Saturday, September 18, 2010

Squib of the Day, September 18, 2010

"The eighteenth century, with its regard for symmetry and definition, preferred to keep biography and criticism separated; or, if they were combined, as by Johnson and Voltaire, they were viewed as two separate functions. The critic contemplated his author's works as objects of art; expounded, censured, praised them in relation, not to the author, but to a set of defined standards generally agreed upon by men of culture. Thus, biography limited itself to the narrative of a man's life, and criticism to a minute, sometimes word-by-word, examination and comparison of his writings. With Sainte-Beuve, criticism changed and became a method of investigating and classifying minds; the reader's attention was drawn away from the works themselves and concentrated upon the personality of the authors.

"These methods still exist as they have been variously developed. The one school, we may say roughly, is interested in art; the other in artistic personalities. Each is liable to abuse in feeble hands. The one sinks into an abyss of pedantry, collects hosts of tedious facts, traces "movements" which possibly never existed, investigates "influences" which are of no importance; the other becomes a compilation of gossip and anecdotes, discovers arbitrary and fanciful relations between the author and his work, distracts our mind from the contemplation of art into remote speculations, and may even degenerate into moral uplift and a hunt for "messages." But each method has its virtues, each is useful when directed with skill and good sense, and each is particularly adapted to a different sort of author. There are cases when a man's personality is as interesting and important as his works; and this is especially true of personal poets. Their poetry is so interwoven with their lives that a critic is almost forced to adopt the 'study of personality'"

—Richard Aldington, "A review of Hugh l'Anson Fausset's John Donne: A Study in Discord," in The New Republic, April 1, 1925


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