Text: Edgar Allan Poe, “Review of Critical and Miscellaneous Writings” [Text-02], Graham’s Magazine, November 1841, p. 250-251


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[page 252, column 2:]

The Critical and Miscellaneous Writings of Sir Edward Lytton Bulwer, author “Pelham,” &c. 2 vols. Lea and Blanchard: Philadelphia.

WE HAVE READ these volumes with the highest pleasure. They embrace all of the known minor writings of Bulwer the exception of his shorter fictions; and we recognize the collection several very excellent articles which had arrested our attention and excited our curiosity while their authorship was undivulged.

Mr. Bulwer is never lucid, and seldom profound. His intellect to be rather well balanced than lofty — rather comprehensive than penetrative. His taste is exquisite. His style, in its involution and obscurity, partakes of the involution of his thoughts. Apart from his mere intellect, however, — or rather as a portion of that intellect — we recognize in his every written word the keenest appreciation of the right, the beautiful and the true. Thus he is a man worthy of all reverence, and we do not hesitate to say that we look upon the charges of immoral tendency which have been so pertinaciously adduced against his fictions, as absurdly little and untenable, in the mass.

The volumes now before us are plain evidence of the noble spirit which has constantly actuated him. The papers here published were written at various epochs of his life. We look through them in vain for anything false, as a whole, or unchivalrous, or impure, or weak, or tasteless, or ignoble. Were we addicted jurare in verba magistri, there lives no man upon whose faith we would more confidently rely than upon that Bulwer — no man whose opinion upon any point involving a question of truth, or justice, or taste, we would be more willing to adopt unexamined.

We have been especially pleased with an article (in the volumes now before us) entitled “Literature Considered as a Profession,” and with another “Upon the Spirit of True Criticism.” Some remarks in the latter paper are quite as applicable to our own country as to Great Britain.

“ ‘To say this is good and that is bad,’ says La Bruyere, ‘is not morality.’ Very true, neither is it criticism. There is no criticism in this country — considering that word as the name of a science. A book comes out — it is capital, says one — it is detestable, says another. Its characters are unnatural — its characters are nature itself. On both sides there is affirmation, on neither proof. In fact no science requires such elaborate study as criticism. It is the most analytical of our mental operations — to pause — to examine — to say why that passage is, a sin against nature, or that plot a violation of art — to bring deep knowledge of life in all its guises — of the heart in all its mysteries to bear upon a sentence of approval or disapprobation — to have cultivated the feeling of beauty until its sense of harmony has grown as fine as the ear of a musician — equally sensitive to discord — or alive to new combinations: — these are no light qualities, and these are not qualities, it may be answered, to be lightly lavished away. Every new book, it may be said, does not deserve that we should so honor it. We need not invoke the Past, and summon all Nature to hear us praise a butterfly, or crush a bug. We may on slight works arrogate the censor — yes, but we must first have been chosen the censor, by the acumen we have testified on great ones; Now, when an author who has risen into eminence, who begins to produce an effect upon his age, whose faults it becomes necessary to indicate as a warning, whose beauties we should illustrate as an example — when such a man produces a new work, what is the cant cry of the critics? ‘The peculiar merits and failings of Mr. So and So are too well known for us at this time of day to repeat them. The present work has all the characteristics of the last — if it does not increase, it will not diminish the well-earned reputation of the author.’ Then come the extracts, and a word or two at the end as precise and lucid as those at the beginning, and — there’s THE CRITICISM!

“For my part, I please myself sometimes with drawing the ideal picture of a good critic, as Bolingbroke drew that of a patriot king. What a crowd of accomplishments, not easily seen by the superficial, belong to that character! Literature and morality are so entwined that you rarely find the real critic unless he is also the moralist. The union is almost necessary. In Quinctilian how beautifully the deduction closes the dogma! and even in Johnson the habit of moralizing gives dignity to his criticisms. In both sciences the study of mankind, of the metaphysical nature within us, alone insures a sound judgement: in both, without a delicate yet profound perception of the harmonious, the beautiful, the august, no commanding excellency is obtained. The goodness of a man and the goodness of a book are not such different qualities as people suppose. A person, however, may be, though he is not often, a good moralist without being a good man: to preach and practice are faculties not inseparable. But I doubt if a man can be a great critic who has not, at least, the elementary qualities of a good man. I consider that he must keep the intellectual sight clear from envy, and malice, and personal dislikes. He must examine the work above and remote from all the petty considerations that attach to the man. He must be on the alert for genius, ready to encourage even a rival to himself. Where this largeness of mind is not visible, there is always something petty and crippled in the mind of the professional critic. He may make one great criticism, but he cannot criticise with greatness habitually. Perhaps he reviews some dead author — for the dead interfere not with the living; or he wastes a world of generosity, like Southey, in praising some rhymester of the pantry, who is little enough while he attracts honor to the praiser to plunge into forgetfulness the praise. The good critic — that rare ideal, must have in him courage to blame boldly, magnanimity to eschew envy, benevolence to search for obscure merit. He must have genius to appreciate, and learning to compare: he must have an eye for beauty, an ear for music, a heart for feeling, a mind for reason. ‘We are conscious of excellency,’ says some author, ‘in proportion to the excellence within ourselves.’ ”

We wish also to call attention to a very excellent article on the subject of “International Copyright.” The only paper in the collection which we could have wished omitted is one entitled “A Letter to the Quarterly Review,” — an attempt at vindictive retaliation upon Lockhart. We admire this gentleman quite as little as Mr. Bulwer can possibly do, but we believe to see an attack which has neither vigor nor wit, and which proves nothing beyond the writer’s wrath and utter incapacity for satire.

 


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Notes:

None.

 

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[S:0 - GM, 1841] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Criticism - Review of Critical and Miscellaneous Writings [Text-02]