Page images

thought, passion, and sentiment, should be bounded through all ages. Their dogmas, therefore, whether they contained more or less of truth, carried with them no extensive weight, were influenced by no personal feelings, excited no personal animosities, but simply appealed, like poetry itself, to those minds which alone could give them sanction. In the first critical days of England-those of the Rymers and the Dennises-the professors of the art began to regard themselves as judges, not merely of the principles of poetry, but of their application by living authors. Then commenced the arrogance on the side of the supervisors, and the impatience and resentment on that of their subjects, which contemporary criticism necessarily inspires. The worst passions of man were brought into exercise in reference to those pure and ennobling themes, which should be sacred from all low contentions of " the ignorant present time." But the battle was, at least, fair and open. The critic still appealed to principles, however fallacious or imperfect, which all the world might examine. His decrees had no weight, independent of his reasons, nor was his name, or his want of one, esteemed of magical virtue. He attacked the poets on equal termssometimes, indeed, with the poisoned weapons of derision and personal slander-but always as a foe to subdue, not as a judge to pass sentence on them. Criticism, in our own times, has first assumed the air of "sovereign sway and masterdom" over the regions of fantasy. Its professors enforce not established laws, contend no longer for principles, attack poets no more with chivalrous zeal, as violating the cause of poetic morals, or sinning against the regularities of their art. They pronounce the works, of which they take cognizance, to be good or badoften without professing to give any reason for their decisionor referring to any standard, more fixed or definite than their own taste, partiality, or prejudice. And the public, without any knowledge of their fitness for their office-without even knowing their names-receive them as the censors of literature, the privileged inspectors of genius! This strange supremacy of criticism, in our own age, gives interest to the investigation of the claims, which the art itself possesses to the respect and gratitude of the people. If it is on the whole beneficial to the world, it must either be essential to the awakening of geniusor necessary to direct its exertions-or useful in repressing abortive and mistaken efforts-or conducive to the keeping alive and fitly guiding public admiration and sympathy with the poet's noblest and holiest creations. On each of these grounds, we shall now very briefly examine its value.

1. It is evident, that the art of criticism is not requisite to the developement of genius, because, in all the golden ages of poetry, it has had no portion. Its professors have never even

constructed the scaffolding to aid the erection of the cloudcapt towers and solemn temples of the bard. By his facile magic he has called them into existence, like the palace of Aladdin, complete in the minutest graces of finishing as well as vast and noble in design. Long before the art of criticism was known in Greece, her divine rhapsodists had attained the highest excellencies of poetry. No fear of a critic's scorn, no desire of a critic's praise, influenced these consecrated wanderers. Nature alone was their model, their inspirer, and their guide. From her did they drink in the feeling, not only of permanence and of grandeur, but of light, aërial grace, and roseate beauty. The rocks and eternal hills gave them the visible images of lasting might-the golden clouds of even, "sailing on the bosom of the air," sent a feeling of soft and evanescent loveliness into their souls-and the delicate branchings of the grove, reflected in the calm waters, embued them with a perception of elegance far beyond the reach of art. No pampered audiences thought themselves entitled to judge them, to analyse their powers, to descant on their imperfections, to lament their failures, or to eulogize their sublimities, as those who had authority to praise. Their hearers dwelt on their accents with rapturous wonder, as nature's living and sacred oracles. They wandered through the majestic scenes of their country-every where communicating deep joy and every where receiving reverence-exciting in youth its first tearful ecstasy, and kindling fresh enthusiasm amidst the withered affections of age. They were revered as the inspired chroniclers of heroic deeds-the sacred inspirers of national glory and virtue-the august depositories of the awful mysteries and the philosophic wisdom of those times which even then were old. They trusted not to paper or the press for the preservation of their memory. They were contented, that each tree beneath which they had poured forth their effusions, should be loved for their sake-that the forked promontory should bear witness of them--and the "brave o'er-hanging firmament, fretted with golden fire," tell of those who had first awakened within the soul a sense of its glories. Their works were treasured up no where but in the soul-spread abroad only by the enthusiasm of kindred reciters-and transmitted to the children of other generations, while they listened with serious yet delighted faces to the wondrous tales of their fathers. Yet these poems, so produced, so received, so preserved, were not only instinct with heavenly fire, but regular as the elaborate efforts of the most polished ages. In these products of an æra of barbarism, have future bards not only found an exhaustless treasury of golden imaginations, but critics have discovered all those principles of order which they would establish as unalterable laws. The very instances of error and haste

in their authors have been converted into figures of rhetorick, by those men, who represent nature herself as irregular and feeble, and a minute attention to rules as essential to the perfection of genius.

As criticism had no share in producing the Homeric poems, so also did it contribute nothing to the perfection of the Greek tragedies. For those works-the most complete and highly finished, if not the most profound, of all human creations-there was no more previous warrant, than for the wildest dream of fantasy. No critic fashioned the moulds in which those exquisite groups were cast, or inspired them with Promethean life. They were struck off in the heat of inspiration-the offspring of moments teeming for immortality-though the slightest limb of each of the figures is finished as though it had been the labour of a life. These eternal works were erected-the spirit which inspired their authors was extinct-when Aristotle began to criticise. The developement of the art of poetry, by that great philosopher, wholly failed to inspire any bard, whose productions might break the descent from the mighty relics of the preceding years. After him, his disciples amused themselves in refining on his laws-in cold disputations and profitless scrutinies. The soil, late so fertile with the stateliest productions of nature, was over-grown with a low and creeping underwood, which, if any delicate flower struggled into day, oppressed and concealed it from view beneath its briary and tangled thickets.

