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XXIII. THE CRITIC AS DESTROYER

IT has been said often enough that all good criticism is praise. Pater boldly called one of his volumes of critical essays Appreciations. There are, everyone will agree, brilliant instances of hostility in criticism. The best-known of these in English is Macaulay's essay on Robert Montgomery. In recent years we have witnessed the much more significant assault by Tolstoy upon almost the whole army of the authors of the civilized world from schylus down to Mallarmé. What is Art? was unquestionably the most remarkable piece of sustained hostile criticism that was ever written. At the same time, it was less a denunciation of individual authors than an attack on the general tendencies of the literary art. Tolstoy quarrelled with Shakespeare not so much for being Shakespeare as for failing to write like the authors of the Gospels. Tolstoy would have made every book a Bible. He raged against men of letters because with them literature was a means not to more abundant life but to more abundant luxury. Like so many inexorable moralists, he was intolerant of all literature that did not serve as a sort of example of his own moral and social theories. That is why he was not a great critic, though he was immeasurably greater than a great critic. One would not turn to him for the perfect appreciation even of one of the authors he spared, such as Hugo or Dickens. The good critic must in some way begin by accepting literature as it is, just as the good lyric poet must begin by accepting life as it is. He may be as full of revolutionary and reforming theories as he likes, but he must not allow any of these to come like a cloud between him and the sun, moon and stars of literature. The man who disparages the beauty of flowers and birds and love and laughter and courage will never be counted

among the lyric poets; and the man who questions the beauty of the inhabited world the imaginative writers have made a world as unreasonable in its loveliness as the world of nature-is not in the way of becoming a critic of literature.

Another argument which tells in favour of the theory that the best criticism is praise is the fact that almost all the memorable examples of critical folly have been denunciations. One remembers that Carlyle dismissed Herbert Spencer as a "never-ending ass." One remembers that Byron thought nothing of Keats-"Jack Ketch," as he called him. One remembers that the critics damned Wagner's operas as a new form of sin. One remembers that Ruskin denounced one of Whistler's nocturnes as a pot of paint flung in the face of the British public. In the world of science we have a thousand similar examples of new genius being hailed by the critics as folly and charlatanry. Only the other day a biographer of Lord Lister was reminding us how, at the British Association in 1869, Lister's antiseptic treatment was attacked as a "return to the dark ages of surgery," the "carbolic mania,” and “a professional criminality." The history of science, art, music and literature is strewn with the wrecks of such hostile criticisms. It is an appalling spectacle for anyone interested in defending the intelligence of the human race. So appalling is it, indeed, that most of us nowadays labour under such a terror of accidentally condemning something good that we have not the courage to condemn anything at all. We think of the way in which Browning was once taunted for his obscurity, and we cannot find it in our hearts to censure Mr. Doughty. We recall the ignorant attacks on Manet and Monet, and we will not risk an onslaught on the follies of Picasso and the worse-than-Picassos of contemporary art. We grow a monstrous and unhealthy plant of tolerance in our souls, and its branches drop colourless good words on the just and on the unjust-on everybody, indeed, except Miss Marie Corelli, Mr. Hall Caine, and a few others whom we know to be second-rate because they

have large circulations. This is really a disastrous state of affairs for literature and the other arts. If criticism is, generally speaking, praise, it is, more definitely, praise of the right things. Praise for the sake of praise is as great an evil as blame for the sake of blame. Indiscriminate praise, in so far as it is the result of distrust of one's own judgment or of laziness or of insincerity, is one of the deadly sins in criticism. It is also one of the deadly dull sins. Its effect is to make criticism ever more unreadable, and in the end even the publishers, who love foolish sentences to quote about bad books, will open their eyes to the futility of it. They will realize that, when once criticism has become unreal and unreadable, people will no more be bothered with it than they will with drinking lukewarm water. I speak of the publisher in especial, because there is no doubt that it is with the idea of putting the publishers in a good, open-handed humour that so many papers and reviews have turned criticism into a kind of stagnant pond. Publishers, fortunately, are coming more and more to see that this kind of criticism is of no use to them. Reviews in certain papers, they will tell you, do not sell books. And the papers to which they refer in such cases are always papers in which praise is lavishly served out to everybody, like spoonfuls of treacle-and-brimstone to the school-children in Nicholas Nickleby.

