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Books And Persons: Being Comments On A Past Epoch 1908-1911 - English Literary Criticism Post by :Adetola Category :Nonfictions Author :Arnold Bennett Date :May 2012 Read :2350

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Books And Persons: Being Comments On A Past Epoch 1908-1911 - English Literary Criticism

_3 Nov. '10_

I learn that Mr. Elkin Mathews is about to publish a collected uniform edition of the works (poems and criticism) and correspondence of the late Lionel Johnson. I presume that this edition will comprise his study of Thomas Hardy. The enterprise proves that Lionel Johnson has admirers capable of an excellent piety; and it also argues a certain continuance of the demand for his books. I was never deeply impressed by Lionel Johnson's criticisms, and still less by his verse, but in the days of his activity I was young and difficult and hasty. Perhaps my net was too coarse for his fineness. But, anyhow, I would give much to have a large homogeneous body of English literary criticism to read _at_. And I should be obliged to any one who would point out to me where such a body of first-rate criticism is to be found. I have never been able to find it for myself. When I think of Pierre Bayle, Sainte-Beuve, and Taine, and of the keen pleasure I derive from the immense pasture offered by their voluminous and consistently admirable works, I ask in vain where are the great English critics of English literature. Beside these French critics, the best of our own seem either fragmentary or provincial--yes, curiously provincial. Except Hazlitt we have, I believe, no even approximately first-class writer who devoted his main activity to criticism. And Hazlitt, though he is very readable, has neither the urbaneness, nor the science, nor the learning, nor the wide grasp of life and of history that characterizes the three above-named. Briefly, he didn't know enough.

* * * * *

Lamb would have been a first-class critic if he hadn't given the chief part of his life to clerkship. Lamb at any rate is not provincial. His perceptions are never at fault. Every sentence of Lamb proves his taste and his powerful intelligence. Coleridge--well, Coleridge has his comprehensible moments, but they are few; Matthew Arnold, with study and discipline, might perhaps have been a great critic, only his passion for literature was not strong enough to make him give up school-inspecting--and there you are! Moreover, Matthew Arnold could never have written of women as Sainte-Beuve did. There were a lot of vastly interesting things that Matthew Arnold did not understand and did not want to understand. He, too, was provincial (I regret to say)--you can feel it throughout his letters, though his letters make very good quiet reading. Churton Collins was a scholar of an extreme type; unfortunately he possessed no real feeling for literature, and thus his judgment, when it had to stand alone, cut a figure prodigiously absurd. And among living practitioners? Well, I have no hesitation in de-classing the whole professorial squad--Bradley, Herford, Dowden, Walter Raleigh, Elton, Saintsbury. The first business of any writer, and especially of any critical writer, is not to be mandarinic and tedious, and these lecturers have not yet learnt that first business. The best of them is George Saintsbury, but his style is such that even in Carmelite Street the sub-editors would try to correct it. Imagine the reception of such a style in Paris! Still, Professor Saintsbury does occasionally stray out of the university quadrangles, and puts on the semblance of a male human being as distinguished from an asexual pedagogue. Professor Walter Raleigh is improving. Professor Elton has never fallen to the depths of sterile and pretentious banality which are the natural and customary level of the remaining three.... You think I am letting my pen run away with me? Not at all. That is nothing to what I could say if I tried. Mr. J.W. Mackail might have been one of our major critics, but there again--he, too, prefers the security of a Government office, like Mr. Austin Dobson, who, by the way, is very good in a very limited sphere. Perhaps Austin Dobson is as good as we have. Compare his low flight with the terrific sweeping range of a Sainte-Beuve or a Taine. I wish that some greatly gifted youth now aged about seventeen would make up his mind to be a literary critic and nothing else.

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