2. The instances already given refute not only the notion, that criticism is requisite to prepare the way for genius, but also the opinion that it is necessary to give it a right direction and a perfect form. True imagination is in itself" all compact." The term irregular, as absolutely applied to genius, is absurd, and applied relatively, it means nothing but that it is original in its career. There is properly no such thing as irregular genius. A man endowed with the vision and the faculty divine," may chuse modes of composition unsuited to the most appropriate display of his powers;-his imaginations may not be disposed in the happiest arrangement, or may be clustered around subjects, in themselves, dreary or mean, but these fantasies must be in themselves harmonious, or they would not be beauteous, would not be imaginations. Genius is a law unto itself. Its germs have, within them, not only the principles of beauty, but the very form into which the flower in its maturity must expand. As a wavy gleam of fire rises from the spark, in its own exquisite shape, so does imagination send forth its glories, perfect by the felicitous necessity of their nature, exquisite in form by the same impulse, which gives them brightness and fervor. But how can the critic, in reality, acquire any jurisdiction over the genuine poet? Where are the lines by which he can fathom the

depths of the soul; where the instrument by which he can take the altitude of " the highest heaven of invention?" How can he judge of thoughts which penetrate the mysteries of humanity, of fancies which" in the colours of the rainbow live, and play in plighted clouds," of anticipations and foretastes by which the bard already" breathes in worlds, to which the heaven of heavens is but a veil ?" Can he measure a sun-beam, or constrain a cloud, or count the steps of the bounding stag of the forest, to judge whether they are graceful? Has he power even to define those gigantic shadows reflected on the pure mirror of the poet's imagination, from the eternal vastnesses which mortal eyes cannot discern? At best, he can but reason from what has been to what should be; and what can be more absurd than this course in reference to poetic invention? A critic can understand no rules of criticism except what existing poetry has taught him. There was no more reason, after the production of the Iliad, to contend that future poems should in certain points resemble it, than there was before the existence of that poem to lay down rules which would prevent its being. There was antecedently no more probability that the powers of man, harmoniously exerted, could produce the tale of Troy divine, than that, after it, the same powers would not produce other works equally marvellous and equally perfect, yet wholly different in their coloring and form. The reasons which would prevent men from doing any thing unlike it, would also have prevented its creation, for it was doubtless unlike all previous inventions. Criticism can never be prospective, until the resources of man and nature are exhausted. Each new world of imagination revolves on itself, in an orbit of its own. Its beauties create the taste which shall relish them, and the very critics which shall extol their proportions. The first admirers of Homer had no conception that the Greek tragedies would start into life and become lasting as their idol. Those who lived after the times when these were perfected, asserted that no dramas could be worthy of praise, which were not fashioned according to their models and composed of similar materials. But, after a long interval, came Shakespear-at first, indeed, considered by many as barbarous and strange-who, when his real merits are perceived, is felt to be, at the least, equal to his Greek predecessors, though violating every rule drawn from their works. Even in our short remembrance, we can trace the complete abolition of popular rules of criticism, by the new and unexpected combinations of genius. A few years ago, it was a maxim gravely asserted by Reviews, Treatises, and Magazines, that no interesting fiction could effectively be grafted on history. But "mark how a plain tale" by the author of Waverley "puts down" the canon for ever! In fact, unless with more than

angel's ken a critic could gaze on all the yet unpossessed regions of imagination, it is impossible that he should limit the discoveries which yet await the bard. He may perceive, indeed, how poets of old have by their celestial magic divided the thick clouds which bound man's ordinary vision, and may scan the wondrous regions which they have thus opened to our gaze. But how can he thus anticipate what future bards may revealdirect the proportions, the colours, and the forms, of the grand realities which they shall unveil-fix boundaries to regions of beauty yet unknown, determine the height of their glorystricken hills, settle the course of their mighty waters, or regu late the visionary shapes of super-human grace, which shall gleam in the utmost distance of their far perspectives?

3. But it may be urged, that criticism is useful in putting down the pretensions of those who aspire, without just claim, to the honours of genius. This, indeed, in so far as it is unfavourable, is its chief object in modern times. The most celebrated of literary tribunals takes as the motto of its decrees, "Judex damnatur cum nocens absolvitur;" assuming that to publish a dull book is a crime, which the public good requires should be exposed, whatever laceration of the inmost soul may be inflicted on the offender in the process. This damnatory principle is still farther avowed in the following dogma of this august body, which deserves to be particularly quoted as an explicit declaration of the spirit of modern criticism:

"There is nothing of which nature has been more bountiful than poets. They swarm like the spawn of the cod-fish, with a vicious fecundity that invites and requires destruction. To publish verses is become a sort of evidence that a man wants sense; which is repelled, not by writing good verses, but by writing excellent verses;-by doing what Lord Byron has done;-by displaying talents great enough to overcome the disgust which proceeds from satiety, and shewing that all things may become new under the reviving touch of genius." Ed. Rev. No. 43, p. 68.

It appears to us, that the crime and the evil denounced in this pregnant sentence are entirely visionary and fantastic. There is no great danger, that works without talent should usurp the admiration of the world. Splendid error may mislead; vice linked to a radiant angel, by perverted genius, may seduce; and the union of high energy with depravity of soul may teach us to respect where we ought to shudder. But men will not easily be dazzled by insipidity, soothed by discord, or awed by weakness. The mean and base, even if left to themselves unmolested, will scarcely grow immortal by the neglect of the magnanimous and the wise. He who cautions the public against the admiration of feeble productions, almost equals the wisdom of a sage, who should passionately implore a youth

« PreviousContinue »