Essays in Criticism

He pursues a great object, and pursues it with signal ability. But ii is important to observe that he nowhere distinctly gives his own opinion about the Bible’s fundamental character. He takes the Bible as it stands, as he might take the phe- nomena of nature, and he discusses it as he finds it.

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At first their music and their march proceed slowly together, but presently the music quickens, the chain and needle-bearing Ber- bers move violently round, and begin to beat themselves with their chains and to prick their arms and cheeks with the needles — first gently, then with more vehemence ; till suddenly the music ceases, and all stops. So we are carried back, on this old Asiatic soil, where beliefs and usages are heaped layer upon layer and ruin upon ruin, far past the martyred Imams, past Mahometanism, past Christianity, to the priests of Baal gashing themselves with knives and to the worship of Adonis. But it is natural, also, that he should take refuge in his heart and imagination from his misery.


How infinite are the sayings, doings, feelings, events of that life ! I still thinlr that there is a shade, a nuance of expression, in M. Kenan’s language, which does imply this ; but, I confess, the only person who can really settle commercium coin such a question is M. I lately heard a man of thought and energy contrasting the want of ardor and movement which he’ now found amongst young men in this country with what he remem- bered in his own youth, twenty years ago.

Now, in literature, — I will limit myself to literature, for it is about literature that the question arises, — the elements with which the creative power works are ideas ; the best ideas on every matter which literature touches, current at the time. At any rate we may lay it down as certain that in modern lit- erature no manifestation of the creative power not working with these can be very important or fruitful. And I say current at the time, not merely accessible at the time ; for creative literary genius does not principally show itself in discovering new ideas, that is rather the business of the philosopher. The grand work of literary genius is a work of synthesis and exposition, not of analysis and discovery; its gift lies in the faculty of being happily inspired by a certain intellectual and spiritual atmosphere, by a certain order of ideas, when it finds itself in them ; of dealing divinely, with these ideas, presenting them in the most effective and attractive combinations, — making beautiful works with them, in short. But it must have the atmos- phere, it must find itself amidst the order of ideas, in order to work freely ; and these it is not so easy to com- mand.

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Milton, from one end of Paradise Lost to the other, is in his diction and rhythm constantly a great artist in the great style. Whatever may be said as to the subject of his poem, as to the conditions under which he received his subject and treated it, that praise, at any rate, is assured to him. In the sure and flaw- less perfection of his rhythm and diction he is as admi- rable as Virgil or Dante, and in this respect he is unique amongst us. No one else in English literature and art possesses the like distinction. ” Short is the little which remains to thee of life. Live as on a mountain. Let men see, let them know, a real man, who lives as he was meant to live. If they cannot endure him, let them kill him. For that is better than to live as men do.” ” When thou wishest to delight thyself, think of the virtues of those who live with thee ; for instance, the ac- tivity of one, and the modesty of another, and the liber- ality of a third, and some other good quality of a fourth.”

Was no national glow of life and thought there as in the Athens of Pericles or the England of Elizabeth. Bat there was a sort of equiv- alent for it in the complete culture and unfettered think- ing of a large body of Germans. In the England of the first quarter of this century there was neither a national glow of life and thought, such as we had in the age of Elizabeth, nor yet a culture and a force of learning and criticism such as were to be found in Germany.

But Madame Bovary, with this taint, is a work oi petrified feeling ; over it hangs an at- mosphere of bitterness, irony, impotence ; not a personage’ in the book to rejoice or console us ; the springs of fresh- ness and feeling are not there to create such personages. Emma Bovary follows a course in some respects like that of Anna, but where, in Emma Bovary, is Anna’s charm ? The treasures of compassion, tenderness, insight, which alone, amid such guilt and misery, can enable charm to subsist and to emerge, are wanting to Flaubert.

There we have prose without the note of provinciality — classical prose, prose of the center. ” I look around me and ask what is the state of Eng- land ? Is not property safe ? Is not every man able to say what he likes ? Can you not walk from one end of England to the other in perfect security ? I ask you whether, the world over or in past history, there is any- thing like it ? Nothing. I pray that our unrivaled hap- piness may last.” Period of blight and suppression in the epoch of concen- tration which followed the French Revolution. Our editors fact-check all content to ensure compliance with our stricteditorial policy. The information in this article is supported by the following reliable sources. If looking for a long term currency investment, you’ll want to look for currencies which have a bright outlook for the near future, as buying a currency such as this can generate profits relative to other currencies.

It may be said that the more we know about a classic the better we shall enjoy him ; and, if we lived as long as Methuselah and’had all of us heads of perfect clearness and wills of perfect stead- fastness, this might be true in fact as it is plausible in theory. But the case here is much the same as the case with the Greek and Latin studies of our schoolboys. The elaborate philological groundwork which we require them to lay is in theory an admirable preparation for appreciat- ing the Greek and Latin authors worthily. The more thoroughly we lay the groundwork, the better we shall be able, it may be said, to enjoy the authors.


