The Emergence of Literary Criticism in 18th-Century Britain: Discourse between Attacks and Authority 9783110362060, 9783110356168

This study tries, through a systematic and historical analysis of the concept of critical authority, to write a history

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The Emergence of Literary Criticism in 18th-Century Britain: Discourse between Attacks and Authority
 9783110362060, 9783110356168

Table of contents :
A Note on Texts
A. The Age of Criticism
1 Introduction
2 Contemporary Discussions of Criticism and the Critic
2.1 Definitions and Evaluations: The State of Criticism
2.2 Imagining Criticism
B. The Authority of Criticism
1 Critical Authority
2 Aristocratic Authority
2.1 Court-Wits and Gentleman Critics
2.2 Changes in the System of Patronage
3 The Authority of Seniority: Ancient and Modern Criticism
4 The Authority of Poetic Genius
4.1 The Poet as Critic
4.2 Poets and Editors
5 Learning: Knowledge between Authority and Pedantry
5.1 The Pedant as Exemplary
5.2 Polite Learning against Erudition
5.3 Specialized Knowledge
6 Rules and the Critic
6.1 Power Structures
6.2 Rules and Reason
7 Taste and the Critic
7.1 Debating Taste
7.2 The Taste of the Audience
7.3 The Standard of Taste
8 Name-Authority: The Critic as Institution
8.1 The Anachronistic Critic: John Dennis
8.2 The Institutional Critic: Samuel Johnson
9 Authority and the Marketplace
9.1 Overproduction
9.2 “This process of chymical criticism”: The Critic as Gate-Keeper
10 Institutionalizing Authority: Academies and Reviews
10.1 Courts of Criticism I: The Academy
10.2 Courts of Criticism II: The Reviews
10.3 “The Theatre of War”: Attacks on the Reviews
C. Conclusion
Distance and Democracy
Works Cited

Citation preview

Sebastian Domsch The Emergence of Literary Criticism in 18th-Century Britain

Buchreihe der ANGLIA/ ANGLIA Book Series

Edited by Lucia Kornexl, Ursula Lenker, Martin Middeke, Gabriele Rippl, Hubert Zapf Advisory Board Laurel Brinton, Philip Durkin, Olga Fischer, Susan Irvine, Andrew James Johnston, Christopher A. Jones, Terttu Nevalainen, Derek Attridge, Elisabeth Bronfen, Ursula K. Heise, Verena Lobsien, Laura Marcus, J. Hillis Miller, Martin Puchner

Volume 47

Sebastian Domsch

The Emergence of Literary Criticism in 18th-Century Britain Discourse between Attacks and Authority

For an overview of all books published in this series, please see

ISBN 978-3-11-035616-8 e-ISBN 978-3-11-036206-0 ISSN 0340-5435 Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data A CIP catalog record for this book has been applied for at the Library of Congress. Bibliographic information published by the Deutsche Nationalbibliothek The Deutsche Nationalbibliothek lists this publication in the Deutsche Nationalbibliografie; detailed bibliographic data are available on the Internet at © 2014 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston Printing: CPI books GmbH, Leck ♾ Printed on acid-free paper Printed in Germany

Contents A Note on Texts


A The Age of Criticism 1



2 2.1 2.2

Contemporary Discussions of Criticism and the Critic Definitions and Evaluations: The State of Criticism Imagining Criticism 22

12 12

B The Authority of Criticism 1

Critical Authority


2 2.1 2.2

Aristocratic Authority 54 Court-Wits and Gentleman Critics 55 Changes in the System of Patronage 71


The Authority of Seniority: Ancient and Modern Criticism

4 4.1 4.2

The Authority of Poetic Genius The Poet as Critic 117 Poets and Editors 136

5 5.1 5.2 5.3

Learning: Knowledge between Authority and Pedantry The Pedant as Exemplary 151 Polite Learning against Erudition 157 Specialized Knowledge 164

6 6.1 6.2

Rules and the Critic Power Structures Rules and Reason

177 180 193






7 7.1 7.2 7.3

Taste and the Critic 201 Debating Taste 203 The Taste of the Audience 213 The Standard of Taste 216

8 8.1 8.2

Name-Authority: The Critic as Institution 229 The Anachronistic Critic: John Dennis 233 The Institutional Critic: Samuel Johnson 254

9 9.1 9.2

Authority and the Marketplace 269 Overproduction 275 “This process of chymical criticism”: The Critic as Gate-Keeper 285

10 10.1 10.2 10.3

Institutionalizing Authority: Academies and Reviews 301 Courts of Criticism I: The Academy 301 Courts of Criticism II: The Reviews 312 “The Theatre of War”: Attacks on the Reviews 341

C Conclusion Distance and Democracy Works Cited Index




A Note on Texts The basis of this study are the texts of and about literary criticism that were published from the end of the 17th to the end of the 18th century, about a thousand independently published titles, from pamphlets to multi-volume works, not to speak of the periodical essays, journal articles, and reviews. Fortunately, new electronic databases like Eighteenth Century Collections Online, Early English Books Online, Eighteenth-Century Journals and British Periodicals, but also Google Books, have made the majority of these texts easily available in their historical editions, many of which have never seen a reprint after their original publication. As this study is trying to recreate the way that the period performed and debated criticism, it seemed sensible to stay as close to contemporary sources as possible. Quotes are therefore, where possible, taken from the editions that contemporaries would have used, even in those cases where modern editions are available. Though, for example, there are excellent critical editions of the collected works of Alexander Pope, these cannot help but unify what the 18th century experienced as a very large number of different texts in different editions, the publication context of most of which is intricately tied to the significance that contemporaries attached to them. From the first edition of the Essay on Criticism in 1711, through the maze of different (and differently published) editions of the Dunciad, to the anxiously debated collected edition by William Warburton in 1751 and the 1797 Works edited by Joseph Warton, these books shaped the respective images of Pope the poet and Pope the critical authority for individual readers. Following the same spirit, quotes from 18th-century sources have been left unaltered in spelling, capitalization, and punctuation. For the sake of readability, aberrant spellings both of words and proper names (such as the contemporary use of “Shakespear” or “critick”) are not individually notified by [sic].1 To avoid confusion, two special cases of capitalization have been introduced in the main text. Whenever the term “Nature” is used in the 18th-century sense as philosophical or aesthetic concept, it is capitalized to differentiate it better from other uses of the term. Similarly, the capitalized form “Review” is used to denote a review journal as opposed to individual review articles.

1 Sometimes, as in the case of Shakespeare, variations in spelling can even be productively read to illustrate residues of conceptual uncertainty about a term or name.

A The Age of Criticism

1 Introduction It was very late before criticism came into England. (Gildon 1721: 61)

Among numerous other labels not quite fashionable anymore (like the “Age of Pope” or of “Johnson”), the 18th century has also been called the “Age of Criticism.” This label usually refers mainly to a mode of thinking, but it is also applicable to the genre or textual strategy that best expresses this mode of thinking. The will to question received opinion and to form independent judgments was pervasive throughout the period and of prime importance for it. James Engell has argued in his important study, Forming the Critical Mind, “that criticism, exercised on such a massive scale, ranks with the novel as the most significant ‘new’ mode of writing to enrich English literature between the Restoration of Charles II and the death of George III.” (Engell 1989: 2) According to Engell, criticism “becomes a major branch of literature and critics produce much of literary merit” (1989: 3). And indeed, literary criticism existed in England well before the Restoration, and it continues to grow and change in the 19th century and all the way into the 21st, but it was between the end of the 17th and the end of the 18th century that criticism for the first time developed generic forms and institutional contexts that are still recognizable today, and in which the critic emancipated himself1 into an independent professional. Simultaneously, literacy levels rose along with the importance of the middle class (cf. Munck 2000: 46–52 and Feather 1988: 94ff.), the book market expanded drastically,2 the number of journals and newspapers exploded (cf. Bond 1957: 4ff.

1 The male form here and on later occasions reflects the time’s own gender bias. The 18th century overwhelmingly conceptualized criticism as a male activity and the critic as a man. As Terry Castle writes in her excellent survey of the subject, “it was commonly held that literary judgment was – or should be – a privilege reserved for men”, Castle 1997: 434. In the first half of the century, there were exceedingly few published female critical voices, and even in the second half, works like Clara Reeve’s Progress of Romance or Elizabeth Montagu’s Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakespeare are rather the exception. As this study attempts to analyse contemporary assessments of criticism, it cannot but mirror their underrepresentation. Much is left to be desired in modern scholarship about female critics. Laura L. Runge has written the most thorough investigation to date of the period’s female critics and the gendering of 18th century critical discourse, claiming at the outset that “gender is a constitutive element of eighteenth-century literary criticism”, Runge 1997: 3. But the main point that enables her to see critical and gendered discourse as connected is that both involve inherent power relations, cf. Runge 1997: 6. Thus, it is power that is at the core of critical discourse, and gendered language another way to express power. Hopefully, this analysis can therefore also provide a productive starting point for further systematic investigations into the power structures of criticism as expressed and enforced in terms of gender. 2 For a table on the average annual output of new and reprinted works in English, sorted by decade, cf. Munck 2000: 92. Cf. also Collins 1927: 13 and Feather 1988: 93–105.



and Italia 2005: 7ff.), and the legal battle for copyright together with the growing economic viability and general acceptance of literary professionalism helped form a modern conception of intellectual property and authorship.3 In the context of these fundamental changes, authors, critics, booksellers, and readers struggled for intellectual and cultural dominance over books and texts in a way that is historically unique. And as dominance over texts is usually asserted through the right and ability to evaluate and to interpret, this struggle becomes most visible in the field of literary criticism. Also, since criticism, as soon as it is communicated, is not functional without authority, the question of what will here be called critical authority is always present in critical discourse as well as in discourse on criticism. The term critical authority should in this context be understood to work like a virtual currency in the literary world’s economy of opinion. It is the capital, or rather the credit, of the critic, the willingness of a recipient to give credit or value to a critic’s evaluative statements. Of course, authority always means authority over something, so the term fundamentally describes a power relation. To analyze or even question critical authority means asking for a critic’s legitimization to judge of another’s text. Who accepts the critic’s judgments as true and why? What is the source and foundation of his authority? Who invests him with it? Who might want to deny it to him? This study undertakes, through a systematic and historical analysis of the concept of critical authority, to write a history of literary criticism from the end of the 17th to the end of the 18th century that not only takes the discursive construction of its (self)representation into account, but also the social and economic conditions of its practice. As the analysis will show, this history, rather than forming one linear chronological line, consists of several parallel and intersecting histories or discourses based on the various strategies that have been employed in the course of the period to create, legitimize, or question critical authority. Such strategies, as they were developed, debated, and rejected by contemporary authors and critics, will therefore be the main focus of interest. In their systematic and tentatively chronological order, these strategies will reveal developments in the formation of criticism that problematize and go beyond previous attempts at writing a history of 18th-century criticism. As Philip Smallwood has observed, “histories of criticism are in their own way creative works. They have a foot in the storytelling tradition, in tragedy,

