The Life and Works of Goethe: An Essay by Hjalmar Hjorth

The Life and Works of Goethe (From Essays on German Literature)

IT is told of the philosopher Hegel that he once complained because so few understood his writings. “Of all living men,” he said, “there is but one who has understood me; and,” he added, after a moment’s reflection, “he misunderstood me.” The common judgment of a man who spoke thus would be that he was himself at fault, that his utterance was needlessly obscure, since it failed to appeal to ordinary human intelligence. In Hegel’s case such a judgment would not have been far wrong. German philosophers, as a rule, cultivate involved obscurity of diction, and perhaps even pride themselves on their unintelligibility.

But for all that it is not to be denied that there is a region of thought which lies beyond the range of the ordinary intellect, and which is none the less exalted and beautiful because of its inaccessibility to the multitude. The fact that you or I do not see anything in works of this or that poet, does not, of necessity, prove that there is nothing in them. That which you or I do not understand is not on that account unintelligible. If the second part of “Faust” fails to convey any meaning to the ordinary omniscient critic of the daily papers, it is generally supposed that the second part of “Faust” stands thereby condemned. That Goethe has opened a new realm of thought to which even a college degree is not necessarily a passport, that he has in “Faust” expounded a deep philosophy of life, for the com-prehension of which a more than ordinary largeness of vision and grasp of intellect are required, is scarcely dreamed of by the herd of shallow, nimble-witted critics who pat him kindly on the shoulder and compare him blandly with Byron, Coleridge, and Wordsworth.

Of English writers only Carlyle seems to have had an adequate conception of Goethe’s greatness, although he, too, was certainly at variance with the fundamental principles which underlay his hero’s life and poetic activity. That he unconsciously distorted the meaning of “Faust ” is very obvious to any student of Goethe who reads his essay on ” Helena.”

It was the direct purpose of Goethe to be the intellectual deliverer of his age, as he distinctly avowed to Eckermann when he said that the name which he would prefer to all others was “Befreier.” The tendency of his life and his writings, after his return from Italy, is all in the same direction. They all teach, even where no didactic purpose is apparent, that liberty is attainable, not by defiance of moral and physical law, but by obedience to it; that happiness is to be found only in a cheerful acquiescence in the rationality of existence. In this lesson there is deliverance to him who properly estimates and apprehends it. Thus barrenly stated it sounds commonplace enough to us of the nineteenth century; but it is largely due to Goethe’s influence that it has become so generally accepted. Before “Faust” was written there were few who would have been able to defend such a proposition, even though they might profess to accept it.

Johann Wolfgang Goethe was born in Frankfort- on-the-Main, August 28, 1749. His family, a few generations back, had been plain artisans, and had by dint of talent and energy risen to prosperity and social importance. Goethe’s father had inherited a respectable fortune, enjoyed a good education, and had travelled considerably in his own country and in Italy. He was a stem and methodical man, rigidly upright, impatient of all irregularities, and somewhat pedantic in his habits and opinions. His bearing was dignified, his disposition despotic. At the age of thirty-eight he married Katharine Elizabeth, daughter of the Magistrate Textor, and bought the title of Imperial Counsellor. There were no duties connected with this office, but it conferred a social rank which in those days was highly prized. The young wife whom the counsellor installed in his spacious house in the Hirschgraben was a contrast to him in almost everything. She was genial and full of wholesome mirth. Her culture was probably moderate enough, but she possessed a nature which compensated for all deficiencies of education. An exuberant fancy, inexhaustible good- humor, and an ever – ready mother Avit made her the most delightful of companions; and no one valued more highly her many charming gifts than her son Johann Wolfgang. As he grew out of infancy she became his playmate and friend, and the confidant of his boyish sorrows. She listened with delight to his improvisations, and secretly took his part in his occasional rebellion against the paternal authority.

In the invention of stories she was an expert; her serials ran from evening to evening, and were continued ad libitum. Goethe and his sister Cornelia would then tell them at secondhand to their Grandmother Textor, indulging in conjectures as to the future course of events, and expressing their hopes for a satisfactory ending. These speculations Grandmother Textor would again confide to her daughter, who would then take care to make Wolfgang’s conjectures come true, meting out the most gratifying justice to the villain, and to suffering virtue an ample reward.

Frau Aja, as she was called, became in later years, as her son’s fame grew, a character in German literature. His friends became her friends, and no one of any consequence passed through the city of Frankfort without stopping to pay his respects to her. Her cheerful view of life, her absolute refusal to entertain gloomy subjects, her easy-going desire to please and be pleased made her a universal favorite. Previous to her death (1808) she arranged the minutest details of her funeral, even warning her servants not to skimp the raisins in the cake, with which the guests were to be regaled. Receiving an invitation to a party, as she felt the approach of death, she returned the answer that “Madame Goethe could not come, because she was, just then, engaged in dying.”

Goethe’s father seems to have inspired most biographers with ill-will. And yet he was, though less lovable than his wife, a well-endowed, conscientious, and estimable man. That he was a sterner disciplinarian than his wife (who herself declared that she was unfit to educate anybody) was a fortunate circumstance for his children. For Frau Aja systematically spoiled them, indulging all their whims, and granting all their wishes, if they would only be pleasant and not cry. There is plenty of evidence that the counsellor had a great ambition for his son, and took a deep interest in. his education. He corrected and criticised his drawings, directed his studies, watched his progress, and expressed his displeasure when the boy failed to come up to his expectation. Fortunate is the boy who has such a father, even though he may not have the sagacity to appreciate him. And doubly needed were the restraining force, the insistance upon duty, and the occasional seventy of the Counsellor Goethe, as a counterpoise to the utter laxity of the pleasure-loving mother.

Goethe’s well-known views concerning his ancestry show that he valued in maturer years both his paternal and maternal heredity :

“Vom Vater hab’ ich die Statur, Des Lebens ernstes Fuhren;

Vom Miitterclien die Frohnatur Die Lust zu fabulireu,”

which Professor J. T. Blackie translates thus :

“My good frame and earnest soul I from my sire inherit;

 My happy heart and glib discourse Was my brave mother’s merit.”

Goethe was a precocious child, richly endowed physically and mentally. He absorbed knowledge spontaneously and without effort. His fancy, too, was active, and he took delight in relating marvelous tales, which he himself invented, to a company of admiring friends. The two fairy tales, “The New Paris” and “The New Melusine,” which he reprinted in a somewhat improved shape in his autobiography, belong to this period.

A charming anecdote is related apropos of his fondness for Klopstock’s biblical epic, “The Messiah.” Frau Aja had surreptitiously borrowed this book, and went about with it in her pocket, because her husband disapproved of Klopstock’s wild and rebellious rhapsodies. Goethe and his younger sister Cornelia, sharing their mother’s predilections, therefore committed the precious verses to memory, and amused themselves with personating the enraged Satan and his subordinate fiends. Standing on chairs in the nursery they would hurl the most delightfully polysyllabic maledictions at each other. One Saturday evening, while their father was receiving a professional visit from his barber, the two children (who were always hushed and subdued in his presence) were seated behind the stove whispering sonorous curses in each other’s ears. Cornelia, however, carried away by the impetus of her inspiration, forgot the father’s presence, and spoke with increasing violence:

“Help me! halp! I implore thee, and if thou demand’st it Worship thee, outcast! Thou monster and black male-factor! Help me! I suffer the torments of death, the eternal avenger! ” etc.

The barber, frightened out of his wits by such extraordinary language, poured the soap-lather over the counsellor’s bosom. The culprits were summoned for trial, and Klopstock was placed upon the index expurgatorius.

In 1765 Goethe was sent to the University of Leipsic, where he was matriculated as a student of law. It was his father’s wish that he should fit himself for the legal profession, and in time inherit the paternal dignity as a counsellor and honored citizen of the free city of Frankfort. Agreeably to this plan Goethe attended lectures on logic and Roman law, but soon grew so tired of these barren disciplines that he absented himself from lectures altogether. A brief and innocent love affair with Kiithchen Schonkopf, the daughter of the landlord with whom he took his dinners, may have tended to distract his attention. Loving your landlord’s daughter is as a rule antagonistic both to law and logic. A serious illness further interfered with his studies, and in 1768, after three years’ sojourn at the university, Goethe was called home to Frankfort, where he spent two years, regaining his health. Goethe’s sojourn in Leipsic brought him into contact with the French rococo culture, which then predominated in all the higher circles of Germany. The periwig period, with its elaborately artificial manners and “elegant ” sentiments, had set its monuments in German literature as in that of France Gottsched, who was a servile imitator of the authors of the age of Louis XIV. and Louis XV., was a professor in Leipsic while Goethe was there, though his influence as a dictator of taste was greatly on the wane. Nevertheless the tone of Leipsic society remained French, and it was natural that an impressible young poet like Goethe should assume the tone of his surroundings. We therefore see that his first literary efforts, a volume of poems published as texts for musical compositions, bear the rococo stamp and are as frivolous and full of artificial conceits, as if they had been addressed to one of the beauties of Versailles. Poetry was then believed to be a graceful ingenuity of language and sparkling play of fancy. Nature was banished, as rude and uncouth, or, if admitted-, laced in a very tight corset, rouged and powdered, befrilled and bedizened, until it could pass muster in the “elegant” salons of the period. Goethe’s youthful drama, “The Accomplices” (“Die Mitschuldigen”), is in this strain, and is radically alien to German morality.

In April, 1770, Goethe was sufficiently restored to health to resume his studies. He did not, however, return to Leipsic, but went to the University of Strassburg, where the teaching of the law was held to be very efficient. The city of Strassburg was then, as it has ever since remained, essentially German, though there was an infusion of Gallic life from the French officials who governed the conquered province. It was here, where Gallic and Teutonic life ran in friendly parallelism, that Goethe first discovered the distinctive features of each. It was here he met Herder, whose oracular utterances on the subjects of poetry, religion, and society powerfully affected him. Herder was a disciple of Rousseau; and had declared war, not against civilization in general, but against that phase of it which was represented by France. He detested the entire periwig spirit, and denounced in vigorous rhetoric its hollow frivolity. He clamored for truth and simplicity, and selected from the literature of the world certain books in which he detected the strong and uncorrupted voice of nature. Among these were the Bible, Homer, Shakespeare, Ossian, and the ballad literature of all nations. It is curious, indeed, to find Ossian in such a company, but it must be remembered that MacPhersou’s deception had not then been exposed.

Goethe drank in eagerly these new and refreshing doctrines. He began to read the writers Herder recommended, and in his enthusiasm for Shakespeare soon went beyond his teacher. He condemned his own frivolous imitations of French models, and wrestled with gigantic plans for future productions which should infuse new vigor into the enervated literature of the Fatherland. It was during this period of Titanic enthusiasm that he conceived the idea of “Faust,” for the complete embodiment of which he labored, though with many interruptions, for sixty years, until a few months before his death. A lively interest in natural science also began to develop itself in him, while his disinclination for the law showed no signs of abating. At lectures he was not a frequent guest; but for all that his intellectual life was aroused and he was by no means idle. With his great absorptive capacity he assimilated a large amount of the most varied knowledge, but insisted upon exercising his choice as to the kind of learning which his nature and faculties craved. The result was that, when the time came for taking the doctor’s degree, Johann Wolfgang Goethe, unquestionably the most brilliant intellect Germany has produced, failed to pass his examinations. He was, however, not ignominiously “flunked,” but was permitted to depart with the more modest title of “Licentiate of the Law.” It was not his legal learning which was found to be deficient, but his thesis was tinctured with alarming sentiments which savored of Rousseau. The faculty felt itself justified in stamping such dangerous doctrines with its disapproval. This was not what the old gentleman in Frankfort had looked forward to, and it is presumable that the reception he gave his son, when he returned in 1771 to the city of his fathers, was not over-cordial. He was probably not wise enough to see that he himself was to blame for having compelled the boy to devote himself to a study for which he had neither taste nor inclination.

An incident of Goethe’s life in Strassburg, which greatly influenced his literary activity, was his meeting with Frederika Brion, the daughter of the parson at Sesenheim. The parsonage was about six hours’ journey from the city, and Goethe was in the habit of visiting there with his friend Weyland, who was a relative of the family. The parson was a plain, God-fearing man, who went about in dressing-gown and slippers and with a long pipe in his mouth. His daughters, Salome and Frederika, were what the daughters of country clergymen are apt to be — nice, domestic girls, who would make charming wives for almost anybody who would have the good sense to propose to them. Frederika was pretty, and moreover she had an unfortified heart. She possessed a few artless accomplishments — such as playing and singing — but when she was to display these before company, everything went wrong. Her portrait, as drawn by Goethe in his autobiography, is one of the loveliest things in German literature. Her simple talk and strictly practical interests, far removed from all sentimentality, seemed to be in perfect accord with her little “tip-tilted nose ” and her half-rustic Alsatian costume. It is obvious that she appealed to Goethe’s artistic nature; that he gloried in the romantic phases of his simple life at the parsonage. He had already then the keenest appreciation of what one might call the literary aspect of his experiences. He knew at once, and probably anticipated in spirit, how they would look in a book. But he was at the same time an inflammable youth, whose heart was readily touched through the medium of his fancy. By degrees, as he established himself in the favor of every member of the Brion family, his relation to Frederika became that of a lover. The father and the mother accepted him in this capacity, and Frederika herself was overflowing with deep and quiet happiness. By an unlucky chance, however, the two Brion sisters were invited to spend some time with friends in Strassburg. Goethe was charmed at the prospect. But, strange to say, torn out of the idyllic frame in which he had been wont to see her, Frederika seemed no longer so miraculous. She needed the rural parsonage and the yellow wheat-fields for a setting; amid the upholstered furniture and gilded conventionalities of the city she seemed only a simple-hearted country girl, perhaps a little deficient in manners. From that time the charm was broken. Frederika returned to her home; Goethe, too, soon left Strassburg. Frederika waited for him month after month, but he did not come. He lacked courage to tell her of the changed state of his feelings, and left her to pine away between hope and cruel disappointment. A serious illness was the result, which came near ending her life. Eight years later Goethe, then a world- renowned man, revisited Sesenheim and found her yet unmarried. She was as frank and friendly as ever, but her youthful gayety was gone; she was pale, hushed, and subdued. She made no allusion to the relation which had once existed between them, but she conducted him silently to the arbor in the garden where they had spent so many rapturous hours together. There they sat down and talked of indifferent things; but many strange thoughts arose in the minds of both. Frederika died of consumption in 1813.

After his return to Frankfort, in 1771, Goethe made an earnest effort to please his father by laying the foundation of a legal practice. The counsellor himself aided him in every possible way, looked up his authorities, and acted as a private referee in doubtful questions. For all that, it was literature and not law which filled Goethe’s mind and fashioned his visions of the future. In the intervals of business he paid visits to the city of Darmstadt, where he made the acquaintance of Herder’s niece, Caroline Flachsland, and of Merck, who became his model for Mephistopheles. It was an interesting society which he here encountered, a society animated by an exalted veneration for poetic and intellectual achievements and devoted to a kind of emotional extravagance — an artificial heightening of every fine feeling and sentiment. Caroline Flachsland and her circle, recognizing Goethe’s extraordinary endowment, and feeling, perhaps, doubly inclined in his favor by his handsome exterior, accepted him, as it were, on trust, and honored him for what he was going to do rather than for anything which he had actually accomplished. His love affair with Frederika, which was here sentimentally discussed, also added to the interest with which he was regarded. A man who is known to have broken many hearts is naturally invested with a tantalizing charm to women who have yet hearts to be broken. At all events the great expectations which were entertained of him in the Darmstadt circle, stimulated him to justify the reputation which had been thrust upon him. In 1772 he published the drama, “Gotz von Berlichingen,” which at one stroke established his position as the foremost among German poets. It must be remembered, however, that Germany had at that time no really great poet. Lessing was, indeed, alive, and had written dramas which, in point of theatrical effectiveness and brilliancy, were superior to “Gotz.” But Lessing disclaimed the title of poet, and his prominence as a critic and a polemic defender of rationalism overshadowed, in the minds of his contemporaries, his earlier activity in the service of the muses. Moreover, it is not to be denied that “Gotz,” with all its crudity of construction, is a warmer and more full-blooded production than any of the plays which Lessiug had written for the purpose of demonstrating the soundness of his canons of dramatic criticism.

“Gotz” is a somewhat chaotic performance, obviously written in imitation of Shakespeare. It violates, whether purposely or not, every law of dramatic construction. It is a touching and poetical story, displaying psychological insight and vigorous characterization. But it takes a nimble fancy to keep up with the perpetual changes of scene; and even the tendency and morale of the piece are open to criticism. Goethe enlists the reader’s sympathies in behalf of the law-breaker, whose sturdy manhood and stubborn independence bring him into conflict with the state. Gotz, in spite of his personal merits, represents the wild and disorderly individualism of the Middle Ages, at war with the forces of order and social progress, represented by the Emperor and the free cities. Therefore it is scarcely proper to apostrophize him as the martyr of a noble cause.

In “Gotz” Goethe deals, secondarily, with faithlessness as a psychological problem. He practically assigns to himself the part of the villain, Weisslingen, who from sheer weakness, “possessing no resolution either for good or for ill,” breaks the heart of a noble young girl. But Weisslingen is faithless not because of any sinister delight in breaking hearts, but because he lacks the courage to be true, when he falls under the spell of a more dazzling and more powerful charmer. The latter, Adelaide von Walldorf, is the only conventionally wicked stock character of the drama to be found in all Goethe’s writings; and she is, curiously enough, the only one of his female characters for whom no living original or prototype has been found. A second revised edition of “Gotz” was published in 1773, in which some of the most daring unconventionalities of the first edition are changed or omitted, and the dramatic action is concentrated and much improved.

After having practised law in a leisurely fashion in Frankfort, Goethe removed, at his father’s recommendation, to Wetzlar, where he was admitted as a practitioner at the Imperial Chamber of Justice. This removal took place in May, 1774. Among the first acquaintances which he made in this city were a young jurist named Kestner and his fiancee, Charlotte Bufif. Kestner and Goethe became good friends, in spite of differences of temperament and character, and their friendship soon came to include Lotte. The jurist, who was a plain, practical man, and the soul of honor, could see no danger in the daily association of his betrothed with a handsome and brilliant young poet, who confided to her his hopes and ambitions, romped with her small brothers and sisters, and captivated the entire family by the reckless grace and charm of his manners. Kestner did not suspect that there were depths in Lotte’s nature which he had never sounded, regions of sentiment and fancy which he could never hope to explore. For Lotte, though she had a strong sense of duty, had by no means as well-regulated and business-like a heart as her practical lover. Thus the strange thing came to pass: Lotte fell in love with Goethe, and Goethe with Lotte. They made no confession of their secret even to each other, but they revelled in each other’s company, undisturbed by Kestner’s presence. At last, however, a crisis occurred. Goethe began to see that he was treading on dangerous ground. One evening, as he was lounging at Lotte’s feet, playing with the flounces on her dress, and the talk had taken a serious turn, he remarked, referring to a brief journey which he was about to undertake, that he hoped they would meet “jenseits” (beyond), meaning beyond the mountains which he was going to cross. Lotte misunderstood the allusion, and, quite forgetting Kestner’s presence, answered, fervently, that she could well be reconciled to losing him in this world, implying that she hoped to be united to him in the hereafter. It was a sudden flash which revealed to Goethe the fact that Lotte loved him. He was Kestner’s friend, was trusted by him, and could not act dishonorably. So he took his leave, packed his trunks that very night, and wrote three despairing letters, in which he avowed his love for Lotte, and gave this as the reason of his departure. He made it appear, probably in order to shield her, that his love was hopeless and that her happiness was dearer to him than his own. That this is the true version of the Wetzlar affair is made plain by the documents published by Herman Grimm, in his “Lectures on Goethe.”

This episode with Charlotte Buff and Kestner furnished Goethe with the material for his celebrated romance, “The Sorrows of Werther,” which he published in September, 1774. As was usual with him, and indeed with every great poet, he did not copy the actual relation, but he borrowed from it what was typical and immortal, and left out what was accidental and insignificant. Thus Lotte in “Werther” is not Charlotte Buff, though she sat for her model and furnished the main features of the beautiful type. In a still less degree is the pitiful Albert the author’s friend Kestner, though he is sufficiently like the latter to justify him in being offended. The character of Werther himself is more of a free creation, though his external fate was borrowed from that of a young secretary named Jerusalem, who shot himself for love of a married woman. In all other respects Werther is Goethe himself in his “Storm and Stress” period, while all the vital juices of his being were in ferment, while his youthful heart beat loudly in sympathy with the world’s woe; while the tumultuous currents of emotion swayed him hither and thither, and could not be made to run in the safe conventional channels. And yet, even in those days, there was a still small voice of reason in Goethe’s soul which restrained him from excesses — an under- current of sanity and sobriety which kept him always sound in his innermost core. If Werther had been like his prototype in this respect he would not have killed himself — in other -words, he would not have been Werther.

The amazing popularity which “The Sorrows of Werther” attained, not only in Germany but throughout the civilized world, cannot be due to the story as such, which is as simple as any episode of daily life. It is only explainable on the supposition that the book for the first time voiced a sentiment which was well -nigh universal in Europe, during the eighteenth century. The Germans call it Weltschmerz — i.e., world-woe. It takes in “Werther” the form of a tender melancholy, a sense of poetic sadness, which, after the unhappy love-affair, deepens into a gentle despair and leads to self-destruction. Psychologically, this is a very interesting phenomenon. The pent-up energy of the nation, which was denied its natural sphere of action in public and political life, takes a morbid turn and wastes itself in unwholesome introspection, coddling of artificial sentiment, and a vague discontent with the world in general.

During the year 1774 Goethe also published the tragedy “Clavigo,” which was a great disappointment to his friends. Its plot is borrowed from the “Memoirs of Beau Marchais,” and deals again with the problem of faithlessness. In poetic intensity and fervor it is inferior to “Gotz” and ” Werther,” while, in point of dramatic construction, it marks an advance. It is his own faithlessness to Frederika which Goethe obviously has in mind and which he is endeavoring psychologically to account for. But even from this point of view the tragedy can scarcely be called a success; for the reader closes the book with the conviction that Clavigo was, if not a villain, at all events a weak poltroon, though as such a perfectly comprehensible one.

After his departure from Wetzlar, Goethe once more took up his residence in his native city, and, before long, was again involved in a tender relation. This time, it was a rich and beautiful lady of society who attracted him — quite a contrast to the rural Frederika and the amiable and domestic Lotte. Anna Elizabeth Schcinemann, generally known as Lilli, was about sixteen years old when Goethe fell a victim to her charms. She was a spoiled child, wilful and coquettish, but high-bred and with a charm of manner, when she chose to be agreeable, which fully explains the poet’s devotion to her. Moreover, there was nothing meek and abjectly admiring about her. She teased her adorer, tormented him by her whims, and took delight in exercising her power over him. This was quite a new experience to a young man who had been accustomed to easy conquests and uncritical adoration. He was now drawn into general society, and, after his engagement with Lilli had been made public, was compelled to dance attendance upon her, early and late, at balls and dinner-parties. As an experience this might be valuable enough, but Goethe soon tired of it, and protested in prose and verse against his servitude. Lilli, however, though she was sincerely attached to him, could not be made to give up the youthful gayety which seemed so attractive to her. Quarrels ensued, alienations and reconciliations, and finally a complete rupture. In many poems from this period Goethe chronicles the various stages of his love for Lilli and laments her loss. There is no doubt that she had the making of a noble woman in her; her later life, and particularly her utterances concerning her relation to Goethe, show that she was neither frivolous nor shallow-hearted. But she was young and beautiful, and had a sense of power which it was but natural for her to exercise. The meek and submissive maiden is in undue favor with men, and Goethe’s biographers, being all men, have done their best to revile the memory of Lilli.

Among the friends who were warmly attached to Goethe at this time, Fritz Jacobi and Lavater demand a passing notice. Both presented a queer mixture of character, which accounts for their subsequent alienation from the poet. It is worthy of remark that scarcely any of the associates of Goethe’s youth maintained their intimate relations with him through life. He valued a friend only as long as he was in sympathy with him, and as he outgrew his youthful self, the friends who had been identified with this self lapsed into the distance. He did not value fidelity in the ordinary sense of the term, when it involved a perpetual strain upon the heart — when it had become a matter of duty rather than of affection. As regards Lavater, he was, with all his ostentatious, spirituality, a good deal of a charlatan, even so much so as to justify Goethe’s epigram in the “Xenien:”

“Oh, what a pity that Nature but one inau made out of you, friend!

Besides for an honest man, there was also the stuff for a knave.”

He reminds one of Carlyle’s friend Irving, who also started as an honest zealot and lapsed into emotional excesses, which leave one no choice but to question either his sanity or his honesty. The so-called science of physiognomy, which Lavater claimed to have discovered, at one time interested Goethe; but later, when he became familiar with scientific methods of research, he could no longer accept Lavater as a guide.

Fritz Jacobi was an honest sentimentalist, who ardently revered Goethe for his great powers of mind and intellect. They travelled together, and revelled in the emotions of love and sympathy which welled forth from the souls of both. Everything that they saw filled them with ecstatic wonder, and furnished themes for extravagant discourses and poetic dreams. Jacobi, even though the years sobered him, never completely outgrew this state, and when he published his sentimental romance “Woldemar,” which Goethe could not admire, their friendship began to cool. They drifted slowly apart, though there was no rupture to signalize their estrangement.

In spite of all his efforts, Goethe could not obtain any lasting satisfaction from his occupation with the law, and he grew lax in his attention to professional duties. The counsellor was grievously disappointed, and the relation between father and son grew so strained that all the diplomacy of the mother was required to keep them from open disagreement. It was therefore a godsend to Goethe when, in 1775, the two princes of Saxe-Weimar arrived in Frank- fort, and extended to him an invitation to visit their court. The eldest of the brothers, Karl August, took a great fancy to the author of ” Werther,” and made every effort to keep him as a friend and companion. To this end he conferred upon Goethe the title of Privy Counsellor, with an annual salary of twelve hundred thalers and a vote in the ducal cabinet. Goethe had thus at last got firm ground under his feet, and could now, without fear of the future, give himself up to his favorite pursuits. His arrival in Weimar made a sensation. His fame, his beauty, and his winning manners gave him at once a prestige, which he maintained undiminished to the end of his days. The duke, who was a blunt and honest fellow, fond of pleasure and yet zealous for the welfare of his subjects, found in Goethe a firm support for his noblest endeavors. As a boon-companion in pleasure he found the poet no less attractive; though it is now conceded that the tales which were circulated concerning the excesses of the two friends, at court festivals and rural excursions, were greatly exaggerated. It is true, a pause occurs in Goethe’s literary activity after his arrival in Weima ; but this was due not to preoccupation with pleasure, but to the zeal with which he devoted himself to his official duties. It was important to Goethe, as a poet, to gain a deeper insight into practical reality, and he seized the present opportunity to familiarize himself with many phases of life which hitherto had lain beyond his horizon. Strange as it may seem to those who identify with the name of poet everything that is fantastic and irregular, he made a model official — punctual and exact in all his dealings, painstaking, upright, and inflexible.

During his early youth, Goethe had been identified with the school in German literature known as the “Storm and Stress” (“Sturm und Drang”). The members of this school had clamored for a return to Nature — meaning by Nature absence of civilization. Civilization was held responsible for all the ills to which flesh is heir, and the remedy was held to be the abolishment of all the artificial refinements of life which interfered with the free expression of Nature. Goethe never went to the same length in these doctrines as some of his associates (Klinger, Lenz, Leisewitz), but he was, for all that, like them, a disciple of Rousseau, and had, both in “Gotz ” and “Werther,” made war upon civilized society. It is therefore notable that, after his arrival in Weimar and his closer contact with the actualities of life, a profound change came over him, which amounted to a revolution in his convictions. The wild ferment of his youth had found its natural expression in the fervid, tumultuous diction of the “Storm and Stress,” but his maturer manhood demanded a clearer, soberer, and more precise utterance. The change that took place in his style during the first ten years of his sojourn in Weimar was therefore a natural one, and ought to have caused no surprise to those who knew him.

A very exhaustive record of Goethe’s inner and outer life during this period, is contained in his correspondence with Frau von Stein, the wife of Baron von Stein, a nobleman in the duke’s service. She was seven years older than the poet, and the mother of seven children. Beautiful she was not, but she was a woman of exceptional culture and finely at- tuned mind, capable of comprehending subtle shades of thought and feeling. Her face, as the portraits show, was full of delicacy and refinement. Her marriage was unhappy, and without any protest on the part of her husband, she sought in daily inter- course with Goethe a consolation for the miseries of her life. Yet there is no sufficient reason for believing that the relation was anything more than a bond of sympathy and an intellectual friendship. His letters, appointing interviews and overflowing with affectionate assurances, are those of a lover. Unfortunately Frau von Stein’s own letters have not been preserved; she took the precaution to demand them back and bum them, when their friendship came to an end.*

In September, 1786, Goethe started from Karlsbad for Italy, and arrived in October in Rome. For many years it had been Lis dearest desire to see the Eternal City, and to study with his own eyes the masterpieces of ancient art. In his trunk he carried several unfinished manuscripts, and in his head a number of literary plans which he here hoped to mature, in the presence of the marble gods and heroes of the ancient world. He associated chiefly with the artists Tischbein, Meyer, Philip Hackert, and Angelica Kaufmann, and revelled in art talk and criticism. He took up again the study of Homer, and began to meditate upon an Homeric drama, to be called ”Nausicaa.” Italy, with its bright sky, its gently sloping mountains, clad with silvery olive-trees, and its shores washed by the blue Mediterranean waves, became a revelation to him, and he apprehended keenly her deepest poetic meaning. A cheerful paganism henceforth animates his Writings, a delight in sensuous beauty, and a certain impatience with the Christian ideal of self-abnegation. The Hellenic ideal of harmonious culture — an even development of all the powers of body and soul — appealed powerfully to him. He flung away his Gothic inheritance, undervaluing, in his devotion to the Greeks, what was noble and beautiful in the sturdy, self-denying manhood of the North. His drama “Iphigenia,” which he had first written in prose, he now rewrote in classical pentameters and sent it home to his friends in Weimar, who were completely mystified, and did not quite dare to say that they did not comprehend it. For all that, this drama is a very remarkable production, uniting, as it were, the Greek and the Germanic ideal, and being in spirit as close to the latter as it is in form to the former. Goethe dealt with this old classic tale as no Greek could ever have done. He makes the gentle womanhood of Iphigenia soften the manners of the fierce Taurians, and by her noble character act as a civilizing influence in the midst of the barbarous race. The Greeks had not arrived at such an estimate of women; nor would Euripides, who dealt with the same legend, have understood Goethe’s version of it any better than did Herder and his friends in Weimar.

In June, 1788, Goethe again turned his face northward, after an absence of nearly two years. One of the first effects of his Italian experience was that he took a mistress, named Christiane Vulpius, whom many years later he married. Christiane was a bright-eyed, rosy-cheeked girl, with an abundance of curly hair, in no wise intellectual, and belonging to a family in

* For a fuller account see the essay “Goethe’s Relations with Women.”

which drunkenness was hereditary. She was of redundant physical development, had always a bright smile, and was sufficiently intelligent to take a mild interest in her lover’s literary and scientific pursuits. But that his liaison with her was, for all that, a deplorable mistake, can scarcely be questioned. In the first place she developed, as she grew older, her hereditary vice, and was frequently unpresentable on account of intoxication. The son whom she bore to Goethe inherited the same failing, and died suddenly in Rome, as has been surmised, from the effects of a carouse. The young man, who was handsome in person and well endowed, had been married some years before and was the father of two sons, both of whom died unmarried. Walter von Goethe, who lived until Apiil, 1885, was a chamberlain at the Court of Weimar, and at one time cherished poetical-aspirations. With his death the race of Goethe became extinct in the direct line. It is, indeed, true that the sins of the fathers avenge themselves upon the children.

Christiane’s removal to Goethe’s house, where he henceforth claimed for her the place and respect due to a wife, caused a grievous commotion in Weimar. Frau von Stein was the first to take offence, and a rupture of their former relation was the result. Herder also remonstrated, and soon ceased to count himself among Goethe’s friends.

In 1789 Goethe completed a drama which, like the “Iphigenia,” had existed in an earlier prose version. It was entitled “Tasso,” and dealt with the history of the Italian poet of that name. Its purpose seems to be to protest against the over-estimation of a poet’s calling, then in vogue, and to assert the rights of practical reason as against those of the imagination. Tasso is represented as an impulsive and warm- hearted man who is violently swayed by his emotions, while the cool-headed man of the world, Antonio, represents the opposite type. In the contest which arises between them Tasso is worsted; and it is Goethe’s purpose to convince the reader that he de- serves his fate. In this, however, he is not entirely successful. Antonio, the adroit and sagacious diplo- mat, is an unattractive character as compared with the noble and generous Tasso, who errs from in- ability to restrain his passionate adoration of the Princess Leonora. The world is apt to sympathize more with generous folly than with far-seeing sagacity and nicely-adjusted calculation. And yet, when we have advanced another century, I am inclined to think that we shall agree that Goethe’s judgment was right.

As an acting play “Tasso” is even less effective than “Gotz” and ” Iphigenia,” being rather a poetic and admirably conceived story, told in dramatic form, than a drama in the ordinary acceptation of the term.

If further proof were needed that Goethe was not a dramatist, “Egmont” furnishes conclusive evidence. Here were again a series of delightful characterizations, subtle, and yet vigorous; and picturesquely effective scenes, strung together most entertainingly, but only with remote reference to the requirements of the stage. There is no perceptible acceleration of the action, as it progresses, no sharp accentuation of motives and effects, and no inexorable necessity, either internal or external, which hurries the hero to his destruction. No poet, however great, can emancipate himself from these laws, if he wishes to produce a successful tragedy. As a mere literary production, “Egmont” is fully worthy of the author of “Gotz” and “Werther,” and deserves the immortality which it has earned. The types of Clarchen and Egmont have a perennial beauty, of which no critic can deprive them. The great elemental passion, which is the mainspring of their speech and action, appeals to all hearts alike, and invests them with a charm which can never grow old.

The critic who first expressed substantially the above opinion of “Egmont” was a young man named Frederick Schiller, who was just then glorying in his first fame as the author of “The Robbers ” and other sensational dramas. He had had a great desire to make the acquaintance of Goethe, whom he revered; though he was probably aware of the dislike which Goethe entertained for the violent and declamatory school which he represented. At a meeting which took place in September, 1788, Schiller was quite grieved at the coolness with which the elder poet received him; and at a subsequent interview he likewise failed to make any advance in Goethe’s favor. It was not until six years later that a literary enterprise (“Die Horen”), which Schiller had started, brought them into closer contact; and Goethe learned to value the genius of the man whom he had politely repelled. From this time forth they saw much of each other, and remained in correspondence whenever chance separated them. A beautiful friendship, founded upon mutual respect and community of interests, sprung up between them, and deepened with every year, until death separated them. Literature has no more perfect relation to show between two great men than this between Goethe and Schiller.

