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ENGLISH LITERARY CRITICISM
C. E. VAUGHAN
Edited by C H. HERFORD, Litt. D
WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY C. E. VAUGHAN
In the following pages my aim has been to sketch the development of criticism, and particularly of critical method, in England; and to illustrate each phase of its growth by one or two samples taken from the most typical writers. I have in no way attempted to make a full collection of what might be thought the most striking pieces of criticism to be found in our literature.
Owing to the great wealth of such writing produced during the last sixty years, it is clearly impossible to give so complete a picture of what has been done in this period as in others. I am obliged to content myself with one specimen of one writer. But that is the writer who, in the opinion of many, is the most remarkable of all English critics. For the permission, so kindly granted, to include the Essay on Sandro Botticelli I desire to offer my sincerest thanks to Messrs. Macmillan and to the other representatives of the late Mr. Pater.
It may seem strange to close a volume of literary criticism with a study on the work and temperament of a painter. I have been led to do so for more than one reason. A noticeable tendency of modern criticism, from the time of Burke and Lessing, has been to break down the barrier between poetry and the kindred arts; and it is perhaps well that this tendency should find expression in the following selection. But a further reason is that Mr. Pater was never so much himself, was never so entirely master of his craft, as when interpreting the secrets of form and colour. Most of all was this the case when he had chosen for his theme one who, like Botticelli, "is before all things a poetical painter".
C. E. VAUGHAN.
SIR PHILIP SIDNEY--
I. An Apology for Poetry
II. Preface to the Fables
III. On the Metaphysical Poets
SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE--
IV. On Poetic Genius and Poetic Diction
V. On Poetry in General
VI. On the Artificial Comedy of the Last Century VII. On Webster's _Duchess of Malfi_ VIII. On Ford's _Broken Heart_
PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY--
IX. A Defence of Poetry
XI. Sandro Botticelli
In England, as elsewhere, criticism was a late birth of the literary spirit. English poets had sung and literary prose been written for centuries before it struck men to ask themselves, What is the secret of the power that these things have on our mind, and by what principles are they to be judged? And it could hardly have been otherwise. Criticism is a self-conscious art, and could not have arisen in an age of intellectual childhood. It is a derivative art, and could scarcely have come into being without a large body of literature to suggest canons of judgment, and to furnish instances of their application.
The age of Chaucer might have been expected to bring with it a new departure. It was an age of self-scrutiny and of bold experiment. A new world of thought and imagination had dawned upon it; and a new literature, that of Italy, was spread before it. Yet who shall say that the facts answer to these expectations? In the writings of Chaucer himself a keen eye, it is true, may discern the faint beginnings of the critical spirit. No poet has written with more nicely calculated art; none has passed a cooler judgment upon the popular taste of his generation. We know that Chaucer despised the "false gallop" of chivalrous verse; we know that he had small respect for the marvels of Arthurian romance. And his admiration is at least as frank as his contempt. What poet has felt and avowed a deeper reverence for the great Latins? What poet has been so alert to recognize the master-spirits of his own time and his father's? De Meung and Granson among the French--Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio of the Italians--each comes in for his share of praise from Chaucer, or of the princely borrowings which are still more eloquent than praise.
Yet, for all this, Chaucer is far indeed from founding the art of criticism. His business was to create, and not to criticise. And, had he set himself to do so, there is no warrant that his success would have been great. In many ways he was still in bondage to the mediaval, and wholly uncritical, tradition. One classic, we may almost say, was as good to him as another. He seems to have placed Ovid on a line with Virgil; and the company in his House of Fame is undeniably mixed. His judgments have the healthy instinct of the consummate artist. They do not show, as those of his master, Petrarch, unquestionably do, the discrimination and the tact of the born critic.
For this, or for any approach to it, English literature had to wait for yet two centuries more. In the strict sense, criticism did not begin till the age of Elizabeth; and, like much else in our literature, it was largely due to the passion for classical study, so strongly marked in the poets and dramatists of Shakespeare's youth, and inaugurated by Surrey and others in the previous generation. These conditions are in themselves significant. They serve to explain much both of the strength and the weakness of criticism, as it has grown up on English soil. From the Elizabethans to Milton, from Milton to Johnson, English criticism was dominated by constant reference to classical models. In the latter half of this period the influence of these models, on the whole, was harmful. It acted as a curb rather than as a spur to the imagination of poets; it tended to cripple rather than give energy to the judgment of critics. But in earlier days it was not so. For nearly a century the influence of classical masterpieces was altogether for good. It was not the regularity but the richness, not the self-restraint but the freedom, of the ancients that came home to poets such as Marlowe, or even to critics such as Meres. And if adventurous spirits, like Spenser and Sidney, were for a time misled into the vain attempt to graft exotic forms upon the homely growths of native poetry, they soon saw their mistake and revolted in silence against the ridiculous pedant who preferred the limping hexameters of the _Arcadia_ to Sidney's sonnets, and the spavined iambics of Spenser to the _Faerie Queene_.
In the main, the worship of the classics seems to have counted at this time rather for freedom than restraint. And it is well that it was so. Yet restraint too was necessary; and, like freedom, it was found-- though in less ample measure--through devotion to the classics. There can be little doubt that, consciously or no, the Elizabethans, with their quick eye for beauty of every kind, were swayed, as men in all ages have been swayed, by the finely chiselled forms of classical art. The besetting sin of their imagination was the tendency to run riot; and it may well be that, save for the restraining influence of ancient poetry, they would have sinned in this matter still more boldly than they did. Yet the chastening power of classical models may be easily overrated. And we cannot but notice that it was precisely where the classical influence was strongest that the force of imagination was the least under control. Jonson apart, there were no more ardent disciples of the ancients than Marlowe and Chapman. And no poets of that age are so open to the charge of extravagance as they. It is with Milton that the chastening influence of the ancients first makes itself definitely felt. But Milton was no less alive to the fervour than to the self-mastery of his classical models. And it was not till the Restoration that "correctness" was recognized as the highest, if not the only, quality of the ancients, or accepted as the one worthy object of poetic effort. For more than a century correctness remained the idol both of poetry and of criticism in England; and nothing less than the furious onslaught of the Lyrical Ballads was needed to overthrow it. Then the floodgates were opened. A new era both of poetic and critical energy had dawned.
Thus the history of English criticism, like that of English literature, divides itself roughly into three periods. The first is the period of the Elizabethans and of Milton; the second is from the Restoration to the French Revolution; the third from the Revolution to the present day. The typical critic of the first period is Sidney; Dryden opens and Johnson closes the second; the third, a period of far more varied tendencies than either of the others, is perhaps most fitly represented by Lamb, Hazlitt, and Carlyle. It will be the aim of the following
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