3 On the influence of copyright on concepts of authorship, cf. Woodmansee 1984; Ross 1992; and Rose 1993: 1: “[T]he notion of the author is a relatively recent formation, and, as a cultural formation, it is inseparable from the commodification of literature. The distinguishing characteristic of the modern author, I propose, is proprietorship; the author is conceived as the originator and therefore the owner of a special kind of commodity, the work.”



romance or comedy, and in the making, maintenance and exploitation of powerful images or conceptual myths.” (2004: 8, cf. also Smallwood 2011: 4ff.) Especially later 19th-century and early 20th-century scholars tried to write the history of 18th-century criticism as a plot-driven narrative, with clear trajectories, stereotyped villains, and a dawn of new heroes at the end. Douglas Patey describes them as “teleological ‘histories’ of criticism framed as tales of the gradual emergence of modern (romantic) categories and institutions” (1997: 8),4 following what Henry Knight Miller has called the “Whig Interpretation of Literary History”. The feasibility of such narratives has been called into question repeatedly, most notably by René Wellek, whose monumental History of Modern Criticism 1750– 1950, published in eight volumes between 1955 and 1992, is one of 20th century’s most important contributions on the subject. In a collection of essays, Wellek, surveying the achievements of his work, came to a sobering conclusion: I myself have failed in The History of Modern Criticism to construe a convincing scheme of development. I discovered […] that the history of criticism is rather a series of debates on ‘essentially contested concepts’ […]. This is, at least for me, the end of an illusion, the fall of literary history. (1982: 77)

Somewhat later, he broadened what he perceived as his failure to the more general observation that “an evolutionary history of criticism must fail” (144). Quite paradoxically, one aspect that stands in the way of a more unified description of the development of literary criticism is the very periodization that is commonly used to achieve such a developmental view. Thus, Joan Pittock has argued, that “[t]he tendency to polarise the Augustans and the Romantics has usually been accompanied by a neglect of the period of transition between the two – the mid-eighteenth century.” (1973: 1, cf. also 218) And for Andrew Elioseff, “[t]he essential unity of critical theory from the Renaissance through the end of the eighteenth century and the nature of the romantic revolt against the earlier critics, each in its own way, discouraged a systematic and dispassionate study of the history of the premises of literary judgment.” (1963: 3) And Smallwood laments 20th-century historians’ “tendency to objectivize, classify or compartmentalize the past, to disintegrate the unity of the critical life, or to flatten its contours of development” (2004: 137).5

4 Cf. also Omasreiter 1971: 1 and Durham 1961: ixf. 5 Cf. also: “My suggestion is that this commitment to the history of criticism as a history of systems, their elements selected heuristically according to the cultural generalization supposed to prevail at the time, has tended to obscure the intercultural grounds of emotional agency in the dead critics (Ricoeur’s ‘other’ people) whose quite different imaginative worlds one might want to inhabit”, Smallwood 2004: 6.



For one thing, periodizations, and especially those that pit neoclassical stasis against dynamic romantic revolt, are always oversimplifications (cf. e.g. Bosker 1954: v). Closer looks at the history of concepts such as the rules or taste, or the reception of classical criticism, will clearly show the Ungleichzeitigkeit des Gleichzeitigen. There is a major shift in aesthetics from universality to individuality, from objective to subjective beauty, but this development spans a century and the opposed positions can never be reduced to single texts, single authors, or even consistent “schools” of criticism, such as “neoclassicism,” that stands on one side of the polarity that the development of literature and aesthetics in the 18th century is very often reduced to. But looking at earlier scholarly texts dealing with neoclassical criticism, it seems that the very attempts to define neoclassicism lead to its being perceived as much more dogmatic, rigid, and narrow than it actually is (cf. e.g. Goldgar 1965: xxi). If neoclassicism is a literary religion, it is one that lends itself well to preaching, which is why one can find many dogmaticallysounding pronouncements in contemporary texts, but that was nigh impossible to practice. As Bosker has written, “[i]n its very nature lay the germs of inevitable decay.” (1954: 57) Especially the discussion of the evaluation of Aristotle and of ‘the rules’ in 18th century criticism will illustrate the truth of this remark. To conceive of boundaries is to enable their crossing. Without contraries is no progression, and one reason for the 18th century’s rate of progress comes from the lively and combative interchange of opposed opinions. But while the classification of authors, texts, or concepts as neoclassical tugs at the century and its ideas on literature from one end, the notion of pre-romanticism eats it away from the other. Thus, authors like Hurd, Beattie, Young, the Wartons, or Bishop Percy are almost exclusively considered in their roles as precursors of Romanticism, giving the impression that they wrote more for a time to come than for their own, which is a misconception (cf. Curry 1965: 79). Every author is embedded in the debates of his own time, and his transgressions are set in relation to established boundaries of that time. George Watson, in his 1964 The Literary Critics, takes the opposite approach to all evolutionary conceptions (what he calls “the Tidy School of critical history” (1964: 10)), claiming instead the radical incommensurability of different critical positions throughout the history of criticism that for him is structured mainly by disruption, revolution, and refusal: I must say at once that the kind of order they see is not visible to me. Where they see a tidy evolution of doctrine, I see a record of chaos marked by sudden revolution. Where they see a continuing debate down the centuries around the same questions, I see a pattern of refusal, on the part of the major critics, to accept the assumptions of existing debate. The great critics do not contribute: they interrupt. (11)



Watson’s insistence on the singularity of a number of “great critics” who are radically different from their discursive context, while circumnavigating the danger of teleology, is instead exemplary for a particularizing tendency in modern histories of criticism, with its strong focus on individual authors that almost precludes the possibilities of continuous developments. According to Philip Smallwood, “different things within the past are valued as criticism by different historians. The past of criticism is subjected to criticism, and this critical perspective upon the past is defined by the operation of value judgments: some things are counted into the history of criticism and some things out.” (2004: 4) The result is that “twentieth-century histories of criticism of the eighteenth century have tended to construct monuments to criticism” (57). One could also call them solitary islands of high scholarly regard, rising above an assumed sea-level of minimal literary merit, below which there is apparently nothing worth diving down for. Compared to the huge amount of material on the critical works of authors like John Dryden, Alexander Pope or Joseph Addison, not to speak of Samuel Johnson, there is precious little specifically concerning criticism even on Oliver Goldsmith or Tobias Smollett. And while some critics like the Wartons or Hugh Blair and James Beattie are being occasionally considered in their importance for the Edinburgh Enlightenment or the emergence of Romanticism, such interesting figures as James Harris (who wrote a book Upon the Rise and Progress of Criticism in 1752),6 John Oldmixon (who wrote An Essay on Criticism in 1728),7 and especially Charles Gildon or William Kenrick are virtually ignored.8 True, these latter writers, like James Grainger, John Shebbeare, or Percival Stockdale, will never shine as important contributors to critical writing as long as we concentrate on its ability to provide eternal truths about literature. But their careers and their querulous voices prove to be highly illuminating of the institu-

6 Even the only book-length account of Harris, Probyn 1991, has almost nothing to say on Harris’ analysis of criticism. In his review of Probyn’s work, J. T. Scanlan concedes that Harris “is a writer of the second rank”, but adds that “it is just such writers who often help further diffuse the conventions (and cliches) of a specific literary time or place.” 1992: 657. 7 Since Oldmixon is almost exclusively considered as an opponent of Pope, scholarship has represented the “Oldmixon bibliography [as] an index to a veritable thesaurus of invective” (Rogers 1972: 83), widely ignoring his more analytical works. 8 One notable exception is the whole field of Shakespearean studies. As 18th-century criticism was instrumental in the canonization of Shakespeare, a comparatively extensive attention has been directed towards editors and commentators of Shakespeare in the period, attention that is not restricted to the influential and controversial editions of Pope, Warburton, or Steevens, but that is also concerned with minor figures like Maurice Morgann, Edmond Malone or Thomas Hanmer. Recent examples are Bate 1989; Dobson 1992; Grazia 1991; Marsden 1995; Jarvis 1995; and Walsh 1997.



tional changes in literature and criticism and can tell us a lot about how criticism worked and how it was perceived – and contested.9 Of those authors who have attracted a considerable amount of critical attention in accounts of 18th-century literary criticism, almost all are primarily poets who are also important, for one reason or another, in the field of literary criticism. The exceptions are Samuel Johnson, who arguably was both to the same degree, and John Dennis, though his prominence in critical analyses derives not least from his having been a major antagonist of Alexander Pope. On the other hand, some well-known authors, who were also doing professional critical work, had this part of their literary activities neglected for a long time. Thus, the first fullscale analysis of Tobias Smollett’s editorial and critical work for the immensely important and influential Critical Review is James G. Basker’s 1988 Tobias Smollett: Critic and Journalist. Others, who were critics by profession but “nothing else,” have been widely ignored. One example for such critical neglect is Ralph Griffiths. As proprietor, editor, and one of the principal reviewers for the groundbreaking Monthly Review from its beginnings in 1749 to his death in 1803, Griffiths must be numbered among the most influential literary figures of the second half of the 18th century, yet there is not a single study of his work or his literary positions. True, the Monthly published its articles anonymously, but the 18th century knew about his importance, as numerous attacks, allusions and satires on him and his journal show, and at least since Benjamin Christie Nangle’s meticulous 1934 The Monthly Review (which contains the last consistent albeit short analysis of Griffiths’ criticism), the full extent of his reviewing work is known, in addition to his editorial importance. Though the present study cannot fill these gaps in scholarship with in-depth individual analyses of neglected figures, it hopes to provide a context that enables a re-evaluation of their significance in relation to the establishment of literary criticism as a profession and an institution. Those historians of criticism that despaired of “evolutionary” narratives but were unwilling to follow Watson’s viewpoint of radical discontinuity, have mostly turned in their search for unifying principles to an even stronger focus on concepts and ideas of criticism. In a reply to Watson’s point of view, Wellek has insisted that “[t]here are continuities. The history of criticism is rather like a long drawn-out debate about a few contested concepts.” (1974: xxi) And James Engell has followed him in that respect, claiming for his own study that it “is not a

9 Cf. e.g. Weinbrot on Percival Stockdale, (1993: 105), whom John Hardy calls “somewhat unjustly overlooked” 1967: 49.



narrative history […]. The stress is on key ideas and debates, many of which have resurfaced” (1989: x). The assumption underlying such a focus on continuous “key ides” – often not spelled out but implied – is that they relate to something essential and fixed in literature, something that is ‘true.’ Wellek has made clear that he does not believe in the ultimate arbitrariness of aesthetic evaluation: “[S]urely complete relativism is untenable […]. It would lead to a complete anarchy of values, to the acceptance of the old saying: ‘de gustibus non est disputandum’. […] There are […] aesthetic standards which are coercive. There are minimal distinctions between art and nonart, value and dis-value, distinctions of quality between, say, Shakespeare and trash” (1974: xxxi). And if there is truth in literary evaluation, some critics in history will have been closer to it than others, some statements will be truer than others, more adequate expressions of the essential true nature of an idea like imagination. In his review of Engell’s book, Patey has criticized Engell’s essentialization of romantic imagination, “which faculty, revealed in experience once thinkers have freed themselves from dogmatic authority, becomes not a historical artifact of the later eighteenth century but natural timeless truth.” (1989–1990: 206) Thus, the focus on the content of criticism results in the tendency to concentrate on the truth-value of literary criticism’s statements about literature in general or about specific texts and authors. Given this perspective, the history of early Shakespeare scholarship will appear as a series of opinions on the writer that start from complete misunderstanding (Thomas Rymer)10 to increasingly more “correct” views, instead of the gradual emergence of a discipline that combines philological scholarship, literary criticism, theatrical politics, national identity and canon-formation. But while the reception history of Shakespeare has started to take into account its institutional context, there is still a relative lack of discussions that concentrate generally on literary criticism as a historically developing discipline. Cannan has described “modern scholars’ tendency to document the history of criticism as a series of isolated debates on particular literary issues” as “damaging to our understanding of the formation of a critical discipline in England” (2006: 4), a sentiment that was already expressed by Ronald S. Crane in 1967 ((2): 162). Indeed, there is a wealth of information especially on some selected authors and also on different concepts of criticism, such as theories of genres like tragedy (cf. e.g. Grace 1975; Novak 1997), the epic (cf. e.g. Swedenberg 1944), or the novel (cf. e.g. Bartolomeo 1994; Henson 1992; McKeon 1997; Showalter 1997), aesthetic

