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The equation of fame

The aim of all criticism is really to solve the equation of fame and to find what literary work is of real value. For convenience, the critic assumes the attitude of infallibility. He really knows better in his own case, being commonly an author also. The curious thing is that, by a sort of comity of the profession, the critic who is an author assumes that other critics are infallible also, or at least a body worthy of vast deference. He is as sensitive to the praise or blame of his contemporaries as he would have them toward himself. He bows his head before the ‘London Press’ or the ‘New York Press’ as meekly as if he did not know full well that these august bodies are made up of just such weak and unstable mortals as he knows himself to be. At the Saville Club in London an American is introduced to some beardless youth, and presently, when some slashing criticism is mentioned, in the Academy [89] or the Saturday Review, the fact incidentally comes out that his companion happened to write that very article. ‘Never again,’ the visitor thinks, ‘shall I be any more awed by what I read in those periodicals than if it had appeared in my village newspaper at home.’ But he goes his way, and in a month is looking with as much deference as ever for the ‘verdict of the London Press.’ It seems a tribute to the greatness of our common nature that the most ordinary individuals have weight with us as soon as there are enough of them to get together in a jury-box, or even in a newspaper office, and pronounce a decision. As Chancellor Oxenstiern sent the young man on his travels to see with how little wisdom the world was governed, so it is worth while for every young writer to visit New York or London, that he may see with how little serious consideration his work will be criticised. The only advantage conferred by added years in authorship is that one learns this lesson a little better, though the oldest author never learns it very well.

But apart from all drawbacks in the way of haste and shallowness, there is a profounder [90] difficulty which besets the most careful critical work. It inevitably takes the color of the time; its study of the stars is astrology, not astronomy, to adopt Thoreau's distinction. Heine points out, in his essay on German Romanticism, that we greatly err in supposing that Goethe's early fame bore much comparison with his deserts. He was, indeed, praised for ‘Werther’ and ‘Gotz von Berlichingen,’ but the romances of August La Fontaine were in equal demand, and the latter, being a voluminous writer, was much more in men's mouths. The poets of the period were Wieland and Ramler; and Kotzebue and Iffland ruled the stage. Even forty years ago, I remember well, it was considered an open subject of discussion whether Goethe or Schiller was the greater name; and Professor Felton of Harvard University took the pains to translate a long history of German literature by Menzel, the one object of which was to show that Goethe was quite a secondary figure, and not destined to any lasting reputation. It was one of the objections to Margaret Fuller, in the cultivated Cambridge circle of that day, that she spoke [91] disrespectfully of Menzel in the Dial, and called him a Philistine—the first introduction into English, so far as I know, of that word since familiarized by Arnold and others.

We fancy France to be a place where, if governments are changeable, literary fame, fortified by academies, rests on sure ground. But Theophile Gautier, in the preface to his ‘Les Grotesques,’ says just the contrary. He declares that in Paris all praise or blame is overstated, because, in order to save the trouble of a serious opinion, they take up one writer temporarily in order to get rid of the rest. ‘There are,’ he goes on, ‘strange fluctuations in reputations, and aureoles change heads. After death, illuminated foreheads are extinguished and obscure brows grow bright. Posterity means night for some, dawn to others.’ Who would to-day believe, he asks, that the obscure writer Chapelain passed for long years as the greatest poet, not alone of France, but the whole world (le plus grand poete, nonseule-ment de France, mais du monde entier), and that nobody less potent than the Duchesse de Longueville would have dared to go to sleep [92] over his poem of ‘La Pucelle’? Yet this was in the time of Corneille, Racine, Moliere, and La Fontaine.

