Shakespeare —The Old And The New Criticism On Him -- By: Leonard Withington

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 004:15 (Aug 1847)
Article: Shakespeare —The Old And The New Criticism On Him
Author: Leonard Withington


Shakespeare —The Old And The New Criticism On Him

Rev. Leonard Withington

Sic fautor veterum, ut tabulas peccare vetantes,
Quas bis quinque viri sanxerunt, foedera regum
Vel Gabiis vel cum rigidis aequata Sabinis,
Pontificum libros, annosa volumina vatum,
Dictitet Albano Musas in monte locutas.
Horace to Augustus, 1.23–27

As our discourse will be on criticism, it may be well to begin by-asking, What rank it holds in literature, and how the judicious critic compares with the inventing poet. Genius is the quality of the one; judgment of the other. Criticism, though subsequent, has some place in the world of learning. It is secondary to genius as the moon borrows its light from the sun. Very little credit is due to that recognizing criticism, which never discovers and can only be directed. Still less is due to the prattle of affectation; the last echo of absurdity. Some seem to have no consciousness of their own. Their very taste is manufactured for them. The cant of criticism is supremely absurd. Dr. Goldsmith has well remarked1 that “the praise which is every day lavished upon Virgil, Horace and Ovid is often no more than an indirect method the critic takes to compliment his own discernment. Their works have long been considered as models of beauty and to praise them now is only to show the conformity of our taste to theirs; it tends not to advance their reputation but to promote our own. Let us then dismiss for the present the pedantry of panegyric.” How much of this self-praising criticism is there in the world! The true meaning is: See what a fine taste I have! My mind is actually in contact with the author, I admire. I am actually a congenial spirit, and you are a barbarian, if you do not agree with me. You may often stop the mouth of such an idolater by just asking him for a little analytic discrimination.

Yet criticism has done an important office in the world. If there were none to judge it would be in vain to write. The truth is, when a work of genius first appears, by its breaking through

conventional rules, its own excellence operates against it.2 The common taste has been formed on different models. All the diletantteism of the upper circles is against it; and the people need to have their attention directed to the recondite beauties which they are too idle to pursue and have too little skill to find. Thus Addison held his classic torch before the statue of Milton, and thus every great poet has had his gentleman-usher to introduce him into the saloon of his reputation. That divining criticism, which forese...

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