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BEING invited to the familiar task of surveying the literature of the moment, I would fain write a few words about the criticism of the day. Since The Edinburgh Review was founded, nearly a century since, it may be doubted whether British criticism was ever at a lower level. An ingenious writer who veils his chagrin under a mask of affectation, has been saying the same thing in a serial where I do not look for allies, in The Yellow Book. Almost every printed volume is “noticed” almost everywhere, and, except in the case of novels or gossiping“ Reminiscences,” the "notice" is a hasty précis of the author's preface. If the book, on the other side, be a novel, we know beforehand how it will be treated in several quarters. If it is written in a tormented jargon, it will assuredly be blessed in places where almost every romance in decent English will be banned. But this kind of partisanship, entertaining enough to watch, has been always with us. If a novel be pretentiously immoral in matter, and immodestly pretentious in style, it will have its excited bodyguard of literary gladiators. If it be a sermon travestied as a story it will stimulate advertisement by provoking indignant refutation and inordinate applause.
The great majority of reviews, as the anonymous hero in The Yellow Book says, do not seem to be written by persons possessed of knowledge, of judgment, of delicacy in expression, of urbanity, of “a tradition of culture,” of leisure, or even of an University education. The want of leisure is, of course, the primary want. If Boswell's “ Johnson,” or Lockhart's “Scott," were to appear to-day, to-morrow they would be reviewed in every newspaper by innumerable pairs of scissors. The only chance for better treatment would be to issue the books a fortnight before the day of publication, putting a taboo on the appearance of notices before that date. The system of hurry makes it difficult to secure a critic with special knowledge ; indeed, such critics are extremely rare. This is plain to all men when the book, not being a novel, deals with anything but gossip, or the very most modern literature. Oh, the scamped perfunctory notices by the weary, ignorant, indifferent hacks, who, frequently enough, actually boast of their ignorance and their indifference! A recent critic of a work in scholarship observed that he had not read some of its contents. "Perhaps they were learned,” but he doubted whether such learning (which he had not examined) was worth acquiring. This was in The
Another critic produced two columns on an historical work, averring, at half a dozen points, that he was totally ignorant of the matters in hand. This was in The
We have to fall back for competent knowledge of and interest in the subject on special publications, like The Classical Review and The Historical Review. That there is a set or school of young critics who honestly, intelligently, and with keen interest do their best for the discussion of new works in belles lettres I gladly acknowledge. But these swallows do not make a summer, any more than the painstaking and excellent criticisms which generally appear in The Athenæum, The Academy, and (on certain historical subjects especially) in The Bookman, serve as an example to the hasty smatterers of prefaces.
While honesty provokes these censures on current criticism, honesty also whispers that if such critics as M. Anatole France (a scholar as well as a man of taste) are rare, or non-existent, books worthy of their attention are far from common. Setting fiction aside, the age is not productive of great, or even of many good books in history, biography, poetry, or belles lettres. An historian who can make novel readers read him-an historian like Macaulay or Mr. Froude, or Mr. Freeman, does not exist in England, at least when Mr. Lecky and Mr. S. R. Gardiner are not in the field. The pages of advertisements in the old numbers of The Quarterly Review and the Edinburgh surprise us by the numbers of names of books still familiar, of books which have vitality, and are
almost, or altogether, English classics. We do not produce many English classics now. It may reasonably be argued that criticism is decadent, because there is nothing particular to criticise. We can scarcely say, with Keats, that, in literature,
“Great spirits now on earth are sojourning." Yet, as there is usually a reaction of compensation in human affairs, good reprints of good old books were never, perhaps, so common as to-day. Mr. Wyndham's edition of North’s “ Plutarch's Lives" is worth a world of ordinary new books. I know not how many editions of the “ Waverley" series, of Miss Austen, of Galt, and other seniors, are offered to public which, I hope, may be stirred by the supply into a demand. Mr. Forman's edition of Keats's “Letters" is only to be blamed as too complete. We can dispense with the letters to Fanny Browne. His centenary is evoking new editions of Burns. One of these, by Messrs. Henley and Henderson, promises to be really critical and nourished on original matter. Had Burns been a Greek, the varieties in his text would have been the joy of German criticism.
