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An essay by Robert Lynd

A Defence Of Critics

Title:     A Defence Of Critics
Author: Robert Lynd [More Titles by Lynd]

Mr E. F. Benson has been attacking the critics, and reviving against them the old accusation that they are merely men who have failed in the arts. There could scarcely be a more unsupported theory. As a matter of fact, to take Mr Benson's own art, there are probably far more bad critics who end as novelists than bad novelists who end as critics. Criticism is usually the beginning, and not the decadence, of a man's authorship. Young men nowadays criticise before they graduate. One becomes a critic when one puts on long trousers. It is as natural as writing poetry. Indeed, the gift seems in some ways to be related to poetry. It springs at its best from the same well of imagination. This is not to compare the art of the critic to the art of the poet in importance, but only in kind. Criticism is by its nature bound to keep closer to the earth than poetry. It has frequently more resemblance to the hedge-sparrow than to the lark. It is a chatterbox of argument, not a divine spendthrift of the beauty that is above argument. It is the interpreter of an interpretation. It gives us beauty second-hand. Critics are compared somewhere to "brushers of noblemen's clothes." In an honest world, however, one might brush a nobleman's clothes not out of servility, but out of tidiness. There would have been nothing degrading in it if Queen Elizabeth herself had ironed the stains out of Shakespeare's doublet, provided she had done it from decent motives. Critics of the better sort need not worry when their service is misconstrued as servitude. Those who attack them are usually men who are under the delusion that it is better to be a bad artist than a good critic. Thus we find the author of Lanky Bill and His Dog Bluebeard looking down with patronage on a man like Hazlitt, because he lacked something that is called the creative gift. Even the life and work of Walter Pater have not succeeded in dispelling the popular notion that the imagination is more honourably employed in inventing sentences for sawdust figures than in relating the experiences of one's own soul. According to this standard, Mr Charles Garvice must be ranked higher among imaginative authors than Sir Thomas Browne, and the Essays of Elia must give place to the novels of Mrs Florence Barclay. Clearly no line can be drawn on principles of this kind between imaginative and unimaginative literature. The artists, for the most part, are as lacking in imagination as the critics. They have merely chosen a more luxurious form of writing. Oscar Wilde used to say that anybody could make history, but only a man of genius could write it; and one might contend in the same way that nearly anybody can make literature, but only a clever man can criticise it. The genius of the critic is as much an original gift as the genius of a runner or a composer.

One need not go back further than Dryden to realise to what an extent the successful artists have thrown themselves into the work of criticism. Most of us nowadays find Dryden's prefaces and his Essay on Dramatic Poesy easier reading than his verse; and, in the age that followed, criticism seems to have come as naturally to the men of letters as conversation. Addison, commonplace critic though he was, was always airing his views on poetry and music; and what is Pope's Dunciad but a comic epic of criticism? Nor was Dr Johnson less concerned with thumping the cushion in the matter of literature than in the matter of morals. His Lives of the Poets does not seem a great book to us who have been brought up on the romantic criticism of the nineteenth century, but it is an infinitely better book than Rasselas, which has the single advantage that it is shorter. And so one might go on through the list of great men of letters from Johnson's to our own day. Burke, Scott, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Macaulay, Carlyle, Thackeray, Ruskin, Matthew Arnold, Swinburne, Pater, Meredith, Stevenson--I choose more or less at a hazard a list of imaginative writers who are in the very mid-stream of English criticism. Even in our own day, how many of the poets and novelists have graduated as critics! What lover of Mr Henry James is there who would not almost be willing to sacrifice one of his novels rather than his Partial Portraits? Who is there, even among Mr Bernard Shaw's detractors, who would wish his dramatic criticisms unwritten? And who would not exchange a great deal of Mr George Moore's fiction for another book like Impressions and Opinions? Similarly, Mr W. B. Yeats has revealed his genius in a book of criticism like Ideas of Good and Evil no less than in a book of verse like The Wind among the Reeds; Mr William Watson's works include a volume of Excursions in Criticism; Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch has published two volumes of critical causeries; Mr Max Beerbohm is no less distinguished as a critic than as a caricaturist; "A. E." reviews books in The Irish Times, and Mr Walter De la Mare in The Westminster Gazette. Here surely is a list that may suggest a doubt in the minds of those who take the view that the critics are merely a mob of embittered hacks who have failed at everything else. This is one of those traditional fallacies, like the stage Irishman, which men accept apparently for the sake of ease. Even the most superficial enquiries at the offices of the newspapers and the weekly reviews would reveal the fact that a great percentage of the best poets and novelists either are engaged, or have been engaged in their green and generous days, in the work of criticism. If Shakespeare were alive to-day he would probably earn his living at first, not by holding horses' heads, but by turning dramatic critic. Every artist worth his salt has in him the makings of a journalist. Milton himself was as ferocious a pamphleteer as any of those blood-and-thunder rectors whom we see quoted by "Sub Rosa" in The Daily News. Tolstoy was as furiously active, if not so furiously bitter, a journalist. And who is the most charming and graceful journalist and critic of our own day but the charming and graceful novelist, Anatole France?

All this, however, is no reply to Mr Benson's indictment of the critics on the ground that they do not discover genius, but that the public has to discover genius in spite of them. It is one of those indictments which can only be believed on the assumption that the critics are a race apart who think, as it were, en masse. Those who repeat it seem to regard the critics as a disciplined army of destruction instead of realising that they are a hopelessly straggling company of more or less ordinary men and women of varying tastes, with a sprinkling of men and women of genius among them. They tell us that the critics attacked the Pre-Raphaelites, but they forget that Ruskin was a critic and a prophet of the Pre-Raphaelites. They tell us that the critics cold-shouldered Browning; but W. J. Fox wrote enthusiastically of Browning almost from the first, and Pater praised him in his early essays: it was a poet who, alas! was not a critic--Tennyson--who said the severest things about him. Ibsen, again, is constantly cited as an example of an artist who had to make his way to public acceptance through mobs of shrieking critics. But what do we find to be the case? In England three of the most remarkable critics of their time, Mr Bernard Shaw, Mr Edmund Gosse, and Mr William Archer, fought a desperate fight for Ibsen against almost the entire British public. The critics who attacked Ibsen did not represent the flower of British criticism, but the flower of the British public. It will be found, I believe, to be an almost invariable rule that whenever the critics have attacked men of genius, they have had the public at their back cheering them on. There are critics, indeed, who make themselves into the hired mouthpieces of the public. They long to express not what they themselves think (for they do not think), but what the public thinks (though it does not think). Can Mr Benson point to any notable catch of genius ever made by critics of this kind? I do not, of course, contend that even the most intelligent reviewer in these days, (who is one of the most hard-worked of journalists), is in a good position for discovering new stars of genius. No man can appreciate a Shakespeare that is thrown at his head, and books are thrown at the heads of reviewers nowadays in numbers likely to stun or bewilder rather than to evoke the mood of rapturous understanding. As for the reviewers, they are as varied a crowd as the rest of the public. One of them enjoys The Scarlet Pimpernel better than Shakespeare; another blames Miss Marie Corelli for not writing like Donne; another has read and rather liked Shelley. On the whole, they are fonder of good books than most people. They have to read so many bad books as a duty, that many of them ultimately get a taste for literature as a blessed relief. But, as for attacking men of genius, why, nine out of ten of them would not attack a mouse, unless the prejudices of the public they reverence drove them to it. They are very nice and affable, like the gentleman in You Never Can Tell--the nicest and most affable set of human beings that ever manufactured butter outside a dairy.

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Robert Lynd's essay: Defence Of Critics