Samuel Taylor
Coleridge

Biographia
Literaria
by
Samuel
Taylor
Coleridge

Chapter XXI [of
XXIV]                                                     [To
read other chapters,
click here.]



Remarks on the present mode of conducting critical journals.

Long have I wished to see a fair and philosophical inquisition into
the character of Wordsworth, as a poet, on the evidence of his
published works; and a positive, not a comparative, appreciation of
their characteristic excellencies, deficiencies, and defects. I know
no claim that the mere opinion of any individual can have to weigh
down the opinion of the author himself; against the probability of
whose parental partiality we ought to set that of his having thought
longer and more deeply on the subject. But I should call that
investigation fair and philosophical in which the critic announces and
endeavours to establish the principles, which he holds for the
foundation of poetry in general, with the specification of these in
their application to the different classes of poetry. Having thus
prepared his canons of criticism for praise and condemnation, he would
proceed to particularize the most striking passages to which he deems
them applicable, faithfully noticing the frequent or infrequent
recurrence of similar merits or defects, and as faithfully
distinguishing what is characteristic from what is accidental, or a
mere flagging of the wing. Then if his premises be rational, his
deductions legitimate, and his conclusions justly applied, the reader,
and possibly the poet himself, may adopt his judgment in the light of
judgment and in the independence of free-agency. If he has erred, he
presents his errors in a definite place and tangible form, and holds
the torch and guides the way to their detection.
I most willingly admit, and estimate at a high value, the services
which the EDINBURGH REVIEW, and others formed afterwards on the same
plan, have rendered to society in the diffusion of knowledge. I think
the commencement of the EDINBURGH REVIEW an important epoch in
periodical criticism; and that it has a claim upon the gratitude of
the literary republic, and indeed of the reading public at large, for
having originated the scheme of reviewing those books only, which are
susceptible and deserving of argumentative criticism. Not less
meritorious, and far more faithfully and in general far more ably
executed, is their plan of supplying the vacant place of the trash or
mediocrity, wisely left to sink into oblivion by its own weight, with
original essays on the most interesting subjects of the time,
religious, or political; in which the titles of the books or pamphlets
prefixed furnish only the name and occasion of the disquisition. I do
not arraign the keenness, or asperity of its damnatory style, in and
for itself, as long as the author is addressed or treated as the mere
impersonation of the work then under trial. I have no quarrel with
them on this account, as long as no personal allusions are admitted,
and no re-commitment (for new trial) of juvenile performances, that
were published, perhaps forgotten, many years before the commencement
of the review: since for the forcing back of such works to public
notice no motives are easily assignable, but such as are furnished to
the critic by his own personal malignity; or what is still worse, by a
habit of malignity in the form of mere wantonness.
"No private grudge they need, no personal spite
The viva sectio is its own delight!
All enmity, all envy, they disclaim,
Disinterested thieves of our good name:
Cool, sober murderers of their neighbour's fame!"
S. T. C.
Every censure, every sarcasm respecting a publication which the
critic, with the criticised work before him, can make good, is the
critic's right. The writer is authorized to reply, but not to
complain. Neither can anyone prescribe to the critic, how soft or how
hard; how friendly, or how bitter, shall be the phrases which he is to
select for the expression of such reprehension or ridicule. The critic
must know, what effect it is his object to produce; and with a view to
this effect must he weigh his words. But as soon as the critic
betrays, that he knows more of his author, than the author's
publications could have told him; as soon as from this more intimate
knowledge, elsewhere obtained, he avails himself of the slightest
trait against the author; his censure instantly becomes personal
injury, his sarcasms personal insults. He ceases to be a critic, and
takes on him the most contemptible character to which a rational
creature can be degraded, that of a gossip, backbiter, and
pasquillant: but with this heavy aggravation, that he steals the
unquiet, the deforming passions of the world into the museum; into the
very place which, next to the chapel and oratory, should be our
sanctuary, and secure place of refuge; offers abominations on the
altar of the Muses; and makes its sacred paling the very circle in
which he conjures up the lying and profane spirit.
This determination of unlicensed personality, and of permitted and
legitimate censure, (which I owe in part to the illustrious Lessing,
himself a model of acute, spirited, sometimes stinging, but always
argumentative and honourable, criticism) is beyond controversy the
true one: and though I would not myself exercise all the rights of the
latter, yet, let but the former be excluded, I submit myself to its
exercise in the hands of others, without complaint and without
resentment.
Let a communication be formed between any number of learned men in the
various branches of science and literature; and whether the president
and central committee be in London, or Edinburgh, if only they
previously lay aside their individuality, and pledge themselves
inwardly, as well as ostensibly, to administer judgment according to a
constitution and code of laws; and if by grounding this code on the
two-fold basis of universal morals and philosophic reason, independent
of all foreseen application to particular works and authors, they
obtain the right to speak each as the representative of their body
corporate; they shall have honour and good wishes from me, and I shall
accord to them their fair dignities, though self-assumed, not less
cheerfully than if I could inquire concerning them in the herald's
office, or turn to them in the book of peerage. However loud may be
