Criticism, by Edgar Allan Poe

Exordium

[Graham’s Magazine, January, 1842]

IN Commencing, with the New Year, a New Volume, we shall be permitted to say a very few words by way of exordium to our usual chapter of Reviews, or, as we should prefer calling them, of Critical Notices. Yet we speak not for the sake of the exordium, but because we have really something to say, and know not when or where better to say it.

That the public attention, in America, has, of late days, been more than usually directed to the matter of literary criticism, is plainly apparent. Our periodicals are beginning to acknowledge the importance of the science (shall we so term it?) and to disdain the flippant opinion which so long has been made its substitute.

Time was when we imported our critical decisions from the mother country. For many years we enacted a perfect farce of subserviency to the dicta of Great Britain. At last a revulsion of feeling, with self-disgust, necessarily ensued. Urged by these, we plunged into the opposite extreme. In throwing totally off that “authority,” whose voice had so long been so sacred, we even surpassed, and by much, our original folly. But the watchword now was, “a national literature!"— as, if any true literature could be “national”— as if the world at large were not the only proper stage for the literary histrio. We became, suddenly, the merest and maddest partizans in letters. Our papers spoke of “tariffs” and “protection.” Our Magazines had habitual passages about that “truly native novelist, Mr. Cooper,” or that “staunch American genius, Mr. Paulding.” Unmindful of the spirit of the axioms that “a prophet has no honor in his own land” and that “a hero is never a hero to his valet-de-chambre”— axioms founded in reason and in truth — our reviews urged the propriety — our booksellers the necessity, of strictly “American” themes. A foreign subject, at this epoch, was a weight more than enough to drag down into the very depths of critical damnation the finest writer owning nativity in the States; while, on the reverse, we found ourselves daily in the paradoxical dilemma of liking, or pretending to like, a stupid book the better because (sure enough) its stupidity was of our own growth, and discussed our own affairs.

It is, in fact, but very lately that this anomalous state of feeling has shown any signs of subsidence. Still it is subsiding. Our views of literature in general having expanded, we begin to demand the use — to inquire into the offices and provinces of criticism — to regard it more as an art based immovably in nature, less as a mere system of fluctuating and conventional dogmas. And, with the prevalence of these ideas, has arrived a distaste even to the home-dictation of the bookseller-coteries. If our editors are not as yet all independent of the will of a publisher, a majority of them scruple, at least, to confess a subservience, and enter into no positive combinations against the minority who despise and discard it. And this is a very great improvement of exceedingly late date.

Escaping these quicksands, our criticism is nevertheless in some danger — some very little danger — of falling into the pit of a most detestable species of cant — the cant of generality. This tendency has been given it, in the first instance, by the onward and tumultuous spirit of the age. With the increase of the thinking-material comes the desire, if not the necessity, of abandoning particulars for masses. Yet in our individual case, as a nation, we seem merely to have adopted this bias from the British Quarterly Reviews, upon which our own Quarterlies have been slavishly and pertinaciously modelled. In the foreign journal, the review or criticism properly so termed, has gradually yet steadily degenerated into what we see it at present — that is to say, into anything but criticism. Originally a “review” was not so called as lucus a non lucendo. Its name conveyed a just idea of its design. It reviewed, or surveyed the book whose title formed its text, and, giving an analysis of its contents, passed judgment upon its merits or defects. But, through the system of anonymous contribution, this natural process lost ground from day to day. The name of a writer being known only to a few, it became to him an object not so much to write well, as to write fluently, at so many guineas per sheet. The analysis of a book is a matter of time and of mental exertion. For many classes of composition there is required a deliberate perusal, with notes, and subsequent generalization. An easy substitute for this labor was found in a digest or compendium of the work noticed, with copious extracts — or a still easier, in random comments upon such passages as accidentally met the eye of the critic, with the passages themselves copied at full length. The mode of reviewing most in favor, however, because carrying with it the greatest semblance of care, was that of diffuse essay upon the subject matter of the publication, the reviewer(?) using the facts alone which the publication supplied, and using them as material for some theory, the sole concern, bearing, and intention of which, was mere difference of opinion with the author. These came at length to be understood and habitually practised as the customary or conventional fashions of review; and although the nobler order of intellects did not fall into the full heresy of these fashions — we may still assert that even Macaulay’s nearest approach to criticism in its legitimate sense, is to be found in his article upon Ranke’s “History of the Popes”— an article in which the whole strength of the reviewer is put forth to account for a single fact — the progress of Romanism — which the book under discussion has established.

Now, while we do not mean to deny that a good essay is a good thing, we yet assert that these papers on general topics have nothing whatever to do with that criticism which their evil example has nevertheless infected in se. Because these dogmatizing pamphlets, which were once “Reviews,” have lapsed from their original faith, it does not follow that the faith itself is extinct — that “there shall be no more cakes and ale”— that criticism, in its old acceptation, does not exist. But we complain of a growing inclination on the part of our lighter journals to believe, on such grounds, that such is the fact — that because the British Quarterlies, through supineness, and our own, through a degrading imitation, have come to merge all varieties of vague generalization in the one title of “Review,” it therefore results that criticism, being everything in the universe, is, consequently, nothing whatever in fact. For to this end, and to none other conceivable, is the tendency of such propositions, for example, as we find in a late number of that very clever monthly magazine, Arcturus.

