S. Austin Allibone, comp. Prose Quotations from Socrates to Macaulay. 1880.

Criticism II

There are limits to be set between the boldness and rashness of a poet; but he must understand those limits who pretends to judge, as well as he who undertakes to write; and he who has no liking to the whole ought in reason to be excluded from censuring of the parts.

We are naturally displeased with an unknown critic, as the ladies are with a lampooner, because we are bitten in the dark.

The most judicious writer is sometimes mistaken after all his care; but the hasty critic, who judges on a view, is full as liable to be deceived.

They wholly mistake the nature of criticism who think its business is principally to find fault.

“But are there not some works,” interrupted I, “that from the very manner of their composition must be exempt from criticism; particularly such as profess to disregard its laws?”

“There is no work whatsoever but he can criticise,” replied the bookseller; “even though you wrote in Chinese he would have a pluck at you.”

Oliver Goldsmith: Citizen of the World, Letter LI.

The ignorant critic and dull remarker can readily spy blemishes in eloquence or morals, whose sentiments are not sufficiently elevated to observe a beauty; but such are judges neither of books nor of life: they can diminish no solid reputation by their censure, nor bestow a lasting character by their applause: in short, I found, by my search, that such only confer real fame upon others who have merit themselves to deserve it.

Oliver Goldsmith: Citizen of the World, Letter CIX.

As the art of criticism never made an orator or a poet, though it enables us to judge of their merits, so the comprehensive speculation of modern times, which has compared and reviewed the manners of every age and country, has never formed a wise government or a happy people.

Robert Hall: Sentiments Proper to the Present Crisis.

There is a certain race of men, that either imagine it their duty, or make it their amusement, to hinder the reception of every work of learning or genius, who stand as sentinels in the avenues of fame, and value themselves upon giving ignorance and envy the first notice of a prey.

To these men, who distinguish themselves by the appellation of critics, it is necessary for a new author to find some means of recommendation. It is probable that the most malignant of these persecutors might be somewhat softened and prevailed on for a short time to remit their fury.

Dr. Samuel Johnson: Rambler, No. 3.

Criticism, as it was first instituted by Aristotle, was meant as a standard of judging well.

Dr. Samuel Johnson.

A few wild blunders, and visible absurdities, from which no work of such multiplicity was ever free, may for a time furnish folly with laughter, and harden ignorance into contempt; but useful diligence will at last prevail, and there can never be wanting some who distinguish desert.

Dr. Samuel Johnson: Pref. to A Dictionary of the Eng. Language.

Criticism, though dignified from the earliest ages by the labours of men eminent for knowledge and sagacity, has not yet attained the certainty and stability of science.

Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Manifold are the advantages of criticism when thus studied as a rational science. In the first place, a thorough acquaintance with the principles of the fine arts redoubles the pleasure we derive from them. To the man who resigns himself to feeling, without interposing any judgment, poetry, music, painting, are mere pastime. In the prime of life, indeed, they are delightful, being supported by the force of novelty and the heat of imagination; but in time they lose their relish, and are generally neglected in the maturity of life, which disposes to more serious and more important occupations. To those who deal in criticism as a regular science governed by just principles, and giving scope to judgment as well as to fancy, the fine arts are a favourite entertainment, and in old age maintain that relish which they produce in the morning of life.

Lord Kames.

Critics have done nearly the same in taste as casuists have in morals; both having attempted to direct by rules, and limit by definitions, matters which depend entirely on feeling and sentiment; and which are therefore so various and extensive, and diversified by such nice and infinitely graduated shades of difference, that they elude all the subtleties of logic and the intricacies of calculation. Rules can never be made so general as to comprehend every possible case, nor definitions so multifarious and exact as to include every possible circumstance or contingency.

Richard P. Knight.

