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Advantages of Quotational Criticism

The talk round the Easy Chair one day was of that strange passion for reading which has of late possessed the public, and the contagion or infection by which it has passed to hundreds of thousands who never read before; and then the talk was of how this prodigious force might be controlled and turned in the right way: not suffered to run to waste like water over the dam, but directed into channels pouring upon wheels that turn the mills of the gods or something like that. There were, of course, a great many words; in fact, talk is composed of words, and the people at that luncheon were there for talking as well as eating, and they did not mind how many words they used. But the sum of their words was the hope, after a due season of despair, that the present passion for reading might be made to eventuate in more civilization than it seemed to be doing, if it could be brought back to good literature, supposing it was ever there in great strength, and the question was how to do this.

One of the company said he had lately been reading a good many books of Leigh Hunt's, and after everybody had interrupted with "Delightful!" "Perfectly charming!" and the like, he went on to observe that one of the chief merits of Hunt seemed to be his aptness in quotation. That, he remarked, was almost a lost art with critics, who had got to thinking that they could tell better what an author was than the author himself could. Like every other power disused, the power of apt quotation had died, and there were very few critics now who knew how to quote: not one knew, as Hunt, or Lamb, or Hazlitt, or the least of the great quotational school of critics, knew. These had perhaps overworked their gift, and might have been justly accused, as they certainly were accused, of misleading the reader and making him think that the poets, whose best they quoted, putting the finest lines in italics so that they could not be missed, were as good throughout as in the passages given. It was this sense of having abused innocence, or ignorance, which led to the present reaction in criticism no doubt, and yet the present reaction was an error. Suppose that the poets whose best was given by quotation were not altogether as good as that? The critics never pretended they were; they were merely showing how very good these poets could be, and at the same time offering a delicate pleasure to the reader, who could not complain that his digestion was overtaxed by the choice morsels. If his pleasure in them prompted him to go to the entire poet quoted, in the hope of rioting gluttonously upon him, the reader was rightly served in one sense. In another, he was certainly not misserved or his time wasted. It would be hard for him to prove that he could have employed it more profitably.

Everybody, more or less, now sat up, and he who had the eye and ear of the table went on to remark that he had not meant to make a defence of the extinct school of quotational criticism. What he really meant to do was to suggest a way out of the present situation in which the new multitude of voracious readers were grossly feeding upon such intellectual husks as swine would not eat, and imagining themselves nourished by their fodder. There might be some person present who could improve upon his suggestion, but his notion, as he conceived it, was that something might be done in the line of quotational criticism to restore the great poets to the public favor, for he understood that good authors were now proportionately less read than they once were. He thought that a pity: and the rest of the company joined in asking him how he proposed to employ the quotational method for his purpose.

In answering he said that he would not go outside of the English classics, and he would, for the present, deal only with the greatest of these. He took it for granted that those listening were all agreed that mankind would be advantaged in their minds or manners by a more or less familiar acquaintance with Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, Pope, Cowper, Burns, Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, Tennyson, and Browning; he himself did not mind adding Scott to the list, whose poetry he found much better than his prose. To bring about an acquaintance which might very profitably ripen into intimacy, he would have each of these poets treated in the whole measure of his work as many or most of them had been topically or partially treated by the quotational critics. Some one here made him observe that he was laying out rather a large piece of work, and to this he answered, Not at all; the work had been already done. Asked then, somewhat derisively, why it need be done over again, he explained, with a modesty and patience which restored him to the regard he had lost by the derision (all had impartially united in it), that though the work had already been done, there needed some slight additions to it which would easily fit it to his purpose. He was not thinking of going in for one of those dreadful series of books which seemed the dismay alike of publisher and reader, and required rewriting of matter more than enough rewritten. In fact, he said, that for his purpose the writing was done fully and probably better than it could be done again, and it was only the reading and quoting that demanded editorial attention.

