JMC : Philosophy of Literature / by Brother Azarias

Chapter III.
Literary Criticism.

CRITICISM goes hand in hand with art It is the educator of art It restrains impetuosities, prunes extravagances, develops stunted parts into due proportions, and initiates into the canons and practices of good taste. Criticism is not simply fault-finding. Mere intellectual cleverness can pick flaws. Every human production may be quarrelled with on the score of defects or imperfections. Our rhetoricians tear our master-pieces asunder, show how defective is their language, how inconsistent their action, how rambling their plot or the train of their thoughts, and end by leaving the pupil under the impression that our greatest writers wrote their own language very badly indeed. Generations have been, and are daily, taught, nothing else of our classic authors than that they violated this rule of grammar or sinned against that canon of rhetoric. It never occurs to teacher or pupil that the grammar might be erroneous or the rhetoric arbitrary; that a standard of expression in one stage of a language need not be the standard in another stage; that a sentence may seem very defective when torn from its context, and may be the only proper form when read in the page from which it has been abstracted, and that the final tribunal of appeal in all matters of correctness and taste regarding language, is the general custom of the great writers of the language. Prim phrasings may be good; but the thought that burns for utterance does not express itself in prim phrasings. It sweeps through the soul, making a music all its own, in language possessing a rhythm and a force all its own, not to be measured and weighed with the weights and measures supplied by grammarian or rhetorician, and all the more forcible because of the apparent irregularities.

Criticism is the careful examination of a work in order to determine its nature and scope, how far it speaks the truth, and what standard of taste and excellence it has attained. As we have already perceived, a book-notice based upon a glance at the table of contents and a hasty perusal of the preface, is not criticism. Neither is it criticism, simply to search for what is not contained in a book; nor to commend a book merely because of the pleasure it gives without paying due regard to the truth or falsity of the opinions or principles upon which that pleasure is based; nor to carp at that which may run counter to one's prejudices or preconceived notions, for one's prejudices may be unreasonable and one's notions may require revision. True criticism rises above party and prejudice. It is search made with a mind ever docile, ever open to instruction. It is truth-loving. It examines both sides of an issue. It will state the points telling against a cherished opinion as well as those in favor of iL It is conscientious. Under no circumstances will it suppress any jot or tittle of truth. It is honest. What it says, it says for the sake of truth pure and simple; it therefore disdains to trifle with the truth or with the sincere mind inquiring after truth.

Criticism is twofold: it is analytic and synthetic. Analytic criticism resolves a subject into its component parts. It takes account of the various elements that make up a work. It notes the extent to which other men's thoughts enter therein ; to what degree it reflects past and present influences; which of its ideas are of home and which of foreign origin; and of the home, which are personal and which national. It traces the work back to its sources. It analyzes style, method and principles; the style, in order to note how far it is in keeping with the subject; the method, in order to determine the degree of ability with which the author has handled and utilized his materials; the principles, in order to ascertain how far he uhderstands his subject-matter.

Here we are landed at synthetic criticism. This consists in the reconstruction of the work out of its component parts; or rather, it is building up in the mind of the reader, a just conception of the work, after it has been thoroughly analyzed. This is the more difficult portion of the task of criticism. It implies that the critic has formed unto himself an ideal. The accuracy of his ideal will depend largely on his acquaintance with what is best among the writings of different peoples. An exclusive knowledge of the literature of his own language will not suffice. Each nation has its ideal of excellence in style and method. The element that may be lacking in one literature is to be found in another. The prose of French literature is far superior in clearness and epigrammatic precision to the prose of German literature; but, other things being equal, a page of German literature is, as a rule, far more thought-suggesting than a page of French literature. And so we might compare all our modern literatures and find in one the excellence that another may be deficient in. It is only by an acquaintance with several that the modern critic can form unto himself an ideal embodying all excellences. Having set up his ideal, he makes comparison of the work under review with others of the same kind and notes the points of difference and resemblance. He dwells on the parts in their relations with each other and with the whole. He notes how far the book falls short of his ideal; what subject-matter it actually contains, and what it lacks in order to be more perfect.