It may be laid down as an almost universal rule that good poets are bad critics. Their minds are under the tyranny of ten thousand associations imperceptible to others. The worst writer may easily happen to touch a spring which is connected in their minds with a long succession of beautiful images. They are like the gigantic slaves of Aladdin,—gifted with matchless power, but bound by spells so mighty that when a child whom they could have crushed touched a talisman, of whose secret they were ignorant, they immediately became his vassals. It has more than once happened to me to see minds graceful and majestic as the Titania of Shakspeare bewitched by the charms of an ass’s head, bestowing on it the fondest caresses, and crowning it with the sweetest flowers.

Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay: Criticisms on the Principal Italian Writers; No. 1, Dante; Jan. 1824.

Quintilian applied to general literature the same principles by which he had been accustomed to judge of the declamations of his pupils. He looks for nothing but rhetoric, and rhetoric not of the highest order. He speaks coldly of the incomparable works of Æschylus. He admires, beyond expression, those inexhaustible mines of commonplaces, the plays of Euripides. He bestows a few vague words on the poetical character of Homer. He then proceeds to consider him merely as an orator. An orator Homer doubtless was, and a great orator. But surely nothing is more remarkable in his admirable works than the art with which his oratorical powers are made subservient to the purposes of poetry. Nor can I think Quintilian a great critic in his own province. Just as are many of his remarks, beautiful as are many of his illustrations, we can perpetually detect in his thoughts that flavour which the soil of despotism generally communicates to all the fruits of genius. Eloquence was, in his time, little more than a condiment which served to stimulate in a despot the jaded appetite for panegyric, an amusement for the travelled nobles and the blue-stocking matrons of Rome. It is, therefore, with him rather a sport than a war; it is a contest of foils, not of swords. He appears to think more of the grace of the attitude than of the direction and vigour of the thrust. It must be acknowledged, in justice to Quintilian, that this is an error to which Cicero has too often given the sanction both of his precept and of his example.

Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay: On the Athenian Orators, Aug. 1824.

The ages in which the masterpieces of imagination have been produced have by no means been those in which taste has been most correct. It seems that the creative faculty and the critical faculty cannot exist together in their highest perfection. The causes of this phenomenon it is not difficult to assign. It is true that the man who is best able to take a machine to pieces, and who most clearly comprehends the manner in which all its wheels and springs conduce to its general effect, will be the man most competent to form another machine of similar power. In all the branches of physical and moral science which admit of perfect analysis he who can resolve will be able to combine. But the analysis which criticism can effect of poetry is necessarily imperfect. One element must forever elude its researches; and that is the very element by which poetry is poetry. In the description of nature, for example, a judicious reader will easily detect an incongruous image. But he will find it impossible to explain in what consists the art of a writer who in a few words brings some spot before him so vividly that he shall know it as if he had lived there from childhood; while another, employing the same materials, the same verdure, and the same flowers, committing no inaccuracy, introducing nothing which can be positively pronounced superfluous, omitting nothing which can be positively pronounced necessary, shall produce no more effect than an advertisement of a capital residence and a desirable pleasure-ground.

Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay: John Dryden, Jan. 1828.

That critical discernment is not sufficient to make men poets, is generally allowed. Why it should keep them from becoming poets is not, perhaps, equally evident; but the fact is, that poetry requires not an examining but a believing frame of mind. Those feel it most, and write it best, who forget that it is a work of art; to whom its imitations, like the realities from which they are taken, are subjects, not for connoisseurship, but for tears and laughter, resentment and affection; who are too much under the influence of the illusion to admire the genius which has produced it; who are too much frightened for Ulysses in the cave of Polyphemus to care whether the pun about Outis be good or bad; who forget that such a person as Shakspeare ever existed, while they weep and curse with Lear. It is by giving faith to the creations of the imagination that a man becomes a poet. It is by treating those creations as deceptions, and by resolving them, as nearly as possible, into their elements, that he becomes a critic. In the moment in which the skill of the artist is perceived, the spell of the art is broken. These considerations account for the absurdities into which the greatest writers have fallen when they have attempted to give general rules for composition, or to pronounce judgment on the works of others. They are accustomed to analyze what they feel; they therefore perpetually refer their emotions to causes which have not in the slightest degree tended to produce them. They feel pleasure in reading a book. They never consider that this pleasure may be the effect of ideas which some unmeaning expression, striking on the first link of a chain of associations, may have called up in their own minds,—that they have themselves furnished to the author the beauties which they admire.

Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay: John Dryden, Jan. 1828.

The opinion of the great body of the reading public is very materially influenced even by the unsupported assertions of those who assume a right to criticise. Nor is the public altogether to blame on this account. Most even of those who have really a great enjoyment in reading are in the same state, with respect to a book, in which a man who has never given particular attention to the art of painting is with respect to a picture. Every man who has the least sensibility or imagination derives a certain pleasure from pictures. Yet a man of the highest and finest intellect might, unless he had formed his taste by contemplating the best pictures, be easily persuaded by a knot of connoisseurs that the worst daub in Somerset House was a miracle of art. If he deserves to be laughed at, it is not for his ignorance of pictures, but for his ignorance of men. He knows that there is a delicacy of taste in painting which he does not possess, that he cannot distinguish hands, as practised judges distinguish them, that he is not familiar with the finest models, that he has never looked at them with close attention, and that, when the general effect of a piece has pleased him or displeased him, he has never troubled himself to ascertain why. When, therefore, people whom he thinks more competent to judge than himself, and of whose sincerity he entertains no doubt, assure him that a particular work is exquisitely beautiful, he takes it for granted that they must be in the right. He returns to the examination, resolved to find or imagine beauties; and, if he can work himself up into something like admiration, he exults in his own proficiency.

Just such is the manner in which nine readers out of ten judge of a book. They are ashamed to dislike what men who speak as having authority declare to be good. At present, however contemptible a poem or a novel may be, there is not the least difficulty in procuring favourable notices of it from all sorts of publications, daily, weekly, and monthly. In the mean time, little or nothing is said on the other side. The author and the publisher are interested in crying up the book. Nobody has any very strong interest in crying it down. Those who are best fitted to guide the public opinion think it beneath them to expose mere nonsense, and comfort themselves by reflecting that such popularity cannot last. This contemptuous levity has been carried too far. It is perfectly true that reputations which have been forced into an unnatural bloom fade almost as soon as they have expanded; nor have we any apprehensions that puffing will ever raise any scribbler to the rank of a classic.

Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay: Mr. Robert Montgomery’s Poems, April, 1830.

It would be amusing to make a digest of the irrational laws which bad critics have framed for the government of poets. First in celebrity and in absurdity stand the dramatic unities of place and time. No human being has ever been able to find anything that could, even by courtesy, be called an argument for these unities, except that they have been deduced from the general practice of the Greeks. It requires no very profound examination to discover that the Greek dramas, often admirable as compositions, are, as exhibitions of human character and human life, far inferior to the English plays of the age of Elizabeth. Every scholar knows that the dramatic part of the Athenian tragedies was at first subordinate to the lyrical part. It would, therefore, have been little less than a miracle if the laws of the Athenian stage had been found to suit plays in which there was no chorus. All the greatest masterpieces of the dramatic art have been composed in direct violation of the unities, and could never have been composed if the unities had not been violated. It is clear, for example, that such a character as that of Hamlet could never have been developed within the limits to which Alfieri confined himself. Yet such was the reverence of literary men during the last century for these unities that Johnson, who, much to his honour, took the opposite side, was, as he says, “frightened at his own temerity,” and “afraid to stand against the authorities which might be produced against him.”

There are other rules of the same kind without end. “Shakspeare,” says Rymer, “ought not to have made Othello black; for the hero of a tragedy ought always to be white.”

“Milton,” says another critic, “ought not to have taken Adam for his hero; for the hero of an epic poem ought always to be victorious.”

“Milton,” says another, “ought not to have put so many similes into his first book; for the first book of an epic poem ought always to be the most unadorned. There are no similes in the first book of the Iliad.”

