceived, from what we have already written, that we do not esteem criticism as a guide more than as a censor. The general effect on the public mind is, we fear, to dissipate and weaken. It spoils the freshest charms even of the poetry which it praises. It destroys all reverence for great poets, by making the world think of them as a species of culprits, who are to plead their genius as an excuse for their intrusion. Time has been when the poet himself—instead of submitting his works to the public as his master—called around him those whom he thought worthy to receive his precepts, and pointed out to them the divine lineaments, which he felt could never perish. They regarded him, with reverence, as most favoured of mortals. They delighted to sit in the seat of the disciple, not in that of the scorner. How much enjoyment have the people lost by being exalted into judges he ascent of literature has been rendered smooth and easy, but its rewards are proportionably lessened in value. With how holy a zeal did the aspirant once gird himself to tread the unworn path; how delectably was he refreshed by each plant of green; how intensely did he enjoy every prospect, from the lone and embowered resting-places of his journey! Now, distinctions are levelled—the zest of intellectual pleasures is taken away; and no one hour, like that of Archimedes, ever repays a life of toil. The appetite, satiated with luxuries cheaply acquired, requires new stimulants—even criticism palls—and private slander must be mingled with it to give the necessary relish, Happily, these evils will, at last, work out their own remedy. Scorn, of all human emotions, leaves the frailest monuments behind it. That light which now seems to play around the weapons of periodical criticism, is only like the electrical flame which, to the amazement of the superstitious, wreathes the sword of the Italian soldier on the approach of a storm, vapourish and fleeting. Those mighty poets of our time—who are now overcoming the derision of the critics—will be immortal witnesses of their shame. These will lift their heads, “like mountains when the mists are rolled away,” imperishable memorials of the true genius of our time, to the most distant ages.