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AND CRITICAL ESSAY
HE biographical and critical essay may be accounted a modern development of the essay, although it had
many forerunners. Among the forerunners may be named Dryden's Essay on Dramatic Poesy, and Isaak Walton's Lives. John Dryden (1631 - 1700) was scarcely less eminent as a prose-writer than as a poet, and his characterisations of Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Beaumont, and Fletcher, are among the best pieces of critical writing of his generation. Isaak Walton (1593–1683), in his Life of Dr. Donne, written as a preface to Donne's sermons, and published in 1640, created a model of compressed biography only equalled by himself in his subsequent Lives of Sir Henry Wotton, Richard Hooker, and George Herbert. Dryden excels in stateliness, Walton in a certain inimitable quaintness and simplicity of style; yet, upon the whole, their work was solitary, and had no very wide influence on literary forms. It is not until we come to Samuel Johnson that we have the critical and biographical essay in what may be recognised as its modern form. When Johnson sat down to write his Lives of the Poets, the struggles of his laborious career were over, his authority was established, his powers were generally recognised, and the result is that he attains a frequent freedom of style not found in any other of his writings. It is true that he himself is not free from the turgidity of language which he attributes to Milton, that he writes with a certain pontifical air of omniscience, and allows his own prejudices to deflect the accuracy of his judgment, particularly in the case of Gray; but allowing for these faults, incident to habit and to his advanced age, and to the curious despotism which he exercised over his contemporaries, his essays on the lives of the poets are happily conceived, written with evident enjoyment, and are characterised by great acuteness, wisdom, and a wealth of suggestive illustration. Where Dryden is purely critical, and Walton purely biographic, Johnson succeeds in welding criticism with biographic detail, and it is in this respect that he may be said to be the first of a great school of critical and biographic essayists.
The critical and biographic essay thus initiated by Johnson was destined to attain great popularity. Its development was rapid and continuous. It becomes in the nineteenth century a distinct new branch of literature, of such importance that it may be justly considered the most striking feature in the literary development of the period. The multiplication of reviews and journals demanded a new race of essayists. Among the essayists there was slowly developed a scientific method of criticism. Johnson was content to express personal opinions, and indulge strong prejudices, and among the early critical essayists of the nineteenth century the same habit of thought was dominant. The critical essay was often an extended review of a book, in which the critic did not disguise his own personal rancour, and made little effort to interpret his author. In many instances a book was used merely as an excuse for the publication of the critic's own opinions. Matthew Arnold was the first man to lay down the principle that no criticism of an author ought to be attempted without sympathy in the critic; that, in fact, criticism was less a polemic than an interpretation.
Matthew Arnold, working in this spirit, did more than any other writer to give dignity to the essay, and he stands easily first among pure critics. His essay upon Gray, included in this volume, marks the highest point of development in the critical essay, and it is difficult to imagine how it can be surpassed. Arnold excels in lucidity, insight, and a certain penetrating and comprehensive intellectual sympathy. Thus the secret of Gray, which was wholly hidden from Johnson, was entirely manifest to Arnold“Gray never spoke out.” Arnold can sometimes be a little finical in his distinctions, a little tedious in his reiterated definitions; but he never fails to get to the heart of his subject, and his patient search for the right word, which often appears the meticulous exactitude of the pedant, usually has its issue in the invention of some vital and illuminating phrase, which becomes the complete synonym of his meaning. Where Johnson writes with a garrulous freedom, which ignores details, Arnold toils over his task with the patience of a scientific discoverer. He is probably too near our own time for a just perception of his magnitude, either as poet or essayist. The touch of the pedant in him, the condescending air of the superior person, have done not a little to alienate his readers; yet these are defects so slight compared with his great qualities, that no sensible man resents them. What will become increasingly apparent is that Arnold has elevated the critical essay into the highest form of art, beyond which little can be achieved by any future writer.
Coleridge imparts to the critical essay a weight of thought rather than any new grace of style. Hazlitt adds rhetorical vivacity, De Quincey extraordinary eloquence. Of these three writers De Quincey ranks much the highest. He is the master of a peculiarly solemn and impassioned eloquence; he attains pictorial effects which no one else has rivalled; he writes prose, but it is in the spirit and method of a poet, who seizes the essential thing, moves in the company of high visions, and therefore exercises on the imaginations of his readers a power much more common in the great lyric and dramatic poet than in the essayist. His magnificent picture of Joan of Arc, included in this volume, is a masterpiece of emotional eloquence. It might justly be included in the specimens of impassioned prose; it might equally be ranked among the great orations, for it has all the qualities of spoken eloquence; it is only by virtue of its biographical importance that it finds its place where it does. De Quincey is not always eloquent or impassioned. Few writers are more uneven; few can sink so rapidly; and when the wing of his imagination tires De Quincey can become the most prolix and tedious of essayists. Nevertheless his best work constitutes a very large part of the whole, and is so individual, so wonderful in merit, that he will always rank among the greatest of the English essayists.
Carlyle and Macaulay stand in a class by themselves, though entirely opposed in quality. Carlyle's Heroes and Hero-Worship, from which the extract on Johnson is taken, is in reality a sermon, and Carlyle was at all times a preacher. But he is a critic also; a prophetic critic; a man with the keenest eye for character, and for the causes and motives which underlie character. His style may be admired or denounced, but it is not by style he lives. His true power lies in a kind of penetrating sagacity, an oracular wisdom, a vitalising imagination. He has an almost demoniac gift of illumination. He sees Johnson, sees the very heart of the man, “the pulse of the machine,” and makes us see him. Macaulay has no touch of this demoniac power. He sees the outside of things, with an astounding accuracy, but into the depths of personality he cannot penetrate. He can infer much from the outside, but he has no gift of divination. When Carlyle speaks of Johnson, he gives
us the man, the essential honest, bigoted, dogmatic, struggling, heroic man, whose inherent force of character made the greatest men of his time his grateful vassals. When Macaulay speaks of Johnson he gives us his clothes, his uncouth form, his disorderly habits, his grotesque superstitions, his painful defects; but almost all that lies beneath these habitudes is hidden from us. Yet both Carlyle and Macaulay are united in this, that they did much to make the critical and biographic essay one of the most popular forms of literature. They perceived its possibilities, and gave to it the full measure of their powers. In their hands the essay attained a new scope, and became what it has remained ever since, a permanent and pictorial form of literature, only second in value to biography and history.
Of the remaining writers included in this section, Thackeray and Froude stand highest. Thackeray is a stylist of the first order. With a sobriety of temper and a power of restraint impossible to De Quincey, he nevertheless comes near to De Quincey's note of passion in the concluding passages of his essay on Swift. He also, cynic as he was often and quite wrongly deemed, has the gift of sympathy, and it is by virtue of this interpretative sympathy that he reads so accurately the strange character of Swift. Froude writes with a delusive ease of style which is apt to hide from us its really great qualities. He does not deal in “purple patches,” he is always limpid, lucid, engaging, and if he rises into eloquence it is by such delicate gradations that his intention is disguised from us. He also possesses a gift of quiet humour, the humour of the man of the world, at times inclining to cynicism, but never obtruded --the gentlemanly humour of the scholar. Emerson sometimes displays a similar humour, shrewd and dry, rather than opulent. Emerson, like Carlyle, is a preacher, and the preaching habit never quite leaves him. He has little