17 APRIL 1880, Page 12



Sra,—I cannot say how it will appear to you, but it appears to me that the true aim of the critic is a matter worthy of some attention, even against such competitors as the formation of a new Cabinet and the inauguration of a new policy. I remember being much impressed by a few remarks from one who certainly had no personal cause for complaint either in the silence or the voices of contemporary criticism, and who yet felt this on the whole disappointing, as compared with the amount of intellect and industry which it absorbed. The appreciative intellect, one would have thought, would be indefinitely more common than the originative intellect. Is it so ? The productions of a true criticism seem to me fewer, in English at all events, than the productions of genius. But I do not believe we are as little responsible for the first scarcity as for: the last. Many of the causes for our failure are " properer for a sermon" (as Lamb trans- lated " sermoni propriora ") than for a letter to a newspaper, but this cannot be said of the one against which I would make my pro- test,—the notion that it is the duty of a critic to show why books should not have been written. No criticism made with this aim, I am confident, will bear the test of time. Is there any reader who can now open Macaulay's "Essays" without a wish that the volume did not contain the review of Montgomery's poems ? Reading it at about eighteen, one thought it the most entertaining review in the book. After a lapse of twenty or thirty years, one dis- covers that even the wit has almost evaporated. And I should be much surprised if any of the readers, who had had their eyes opened to the poverty of Montgomery's "Satan," turned there- upon to "Paradise Lost." There is no greater fallacy than the belief that to discover weakness is the preparation for appreciating strength. As we poor human beings are made, the discords of thought are so much more striking than its harmonies, that the first stage of attention reveals whatever is discordant, and what we want from the critic is help to attain a further stage. It takes the very mini- mum of literary power to perceive the want of it; indeed, we may say this of all power. I believe a good many visitors to an exhibition of pictures go there simply to laugh at what is absurd, and shudder at what is ugly. The ugliness, the absurdity, are really there,—the true artist would see them, if you called his attention to them. But on the very canvas which contained them he would, almost invariably, see much besides. The duty of the critic is surely to teach the mere spectator to see this also. So far as he fulfils the positive function, he will, I believe, be reduced by the limits of time and space to discharge the negative one by silence.

Now, if it is the very test of our critic that he shall .point out to us the minor shades of excellence which would escape our less keen vision, does he best prepare himself to fulfil it by turning to objects in which he finds nothing to admire ? Does he thus even prepare himself to appreciate those works in which there is almost nothing to blame ? Some of your readers may remember a witty and entertaining review of Milton's " L'Allegro," written by Bishop Copleston to discredit the smart style of reviewing, then somewhat recently popularised by the Edinburgh Review. As far as I remember the jett d'esprit (the general tone of which may be judged from its concluding advice to Mr. John Milton to employ his pen in some honest trade which may bring him in a living, "for it is not all his tripping cranks' which will make him a poet"), there is not a word of censure in it that is absolutely false. The faults are all there, if you look for them. And you will be inclined to look for them, if you have looked at productions in which there is not much else. To dwell on the poverty of what is poor is a preparation for dwelling on the poverty in what is rich. It is quite true that, in my opinion, the latter ought not, like the former, to be passed over without notice. All valuable work, I think, should be judged, and not merely praised; but then a large part of the objection to analysing what is insignificant consists, in my opinion, in the tendency of such analysis to blunt that sense of proportion which we need in judging of valuable work, and to leave the critic, in his reaction from indivividual'superiority, a mere exponent of popular adulation. But I will not dwell on this side of the question, because I am aware that the justice of my remarks on this head might be thought to be more than counterbalanced by their want of grace. I will leave the duty of courageous dis- crimination to be urged by one who has no personal reason for dwelling on that of merciful oblivion. No fear of imputed motives, however, shall repress my conviction that the two are indissolubly united.

After all, I do not know that we are dangerously encouraged by being let alone. I assure you that there is a remarkable absence of stimulus in the discovery that the world says "nothing at all to my paradoxes,—nothing at all, Sir." Possibly, indeed, I have let slip an opportunity of exhibiting my wisdom to advantage on the background of my disinterestedness, but it cannot be recalled now. I certainly have heard that if I could have my productions cut up in a newspaper which once ap- peared in a clever novel as "The Vivisector," that they would have some chance of getting read. It is, indeed, partly the numerous facilities for obtaining this kind of notoriety in other journals, which makes me desire for the Spectator an adherence to the ideal which some time ago I should have said was almost peculiar to it.

To conclude—for I promise you that this shall be my con- clusion—I think there is a long distance between seeing that a book is no contribution to any kind of literature, which is all the critic can judge of, and deciding that it had better not have been written. Of many a production which can have no merit or interest from the critic's point of view, it may yet be said, " Inopem solatur et aegrum." But the plea of a Horace to an Augustus, I fear, will be thought to form a somewhat am- bitious apology for A WRITER OF INSIGNIFICANT FICTION.