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Now
Caecilius, a voluminous critic, certainly lived not later than Plutarch,
who speaks of him with a sneer. It is unlikely then that an author, two
centuries later, would make the old book of Caecilius the starting-point
of his own. He would probably have selected some recent or even
contemporary rhetorician. Once more, the writer of the Treatise of the
Sublime quotes no authors later than the Augustan period. Had he lived
as late as the historical Longinus he would surely have sought examples
of bad style, if not of good, from the works of the Silver Age. Perhaps
he would hardly have resisted the malicious pleasure of censuring the
failures among whom he lived. On the other hand, if he cites no late
author, no classical author cites him, in spite of the excellence of his
book. But we can hardly draw the inference that he was of late date from
this purely negative evidence.

Again, he describes, in a very interesting and earnest manner, the
characteristics of his own period (Translation, pp. 82-86). Why, he is
asked, has genius become so rare? There are many clever men, but scarce
any highly exalted and wide-reaching genius. Has eloquence died with
liberty? “We have learned the lesson of a benignant despotism, and have
never tasted freedom.” The author answers that it is easy and
characteristic of men to blame the present times. Genius may have been
corrupted, not by a world-wide peace, but by love of gain and pleasure,
passions so strong that “I fear, for such men as we are it is better to
serve than to be free. If our appetites were let loose altogether
against our neighbours, they would be like wild beasts uncaged, and
bring a deluge of calamity on the whole civilised world.” Melancholy
words, and appropriate to our own age, when cleverness is almost
universal, and genius rare indeed, and the choice between liberty and
servitude hard to make, were the choice within our power.

But these words assuredly apply closely to the peaceful period of
Augustus, when Virgil and Horace “praising their tyrant sang,” not to
the confused age of the historical Longinus. Much has been said of the
allusion to “the Lawgiver of the Jews” as “no ordinary person,” but that
remark might have been made by a heathen acquainted with the Septuagint,
at either of the disputed dates. On the other hand, our author (Section
XIII) quotes the critical ideas of “Ammonius and his school,” as to the
debt of Plato to Homer. Now the historical Longinus was a friend of the
Neoplatonist teacher (not writer), Ammonius Saccas. If we could be sure
that the Ammonius of the Treatise was this Ammonius, the question would
be settled in favour of the late date. Our author would be that Longinus
who inspired Zenobia to resist Aurelian, and who perished under his
revenge. But Ammonius is not a very uncommon name, and we have no reason
to suppose that the Neoplatonist Ammonius busied himself with the
literary criticism of Homer and Plato. There was, among others, an
Egyptian Ammonius, the tutor of Plutarch.

These are the mass of the arguments on both sides. M. Egger sums them up
thus: “After carefully examining the tradition of the MSS., and the one
very late testimony in favour of Longinus, I hesitated for long as to
the date of this precious work. In 1854 M. Vaucher[2] inclined me to
believe that Plutarch was the author.[3] All seems to concur towards the
opinion that, if not Plutarch, at least one of his contemporaries wrote
the most original Greek essay in its kind since the _Rhetoric_ and
_Poetic_ of Aristotle.”[4]

[Footnote 2: _Etude Critique sur la traité du Sublime et les ecrits
de Longin._ Geneva.]

[Footnote 3: See also M. Naudet, _Journal des Savants_, Mars 1838,
and M. Egger, in the same Journal, May 1884.]

[Footnote 4: Egger, _Histoire de la Critique chez les Grecs_,
p. 426. Paris, 1887.]

We may, on the whole, agree that the nobility of the author’s thought,
his habit of quoting nothing more recent than the Augustan age, and his
description of his own time, which seems so pertinent to that epoch,
mark him as its child rather than as a great critic lost among the
_somnia Pythagorea_ of the Neoplatonists. On the other hand, if the
author be a man of high heart and courage, as he seems, so was that
martyr of independence, Longinus. Not without scruple, then, can we
deprive Zenobia’s tutor of the glory attached so long to his name.

