Criticism in England. A review of Old and New Masters, by Robert Lynd
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54 ] Criticism in England1 A review of Old and New Masters, by Robert Lynd London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1919. Pp. 249. The Athenaeum, 4650 (13 June 1919) 456-57 We generally agree in conversation that the amount of good literary criticism in English is negligible. Mr. Arnold Bennett comprehended the usual case adequately in his Books and Persons: putting the case from the point of view of the two or three hundred persons who perceive the defect.2 He overlooks in his statement our greatest critic – Dryden; he says that every sentence of Lamb proves his taste and his powerful intelligence, and that Churton Collins possessed no real feeling for literature: both of which are exaggerations; and he says also that Matthew Arnold with study and discipline might have been a great critic, which is probably a superstition.3 Still, Mr. Bennett in a couple of paragraphs covers everything that passes in conversation on the subject between intelligent people. We cannot, of course, assign any term to the inquiry why there is so little criticism; but we can take up the investigation at the point where Mr. Bennett leaves it, by asking , What is the matter with the criticism which we get? This is the inquest to which a book like Mr. Lynd’s conducts us.4 It is not enough, certainly, to protest that no one makes a profession of criticism; that every critic is furtively a novelist or a poet. Here is Mr. Lynd. Whether he is a novelist or a poet, or a novelist and a poet, or not, Mr. Lynd is known primarily as a critic; as a critic he has an audible and a merited reputation. He is serious, but not pedantic; he writes a great deal for papers, but I do not believe that he often expresses an opinion which afterthought retracts. He is educated, and he is, usually and on the whole, on the right side. The articles which he wrote were good articles. But they do not make a very good book. Something is wrong which is not wholly the fault of Mr. Lynd. It ought to be possible, we feel with conviction, to write review articles which should be worth cobbling into a book. Even though periodicals may be a necessary evil; though their function may be something quite different from the quick production of superior thought; though they may merely [ 55 Criticism in England provide a substantial fluid upon which the lighter oil of current conversation may float from week to week or quarter to quarter; nevertheless it is difficult to give up the idea that a really good article is worth preserving. We resent even the necessary alterations, though we see why they are compelled . In Mr. Lynd’s case there is the initial disappointment of finding that he has failed to make some of the necessary alterations, followed by a suspicion that his method, his whole structure of thought, is wrong for a book, triumphant as it is for its original application. His way of introducing a subject, for instance, which seems to be almost a part of the structure, is evidenceofthissuccessandfailure.ThefirstpageofhisessayonChesterton and Belloc is reducible to the statement that Chesterton and Belloc are inseparable; it is rounded off and impressed by a reference, excellent in itself, to the Great Twin Brethren who fought so well for Rome.5 We are quite aware of the uses of this sort of curtain-raiser in a periodical. The audience must be attracted, like the audience of a park speaker, and must be coaxed into the proper receptive attitude. The periodical writer faces the risk of the reader’s breaking off and turning to the next article. But if we are bold enough to publish a book we must be bold enough to presume the initial attention of the reader; the puzzle is how to maintain his attention by good substance and good manners. The prefatory gestures only waste the reader’s time. These gestures are more irritating when Mr. Lynd’s prelude is serious instead of flippant. Thus he presents Strindberg: The mirror that Strindberg held up to nature was a cracked one. It was cracked in a double sense – it was crazy. [123] Villon’s poetry is “a map of disaster and a chronicle of lost souls” [98]. Tchehov “does not deliver messages to us from the mountain-top like Tolstoy . . .” [171].6 These are not serious enough introductions to really serious writers. And when we go further...