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He is to look on them as beacons; he is to
keep them as exemplars or ideals. He is to place them as judges of his
work. “How would Homer, how would Demosthenes, have been affected by
what I have written?” This is practical counsel, and even the most
florid modern author, after polishing a paragraph, may tear it up when
he has asked himself, “What would Addison have said about this eloquence
of mine, or Sainte Beuve, or Mr. Matthew Arnold?” In this way what we
call inspiration, that is the performance of the heated mind, perhaps
working at its best, perhaps overstraining itself, and overstating its
idea, might really be regulated. But they are few who consider so
closely, fewer perhaps they who have the heart to cut out their own fine
or refined things. Again, our author suggests another criterion. We are,
as in Lamb’s phrase, “to write for antiquity,” with the souls of poets
dead and gone for our judges. But we are also to write for the future,
asking with what feelings posterity will read us--if it reads us at all.
This is a good discipline. We know by practice what will hit some
contemporary tastes; we know the measure of smartness, say, or the
delicate flippancy, or the sentence with “a dying fall.” But one should
also know that these are fancies of the hour--these and the touch of
archaism, and the spinster-like and artificial precision, which seem to
be points in some styles of the moment. Such reflections as our author
bids us make, with a little self-respect added, may render our work less
popular and effective, and certainly are not likely to carry it down to
remote posterity. But all such reflections, and action in accordance
with what they teach, are elements of literary self-respect. It is hard
to be conscientious, especially hard for him who writes much, and of
necessity, and for bread. But conscience is never to be obeyed with
ease, though the ease grows with the obedience. The book attributed to
Longinus will not have missed its mark if it reminds us that, in
literature at least, for conscience there is yet a place, possibly even
a reward, though that is unessential. By virtue of reasonings like
these, and by insisting that nobility of style is, as it were, the bloom
on nobility of soul, the Treatise on the Sublime becomes a tonic work,
wholesome to be read by young authors and old. “It is natural in us to
feel our souls lifted up by the true Sublime, and, conceiving a sort of
generous exultation, to be filled with joy and pride, as though we had
ourselves originated the ideas which we read.” Here speaks his natural
disinterested greatness the author himself is here sublime, and teaches
by example as well as precept, for few things are purer than a pure and
ardent admiration. The critic is even confident enough to expect to find
his own nobility in others, believing that what is truly Sublime “will
always please, and please all readers.” And in this universal acceptance
by the populace and the literate, by critics and creators, by young and
old, he finds the true external canon of sublimity. The verdict lies not
with contemporaries, but with the large public, not with the little set
of dilettanti, but must be spoken by all. Such verdicts assign the crown
to Shakespeare and Molière, to Homer and Cervantes; we should not
clamorously anticipate this favourable judgment for Bryant or Emerson,
nor for the greatest of our own contemporaries. Boileau so much
misconceived these lofty ideas that he regarded “Longinus’s” judgment as
solely that “of good sense,” and held that, in his time, “nothing was
good or bad till he had spoken.” But there is far more than good sense,
there is high poetic imagination and moral greatness, in the criticism
of our author, who certainly would have rejected Boileau’s compliment
when he selects Longinus as a literary dictator.

Indeed we almost grudge our author’s choice of a subject. He who wrote
that “it was not in nature’s plan for us, her children, to be base and
ignoble; no, she brought us into life as into some great field of
contest,” should have had another field of contest than literary
criticism. It is almost a pity that we have to doubt the tradition,
according to which our author was Longinus, and, being but a
rhetorician, greatly dared and bravely died. Taking literature for his
theme, he wanders away into grammar, into considerations of tropes and
figures, plurals and singulars, trumpery mechanical pedantries, as we
think now, to whom grammar is no longer, as of old, “a new invented
game.” Moreover, he has to give examples of the faults opposed to
sublimity, he has to dive into and search the bathos, to dally over
examples of the bombastic, the over-wrought, the puerile. These faults
are not the sins of “minds generous and aspiring,” and we have them with
us always. The additions to Boileau’s preface (Paris, 1772) contain
abundance of examples of faults from Voiture, Mascaron, Bossuet,
selected by M. de St. Marc, who no doubt found abundance of
entertainment in the chastising of these obvious affectations. It hardly
seems the proper work for an author like him who wrote the Treatise on
the Sublime. But it is tempting, even now, to give contemporary
instances of skill in the Art of Sinking--modern cases of bombast,
triviality, false rhetoric. “Speaking generally, it would seem that
bombast is one of the hardest things to avoid in writing,” says an
author who himself avoids it so well. Bombast is the voice of sham
passion, the shadow of an insincere attitude. “Even the wretched phantom
who still bore the imperial title stooped to pay this ignominious
blackmail,” cries bombast in Macaulay’s _Lord Clive_. The picture of a
phantom who is not only a phantom but wretched, stooping to pay
blackmail which is not only blackmail but ignominious, may divert the
reader and remind him that the faults of the past are the faults of the
present. Again, “The desolate islands along the sea-coast, overgrown by
noxious vegetation, and swarming with deer and tigers”--do, what does
any one suppose, perform what forlorn part in the economy of the world?
Why, they “supply the cultivated districts with abundance of salt.” It
is as comic as--

