G. Gregory Smith, ed. Elizabethan Critical Essays. 1904.
VII. The Critical Temper
In this period, in which Criticism first claims, or is preparing to claim, the right to be recognized as a kind in English letters, the method, tone, and craftsmanship of the critic are hardly less important than the general principles by which he is guided. It might not be too much to say that it is by reason of these qualities that this olla of treatise, preface, and letter deserves the name of criticism in the accepted sense. For it is clear that such general questions as the origin of poetry, or its defence, or the respective advantages of a classical or romantic theory of Art, may remain entirely academic, and may neither help nor harm the critic in his efforts to interpret individual genius or record his impressions of a literary group. The additional interest of these essays, therefore, is that in them we have the first hints in English of the Critical Temper.
The evidence of this is scattered; and there are many passages and points of views which on analysis must lose their apparent claims to novelty in this respect. This is especially true of the judgements on Classical and Renaissance writers. With perhaps the exception of Chekes ingenious explanation of Sallusts style,1 or Chapmans assault on Scaliger,2 nothing is said in appreciation of the gods of the Old and the New Rome which had not been said before, or might have been said. The historical sketches of classical literature by Sidney, or Webbe, or Puttenham, or even Jonson, are but shreds of Horatian tradition or patchwork of Renaissance commentary. In their references to the later material, down even to their own time, the critics wield the weapons and give the cries of the Aristotelian and Ciceronian wars of the previous century. Harveys panegyric on Petrarch is but a heap of epithetic scrap-iron; Haringtons special pleading for Ariosto at the expense of Virgil discloses little more than the wisdom of Renaissance commonplace.
When we come to their treatment of contemporaries, there are signs of vitality, though they are occasional, and appear in a phrase here and there rather than in the complete argument. It may not be difficult to see that at times the purpose and method of these references to writers of their day have been suggested by such Renaissance models as Scaliger or Lilius Gyraldus, or have been devised as the appropriate retort to the Puritan attack; yet their frequency is a new and noteworthy feature. Jonson, himself a ready censurer and gossip on fellow-authors, drew attention, a few years later, to these running judgements upon poetry and poets.3 That they were in the main preposterous, as Jonson holds, does not lessen the historical importance of the activity of such early experiment. It may be said that the heat of controversy which gave the critics their opportunity, did not at the same time give them a keener judicial faculty. Their praise and blame, their descriptions and groupings, appear in the false relief which is familiar in the argument of the special pleader. They cite and quote to prove or illustrate some definite thesis; less frequently do they attempt to give an independent appreciation. Thus there is a certain historical value in the lucubrations of Lodge on Gosson, Stanyhurst on Phaer, Harvey on Nash, or Nash on Kyd, which may or may not be negligible in a later critical estimate of Gosson, Phaer, Nash, or Kyd. Occasionally, as in the uniform correctness of their judgement of Spenser, they have anticipated the verdict of posterity; but it is no disrespect to either the intelligence or humanity of any of them to say that their opinion might have been different had Spenser been less a free and uncontentious person.
Two of the more striking features of their work they owed to humanistic culture; the one of method, the other of manner: and their chief claim to originality is shown in the way which they modified these. The former, the Comparative Method, was a choice of necessity; but it was the surest beginning. At first an author is good or bad according as he stands comparison with some accepted pattern; English is a noble and self-sufficing language because it is as rich and subtle as other honoured vernaculars; English prosody is at fault because it does not carry the Latin measures. This is but the humanistic pitting of the one against the other, without due consideration of the fairness of the encounter, or indeed of the necessity of their fighting at all. The habit was doubtless confirmed by the anthological craze of the age, and by the prevalence of the Euphuistic mood, by which accidental or far-fetched similitudes and antipathies had acquired a false importance. The extreme is found in Meress fantastic catalogue; there is much that appears meaningless in the more scholarly Harvey, and perhaps not less in Nash and others. But it is not difficult to see that, by some, comparison is less and less used as an instrument for shaping forth a prejudice, and more as an exercise for widening the literary horizon. Daniel, at the close, hits at the narrow scholastic method when he says: It is our weakness that makes us mistake or misconceive in these delineations of men the true figure of their worth. And our passion and belief is so apt to lead us beyond truth, that unless we try them by the just compass of humanity, and as they were men, we shall cast their figures in the air, when we should make their models upon earth.4 He argues that differences between nations and individuals are of fashion rather than of degree, and that in the collation of writers men rather weigh the accidents than the positive merit.5 This is but another expression of the romantic argument for toleration; and evidence of its more direct application to critical method.
A like tendency is recognizable in the change in the tone of Elizabethan criticism. The earlier critics are not less humanist in their manner of censure than they are in their erudition. They have a fine genius for denunciation and personality, which would do credit to the noisiest of the Ciceronians. In their statement of general principles they are tolerably meek, but they show small measure of decency when an opponent is to be damned. Yet scholars quarrels have always been lively; and it is perhaps no accident, though it is not a primary cause, that as scholarship decreases in Elizabethan criticism a gentler habit begins to rule. There is of course no lack of biting speeches in the later writers, but these are to be treated on their individual merits, and as idiosyncrasies of the authors. Thus Nashs declamatory vein is Nashs own: much more so than Harveys is his own natural rudeness, unaffected by his pedantic training and recreation. Yet it would be too fine and unprofitable a discussion to distinguish between these kinds of flyting. There is poor sport for the modern in this cockpit of abuse. We feel a change when we pass from Ascham to Sidney, or from Harvey to Daniel. How much of the difference is directly due to Sidney it might be difficult to say, but it is at least reasonable to assume that his reputation and his literary tone had some effect, else the multitudinous references to the Sidnaean showers of sweet discourse6 have no meaning. The fact that he and Puttenham and Harington and others are courtiersby profession, let us saycould not fail to ameliorate the harshness of the mere scholar or the Martinist, though it was on the other hand a barrier to their critical appreciation of the great work of the Bohemians. Yet mere courtliness will not explain the enthusiasm, the generous wisdom, and, above all, the absolute temper of his Apologie, or account for its influence on contemporaries. Nor can it have been altogether a personal quality, for in the Italian sources, from which Sidney and the others drew not a little, already something of the old harshness had been lost.
It is to be observed that this change, both in the outlook and manner of English criticism, is first associated with those whose sympathies are on the romantic side, and especially with Sidney and Daniel, the most striking exponents of that turn in taste. It is they who establish the claim of English criticism as a separate literary kind, as an instrument of power outside the craft of rhetoricians and scholars. For though it was for classical ends that this criticism was first turned to account, and though it was later by classical hands made perfect, it was by the genius of those who were least trammelled by classical tradition that it first found its cunning. There are many passages in Sidney, and more than enough in Daniel, of inspired knowledge, happy suggestion, and generous common sense, to show how far the best of the Elizabethans had wandered from the old ways, and how very near they could come to some of the best of their later successors. And in other places, in essays of less sustained power, as in Puttenhams definition of style,7 or Chapmans defence of Homers ascential muse,8 or in Harveys spasms of phrase, there is no lack of critical intelligence, which more than balances all the dreary pages of the most threatening slashers9 and pedants.