- The Perfect Critic
- The Johns Hopkins University Press and Faber & Faber Ltd
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262 ] The Perfect Critic1 I “Ériger en lois ses impressions personnelles, c’est le grand effort d’un homme s’il est sincère.” – Lettres à l’Amazone.2 Coleridge was perhaps the greatest3† of English critics, and in a sense the last. After Coleridge we have Matthew Arnold; but Arnold – I think it will be conceded – was rather a propagandist for criticism than a critic, a popularizer rather than a creator of ideas. So long as this island remains an island (and we are no nearer the Continent than were Arnold’s contemporaries) the work of Arnold will be important; it is still a bridge across the Channel, and it will always have been good sense. Since Arnold’s attempt to correct his countrymen, English criticism has followed two directions. When a distinguished critic observed recently, in a newspaper article, that “poetry is the most highly organized form of intellectual activity,” we were conscious that we were reading neither Coleridge nor Arnold.4 Not only have the words “organized” and “activity,” occurring together in this phrase, that familiar vague suggestion of the scientific vocabulary which is characteristic of modern writing, but one asked questions which Coleridge and Arnold would not have permitted one to ask. How is it, for instance, that poetry is more “highly organized” than astronomy, physics, or pure mathematics , which we imagine to be, in relation to the scientist who practises them, “intellectual activity” of a pretty highly organized type? “Mere strings of words,” our critic continues with felicity and truth, “flung like dabs of paint across a blank canvas, may awaken surprise . . . but have no significance whatever in the history of literature.” The phrases by which Arnold is best known may be inadequate, they may assemble more doubts than they dispel , but they usually have some meaning. And if a phrase like “the most highly organized form of intellectual activity” is the highest organization of thought of which contemporary criticism, in a distinguished representative, is capable, then, we conclude, modern criticism is degenerate. The verbal disease above noticed may be reserved for diagnosis by and by. It is not a disease from which Mr. Arthur Symons (for the quotation [ 263 The Perfect Critic was, of course, not from Mr. Symons) notably suffers. Mr. Symons represents the other tendency; he is a representative of what is always called “aesthetic criticism” or “impressionistic criticism.” And it is this form of criticism which I propose to examine at once. Mr. Symons, the critical successor of Pater, and partly of Swinburne (I fancy that the phrase “sick or sorry” is the common property of all three), is the “impressionistic critic.”5 He, if anyone, would be said to expose a sensitive and cultivated mind – cultivated, that is, by the accumulation of a considerable variety of impressions from all the arts and several languages – before an “object”; and his criticism, if anyone’s, would be said to exhibit to us, like the plate, the faithful record of the impressions, more numerous or more refined than our own, upon a mind more sensitive than our own. A record, we observe, which is also an interpretation, a translation; for it must itself impose impressions upon us, and these impressions are as much created as transmitted by the criticism. I do not say at once that this is Mr. Symons; but it is the “impressionistic” critic, and the impressionistic critic is supposed to be Mr. Symons. At hand is a volume which we may test. Ten of these thirteen essays deal with single plays of Shakespeare, and it is therefore fair to take one of these ten as a specimen of the book: Antony and Cleopatra is the most wonderful, I think, of all Shakespeare’s plays . . .  andMr.SymonsreflectsthatCleopatraisthemostwonderfulofallwomen: The queen who ends the dynasty of the Ptolemies has been the star of poets, a malign star shedding baleful light, from Horace and Propertius down to Victor Hugo; and it is not to poets only . . .  What, we ask, is this for? as a page on Cleopatra, and on her possible origin in the dark lady of the Sonnets, unfolds itself. And we find, gradually, that this is not an essay on a work of art or a work of intellect; but that Mr. Symons is living through the play as one might live it through in the theatre ; recounting, commenting: In her last days Cleopatra touches a certain elevation . . . she would die a thousand times, rather than live to be a mockery...