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of criticism, which, instead of condemning a difference of taste in different nations as a departure from it, seeks to explain such discrepances by the peculiar circumstances of the nation, and thus from the elements of discord, as it were, to build up a universal and harmonious system. The exclusive and unfavorable views, entertained by some of their later critics, respecting the French literature, indeed, into which they have been urged, no doubt, by a desire to counteract the servile deference, shown to that literature by their countrymen of the preceding age, forms an important exception to their usual candor.
As general critics, however, the Germans are open to grave objections. The very circumstances of their situation, so favorable, as we have said, to the formation of a liberal criticism, have encouraged the taste for theories and for system-building, always unpropitious to truth. Whoever broaches a theory, has a hard battle to fight with conscience. If the theory cannot conform to the facts, so much the worse for the facts, as some wag has said ; — they must, at all events, conform to the theory. The Germans have put together hypotheses with the facility with which children construct card-houses; and many of them bid fair to last as long. They show more industry in accumulating materials, than taste or discretion in their arrangement. They carry their fantastic imagination beyond the legitimate province of the Muse into the sober fields of criticism. Their philosophical systems, curiously and elaborately devised, with much ancient lore and solemn imaginings, may remind one of some of those venerable English cathedrals, where the magnificent and mysterious Gothic is blended with the clumsy Saxon. The effect, on the whole, is grand, but somewhat grotesque withal.
The Germans are too often sadly wanting in discretion ; or, in vulgar parlance, taste. They are perpetually overleaping the modesty of nature. They are possessed by a coldblooded enthusiasm, if we may so say, — since it seems to come rather from the head than the heart, — which spurs them on, over the plainest barriers of common sense, until even the right becomes the wrong. A striking example of these defects is furnished by the dramatic critic, Schlegel ; whose “ Lectures " are, or may be, familiar to every reader, since they have been reprinted, in the English version, in this country. No critic, not even a native, has thrown such a flood of light on the characteristics of the sweet bard of Avon. He has made himself so intimately acquainted with the peculiar circumstances of the poet's age and country, that he has been enabled to speculate on his productions as those of a contemporary. In this way, he has furnished a key to the mysteries of his composition, has reduced what seemed anomalous to system, and has supplied Shakspeare's own countrymen with new arguments for vindicating the spontaneous suggestions of feeling on strictly philosophical principles. Not content with this important service, he, as usual, pushes his argument to extremes, vindicates notorious blemishes as necessary parts of a system, and calls on us to admire, in contradiction to the most ordinary principles of taste and common sense. Thus, for example, speaking of Shakspeare's notorious blunders in geography and chronology, he coolly tells us, “I undertake to prove, that Shakspeare's anachronisms are, for the most part, committed purposely, and after great consideration.” In the same vein, speaking of the poet's villanous puns and quibbles, which, to his shame, or rather that of his age, so often bespangle, with tawdry brilliancy, the majestic robe of the Muse, he assures us, that “the poet here, probably, as everywhere else, has followed principles which will bear a strict examination." But the intrepidity of criticism never went further than in the conclusion of this same analysis, where he unhesitatingly assigns several apocryphal plays to Shakspeare, gravely informing us, that the three last, " Sir John Oldcastle," "A Yorkshire Tragedy,” and “ Thomas Lord Cromwell,” of which the English critics speak with unreserved contempt, " are not only unquestionably Shakspeare's, but, in his judgment, rank among the best and ripest of his works”! The old bard, could he raise his head from the tomb, where none might disturb his bones, would exclaim, we imagine, “Non tali auxilio !”
It shows a tolerable degree of assurance in a critic, thus to dogmatize on nice questions of verbal resemblance, which have so long baffled the natives of the country, who, on such questions, obviously, can be the only competent judges. It furnishes a striking example of the want of discretion, of a regard to the tò apérov, noticeable in so many of the German scholars. With all these defects, however, it cannot be denied, that they have widely extended the limits of rational criticism, and, by their copious stores of erudition, furnished the student with facilities for attaining the best points of view for a comprehensive survey of both ancient and modern literature.
The English have had advantages, on the whole, greater than those of any other people, for perfecting the science of general criticism. They have had no Academies, to bind the wing of genius to the earth by their thousand wire-drawn subtleties. No Inquisition has placed its burning seal upon the lip, and thrown its dark shadow over the recesses of the soul. They have enjoyed the inestimable privilege of thinking what they pleased, and of uttering what they thought. Their minds, trained to independence, have had no occasion to shrink from encountering any topic, and have acquired a masculine confidence, indispensable to a calm appreciation of the mighty and widely diversified productions of genius, as unfolded under the influences of as widely diversified institutions and national character. Their own literature, with chameleon-like delicacy, has reflected all the various aspects of the nation, in the successive stages of its history. The rough, romantic beauties and gorgeous pageantry of the Elizabethan age, the stern, sublime enthusiasm of the Commonwealth, the cold brilliancy of Queen Anne, and the tumultuous movements and ardent sensibilities of the present generation, — all have been reflected, as in a mirror, in the current of English literature, as it has flowed down through the lapse of ages. It is easy to understand, what advantages this cultivation of all these different styles of composition at home must give the critic, in divesting himself of narrow and local prejudice, and in appreciating the genius of foreign literatures, in each of which some one or other of these different styles has found favor. To this must be added the advantages derived from the structure of the English language itself, which, compounded of the Teutonic and the Latin, offers facilities for a comprehension of other literatures, not afforded by those languages, as the German and the Italian, for instance, almost exclusively derived from but one of them.
