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remarks of the chorus, where it takes part in the dialogue: that the
action itself, the situation of Orestes, or Merope, or Alcmæon,[11] was
to stand the central point of interest, unforgotten, absorbing,
principal; that no accessories were for a moment to distract the
spectator's attention from this, that the tone of the parts was to be
perpetually kept down, in order not to impair the grandiose effect of
the whole. The terrible old mythic story on which the drama was founded
stood, before he entered the theatre, traced in its bare outlines upon
the spectator's mind; it stood in his memory, as a group of statuary,
faintly seen, at the end of a long and dark vista: then came the poet,
embodying outlines, developing situations, not a word wasted, not a
sentiment capriciously thrown in: stroke upon stroke, the drama
proceeded: the light deepened upon the group; more and more it revealed
itself to the riveted gaze of the spectator: until at last, when the
final words were spoken, it stood before him in broad sunlight, a model
of immortal beauty. This was what a Greek critic demanded; this was
what a Greek poet endeavored to effect. It signified nothing to what
time an action belonged. We do not find that the _Persæ_ occupied a
particularly high rank among the dramas of Æschylus because it
represented a matter of contemporary interest: this was not what a
cultivated Athenian required. He required that the permanent elements of
his nature should be moved; and dramas of which the action, though taken
from a long-distant mythic time, yet was calculated to accomplish this
in a higher degree than that of the _Persæ_, stood higher in his
estimation accordingly. The Greeks felt, no doubt, with their exquisite
sagacity of taste, that an action of present times was too near them,
too much mixed up with what was accidental and passing, to form a
sufficiently grand, detached, and self-subsistent object for a tragic
poem. Such objects belonged to the domain of the comic poet, and of the
lighter kinds of poetry. For the more serious kinds, for _pragmatic_
poetry, to use an excellent expression of Polybius,[12] they were more
difficult and severe in the range of subjects which they permitted.
Their theory and practice alike, the admirable treatise of Aristotle,
and the unrivalled works of their poets, exclaim with a thousand
tongues - "All depends upon the subject; choose a fitting action,
penetrate yourself with the feeling of its situations; this done,
everything else will follow."

But for all kinds of poetry alike there was one point on which they were
rigidly exacting; the adaptability of the subject to the kind of poetry
selected, and the careful construction of the poem.

How different a way of thinking from this is ours! We can hardly at the
present day understand what Menander[13] meant, when he told a man who
enquired as to the progress of his comedy that he had finished it, not
having yet written a single line, because he had constructed the action
of it in his mind. A modern critic would have assured him that the merit
of his piece depended on the brilliant things which arose under his pen
as he went along. We have poems which seem to exist merely for the sake
of single lines and passages; not for the sake of producing any
total-impression. We have critics who seem to direct their attention
merely to detached expressions, to the language about the action, not to
the action itself. I verily think that the majority of them do not in
their hearts believe that there is such a thing as a total-impression to
be derived from a poem at all, or to be demanded from a poet; they think
the term a commonplace of metaphysical criticism. They will permit the
poet to select any action he pleases, and to suffer that action to go as
it will, provided he gratifies them with occasional bursts of fine
writing, and with a shower of isolated thoughts and images. That is,
they permit him to leave their poetical sense ungratified, provided that
he gratifies their rhetorical sense and their curiosity. Of his
neglecting to gratify these, there is little danger; he needs rather to
be warned against the danger of attempting to gratify these alone; he
needs rather to be perpetually reminded to prefer his action to
everything else; so to treat this, as to permit its inherent excellences
to develop themselves, without interruption from the intrusion of his
personal peculiarities: most fortunate when he most entirely succeeds in
effacing himself, and in enabling a noble action to subsist as it did in