the outcries for prevented or subverted reputation, however numerous
and impatient the complaints of merciless severity and insupportable
despotism, I shall neither feel, nor utter aught but to the defence
and justification of the critical machine. Should any literary Quixote
find himself provoked by its sounds and regular movements, I should
admonish him with Sancho Panza, that it is no giant but a windmill;
there it stands on its own place, and its own hillock, never goes out
of its way to attack anyone, and to none and from none either gives or
asks assistance. When the public press has poured in any part of its
produce between its mill-stones, it grinds it off, one man's sack the
same as another, and with whatever wind may happen to be then blowing.
All the two-and-thirty winds are alike its friends. Of the whole wide
atmosphere it does not desire a single finger-breadth more than what
is necessary for its sails to turn round in. But this space must be
left free and unimpeded. Gnats, beetles, wasps, butterflies, and the
whole tribe of ephemerals and insignificants, may flit in and out and
between; may hum, and buzz, and jar; may shrill their tiny pipes, and
wind their puny horns, unchastised and unnoticed. But idlers and
bravadoes of larger size and prouder show must beware, how they place
themselves within its sweep. Much less may they presume to lay hands
on the sails, the strength of which is neither greater nor less than
as the wind is, which drives them round. Whomsoever the remorseless
arm slings aloft, or whirls along with it in the air, he has himself
alone to blame; though, when the same arm throws him from it, it will
more often double than break the force of his fall.
Putting aside the too manifest and too frequent interference of
national party, and even personal predilection or aversion; and
reserving for deeper feelings those worse and more criminal intrusions
into the sacredness of private life, which not seldom merit legal
rather than literary chastisement, the two principal objects and
occasions which I find for blame and regret in the conduct of the
review in question are first, its unfaithfulness to its own announced
and excellent plan, by subjecting to criticism works neither indecent
nor immoral, yet of such trifling importance even in point of size
and, according to the critic's own verdict, so devoid of all merit, as
must excite in the most candid mind the suspicion, either that dislike
or vindictive feelings were at work; or that there was a cold
prudential pre-determination to increase the sale of the review by
flattering the malignant passions of human nature. That I may not
myself become subject to the charge, which I am bringing against
others, by an accusation without proof, I refer to the article on Dr.
Rennell's sermon in the very first number of the EDINBURGH REVIEW as
an illustration of my meaning. If in looking through all the
succeeding volumes the reader should find this a solitary instance, I
must submit to that painful forfeiture of esteem, which awaits a
groundless or exaggerated charge.
The second point of objection belongs to this review only in common
with all other works of periodical criticism: at least, it applies in
common to the general system of all, whatever exception there may be
in favour of particular articles. Or if it attaches to THE EDINBURGH
REVIEW, and to its only corrival (THE QUARTERLY), with any peculiar
force, this results from the superiority of talent, acquirement, and
information which both have so undeniably displayed; and which
doubtless deepens the regret though not the blame. I am referring to
the substitution of assertion for argument; to the frequency of
arbitrary and sometimes petulant verdicts, not seldom unsupported even
by a single quotation from the work condemned, which might at least
have explained the critic's meaning, if it did not prove the justice
of his sentence. Even where this is not the case, the extracts are too
often made without reference to any general grounds or rules from
which the faultiness or inadmissibility of the qualities attributed
may be deduced; and without any attempt to show, that the qualities
are attributable to the passage extracted. I have met with such
extracts from Mr. Wordsworth's poems, annexed to such assertions, as
led me to imagine, that the reviewer, having written his critique
before he had read the work, had then pricked with a pin for passages,
wherewith to illustrate the various branches of his preconceived
opinions. By what principle of rational choice can we suppose a critic
to have been directed (at least in a Christian country, and himself,
we hope, a Christian) who gives the following lines, portraying the
fervour of solitary devotion excited by the magnificent display of the
Almighty's works, as a proof and example of an author's tendency to
downright ravings, and absolute unintelligibility?
"O then what soul was his, when on the tops
Of the high mountains he beheld the sun
Rise up, and bathe the world in light! He looked--
Ocean and earth, the solid frame of earth,
And ocean's liquid mass, beneath him lay
In gladness and deep joy. The clouds were touched,
And in their silent faces did he read
Unutterable love. Sound needed none,
Nor any voice of joy: his spirit drank
The spectacle! sensation, soul, and form,
All melted into him; they swallowed up
His animal being; in them did he live,
And by them did he live: they were his life."
Can it be expected, that either the author or his admirers, should be
induced to pay any serious attention to decisions which prove nothing
but the pitiable state of the critic's own taste and sensibility? On
opening the review they see a favourite passage, of the force and
truth of which they had an intuitive certainty in their own inward
experience confirmed, if confirmation it could receive, by the
sympathy of their most enlightened friends; some of whom perhaps, even
in the world's opinion, hold a higher intellectual rank than the
critic himself would presume to claim. And this very passage they find
selected, as the characteristic effusion of a mind deserted by
reason!--as furnishing evidence that the writer was raving, or he
could not have thus strung words together without sense or purpose! No
diversity of taste seems capable of explaining such a contrast in
