Page images

this Ignorance of Art is, especially in beginners, rather the rule than the exception. Of ignorance of fact I shall say little. It exists of course. I remember some oneit was Mr John Morley, I think— being once magisterially taken to task by a critic for using such an affected word as "incarnadine," the critic thereby, I need hardly say, showing a slight ignorance of another author-not Mr Morleywhom we are all at least supposed to know. I have much more recently seen a plaintive and ingenious expostulation with an author for speaking about the subject of his book in a way showing considerable familiarity with the matter but not illuminative to the critic, when as a matter of fact the author's remarks showed a very distinct unfamiliarity with that matter. But though a reviewer should certainly know Shakespeare, and though it would be at least well that he should not review a book about, let us say, Syriac without knowing it, it is, as I have already said, a blunder to require specialist knowledge in all cases. A good sound education in the tongues and the liberal arts, with the knack of putting oneself at the special point of view by resorting if necessary to the best standard authorities, combined with some portion of the critical talent and some knowledge of the critical art, will do infinitely better than specialist knowledge, which not infrequently hampers that talent and interferes with the practice of that art by interposing "idols" of more kinds than one. But the education and the experience in the Art itself are indispensables; and it is a question whether they are not rather often dispensed with.

It is the less invidious to admit this as an open question, or even

to answer it in the affirmative that, as things go, a man can very rarely help himself. I am as sure that there is an Art of Criticism as I am sure that there is no Science of it. But until very recently, when in more Universities than one or two the institution of Honours Schools in English Literature has led to something like a systematic study of literary criticism, there has not been in England, or Scotland either, anything of the sort. The Professors of Poetry at Oxford--by an honourable tradition which the names of Warton, Keble, and Mr Arnold have made not only honourable but illustrious, and which the present holder is maintaining, have done what they could; but the opportunities of that Chair are scanty and passing. The Scottish Chairs of Rhetoric have had more opportunity, and excellent work' has been done in them; but until the institution of Honours they have been hampered by the necessity of levelling down to a pass standard. Even abroad there has been much less done than seems to be fancied by those who think that all things are better ordered abroad than at home. The famous French professors, from Villemain downwards, have not, as a rule, escaped that curious note of parochiality-of seeing all things in French Literature, which marks the nation: the Germans, incomparable at philology, are notoriously weak on the literary side of criticism. It is true that the Oxford School of Literæ Humaniores, which has acted, for a hundred years, better up to its name and to the genius of literature than any teaching machine of any University in the world, has always taught men a little directly and a great deal indirectly in this kind. But the direct teaching has been very

little and I understand that it has rather lessened than increased of late years. And the constant shortening of University training, with the multiplication of examinations, has done positive harm. I question whether, limited as was his reading and too often narrow as were his views, a man who left Oxford or Cambridge in the seventeenth century, after the usual seven years' course, was not much better qualified as a reviewer than he who now leaves them after four or at most five. He had mastered the Rhetoric' and the 'Poetics,' which, grievous as are their gaps and huge as are the blinkers which were on Aristotle's eyes, still contain the root of the matter. He had read no small quantity of good literature; most, if not all, of it with no direct purpose of examination. Above all, he had had time to think about what he read, even if he had not actually thought. Dryden, no doubt, was Dryden-a -a man of genius, and of not very quickly developing genius. But if he had written the Essay of Dramatic Poesy' at two-and-twenty, and just after scrambling through his tripos, instead of after seven years at Cambridge and as many more of reading, and a little (not too much) writing in London, I do not think the Essay of Dramatic Poesy' would be what it is.

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

the journey for him. The journey itself must-except in those cases of exceptional genius for the art which may be neglected, as they occur in all arts and are not common in any-be performed; and it is only at the end of it, or rather (for that end never comes) at a fairly advanced stage of it, that a man becomes a really qualified reviewer.