With all this, the English, as we have remarked, have made fewer direct contributions to general literary criticism than the Continental nations ; unless, indeed, we take into the account the periodical criticism, which has covered the
vol. XLIX. — No. 105. 42
whole field with a light skirmishing, very unlike any systematic plan of operations. The good effect of this guerrilla warfare may well be doubted. Most of these critics for the nonce (and we certainly are competent judges on this point) come to their work with little previous preparation. Their attention has been habitually called, for the most part, in other directions; and they throw off an accidental essay in the brief intervals of other occupation. Hence their views are necessarily often superficial, and sometimes contradictory, as may be seen from turning over the leaves of any journal, where literary topics are widely discussed; for, whatever consistency may be demanded in politics or religion, very free scope is offered, even in the same journal, to literary speculation. Even when the article may have been the fruit of a mind ripened by study and meditation on congenial topics, it too often exhibits only the partial view suggested by the particular and limited direction of the author's thoughts in this instance. Now, truth is not much served by this irregular process; and the general illumination, indispensable to a full and fair survey of the whole ground, can never be supplied from such scattered and capricious gleams, thrown over it at random.
Another obstacle to a right result, is founded in the very constitution of review-writing. Miscellaneous in its range of topics, and addressed to a miscellaneous class of readers, its chief reliance for success, in competition with the thousand novelties of the day, is in the temporary interest it can excite. Instead of a conscientious discussion and cautious examination of the matter in hand, we too often find an attempt to stimulate the popular appetite, by picquant sallies of wit, by caustic sarcasm, or by a pert, dashing confidence, that cuts the knot it cannot readily unloose. Then, again, the spirit of periodical criticism would seem to be little favorable to perfect impartiality. The critic, shrouded in his secret tribunal, too often demeans himself like a stern inquisitor, whose business is rather to convict than to examine. Criticism is directed to scent out blemishes, instead of beauties. “Judex damnatur cùm nocens absolvitur," is the bloody motto of a well-known British periodical, which, under this piratical flag, has sent a broadside into many a gallant bark, that deserved better at its hands.
When we combine with all this the spirit of patriotism,
- or what passes for such with nine tenths of the world, the spirit of national vanity, — we shall find abundant motives for a deviation from a just, impartial estimate of foreign literatures. And if we turn over the pages of the best-conducted English journals, we shall probably find ample evidence of the various causes we have enumerated. We shall find, amidst abundance of shrewd and sarcastic observation, smart skirmish of wit, and clever antithesis, a very small infusion of sober, dispassionate criticism ; the criticism founded on patient study and on strictly philosophical principles; the criticism on which one can safely rely as the criterion of good taste, and which, however tame it may appear to the jaded appetite of the literary lounger, is the only one that will attract the eye of posterity.
The work, named at the head of our article, will, we suspect, notwithstanding the author's brilliant reputation, never meet this same eye of posterity. Though purporting to be, in its main design, an Essay on English Literature, it is, in fact, a multifarious compound of as many ingredients as entered into the witches' caldron ; 10 say nothing of a gallery of portraits of dead and living, among the latter of whom M. de Chateaubriand himself is not the least conspicuous. “I have treated of every thing,” he says, truly enough, in his preface, “the Present, the Past, the Future.” The parts are put together in the most grotesque and disorderly manner, with some striking coincidences, occasionally, of characters and situations, and some facts not familiar to every reader. The most unpleasant feature in the book, is the doleful lamentation of the author over the evil times on which he has fallen. He has, indeed, lived somewhat beyond his time, which was that of Charles the Tenth, of pious memory, — the good old time of apostolicals and absolutists, which will not be likely to revisit France again very soon. Indeed, our unfortunate author reminds one of some weather-beaten hulk, which the tide has left high and dry on the strand, and whose signals of distress are little heeded by the rest of the convoy, which have trimmed their sails more dexterously, and sweep merrily on before the breeze. The present work affords glimpses, occasionally, of the author's happier style, which has so often fascinated us in his earlier productions. On the whole, however, it will add little to his reputation ; nor, probably, much subtract from it. When a man has