10 Cf. e.g. Jones 1940: 390. More recent scholarship has already done a lot to reverse this impression, cf. Cannan 2006: 56.



notions of taste or the sublime,11 as well as questions of imagination and imitation,12 but much less in the way of systematic analyses of criticism’s developments. “Teleological history diverts attention from the ways earlier periods understood themselves”, writes Patey, and the same is true for the concentration on the truth-value of critical concepts (1989–1990: 209). The impressive fourth volume of the Cambridge History of Literary Criticism (1997) is a case in point, the editors declaring at the outset that they have not “devoted separate chapters to academic or institutional aspects of critical activity, or to the careers of individual critics […]. It has seemed to us more fruitful to arrange this volume of the History according to the topics and modes of critical activity” (Nisbeth 1997: xviii). As a consequence, James McLaverty has remarked on the volume that “[a]s highly intelligent surveys, with admirable bibliographical support, these essays are excellent, but the question of what sort of history they are remains troublesome.” (2000: 518) Notable exceptions to the neglect of the institutional development of criticism are Patey’s own essay “The Institution of Criticism in the Eighteenth Century” in the Cambridge History, Jonathan Brody Kramnick’s essay “Literary Criticism Among the Disciplines”, as well as Paul D. Cannan’s 2006 The Emergence of Dramatic Criticism in England and Laura Runge’s 1997 Gender and Language in British Literary Criticism 1660–1790, both of them highly valuable if somewhat limited due to their specific focus. There is still very little discussion of the representation and self-representation of literary criticism at specific historical periods, let alone the contemporary discussion of criticism’s legitimacy in its formative phase. A huge amount of 18th-century texts, the whole contemporary debate on criticism itself, has been practically ignored so far.13 While criticism became more and more pervasive in the 18th century, it was also attacked, defended, reflected, and even historicized. Prefaces, letters, pamphlets, and whole books tried to divide good criticism from bad criticism, set standards for it and requirements for its practitioners, or analyzed its current state. Most of these texts are unknown, uncollected, and uncommented until today.

11 For discussions of the sublime cf. e.g. Hipple 1957 and Lamb 1997. For an extended discussion of taste, cf. B.7. 12 On imagination, cf. e.g. Thorpe 1935; Rogers 1973; Eberwein 1971; Fairer 1984; and Walker 2000. On imitation, cf. e.g. Moskovit 1968; Berger 1972; and Mahoney 1985. 13 Exceptions are the few works that deal with attacks on specific authors, like Samuel Johnson (cf. e.g. Bloom 1979 and Stoker 1993), and on the review journals (cf. Spector 1957; Spector 1958; Spector 1960; and Basker 1988).



The material which this analysis is based on consists of all kinds of texts from the period that reflect criticism, either as attempts at self-fashioning and defence, or as attacks and satirical comments. They have been gathered from published books and pamphlets, journal articles, dictionary entries, private letters and sometimes graphic prints. Authors of the time have brought forth opinions on criticism in texts of criticism itself, such as lectures or systematic treatises, but also in prefaces to novels, plays, and poems, in conduct books, biographical reminiscences, or editorial annotations. While comprehensiveness is of course impossible, the range and depths of material used will hopefully suffice to form at least a representative picture of contemporary thinking about criticism. The literary criticism of the 18th century had, for at least a hundred years until the middle of the 20th century, been denigrated as unoriginal and confined to narrow-minded and rigid concepts about literature. But perhaps the criticism of the period is less interesting for what it has to say about literature, than for what it has to say about criticism. So far, a systematic history of the (self)constitution of literary criticism remains to be written. But only such a history can begin to establish a deeper and historically informed understanding about how our way of critically dealing with texts has developed.

2 Contemporary Discussions of Criticism and the Critic Sister of Nature, lovely Criticism, Whose friendly, exquisite, judicious touch Softens the blaze of genius, and the work Of every muse improves; ingenious maid, Deem not I shun thee with a scornful eye. (Hurdis 1808: 198) I take upon me absolutely to condemn the fashionable and prevailing custom of inveighing against critics as the common enemies, the pests and incendiaries of the common wealth of wit and letters. I assert, on the contrary, that they are the props and pillars of this building; and that without the encouragement and propagation of such a race, we should remain as Gothic architects as ever. (Cooper 1711 (3): 235) Poetry and Criticism [are] by no means the universal concern of the world, but only the affair of idle men who write in their closets, and of idle men who read there. (Pope 1717: no page) What has the Battle of Ramillies produc’d? What Battles generally do; bad Poets and worse Criticks. (Cobb 1709: no page)

2.1 Definitions and Evaluations: The State of Criticism For an age that is known both for its obsession with the precise definition of certain terms1 and as an “age of criticism,” there are surprisingly few contemporary attempts to directly define “criticism,” especially when compared to the indefatigable efforts of delineating the exact meaning of “wit,” “judgment,” or “beauty.” Yet there is an abundance of usage of the term, albeit so “sloppy […] that the very possibility of precision when referring to method has not been seriously considered by modern students of the eighteenth century.” (Alkon 1971: 100) Criticism was in everybody’s mouth, but few cared to specify directly what they meant by it. Contemporaries were already aware of this problem, Hugh Blair noting in his Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres that “Taste, Criticism, and Genius, are words currently employed, without distinct ideas annexed to them.”

1 Cf. for example this opinion from George Campbell‘s The Philosophy of Rhetoric: “In matters of criticism, as in the abstract sciences, it is of the utmost consequence to ascertain, with precision, the meanings of words, and, as nearly as the genius of the language in which one writes will permit, to make them correspond to the boundaries assigned by Nature to the things signified.” 1776 (1): 38–39.

Definitions and Evaluations: The State of Criticism


(1783: 36) But different from taste and genius, “criticism” was only rarely questioned as to its significance. If it is attempted at all, contemporary definitions of criticism, “the art of proportion’d wonders” (Charles Gildon quoting Edmund Waller, 1721: 282), tend to be either overtly commonplace, or inclusive to the point of being useless for the task they set themselves, that of defining, or giving boundaries to the term. This is illustrated, for example, in Edward Gibbon’s Essay on the Study of Literature, originally written in French, and published in an English translation in 1764. The first definition of criticism that Gibbon gives in this work is merely stating the obvious: “Criticism is, in my opinion, the art of forming a judgment of writings and writers; of what they have said; of what they have said well, and what they have said truly” (1764: 46–47). Gibbon’s first definition covers the most common understanding of criticism as an act of judgment, as the process of differentiating between aesthetically good and bad as it had been formulated already in 1677 by John Dryden: “Criticism, as it was first instituted by Aristotle, was meant [sic] a Standard of judging well” (1677: no page). Hugh Blair states the same in 1783, though he significantly adds an emphasis on the agency of taste in this act: True Criticism is the application of Taste and of good sense to the several fine arts. The object which it proposes is, to distinguish what is beautiful and what is faulty in every performance; from particular instances to ascend to general principles; and so to form rules or conclusions concerning the several kinds of beauty in works of Genius. (1783: 36)

Very rare are attempts like the following by John Pinkerton, not only to define criticism as an act, but also to reflect on its position in the order of disciplines, a reflection that comprises the question whether criticism is itself an art form, or “merely” a science. Criticism may be defined to be, That science by which we are taught to form proper judgements of the merits, and defects, of the other arts and sciences. I have called Criticism a science, and not an art, because it is theoretical and not practical; because there can be no art where there is no room for invention: because Criticism is merely a science, and rests solely upon knowlege in the points of which it treats; and that knowlege, if you will, is not even a science per se, but arises from the mental exertion of others; yet does not ascend to analogy like other human sciences. (Pinkerton 1785: 507)

One page after his first definition, Gibbon broadens its scope considerably: “All that relates to what men are, or have been; all that creative genius hath invented; that the understanding hath considered; together with all which industry hath collected, are included in the department of criticism.” (1764: 48) This shows, besides the fact that Gibbon is already conceiving criticism in terms of that field he was eventually to be most interested in, that of historical studies, the second tendency


Contemporary Discussions of Criticism and the Critic

in defining criticism, that of understanding it rather as a mode of thinking that is necessarily much more universal than the mere activity of judging what is beautiful and what not in a literary text. Consequently, such views on criticism will grant it a considerably higher position in the hierarchy of disciplines. One might compare Pinkerton’s qualifications of the significance of criticism with this assessment by John Ogilvie from 1774: “This noble art when viewed as extending universally to all branches of learning, and to every species of Composition, will be found to give exercise in so many ways to the faculties of the mind”. This conception of criticism as almost a state of mind leads Ogilvie to consider “criticism as exercising universal dominion over the two great empires of art and science” (1774 (1): 349–350). The advantages and disadvantages of criticism are hotly debated among authors of the 18th century, though one can note that attacks on criticism are usually really attacks on specific performances of criticism (critics and texts of criticism), while general and abstract evaluations tend to be much more favourable. This is well exemplified by the anonymous author of an essay on Henry Fielding’s writings and on criticism generally, who argues that “[t]he Corruption of this useful Branch of Learning is by no means a convincing Argument of it’s Non-excellence” (Anonym 1751a: 3), or by James Ralph’s qualification that “[t]he true Critick is out of the Question; I only lash the ignorant Pretender” (1731: 159), and James Harris’ reminder “I would have it remember’d, ‘tis not either with Criticism or Critics, that I presume to find fault. The art, and its genuine professors I truly honour.” (1752b: 20)2 Rather rare is a position like that of Oliver Goldsmith, who in the Enquiry into the Present State of Polite Learning in Europe strikes out with a vengeance against “criticism, which may properly be called the natural destroyer of polite learning.” (1774: 110)3 And even this quote is chiefly directed against a historical phase of criticism, with Goldsmith writing himself into a rage, notwithstanding the fact that he himself had worked as a literary critic. Goldsmith’s position on criticism is deeply conflicted,4 and it is being answered by William Kenrick in his review of the Enquiry for The Monthly Review by returning to the differentiation between performance and potential: “Our Author rails at Criticism, as some wrong-headed Writers do at Religion; arguing, from its abuse, against the use of it.” (1759a: 386)

2 For other positive evaluations of criticism, cf. e.g. Hurdis 1808: 198; Kirby 1758: 1; Macaulay 1780: v–vi; Watkinson 1761: 2; and Bruce 1780: 86. 3 The Critical Review comments Goldsmith’s quote thus: “Whether this reflection be founded on truth, may admit of some enquiry. A contempt for criticism is a sure indication of a writer’s consciousness of the insufficiency of his own performance to pass the fiery trial, and to bear the test of a nicer eye.” Watkinson 1759: 2. 4 Cf. Lutz 1998; Zionkowski 1990: 7; Donoghue 1996: 93; and Lutz 2005.

