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An essay by Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch

The Attitude Of The Public Towards Letters

Title:     The Attitude Of The Public Towards Letters
Author: Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch [More Titles by Quiller-Couch]

Sept. 29, 1894. The "Great Heart" of the Public.

I observe that our hoary friend, the Great Heart of the Public, has been taking his annual outing in September. Thanks to the German Emperor and the new head of the House of Orleans, he has had the opportunity of a stroll through the public press arm in arm with his old crony and adversary, the Divine Right of Kings. And the two have gone once more a-roaming by the light of the moon, to drop a tear, perchance, on the graves of the Thin End of the Wedge and the Stake in the Country. You know the unhappy story?--how the Wedge drove its thin end into the Stake, with fatal results: and how it died of remorse and was buried at the cross-roads with the Stake in its inside! It is a pathetic tale, and the Great Heart of the Public can always be trusted to discriminate true pathos from false.

Miss Marie Corelli's Opinion of it.

It was Mr. G.B. Burgin, in the September number of the _Idler_, who let the Great Heart loose this time--unwittingly, I am sure; for Mr. Burgin, when he thinks for himself (as he usually does), writes sound sense and capital English. But in the service of Journalism Mr. Burgin called on Miss Marie Corelli, the authoress of _Barabbas_, and asked what she thought of the value of criticism. Miss Corelli "idealised the subject by the poetic manner in which she mingled tea and criticism together." She said--

"I think authors do not sufficiently bear in mind the important fact that, in this age of ours, the public _thinks for itself_ much more extensively than we give it credit for. It is a cultured public, and its great brain is fully capable of deciding things. It rather objects to be treated like a child and told 'what to read and what to avoid'; and, moreover, we must not fail to note that it mistrusts criticism generally, and seldom reads 'reviews.' And why? Simply 'logrolling.' It is perfectly aware, for instance, that Mr. Theodore Watts is logroller-in-chief to Mr. Swinburne; that Mr. Le Gallienne 'rolls' greatly for Mr. Norman Gale; and that Mr. Andrew Lang tumbles his logs along over everything for as many as his humour fits...."

--I don't know the proportion of tea to criticism in all this: but Miss Corelli can hardly be said to "idealise the subject" here:--

"... The public is the supreme critic; and though it does not write in the _Quarterly_ or the _Nineteenth Century_, it thinks and talks independently of everything and everybody, and on its thought and word alone depends the fate of any piece of literature."

Mr. Hall Caine's View.

Then Mr. Burgin called on Mr. Hall Caine, who "had just finished breakfast." Mr. Hall Caine gave reasons which compelled him to believe that "for good or bad, criticism is a tremendous force." But he, too, confessed that in his opinion the public is the "ultimate critic." "It often happens that the public takes books on trust from the professed guides of literature, but if the books are not _right_, it drops them." And he proceeded to make an observation, with which we may most cordially agree. "I am feeling," he said, "increasingly, day by day, that _rightness_ in imaginative writing is more important than subject, or style, or anything else. If a story is right in its theme, and the evolution of its theme, it will live; if it is not right, it will die, whatever its secondary literary qualities."

In what sense the Public is the "Ultimate Critic."

I say that we may agree with this most cordially: and it need not cost us much to own that the public is the "ultimate critic," if we mean no more than this, that, since the public holds the purse, it rests ultimately with the public to buy, or neglect to buy, an author's books. That, surely, is obvious enough without the aid of fine language. But if Mr. Hall Caine mean that the public, without instruction from its betters, is the best judge of a book; if he consent with Miss Corelli that the general public is a cultured public with a great brain, and by the exercise of that great brain approves itself an infallible judge of the rightness or wrongness of a book, then I would respectfully ask for evidence. The poets and critics of his time united in praising Campion as a writer of lyrics: the Great Brain and Heart of the Public neglected him utterly for three centuries: then a scholar and critic arose and persuaded the public that Campion was a great lyrical writer: and now the public accepts him as such. Shall we say, then, the Great Heart of the Public is the "ultimate judge" of Campion's lyrics? Perhaps: but we might as well praise for his cleanliness a boy who has been held under the pump. When Martin Farquhar Tupper wrote, the Great Heart of the Public expanded towards him at once. The public bought his effusions by tens of thousands. Gradually the small voice of skilled criticism made itself heard, and the public grew ashamed of itself; and, at length, laughed at Tupper. Shall we, then, call the public the ultimate judge of Tupper? Perhaps: but we might as well praise the continence of a man who turns in disgust from drink on the morning after a drunken fit.[A]

What is "The Public"?