The critic's duty is not yet accomplished. There still remains for him to label and classify the book and give it its proper niche in the world of letters. Has the book the notes of a master-piece that will endure for all time? Has it a vivifying idea? Does it reveal a soul? Or is it a book of the hour, made to satisfy some want or some craving of the hour, and then pass into oblivion? -- These are questions that no critic can settle, and few can give approximate answers to. A more pressing question still, is this: Does the book reflect or embody the Time-spirit? -- It is essential that the critic know the various currents of thought that flow through the age. He should be able to distinguish between the main current and the various subsidiary and counter currents that are induced thereby. He should know whence they come, whither they flow, how they move, whether slowly or rapidly, whether directly or meanderingly, and on what plane. He should know what authors drift in each. For this he requires a clear vision and a delicate and highly cultured sense of literary appreciation. Then there is a twofold Time-spirit There is the Time-spirit that guides, directs and providentially ordains the onward and upward progress of a nation or an age in the path of civilization. It is this spirit that makes for liberty of thought and liberty of action with such rapid flow in the present century. Men misinterpret its meaning; men misapply its inspirations; men pervert its ordinances; in its name men violate obligations the most binding, trample on rights the most sacred, and ignore duties the most pressing; but withal it is none the less Heaven-sent, for liberty is truth. Then there is the Time-spirit begotten of men's evil passions. it counteracts the good; not unfrequently like a torrent does it bear down all other spirits before it, and becoming predominant, inspire the most active and fertile intellects of the period. In this manner did the paganizing spirit of the Renaissance possess Boccaccio. So did the sentiment of the vague so prevalent in the early part of this century for a while hold Chateaubriand within its grasp; so did the secular spirit of the present century possess Goethe. With the Time-spirit in all its phases must the critic be familiar.

Every author leaves unsaid a certain amount which his readers supply in the perusal of his book. It is the common ground work of their thinking, upon which author and reader stand and meet and are at home. It never occurs to the author to repeat this unwritten body of ideas. It is in the air; it is the light by which his thought has meaning and relevancy it is of the very essence of the Time-spirit. The moment this subtle, all pervading atmosphere of thought is lost, the book ceases to be intelligible in the same degree; it becomes like unto a manuscript from which some sentences have been effaced, and the reader is obliged to supply the deficiency by conjectures more or less happy. He who reads Paradise Lost without being familiar with the times in which Milton lived, the frame of mind in which he wrote, and the temper of those to whom he addressed his sublime song, has still to learn the scope and meaning of that great poem.

Criticism has other and higher duties. These are mainly of an educative character. It is eclectic in its method. It sifts the wheat of literature from the chaff. It seeks to bring the popular intelligence into touch with the best thoughts of the best authors of all times. By placing within general view its ideals of thought and expression, it becomes a factor of true culture. It teaches us how to read and interpret our world-authors. It throws upon their methods, their persons, their times, their modes of thinking, a flood of light, which enables us to understand and read correctly what had hitherto been many a dim and blurred page. It gets at the heart of a book and shows it to us palpitating with the life-blood of a vivifying principle coursing through it, and we henceforth are possessed of the meaning and import of that book. Sainte-Beuve, that prince of critics, in his polished and beautiful essays -- Causeries du Lundi -- possesses the rare talent of renewing one's interest in an author, and causing one to re-read the author with a pleasure that one had hitherto not known. Take, for instance, his essays on Bossuet,{1} on Bourdaloue,{2} on Joubert,{3} on Pascal,{4} on La Fontaine.{5} These are all subjects within his grasp, and he charms one in his talks about them. Sometimes, he talks about a subject that is beyond his reach; such is his essay on Dante{6} in which he fails almost as hopelessly in his estimate of the great Italian as did Voltaire.

Three primary elements enter into literary criticism: the author, the book, and the critic. The author exercises all the powers of his soul and puts into his book a certain amount of his personality. The whole man speaks and appeals to the whole man in the reader. A soul vibrates behind the printed page, and the reader's soul vibrates in a responsive thrill. This is especially true of literature in its highest and best form. But in order to produce such literature, the author should exercise his faculties in the order of their pre-eminence. His will-power should control his pen so that it inscribe nothing contrary to the eternal principles of morality. His reason should retain its supremacy and direct the imagination in its flights. He should always hold sensibility subordinate to reason and imagination, In the harmonious working of all the faculties is the healthful book wrought. This is the book that becomes a joy to the soul. With such a joy does one disport in the sunlight that plays upon the page of Homer. In Shakespeare also does one find a healthful balance of soul which enabled him to fashion his world precisely as the world we live in is fashioned, with its smiles and its tears, its comedies and its tragedies. There is a joy running through the pages of Walter Scott as refreshing as the morning dew. This complete sanity of authorship accompanies genius in its highest and best flights. Where there is a lack of harmony in the faculties, there is an absence of healthfulness in the book, In the stead is to be found a morbid sensitiveness running through the whole gamut of feeling, from Kubla-Khan and the nightmares of Poe to the melancholy of Lamartine and the cynicism of Carlyle, from the soul-disease of Manfred to the world-pain of Heine and Leopardi. It is not the whole man that speaks; it is passion, prejudice, exaggerated feeling. The soul-response cannot be healthful; it can give out only the harsh notes of despair, discontent, and revolt.

