Edmund Clarence. Victorian
Poets (Revised and Enlarged Edition).
Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1887.
E Horace. Men and Letters.
Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1887.
the fact of their being coupled under our notice,
it is not to be imagined that the above two works
are at all co-ordinate. Since, with certain allowances,
a work is to be estimated by the degree of completeness
with which it achieves its aim, the first duty
of the reviewer in such a case as the present
is to distinguish between the respective aims
of the works which he has under consideration.
As both the books in question fulfill easily their
objects, are gracefully adequate to their aim,
there is no inappropriateness in associating them,
even though the one is a collection of unrelated
magazine articles, and the other a formerly evolved
and harmoniously proportioned structure.
Stedman’s work, unquestionably, is a masterpiece
of what is known as creative
criticism. Creative criticism may be partially
defined as that which, proceeding from a reliable
basis of established principles, carries with
it not only warning and precept, but also, and
more especially, example, stimulus, and impregnating
power. Perhaps it is not too much to say that
this work and its companion volume, The Poets
of America, together form the masterpiece
of the Victorian literary criticism. Nothing which
Arnold himself has done, in criticism of pure
literature, is as great as these two volumes taken
together, if we pay due regard to sustained effort
and to unity of design and development. Other
great critics, English and American, with the
possible exception of Professor Dowden, have to
some extent lacked the exquisite fairness of judgement
which one never seeks in vain in Mr. Stedman.
A thorough eclectic spirit, a complete freedom
from prejudice and fad, a superiority to temporary
fashion, and the nicest sense of proportion, these,
with the special qualifications of a poet super-added
- imagination and skilled craftsmanship - make
of Mr. Stedman an ideal critic of poetry. But
to criticize rightly the song of one’s contemporaries,
that is a yet harder task. Mr. Stedman displays
in a wonderful degree the power of setting himself
apart and viewing contemporary poetry as if it
were the product of past generations. He is able
to raise himself out of the turmoil of minor and
conflicting currents, and to note with clearness
the general trend of the period. In noticing such
a work as this the reviewer has nothing to do
but commend with reverence, and endeavour to guide
his readers to the riches that lie within their
reach. To speak from personal experience, I have
found no other book of its class to possess, for
the young writer, quite such a stimulating and
awakening power. Its earnestness and sincerity
cannot fail of their effect - enthusiasm without
extravagance is an over potent force. The prose
style is throughout delightful, easy and spontaneous,
and full of unexpected graces of figure and diction.
In the supplementary chapter, which deals with
the poetic output of the last twelve years, certain
slight amendments are made to past judgements
- which is characteristic of this critic’s scrupulous
fairness. In the original work a shade too much
weight, perhaps, was allowed to Mr. Buchanan and
to Barry Cornwall; while the pre-eminent merits
of Mr. Browning and Mr. Arnold, on the other hand,
received a little less than their full meed. These
trifling defects Mr. Stedman has remedied with
care, putting more emphasis upon them than his
critics would be likely to do. The judicious and
temperate manner in which he deals with darlings
of the hour, such as Mr. Edwin Arnold and Mr.
Lewis Morris, is beyond praise. Such writers,
whom the popular opinion has extravagantly overestimated,
are too apt to be unduly depreciated by those
whom, for convenience, we may term the illuminate.
Mr. Stedmen’s verdict, it seems to me, will come
to be accepted as final. In the minutest details,
and in regard to the slightest names, there is
the same careful balance preserved, the same hatred
of a hasty judgement.
Mr. Scudder’s volume, it is difficult to generalize.
Fairness we find always; and when dealing with
names that are without the range of the "personal
estimate," such as Landor and Shakspeare,
the perspective is all that could be desired.
These just referred to are admirably suggestive
essays, fresh and well-considered. If I were treating
this volume by itself, I should find myself slipping,
perhaps, into the use of stronger expressions.
The paper on "Emerson’s Self" is not
inferior, either in quality or in perspective.
I do not see that this greatest of American writers
could have been studied more impartially if Mr.
Scudder had never seen New England. It is in "Longfellow
and His Art" that we begin to notice a slight,
barely perceptible, shortening of the focus, as
it were. In "The Shaping of Excelsior,"
this change becomes very apparent. The evolution
of a poem like "Exclsior," and the various
changes by which the poet sought to remedy the
deficiencies of the subject, are scarcely to be
taken with the same seriousness which Mr. Scudder
has devoted to Emerson. Longfellow was a true
poet, whose best work has nothing to fear from
the tooth of Time; but he surely wrote a few
poems, "Excelsior" among them, which
a wise reverence for his genius should move us
to ignore. Every great poet has done some feeble
or ill-conceived verse; it happens in Longfellow’s
case that this inferior product has a quality
which appeals to school girls, to the uninformed
taste in general, and so wins temporary vogue.
I do not suppose that the shaping of "Excelsior"
would be taken by any other than a Boston critic
as subject for a deliberate essay. The papers
entitled, "Aspects of Historical Work"
and "A Modern Prophet" are valuable
as well as readable - the latter in particular,
which characterizes Frederick Denison Maurice,
being a most vivid and penetrating delineation.
But I think the opening essay, that on "Elisha
Mulford," is the one which, most of all,
challenges admiration. Even to one for whom Mulford
is but the shadow of a name, the essay proves
altogether fascinating. The characterization is
keen, yet exquisitely sympathetic; loving yet
apparently unprejudiced. The portrait so delicately
drawn before our eyes is complete, and lives.