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The Whole Duty Of Critics Post by :Cynthia_A. Category :Essays Author :Brander Matthews Date :November 2011 Read :1830

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The Whole Duty Of Critics

"Doubtless criticism was originally benignant, pointing out the beauties of a work rather than its defects. The passions of man have made it malignant, as the bad heart of Procrustes turned the bed, the symbol of repose, into an instrument of torture." So wrote Longfellow a many years ago, thinking, it may be, on English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, or on the Jedburgh justice of Jeffrey. But we may question whether the poet did not unduly idealize the past, as is the custom of poets, and whether he did not unfairly asperse the present. With the general softening of manners, no doubt those of the critic have improved also. Surely, since a time whereof the memory of man runneth not to the contrary, "to criticise," in the ears of many, if not of most, has been synonymous with "to find fault." In Farquhar's "Inconstant," now nearly two hundred years old, Petit says of a certain lady: "She's a critic, sir; she hates a jest, for fear it should please her."

The critics themselves are to blame for this misapprehension of their attitude. When Mr. Arthur Pendennis wrote reviews for the Pall Mall Gazette, he settled the poet's claims as though he "were my lord on the bench and the author a miserable little suitor trembling before him." The critic of this sort acts not only as judge and jury, first finding the author guilty and then putting on the black cap to sentence him to the gallows, but he often volunteers as executioner also, laying on a round dozen lashes with his own hand, and with a hearty good-will. We are told, for example, that Captain Shandon knew the crack of Warrington's whip and the cut his thong left. Bludyer went to work like a butcher and mangled his subject, but Warrington finished a man, laying "his cuts neat and regular, straight down the back, and drawing blood every time."

Whenever I recall this picture I understand the protest of one of the most acute and subtle of American critics, who told me that he did not much mind what was said about his articles so long as they were not called "trenchant." Perhaps trenchant is the adjective which best defines what true criticism is not. True criticism, so Joubert tells us, is un exercice méthodique de discernement. It is an effort to understand and to explain. The true critic is no more an executioner than he is an assassin; he is rather a seer, sent forward to spy out the land, and most useful when he comes back bringing a good report and bearing a full cluster of grapes.

La critique sans bonté trouble le gout et empoisonne les saveurs, said Joubert again; unkindly criticism disturbs the taste and poisons the savor. No one of the great critics was unkindly. That Macaulay mercilessly flayed Montgomery is evidence, were any needed, that Macaulay was not one of the great critics. The tomahawk and the scalping-knife are not the critical apparatus, and they are not to be found in the armory of Lessing and of Sainte-Beuve, of Matthew Arnold and of James Russell Lowell. It is only incidentally that these devout students of letters find fault. Though they may ban now and again, they came to bless. They chose their subjects, for the most part, because they loved these, and were eager to praise them and to make plain to the world the reasons for their ardent affection. Whenever they might chance to see incompetence and pretension pushing to the front, they shrugged their shoulders more often than not, and passed by on the other side silently:--and so best. Very rarely did they cross over to expose an impostor.

Lessing waged war upon theories of art, but he kept up no fight with individual authors. Sainte-Beuve sought to paint the portrait of the man as he was, warts and all; but he did not care for a sitter who was not worth the most loving art. Matthew Arnold was swift to find the joints in his opponent's armor; but there is hardly one of his essays in criticism which had not its exciting cause in his admiration for its subject. Mr. Lowell has not always hidden his scorn of a sham, and sometimes he has scourged it with a single sharp phrase. Generally, however, even the humbugs get off scot-free, for the true critic knows that time will attend to these fellows, and there is rarely any need to lend a hand. It was Bentley who said that no man was ever written down save by himself.

The late Edouard Scherer once handled M. Emile Zola without gloves; and M. Jules Lemaître has made M. Georges Ohnet the target of his flashing wit. But each of these attacks attained notoriety from its unexpectedness. And what has been gained in either case? Since Scherer fell foul of him, M. Zola has written his strongest novel, Germinal (one of the most powerful tales of this century), and his rankest story, La Terre (one of the most offensive fictions in all the history of literature). M. Lemaître's brilliant assault on M. Ohnet may well have excited pity for the wretched victim; and, damaging as it was, I doubt if its effect is as fatal as the gentler and more humorous criticism of M. Anatole France, in which the reader sees contempt slowly gaining the mastery over the honest critic's kindliness.

