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the Charybdis of the “ familiar" and the “gross." Hence the absence of any fanciful or passionate lyrical poetry, hence the frigid decorum of the epics and tragedies. A special poetical diction followed as a matter of course; the poet required a “system of words at once refined from the grossness of domestic use, and free from the harshness of terms appropriated to particular arts.” 1
Lord Macaulay in his boisterous attack on “correctness” in the essay on Moore's “Life of Byron,”? makes two mistakes. He regards poetry as a purely imitative art; and he assumes that a purely imitative art is freed from all allegiance to the ideal. Now poetry is at once a representative art like sculpture or painting, and a presentative art like music. Its object is not merely to put before us scenes which are not present and events which we have never witnessed, but to create for the ear beautiful melodies and harmonies of verse. It affects our emotions not only by what it puts before the visual imagination, but also by its appeal to the auditory and muscular sensations of tone and rhythm. Macaulay's second error is more important. An imitative or representative art is not absolved from all regard for beauty ; its sole aim is not accuracy of reproduction. Even a photograph is largely idealistic: prose, background and accessories, lighting, degree of detail, these points, and many more, require consideration and selection; and selection implies an ideal. The object of the photographer, and à fortiori of the painter or the poet, is not to produce an exact representation, but to produce a representation sufficiently exact to form the starting point of waves of suggestion. And the direction of these waves he controls by the exclusion of what is commonplace, or exaggerated, or unpleasant. And in this need for avoiding what clashes with our sense of
1 Johnson's “ Lives,” Bohn, i. 435.
beauty, we have the justification of rules, or rather principles, of “correct” form.
But these rules, like the principles of morality, tend to be regarded as good in and for themselves. The critics come to think that merit lies in the obedience to rule, and not in the achievement of what the rule was intended to secure. Comply with all the precepts laid down by Aristotle and Longinus, by Horace and Boileau, and your work will be perfect and immortal.
Much, indeed, of the eighteenth century poetry is simply unreadable; not, however, because it conforms to arbitrary rules, but because the poetical impulse which produced it was weak and chill. When a man of poetical genius like Pope, or Gray, or Goldsmith, writes, his work gains at least as much as it loses by compliance with fixed canons of literary form. What it surrenders in energy of expression and uncalculated felicity of achievement is made up to it by dignity, suggestiveness, and restraint. We have long since seen the end of that reaction against literary form which is exemplified by what Mr. Jacobs ? terms the “amorphous masses called poems” produced by Southey and, we may add, Wordsworth. Many of our poets to-day are as much formalists as any of the eighteenth century writers ; Tennyson, Matthew Arnold, Austin Dobson, each is, after his own kind, a supreme master of technique.
But, notwithstanding the reverence for correctness, common sense is the central ideal in eighteenth century literature and criticism. It is the final test of excellence. “By the common sense of readers uncorrupted with literary prejudices, after all the refinement of subtlety and the dogmatism of learning, must be finally decided all claim to poetical honours.” 2 The Augustan age was eminently a social one. The tastes of the best
1 “Tennyson and · In Memoriam,"" by Joseph Jacobs, p. 6. 2 Johnson's “Lives,” Bohn, iii. 384.
and most conventional classes in a well-organized State formed the standard which Addison, and Pope, and Richardson had before them. Corsairs and outlaws and peasants were to be the ideal figures of the reaction under Byron and Scott and Wordsworth, after Rousseau had taught that the “state of nature” was superior to the social condition. To the men of the eighteenth century the “state of nature” presented few attractions. Their worship of common sense was due to their respect for properly ordered society. The beliefs of the vast majority of such a society tend to become alike, one type of opinion is formed. My common sense is the reflection in me of the average opinions of other plain men. “ Quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus” becomes the criterion of truth. It requires a man of extraordinary courage to question beliefs so universal. They are found to fit in with the needs of practical life, and Berkeley is refuted with a kick. Science is freed from the “jargon" of technical terms; and philosophy is to be “ brought out of closets and libraries, schools and colleges, to dwell in clubs and assemblies, at tea-tables, and coffee-houses.” Superficiality incarnate in the person of Tillotson occupies the pulpit.
It is, however, common sense which saves Johnson from being a pedant. Correctness is no doubt important, but common sense is still more important. He is quite prepared to criticise Aristotle, if Aristotle is in conflict with common sense. He does not, like Dryden or even Addison, quote Bossu and Boileau with bated breath.
Johnson's criticism is thus usually right when he lays down some general truth of form, or deals with some question of formal consistency. He can point out contradictions, errors of reasoning, and errors of fact, faulty similes and imperfect rhymes. He falls short only when imagination and sympathy are required. He has not that fine natural insight into unfamiliar modes of action and feeling which
makes a critic of the highest order. That alert perception of beauty which comes from ready sympathy with the artistic aims of others is absent; he sees only that a rule is broken, that a formal absurdity has been perpetrated ; the beauty which it strives to embody escapes him. Speaking generally, we may say that what he lays down in criticism is true as far as it goes. It is not the whole truth, of course ; no man ever sees the whole truth, and certainly no one proposition can ever contain the whole truth. But it is a part of the truth which it is unsafe to neglect.
What he says, for instance, about poetical diction' is true enough: “Words too familiar or too remote defeat the purpose of a poet. From those sounds which we hear on small or on coarse occasions we do not easily receive strong impressions or delightful images ; and words to which we are nearly strangers, whenever they occur, draw that attention on themselves which they should transmit to things.” But when he comes from laying down these general laws to apply them to particular cases he is liable to overlook the special circumstances. His condemnation of Dryden's nautical phraseology is undoubtedly too unqualified; he has not appreciated the superior vividness which results from the use of such highly specialized language. His condemnation of the overelaborated and frigid conceits of the metaphysical school is as good as possible, but their fine lyrical talent he seems scarcely to have noticed, much less to have felt. He calls attention to Gray's occasional failure in a forced metaphor or simile and to what he happily calls the “eumbrous splendour” of the odes, but he has no ear for Gray's bright picturesqueness of phrase and his fine subtlety of rhythm.
1 “Lives,” Bohn, i. 435 (compare i. 448).
- Lives,” Bohn, i. 24, 52.
Johnson again is entirely right to point out that the pastoral form and the allegorical allusions of “Lycidas” are highly artificial, and give a tone of unreality to the poem. “Passion plucks no berries from the myrtle and ivy, nor calls upon Arethusa and Mincius. Where there is leisure for fiction there is little grief. . . . Its form is that of a pastoral . . . . whatever images it can supply are-long ago exhausted, and its inherent improbability always forces dissatisfaction on the mind.” Yet, we ask, by what fatality does the critic come to utter in reference to “ Lycidas” those truths which, if applied to the pastorals of Pope or Philips, we should not attempt to resist? And what are we to think of Johnson's capacity for directly perceiving beauty, when he adds,“ surely no man could have fancied that he read •Lycidas' with pleasure had he not known the author.” This surely is letting his judgment get the better of him with a vengeance.
But after we have made all the necessary deductions, Johnson's criticism remains full of value, and especially for us. In periods when imagination and emotion are dominant in literature, and when men take most delight in just those literary elements which are least allied to pure reason, it is necessary that we should be sometimes recalled to the recognition of its more orderly, abstract and intellectual elements. Though the formal aspects of literature have not all the importance which the eighteenth century assigned to them, they have much more importance than the nineteenth is inclined to attribute to them. And nothing is more likely to enforce this on us than the grave sanity, the practical knowledge of the world, and the moral elevation of Johnson's criticism.
1 “Lives,” Bohn, i. 167, 168.