Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
Dennis the Critic
By Isaac Disraeli (17661848)
From Literary Miscellanies
IT is an observation frequently made by men of letters in conversation, whenever some renowned critic is mentioned, that he was a very ill-natured man. An observation which is fully verified by facts; so that sometimes we are nearly tempted to suppose that ill-nature is the spirit of criticism. The verbal or minor critics, are persons of the slenderest faculties, and the most irascible dispositions. What can we hope from men who have consumed thirty pages in quarto, on the signification of one little word, and after this insane discussion, have left the unhappy syllable to the mercy of future literary frenzy?
But there is a species of critics, who rather attach themselves to modern than to ancient writers; and who pursue and settle on a great genius, as summer flies attack the tails of the best-fed horses, the more fervid the season and the plumper the horse, the livelier is the attack. They are born for the torment of the ingenious, and the gratification of the malicious of their age. It has too often happened, that a superior writer has been mortified during his whole life, by such a painful shadow. The ancestors of these critics appear to have flourished in the days of Terence, and this poet has distinguished them by the honourable title of the Malevoli. Zoilus, who has left them his name, the patriarch of true criticism, as Swift calls their talent, fell a martyr to their cause; for this great man was either burnt, or crucified, or stoned.
In the person of Dennis, we may contemplate the character of these disturbers of literary repose. The mind of this critic was endowed, not with refinement, but with subtlety; not with correctness, but with minuteness; not with quick sensibility, but with critical erudition. A prominent feature in his character, was that intellectual quality, called common sense, which would have rendered him an useful citizen. A virtue in a saddler, but a vice in a critic. In literature, common sense is a penurious faculty, of which all the acquisitions are mean and of little value. If we allow him these qualities, we must utterly deny him that sensibility of taste which feels the charms of an author, by a congeniality of spirit; that quick apprehension, which may occasionally point out the wanderings of genius, but which oftener confirms the pleasures we feel, by proving their propriety; nor had he that flexibility of intellect, which yields to the touch of the object before him; before he ventured to be pleased, he was compelled to consult Aristotle.
His learning was the bigotry of literature. It was ever Aristotle explained by Dennis. But in the explanation of the obscure text of his master, he was led into such frivolous distinctions, and tasteless propositions that his works deserve inspection, as examples of the manners of a true mechanical critic; the genius of Homer would sink blended with the dulness of Dennis.
Several singular coincidences alone gave the ephemeron critic his temporary existence. Criticism was a novelty at that period of our literature. He flattered some great men, and he abused three of the greatest; this was one mode of securing popularity; because, by this contrivance, he divided the town into two parties; and the irascibility and satire of Pope and Swift, were not less serviceable to him, than the partial panegyrics of Dryden and Congreve. If insulted genius had not noticed Dennis, Dennis in vain would have insulted genius. Sometimes his strictures, though virulent, were just; even Zoilus doubtless detected many defects in Homer. But such criticisms are only a kind of plate-powder, very useful to repolish the works of genius. The performances of our critic appear never to have been popular, and this fact is recorded by himself. Of the favourable opinion he entertained of his own powers, and the public neglect they received, when not supported by the malignant aid of satire, the following passages will sufficiently prove. He observes in his tracts, If I had written only the first treatise, I believe, that upon reading it, you will be of opinion, and far be presumption from that belief, that I had deserved better of the commonwealth of learning, than the authors of so many sonorous trifles, who have been too much encouraged, while I have been too much neglected. The position, which is the subject of it, viz.That religion is that which gives principally to great poetry its spirit, its sublimity, its vehemence, and its strongest enthusiasm, is very clearly proved.
One more specimen may be necessary. He adds, that though criticism has flourished for 2000 years, descending from ancient Greece and Rome, to modern France and Italy, yet that neither Greece, nor Rome, nor France, nor modern Italy, has treated of this important point; but that it was left for a person who has the honour of being your lordships countryman, to assert it, and demonstrate it. If what I have said may seem to some persons, into whose hands these sheets may happen to fall, to have too great a tincture of vanity in it, your lordship knows very well, that persons so much and so long oppressed as I have been, have been always allowed to say things concerning themselves, which in others might be offensive.
There is a degree of vanity and vexation in these extracts, of which the former is only excuseable for the latter. His vanity we know was excessive, and this oppression, of which he complains, might not be less imaginary than his alarm of being delivered over to the French, for the composition of a tragedy that could never be read. Dennis undoubtedly had laboured with zeal, which could never meet with a reward; and perhaps, amidst his critical labours, he turned often, with an aching heart, from their barren contemplation, to that of the social comforts he might have derived from his paternal saddles.
His occasional strictures on popular works had certainly a transient season. Such criticisms were assisted by the activity of envy, and by the supineness of indolence. These also were his best productions, but I must still affirm that they were the best productions of a dull writer. A beautiful tragedy may be composed, which may serve the purposes of the Dennises; and its errors may fill their voluminous pamphlet; but also, it is very possible to construct a tragedy which would famish the Dennises, and at the same time be destitute of whatever can impart delight to the lover of poetry.