But the modern critic not only permits a false practice: he absolutely
prescribes false aims. "A true allegory of the state of one's own mind
in a representative history," the poet is told, "is perhaps the highest
thing that one can attempt in the way of poetry." And accordingly he
attempts it. An allegory of the state of one's own mind, the highest
problem of an art which imitates actions! No assuredly, it is not, it
never can be so: no great poetical work has ever been produced with such
an aim. _Faust_ itself, in which something of the kind is attempted,
wonderful passages as it contains, and in spite of the unsurpassed
beauty of the scenes which relate to Margaret, _Faust_ itself, judged as
a whole, and judged strictly as a poetical work, is defective: its
illustrious author, the greatest poet of modern times, the greatest
critic of all times, would have been the first to acknowledge it; he
only defended his work, indeed, by asserting it to be "something

The confusion of the present times is great, the multitude of voices
counselling different things bewildering, the number of existing works
capable of attracting a young writer's attention and of becoming his
models, immense: what he wants is a hand to guide him through the
confusion, a voice to prescribe to him the aim which he should keep in
view, and to explain to him that the value of the literary works which
offer themselves to his attention is relative to their power of helping
him forward on his road towards this aim. Such a guide the English
writer at the present day will nowhere find. Failing this, all that can
be looked for, all indeed that can be desired, is, that his attention
should be fixed on excellent models; that he may reproduce, at any rate,
something of their excellence, by penetrating himself with their works
and by catching their spirit, if he cannot be taught to produce what is
excellent independently.

Foremost among these models for the English writer stands Shakespeare: a
name the greatest perhaps of all poetical names; a name never to be
mentioned without reverence. I will venture, however, to express a doubt
whether the influence of his works, excellent and fruitful for the
readers of poetry, for the great majority, has been an unmixed advantage
to the writers of it. Shakespeare indeed chose excellent subjects - the
world could afford no better than _Macbeth_, or _Romeo and Juliet_, or
_Othello_: he had no theory respecting the necessity of choosing
subjects of present import, or the paramount interest attaching to
allegories of the state of one's own mind; like all great poets, he knew
well what constituted a poetical action; like them, wherever he found
such an action, he took it; like them, too, he found his best in past
times. But to these general characteristics of all great poets he added
a special one of his own; a gift, namely, of happy, abundant, and
ingenious expression, eminent and unrivalled: so eminent as irresistibly
to strike the attention first in him and even to throw into comparative
shade his other excellences as a poet. Here has been the mischief. These
other excellences were his fundamental excellences, _as a poet_; what
distinguishes the artist from the mere amateur, says Goethe, is
_Architectonicè_ in the highest sense; that power of execution which
creates, forms, and constitutes: not the profoundness of single
thoughts, not the richness of imagery, not the abundance of
illustration. But these attractive accessories of a poetical work being
more easily seized than the spirit of the whole, and these accessories
being possessed by Shakespeare in an unequalled degree, a young writer
having recourse to Shakespeare as his model runs great risk of being
vanquished and absorbed by them, and, in consequence, of reproducing,
according to the measure of his power, these, and these alone. Of this
prepondering quality of Shakespeare's genius, accordingly, almost the
whole of modern English poetry has, it appears to me, felt the
influence. To the exclusive attention on the part of his imitators to
this, it is in a great degree owing that of the majority of modern
poetical works the details alone are valuable, the composition
worthless. In reading them one is perpetually reminded of that terrible
sentence on a modern French poet, - _il dit tout ce qu'il veut, mais
malheureusement il n'a rien a dire._[14]

