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Lectures delivered on the Larwill Foundation of Kenyon College, May seventh and eight, 1913

I

HISTORICAL CRITICISM

WHAT is the act of criticism? It has lately been succinctly described as a repetition of the creative act of genius originating a work of art; to criticise is to recreate. The critic is genius at one remove; he is not unlike an actor on the stage, and incarnates in his mind, as the actor embodies in his person, another's work; only thus does he understand art, realize it, know it; and having arrived at this, his task is done. This is the last word of modern theory. It is obvious that it simplifies the function of criticism, and relieves it apparently of much of its old service. It relieves it, for example, of judgment; the critic understands, he does not judge. It relieves it of interpretation; the critic presents, he does not interpret. Strictly speaking, it seems a private affair that he is engaged in, an appreciation within his own consciousness; for the public to benefit by this method, every one must become his own critic, since to create or re-create is a deeply personal act. I pass no judgment on this theory now, but I shall return to it in my second lecture and shall endeavor to draw out its fruitful side. I desire, however, to state it at the outset, in order to throw into relief against it the matter of the present discourse, which deals with an older conception of the critic's service.

The theory whose main position I have outlined, limits art narrowly to its own world, the esthetic sphere of the soul in which genius works and from which its creations proceed, a world transcending that in which human life habitually goes on, and existing by virtue of its ideality on a higher plane of being. The world of art has an absolute and eternal quality which it imparts to its creations; and one feels this the more in proportion as he has intimacy with them, enters into and lives in their world, and achieves its reality by virtue of that union with the creative mind which the new theory sets forth as the end of criticism. But works of art have also a purely phenomenal side; once created, they belong to the world of phenomena, and having come into existence there, they are subject to the order of time, to current human conditions, to changing judgments intellectual and moral, to varieties of fortune; in short, they are no longer isolated and in a place of their own, the artist's mind, but are part of a larger world. They put on many relations, and thereby enlarge their being; they generate new interests, and thereby vary their significance; and the older criticism took note of these things. In brief, works of art take their place in time, and give rise to a history of art. They are terms of a temporal series; they “look before and after”; and however isolate and absolute may be their esthetic value, they offer to say the least, other pertinent phases of interest, when taken as a development in time.

The older criticism concerned itself much with germinal origins and shaping influences, questions of race, climate, geographical position, social environment, political fortune. I need only recall to you the brilliant monographs in which Taine made the art of the North emanate from fog, shadow and damp, and the art of the South weave its being of sun, color and broad prospects, till it almost seemed that poetry was a branch of climatology, that temperature was race-temperament, war and commerce other names for epic and comedy, and genius rather a social phenomenon than a personal power. This resolution of facts into general causes, of particularity into law, of the individual into the mass, belonged to the bent of his mind, the mind of a philosopher; it is naturally irritating to those who find personality to be the fiery core of life; but his method brings out the distinguishing features, as wholes, of the artistic periods to which it is applied, maps as it were their local and temporal emergence as units of history, and displays on the background of the common milieu the group-traits of each country and age. Work of all kinds is the fruit of a partnership between man and the world. Taine's method brings into full view the world-factor, and by its emphasis and pre-occupation with this puts the objective element to the fore in the genesis of art.

The balance is redressed by the psychologists, who, in turn putting the subjective element in the fore, show as ardent a will to be absorbed in personality as Taine to escape from it. To them the individual is all; and not only that, but what is most peculiar and sui generis in him, his idiosyncrasy, is idealized as the fount and substance of his genius. Often it would seem that his title to be reckoned among the sons of light is not clear till some abnormality is discovered in him. Criticism loses itself in biography and medicine, gossip, chatter and pathology; and of late that defective, delinquent degenerate, genius, seems hunted to his lair in the subconscious self. In recent years, too, there has sprung up a third group, a hybrid of the sociologists and the

psychologists, which in the name of comparative literature has constituted of the republic of letters an international state in lieu of ordinary society, and has found its controlling factors in great personalities such as Petrarch, Rousseau, Goethe, and, secondary to them, a vast network of influences working between nations and epochs; and in the hands of these scholars criticism has become an anatomy of texts.

In these various modern diversions and divagations, determined by the scientific spirit of the last century, criticism shows a temper analogous to that which at an earlier time in the scholastic world committed it to logic in the classification of the kinds of literature, epic, drama, lyric and the like and to rhetoric in the formulation of the rules. It is plain that in all such labors, ancient or modern, criticism gets ever further away from the work of art itself; it leaves the matter of life, which art is, for the matter of knowledge; and when we consider the extraordinary variety of the tasks which criticism latterly has set for itself, whatever their value and interest as matter of knowledge may be, it certainly seems time to ask whether there be not a more defined sphere, less confounded with all knowledge, for criticism to move in, and a peculiar function for that art to fulfil which in the hands of its great masters, the poets, has been an art of interpreting and manifesting life at its height of power in genius.

Shall we, then, return to the new definition? To criticise is to re-create the work of art as it was in the mind of the original artist. But how to do this? It is a simple matter to re-create from what is before us, from the image or the text, "a vision of our own”; but to require that the vision be the same that was in the mind

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