restricted access Swinburne as Critic
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[ 115 Swinburne as Critic1 Three conclusions at least issue from the perusal of Swinburne’s critical essays:2† Swinburne had mastered his material, was more inward with the Tudor-Stuart3† dramatists than any man of pure letters before or since; he is a more reliable guide to them than Hazlitt, Coleridge, or Lamb; and his perception of relative values is almost always correct.4 Against these merits we may oppose two objections: the style is the prose style of Swinburne, and the content is not, in an exact sense, criticism. The faults of style are, of course, personal; the tumultuous outcry of adjectives, the headstrong rush of undisciplined sentences, are the index to the impatience and perhaps laziness of a disorderly mind. But the style has one positive merit: it allows us to know that Swinburne was writing not to establish a critical reputation , not to instruct a docile public,5† but as a poet his notes upon poets whom he admired. And whatever our opinion of Swinburne’s verse, the notes upon poets by a poet of Swinburne’s dimensions must be read with attention and respect. In saying that Swinburne’s essays have the value of notes of an important poet upon important poets, we must place a check upon our expectancy. He read everything, and he read with the single interest in finding literature . The critics of the romantic period were pioneers, and exhibit the fallibility of discoverers. The selections of Lamb are a successful effort of good taste, but anyone who has referred to them after a thorough reading of any of the poets included must have found that some of the best passages – which must literally have stared Lamb in the face – are omitted, while sometimes others of less value are included.6 Hazlitt, who committed himself to the judgment that the Maid’s Tragedy is one of the poorest of Beaumont and Fletcher’s plays, has no connected message to deliver.7 Coleridge’s remarks – too few and scattered – have permanent truth; but on some of the greatest names he passes no remark, and of some of the best plays was perhaps ignorant or ill-informed. But compared with Swinburne, Coleridge writes much more as a poet might be expected to write about poets. Of Massinger’s verse Swinburne says: It is more serviceable, more businesslike, more eloquently practical, and more rhetorically effusive – but never effusive beyond the bounds 1919 116 ] of effective rhetoric – than the style of any Shakespearean or of any Jonsonian dramatist. [175] It is impossible to tell whether Webster would have found the style of Massinger more “serviceable” than his own for the last act of the White Devil, and indeed difficult to decide what “serviceable” here means; but it is quite clear what Coleridge means when he says that Massinger’s style is much more easily constructed [than Shakespeare’s], and may be more successfully adopted by writers in the present day.8 Coleridge is writing as a professional with his eye on the technique. I do not know from what writing of Coleridge Swinburne draws the assertion that “Massinger often deals in exaggerated passion,” but in the essay from which Swinburne quotes elsewhere Coleridge merely speaks of the “unnaturally irrational passions,” a phrase much more defensible.9 Upon the whole, the two poets are in harmony upon the subject of Massinger; and although Coleridge has said more in five pages, and said it more clearly, than Swinburne in thirty-nine, the essay of Swinburne is by no means otiose : it is more stimulating than Coleridge’s, and the stimulation is never misleading. With all his superlatives, his judgment, if carefully scrutinized, appears temperate and just. With all his justness of judgment, however, Swinburne is an appreciator and not a critic. In the whole range of literature covered, Swinburne makes hardly more than two judgments which can be reversed or even questioned : one, that Lyly is insignificant as a dramatist, and the other, that Shirley was probably unaffected by Webster.10 The Cardinal is not a cast of the Duchess of Malfi, certainly;11† but when Shirley wrote the mist is risen, and there’s none To steer my wandering bark.  (Dies.)12 he was probably affected by My soul, like to a ship in a black storm, Is driven, I know not whither.13 Swinburne’s judgment is generally sound, his taste sensitive and discriminating . And we cannot say that his thinking is faulty or perverse – up to...