Definitions and Evaluations: The State of Criticism


When it came to the evaluation of criticism generally, much more common than Goldsmith’s damnation were general assessments like Robert Potter’s (though voiced in the context of an attack on Samuel Johnson’s form of criticism in the Lives of the Poets): “Just Criticism, directed by superior learning and judgement, and tempered with candor, must at all times have an happy influence on the public taste, and of course be favourable to the interests and credit of literature.” (1783: 1)5 Those seriously considering criticism as a mode of thinking about and judging works of art were strongly convinced of its inherent utility. Thinking critically was deemed essential for a rational mind, as in Blair’s Lectures: The exercise of taste and of sound criticism, is in truth one of the most improving employments of the understanding. To apply the principles of good sense to composition and discourse; to examine what is beautiful, and why it is so; to employ ourselves in distinguishing accurately between the specious and the solid, between affected and natural ornament, must certainly improve us not a little in the most valuable part of all philosophy, the philosophy of human nature. (1783: 9–10)

It is obvious that Blair does not limit his understanding of criticism to the evaluation of literary works. Most positive assessments of criticism are similar in that they deal with criticism in rather abstract and consequently broad terms. In this sense criticism, as an application, training, and refinement of judgment, was often seen to also serve an additional, social purpose. This widening of utility was possible through the common enlightenment equation of truth and beauty, and because the category of taste spanned both the spheres of aesthetic and of moral judgment. Therefore, according to Nathaniel Weekes, “a good Critic is not only of universal Benefit to the Republic of Letters, but the Reformation of Manners” (1754: iii), a point that is echoed strongly by Aulay Macauly in 1780: There is no branch of science which so happily combines the two great ends of utility and pleasure, as the art of rational criticism: there truth and beauty appear united, and by their union reflect additional lustre on each other. The study of rational criticism is no less calculated to promote the innocent amusements and pleasures of life, than the more serious objects of science and philosophy; and if the intellectual faculties are improved by such speculations, it might be shewn that they have no less tendency to refine the manners, and to humanize the temper. A correct taste, and delicate feelings, are qualities very friendly to the exercise of the social and benevolent affections; nor have they less connection with the moral character, and the devotional taste. Upon the whole, a taste for the beauties of nature and of art ought to be regarded as the handmaid of Virtue; and Criticism should be grounded on the unerring principles of Taste. (1780: v–vi)

5 For a similar view cf. Elphinston 1763: 1 and Watkinson 1763: 162.


Contemporary Discussions of Criticism and the Critic

But a broadening of the definition of criticism that perceived it more generally as a way of thinking and did not limit it to specific activities, could of course also lead to a highly negative image, provided one perceived criticism as everything that was wrong with a certain mode of thinking. This is the case of Jonathan Swift’s satire on criticism in the “Battle of the Books”, where he makes the goddess Criticism declare: It is I (said she) who give wisdom to infants and idiots; by me children grow wiser than their parents, by me beaux become politicians, and schoolboys judges of philosophy; by me sophisters debate and conclude upon the depths of knowledge; and coffee-house wits, instinct by me, can correct an author’s style, and display his minutest errors, without understanding a syllable of his matter or his language; by me striplings spend their judgment, as they do their estate, before it comes into their hands. It is I who have deposed wit and knowledge from their empire over poetry, and advanced myself in their stead. (1704: 257)

But, Swift’s notorious pessimism aside, the 18th century as the period of the Enlightenment was predominantly an optimistic age, one that did believe in progress and improvement. It seems quite paradoxical, then, that in an age that “turns questions of progress and decline in literature into an obsession” (Engell 1989: 46), when most sciences were widely perceived to progress constantly, and when the science of criticism actually did progress until it became a pervasive mode of thinking, almost all writers saw the state of criticism as one of degeneration and decline. Though lamentations seem to be an almost instinctive reflex for most authors when reflecting the state of criticism, at least a few texts voice the opinion that criticism might have improved, instead of declined.6 In most cases, though, these assertions are the product of ulterior motives. Thus, Richard Blackmore‘s attempt at establishing an English tradition of epic poetry in 1716, with him as one of its foremost professors, makes him see the immediate past in Great Britain as “barren of Critical Learning, tho’ fertile in excellent Writers”, particularly because it “had so little Taste of Epick Poetry”, until “some Persons of greater Delicacy and Judgment” started to recognize the artistic merit of Milton’s Paradise Lost and subsequently developed a more refined taste for and better understanding of epic poetry (1716: iv–v). Even more unashamedly part of a strategy of self-promotion is the assertion from an essay by Edward Watkinson prefixed to the 11th volume of The Critical Review: “Undoubtedly the art of criticism never rose to such a degree of perfection as now, and no wonder under such hands, and executed by mas-

6 Cf. e.g. Aikin 1777: 2 and Felton 1713: xviii: “The present Age seemeth to be born for carrying Criticism to its highest Pitch and Perfection.”

Definitions and Evaluations: The State of Criticism


ters.” (1761: 4. Cf. also Watkinson 1763: 167) Meaning, of course, the writers and editors of the Critical Review. Most other cases, in which an improvement in criticism is noticed, are part of the larger ancients and moderns controversy, as in the dispute around William Warburton’s controversial work The Divine Legations of Moses Demonstrated. Among the numerous pamphlets this publication provoked is an attack by John Jackson, who strongly sides with the ancient authorities and comments sarcastically on “the vast Improvements made in the Art of Criticism in these latter Ages, which commenc’d at the Publication of Mr. Warburton’s Writings.” (1748: 1) This in turn is answered by an anonymous pamphlet in the same year, stating: “It was said that Improvements had been made in the Art of Criticism in these latter Ages. And why will not Mr. J. allow that Improvements have been made in this Branch of Knowledge, as well as others?” (Anonym 1748: 15–16) To read comments unprovoked by specific disputes, like this one made by Isaac Disraeli in 1794, is much rarer: “The Art of Criticism is by no means a modern invention; but it must be confessed, that in the last age alone it hath reached it’s present degree of perfection.” (1794 (1): 136) In his very short sketch of the history of criticism, Disraeli shows how criticism was re-awakened after the Middle Ages by Renaissance scholars, and brought to perfection through the establishment of academies, particularly in France. Apart from those rather isolated accounts, the general tenor is more adequately expressed in the statement with which Thomas Kirby begins his midcentury Essay on Criticism: “I may venture to avert, that criticism, as well as other things, is perverted, and absurd” (1758: 1). Living, according to Archibald Campbell, in an “age of literal criticism” (1767: 212), authors lament “the many Abuses, which for some Time past have been industriously adopted into the Province of modern Criticism.” (Anonym 1760b: iv) Already in 1709, the poet Samuel Cobb categorically declares that “Criticism, which was formerly the Art of Judging well, is now become the pure Effect of Spleen, Passion, and Self-conceit.” (1709: no page) And an anonymous author begs: And here, courteous Reader, give me leave to lament that that Title, which has at sundry Times been dignified and made venerable by the most excellent and instructive Productions of a Longinus and an Horace, a Bossu and an Addison […] should, by our very modern Practitioners, be reduc’d to that Ignominy which was in vain attempted to be affix’d to it by the malicious Writings of a Zoilus and a Dennis. (Anonym 1751a: 2)7

7 The author goes on to state “how particularly needful it is at this Time, to restore the old true Spirit of Criticism.” Anonym 1751a: 12.


Contemporary Discussions of Criticism and the Critic

The list of names used in this text shows that, while criticism is being perceived as always changing, usually for the worse, this perception of change itself is a constant. Every age sees its criticism to be degenerating into unknown depths, a perspective that is as old as the first critical commentary of Homer, and that is still cherished in the 21st century. What usually differ are the reasons given for the decline of criticism. In the course of the 18th century, the very success of criticism is seen by many to be seriously harming it. During this time, criticism as a discipline and as a genre is flourishing, both in the form of independently published books and pamphlets, and as part of the rise of journalism. The price for this flourishing is widely perceived as a lowering of the selective criteria for critics. One of the most common lamentations about the present state of criticism is that there is an overabundance of critics, most of them unqualified. One of the earlier examples can be found in Thomas Rymer’s preface to his translation of Rapin’s commentary on Aristotle from 1674: At this time with us many great Wits flourished, but Ben Johnson, I think, had all the Critical learning to himself; and till of late years England was as free from Criticks, as it is from Wolves, that a harmless well-meaning Book might pass without any danger. But now this priviledge, whatever extraordinary Talent it requires, is usurped by the most ignorant: and they who are least acquainted with the game, are aptest to bark at every thing that comes in their way. (1674: no page)

But the “critics” that Rymer attacks at this historical moment are to be understood mainly as oral critics, pretended wits and amateurs that frequented the coffeehouses and gave their incompetent opinion on every new play, whether asked for or not. At that time, Rymer was practically the only person that published books exclusively devoted to literary criticism. But already at this stage, a main problem becomes manifest: the disproportion between the high requirements expected for someone who was a “true critic” and the absolute ease with which one could profess the title. Everyone can presume to judge a piece of literature, and become a critic merely by opening one’s mouth: “If any chuse to be critics,” writes Oliver Goldsmith, “it is but saying they are critics” (1762 (1): 246). To counter the resulting absence of formal requirements for being a critic is one of the reasons why Dryden’s ideal of criticism, based in orality and conversation as it is, aligns it to social class and poetical abilities. Later in the 18th century, the abundance of critics also manifested itself in an abundance of critical texts. James Callender expresses his contempt for this “age of criticism”, as the reviewer of John Newbery’s Art of Poetry has it (Anonym 1762c: 430), in unmistakable terms: “Our language is long since overloaded with books of criticism” (1783: v). “No Age, I believe, since the first Rise of Arts and Sciences ever