No jealousy, no passing disagreement, clouded the serenity of their intercourse. They met, as it were, only upon the altitudes of the soul, where no small and petty passions have the power to reach. Their correspondence, which has been published, is a noble monument to the worth of both. The earnestness with which they discuss the principles of their art, the profound conscientiousness and high- bred courtesy with which they criticise each other’s works, and their generous rivalry in the loftiest excellence have no parallel in the entire history of literature.

It was chiefly due to the influence of Schiller that Goethe determined to resume work upon the fragment of “Faust,” which he had kept for many years in his portfolio, and finally published incomplete in the edition of 1790. Schiller saw at once the possibilities of this theme, and the magnificent dimensions of the thought which underlay the daring conception. Goethe, being preoccupied with the classical fancies which the Italian journey had revived, was at first unwilling to listen to his friend’s advice, and spoke disparagingly of the fragment as something too closely allied with his Gothic “Storm and Stress” period, which he had now outgrown. So long, however, did Schiller persevere, that Goethe’s interest was reawakened, the plan widened and matured, and for the rest of his life Goethe reserved his best and noblest thought for this work, fully conscious that upon it his claim to immortality would rest Still, it was not until 1808 that the First Part finally appeared in its present form. In the meanwhile several works of minor consequence occupied Goethe’s mind besides the romance “Wilhelm Meister,” the fundamental thought of which is kindred to that of “Faust.” The satirical poem, “Reynard the Fox,” founded upon an older popular model, was published in 1794 and made some passing stir, and a rather prolix and uninteresting Romance, entitled “The Conversations of German Emigrants,” also engaged his attention. In 1795 the first two volumes of “Wilhelm Meister” were published, and were received with enthusiasm by some and with censure by many. The public at large, being unable to comprehend the philosophical purpose of the work, were puzzled. As a story the book was sufficiently entertaining, but it hinted everywhere at meanings which it did not fully reveal. It was obvious that it was this hidden significance which the author had at heart amid the bewildering panorama of shifting scenes and persons. The plot is altogether too complex to be unravelled here, but the philosophy of the book may be briefly stated.

“Wilhelm Meister” aims at nothing less than to portray the disintegration of feudal society, then visibly commencing — the transition from a feudal to an industrial civilization. The nobleman’s prerogatives cannot endure unless they are founded upon qualities of mind and character which make him in- dispensable to the state. In other words, it is a man’s utility which in the end must establish his place in society. All other distinctions are artificial and evanescent. That society had not yet reached this state Goethe was well aware, but he merely wished to indicate the direction which the development of the future must inevitably take. The quest for the ideal which drives Wilhelm from the routine of the paternal counting-house into a life of wild adventure, is merely the individual manifestation of the restless discontent which animates society at large, and is slowly revolutionizing it, in accordance with the changed conditions of modern life. The world’s ideal, like that of Wilhelm Meister, is perpetually changing, and each achievement in social reform is but a stepping-stone to still nobler achievements. Wilhelm, when young, seeks his ideal in a free and unrestrained life among actors and strolling vagabonds; then the freedom from care and the commanding position of a nobleman seem to offer the highest felicity, and at last, after having had this illusion dispelled, he finds happiness in self- forgetful devotion to duty. Not in freedom from labor, but in devotion to labor; not in unrestrained pursuit of pleasure, but in a well-defined sphere of daily utility, can man alone find happiness. This is the lesson of “Wilhelm Meister,” and a noble lesson it is. The Second Part of the book, which was not completed until 1821, only emphasizes this same moral, though the moral is concealed under a mass of more or less obscure symbols, which often seem needlessly perplexing.

The first fruit of Goethe’s union with Schiller was a series of satirical epigrams, called “Die Xenien” (1797). These were intended to punish the enemies and detractors of the literary firm of Goethe & Schiller. They do not indeed spare persons, but they seem chiefly directed against what Goethe regarded as false and dangerous tendencies in German literature and society; and they attack pretence, charlatanism, and unsound canons of criticism with no gentle hand. They do not only tear down, they also build up. They praise what is noble and chastise what is ignoble. Witty in the French sense are but few of them; but all of them have a weighty meaning.

Immediately in the wake of the “Xenien ” followed the rural idyl, ” Hermann and Dorothea ” (1797), which suddenly revived Goethe’s popularity with the mass of readers, who, since his Italian journey, had gradually drifted away from him. It was as if he had meant to show them that he could be as simple and popular as anybody, if he chose. Here was a story of German rural life in which no one had seen any poetry before, except Voss, who, in his “Luise” had delivered a turgid homily in hexameters on the rural virtues. Goethe well knew this poem, but he was not afraid of incurring the charge of having imitated Voss, because he knew that a literary subject belongs, not to him who deals with it first, but to him who deals with it best. There is a delightful Homeric flavor in his hexameters; they roll and march along with splendid resonance. In the characterization of the Landlord of the Golden Lion and his wife and neighbors, the same easy mastery is visible which gave the vivid form and color to the features of Egmont, Gotz, and Werther.

Far less successful, both in point of popularity and literary excellence, was the tragedy, “The Natural Daughter,” which owed its origin to Goethe’s excessive admiration of Sophocles and Aeschylus. The types are here quite colorless — not because Goethe could not individualize them, but from conscientious motives — because the Greek poets deal merely with general types and avoid a too vivid individualization. Far more worthy specimens of Grseco-Germanic art are the beautiful classical elegies,”Alexis and Dora,” “Euphrosyne,” and “Amyntor.” Also a host of fine, spirited ballads, vigorous in tone and exquisite in color, date from this period. Goethe had long ago discovered the charm of the German folk-song, and had estimated the poetic force of this simple national strain.

In 1805 Schiller died, and Goethe was once more alone; for among his neighbors and townsmen he found no more congenial companions. Scientific pursuits began more and more to absorb him, and the opinion became prevalent that he had now ceased to be a poet, and that his absurd ambition to be a scientist had disqualified him for further literary production. Goethe was not in the least disturbed by these rumors, but pursued his investigations in botany, geology, and optics with undiminished zeal. All the while he worked quietly on “Faust” and his “Doctrine of Color,” and made experiments with the sun spectrum — in which he believed he had discovered phenomena which were at variance with the Newtonian theory of color. That he was here on a wrong track we may now fi-eely admit, but Professor Tyndale asserts that his very mistakes afford evidences of his genius. The fact is, he was in advance of his age in the value he attached to scientific education ; and having had no opportunities for such education in his youth, he made up for what he had missed by an increased zeal during his mature years. He beheld Nature in her grand unity, and his penetrating vision saw the great causal chain which unites her most varied phenomena. In this, and in this alone, consisted his greatness as a scientist. He was the Faust who by a daring synthesis brought order into the chaos of dispersed facts, which a hundred pedantic and painstaking Wagners had accumulated. The Wagners, therefore, did not love him, and their hostile opinions made enough noise in their day to reach as a faint echo down to the present. Nevertheless the scientists of to-day have recognized the value of Goethe’s theory of the typical plant, and of the leaf as the typical organ of plant life, which he has fully developed in his book on “The Metamorphoses of Plants.” A kindred thought, applied to the animal kingdom, led to the discovery of the intermaxillary bone, which finally established the identity of the human skeleton with that of other mammals; and in geology to his championing the so-called Neptunic theory of the development of the earth against Humboldt’s Vulcanism, which attributed to volcanic agencies the principal influence in fashioning the globe’s surface. In all these controversies he emphasized the essential identity of Nature in all her phenomena; the unity and organic coherence of all her varied life; and he did not, in the end, hesitate to draw the logical conclusion from these premises, and declare himself a believer in the theory of evolution, half a century before Darwin had advanced the same doctrine.

All these heterogeneous studies became tributary to Goethe’s greatest work, “Faust” (1790 and 1808), in which the highest results of his colossal knowledge are deposited. It is his philosophy of life which he has here expounded, under a wealth of symbols and images which dazzle the eye, and to the superficial reader often obscure the profounder meaning. To the majority of English and American critics “Faust” is but a touching and beautiful love-story, and the opinion is unblushingly expressed by hoary wiseacres that the Second Part is a mistake of Goethe’s old age, and in no wise worthy of the First. If nothing is worth saying except that which appeals to the ordinary intellect, trained in the common schools, then this criticism is not to be cavilled with; but Goethe had during the latter part of his life entered a realm of thought, where he was hidden from the multitude; where but a few congenial minds could follow him. To these I would endeavor to demonstrate what “Faust” means if the space permitted.* All I can do here is briefly to indicate the fundamental thought.

Goethe borrowed from Spinoza the daring proposition that God is responsible for evil. He undertook to demonstrate that evil was not an after-thought on the part of God, which stole into His system of the universe by an unforeseen chance, but an essential part of that system from the beginning. In other words, as he says in the “Prologue in Heaven,” God gave Mephistopheles as a companion to Faust. Selfishness, which is merely another form of the instinct of self-preservation, is the lever of the world’s history, and if a man were born who was entirely free from it, he would be unable to maintain his place in the world as it is now constituted. He would be trampled down, and would perish. The unrestrained egoism of

* I may refer anyone who is interested in the subject to my book, ” Goethe and Schiller,” in which will be found an exhaustive commentary on “Faust.”

barbaric times has gradually been limited, as civilization has advanced, by laws, which in

each age express the average moral sense, and are intended to secure the preservation of society. But egoism, though variously disguised and turned into useful channels, is yet the leading motive in men’s actions — Mephistopheles, though a most civilized gentleman, is still at Faust’s elbow, and stimulates him to daring enterprise of which, without this unlovely companion, he would never have dreamed.

Faust, then, is meant to symbolize mankind, and Mephistoplieles the principle of selfishness or of evil, in whatever way disguised. In the symbolic fable, Mephistopheles makes a wager with the Lord, that if the Lord will give him the right to tempt Faust, Faust will in the end be the devil’s. This wager is accepted, and Mephistopheles proceeds to introduce Faust to all phases of sensual pleasure, in the hope of corrupting him. Faust, however, though he sins, is in no wise corrupted. The love affair and the subsequent tragedy with Margaret are, from the author’s point of view, merely episodes in Faust’s development, cruel as it may seem. Faust, in his typical capacity, rises above the error which came near crippling him, to higher phases of being. His ideal changes; he goes in search of culture and intellectual achievement. Mephistopheles’s attempts to lead him astray are turned directly to useful purposes. The devil, who in the sensual stage of his development had had a certain predominance over him, becomes now more and more subservient to him. Faust’s intellectual powers are especially employed in statesman-ship and political activity for the welfare of the state. Then comes the pursuit of the beautiful, regarded as an educational agency, symbolized in the quest for Helen of Troy and the pilgrimage to Greece. Particularly in the classical Walpurgis Night are the spiritual value and the ennobling influence of Greek art emphasized. The last and concluding phase of man’s development, which is logically derived from the preceding ones, is altruism — a noble devotion to humanity, and self-forget- ful labor for the common weal. In this activity Faust finds happiness, and exclaims to the flying moment, “Stay, thou art so fair.”

It is scarcely necessary to add that “Faust” remained a sealed book to the majority of Goethe’s contemporaries. Some few saw the scope and purpose of the work and valued it accordingly; others pretended to understand more than they did; and a whole literature of commentaries was supplied by the learned ingenuity and zeal of the Fatherland. Goethe sat at home and smiled at his critics, but never undertook either to confirm or to refute their theories.

In 1809 he again published a book which was a puzzle both to his admirers and his enemies. This was a novel entitled “Elective Affinities.” He had at that time made the acquaintance of a young girl named Minna Herzlieb, an adopted daughter of the bookseller Frommann in Jena. He became greatly interested in her, addressed sonnets to her, and quite turned her head. To be loved by Goethe, even though he was no longer young, was a distinction which no girl could contemplate with indifference. Moreover he was, apart from his celebrity’, a man of majestic presence and a kind of serene Olympian beauty. Minna Herzlieb’s parents, fearing that she might lose her heart, as she already had her head, made haste to send her beyond the reach of Goethe’s influence. Out of this relation, or rather out of its possibilities, grew “Elective Affinities.” Goethe was married to Chiristiane, whose unfortunate propensity for drink had then already developed. Minna was young and fair, and attracted him strongly. Here were the elements for a tragedy. In the book the situation is essentially the same, though Charlotte, Edward’s wife, is afflicted with no vice. It might be described as a four-cornered attachment, in which everybody loves the one he cannot have. These attachments are de- scribed by analogy, with chemical laws, as entirely irresponsible natural forces which assert themselves in the individual without any guilty agency of his own. The conclusion is, however, not that marriage, which interferes with the consummation of these elective affinities, is wrong, and ought to be abolished. If there is any moral at all (which is not perfectly obvious), it is that every man and woman should be on his guard against such relations, as they are sure to lead to unhappiness and disaster.

Christiane, Goethe’s wife, died in 1816, and he mourned her sincerely. Habit had bred a certain attachment, of which, with all her failings, she was not entirely undeserving. In her early youth, before she had yet assumed the name of wife, she had inspired the immortal “Roman Elegies,” in which her lover, with pagan unrestraint, had sung the delight of the senses. She had been his associate, too, in his botanical studies, and had assisted him in his search for the typical plant. But a wife in the noblest sense — a friend and a companion of her husband’s higher life — she had not been and could not have been.

In the last decades of his life, Goethe was largely absorbed in scientific researches, and in arranging and editing the labors of his early life. Of particular importance is his autobiography, “Truth and Fiction” (” Aus Meiuem Leben, Dichtung und Wahrheit”), which relates with interesting minuteness that portion of his life which preceded his removal to Weimar. The book is an historical document of the highest importance, though not invariably a literal recital of fact. It gives the intellectual and moral complexion of the eighteenth century in Germany, as no other work has ever done. Also his letters from Italy to Herder and Frau von Stein he carefully edited and collected under the title “Italian Journey.” Then, as if by a miracle, came a poetic Indian summer, a fresh flow of lyrical verse, full of youthful spontaneity and fervor. This collection, which was published in 1819 under the title, “The West- Eastern- Divan,” was a free imitation of Oriental models, translated into German by Hammer Purgstall (1813). The first half of the book is chiefly didactic, while the latter half contains love lyrics, which in freshness of fancy and sweetness of melody rival the productions of Goethe’s best years. A few of these poems were written by Marianne Willemer, the wife of a merchant in Frankfort, and with her consent included in the collection. She cherished an ardent admiration for the old poet, and he highly valued her friendship.

She is supposed to be “the beloved one” whom he celebrates in the book of ” Zuleika.” The book of “Timur” is a free poetic moralization, concerning the rise and fall of Napoleon, disguised in Oriental forms. “What is particularly remarkable in these melodious meditations is the novelty of their metres. Goethe discards, for the time, the classical measures in which his genius had moved with such sovereign ease, and adopts the strangely involved verse of an entirely alien civilization. It is the metrical forms which Platen, Heine, Rückert and Bodenstedt have made so familiar to German readers, and which German poets even to-day are assiduously cultivating. Although Goethe did not go into any such minute study of Oriental prosody as, for instance, Rückert, yet he was in this field, as in many other departments of literary labor, the path-breaking pioneer.

Another work which, though seemingly unassuming, gained, in the course of time, much importance for the intellectual life of Germany, was the “Italian Journey,” which was given to the public in 1817. Altogether this collection of letters, containing only the simplest and most direct descriptions of what the writer saw, differs widely from every other description of Italy that has ever been published. It has no fine writing, and makes no pretentious dis- play of knowledge. But for all that it is a model of good style. The words are absolutely transparent, and serve no purpose but to convey an accurate idea of the objects described. The marvellously many-sided knowledge of the author, and, above all, his wholesome and universal curiosity, are highly impressive. A fact, whether it belong to the realm of art or of nature, or of political history, commands his immediate interest. He has, at all times and in all places, a strong, healthful appetite for facts. On the Lido, near Venice, he sits and contemplates with a fascinated gaze the phenomena of marine life; with exactly the same devotion he listens to the responsive song of the fishermen across the lagoons, or studies the architecture of Palladio and the paintings of Rafael and Titian. The Adriatic, with its blue isles reflected in the sun-bathed waves, furnishes him with a setting for the Homeric epics, and Homeric life becomes clear to him, by analogy, from the study of the physical conditions of the old Magna Grsecia. In eveiy direction his comment is pregnant with new meaning. He throws out, with heedless prodigality, seed-corns of thought, and they fall into good soil and bear finiit a hundred and a thousand fold in the distant future.

Of Goethe’s other autobiographical works, “Truth and Fiction” is the most important. The title is significant, because it implies that the author does not mean to tie himself down to the narration of the mere barren details of his life, but reserves for himself the right of artistic arrangement and poetical interpretation. It has, indeed, been proved that he has now and again reversed the sequence of events, where a more poetic effect could be attained, at the expense of the true chronology. It was his purpose to emphasize the organic coherence of his life; its continuous and unbroken development, according to certain laws which presided over his destiny. His father and mother (upon whom he bestows the minutest description) being what they were, and the environment of his early life (which he likewise depicts with the most painstaking exactness) being what it was, it was natural and necessary that he should become what he was. This seems to be the sum and moral of the whole. Law and organic evolution were the watchwords of his life. All that was accidental and appeared miraculous interested him only as an incentive to find in it the hidden law. So in every science which he approached his touch seemed creative — it brought order out of chaos. The slow and beautiful processes of the earth’s cooling and preparation for the habitation of living creatures, the gradual growth and decay of the mountains, and the uses of all these agencies in the grand cosmic economy — these were things which in the latter half of his career most profoundly absorbed him. He loved to gather about him scientific specialists, and to hear from them the latest results of their investigations. As his isolation in Weimar grew more complete, he came to depend almost entirely upon such company as he could find in travelling artists and scientists. As an instance of his interest in scientific questions, an anecdote related by his friend Soret is highly characteristic. In the first days of August, 1830, Weimar was agitated by the intelligence which had just arrived from Paris of the breaking out of the July Kevolution. Soret hurried to Goethe to discuss the political situation with him. The moment Goethe saw him he exclaimed: ” Well, what do you think of this great event? The volcano has at last come to eruption; everything is in flames, and there is no longer any question of debate behind closed doors.”

“It is a terrible story,” answered Soret, “but what was to be expected under such conditions and with such a ministry, except that it would have to end with the expulsion of the royal family?”

Goethe stared in the utmost astonishment “We seem to misunderstand each other, my dear,” he said, after a moment’s pause; ” I am not talking of those people. What interests me is quite a different affair. I am referring to the quarrel which has just broken out in the Academy between Cuvier and Geoffroy St. Hilaire, which is of the utmost significance to science. The matter is of the highest importance,” he continued, after another pause, “and you can have no idea of the feelings which the session of July 19th has aroused in me. We have now in St. Hilaire a mighty ally for a long time to come. . . . The best of all, however, is that the synthetic treatment of nature, introduced by him in France, can now no more be overthrown.”

It is to me a most sublime trait, this lofty scientific absorption. Wai’S and revolutions and expulsions of kings are of small consequence compared to the great eternal laws which hold the planets in their spheres, and guide the progressive march of God’s vast creation. Cuvier held that a series of violent catastrophes had taken place in the earth’s history, sharply separating each geologic age from the subsequent and the preceding one. St. Hilaire, on the other hand, defended Goethe’s proposition, that the development of the earth and its life had been an uninterrupted sequence of progressive stages. How deeply Goethe felt upon this subject is further evident from his remark to Chancellor von Miiller: “About aesthetic matters everyone may think and feel as he likes, but in natural science the false and the absurd are absolutely unendurable.” “This friend,” he remarked on the same occasion, referring to Alexander von Humboldt, who, as he thought, had given undue weight to volcanic agencies, “has, in fact, never had any higher method; only much common sense, zeal, and persistence.”

Goethe’s attitude toward politics, and particularly toward the efforts of his countrymen to throw off the Napoleonic yoke, has been the subject of much heated controversy. The fact is, he was a German only in name; because the German nationality was in his day not yet resuscitated. In the free city of Frankfort, where Goethe spent his childhood and early youth, there existed no such feeling as national pride and patriotism. A kind of local town-feeling was quite pronounced, and Goethe had his share of it. But the miserable separatistic policy of the petty German princes had begun to bear fruit long ago, and had extinguished all sense of responsibility to the empire at large and all devotion to the common nationality. Where there is no national life there can be no patriotism. It is responsibility which engenders devotion. When, finally Napoleon’s tyranny awakened this sentiment in the hearts of the scattered and dismembered nation, Goethe was too old to be affected by it. “Shake your fetters,” he exclaimed to his struggling country-men, ” you cannot break them. The man is too strong for you.”

That such language was resented by a bleeding people, fighting for its existence, is not to be wondered at. At the same time the apparent indifference of Goethe was not as serious a reflection upon his character as his friends then assumed. He was essentially a child of the eighteenth century, and had imbibed its individualism. All he demanded of the state was the right to pursue his own avocations in peace; and anything that broke in upon his literary and scientific meditation (even though it were a war of liberation) he was apt to resent as an intrusion. In 1806, when, after the battle of Jena, the French plundered Weimar and the grenadiers stormed in- to his bedroom, he had a taste of the tribulations of war, and a deep horror of its terrific waste of life and barbarizing influence took possession of him. He stood no longer then, as he did in the campaign in France in 1792, watching the bursting shells with a purely scientific interest, taking down his observations in his note-book. The fiery rain was no longer a mere experiment in optics.

Goethe has somewhere remarked, that all his writings are one continued confession. His life entered into his work; every experience became transfused into his very life-blood, and gained in time a poetic expression. Only war remained so repugnant to him that be nowhere felt called upon to interpret the emotion which it aroused.

“How could I take up arms,” be said to Soret, “witbout hatred? and how could I hate without youth? If such an emergency bad befallen me when I was twenty years old, I should certainly not have been the last. … To write military songs and sit in my room! That, for sooth, was my duty! To have written them in the bivouac, while the horses of the enemy’s outposts are beard neighing in the night, would have been well enough! . . . But I am no warlike nature, and have no warlike sense; war-songs would have been a mask which would have fitted my face badly. I have never affected anything in poetry. I have never uttered anything which I have not experienced, and which has not urged me to production. I have composed love-songs when I loved. How could I write songs of hate without hating?”

I have already alluded to the fact that Goethe in his old age found himself isolated from the society of friends and neighbors. Altogether, his relations with his great contemporaries need a word of comment. His friendship with Schiller, as we have seen, remained uninterrupted to the end; and with Wieland, who was a cheerful, easy-going epicurean, he also remained on amicable terms. But Wielaud had never been very near to him; and a friendly acquaintance will take care of itself much more easily than a closer intimacy. With Herder, on the other band, who in natural endowment was a worthier rival to Goethe than the prolific author of “Oberon,” be had many misunderstandings which, finally, after the Vulpius affair, led to a lasting alienation. Herder was, with all his great qualities, testy and irritable, and could not conquer a certain envy of Goethe. He had largely influenced Goethe’s intellectual life, and therefore resented his pupil’s tendency to grow above his bead. That he protested against Goethe’s liaison is certainly to his honor; and Goethe would have saved himself and his posterity much unhappiness had he heeded Herder’s advice. On the whole, it is obvious that Goethe, as be grew to his full intellectual stature, no longer desired relations of personal intimacy. He valued this friend for his proficiency in this branch of knowledge, and that friend for his proficiency in another; but he took pains, as it were, to confine each man to his own department, in which he was likely to be useful and interesting. Even men with blots upon their reputations he invited to his house, if he had respect for their acquirements. But let them beware, if they desired to continue on an amicable footing, not to stray beyond their respective departments. Even in his relation to the duke, Karl August, Goethe maintained in later years a reserve, which so old and tried a friend might have felt justified in resenting. But the duke understood Goethe, and thought his attitude natural. He found him a useful and highly ornamental figure in his small duchy; and did everything in his power to further the objects for which he lived. Perhaps he even liked the stately reserve of the old poet. “As genuine grands seigneurs” says Grimm, “they walked side by side, and the distance which separated them was exactly to their tastes. . . . From having been friends Goethe and the Duke became allies.”

During the last years of his life it was chiefly the second part of “Faust” and his periodical “For Art and Antiquity” which occupied Goethe. Like the aged Faust, he marched serenely toward the Valley of the Shadow of Death, cheerfully awaiting whatever fate there might be in store for him:

“Yes, let me dare those gates to fling asunder,

Which every man would fain go slinking by!

‘Tis time through deeds this word of truth to thunder:

That with the height of gods man’s dignity may vie!

Nor from that gloomy gulf to shrink affrighted

Where Fancy damns herself to self-wrought woes.

Upon this step with cheerful heart resolving,

If even into naught the risk were of dissolving.”

His activity was as many-sided and unwearied as in his most vigorous manhood. Not only the scientific, but also the literary currents of thought in all civilized lands he watched with the liveliest interest. So great was the elasticity of his mind, that he was in his old age capable of appreciating what was good in the Romantic school, in spite of his former dislike and his diametrically opposed intellectual tendency. The reactionary spirit of the Romanticists, and their enthusiasm for the Middle Ages, remained as repugnant to Goethe as ever; and their morbid mysticism and predilection for Catholicism did not commend them to one to whom the cheerful sensuousness and innate saneness of the Greek civilization had always strongly appealed. But the efforts of the Romantic authors to revive the feeling for native art seemed to him praiseworthy; and Sulpiz Boisseree, who was laboring earnestly for the restoration of the Cologne Cathedral, succeeded in convincing him of the national importance of his undertaking. The drawings and paintings of Albrecht Diirer also began to impress him, and his attitude toward the Middle Ages underwent a gradual change.

As the years progressed, the effects of Goethe’s activity began to be felt also in foreign lands, and he watched with interest and gratification his growing influence in every domain of human knowledge. Particularly in France, a school of rising authors, which also assumed the title of Romantic, strove through its organ, The Globe, to establish his authority beyond the Rhine. Although undoubtedly with the ulterior object of gaining a mighty ally against their enemies at home — the Academicians — these men, among whom Quinet, Ampere, and Prosper Merimee were the most prominent, paid their homage to the German poet, and, in spite of their defective comprehension of the spirit of his teachings, contributed not a little toward bringing his writings to the notice of the French public. In England also his writings were published, and commented upon with more or less intelligence in newspapers and reviews. Carlyle translated “Wilhelm Meister,” Walter Scott “Götz von Berlichingen” (1799), and Byron borrowed his ideas with his usual nonchalance. In Italy, too, he gained many admirers, and entertained a desultory correspondence with Manzoni. The ready recognition which he thus found on all hands gradually developed in him the idea of a world literature, which, independently of race and country, should appeal to the highest sense of excellence, which the most cultured in all countries have in common. He had himself gathered the chief intellectual currents of his age, and made them pulsate through his own being. National differences and conflicting interests, which drew the peoples apart, seemed to him of small consequence compared to the great and abiding interests which all mankind has in common. Truth has no nationality, and a great thought is great in whatever language it is uttered. In the upper regions of the intellect men meet merely as men — as poets, thinkers, scientists — and all accidental distinctions of party, rank, and nationality vanish. The ancient Greeks, who were the only people whose culture had been founded upon this universally human basis, would always remain authorities in matters of art. They were not to be imitated, however, but the spirit of their work, if properly comprehended, would stimulate the modem poet and artist to noble and independent creation.

Thus, in brief, was Goethe’s poetic creed. His prophecy of the world-literature is, however, yet far from fulfilment. During the last years of Goethe’s life death reaped a rich harvest among those who were dearest to him. In June, 1828, died his oldest friend, Duke Karl August. Frau von Stein had died a few years before (1825). But the hardest blow of all was the loss of his only son, August von Goethe, who died in Rome in 1830. His daughter-in-law Ottilia remained his faithful companion and did the honors of his household. She read aloud to him from Plutarch who was one of his favorite authors. To Eckermann he said as he sealed the package containing the completed MS. of “Faust”: “Henceforth I look upon my life purely as a gift; it is now really of little consequence what I do.”

A few months later (March 22, 1832), as he was seated in his easy-chair, suffering from a slight cold, he expired quietly and without a struggle. His last words were: “Light! more light!”

“The morning after Goethe’s death,” says Eckermann “a deep desire seized me to look upon his earthly remains. His faithful servant Frederick opened for me the chamber where he was lying. Stretched upon his back, he reposed as if asleep; profound peace and firmness reigned in the features of his sublime, noble countenance. The mighty brow seemed yet to harbor thoughts. . . . The body lay naked, only wrapped in a winding-sheet. . . . The servant drew aside the sheet, and I marvelled at the divine magnificence of those limbs. The breast was extraordinarily powerful, broad and arched; the arms and thighs were full and softly muscular; the feet shapely and of the purest form; nowhere on the whole body was there any trace of fat, or leanness, or decay. A perfect man lay in great beauty before me; and the rapture occasioned by this sight made me forget for a moment that the immortal spirit had left such an abode. I placed my hand on his heart; there was a deep stillness, and I turned away to give free vent to my suppressed tears.”

It is difficult to over-estimate the value of Goethe’s work to humanity. The bequest which he left to the world in his writings, and in the whole intellectual result of his life, is not as yet appreciated at its full worth; because, intellectually, the world has not yet caught up with him. His influence to-day asserts itself in a hundred ways — even where no one suspects it. The century has received the impress of his mighty personality. The intellectual currents of the age, swelled and amplified by later tributaries, flow to-day in the directions which Goethe indicated.


A French Critic on Milton: An Essay by Matthew Arnold

A French Critic on Milton (from Mixed Essays)

MR. TREVELYAN’S Life of his uncle must have induced many people to read again Lord Macaulay’s Essay on Milton. With the Essay on Milton began Macaulay’s literary career, and, brilliant as the career was, it had few points more brilliant than its beginning. Mr. Trevelyan describes with animation that decisive first success. The essay appeared in the Edinburgh Review in 1825. Mr. Trevelyan says, and quite truly:

“The effect on the author’s reputation was instantaneous. Like Lord Byron, he awoke one morning and found himself famous. The beauties of the work were such as all men could recognise, and its very faults pleased. . . . The family breakfast-table in Bloomsbury was covered with cards of invitation to dinner from every quarter of London. … A warm admirer of Robert Hall, Macaulay heard with pride how the great preacher, then well-nigh worn out with that long disease, his life, was discovered lying on the floor, employed in learning by aid of grammar and dictionary enough Italian to enable him to verify the parallel between Milton and Dante. But the compliment that, of all others, came most nearly home, the only commendation of his literary talent which even in the innermost domestic circle he was ever known to repeat, was the sentence with which Jeffrey acknowledged the receipt of his manuscript: ‘The more I think, the less I can conceive where you picked up that style.'”

And already, in the Essay on Milton, the style of Macaulay is, indeed, that which we know so well. A style to dazzle, to gain admirers everywhere, to attract imitators in multitude! A style brilliant, metallic, exterior; making strong points, alternating invective with eulogy, wrapping in a robe of rhetoric the thing it represents; not, with the soft play of life, following and rendering the thing’s very form and pressure. – For, indeed, in rendering things in this fashion, Macaulay’s gift did not lie. Mr. Trevelyan reminds us that in the preface to his collected Essays, Lord Macaulay himself “unsparingly condemns the redundance of youthful enthusiasm” of the Essay on Milton. But the unsoundness of the essay does not spring from its “redundance of youthful enthusiasm.” It springs from this: that the writer has not for his aim to see and to utter the real truth about his object. Whoever comes to the Essay on Milton with the desire to get at the real truth about Milton, whether as a man or as a poet, will feel that the essay in nowise helps him. A reader who only wants rhetoric, a reader who wants a panegyric on Milton, a panegyric on the Puritans, will find what he wants. A reader who wants criticism will be disappointed.

This would be palpable to all the world, and every one would feel, not pleased, but disappointed, by the Essay on Milton, were it not that the readers who seek for criticism are extremely few; while the readers who seek for rhetoric, or who seek for praise and blame to suit their own already established likes and dislikes, are extremely many. A man who is fond of rhetoric may find pleasure in hearing that in Paradise Lost “Milton’s conception of love unites all the voluptuousness of the Oriental haram, and all the gallantry of the chivalric tournament, with all the pure and quiet affection of an English fireside.” He may glow at being told that “Milton’s thoughts resemble those celestial fruits and flowers which the Virgin Martyr of Massinger sent down from the gardens of Paradise to the earth, and which were distinguished from the productions of other souls not only by superior bloom and sweetness, but by miraculous efficacy to invigorate and to heal.” He may imagine that he has got something profound when he reads that, if we compare Milton and Dante in their management of the agency of supernatural beings, “the exact details of Dante with the dim intimations of Milton,” the right conclusion of the whole matter is this :

“Milton wrote in an age of philosophers and theologians. It was necessary, therefore, for him to abstain from giving such a shock to their understandings as might break the charm which it was his object to throw over their imaginations. It was impossible for him to adopt altogether the material or the immaterial system. He therefore took his stand on the debatable ground. He left the whole in ambiguity. He has doubtless, by so doing, laid himself open to the charge of inconsistency. But though philosophically in the wrong he was poetically in the right.”

Poor Robert Hall, “well-nigh worn out with that long disease, his life,” and, in the last precious days of it, “discovered lying on the floor, employed in learning, by aid of grammar and dictionary, enough Italian to enable him to verify ” this ingenious criticism! Alas! even had his life been prolonged like Hezekiah’s, he could not have verified it, for it is unverifiable. A poet who, writing “in an age of philosophers and theologians,” finds it “impossible for him to adopt altogether the material or the immaterial system,” who, therefore, “takes his stand on the debatable ground” who “leaves the whole in ambiguity,” and who, in doing so, ” though philosophically in the wrong, was poetically in the right!” Substantial meaning such lucubrations have none. And in like manner, a distinct and substantial meaning can never be got out of the fine phrases about “Milton’s conception of love uniting all the voluptuousness of the Oriental haram, and all the gallantry of the chivalric tournament, with all the pure and quiet affection of an English fireside;” or about “Milton’s thoughts resembling those celestial fruits and flowers which the Virgin Martyr of Massinger sent down from the gardens of Paradise to the earth;” the phrases are mere rhetoric. Macaulay’s writing passes for being admirably clear, and so externally it is; but often it is really obscure, if one takes his deliverances seriously, and seeks to find in them a definite meaning. However, there is a multitude of readers, doubtless, for whom it is sufficient to have their ears tickled with fine rhetoric; but the tickling makes a serious reader impatient.