Let me give an instance of what I mean. I will take it from the works of
the very chief among those who seem to have been formed in the school of
Shakespeare; of one whose exquisite genius and pathetic death render him
forever interesting. I will take the poem of _Isabella, or the Pot of
Basil_, by Keats. I choose this rather than the _Endymion_, because the
latter work (which a modern critic has classed with the Faery Queen!),
although undoubtedly there blows through it the breath of genius, is yet
as a whole so utterly incoherent, as not strictly to merit the name of a
poem at all. The poem of _Isabella_, then, is a perfect treasure-house
of graceful and felicitous words and images: almost in every stanza
there occurs one of those vivid and picturesque turns of expression, by
which the object is made to flash upon the eye of the mind, and which
thrill the reader with a sudden delight. This one short poem contains,
perhaps, a greater number of happy single expressions which one could
quote than all the extant tragedies of Sophocles. But the action, the
story? The action in itself is an excellent one; but so feebly is it
conceived by the poet, so loosely constructed, that the effect produced
by it, in and for itself, is absolutely null. Let the reader, after he
has finished the poem of Keats, turn to the same story in the
_Decameron_:[15] he will then feel how pregnant and interesting the same
action has become in the hands of a great artist, who above all things
delineates his object; who subordinates expression to that which it is
designed to express.

I have said that the imitators of Shakespeare, fixing their attention on
his wonderful gift of expression, have directed their imitation to this,
neglecting his other excellences. These excellences, the fundamental
excellences of poetical art, Shakespeare no doubt possessed them -
possessed many of them in a splendid degree; but it may perhaps be
doubted whether even he himself did not sometimes give scope to his
faculty of expression to the prejudice of a higher poetical duty. For we
must never forget that Shakespeare is the great poet he is from his
skill in discerning and firmly conceiving an excellent action, from his
power of intensely feeling a situation, of intimately associating
himself with a character; not from his gift of expression, which rather
even leads him astray, degenerating sometimes into a fondness for
curiosity of expression, into an irritability of fancy, which seems to
make it impossible for him to say a thing plainly, even when the press
of the action demands the very directest language, or its level
character the very simplest. Mr. Hallam,[16] than whom it is impossible
to find a saner and more judicious critic, has had the courage (for at
the present day it needs courage) to remark, how extremely and faultily
difficult Shakespeare's language often is. It is so: you may find main
scenes in some of his greatest tragedies, _King Lear_, for instance,
where the language is so artificial, so curiously tortured, and so
difficult, that every speech has to be read two or three times before
its meaning can be comprehended. This over-curiousness of expression is
indeed but the excessive employment of a wonderful gift - of the power
of saying a thing in a happier way than any other man; nevertheless, it
is carried so far that one understands what M. Guizot[17] meant when he
said that Shakespeare appears in his language to have tried all styles
except that of simplicity. He has not the severe and scrupulous
self-restraint of the ancients, partly, no doubt, because he had a far
less cultivated and exacting audience. He has indeed a far wider range
than they had, a far richer fertility of thought; in this respect he
rises above them. In his strong conception of his subject, in the
genuine way in which he is penetrated with it, he resembles them, and is
unlike the moderns. But in the accurate limitation of it, the
conscientious rejection of superfluities, the simple and rigorous
development of it from the first line of his work to the last, he falls
below them, and comes nearer to the moderns. In his chief works, besides
what he has of his own, he has the elementary soundness of the ancients;
he has their important action and their large and broad manner; but he
has not their purity of method. He is therefore a less safe model; for
what he has of his own is personal, and inseparable from his own rich
nature; it may be imitated and exaggerated, it cannot be learned or
applied as an art. He is above all suggestive; more valuable, therefore,
to young writers as men than as artists. But clearness of arrangement,
rigor of development, simplicity of style - these may to a certain extent
be learned: and these may, I am convinced, be learned best from the
ancients, who, although infinitely less suggestive than Shakespeare, are
thus, to the artist, more instructive.

