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Pretensions of Mr. Gilfillan.


it may end in the confusion of all moral truth. The steps of this declension may be distinctly traced. Extravagant assertion always involves some departure from strict rectitude, as well as from the rules of taste. Unwarrantable praise or censure is misleading from a similar excess. Even the misemployment of a word may seriously affect the judgment of a reader in reference to some important principle; may confound distinctions necessary to be duly kept in view, or insensibly create a prejudice the most lasting and unjust. It will, therefore, commonly happen, that the loss of time incurred, and the vacuity or dissipation of mind induced, will be among the lightest evils of inferior literature; false opinions and fatal preferences are heedlessly engendered; the habit of intellectual and moral discipline is lost in the craving after pernicious stimulus; and an unconquerable distaste for chaste and thoughtful composition cuts off the very hope of future elevation or improvement. And hence we may learn the value, above all natural gifts and all external acquirements, of that careful, diligent, and conscientious spirit of authorship which loves truth for its own sake,-truth in substance, in tone, in detail, in the lightest word,-and sees no merit in the most ingenious and attractive paradox.

The theme opened up to us by these reflections is of no small extent; but, in the few pages allotted to this article, we can deal with it only in one department. We shall proceed to speak, then, of the most prevalent and injurious of these existing evils. Some nuisances there are which cry out for immediate abatement, and this is one of them. We hold that both the manifest deterioration of the public taste, and the threatening confusion of moral truth, are mainly due to the example and encouragement of our popular critics and fine writers; and of these the most notorious offender is Mr. George Gilfillan.

Many reasons concur to fix our choice upon the writings of this gentleman, and to justify the free handling we propose to give them. The popularity of their author we naturally infer, both from the frequency with which his name is quoted in the provincial newspapers, and the fact that one of his works has been encouraged into a third series, and another into a third edition. This popularity among a large class of readers involves no small amount of influence, and no light measure of responsibility. But Mr. Gilfillan has a further claim upon our attention. In the pages of no other living writer, at least of equal reputation, could we find so many prime examples of so many literary faults. He represents very fairly and fully one considerable section of press, with its coarse attractions and many blemishes and imperfections; and we are not surprised to learn from himself, that he contributes largely to four or five of the popular serials of the day. He will, no doubt, be flattered to learn that traces


of his "dashing" hand are very visible on their pages; for there he leaves his mark in unmistakable characters.

We do not scruple at the utmost freedom in dealing with the public character of Mr. Gilfillan. His own practice would release us from any great restraint of delicacy, and, indeed, would justify us in a degree of licence which we decline to use. To the judgment of a strict and candid criticism, he is particularly open. He cannot plead youth in bar of just severity, since we learn from his own pages that it is full twenty years since he attained the age of manhood. He cannot plead inexperience, since he is a voluminous and incessant writer; and the first volume named at the head of this article, is a third series of literary verdicts deliberately collected and re-issued to the world. He cannot plead modesty of pretension, or a desire to shun the observation of the public; for the same volume exhibits him in the character of a judge, claiming a wide and comprehensive jurisdiction,-a critic of men and affairs as well as of books and authors,—a critic of critics, challenging the judgments of such men as Macaulay and Hallam, and approving or condemning, by his own standard, the weights and measures long current in the world of criticism.

Considering our own position, we are not likely to set up too high a standard of critical excellence, or to demand perfection from Mr. Gilfillan in the exercise of the functions he has assumed. We have no idea, for instance, that the talents of a critic must needs emulate the genius of his author; and, indeed, this is one of the very grounds of our complaint against Mr. Gilfillan. Under an exaggerated notion of the sympathy existing between a genial critic and a great orator or poet, he absolutely seems to run a race with them, and to dispute their prize. This is not a mere occasional sally of our critic; it is very deliberately defended, as well as uniformly practised, by him. He actually says, in so many words, "Every criticism on a true poem should be itself a poem." We shall presently see what strange follies he is betrayed into by these sudden and unchecked impulses of admiration.

We may ask, in passing, what is the value of this "genial criticism?" Surely, as criticism, it is of the least possible significance or value. There are cases, it is readily granted, in which the absence of a certain sympathy with the loftiest mood and the most delicate fancies of genius, is a disqualification for the critical office, at least in so far as these cases are concerned. But every critic is not called, nor is any frequently, to give a public estimate of these high and peculiar monuments of greatness; and even when this qualification is plainly desiderated, the judgment pronounced will not greatly err, if formed according to recognised and important principles. An example may serve to make our meaning clear. Dr. Johnson furnishes, in his own

Character and Sphere of True Criticism.


character, a striking instance of defective sympathy; but his writings are no less striking specimens of masterly criticism. He had no very delicate perception of the refined and beautiful,— no ear for the most delicious snatches of poetic music. His limited taste permitted him only partially to appreciate the airy fancies of a Collins, or the superb imagination of a Gray. The elements of Milton's minor poetry were too subtle, and their combination too exquisite, to sensibly affect his grosser organization, or find an index of sufficient delicacy in that colossal mind. Yet even to these he did no positive injustice; of some of them he has said finer things than their most passionate admirers. In all the other countless subjects submitted to his discriminating power, he stands confessedly the first of critics. And why so? Simply because the most necessary and valuable qualities of the critic were possessed by him in plenitude and perfection. For these qualities, be it remembered, are not rightly concerned with the rarest individual beauties of authorship. When an orator or poet "snatches a grace beyond the reach of art," the critic may duly point it out, and, if need be, defend this occasional exercise of the prerogative of genius; but to the art his duty is for the most part properly restricted, and under its generous laws he is to see the products of the individual mind most happily subdued.

