London Letter: June, 1922
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406 ] London Letter: June, 19221 The Dial, 73 (July 1922) 94-96 The death of Sir Walter Raleigh removes a figure of some dignity from a post of some importance. I use both phrases with responsibility. I have never seen and heard the late Professor of Poetry at Oxford, and have never read a line of his writings.2 But he occupied the post of some importance, and though he may have left it no more important than he found it, he never, so far as I know, made it ridiculous. As for the post, I know well enough that such positions are not for the absolutely first-rate men, but their importance does not depend upon being held by the absolutely firstrate men; it is perhaps not even desirable that they should be held by the first-rate men. It is only a limited range of originality, like that of Anatole France, that is appropriate to be rewarded by the Académie Française.3 But theAcadémiestandsforsomethingvaluable;andsoshouldtheProfessorship of Poetry at Oxford. It is not to the interest of English literature that the Professorship of Poetry at Oxford should pass to the servile, the indefinite, or the sluggish. And we may as easily get a less worthy Professor of Poetry than Sir Walter Raleigh, as a less worthy Laureate than Robert Bridges.4 Dr. Bridges is a much more valuable personage, it must be said, than was Raleigh. He is the best living specimen in England of the good academic poet; and the word “academic” is not to be read in a pejorative sense. His Milton’s Prosody is a piece of work well done.5 If I were to nominate his successor , the choice would be, I think, Mr. Sturge Moore; also a conscientious , sensitive, and scholarly poet with a respect for the English language.6 But to find a successor for Sir Walter Raleigh I should be at a loss. The requirements are difficult: the good academic mind is as rare in England as the good revolutionary mind; there is an originality about the good academic mind, as essential to it as another originality is to the creative mind. The good critic of poetry cannot be merely an astute specialist , like Sir Sidney Lee, or an able biographer, like Sir Sidney Colvin, or a polite essayist, like Mr. Edmund Gosse, or a polite moralist, like Mr. Clutton-Brock.7 All of these gentlemen may be accused of seriousness if one is seeking mirth: but for a Professor of Poetry the choice of any one of [ 407 London Letter: June them would be simply frivolous. The simplest way of dealing with the contemporary writers of belles-lettres is to divide them into two classes: the Gentleman in a Library, and the earnest Liberal. Neither is quite what we want. The Gentleman in a Library is well read, and has a taste for books. In his highest form of development he is a genuine scholar, with considerable acuteness, and a vigorous gusto for literature. His highest manifestation in England is Professor Saintsbury. Mr. Saintsbury is a scholar: and he knows a great deal about Port (his Notes for a Cellarbook are inadequate on the side of German wines).8 His services to literature have been great: had he done nothing but his edition of Caroline Poets in three volumes he would still have earned our perpetual gratitude. What is singular about his criticism is the range of his enjoyment: he enjoys not only the first, but the second, third, and tenth-rate, without confusion or illusions. If there is the smallest mustard seed of pleasure to be found in some forgotten poet or novelist, Mr. Saintsbury will extract it. Consequently, Mr. Saintsbury is often more entertaining when he writes about authors whom we do not want to read, than when he writes about authors whom we know. Things which we are incapable of enjoying for ourselves we enjoy through Mr. Saintsbury. The second Gentleman in a Library is Mr. Charles Whibley. I also prize Mr. Whibley because he has read so many things that I have not read, and becauseheisnotaWhig.Hisgreatlimitation,incontrasttoMr.Saintsbury, is his affection for quaintness; he is a disciple of Henley and was a friend of George Wyndham. On the other hand, I do not know who else could write about Bolingbroke.9 I think that these are the two best specimens: there are many varieties. As the gentleman becomes the journalist, we get essays...