Non-Fictional Prose

by Charles G.D. Roberts

Edited by D.M.R. Bentley and Laurel Boone


 

THE WORLD OF BOOKS: Some American Criticism*


 

Stedman, Edmund Clarence. Victorian Poets (Revised and Enlarged Edition). Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1887.

Scudder, E Horace. Men and Letters. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1887.

 

From 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.

Mr. 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.

Concerning 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.

 


"The World of Books: Some American Criticism," Progress (Saint John, N.B.), 1:5 (2 June 1888), 6 [back]