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Brander Matthews.

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THE WHOLE DUTY OF CRITICS.




OUBTLESS criticism was originally be
nignant, pointing out the beauties
of a work rather than its defects.
The passions of man have made it
malignant, as the bad heart of Pro
crustes turned the bed, the symbol of repose, into
an instrument of torture." So wrote Longfellow
a-many years ago, thinking, it maybe, 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 Far-
quhar's 'Inconstant,' now nearly two hundred
years old, Petit says of a certain lady: "She's a

*55



256 PEN AND INK.

critic, sir; she hates a jest, for fear it should please
her."

The critics themselves are to blame for this mis
apprehension 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 jury and judge, 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 Cap
tain 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." Per
haps trenchant is the adjective which best defines
what true criticism is not. True criticism, so Jou-
bert tells us, is un exercice mtthodique de discerne-



THE WHOLE DUTY OF CRITICS.



257



ment. 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 bonU trouble le gout et empoi-
sonne 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 evi
dence, 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 shoul
ders 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.



258 PEN AND INK.

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. 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 Edmond Scherer once handled M.
mile Zola without gloves: and M. Jules Lemaitre
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 01 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. Lemaitre's brilliant assault on



THE WHOLE DUTY OF CRITICS.



259



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 appre
ciation the most precious possession of any
critic. M. Lemaitre, 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 de
structive 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.



260 PEN AND INK.

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. Lemaitre's piti
less castigation of M. Ohnet. But in nine cases
out of ten, or rather in ninety-nine out of a hun
dred, the attitude of the critic toward contempo
rary 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 under
stand 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 vi
sion. Neglect is the proper portion of the worth
less 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



THE WHOLE DUTY OF CRITICS. 26 1

' Lamplighter ' (does any one read the ' Lamp
lighter' nowadays, I wonder?), 'Looking Back
ward,' 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 dif
ference 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 him
self 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 area 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



262 PEN AND INK.

already to set down in black and white their im
pressions 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, keep
ing, and more than keeping, the magnificent prom
ises 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 criti
cism 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 1'arene 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 lack
ing the insight and the equipment of Sainte-Beuve
may unduly despise an Ugly Duckling, or he may



THE WHOLE DUTY OF CRITICS. 263

mistake a Goose for a Swan, only to wait in vain
for its song. Indeed, to set out of malice pre
pense 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. Long
fellow'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 immor
tal essence, totally independent of all assistance
from quarterly journals or the British army and
navy." No doubt there has been a decided im
provement 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 af
fects 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 contem
porary fiction in the Atbenceum, the Academy, the



264 PEN AND INK -

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 sus
pect 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



THE WHOLE DUTY OF CRITICS. 265

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 para
doxical to suggest that a book of the very highest
class is perforce clear beyond all need of com
mentary 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 pe
rennial 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



2 66 PEN AND INK.

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 dis
seminating 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. Con
sider 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 Lemaitre are affected by the talents of
Alphonse Daudet and of 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 obliga
tions, 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



THE WHOLE DUTY OF CRITICS. 267

while to modify the form in which it was first pre
sented 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 toward 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 news
paper notices of his novel, 'Walter Lorraine,' and
sending them home to his mother. "Their cen
sure did not much affect him ; for the good-natured
young man was disposed to accept with consid-



268 PEN AND INK.

arable 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 toward criticism. Turgenef gave
Mr. James "the impression of thinking of criti
cism 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 him
self." 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 com
ment; not a bald and barren attempt at classifica
tion, 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



THE WHOLE DUTY OF CRITICS. 269

writer, who does not take the trouble to formulate
his opinion, and perhaps not even to form one.
Toward the end of 1889 there appeared in a Brit
ish 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 hun
dreds 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 offense 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



PEN AND INK.



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 read
ing a play before the Committee of the Comedie
Franchise, rebuked M. Got for slumbering peace
fully 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 Shak-
spere'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.



THE WHOLE DUTY OF CRITICS.



271



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 be
fore you, and not the book some other author
might have written; obiter dicta are as value
less 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 facade, and not only of the ele
vation merely, but of the perspective also, and of
the ground-plan.

VII. In reviewing a biography or a history, criti
cise the book before you, and don't write a parallel



372 PEN AND INK.

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 un
kind 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 Doug
las 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 hope
fully to my fellow-critics. But I find myself in a



THE WHOLE DUTY OF CRITICS.



273



state of humility (to which few critics are accus
tomed), 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 imme
diately practised the contrary, just as if it had been
a common sermon."
(1890)



AN EPISTLE

To (Master Grander {Matthews, writer, on tie occasion of bis


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Online LibraryBrander MatthewsPen and ink; papers on subjects of more or less importance → online text (page 13 of 14)