Criticism, then, is praise, but it is praise of literature. There is all the difference in the world between that and the praise of what pretends to be literature. True criticism is a search for beauty and truth and an announcement of them. It does not care twopence whether the method of their revelation is new or old, academic or futuristic. It only asks that the revelation shall be genuine. It is concerned with form, because beauty and truth demand perfect expression. But it is a mere heresy in æsthetics to say that perfect expression is the whole of art that matters. It is the spirit that breaks through the form that is the main interest of criticism. Form, we know, has a permanence of its own : so much so that it has again and again been worshipped by

the idolaters of art as being in itself more enduring than the thing which it embodies. Robert Burns, by his genius for perfect statement, can give immortality to the joys of being drunk with whiskey as the average hymn-writer cannot give immortality to the joys of being drunk with the love of God. Style, then, does seem actually to be a form of life. The critic may not ignore it any more than he may exaggerate its place in the arts. As a matter of fact, he could not ignore it if he would, for style and spirit have a way of corresponding to one another like health and sunlight.

It is to combat the stylelessness of many contemporary writers that the destructive kind of criticism is just now most necessary. For, dangerous as the heresy of style was forty or fifty years ago, the newer heresy of stylelessness is more dangerous still. It has become the custom even of men who write well to be as ashamed of their style as a schoolboy is of being caught in an obvious piece of goodness. They keep silent about it as though it were a kind of powdering or painting. They do not realize that it is merely a form of ordinary truthfulness-the truthfulness of the word about the thought. They forget that one has no more right to misuse words than to beat one's wife. Someone has said that in the last analysis style is a moral quality. It is a sincerity, a refusal to bow the knee to the superficial, a passion for justice in language. Stylelessness, where it is not, like colour-blindness, an accident of nature, is for the most part merely an echo of the commercial man's world of hustle. It is like the rushing to and fro of motor-buses which save minutes but waste our peace. It is like the swift making of furniture with unseasoned wood. It is a kind of introduction of the quick-lunch system into literature. One cannot altogether acquit Mr. Masefield of a hasty stylelessness in some of those long poems which the world has been reading in the last year or two. His line in The Everlasting Mercy:

And yet men ask, "Are barmaids chaste?"

is a masterpiece of inexpertness. And the couplet:

The Bosun turned: "I'll give you a thick ear!
Do it? I didn't. Get to hell from here!"

is like a Sunday-school teacher's lame attempt to repeat a blasphemous story. Mr. Masefield, on the other hand, is, we always feel, wrestling with language. If he writes in a hurry, it is not because he is indifferent, but because his soul is full of something that he is eager to express. He does not gabble; he is, as it were, a man stammering out a vision. So vastly greater are his virtues than his faults as a poet, indeed, that the latter would only be worth the briefest mention if it were not for the danger of their infecting other writers who envy him his method but do not possess his conscience. One cannot contemplate with equanimity the prospect of a Masefield school of poetry with all Mr. Masefield's ineptitudes and none of his genius.

Criticism, however, it is to be feared, is a fight for a lost cause if it essays to prevent the founding of schools upon the faults of good writers. Criticism will never kill the copyist. Nothing but the end of the world can do that. Still, whatever the practical results of his work may be, it is the function of the critic to keep the standard of writing high-to insist that the authors shall write well, even if his own sentences are like torn strips of newspaper for commonness. He is the enemy of sloppiness in others—especially of that airy sloppiness which so often nowadays runs to four or five hundred pages in a novel. It was amazing to find with what airiness so promising a writer as Mr. Compton Mackenzie gave us some years ago Sinister Street, a novel containing thousands of sentences that only seemed to be there because he had not thought it worth his while to leave them out, and thousands of others that seemed to be mere hurried attempts to express realities upon which he was unable to spend more time. Here is a writer who began literature with a sense of words, and who is declining into content with wordiness. It is simply another instance of the ridiculous rush of writing that is going on all about us—

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