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Indeed his readiness and his plausibility are not the only points in which Jeffrey the critic suggests Jeffrey the advocate. He has the defects as well as the merits of the lawyer in literature. He is always making points; he is always demonstrating. The intellectual interest preponderates in his critical work, and his discussions. often seem, particularly to a reader of modern impressionistic criticism, hard, unsympathetic, searchingly analytical, repellingly abstract and systematic. He is always on the watch; he never lends himself confidingly to his author and takes passively and gratefully the mood and the images his author suggests. He never loiters or dreams. He is full of business and bustle and perpetually distracts one with his sense of what is coming next. He might well have been in Wordsworth's mind when the poet wrote of those who think that
Of course, however, it must be borne in mind that this tone and manner, so objectionable to some, and nowadays perhaps not wholly winning in the eyes of any, are common to Jeffrey with all dogmatic critics; and unquestionably it is as a dogmatic critic that Jeffrey must be classed. By the theory of criticism that had been in vogue during the eighteenth century, there were certain laws of composition and principles of taste which must needs be observed, if the literary artist were to attain any degree of excellence. These laws and principles had been partially set down in various treatises, and in this form were within the ken of the critic and ready for his use as he might need to appeal to them in praising or blaming the productions of would-be authors. But even where these laws had not been codified, they existed, so
ran the ingenious and comforting theory, implicitly in the mind of the critic. In short, the dogmatic critic regarded himself and was generally regarded as able to apply absolute tests of merit to all literary work, and as the final authority on all doubtful matters of taste.
Now, Jeffrey was the inheritor of this tradition in criticism, and naturally adopted at times its prophetic tone and its pontifical manner toward public and authors. Yet, following his temperamental fondness for compromises, for middle parties and mediating measures, Jeffrey never tried formally to defend this old doctrine or represented himself as an absolute law-giver in literature. Nowhere does he lay down a complete set of principles, like the rules of Bossu for epic poetry, or those of Rapin for the drama, by which excellence in any form of literature may be absolutely tested. Such a high-and-dry Tory theory of criticism does not suggest itself to Jeffrey as tenable. He is a Whig in taste as in politics, and desires in both spheres the supremacy of a chosen aristocracy. In his essay on Scott's Lady of the Lake he declares the standard of literary excellence to reside in "the taste of a few persons, eminently qualified, by natural sensibility, and long experience and reflection, to perceive all beauties that really exist, as well as to settle the relative value and importance of all the different sorts of beauty." Jeffrey regards himself as one of the choicest spirits of this chosen aristocracy, and it is as the exponent of the best current opinion that he speaks on all questions of taste. His business, then, is to dogmatize, to pronounce this right and that wrong, to praise this author and blame that one; but his dogmatism is not the dogmatism of reason, but the dogmatism of taste; he justifies his decisions, not by 1 Selections, p. 39.
referring to a code of written laws from which there is no appeal, but by a more or less direct suggestion that he has all the best instructed opinion behind him.
For the most part, therefore, in his condemnation of an author, he makes no use of scientific terms of disapproval and he appeals to no abstract principles; he simply expresses his personal discontent with the author in commonplace terms of dissatisfaction. Goethe's Wilhelm Meister, for example, is "sheer nonsense,” “ludicrously unnatural," full of "pure childishness or mere folly," "vulgar and obscure," full of "absurdities and affectations." These terms are, for the most part, mere circumlocutions for Jeffrey's dislike, mere roundabout ways of saying that the book is not to his taste. As for any attempt to come to an understanding with author or reader about the ends of prose fiction or the best methods of reaching those ends, Jeffrey never thinks of such a thing. He simply takes up various passages and declares he does not comprehend them, or does not fancy the subjects they treat of, or does not like the author's ideas or methods. He gives no reasons for his likes or dislikes, but is content to express them emphatically and picturesquely. This is, of course, dogmatism pure and simple, and a dogmatism, too, more irritating than the dogmatism that argues, for it seems. more arbitrary and more challenging. It is of this tone and method that Coleridge complains in the twenty-first chapter of his Biographia Literaria, when, in commenting on current critical literature, he protests against "the substitution of assertion for argument" and against "the frequency of arbitrary and sometimes petulant verdicts."
But irritating as is this pragmatic, unreasoning dogmatism, it is nevertheless plainly a step forward from
the view that makes the critic absolute law-giver in art. As the Whig position in politics is midway between absolute Monarchy and Democracy, so what we may term the Whig compromise in criticism stands midway between the tyranny of earlier critics and our modern freedom. The mere recognition of the fact that the critic speaks with authority only as representing a coterie, only as interpreting public opinion, is plainly a change for the better. The critic no longer regards himself as by divine right lord alike of public and authors; he no longer measures literary success solely by his own little cut and dried formulas of excellence; he admits more or less explicitly that the taste of living readers, not rules drawn from the works of dead writers, must decide what in literature is good or bad. He still, to be sure, limits arbitrarily the circle whose taste he regards as a valid test; but it is plain that a new principle has implicitly been accepted, and that the way is opened for the development and recognition of all kinds of beauty and power the public may require.
Jeffrey himself, however, seems never to have suspected the conclusions that might legitimately be drawn from the ideas that he was helping to make current. He seems never to have had a qualm of doubt touching his right to dogmatize on the merits and defects of art as violently as a critic of the older school. In theory, he held that all artistic excellence is relative; but in practice, he never let this doctrine mitigate the severity of his judgments. He asserts in his review of Alison on Taste that "what a man feels distinctly to be beautiful, is beautiful to him";1 and that so far as the individual is concerned all pleasure in art is equally real and justifiable. Yet this doctrine seems never to have paralyzed in the 1 Selections, p. 154.
least his faith in the superior worth of his own kind of pleasure; and he rates Wordsworth and Coleridge just as indignantly for not ministering to that pleasure, as if he had some abstract standard of poetic excellence, which he could prove they fell short of.
When we try to define Jeffrey's taste and to determine just what he liked and disliked in literature, we find an odd combination of sympathies and antipathies. Mr. Leslie Stephen has spoken of him as in politics an eighteenth-century survival; and this seems at first a tempting formula to apply to his taste in literature. But a little consideration will show the impropriety of any such use of terms. The typical eighteenth-century man of letters is a pseudo-classicist; and beyond the pseudo-classical point of view Jeffrey had passed, just as certainly as he had never reached the Romantic point of view. Of Pope, for example, he says he is "much the best, we think, of the classical Continental school; but he is not to be compared with the mastersnor with the pupils of that Old English one from which there had been so lamentable an apostasy.' 2 Addison he condemns for his "extreme caution, timidity, and flatness," and he declares that "the narrowness of his range in poetical sentiment and diction, and the utter want either of passion or of brilliancy, render it difficult to believe that he was born under the same sun with Shakespeare. These opinions are proof patent of Jeffrey's contempt for pseudo-classicism. Then, too, Jeffrey is, as he himself boasts, almost superstitious in his reverence for Shakspere. More significant still is his admiration for other Elizabethan dramatists, like Beaumont, Fletcher, Ford, and Webster. "Of the old English dramatists," he
Selections, p. 10.
1 Hours in a Library, III, 176.
3 Selections, p. 21.