Dennis aspired also to original composition. His verse is the verse of one who has learnt poetry, as the blind we know may practise the art; a mechanical operation performed by substantives and adjectives. His sentiments are wild, and his lines irregular; turgid expressions in rumbling verse; the painful throes of a muse, who is made to produce monsters against the designs of nature. Such versifiers are well described by Denham in this line; their works are
Not the effect of poetry, but pains.
Yet Dryden, with the usual partiality of friendship, deludes Dennis by eulogies on his poetry, and in one of his letters, published by our author, advises him to apply himself to the Pindaric. After this, I believe, Dennis produced his long rambling ode in praise of Dryden, which, perhaps, equals the worst of Cowleys.
His prose has at times animation, particularly when he warms into abuse. His conceptions, indeed, were never, never delicate; but sometimes their grossness is striking; as what he says of puns, in one of his letters, there is as much difference between the silly satisfaction which we have from a quibble and the ravishing pleasure which we receive from a beautiful thought, as there is betwixt a faint salute and fruition.
His criticisms are often so many castles in the air, for almost in every work he is proposing and explaining some fantastical scheme. In his long treatise on modern poetry, he labours to show, that the strong interest which the ancients felt in their poetry, was derived from that use of religion which their poets employed; and therefore, he concludes, that if religion is introduced into our poems, modern poetry will rival the ancient. But how false this system is criticism and experience have now positively decided. Polytheism indeed was a religion well adapted to poetical fancies; since nothing can be more poetical than an endless train of beings, diversified in their characters, and distinguished by their emblems. The brilliancy of imagination, the gaieties of description, and the conflict of the passions, alike formed a human interest in the deities of the ancients. But the unity of our religion teaches only the lesson of obedience, and throwing a veil over the mysterious Deity, would consider description as impiety, and silence as the only expression of the human passions.
Having concluded what I had to observe, on the literary character of Dennis, I shall now consider his moral one. The lesson may not prove uninstructive, for we shall have an opportunity of contemplating how an ill-natured critic is an ill-natured man, and that the perversions of the head are often so many particles of venom which fly from the heart.
The magisterial decisions of criticism, communicated a personal importance to this author. Accustomed to suspend the scourge over the heads of the first writers of the age, it appears, that Dennis could not sit at a table, or walk down a street without exerting the despotic rudeness of a literary dictator. The brutal violence of his mind, was discoverable in his manners; an odd mixture of frantic enthusiasm, and gross dulness. Pride now elevated and vaunting, now depressed and sore. How could the mind that devoted itself to the contemplation of masterpieces, only to reward its industry by detailing to the public their human frailties, experience one hour of amenity, one idea of grace, one generous expression of sensibility? Popes celebrated description of the personal manners of our critic, is an exact representation:
Dennis had so accustomed himself to asperity, and felt with such facility and force the irritation he gave and he received, that without having left on record but the suspicion of one immoral action (for it is said he stabbed a man at college), we suspect the improbity of his heart when we recollect the licentiousness of his pen. But this has ever been the characteristic of this race of critics. They attach to the writer they attack an inveteracy, which is not permitted by common humanity. From their darkened closet, they suppose, that the affairs of civil life are suspended, in an awful pause, for their decisions; and they think, when they have discovered the want of unity in a tragedy, that, in consequence, the same want is immediately to take place among the public.
A critic resembling Dennis, was Gaçon in France. This Zoilus reproached La Motte with his blindness, and Dennis cruelly censured the feeble frame of Pope. Young, in his second epistle to Pope, sarcastically alluded to Dennis in these words,
Gaçon wrote satirical discourses on all kinds of subjects, and compiled a volume of calumnies against the poet Rousseau, which he entitled an Anti-Rousseau; Anti was long a favourite title to the works of such critics. Whenever there appeared a great genius, he immediately found an antipode.
An anecdote little known, relative to Dennis, will close his character. It appears, that the Provoked Husband was acted for his benefit, which procured him about a hundred pounds. Thomson and Pope generously supported the old critic, and Savage, who had nothing but a verse to give, returned them poetical thanks in the name of Dennis. When Dennis heard these lines repeated (for he was then blind) his critical severity, and his natural brutality, overcame that grateful sense he should have expressed, of their kindness and their elegance. He swore by G they could be no ones but that fool Savages. This, perhaps, was the last peevish snuff from the dismal torch of criticism, for two days after was the redoubted Dennis numbered with the mighty dead.
Criticism has thus been often only the natural effect of bad dispositions; when severe, if founded on truth, it is not blamed; but this truth includes the idea of a critic convincing his reader, that he has a just taste for the beauties of a composition; for that censure which only takes a partial review of a work, must be defective. There is a duty we owe to the public, when we defend the cause of taste, but at the same time there is a duty we owe to the author. A skilful censor will perform his task by a happy combination of humanity and criticism; and it is elegantly said of Boileau by Voltaire, that the honey which this bee extracted from the flowers, softened the sharpness of the wound he inflicted.