It is an ingenious observation made by a journalist of Trevoux, on perusing a criticism not ill written, which pretended to detect several faults in the compositions of Bruyère, that in ancient Rome the great men who triumphed amidst the applauses of those who celebrated their virtues, were at the same time compelled to listen to those who reproached them with their vices. This custom is not less necessary to the republic of letters than it was formerly to the republic of Rome. Without this it is probable that authors would be intoxicated with success, and would then relax in their accustomed vigour; and the multitude who took them for models would, for want of judgment, imitate their defects.
Sterne and Churchill were continually abusing the Reviewers, because they honestly told the one that obscenity was not wit, and obscurity was not sense; and the other that dissonance in poetry did not excel harmony, and that his rhymes were frequently prose lines of ten syllables cut into verse. They applauded their happier efforts. Notwithstanding all this, it is certain that so little discernment exists among common writers and common readers, that the obscenity and flippancy of Sterne, and the bald verse and prosaic poetry of Churchill, were precisely the portion which they selected for imitation. The blemishes of great men are not the less blemishes, but they are, unfortunately, the easiest parts for imitation.
Yet criticism may be too rigorous, and genius too sensible to its direst attacks. Sir John Marsham, having published the first part of his “Chronology,” suffered so much chagrin at the endless controversies which it raised — and some of his critics went so far as to affirm it was designed to be detrimental to revelation — that he burned the second part, which was ready for the press. Pope was observed to writhe with anguish in his chair on hearing mentioned the letter of Cibber, with other temporary attacks; and it is said of Montesquieu, that he was so much affected by the criticisms, true and false, which he daily experienced, that they contributed to hasten his death. Ritson’s extreme irritability closed in lunacy, while ignorant Reviewers, in the shapes of assassins, were haunting his death-bed. In the preface to his “Metrical Romances,” he describes himself as “brought to an end in ill health and low spirits — certain to be insulted by a base and prostitute gang of lurking assassins who stab in the dark, and whose poisoned daggers he has already experienced.” Scott, of Amwell, never recovered from a ludicrous criticism, which I discovered had been written by a physician who never pretended to poetical taste.
Pelisson has recorded a literary anecdote, which forcibly shows the danger of caustic criticism. A young man from a remote province came to Paris with a play, which he considered as a masterpiece. M. L’Etoile was more than just in his merciless criticism. He showed the youthful bard a thousand glaring defects in his chef-d’œuvre. The humbled country author burnt his tragedy, returned home, took to his chamber, and died of vexation and grief. Of all unfortunate men, one of the unhappiest is a middling author endowed with too lively a sensibility for criticism. Athenæus, in his tenth book, has given us a lively portrait of this melancholy being. Anaxandrides appeared one day on horseback in the public assembly at Athens, to recite a dithyrambic poem, of which he read a portion. He was a man of fine stature, and wore a purple robe edged with golden fringe. But his complexion was saturnine and melancholy, which was the cause that he never spared his own writings. Whenever he was vanquished by a rival, he immediately gave his compositions to the druggists to be cut into pieces to wrap their articles in, without ever caring to revise his writings. It is owing to this that he destroyed a number of pleasing compositions; age increased his sourness, and every day he became more and more dissatisfied with the awards of his auditors. Hence his “Tereus,” because it failed to obtain the prize, has not reached us, which, with other of his productions, deserved preservation, though they had missed the crown awarded by the public.
Batteux having been chosen by the French government for the compilation of elementary hooks for the Military School, is said to have felt their unfavourable reception so acutely, that he became a prey to excessive grief. The lamentable death of Dr. Hawkesworth was occasioned by a similar circumstance. Government had consigned to his care the compilation of the voyages that pass under his name: how he succeeded is well known. He felt the public reception so sensibly, that he preferred the oblivion of death to the mortifying recollections of life.1
On this interesting subject Fontenelle, in his “Eloge sur Newton,” has made the following observation:—“Newton was more desirous of remaining unknown than of having the calm of life disturbed by those literary storms which genius and science attract about those who rise to eminence.” In one of his letters we learn that his “Treatise on Optics” being ready for the press, several premature objections which appeared made him abandon its publication. “I should reproach myself,” he said, “for my imprudence, if I were to lose a thing so real as my ease to run after a shadow.” But this shadow he did not miss: it did not cost him the ease he so much loved, and it had for him as much reality as ease itself. I refer to Bayle, in his curious article, “Hipponax,” note F. To these instances we may add the fate of the Abbé Cassagne, a man of learning, and not destitute of talents. He was intended for one of the preachers at court; but he had hardly made himself known in the pulpit, when he was struck by the lightning of Boileau’s muse. He felt so acutely the caustic verses, that they rendered him almost incapable of literary exertion; in the prime of life he became melancholy, and shortly afterwards died insane. A modern painter, it is known, never recovered from the biting ridicule of a popular, but malignant wit. Cummyns, a celebrated quaker, confessed he died of an anonymous letter in a public paper, which, said he, “fastened on my heart, and threw me into this slow fever.” Racine, who died of his extreme sensibility to a royal rebuke, confessed that the pain which one severe criticism inflicted outweighed all the applause he could receive. The feathered arrow of an epigram has sometimes been wet with the heart’s blood of its victim. Fortune has been lost, reputation destroyed, and every charity of life extinguished, by the inhumanity of inconsiderate wit.
Literary history, even of our own days, records the fate of several who may be said to have died of Criticism.2 But there is more sense and infinite humour in the mode which Phædrus adopted to answer the cavillers of his age. When he first published his Fables, the taste for conciseness and simplicity were so much on the decline, that they were both objected to him as faults. He used his critics as they deserved. To those who objected against the conciseness of his style, he tells a long tedious story (Lib. iii. Fab. 10, ver. 59), and treats those who condemned the simplicity of his style with a run of bombast verses, that have a great many noisy elevated words in them, without any sense at the bottom — this in Lib. iv. Fab. 6.
1 The doctor was paid 6000l. to prepare the narrative of the Voyages of Captain Cook from the rough notes. He indulged in much pruriency of description, and occasional remarks savouring of infidelity. They were loudly and generally condemned, and he died soon afterwards.
2 Keats is the most melancholy instance. The effect of the severe criticism in the Quarterly Review upon his writings, is said by Shelley to have “appeared like madness, and he was with difficulty prevented from suicide.” He never recovered its baneful effect; and when he died in Rome, desired his epitaph might be, “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” The tombstone in the Protestant cemetery is nameless, and simply records that “A young English poet” lies there.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:07