And there are one or two more anecdotes of him which show the same spirit. But the great record for the outward life of a man who has left such a record of his lofty inward aspirations as that which Marcus Aurelius has left, is the clear con- senting voice of all his contemporaries, — high and low, friend and enemy, pagan and Christian, — in praise of his sincerity, justice, and goodness. The world’s charity does not err on the side of excess, and here was a man occupy- ing the most conspicuous station in the world, and pro fessing the highest possible standard of conduct ; — yet the world was obliged to declare that he walked wortb ily of his profession. Long after his death, his bust was to be seen in the houses of private men through the wide Koman empire. It may be the vulgar part of human nature which busies itself with the semblance and doings of living sovereigns, it is its nobler part which busies itself with those of the dead ; these busts of Marcus Aurelius, in the homes of Gaul, Britain, and Italy, bear witness, not to the inmates’ frivolous curiosity about princes and palaces, but to their reverential memory of the passage of a great man upon the earth. To the spirit of the Old Testament, and his cheerful and Belf-suflBcing stoicism is essentially alien to the spirit of the New.

But on the whole, and for those who can make the needful corrections, what distinguishes these writings is their profound, permanent, fruitful, philosophical truth. They contain the true philosophy of an epoch of concentration, dissipate the heavy atmosphere which its own nature is apt to engender round it, and make its resistance rational instead of mechanical. He represents the public judgment, that is to say, the public reason, the touch- stone, the scales, the crucible, which tests the value of each man and the merit of each work. Infallibility of judgment is perhaps rarer than anything else, so fine a balance of qualities does it demand — qualities both natural and acquired, qualities of both mind and heart. What years of labor, what study and comparison, are needed to bring the critical judgment to matur- ity 1 Like Plato’s sage, it is only at fifty that the critic is risen to the true height of his literary priesthood, or, to put it less pompously, of his social function. Not till then has he com- passed all modes of being, and made every shade of appreciation his own.

  • ” Piety is not a religion, though it is the soul of all re- ligions. A man has not a religion simply by having pious inclinations, any more than he has a country simply by having philanthropy. A man has not a country until he is a citizen in a state, until he undertakes to follow and uphold certain laws, to obey certain magistrates, and to adopt certain ways of living and acting.
  • Here the great safeguard is never to let oneself become abstract, always to retain an intimate and lively consciousness of the truth of what one is saying, and, the moment this fails us, to be sure that something is wrong.
  • If it were a com- parison of single pieces, or of three or four pieces, by each poet, I do not say that Wordsworth would stand decisively above Gray, or Burns, or Coleridge, or Keats, or Manzoni, or Heine.

I was so much struck with the Gentaur that I waited anxiously to hear something more of its author, and of what he had left ; but it was not till the other day — twenty years after the first publication- of the Gentaur in the Revue des Deux Mondes, that my anxiety was satisfied. At the end of 1860 appeared two volumes with the title Maurice de Guerin, Reliquim, con- taining the Centaur, several poems of Guerin, his journals, and a number of his letters, collected and edited by a de- voted friend, M. Trebutien, and preceded by a notice of Guerin by the first of living critics, M. That Lave ever existed, — the greatest European force of thd eighteenth century. In science, again, we had Newton, a genius of the very highest order, a type of genius in science, if ever there was one.


The doctrine that “God directs nature, not according as the particular laws of human nature, but according as the universal laws of nature require,” is at utter variance with that Hebrew mode of representing God’s dealings, which makes the locusts visit Egypt to punish Pharaoh’s hardness of heart, and the falling dew avert itself from the fleece of Gideon. The doctrine that ” all sorrow is a passage to a lesser perfection” is at utter ■variance with the Christian recognition of the blessedness lof sorrow, working ” repentance to salvation not to be repented of ; ” of sorrow, which, in Dante’s words, ” re- marries us to God.” Its own aid, and not by the aid of Rabbinical traditions or Greek philosophy, allege its own divinity to consist ? Now all knowledge is a divine revelation ; but prophecy, as rep- resented in Scripture, is one of which the laws of human nature, considered in themselves alone, cannot be the cause. Therefore nothing must be asserted about it, ex- cept what is clearly declared by the prophets themselves ; for they are our only source of knowledge on a matter which does not fall within the scope of our ordinary knowing faculties.

The literary judgments of one nation about another are very apt to be saugrenus. Sainte-Beuve remarks in answer to Goethe’s complaint against the French that they have undervalued Du Bartas, that as to the estimate of its own authors every nation is the best judge ; the positive esti- mate of them, be it understood, not, of course, the estimate of them in comparison with the authors of other nations. Therefore a foreigner’s judgments about the intrinsic merit of a nation’s authors will generally, when at complete variance with that nation’s own be wrong ; but there is a permissible wrongness in these matters, and to that permissible wrongness there is a limit. When that limit is exceeded, the wrong judgment becomes more than wrong, it becomes saugrenu, or im- pudently absurd.

