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OLD AND NEW CANONS OF POETICAL
From The Contemporary Review. the fact that Mr. Matthew Arnold has
been endeavoring to provide us with one. CRITICISM.
Had he been successful in the attempt,
there would have been no room for fur. WHEN men have been long engaged in ther observation. Unfortunately the new a discussion that seems to hold out no canon Mr. Arnold advances concerning promise of a definite conclusion, the sus- poetry, should it gain acceptance, will, it picion is naturally engendered that the seems to me, only make confusion worse endlessness of the controversy is caused confounded. This may appear a bold by the too vague apprehension of the thing to say of an attempt to assist our matter in dispute. Thence arises a crav- perplexity made by one who is both a ing for some definition that shall not be poet of distinction and a critic of emi. vague, but as particular and precise as the nepce. But I can only state my reasons nature of the subject and the inherent in. for that conclusion, and leave it to others firmities of language will permit.
to decide whether the fresh difficulties I fancy some such craving has arisen Mr. Arnold bas created, for me at least, in connection with the controversies that are fanciful or not. have for some tiine been current concern- Mr. Arnold is a singularly circumspect ing the respective merits of the English writer; and evidently it is with repugpoets of this century who are silent in nance that he commits himself to a defitheir graves. Few will doubt that there nite statement. He has written some of are at least three of these to each of whom the most agreeable prose volumes of our in turn precedence is given over the other time; in which he has let his conscioustwo by critics who are one and all entitled ness play freely about the ideas of other to an opinion, and who may fairly demand people, whilst more or less concealing his a hearing on this interesting theme. By- own behind a fascinating veil. An inron, Shelley, and Wordsworth are the stance of what I mean may be found at illustrious trio whose rival claims have page 67 of “Culture and Anarchy,” a caused and still support the controversy. work I should think no one ever opens Mr. Matthew Arnold has just pronounced, without enjoying the luxury of an intelin explicit terms, in favor of Wordsworth. lectual smile. It is a delightful volume, I imagine Mr. Swinburne, Mr. Rossetti, and makes much notable folly look more and others, would confer the palm upon foolish than ever. But, probably, its own Shelley. Finally, there are some of us drift is anarchic, for, whilst rendering who would be disposed to place Byron many nonsensical opinions untenable, it before either.
scarcely offers anything sensible in their I do not propose in this paper to offer place. After arguing that we want a any direct contribution to that contro- principle of authority, to counteract the versy. My purpose rather is to inquire tendency to anarchy that seems to be whether it be possible to define what threatening us, Mr. Arnold observes : poetry peculiarly is, what is its main and distinguishing function, and upon what,
But how to organize this authority, or to principally, the greatness and superiority what hands to trust the wielding of it? How of the poet depend. It is obvious that if to get your State, summing up the right reason
of the community, and giving effect to it, as nothing of the kind be possible, then one
circumstances may require, with vigor? And man's opinion about poets and poetry is
here I think I see my enemies waiting for me as good and as authoritative as another's, with a hungry joy in their eyes. But I shall and all our attempted estimates resolve elude them. themselves into the mere rival assertions, “I like this,” “ I prefer that.”
In effect, he does elude them. But how That I am not alone in thinking some does he elude them? By alluding to the more exact definition of the main function difficulty, which is the kernel of the ques of the poet is required than we at present tion, no more; and by being so entertain seem to possess, may be gathered from ling for two hundred pages further, that
most readers doubtless forget the ques. defined features. He begs us to observe tion ever arose.
that "the noble and profound application The new canon upon poetry which Mr. of ideas to life is the most essential part Arnold invites us to accept is, that poetry of poetic greatness, and that a great poet is a criticism of life, and that those poets receives his distinctive character of suare the greatest whose criticism of life is periority from his application, under the the most healthy and the most true. Iconditions immutably fixed by the laws of dare say the canon, put thus explicitly, poetic beauty and poetic truth, from his will not altogether recommend itself to application, I say, to his subject, what. its own author. But I think I shall be ever it may be, of the ideas on man, on able to show that this is the theory he nature, and on human life, which he has really propounds; and that if it is to be acquired for himself." It is not easy for modified it must disappear altogether, a careful reader either to assent or to and so cease to be of any avail as a object to these assertions; they are so weapon of criticism, for which purpose it inconveniently vague. But Mr. Arnold was avowedly forged.