Definitions and Evaluations: The State of Criticism


abounded with more Critics, or Pretenders to Criticism, than the Present” (Weekes 1754: iii, cf. also Ralph 1731: 151), writes Nathaniel Weekes in The Abuse of Poetry (1754), and this multiplication of critics is more than once perceived as monstrous. Thus, for example, the anonymous author of The Battle of the Reviews (1760) is “positively bent upon striking off all the Heads of our Hydra of modern Criticism, till the monster is extinguished, or learns more Sense and better Manners.” (1760b: vi) Just like bad authors in the Dunciad, critics are swarming uncontrollably, so that it becomes harder and harder for offended authors to even know where to aim their resistance at. In an unmistakable hit at his reviewers, Sterne has his narrator ask: “Did you think the world itself, Sir, had contained such a number of Jack Asses? – ” (1761 (6): 2) And George Colman writes for his journal The Gentleman “At present the press swarms with Criticks”, continuing: “A louse, say the naturalists, is a very lousy animal; and there is not a lousy author in town, especially a Dramatick Author, that has not fifty lousy Criticks on his back” (1775: no page). In some ways this ties in with the assessment that there is a general overproduction of texts, while at the same time expressly denying the gate-keeping function of the critic. Instead of selecting, and thereby reducing the abundant supply of texts extant, criticism is seen only as a secondary or at best supplementary discourse, adding to and multiplying texts even further. “Upon a moderate calculation, there seems to be as many volumes of criticism published in [France and England], as of all other kinds of polite erudition united.” (Goldsmith 1774: 112)8 A little bit less moderate is the calculation that Henry Fielding makes in an essay for his Covent-Garden Journal. The ambiguity of his opinion about the rise of criticism is expressed in his ironic attribution of the blame for it on the censors, who had some years ago put himself out of business as a theatre author: By a Record in the Censors Office, and now in my Custody, it appears, that at a censorial Inquisition, taken Tricesimo qto. Eliz. by one of my illustrious Predecessors, no more than 19 Critics were enrolled in the Cities of London and Westminster; whereas at the last Inquisition taken by myself, 25. Geo. 2di. the Number of Persons claiming a Right to that Order, appears to amount to 276302. This immense Encrease is, I believe, to be no otherwise accounted for, than from the very blameable Negligence of the late Censors, who have, indeed, converted their Office into a mere Sinecure, no Inquisition, as I can find, having been taken since the Censorship of Isaac Bickerstaffe, Esq; in the latter End of the Reign of Queen Anne. (1752b: no page)9

8 Cf. also: “Thus a single new book employs not only the paper-makers, the printers, the pressmen, the book-binders, the hawkers, but twenty critics, and as many compilers.” Goldsmith 1762 (1): 76. 9 In the review of Joseph Warton‘s essay on Pope for the first issue of The Critical Review, Tobias Smollett computes thus: “Of those who affect to read the Belles Lettres, one half do not presume to


Contemporary Discussions of Criticism and the Critic

Criticism is both an immaterial act, the act of judging and evaluating, and a very material one, the act of verbally expressing these judgments and evaluations, putting them down on paper and publishing them through the printing press. Encouraging everyone to think critically was surely part of the project of the enlightenment, but the rather undesired side-effect was that seemingly everyone developed the urge to communicate the results of their thinking. Goldsmith writes with a fury characteristic for the Enquiry (n.b. the “sin of criticism”): “I fire with indignation when I see persons wholly destitute of education and genius, indent to the press, and thus turn book-makers, adding to the sin of criticism the sin of ignorance also.” (1774: 113) And Nathaniel Weekes complains: “There is no little Smatterer in Learning, but will set up as a perfect Judge of the Performances of the truly Learned; and with a borrow’d Air of Wisdom, and seeming Importance, pronounce his Sentiments on Compositions without Taste or Judgement.” (1754: iii) One of the main reasons why the uncontrolled proliferation of critics was regarded as problematic by so many writers was the changing location of critical discourse within the public sphere of the print-enhanced literary market. With manuscript circulation, usually among personal acquaintances that would regularly meet and discuss, criticism could more or less be regulated by selecting recipients. The author chooses his own readers, and therefore his critics, by supplying them personally with his text. But publication in print detaches the offering of a text from specific readers through the multiplication of copies and the introduction of middlemen such as the bookseller. Anyone who can purchase a book is entitled to read it, and consequently to comment upon it: All common exhibitions open lie For praise or censure to the common eye. Hence are a thousand hackney writers fed; Hence Monthly Critics earn their daily bread. (Churchill 1761: 10)

This detachment of criticism from an immediate interpersonal discourse (someone talking with the author about his or her text) through the development of the Habermasian public sphere to institutionalized, print-based review writing is the main factor for the widespread opinion that critics are multiplying, and that this is a negative development. What is at stake is authorial control, as more critics are harder to control than few, and removed critics harder than present ones. Where George Farquhar’s 1702 sigh that “[a]mong the many Disadvantages attending Poetry, none seems to bear a greater Weight, than that so many set up for Judges,

judge for themselves, and at a moderate computation, two thirds of the other half, judge amiss; and yet they shall be all professed critics.” Smollett 1756a: 226.

Definitions and Evaluations: The State of Criticism


when so very few understand a little of the matter” (113) is still mainly directed at the new-formed trend for critical discussions (among non-professional critics), Nathaniel Weekes’ two classes of critics from 1754 and his attitude towards them already reflects the next step in the development: There are at this Time two different Societies of Critics; your Idlers at Coffee-Houses, and your Writers of Magazines. The Remarks of the former are not indeed regarded, being entirely beneath all Notice; and those of the latter, tho’ they are of a public Nature, and should be so executed as to be of service to Authors, seem to be calculated more for the sake of Self-Preservation than Instruction. (1754: iv)

While at the heyday of The Tatler and The Spectator, coffeehouse talk was an exemplary model for polite and enlightened conversation, under the impression of the triumph of review criticism with its anonymity and its dramatically increased reach, and at a time when the literary market is swarmed by “News-gatherers, Magazine-mongers, Museum-compilers, Dictionary-writers, Miscellany-brokers, Index-makers, Reviewers, Journalists, French-translators, and Poets of all sorts, sizes, and denominations” (Campbell 1767: 3), around the middle of the century it dwindles to an inconsequential babble. Whereas the review journals mark a high-point in the institutionalization of criticism, contemporary authors saw the uncontrolled proliferation of print-based criticism also in more general terms. In 1751, an anonymous author demonstrates the swiftness of the mid-18th-century printing business: “A Piece is no sooner perform’d at Drury-Lane or Covent-Garden, than the News Papers are fill’d with Advertisements of–This Day are publish’d, Remarks on, or a candid Examen of the late new Tragedy or Comedy” (1751a: 10–11). Unsurprisingly, in the eyes of the author the products of such swiftness are random to the highest degree. What the author describes here bears close resemblance to the would-be coffeehouse critics who inevitably gather after a theatrical performance to comment on it, but the change toward the printed form, and the addition of the newspapers as further multiplicators, makes the discursive space of criticism much more public, and therefore less controllable by the author. The step from a complaint about an overabundance of bad critics to a complete damnation of critics and criticism in general is as close as it is false, but it takes a sober mind recollected in relative tranquillity to note this, not someone whose work had just been attacked in print. Hugh Blair exhibits such a mind in his Lectures (cf. Blair 1783: 38–39).


Contemporary Discussions of Criticism and the Critic

2.2 Imagining Criticism The 18th century sees the development of criticism into an elaborate system, with interacting and interdependent entities that are organized according to a specific structure, with a set of objectives, and more or less clear-cut boundaries, processing information in a certain way. The system of criticism develops specific functions, and is increasingly differentiated and emancipated from other systems with which it is connected, like that of literature or the social structure of the court. In their efforts to understand these newly developing systematic relations, contemporaries tended to draw analogies. Conceived as a system, criticism can be compared to other systems, like the political system, the system of law, or the economic system. The structural resemblances to these systems are frequently used in contemporary attempts to “imagine” criticism, to supply it with an image, or to provide allegories for it. Picturing criticism as a different, but in some respects analogous, system allows writers in this formative period to develop an understanding of its inner workings, its strengths and weaknesses. The efforts at metaphorical representation are much more frequent than the direct definitions just discussed, and they are more successful in providing an idea of how the period understood criticism. While, especially in the early stages of the discussion of criticism around the turn of the century, analogies were drawn to mythical characters like Momus or fabled ancient critics like Zoilus, the two dominant clusters of imagery drew inspiration from the systems of law and of politics for analogies that can be used productively until today. An awareness of the increasing commercialization of the literary market, and consequently of criticism as well, can be seen in the depiction of criticism in terms of finance and commerce, especially with the establishment of the most obviously commercial institutions of criticism, the Reviews. The following will provide a brief overview of these different ways of imagining criticism and will try to show how these images or allegories relate to different conceptions of criticism and its authority.

Economics and Authority Rendered in economic imagery, critical authority is sometimes represented in terms of “credit,” as when the critic-crow in William Wilkie’s fable, after having inadvertently uncovered his true nature, tries “his credit to regain” (1768: 115), or when William Kenrick explains in his attack on the Reviews: “Your own credit rests on too tottering a basis for you to indulge yourselves safely in any inclination you might have to chastise writers of established reputation.” (1766: 60)

Imagining Criticism


David Rivers in his Literary Memoirs of Living Authors of Great Britain frequently uses the expression to describe the reputation of the critics he deals with, calling Dugald Stewart’s Elements of the Philosophy of the Human Mind “a work highly to the credit of his abilities” and Thomas Twining’s translation of Aristotle “a work which has gained him no small share of credit among the Learned.” (Rivers 1798 (2): 280–281, 334) To measure critical authority as “credit” is very fitting, since the term denotes the possession of something that someone is believed to have, or rather: the belief in the capacity and authority of a certain person. The Oxford English Dictionary records among others the (now obsolete) senses of “reputation of being worthy of belief or trust” and “Right to be believed”. And indeed critical authority does function like a system of credit with the critic not as dispenser but as creditor. The critic constantly asks the reader of his criticism to “give him credit,” to invest him with the authority to make his critical evaluations. The currency in this system is the belief of the receiver of criticism, and it is repaid when he finds the critical opinion that he has accepted from the critic as agreeable to his own. In this perspective, the act of critical evaluation is only something that is made possible through the investment of the critic with authority. Another way to conceptualize criticism along economic structures is to look at this act as an exchange of values. Criticism weighs faults and beauties against each other, an act usually depicted comparable to the allegory of law, the goddess Justice with her scales. Depending on which side weighed more, the scales would turn to one side or the other resulting either in a charge of guilty (bad) or not guilty (good). In this system, quantitative evaluation is ultimately transferred into a digital one. But besides this usage, there are a few examples where the act of evaluation is not depicted in terms of justice, but in that of economics. A curious example is The Hilliad, Christopher Smart’s 1753 attack on the physician, actor, and miscellaneous writer John Hill. Hill had made an enemy of Smart by several negative reviews in his own short-lived periodicals, The Impertinent and The Inspector. After minor skirmishes, Smart retorted with a full-blown piece of variorum satire based on the model created by Alexander Pope, complete with prolegomena and copious notes. Following also in the footsteps of Pope’s strategy to dispel accusations of malignity, Smart takes great pains to justify his own attack and to point out that he is the wronged party. Besides a letter to a friend, defending his Hilliad, and the conciliatory answer to the letter, Smart’s main strategy is to present what he calls “An Accurate and Impartial State of the Account between Mr. Smart and Dr. Hill”. On facing pages, Smart opposes Hill’s positive evaluations of Smart from journal articles on the left page under the heading “Mr. Smart Debtor to Dr. Hill, For his Praises”, and negative ones on the right page under “Per Contra Creditor, For his Abuse”. Even a cursory glance at