For all that he was a little prim in taste and a little arid in manner, Scherer had the gift of appreciation--the most precious possession of any critic. M. Lemaître, despite his frank enjoyment of his own skill in fence, has a faculty of hearty admiration. There are thirteen studies in the first series of his Contemporains, and the dissection of the unfortunate M. Ohnet is the only one in which the critic does not handle his scalpel with loving care. To run amuck through the throng of one's fellow-craftsmen is not a sign of sanity--on the contrary. Depreciation is cheaper than appreciation; and criticism which is merely destructive is essentially inferior to criticism which is constructive. That he saw so little to praise is greatly against Poe's claim to be taken seriously as a critic; so is his violence of speech; and so also is the fact that those whom he lauded might be as little deserving of his eulogy as those whom he assailed were worthy of his condemnation. The habit of intemperate attack which grew on Poe is foreign to the serene calm of the higher criticism. F. D. Maurice made the shrewd remark that the critics who take pleasure in cutting up mean books soon deteriorate themselves--subdued to that they work in. It may be needful, once in a way, to nail vermin to the barn door as a warning, and thus we may seek a reason for Macaulay's cruel treatment of Montgomery, and M. Lemaître's pitiless castigation of M. Ohnet. But in nine cases out of ten, or rather in ninety-nine out of a hundred, the attitude of the critic towards contemporary trash had best be one of absolute indifference, sure that Time will sift out what is good, and that Time winnows with unerring taste.

The duty of the critic, therefore, is to help the reader to "get the best"--in the old phrase of the dictionary venders--to choose it, to understand it, to enjoy it. To choose it, first of all; so must the critic dwell with delighted insistence upon the best books, drawing attention afresh to the old and discovering the new with alert vision. Neglect is the proper portion of the worthless books of the hour, whatever may be their vogue for the week or the month. It cannot be declared too frequently that temporary popularity is no sure test of real merit; else were Proverbial Philosophy, the Light of Asia, and the Epic of Hades the foremost British poems since the decline of Robert Montgomery; else were the Lamplighter (does any one read the Lamplighter nowadays, I wonder?), Looking Backward, and Mr. Barnes of New York the typical American novels. No one can insist too often on the distinction between what is "good enough" for current consumption by a careless public and what is really good, permanent, and secure. No one can declare with too much emphasis the difference between what is literature and what is not literature, nor the width of the gulf which separates them. A critic who has not an eye single to this distinction fails of his duty. Perhaps the best way to make the distinction plain to the reader is to persist in discussing what is vital and enduring, pointedly passing over what may happen to be accidentally popular.

Yet the critic mischooses who should shut himself up with the classics of all languages and in rapt contemplation of their beauties be blind to the best work of his own time. If criticism itself is to be seen of men, it must enter the arena and bear a hand in the combat. The books which have come down to us from our fathers and from our grandfathers are a blessed heritage, no doubt; but there are a few books of like value to be picked out of those which we of to-day shall pass along to our children and to our grandchildren. It may be even that some of our children are beginning already to set down in black and white their impressions of life, with a skill and with a truth which shall in due season make them classics also. Sainte-Beuve asserted that the real triumph of the critic was when the poets whose praises he had sounded and for whom he had fought grew in stature and surpassed themselves, keeping, and more than keeping, the magnificent promises which the critic, as their sponsor in baptism, had made for them. Besides the criticism of the classics, grave, learned, definitive, there is another more alert, said Sainte-Beuve, more in touch with the spirit of the hour, more lightly equipped, it may be, and yet more willing to find answers for the questions of the day. This more vivacious criticism chooses its heroes and encompasses them about with its affection, using boldly the words "genius" and "glory," however much this may scandalize the lookers-on:

"Nous tiendrons, pour lutter dans l'arène lyrique,
Toi la lance, moi les coursiers."

To few critics is it given to prophesy the lyric supremacy of a Victor Hugo--it was in a review of Les Feuilles d'Automne that Sainte-Beuve made this declaration of principles. A critic lacking the insight and the equipment of Sainte-Beuve may unduly despise an Ugly Duckling, or he may mistake a Goose for a Swan, only to wait in vain for its song. Indeed, to set out of malice prepense to discover a genius is but a wild-goose chase at best; and though the sport is pleasant for those who follow, it may be fatal to the chance fowl who is expected to lay a golden egg. Longfellow's assertion that "critics are sentinels in the grand army of letters, stationed at the corners of newspapers and reviews to challenge every new author," may not be altogether acceptable, but it is at least the duty of the soldier to make sure of the papers of those who seek to enlist in the garrison.

