Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
The True Criticism
By Margaret Fuller (18101850)
[Papers on Literature and Art. 1846.Works. Complete Edition. 1874.]
THERE are two ways of considering Poems, or the products of literature in general. We may tolerate only what is excellent, and demand that whatever is consigned to print for the benefit of the human race should exhibit fruits perfect in shape, color, and flavor, enclosing kernels of permanent value.
Those who demand this will be content only with the Iliads and Odysseys of the minds endeavor.They can feed nowhere but at rich mens tables; in the wildest recess of nature, roots and berries will not content them. They say, If you can thus satiate your appetite it is degrading; we, the highly refined in taste and the tissue of the mind, can nowhere be appeased, unless by golden apples, served up on silver dishes.
But, on the other hand, literature may be regarded as the great mutual system of interpretation between all kinds and classes of men. It is an epistolary correspondence between brethren of one family, subject to many and wide separations, and anxious to remain in spiritual presence one of another. These letters may be written by the prisoner in soot and water, illustrated by rude sketches in charcoal;by natures nobleman, free to use his inheritance, in letters of gold, with the fair margin filled with exquisite miniatures;to the true man each will have value, first, in proportion to the degree of its revelation as to the life of the human soul; second, in proportion to the perfection of form in which that revelation is expressed.
In like manner are there two modes of criticism. One which tries, by the highest standard of literary perfection the critic is capable of conceiving, each work which comes in his way; rejecting all that it is possible to reject, and reserving for toleration only what is capable of standing the severest test. It crushes to earth without mercy all the humble buds of Phantasy, all the plants that, though green and fruitful, are also a prey to insects, or have suffered by drouth. It weeds well the garden, and cannot believe that the weed in its native soil may be a pretty, graceful plant.
There is another mode which enters into the natural history of everything that breathes and lives, which believes no impulse to be entirely in vain, which scrutinizes circumstances, motive, and object before it condemns, and believes there is a beauty in each natural form, if its law and purpose be understood. It does not consider a literature merely as the garden of the nation, but as the growth of the entire region, with all its variety of mountain, forest, pasture, and tillage lands. Those who observe in this spirit will often experience, from some humble offering to the Muses, the delight felt by the naturalist in the grasses and lichens of some otherwise barren spot. These are the earliest and humblest efforts of nature, but to a discerning eye they indicate the entire range of her energies.
These two schools have each their dangers. The first tends to hypercriticism and pedantry, to a cold restriction on the unstudied action of a large and flowing life. In demanding that the stream should always flow transparent over golden sands, it tends to repress its careless majesty, its vigor, and its fertilizing power.
The other shares the usual perils of the genial and affectionate; it tends to indiscriminate indulgence and a levelling of the beautiful with what is merely tolerable. For indeed the vines need judicious pruning if they are to bring us the ruby wine.
In the golden age to which we are ever looking forward, these two tendencies will be harmonized. The highest sense of fulfilled excellence will be found to consist with the largest appreciation of every sign of life. The eye of man is fitted to range all around no less than to be lifted on high.