What then, it will be asked, are the ancients to be our sole models? the
ancients with their comparatively narrow range of experience, and their
widely different circumstances? Not, certainly, that which is narrow in
the ancients, nor that in which we can no longer sympathize. An action
like the action of the _Antigone_ of Sophocles, which turns upon the
conflict between the heroine's duty to her brother's corpse and that to
the laws of her country, is no longer one in which it is possible that
we should feel a deep interest. I am speaking too, it will be
remembered, not of the best sources of intellectual stimulus for the
general reader, but of the best models of instruction for the individual
writer. This last may certainly learn of the ancients, better than
anywhere else, three things which it is vitally important for him to
know: - the all-importance of the choice of a subject; the necessity of
accurate construction; and the subordinate character of expression. He
will learn from them how unspeakably superior is the effect of the one
moral impression left by a great action treated as a whole, to the
effect produced by the most striking single thought or by the happiest
image. As he penetrates into the spirit of the great classical works, as
he becomes gradually aware of their intense significance, their noble
simplicity, and their calm pathos, he will be convinced that it is this
effect, unity and profoundness of moral impression, at which the ancient
poets aimed; that it is this which constitutes the grandeur of their
works, and which makes them immortal. He will desire to direct his own
efforts towards producing the same effect. Above all, he will deliver
himself from the jargon of modern criticism, and escape the danger of
producing poetical works conceived in the spirit of the passing time,
and which partake of its transitoriness.

The present age makes great claims upon us: we owe it service, it will
not be satisfied without our admiration. I know not how it is, but their
commerce with the ancients appears to me to produce, in those who
constantly practise it, a steadying and composing effect upon their
judgment, not of literary works only, but of men and events in general.
They are like persons who have had a very weighty and impressive
experience; they are more truly than others under the empire of facts,
and more independent of the language current among those with whom they
live. They wish neither to applaud nor to revile their age: they wish to
know what it is, what it can give them, and whether this is what they
want. What they want, they know very well; they want to educe and
cultivate what is best and noblest in themselves: they know, too, that
this is no easy task - [Greek: Chalepon] as Pittacus[18] said,[Greek:
Chalepon esthlonemmenai] - and they ask themselves sincerely whether
their age and its literature can assist them in the attempt. If they are
endeavoring to practise any art, they remember the plain and simple
proceedings of the old artists, who attained their grand results by
penetrating themselves with some noble and significant action, not by
inflating themselves with a belief in the preëminent importance and
greatness of their own times. They do not talk of their mission, nor of
interpreting their age, nor of the coming poet; all this, they know, is
the mere delirium of vanity; their business is not to praise their age,
but to afford to the men who live in it the highest pleasure which they
are capable of feeling. If asked to afford this by means of subjects
drawn from the age itself, they ask what special fitness the present age
has for supplying them. They are told that it is an era of progress, an
age commissioned to carry out the great ideas of industrial development
and social amelioration. They reply that with all this they can do
nothing; that the elements they need for the exercise of their art are
great actions, calculated powerfully and delightfully to affect what is
permanent in the human soul; that so far as the present age can supply
such actions, they will gladly make use of them; but that an age wanting
in moral grandeur can with difficulty supply such, and an age of
spiritual discomfort with difficulty be powerfully and delightfully
affected by them.

A host of voices will indignantly rejoin that the present age is
inferior to the past neither in moral grandeur nor in spiritual health.
He who possesses the discipline I speak of will content himself with
remembering the judgments passed upon the present age, in this respect,
by the men of strongest head and widest culture whom it has produced; by
Goethe and by Niebuhr.[19] It will be sufficient for him that he knows
the opinions held by these two great men respecting the present age and
its literature; and that he feels assured in his own mind that their
aims and demands upon life were such as he would wish, at any rate, his
own to be; and their judgment as to what is impeding and disabling such
as he may safely follow. He will not, however, maintain a hostile
attitude towards the false pretensions of his age; he will content
himself with not being overwhelmed by them. He will esteem himself
fortunate if he can succeed in banishing from his mind all feelings of
contradiction, and irritation, and impatience; in order to delight
himself with the contemplation of some noble action of a heroic time,
and to enable others, through his representation of it, to delight in it