Many readers there are, again, who come to an Essay on Milton with their minds full of zeal for the Puritan cause, and for Milton as one of the glories of Puritanism. Of such readers the great desire is to have the cause and the man, who are already established objects of enthusiasm for them, strongly praised. Certainly Macaulay will satisfy their desire. They will hear that the Civil War was “the great conflict between Oromasdes and Arimanes, liberty and despotism, reason and prejudice;” the Puritans being Oromasdes, and the Eoyalists Arimanes. They will be told that the great Puritan poet was worthy of the august cause which he served. His radiant and beneficent career resembled that of the god of light and fertility. “There are a few characters which have stood the closest scrutiny and the severest tests, which have been tried in the furnace and have proved pure, which have been declared sterling by the general consent of mankind, and which are visibly stamped with the image and superscription of the Most High. Of these was Milton.” To descend a little to particulars. Milton’s temper was especially admirable. “The gloom of Dante’s character discolours all the passions of men and all the face of nature, and tinges with its own livid hue the flowers of Paradise and the glories of the eternal throne.” But in our countryman, although “if ever despondency and asperity could be excused in any man, they might have been excused in Milton,” nothing “had power to disturb his sedate and majestic patience.” All this is just what an ardent admirer of the Puritan cause and of Milton would most wish to hear, and when he hears it he is in ecstasies.

But a disinterested reader, whose object is not to hear Puritanism and Milton glorified, but to get at the truth about them, will surely be dissatisfied. With what a heavy brush, he will say to himself, does this man lay on his colours! The Puritans Oromasdes, and the Eoyalists Arimanes! What a different strain from Chillingworth’s, in his sermon at Oxford at the beginning of the Civil War! “Publicans and sinners on the one side,” said Chillingworth, “Scribes and Pharisees on the other.” Not at all a conflict between Oromasdes and Arimanes, but a good deal of Arimanes on both sides. And as human affairs go, Chillingworth’s version of the matter is likely to be nearer the truth than Macaulay’s. Indeed, for any one who reads thoughtfully and without bias, Macaulay himself, with the inconsistency of a born rhetorician, presently confutes his own thesis. He says of the Eoyalists: ” They had far more both of profound and of polite learning than the Puritans. Their manners were more engaging, their tempers more amiable, their tastes more elegant, and their households more cheerful.” Is being more kindly affectioned such an insignificant superiority? The Royalists too, then, in spite of their being insufficiently jealous for civil and ecclesiastical liberty, had in them something of Oromasdes, the principle of light.

And Milton’s temper! His “sedate and majestic patience;” his freedom from “asperity!” If there is a defect which, above all others, is signal in Milton, which injures him even intellectually, which limits him as a poet, it is the defect common to him with the whole Puritan party to which he belonged, the fatal defect of temper. He and they may have a thousand merits, but they are unamiable. Excuse them how one will, Milton’s asperity and acerbity, his want of sweetness of temper, of the Shakspearian largeness and indulgence, are undeniable. Lord Macaulay in his Essay regrets that the prose writings of Milton should not be more read. “They abound,” he says in his rhetorical way, “with passages, compared with which the finest declamations of Burke sink into insignificance.” At any rate, they enable us to judge of Milton’s temper, of his freedom from asperity. Let us open the Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce and see how Milton treats an opponent. “How should he, a serving man both by nature and function, an idiot by breeding, and a solicitor by presumption, ever come to know or feel within himself what the meaning is of gentle?” What a gracious temper! “At last, and in good hour, we come to his farewell, which is to be a concluding taste of his jabberment in law, the flashiest and the fustiest that ever corrupted in such an unswilled hogshead.” How “sedate and majestic!”

Human progress consists in a continual increase in the number of those, who, ceasing to live by the animal life alone and to feel the pleasures of sense only, come to participate in the intellectual life also, and to find enjoyment in the things of the mind. The enjoyment is not at first very discriminating. Rhetoric, brilliant writing, gives to such persons pleasure for its own sake; but it gives them pleasure, still more, when it is employed in commendation of a view of life which is on the whole theirs, and of men and causes with which they are naturally in sympathy. The immense popularity of Macaulay is due to his being preeminently fitted to give pleasure to all who are beginning to feel enjoyment in the things of the mind. It is said that the traveller in Australia, visiting one settler’s hut after another, finds again and again that the settler’s third book, after the Bible and Shakspeare, is some work by Macaulay. Nothing can be more natural. The Bible and Shakspeare may be said to be imposed upon an Englishman as objects of his admiration; but as soon as the common Englishman, desiring culture, begins to choose for himself, he chooses Macaulay. Macaulay’s view of things is, on the whole, the view of them which he feels to be his own also; the persons and causes praised are those which he himself is disposed to admire; the persons and causes blamed are those with which he himself is out of sympathy; and the rhetoric employed to praise or to blame them is animating and excellent. Macaulay is thus a great civiliser. In hundreds of men he hits their nascent taste for the things of the mind, possesses himself of it and stimulates it, draws it powerfully forth and confirms it.

But with the increasing number of those who awake to the intellectual life, the number of those also increases, who having awoke to it, go on with it, follow where it leads them. And it leads them to see that it is their business to learn the real truth about the important men, and things, and books, which interest the human mind. For thus is gradually to be acquired a stock of sound ideas, in which the mind will habitually move, and which alone can give to our judgments security and solidity. To be satisfied with fine writing about the object of one’s study, with having it praised or blamed in accordance with one’s own likes or dislikes, with any conventional treatment of it whatever, is at this stage of growth seen to be futile. At this stage, rhetoric, even when it is so good as Macaulay’s dissatisfies. And the number of people who have reached this stage of mental growth is constantly, as things now are, increasing; increasing by the very same law of progress which plants the beginnings of mental life in more and more persons who, until now, have never known mental life at all. So that while the number of those who are delighted with rhetoric such as Macaulay’s is always increasing, the number of those who are dissatisfied with it is always increasing too.

And not only rhetoric dissatisfies people at this stage, but conventionality of any kind. This is the fault of Addison’s Miltonic criticism, once so celebrated; it rests almost entirely upon convention. Here is Paradise Lost, “a work which does an honour to the English nation,” a work claiming to be one of the great poems of the world, to be of the highest moment to us. “The Paradise Lost” says Addison, “is looked upon by the best judges as the greatest production, or at least the noblest work of genius, in our language, and therefore deserves to be set before an English reader in its full beauty.” The right thing, surely, is for such a work to prove its own virtue by powerfully and delightfully affecting us as we read it, and by remaining a constant source of elevation and happiness to us for ever. But the Paradise Lost has not this effect certainly and universally; therefore Addison proposes to “set before an English reader, in its full beauty,” the great poem. To this end he has “taken a general view of it under these four heads: the fable, the characters, the sentiments, and the language.” He has, moreover, “endeavoured not only to prove that the poem is beautiful in general, but to point out its particular beauties and to determine wherein they consist. I have endeavoured to show how some passages are beautified by being sublime, others by being soft, others by being natural; which of them are recommended by the passion, which by the moral, which by the sentiment, and which by the expression. I have likewise endeavoured to show how the genius of the poet shines by a happy invention, or distant allusion, or a judicious imitation; how he has copied or improved Homer or Virgil, and raises his own imagination by the use which he has made of several poetical passages in Scripture. I might have inserted also several passages in Tasso which our author has imitated; but as I do not look upon Tasso to be a sufficient voucher, I would not perplex my reader with such quotations as might do more honour to the Italian than the English poet.”

This is the sort of criticism which held our grandfathers and great-grandfathers spell-bound in solemn reverence. It is all based upon convention, and on the positivism of the modern reader it is thrown away. Does the work which you praise, he asks, affect me with high pleasure and do me good, when I try it as fairly as I can? The critic who helps such a questioner is one who has sincerely asked himself, also, this same question; who has answered it in a way which agrees, in the main, with what the questioner finds to be his own honest experience in the matter, and who shows the reasons for this common experience. Where is the use of telling a man, who finds himself tired rather than delighted by Paradise Lost, that the incidents in that poem “have in them all the beauties of novelty, at the same time that they have all the graces of nature:” that “though they are natural, they are not obvious, which is the true character of all fine writing”? Where is the use of telling him that “Adam and Eve are drawn with such sentiments as do not only interest the reader in their afflictions, but raise in him the most melting passions of humanity and commiseration”? His own experience, on the other hand, is that the incidents in Paradise Lost are such as awaken in him but the most languid interest; and that the afflictions, and sentiments of Adam and Eve never melt or move him passionately at all. How is he advanced by hearing that “it is not sufficient that the language of an epic poem be perspicuous, unless it be also sublime;” and that Milton’s language is both? What avails it to assure him that “the first thing to be considered in an epic poem is the fable, which is perfect or imperfect, according as the action which it relates is more or less so;” that “this action should have three qualifications, should be but one action, an entire action, and a great action;” and that if we “consider the action of the Iliad, Aeneid, and Paradise Lost, in these three several lights, we shall find that Milton’s poem does not fall short in the beauties which are essential to that kind of writing”? The patient whom Addison thus doctors will reply, that he does not care two straws whether the action of Paradise Lost satisfies the proposed test or no, if the poem does not give him pleasure. The truth is, Addison’s criticism rests on certain conventions: namely, that incidents of a certain class must awaken keen interest; that sentiments of a certain kind must raise melting passions; that language of a certain strain, and an action with certain qualifications, must render a poem attractive and effective. Disregard the convention; ask solely whether the incidents do interest, whether the sentiments do move, whether the poem is attractive and effective, and Addison’s criticism collapses.

Sometimes the convention is one which in theory ought, a man may perhaps admit, to be something more than a convention; but which yet practically is not. Milton’s poem is of surpassing interest to us, says Addison, because in it, “the principal actors are not only our progenitors but our representatives. We have an actual interest in everything they do, and no less than our utmost happiness is concerned, and lies at stake, in all their behaviour.” Of ten readers who may even admit that in theory this is so, barely one can be found whose practical experience tells him that Adam and Eve do really, as his representatives, excite his interest in this vivid manner. It is by a mere convention, then, that Addison supposes them to do so, and claims an advantage for Milton’s poem from the supposition.

The theological speeches in the third book of Paradise Lost are not, in themselves, attractive poetry. But, says Addison:

“The passions which they are designed to raise are a divine love and religious fear. The particular beauty of the speeches in the third book consists in that shortness and perspicuity of style in which the poet has couched the greatest mysteries of Christianity. … He has represented all the abstruse doctrines of predestination, free-will, and grace, as also the great points of incarnation and redemption (which naturally grow up in a poem that treats of the fall of man) with great energy of expression, and in a clearer and stronger light than I ever met with in any other writer.”

But nine readers out of ten feel that, as a matter of fact, their religious sentiments of “divine love and religious fear” are wholly ineffectual even to reconcile them to the poetical tiresomeness of the speeches in question: far less can they render them interesting. It is by a mere convention, then, that Addison pretends that they do.

The great merit of Johnson’s criticism on Milton, is that from rhetoric and convention it is free. Mr. Trevelyan says that the enthusiasm of Macaulay’s Essay on Milton is, at any rate, “a relief from the perverted ability of that elaborate libel on our great epic poet, which goes by the name of Dr. Johnson’s Life of Milton.” This is too much in Lord Macaulay’s own style. In Johnson’s Life of Milton we have the straightforward remarks on Milton and his works, of a very acute and robust mind. Often they are thoroughly sound. “What we know of Milton’s character in domestic relations is that he was severe and arbitrary. His family consisted of women; and there appears in his books something like a Turkish contempt of females as subordinate and inferior beings.” Mr. Trevelyan will forgive our saying that the truth is here much better hit than in Lord Macaulay’s sentence telling us how Milton’s “conception of love unites all the voluptuousness of the Oriental haram, and all the gallantry of the chivalric tournament, with all the pure and quiet affection of an English fireside.” But Johnson’s mind, acute and robust as it was, was at many points bounded, at many points warped. He was neither sufficiently disinterested, nor sufficiently flexible, nor sufficiently receptive, to be a satisfying critic of a poet like Milton. “Surely no man could have fancied that he read Lycidas with pleasure had he not known the author!” Terrible sentence for revealing the deficiencies of the critic who utters it.

A completely disinterested judgment about a man like Milton is easier to a foreign critic than to an Englishman. From conventional obligation to admire “our great epic poet” a foreigner is free. Nor has he any bias for or against Milton because he was a Puritan, in his political and ecclesiastical doctrines to one of our great English parties a delight, to the other a bugbear. But a critic must have the requisite knowledge of the man and the works he is to judge; and from a foreigner particularly perhaps from a Frenchman one hardly expects such knowledge. M. Edmond Scherer, however, whose essay on Milton lies before me, is an exceptional Frenchman. He is a senator of France and one of the directors of the Temps newspaper. But he was trained at Geneva, that home of large instruction and lucid intelligence. He was in youth the friend and hearer of Alexandre Vinet, one of the most salutary influences a man in our times can have experienced, whether he continue to think quite with Vinet or not. He knows thoroughly the language and literature of England, Italy, Germany, as well as of France. Well-informed, intelligent, disinterested, open-minded, sympathetic, M. Scherer has much in common with the admirable critic whom France has lost, Sainte-Beuve. What he has not, as a critic, is Sainte-Beuve’s elasticity and cheerfulness. He has not that gaiety, that radiancy, as of a man discharging with delight the very office for which he was born, which, in the Causeries, make Sainte-Beuve’s touch so felicitous, his sentences so crisp, his effect so charming. But M. Scherer has the same open-mindedness as Sainte-Beuve, the same firmness and sureness of judgment; and having a much more solid acquaintance with foreign languages than Sainte-Beuve, he can much better appreciate a work like Paradise Lost in the only form in which it can be appreciated properly, in the original.

We will commence, however, by disagreeing with M. Scherer. He sees very clearly how vain is Lord Macaulay’s sheer laudation of Milton, or Voltaire’s sheer disparagement of him. Such judgments, M. Scherer truly says, are not judgments at all. They merely express a personal sensation of like or dislike. And M. Scherer goes on to recommend, in the place of such “personal sensations,” the method of historical criticism that great and famous power in the present day. He sings the praises of “this method at once more conclusive and more equitable, which sets itself to understand things rather than to class them, to explain rather than to judge them; which seeks to account for a work from the genius of its author, and for the turn which this genius has taken from the circumstances amidst which it was developed; the old story of “the man and the milieu” in short. “For thus” M. Scherer continues, “out of these two things the analysis of the writer’s character and the study of his age, there spontaneously issues the right understanding of his work. In place of an appreciation thrown off by some chance comer, we have the work passing judgment, so to speak, upon itself, and assuming the rank which belongs to it among the productions of the human mind.”

The advice to study the character of an author and the circumstances in which he has lived, in order to account to oneself for his work, is excellent. But it is a perilous doctrine, that from such a study the right understanding of his work will “spontaneously issue.” In a mind qualified in a certain manner it will not in all minds. And it will be that mind’s personal sensation. “It cannot be said that Macaulay had not studied the character of Milton, and the history of the times in which he lived. But a right understanding of Milton did not “spontaneously issue” therefrom in the mind of Macaulay, because Macaulay’s mind was that of a rhetorician, not of a disinterested critic. Let us not confound the method with the result intended by the method right judgments. The critic who rightly appreciates a great man or a great work, and who can tell us faithfully life being short, and art long, and false information very plentiful what we may expect from their study and what they can do for us; he is the critic we want, by whatever methods, intuitive or historical, he may have managed to get his knowledge.

M. Scherer begins with Milton’s prose works, from which he translates many passages. Milton’s sentences can hardly know themselves again in clear modern French, and with all their reversions and redundancies gone. M. Scherer does full justice to the glow and mighty eloquence with which Milton’s prose, in its good moments, is instinct and alive; to the “magnificences of his style,” as he calls them:

“The expression is not too strong. There are moments when, shaking from him the dust of his arguments, the poet bursts suddenly forth, and bears us away in a torrent of incomparable eloquence. We get, not the phrase of the orator, but the glow of the poet, a flood of images poured around his arid theme, a rushing flight carrying us above his paltry controversies. The polemical writings of Milton are filled with such beauties. The prayer which concludes the treatise on Reformation in England, the praise of zeal in the Apology for Smectymims, the portrait of Cromwell in the Second Defence of the English people, and, finally, the whole tract on the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing from beginning to end, are some of the most memorable pages in English literature, and some of the most characteristic products of the genius of Milton.”

Macaulay himself could hardly praise the eloquence of Milton’s prose writings more warmly. But it is a very inadequate criticism which leaves the reader, as Macaulay’s rhetoric would leave him, with the belief that the total impression to be got from Milton’s prose writings is one of enjoyment and admiration. It is not; we are misled, and our time is wasted, if we are sent to Milton’s prose works in the expectation of finding it so. Grand thoughts and beautiful language do not form the staple of Milton’s controversial treatises, though they occur in them not unfrequently. But the total impression from those treatises is rightly given by M. Scherer:

“In all of them the manner is the same. The author brings into play the treasures of his learning, heaping together testimonies from Scripture, passages from the Fathers, quotations from the poets; laying all antiquity, sacred and profane, under contribution; entering into subtle discussions on the sense of this or that Greek or Hebrew word. But not only by his undigested erudition and by his absorption in religious controversy does Milton belong to his age; he belongs to it, too, by the personal tone of his polemics. Morus and Salmasius had attacked his morals, laughed at his low stature, made unfeeling allusions to his loss of sight: Milton replies by reproaching them with the wages they have taken and with the servant-girls they have debauched. All this mixed with coarse witticisms, with terms of the lowest abuse. Luther and Calvin, those virtuosos of insult, had not gone further.”

No doubt there is, as M. Scherer says, “something indescribably heroical and magnificent which overflows from Milton, even when he is engaged in the most miserable discussions.” Still, for the mass of his prose treatises “miserable discussions” is the final and right word. Nor, when Milton passed to his great epic, did he altogether leave the old man of these “miserable discussions ” behind him.

“In his soul he is a polemist and theologian, a Protestant Schoolman. He takes delight in the favourite dogmas of Puritanism: original sin, predestination, free-will. Not that even here he does not display somewhat of that independence which was in his nature. But his theology is, nevertheless, that of his epoch, tied and bound to the letter of Holy Writ, without grandeur, without horizons, without philosophy. He never frees himself from the bondage of the letter. He settles the most important questions by the authority of an obscure text, or a text isolated from its context. In a word, Milton is a great poet with a Salamasius or a Grotius bound up along with him; a genius nourished on the marrow of lions, of Homer, Isaiah, Virgil, Dante, but also, like the serpent of Eden, eating dust, the dust of dismal polemics. He is a doctor, a preacher, a man of didactics; and when the day shall arrive when he can at last realise the dreams of his youth and bestow on his country an epic poem, he will compose it of two elements, gold and clay, sublimity and scholasticism, and will bequeath to us a poem which is at once the most wonderful and the most insupportable poem in existence.”

From the first, two conflicting forces, two sources of inspiration, had contended with one another, says M. Scherer, for the possession of Milton, the Kenascence and Puritanism. Milton felt the power of both:

“Elegant poet and passionate disputant, accomplished humanist and narrow sectary, admirer of Petrarch, of Shakspeare, and hair-splitting interpreter of Bible -texts, smitten with Pagan antiquity and smitten with the Hebrew genius; and all this at once, without effort, naturally; an historical problem, a literary enigma!”

Milton’s early poems, such as the Allegro, the Penseroso, are poems produced while a sort of equilibrium still prevailed in the poet’s nature; hence their charm, and that of their youthful author:

“Nothing morose or repellent, purity without excess of rigour, gravity without fanaticism. Something wholesome and virginal, gracious and yet strong. A son of the North who has passed the way of Italy; a last fruit of the Renascence, but a fruit filled with a savour new and strange!”

But Milton’s days proceeded, and he arrived at the latter years of his life a life which, in its outward fortunes, darkened more and more, alia s’assom-brissant de plus en plus, towards its close. He arrived at the time when “his friends had disappeared, his dreams had vanished, his eyesight was quenched, the hand of old age was upon him.” It was then that, “isolated by the very force of his genius,” but full of faith and fervour, he “turned his eyes towards the celestial light” and produced Paradise Lost. In its form, M. Scherer observes, in its plan and distribution, the poem follows Greek and Koman models, particularly the Aeneid.” All in this respect is regular and classical; in this fidelity to the estabtalished models we recognise the literary superstitions of the Kenascence.” So far as its form is concerned, Paradise Lost is, says M. Scherer, “the copy of a copy, a tertiary formation. It is to the Latin epics what these are to Homer.”

The most important matter, however, is the contents of the poem, not the form. The contents are given by Puritanism. But let M. Scherer speak for himself:

“Paradise Lost is an epic, but a theological epic; and the theology of the poem is made up of the favourite dogmas of the Puritans, the Fall, justification, God’s sovereign decrees. Milton, for that matter, avows openly that he has a thesis to maintain; his object is, he tells us at the outset, to assert Eternal Providence and justify the ways of God to man. Paradise Lost, then, is two distinct things in one, an epic and a theodicy. Unfortunately these two elements, which correspond to the two men of whom Milton was composed, and to the two tendencies which ruled his century,” these two elements have not managed to get amalgamated. Far from doing so, they clash with one another, and from their juxtaposition there results a suppressed contradiction which extends to the whole work, impairs its solidity, and compromises its value.”

M. Scherer gives his reasons for thinking that the Christian theology is unmanageable in an epic poem, although the gods may come in very well in the Iliad and Aeneid. Few will differ from him here, so we pass on. A theological poem, is a mistake, says M. Scherer; but to call Paradise Lost a theological poem is to call it by too large a name. It is really a commentary on a biblical text, the first two or three chapters of Genesis. Its subject, therefore, is a story, taken literally, which many of even the most religious people nowadays hesitate to take literally; while yet, upon our being able to take it literally, the whole real interest of the poem for us depends. Merely as matter of poetry, the story of the Fall has no special force or effectiveness; its effectiveness for us comes, and can only come, from our taking it all as the literal narrative of what positively happened.

Milton, M. Scherer thinks, was not strong in invention. The famous allegory of Sin and Death may be taken as a specimen of what he could do in this line, and the allegory of Sin and Death is uncouth and unpleasing. But invention is dangerous when one is dealing with a subject so grave, so strictly formulated by theology, as the subject of Milton’s choice. Our poet felt this, and allowed little scope to free poetical invention. He adhered in general to data furnished by Scripture, and supplemented somewhat by Jewish legend. But this judicious self- imitation had, again, its drawbacks:

“If Milton has avoided factitious inventions, he has done so at the price of another disadvantage; the bareness of his story, the epic poverty of his poem. It is not merely that the reader is carried up into the sphere of religious abstractions, where man Ibses power to see or breathe. Independently of this, everything is here too simple, both actors and actions. Strictly speaking, there is but one personage before us, God the Father; inasmuch as God cannot appear without effacing every one else, nor speak without the accomplishment of his will. The Son is but the Father’s double. The angels and archangels are but his messengers, nay, they are less; they are but his decrees personified, the supernumeraries of a drama which would be transacted quite as well without them.

“Milton has struggled against these conditions of the subject which he had chosen. He has tried to escape from them, and has only made the drawback more visible. The long speeches with which he fills up the gaps of the action are sermons, and serve but to reveal the absence of action. Then as, after all, some action, some struggle, was necessary, the poet had recourse to the revolt of the angels. Unfortunately, such is the fundamental vice of the subject, that the poet’s instrument has, one may say, turned against him. “What his action has gained from it in movement it has lost in probability. We see a battle, indeed, but who can take either the combat or the combatants seriously? Belial shows his sense of this, when in the infernal council he rejects the idea of engaging in any conflict whatever, open or secret, with Him who is All-seeing and Almighty; and really one cannot comprehend how his mates should have failed to acquiesce in a consideration so evident. But, I repeat, the poem was not possible save at the price of this impossibility. Milton, therefore, has courageously made the best of it. He has gone with it all lengths, he has accepted in all its extreme consequences the most inadmissible of fictions. He has exhibited to us Jehovah apprehensive for his omnipotence, in fear of seeing his position turned, his residence surprised, his throne usurped. He has drawn the angels hurling mountains at one another’s heads, and firing cannon at one another. He has shown us the victory doubtful until the Son appears armed with lightnings, and standing on a car horsed by four Cherubim.”

The fault of Milton’s poem is not, says M. Scherer, that, with his Calvinism of the seventeenth century, Milton was a man holding other beliefs than ours. Homer, Dante, held other beliefs than ours:

“But Milton’s position is not the same as theirs. Milton has something he wants to prove, he supports a thesis. It was his intention, in his poem, to do duty as theologian as well as poet; at any rate, whether he meant it or not, Paradise Lost is a didactic work, and the form of it, therefore, cannot be separated from the substance. Now, it turns out that the idea of the poem will not bear examination; that its solution for the problem of evil is almost burlesque; that the character of its heroes, Jehovah and Satan, has no coherence; that what happens to Adam interests us but little; finally, that the action takes place in regions where the interests and passions of our common humanity can have no scope. I have already insisted on this contradiction in Milton’s epic; the story on which it turns can have meaning and value only so long as it preserves its dogmatic weight, and, at the same time, it cannot preserve this without falling into theology, that is to say, into a domain foreign to that of art. The subject of the poem is nothing if it is not real, and if it does not touch us as the turning-point of our destinies; and the more the poet seeks to grasp this reality, the more it escapes from him.”

In short, the whole poem of Paradise Lost is vitiated, says M. Scherer, “by a kind of antinomy, by the conjoint necessity and impossibility of taking its contents literally.”

M. Scherer then proceeds to sum up. And in ending, after having once more marked his objections and accentuated them, he at last finds again that note of praise, which the reader will imagine him to have quite lost:

“To sum up: Paradise Lost is a false poem, a grotesque poem, a tiresome poem; there is not one reader out of a hundred who can read the ninth and tenth books without smiling, or the eleventh and twelfth without yawning. The whole thing is without solidity; it is a pyramid resting on its apex, the most solemn of problems resolved by the most puerile of means. And, notwithstanding, Paradise Lost is immortal. It lives by a certain number of episodes which are for ever famous. Unlike Dante, who must be read as a whole if we want really to seize his beauties, Milton ought to be read only by passages. But these passages form part of the poetical patrimony of the human race. ”

And not only in things like the address to light, or the speeches of Satan, is Milton admirable, but in single lines and images everywhere:

“Paradise Lost is studded with incomparable lines. Milton’s poetry is, as it were, the very essence of poetry. The author seems to think always in images, and these images are grand and proud like his soul, a wonderful mixture of the sublime and the picturesque. For rendering things he has the unique word, the word which is a discovery. Every one knows his darkness visible.”

M. Scherer cites other famous expressions and lines, so familiar that we need not quote them here. Expressions of the kind, he says, not only beautiful, but always, in addition to their beauty, striking one as the absolutely right thing (toujours justes dans leur beauty), are in Paradise Lost innumerable. And he concludes:

“Moreover, we have not said all when we have cited particular lines of Milton. He has not only the image and the word, he has the period also, the large musical phrase, somewhat long, somewhat laden with ornaments and intricate with inversions, but bearing all along with it in its superb undulation. Lastly, and above all, he has a something indescribably serene and victorious, an unfailing level of style, power indomitable. He seems to wrap us in a fold of his robe, and to carry us away with him into the eternal regions where is his home.”

With this fine image M. Scherer takes leave of Milton. Yet the simple description of the man in Johnson’s life of him touches us more than any image; the description of the old poet “seen in a small house, neatly enough dressed in black clothes, sitting in a room hung with rusty green, pale but not cadaverous, with chalk stones in his hands. He said that, if it were not for the gout his blindness would be tolerable.”

But in his last sentences M. Scherer comes upon what is undoubtedly Milton’s true distinction as a poet, his “unfailing level of style.” Milton has always the sure, strong touch of the master. His power both of diction and of rhythm is unsurpassable, and it is characterised by being always present, not depending on an access of emotion, not intermittent, but, like the grace of Eaphael, working in its possessor as a constant gift of nature. Milton’s style, moreover, has the same propriety and soundness in presenting plain matters, as in the comparatively smooth task for a poet of presenting grand ones. His rhythm is as admirable where, as in the line

“And Tiresias and Plüneus, prophets old -” it is unusual, as in such lines as

“With dreadful faces throng’d and fiery arms”

where it is simplest. And what high praise this is, we may best appreciate by considering the ever-recurring failure, both in rhythm and in diction, which we find in the so-called Miltonic blank verse of Thomson, Cowper, Wordsworth. What leagues of lumbering movement! what desperate endeavours, as in Wordsworth’s

“And at the Hoop alighted, famous inn,”

to render a platitude endurable by making it pompous! Shakspeare himself, divine as are his gifts, has not, of the marks of the master, this one: perfect sureness of hand in his style. Alone of English poets, alone in English art, Milton has it; he is our great artist in style, our one first-rate master in the grand style. He is as truly a master in this style as the great Greeks are, or Virgil, or Dante. The number of such masters is so limited that a man acquires a world-rank in poetry and art, instead of a mere local rank, by being counted among them. But Milton’s importance to us Englishmen, by virtue of this distinction of his, is incalculable. The charm of a master’s unfailing touch in diction and in rhythm, no one, after all, can feel so intimately, so profoundly, as his own countrymen. Invention, plan, wit, pathos, thought, all of them are in great measure capable of being detached from the original work itself, and of being exported for admiration abroad. Diction and rhythm are not. Even when a foreigner can read the work in its own language, they are not, perhaps, easily appreciable by him. It shows M. Scherer’s thorough knowledge of English, and his critical sagacity also, that he has felt the force of them in Milton. We natives must naturally feel it yet more powerfully. Be it remembered, too, that English literature, full of vigour and genius as it is, is peculiarly impaired by gropings and inadequacies in form. And the same with English art. Therefore for the English artist in any line, if he is a true artist, the study of Milton may well have an indescribable attraction. It gives him lessons which nowhere else from an Englishman’s work can he obtain, and feeds a sense which English work, in general, seems bent on disappointing and baffling. And this sense is yet so deep-seated in human nature, this sense of style, that probably not for artists alone, but for all intelligent Englishmen who read him, its gratification by Milton’s poetry is a large though often not fully recognised part of his charm, and a very wholesome and fruitful one.

As a man, too, not less than as a poet, Milton has a side of unsurpassable grandeur. A master’s touch is the gift of nature. Moral qualities, it is commonly thought, are in our own power. Perhaps the germs of such qualities are in their greater or less strength as much a part of our natural constitution as the sense for style. The range open to our own will and power, however, in developing and establishing them, is evidently much larger. Certain high moral dispositions Milton had from nature, and he sedulously trained and developed them until they became habits of great power.

Some moral qualities seem to be connected in a man with his power of style. Milton’s power of style, for instance, has for its great character elevation; and Milton’s elevation clearly comes, in the main, from a moral quality in him, his pureness. “By pureness, by kindness!” says St. Paul. These two, pureness and kindness, are, in very truth, the two signal Christian virtues, the two mighty wings of Christianity, with which it winnowed and renewed, and still winnows and renews, the world. In kindness, and in all which that word conveys or suggests, Milton does not shine. He had the temper of his Puritan party. We often hear the boast, on behalf of the Puritans, that they produced “our great epic poet.” Alas! one might not unjustly retort that they spoiled him. However, let Milton bear his own burden; in his temper he had natural affinities with the Puritans. He has paid for it by limitations as a poet. But, on the other hand, how high, clear, and splendid is his pureness; and how intimately does its might enter into the voice of his poetry! We have quoted some ill-conditioned passages from his prose, let us quote from it a passage of another stamp:

“And long it was not after, when I was confirmed in this opinion, that he, who would not be frustrate of his hope to write well hereafter in laudable things, ought himself to be a true poem; that is, a composition and pattern of the best and honourablest things; not presuming to sing high praises of heroic men, or famous cities, unless he have in himself the experience and the practice of all that which is praiseworthy. These reasonings, together with a certain niceness of nature, an honest haughtiness and self-esteem, either of what I was or what I might be (which let envy call pride), and lastly that modesty whereof here I may be excused to make some beseeming profession; all these uniting the supply of their natural aid together kept me still above low descents of mind. Next (for hear me out now, readers), that I may tell you whither my younger feet wandered; I betook me among those lofty fables and romances which recount in solemn cantos the deeds of knighthood founded by our victorious kings, and from hence had in renown over all Christendom. There I read it in the oath of every knight, that he should defend to the expense of his best blood, or of his life if it so befell him, the honour and chastity of virgin or matron; from whence even then I learnt what a noble virtue chastity sure must be, to the defence of which so many worthies by such a dear adventure of themselves had sworn. Only this my mind gave me, that every free and gentle spirit, without that oath, ought to be born a knight, nor needed to expect the gilt spur, or the laying of a sword upon his shoulder, to stir him up both by his counsel and his arm to secure and protect the weakness of any attempted chastity.”

Mere fine professions are in this department of morals more common and more worthless than in any other. What gives to Milton’s professions such a stamp of their own is their accent of absolute sincerity. In this elevated strain of moral pureness his life was really pitched; its strong, immortal beauty passed into the diction and rhythm of his poetry.

But I did not propose to write a criticism of my own upon Milton. I proposed to recite and compare the criticisms on him by others. Only one is tempted, after our many extracts from M. Scherer, in whose criticism of Milton the note of blame fills so much more place than the note of praise, to accentuate this note of praise, which M. Scherer touches indeed with justness, but hardly perhaps draws out fully enough or presses firmly enough. As a poet and as a man, Milton has a side of grandeur so high and rare, as to give him rank along with the half-dozen greatest poets who have ever lived, although to their masterpieces his Paradise Lost is, in the fulfilment of the complete range of conditions which a great poem ought to satisfy, indubitably inferior.

Nothing is gained by huddling on “our great epic poet” in a promiscuous heap, every sort of praise. Sooner or later the question: How does Milton’s masterpiece really stand to us moderns, what are we to think of it, what can we get from it? must inevitably be asked and answered. We have marked that side of the answer which is and will always remain favourable to Milton. The unfavourable side of the answer is supplied by M. Scherer. “Paradise Lost lives; but none the less is it true that its fundamental conceptions have become foreign to us, and that if the work subsists it is in spite of the subject treated by it.”

The verdict seems just, and it is supported by M. Scherer with considerations natural, lucid, and forcible. He, too, has his conventions when he comes to speak of Eacine and Lamartine. But his judgments on foreign poets, on Shakspeare, Byron, Goethe, as well as on Milton, seem to me to be singularly uninfluenced by the conventional estimates of these poets, and singularly rational. Leaning to the side of severity, as is natural when one has been wearied by choruses of ecstatic and exaggerated praise, he yet well and fairly reports, I think, the real impression made by these great men and their works on a modern mind disinterested, intelligent, and sincere. The English reader, I hope, may have been interested in seeing how Milton and his Paradise Lost stand such a survey. And those who are dissatisfied with what has been thus given them may always revenge themselves by falling back upon their Addison, and by observing sarcastically that “a few general rules extracted out of the French authors, with a certain cant of words, has sometimes set up an illiterate heavy writer for a most judicious and formidable critic.”


Heinrich Heine: An Essay by Matthew Arnold

V. HEINRICH HEINE (from Essays in Criticism, First Series)

“I know not if I deserve that a laurel-wreath should one day be laid on my coffin. Poetry, dearly as I have loved it, has always been to me but a divine plaything. I have never attached any great value to poetical fame; and I trouble myself very little whether people praise my verses or blame them. But lay on my coffin a sword; for I was a brave soldier in the Liberation War of humanity.”