Next, consider the book. Its object is truth; whether it be truth in the moral, physical, or metaphysical order -- in the domain of history, or in that of poetry and fiction -- truth it is pure and simple, the truth and the whole truth. Now, there are many ways of looking at truth, all of them depending upon the habits of thought of the author:

1. There is the rhetorical method, in which the author looks at truth, not for truth's sake, but as it speaks to his rhetorical sense. He measures the value of things, not according to their intrinsic worth, but by the effect they are likely to produce in a well-balanced antithesis or a clever metaphor. The note of sincerity is totally absent from such composition. The reader feels all along that had the opposite or the contradictory proposition been as favorable to the construction of a clever sentence the author would have made use of it equally as well. This is the feeling that accompanies the reading of those brilliant flashes of rhetoric, the History and the Essays of Macaulay.

2. There is the fantastic method of regarding a subject; it is sometimes inaptly called the poetic method. It consists in overlooking all other aspects of a subject than those that strike the fancy. It would see in Puritanism only its fanatical feature, and in Catholic ritual only the candles and incense and gorgeous vestments. It never penetrates beyond the superficial traits that speak to the eye and harmonize with the natural taste. It has never grasped the deeper meaning underlying the outward show. Sensibility is the predominant faculty in this method.

3. There is the logic method, which cannot think a thought without a therefore. It bristles with syllogisms. It has a show of clearness in arrangement of subject-matter. Its points, and divisions and subdivisions are numbered and ordered. It seems possessed of depth and carefulness, and apparently it exhausts its theme. But it is all a seeming. It is shoal and shallow. Far from exhausting, it has simply contrived to steer clear of the real difficulties. It is the most deceptive of mental habits. It takes the genius of an Aquinas to fathom a subject and reach all its difficulties with such a cumbersome method. The genius of a Spinoza was shattered upon its shoals. The syllogism is useful as a test; the mind should always be logical; but with great thinkers the logic runs along in an undercurrent, even as it does in all sound thinking.

4. In opposition to this logic method is the piecemeal method of thought. It does not seek consecutiveness. The mind stands aloof from the works on wbich it feeds; it jots down the suggestions that come, be their relevancy what it may. It is a method of moods. It does not pretend to consistency. Its opinion of to-day may not be that of tomorrow; and still it makes no advance. It moves in circles. Such a mind was Emerson's.

5. There is the metaphysical method. It endeavors to grasp the essence of things. It makes straight for the heart of a subject, and in doing so it is likely to walk rough-shod over the refined phrase and all that goes to make up the urbanity of style. Imagination there may be in abundance, but sensibility and patient culture are lacking.

6. There is the moralizing method begotten of the mental habit of prosing on all topics. It may show sensibility and imagination and reason in due order and proportion, but it lacks vitality. Its main support is the truism; the chief staple of its material is the commonplace. It is prim and respectable, and certain people consider it admirable reading for the young. But they are mistaken. To bore the youthful mind becomes the death of all intellectual activity.

7. There is the poetical method. It comes from the habit of seeing in objects the ideal that beautifies them and lifts them out of the ordinary and commonplace. The poet need not write every line glittering with bright thoughts; it is only the purely clever man who can achieve this feat, and the purely clever man never becomes more than a second rate poet. Emerson has truly said -- and we can accept the saying as a sound canon of criticism -- that a single line suffices to embalm a poem for all time. Sometimes there may not be a single line worth remembering, still less a line that burns itself into the memory as so many of Browning's do, and yet, as in the case of several of Wordsworth's poems, in spite of bald expression, the reader finds himself, by the time he has finished the poem, lifted into an atmosphere of poesy. A new sense -- a second sight -- has been added to his intellectual vision. This is the function of true poetry.

8. Finally, there is the method of a mind accustomed to look at subjects in all their aspects. Such a mind conceals from itself none of the difficulties surrounding a subject; it meets them face to face; it grapples with them; in the light of the main issue it seeks their solution; it employs no useless words; it makes use of the simplest terms to express the highest truths; there is in its expression a fullness and a completeness that grasp the whole truth in all its bearings; reason, imagination and sensibility are there, but reason is uppermost, and holds the others in check, even while they are imparting life and color to the sentences, and a poetic glow is giving them warmth. The nearest approach to this order of mind is Cardinal Newman.