“Milton,” says another, “ought not to have placed in an epic poem such lines as these:

  • “‘While thus I called, and strayed I knew not whither.’”
  • And why not? The critic is ready with a reason, a lady’s reason. “Such lines,” says he, “are not, it must be allowed, unpleasing to the ear; but the redundant syllable ought to be confined to the drama, and not admitted into epic poetry.” As to the redundant syllable in heroic rhyme on serious subjects, it has been, from the time of Pope downward, proscribed by the general consent of all the correct school. No magazine would have admitted so incorrect a couplet as that of Drayton:
  • “As when we lived untouch’d with these disgraces,
  • Whenas our kingdom was our dear embraces.”
  • Another law of heroic rhyme, which, fifty years ago, was considered as fundamental, was, that there should be a pause, a comma at least, at the end of every couplet. It was also provided that there should never be a full stop except at the end of a line.

    Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay: Moore’s Life of Lord Byron, June, 1831.

    The correctness which the last century prized so much resembles the correctness of those pictures of the garden of Eden which we see in old Bibles. We have an exact square, enclosed by the rivers Pison, Gibon, Hiddekel, and Euphrates, each with a convenient bridge in the centre, rectangular beds of flowers, a long canal, neatly bricked and railed in, the tree of knowledge, clipped like one of the limes behind the Tuilleries, standing in the centre of the grand alley, the snake twined round it, the man on the right hand, the woman on the left, and the beasts drawn up in an exact circle round them. In one sense the picture is correct enough. That is to say, the squares are correct; the circles are correct; the man and the woman are in a most correct line with the tree; and the snake forms a most correct spiral.

    But if there were a painter so gifted that he could place on the canvas that glorious paradise seen by the interior eye of him whose outward sight had failed with long watching and labouring for liberty and truth, if there were a painter who could set before us the mazes of the sapphire brook, the lake with its fringe of myrtles, the flowery meadows, the grottoes overhung by vines, the forests shining with Hesperian fruit and with the plumage of gorgeous birds, the mossy shade of that nuptial bower which showered down roses on the sleeping lovers, what should we think of a connoisseur who should tell us that this painting, though finer than the absurd picture in the old Bible, was not so correct? Surely we should answer, It is both finer and more correct; and it is finer because it is more correct. It is not made up of correctly drawn diagrams; but it is a correct painting, a worthy representation of that which it is intended to represent.

    Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay: Moore’s Life of Lord Byron.

    He took it for granted that the kind of poetry which flourished in his own time, which he had been accustomed to hear praised from his childhood, and which he had himself written with success, was the best kind of poetry. In his biographical work he has repeatedly laid it down as an undeniable proposition that during the latter part of the seventeenth century, and the earlier part of the eighteenth, English poetry had been in a constant progress of improvement. Waller, Denham, Dryden, and Pope had been, according to him, the great reformers. He judged of all works of the imagination by the standard established among his own contemporaries. Though he allowed Homer to have been a greater man than Virgil, he seems to have thought the Æneid a greater poem than the Iliad. Indeed, he well might have thought so; for he preferred Pope’s Iliad to Homer’s. He pronounced that, after Hoole’s translation of Tasso, Fairfax’s would hardly be reprinted. He could see no merit in our fine old English ballads, and always spoke with the most provoking contempt of Percy’s fondness for them.

    Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay: Boswell’s Life of Johnson, Sept. 1831.