It will follow from this that the number of really qualified reviewers can never be very large; and from that again that it is quite possible to have at any given time rather more reviewing than is altogether expedient. It would perhaps be wiser to say nothing on this head; for, to alter my old friend the 'Oxford Spectator' a little, "the large and well-armed tribe of reviewers" is ill to offend by one who has himself renounced their weapons though he remains exposed to their aim. But I confess that I think there is at the present moment a little too much reviewing, and I may say so freely, because I shall not be suspected of any trade-union jealousy. No doubt books have increased, and readers have increased, in the last thirty years. There are more libraries; the great multiplication of clubs and the increased habit of supplying them with new books must be considered; there may even be more book-buying. But I am not sure that these things of themselves necessitate a larger proportion of reviewing: and reviewing itself has certainly increased rather out of than in proportion. At the beginning of the last third of the nineteenth century there were in London four or five weekly reviews at the most which had any repute; reviews in the daily London papers were quite uncommon things, and betokened perhaps special merit, certainl


For, after all, study of literature, range in it, opportunity of comparing different kinds, of remembering the vastly different estimates held of different works, or even the same work at different times are of even more import ance to the reviewer than formal teaching in criticism. The latter will save him a great deal of time and trouble, will put him and perhaps keep him in the right road; but it will not accomplish

special favour; while out of London there was hardly any daily or weekly journal throughout the United Kingdom which carried much weight in reviewing, and there were extremely few that attempted it, at least on any large scale. I need not say how different is the case now. The number of weekly papers has increased the great and deserved vogue of the Pall Mall Gazette' at the very beginning of the period of which I speak made reviewing a special function of the newer London evening papers: while, rather owing to the example of the great English provincial newspapers and of those of Scotland, than at the initiation of the London dailies themselves, almost every morning newspaper which aims at any position now at least attempts a complete review of the books of the week, in allotments varying from some columns to some lines.

This might on the face of it look as if, to quote Dryden's words 88 those who dislike reviewers might quote them—

utterances, where these utterances are distinct at all, cannot but do them some harm. And if they lose some of their effect from these causes which are not their own fault, they perhaps lose more from others which are. If there is any truth in what I have said above-if the old adage, "it is hard to be good," applies at least as much to reviewers as to others

then this extreme multiplication of reviews, this increase in the rapidity with which they are required, must have some slight effect of damage on the review itself. A reviewer is made at least as slowly as an A.B.: and we all know what comes of manning fleets, not even with pressed men, but with casual volunteers. It is true that the evil is to some extent mitigated by the factwell enough known to expertsthat though at one time it was rather uncommon for a man to write in more than one paper, any man who establishes a reputation for reviewing in London may now, if he chooses, write for a dozen, and is nearly sure to be asked to write for a dozen. But this in its

"The sons of Belial had a glorious turn does some harm. I have


I am not so sure of it, either from their own point of view or from others'. In the first place, there can, I think, be no doubt that the individual review, and even the "chorus of reviewers," indolent or otherwise, has lost some of its old authority. There are so many reviews that even the simplest person who believes in the newspapers, if such a man there be, cannot attach absolute importance to any one of them; they come out so thick and so fast that any mark made by a single one on that elastic target the public apprehension is quickly effaced by others; and the variety of their

hinted that I do not think the practice of doubling reviews, if carried out honestly and industriously, so abominable as some people think it. But I must own that there is something in what was once said to me by the late Mr Harwood, who kept himself in what would seem to these days almost incredible abstinence from publicity and self-advertisement during his long tenure of the editorship of the 'Saturday Review'; but who was known to his contributors as a marvel of experience, patience, good sense, and assiduity in his office. He had already sent me a book when I received it from another editor;

and I called upon him to ask whether he had any objection to my duplicating. He was good enough to say, "No, I don't mind your doing it; but I am not fond of it as a rule. If the reviews are unfavourable, it is scarcely fair to the author; and if they are favourable, it rather deceives the public." It cannot, I think, be denied that there is a good deal of force in this. Moreover, it will necessarily happen that if a man has a great deal of reviewing work thrown on his hands, and if, at the same time (as the conditions above enumerated make almost certain), his editors would much rather have short slight reviews from him than long and careful ones, he will-I shall not say scamp his work, I think very few gentlemen of the press do that, but, let us say, do what is required of him and no more.

