« PreviousContinue »
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 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 regulate 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
not imprudently to set his heart on ugliness and age. And surely our nerves are not grown so finely tremulous, that we require guardians who may providently shield us from glancing on a work which may prove unworthy of perusal. It is one high privilege of our earthly lot, that the sweetest pleasures of humanity are not balanced by any painful sensations arising from their contraries. We drink in joy too deep for expression, when we penetrate the vast solitudes of nature, and gaze on her rocky fortresses, her eternal hills, her regions "consecrate to eldest time." But we feel no answering agony while we traverse level and barren plains, especially if we can leave them at pleasure. Thus, while we experience a thrilling delight, or a gushing-forth of long suppressed sympathy, in thinking on the divinest imaginations of the poet, we are not plunged by the dullest author into the depths of sorrow. At all events, we can throw down the book at once; and we must surely be very fastidious if we do not regard the benefit conferred on printers and publishers, and the gratification of the author's innocent and genial vanity, as amply compensating the slight labour which we have taken without personal reward.
But, perhaps, it is the good of the aspirants themselves rather than of their readers which the critic professes to design. Here, also, we think he is mistaken. The men of our generation are not too prone to leave their quest after the substantial blessings of the world, in order to pursue those which are aërial and shadowy. The very error of the mind which takes the love for the power of poetry, is more goodly than common wisdom. But there are certain seasons, we believe, in the lives of all— some few golden moments at least-in which they have really perceived, and felt, and enjoyed, as poets. Who remembers not an hour of serious ecstasy, when, perhaps, as he lay beneath some old tree and gazed on the setting sun, earth seemed a visionary thing, the glories of immortality were half revealed, and the first notes of an universal harmony whispered to his soul?— some moment, when he seemed almost to realize the eternal, and could have been well contented to yield up his mortal being? -some little space, populous of high thoughts and disinterested resolves-some touch upon that " line of limitless desires," along which he shall live in a purer sphere?-And if that taste of joy is not to be renewed on earth, the soul will not suffer by an attempt to prolong its memory. It is a mistake, to suppose that young beginners in poetry are always prompted by a mere love of worldly fame. Their efforts are not rarely struggles to express their mantling joys-ineffectual often as to the readersbut most beneficial to the despised bard. The sense of beauty and the love of the ideal, if they do not draw all the faculties into their likeness, still impart to the whole soul something of their
rich and unearthly coloring. Young fantasy spreads its golden films, slender though they be, through the varied tenor of existence. Imagination, nurtured in the opening of life, though it be not developed in poetic excellence, will strengthen the manly virtue, give a noble cast to the thoughts, and a generous course to the sympathies. It will assist to crush self-love in its first risings, to mellow and soften the heart, and prepare it for its glorious destiny. Even if these consequences did not follow, surely the most exquisite feelings of young hope are not worthy of scorn. They may truly be worth years of toil, of riches, and of honour. Who would crush them at a venture-short and uncertain as life is-and cold and dreary as are often its most brilliant successes? What, indeed, can this world offer to compare with the earliest poetic dreams, which critics would think it sport or virtue to destroy?
"Such views the youthful bard allure
And what if he must die in sorrow;
Who would not cherish dreams so sweet,
Though care and grief should come to-morrow?"