    “It is an uncontrolled truth,” says Swift, “that no man ever made an ill figure who understood his own talents, nor a good one who mistook them.” Every day brings with it fresh illustrations of this weighty saying; but the best commentary that we remember is the history of Samuel Crisp. Men like him have their proper place, and it is a most important one, in the Commonwealth of Letters. It is by the judgment of such men that the rank of authors is finally determined. It is neither to the multitude, nor to the few who are gifted with great creative genius, that we are to look for sound critical decisions. The multitude, unacquainted with the best models, are captivated by whatever stuns and dazzles them. They deserted Mrs. Siddons to run after Master Betty; and they prefer, we have no doubt, Jack Sheppard to Van Artevelde. A man of great original genius, on the other hand, a man who has attained to mastery in some high walk of art, is by no means to be implicitly trusted as a judge of the performance of others. The erroneous decisions pronounced by such men are without number. It is commonly supposed that jealousy makes them unjust. But a more creditable explanation may easily be found. The very excellence of a work shows that some of the faculties of the author have been developed at the expense of the rest; for it is not given to the human intellect to expand itself widely in all directions at once, and to be at the same time gigantic and well proportioned. Whoever becomes pre-eminent in any art, nay, in any style of art, generally does so by devoting himself with intense and exclusive enthusiasm to the pursuit of one kind of excellence. His perception of other kinds of excellence is therefore too often impaired. Out of his own department he praises and blames at random; and is far less to be trusted than the mere connoisseur, who produces nothing, and whose business is only to judge and enjoy. One painter is distinguished by his exquisite finishing. He toils day after day to bring the veins of a cabbage-leaf, the folds of a lace veil, the wrinkles of an old woman’s face, nearer and nearer to perfection. In the time which he employs on a square foot of canvas, a master of a different order covers the walls of a palace with gods burying giants under mountains, or makes the cupola of a church alive with seraphim and martyrs. The more fervent the passion of each of these artists for his art, the higher the merit of each in his own line, the more unlikely it is that they will justly appreciate each other. Many persons who never handled a pencil probably do far more justice to Michael Angelo than would have been done by Gerard Douw, and far more justice to Gerard Douw than would have been done by Michael Angelo. It is the same with literature. Thousands who have no spark of the genius of Dryden or Wordsworth do to Dryden the justice which has never been done by Wordsworth, and to Wordsworth the justice which, we suspect, would never have been done by Dryden. Gray, Johnson, Richardson, Fielding, are all highly esteemed by the great body of intelligent and well-informed men. But Gray could see no merit in Rasselas; and Johnson could see no merit in the Bard. Fielding thought Richardson a solemn prig; and Richardson perpetually expressed contempt and disgust for Fielding’s lowness.

    Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay: Madame D’Arblay, Jan. 1843.

    Fastidiousness, the discernment of defects, and the propensity to seek them, in natural beauty, are not the proofs of taste, but the evidences of its absence; it is, at least, an insensibility to beauty; it is worse than that, since it is a depravity when pleasure is found in the discovery of such defects, real or imaginary. And he who affects this because he considers it an evidence of his taste is, at least, pitiably ignorant; while not seldom punished by the conversion of that affectation into a reality. And it is the same in criticism as applied to works of literature. It is not the eye for faults, but beauties, that constitutes the real critic, in this, as in all else: he who is most discerning in the beauties of poetry is the man of taste, the true judge, the only critic. The critic, as he is currently termed, who is discerning in nothing but faults, may care little to be told that this is the mark of unamiable dispositions or of bad passions; but he might not be equally easy were he convinced that he thus gives the most absolute proofs of ignorance and want of taste.

    Dr. John Macculloch.

    Get your enemies to read your works, in order to mend them; for your friend is so much your second-self that he will judge too like you.

    Alexander Pope: Thoughts on Various Subjects.

    You are so good a critic that it is the greatest happiness of the modern poets that you do not hear their works; and, next, that you are not so arrant a critic as to damn them, like the rest, without hearing.

    Alexander Pope.

    True it is that the talents for criticism (namely, smartness, quick censure, vivacity of remark; indeed, all but acerbity) seem rather the gifts of youth than of old age.

    Alexander Pope.

    A critic supposes he has done his part if he proves a writer to have failed in an expression: and can it be wondered at if the poets seem resolved not to own themselves in any error? for as long as one side despises a well-meant endeavour the other will not be satisfied with a moderate approbation.

    Alexander Pope.

    A jest upon a poor wit at first might have had an epigrammatist for its father, and been afterwards gravely understood by some painful collector.

    Alexander Pope.

    It is very much an image of that author’s writing; who has an agreeableness that charms us, without correctness; like a mistress whose faults we see, but love her with them all.

    Alexander Pope.

    Sure, upon the whole, a bad author deserves better usage than a bad critic: a man may be the former merely through the misfortune of an ill judgment; but he cannot be the latter without both that and an ill temper.

