S. Austin Allibone, comp. Prose Quotations from Socrates to Macaulay. 1880.
Of this shallow species there is not a more unfortunate, empty, and conceited animal than that which is generally known by the name of a Critic. This, in the common acceptation of the word, is one that, without entering into the sense and soul of an author, has a few general rules, which, like mechanical instruments, he applies to the works of every writer; and as they quadrate with them, pronounces the author perfect or defective. He is master of a certain set of words, as Unity, Style, Fire, Phlegm, Easy, Natural, Turn, Sentiment, and the like; which he varies, compounds, divides, and throws together, in every part of his discourse, without any thought or meaning. The marks you may know him by are, an elevated eye, and dogmatical brow, a positive voice, and a contempt for everything that comes out, whether he has read it or not.
For this reason I think there is nothing in the world so tiresome as the works of those critics who write in a positive dogmatic way, without either language, genius, or imagination. If the reader would see how the best of the Latin critics wrote, he may find their manner very beautifully described in the characters of Horace, Petronius, Quintilian, and Longinus, as they are drawn in the essay of which I am now speaking.
Above all, I would have them well versed in the Greek and Latin poets, without which a man very often fancies that he understands a critic, when in reality he does not comprehend his meaning. It is in criticism as in all other sciences and speculations; one who brings with him any implicit notions and observations, which he has made in his reading of the poets, will find his own reflections methodized and explained, and perhaps several little hints that had passed in his mind, perfected and improved in the works of a good critic; whereas one who has not these previous lights is very often an utter stranger to what he reads, and apt to put a wrong interpretation upon it.
Nor is it sufficient that a man, who sets up for a judge in criticism, should have perused the authors above-mentioned, unless he has also a clear and logical head. Without this talent he is perpetually puzzled and perplexed amidst his own blunders, mistakes the sense of those he would confute, or, if he chances to think right, does not know how to convey his thoughts to another with clearness and perspicuity. Aristotle, who was the best critic, was also one of the best logicians that ever appeared in the world.
The truth of it is, there is nothing more absurd than for a man to set up for a critic, without a good insight into all the parts of learning; whereas many of those, who have endeavoured to signalize themselves by works of this nature, among our English writers, are not only defective in the above-mentioned particulars, but plainly discover, by the phrases which they make use of, and by their confused way of thinking, that they are not acquainted with the most common and ordinary systems of arts and sciences. A few general rules extracted out of the French authors, with a certain cant of words, has sometimes set up an illiterate heavy writer for a most judicious and formidable critic.
One great mark by which you may discover a critic who has neither taste nor learning, is this: that he seldom ventures to praise any passage in an author which has not been before received and applauded by the public, and that his criticism turns wholly upon little faults and errors. This part of a critic is so very easy to succeed in, that we find every ordinary reader, upon the publishing of a new poem, has wit and ill nature enough to turn several passages of it into ridicule, and very often in the right place. This Mr. Dryden has very agreeably remarked in these two celebrated lines:
A true critic ought to dwell rather upon excellences than imperfections, to discover the concealed beauties of a writer, and communicate to the world such things as are worth their observation. The most exquisite words, and finest strokes of an author, are those which very often appear the most doubtful and exceptionable to a man who wants a relish for polite learning; and they are those which a sour undistinguishing critic generally attacks with the greatest violence.
Besides, a man who has the gift of ridicule is apt to find fault with anything that gives him an opportunity of exerting his beloved talent, and very often censures a passage, not because there is any fault in it, but because he can be merry upon it. Such kinds of pleasantry are very unfair and disingenuous in works of criticism, in which the greatest masters, both ancient and modern, have always appeared with a serious and instructive air.
It is likewise necessary for a man who would form to himself a finished taste of good writing to be well versed in the works of the best critics, both ancient and modern. I must confess that I could wish there were authors of this kind, who, besides the mechanical rules, which a man of very little taste may discourse upon, would enter into the very spirit and soul of fine writing, and show us the several sources of that pleasure which rises in the mind upon the perusal of a noble work.
I have a great esteem for a true critic, such as Aristotle and Longinus among the Greeks; Horace and Quintilian among the Romans; Boileau and Dacier among the French. But it is our misfortune that some who set up for professed critics among us are so stupid that they do not know how to put ten words together with elegance or common propriety; and withal so illiterate that they have no taste of the learned languages, and therefore criticise upon old authors only at second-hand. They judge of them by what others have written, and not by any notions they have of the authors themselves. The words unity, action, sentiment, and diction, pronounced with an air of authority, give them a figure among unlearned readers, who are apt to believe they are very deep because they are unintelligible.
I never knew a critic who made it his business to lash the faults of other writers that was not guilty of greater himself; as the hangman is generally a worse malefactor than the criminal that suffers by his hand.
If the critic has published nothing but rules and observations in criticism, I then consider whether there be a propriety and elegance in his thoughts and words, clearness and delicacy in his remarks, wit and good breeding in his raillery.
Critics form a general character from the observation of particular errors, taken in their own oblique or imperfect views; which is as unjust as to make a judgment of the beauty of a mans body from the shade it cast in such and such a position.
Scholars are men of peace: they bear no arms, but their tongues are sharper than Actius sword, their pens carry further, and give a louder report, than thunder. I had rather stand in the shock of a basilisk than in the fury of a merciless pen.
Different from them are all the great critics. They have taught us one essential rule. I think the excellent and philosophic artist, a true judge as well as a perfect follower of Nature, Sir Joshua Reynolds, has somewhere applied it, or something like it, in his own profession. It is this: that, if ever we should find ourselves disposed not to admire those writers or artists (Livy and Virgil, for instance, Raphael or Michael Angelo) whom all the learned had admired, not to follow our own fancies, but to study them, until we know how and what we ought to admire; and if we cannot arrive at this combination of admiration with knowledge, rather to believe that we are dull than that the rest of the world has been imposed on.
Malherbe, on hearing a prose work of great merit much extolled, drily asked if it would reduce the price of bread? Neither was his appreciation of poetry much higher, when he observed that a good poet was of no more service to the church or the state than a good player at nine pins!!
Modern criticism discloses that which it would fain conceal, but conceals that which it professes to disclose; it is, therefore, read by the discerning, not to discover the merits of an author, but the motives of his critic.
The same work will wear a different appearance in the eyes of the same man, according to the different views with which he reads it: if merely for his amusement, his candour being in less danger of a twist from interest or prejudice, he is pleased with what is really pleasing, and is not over-curious to discover a blemish,because the exercise of a minute exactness is not consistent with his purpose. But if he once becomes a critic by trade, the case is altered. He must then at any rate establish, if he can, an opinion in every mind of his uncommon discernment, and his exquisite taste. This great end he can never accomplish by thinking in the track that has been beaten under the hoof of public judgment. He must endeavour to convince the world that their favourite authors have more faults than they are aware of, and such as they have never suspected. Having marked out a writer universally esteemed, whom he finds it for that very reason convenient to depreciate and traduce, he will overlook some of his beauties, he will faintly praise others, and in such a manner as to make thousands, more modest though quite as judicious as himself, question whether they are beauties at all.