The proposition that the Man in the Street is a better judge of literature than the Critic--the man who knows little than the man who knows more--wears (to my mind, at least) a slightly imbecile air on the face of it. It also appears to me that people are either confusing thought or misusing language when they confer the title of "supreme critic" on the last person to be persuaded. And, again, what is "the public?" I gather that Miss Corelli's story of _Barabbas_ has had an immense popular success. But so, I believe, has the _Deadwood Dick_ series of penny dreadfuls. And the gifted author of _Deadwood Dick_ may console himself (as I daresay he does) for the neglect of the critics by the thought that the Great Brain[B] of the Public is the supreme judge of literature. But obviously he and Miss Corelli will not have the same Public in their mind. If for "the Great Brain of the Public" we substitute "the Great Brain of that Part of the Public which subscribes to Mudie's," we may lose something of impressiveness, but we shall at least know what we are talking about.

* * * * *

June 17, 1893. Mr. Gosse's View.

Astounding as the statement must appear to any constant reader of the Monthly Reviews, it is mainly because Mr. Gosse happens to be a man of letters that his opinion upon literary questions is worth listening to. In his new book[C] he discusses a dozen or so: and one of them--the question, "What Influence has Democracy upon Literature?"--not only has a chapter to itself, but seems to lie at the root of all the rest. I may add that Mr. Gosse's answer is a trifle gloomy.

"As we filed slowly out of the Abbey on the afternoon of Wednesday, the 12th of October, 1892, there must have occurred to others, I think, as to myself, a whimsical and half-terrifying sense of the symbolic contrast between what we had left and what we had emerged upon. Inside, the grey and vitreous atmosphere, the reverberations of music moaning somewhere out of sight, the bones and monuments of the noble dead, reverence, antiquity, beauty, rest. Outside, in the raw air, a tribe of hawkers urging upon the edges of a dense and inquisitive crowd a large sheet of pictures of the pursuit of a flea by a 'lady,' and more insidious salesmen doing a brisk trade in what they falsely pretended to be 'Tennyson's last poem.' Next day we read in our newspapers affecting accounts of the emotion displayed by the vast crowd outside the Abbey--horny hands dashing away the tear, seamstresses holding 'the little green volumes' to their faces to hide their agitation. Happy for those who could see these with their fairy telescopes out of the garrets of Fleet Street. I, alas!--though I sought assiduously--could mark nothing of the kind."

Nothing of the kind was there. Why should anything of the kind be there? Her poetry has been one of England's divinest treasures: but of her population a very few understand it; and the shrine has always been guarded by the elect who happen to possess, in varying degrees, certain qualities of mind and ear. It is, as Mr. Gosse puts it, by a sustained effort of bluff on the part of these elect that English poetry is kept upon its high pedestal of honor. The worship of it as one of the glories of our birth and state is imposed upon the masses by a small aristocracy of intelligence and taste.

Mr. Gissing's Testimony.

What do the "masses" care for poetry? In an appendix Mr. Gosse prints a letter from Mr. George Gissing, who, as everyone knows, has studied the popular mind assiduously, and with startling results. Here are a few sentences from his letter:--

(1) "After fifteen years' observation of the poorer classes of English folk, chiefly in London and the south, I am pretty well assured that, whatever civilising agencies may be at work among the democracy, poetry is not one of them."

(2) "The custodian of a Free Library in a southern city informs me that 'hardly once in a month' does a volume of verse pass over his counter; that the exceptional applicant (seeking Byron or Longfellow) is generally 'the wife of a tradesman;' and that an offer of verse to man or woman who comes simply for 'a book' is invariably rejected; 'they won't even look at it.'"

(3) "It was needless folly to pretend that, because one or two of Tennyson's poems became largely known through popular recitation, therefore Tennyson was dear to the heart of the people, a subject of their pride whilst he lived, of their mourning when he died. My point is that _no_ poet holds this place in the esteem of the English lower orders."

(4) "Some days before (the funeral) I was sitting in a public room, where two men, retired shopkeepers, exchanged an occasional word as they read the morning's news. 'A great deal here about Lord Tennyson' said one. The 'Lord' was significant. I listened anxiously for his companion's reply. 'Ah, yes.' The man moved uneasily, and added at once: 'What do you think about this long-distance ride?' In that room (I frequented it on successive days with this object) not a syllable did I hear regarding Tennyson save the sentence faithfully recorded."

Poetry not beloved by any one Class.