intends them, not as a recantation of the The schoolmen of the Middle Ages, for canon that poetry is a criticism of life, whom many persons in the nineteenth | but as that canon writ large; written so century entertain a contempt which I am large in fact, as to make it difficult to de. sure Mr. Arnold does not share, laid cide where the essential point really lies. down that a definition, to be of much use, It is possible that, just as in the passage should be both “inclusive ” and “exclu- from “ Culture and Anarchy," he again sive," therein repeating an observation said to himself, “ Here I think I see my made many centuries earlier by logicians enemies waiting for me with a hungry joy equally cautious. In other words, a defi- in their eyes. But I shall elude them.” nition should include all the peculiar and On this occasion, however, he does not essential qualities of the thing defined, elude his enemies, or, as it would be more and these should be qualities excluded proper to put it, his humble admirers, who from the definition of any other thing. are waiting with a hungry joy for instrucTo say,
for example, of a horse, that it is tion at the hand of so consummate a masan animal with four legs, is not to help to ter. For here the sportive workings of define it, because cows, sheep, and many his own mind bring his consciousness to other animals, have likewise four legs. bay, and after a good long pursuit the In the same way, to say of poetry that it canon about poetry being a criticism of is a criticism of life, is to offer no help life is at last run to earth in the following towards the definition of poetry, seeing, significant passage: as Mr. Arnold confesses, that in so far as it is true at all, it is equally true of prose. for the worth of what he has given us in poetry
Where, then, is Wordsworth's superiority? • The end and aim of all literature,” he i hold to be greater, on the whole,. than the says, “is, if one considers it attentively; worth of what Leopardi has given us. ... As nothing but that – a criticism of life;" compared with Leopardi, Wordsworth, though and then he is forced to add, “We are at many points less lucid, though far less a not brought much on our way, I admit, master of style, far less of an artist, gains so towards an adequate definition of poetry, inuch by his criticism of life being, in certain as distinguished from prose, by that matters of profound importance, healthful and truth."
true, whereas Leopardi's pessimism is not, It will perhaps seem to many readers that the value of Wordsworth's poetry, on the that this candid confession ends the con
whole, stands higher for us than that of Leo
pardi. troversy, and that we ought to be satisfied with this graceful withdrawal by Mr. Here we have the canon arrived at maArnold of his own canon. As a fact, turity, and raised to the dignity and effihowever, he does not withdraw it, but cacy of a dogma. In fact, Mr. Arnold goes on battling gallantly to save it, by has, 1 submit, advanced two proposipresenting it in other ways, and with less tions :
Ist. That poetry is a criticism of life. all of these are remarkable for agreement,
2nd. That the relative greatness of a as compared with poets. Take five such poet mainly depends on the healthfulness poems, for example, as the “De Natura and truth of his criticism of life.
Rerum” of Lucretius, the “ Divina ComAgainst these two propositions I will media” of Dante, Pope's “ Essay on ask leave to contend:
Man,” Wordsworth's “ Excursion," and Ist. That poetry is not a criticism of Byron's “Don Juan.” If these five poets, life, in any natural and previously ac- in these five poems, be passing a judg. cepted sense of the word criticism and the ment upon life, all one can say is the word life.
impression left by their judgments, if they 2nd. That to make the relative great were intended for such, is to preclude the ness of a poet depend upon the healthful. reader from forming a consistent judgness and truth of his criticism of life, is to ment upon life at all. place the estimate of his poetry at the
That this fact constitutes no cause of mercy of the opinion of anybody and every- reproach against these poets, I trust we body as to what is a true and healthy shall perceive in due course. But, for the criticism of life, about which no consensus present, what is the inference to be drawn exists.
from it? Obviously it is this. If poetry 3rd. That in proportion as a poet occu-l be a criticism, in other words, a judgment pies himself in his poetry mainly with a upon, or estimate of, life, and poets form criticism of life, to that extent he injures different estimates and pass different his chance of being a great poet.
judgments, what next becomes necessary ? Since every controversy must turn in Either we must agree to let them disa. some measure upon the signification of gree, or we must ourselves create a court the words employed, I think it is not of appeal, to decide which estimate is the captious to ask that familiar words should most correct and whose judgment is nearcarry a familiar meaning. Previously, est to the truth. therefore, to inquiring whether poetry be Now let us mark what follows from this a criticism of life, it is necessary to ascer- unavoidable alternative. If we agree to tain what is the meaning of the word life, let them disagree, then the proposition that and what the meaning of the word criti. poetry is the passing of a judgment upon cism. The meaning I have always found life, intended as a canon of criticisin and attached to these words is as follows: an instrument or measure for testing the
Life is the sum total of the sensations relative greatness of poets, falls to the and actions of mankind; in other words, ground, and is of no avail. If, in consewhatever men perceive, feel, think, or do. quence of their disagreement, we appeal Criticism is forming and pronouncing a to a higher court, where shall we find it? judgment upon something or other; and Shall the judges be selected from among criticism of life, therefore, is passing a our philosophers ? Philosophy has not judgment upon life.