Whatever its date, and whoever its author may be, the Treatise is
fragmentary. The lost parts may very probably contain the secret of its
period and authorship. The writer, at the request of his friend,
Terentianus, and dissatisfied with the essay of Caecilius, sets about
examining the nature of the Sublime in poetry and oratory. To the latter
he assigns, as is natural, much more literary importance than we do, in
an age when there is so little oratory of literary merit, and so much
popular rant. The subject of sublimity must naturally have attracted a
writer whose own moral nature was pure and lofty, who was inclined to
discover in moral qualities the true foundation of the highest literary
merit. Even in his opening words he strikes the keynote of his own
disposition, where he approves the saying that “the points in which we
resemble the divine nature are benevolence and love of truth.” Earlier
or later born, he must have lived in the midst of literary activity,
curious, eager, occupied with petty questions and petty quarrels,
concerned, as men in the best times are not very greatly concerned, with
questions of technique and detail. Cut off from politics, people found
in composition a field for their activity. We can readily fancy what
literature becomes when not only its born children, but the minor
busybodies whose natural place is politics, excluded from these, pour
into the study of letters. Love of notoriety, vague activity, fantastic
indolence, we may be sure, were working their will in the sacred close
of the Muses. There were literary sets, jealousies, recitations of new
poems; there was a world of amateurs, if there were no papers and
paragraphs. To this world the author speaks like a voice from the older
and graver age of Greece. If he lived late, we can imagine that he did
not quote contemporaries, not because he did not know them, but because
he estimated them correctly. He may have suffered, as we suffer, from
critics who, of all the world’s literature, know only “the last thing
out,” and who take that as a standard for the past, to them unfamiliar,
and for the hidden future. As we are told that excellence is not of the
great past, but of the present, not in the classical masters, but in
modern Muscovites, Portuguese, or American young women, so the author of
the Treatise may have been troubled by Asiatic eloquence, now long
forgotten, by names of which not a shadow survives. He, on the other
hand, has a right to be heard because he has practised a long
familiarity with what is old and good. His mind has ever been in contact
with masterpieces, as the mind of a critic should be, as the mind of a
reviewer seldom is, for the reviewer has to hurry up and down inspecting
new literary adventurers. Not among their experiments will he find a
touchstone of excellence, a test of greatness, and that test will seldom
be applied to contemporary performances. What is the test, after all, of
the Sublime, by which our author means the truly great, the best and
most passionate thoughts, nature’s high and rare inspirations, expressed
in the best chosen words? He replies that “a just judgment of style is
the final fruit of long experience.” “Much has he travelled in the
realms of gold.”

The word “style” has become a weariness to think upon; so much is said,
so much is printed about the art of expression, about methods, tricks,
and turns; so many people, without any long experience, set up to be
judges of style, on the strength of having admired two or three modern
and often rather fantastic writers. About our author, however, we know
that his experience has been long, and of the best, that he does not
speak from a hasty acquaintance with a few contemporary _précieux_ and
_précieuses_. The bad writing of his time he traces, as much of our own
may be traced, to “the pursuit of novelty in thought,” or rather in
expression. “It is this that has turned the brain of nearly all our
learned world to-day.” “Gardons nous d’écrire trop bien,” he might have
said, “c’est la pire manière qu’il y’ait d’écrire.”[5]

[Footnote 5: M. Anatole France.]

The Sublime, with which he concerns himself, is “a certain loftiness and
excellence of language,” which “takes the reader out of himself.... The
Sublime, acting with an imperious and irresistible force, sways every
reader whether he will or no.” In its own sphere the Sublime does what
“natural magic” does in the poetical rendering of nature, and perhaps in
the same scarcely-to-be-analysed fashion. Whether this art can be taught
or not is a question which the author treats with modesty. Then, as now,
people were denying (and not unjustly) that this art can be taught by
rule. The author does not go so far as to say that Criticism, “unlike
Justice, does little evil, and little good; that is, _if_ to entertain
for a moment delicate and curious minds is to do little good.” He does
not rate his business so low as that. He admits that the inspiration
comes from genius, from nature. But “an author can only learn from art
when he is to abandon himself to the direction of his genius.” Nature
must “burst out with a kind of fine madness and divine inspiration.” The
madness must be _fine_. How can art aid it to this end? By knowledge of,
by sympathy and emulation with, “the great poets and prose writers of
the past.” By these we may be inspired, as the Pythoness by Apollo. From
the genius of the past “an effluence breathes upon us.” The writer is
not to imitate, but to keep before him the perfection of what has been
done by the greatest poets.



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