Heine had his full share of love of fame, and cared quite as much as his brethren of the genus irritabile whether people praised his verses or blamed them. And he was very little of a hero. Posterity will certainly decorate his tomb with the emblem of the laurel rather than with the emblem of the sword. Still, for his contemporaries, for us, for the Europe of the present century, he is significant chiefly for the reason which he himself in the words just quoted assign. He is significant because he was, if not pre-eminently a brave, yet a brilliant, a most effective soldier in the Liberation War of humanity.

To ascertain the master-current in the literature of an epoch, and to distinguish this from all minor currents, is one of the critic’s highest functions; in discharging it he shows how far he possesses the most indispensable quality of his office, — justness of spirit. The living writer who has done most to make England acquainted with German authors, a man of genius, but to whom precisely this one quality of justness of spirit is perhaps wanting, — I mean Mr. Carlyle, — seems to me in the result of his labours on German literature to afford a proof how very necessary to the critic this quality is. Mr. Carlyle has spoken admirably of Goethe; but then Goethe stands before all men’s eyes, the manifest centre of German literature; and from this central source many rivers flow. Which of these rivers is the main stream? which of the courses of spirit which we see active in Goethe is the course which will most influence the future, and attract and be continued by the most powerful of Goethe’s successors? – that is the question. Mr. Carlyle attaches, it seems to me, far too much importance to the romantic school of Germany, — Tieck, Novalis, Jean Paul Richter, — and gives to these writers, really gifted as two, at any rate, of them are, an undue prominence. These writers, and others with aims and a general tendency the same theirs, are not the real inheritors and continuators of Goethe’s power; the current of their activity is not the main current of German literature after Goethe. Far more in Heine’s works flows this main current, Heine, far more than Tieck of Jean Paul Richter, is the continuator of that which, in Goethe’s varied activity, is the most powerful and vital; on Heine, of all German authors who survived Goethe, incomparably the largest portion of Goethe’s mantle fell. I do not forget that when Mr. Carlyle was dealing with German literature, Heine, though he was clearly risen above the horizon, had not shone forth with all his strength; I do not forget, too, that after ten or twenty years many things may come out plain before the critic which before were hard to be discerned by him; and assuredly no one would dream of imputing it as a fault to Mr. Carlyle that twenty years ago he mistook the central current in German literature, overlooked the rising Heine, and attached undue importance to that romantic school which Heine was to destroy; one may rather note it as a misfortune, sent perhaps as a delicate chastisement to a critic, who, — man of genius as he is, and no one recognises his genius more admirably than I do, — has, for the functions of the critic, a little too much of the self-will and eccentricity of a genuine son of Great Britain.

Heine is noteworthy, because he is the most important German successor and continuator of Goethe in Goethe’s most important line of activity. And which of Goethe’s lines of activity is this — His line of activity as “a soldier in the war of liberation of humanity.”

Heine himself would hardly have admitted this affiliation, though he was far too powerful-minded a man to decry, with some of the vulgar German liberals, Goethe’s genius, “The wind of the Paris Revolution, ” he writes after the three days of 1830, “blew about the candles a little in the dark night of Germany, so that the red curtains of a German throne or two caught fire; but the old watchmen, who do the police of the German kingdoms, are already bringing out the fire engines, and will keep the candles closer snuffed for the future. Poor, fast- bound German people, lose not all heart in thy bonds! The fashionable coating of ice melts off from my heart, my soul quivers and my eyes burn, and that is a disadvantageous state of things for a writer, who should control his subject-matter and keep himself beautifully objective, as the artistic school would have us, and as Goethe has done; he has come to be eighty years old doing this, and minister, and in good condition :— poor German people! that is thy greatest man!”

But hear Goethe himself: “If I were to say what I had really been to the Germans in general, and to the young German poets in particular, I should say I had been their liberator. ”

Modern times find themselves with an immense system of institutions, established facts, accredited dogmas, customs, rules, which have come to them from times not modern. In this system their life has to be carried forward; yet they have a sense that this system is not of their own creation, that it by no means corresponds exactly with the wants of their actual life, that, for them, it is customary, not rational. The awakening of this sense is the awakening of the modern spirit. The modern spirit is now awake almost everywhere; the sense of want of correspondence between the forms of modern Europe and its spirit, between the new wine of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the old bottles of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, or even of the sixteenth and seventeenth, almost every one now perceives; it is no longer dangerous to affirm that this want of correspondence exists; people are even be- ginning to be shy of denying it. To remove this- want of correspondence is beginning to be the settled endeavour of most persons of good sense. Dissolvents of the old European system of dominant ideas and facts we must all be, all of us who have any power of working; what we have to study is that we may not be acrid dissolvents of it.

And how did Goethe, that grand dissolvent in an age when there were fewer of them than at present, proceed in his task of dissolution, of liberation of the modern European from the old routine He shall tell us himself. “Through me the German poets have become aware that, as man must live from within outwards, so the artist must work from within outwards, seeing that, make what contortions he will, he can only bring to light his own individuality. I can clearly mark where this influence of mine has made itself felt; there arises out of it a kind of poetry of nature, and only in this way is it possible to be original.”

My voice shall never be joined to those which decry Goethe, and if it is said that the foregoing is a lame and impotent conclusion to Goethe’s declaration that he had been the liberator of the Germans in general, and of the young German poets in particular, I say it is not. Goethe’s profound, imperturbable naturalism is absolutely fatal to all routine thinking; he puts the standard, once for all, inside every man instead of outside him; when he is told, such a thing must be so, there is immense authority and custom in favour of its being so, it has been held to be so for a thousand years, he answers with Olympian politeness, “But is it sol is it so to me?” Nothing could be more really subversive of the foundations on which the old European order rested; and it may be remarked that no persons are so radically detached from this order, no persons so thoroughly modern, as those who have felt Goethe’s influence most deeply. If it is said that Goethe professes to have in this way deeply influenced but a few persons, and those per- sons poets, one may answer that he could have taken no better way to secure, in the end, the ear of the world; for poetry is simply the most beautiful, impressive, and widely effective mode of saying things, and hence its importance. Nevertheless the process of liberation, as Goethe worked it, though sure, is undoubtedly slow; he came, as Heine says, to be eighty years old in thus working it, and at the end of that time the old Middle-Age machine was still creaking on, the thirty German courts and their chamberlains subsisted in all their glory; Goethe himself was a minister, and the visible triumph of the modem spirit over prescription and routine seemed as far off as ever. It was the year 1830; the German sovereigns had passed the preceding fifteen years in breaking the promises of freedom they had made to their subjects when they wanted their help in the final struggle with Napoleon. Great events were happening in France; the revolution, defeated in 1815, had arisen from its defeat, and was wresting from its adversaries the power. Heinrich Heine, a young man of genius, born at Hamburg, and with all the culture of Germany, but by race a Jew; with warm sympathies for France, whose revolution had given to his race the rights of citizenship, and whose rule had been, as is well known, popular in the Rhine provinces, where he passed his youth; with a passionate admiration for the great French Emperor with a passionate contempt for the sovereigns who had overthrown him, for their agents, and for their policy, — Heinrich Heine was in 1830 in no humour for any such gradual process of liberation from the old order of things as that which Goethe had followed. His counsel was for open war. Taking that terrible modern weapon, the pen, in his hand, he passed the remainder of his life in one fierce battle. What was that battle? the reader will ask. It was a life and death battle with Philistinism.

Philistinism — we have not the expression in English. Perhaps we have not the word because we have so much of the thing. At Soli, I imagine, they did not talk of solecisms; and here, at the very headquarters of Goliath, nobody talks of Philistinism. The French have adopted the term épicier (grocer), to designate the sort of being whom the Germans designate by the term Philistine; but the French term,— besides that it casts a slur upon a respectable class, composed of living and susceptible members, while the original Philistines are dead and buried long ago, — is really, I think, in itself much less apt and expressive than the German term. Efforts have been made to obtain in English some term equivalent to Philister or épicier; Mr. Carlyle has made several such efforts: “respectability with its thousand gigs,” he says; — well, the occupant of every one of these gigs is, Mr. Carlyle means, a Philistine. However, the word respectable is far too valuable a word to be thus perverted from its proper meaning; if the English are ever to have a word for the thing we are speaking of, — and so prodigious are the changes which the modern spirit is introducing, that even we English shall perhaps one day come to want such a word, — I think we had much better take the term Philistine itself.

Philistine must have originally meant, in the mind of those who invented the nickname, a strong, dogged, unenlightened opponent of the chosen people, of the children of the light. The party of change, the would-be remodellers of the old traditional European order, the invokers of reason against custom, the representatives of the modern spirit in every sphere where it is applicable, regarded themselves, with the robust self- confidence natural to reformers as a chosen people, as children of the light. They regarded their adversaries as humdrum people, slaves to routine, enemies to light; stupid and oppressive, but at the same time very strong. This explains the love which Heine, that Paladin of the modern spirit, has for France; it explains the preference which he gives to France over Germany: “the French,” he says, “are the chosen people of the new religion, its first gospels and dogmas have been drawn up in their language; Paris is the new Jerusalem, and the Rhine is the Jordan which divides the consecrated land of freedom from the land of the Philistines.” He means that the French, as a people, have shown more accessibility to ideas than any other people; that prescription and routine have had less hold upon them than upon any other people; that they have shown most readiness to move and to alter at the bidding (real or supposed) of reason. This explains, too, the detestation which Heine had for the English : “I might settle in England,” he says, in his exile, ” if it were not that I should find there two things, coal-smoke and Englishmen; I cannot abide either.” What he hated in the English was the “ächtbrittische Beschranktheit, ” as he calls it, — the genuine British narrowness. In truth, the English, profoundly as they have modified the old Middle-Age order, great as is the liberty which they have secured for themselves, have in all their changes proceeded, to use a familiar expression, by the rule of thumb; what was intolerably inconvenient to them they have suppressed, and as they have suppressed it, not because it was irrational, but because it was practically inconvenient, they have seldom in suppressing it appealed to reason, but always, if possible, to some precedent, or form, or letter, which served as a convenient instrument for their purpose, and which saved them from the necessity of recurring to general principles. They have thus become, in a certain sense, of all people the most inaccessible to ideas and the most impatient of them; inaccessible to them, because of their want of familiarity with them; and impatient of them because they have got on so well without them, that- they despise those who, not having got on as well as themselves, still make a fuss for what they themselves have done so well without. But there has certainly followed from hence, in this country, somewhat of a general depression of pure intelligence : Philistia has come to be thought by us the true Land of Promise, and it is anything but that; the born lover of ideas. the born hater of commonplaces, must feel in this country, that the sky over his head is of brass and iron. The enthusiast for the idea, for reason, values reason, the idea, in and for themselves; he values them, irrespectively of the practical conveniences which their triumph may obtain for him; and the man who regards the possession of these practical conveniences as something sufficient in itself, some- thing which compensates for the absence or surrender of the idea, of reason, is, in his eyes, a Philistine. This is why Heine so often and so mercilessly attacks the liberals; much as he hates conservatism he hates Philistinism even more, and whoever attacks conservatism itself ignobly, not as a child of light, not in the name of the idea, is a Philistine. Our Cobbett is thus for him, much as he disliked our clergy and aristocracy whom Cobbett attacked, a Philistine with six fingers on every hand and on every foot six toes, four-and-twenty in number: a Philistine, the staff of whose spear is like a weaver’s beam. Thus he speaks of him : —

“While I translate Cobbett’s words, the man himself comes bodily before my mind’s eye, as I saw him at that uproarious dinner at the Crown and Anchor Tavern, with his scolding red face and his radical laugh, in which venomous hate mingles with a mocking exultation at his enemies’ surely approaching downfall. He is a chained cur, who falls with equal fury on every one whom he does not know, often bites the best friend of the house in his calves, barks incessantly, and just because of this incessantness of his barking cannot get listened to, even when he barks at a real thief. Therefore the distinguished thieves who plunder England do not think it necessary to throw the growling Cobbett a bone to stop his mouth. This makes the dog furiously savage, and he shows all his hungry teeth. Poor old Cobbett! England’s dog! I have no love for thee, for every vulgar nature my soul abhors; but thou touchest me to the inmost soul with pity, as I see how thou strainest in vain to break loose and to get at those thieves, who make off with their booty before thy very eyes, and mock at thy fruitless springs and thine impotent howling.”

There is balm in Philistia as well as in Gilead. A chosen circle of children of the modern spirit, perfectly emancipated from prejudice and commonplace, regarding the ideal side of things in all its efforts for change, passionately despising half-measures and condescension to human folly and obstinacy, — with a bewildered, timid, torpid multitude behind, — conducts a country to the government of Herr von Bismarck. A nation regarding the practical side of things in its efforts for change, attacking not what is irrational, but what is pressingly inconvenient, and attacking this as one body, “moving altogether if it move at all,” and treating children of light like the very harshest of stepmothers, comes to the prosperity and liberty of modern England. For all that, however, Philistia (let me say it again) is not the true promised land, as we English commonly imagine it to be; and our excessive neglect of the idea, and consequent in- aptitude for it, threatens us, at a moment when the idea is beginning to exercise a real power in human society, with serious future inconvenience, and, in the meanwhile, cuts us off from the sympathy of other nations, which feel its power more than we do.

But, in 1830, Heine very soon found that the fire-engines of the German governments were too much for his direct efforts at incendiarism. “What demon drove me,” he cries, “to write my Reisebilder, to edit a newspaper, to plague myself with our time and its interests, to try and shake the poor German Hodge out of his thousand years’ sleep in his hole? What good did I get by it? Hodge opened his eyes, only to shut them again immediately; he yawned, only to begin snoring again the next minute louder than ever; he stretched his stiff ungainly limbs, only to sink down again directly afterwards, and lie like a dead man in the old bed of his accustomed habits. I must have rest; but where am I to find a resting-place. In Germany I can no longer stay.”

This is Heine’s jesting account of his own efforts to rouse Germany: now for his pathetic account of them; it is because he unites so much wit with so much pathos that he is so effective a writer: —

“The Emperor Charles the Fifth sate in sore straits, in the Tyrol, encompassed by his enemies. All his knights and courtiers had forsaken him; not one came to his help. I know not if he had at that time the cheese face with which Holbein has painted him for us. But I am sure that under lip of his, with its contempt for mankind, stuck out even more than it does in his portraits. How could he but contemn the tribe which in the sunshine of his prosperity had fawned on him so devotedly, and now, in his dark distress, left him all alone 1 Then suddenly his door opened, and there came in a man in disguise, and, as he threw back his cloak, the Kaiser recognised in him his faithful Conrad von der Rosen, the court jester. This man brought him comfort and counsel, and he was the court jester!

“German fatherland! dear German people! I am thy Conrad von der Rosen. The man whose proper business was to amuse thee, and who in good times should have catered only for thy mirth, makes his way into thy prison in time of need; here, under my cloak, I bring thee thy sceptre and crown; dost thou not recognise me, my Kaiser? If I cannot free thee, I will at least comfort thee, and thou shalt at least have one with thee who will prattle with thee about thy sorest affliction, and whisper courage to thee, and love thee, and whose best joke and best blood shall be at thy service. For thou, my people, art the true Kaiser, the true lord of the land; thy will is sovereign, and more legitimate far than that purple Tel est notre plaisir, which invokes a divine right with no better warrant than the anointings of shaven and shorn jugglers; thy will, my people, is the sole rightful source of power. Though now thou liest down in thy bonds, yet in the end will thy rightful cause prevail; the day of deliverance is at hand, a. new time is beginning. My Kaiser, the night is over, and out there glows the ruddy dawn.

“‘Conrad von der Rosen, my fool, thou art mistaken; perhaps thou takest a headsman’s gleaming axe for the sun, and the red of dawn is only blood.’

“‘No, my Kaiser, it is the sun, though it is rising in the west; these six thousand years it has always risen in the east; it is high time there should come a change.’

“‘Conrad von der Rosen, my fool, thou hast lost the bells out of thy red cap, and it has now such an odd look, that red cap of thine! ‘

“‘Ah, my Kaiser, thy distress has made me shake my head so hard and fierce, that the fool’s bells have dropped off my cap; the cap is none the worse for that.’

“Conrad von der Rosen, my fool, what is that noise of breaking and cracking outside there?’

“‘Hush! that is the saw and the carpenter’s axe, and soon the doors of thy prison will be burst open, and thou wilt be free, my Kaiser!’

“‘Am I then really Kaiser? Ah, I forgot, it is the fool who tells me so!’

“‘Oh, sigh not, my dear master, the air of thy prison makes thee so desponding! when once thou hast got thy rights again, thou wilt feel once more the bold imperial blood in thy veins, and thou wilt be proud like a Kaiser, and violent, and gracious, and unjust, and smiling, and ungrateful, as princes are.’

“‘Conrad von der Rosen, my fool, when I am free, what wilt thou do then?’

“‘I will then sew new bells on to my cap.’

“‘And how shall I recompense thy fidelity?’

“‘Ah, dear master, by not leaving me to die in a ditch!’

I wish to mark Heine’s place in modern European literature, the scope of his activity, and his value. I cannot attempt to give here a detailed account of his life, or a description of his separate works. In May 1831 he went over his Jordan, the Ehine, and fixed himself in his new Jerusalem, Paris. There, henceforward, he lived, going in general to some French watering-place in the summer, but making only one or two short visits to Germany during the rest of his life. His works, in verse and prose, succeeded each other without stopping; a collected edition of them, filling seven closely-printed octavo volumes, has been published in America;^ in the collected editions of few people’s works is there so little to skip. Those who wish for a single good specimen of him should read his first important work, the work which made his reputation, the Reisebilder, or “Travelling Sketches:” prose and verse, wit and seriousness, are mingled in it, and the mingling of these is characteristic of Heine, and is nowhere to be seen practised more naturally and happily than in his Reisebilder. In 1847 his health, which till then had always been perfectly good, gave way. He had a kind of paralytic stroke. His malady proved to be a softening of the spinal marrow: it was incurable; it made rapid progress. In May 1848, not a year after his first attack, he went out of doors for the last time; but his disease took more than eight years to kill him. For nearly eight years he lay helpless on a couch, with the use of his limbs gone, wasted almost to the proportions of a child, wasted so that a woman could carry him about; the sight of one eye lost, that of the other greatly dimmed, and requiring, that it might be exercised, to have the palsied eyelid lifted and held up by the finger; all this, and, besides this, suffering at short intervals paroxysms of nervous agony. I have said he was not pre-eminently brave; but in the astonishing force of spirit with which he retained his activity of mind, even his gaiety, amid all his suffering, and went on composing with undiminished fire to the last, he was truly brave. Nothing could clog that aerial lightness. “Pouvez-vous siffler?” his doctor asked him one day, when he was almost at his last gasp; —”siffler,”as every one knows, has the double meaning of to whistle and to hiss: — “Hélas! non,” was his whispered answer; “pas même une comédie de M. Scribe!” M. Scribe is, or was, the favourite dramatist of the French Philistine. “My nerves,” he said to some one who asked him about them in 1855, the year of the great Exhibition in Paris, “my nerves are of that quite singularly remarkable miserableness of nature, that I am convinced they would get at the Exhibition the grand medal for pain and misery.” He read all the medical books which treated of his complaint. “But,” said he to some one who found him thus engaged, “what good this reading is to do me I don’t know, except that it will qualify me to give lectures in heaven on the ignorance of doctors on earth about diseases of the spinal marrow.” What a matter of grim seriousness are our own ailments to most of us! yet with this gaiety Heine treated his to the end. That end, so long in coming, came at last. Heine died on the 17th of February 1856, at the age of fifty-eight. By his will he forbade that his remains should be transported to Germany. He lies buried in the cemetery of Montmartre, at Paris.

His direct political action was null, and this is neither to be wondered at nor regretted; direct political action is not the true function of literature, and Heine was a born man of letters. Even in his favourite France the turn taken by public affairs was not at all what he wished, though he read French politics by no means as we in England, most of us, read them. He thought things were tending there to the triumph of communism; and to a champion of the idea like Heine, what there is gross and narrow in communism was very repulsive. “It is all of no use,” he cried on his death-bed, “the future belongs to our enemies, the Communists, and Louis Napoleon is their John the Baptist.” “And yet,” — he added with all his old love for that remarkable entity, so full of attraction for him, so profoundly unknown in England, the French people, — “do not believe that God lets all this go forward merely as a grand comedy. Even though the Communists deny him to-day, he knows better than they do, that a time will come when they will learn to believe in him.” After 1831, his hopes of soon upsetting the German Governments had died away, and his propagandism took another, a more truly literary, character. It took the character of an intrepid application of the modern spirit to literature. To the ideas with which the burning questions of modern life filled him, he made all his subject-matter minister. He touched all the great points in the career of the human race, and here he but followed the tendency of the wide culture of Germany; but he touched them with a wand which brought them all under a light where the modern eye cares most to see them, and here he gave a lesson to the culture of Germany, — so wide, so impartial, that it is apt to become slack and powerless, and to lose itself in its materials for want of a strong central idea round which to group all its other ideas. So the mystic and romantic school of Germany lost itself in the Middle Ages, was overpowered by their influence, came to ruin by its vain dreams of renewing them. Heine, with a far profounder sense of the mystic and romantic charm of the Middle Age than Goerres, or Brentano, or Arnim, Heine the chief romantic poet of Germany is yet also much more than a romantic poet; he is a great modern poet, he is not conquered by the Middle Age, he has a talisman by which he can feel, — along with but above the power of the fascinating Middle Age itself, — the power of modem ideas.

A French critic of Heine thinks he has said enough in saying that Heine proclaimed in German countries, with beat of drum, the ideas of 1789, and that at the cheerful noise of his drum the ghosts of the Middle Age took to flight. But this is rather too French an account of the matter. Germany, that vast mine of ideas, had no need to import ideas, as such, from any foreign country; and if Heine had carried ideas, as such, from France into Germany, he would but have been carrying coals to Newcastle. But that for which France, far less meditative than Germany, is eminent, is the prompt, ardent, and practical application of an idea, when she seizes it, in all departments of human activity which admit it. And that in which Germany most fails, and by failing in which she appears so helpless and impotent, is just the practical application of her innumerable ideas. “When Candide,” says Heine himself, “came to Eldorado, he saw in the streets a number of boys who were playing with gold-nuggets instead of marbles. This degree of luxury made him imagine that they must be the king’s children, and he was not a little astonished when he found that in Eldorado gold-nuggets are of no more value than marbles are with us, and that the schoolboys play with them. A similar thing happened to a friend of mine, a foreigner, when he came to Germany and first read German books. He was perfectly astounded at the wealth of ideas which he found in them; but he soon remarked that ideas in Germany are as plentiful as gold-nuggets in Eldorado, and that those writers whom he had taken for intellectual princes, were in reality only common school- boys.” Heine was, as he calls himself, a “Child of the French Revolution,” an “Initiator,” because he vigorously assured the Germans that ideas were not counters or marbles, to be played with for their own sake; because he exhibited in literature modern ideas applied with the utmost freedom, clearness, and originality. And therefore he declared that the great task of his life had been the endeavour to establish a cordial relation between France and Germany. It is because he thus operates a junction between the French spirit, and German ideas and German culture, that he founds something new, opens a fresh period, and deserves the attention of criticism far more than the German poets his contemporaries, who merely continue an old period till it expires. It may be predicted that in the literature of other countries, too, the French spirit is destined to make its influence felt, — as an element, in alliance with the native spirit, of novelty and movement, — as it has made its influence felt in German literature; fifty years hence a critic will be demonstrating to our grandchildren how this phenomenon has come to pass.

We in England, in our great burst of literature during the first thirty years of the present century, had no manifestation of the modern spirit, as this spirit manifests itself in Goethe’s works or Heine’s. And the reason is not far to seek. We had neither the German wealth of ideas, nor the French enthusiasm for applying ideas. There reigned in the mass of the nation that inveterate inaccessibility to ideas, that Philistinism, — to use the German nickname, — which reacts even on the individual genius that is exempt from it. In our greatest literary epoch, that of the Elizabethan age, English society at large was accessible to ideas, was permeated by them, was vivified by them, to a degree which has never been reached in England since. Hence the unique great- ness in English literature of Shakspeare and his contemporaries. They were powerfully upheld by the intellectual life of their nation; they applied freely in literature the then modern ideas, — the ideas of the Renascence and the Reformation. A few years after- wards the great English middle class, the kernel of the nation, the class whose intelligent sympathy had upheld a Shakspeare, entered the prison of Puritanism, and had the key turned on its spirit there for two hundred years. He enlargeth a nation, says Job, and straiteneth it again.

In the literary movement of the beginning of the nineteenth century the signal attempt to apply freely the modern spirit was made in England by two members of the aristocratic class, Byron and Shelley. Aristocracies are, as such, naturally impenetrable by ideas; but their individual members have a high courage and a turn for breaking bounds; and a man of genius, who is the born child of the idea, happening to be born in the aristocratic ranks, chafes against the obstacles which prevent him from freely developing it. But Byron and Shelley did not succeed in their attempt freely to apply the modern spirit in English literature; they could not succeed in it; the resistance to baffle them, the want of intelligent sympathy to guide and uphold them, were too great. Their literary creation, compared with the literary creation of Shakspeare and Spenser, compared with the literary creation of Goethe and Heine, is a failure. The best literary creation of that time in England proceeded from men who did not make the same bold attempt as Byron and Shelley. What, in fact, was the career of the chief English men of letters, their contemporaries? The gravest of them, Wordsworth, retired (in Middle-Age phrase) into a monastery. I mean, he plunged himself in the inward life, he voluntarily cut himself off from the modern spirit. Coleridge took to opium. Scott became the historiographer-royal of feudalism. Keats passionately gave himself up to a sensuous genius, to his faculty for interpreting nature; and he died of consumption at twenty-five. Wordsworth, Scott, and Keats have left admirable works; far more solid and complete works than those which Byron and Shelley have left. But their works have this defect, — they do not belong to that which is the main current of the literature of modern epochs, they do not apply modern ideas to life; they constitute, therefore, minor currents, and all other literary work of our day, however popular, which has the same defect, also constitutes but a minor current. Byron and Shelley will long be re- membered, long after the inadequacy of their actual work is clearly recognised for their passionate, their Titanic effort to flow in the main stream of modern literature; their names will be greater than their writings; stat magni nominis umbra.

Heine’s literary good fortune was superior to that of Byron and Shelley. His theatre of operations was Germany, whose Philistinism does not consist in her want of ideas, or in her inaccessibility to ideas, for she teems with them and loves them, but, as I have said, in her feeble and hesitating application of modern ideas to life. Heine’s intense modernism, his absolute freedom, his utter rejection of stock classicism and stock romanticism, his bringing all things under the point of view of the nineteenth century, were under-‘ stood and laid to heart by Germany, through virtue of her immense, tolerant intellectualism, much as there was in all Heine said to affront and wound Germany. The wit and ardent modern spirit of France Heine joined to the culture, the sentiment, the thought of Germany. This is what makes him so remarkable; his wonderful clearness, lightness, and freedom, united with such power of feeling, and width of range. Is there anywhere keener wit than in his story of the French abbé who was his tutor, and who wanted to get from him that la religion is French for der Glaube: “Six times did he ask me the question: ‘ Henry, what is der Glaube in French? ‘ and six times, and each time with a greater burst of tears, did I answer him — ‘It is le crédit.’ And at the seventh time, his face purple with rage, the infuriated questioner screamed out: ‘It is la religion;’ and a rain of cuffs descended upon me, and all the other hoys burst out laughing. Since that day I have never been able to hear la religion mentioned, without feeling a tremor run through my back, and my cheeks grow red with shame.” Or in that comment on the fate of Professor Saalfeld, who had been addicted to writing furious pamphlets against Napoleon, and who was a professor at Gottingen, a great seat, according to Heine, of pedantry and Philistinism: “It is curious,” says Heine, “the three greatest adversaries of Napoleon have all of them ended miserably. Castlereagh cut his own throat; Louis the Eighteenth rotted upon his throne; and Professor Saalfeld is still a professor at Gottingen.” It is impossible to go beyond that.

What wit, again, in that saying which every one has heard: “The Englishman loves liberty like his lawful wife, the Frenchman loves her like his mistress, the German loves her like his old grandmother.” But the turn Heine gives to this incomparable saying is not so well known; and it is by that turn he shows himself the born poet he is, — full of delicacy and tenderness, of inexhaustible resource, infinitely new and striking: —

“And yet, after all, no one can ever tell how things may turn out. The grumpy Englishman, in an ill-temper with his wife, is capable of some day putting a rope round her neck, and taking her to be sold at Smithfield. The inconstant Frenchman may become unfaithful to his adored mistress, and be seen fluttering about the Palais Royal after another. But the German will never quite abandon his old grand-mother; he will always keep for her a nook by the chimney-corner, where she can tell her fairy stories to the listening children.”

Is it possible to touch more delicately and happily both the weakness and the strength of Germany; — pedantic, simple, enslaved, free, ridiculous, admirable Germany?

And Heine’s verse, — his Lieder? Oh, the comfort, after dealing with French people of genius, irresistibly impelled to try and express themselves in verse, launching out into a deep which destiny has sown with so many rocks for them, — the comfort of coming to a man of genius, who finds in verse his freest and most perfect expression, whose voyage over the deep of poetry destiny makes smooth! After the rhythm, to us, at any rate, with the German paste in oui composition, so deeply unsatisfying, of —

“Ah! que me dites-vous, et que vous dit mon âme?

Que dit le ciel à l’aube et la flame à la flamme?”

what a blessing to arrive at rhythms like —

“Take, oh, take those lips away,

That so sweetly were forsworn —”

or —

“Siehst sehr sterbebljisslich aus,

Doch getrost! du bist zu Haus —”

in which one’s soul can take pleasure! The magic of Heine’s poetical form is incomparable; he chiefly uses a form of old German popular poetry, a ballad- form which has more rapidity and grace than any ballad-form of ours; he employs this form with the most exquisite lightness and ease, and yet it has at the same time the inborn fulness, pathos, and old- world charm of all true forms of popular poetry. Thus in Heine’s poetry, too, one perpetually blends the impression of French modernism and clearness, with that of German sentiment and fulness; and to give this blended impression is, as I have said, Heine’s great characteristic. To feel it, one must read him; he gives it in his form as well as in his contents, and by translation I can only reproduce it so far as his contents give it. But even the contents of many of his poems are capable of giving a certain sense of it. Here, for instance, is a poem in which he makes his profession of faith to an innocent beautiful soul, a sort of Gretchen, the child of some simple mining people having their hut among the pines at the foot of the Hartz Mountains, who reproaches him with not holding the old articles of the Christian creed : —

“Ah, my child, while I was yet a little boy, while I yet sate upon my mother’s knee, I believed in God the Father, who rules up there in Heaven, good and great;

“Who created the beautiful earth, and the beautiful men and women thereon; who ordained for sun, moon, and stars their courses.

“When I got bigger, my child, I comprehended yet a great deal more than this, and comprehended, and grew intelligent; and I believe on the Son also;

“On the beloved Son, who loved us, and revealed love to us; and, for his reward, as always happens, was crucified by the people.

“Now, when I am grown up, have read much, have travelled much, my heart swells within me, and with my whole heart I believe on the Holy Ghost.

“The greatest miracles were of his working, and still greater miracles doth he even now work; he burst in sunder the oppressor’s stronghold, and he burst in sunder the bondsman’s yoke.

“He heals old death-wounds, and renews the old right; all mankind are one race of noble equals before him.

“He chases away the evil clouds and the dark cobwebs of the brain, which have spoilt love and joy for us, which day and night have loured on us.

“A thousand knights, well harnessed, has the Holy Ghost chosen out to fulfil his will, and he has put courage into their souls.

“Their good swords flash, their bright banners wave; what, thou wouldst give much, my child, to look upon such gallant knights 1

“Well, on me, my child, look! kiss me, and look boldly upon me! one of those knights of the Holy Ghost am I.”

One has only to turn over the pages of his Romancero, — a collection of poems written in the first years of his illness, with his whole power and charm still in them, and not, like his latest poems of all, painfully touched by the air of his Matrazzen-gruft, his “mattress-grave,” — to see Heine’s width of range; the most varied figures succeed one another, — Rhampsinitus, Edith with the Swan Neck, Charles the First, Marie Antoinette, King David, a heroine of Mabille, Melisanda of Tripoli, Richard Coeur de Lion, Pedro the Cruel, Firdusi, Cortes, Dr. Döllinger; — but never does Heine attempt to be hübsch objectiv, “beautifully objective,” to become in spirit an old Egyptian, or an old Hebrew, or a Middle-Age knight, or a Spanish adventurer, or an English royalist; he always remains Heinrich Heine, a son of the nineteenth century. To give a notion of his tone, I will quote a few stanzas at the end of the Spanish Atridae, in which he describes, in the character of a visitor at the court of Henry of Transtamare at Segovia, Henry’s treatment of the children of his brother, Pedro the Cruel. Don Diego Albuquerque, his neighbour, strolls after dinner through the castle with him:

“In the cloister-passage, which leads to the kennels where are kept the king’s hounds, that with their growling and yelping let you know a long way off where they are,

“There I saw, built into the wall, and with a strong iron grating for its outer face, a cell like a cage.

“Two human figures sate therein, two young boys; chained by the leg, they crouched in the dirty straw.

“Hardly twelve years old seemed the one, the other not much older; their faces fair and noble, but pale and wan with sickness.

“They were all in rags, almost naked; and their lean bodies showed wounds, the marks of ill-usage; both of them shivered with fever

“They looked up at me out of the depth of their misery; ‘who,’ I cried in horror to Don Diego, ‘are these pictures of wretchedness?’

“Don Diego seemed embarrassed; he looked round to see that no one was listening; then he gave a deep sigh; and at last, putting on the easy tone of a man of the world, he said:

“‘These are a pair of king’s sons, who were early left orphans; the name of their father was King Pedro, the name of their mother, Maria de Padilla.

“‘After the great battle of Navarette, when Henry of Transtamare had relieved his brother. King Pedro, of the troublesome burden of the crown,

“‘And likewise of that still more troublesome burden, which is called life, then Don Henry’s victorious magnanimity had to deal with his brother’s children.

“‘He has adopted them, as an uncle should; and he has given them free quarters in his own castle.

“‘The room which he has assigned to them is certainly rather small, but then it is cool in summer, and not intolerably cold in winter.

“‘Their fare is rye-bread, which tastes as sweet as if the goddess Ceres had baked it express for her beloved Proserpine.

“‘Not unfrequently, too, he sends a scullion to them with garbanzos, and then the young gentlemen know that it is Sunday in Spain.

“‘But it is not Sunday every day, and garbanzos do not come every day; and the master of the hounds gives them the treat of his whip.

“‘For the master of the hounds, who has under his superintendence the kennels and the pack, and the nephews’ cage also,

“‘Is the unfortunate husband of that lemon-faced woman with the white ruff, whom we remarked to- day at dinner.