On the other hand, the great mass of reviewing cannot possibly be done by these few men, and it is doubtless done by others. The result of course varies inevitably in quality, from work as good as the most practised hand can turn out down to that class of work which is described by a catchword very rife just now among men of letters, I believe, as "done by the office-boy." And I have been told, and indeed partly know, that this evil is attended by another, which, though a little delicate to speak of, is very serious. Those who have studied the history of newspapers and periodicals know that the extreme disrepute into which newspaper writing generally, and reviewing in particular, fell at the end of the last century coincided with an "office-boy an "office-boy" period in other words, with a period when it was handed over to wretchedly paid hacks of all work, or even to volunteers, who,

[ocr errors]

for vanity, or spite, or pastime, or what not, would write without any pay at all. These were the days of Southey's "seven pounds and a pair of breeches" for six months' reviewing - I cannot be certain of the exact figures, but it was something about as absurd as this. The establishment of the Edinburgh,' with its hard-andfast rule that everybody was to be paid, that everybody was to take his pay, and that the pay itself was to be fair, was the turning-point from this state of things, and until quite recently reviewing of the better class, if not a magnificently was at any rate a fairly well paid profession. People will grumble at anything, of course. But for my own part I do not think that any one but a very great man can consider himself underpaid when he receives, as used to be the average, threepounds ten shillings for work which should on the average take him an evening to read, and not the whole of the next morning to write. For I think that a review should never be written on the same day on which the book is read. The night brings counsel; tones down dislike to a reasonable disapproval and rash fancy to intelligent appreciation; substistutes order and grasp for chaos and want of apprehension. But this is a digression, and we must return to £ s. d. I am told, once more, that with the rapid spread and rise in numbers both of reviews and reviewers, the average payment of the latter has gone down very considerably, and that, with the constant supply of workers and the apparently reduced demand for the best work as compared with quantity of work, it is likely to go down farther.

This is as it may be; and at any rate I see nothing improbable

in it. For (and this is a point to which I have not yet come, and it is one on which I should be sorry to be silent) reviewing is very fascinating work, and its very fascination increases its perils of all kinds, not least those of which we have just been speaking. To a person who really loves literature and knows something of it, who has a fairly wide range of tastes beyond mere books, and takes some interest in life likewise, I know no occupation more constantly delightful. I never myself got tired of it-with a slight exception, I must admit, in the case of the lower class of novel-in the course of twenty years' unceasing practice. The words of that locus classicus of reviewing, the middle part of Pendennis': "As for Pen, he had never been so delighted in his life; his hand trembled as he cut the string of the packet and beheld within a smart new set of neat calico-bound books-novels, and travels, and poems"-remain true (except, perhaps, as to the trembling of the hand) of some of us to the last. To find such a package by your table at breakfast; to be fortunate enough (which seldom happens to reviewing man) to remember that you have got no horrid fixed engagement to spoil the fair perspective of the day; to dip into the books before you settle which you will formally read first; to select that temporary sultana; to diverge from her and look along your shelves for an older favourite which may settle some point, or suggest a comparison, or fill up a gap in your memory; to ejaculate "What an ass the man is!" when you disagree with him; or nod approval when he puts your sentiments neatly; to find luncheon-time coming just when the books have given you an appetite for something else besides


authors, and to relapse upon them, not unaided by tobacco perhaps, when you have done,-these are pleasant things and good. I do not say, Be it mine often so to spend my days, because change is good, and it is a mistake to reopen closed accounts. But I do say most heartily and sincerely that I have never in any kind of work enjoyed days more than such as these, and that a very large proportion of days of ostensible pleasure seem to me very dreary things in comparison.

Sometimes, too, these generally pleasing labours become something more than merely pleasing, and the reviewer, like Lockhart's Wandering Knight in his "ride from land to land," his "sail from sea to sea," finds fate more kind at last. He may, when scarcely out of his apprenticeship, open upon such a matchless stanza as

"As a star sees the sun and falters,

Touched to death by diviner eyes, As on the old Gods' untended altars The old fire of withered worship dies.”

He may a little later discover in the "Voyage of Maeldune" how half a century of constant poetical production need impair neither a poet's mastery nor even his command of new measures and methods. He may, after for years delighting in another poet's verse, see how Mr William Morris, like Sir Walter Scott, though not with like welcome from the vulgar, could close the volume of poetic romance only to open that of romance in prose. He may hear almost simultaneously the raising of two such swan songs as the prologue to Asolando' and "Crossing the Bar"; and he may discover, as at last in Catriona,' the only grace that had been missing to make perfect the work of the most brilliant of his younger contem

[ocr errors]


« PreviousContinue »