“And thou Dalhousie, thou great God of War,
Lieutenant-Colonel to the Earl of Mar.”

Bombast “transcends the Sublime,” and falls on the other side. Our
author gives more examples of puerility. “Slips of this sort are made by
those who, aiming at brilliancy, polish, and especially attractiveness,
are landed in paltriness and silly affectation.” Some modern instances
we had chosen; the field of choice is large and richly fertile in those
blossoms. But the reader may be left to twine a garland of them for
himself; to select from contemporaries were invidious, and might provoke
retaliation. When our author censures Timaeus for saying that Alexander
took less time to annex Asia than Isocrates spent in writing an oration,
to bid the Greeks attack Persia, we know what he would have thought of
Macaulay’s antithesis. He blames Xenophon for a poor pun, and Plato,
less justly, for mere figurative badinage. It would be an easy task to
ransack contemporaries, even great contemporaries, for similar failings,
for pomposity, for the florid, for sentences like processions of
intoxicated torch-bearers, for pedantic display of cheap erudition, for
misplaced flippancy, for nice derangement of epitaphs wherein no
adjective is used which is appropriate. With a library of cultivated
American novelists and uncultivated English romancers at hand, with our
own voluminous essays, and the essays and histories and “art criticisms”
of our neighbours to draw from, no student need lack examples of what is
wrong. He who writes, reflecting on his own innumerable sins, can but
beat his breast, cry _Mea Culpa_, and resist the temptation to beat the
breasts of his coevals. There are not many authors, there have never
been many, who did not need to turn over the treatise of the Sublime by
day and night.[6]

[Footnote 6: The examples of bombast used to be drawn as late as
Spurden’s translation (1836), from Lee, from _Troilus and Cressida_,
and _The Taming of the Shrew_. Cowley and Crashaw furnished
instances of conceits; Waller, Young, and Hayley of frigidity;
and Darwin of affectation.
“What beaux and beauties crowd the gaudy groves,
And woo and win their _vegetable loves_”--
a phrase adopted--“vapid vegetable loves”--by the Laureate in
“The Talking Oak.”]

As a literary critic of Homer our author is most interesting even in his
errors. He compares the poet of the _Odyssey_ to the sunset: the _Iliad_
is noonday work, the _Odyssey_ is touched with the glow of evening--the
softness and the shadows. “Old age naturally leans,” like childhood,
“towards the fabulous.” The tide has flowed back, and left dim bulks of
things on the long shadowy sands. Yet he makes an exception, oddly
enough, in favour of the story of the Cyclops, which really is the most
fabulous and crude of the fairy tales in the first and greatest of
romances. The Slaying of the Wooers, that admirable fight, worthy of a
saga, he thinks too improbable, and one of the “trifles into which
second childhood is apt to be betrayed.” He fancies that the aged Homer
had “lost his power of depicting the passions”; in fact, he is hardly a
competent or sympathetic critic of the _Odyssey_. Perhaps he had lived
among Romans till he lost his sense of humour; perhaps he never had any
to lose. On the other hand, he preserved for us that inestimable and not
to be translated fragment of Sappho--φαίνεταί μοι κῆνος ἴσος θεοῖσιν.

It is curious to find him contrasting Apollonius Rhodius as faultless,
with Homer as great but faulty. The “faultlessness” of Apollonius is not
his merit, for he is often tedious, and he has little skill in
selection; moreover, he is deliberately antiquarian, if not pedantic.
His true merit is in his original and, as we think, modern telling of a
love tale--pure, passionate, and tender, the first in known literature.
Medea is often sublime, and always touching.



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