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ical pieces, of various merits and demerits, the majority certainly not inferior to those of the author who expresses himself in this vehement manner, can ever justify professions of hatred and contempt, and the use of reproachful and insulting language, such as by unanimous consent is forbidden in society?
We have heard of a politician who, in the heat of an angry debate, was unceremoniously addressed with the significant words, “ You lie.” Our citizen was not deficient in that virtue, so necessary to a statesman, selfcommand. “Stop there!” he said, “ Let us argue that! If
you will only listen to me, I will undertake to convince you that I did not lie !” In imitation of this reasonable disputant, I will endeavour to point out some of the arguments which might be used by an unlucky dunce alleged to be taken in the act of violating the good taste of the community by the perpetration of perfectly detestable verses, in order to protect himself against the severity of criticism and disarm the anger of the outraged public. He should move court in mitigation of sentence; and then represent that in reality the injury to the commonwealth was not by any means so great as has been represented. The writing of bad poetry " breaks no man's leg, nor picks his pocket.” His wares are put in the market precisely as is done with any others, and there exists no more reason why a man should be punished for offering bad poetry for sale than for keeping cloth of an inferior quality, or selling a badly made coat. 66 Caveat emptor.” No man is obliged to buy. He who purchases takes the article at his own risk, and if he « like not the tragedy," he may throw it down. Besides, even if the individual who has bought a volume think himself under obligation, from the incidental circumstance of having purchased it, to peruse the whole,
and be thereby put to serious loss and damage of his time, yet even then, it may be considered that the amount of the latter consumed is usually small, that it is not always certain that said time would otherwise have been better employed, and that it is not improbable that a considerable proportion of the readers who shall so act, will not receive any very acutely painful sensation from the violence thus done to their good taste. He may besides plead his utter innocence of any evil design in the production of the poetry in question; he having sincerely intended to write only that which was really good and sufficient for the public taste, and bona fide entertained the opinion, at the time of publication, that the verses in question did really possess the adequate merit to which we have here alluded. Nor could, I think, a reasonable court fail to admit that these pleadings would greatly abate their estimate of the extreme criminality of the action.
But to drop the impersonation of the unhappy culprit, I will proceed, in my own proper style, to express the reasons why I think acrimony in judging of even bad poetry unsuitable and unbecoming. The writing of poetry is essentially a noble and honourable task. It is an attempt to communicate an innocent and elevated pleasure; and is rarely executed without a consentaneous effort to improve, or at least to refine the mind. He who eminently succeeds in it has been held in honour in all ages of the world. As has been lately remarked by a critic, in speaking of Lord Byron, the death of a great poet is felt as a more personal loss, by each member of the community, than that of any man of political distinction. The successful and celebrated bard winds him. self into the feelings of the reader, supplies him with new ideas, and awakens his most concealed sympathies ;
filling, in short, the place of a private friend. Such an individual then, is not only honoured but loved. He contributes largely to the enjoyment of his fellows, and is accordingly rewarded by them. Now, what is the extent of the offence committed by an unsuccessful imitator? Led by that very common, if not almost universal source of error, an undue estimate of his own powers, he has undertaken to amuse the public ! he has attempted to give a refined and honourable pleasure ! he has had the presumption to think that what cost him labour and time, is worthy to fill up a few of the idle moments of others, and he has accordingly induced a bookseller to multiply copies of it, and make their existence known ! For this imprudence he is punished by disappointment; he experiences the mortification of neglect : he finds that what cost him so much trouble and was taken to be the offspring of a moment of high inspiration, is not considered by the public as worthy of the languid glances of a few unemployed minutes; he experiences the silent and cutting conviction of his inferiority in natural faculties and influential rank to the writers whom he had hoped to equal if not to excel. And, to aggravate his misfortune, he is an individual belonging to a peculiarly sensitive class; it has been for years his professional task to excite and to preserve in their utmost acuteness all those emotions of his mind, which the habits of ordinary business are calculated to blunt. In order to work
the feelings of others, he has intentionally kept his own sensations of pain in the liveliest exercise. “Si vis me flere, dolendum est primum ipsi tibi,” was the precept of the critic; and he has put it in the most complete execution. To find himself, in addition to this, treated, and that habitually, with a rudeness of language and style which implies that he is not considered entitled to the
ordinary respect due to a gentleman, is indeed additionally wounding to the individual himself, but, as there is no retaliation, is not very honourable to the manliness of the reviewer.
If we examine the office and duty of the latter, we shall not, I think, find any new motives to confirm us in our admiration of the brutal style of criticism. The general obligation of a reviewer or other critic, as I understand it, is not to punish, but to discriminate-he is not employed as an executioner, nor even as a constable, but as a judge. The importance of his office is certainly very great. The larger mass of the reading public are too much occupied with business or amusement to be able to peruse more than a very small portion of the books that come out ; and the influence which may be exerted on the selection of those they do read, by a critic, himself generally attended to, and speaking with the authority conferred by talents and learning, must naturally, till it meets with contradiction, be almost unbounded. And when an authority of this class does clash with its competitors, it is generally about the works of individuals who are the political or other rivals of the editors; leaving the great mass of literature to the operation of ordinary causes. The public are 'habitually influenced in their opinions by these tribunals to a very great degree indeed, and consider their perusal as a short cut to a great amount of knowledge, which most persons have no time to acquire in any other form.
Of how much importance, then, is it that these duties should be faithfully performed. From how much useful knowledge or agreeable reading may an unfaithful reviewer debar us, as effectually as if by the combustion of a library! By the simple disapprobation of an influential tribunal, the public are prevented from inquiring; there
is no appeal, and all future efforts of the same author are blasted with the reproach of dulness, and almost deprived of the utter possibility of a retrieval. Now, when we reflect upon the ordinary progress of authorship, this will appear manifestly unjust. There are scarcely any instances of an author having met with brilliant success in his first attempt. Voltaire, Pope, Byron, and a number of others, who afterwards reached the highest distinction, met at first with disheartening failures ; and had they been crushed in the bud, had excessive severity succeeded in discouraging them from all future efforts, I will not now say
what a loss to mankind ! but what a shameful injustice to the youthful aspirants !
It is time now to draw this essay to a conclusion ; and I will only recapitulate by saying, that I do not mean to object to candid and rigid criticism; but only to the manifestations of ill-nature, cruelty, and a partisan spirit, when the task is executed. I maintain that justice should be done to the merits of the weakest writer whenever his productions are noticed at all ; and that bitter and sweeping condemnations of the whole of a candidate's productions are just as unsuitable to the true character of criticism as those nauseous and inflated panegyrics, which we occasionally find inserted in the daily sheets, to aid in the circulation of trash and mawkishness. Dulness and imbecility should undoubtedly be discouraged from wasting their own time and that of the public ; but the censure should be founded upon the real merits of the case, and not depend upon political partisanship, the wishes of a bookseller, or the personal dislikes of an editor. And above all things, critics, in the utmost severity of their indignation, should never forget that they are bound as much as any other mortals by the common rules of humanity and politeness.