But, supposing for a moment that it were really desirable to put down all authors who do not rise into excellence, at any expense of personal feeling, we must not forget the risk which such a process involves of crushing undeveloped genius. There are many causes which may prevent minds, gifted with the richest faculties, from exerting them at the first with success. The very number of images, crowding on the mirror of the soul, may for awhile darken its surface, and give the idea of inextricable confusion. The young poet's holiest thoughts must often appear to him too sacred to be fully developed to the world. His soul will half shrink at first from the disclosure of its solemn immunities and strange joys. He will thus become timid and irresolute-tell but a slight part of that which he feelsand this broken and disjointed communication will appear senseless or feeble. The more deep and original his thoughts are, the more glorious his visions, and the more beatific his glimpses into the inmost sanctuaries of nature,---the more difficult will be the task of embodying these in words, so as to make them palpable to ordinary conceptions. He will be constantly in danger, too, in the fervor of his own spirit, of mistaking things which in his mind are connected with strains of delicious musing, for objects, in themselves, stately or sacred. The
seeming common-place, which we despise, may be to him the index to pure thoughts and far-reaching desires. In that which to the careless eye may seem but a little humble spring-pure, perhaps, and sparkling, but scarce worthy of a glance-the more attentive observer may perceive a depth which he cannot fathom, and discover that the seeming fount is really the breaking forth of a noble river, winding its consecrated way beneath the soil, which, as it runs, will soon bare its bosom to the heavens, and glide in a cool and fertilizing majesty. And is there not some danger that souls, whose powers of expression are inadequate to make manifest their inward wealth, should be sealed for ever by the hasty sentences of criticism? The name of Lord Byron is rather unfortunately introduced by the celebrated Journal which we have quoted, into its general denunciation against youthful poets. Surely the critics must for the moment have forgotten, that at the outset of the career of that bard, to whose example they now refer, as most illustriously opposed to the mediocrity which they condemn, they themselves poured contempt on his endeavours! Do they now wish that he had taken their counsel? Are they willing to run the hazard, for the sake of putting down a thousand pretenders a few months before their time, of crushing another soul like his for ever? Their very excuse- -that, at the time, his verses were all which they adjudged them-is the very proof of the impolicy and the probable evil of such censures. If the object of their scorn has, in this instance, risen above it, how do we know that more delicate minds have not sunk beneath it? Besides, although Lord Byron was not repelled, but rather excited by their judgment, he seems to have sustained from it scarcely less injury. If it stung him into energy, it left its poison in his soul. It first turned his gentleness into gall-taught him that spirit of scorn which debases the noblest faculties-and impelled him, in his rage, to attack those who had done him no wrong, to scoff at the sanctities of humanity, and to hate or deride his species!
And, even, if genius is too deep to be suppressed, or too celestial to be perverted, is it nothing that the soul of its possessor should be wrung with the keenest agony? For a while, criticism may throw back poets whom it cannot annihilate, and make them pause in their course of glory and of joy, "confounded though immortal." Who can estimate those pangs which on the "purest spirits" are thus made to prey
"as on entrails, joint, and limb,
With answerable pains but more intense?"
The heart of a young poet is the most sacred thing on earth. How nicely strung are its fibres-how keen its sensibilities
how shrinking the timidity with which it puts forth its gentle conceptions! And shall such a heart receive rude usage from a world which it only desires to improve and to gladden? Shall its trembling nerves be stretched on the rack, or its nice apprehensions turned into the instruments of its torture? Shall its warm energies be met with icy scorn, and its tearful joys made sport for the idle and the unfeeling? All this, and more, has been done towards men of whom "this world was not worthy." Cowper, who, first of modern poets, restored to the general heart the feeling of healthful nature-whose soul was without one particle of malice or of guile-whose susceptible and timorous spirit shrunk tremblingly from the slightest touch of this rough world-was chilled, tortured, and almost maddened, by some nameless critic's scorn. Kirke White-the delicate beauties of whose mind were destined scarcely to unfold themselves on earth-in the beginning of his short career, was cut to the heart by the cold mockery of a stranger. A few sentences, penned, perhaps, in mere carelessness, almost nipped the young blossoms of his genius "like an untimely frost;" palsied for awhile all his faculties-embittered his little span of lifehaunted him almost to the verge of his grave, and heightened his dying agonies! Would the annihilation of all the dullness in the world compensate for one moment's anguish inflicted on hearts like these?
We have been all this time considering not the possible abuses, but the necessary tendencies, of contemporary criticism. All the evils we have pointed out may arise, though no sinister design pervert the Reviewer's judgment—though no prejudice even unconsciously warp him--and, even, though he may decide fairly from the evidence before him." But it is impossible that this favourable supposition should be often realized in an age like ours. Temper, politics, religion, the interests of rival bards, or rival publishers—a thousand influences, sometimes recognized, and sometimes only felt-decide the sentence on souls the most sensitive, and imaginations the most divine. The very trade of the critic himself—the necessity of his being witty, or brilliant, or sarcastic, for his own sake-is sufficient to disqualify him as a judge. Sad thought!—that the most sensitive, and gentle, and profound of human beings, should be dependant on casual caprice, on the passions of a bookseller, or on the turn of a period!
than as a censor.
4. It may be perceived, from what we have already written, that we do not greatly esteem criticism as a guide any more The general effect on the public mind is, we fear, to dissipate and weaken. It spoils the freshest charms even of the poetry which it praises. It destroys all reverence for great poets, by making the world think of them as a species