These various orders of minds will naturally leave their impress in as many different styles, each corresponding to the cast of mind, and the form of method. Here enters the third element of criticism. It is the duty of the critic to probe the style, determine the working-method employed, and measure the extent of the mind-equipment which the author brings to his subject. Does the language fit the subject? Is the method employed, that best calculated to exhaust the subject and ascertain the whole truth? What preparation does the author bring to the treatment of his subject? Wherein does he differ from those who have preceded him in the same field? Has he added any new idea? Has he discovered any new fact throwing additional light upon the topic? Is there an evident reason for the existence of the new book? Here are leading questions the conscientious critic puts to him. self and seeks an answer for in the book before him. Other questions that follow are these: What has the author said? What has he left unsaid? How far does the book lack completeness from the omissions? It is a frequent practice for the critic to quarrel, not with the book that the author has written but with the book that he has not written. The critic apprehends the subject from one point of view; the author from another. Now it is the critic's duty first to take the author's point of view, enter into his intentions and determine how far he has carried out his projected plan. Afterwards, the critic may return to his own view and with profit to the author and his readers, give another aspect of the subject.

This leads us to consider the legitimate function of criticism. It is to regulate the methods of work, to lay out the limitations within which to work, and to establish the laws of good taste according to the nature of the work. It is to awaken and cultivate the literary conscience, by virtue of which the writer scruples to insert a word or phrase not in accord with the strictest propriety, dreads to deviate by the least shade of meaning from what he knows to be the precise truth, and does justice to his authorities by not garbling or tampering with their works, and by quoting them only in the full sense of their meaning and known intention. It is also the function of criticism to cultivate deference to the ideal in art-work. No matter how profound and fruitful one's ideas may be, they lose all value and permanent efficacy by being put into slovenly, rude, or uncouth form. It is part of the critic's duty to call attention to the form best suited, and even direct as to the easiest and most efficient manner of so moulding the idea. Criticism wages incessant warfare against rudeness, vulgarity, and in season and out of season seeks to develop intellectual delicacy and urbanity. Men may differ; they may carry on a fierce and uncompromising controversy; but for all that, they need never cease to be courteous and urbane, and their home-thrusts will be all the more telling. Men may speak their minds out without calling their adversaries by nicknames. Your opponent may possibly be a fool; why not point out wherein lies the foolishness of his actions or assertions, without applying to him the opprobrious epithet?

Another and an important function of literary criticism is to break down the barriers of prejudice, let in the light and extend the sphere of knowledge. With this view, it raises itself above party; it even seeks to overcome national predilections, and recognize merit the world over. Therefore, does it develop a strong resentment against these most pernicious barriers to all intellectual growth -- Chauvinism and provincialism in every shape and form. One's country may be very beautiful and fertile, one's people may be endowed with many noble traits of character, one's national literature may possess great worth in many departments of thought; but to think that outside of one's country there is nothing to be learned, that one's people is supreme in everything, that one's literature is lacking in no excellence -- this were at once to bar the road to all progress. One sets up household gods -- idols of one's own making -- and worships them happy and self-satisfied. Now, it is a chief function of criticism to break the idols and destroy the illusory peace. It brings one to see how little has been done, how imperfectly that little has been done, and how much still remains to be done. It defines one's limitations. And this is the secret of success in every walk of life, that a man should know his limitations. He who confines himself strictly to that which is within his capacity to do, and who does that work well, be the work what it may, is the man who is heard from. His work is lasting. He who has never determined the limitations of his own capacity, who deems himself equal to all things, who has never got beyond a vague desire to achieve something in the world of letters, and who now seeks success on this line of thought, now on that other, is simply beating the air and wasting energy to no purpose.

Criticism performing these functions brings with it instruction as well as judgment. It opens up new vistas of thought. It is healthful and hopeful. It is in the highest sense educative. The law of criticism, as we have conceived it in these pages, is this: To know what is best in thought and in style, and to make thereof a criterion whereby to judge literary work according to the degree of its approach to the ideal standard. The basis of criticism is knowledge, its object is truth.

{1} t. X., pp. 145-174.

{2} t. ix., pp. 210-240.

{3} t. i., pp. 126-142.

{4} t. v., pp. 413-426.

{5} t. vii., pp. 412-426.

{6} t. xi., pp. 166-179.

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