Contemporary Discussions of Criticism and the Critic

the pages is supposed to make the imbalance in this account clear to every reader: while the left page usually consists of only a few lines, the right page is always filled to the bottom. Thus, Smart can close his balance by calculating that he owes Hill the following poem “in part of payment, for the many and great obligations he is under to me.” (1753: 18) But this example is an exception. Generally speaking, the connection between the critical and the economic system, although functionally highly valid, is only very rarely made by contemporary authors, though the second half of the century sees an increase in accusations of financially motivated corruption. Even in the case of the review journals, only relatively few authors recognized the importance of their institutional structure as a thriving large-scale commercial venture sufficiently to use it in their depiction of them. Such rare insight into the commercialization of criticism through the Reviews is expressed, for example, in Thomas Mariott’s characterization of a Monthly Paper, called the Critical Review, that Wholesale trading Critic, who deals in all the small Ware of Criticism, such as, Conundrums, Quirks, Quibbles, Jeers, Sneers, Halfsneers, Bobs, Dry-bobs, Hints in Italic Characters, long Dashes of the Pen, oblique Squints, Trumpery, Waggery, Ribaldry, Witticisms, and all other Critical Mechanism of all Sorts, and Kinds whatever. (1759b: iii)

Another writer who was even more aware of the intimate connection of review criticism and commercial interest was, quite naturally it seems, William Kenrick. Echoing Mariott’s term of “wholesale criticism”, Kenrick depicts the Reviews’ critical authority as the commercial monopoly that it truly was: It is true, that you monthly gentlemen have the right of prior occupancy over your periodical rivals; who deal, like yourselves, in the wholesale branch of criticism. But, because you are wholesale dealers, are you therefore to be monopolizers? Must every Review extraordinary be stigmatized as an extraordinary Review, because it is not fabricated or vended in your work-shop or warehouse? (1766: 57)

Rather clear-sighted, Kenrick tries to expose as arbitrary the connection between the factual monopoly of the two Reviews on the journal market and the categorization of their reviews as being normative. He would not be the last commentator to notice that the market is not altogether guided by criteria of quality. The most successful Review is not necessarily the best – that is why depictions of them as failed business rather missed the point.

Imagining Criticism


Mythical Criticism The most obvious, though not the most common, way of depicting criticism allegorically was by describing it in terms of myth, as when Samuel Johnson writes “that modern criticks, who, if they have not the eyes, have the watchfulness of Argus, and can bark as loud as Cerberus, though, perhaps, they may not bite with equal force” (1750: 21). The focus in these cases was usually on lineage and questions of origin. By turning criticism itself into a goddess, or associating it with mythical or half-mythical characters like Momus or Zoilus, opponents could illustrate criticism’s origin in such negative characteristics as envy, spite, or dullness. The logic of this strategy can be illustrated through the mock-mythical creature Cloacina. The name Cloacina and its scatological associations were fairly well established in implying the negative and extremely low quality of literary production, as in Smart’s Hilliad, where he attacks John Hill by making him acknowledge Cloacina as his main inspiration: “To you I’ll consecrate my future lays,/ And on the smoothest paper print my soft essays” (1753: 32). But in some texts, like in the Battle of the Reviews, the alleged dirt-flinging of modern critics is also associated with her: “[F]air Cloacina! Thou delightest in Critics of their Mien and Garb; their Works are consecrated by thee to be immolated to the Manes of all the Grubstreet Lucubrations they have damned or slain; thou knowest that thou canst rank them among thy principal Votaries.” (Anonym 1760b: 71) By transferring the already established excremental associations of Cloacina to criticism, Smart can elegantly emphasize the alleged preference of critics to fling dirt at texts or authors they criticised. But Cloacina was only occasionally invoked in the context of mythical allegories of criticism. Much more common were Momus and Zoilus, and sometimes criticism itself was elevated to the status as a goddess. Two well-known examples depicting criticism and its attitudes as a personified goddess with appropriate regalia and insignia, one showing criticism in the worst and one in the best possible light, come from Jonathan Swift and Samuel Johnson. Swift incorporated his allegory into the description of the “Battle of the Books”, i.e. the quarrel between the “ancients” and the “moderns” in which his employer Sir William Temple was involved. The “Full and True Account of the Battel Fought last Friday Between the Antient and the Modern Books in St. James’s Library” was written in 1697, at the height of the debate between Temple, Wotton, Bentley, and Boyle, and it was published in 1704 in the volume containing A Tale of a Tub. Swift depicts the antagonists of the debate personified in the books they have written, lined up as two armies ready for war. As part of the preparations for battle, Momus, the patron of the moderns, pays the goddess Criticism a visit:


Contemporary Discussions of Criticism and the Critic

She dwelt on the top of a snowy mountain in Nova Zembla; there Momus found her extended in her den, upon the spoils of numberless volumes, half devoured. At her right hand sat Ignorance, her father and husband, blind with age; at her left, Pride, her mother, dressing her up in the scraps of paper herself had torn. There was Opinion, her sister, light of foot, hood-winked, and head-strong, yet giddy and perpetually turning. About her played her children, Noise and Impudence, Dulness and Vanity, Positiveness, Pedantry, and Ill-manners. The goddess herself had claws like a cat; her head, and ears, and voice resembled those of an ass; her teeth fallen out before, her eyes turned inward, as if she looked only upon herself; her diet was the overflowing of her own gall; her spleen was so large as to stand prominent, like a dug of the first rate; nor wanted excrescences in form of teats, at which a crew of ugly monsters were greedily sucking; and, what is wonderful to conceive, the bulk of spleen increased faster than the sucking could diminish it. (1704: 255–256)

Swift ingeniously uses the allegorical mode to take the whole catalogue of faults that the current perversion of criticism has in his eyes, and combine them in a single image that is immediately accessible to his readers. Especially through Criticism’s parentage he points out the preconditions for the spirit of the type of criticism that he wants to attack, ignorance and pride. Pride lies at the heart of the critic’s feeling of superiority, and this feeling is the driving force behind his desire to belittle works of art. Ignorance is important because real knowledge would work as a check on pride. It is easier to feel superior to what one doesn’t understand. This lack of substance is substituted by the self-importance and selfreflexivity of criticism (eyes turned inward) and by the impolite form through which criticism is voiced (noise and impudence, ill-manners), an important point in the quarrel between the “ancients” and the “moderns.” A late imitator of Swift in the negative depiction of criticism as a goddess is Michael Wodhull, who in 1761 wrote an Ode to Criticism, partly to satirize the poetry of Thomas Warton the younger. There he addresses the goddess: Hail mighty Goddess, whom of yore, Where fam’d Cimmeria boasts her tenfold Gloom, in those deep Caverns, from her lab’ring Womb imperial Dulness bore. At the signal of thy birth, O’er the Rue-besprinkled Earth, Slowly sullen Spleen advances, Sneering Laughter joins the Dances, Swift from her Den exulting Envy springs, New trims her faded Torch, and sharpens all her Stings. (1761: 3)

The proximity to Swift’s version is very obvious, and was most likely acknowledged by Wodhull through the use of the adverb “swift.” Like Swift, Wodhull

Imagining Criticism


emphasizes the negativity of criticism by mentioning the spleen, and he adds envy as an important factor for this negativity. Johnson’s version in The Rambler, no. 3 is almost the direct opposite of Swift’s depiction, showing criticism in an idealized “golden age” version: Criticism […] was the eldest daughter of Labour and of Truth: she was, at her birth, committed to the care of Justice, and brought up by her in the palace of Wisdom. Being soon distinguished by the celestials, for her uncommon qualities, she was appointed the governess of Fancy, and impowered to beat time to the chorus of the Muses, when they sung before the throne of Jupiter. When the Muses condescended to visit this lower world, they came accompanied by Criticism, to whom, upon her descent from her native regions, Justice gave a scepter, to be carried aloft in her right hand, one end of which was tinctured with ambrosia, and inwreathed with a golden foliage of amaranths and bays; the other end was incircled with cypress and poppies, and dipped in the waters of oblivion. In her left hand, she bore an unextinguishable torch, the manufacture of Labour, and lighted by Truth, of which it was the particular quality to diffuse its radiance in such a manner as immediately to shew every thing in its true form, however it might be disguised to common eyes. Whatever Art could complicate, or Folly could confound, was, upon the first gleam of the torch of Truth, exhibited in its distinct parts and original simplicity; it darted through all the labyrinths of sophistry, and shewed at once all the absurdities to which they served for refuge; it pierced through the robes, which rhetorick often sold to falsehood, and detected the disproportion of parts, which artificial veils had been contrived to cover. (1750: 21–23)

But this period of ideal divine intervention and revelation is soon followed in Johnson’s account with one of decline, degeneration, and absence: Criticism having long kept her eye fixt steadily upon Time, was at last so well satisfied with his conduct, that she withdrew from the earth with her patroness Astrea, and left Prejudice and False-Taste to ravage at large with Fraud and Mischief contenting herself thenceforth to shed her influence from afar upon some select minds, fitted for its reception by learning and by virtue. Before her departure, she broke her scepter, of which the shivers, that formed the ambrosial end, were caught up by Flattery, and those that had been infected with the waters of Lethe were, with equal haste, seized by Malevolence. The followers of Flattery, to whom she distributed her part of the scepter, neither had nor desired light, but touched indiscriminately whatever Power or Interest happened to exhibit. The companions of Malevolence were supplied by the Furies with a torch, which had this quality peculiar to infernal lustre, that its light fell only upon faults. […] With these fragments of authority, the slaves of Flattery and Malevolence marched out, at the command of their mistresses, to confer immortality, or condemn to oblivion. But the scepter had now lost its power; and Time passes his sentence at leisure, without any regard to their determinations. (Johnson 1750: 25–26)

This story depicts the surrender of true critical authority to the concept of the “test of time”. Really legitimate authority is being distanced into a mythical and closed past, while the actual practice of criticism can only resort to “fragments of authority”, perverted by negative influences like flattery and malevolence. Who-


Contemporary Discussions of Criticism and the Critic

ever attempts to claim critical authority in the present time, Johnson implies, can and must aspire to an ideal that is albeit unattainable. With this allegorical depiction, Johnson can insist on the existence of true criticism, though inaccessible in a mythical realm, castigate the faults of actual criticism, and transfer the final authority to the test of time. As these examples show, imagining criticism as myth facilitated especially statements on its true essence in relation to contemporary practice. While Swift explains the sources of the faults of criticism as he encounters it through a humourological disposition rendered in terms of mythical genealogy, Johnson differentiates an ideal of criticism from its recent reality through his mythological story of a deus absconditus. But even with the goddess Criticism either secluded in her icy mountains or completely withdrawn from earthly affairs, there were other mythical or halfmythical creatures to serve as (negative) role-models or stand-ins for the critic. Among the mythical figures associated with criticism in the 18th century, Momus ranks foremost in the pedigree of the false critic, often with a special emphasis on his own heritage as the son of Night and Sleep. In this sense he is used for example in the anonymous pamphlet Reviewers Reviewed and by George Duckett, who relates how Momus forms Pope out of numerous negative characteristics (1729: 7).10 In Spectator no. 592, Joseph Addison explains the association of Momus, his ancestors, and his heirs, the critics: Envy and Cavil are the natural Fruits of Laziness and Ignorance; which was probably the Reason, that in the Heathen Mythology Momus is said to be the Son of Nox and Somnus, of Darkness and Sleep. Idle Men, who have not been at the Pains to accomplish or distinguish themselves, are very apt to detract from others; as ignorant Men are very subject to decry those Beauties in a celebrated Work which they have not Eyes to discover. Many of our Sons of Momus, who dignify themselves by the Name of Criticks, are the genuine Descendants of these two illustrious Ancestors. (1714: no page)

The application of Momus as a tool of satire is not always clear-cut in that he can become a general signifier for lowness and vulgarity in culture. George Saville Carey, for example, writes a poem called Momus, and subtitled A Critical Examination into the Merits of the Performers, and Comic Pieces, at the Theatre-Royal in the Hay-Market, where he calls the performers “sons of Momus”. He is answered in the same year with the anonymous Atys. Or, a Letter to Momus, on his late Descent among Mortals. Or, rather to the mistaken, illiberal Mortal Whose lucrative Views have engaged him to wear that Mask, to cover Falshood, Ingratitude, Malevo-

10 Cf. also Anonym 1779: 21 and Anonym 1730: 43: “Momus was the real Son of that dark and dismal Jade Night, who shelters all the Whores and Street-Robbers about Town”.