judgment.
That I had over-rated the merit of a passage or poem, that I had erred
concerning the degree of its excellence, I might be easily induced to
believe or apprehend. But that lines, the sense of which I had
analysed and found consonant with all the best convictions of my
understanding; and the imagery and diction of which had collected
round those convictions my noblest as well as my most delightful
feelings; that I should admit such lines to be mere nonsense or
lunacy, is too much for the most ingenious arguments to effect. But
that such a revolution of taste should be brought about by a few broad
assertions, seems little less than impossible. On the contrary, it
would require an effort of charity not to dismiss the criticism with
the aphorism of the wise man, in animam malevolam sapientia haud
intrare potest.
What then if this very critic should have cited a large number of
single lines and even of long paragraphs, which he himself
acknowledges to possess eminent and original beauty? What if he
himself has owned, that beauties as great are scattered in abundance
throughout the whole book? And yet, though under this impression,
should have commenced his critique in vulgar exultation with a
prophecy meant to secure its own fulfilment? With a "This won't do!"
What? if after such acknowledgments extorted from his own judgment he
should proceed from charge to charge of tameness and raving; flights
and flatness; and at length, consigning the author to the house of
incurables, should conclude with a strain of rudest contempt evidently
grounded in the distempered state of his own moral associations?
Suppose too all this done without a single leading principle
established or even announced, and without any one attempt at
argumentative deduction, though the poet had presented a more than
usual opportunity for it, by having previously made public his own
principles of judgment in poetry, and supported them by a connected
train of reasoning!
The office and duty of the poet is to select the most dignified as
well as
"The gayest, happiest attitude of things."
The reverse, for in all cases a reverse is possible, is the
appropriate business of burlesque and travesty, a predominant taste
for which has been always deemed a mark of a low and degraded mind.
When I was at Rome, among many other visits to the tomb of Julius II.
I went thither once with a Prussian artist, a man of genius and great
vivacity of feeling. As we were gazing on Michael Angelo's MOSES, our
conversation turned on the horns and beard of that stupendous statue;
of the necessity of each to support the other; of the super-human
effect of the former, and the necessity of the existence of both to
give a harmony and integrity both to the image and the feeling excited
by it. Conceive them removed, and the statue would become un-natural,
without being super-natural. We called to mind the horns of the rising
sun, and I repeated the noble passage from Taylor's HOLY DYING. That
horns were the emblem of power and sovereignty among the Eastern
nations, and are still retained as such in Abyssinia; the Achelous of
the ancient Greeks; and the probable ideas and feelings, that
originally suggested the mixture of the human and the brute form in
the figure, by which they realized the idea of their mysterious Pan,
as representing intelligence blended with a darker power, deeper,
mightier, and more universal than the conscious intellect of man; than
intelligence;--all these thoughts and recollections passed in
procession before our minds. My companion who possessed more than his
share of the hatred, which his countrymen bore to the French, had just
observed to me, "a Frenchman, Sir! is the only animal in the human
shape, that by no possibility can lift itself up to religion or
poetry:" when, lo! two French officers of distinction and rank entered
the church! "Mark you," whispered the Prussian, "the first thing which
those scoundrels will notice--(for they will begin by instantly
noticing the statue in parts, without one moment's pause of admiration
impressed by the whole)--will be the horns and the beard. And the
associations, which they will immediately connect with them will be
those of a he-goat and a cuckold." Never did man guess more luckily.
Had he inherited a portion of the great legislator's prophetic powers,
whose statue we had been contemplating, he could scarcely have uttered
words more coincident with the result: for even as he had said, so it
came to pass.
In THE EXCURSION the poet has introduced an old man, born in humble
but not abject circumstances, who had enjoyed more than usual
advantages of education, both from books and from the more awful
discipline of nature. This person he represents, as having been driven
by the restlessness of fervid feelings, and from a craving intellect
to an itinerant life; and as having in consequence passed the larger
portion of his time, from earliest manhood, in villages and hamlets
from door to door,
"A vagrant Merchant bent beneath his load."
Now whether this be a character appropriate to a lofty didactick poem,
is perhaps questionable. It presents a fair subject for controversy;
and the question is to be determined by the congruity or incongruity
of such a character with what shall be proved to be the essential
constituents of poetry. But surely the critic who, passing by all the
opportunities which such a mode of life would present to such a man;
all the advantages of the liberty of nature, of solitude, and of
solitary thought; all the varieties of places and seasons, through
which his track had lain, with all the varying imagery they bring with
them; and lastly, all the observations of men,
"Their manners, their enjoyments, and pursuits,
Their passions and their feelings="
which the memory of these yearly journeys must have given and recalled
to such a mind--the critic, I say, who from the multitude of possible
associations should pass by all these in order to fix his attention
exclusively on the pin-papers, and stay-tapes, which might have been
among the wares of his pack; this critic, in my opinion, cannot be
thought to possess a much higher or much healthier state of moral
feeling, than the Frenchmen above recorded.

[Here ends chapter 21.  To read other chapters of
Biographia Literaria, click here.]