“‘And she scolds so sharp, that often her husband snatches his whip, and rushes down here, and gives it to the dogs and to the poor little boys.

”But his majesty has expressed his disapproval of such proceedings, and has given orders that for the future his nephews are to be treated differently from the dogs.

”He has determined no longer to entrust the disciplining of his nephews to a mercenary stranger, but to carry it out with his own hands.’

”’Don Diego stopped abruptly; for the seneschal of the castle joined us, and politely expressed his hope that we had dined to our satisfaction.”

Observe how the irony of the whole of that, finishing with the grim innuendo of the last stanza but one, is at once truly masterly and truly modern.

No account of Heine is complete which does not notice the Jewish element in him. His race he treated with the same freedom with which he treated everything else, but he derived a great force from it, and no one knew this better than he himself. He has excellently pointed out how in the sixteenth century there was a double renascence, — a Hellenic renascence and a Hebrew renascence, — and how both have been great powers ever since. He himself had in him both the spirit of Greece and the spirit of Judaea; both these spirits reach the infinite, which is the true goal of all poetry and all art, — the Greek spirit by beauty, the Hebrew spirit by sublimity. By his perfection of literary form, by his love of clearness, by his love of beauty, Heine is Greek; by his intensity, by his untamableness, by his ”longing which cannot be uttered,” he is Hebrew. Yet what Hebrew ever treated the things of the Hebrews like this?—

”There lives at Hamburg, in a one-roomed lodging in the Baker’s Broad Walk, a man whose name is Moses Lump; all the week he goes about in wind and rain, with his pack on his back, to earn his few shillings; but when on Friday evening he comes home, he finds the candlestick with seven candles lighted, and the table covered with a fair white cloth, and he puts away from him his pack and his cares, and he sits down to table with his squinting wife and yet more squinting daughter, and eats fish with them, fish which has been dressed in beautiful white garlic sauce, sings therewith the grandest psalms of King David, rejoices with his whole heart over the deliverance of the children of Israel out of Egypt, rejoices, too, that all the wicked ones who have done the children of Israel hurt, have ended by taking themselves oflf; that King Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, Haman, Antiochus, Titus, and all such people, are well dead, while he, Moses Lump, is yet” alive, and eating fish with wife and daughter; and I can tell you. Doctor, the fish is delicate and the man is happy, he has no call to torment himself about culture, he sits contented in his religion and in his green bed- gown, like Diogenes in his tub, he contemplates with satisfaction his candles, which he on no account will snuff for himself; and I can tell you, if the candles burn a little dim, and the snuffers -woman, whose business it is to snuff them, is not at hand, and Rothschild the Great were at that moment to come in, with all his brokers, bill discounters, agents, and chief clerks, with whom he conquers the world, and Rothschild were to say : ‘Moses Lump, ask of me what favour you will, and it shall be granted you;’ — Doctor, I am convinced, Moses Lump would quietly answer : ‘Snuff me those candles!’ and Rothschild the Great would exclaim with admiration: ‘If I were not Rothschild, I would be Moses Lump.”’

There Heine shows us his own people by its comic side; in the poem of the Princess Sabbath he shows it to us by a more serious side. The Princess Sabbath, ”the tranquil Princess, pearl and flower of all beauty, fair as the Queen of Sheba, Solomon’s bosom friend, that blue stocking from Ethiopia, who wanted to shine by her esprit, and with her wise riddles made herself in the long run a bore” (with Heine the sarcastic turn is never far off), this princess has for her betrothed a prince whom sorcery has transformed into an animal of lower race, the Prince Israel.

”A dog with the desires of a dog, he wallows all the week long in the filth and refuse of life, amidst the jeers of the boys in the street.

”But every Friday evening, at the twilight hour, suddenly the magic passes off, and the dog becomes once more a human being.

“A man with the feelings of a man, with head and heart raised aloft, in festal garb, in almost clean garb, he enters the halls of his Father.

”Hail, beloved halls of my royal Father! Ye tents of Jacob, I kiss with my lips your holy door-posts!”

Still more he shows us this serious side in his beautiful poem on Jehuda ben Halevy, a poet belonging to ”the great golden age of the Arabian, Old- Spanish, Jewish school of poets,” a contemporary of the troubadours : —

”He, too, — the hero whom we sing, — Jehuda ben Halevy, too, had his lady-love; but she was of a special sort.

”She was no Laura, whose eyes, mortal stars, in the cathedral on Good Friday kindled that world- renowned flame.

”She was no chatelaine, who in the blooming glory of her youth presided at tourneys, and awarded the victor’s crown.

“No casuistess in the Gay Science was she, no lady doctrinaire, who delivered her oracles in the judgment-chamber of a Court of Love.

“She, whom the Eabbi loved, was a woe-begone poor darling, a mourning picture of desolation . . and her name was Jerusalem,”

Jehuda ben Halevy, like the Crusaders, makes his pilgrimage to Jerusalem; and there, amid the ruins, sings a song of Sion which has become famous among his people : —

“That lay of pearled tears is the wide-famed Lament, which is sung in all the scattered tents of Jacob throughout the world.

“On the ninth day of the month which is called Ab, on the anniversary of Jerusalem’s destruction by Titus Vespasianus.

”Yes, that is the song of Sion, which Jehuda ben Halevy sang with his dying breath amid the holy ruins of Jerusalem.

”Barefoot, and in penitential weeds, he sate there upon the fragment of a fallen column; down to his breast fell,

“Like a gray forest, his hair; and cast a weird shadow on the face which looked out through it, — his troubled pale face, with the spiritual eyes.

”So he sate and sang, like unto a seer out of the foretime to look upon; Jeremiah, the Ancient, seemed to have risen out of his grave.

”But a bold Saracen came riding that way, aloft on his barb, lolling in his saddle, and brandishing a naked javelin;

”Into the breast of the poor singer he plunged his deadly shaft, and shot away like a winged shadow.

”Quietly flowed the Rabbi’s life-blood, quietly he sang his song to an end; and his last dying sigh was Jerusalem!”

But, most of all, Heine shows us this side in a strange poem describing a public dispute, before King Pedro and his Court, between a Jewish and a Christian champion, on the merits of their respective faiths. In the strain of the Jew all the fierceness of the old Hebrew genius, all its rigid defiant Monotheism, appear : —

“Our God has not died like a poor innocent Iamb for mankind; he is no gushing philanthropist, no declaimer.

”Our God is not love, caressing is not his line; but he is a God of thunder, and he is a God of revenge.

“The lightnings of his wrath strike inexorably every sinner, and the sins of the fathers are often visited upon their remote posterity.

”Our God, he is alive, and in his hall of heaven he goes on existing away, throughout all the eternities.

”Our God, too, is a God in robust health, no myth, pale and thin as sacrificial wafers, or as shadows by Cocytus.

”Our God is strong. In his hand he upholds sun, moon, and stars; thrones break, nations reel to and fro, when he knits his forehead.

”Our God loves music, the voice of the harp and the song of feasting; but the sound of church-bells he hates, as he hates the grunting of pigs.”

Nor must Heine’s sweetest note be unheard, — his plaintive note, his note of melancholy. Here is a strain which came from him as he lay, in the winter night, on his ”mattress-grave” at Paris, and let his thoughts wander home to Germany, ”the great child, entertaining herself with her Christmas-tree.” ”Thou tookest,”— he cries to the German exile, —

“Thou tookest thy flight towards sunshine and happiness; naked and poor returnest thou back. German truth, German shirts, — one gets them worn to tatters in foreign parts.

”Deadly pale are thy looks, but take comfort, thou art at home! one lies warm in German earth, warm as by the old pleasant fireside.

“Many a one, alas, became crippled, and could get home no more! longingly he stretches out his arms; God have mercy upon him!”

God have mercy upon him! for what remain of the days of the years of his life are few and evil. ”Can it be that I still actually exist? My body is so shrunk that there is hardly anything of me left but my voice, and my bed makes me think of the melodious grave of the enchanter Merlin, which is in the forest of Broceliand in Brittany, under high oaks whose tops shine like green flames to heaven. Ah, I envy thee those trees, brother Merlin, and their fresh waving! for over my mattress-grave here in Paris no green leaves rustle; and early and late I hear nothing but the rattle of carriages, hammering, scolding, and the jingle of the piano. A grave without rest, death without the privileges of the departed, who have no longer any need to spend money, or to write letters, or to compose books. What a melancholy situation!”

He died, and has left a blemished name; with his crying faults, — his intemperate susceptibility, his un- scrupulousness in passion, his inconceivable attacks on his enemies, his still more inconceivable attacks on his friends, his want of generosity, his sensuality his incessant mocking, — how could it be otherwise 1 Not only was he not one of Mr. Carlyle’s ”respectable” people, he was profoundly disrespectable; and not even the merit of not being a Philistine can make up for a man’s being that. To his intellectual deliverance there was an addition of something else wanting, and that something else was something immense; the old-fashioned, laborious, eternally needful moral deliverance. Goethe says that he was deficient in love; to me his weakness seems to be not so much a deficiency in love as a deficiency in self-respect, in true dignity of character. But on this negative side of one’s criticism of a man of great genius, I for my part, when I have once clearly marked that this negative side is and must be there, have no pleasure in dwelling. I prefer to say of Heine something positive. He is not an adequate interpreter of the modern world. He is only a brilliant soldier in the Liberation War of humanity. But, such as he is, he is (and posterity too, I am quite sure, will say this), in the European poetry of that quarter of a century which follows the death of Goethe, incomparably the most important figure.

What a spendthrift, one is tempted to cry, is Nature! With what prodigality, in the march of generations, she employs human power, content to gather almost always little result from it, sometimes none! Look at Byron , that Byron whom the present generation of Englishmen are forgetting; Byron, the greatest natural force, the greatest elementary power, I cannot but think which has appeared in our literature since Shakspeare. And what became of this wonderful production of nature? He shattered himself, he inevitably shattered himself to pieces against the huge, black, cloud-topped, interminable precipice of British Philistinism. But Byron, it may be said, was eminent only by his genius, only by his inborn force and fire; he had not the intellectual equipment of a supreme modern poet; except for his genius he was an ordinary nineteenth-century English gentle- man, with little culture and with no ideas. Well, then, look at Heine. Heine had all the culture of Germany; in his head fermented all the ideas of modern Europe. And what have we got from Heine? A half-result, for want of moral balance, and of nobleness of soul and character. That is what I say; there is so much power, so many seem able to run well, so many give promise of running well; — so few reach the goal, so few are chosen. Many are called, few chosen.


Joubert: An Essay by Matthew Arnold

VIII. JOUBERT (from Essays in Criticism, First Series)

Why should we ever treat of any dead authors but the famous ones? Mainly for this reason: because, from these famous personages, home or foreign, whom we all know so well, and of whom so much has been said, the amount of stimulus which they contain for us has been in a great measure disengaged; people have formed their opinion about them, and do not readily change it. One may write of them afresh, combat received opinions about them, even interest one’s readers in so doing; but the interest one’s readers receive has to do, in general, rather with the treatment than with the subject; they are susceptible of a lively impression rather of the course of the discussion itself, — its turns, vivacity, and novelty, — than of the genius of the author who is the occasion of it. And yet what is really precious and inspiring, in all that we get form literature, except this sense of an immediate contact with genius itself, and the stimulus towards what is true and excellent which he derive from it? Now in literature, besides the eminent men of genius who have had their deserts in the way of fame, besides the eminent men of ability who have often had far more than their deserts in the way of fame, there are a certain number of personages who have been real men of genius, — by which I mean, that they have had a genuine gift for what is true and excellent, and are therefore capable of emitting a life-giving stimulus, — but who, for some reason or other, in most cases very valid reasons, have remained obscure, nay beyond a narrow circle in their own country, unknown. It is salutary from time to time to come across a genius of this kind, and to extract his honey. Often he has more of it for us, as I have already said, than greater men; for, though it is by no means true that form what is new to us there is most to be learnt, it is yet indisputably true that from what is new to us we in general learn most.

Of a genius of this kind, Joseph Joubert, I am now going to speak. His name is, I believe, almost unknown in England; and even in France, his native country, it is not famous. M. Sainte-Beuve has given of him one of his incomparable portraits; but, — besides that even M. Sainte-Beuve’s writings are far less known among us than they deserve to be, — every country has its own point of view from which a remarkable author may most profitably be seen and studied. Joseph Joubert was born (and his date should be remarked) in 1754, at Montignac, a little town in Périgord. His father was a doctor with small means and a large family; and Joseph, the eldest, had his own way to make in the world. He was for eight years, as pupil first, and afterwards as an assistant-master, in the public school of Toulouse, then managed by the Jesuits, who seem to have left in him a most favourable opinion, not only of their tact and address, but of their really good qualities as teachers and directors. Compelled by the weakness of his health to give up, at twenty-two, the profession of teaching, he passed two important years of his life in hard study, at home at Montignac; and came in 1778 to try his fortune in the literary world of Paris, then perhaps the most tempting field which has ever yet presented itself to a young man of letters. He knew Diderot, D’Alembert, Marmontel, Laharpe; he became intimate with one of the celebrities of the next literary generation, then, like himself, a young man, — Chateaubriand’s friend, the future Grand Master of the University, Fontanes. But, even then, it began to be remarked of him, that M. Joubert “s’inquiétait de perfection bien plus que de gloire – cared far more about perfecting himself than about making himself a reputation.” His severity of morals may perhaps have been rendered easier to him by the delicacy of his health; but the delicacy of his health will not by itself account for this changeless preference of being to seeming, knowing to showing, studying to publishing; for what terrible public performers have some invalids been! This preference he retained all through his life, and it is by this that he is characterised. “He has chosen,” Chateaubriand (adopting Epicurus’ famous words) said of him, “to hide his life.” Of a life which its owner was bent on hiding there can be but little to tell. Yet the only two public incidents of Joubert’s life, slight as they are, do all concerned in them so much credit that they deserve mention. In 1790 the Constituent Assembly made the office of justice of the peace elective throughout France. The people of Montignac retained such and impression of the character of their young townsman, — one of Plutarch’s men of virtue, as he had lived amongst them, simple, studious, severe, — that, though he had left them for years, they elected him in his absence without his knowing anything about it. The appointment little suited Joubert’s wishes of tastes; but as such a moment he thought it wrong to decline it. He held it for two years, the legal term, discharging its duties with a firmness and integrity which were long remembered; and then, when he went out of office, his fellow-townsmen re-elected him. But Joubert thought that he had now accomplished his duty towards them, and he went back to the retirement which he loved. That seems to me a little episode of the great French Revolution worth remembering. The sage who was asked by the king, why sages were seen at the doors of kings, but not kings at the doors of sages, replied, that it was because sages knew what was good for them, and kings did not. But at Montignac the king – for in 1790 the people in France was king with a vengeance – knew what was good for him, and came to the door of the sage.

The other incident was this. When Napoleon, in 1809, reorganised the public instruction of France, founded the University, and made M. de Fontanes its Grand Master, Fontanes had to submit to the Emperor a list of persons to form the council or governing body of the new University. Third on his list, after two distinguished names, Fontanes placed the unknown name of Joubert. “This name,” he said in his accompanying memorandum to the Emperor, “is not known as the two first are; and yet this is the nomination to which I attach most importance. I have known M. Joubert all my life. His character and intelligence are of the very brightest order. I shall rejoice if your Majesty will accept my guarantee for him.” Napoleon trusted his Grand Master, and Joubert became a councillor of the University. It is something that a man, elevated to the highest posts of State, should not forget his obscure friends; or that, if he remembers and places them, he should regard in placing them their merit rather than their obscurity. It is more, in the eyes of those whom the necessities, real or supposed, of a political system have long familiarised with such cynical disregard of fitness in the distribution office, to see a minister and his master alike zealous, in giving away places, to give them to the best men to be found.

Between 1792 and 1809 Joubert had married. His life was passed between Villeneuve-sur Yonne, where his wife’s family lived, — a pretty little burgandian town, by which the Lyons railroad now passes, — and Paris. Here, in a house in the Rue St.-Honoré, in a room very high up, and admitting plenty of the light which he so loved, — a room from he saw, in his own words, “a great deal of sky and very little earth,” – among the treasures of a library collected with infinite pains, taste, and skill, from which every book he though ill of was rigidly excluded, — he never would possess either a complete Voltaire or a complete Rousseau, — the happiest hours of his life were passed. In the circle of one of those women who leave a sort of perfume in literary history, and who have the gift of inspiring successive generations of readers with an indescribable regret not to have known them, — Pauline de Montmorin, Madame de Beaumont, — he had become intimate with nearly all which at that time, in the Paris world of letters and society, as most attractive and promising. Amongst his acquaintances one only misses the names of Madame de Staël and Benjamin Constant. Neither of them was to histe taste, and with Madame de Staël he always refused to become acquainted; he thought she had more vehemence than truth, and more heat than light.

Years went on, and his friends became conspicuous authors or statesmen; but Joubert remained in the shade. His constitution was of such fragility that how he lived so long, or accomplish so much as he did, is a wonder: his soul had, for its basis of operations, hardly any body at all: both from his stomach and his chest he seems to have had constant suffering, though he lived by rule, and was abstemious as a Hindoo. Often, after overwork in thinking, reading, or talking, he remained for days together in a state of utter prostration, — condemned to absolute silence and inaction; too happy if the agitation of his mind would become quiet also, and let him have the repose of which he stood in so much need. With this weakness of health, these repeated suspension of energy, he was incapable of the prolonged contention of spirit necessary for the creation of great works. But he read and thought immensely; he was an unwearied note-taker, a charming letter-writing; above all, an excellent and delightful talker. The gaiety and amenity of his natural disposition were inexhaustible; and his spirit, too was of astonishing elasticity; he seemed to hold on to life by a single thread only, but that single thread was very tenacious. More and more, as his soul and knowledge ripened more and more, his friends pressed to his room in the Rue St.-Honoré; often he received them in bed, for he seldom rose before three o’clock in the afternoon; and at his bedroom-door, on his bad days, Madame Joubert stood sentry, trying not always with success, to keep back the thirsty comers form the fountain which he was forbidden to flow. Fontanes did nothing in the University without consulting him, and Joubert’s ideas and pen were always at his friend’s service.

When he was in the country, at Villeneuve, the young priests of his neighbourhood used to resort to him, in order to profit by his library and by his conversation. He, like our Coleridge, was particularly qualitied to attract men of this kind and to benefit them: retaining a perfect independence of mind, he was a religious philosopher. As age came on, his infirmities became more and more overwhelming; some of his friends, too, died; others became so immersed in politics, that Joubert, who hated politics, saw them seldomer than of old; but the moroseness of age and infirmity never touched him, and he never quarrelled with a friend or lost one. From these miseries he was preserved by that quality in him of which I have already spoken; a quality which is best expressed by a word, not of common use in English, — alas, we have too little in our national character of the quality which this word expresses, — his inborn, his constant amenity. He lived till the year 1824. On the 4th of May in that year he died, at the age of seventy. A day or two after his death M. de Chateaubriand inserted in the Journal des Débats a short notice of him, perfect for its feeling, grace, and propriety. On ne vit dans la mémoire du monde, he says and says truly, que par des travaux pour le monde, — “a man can live in the world’s memory only by what he has done for the world.” But Chateaubriand used the privilege which his great name gave him to assert, delicately but firmly, Joubert’s real and rare merits, and to tell the world what manner of man had just left it.

Joubert’s papers were accumulated in boxes and drawers. He had not meant them for publication; it was very difficult to sort them and to prepare them for it. Madame Joubert, his widow, had a scruple about giving them a publicity which her husband, she felt, would never have permitted. But as her own end approached, the natural desire to leave of so remarkable a spirit some enduring memorial, some memorial to outlast the admiring recollection of the living who were so fast passing away, made her yield to the entreaties of his friends, and allow the printing, but for private circulation only, of a volume of his fragments. Chateaubriand edited it; it appeared in 1838, fourteen years after Joubert’s death. The volume attracted the attention of those who were best fitted to appreciate it, and profoundly impressed them. M. Sainte-Beuve gave of it, in the Revue des Deux Mondes, the admirable notice of which I have already spoken; and so much curiosity was excited about Joubert, that the collection of his fragments, enlarged by many additions, was at last published for the benefit of the world in general. It has since been twice reprinted. The first or preliminary chapter has some fancifulness and affectation in it; the reader should begin with the second.

I have likened Joubert to Coleridge; and indeed the points of resemblance between the two men are numerous. Both of them great and celebrated talkers, Joubert attracting pilgrims to his upper chamber in the Rue St.-Honoré, as Coleridge attracted pilgrims to Mr. Gilman’s at Highgate; both of them desultory and incomplete writers, — her they had an outward likeness with one another. Both of them passionately devoted to reading in a class of books, and to thinking on a class of subjects, out of the beaten line of the reading and thought of their day; both of them ardent students and critics of old literature, poetry, and the metaphysics of religion; both of them curious explorers of words, and of the latent significance hidden under the popular use of them; both of them, in a certain sense, conservative in religion and politics, by antipathy to the narrow and shallow foolishness of vulgar modern liberalism; — here they had their inward and real likeness. But that in which the essence of their likeness consisted is this, — that they both had from nature and ardent impulse for seeking the genuine truth on all matters they thought about, and a gift for finding it and recognising it when it was found. To have the impulse for seeking the this truth is much rarer than most people think; to have the gift for finding it is, I need not say, very rare indeed. By this they have a spiritual relationship of the closest kind with one another, and they become, each of them, a source of stimulus and progress for all of us.

Coleridge had less delicacy and penetration than Joubert, but more richness and power; his production, though far inferior to what his nature at first seemed to promise, was abundant and varied. Yet in all his production how much is there to dissatisfy us! How many reserves must be made in praising either his poetry, or of his criticism, or of his philosophy, can we expect permanently to stand! But that which will stand of Coleridge is this: the stimulus of his continual effort, — not a moral effort, for he had no morals, — but of his continual instinctive effort, crowned often with rich success, to get at and to lay bare the real truth of his matter in hand, whether that matter were literary, or philosophical, or political, or religious; and this in a country where at that moment such an effort was almost unknown; where the most powerful minds threw themselves upon poetry, which conveys truth, indeed, but conveys it indirectly; and where ordinary minds were so habituated to do without thinking altogether, to regard considerations of established routine and practical convenience as paramount, that attempt to introduce within the domain of these disturbing element of thought, they were prompt to resent as an outrage. Coleridge’s great usefulness lay in his supplying England, for many years and under critical circumstances, by the spectacle of this effort of his, a stimulus to all minds capable of profiting by it; in the generation which grew up around him. His action will still be felt as long as the need for it continues. When, with the cessation of the need, the action too has ceased, Coleridge’s memory, in spite of the disesteem – nay, repugnance – which ever his character may and must inspire, will yet for ever remain invested with that interest and gratitude which invests the memory of founders.

M. de Rémusat, indeed, reproaches Coleridge with his jugements saugrenus; the criticism of a gifted truth-finder ought not to be saugrenu, so on this reproach we must pause for a moment. Saugrenu is a rather vulgar French word, but, like many other vulgar worlds, very expressive; used as an epithet for a judgment, it means something like impudently absurd. The literary judgments of one nation about another are very apt to be sagrenus. It is certainly true, as M. Sainte-Beuve remarks in answer to Goethe’s complaint against the French that they have undervalued Du Bartas, that as the estimate of its own authors every nation is the best judge; the positive estimate 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 we permissible wrongness there is a limit. When that limit is exceeded, the wrong judgment becomes more than wrong, it becomes saugrenu, or impudently absurd. For instance, the high estimate which the French have of Racine is probably in great measure deserved; or, to take a yet stronger case, even the high estimate which Joubert had of the Abbé Delille is probably in great measure deserved; but the common disparaging judgment passed on Racine by English readers is not saugrenu, still less is that passed by them on the Abbé Delille saugrenu, because the beauty of Racine, and of Delille too, so far as Delille’s beauty goes, is eminently in their language, and this is a beauty which a foreigner cannot perfectly seize; — this beauty of a diction, apicibus verborum ligata, as M. Sainte-Beuve, quoting Quintilian, says of Chateaubriand’s. As to Chateaubriand himself, again, the common English judgment, which stamps him as a mere shallow rhetorician, all froth and vanity, is certainly wrong, one may even wonder that we English should judge Chateaubriand so wrongly, for his power goes far beyond beauty of diction; it is a power, as well, of passion and sentiment, and this sort of power the English can perfectly well appreciate. One production of Chateaubriand’s, René, is akin to the most popular productions of Byron, — to the Childe Harold of Manfred, — in spirit, equal to them in power, superior to them in form. But this work, I hardly know why, is almost unread in England. And only consider this criticism Chateaubriand’s on the true pathetic! “It is a dangerous mistake, sanctioned, like so many other dangerous mistakes, by Voltaire, to suppose that the best works of imagination are those which draw most tears. One could name this or that melodrama, which no one would like to own having written, and which yet harrows the feelings far more than the Aeneid. The true tears those which are called forth by the beauty of poetry; there must be as much admiration in them as sorrow. They are the tears which to our eyes when Priam says to Achilles, ‘And I have endured, — the like whereof no soul upon the earth hath yet endured, — to carry to my lips the hand of him who slew my child;’ or when Joseph cries out: ‘I am Joseph your brother, whom ye sold in Egypt.’” Who does not feel that the man who wrote that was no shallow rhetorician, but a born man of genius, with the true instinct of genius for what is really admirable? Nay, take these words of Chateaubriand, an old man of eighty, dying, amidst the noise and bustle of the ignoble revolution of February 1848: “Mon Dieu, mon Dieu, quand donc, quand donc serai-je délivré de tout ce monde, ce bruit; quand donc, quand donc cela finira-t-il?” Who with any ear, does not feel that those are not the accents of a trumpery rhetorician, but of a rich and puissant nature, — the cry of the dying lion? I repeat it, Chateaubriand is most ignorantly underrated in England; and we English are capable of rating him far more correctly if we knew him better. Still Chateaubriand has such real and great faults, he falls so decidedly beneath the rank of the truly greatest authors, that the depreciatory judgment passed on him in England, though ignorant and wrong, can hardly be said to transgress the limits of permissible ignorance; it is not a jugement saugrenu. But when a critic denies genius to a literature which has produced Bossuet and Molière, he passes the bounds; and Coleridge’s judgments on French literature and the French genius are undoubtedly, as M. de Rémusat calls them, saugrenus.

And yet, such is the impetuosity of our poor human nature, such its proneness to rush to a decision with imperfect knowledge, that his having delivered a saugrenu judgment or two in his life by no means proves a man not to have had, in comparison with his fellow-men in general, a remarkable gift for truth, or disqualifies him for being, by virtue of that gift, a source of vital stimulus for us. Joubert had far less smoke and turbid vehemence in him than Coleridge; he had also a far keener sense of what was absurd. But Joubert can write to M. Molé (the M. Molé who was afterwards Louis Philippe’s well-known minister): “As to your Milton, whom the merit of the Abbé Delille” (the Abbé Delille translated Paradise Lost) “makes me admire, and with whom I have nevertheless still plenty of fault to find, why, I should like to know, are you scandalised that I have not enabled myself to read him? I don’t understand the language in which he writes, and I don’t much care to. If he is a poet one cannot put up with, even in the prose of the younger Racine, am I to blame for that? If by force you mean beauty manifesting itself with power, I maintain that the Abbé Delille has more force than Milton.” That, to be sure, is a petulant outburst in a private letter; it is not, like Coleridge’s, a deliberate proposition in a printed philosophical essay. But is it possible to imagine a more perfect specimen of a saugrenu judgment? It is even worse than Coleridge’s, because it is saugrenu with reasons. That, however, does not prevent Joubert from having been really a man of extraordinary ardour in the search for truth, and of extraordinary fineness in the perception of it; and so was Coleridge’s.

Joubert had around him in France an atmosphere of literary, philosophical, and religious opinion as alien to him as that in England was to Coleridge. This is what makes Joubert, too, so remarkable, and it is on this account that I begged the reader to remark his date. He was born in 1754; he died in 1824. He was thus in the fullness of his powers at the beginning of the present century, at the epoch of Napoleon’s consulate. The French criticism of that day – the criticism of Laharpe’s successors, of Geoffrey and his colleagues in the Journal des Débats – had a dryness very unlike the telling vivacity of the early Edinburgh reviewers, their contemporaries, but a fundamental narrowness, a want of genuine insight, much on a par with theirs. Joubert, like Coleridge, has no respect for the dominant oracle; he treats his Geoffroy with about as little deference as Coleridge treats his Jeffrey. “Geoffrey,” he says in an article in the Journal des Débats criticising Chateaubriand’s Génie du Christianisme – “Geoffrey in this article begins by holding out his paw prettily enough; but he ends by a volley of kicks, which lets the whole world see but too clearly the four iron shoes of the four-footed animal.” There is, however, in France a sympathy with intellectual activity for its own sake, and for the sake of its inherent pleasurableness and beauty, keener than any which exists in England; and Joubert had more effect in Paris, — though his conversation was his only weapon, and Coleridge wielded besides his conversations his pen, — than Coleridge had or could have in London. I mean, a more immediate, appreciable effect; an effect not only upon the young and enthusiastic, to whom the future belongs, but upon formed and important personages to whom the present belongs, and who are actually moving society. He owed this partly to his real advantages over Coleridge. If he had, as I have already said, less power and richness than his English parallel, he had more tact and penetration. He was more possible than Coleridge; his doctrine was more intelligible than Coleridge’s, more receivable. And yet with Joubert, the striving after a consummate and attractive clearness of expression came from no mere frivolous dislike of labour and inability for going deep, but was a part of his native love of truth and perfection. The delight of his life he found in truth, and in the satisfaction which the enjoying of truth gives to the spirit; and he thought the truth was never really and worthily said, so long as the least cloud, clumsiness, and repulsiveness hung about the expression of it.

Some of his best passages are those in which he upholds this doctrine. Even metaphysics he would not allow to remain difficult and abstract: so long as they spoke a professional jargon, the language of the schools, he maintained, — and who shall gainsay him? – that metaphysics were imperfect; or, at any rate, had not yet reached their ideal perfection.

“The true science of metaphysics,” he says, “consists not in rendering abstract that which is sensible, but in rendering sensible that which is abstract; apparent that which is hidden; imaginable, if so it may be, that which is only intelligible; and intelligible, finally, that which an ordinary attention fails to seize.”

And therefore: —

“Distrust, in books on metaphysics, words which have not been able to get currency in the world, and are only calculated to from a special language.”

Nor would he suffer common words to be employed in a special sense by the schools: —

“Which is the best, if one wants to be useful and to be really understood, to get one’s words in the world, or to get them in the schools. I maintain that the good plan is to employ words in their popular sense; and the better plan still, to employ them in their natural sense, I mean the popular and universal acceptation of them brought to that which in this is essential and invariable. To prove a thing by definition, when the definition expresses the necessary, inevitable, and clear idea which the world at large attaches to the object, is, on the contrary, all in all; and because then what one does is simply to show people what they do really think, in spite of themselves and without knowing it. The rule that one is free to give to words what sense one will, and that the only thing needful is to be agreed upon the sense one gives them, is very well for the mere purposes of argumentation, and may be allowed in the schools where this sort of fencing is to be practised; but in the sphere of the true-born and noble science of metaphysics, and in the genuine world of literature, it is good for nothing. One must employ one’s expressions simply as media, — as glasses, through which one’s thoughts can be best made evident. I know, by my own experience, how hard this rule is to follow; but I judge of its importance by the failure of every system of metaphysics. Not one of them has succeeded; for the simple reason, that in every one ciphers have been constantly used instead of values, artificial ideas instead of native ideas, jargon instead of idiom.”

I do not know whether the metaphysician will ever adopt Joubert’s rules; but I am sure that the man of letters, whenever he has to speak of metaphysics, will do well to adopt them. He, at any rate, must remember: —

“It is by means of familiar words that style takes hold of the reader and gets possession of him. It is by means of these that great thoughts get currency and pass for true metal, like gold and silver which have had a recognised stamps put upon them. They beget confidence in the man who, in order to make his thoughts more clearly perceived, uses them; for people feel that such an employment of the language of common human life betokens a man who knows that life and its concerns, and who keeps himself in contact with them. Besides, these words make a style frank and easy. They show that an author has long made the thought or the feeling expressed his mental food; that he has so assimilated them and familiarised them, that the most common expressions suffice him in order to express ideas which have become every-day ideas to him by the length of time they have been in his mind. And lastly, what one says in such words looks more true; for, of all the words in use, none are so clear as those which we call common words; and clearness is so eminently one of the characteristics of truth, that often it even passes for truth itself.”

These are not, in Joubert, mere counsels of rhetoric; they come from his accurate sense of perfection, from his having clearly seized the fine and just idea that beauty and light are properties of truth, and that truth is incompletely exhibited if it is exhibited without beauty and light: —

“Be profound with clear terms and not with obscure terms. What is difficult will at last become easy; but as one goes deep into things, one must still keep a charm, and one must carry into these dark depths of thought, into which speculation has only recently penetrated, the pure and antique clearness of centuries less learned than ours, but with more light in them.”

And elsewhere he speaks of those “spirits, lovers of light, who, when they have an idea to put forth, brood long over it first, and wait patiently till it shines, as Buffon enjoined, when he defined genius to be the aptitude of patience; spirits who know by experience that the direst matter and the dullest words hide within them the germ and spark of some brightness, like those fairy nuts in which were found diamonds if one broke the shell and was the right person; spirit who maintain that, to see and exhibit things in beauty, is to see and show things as in their essence they really are, and not as they exist for the eye of the careless, who do not look beyond the outside; spirits hard to satisfy, because of a keen-sightedness in them, which makes them discern but too clearly both the models to be followed and those to be shunned; spirits active though meditative, who cannot rest except in solid truths, and whom only beauty can make happy; spirits far less concerned for glory than for perfection, who, because their art is long and life is short, often die without leaving a monument, having had their own inward sense of life and fruitfulness for their best reward.”

No doubt there is something a little too ethereal in all this, something which reminds one of Joubert’s physical want of body and substance; no doubt, if a man wishes to be a great author, it is to consider too curiously, to consider as Joubert; it is a mistake to spend so much of one’s time in setting up one’s ideal standard of perfection, and in contemplating it. Joubert himself knew this very well: “I cannot build a house for my ideas,” said he; “I have tried to do without words, and words take their revenge on me by their difficulty.” “If there is a man upon earth tormented by the cursed desire to get a whole book into a page, a whole page into a phrase, and this phrase into one word, – that man is myself.” “I can sow, but I cannot build.” Joubert, however, makes no claim to be a great author; by renouncing all ambition to be this, by not trying to fit his ideas into a house, by making no compromise with words in spite of their difficulty, by being quite single-minded in his pursuit of perfection, perhaps he is enabled to get closer to the truth of the objects of his study, and to be of more service to us by setting before us ideals, than if he had composed a celebrated work. I doubt whether, in an elaborate work on the philosophy of religion, he would have got his ideas about religion to shine, to use his own expression, as they shine when he utters them in a perfect freedom. Penetration in these matters is valueless without soul, and soul is valueless without penetration; both of these are delicate qualities, and, even in those who have them, easily lost; the charm of Joubert is, that he has and keeps both. Let us try and show that he does.

