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A WORD ABOUT ANTHOLOGIES
Aubrey de Vere tells us of three conversations he held the very same day on the very same subject with three different authors. Two of them were men of great poetic genius, the third was a man of distinct poetic talent. The topic of discussion in each case was the poetry of Burns. The difference of opinion expressed struck him as remarkable. The first with whom he talked was Tennyson. “Read the exquisite songs of Burns,” exclaimed that poet, “in shape each of them has the perfection of the berry; in light the radiance of the dewdrop; you forget for its sake those stupid things, his serious pieces.
A little later in the day he met Wordsworth. Again the conversation fell on Burns. “Wordsworth,” he writes, “praised him even more vehemently than Tennyson had done, as the great genius who had brought poetry back to nature. 'Of course,' he said in conclusion, 'I refer to his serious efforts, such as The Cotter's Saturday Night; those foolish little amatory songs of his one has to forget.” On the evening of this same day he chanced to fall in with Henry Taylor. Him he told of the different views expressed by the two poets. The author of Philip Van Artevelde disposed of them both very
summarily. “Burns' exquisite songs and Burns' serious efforts are to me alike tedious and disagreeable reading," was the comment he made.
The story is somewhat singular; but after all it is much more singular for the rapidity with which the expression of these varying views chanced to follow one another than for the views expressed. The disparagement of great poetic work by writers, themselves of great poetic power, and likewise the extraordinary praise lavished by them upon very ordinary verse, are both significant facts which can hardly fail to arrest at times the attention of the student of literature. The history of letters, in truth, abounds in singular judgments which men of genius have passed upon the productions of other men of genius. It is often hard to tell which is the more remarkable—the mean opinion which these entertain of what the rest of the world has approved, or the admiration they have or profess to have for what the rest of the world refuses to regard with favor.
Many will recall the lofty scorn which Matthew Arnold poured upon the men who for generations had admired and enjoyed Macaulay's Lays of Ancient Rome. He proclaimed that a man's power to detect the ring of false metal in these pieces was a good measure of his fitness to give an opinion about poetical matters at all. The self-sufficiency of this utterance is as delicious as its positiveness. These Lays, it may be added, had been welcomed with such intense enthusiasm by Christopher North, the critical lawgiver of the generation of their appearance, that Macaulay felt himself constrained to make a personal acknowledgment of the cordiality of the greeting his work had met from the then all-powerful reviewer who had been one of his extreme political adversaries. But there is an even more amusing side to the affair. The self-satisfied criticism of Matthew Arnold could hardly have failed to bring to Trevelyan a half-malicious pleasure, when he revealed in his fascinating life of his uncle that it was the urgency of Arnold's own father that led Macaulay to complete and publish these Lays. They owed their conception to the theory of Niebuhr that the stories told in the first three or four books of Livy came from the lost ballads of the early Romans. This theory, Thomas Arnold adopted in his history as having been fully established. Macaulay also took the same view. Accordingly he amused himself, while in India, with the effort to restore some of these long-perished poems. Thomas Arnold died before the Lays were printed, but not before he had seen two of them in manuscript. These so impressed him that he wrote to Macaulay about them in terms of such eulogy that the latter was induced to go on with the completion and correction of them. In consequence the son was unconsciously exhibiting his own father as unfit to express any opinion about poetry at all.
The possession of creative power is indeed far from implying the possession of a corresponding degree of critical judgment. In literature all of us have our preferences and our aversions. Perhaps even more than their inferiors are men of genius susceptible to feelings of this nature and to the errors of judgment caused by them. The revelation of their likes and dislikes is in consequence apt to be more entertaining than edifying. At any rate, there is nothing surprising in itself that Tennyson and Wordsworth should each have cared in the poetry of Burns for what the other did not care at all. Each found in it that which appealed to him especially and also that which did not appeal to him in the slightest. It is but a single one of many proofs that the estimate taken by a man of genius of a particular work or writer is not necessarily of any more value than that taken by any other highly educated man, though it inevitably carries more weight with the general public. When, however, this estimate comes into direct conflict with the deliberate and settled opinion of the great body of cultivated readers, it is really of no value at all.