Imagining Criticism


lence, and the whole Train of Vices which are Engender’d in his Heart, where the author writes that “the Deity whose title you have so very aptly usurped (though stiled the God of Laughter) has been frequently kick’d out of company for spoiling it by his ill-timed cavils.” (1767d: 2) Thus, both authors simply throw the title of Momus rather indiscriminately at each other. Such lack of clear definition of the meaning of Momus is reflected in a curious way in the anonymous pamphlet The Helter Skelter Way of Writing. Or, a New Method of Criticism (1730), where three rather ridiculous pedants get into a protracted argument about the etymology and meaning of the name (33ff.). Still, Momus is routinely evoked in anti-critical texts of the time, mostly because of his association with a malicious kind of laughter, one that delights in the faults of others. Thus, in a way he represents criticism as satire gone wrong. James Arbuckle had used Momus in a satire written against Swift, where he describes him as A Fellow said to be a God, But of a Temper somewhat odd; Addicted much to Jeers and Gibes; Eternal Foe to tender Kibes; And, with but slender Skill in Letters, Was always carping at his Betters. (1735: no page )

This attitude of the inferior god who laughed at those who stood above him is what most closely aligns him to ideas of the bad critic, making him useful whenever an author wants to evoke or strengthen a hierarchical conception of literature or criticism. Momus’ laughter transgresses the boundaries of the stratificatory system of gods, or good and bad authors/critics, and since he is already pre-established as an arch-type of badness, it stresses the illegitimacy of such transgressions (cf. Smart 1753: 41 and Anonym 1730: 42). An intermediate between Momus, the mythical ancestor of bad criticism, and contemporaries that were styled as fathers of bad criticism (like John Dennis) is the character of Zoilus.11 Half myth and half historical figure, Zoilus was a grammarian and philosopher living in the 4th century BC who had written a book on Homer’s epics, at the same time initiating Homeric scholarship and the stereotype of the malicious critic whose raison-d’être is to find fault with one specific author. The establishment of his bad reputation was greatly enhanced by the fact that his own work is lost. Already in antiquity, Zoilus gained the name of Homeromastix, or scourge of Homer, and by the 18th century, his name had long become a chiffre for the malevolent critic. Thus, when James Grainger writes to

11 For an association of Dennis and Zoilus, cf. Anonym 1751a: 2.


Contemporary Discussions of Criticism and the Critic

Smollett that “next to Zoilus, you Dr. Tobias Smollet are allowed to be the greatest of Critics” (1759: 1, cf. also Parnell 1717: no page), the negative implication will have been clear to every reader. Smollett counters that attack by hinting at the ridiculousness of the additional association that is implied in Grainger’s comparison: for if Smollett is Zoilus, that would mean that Grainger is nothing less than Homer, and “surely, nothing can be more just than to charge Dr. Smollett with the malevolent spirit of a Zoilus, considering that he is supposed to have censured the works of that second Homer, Dr. James Grainger.” (1759a: 143)

Law and Authority “The Greek Word for Critic”, reminds us the author of an essay “On Literal Criticism” for the Gentleman’s Magazine of March 1734, “signifies a Judge” (Anonym 1734a: 135). Though Klinkenborg has cautioned that the “analogy between a judge and a critic is imprecise, fraught with the difficulties of comparing a world of men to a world of books, a courtroom to a coffee-house” (1987: 58),12 the system most commonly used by 18th-century writers as a basis for an allegory of criticism is indeed the system of law. Literary critics are consistently pictured as judges, and the very act of evaluation is closely associated with the faculty of judgment.13 Frequently, rules of good or correct writing are described as laws. The law allegory is especially illuminating, since the way it is being handled shows a lot about how the handler conceives of criticism. This, for example, is how James Ralph represents criticism as a court in his 1731 satirical guide to the town’s various entertainments: “[Critics] erect a formal Tribunal, or Court of Inquisition, before whose Bar all Writers must appear; Nature and Art preside; the Criticks are the Accusers; and the antient Freeholders of Parnassus the lawful Jury.” (1731: 152) When represented in its ideal form, the analogy is an expression of criticism’s impartiality. In this sense it is used in the anonymous poem Churchill Dissected (1764), directed against the satirical poet Charles Churchill: “Before the Critic’s Bar we’ll bring his Cause,/ And there, forgetting him as Foe or Friend,/ Blame what is wrong, and what is right commend.” (1764: 23)14

12 For a modern theoretical discussion of the relationship between the judge and literary critics that unfortunately leaves out the question of literary evaluation and therefore cannot but provide an incomplete impression of this relationship, cf. Gana 2003. 13 For a discussion of Pope’s implicit use of the metaphor cf. Morris 1979: 25. 14 The relevance of the image must be seen independent from the fact that the poem itself is far from being impartial, but is a hateful fantasy of Churchill being dead and actually dissected that

Imagining Criticism


As Klinkenborg has shown, Johnson, who had a life-long interest in the law, repeatedly uses the analogy of critic and judge as a way to debate his legitimacy. Thus, he is not only concerned with the act of judging, with criticism as judicial, but with the right to judge as well (cf. Klinkenborg 1987: 48 and Hagstrum 1967: 24). In the Rambler no. 3, for example, Johnson draws a distinguishing line between his own critical practice and those who call themselves “criticks,” by questioning the truthfulness of their claim to work within the framework of “lawful authority”: Though the nature of my undertaking gives me sufficient reason to dread the united attacks of this virulent generation, yet I have not hitherto persuaded myself to take any measures for flight or treaty. For I am in doubt, whether they can act against me by lawful authority, whether they have not presumed upon a forged commission, stiled themselves the ministers of Criticism, without being able to produce any authentic evidence of delegation, and uttered their own determinations as the decrees of a higher judicature. (1750: 21)

Throughout the 18th century, criticism is widely perceived as legislative or lawgiving. The development of generally applicable rules is often seen as one of criticism’s main functions, with Aristotle being called “the first and great Lawgiver” (Farquhar 1702: 126)15 or “the Legislator of Parnassus” (Dennis 1712: no page) It is therefore not surprising that most allegorizations identify the critic with the judge. One consequence of this identification is the alleged attribution of both judgment and (punitive) sentence to the critic. John Eusebius Smyth, in his satirical account of criticism, writes: “A Critick is a Judge; and every one knows the Business of a Judge is, not to draw up Pleading but to pronounce Sentence.” (1730: 10) And Richard Steele specifically excludes any function besides passing sentence from the critic, self-conceived as a judge: It’s a particular Observation I have always made, That of all Mortals, a Critick is the silliest; for by inuring himself to examine all Things, whether they are of Consequence or not, he never looks upon any Thing but with a Design of passing Sentence upon it; by which Means, he is never a Companion, but always a Censor. (1709a: no page)

Some critics, especially those placing great importance on the binding nature of the rules, supported such accusations with their own positions, like Charles Gildon, when he talks about negative or corrective criticism as “punishment”:

is so vicious in its satire, that John Langhorne suspected it jokingly to be written by Churchill himself, cf. Langhorne 1764: 276. 15 Cf. also Pope’s claim from the 1713 edition of the Essay on that the ancient poets “Receive’d his laws” Pope 1713b: 32. In the first edition it had still been simply “rules” Pope 1711: 38.


Contemporary Discussions of Criticism and the Critic

The end of all rules or laws is to instruct the ignorant, or to restrain the licentious; but when such rules or laws are sufficiently promulgated, and so universally known, that no one can plead ignorance of them, nothing but contumacy continues their breach; which contumacy is not to be remov’d by a repetition of the precept, but by a punishment proportioned to the offence. (1721: 166)16

The anxieties around the critic as (false) judge considerably increased with the establishment of the Reviews. Henry Brooke calls critics in his novel The Fool of Quality (1765) not only judges but “these high and dreaded Lords Justiciaries”, and describes a nightmare vision of a court of condemnation: I have been present, when some of these Dictators have been presented with a Manuscript, as with an humble Petition; they have thereupon assumed the Chair, as a Judge assumes the Bench when a Criminal is called before him, not in order to Trial or Hearing, but to Sentence and Condemnation. To what Scenes of Mortification have I been Witness on such Occasions! to what a State of Abatement, of Abasement, of Annihilation, have these Entertainers of the Public been depressed! (1765: 219)

By trying to empower the reader within the critical process, and conferring some of the critical authority on him that was previously centralized in the critic-asjudge (epitomized in negative stereotypes of Dennis or Rymer), Joseph Addison was instrumental in introducing the function of the lawyer (mainly as defence, less often as prosecutor) into criticism (cf. Damrosch 1979: 423). In contrast to the critic as judge, the critic as attorney or lawyer only pleads for a verdict of “guilty” or “not guilty”; that is, he offers an opinion that contains a judgment, but that is not the final result of the process of judgment, because his verdict can still be accepted or refused by the real judge, the public. This is a decisive shift in power relations in accordance with Addison’s general project of providing his readers with the means for independent (critical) thought, and therefore judgments. At the same time, Addison’s periodical writing also represents the first step in the development of mediating criticism, of distancing the participants of the critical discourse. Every judgment contains a power-relation between the judging subject and the judged object. But whereas in the system of law – understood as based on an ideal and perfect form of justice – this is a closed structure that works on absolute terms and is not dependent on any third party acknowledging the judgment, in the case of literary value-judgments, these judgments only make sense if they are

16 In the preface to his 1714 play, he had defended criticism by comparing it to the necessary execution of the law by a magistrate against criminals, cf. Gildon 1714: no page.