“One should be fearful of being wrong in poetry when one thinks differently from the poets, and in religion when one thinks differently from the saints.”

“There is a great difference between taking for idols Mahomet and Luther, and bowing down before Rousseau and Voltaire. People at any rate imagined they were obeying God when they followed Mahomet, and the scriptures when they hearkened to Luther. And perhaps one ought not too much to disparage that inclination which leads mankind to put into the hands of those whom it thinks the friends of God the direction and government of its heart and mind. It is the subjection to irreligious spirits which alone is fatal, and, in the fullest sense of the word, depraving.

“May I say it? It is not hard to know God, provided one will not force oneself to define him.

“Do not bring into the domain of reasoning that which belongs to our innermost feeling. State truths of sentiment, and do not try to prove them. There is danger in such proofs; for in arguing it is necessary to treat that which is in question as something problematic: now that which we accustom ourselves to treat as problematic ends by appearing to us as really doubtful. In things that are visible and palpable, never prove what is believed already; in things that are certain and mysterious, — mysterious by their greatness and by their nature, — make people believe them, and do not prove them; in things that are matters of practice and duty, command, and do not explain. ‘Fear God,’ has made many men pious; the proofs of the existence of God have made many men atheists. From the defence springs the attack; the advocate begets in his hearer a wish to pick holes; and men are almost always led on, from the desire to contradict the doctor, to the desire to contradict the doctrine. Make truth lovely, and do not try to arm her; mankind will then be far less inclined to contend with her.

“Why is even a bad preacher almost always heard by the pious with pleasure? Because he talks to them about what they love. But you who have to expound religion to the children of this world, you who have to speak to them of that which they once loved perhaps, or which they would be glad to love, — remember that they do not love it yet, and to make them it take heed to speak with power.

“You may do what you like, mankind will believe no one but God; and he only can persuade mankind who believes that God has spoken to him. No one can give faith unless he has faith; the persuaded persuade, as the indulgent disarm.

“The only happy people in the world are the good man, the sage, and the saint; but the saint is happier than either of the others, so much is man by his nature formed to sanctify.”

The same delicacy and penetration which he here shows in speaking of the inward essence of religion, Joubert shows also in speaking of its outward form, and of its manifestation in the world: —

“Religion is neither a theology nor a theosophy; it is more than all this; it is a discipline, a law, a yoke, an indissoluble engagement.”

Who, again, has ever shown more truth and beauty the good and imposing side of the wealth and splendour of the Catholic Church, than Joubert in the following passage?—

“The pomps and magnificence with which the Church is reproached are in truth the result and the proof of her incomparable excellence. From whence, let me ask, have come this power of hers and these excessive riches, except from the enchantment into which she threw all the world? Ravished with her beauty, millions of men from age to age kept loading her with gifts, bequests, cessions. She had the talent of making herself loved, and the talent of making men happy. It is that which wrought prodigies for her; it is from thence that she drew her power.”

“She had the talent of making herself feared,”—one should add that too, in order to be perfectly just; but Joubert, because he is a true child of light, can see that the wonderful success of the Catholic Church must have been due really to her good rather than to her bad qualities; to her making herself loved rather than to her making herself feared.

How striking and suggestive, again, is this remark of the Old and the New Testaments: —

“The Old Testament teaches the knowledge of good and evil; the Gospel, on the other hand, seems written for he predestinated; it is the book of innocence. The one is made for earth, the other seems made for heaven. According as the one or the other of these books takes hold of a nation, what may be called the religious humours of nations differ.”

So the British and North American Puritans are the children of the Old Testament, as Joachim of Flora and St. Francis are the children of the New. And does not the following maxim exactly fit the Church of England, of which Joubert certainly never thought when he was writing it? – “The austere sects excite the most enthusiasm at first; but the temperate sects have always been the most durable.”

And these remarks on the Jansenists and Jesuits, interesting in themselves, are still more interesting because they touch matters we cannot well know at first-hand, and which Joubert, an impartial observer, had had the means of studying closely. We are apt to think of the Jansenists as having failed by reason of their merits; Joubert shows us how far their failure was due to their defects: —

“We ought to lay stress upon what is clear in Scripture, and to pass quickly over what is obscure; to light up what in Scripture is troubled, by what is serene in it; what puzzles and checks the reason, by what satisfies the reason. The Jansenists have done just the reverse. They lay stress upon what is uncertain, obscure, afflicting, and they pass lightly over the rest; they eclipse the luminous and consoling truths of Scripture, by putting between us and them its opaque and dismal truths. For example: ‘Many are called;’ there is a clear truth: ‘Few are chosen;’ there is an obscure truth. ‘We are children of wrath;’ there is a sombre, cloudy, terrifying truth: ‘We are the children of God;’ ‘I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance;’ there are truths which are full of clearness, mildness, serenity, light. The Jansenists trouble our cheerfulness, and shed no cheering ray on our trouble. They are not, however, to be condemned for what they say, because what they say is true; but they are to be condemned for what they fail to say, for that is true too,– truer, even, than the other; that is, its truth is easier for us to seize, fuller, rounder, and more complete. Theology, as the Jansenists exhibit her, has but the half of her disk.”

Again: —

“The Jansenists erect ‘grace’ into a kind of fourth person of the Trinity. The are, without thinking or intending it, Quaternitarians. St. Paul and St. Agustine, too exclusively studied, have done all the mischief. Instead of ‘grace,’ say help, succour a divine influence, a dew of heaven; then one can come to a right understanding. The word ‘grace’ is a sort of talisman, all the baneful spell of which can be broken by translating it. The trick of personifying words is a fatal source of mischief in theology.”

Once more:–

“The Jansenists tell men to love God; the Jesuits make men love him. The doctrine of these last is full of looseness, or, if you will, of errors; still,– singular as it may seem, it is undeniable, — they are the better directors of souls.

“The Jansenists have carried into religion more thought than the Jesuits, and they go deeper; they are faster bound with its sacred bonds. They have in their way of thinking an austerity which incessantly constrains the will to keep the path of duty; all the habits of their understanding, in short, are more Christian. But they seem to love God without affection, and solely from reason, from duty, from justice. The Jesuits, on the other hand, seem to love him from pure inclination; out of admiration, gratitude, tenderness; for the pleasure of loving him, in short. In their books of devotion you find joy, because with the Jesuits nature and religion go hand in hand. In the books of the Jansenists there is a sadness and a moral constraint, because the Jansenists religion is for ever trying to put nature in bonds.”

The Jesuits have suffered, and deservedly suffered, plenty of discredit from what Joubert gently calls their “looseness;” let them have the merit of their amiability.

The most characteristic thoughts on can quote from any writer are always his thoughts on matters like these; but the maxims of Joubert on purely literary subjects also, have the same sedulousness in them to preserve perfectly true the balance of his soul. Let me begin with this, which contains a truth too many people fail to perceive: —

“Ignorance, which in matters of morals extenuates the crime, is itself, in matters of literature, a crime of the first order.”

And here is another sentence, worthy of Goethe, to clear the air at one’s entrance into the region of literature: —

“With the fever of the senses, the delirium of the passions, the weakness of the spirit; with the storms of the passing time and with the great scourges of human life, — hunger, thirst, dishonour, diseases, and death, — authors may as long as they like go on making novels which shall harrow our hearts; but the soul says the while, ‘You hurt me.’”

And again: —

“Fiction has no business to exist unless it is more beautiful than reality. Certainly the monstrosities of fiction may be found in the booksellers’ shops; you buy them there for a certain number of francs, and you talk of them for a certain number of days; but they have no place in literature, because in literature the one aim of art is the beautiful. Once lose sight of that, and you have the mere frightful reality.”

That is just the right criticism to pass on these “monstrosities:” they have no place in literature, and those who produce them are not really men of letters. One would think that this was enough to deter from such production any man of genuine ambition. But most of us, alas! Are what we must be, not what we ought to be, — not even what we know we ought to be, — not even what we know we ought to be.

The following, of which the first reminds one of Wordsworth’s sonnet, “If thou indeed derive thy light from heaven,” excellently defines the true salutary function of literature, and the limits of this function: —

“Whether on is an eagle or an ant, in the intellectual world, seems to me not to matter much; the essential thing is to have one’s place marked there, one’s station assigned, and to belong decidedly to a regular and wholesome order. A small talent, if it keeps within its limits and rightly fulfills its task, may reach the goal just as well as a greater one. To accustom mankind to pleasures which depend neither upon the bodily appetites nor upon money, by giving them a taste for the things of the mind, seems to me, in fact, the one proper fruit which nature has meant our literary productions to have. When they have other fruits, it is by accident, and, in general, not for good. Books which absorb our attention to such a degree that they rob us of all fancy for other books, are absolutely pernicious. In this way they only bring fresh crotchets and sects into the world; they multiply the great variety of weights, rules, and measures already existing; they are morally and politically a nuisance.”

Who can read these word and not think of the limiting effect exercised by certain works in certain spheres and for certain periods; exercised even by the works of men of genius or virtue, — by the works of Rousseau, the works of Wesley, the works of Swedenborg? And what is it which makes the Bible so admirable a book, to be the one book of those who can have only one, but the miscellaneous character of the contents of the Bible?

Joubert was all his life a passionate lover of Plato; I hope other lovers of Plato will forgive me for saying that their adored object has never been more truly described than he is here: —

“Plato shows us nothing, but he brings brightness with him; he puts light into our eyes, and fills us with a clearness by which all objects afterwards become illuminated. He teaches us nothing; but he prepares us, fashions us, and makes us ready to know all. Somehow or other, the habit of reading him augments in us the capacity for discerning and entertaining whatever fine truths may afterwards present themselves. Like mountain-air, it sharpens our organs, and gives us an appetite for wholesome food.”

“Plato loses himself in the void” (he says again); “but one sees the play of his wings, on hears their rustle.” And the conclusion is: “It is good to breathe his air, but not to live upon him.”

As a pendant to the criticism on Plato, this on the French moralist Nicole is excellent:–

“Nicole is a Pascal without style. It is not what he says which is sublime, but what he thinks; he rises, not but the natural elevation of his own spirit, but by that of his doctrines. One must not look to the form in him, but to the matter, which is exquisite. He ought to be read with a direct view of practice.”

English people have hardly ears to hear the praises of Bossuet, and the Bossuet of Joubert is Bossuet at his very best; but this is a far truer Bossuet than the “declaimer” Bossuet of Lord Macaulay, himself a born rhetorician, if ever there was one: —

“Bossuet employs all our idioms, as Homer employed all the dialects. The language of kings, of statesmen, and of warriors; the language of the people and of the student, of the country and of the schools, of the sanctuary and of the courts of law; the old and the new, the trivial and the stately, the quiet and the resounding, — he turns all to his use; and out of all this he makes a style, simple, grave, majestic. His ideas are, like his words, varied, — common and sublime together. Times and doctrines in all their multitude were ever before his spirits, as things and words in all their multitude were ever before it. He is not such much a man as a human nature, with the temperance of a saint, the justice of a bishop, the prudence of a doctor, and the might of a great spirit.”

After this on Bossuet, I must quote a criticism on Racine, to show that Joubert did not indiscriminately worship all the French gods of the grand century:–

“Those who find Racine enough for them are poor souls and poor wit; they are souls and wits which have never got beyond the callow and boarding-school stage. Admirable, as not doubt he is, for his skill having made poetical the most humdrum sentiments and the most middling sort of passions, he can yet stand us in stead of nobody but himself. He is a superior writer; and, in literature, that at once puts a man on a pinnacle. But he is not an inimitable writer.”

And again: “The talent of Racine is in his works, but Racine himself is not there. That is why he himself became disgusted with them.””Of Racine, as of his ancients, the genius lay in taste. His elegance is perfect, but it is not supreme, like that of Virgil.” And, indeed, there is something supreme in an elegance which exercises such as fascination as Virgil’s does; which makes one return to his poems again and again, longer after one thinks one has done with them; which makes them one of those books that, to use Joubert’s words, “lure the reader back to them, as the proverp says good wine lures back the wine-bibbler.” And the highest praise Joubert can at least find for Racine is this, that he is the Virgil of the ignorant; — “Racine est le Virgile des ignorants.”

Of Boileau, too, Joubert says: “Boileau is a powerful poet, but only in the world of half poetry.” How true is that of Pople also! And he adds: “Neither Boileau’s poetry nor Racine’s flows from the fountainhead.” No Englishman, controverting the exaggerated French estimate of these poets, could desire to use fitter words.

I will end with some remarks on Voltaire and Rousseau, remarks in which Joubert eminently shows his prime merit as a critic, — the soundness and completeness of his judgments. I mean that he has the faculty of judging with all the powers of his mind and soul at work together in due combination; and how rare is this faculty! How seldom is it exercised towards writers who so powerfully as Voltaire and Rousseau stimulate and call into activity a single side in us!

“Voltaire’s wits came to their maturity twenty years sooner than the wits of other men, and remained in full vigour thirty years longer. The charm which our style in general gets from our ideas, his ideas get from his style. Voltaire is sometimes afflicted, sometimes strongly moved; but serious he never is. His very graces have an effrontery about them. He had correctness of judgment, liveliness of imagination, nimble wits, quick taste, and a moral sense in ruins. He is the most debauched of spirits, and the worst of him is that one gets debauched along with him. If he had been a wise man, and had had the self-discipline of wisdom, beyond a doubt half his wit would have been gone; it needed an atmosphere of licence in order to play freely. Those people who read him every day, create for themselves, by an invincible law, the necessity of liking him. But those people who, having given up reading him, gaze steadily down upon the influences which his spirit has shed abroad, find themselves in simple justice and duty compelled to detest him. It is impossible to be satisfied with him, and impossible not to be fascinated by him.”

The literary sense in us is apt to rebel against so severe a judgment on such a charmer of the literary sense as Voltaire, and perhaps we English are not very liable to catch Voltaire’s vices, while of some of his merits we have signal need; still, as the real definitive judgment on Voltaire, Joubert’s is undoubtedly the true one. It is nearly identical with that of Goethe. Joubert’s sentence on Rousseau is in some respects more favourable: —

“That weight in the speaker (auctoritas) which the ancients talk of, is to be found in Bossuet more than in any other French author; Pascal, too, has it, and La Bruyère; even Rousseau has something of it, but Voltaire not a particle. I can understand how a Rousseau – I mean a Rousseau cured of his faults – might at the present day do much good, and may even come to be greatly wanted; but under no circumstances can a Voltaire be of any use.”

The peculiar power of Rousseau’s style has never been better hit off than in the following passage:–

“Rousseau imparted, if I may so speak, bowels of feeling to the words he used (donna des entrailles à tous les mots), and poured into them such a charm, sweetness so penetrating, energy so puissant, that his writings have an effect upon the soul something like that of those illicit pleasures which steal away our taste and intoxicate our reason.”

The final judgment, however, is severe, and justly severe: —

“Life without actions; life entirely resolved into affections and half-sensual thoughts; do-nothingness setting up for a virtue; cowardliness with voluptuousness; fierce pride with nullity underneath it; the strutting phrase of the most sensual of vagabonds, who has made his system of philosophy and can give it eloquently forth: there is Rousseau! A piety in which there is no religion; a severity which brings corruption with it; a dogmatism which serves to ruin all authority: there is Rousseau’s philosophy! To all tender, ardent, and elevated natures, I say: Only Rousseau can detach you from religion, and only true religion can cure you of Rousseau.”

I must yet find room, before I end, for one at least of Joubert’s sayings on political matters; here, too, the whole man shows himself: and here, too, the affinity with Coleridge is very remarkable. How true, how true in France especially, is this remark on the contrasting direction taken by the aspirations of the community in ancient and in modern states:–

“The ancients were attached to their country by three things, — their temples, their tombs, and their forefathers. The two great bonds which united them to their government were the bonds of habit and antiquity. With the moderns, hope and the love of novelty have produced a total change. The ancients said our forefathers, we say posterity: we do not, like them, love our patria, that is to say, the country and the laws of our fathers, rather we love the laws and the country of our children; the charm we are most sensible to is the charm of the future, and not the charm of the past.”

And how keen and true is this criticism on the changed sense of the word “liberty”: —

“A great many words have changed their meaning. The word liberty, for example, had at bottom among the ancients the same meaning as the word dominion. I would be free meant, in the mouth of the ancients, I would take part in governing or administering the State; in the mouth of a modern it means, I would be independent. The word liberty has with us a moral sense; with them its sense was purely political.”

Joubert had lived through the French Revolution, and to the modern cry for liberty he was prone to answer: —

“Let your cry be for free souls rather even than for free men. Moral liberty is the one vitally important liberty, the one liberty which is indispensable; the other liberty is good and salutary only so far as it favours this. Subordination is in itself a better thing than independence. The one implies order and arrangement; the other implies on self-sufficiency with isolation. The one means harmony, the other a single tone; the one is the whole, the other is but the part.”

“Liberty! Liberty!” he cries again; “in all things let us have justice, and then we shall have enough liberty.”

Let us have justice, and then we shall have enough liberty! The wise man will never refuse to echo those words; but then, such is the imperfection of human governments, that almost always, in order to get justice, one has first to secure liberty.

I do not hold up Joubert as a very astonishing and powerful genius, but rather as a delightful and edifying genius. I have not cared to exhibit him as a sayer of brilliant epigrammatic things, such as “Notre vie est du vent tissue … les dettes abré-gent la vi … celui qui a de l’imigination sans ‘erudition a des ailes et n’a pas de pieds (Our life is woven wind … debts take from life … the man of imagination without learning has wings and no feet),” though for such sayings he is famous. In the first place, the French language is in itself so favourable a vehicle for such sayings, that the making them in it has the less merit; at least half the merit ought to go, not to the maker of the saying, but to the French language. In the second place, the peculiar beauty of Joubert is not there; it is not in what is exclusively intellectual, — it is in the union of the soul with the intellect, and in the delightful, satisfying result which this union produces. “Vivre, c’est penser et sentir son âme … le Bonheur est de sentir son âme bonne … toute vérité nue et crue n’a pas assez passé par l’âme … les homes ne sont justes qu’envers ceux qu’ils aiment (The essence of life lies in thinking and being conscious of one’s soul … happiness is the sense of one’s soul being good … if a truth is nude and crude, that is a proof it has not been steeped long genough in the soul … man cannot even be just to his neighbour, unless he loves him);” it is much rather in sayings like these that Joubert’s best and innermost nature manifests itself. He is the most prepossessing and convincing of witnesses to the good of loving light. Because he sincerely loved light, and did not prefer to it any little private darkness of his own, he found light; his eye was single, and therefore his whole body was full of light. And because he was full of light, he was full of happiness. In spite of his obscurity, he was the happiest man alive; his life was as charming as his thoughts. For certainly it is natural that the love of light, which is already, in some measure, the possession of light, should irradiate and beatify the whole life of him who has it. There is something unnatural and shocking where, as in the case of Coleridge, it does not. Joubert pains us by no such contradiction; “the same penetration of spirit which made him such delightful company to his friends, served also to make him perfect in his own personal life, by enabling him always to perceive and do what was right;” he loved and sought light till he became so habituated to it, so accustomed to the joyful testimony of a good conscience, that, to use his own words, “he could no longer exist without this, and was obliged to live without reproach if he would live without misery.”

Joubert was not famous while he lived, and he will not be famous now that he is dead. But, before we pity him for this, let us be sure what we mean, in literature, by famous. There are the famous men of genius in literature, — the Homers, Dantes, Shakspeares: of them we need not speak; their praise is for ever and ever. Then there are the famous men of ability in literature: their praise is in their own generation. And what makes this difference? The work of the two orders of men is at the bottom the same, – a criticism of life. The end and aim of all literature, if one considers it attentively, is, in truth, nothing but that. But the criticism which the men of genius pass upon human life is permanently acceptable to mankind; the criticism which the men of ability pass upon human life is transitorily acceptable. Between Shakspeare’s criticism of human life and Scribe’s the difference is there; — the one is permanently acceptable, the other transitorily. Whence then, I repeat, this difference? It is that the acceptableness of Shakspeare’s criticism depends upon its inherent truth: the acceptableness of Scribe’s upon it suiting itself, by its subject-matter, ideas, mode of treatment, to the taste of the generation that hears it. But the taste and ideas of one generation are not those of the next. This next generation in its turn arrives; — first its sharpshooters, its quick-witted, audacious light troops; then the elephantine main body. The imposing array of its predecessor it confidently assails, riddles it with bullets, passes over its body. It goes hard then with many once popular reputations, with many authorities once oracular. Only two kinds of authors are safe in the general havoc. The first kind are the great abounding fountains of truth, whose criticism of life is a source of illumination and joy to the whole human race for ever, — the Homers, the Shakspeares. These are the sarced personages, whom all civilised warfare respects. The second are those whom the out-skirmishers of the new generation, its forerunners, — quick-witted soldiers, as I have said, the select of the army, — recognise, though the bulk of their comrades behind might not, as of the same family and character with the sacred personages, exercising like them an immortal function, and like them inspiring a permanent interest. They snatch them up, and set them in a place of shelter, where the on-coming multitude may not overwhelm them. These are the Jouberts. They will never, like the Shakspeares, command the homage of the multitude; but they are safe; the multitude will not trample them down. Except these two kinds, no author is safe. Let us consider, for example, Joubert’s famous contemporary, Lord Jeffrey. All his vivacity and accomplishment avail him nothing; of the true critic he hand in an eminent degree no quality, except one, — curiosity. Curiosity he had, but he had not gift for truth; he cannot illuminate and rejoice us; no intelligent out-skirmisher of the new generation cares about him, cares to put him in safety; at this moment we are all passing over his body. Let us consider a greater than Jeffrey, a critic whose reputation still stands firm, — will stand, many people think, for ever, — the great apostle of the Philistines, Lord Macaulay. Lord Macaulay was, as I have already said, a born rhetorician; a splendid rhetorician doubtless, and, beyond that, an English rhetorician also, an honest rhetorician; still, beyond the apparent rhetorical truth of things he never could penetrate; for their vital truth, for what the French called call the vraie vérité, he had absolutely no organ; therefore his reputation, brilliant as it is, is not secure. Rhetoric so good as his excites and gives pleasure; but by pleasure alone you cannot permanently bind men’s spirits to you. Truth illuminates and gives joy, and it is by the bond of joy, not of pleasure, that men’s spirits are indissolubly held. As Lord Macaulay’s own generation dies out, as a new generation arrives, without those ideas and tendencies of its predecessor which Lord Macaulay so deeply shared and so happily satisfied, will he give the same pleasure? and, if he ceases to give this, has he enough of light in him to make him last? Pleasure the new generation will get from its own novel ideas and tendencies; but light is another and a rarer thing, and must be treasured where it can be found. Will Macaulay be saved, in the sweep and pressure of time, for his light’s sake, as Johnson has already been saved by two generations, Joubert by one? I think it very doubtful. But for a spirit of any delicacy and dignity, what a fate, if he could foresee it! to be an oracle for one generation, and then of little or no account for ever. How far better, to pass with scant notice through one’s own generation, but to be singled out and preserved by the very iconoclasts of the next, then in their turn by those of the next, and so, like the lamp of life itself, to be handed on from one generation to another in safety! This is Joubert’s lot, and it is a very enviable one. The new men of the new generations, while they let the dust deepen on a thousand Laharpes, will say of him: “He lived in the Philistine’s day, in a place and time when almost every idea current in literature had the mark of Dagon upon it, and not the mark of the children of light. Nay, the children of light were as yet hardly so much as heard of: the Canaanite was then in the land. Still, there were even then a few, who, nourished on some secret tradition, or illumined, perhaps, by a divine inspiration, kept aloof from the reigning superstitions, never bowed the knee to the gods of Canaan; and one of these few was called Joubert.”


The Function of Criticism at the Present Time: An Essay by Matthew Arnold

The Function of Criticism at the Present Time (from Essays in Criticism, First Series)

MANY objections have been made to a proposition which, in some remarks of mine on translating Homer, I ventured to put forth; a proposition about criticism, and its importance at the present day. I said: “Of the literature of France and Germany, as of the intellect of Europe in general, the main effort, for now many years, has been a critical effort; the endeavor, in all branches of knowledge, theology, philosophy, history, art, science, to see the object as in itself it really is.” I added, that owing to the operation in English literature of certain causes, “almost the last thing for which one would come to English literature is just that very thing which now Europe most desires,–criticism”; and that the power and value of English literature was thereby impaired. More than one rejoinder declared that the importance I here assigned to criticism was excessive, and asserted the inherent superiority of the creative effort of the human spirit over its critical effort. And the other day, having been led by a Mr. Shairp’s excellent notice of Wordsworth to turn again to his biography, I found, in the words of this great man, whom I, for one, must always listen to with the profoundest respect, a sentence passed on the critic’s business, which seems to justify every possible disparagement of it. Wordsworth says in one of his letters:–

“The writers in these publications” (the Reviews), “while they prosecute their inglorious employment, cannot be supposed to be in a state of mind very favorable for being affected by the finer influences of a thing so pure as genuine poetry.”

And a trustworthy reporter of his conversation quotes a more elaborate judgment to the same effect:–

“Wordsworth holds the critical power very low, infinitely lower than the inventive; and he said to-day that if the quantity of time consumed in writing critiques on the works of others were given to original composition, of whatever kind it might be, it would be much better employed; it would make a man find out sooner his own level, and it would do infinitely less mischief. A false or malicious criticism may do much injury to the minds of others, a stupid invention, either in prose or verse, is quite harmless.”

It is almost too much to expect of poor human nature, that a man capable of producing some effect in one line of literature, should, for the greater good of society, voluntarily doom himself to impotence and obscurity in another. Still less is this to be expected from men addicted to the composition of the “false or malicious criticism” of which Wordsworth speaks. However, everybody would admit that a false or malicious criticism had better never have been written. Everybody, too, would be willing to admit, as a general proposition, that the critical faculty is lower than the inventive. But is it true that criticism is really, in itself, a baneful and injurious employment; is it true that all time given to writing critiques on the works of others would be much better employed if it were given to original composition, of whatever kind this may be? Is it true that Johnson had better have gone on producing more Irenes instead of writing his Lives of the Poets,; nay, is it certain that Wordsworth himself was better employed in making his Ecclesiastical Sonnets than when he made his celebrated Preface so full of criticism, and criticism of the works of others? Wordsworth was himself a great critic, and it is to be sincerely regretted that he has not left us more criticism; Goethe was one of the greatest of critics, and we may sincerely congratulate ourselves that he has left us so much criticism. Without wasting time over the exaggeration which Wordsworth’s judgment on criticism clearly contains, or over an attempt to trace the causes,–not difficult, I think, to be traced,–which may have led Wordsworth to this exaggeration, a critic may with advantage seize an occasion for trying his own conscience, and for asking himself of what real service at any given moment the practice of criticism either is or may be made to his own mind and spirit, and to the minds and spirits of others.

The critical power is of lower rank than the creative. True; but in assenting to this proposition, one or two things are to be kept in mind. It is undeniable that the exercise of a creative power, that a free creative activity, is the highest function of man; it is proved to be so by man’s finding in it his true happiness. But it is undeniable, also, that men may have the sense of exercising this free creative activity in other ways than in producing great works of literature or art; if it were not so, all but a very few men would be shut out from the true happiness of all men. They may have it in well doing, they may have it in learning, they may have it even in criticizing. This is one thing to be kept in mind. Another is, that the exercise of the creative power in the production of great works of literature or art, however high this exercise of it may rank, is not at all epochs and under all conditions possible; and that therefore labor may be vainly spent in attempting it, which might with more fruit be used in preparing for it, in rendering it possible. This creative power works with elements, with materials; what if it has not those materials, those elements, ready for its use? In that case it must surely wait till they are ready. 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 literature 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 atmosphere, it must find itself amidst the order of ideas, in order to work freely; and these it is not so easy to command. This is why great creative epochs in literature are so rare, this is why there is so much that is unsatisfactory in the productions of many men of real genius; because, for the creation of a master-work of literature two powers must concur, the power of the man and the power of the moment, and the man is not enough without the moment; the creative power has, for its happy exercise, appointed elements, and those elements are not in its own control.

Nay, they are more within the control of the critical power. It is the business of the critical power, as I said in the words already quoted, “in all branches of knowledge, theology, philosophy, history, art, science, to see the object as in itself it really is.” Thus it tends, at last, to make an intellectual situation of which the creative 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 touch of life, and there is a stir and growth everywhere; out of this stir and growth come the creative epochs of literature.

Or, to narrow our range, and quit these considerations of the general march of genius and of society,–considerations which are apt to become too abstract and impalpable,–every one can see that a poet, for instance, ought to know life and the world before dealing with them in poetry; and life and the world being in modern times very complex things, the creation of a modern poet, to be worth much, implies a great critical effort behind it; else it must be a comparatively poor, barren, and short-lived affair. This is why Byron’s poetry had so little endurance in it, and Goethe’s so much; both Byron and Goethe had a great productive power, but Goethe’s was nourished by a great critical effort providing the true materials for it, and Byron’s was not; Goethe knew life and the world, the poet’s necessary subjects, much more comprehensively and thoroughly than Byron. He knew a great deal more of them, and he knew them much more as they really are.

It has long seemed to me that the burst of creative activity in our literature, through the first quarter of this century, had about it in fact something premature; and that from this cause its productions are doomed, most of them, in spite of the sanguine hopes which accompanied and do still accompany them, to prove hardly more lasting than the productions of far less splendid epochs. And this prematureness comes from its having proceeded without having its proper data, without sufficient materials to work with. In other words, the English poetry of the first quarter of this century, with plenty of energy, plenty of creative force, did not know enough. This makes Byron so empty of matter, Shelley so incoherent, Wordsworth even, profound as he is, yet so wanting in completeness and variety. Wordsworth cared little for books, and disparaged Goethe. I admire Wordsworth, as he is, so much that I cannot wish him different; and it is vain, no doubt, to imagine such a man different from what he is, to suppose that he could have been different. But surely the one thing wanting to make Wordsworth an even greater poet than he is,–his thought richer, and his influence of wider application,–was that he should have read more books, among them, no doubt, those of that Goethe whom he disparaged without reading him.

But to speak of books and reading may easily lead to a misunderstanding here. It was not really books and reading that lacked to our poetry at this epoch: Shelley had plenty of reading, Coleridge had immense reading. Pindar and Sophocles–as we all say so glibly, and often with so little discernment of the real import of what we are saying–had not many books; Shakespeare was no deep reader. True; but in the Greece of Pindar and Sophocles, in the England of Shakespeare, the poet lived in a current of ideas in the highest degree animating and nourishing to the creative power; society was, in the fullest measure, permeated by fresh thought, intelligent and alive. And this state of things is the true basis for the creative power’s exercise, in this it finds its data, its materials, truly ready for its hand; all the books and reading in the world are only valuable as they are helps to this. Even when this does not actually exist, books and reading may enable a man to construct a kind of semblance of it in his own mind, a world of knowledge and intelligence in which he may live and work. This is by no means an equivalent to the artist for the nationally diffused life and thought of the epochs of Sophocles or Shakespeare; but, besides that it may be a means of preparation for such epochs, it does really constitute, if many share in it, a quickening and sustaining atmosphere of great value. Such an atmosphere the many-sided learning and the long and widely combined critical effort of Germany formed for Goethe, when he lived and worked. There was no national glow of life and thought there as in the Athens of Pericles or the England of Elizabeth. That was the poet’s weakness. But there was a sort of equivalent for it in the complete culture and unfettered thinking of a large body of Germans. That was his strength. 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. Therefore the creative power of poetry wanted, for success in the highest sense, materials and a basis; a thorough interpretation of the world was necessarily denied to it.

At first sight it seems strange that out of the immense stir of the French Revolution and its age should not have come a crop of works of genius equal to that which came out of the stir of the great productive time of Greece, or out of that of the Renascence, with its powerful episode the Reformation. But the truth is that the stir of the French Revolution took a character which essentially distinguished it from such movements as these. These were, in the main, disinterestedly intellectual and spiritual movements; movements in which the human spirit looked for its satisfaction in itself and in the increased play of its own activity. The French Revolution took a political, practical character. The movement, which went on in France under the old régime, from 1700 to 1789, was far more really akin than that of the Revolution itself to the movement of the Renascence; the France of Voltaire and Rousseau told far more powerfully upon the mind of Europe than the France of the Revolution. Goethe reproached this last expressly with having “thrown quiet culture back.” Nay, and the true key to how much in our Byron, even in our Wordsworth, is this!–that they had their source in a great movement of feeling, not in a great movement of mind. The French Revolution, however,–that object of so much blind love and so much blind hatred,–found undoubtedly its motive-power in the intelligence of men, and not in their practical sense; this is what distinguishes it from the English Revolution of Charles the First’s time. This is what makes it a more spiritual event than our Revolution, an event of much more powerful and world-wide interest, though practically less successful; it appeals to an order of ideas which are universal, certain, permanent. 1789 asked of a thing, Is it rational? 1642 asked of a thing, Is it legal? or, when it went furthest, Is it according to conscience? This is the English fashion, a fashion to be treated, within its own sphere, with the highest respect; for its success, within its own sphere, has been prodigious. But what is law in one place is not law in another; what is law here to-day is not law even here to-morrow; and as for conscience, what is binding on one man’s conscience is not binding on another’s. The old woman who threw her stool at the head of the surpliced minister in St. Giles’s Church at Edinburgh obeyed an impulse to which millions of the human race may be permitted to remain strangers. But the prescriptions of reason are absolute, unchanging, of universal validity; to count by tens is the easiest way of counting–that is a proposition of which every one, from here to the Antipodes, feels the force; at least I should say so if we did not live in a country where it is not impossible that any morning we may find a letter in the Times declaring that a decimal coinage is an absurdity. That a whole nation should have been penetrated with an enthusiasm for pure reason, and with an ardent zeal for making its prescriptions triumph, is a very remarkable thing, when we consider how little of mind, or anything so worthy and quickening as mind, comes into the motives which alone, in general, impel great masses of men. In spite of the extravagant direction given to this enthusiasm, in spite of the crimes and follies in which it lost itself, the French Revolution derives from the force, truth, and universality of the ideas which it took for its law, and from the passion with which it could inspire a multitude for these ideas, a unique and still living power; it is,–it will probably long remain,–the greatest, the most animating event in history. And as no sincere passion for the things of the mind, even though it turn out in many respects an unfortunate passion, is ever quite thrown away and quite barren of good, France has reaped from hers one fruit–the natural and legitimate fruit though not precisely the grand fruit she expected: she is the country in Europe where the people is most alive.

