The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

III. Critical and Miscellaneous Prose

§ 11. Dowden

There remain two critics who may be taken as specially representative, in the latter part of the nineteenth century, the one of academic, and the other of non-academic, criticism. Edward Dowden was for many years the most widely known of the former group, and William Ernest Henley was the most highly gifted and the most influential of the latter. Both were something more than critics; but what, for the present purpose, may be called the extraneous activities of Dowden were of far less importance than Henley’s; for Dowden’s graceful and accomplished verse is light in the balance against Henley’s virile and varied poetry. And, except for one venture into the realm of the muses, Dowden, until his death remained, what his earliest and best known book proclaimed him to be, a critic. It is rarely that a young man wins fame with a single effort, as Dowden did with Shakespeare … his Mind and Art; and still more rarely does a first book remain, at the end of a long and active literary career, the best known and the best liked. This ready acceptance and this permanent fame were due, partly, to the merits of the book, and, partly, to the wide interest felt in Shakespeare. There was plenty of Shakespearean criticism even half a century ago; but it was mostly of what Dallas called the editorial class. Dowden supplied something different and higher—a thoughtful interpretation of the spirit of Shakespeare’s work. It was expressed, too, in a style lucid and attractive, though not free from the faults which, long afterwards, were pointed out in Matthew Arnold’s pungent essay on Dowden’s Life of Shelley. For the rest, his numerous essays are invariably scholarly, and they usually show that insight which a genial sympathy gives.