The character and sphere of true criticism will be better understood, if we remember that it is deductive in its origin, and disciplinary in its application. It is deductive in its origin. The highest critics the world has yet seen-from Aristotle down to Addison or Johnson-have all deduced the rules of composition, and framed its several standards, rather from the examples of the poets than from necessary and abstract laws. What the grammarian does for ordinary language, that the critic performs in respect to the more exalted language of the muse. Aristotle himself is the servant rather than the Procrustean tyrant of the sons of genius; for these are a fountain of law unto themselves; and it was the humbler duty of the Stagyrite to translate the art of Homer into axioms and rules of science, and to publish them as the authorized grammar of poetry thenceforth. And if any demur to this restriction, and complain that the chartered rights of genius are so confined or forfeited, we beg them to consider that the grammar of poetry is not only taken from the masters of song themselves, and is therefore substantially and perpetually correct, but that, like other grammars, it is capable of large additions and improvements from time to time; that, as fresh examples of the language of the muse are suggested and given off by the deeper and wider experience of humanity, the vocabulary and theory of the critic also will expand, and find new illustrations to widen and confirm its ancient laws. So we find it in the history of literature: criticism has followed in

the wake of the advancing arts, if at a becoming distance, yet with equal steps. The great principles of criticism, like those of universal grammar, are the same in every tongue, and are applicable through all time to works in poetry, eloquence, history, or the fine arts; and if it required the genius of an Aristotle to formulate these principles in the beginning, it is competent to a Wilson or a Dallas to carry them further towards perfection, and give to his theoria nobler degrees of beauty, majesty, and strength.

But for all practical purposes, criticism must be considered as one of the applied arts; and, in this character, its action is strictly disciplinary. To conserve the purity of language, and maintain the dignity of letters; to restrain the excesses of youthful genius, and to point out the models of truest excellence; to supply the defects and counteract the biases of partial education; to encourage noble effort; to reprove unworthy affectation; to warn against the indulgence of a luxuriant fancy, and to cherish the exercise of sober thought as the basis of every genuine performance, these are, in brief, the duties to be conscientiously fulfilled. For their adequate discharge is demanded, no doubt, some natural advantage,-something akin to that excellence which the critic is to promote and keep ever before him; for how shall he venture publicly to approve and crown what he does not consciously or well appreciate? But the qualities most essential are good judgment and cultivated taste, a power of discrimination which resides in a strong native understanding, when developed by careful exercise, and furnished with considerable knowledge. We would not overstate the accomplishments necessary for the due performance of literary censorship in this age of vast literary productiveness. Happily they are not many, nor, for the most part, such as may not, with diligence, be almost indefinitely improved. They are nearly all included in a loving intimacy with the elder masters of composition, combined with a readiness to greet the ancient law in its newest manifestation, and to recognise both variety and degrees of excellence in the kingdom of mind. Perhaps only the self-assertion of ignorance and intolerance are absolute disqualifications. Our professional critics form now a large and influential body; but they have no legislative function. They are simply an organized police, bound to maintain order and decorum in the republic of letters; or, at the most, they are its magistrates, set "for the punishment of evildoers, and the praise of them that do well." It is not necessary for them to discuss the merits of the laws which they administer; it is still more unseemly to promulge and act upon impromptu canons of their own.

The lesson we would draw from these considerations shall be very simply stated. While the positive merits of a critic may be of almost any quality and degree, there are certain

Mr. Gilfillan's Style of Address to Mr. Neale.


negative ones which are indispensable. It is the least we can expect from a literary. censor, that he should not himself infringe the literary proprieties. If he do not sensibly elevate, he must not actually corrupt, the public taste. Any wanton experiments upon language, any unseemly affectation or display, any indulgence of tawdry rhetoric or foolish extravagance of tone, is not only a dereliction of private duty, but a betrayal of the public interest. Above all, or next only to that honesty of intention which we will assume to influence, in some measure, the most thoughtless and incapable, it is necessary that no infirmity of temper should interfere with the deliberate mood of justice, or substitute the language of coarse personal invective for that of critical displeasure.

Now all these blemishes are very prominent in the pages of Mr. Gilfillan. In effect, if not in intention, he is a corrupter and misleader of youth. He is not free from faults of language which would disgrace the themes of a third-class boy. His style is always loose, and very often turgid; epithets the least appropriate are chosen only for their supposed effectiveness, and yoked together without parity or propriety of any kind. His rashness hurries him into assertions of the wildest nature, and his freedom borders closely upon profanity. And, as if these were so many virtues which make our author impatient of inferior merit, and give to him an unusual licence in the language of reproach, he scolds in good set terms, and in a style which lacks only discrimination and decency to make it positively severe.

The characteristic last mentioned shall be first exemplified. Mr. Neale, a Clergyman of the Church of England, with strong Anglican prejudices, undertakes to alter and adapt the " Pilgrim's Progress" for the use of children in the English Church. The design was foolish in the extreme, but not dishonest. Neither the fame nor the influence of Bunyan is at this time of day at the mercy of either Jesuit or Tractarian. His book is so thoroughly imbued with the spirit of a true evangelist, that it defies perversion. The editor of some particular reprint may mar its literary beauties, and even injure its scriptural simplicity; but the "improver" must be answerable for this distortion, and enough of the original will doubtless remain to outweigh and counteract its faults. We dare not say the attempt was really dishonest, because conscientious men have frequently felt justified in exercising a similar liberty, though, as we think, generally with much higher wisdom and far truer taste. In noticing this book, Mr. Gilfillan loses all discretion, when perhaps he required it most. A judicious estimate of the folly involved in the design, and committed in the execution, of this book, with a firm and appropriate reproof administered to the presumptuous editor, would have been a very seasonable

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