But the mania for giving an immediate political and practical application to all these fine ideas of the reason was fatal. Here an Englishman is in his element: on this theme we can all go on for hours. And all we are in the habit of saying on it has undoubtedly a great deal of truth. Ideas cannot be too much prized in and for themselves, cannot be too much lived with; but to transport them abruptly into the world of politics and practice, violently to revolutionize this world to their bidding,–that is quite another thing. There is the world of ideas and there is the world of practice; the French are often for suppressing the one and the English the other; but neither is to be suppressed. A member of the House of Commons said to me the other day: “That a thing is an anomaly, I consider to be no objection to it whatever.” I venture to think he was wrong; that a thing is an anomaly is an objection to it, but absolutely and in the sphere of ideas: it is not necessarily, under such and such circumstances, or at such and such a moment, an objection to it in the sphere of politics and practice. Joubert has said beautifully: “C’est la force et le droit qui règlent toutes choses dans le monde; la force en attendant le droit.” (Force and right are the governors of this world; force till right is ready.) Force till right is ready; and till right is ready, force, the existing order of things, is justified, is the legitimate ruler. But right is something moral, and implies inward recognition, free assent of the will; we are not ready for right,–right, so far as we are concerned, is not ready,–until we have attained this sense of seeing it and willing it. The way in which for us it may change and transform force, the existing order of things, and become, in its turn, the legitimate ruler of the world, should depend on the way in which, when our time comes, we see it and will it. Therefore for other people enamored of their own newly discerned right, to attempt to impose it upon us as ours, and violently to substitute their right for our force, is an act of tyranny, and to be resisted. It sets at naught the second great half of our maxim, force till right is ready.

This was the grand error of the French Revolution; and its movement of ideas, by quitting the intellectual sphere and rushing furiously into the political sphere, ran, indeed, a prodigious and memorable course, but produced no such intellectual fruit as the movement of ideas of the Renascence, and created, in opposition to itself, what I may call an epoch of concentration. The great force of that epoch of concentration was England; and the great voice of that epoch of concentration was Burke. It is the fashion to treat Burke’s writings on the French Revolution as superannuated and conquered by the event; as the eloquent but unphilosophical tirades of bigotry and prejudice. I will not deny that they are often disfigured by the violence and passion of the moment, and that in some directions Burke’s view was bounded, and his observation therefore at fault. 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.

But Burke is so great because, almost alone in England, he brings thought to bear upon politics, he saturates politics with thought. It is his accident that his ideas were at the service of an epoch of concentration, not of an epoch of expansion; it is his characteristic that he so lived by ideas, and had such a source of them welling up within him, that he could float even an epoch of concentration and English Tory politics with them. It does not hurt him that Dr. Price and the Liberals were enraged with him; it does not even hurt him that George the Third and the Tories were enchanted with him. His greatness is that he lived in a world which neither English Liberalism nor English Toryism is apt to enter;–the world of ideas, not the world of catchwords and party habits. So far is it from being really true of him that he “to party gave up what was meant for mankind,” that at the very end of his fierce struggle with the French Revolution, after all his invectives against its false pretensions, hollowness, and madness, with his sincere convictions of its mischievousness, he can close a memorandum on the best means of combating it, some of the last pages he ever wrote,–the Thoughts on French Affairs, in December 1791,–with these striking words:–

“The evil is stated, in my opinion, as it exists. The remedy must be where power, wisdom, and information, I hope, are more united with good intentions than they can be with me. I have done with this subject, I believe, forever. It has given me many anxious moments for the last two years. If a great change is to be made in human affairs, the minds of men will be fitted to it; the general opinions and feelings will draw that way. Every fear, every hope will forward it: and then they who persist in opposing this mighty current in human affairs, will appear rather to resist the decrees of Providence itself, than the mere designs of men. They will not be resolute and firm, but perverse and obstinate.

That return of Burke upon himself has always seemed to me one of the finest things in English literature, or indeed in any literature. That is what I call living by ideas: when one side of a question has long had your earnest support, when all your feelings are engaged, when you hear all round you no language but one, when your party talks this language like a steam-engine and can imagine no other,–still to be able to think, still to be irresistibly carried, if so it be, by the current of thought to the opposite side of the question, and, like Balaam, to be unable to speak anything but what the Lord has put in your mouth. I know nothing more striking, and I must add that I know nothing more un-English.

For the Englishman in general is like my friend the Member of Parliament, and believes, point-blank, that for a thing to be an anomaly is absolutely no objection to it whatever. He is like the Lord Auckland of Burke’s day, who, in a memorandum on the French Revolution, talks of “certain miscreants, assuming the name of philosophers, who have presumed themselves capable of establishing a new system of society.” The Englishman has been called a political animal, and he values what is political and practical so much that ideas easily become objects of dislike in his eyes, and thinkers “miscreants,” because ideas and thinkers have rashly meddled with politics and practice. This would be all very well if the dislike and neglect confined themselves to ideas transported out of their own sphere, and meddling rashly with practice; but they are inevitably extended to ideas as such, and to the whole life of intelligence; practice is everything, a free play of the mind is nothing. The notion of the free play of the mind upon all subjects being a pleasure in itself, being an object of desire, being an essential provider of elements without which a nation’s spirit, whatever compensations it may have for them, must, in the long run, die of inanition, hardly enters into an Englishman’s thoughts. It is noticeable that the word curiosity, which in other languages is used in a good sense, to mean, as a high and fine quality of man’s nature, just this disinterested love of a free play of the mind on all subjects, for its own sake,–it is noticeable, I say, that this word has in our language no sense of the kind, no sense but a rather bad and disparaging one. But criticism, real criticism, is essentially the exercise of this very quality. It obeys an instinct prompting it to try to know the best that is known and thought in the world, irrespectively of practice, politics, and everything of the kind; and to value knowledge and thought as they approach this best, without the intrusion of any other considerations whatever. This is an instinct for which there is, I think, little original sympathy in the practical English nature, and what there was of it has undergone a long benumbing period of blight and suppression in the epoch of concentration which followed the French Revolution.

But epochs of concentration cannot well endure forever; epochs of expansion, in the due course of things, follow them. Such an epoch of expansion seems to be opening in this country. In the first place all danger of a hostile forcible pressure of foreign ideas upon our practice has long disappeared; like the traveller in the fable, therefore, we begin to wear our cloak a little more loosely. Then, with a long peace, the ideas of Europe steal gradually and amicably in, and mingle, though in infinitesimally small quantities at a time, with our own notions. Then, too, in spite of all that is said about the absorbing and brutalizing influence of our passionate material progress, it seems to me indisputable that this progress is likely, though not certain, to lead in the end to an apparition of intellectual life; and that man, after he has made himself perfectly comfortable and has now to determine what to do with himself next, may begin to remember that he has a mind, and that the mind may be made the source of great pleasure. I grant it is mainly the privilege of faith, at present, to discern this end to our railways, our business, and our fortune-making; but we shall see if, here as elsewhere, faith is not in the end the true prophet. Our ease, our travelling, and our unbounded liberty to hold just as hard and securely as we please to the practice to which our notions have given birth, all tend to beget an inclination to deal a little more freely with these notions themselves, to canvass them a little, to penetrate a little into their real nature. Flutterings of curiosity, in the foreign sense of the word, appear amongst us, and it is in these that criticism must look to find its account. Criticism first; a time of true creative activity, perhaps,–which, as I have said, must inevitably be preceded amongst us by a time of criticism,–hereafter, when criticism has done its work.

It is of the last importance that English criticism should clearly discern what rule for its course, in order to avail itself of the field now opening to it, and to produce fruit for the future, it ought to take. The rule may be summed up in one word,– disinterestedness. And how is criticism to show disinterestedness? By keeping aloof from what is called “the practical view of things”; by resolutely following the law of its own nature, which is to be a free play of the mind on all subjects which it touches. By steadily refusing to lend itself to any of those ulterior, political, practical considerations about ideas, which plenty of people will be sure to attach to them, which perhaps ought often to be attached to them, which in this country at any rate are certain to be attached to them quite sufficiently, but which criticism has really nothing to do with. Its business is, as I have said, simply to know the best that is known and thought in the world, and by in its turn making this known, to create a current of true and fresh ideas. Its business is to do this with inflexible honesty, with due ability; but its business is to do no more, and to leave alone all questions of practical consequences and applications, questions which will never fail to have due prominence given to them. Else criticism, besides being really false to its own nature, merely continues in the old rut which it has hitherto followed in this country, and will certainly miss the chance now given to it.

For what is at present the bane of criticism in this country? It is that practical considerations cling to it and stifle it. It subserves interests not its own. Our organs of criticism are organs of men and parties having practical ends to serve, and with them those practical ends are the first thing and the play of mind the second; so much play of mind as is compatible with the prosecution of those practical ends is all that is wanted. An organ like the Revue des Deux Mondes, having for its main function to understand and utter the best that is known and thought in the world, existing, it may be said, as just an organ for a free play of the mind, we have not. But we have the Edinburgh Review, existing as an organ of the old Whigs, and for as much play of the mind as may suit its being that; we have the Quarterly Review, existing as an organ of the Tories, and for as much play of mind as may suit its being that; we have the British Quarterly Review, existing as an organ of the political Dissenters, and for as much play of mind as may suit its being that; we have the Times, existing as an organ of the common, satisfied, well-to-do Englishman, and for as much play of mind as may suit its being that. And so on through all the various fractions, political and religious, of our society; every fraction has, as such, its organ of criticism, but the notion of combining all fractions in the common pleasure of a free disinterested play of mind meets with no favor. Directly this play of mind wants to have more scope, and to forget the pressure of practical considerations a little, it is checked, it is made to feel the chain. We saw this the other day in the extinction, so much to be regretted, of the Home and Foreign Review. Perhaps in no organ of criticism in this country was there so much knowledge, so much play of mind; but these could not save it. The Dublin Review subordinates play of mind to the practical business of English and Irish Catholicism, and lives. It must needs be that men should act in sects and parties, that each of these sects and parties should have its organ, and should make this organ subserve the interests of its action; but it would be well, too, that there should be a criticism, not the minister of these interests, not their enemy, but absolutely and entirely independent of them. No other criticism will ever attain any real authority or make any real way towards its end,–the creating a current of true and fresh ideas.

It is because criticism has so little kept in the pure intellectual sphere, has so little detached itself from practice, has been so directly polemical and controversial, that it has so ill accomplished, in this country, its best spiritual work; which is to keep man from a self-satisfaction which is retarding and vulgarizing, to lead him towards perfection, by making his mind dwell upon what is excellent in itself, and the absolute beauty and fitness of things. A polemical practical criticism makes men blind even to the ideal imperfection of their practice, makes them willingly assert its ideal perfection, in order the better to secure it against attack: and clearly this is narrowing and baneful for them. If they were reassured on the practical side, speculative considerations of ideal perfection they might be brought to entertain, and their spiritual horizon would thus gradually widen. Sir Charles Adderley says to the Warwickshire farmers:–

“Talk of the improvement of breed! Why, the race we ourselves represent, the men and women, the old Anglo-Saxon race, are the best breed in the whole world…. The absence of a too enervating climate, too unclouded skies, and a too luxurious nature, has produced so vigorous a race of people, and has rendered us so superior to all the world.”

Mr. Roebuck says to the Sheffield cutlers:–

“I look around me and ask what is the state of England? 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 anything like it? Nothing. I pray that our unrivalled happiness may last.”

Now obviously there is a peril for poor human nature in words and thoughts of such exuberant self-satisfaction, until we find ourselves safe in the streets of the Celestial City.

“Das wenige verschwindet leicht dem Blicke
Der vorwärts sieht, wie viel noch übrig bleibt”

says Goethe; “the little that is done seems nothing when we look forward and see how much we have yet to do.” Clearly this is a better line of reflection for weak humanity, so long as it remains on this earthly field of labor and trial.

But neither Sir Charles Adderley nor Mr. Roebuck is by nature inaccessible to considerations of this sort. They only lose sight of them owing to the controversial life we all lead, and the practical form which all speculation takes with us. They have in view opponents whose aim is not ideal, but practical; and in their zeal to uphold their own practice against these innovators, they go so far as even to attribute to this practice an ideal perfection. Somebody has been wanting to introduce a six-pound franchise, or to abolish church-rates, or to collect agricultural statistics by force, or to diminish local self-government. How natural, in reply to such proposals, very likely improper or ill-timed, to go a little beyond the mark and to say stoutly, “Such a race of people as we stand, so superior to all the world! The old Anglo-Saxon race, the best breed in the whole world! I pray that our unrivalled happiness may last! I ask you whether, the world over or in past history, there is anything like it?” And so long as criticism answers this dithyramb by insisting that the old Anglo-Saxon race would be still more superior to all others if it had no church-rates, or that our unrivalled happiness would last yet longer with a six-pound franchise, so long will the strain, “The best breed in the whole world!” swell louder and louder, everything ideal and refining will be lost out of sight, and both the assailed and their critics will remain in a sphere, to say the truth, perfectly unvital, a sphere in which spiritual progression is impossible. But let criticism leave church-rates and the franchise alone, and in the most candid spirit, without a single lurking thought of practical innovation, confront with our dithyramb this paragraph on which I stumbled in a newspaper immediately after reading Mr. Roebuck:–

“A shocking child murder has just been committed at Nottingham. A girl named Wragg left the workhouse there on Saturday morning with her young illegitimate child. The child was soon afterwards found dead on Mapperly Hills, having been strangled. Wragg is in custody.”

Nothing but that; but, in juxtaposition with the absolute eulogies of Sir Charles Adderley and Mr. Roebuck, how eloquent, how suggestive are those few lines! “Our old Anglo Saxon breed, the best in the whole world!”–how much that is harsh and ill-favored there is in this best! Wragg! If we are to talk of ideal perfection, of “the best in the whole world,” has any one reflected what a touch of grossness in our race, what an original short-coming in the more delicate spiritual perceptions, is shown by the natural growth amongst us of such hideous names,–Higginbottom, Stiggins, Bugg! In Ionia and Attica they were luckier in this respect than “the best race in the world”; by the Ilissus there was no Wragg, poor thing! And “our unrivalled happiness”;–what an element of grimness, bareness, and hideousness mixes with it and blurs it; the workhouse, the dismal Mapperly Hills,–how dismal those who have seen them will remember;–the gloom, the smoke, the cold, the strangled illegitimate child! “I ask you whether, the world over or in past history, there is anything like it?” Perhaps not, one is inclined to answer; but at any rate, in that case, the world is very much to be pitied. And the final touch,–short, bleak and inhuman: Wragg is in custody. The sex lost in the confusion of our unrivalled happiness; or (shall I say?) the superfluous Christian name lopped off by the straightforward vigor of our old Anglo-Saxon breed! There is profit for the spirit in such contrasts as this; criticism serves the cause of perfection by establishing them. By eluding sterile conflict, by refusing to remain in the sphere where alone narrow and relative conceptions have any worth and validity, criticism may diminish its momentary importance, but only in this way has it a chance of gaining admittance for those wider and more perfect conceptions to which all its duty is really owed. Mr. Roebuck will have a poor opinion of an adversary who replies to his defiant songs of triumph only by murmuring under his breath, Wragg is in custody; but in no other way will these songs of triumph be induced gradually to moderate themselves, to get rid of what in them is excessive and offensive, and to fall into a softer and truer key.

It will be said that it is a very subtle and indirect action which I am thus prescribing for criticism, and that, by embracing in this manner the Indian virtue of detachment and abandoning the sphere of practical life, it condemns itself to a slow and obscure work. Slow and obscure it may be, but it is the only proper work of criticism. The mass of mankind will never have any ardent zeal for seeing things as they are; very inadequate ideas will always satisfy them. On these inadequate ideas reposes, and must repose, the general practice of the world. That is as much as saying that whoever sets himself to see things as they are will find himself one of a very small circle; but it is only by this small circle resolutely doing its own work that adequate ideas will ever get current at all. The rush and roar of practical life will always have a dizzying and attracting effect upon the most collected spectator, and tend to draw him into its vortex; most of all will this be the case where that life is so powerful as it is in England. But it is only by remaining collected, and refusing to lend himself to the point of view of the practical man, that the critic can do the practical man any service; and it is only by the greatest sincerity in pursuing his own course, and by at last convincing even the practical man of his sincerity, that he can escape misunderstandings which perpetually threaten him.

For the practical man is not apt for fine distinctions, and yet in these distinctions truth and the highest culture greatly find their account. But it is not easy to lead a practical man,–unless you reassure him as to your practical intentions, you have no chance of leading him,–to see that a thing which he has always been used to look at from one side only, which he greatly values, and which, looked at from that side, quite deserves, perhaps, all the prizing and admiring which he bestows upon it,–that this thing, looked at from another side, may appear much less beneficent and beautiful, and yet retain all its claims to our practical allegiance. Where shall we find language innocent enough, how shall we make the spotless purity of our intentions evident enough, to enable us to say to the political Englishmen that the British Constitution itself, which, seen from the practical side, looks such a magnificent organ of progress and virtue, seen from the speculative side,–with its compromises, its love of facts, its horror of theory, its studied avoidance of clear thoughts,–that, seen from this side, our august Constitution sometimes looks,–forgive me, shade of Lord Somers! –a colossal machine for the manufacture of Philistines? How is Cobbett to say this and not be misunderstood, blackened as he is with the smoke of a lifelong conflict in the field of political practice? how is Mr. Carlyle to say it and not be misunderstood, after his furious raid into this field with his Latter-day Pamphlets? how is Mr. Ruskin, after his pugnacious political economy? I say, the critic must keep out of the region of immediate practice in the political, social, humanitarian sphere, if he wants to make a beginning for that more free speculative treatment of things, which may perhaps one day make its benefits felt even in this sphere, but in a natural and thence irresistible manner.

Do what he will, however, the critic will still remain exposed to frequent misunderstandings, and nowhere so much as in this country. For here people are particularly indisposed even to comprehend that without this free disinterested treatment of things, truth and the highest culture are out of the question. So immersed are they in practical life, so accustomed to take all their notions from this life and its processes, that they are apt to think that truth and culture themselves can be reached by the processes of this life, and that it is an impertinent singularity to think of reaching them in any other. “We are all terræ filii,” cries their eloquent advocate; “all Philistines together. Away with the notion of proceeding by any other course than the course dear to the Philistines; let us have a social movement, let us organize and combine a party to pursue truth and new thought, let us call it the liberal party, and let us all stick to each other, and back each other up. Let us have no nonsense about independent criticism, and intellectual delicacy, and the few and the many. Don’t let us trouble ourselves about foreign thought; we shall invent the whole thing for ourselves as we go along. If one of us speaks well, applaud him; if one of us speaks ill, applaud him too; we are all in the same movement, we are all liberals, we are all in pursuit of truth.” In this way the pursuit of truth becomes really a social, practical, pleasurable affair, almost requiring a chairman, a secretary, and advertisements; with the excitement of an occasional scandal, with a little resistance to give the happy sense of difficulty overcome; but, in general, plenty of bustle and very little thought. To act is so easy, as Goethe says; to think is so hard! It is true that the critic has many temptations to go with the stream, to make one of the party movement, one of these terræ filii; it seems ungracious to refuse to be a terræ filius, when so many excellent people are; but the critic’s duty is to refuse, or, if resistance is vain, at least to cry with Obermann: Périssons en résistant.

How serious a matter it is to try and resist, I had ample opportunity of experiencing when I ventured some time ago to criticize the celebrated first volume of Bishop Colenso. The echoes of the storm which was then raised I still, from time to time, hear grumbling round me. That storm arose out of a misunderstanding almost inevitable. It is a result of no little culture to attain to a clear perception that science and religion are two wholly different things. The multitude will forever confuse them; but happily that is of no great real importance, for while the multitude imagines itself to live by its false science, it does really live by its true religion. Dr. Colenso, however, in his first volume did all he could to strengthen the confusion, and to make it dangerous. He did this with the best intentions, I freely admit, and with the most candid ignorance that this was the natural effect of what he was doing; but, says Joubert, “Ignorance, which in matters of morals extenuates the crime, is itself, in intellectual matters, a crime of the first order.” I criticized Bishop Colenso’s speculative confusion. Immediately there was a cry raised: “What is this? here is a liberal attacking a liberal. Do not you belong to the movement? are not you a friend of truth? Is not Bishop Colenso in pursuit of truth? then speak with proper respect of his book. Dr. Stanley is another friend of truth, and you speak with proper respect of his book; why make these invidious differences? both books are excellent, admirable, liberal; Bishop Colenso’s perhaps the most so, because it is the boldest, and will have the best practical consequences for the liberal cause. Do you want to encourage to the attack of a brother liberal his, and your, and our implacable enemies, the Church and State Review or the Record,–the High Church rhinoceros and the Evangelical hyena? Be silent, therefore; or rather speak, speak as loud as ever you can! and go into ecstasies over the eighty and odd pigeons.”

But criticism cannot follow this coarse and indiscriminate method. It is unfortunately possible for a man in pursuit of truth to write a book which reposes upon a false conception. Even the practical consequences of a book are to genuine criticism no recommendation of it, if the book is, in the highest sense, blundering. I see that a lady who herself, too, is in pursuit of truth, and who writes with great ability, but a little too much, perhaps, under the influence of the practical spirit of the English liberal movement, classes Bishop Colenso’s book and M. Renan’s together, in her survey of the religious state of Europe, as facts of the same order, works, both of them, of “great importance”; “great ability, power, and skill”; Bishop Colenso’s, perhaps, the most powerful; at least, Miss Cobbe gives special expression to her gratitude that to Bishop Colenso “has been given the strength to grasp, and the courage to teach, truths of such deep import.” In the same way, more than one popular writer has compared him to Luther. Now it is just this kind of false estimate which the critical spirit is, it seems to me, bound to resist. It is really the strongest possible proof of the low ebb at which, in England, the critical spirit is, that while the critical hit in the religious literature of Germany is Dr. Strauss’s book, in that of France M. Renan’s book, the book of Bishop Colenso is the critical hit in the religious literature of England. Bishop Colenso’s book reposes on a total misconception of the essential elements of the religious problem, as that problem is now presented for solution. To criticism, therefore, which seeks to have the best that is known and thought on this problem, it is, however well meant, of no importance whatever. M. Renan’s book attempts a new synthesis of the elements furnished to us by the Four Gospels. It attempts, in my opinion, a synthesis, perhaps premature, perhaps impossible, certainly not successful. Up to the present time, at any rate, we must acquiesce in Fleury’s sentence on such recastings of the Gospel story: Quiconque s’imagine la pouvoir mieux écrire, ne l’entend pas. M. Renan had himself passed by anticipation a like sentence on his own work, when he said: “If a new presentation of the character of Jesus were offered to me, I would not have it; its very clearness would be, in my opinion, the best proof of its insufficiency.” His friends may with perfect justice rejoin that at the sight of the Holy Land, and of the actual scene of the Gospel story, all the current of M. Renan’s thoughts may have naturally changed, and a new casting of that story irresistibly suggested itself to him; and that this is just a case for applying Cicero’s maxim: Change of mind is not inconsistency–nemo doctus unquam mutationem consilii inconstantiam dixit esse. Nevertheless, for criticism, M. Renan’s first thought must still be the truer one, as long as his new casting so fails more fully to commend itself, more fully (to use Coleridge’s happy phrase about the Bible) to find us. Still M. Renan’s attempt is, for criticism, of the most real interest and importance, since, with all its difficulty, a fresh synthesis of the New Testament data–not a making war on them, in Voltaire’s fashion, not a leaving them out of mind, in the world’s fashion, but the putting a new construction upon them, the taking them from under the old, traditional, conventional point of view and placing them under a new one–is the very essence of the religious problem, as now presented; and only by efforts in this direction can it receive a solution.

Again, in the same spirit in which she judges Bishop Colenso, Miss Cobbe, like so many earnest liberals of our practical race, both here and in America, herself sets vigorously about a positive reconstruction of religion, about making a religion of the future out of hand, or at least setting about making it. We must not rest, she and they are always thinking and saying, in negative criticism, we must be creative and constructive; hence we have such works as her recent Religious Duty, and works still more considerable, perhaps, by others, which will be in every one’s mind. These works often have much ability; they often spring out of sincere convictions, and a sincere wish to do good; and they sometimes, perhaps, do good. Their fault is (if I may be permitted to say so) one which they have in common with the British College of Health, in the New Road. Every one knows the British College of Health; it is that building with the lion and the statue of the Goddess Hygeia before it; at least I am sure about the lion, though I am not absolutely certain about the Goddess Hygeia. This building does credit, perhaps, to the resources of Dr. Morrison and his disciples; but it falls a good deal short of one’s idea of what a British College of Health ought to be. In England, where we hate public interference and love individual enterprise, we have a whole crop of places like the British College of Health; the grand name without the grand thing. Unluckily, creditable to individual enterprise as they are, they tend to impair our taste by making us forget what more grandiose, noble, or beautiful character properly belongs to a public institution. The same may be said of the religions of the future of Miss Cobbe and others. Creditable, like the British College of Health, to the resources of their authors, they yet tend to make us forget what more grandiose, noble, or beautiful character properly belongs to religious constructions. The historic religions, with all their faults, have had this; it certainly belongs to the religious sentiment, when it truly flowers, to have this; and we impoverish our spirit if we allow a religion of the future without it. What then is the duty of criticism here? To take the practical point of view, to applaud the liberal movement and all its works,–its New Road religions of the future into the bargain,–for their general utility’s sake? By no means; but to be perpetually dissatisfied with these works, while they perpetually fall short of a high and perfect ideal. For criticism, these are elementary laws; but they never can be popular, and in this country they have been very little followed, and one meets with immense obstacles in following them. That is a reason for asserting them again and again. Criticism must maintain its independence of the practical spirit and its aims. Even with well-meant efforts of the practical spirit it must express dissatisfaction, if in the sphere of the ideal they seem impoverishing and limiting. It must not hurry on to the goal because of its practical importance. It must be patient, and know how to wait; and flexible, and know how to attach itself to things and how to withdraw from them. It must be apt to study and praise elements that for the fulness of spiritual perfection are wanted, even though they belong to a power which in the practical sphere may be maleficent. It must be apt to discern the spiritual shortcomings or illusions of powers that in the practical sphere may be beneficent. And this without any notion of favoring or injuring, in the practical sphere, one power or the other; without any notion of playing off, in this sphere, one power against the other. When one looks, for instance, at the English Divorce Court–an institution which perhaps has its practical conveniences, but which in the ideal sphere is so hideous; an institution which neither makes divorce impossible nor makes it decent, which allows a man to get rid of his wife, or a wife of her husband, but makes them drag one another first, for the public edification, through a mire of unutterable infamy,–when one looks at this charming institution, I say, with its crowded trials, its newspaper reports, and its money compensations, this institution in which the gross unregenerate British Philistine has indeed stamped an image of himself,–one may be permitted to find the marriage theory of Catholicism refreshing and elevating. Or when Protestantism, in virtue of its supposed rational and intellectual origin, gives the law to criticism too magisterially, criticism may and must remind it that its pretensions, in this respect, are illusive and do it harm; that the Reformation was a moral rather than an intellectual event; that Luther’s theory of grace no more exactly reflects the mind of the spirit than Bossuet’s philosophy of history reflects it; and that there is no more antecedent probability of the Bishop of Durham’s stock of ideas being agreeable to perfect reason than of Pope Pius the Ninth’s. But criticism will not on that account forget the achievements of Protestantism in the practical and moral sphere; nor that, even in the intellectual sphere, Protestantism, though in a blind and stumbling manner, carried forward the Renascence, while Catholicism threw itself violently across its path.

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 remembered in his own youth, twenty years ago. “What reformers we were then!” he exclaimed; “What a zeal we had! how we canvassed every institution in Church and State, and were prepared to remodel them all on first principles!” He was inclined to regret, as a spiritual flagging, the lull which he saw. I am disposed rather to regard it as a pause in which the turn to a new mode of spiritual progress is being accomplished. Everything was long seen, by the young and ardent amongst us, in inseparable connection with politics and practical life. We have pretty well exhausted the benefits of seeing things in this connection, we have got all that can be got by so seeing them. Let us try a more disinterested mode of seeing them; let us betake ourselves more to the serener life of the mind and spirit. This life, too, may have its excesses and dangers; but they are not for us at present. Let us think of quietly enlarging our stock of true and fresh ideas, and not, as soon as we get an idea or half an idea, be running out with it into the street, and trying to make it rule there. Our ideas will, in the end, shape the world all the better for maturing a little. Perhaps in fifty years’ time it will in the English House of Commons 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 absurd. That will be a change so vast, that the imagination almost fails to grasp it. Ab Integro soeclorum nascitur ordo.

If I have insisted so much on the course which criticism must take where politics and religion are concerned, it is because, where these burning matters are in question, it is most likely to go astray. I have wished, above all, to insist on the attitude which criticism should adopt towards things in general; on its right tone and temper of mind. But then comes another question as to the subject-matter which literary criticism should most seek. Here, in general, its course is determined for it by the idea which is the law of its being: the idea of a disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world, and thus to establish a current of fresh and true ideas. By the very nature of things, as England is not all the world, much of the best that is known and thought in the world cannot be of English growth, must be foreign; by the nature of things, again, it is just this that we are least likely to know, while English thought is streaming in upon us from all sides, and takes excellent care that we shall not be ignorant of its existence. The English critic of literature, therefore, must dwell much on foreign thought, and with particular heed on any part of it, which, while significant and fruitful in itself, is for any reason specially likely to escape him. Again, judging is often spoken of as the critic’s one business, and so in some sense it is; but the judgment which almost insensibly forms itself in a fair and clear mind, along with fresh knowledge, is the valuable one; and thus knowledge, and ever fresh knowledge, must be the critic’s great concern for himself. And it is by communicating fresh knowledge, and letting his own judgment pass along with it,–but insensibly, and in the second place, not the first, as a sort of companion and clue, not as an abstract lawgiver,–that the critic will generally do most good to his readers. 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 knowledge is out of the question, and then it must be all judgment; an enunciation and detailed application of principles. 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, this mere judgment and application of principles is, in itself, not the most satisfactory work to the critic; like mathematics, it is tautological, and cannot well give us, like fresh learning, the sense of creative activity.

But stop, some one will say; all this talk is of no practical use to us whatever; this criticism of yours is not what we have in our minds when we speak of criticism; when we speak of critics and criticism, we mean critics and criticism of the current English literature of the day: when you offer to tell criticism its function, it is to this criticism that we expect you to address yourself. I am sorry for it, for I am afraid I must disappoint these expectations. I am bound by my own definition of criticism; a disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world. How much of current English literature comes into this “best that is known and thought in the world”? Not very much I fear; certainly less, at this moment, than of the current literature of France or Germany. Well, then, am I to alter my definition of criticism, in order to meet the requirements of a number of practising English critics, who, after all, are free in their choice of a business? That would be making criticism lend itself just to one of those alien practical considerations, which, I have said, are so fatal to it. One may say, indeed, to those who have to deal with the mass–so much better disregarded–of current English literature, that they may at all events endeavor, in dealing with this, to try it, so far as they can, by the standard of the best that is known and thought in the world; one may say, that to get anywhere near this standard, every critic should try and possess one great literature, at least, besides his own; and the more unlike his own, the better. But, after all, the criticism I am really concerned with,–the criticism which alone can much help us for the future, the criticism which, throughout Europe, is at the present day meant, when so much stress is laid on the importance of criticism and the critical spirit,–is a criticism which regards Europe as being, for intellectual and spiritual purposes, one great confederation, bound to a joint action and working to a common result; and whose members have, for their proper outfit, a knowledge of Greek, Roman, and Eastern antiquity, and of one another. Special, local, and temporary advantages being put out of account, that modern nation will in the intellectual and spiritual sphere make most progress, which most thoroughly carries out this program. And what is that but saying that we too, all of us, as individuals, the more thoroughly we carry it out, shall make the more progress?

There is so much inviting us!–what are we to take? what will nourish us in growth towards perfection? That is the question which, with the immense field of life and of literature lying before him, the critic has to answer; for himself first, and afterwards for others. In this idea of the critic’s business the essays brought together in the following pages have had their origin; in this idea, widely different as are their subjects, they have, perhaps, their unity.

I conclude with what I said at the beginning: to have the sense of creative activity is the great happiness and the great proof of being alive, and it is not denied to criticism to have it; but then criticism must be sincere, simple, flexible, ardent, ever widening its knowledge. Then it may have, in no contemptible measure, a joyful sense of creative activity; a sense which a man of insight and conscience will prefer to what he might derive from a poor, starved, fragmentary, inadequate creation. And at some epochs no other creation is possible.

Still, in full measure, the sense of creative activity belongs only to genuine creation; in literature we must never forget that. But what true man of letters ever can forget it? It is no such common matter for a gifted nature to come into possession of a current of true and living ideas, and to produce amidst the inspiration of them, that we are likely to underrate it. The epochs of Æschylus and Shakespeare make us feel their preëminence. In an epoch like those is, no doubt, the true life of literature; there is the promised land, towards which criticism can only beckon. That promised land it will not be ours to enter, and we shall die in the wilderness: but to have desired to enter it, to have saluted it from afar, is already, perhaps, the best distinction among contemporaries; it will certainly be the best title to esteem with posterity.


Footnote on Criticism: An Essay by H.L. Mencken

III. Footnote on Criticism (From Prejudices, Third Series)

NEARLY all the discussions of criticism that I am acquainted with start off with a false assumption, to wit, that the primary motive of the critic, the impulse which makes a critic of him instead of, say, a politician, or a stockbroker, is pedagogical—that he writes because he is possessed by a passion to advance the enlightenment, to put down error and wrong, to disseminate some specific doctrine: psychological, epistemological, historical, or aesthetic. This is true, it seems to me, only of bad critics, and its degree of truth increases in direct ratio to their badness. The motive of the critic who is really worth reading—the only critic of whom, indeed, it may be said truthfully that it is at all possible to read him, save as an act of mental discipline—is something quite different. That motive is not the motive of the pedagogue, but the motive of the artist. It is no more and no less than the simple desire to function freely and beautifully, to give outward and objective form to ideas that bubble inwardly and have a fascinating lure in them, to get rid of them dramatically and make an articulate noise in the world. It was for this reason that Plato wrote the “Republic,” and for this reason that Beethoven wrote the Ninth Symphony, and it is for this reason, to drop a million miles, that I am writing the present essay. Everything else is afterthought, mock-modesty, messianic delusion—in brief, affectation and folly. Is the contrary conception of criticism widely cherished? Is it almost universally held that the thing is a brother to jurisprudence, advertising, laparotomy, chautauqua lecturing and the art of the schoolmarm? Then certainly the fact that it is so held should be sufficient to set up an overwhelming probability of its lack of truth and sense. If I speak with some heat, it is as one who has suffered. When, years ago, I devoted myself diligently to critical pieces upon the writings of Theodore Dreiser, I found that practically every one who took any notice of my proceedings at all fell into either one of two assumptions about my underlying purpose: (a) that I had a fanatical devotion for Mr. Dreiser’s ideas and desired to propagate them, or (6) that I was an ardent patriot, and yearned to lift up American literature. Both assumptions were false. I had then, and I have now, very little interest in many of Mr. Dreiser’s main ideas; when we meet, in fact, we usually quarrel about them. And I am wholly devoid of public spirit, and haven’t the least lust to improve American literature; if it ever came to what I regard as perfection my job would be gone. What, then, was my motive in writing about Mr. Dreiser so copiously? My motive, well known to Mr. Dreiser himself and to every one else who knew me as intimately as he did, was simply and solely to sort out and give coherence to the ideas of Mr. Mencken, and to put them into suave and ingratiating terms, and to discharge them with a flourish, and maybe with a phrase of pretty song, into the dense fog that blanketed the Republic.