Another said he did not see how that could be, and the inventor of the brave scheme, which was still in petto, said that he would try to show him. We had, he contended, only too great riches in the criticisms of the poets open to our choice, but suppose we took Spenser and let Lowell introduce him to us. There would be needed a very brief biographical note, and then some able hand to intersperse the criticism with passages from Spenser, or with amplifications of the existing quotations, such as would give a full notion of the poet's scope and quality. The story of each of his poems could be given in a few words, where the poems themselves could not be given even in part, and with the constant help of the critic the reader could be possessed of a luminous idea of the poet, such as he probably could not get by going to him direct, though this was not to be deprecated, but encouraged, after the preparatory acquaintance. The explanatory and illustrative passages could be interpolated in the text of the criticism without interrupting the critic, and something for Spenser might thus be done on the scale of what Addison did for Milton. It was known how those successive papers in the Spectator had rehabilitated one of the greatest English poets, or, rather, rehabilitated the English public, and restored the poet and the public to each other. They formed almost an ideal body of criticism, and if they did not embody all that the reader need know of Milton, they embodied so much that he could no longer feel himself ignorant of Milton. In fact, they possessed him of a high degree of Miltonian culture, which was what one wanted to have with respect to any poet. They might be extended with still greater quotation, and if something more yet were needed the essay on Milton which made Macaulay's reputation might be employed as a vessel to catch the overrunnings of the precious ichor.

Who could not wish to know the poetry of Keats as we already knew his life through the matchless essay of Lowell? That might be filled out with the most striking passages of his poetry, simply let in at appropriate places, without breaking the flow of that high discourse, and forming a rich accompaniment which could leave no reader unpleasured or uninstructed. The passages given from the poet need not be relevant to the text of the critic; they might be quite irrelevant and serve the imaginable end still better. For instance, some passages might be given in the teeth of the critic, and made to gainsay what he had been saying. This would probably send the reader, if he was very much perplexed, to the poet himself, which was the imaginable end. He might be disappointed one way or he might be disappointed the other way, but in the mean while he would have passed his time, and he would have instructed if he had not amused himself.

It would be very interesting to take such a criticism as that of Lowell on Dryden and give not only the fine things from him, but the things that counted for the critic in his interesting contention that Dryden failed of being a prime poet because of the great weight of prose in him, and very good prose; or, as the critic charmingly put it, he had wings that helped him run along the ground, but did not enable him to fly. It would be most valuable for us to see how Dryden was a great literary man, but not one of the greatest poets, and yet must be ranked as a great poet. If the balance inclined now toward this opinion, and now against it, very possibly the reader would find himself impelled to turn to the poet's work, and again the imaginable end would be served.

A listener here asked why the talker went chiefly to Lowell for the illustration of his theory, and was frankly answered, For the same reason that he had first alluded to Leigh Hunt: because he had lately been reading him. It was not because he had not read any other criticism, or not that he entirely admired Lowell's; in fact, he often found fault with that. Lowell was too much a poet to be a perfect critic. He was no more the greatest sort of critic than Dryden was the greatest sort of poet. To turn his figure round, he had wings that lifted him into the air when he ought to be running along the ground.

The company laughed civilly at this piece of luck, and then they asked, civilly still, if Leigh Hunt had not done for a great many poets just what he was proposing to have done. What about the treatment of the poets and the quotations from them in the volumes on Wit and Humor, Imagination and Fancy, A Jar of Honey from Mount Hybla, and the rest? The talker owned that there was a great deal about these which was to his purpose, but, upon the whole, the criticism was too desultory and fragmentary, and the quotation was illustrative rather than representative, and so far it was illusory. He had a notion that Hunt's stories from the Italian poets were rather more in the line he would have followed, but he had not read these since he was a boy, and he was not prepared to answer for them.

One of the company said that she had read those Italian poets in Leigh Hunt's version of them when she was a girl, and it had had the effect of making her think she had read the poets themselves, and she had not since read directly Dante, Petrarch, Ariosto, or Tasso. She regarded that as an irreparable injury, and she doubted whether, if the great English poets could be introduced in that manner, very many people would pursue their acquaintance for themselves. They would think they were familiar with them already.

Yes, the talker assented, if that were the scheme, but it was not; or, at least, it was only part of the scheme. The scheme was to give the ever-increasing multitude of readers a chance to know something of the best literature. If they chose to pursue the acquaintance, very good; if they chose not to pursue the acquaintance, still very good; they could not have made it at all without being somewhat refined and enlightened. He felt very much about it as he felt about seeing Europe, which some people left unseen because they could not give all the time to it they would like. He always said to such people, Go if they could only be gone a month. A day in Rome, or London, or Paris, was a treasure such as a lifetime at home could not lay up; an hour of Venice or Florence was precious; a moment of Milan or Verona, of Siena or Mantua, was beyond price. So you could not know a great poet so little as not to be enriched by him. A look from a beautiful woman, or a witty word from a wise one, distinguished and embellished the life into which it fell, so that it could never afterward be so common as it was before.