yet found its first cause, or its final end. Now, is poetry, or, in other words, is The languages spoken amid the wreck of the main and special function of the poet, the Tower of Babel had more resemblance passing a judgment upon life? If it is, than the verdicts of philosophy, for at let us see what follows.
least they had a common root. Shall we No one will pretend that a consistent, pick our judges from practical moralists? homogeneous judgment or estimate of life Even if these entirely agreed, which they can be extracted from a perusal of all the do not, and if they could be brought to poets with whom readers of poetry are determine whether morality be intuitive most familiar. Indeed, I doubt if any and self-dependent, or inductive and utiliclass of writers leave so contradictory and tarian, I should still have to observe that confusing an impression of life upon the life — that is to say, all that inen perceive, mind as the poets. Historians differ, feel, think, and do is considerabiy more metaphysicians dispute, and doctors noto- extensive, and covers far more ground, riously disagree. But I should say that I than practical morality. I conless I am
unable to suggest or indicate any other sous observations upon life, and if we are body of men who would provide the con. to regard them, in their entirety, so far as sentaneous authority of which we are in entirety can be predicated of them, as crit. search. Like “your State summing, up icisms of life, most persons would find the right reason of the community," as themselves in this dilemma, vis-à-vis of declared to be the object of quest in Mr. Arnold's canon, that the views ex“ Culture and Anarchy,” but unhappily pressed in “Don Juan" are perhaps true, not discovered, it “eludes” us, and our but are certainly not healthy.
“ The “ hungry joy ” is changed into hungry Excursion,” like the “Essay on Man, disappointment.
generally passes for orthodox with the Many illustrations might be borrowed unwary; partly because a poet not fila. from the poets themselves to fortify this grantly heretical is too uncommon a pheconclusion; but a few will suffice. What nomenon for his opinions to incur searchare we to say of the “ De Rerum Nn- ing examination by the orthodox, and “in turâ ”? Is it healthful and true ? To the kingdom of the blind one-eyed people many people, probably to most, it is at are kings,” partly because Wordsworth best only a fine piece of paganism, not led a blameless life, and is assumed to be true, and therefore not healthy. In the right since he meant well. Yet Mr. Are eyes of some orthodox Protestants, the nold himself dismisses Wordsworth's phi
Divina Commedia” is necessarily a losophy with curt ceremony, and, what is mass of beautiful, and not always beauti. stranger still, said long ago of the poet ful, superstition. If any one will turn to whom he now ranks so highly, precisely the edition of Pope's works, begun by “ on account of his criticism of life," that Mr. Elwin, and now being so ably continued by Mr. Courthope, he will be puz
Wordsworth's eyes avert their ken
From half of human fate. zled to find that divines, not open to any charge of heterodoxy, have pronounced Many of my readers will remember the the Essay on Man to be what Pope passage, and to recall it is likewise to redeclared he meant it for, a vindication of mind ourselves that in the poem from the ways of God, while others, equally which it is taken Mr. Arnold spoke of sound on the theological side, protest that Sophocles as one an infidel who hated divines and divinity
Who saw life steadily, and saw it whole. with all his heart dictated its doctrines.” This is Mr. Elwin's opinion, and he evi- What would the Christian critic of life dently inclines to think the poetry of the say to this, seeing that, when Sophocles poem not much better than its philoso- wrote, Christianity had not yet been phy. Dugald Stewart, on the contrary, a heard of ? man not prone to rash enthusiasm, af- It would appear, therefore, that in their firmed that the “ Essay on Man" is the criticism of life poets have differed matenoblest specimen of philosophical poetry rially, and that, upon the question whether which our language affords, and wiih the any particular poet's criticism of life be exception of a very few passages, contains healthful and true or the reverse, or healtha valuable summary of all that human ful and not true, or true and not healthful, reason has been able hitherto to advance there is a like divergence and an equal in justification of the moral government variety of opinion. What is the unavoidof God.” Bowles, more circumspectly, able conclusion ? Surely that the canon affirmed that the poem “ will continue to which would represent poetry as a criticharm from the inusic of its verse, the cism of life, and would make the relative splendor of its diction, and the beauty of greatness and superiority of a poet turn its illustrations, when the philosophy ihat| upon his criticism of life, far from lending gave rise to it, like the coarse manure that us any fresh light, gravely darkens counfed the flowers, is perceived and remem- sel; and, worse than this, that it tends to bered no more. It may be suspected, confirm the pernicious babit only too however, from what we have seen, that a common amongst us already, of estimate great many people who dislike the philos- ing writers rather by what they say than ophy of the "Essay on Man,” its view of by the consideration of how they say it; the relations of God to ourselves, in other in other words, rather by what we want words, those who dislike its criticism or them, than by what they intend, to offer estimate of one of the chief things apper. us. taining to life, will look somewhat coldly For if Mr. Arnold will think of it, is it on its verse, its diction, and its illustra- not the fact that he has unintentionally tions. In “Don Juan" there are numer- embodied, and stamped with his high
