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CRITICISM AND CHRISTABEL J. PERCY SMITH IT is said frequently by critics-sometimes, one suspects, in an effort to reassure themselves of their own usefulne.ss--that poets seldom are good judges of their own works. The generalization seems to he based on the notion that the person who creates a poem, and thus knows it from the inside, as it were, cannot be expected to contemplate it clearly from the outside also. A notable exception is Coleridge, not that he was in the habit of writing critiques of his own poems, but that the full recognition of his best poetry only followed, and to a large extent apparently depended on, the application to it of Coleridgean critical principles. The extent to which this is so, and the weakness of some un-Coleridgean approaches to criticism, is nowhere clearer than in the critical history of Christabel. The publication of this poem in 1816 evoked scornful critical laughter and censorious comment that must have done immense harm to the poet's reputation at the time, and caused him genuine pain. One is moved even after so many years by the spectacle of the pontifical, though often anonymous, literary magistrates condemning the mild poet. For Coleridge's nature was not one that could rouse itself to carryon a quarrel, not from incapacity or want of courage but rather from intentness on nobler matters. I do not mean to imply that Coleridge was beyond criticism; certainly he did not consider himself so. Nor did he object even to critical violence. "Every censure," he wrote, "every sarcasm respecting a publication which the critic, with the criticised work before him, can make good, is the critic's right. The writer is authorised to reply, but not to complain. Neither can anyone prescribe to the critic, how soft or how hard; how friendly, or how bitter; shall be the phrases which he is to select for the expression of such reprehension or ridicule.'" But, he goes on to say, when the critic in effect begins to deal with the author instead of with the work, then he is no longer a critic, but an abominable creature. "This determination of un~ licensed personality, and of permitted and legitimate censure, ... is beyond controversy the true one: and though I would not myself exercise all the rights of the latter, yet, let but the former be excluded, I submit myself to its exercise in the hands of others, without complaint and without resentment." lBiographia Literaria, ed. J. Shawcross (London, 1907), II, 86-7. 14 Vol. XXI, no. I, Oct., 1951 CRITICISM AND CHRISTABEL 15 Unhappily, the early reviewers of Coleridge's poetry attacked Coleridge the man again and again. Hazlitt, writing one of the first reviews of Christabel,' professed to find in the phrase "mastiff bitch" evidence that Coleridge was guilty of self-love and desired to show his readers his superiority over them by shocking their feelings. The much-discussed and still undetermined writer of the article in the Edinburgh Review for September, 1816 continues the personal attack by accusing Coleridge of time-serving and even outright venality. The Monthly Review, proceeding a step further, accuses him of plagiarizing. And so on. We need not here pursue the train of backbiting and vituperation, partly because, whatever views one may hold of the relationship between the goodness of the poet and the excellence of his poetry, such abuse does not constitute poetic criticism; and partly because succeeding generations have recognized how far Coleridge was above the sins he was charged with here. Turning to what was critical in the early reviews of Christabel, we find three accusations that were commonly brought against the poem: that it is obscene, that it is incomprehensible, that its versification is intolerable. Let us consider these charges. Whether Hazlitt, as Coleridge himself suspected, was actually responsible for the rumour, one cannot say, but in some way it had been whispered about, in the years between the writing of the pocm and its publication, that Coleridge intended Geraldine to tum out to be a man. Hazlitt seems to have been the first reviewer to imply in his written criticism that there was something not quite...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 14-26
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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