Our utterance, whether in prose or in verse, is surely a criticism of life. We are not brought much on our way, I admitj towards an adequate definition of poetry as dis- tinguished from prose by that truth ; still a truth it is, and poetry can never prosper if it is forgotten. In poetry, however, the criticism of life has to be made conformably to the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty. Truth and seriousness of substance and matter, felicity and perfection of diction and manner, as these are exhibited in the best poets, are what constitute a criticism of life made in con- formity with the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty ; and it is by knowing and feeling the work of those poets, that we learn to recognize the fulfilment and non-fulfilment of such conditions. I have likened Joubert to Coleridge ; and indeed the points of resemblance between the two men are numerous.

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It is often said that the power of liquidness and fluidity in Chaucer’s verse was depend- ent upon a free, a licentious dealing with language, such as is now impossible ; upon a liberty, such as Burns too enjoyed, of making words like neclc, bird, into a dissyllable by adding to them, and words like cause, rhyme, into a dissyllable by sounding the e mute. It is true that Jhaucer’s fluidity is conjoined with this liberty, and is i,dmirably served by it ; but we ought not to say that it was dependent upon it. Other poets with a like liberty do not attain to the fluidity of Chaucer ; Burns himself does not attain to it. Poets, again, who have a talent akin to Chaucer’s, such as Shakespeare or Keats, have known how to attain to his fluidity without the like liberty. The best poetry is what we want ; the best poetry will be found to have a power of forming, sustaining, and de- lighting us, as nothing else can. A clearer, deeper sense of the best in poetry, and of the strength and joy to be drawn from it, is the most precious benefit which we can gather from a poetical collection such as the present.


Sometimes, no doubt, for the sake of establishing an author’s place in literature, and his relation to a central standard (and if this is not done, how are we to get at our best in the world?) criticism may have to deal with a subject-matter so familiar that fresh knowl- edge is out of the question, and then it must be all judg- ment ; an enunciation and detailed application of prin- ciples. Here the great safeguard is never to let oneself become abstract, always to retain an intimate and lively consciousness of the truth of what one is saying, and, the moment this fails us, to be sure that something is wrong. Still, under all circumstances, tliis mere judgment and application of principles is, in itself, not the most satis- factory work to the critic ; like mathematics, it is tauto- logical, and cannot well give us, like fresh learning, the sense of creative activity.


But ignorant people, not knowing the Hebrew genius and phraseology, and not attending to the circumstances of the speaker, often imagine the prophets, to assert things which they do not. To be told how horrible a complaint was leprosy in the Middle Ages, and how the poor wretches who had this incurable plague were banished from society, and had to keep at a distance from every human being. Like living corpses, in a gray gown reaching down to the feet, and with the hood brought over their face, they went about, carrying in their hands an enormous rattle, called Saint Lazarus’s rattle.

Per- haps in fifty years’ time it will in the English House of CommoES be an objection to an institution that it is an anomaly, and my friend the Member of Parliament will shudder in his grave. But let us in the meanwhile rather endeavor that in twenty years’ time it may, in English literature, be an objection to a proposition that it is ab- surd. That will be a change so vast, that the imagination almost fails to grasp it. As in itself it really is.” Thns it tends, at last, to make an intellectual situation of which the creatiye power can profitably avail itself. It tends to establish an order of ideas, if not absolutely true, yet true by comparison with that which it displaces ; to make the best ideas prevail. Presently these new ideas reach society, the touch of truth is the tojich of life, and there is a stir and growth every- where ; out of this stir and growth come the creative epdchs of literature. Sevbkai, of the Essays which are here collected and reprinted had the good or the bad fortune to be much criticized at the time of their first appearance.

Both of them great and celebrated talkers, Joubert attract- ing pilgrims to his upper chamber in the Rue St.-Honore, as Coleridge attracted pilgrims to Mr. Gilman’s at High- gate ; both of them desultory and incomplete writers, — here they had an outward likeness with one another. But that in which the essence of their likeness consisted is this, — that they both had from nature an ardent impulse for seeking the genuine truth on all matters they thought about, and a gift for finding it and recognizing it when it was found. To have the impulse for seeking this truth is much rarer than most people think ; to have the gift for finding it is, I need not say, very rare indeed.

Between the two conditions there is all the difEerence which there is between the being in love, and the following, with de- lighted comprehension, a reasoning of Plato. For Spinoza, undoubtedly, the crown of the intellectual life is a trans- port, as for the saint the crown of the religious life is a i transport ; but the two transports are not the same. But nothing of this appears in the story as prepared for popular religious use, as presented to the multitude in a popular religious ceremony. Its treatment is not devoid of a certain grace and beauty, but it has nothing whatever that is elevating, nothing that is consoling, nothing that is in our sense of the word religions. The religious cere- monies of Christendom, even on occasion of the most joy- ful and mundane matters, present the multitude with strains of profoundly religious character, such as the Kyrie eleison and the Te Deum.

So far as high poetic truth and seriousness are wanting to a poet’s matter and substance, so far also, we may be sure, will a high poetic stamp of diction and movement be wanting to his style and manner. In proportion as this high stamp of diction and movement, again, is absent from a poet’s style and manner, we shall find, also, that high poetic truth and seriousness are absent from his substance and matter. The comments of men, Spinoza said, had been foisted into the Christian religion ; the pure teaching of God had been lost sight of.

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