Heine points out that it is not enough for a poet to utter his own sympathies, he must also reach those of his audience. The audience, he thinks, is often like some hungry Bedouin Arab in the desert, who thinks he has found a sack of pease and opens it eagerly; but, alas! they are only pearls! With what discontent did the audience of Emerson's day inspect his precious stones! Even now Matthew Arnold shakes his head over them and finds Longfellow's little sentimental poem of ‘The Bridge’ worth the whole of Emerson. When we consider that Byron once accepted meekly his own alleged inferiority to Rogers, and that Southey ranked himself with Milton and Virgil, and only with half-reluctant modesty placed himself below Homer; that Miss Anna Seward and her contemporaries habitually spoke of Hayley as ‘the Mighty Bard,’ and passed over without notice Hayley's eccentric dependant, William Blake; that but two volumes of Thoreau's writings were published, greatly to his financial [93] loss, during his lifetime, and eight others, with four biographies of him, since his death; that Willis's writings came into instant acceptance, while Hawthorne's, according to their early publisher, attracted ‘no attention whatever;’ that Willis indeed boasted to Longfellow of making ten thousand dollars a year by his pen, when Longfellow wished that he could earn one-tenth of that amount,—we must certainly admit that the equation of fame may require many years for its solution. Fuller says in his ‘Holy State’ that ‘learning hath gained most by those books on which the printers have lost;’ and if this is true of learning, it is far truer of that incalculable and often perplexing gift called genius.

Young Americans write back from London that they wish they had gone there in the palmy days of literary society—in the days when Dickens and Thackeray were yet alive, and when Tennyson and Browning were in their prime, instead of waiting until the present period, when Rider Haggard and Oscar Wilde are regarded, they say, as serious and important authors. But just so men looked [94] back in longing from that earlier day to the period of Scott and Wordsworth, and so farther and farther and farther. It is easy for older men to recall when Thackeray and Dickens were in some measure obscured by now forgotten contemporaries, like Harrison Ainsworth and G. P. R. James, and when one was gravely asked whether he preferred Tennyson to Sterling or Trench or Alford or Faber or Milnes. It is to me one of the most vivid reminiscences of my Harvard College graduation (in 1841) that, having rashly ventured upon a commencement oration whose theme was ‘Poetry in an Unpoetical Age,’ I closed with an urgent appeal to young poets to ‘lay down their Spenser and Tennyson,’ and look into life for themselves. Prof. Edward T. Channing, then the highest literary authority in New England, paused in amazement with uplifted pencil over this combination of names. ‘You mean,’ he said, ‘that they should neither defer to the highest authority nor be influenced by the lowest?’ When I persisted, with the zeal of seventeen, that I had no such meaning, but regarded them both as among the gods, he said [95] good-naturedly, ‘Ah! that is a different thing. I wish you to say what you think. I regard Tennyson as a great calf, but you are entitled to your own opinion.’ The oration met with much applause at certain passages, including this one; and the applause was just, for these passages were written by my elder sister, who had indeed suggested the subject of the whole address. But I fear that its only value to posterity will consist in the remark it elicited from the worthy professor; this comment affording certainly an excellent milestone for Tennyson's early reputation.

It is worth while to remember, also, that this theory of calfhood, like most of the early criticisms on Tennyson, had a certain foundation in the affectations and crudities of these first fruits, long since shed and ignored. That was in the period of the two thin volumes, with their poem on the author's room, now quotable from memory only:--

Oh, darling room, my heart's delight!
Dear room, the apple of my sight!
With thy two couches soft and white,
There is no room so exquisite,
No little room so warm and bright,
Wherein to read, wherein to write.

[96] I do not count it to the discredit of my mentor, after the lapse of half a century, that he discerned in this something which it is now the fashion to call ‘veal.’ Similar lapses helped to explain the early under-estimate of the Lake school of poets in England, and Margaret Fuller's early criticisms on Lowell. On the other hand, it is commonly true that authors temporarily elevated, in the first rude attempts to solve the equation of fame, have afforded some reason, however inadequate, for their over-appreciation. Theophile Gautier, in the essay already quoted, says that no man entirely dupes his epoch, and there is always some basis for the shallowest reputations, though what is truly admirable may find men insensible for a time. And Joubert, always profounder than Gautier, while admitting that popularity varies with the period (la vogue des livres depend du gout des siecles), tells us also that only what is excellent is held in lasting memory (la memoire n'aime que ce qui est excellent), and winds up his essay on the qualities of the writer with the pithy motto, ‘Excel and you will live’ (excelle et tu vivras)!

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