Mr. Gissing, be it observed, speaks only of the class which he has studied: but in talking of "demos," or, more loosely, of "democracy," we must be careful not to limit these terms to the "lower" and "lower-middle" classes. For Poetry, who draws her priests and warders from all classes of society, is generally beloved of none. The average country magnate, the average church dignitary, the average professional man, the average commercial traveller--to all these she is alike unknown: at least, the insensibility of each is differentiated by shades so fine that we need not trouble ourselves to make distinctions. A public school and university education does as little for the Squire Westerns one meets at country dinner-tables as a three-guinea subscription to a circulating library for the kind of matron one comes upon at a _table d'hôte_. Five minutes after hearing the news of Browning's death I stopped an acquaintance in the street, a professional man of charming manner, and repeated it to him. He stared for a moment, and then murmured that he was sorry to hear it. Clearly he did not wish to hurt my feelings by confessing that he hadn't the vaguest idea who Browning might be. And if anybody think this an extreme case, let him turn to the daily papers and read the names of those who were at Newmarket on that same afternoon when our great poet was laid in the Abbey with every pretence of national grief. The pursuit of one horse by another is doubtless a more elevating spectacle than "the pursuit of a flea by a 'lady,'" but on that afternoon even a tepid lover of letters must have found an equal incongruity in both entertainments.

I do not say that the General Public hates Poetry. But I say that those who care about it are few, and those who know about it are fewer. Nor do these assert their right of interference as often as they might. Just once or twice in the last ten or fifteen years they have pulled up some exceptionally coarse weed on which the General Public had every disposition to graze, and have pitched it over the hedge to Lethe wharf, to root itself and fatten there; and terrible as those of Polydorus have been the shrieks of the avulsed root. But as a rule they have sat and piped upon the stile and considered the good cow grazing, confident that in the end she must "bite off more than she can chew."

The "Outsiders."

Still, the aristocracy of letters exists: and in it, if nowhere else, titles, social advantages, and commercial success alike count for nothing; while Royalty itself sits in the Court of the Gentiles. And I am afraid we must include in the crowd not only those affable politicians who from time to time open a Public Library and oblige us with their views upon literature, little realizing what Hecuba is to them, and still less what they are to Hecuba, but also those affable teachers of religion, philosophy, and science, who condescend occasionally to amble through the garden of the Muses, and rearrange its labels for us while drawing our attention to the rapid deterioration of the flowerbeds. The author of _The Citizen of the World_ once compared the profession of letters in England to a Persian army, "where there are many pioneers, several suttlers, numberless servants, women and children in abundance, and but few soldiers." Were he alive to-day he would be forced to include the Volunteers.


[A] In a private letter, from which I am allowed to quote, Mr. Hall Caine (October 2nd, 1894) explains and (as I think) amends his position:--"If I had said _time_ instead of _the public_, I should have expressed myself exactly. It is impossible for me to work up any enthusiasm for the service done to literature by criticism as a whole. I have, no doubt, the unenviable advantage over you of having wasted three mortal months in reading all the literary criticism extant of the first quarter of this century. It would be difficult to express my sense of its imbecility, its blundering, and its bad passions. But the good books it assailed are not lost, and the bad ones it glorified do not survive. It is not that the public has been the better judge, but that good work has the seeds of life, while bad work carries with it the seeds of dissolution. This is the key to the story of Wordsworth on the one hand, and to the story of Tupper on the other. Tupper did not topple down because James Hannay smote him. Fifty James Hannays had shouted him up before. And if there had not been a growing sense that the big mountain was a mockery, five hundred James Hannays would not have brought it down. The truth is that it is not the 'critic who knows' or the public which does not know that determines the ultimate fate of a book--the immediate fate they may both influence. The book must do that for itself. If it is right, it lives; if it is wrong, it dies. And the critic who re-establishes a neglected poet is merely articulating the growing sense. There have always been a few good critics, thank God ... but the finest critic is the untutored sentiment of the public, not of to-day or to-morrow or the next day, but of all days together--a sentiment which tells if a thing is right or wrong by holding on to it or letting it drop."

Of course, I agree that a book must ultimately depend for its fate upon its own qualities. But when Mr. Hall Caine talks of "a growing sense," I ask, In whom does this sense first grow? And I answer, In the cultured few who enforce it upon the many--as in this very case of Wordsworth. And I hold the credit of the result (apart from the author's share) belongs rather to those few persistent advocates than to those judges who are only "ultimate" in the sense that they are the last to be convinced.

[B] If the reader object that I am using the Great Heart and Great Brain of the Public as interchangeable terms, I would refer him to Mr. Du Maurier's famous Comic Alphabet, letter Z:--

"Z is a Zoophyte, whose heart's in his head,
And whose head's in his turn--rudimentary Z!"

[C] _Questions at Issue_; by Edmund Gosse. London: William Heinemann.

[The end]
Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch's essay: Attitude Of The Public Towards Letters