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“ Cobblers with cobblers smoke away the night,
And in the common cause e'en play’rs unite.
A CLEVER predecessor of mine in the art of dreaming describes with humour his feelings of awe and curiosity when, in his nonage, he was for the first time introduced to an author. “I surveyed his whole person,” said he, "from top to toe, with the strictest attention; sat open-mouthed to catch every syllable that he uttered; and noticed his voice, man
! cvery word and gesture, with the minutest observation. I could not help whispering to myself the whole evening, 'I am in company with an author.'” +
Just so, I remember, when almost still in my childhood (little more than fourteen), and my father used to take me with him to different places of resort, I
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† Connoisseur, No. 114.
once accompanied him to the Grecian Coffee House, where many literary characters of the time used to assemble, and where my attention was arrested by rather a singular-looking personage, whose presence
seemed in one way or other to have an effect on most of the company. Some showed him a ceremonious but distant civility, and retired from him as soon as they could ; some gave a mere bow of recognition, and passed off in a hurry; and some (by far the greater number) seemed studiously to avoid coming near him. He was a jejune-looking man, of a supercilious aspect, pompous, with little conciliation in his countenance, and less in his manner; in fact, so cold (I had almost said ill-natured), that, in my young imagination, he inspired me with nothing but fear. I was to go off to school the next day; and, though he seemed civil to my father, I recollect I thought he was the last person in the world from whom I should expect a tip. On leaving the coffee-house, I, of course,
my father who the gentleman was, and he told me he was the editor of the * Review. Not knowing then very accurately what a review or its editor was, I soon lost sight of the abstract notion of them, if I had it; but the starch repulsive figure and manner of the gentleman I had seen haunted me for a long while afterwards.
And yet, of all subjects that engage a day-dreamer's attention, there is perhaps not one which, in the pleasure and interest it affords, is equal to liberal and polite criticism.
Critical works, therefore, when the fruits of real learning and liberal judgment, and not of envy, hatred, and malice, or, at best, of insolent self-sufficiency, are frequently my occupation, and always my delight. They really do “ pour the fresh instruction o'er the mind,” and exemplify the “emollit mores nec sinit esse feros,” of Horace; they also charm the fancy till we are lost in what we dreamers so much love, a long, innocent, and elegant reverie. I know not, therefore, the path of letters either so flowery, or for leading us through which we are so beholden to the directors of our taste, as liberal criticism.
By this I by no means confine myself to learning, however deep; knowledge, however extensive; or taste, however elegant. For, contradicted as it may appear by many specimens of modern critics, there must be modesty, and even goodness, and a mind above envy and the abuse of power, all concurring to form such criticism as I have supposed. Above all, there should be the absence of all party feeling in politics and religion (or at least of their effects) as well as in letters, or the love of truth, which should preside over all and give zest to all, is gone. 'Tis hence I view with peculiar satisfaction the shelves of my library, where the works of genuine critics (by which I mean the liberal, as well as enlightened) repose.
Two accomplished poets, one a very sweet one, the other celebrated for strength and nerve, have given us a favourable, as well as adverse, view of the critic's character. The Essay on Criticism, by Pope, is in every body's hands ; but the strong lines of Churchill may, perhaps, not be so universally remembered :
“ A critic was of old a glorious name,
Secure he walk'd, for Nature was his guide." How amiable as well as estimable is this! How lamentable, therefore, the reverse of the medal !
“But now, O strange reverse! our critics bawl
They lurk enshrouded in the veil of night."* That there are persons of both these characters who have filled the critic chair is known to all men of letters. Which have done most good to literature is with some a question. For my part, I have no hesitation in declaring for the former, thinking them the benefactors of real merit; the others, though often not unskilful judges, yet as often splenetic or curious detractors.
Such men as the first have dignified as well as enlightened both ancient and modern literature. Among the ancients we have Aristotle, who
" Steer'd securely, and discover'd far,
Led by the light of the Mæonian star;"
“ All the Nine inspire,
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“ Who charms with graceful negligence,
And, without method, talks us into sense." Among the earlier moderns we have Boileau and Bossu, Dryden *, Pope, and Addison ; and, in later years,
the two Wartons, Lord Kaims, Campbell, Blair, and, spite of his prejudices, the gigantic Johnson.t
Such men (with, I fear, some exceptions as to the last) are really unprejudiced in the tasks they have undertaken, to set books before us according to their merits; and not, like lawyers, speaking from a brief for which they are paid. They do not grasp the
pen less from the intention of reporting the character of a book, than the desire of showing how severe they themselves can be; and how brave, or even insolent, where (from not being known) they fear no reply; and, for the same reason, are luckily exempt from attacks upon their own works, should they have been guilty of perpetrating any. Hence, says the powerful satirist from whom I have taken
“ All men and things they know, themselves unknown,
* The ability of Dryden, when not personal, admits him into the list; when personal, as against a rival, his rancour would exclude him.
† Were we to point out one of the most beautiful instances of this species of criticism, eminent at the same time for thorough knowledge of polite literature and fair, though severe, judgment, it would be the review of Aikin's “Life of Addison," in a late number of the “Edinburgh," said to be by Mr. Macaulay.