    Alexander Pope.

    ’Tis necessary a writing critic should understand how to write. And though every writer is not bound to show himself in the capacity of critic, every writing critic is bound to show himself capable of being a writer; for if he be apparently impotent in this latter kind, he is to be denied all title or character in the other.

    Earl of Shaftesbury.

    A poet that fails in writing becomes often a morose critic. The weak and insipid white wine makes at length excellent vinegar.

    William Shenstone.

    It is a particular observation I have always made, that of all mortals a Critic is the silliest; for, by inuring himself to examine all things, whether they are of consequence or not, he never looks upon anything but with a design of passing sentence upon it; by which means he is never a companion, but always a censor. This makes him earnest upon trifles, and dispute on the most indifferent occasions with vehemence. If he offers to speak or write, that talent, which should approve the work of the other faculties, prevents their operations.

    Sir Richard Steele: Tatler, No. 29.

    A thorough Critic is a sort of Puritan in the polite world. As an enthusiast in religion stumbles at the ordinary occurrences of life, if he cannot quote Scripture examples on the occasion; so the Critic is never safe in his speech or writing, without he has, among the celebrated writers, an authority for the truth of his sentence.

    Sir Richard Steele: Tatler, No. 29.

    I hope, Sir, you will not take this amiss: I can assure you, I have a profound respect for you, which makes me write this with the same disposition with which Longinus bids us read Homer and Plato. When in reading, says he, any of those celebrated authors, we meet with a passage to which we cannot well reconcile our reasons, we ought firmly to believe, that were those great wits present to answer for themselves, we should to our wonder be convinced that we are only guilty of the mistakes before attributed to them.

    Sir Richard Steele: Tatler, No. 59.

    The malignant deity Criticism dwelt on the top of a snowy mountain in Nova Zembla: Momus found her extended in her den upon the spoils of numberless volumes half devoured. At her right hand sat Ignorance, her father and husband, blind with age; at her left, Pride, her mother, dressing her up in the scraps of paper herself had torn. There was Opinion, her sister, light of foot, hoodwinked and headstrong, yet giddy and perpetually turning. About her played her children, Noise and Impudence, Dulness and Vanity, Positiveness, Pedantry, and Ill Manners.

    Jonathan Swift.

    There is nothing so bad but a man may lay hold of something about it that will afford matter of excuse; nor nothing so excellent but a man may fasten upon something belonging to it whereby to reduce it.

    John Tillotson.

    Good sense is the foundation of criticism; this it is that has made Dr. Bentley and Bp. Hare the two greatest that ever were in the world. Not that good sense alone will be sufficient. For that considerable part of it, emending a corrupt text, there must be a certain sagacity, which is so distinguishing a quality in Dr. Bentley.

    Bishop William Warburton: To Dr. Birch; Nichols’s Lit. Anec., ii. 96.

    Some persons, from the secret stimulations of vanity or envy, despise a valuable book, and throw contempt upon it by wholesale.

    Dr. Isaac Watts.

    Let there be no wilful perversion of another’s meaning; no sudden seizure of a lapsed syllable to play upon it.

    Dr. Isaac Watts.

    Another sort of judges will decide in favour of an author, or will pronounce him a mere blunderer, according to the company they have kept.

    Dr. Isaac Watts.

    Every critic has his own hypothesis: if the common text be not favourable to his opinion, a various lection shall be made authentic.

    Dr. Isaac Watts.

    They will endeavour to diminish the honour of the best treatise rather than suffer the little mistakes of the author to pass unexposed.

    Dr. Isaac Watts.

    If the remarker would but once try to outshine the author by writing a better book on the same subject, he would soon be convinced of his own insufficiency.

    Dr. Isaac Watts.

    Such parts of writing as are stupid or silly, false or mistaken, should become subjects of occasional criticism.

    Dr. Isaac Watts.

    Show your critical learning in the etymology of terms, the synonymous and the paronymous or kindred names.

    Dr. Isaac Watts.