- A Brief Treatise on the Criticism of Poetry
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202 ] A Brief Treatise on the Criticism of Poetry1 The Chapbook, 2 (Mar 1920) 1-10 Anatole France, a man whose intelligence must be treated with respect, remarks somewhere that “Criticism is the last of all literary forms; it will perhapsendbyabsorbingthemall.Itisadmirablyadaptedtoaverycivilised society whose memories are rich and whose traditions are already age-old. It is peculiarly suited to a curious, learned, and polished race of men. In order that it may prosper it demands more cultivation than all other literary forms.”2 This statement appears to me both false and pernicious. The critical genius is inseparable from the creative. Not that the most “creative” genius is necessarily the best writer of criticism; but in a more general way, if a people could no longer produce an artist, it could no longer produce a critic. For if we ceased to be able to create works of art, we should certainly cease to be able to appreciate them. And, for the present generation, I think it is true to say that the conditions which may be considered to be unfavourable to the writing of good poetry are unfavourable to the writing of good criticism. During the last few years an enormous mass of verse has been printed, and an enormous mass of appreciations of this verse has also been printed; and verse and criticism are of the same quality. There are three or four poets whose verse is worth reading; there do not appear to be more than that number of good critics. In so far as the people who write about verse are actually the same people who write verse, the coincidence is not surprising. It is fitting that poets should write about poetry; but when it is an indifferent poet writing about indifferent verse the criticism is likely to be equally indifferent. When, as poets, they have no poetic method, it is quite natural that as critics they should have no critical method. If the public which reads reviews possessed any critical faculty of its own this would not much matter. But the public has not yet learned to attach the same doubt to a review as to a report from Russia; partly, perhaps, because a poetic reputation does not appear of so much importance as a Ministerial one. Let the public, however, ask itself why it has never heard of the poems of T. E. Hulme or of Isaac Rosenberg, and why it has heard of the poems of [ 203 A Brief Treatise on the Criticism of Poetry Lady Precocia Pondoeuf and has seen a photograph of the nursery in which she wrote them.3 Let it trace out the writers who are not spoken of because it is to no one’s interest to speak of them, and the writers who are spoken well of because it is to no one’s interest to take the trouble to disparage them; and let the public also notice, in every case, who was the publisher . It will see, in the end, that the disease of contemporary reviewing is only a form of the radical malady of journalism. Criticism is a very different thing. There are several kinds of writing that pass under the name of criticism. There is, first, an etiolated creation. This is not worth much consideration, because it only appeals to minds so enfeebled or so lazy as to be afraid of approaching a genuine work of art face to face. Walter Pater is one example ; there are numerous examples in Paris. It does not count. There is another kind of criticism which is perfectly legitimate. This, again, is not literary or art criticism, but a kind of philosophy. If you isolate from the work of Sainte-Beuve what is pure literary criticism, you will have left out of account what is really the most valuable part.4 You will have failed to appreciate the pattern of Sainte-Beuve’s carpet, which is not literary at all.5 Sainte-Beuve was not primarily interested in art, but in the soul and the body of man, and the varieties of clothing that the soul and the body put on. And a historian, or a philosopher, may use poetry as his data. He will have to be, of course, a man of sensitive discrimination. His work may be of the greatest importance. It is certainly of much greater importance than the work of Anatole France or Pater; it need not be of less importance than what I define as...