The critic’s choice of criticism rather than of what is called creative writing is chiefly a matter of temperament —perhaps, more accurately of hormones— with accidents of education and environment to help. The feelings that happen to be dominant in him at the moment the scribbling frenzy seizes him are feelings inspired, not directly by life itself, but by books, pictures, music, sculpture, architecture, religion, philosophy—in brief, by some other man’s feelings about life. They are thus, in a sense, secondhand, and it is no wonder that creative artists so easily fall into the theory that they are also second-rate. Perhaps they usually are. If, indeed, the critic continues on this plane—if he lacks the intellectual agility and enterprise needed to make the leap from the work of art to the vast and mysterious complex of phenomena behind it—then they always are, and he remains no more than a fugelman or policeman to his betters. But if a genuine artist is concealed within him—if his feelings are in any sense profound and original, and his capacity for self-expression is above the average of educated men—then he moves inevitably from the work of art to life itself, and begins to take on a dignity that he formerly lacked. It is impossible to think of a man of any actual force and originality, universally recognized as having those qualities, who spent his whole life appraising and describing the work of other men. Did Goethe, or Carlyle, or Matthew Arnold, or

Sainte-Beuve, or Macaulay, or even, to come down a few pegs, Lewes, or Lowell, or Hazlitt? Certainly not. The thing that becomes most obvious about the writings of all such men, once they are examined carefully, is that the critic is always being swallowed up by the creative artist—that what starts out as the review of a book, or a play, or other work of art, usually develops very quickly into an independent essay upon the theme of that work of art, or upon some theme that it suggests—in a word, that it becomes a fresh work of art, and only indirectly related to the one that suggested it. This fact, indeed, is so plain that it scarcely needs statement. What the pedagogues always object to in, for example, the Quarterly reviewers is that they forgot the books they were supposed to review, and wrote long papers—often, in fact, small books—expound ing ideas suggested (or not suggested) by the books under review. Every critic who is worth reading falls inevitably into the same habit. He cannot stick to his task: what is before him is always infinitely less interesting to him than what is within him. If he is genuinely first-rate—if what is within him stands the test of type, and wins an audience, and produces the reactions that every artist craves—then he usually ends by abandoning the criticism of specific works of art altogether, and setting up shop as a general merchant in general ideas, i. e., as an artist working in the materials of life itself.

Mere reviewing, however conscientiously and competently it is done, is plainly a much inferior business. Like writing poetry, it is chiefly a function of intellectual immaturity. The young literatus just out of the university, having as yet no capacity for grappling with the fundamental mysteries of existence, is put to writing reviews of books, or plays, or music, or painting. Very often he does it extremely well; it is, in fact, not hard to do well, for even decayed pedagogues often do it, as such graves of the intellect as the New York Times bear witness. But if he continues to do it, whether well or ill, it is a sign to all the world that his growth ceased when they made him Artium Baccalaureus. Gradually he becomes, whether in or out of the academic grove, a professor, which is to say, a man devoted to diluting and retailing the ideas of his superiors—not an artist, not even a bad artist, but almost the antithesis of an artist. He is learned, he is sober, he is painstaking and accurate—but he is as hollow as a jug. Nothing is in him save the ghostly echoes of other men’s thoughts and feelings. If he were a genuine artist he would have thoughts and feelings of his own, and the impulse to give them objective form would be irresistible. An artist can no more withstand that impulse than a politician can withstand the temptations of a job. There are no mute, inglorious Miltons, save in the hallucinations of poets. The one sound test of a Milton is that he functions as a Milton. His difference from other men lies precisely in the superior vigor of his impulse to self-expression, not in the superior beauty and loftiness of his ideas. Other men, in point of fact, often have the same ideas, or perhaps even loftier ones, but they are able to suppress them, usually on grounds of decorum, and so they escape being artists, and are respected by right-thinking persons, and die with money in the bank, and are forgotten in two weeks.

Obviously, the critic whose performance we are commonly called upon to investigate is a man standing somewhere along the path leading from the beginning that I have described to the goal. He has got beyond being a mere cataloguer and valuer of other men’s ideas, but he has not yet become an autonomous artist—he is not yet ready to challenge attention with his own ideas alone. But it is plain that his motion, in so far as he is moving at all, must be in the direction of that autonomy—that is, unless one imagines him sliding backward into senile infantilism: a spectacle not unknown to literary pathology, but too pathetic to be discussed here. Bear this motion in mind, and the true nature of his aims and purposes becomes clear; more, the incurable falsity of the aims and purposes usually credited to him becomes equally clear. He is not actually trying to perform an impossible act of arctic justice upon the artist whose work gives him a text. He is not trying with mathematical passion to find out exactly what was in that artist’s mind at the moment of creation, and to display it precisely and in an ecstasy of appreciation. He is not trying to bring the work discussed into accord with some transient theory of aesthetics, or ethics, or truth, or to determine its degree of departure from that theory. He is not trying to lift up the fine arts, or to defend democracy against sense, or to promote happiness at the domestic hearth, or to convert sophomores into right-thinkers, or to serve God. He is not trying to fit a group of novel phenomena into the orderly process of history. He is not even trying to discharge the catalytic office that I myself, in a romantic moment, once sought to force upon him. He is, first and last, simply trying to express himself. He is trying to arrest and challenge a sufficient body of readers, to make them pay attention to him, to impress them with the charm and novelty of his ideas, to provoke them into an agreeable (or shocked) awareness of him, and he is trying to achieve thereby for his own inner ego the grateful feeling of a function performed, a tension relieved, a katharsis attained which Wagner achieved when he wrote “Die Walkure,” and a hen achieves every time she lays an egg.

Joseph Conrad is moved by that necessity to write romances; Bach was moved to write music; poets are moved to write poetry; critics are moved to write criticism. The form is nothing; the only important thing is the motive power, and it is the same in all cases. It is the pressing yearning of every man who has ideas in him to empty them upon the world, to hammer them into plausible and ingratiating shapes, to compel the attention and respect of his equals, to lord it over his inferiors. So seen, the critic becomes a far more transparent and agreeable fellow than ever he was in the discourses of the psychologists who sought to make him a mere appraiser in an intellectual customs house, a gauger in a distillery of the spirit, a just and infallible judge upon the cosmic bench. Such offices, in point of fact, never fit him. He always bulges over their confines. So labelled and estimated, it inevitably turns out that the specific critic under examination is a very bad one, or no critic at all. But when he is thought of, not as pedagogue, but as artist, then he begins to take on reality, and, what is more, dignity. Carlyle was surely no just and infallible judge; on the contrary, he was full of prejudices, biles, naivetes, humors. Yet he is read, consulted, attended to. Macaulay was unfair, inaccurate, fanciful, lyrical—yet his essays live. Arnold had his faults too, and so did Sainte-Beauve, and so did Goethe, and so did many another of that line—and yet they are remembered to-day, and all the learned and conscientious critics of their time, laboriously concerned with the precise intent of the artists under review, and passionately determined to set it forth with god-like care and to relate it exactly to this or that great stream of ideas—all these pedants are forgotten. What saved Carlyle, Macaulay and company is as plain as day. They were first-rate artists. They could make the thing charming, and that is always a million times more important thannmaking it true.

Truth, indeed, is something that is believed in completely only ‘by persons who have never tried personally to pursue it to its fastnesses and grab it by the tail. It is the adoration of second-rate men —men who always receive it at second-hand. Pedagogues believe in immutable truths and spend their lives trying to determine them and propagate them; the intellectual progress of man consists largely of a concerted effort to block and destroy their enterprise. Nine times out of ten, in the arts as in life, there is actually no truth to be discovered; there is only error to be exposed. In whole departments of human inquiry it seems to me quite unlikely that the truth ever will be discovered. Nevertheless, the rubberstamp thinking of the world always makes the assumption that the exposure of an error is identical with the discovery of the truth—that error and truth are simple opposites. They are nothing of the sort. What the world turns to, when it has been cured of one error, is usually simply another error, and maybe one worse than the first one. This is the whole history of the intellect in brief. The average man of to-day does not believe in precisely the same imbecilities that the Greek of the fourth century before Christ believed in, but the things that he does believe in are often quite as idiotic. Perhaps this statement is a bit too sweeping. There is, year by year, a gradual accumulation of what may be called, provisionally, truths—there is a slow accretion of ideas that somehow manage to meet all practicable human tests, and so survive. But even so, it is risky to call them absolute truths. All that one may safely say of them is that no one, as yet, has demonstrated that they are errors. Soon or late, if experience teaches us anything, they are likely to succumb too. The profoundest truths of the Middle Ages are now laughed at by schoolboys. The profoundest truths of democracy will be laughed at, a few centuries hence, even by school-teachers.

In the department of aesthetics, wherein critics mainly disport themselves, it is almost impossible to think of a so-called truth that shows any sign of being permanently true. The most profound of principles begins to fade and quiver almost as soon as it is stated. But the work of art, as opposed to the theory behind it, has a longer life, particularly if that theory be obscure and questionable, and so cannot be determined accurately. “Hamlet,” the Mona Lisa, “Faust,” “Dixie,” “Parsifal,” “Mother Goose,” “Annabel Lee,” “Huckleberry Finn”—these things, so baffling to pedagogy, so contumacious to the categories, so mysterious in purpose and utility—these things live. And why? Because there is in them the flavor of salient, novel and attractive personality, because the quality that shines from them is not that of correct demeanor but that of creative passion, because they pulse and breathe and speak, because they are genuine works of art. So with criticism. Let us forget all the heavy effort to make a science of it; it is a fine art, or nothing. If the critic, retiring to his cell to concoct his treatise upon a book or play or what-not, produces a piece of writing that shows sound structure, and brilliant color, and the flash of new and persuasive ideas, and civilized manners, and the charm of an uncommon personality in free function, then he has given something to the world that is worth having, and sufficiently justified his existence. Is Carlyle’s “Frederick” true? Who cares? As well ask if the Parthenon is true, or the C Minor Symphony, or “Wiener Blur.” Let the critic who is an artist leave such necropsies to professors of aesthetics, who can no more determine the truth than he can, and will infallibly make it unpleasant and a bore.

It is, of course, not easy to practice this abstention. Two forces, one within and one without, tend to bring even a Hazlitt or a Huneker under the campus pump. One is the almost universal human susceptibility to messianic delusions—the irresistible tendency of practically every man, once he finds a crowd in front of him, to strut and roll his eyes. The other is the public demand, born of such long familiarity with pedagogical criticism that no other kind is readily conceivable, that the critic teach something as well as say something—in the popular phrase, that he be constructive. Both operate powerfully against his free functioning, and especially the former. He finds it hard to resist the flattery of his customers, however little he may actually esteem it. If he knows anything at all, he knows that his following, like that of every other artist in ideas, is chiefly made up of the congenitally subaltern type of man and woman—natural converts, lodge joiners, me-toos, stragglers after circus parades. It is precious seldom that he ever gets a positive idea out of them; what he usually gets is mere unintelligent ratification. But this troop, despite its obvious failings, corrupts him in various ways. For one thing, it enormously reenforces his belief in his own ideas, and so tends to make him stiff and dogmatic—in brief, precisely everything that he ought not to be. And for another thing, it tends to make him (by a curious contradiction) a bit pliant and politic: he begins to estimate new ideas, not in proportion as they are amusing or beautiful, but in proportion as they are likely to please. So beset, front and rear, he sometimes sinks supinely to the level of a professor, and his subsequent proceedings are interesting no more. The true aim of a critic is certainly not to make converts. He must know that very few of the persons who are susceptible to conversion are worth converting. Their minds are intrinsically flabby and parasitical, and it is certainly not sound sport to agitate minds of that sort. Moreover, the critic must always harbor a grave doubt about most of the ideas that they lap up so greedily—it must occur to him not infrequently, in the silent watches of the night, that much that he writes is sheer buncombe. As I have said, I can’t imagine any idea—that is, in the domain of aesthetics—that is palpably and incontrovertibly sound. All that I am familiar with, and in particular all that I announce most vociferously, seem to me to contain a core of quite obvious nonsense.

I thus try to avoid cherishing them too lovingly, and it always gives me a shiver to see any one else gobble them at one gulp. Criticism, at bottom, is indistinguishable from skepticism. Both launch themselves, the one by aesthetic presentations and the other by logical presentations, at the common human tendency to accept whatever is approved, to take in ideas ready-made, to be responsive to mere rhetoric and gesticulation. A critic who believes in anything absolutely is bound to that something quite as helplessly as a Christian is bound to the Freudian garbage in the Book of Revelation. To that extent, at all events, he is unfree and unintelligent, and hence a bad critic.

The demand for “constructive” criticism is based upon the same false assumption that immutable truths exist in the arts, and that the artist will be improved by being made aware of them. This notion, whatever the form it takes, is always absurd —as much so, indeed, as its brother delusion that the critic, to be competent, must be a practitioner of the specific art he ventures to deal with, i. e., that a doctor, to cure a belly-ache, must have a belly-ache. As practically encountered, it is disingenuous as well as absurd, for it comes chiefly from bad artists who tire of serving as performing monkeys, and crave the greater ease and safety of sophomores in class. They demand to be taught in order to avoid being knocked about. In their demand is the theory that instruction, if they could get it, would profit them— that they are capable of doing better work than they do. As a practical matter, I doubt that this is ever true. Bad poets never actually grow any better; they invariably grow worse and worse. In all history there has never been, to my knowledge, a single practitioner of any art who, as a result of “constructive” criticism, improved his work. The curse of all the arts, indeed, is the fact that they are constantly invaded by persons who are not artists at all—persons whose yearning to express their ideas and feelings is unaccompanied by the slightest capacity for charming expression—in brief, persons with absolutely nothing to say. This is particularly true of the art of letters, which interposes very few technical obstacles to the vanity and garrulity of such invaders.

Any effort to teach them to write better is an effort wasted, as every editor discovers for himself; they are as incapable of it as they are of jumping over the moon. The only sort of criticism that can deal with them to any profit is the sort that employs them frankly as laboratory animals. It cannot cure them, but it can at least make an amusing and perhaps edifying show of them. It is idle to argue that the good in them is thus destroyed with the bad. The simple answer is that there is no good in them. Suppose Poe had wasted his time trying to dredge good work out of Rufus Dawes, author of “Geraldine.” He would have failed miserably— and spoiled a capital essay, still diverting after threequarters of a century. Suppose Beethoven, dealing with Gottfried Weber, had tried laboriously to make an intelligent music critic of him. How much more apt, useful and durable the simple note: “Arch-ass! Double-barrelled ass!” Here was absolutely sound, criticism. Here was a judgment wholly beyond challenge. Moreover, here was a small but perfect work of art.

Upon the low practical value of so-called constructive criticism I can offer testimony out of my own experience. My books are commonly reviewed at great length, and many critics devote themselves to pointing out what they conceive to be my errors, both of fact and of taste. Well, I cannot recall a case in which any suggestion offered by a constructive critic has helped me in the slightest, or even actively interested me. Every such wet-nurse of letters has sought fatuously to make me write in a way differing from that in which the Lord God Almighty, in His infinite wisdom, impels me to write—that is, to make me write stuff which, coming from me, would ‘be as false as an appearance of decency in a Congressman. All the benefits I have ever got from the critics of my work have come from the destructive variety. A hearty slating always does me good, particularly if it be well written. It begins by enlisting my professional respect; it ends by making me examine my ideas ‘coldly in the privacy of my chamber. Not, of course, that I usually revise them, but I at least examine them. If I decide to hold fast to them, they are all the dearer to me thereafter, and I expound them with a new passion and plausibility. If, on the contrary, I discern holes in them,

I shelve them in a pianissimo manner, and set about hatching new ones to take their place. But constructive criticism irritates me. I do not object to being denounced, but I can’t abide being school-mastered, especially by men I regard as imbeciles.

I find, as a practicing critic, that very few men who write books are even as tolerant as I am—that most of them, soon or late, show signs of extreme discomfort under criticism, however polite its terms. Perhaps this is why enduring friendships between authors and critics are so rare. All artists, of course, dislike one another more or less, but that dislike seldom rises to implacable enmity, save between opera singer and opera singer, and creative author and critic. Even when the latter two keep up an outward show of good-will, there is always bitter antagonism under the surface. Part of it, I daresay, arises out of the impossible demands of the critic, particularly if he be tinged with the constructive madness. Having favored an author with his good opinion, he expects the poor fellow to live up to that good opinion without the slightest compromise or faltering, and this is commonly beyond human power. He feels that any let-down compromises him—that his hero is stabbing him in the back, and making him ridiculous—and this feeling rasps his vanity. The most bitter of all literary quarrels are those between critics and creative artists, and most of them arise in just this way. As for the creative artist, he on his part naturally resents the critic’s air of pedagogical superiority and he resents it especially when he has an uneasy feeling that he has fallen short of his best work, and that the discontent of the critic is thus justified. Injustice is relatively easy to bear; what stings is justice. Under it all, of course, lurks the fact that I began with: the fact that the critic is himself an artist, and that his creative impulse, soon or late, is bound to make him neglect the punctilio. When he sits down to compose his criticism, his artist ceases to be a friend, and becomes mere raw material for his work of art. It is my experience that artists invariably resent this cavalier use of them. They are pleased so long as the critic confines himself to the modest business of interpreting them—preferably in terms of their own estimate of themselves—but the moment he proceeds to adorn their theme with variations of his own, the moment he brings new ideas to the enterprise and begins contrasting them with their ideas, that moment they grow restive. It is precisely at this point, of course, that criticism becomes genuine criticism; before that it was mere reviewing. When a critic passes it he loses his friends. By becoming an artist, he becomes the foe of all other artists.

But the transformation, I believe, has good effects upon him: it makes him a better critic. Too much Gemiltlichkeit is as fatal to criticism as it would be to surgery or politics. When it rages unimpeded it leads inevitably either to a dull professorial sticking on of meaningless labels or to log-rolling, and often it leads to both. One of the most hopeful symptoms of the new Aufkldrung in the Republic is the revival of acrimony in criticism—the renaissance of the doctrine that aesthetic matters are important, ]and that it is worth the while of a healthy male to take them seriously, as he takes business, sport and amour. In the days when American literature was showing its first vigorous growth, the native criticism was extraordinarily violent and even vicious; in the days when American literature swooned upon the tomb of the Puritan Kultur it became flaccid and childish. The typical critic of the first era was Poe, as the typical critic of the second was Howells. Poe carried on his critical jehads with such ferocity that he often got into law-suits, and sometimes ran no little risk of having his head cracked. He regarded literary questions as exigent and momentous.

The lofty aloofness of the don was simply not in him. When he encountered a book that seemed to him to be bad, he attacked it almost as sharply as a Chamber of Commerce would attack a fanatic preaching free speech, or the corporation of Trinity Church would attack Christ. His opponents replied in the same Berserker manner. Much of Poe’s surviving ill-fame, as a drunkard and dead-beat, is due to their inordinate denunciations of him. They were not content to refute him; they constantly tried to dispose of him altogether. The very ferocity of that ancient row shows that the native literature, in those days, was in a healthy state. Books of genuine value were produced. Literature always thrives best, in fact, in an atmosphere of hearty strife. Poe, surrounded by admiring professors, never challenged, never aroused to the emotions of revolt, would probably have written poetry indistinguishable from the hollow stuff of, say, Prof. Dr. George E. Woodberry. It took the persistent (and often grossly unfair and dishonorable) opposition of Griswold et al to stimulate him to his highest endeavors. He needed friends, true enough, but he also needed enemies.

To-day, for the first time in years, there is strife in American criticism, and the Paul Elmer Mores and Hamilton Wright Mabies are no longer able to purr in peace. The instant they fall into stiff professorial attitudes they are challenged, and often with anything but urbanity. The ex cathedra manner thus passes out, and free discussion comes in. Heretics lay on boldly, and the professors are forced to make some defense. Often, going further, they attempt counterattacks. Ears are bitten off. Noses are bloodied. There are wallops both above and below the belt. I am, I need not say, no believer in any magical merit in debate, no matter how free it may be. It certainly does not necessarily establish the truth; both sides, in fact, may be wrong, and they often are. But it at least accomplishes two important effects. On the one hand, it exposes all the cruder fallacies to hostile examination, and so disposes of many of them. And on the other hand, it melodramatizes the business of the critic, and so convinces thousands of bystanders, otherwise quite inert, that criticism is an amusing and instructive art, and that the problems it deals with are important. What men will fight for seems to be worth looking into.


Criticism of Criticism of Criticism: An Essay by H.L. Mencken

I. Criticism of Criticism of Criticism (from Prejudices: First Series)

EVERY now and then, a sense of the futility of their daily endeavors falling suddenly upon them, the critics of Christendom turn to a somewhat sour and depressing consideration of the nature and objects of their own craft. That is to say, they turn to criticizing criticism. What is it in plain words? What is its aim, exactly stated in legal terms? How far can it go? What good can it do? What is its normal effect upon the artist and the work of art?

Such a spell of self -searching has been in progress for several years past, and the critics of various countries have contributed theories of more or less lucidity and plausibility to the discussion. Their views of their own art, it appears, are quite as divergent as their views of the arts they more commonly deal with. One group argues, partly by direct statement and partly by attacking all other groups, that the one defensible purpose of the critic is to encourage the virtuous and oppose the sinful — in brief, to police the fine arts and so hold them in tune with the moral order of the world. Another group, repudiating this constabulary function, argues hotly that the arts have nothing to do with morality whatsoever — that their concern is solely with pure beauty. A third group holds that the chief aspect of a work of art, particularly in the field of literature, is its aspect as psychological document — that if it doesn’t help men to know themselves it is nothing. A fourth group reduces the thing to an exact science, and sets up standards that resemble algebraic formulae — this is the group of metrists, of contrapuntists and of those who gabble of light-waves. And so, in order, follow groups five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, each with its theory and its proofs.

Against the whole corps, moral and aesthetic, psychological and algebraic, stands Major J. E. Spingarn, U. S. A. Major Spingarn lately served formal notice upon me that he had abandoned the life of the academic grove for that of the armed array, and so I give him his military title, but at the time he wrote his “Creative Criticism” he was a professor in Columbia University, and I still find myself thinking of him, not as a soldier extraordinarily literate, but as a professor in rebellion. For his notions, whatever one may say in opposition to them, are at least magnificently unprofessorial — they fly violently in the face of the principles that distinguish the largest and most influential group of campus critics. As witness: “To say that poetry is moral or immoral is as meaningless as to say that an equilateral triangle is moral and an isosceles triangle immoral.” Or, worse: “It is only conceivable in a world in which dinner-table conversation runs after this fashion: ‘This cauliflower would be good if it had only been prepared in accordance with international law.’ ’ One imagines, on hearing such atheism flying about, the amazed indignation of Prof. Dr. William Lyon Phelps, with his discovery that Joseph Conrad preaches “the axiom of the moral law”; the “Hey, what’s that!” of Prof. Dr. W. C. Brownell, the Amherst Aristotle, with his eloquent plea for standards as iron-clad as the Westminster Confession; the loud, patriotic alarm of the gifted Prof. Dr. Stuart P. Sherman, of Iowa, with his maxim that Puritanism is the official philosophy of America, and that all who dispute it are enemy aliens and should be deported. Major Spingarn, in truth, here performs a treason most horrible upon the reverend order he once adorned, and having achieved it, he straightway per- forms another and then another. That is to say, he tackles all the antagonistic groups of orthodox critics seriatim, and knocks them about unanimously — first the aforesaid agents of the sweet and pious; then the advocates of unities, meters, all rigid formulae; then the experts in imaginary psychology; then the historical comparers, pigeonholers and makers of categories; finally, the professors of pure aesthetic. One and all, they take their places upon his operating table, and one and all they are stripped and anatomized. But what is the anarchistic ex-professor’s own theory? — for a professor must have a theory, as a dog must have fleas. In brief, what he offers is a doctrine borrowed from the Italian, Benedetto Croce, and by Croce filched from Goethe — a doctrine any- thing but new in the world, even in Goethe’s time, but nevertheless long buried in forgetfulness — to wit, the doctrine that it is the critic’s first and only duty, as Carlyle once put it, to find out “what the poet’s aim really and truly was, how the task he had to do stood before his eye, and how far, with such materials as were afforded him, he has fulfilled it.” For poet, read artist, or, if literature is in question, substitute the Germanic word Dichter — that is, the artist in words, the creator of beautiful letters, whether in verse or in prose. Ibsen always called himself a Digter, not a Dramatiker or Skuespiller. So, I daresay, did Shakespeare… . Well, what is this generalized poet trying to do? asks Major Spingarn, and how has he done it? That, and no more, is the critic’s quest. The morality of the work does not concern him. It is not his business to determine whether it heeds Aristotle or flouts Aristotle. He passes no judgment on its rhyme scheme, its length and breadth, its iambics, its politics, its patriotism, its piety, its psychological exactness, its good taste. He may note these things, but he may not protest about them — he may not complain if the thing criticized fails to fit into a pigeonhole. – Every sonnet, every drama, every novel is sui generis; it must stand on its own bottom; it must be judged by its own inherent intentions. “Poets,” says Major Spingarn, “do not really write epics, pastorals, lyrics, however much they may be deceived by these false abstractions; they express themselves, and this expression is their only form. There are not, therefore, only three or ten or a hundred literary kinds; there are as many kinds as there are individual poets.” Nor is there any valid appeal ad hominem. The character and background of the poet are beside the mark; the poem itself is the thing. Oscar Wilde, weak and swine-like, yet wrote beautiful prose. To reject that prose on the ground that Wilde had filthy habits is as absurd as to reject “What Is Man?” on the ground that its theology is beyond the intelligence of the editor of the New York Times.

This Spingarn-Croce-Carlyle-Goethe theory, of course, throws a heavy burden upon the critic. It presupposes that he is a civilized and tolerant man, hospitable to all intelligible ideas and capable of reading them as he runs. This is a demand that at once rules out nine-tenths of the grown-up sophomores who carry on the business of criticism in America. Their trouble is simply that they lack the intellectual resilience necessary for taking in ideas, and particularly new ideas. The only way they can ingest one is by transforming it into the nearest related formula — usually a harsh and devastating operation. This fact accounts for their chronic inability to understand all that is most personal and original and hence most forceful and significant in the emerging literature of the country. They can get down what has been digested and redigested, and so brought into forms that they know, and carefully labeled by predecessors of their own sort — but they exhibit alarm immediately they come into the presence of the extraordinary. Here we have an explanation of Brownell’s loud appeal for a tightening of standards — i.e., a larger respect for precedents, patterns, rubber-stamps — and here we have an explanation of Phelps’s inability to comprehend the colossal phenomenon of Dreiser, and of Boynton’s childish nonsense about realism, and of Sherman’s effort to apply the Espionage Act to the arts, and of More’s querulous enmity to romanticism, and of all the fatuous pigeon-holing that passes for criticism in the more solemn literary periodicals.

As practiced by all such learned and diligent but essentially ignorant and unimaginative men, criticism is little more than a branch of homiletics. They judge a work of art, not by its clarity and sincerity, not by the force and charm of its ideas, not by the technical virtuosity of the artist, not by his originality and artistic courage, but simply and solely by his orthodoxy. If he is what is called a “right thinker,” if he devotes himself to advocating the transient platitudes in a sonorous manner, then he is worthy of respect. But if he lets fall the slightest hint that he is in doubt about any of them, or, worse still, that he is indifferent, then he is a scoundrel, and hence, by their theory, a bad artist. Such pious piffle is horribly familiar among us. I do not exaggerate its terms. You will find it running through the critical writings of practically all the dull fellows who combine criticism with tutoring; in the words of many of them it is stated in the plainest way and defended with much heat, theological and pedagogical. In its baldest form it shows itself in the doctrine that it is scandalous for an artist — say a dramatist or a novelist — to depict vice as attractive. The fact that vice, more often than not, undoubtedly is attractive — else why should it ever gobble any of us? — is disposed of with a lofty gesture. What of it? say these birchmen. The artist is not a reporter, but a Great Teacher. It is not his business to depict the world as it is, but as it ought to be.

Against this notion American criticism makes but feeble headway. We are, in fact, a nation of evangelists; every third American devotes himself to improving and lifting up his fellow-citizens, usually by force; the messianic delusion is our national disease. Thus the moral Privatdozenten have the crowd on their side, and it is difficult to shake their authority; even the vicious are still in favor of crying vice down. “Here is a novel,” says the artist. “Why didn’t you write a tract?” roars the professor — and down the chute go novel and novelist. “This girl is pretty, “says the painter. “But she has left off her under-shirt,” protests the head-master — and off goes the poor dauber’s head. At its mildest, this balderdash takes the form of the late Hamilton Wright Mabie’s “White List of Books” ; at its worst, it is comstockery, an idiotic and abominable thing. Genuine criticism is as impossible to such inordinately narrow and cocksure men as music is to a man who is tone-deaf. The critic, to interpret his artist, even to understand his artist, must be able to get into the mind of his artist; he must feel and comprehend the vast pressure of the creative passion; as Major Spingarn says, “aesthetic judgment and artistic creation are instinct with the same vital life.” This is why all the best criticism of the world has bee nwritten by men who have had within them, not only the reflective and analytica lfaculty of critics, but also the gusto of artists — Goethe, Carlyle, Lessing, Schlegel, Saint-Beuve, and, to drop a story or two, Hazlitt, Hermann Bahr, Georg Brandes and James Huneker. Huneker, tackling “Also sprach Zarathustra,” revealed its content in illuminating flashes. But tackled by Paul Elmer More, it became no more than a dull student’s exercise, ill-naturedly corrected… .

So much for the theory of Major J. E. Spingarn, U. S. A., late professor of modern languages and literatures in Columbia University. Obviously, it is a far sounder and more stimulating theory than any of those cherished by the other professors. It demands that the critic be a man of intelligence, of toleration, of wide information, of genuine hospitality to ideas, whereas the others only demand that he have learning, and accept anything as learning that has been said before. But once he has stated his doctrine, the ingenious ex-professor, professor-like, immediately begins to corrupt it by claiming too much for it. Having laid and hatched, so to speak, his somewhat stale but still highly nourishing egg, he begins to argue fatuously that the resultant flamingo is the whole mustering of the critical Aves. But the fact is, of course, that criticism, as humanly practiced, must needs fall a good deal short of this intuitive re- creation of beauty, and what is more, it must go a good deal further. For one thing, it must be interpretation in terms that are not only exact but are also comprehensible to the reader, else it will leave the original mystery as dark as before — and once interpretation comes in, paraphrase and transliteration come in. What is recondite must be made plainer; the transcendental, to some extent at least, must be done into common modes of thinking. Well, what are morality, trochaics, hexameters, movements, historical principles, psychological maxims, the dramatic unities — what are all these save common modes of thinking, short cuts, rubber stamps, words of one syllable? Moreover, beauty as we know it in this world is by no means the apparition in vacuo that Dr. Spingarn seems to see. It has its social, its political, even its moral implications. The finale of Beethoven’s C minor symphony is not only colossal as music; it is also colossal as revolt; it says something against something. Yet more, the springs of beauty are not within itself alone, nor even in genius alone, but often in things without. Brahms wrote his Deutsches Requiem, not only because he was a great artist, but also because he was a good German. And in Nietzsche there are times when the divine afflatus takes a back seat, and the spirochaetae have the floor. Major Spingarn himself seems to harbor some sense of this limitation on his doctrine. He gives warning that “the poet’s intention must be judged at the moment of the creative act” — which opens the door enough for many an ancient to creep in. But limited or not, he at least clears off a lot of moldy rubbish, and gets further toward the truth than any of his former colleagues. They waste themselves upon theories that only conceal the poet’s achievement the more, the more diligently they are applied; he, at all events, grounds himself upon the sound notion that there should be free speech in art, and no protective tariffs, and no a priori assumptions, and no testing of ideas by mere words. The safe ground probably lies between the contestants, but nearer Spingarn. The critic who really illuminates starts off much as he starts off, but with a due regard for the prejudices and imbecilities of the world. I think the best feasible practice is to be found in certain chapters of Huneker, a critic of vastly more solid influence and of infinitely more value to the arts than all the prating pedagogues since Rufus Griswold. Here, as in the case of Poe, a sensitive and intelligent artist recreates the work of other artists, but there also comes to the ceremony a man of the world, and the things he has to say are apposite and instructive too. To denounce moralizing out of hand is to pronounce a moral judgment. To dispute the categories is to set up a new anti-categorical category. And to admire the work of Shakespeare is to be interested in his handling of blank verse, his social aspirations, his shot-gun marriage and his frequent concessions to the bombastic frenzy of his actors, and to have some curiosity about Mr. W. H. The really competent critic must be an empiricist. He must conduct his exploration with whatever means lie within the bounds of his personal limitation. He must produce his effects with whatever tools will work. If pills fail, he gets out his saw. If the saw won’t cut, he seizes a club… .

Perhaps, after all, the chief burden that lies upon Major Spingarn’s theory is to be found in its label. The word “creative” is a bit too flamboyant; it says what he wants to say, but it probably says a good deal more. In this emergency, I propose getting rid of the misleading label by pasting another over it. That is, I propose the substitution of “catalytic” for “creative,” despite the fact that “catalytic” is an unfamiliar word, and suggests the dog-Latin of the seminaries. I borrow it from chemistry, and its meaning is really quite simple. A catalyzer, in chemistry, is a substance that helps two other substances to react. For example, consider the case of ordinary cane sugar and water. Dissolve the sugar in the water and nothing happens. But add a few drops of acid and the sugar changes into glucose and fructose. Meanwhile, the acid itself is absolutely unchanged. All it does is to stir up the reaction between the water and the sugar. The process is called catalysis. The acid is a catalyzer.

Well, this is almost exactly the function of a genuine critic of the arts. It is his business to provoke the reaction between the work of art and the spectator. The spectator, untutored, stands unmoved; he sees the work of art, but it fails to make any intelligible impression on him; if he were spontaneously sensitive to it, there would be no need for criticism. But now comes the critic with his catalysis. He makes the work of art live for the spectator; he makes the spectator live for the work of art. Out of the process comes understanding, appreciation, intelligent enjoyment — and that is precisely what the artist tried to produce.