“But now” (the emphasis on the now is our own)—“but now,” says Mr. Mathews, in the preface to the first volume of his journal, “criticism has a wider scope and a universal interest. It dismisses errors of grammer, and hands over an imperfect rhyme or a false quantity to the proofreader; it looks now to the heart of the subject and the author’s design. It is a test of opinion. Its acuteness is not pedantic, but philosophical; it unravels the web of the author’s mystery to interpret his meaning to others; it detects his sophistry, because sophistry is injurious to the heart and life; it promulgates his beauties with liberal, generous praise, because this is his true duty as the servant of truth. Good criticism may be well asked for, since it is the type of the literature of the day. It gives method to the universal inquisitiveness on every topic relating to life or action. A criticism, now, includes every form of literature, except perhaps the imaginative and the strictly dramatic. It is an essay, a sermon, an oration, a chapter in history, a philosophical speculation, a prose-poem, an art-novel, a dialogue, it admits of humor, pathos, the personal feelings of autobiography, the broadest views of statesmanship. As the ballad and the epic were the productions of the days of Homer, the review is the native characteristic growth of the nineteenth century.”

We respect the talents of Mr. Mathews, but must dissent from nearly all that he here says. The species of “review” which he designates as the “characteristic growth of the nineteenth century” is only the growth of the last twenty or thirty years in Great Britain. The French Reviews, for example, which are not anonymous, are very different things, and preserve the unique spirit of true criticism. And what need we say of the Germans? — what of Winckelmann, of Novalis, of Schelling, of Goethe, of Augustus William, and of Frederick Schlegel? — that their magnificent critiques raisonnees differ from those of Kames, of Johnson, and of Blair, in principle not at all, (for the principles of these artists will not fail until Nature herself expires,) but solely in their more careful elaboration, their greater thoroughness, their more profound analysis and application of the principles themselves. That a criticism “now” should be different in spirit, as Mr. Mathews supposes, from a criticism at any previous period, is to insinuate a charge of variability in laws that cannot vary — the laws of man’s heart and intellect — for these are the sole basis, upon which the true critical art is established. And this art “now” no more than in the days of the “Dunciad,” can, without neglect of its duty, “dismiss errors of grammar,” or “hand over an imperfect rhyme or a false quantity to the proof-reader.” What is meant by a “test of opinion” in the connection here given the words by Mr. M., we do not comprehend as clearly as we could desire. By this phrase we are as completely enveloped in doubt as was Mirabeau in the castle of If. To our imperfect appreciation it seems to form a portion of that general vagueness which is the tone of the whole philosophy at this point:— but all that which our journalist describes a criticism to be, is all that which we sturdily maintain it is not. Criticism is not, we think, an essay, nor a sermon, nor an oration, nor a chapter in history, nor a philosophical speculation, nor a prose-poem, nor an art-novel, nor a dialogue. In fact, it can be nothing in the world but — a criticism. But if it were all that Arcturus imagines, it is not very clear why it might not be equally “imaginative, or “dramatic”— a romance or a melodrama, or both. That it would be a farce cannot be doubted.

It is against this frantic spirit of generalization that we protest. We have a word, “criticism,” whose import is sufficiently distinct, through long usage, at least, and we have an art of high importance and clearly ascertained limit, which this word is quite well enough understood to represent. Of that conglomerate science to which Mr. Mathews so eloquently alludes, and of which we are instructed that it is anything and everything at once — of this science we know nothing, and really wish to know less; but we object to our contemporary’s appropriation in its behalf, of a term to which we, in common with a large majority of mankind, have been accustomed to attach a certain and very definitive idea. Is there no word but “criticism” which may be made to serve the purposes of “Arcturus”? Has it any objection to Orphicism, or Dialism, or Emersonism, or any other pregnant compound indicative of confusion worse confounded?

Still, we must not pretend a total misapprehension of the idea of Mr. Mathews, and we should be sorry that he misunderstood us. It may be granted that we differ only in terms — although the difference will yet be found not unimportant in effect. Following the highest authority, we would wish, in a word, to limit literary criticism to comment upon Art. A book is written — and it is only as the book that we subject it to review. With the opinions of the work, considered otherwise than in their relation to the work itself, the critic has really nothing to do. It is his part simply to decide upon the mode in which these opinions are brought to bear. Criticism is thus no “test of opinion.” For this test, the work, divested of its pretensions as an art-product, is turned over for discussion to the world at large — and first, to that class which it especially addresses — if a history, to the historian — if a metaphysical treatise, to the moralist. In this, the only true and intelligible sense, it will be seen that criticism, the test or analysis of Art, (not of opinion,) is only properly employed upon productions which have their basis in art itself, and although the journalist (whose duties and objects are multiform) may turn aside, at pleasure, from the mode or vehicle of opinion to discussion of the opinion conveyed — it is still clear that he is “critical” only in so much as he deviates from his true province not at all.

And of the critic himself what shall we say? — for as yet we have spoken only the proem to the true epopea. What can we better say of him than, with Bulwer, that “he must have courage to blame boldly, magnanimity to eschew envy, genius to appreciate, learning to compare, an eye for beauty, an ear for music, and a heart for feeling.” Let us add, a talent for analysis and a solemn indifference to abuse.

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