"British criticism has always been more or less parochial," said Lowell, many years ago, before he had been American Minister at St. James's. "It cannot quite persuade itself that truth is of immortal essence, totally independent of all assistance from quarterly journals or the British army and navy." No doubt there has been a decided improvement in the temper of British criticism since this was written; it is less parochial than it was, and it is perhaps now one of its faults that it affects a cosmopolitanism to which it does not attain. But even now an American of literary taste is simply staggered--there is no other word for it--whenever he reads the weekly reviews of contemporary fiction in the Athenæum, the Academy, the Spectator, and the Saturday Review, and when he sees high praise bestowed on novels so poor that no American pirate imperils his salvation to reprint them. The encomiums bestowed, for example, upon such tales as those which are written by the ladies who call themselves "Rita" and "The Duchess" and "The Authoress of The House on the Marsh," seem hopelessly uncritical. The writers of most of these reviews are sadly lacking in literary perception and in literary perspective. The readers of these reviews--if they had no other sources of information--would never suspect that the novel of England is no longer what it was once, and that it is now inferior in art to the novel of France, of Spain, and of America. If the petty minnows are magnified thus, what lens will serve fitly to reproduce the lordly salmon or the stalwart tarpon? Those who praise the second-rate or the tenth-rate in terms appropriate only to the first-rate are derelict to the first duty of the critic--which is to help the reader to choose the best.

And the second duty of the critic is like unto the first. It is to help the reader to understand the best. There is many a book which needs to be made plain to him who runs as he reads, and it is the running reader of these hurried years that the critic must needs address. There are not a few works of high merit (although none, perhaps, of the very highest) which gain by being explained, even as Philip expounded Esaias to the eunuch of Candace, Queen of the Ethiopians, getting up into his chariot and guiding him. Perhaps it is paradoxical to suggest that a book of the very highest class is perforce clear beyond all need of commentary or exposition; but it is indisputable that familiarity may blur the outline and use may wear away the sharp edges, until we no longer see the masterpiece as distinctly as we might, nor do we regard it with the same interest. Here again the critic finds his opportunity; he may show the perennial freshness of that which seemed for a while withered; and he may interpret again the meaning of the message an old book may bring to a new generation. Sometimes this message is valuable and yet invisible from the outside, like the political pamphlets which were smuggled into the France of the Second Empire concealed in the hollow plaster busts of Napoleon III., but ready to the hand that knew how to extract them adroitly at the proper time.

The third duty of the critic, after aiding the reader to choose the best and to understand it, is to help him to enjoy it. This is possible only when the critic's own enjoyment is acute enough to be contagious. However well informed a critic may be, and however keen he may be, if he be not capable of the cordial admiration which warms the heart, his criticism is wanting. A critic whose enthusiasm is not catching lacks the power of disseminating his opinions. His judgment may be excellent, but his influence remains negative. One torch may light many a fire; and how far a little candle throws its beams! Perhaps the ability to take an intense delight in another man's work, and the willingness to express this delight frankly and fully, are two of the characteristics of the true critic; of a certainty they are the characteristics most frequently absent in the criticaster. Consider how Sainte-Beuve and Matthew Arnold and Lowell have sung the praises of those whose poems delighted them. Note how Mr. Henry James and M. Jules Lemaître are affected by the talents of M. Alphonse Daudet and of M. Guy de Maupassant.

Having done his duty to the reader, the critic has done his full duty to the author also. It is to the people at large that the critic is under obligations, not to any individual. As he cannot take cognizance of a work of art, literary or dramatic, plastic or pictorial, until after it is wholly complete, his opinion can be of little benefit to the author. A work of art is finally finished when it comes before the public, and the instances are very few indeed when an author has ever thought it worth while to modify the form in which it was first presented to the world. A work of science, on the other hand, depending partly on the exactness of the facts which it sets forth and on which it is founded, may gain from the suggested emendations of a critic. Many a history, many a law book, many a scientific treatise has been bettered in successive editions by hints gleaned here and there from the reviews of experts.

But the work of art stands on a wholly different footing from the work of science; and the critics have no further duty towards the author, except, of course, to treat him fairly, and to present him to the public if they deem him worthy of this honor. The novel or the poem being done once for all, it is hardly possible for critics to be of any use to the novelist or to the poet personally. The artist of experience makes up his mind to this, and accepts criticism as something which has little or nothing to do with his work, but which may materially affect his position before the public. Thackeray, who understood the feelings and the failings of the literary man as no one else, has shown us Mr. Arthur Pendennis reading the newspaper notices of his novel, Walter Lorraine, and sending them home to his mother. "Their censure did not much affect him; for the good-natured young man was disposed to accept with considerable humility the dispraise of others. Nor did their praise elate him overmuch; for, like most honest persons, he had his own opinion about his own performance, and when a critic praised him in the wrong place he was hurt rather than pleased by the compliment."

Mr. James tells us that the author of Smoke and Fathers and Sons, a far greater novelist than the author of Walter Lorraine, had a serene indifference towards criticism. Turgenef gave Mr. James "the impression of thinking of criticism as most serious workers think of it--that it is the amusement, the exercise, the subsistence of the critic (and, so far as this goes, of immense use), but that, though it may often concern other readers, it does not much concern the artist himself." Though criticism is of little use to the author directly, it can be of immense service to him indirectly, if it be exposition rather than comment; not a bald and barren attempt at classification, but a sympathetic interpretation. At bottom, sympathy is the prime requisite of the critic; and with sympathy come appreciation, penetration, revelation--such, for example, as the American novelist has shown in his criticisms of the Russian.