Why, it was asked from a silence in which all the ladies tried to think whether the speaker had her in mind or not, and whether he ought really to be so personal, why could not Mr. Morley's English Men of Letters series be used to carry out the scheme proposed; and its proposer said he had nothing to say against that, except perhaps that the frames might be too much for the pictures. He would rather choose a critical essay, as he had intimated, for the frame of each picture; in this sort of thing we had an endless choice, both new and old. If he had any preference it would be for the older-fashioned critics, like Hazlitt or perhaps like De Quincey; he was not sure, speaking without the book, whether De Quincey treated authors so much as topics, but he had the sense of wonderful things in him about the eighteenth-century poets: things that made you think you knew them, and that yet made you burn to be on the same intimate terms with them as De Quincey himself.

His method of knowing the poets through the critics, the sympathetic critics, who were the only real critics, would have the advantage of acquainting the reader with the critics as well as the poets. The critics got a good deal of ingratitude from the reader generally, and perhaps in their character of mere reviewers they got no more than they merited, but in their friendly function of ushers to the good things, even the best things, in the authors they were studying, they had a claim upon him which he could not requite too generously. They acted the part of real friends, and in the high company where the reader found himself strange and alone, they hospitably made him at home. Above all other kinds of writers, they made one feel that he was uttering the good things they said. Of course, for the young reader, there was the danger of his continuing always to think their thoughts in their terms, but there were also great chances that he would begin by-and-by to think his own thoughts in terms of his own.

The more quotational the critics were, the better. For himself the speaker said that he liked that old custom of printing the very finest things in italics when it came to citing corroborative passages. It had not only the charm of the rococo, the pathos of a bygone fashion, but it was of the greatest use. No one is the worse for having a great beauty pointed out in the author one is reading or reading from. Sometimes one does not see the given beauty at first, and then he has the pleasure of puzzling it out; sometimes he never sees it, and then his life is sublimed with an insoluble conundrum. Sometimes, still, he sees what the critic means, and disagrees with him. In this case he is not likely to go to the end of his journey without finding a critic whom he agrees with about the passage in question.

After all, however, it was asked by one that had not spoken before (with that fine air of saying a novel thing which people put on who have not spoken before), would not the superficial knowledge of the poets imparted by quotational criticism result in a sort of pseudo-culture which would be rather worse than nothing, a kind of intellectual plated ware or æsthetic near-silk?

The talker said he thought not, and that he had already touched upon some such point in what he had said about going to Europe for a few months. He offered the opinion that there was no such thing as pseudo-culture; there was culture or there was not; and the reader of a quotational criticism, if he enjoyed the quotations, became, so far, cultivated. It could not be said that he knew the poets treated of, but neither could it be said that he was quite ignorant of them. As a matter of fact, he did know them in a fashion, through a mind larger and clearer than his own.

For this reason the talker favored the reading of criticism, especially the kind of criticism that quoted. He would even go so far as to say that there was no just and honest criticism without quotation. The critic was bound to make out his case, or else abdicate his function, and he could not make out his case, either for or against an author, without calling him to testify. Therefore, he was in favor of quotational criticism, for fairness' sake, as well as for his pleasure; and it was for the extension of it that he now contended. He was not sure that he wished to send the reader to the authors quoted in all cases. The reader could get through the passages cited a pretty good notion of the authors' quality, and as for their quantity, that was often made up of commonplaces or worse. In the case of the old poets, and most of the English classics, there was a great deal of filth which the reader would be better for not taking into his mind and which the most copiously quotational critics would hardly offer him. If any one said that without the filth one could not get a fair idea of those authors, he should be disposed to distinguish, and to say that without the filth one could not get a fair idea of their age, but of themselves, yes. Their beauty and their greatness were personal to them; even their dulness might be so; but their foulness was what had come off on them from living at periods when manners were foul.

William Dean Howells