Mr. Matthew Arnold's Letters, edited by Mr. George Russell, I have scarcely had time to read, but a book of so much interest cannot be omitted in the most superficial review. Perhaps one is a little disappointed. Mr. Arnold's chief ideas he had persistently hammered into our blockish nation in his works. In his “Letters" they reappear to disadvantage, in undress. Much that was good for domestic reading, about his movements from place to place as a school inspector, even about his Continental tours, may be skipped, and need never have been published. If there are "indiscretions,” editorial, they chiefly affect a nation, not individuals. Several of Mr. Arnold's obiter dicta about the Americans might irritate, and naturally irritate, a less sensitive people. He himself, we feel sure, would not have published them. For the rest, he is not a brilliant letterwriter ; is not a Walpole, or a Thackeray, or a Mme. de Sevigné. Of Mr. Arnold's kind and affectionate heart the letters convey a just impression. His humour shows itself mainly in his relish of humour directed against himself. He not foolishly sensitive, and he probably never knew how much his mockery irritated people like
Mr. Newman, and the tribe of Bottles, and the Rev. Esau Hitall. His literary judgments (which were often modified) occasionally astonish us, like his famous remark on the relative value of Shelley's letters, and Shelley's poetry. Certainly Mr. Arnold's own poetry is in no danger from the competition of his Letters! About Thackeray's death he writes : "I cannot say that I thoroughly liked him, though we were on friendly terms, and he is not, to my thinking, a great writer." Thence he glides off to himself, and his “ripening.” “On this side of idolatry I have admired Mr. Arnold's poems, and taken delight in his prose, as much as most of his juniors; but if I had to make the choice, I would not give up “Esmond " for all Mr. Arnold's collected works. Though he wrote in prose, Thackeray seems to me to have had a depth and force of poetry within him, a creative vigour, a sympathy with and knowledge of mankind, which are more essentially poetic than Mr. Arnold's poetry at its best. But, of all Mr. Arnold's strange judgments, this is the most paralysing : “I think ‘Enoch Arden’ very good indeed, perhaps the best thing Tennyson has done ; Tithonus' I do not like so well.” No notes of exclamation can indicate one's blank surprise at this oracle from a Professor of Poetry. “I do not think Tennyson a great and powerful spirit in any line" : not in the “line" of poetry, even !
This is on a par with the wonderful prediction (1859) that Frenchmen, in the field, would always beat Germans. Fortunately Mr. Arnold did not write a criticism, putting “Enoch Arden" above “The Lotus Eaters." He seems to have preferred his own “Merope" to “Atalanta in Calydon": here, of course, he could not be an impartial critic. But, in Mr. Arnold's preference for chalkstreams, “ the Court is quite with him.” He only once caught a salmon, it appears. I cannot get away from his literary judgments. There is no fairness in his comparing to Lord Tennyson's disadvantage, his lines on the death of the Prince Consort with Manzoni's on the death of Byron. Byron was a rather more poetical theme than the Prince Consort, and Manzoni was
not officially obliged to write on Byron. Burns can scarcely be dismissed as "a beast.” But I am burning what I have worshipped, and “ lifting up my hands against my father, Parmenides," against the exquisite poet, the illuminating critic, the fine wit, the pure and tender heart, the gay temper, the lucid soul of one whom it was an honour to know, as it is a pleasure to remember him.
Concerning theology. this is no place to discourse, but the sermons of Mr. Jowett, the late Master of Balliol, are practical and are literature. He had a name to be a heretic, but I know not what passage in his sermons the most sensitively orthodox could cavil at. In the words of Jeremy Collier's rendering of Marcus Aurelius, they “drive at practice ; “The fulness of the stature of Christ " is their ideal, and the day of small things, of matters like conversation, or the religio loci of Oxford, is not despised. The Master's observations on shyness are of particular interest. The less encouraging peculiarities of his own manner arose, one always thought, from shyness. In reading his sermon to Freshmen, one is reminded curiously of the description of Oxford in “Reginald Dalton,” by John Gibson Lockhart, who, in an unpublished letter, describes himself as “the shyest of living men,” thereby accounting for much that perplexes us in his singular character. “All sorts of false imputations are apt to be cast,” says the Master, “ upon him who is the victim of shyness ;” and so it was in Lockhart's case. The Master mentions Charles James Fox among the famous men of Hertford College in the last century. The mundane Lockhart writes :-" Though Hertford College has been erased from the list" (it is restored) “ I should hope the window, from which Charles Fox made that illustrious leap upon one of these occasions” (a town and gown row) “ has been spared by the piety of the present Chancellor." On a very practical point, drunkenness, the Master grieves that he must speak of Oxford “with rather less confidence during the last three or four years than formerly." I cannot but think that the Master's want of confidence has of late been occasionally justified. The earnestness and goodwill, and high ideal, and practical sense of these addresses, and their finished, simple style, make them highly deserving of general study ; nor can any man, whatever his belief or lack of belief, read them without a desire to be better. Incidentally they announce the Master's real and official opinion about University honours, which he has