There is one kind of review of no benefit either to the author or to the public. This is the careless, perfunctory book-notice, penned hastily by a tired writer, who does not take the trouble to formulate his opinion, and perhaps not even to form one. Towards the end of 1889 there appeared in a British weekly the following notice of a volume of American short stories:

"A littery gent in one of Mr. (----)'s short stories says: 'A good idea for a short story is a shy bird, and doesn't come for the calling.' Alas! alas! it is true. The French can call a great deal better than we can; but the Americans, it would seem, cannot. The best of Mr. (----)'s stories is the first, about a tree which grew out of the bosom of a buried suicide, and behaved accordingly to his descendants; but, so far from being a short story, it is a long one, extending over some hundreds of years, and it suffers from the compression which Mr. (----) puts upon it. It deserves to have a volume to itself."

Refraining from all remark upon the style in which this paragraph is written or upon the taste of the writer, I desire to call attention to the fact that it is not what it purports to be. It is not a criticism within the accepted meaning of the word. It indicates no intellectual effort on the part of its writer to understand the author of the book. An author would need to be superlatively sensitive who could take offence at this paragraph, and an author who could find pleasure in it would have to be unspeakably vain. To me this notice seems the absolute negation of criticism--mere words with no suggestion of a thought behind them. The man who dashed this off robbed the author of a criticism to which he was entitled if the book was worth reviewing at all; and in thus shirking his bounden duty he also cheated the proprietor of the paper who paid him. Empty paragraphing of this offensive character is commoner now than it was a few years ago, commoner in Great Britain than in the United States, and commoner in anonymous articles than in those warranted by the signature of the writer. Probably the man who was guilty of this innocuous notice would have been ashamed to put his name to it.

If a book is so empty that there is nothing to say about it, then there is no need to say anything. It is related that when a dramatist, who was reading a play before the Committee of the Comédie Française, rebuked M. Got for slumbering peacefully during this ceremony, the eminent comedian answered promptly, "Sleep, Monsieur, is also an opinion." If a book puts the critic to sleep, or so benumbs his faculties that he finds himself speechless, he has no call to proceed further in the matter. Perhaps the author may take heart of grace when he remembers that of all Shakespeare's characters, it was the one with the ass's head who had an exposition of sleep come upon him, as it was the one with the blackest heart who said he was nothing if not critical.

If I were to attempt to draw up Twelve Good Rules for Reviewers, I should begin with:

I. Form an honest opinion.

II. Express it honestly.

III. Don't review a book which you cannot take seriously.

IV. Don't review a book with which you are out of sympathy. That is to say, put yourself in the author's place, and try to see his work from his point, of view, which is sure to be a coign of vantage.

V. Stick to the text. Review the book before you, and not the book some other author might have written; obiter dicta are as valueless from the critic as from the judge. Don't go off on a tangent. And also don't go round in a circle. Say what you have to say, and stop. Don't go on writing about and about the subject, and merely weaving garlands of flowers of rhetoric.

VI. Beware of the Sham Sample, as Charles Reade called it. Make sure that the specimen bricks you select for quotation do not give a false impression of the façade, and not only of the elevation merely, but of the perspective also, and of the ground-plan.

VII. In reviewing a biography or a history, criticise the book before you, and don't write a parallel essay, for which the volume you have in hand serves only as a peg.

VIII. In reviewing a work of fiction, don't give away the plot. In the eyes of the novelist this is the unpardonable sin. And, as it discounts the pleasure of the reader also, it is almost equally unkind to him.

IX. Don't try to prove every successful author a plagiarist. It may be that many a successful author has been a plagiarist, but no author ever succeeded because of his plagiary.

X. Don't break a butterfly on a wheel. If a book is not worth much, it is not worth reviewing.

XI. Don't review a book as an east wind would review an apple-tree--so it was once said Douglas Jerrold was wont to do. Of what profit to any one is mere bitterness and vexation of spirit?

XII. Remember that the critic's duty is to the reader mainly, and that it is to guide him not only to what is good, but to what is best. Three parts of what is contemporary must be temporary only.

Having in the past now and again fallen from grace myself and written criticism, I know that on such occasions these Twelve Good Rules would have been exceedingly helpful to me had I then possessed them; therefore I offer them now hopefully to my fellow-critics. But I find myself in a state of humility (to which few critics are accustomed), and I doubt how far my good advice will be heeded. I remember that, after reporting the speech in which Poor Richard's maxims were all massed together, Franklin tells us that "thus the old gentleman ended his harangue. The people heard it and approved the doctrine; and immediately practised the contrary, just as if it had been a common sermon."


(The end)
Brander Matthews's essay: Whole Duty Of Critics

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