I am far indeed from making any claim, for myself, that I possess this
discipline; or for the following poems, that they breathe its spirit.
But I say, that in the sincere endeavor to learn and practise, amid the
bewildering confusion of our times, what is sound and true in poetical
art, I seemed to myself to find the only sure guidance, the only solid
footing, among the ancients. They, at any rate, knew what they wanted in
art, and we do not. It is this uncertainty which is disheartening, and
not hostile criticism. How often have I felt this when reading words of
disparagement or of cavil: that it is the uncertainty as to what is
really to be aimed at which makes our difficulty, not the
dissatisfaction of the critic, who himself suffers from the same
uncertainty. _Non me tua fervida terrent Dicta; ... Dii me terrent, et
Jupiter hostis._[20] Two kinds of _dilettanti_, says Goethe, there are
in poetry: he who neglects the indispensable mechanical part, and thinks
he has done enough if he shows spirituality and feeling; and he who
seeks to arrive at poetry merely by mechanism, in which he can acquire
an artisan's readiness, and is without soul and matter. And he adds,
that the first does most harm to art, and the last to himself. If we
must be _dilettanti_: if it is impossible for us, under the
circumstances amidst which we live, to think clearly, to feel nobly, and
to delineate firmly: if we cannot attain to the mastery of the great
artists - let us, at least, have so much respect for our art as to prefer
it to ourselves. Let us not bewilder our successors: let us transmit to
them the practice of poetry, with its boundaries and wholesome
regulative laws, under which excellent works may again, perhaps, at some
future time, be produced, not yet fallen into oblivion through our
neglect, not yet condemned and cancelled by the influence of their
eternal enemy, caprice.


Many objections have been made to a proposition which, in some remarks
of mine[22] on translating Homer, I ventured to put forth; a proposition
about criticism, and its importance at the present day. I said: "Of the
literature of France and Germany, as of the intellect of Europe in
general, the main effort, for now many years, has been a critical
effort; the endeavor, in all branches of knowledge, theology,
philosophy, history, art, science, to see the object as in itself it
really is." I added, that owing to the operation in English literature
of certain causes, "almost the last thing for which one would come to
English literature is just that very thing which now Europe most
desires, - criticism"; and that the power and value of English literature
was thereby impaired. More than one rejoinder declared that the
importance I here assigned to criticism was excessive, and asserted the
inherent superiority of the creative effort of the human spirit over its
critical effort. And the other day, having been led by a Mr.
Shairp's[23] excellent notice of Wordsworth[24] to turn again to his
biography, I found, in the words of this great man, whom I, for one,
must always listen to with the profoundest respect, a sentence passed on
the critic's business, which seems to justify every possible
disparagement of it. Wordsworth says in one of his letters[25]: -

"The writers in these publications" (the Reviews), "while they prosecute
their inglorious employment, cannot be supposed to be in a state of mind
very favorable for being affected by the finer influences of a thing so
pure as genuine poetry."

And a trustworthy reporter of his conversation quotes a more elaborate
judgment to the same effect: -

"Wordsworth holds the critical power very low, infinitely lower than the
inventive; and he said to-day that if the quantity of time consumed in
writing critiques on the works of others were given to original
composition, of whatever kind it might be, it would be much better
employed; it would make a man find out sooner his own level, and it
would do infinitely less mischief. A false or malicious criticism may do
much injury to the minds of others, a stupid invention, either in prose
or verse, is quite harmless."

It is almost too much to expect of poor human nature, that a man capable
of producing some effect in one line of literature, should, for the
greater good of society, voluntarily doom himself to impotence and
obscurity in another. Still less is this to be expected from men
addicted to the composition of the "false or malicious criticism" of
which Wordsworth speaks. However, everybody would admit that a false or
malicious criticism had better never have been written. Everybody, too,
would be willing to admit, as a general proposition, that the critical
faculty is lower than the inventive. But is it true that criticism is
really, in itself, a baneful and injurious employment; is it true that
all time given to writing critiques on the works of others would be much
better employed if it were given to original composition, of whatever
kind this may be? Is it true that Johnson had better have gone on
producing more _Irenes_[26] instead of writing his _Lives of the Poets_;
nay, is it certain that Wordsworth himself was better employed in making
his Ecclesiastical Sonnets than when he made his celebrated Preface[27]

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