authority, the unconscious standard by get; and it is precisely because I think which most people judge not of poets with Mr. Arnold that the dictum which and poetry alone, but of pictures, statues, declared Wordsworth's poetry to be premusic, in a word, of any production of cious because his philosophy is sound an art? They estimate works of art, for the unfortunate dictum, that I cannot help most part, according as these seem to thinking Mr. Arnold's own dictum that agree with and promote, or to conflict Wordsworth is a greater poet than Leowith and oppose, what for the moment I pardi because his criticism of life is more will call their prejudices. I think Mr. healthy and true than Leopardi's, also an Arnold will scarcely doubt that there are unfortunate dictum. Indeed, Mr. Arnold many men of the world who think Pope a seems to me, in effect, to propound, and far greater poet than discriminating criti. in the passage relating to Wordsworth cism could allow him to be, simply be- and Leopardi to propound in explicit cause he writes about the themes that terms, the very canon he deprecates when interest them most, and takes just about advanced by others. as imaginative a view of men and things It will perhaps be remembered that I as accomplished men of the world, who proposed to establish three propositions ; are nothing else, are able to take. Again, and I would submit that the second of I fancy he would not deny that many cul. these, That to make the relative greattivated, tender-bearted women have ad- ness of a poet depend upon the healthfulmired the poetry of Mrs. Hemans, and, ness and truth of his criticism of life is let us say, some of the poorer and more to place the estimate of his poetry at the commonplace portions of the poetry of mercy of the opinion of anybody and Byron, more than those compositions de- everybody as to what is a true and health. serve to be admired, because these pre-ful criticism of life, about which no concisely represent what they, at the moment sensus exists, has in the course of the of reading, themselves happened to be foregoing observations been established. feeling. It is this that makes Pollok's If we look at poetry, taken in its entirety,
Course of Time” such agreeable read- as a criticism of life, we shall find in its ing to some persons, and that has ob- music, which we have been accustomed tained for the works of Mr. Tupper so to think so harmonious, but "sweet bells wide a circulation and so much popularity. I jangled.” If we look at the poets sepa. Nay, as Mr. Arnold himself points out, rately, and attempt to allot them their “the fervent Wordsworthian will add, as places in the poetic hierarchy according Mr. Leslie Stephen does, that Words to the truth and healthfulness with which worth's poetry, is precious, because his they individually seem to have criticised philosophy is sound;" and if so lettered life, then we must make ourselves judges a reader, so clear a thinker, and so shrewd of what is true and healthful criticism of a critic as Mr. Leslie Stephen, can judge life, which is to leave us the victims of in this manner, is it wonderful that the our own social prejudices and theological world at large, the admirers of Pollok, the prepossessions, or to compel us to seek worshippers of Mr. Tupper, should judge for other and better-agreed judges elsein this manner? It may be thought that where, and these are not to be found. to adduce the instance of Mr. Tupper is | The amazing conclusions to which men to trifle with the question, or at least to of large capacity and lofty judgment have import into the discussion of it that pecul. been led in their literary criticisms by iar form of prejudice which is usually en- their own particular criticism of life gendered by the ridiculous. But I would should serve as a warning to less gifted submit that the persons who think Mr. and less impartial persons. It led FredTupper's "poetry precious because his erick Schlegel to place Calderon above philosophy is sound," and the persons Shakespeare. Had he confined himself who think Wordsworth's poetry precious to stating his conclusion we might have because his philosophy is sound, are, as felt perplexed. Fortunately for us, if unthe phrase is, tarred with the same brush. fortunately for himself, he has given the They are both measuring poetry by a reasons that convinced him. Here they wrong and irrelevant standard, both are:weighing the finest and most delicate
The second place in the scale of dramatic of all things in the clumsiest and most inaccurate of all balances. But I should passion where the deeper shades and springs
art is due to effective representations of human have thought that “philosophy", and of action are portrayed; a delineation of char“criticism of life” are as near to being acteristics, not individual, but general, of the interchangeable terms as one can well world and of life, in manifold variety, their in