Imagining Criticism


perceived and accepted (or rejected) by a third party. It is only the act of accepting a judgment that confirms its critical authority. The acceptance of a legitimization of criticism through its identification with the law depended therefore on an acceptance of the ideal of “justice” that constituted its foundation. The extended debate about the ‘rules’ of criticism can be understood as a large-scale investigation into the nature of that ‘justice.’ Only if absolute laws of criticism are existent and knowable to the critic can his judgments be considered to be just. In the absence of such laws, or even a proper knowledge of them, criticism as law has to rely on power structures alien to its own system to uphold its claims, such as political power, and it might turn into the self-serving mechanism of restriction of a bureaucracy, as in Charles Churchill’s belittling snipe: “Enough of Critics – let them, if they please,/ Fond of new pomp, each month pass new decrees” (1764: 3). Three years earlier, Churchill had given a more detailed account of criticism (especially that of the review journals) as an uncontrolled and illegitimate judicio-political system: How could these self-elected monarchs raise So large an empire on so small a base? In what retreat, inglorious and unknown, Did Genius sleep when Dulness seized the throne? Whence, absolute now grown, and free from awe, She to the subject world dispenses law. Without her license not a letter stirs, And all the captive criss-cross-row is hers. (1761: 5)17

What Churchill depicts is an utter perversion of jurisdiction through an illicit short-circuiting of the judicial and the political system – it is the tyrant who gives out laws to the “subject world”, a double illegitimacy neither founded on any system of justice nor on a legitimate claim to political power. Because of the absence of individual judges due to anonymous publication, the review journals themselves were often perceived as a complete court of law. This metaphor is as old as the journals themselves, and is curiously in line with their own attempts at self-representation (cf. Donoghue 1996: 148). When Henry Fielding, himself trained at law, wrote his Covent-Garden Journal in 1752, he labelled the section dealing with current books “Proceedings of the Court of Censorial Enquiry”. The difference between the association of the critic with the 17 In still another text, he says about one critic that he has assumed so much power that “[h]is dictates current pass’d for law;/ Submissive, all his empire own’d’, Churchill 1762: no page. Another example would be the anonymous complaint “That one call’d William Warburton/ Set himself up with tongue and pen/ To give the law to learned men”, Anonym 1751b: 3-4.


Contemporary Discussions of Criticism and the Critic

judge (or the attorney) and representation of the Reviews as “courts” is a decisive one, in that it transfers the responsibility (and the capacity) to judge from the critic towards the audience as jury, as can be seen from this ironical comment by James Elphinston about “two volunteer-Associations: which patriotically erected themselves, one 34, the other 27 years ago, into Courts of Criticism: where the Public was to be taught how to judge of every new Work, great or small, that should invite or forbid its inspection” (1783: 4).18 This question of empowerment is also rendered in images of the judicial system in the short farce “The Insignificants” (1757) by Phanuel Bacon. The play deals with a fantastical large-scale trial in which everyone who failed to prove that he was still alive would be promptly buried. Within the context of this larger, absurd existentialist trial, the Reviews feature as prosecutor, albeit a failed one: Freeman. But, pray let me ask you, had you any/ authors tried?/ Valentine. No – but there were several ready to/ have taken their tryals./ Freeman. What prevented it?/ Valentine. Nothing, Jack, but the Critical Reviewers,/ who had given in an information against/ ‘em, not appearing to make good their charge./ Freeman. I suppose when the first sally of their/ malice was over – they were afraid, that if they went/ on with the prosecution, the cause would have been/ apt to have turned against themselves. (1757: 51)

Indeed, the reason for the Reviews’ failure to appear before the court is that they had all “died” before the trial even begun, a fact that is commented upon by Freeman: “I have often wondered, that such a set of scribblers should be suffered to monopolize the power of passing sentence upon all compositions, and indeed with so little judment [sic] as they have shewed in their own” (52). There are important differences between the self-representation of the Reviews as courts and their being pictured as such by their commentators or enemies. Voices who oppose the judicial authority of the Reviews stress the lack of an investment by any accepted sovereign (instead, they merely “erected themselves”), or they question the truthfulness of the whole analogy, arguing that it is not justice that is being done, but injustice, and that instead of a regular court, they represent a “british Inquisition” (Elphinston 1763: 3), a term that, in the anti-

18 Elphinston had used that expression already twenty years earlier, when he referred to the Monthly: “[A] book-monger, a book-maker, a caledonian scholastic, not a Duns Scotus, an hibernian doctor, but by no means a Swift, and perhaps seven other choice spirits, whose names never transpired, erected themselves some years ago into a court of criticism at London, by the name, stile and title of the Monthly Review; where conjunctly or severally they were to pronounce in name of the public upon the merit of every literary work that should appear in any language.” Elphinston 1763: 1.

Imagining Criticism


catholic British climate, denoted illegitimacy. Churchill paints such a picture of the Reviews as courts of corruption and vehicles of crime, turning their selfrepresentation against them: Should any novice in the rhyming trade With lawless pen the realms of verse invade, Forth from the court, where sceptred sages sit, Abused with praise, and flatter’d into wit; Where in lethargic majesty they reign, And what they won by dulness, still maintain, Legions of factious authors throng at once, Fool beckons fool, and dunce awakens dunce. To Hamilton’s the ready lies repair,––– Ne’er was lie made which was not welcome there––– Thence, on maturer judgment’s anvil wrought, The polish’d falsehood’s into public brought. Quick-circulating slanders mirth afford; And reputation bleeds in every word. (1761: 3)

Though the success of his own editorial enterprise had relied on the persuasiveness of his depiction of the Reviews as legitimate courts, Smollett did not hesitate to use the reverse image himself, as soon as he came to talk about his rival. He never failed to bring forth charges of corruption against Ralph Griffiths, and in his novel Launcelot Greaves made a direct connection between an editor of a Review and a corrupt judge, by modelling the character of Justice Gobble on his rival. There are numerous parallels between the two, especially the prior occupation of both as tradesmen (Griffiths a watchmaker and Gobble a hosier), and the relative importance that their wives gain over their professional activities.

Militant Criticism Criticism can be conceived as an act of violence that is therefore depictable in military imagery, as attack or invasion, the legitimacy of which is up to debate, as when John Pinkerton writes that Aristotle “was as fond of subduing the mental world, as his pupil Alexander was of conquering the habitable.” (1785: 508) Turned positively, criticism’s military conquest can be understood as the necessary first step for colonization and civilization. After Samuel Johnson outlines his Plan of a Dictionary, the strategies according to which he wants to proceed, he summarizes the extent and significance of what he is about to do in the following terms:


Contemporary Discussions of Criticism and the Critic

When I survey the Plan which I have laid before you, I cannot, my Lord, but confess, that I am frighted at its extent, and, like the soldiers of Cæsar, look on Britain as a new world, which it is almost madness to invade. But I hope, that though I should not complete the conquest, I shall, at least, discover the coast, civilize part of the inhabitants, and make it easy for some other adventurer to proceed further, to reduce them wholly to subjection, and settle them under laws. (1747: 33)

Johnson’s ambiguous picture partly seems to imply that (critical) order is to be enforced by military power (“to invade”), but then simply dissolves all military action into the undoubtedly positive activity of “civilizing” and leaves the more questionable “subjection” to his successors. That is, Johnson claims for himself to subjugate by convincing rationally, creating an authority that is granted to him by all those who accept his dictionary (“part of the inhabitants”). This authority might then be used by someone else to “reduce to subjection”. Modestly denying that he might have a decisive influence on the English language (though this is exactly what he expected when he conceived of his dictionary as the more useful alternative to a British academy), Johnson can reserve for himself those elements of criticism’s power-exertion that are most beneficial and based on legitimacy. But as soon as criticism is depicted from outside of criticism, by someone who is not describing his own proceedings, the focus shifts towards aspects of force and violence. One of the tribes of ridiculous critics described in The Helter Skelter Way of Writing has the function “to sound to Arms with their Trumpets made of Scorpions Hucklebones, blowing up the Spirit of Resentment throughout the whole Assembly” (Anonym 1730: 39). While a neutral observer, or reader, would usually associate the act of judging with the realm of justice, with a court in which there are accusers, defenders, and judges, the author involved, in most cases and quite naturally, is not willing to grant any basis for dispute of his work. When it is not depicted in terms of law, with its implication of established laws and justice, as well as a prior offence that is put on trial, a literary evaluation can very easily be perceived as an attack, with images of the law court replaced by those of military action. A positive judgment is then like a grant of sovereignty, or a peace treaty, a negative one a declaration of war. The main difference to picturing criticism in terms of the law court is that an accusation is a non-aggressive reaction to an act that might be justified or not, whereas an attack never is. The ‘blame’ shifts from an ‘offense’ that happened prior to the law procedure (the text as offense) to the act of accusation (criticism as offense). An example for the first position can be drawn from a treatise by Charles Abbott, where he closely connects the functions of satire and criticism, arguing that it is satire that gives criticism an ‘executive power’ to punish:

Imagining Criticism


To stigmatize the names of those persons whose vices or follies, either immediately by their effects, or more remotely by their example, are injurious to the happiness of society, is an action both just and patriotic. The instructions of the moralist and critic would be too often neglected or despised, if there were no executive power, which might punish the violation of their laws. (1786: 2–3)

Here it is obvious that the (punishable) offense lies on the side of the original authors, quite contrary to, for example, John Wolcot’s implicit accusation that reviewers, “like murderers in their dens,/ […] secret met in cloud-capp’d garret high,/ With hatchets, scalping knives in shape of pens,/ To bid, like Mohocks, hapless authors die” (1787: 4). In the defence of his own savage review of Samuel Johnson’s edition of Shakespeare, William Kenrick asks the critics: “And pray, how do you differ from the sanguinary assassins of White-chapel and Cow-cross, except that yours are intellectual, and theirs are animal victims? They only mangle the body. You mortify the very soul” (1766: 58).19 With somewhat more ambiguity as to the question whose actions are justified and whose not, Samuel Johnson in The Rambler describes the work of the critic in terms of a military siege: The critick’s purpose is to conquer, the author only hopes to escape; the critick therefore knits his brow, and raises his voice, and rejoyces whenever he perceives any tokens of pain excited by the pressure of his assertions, or the point of his sarcasms. The author, whose endeavour is at once to mollify and elude his persecutor, composes his features, and softens his accent, breaks the force of assault by retreat, and rather steps aside than flies or advances. (1751a: 27)

A similar ambiguity is apparent in another of Johnson’s uses of the military metaphor, as reported by Boswell: He said he expected to be attacked on account of his Lives of the Poets. ‘However (said he,) I would rather be attacked than unnoticed. For the worst thing you can do to an authour is to be silent as to his works. An assault upon a town is a bad thing; but starving it is still worse; an assault may be unsuccessful; you may have more men killed than you kill; but if you starve the town, you are sure of victory.’ (Boswell 1791 (2): 282–283)20

Though he pictures criticism as an assault, Johnson puts this assault almost in the form of a game, with ‘points’ being won or lost on both sides (“you may have more men killed than you kill”), a game that is necessary for the author, because it is better than not being noticed at all. But in a different issue of the Rambler, while

19 For another example, cf. Cambridge 1751: 28. 20 This is echoed in Tobias Smollett’s reaction to William Kenrick’s attack on The Critical Review, cf. Smollett 1759b: 167.


Contemporary Discussions of Criticism and the Critic

also working within military imagery, Johnson counters authors’ reasoning that acts of criticism equal unprovoked aggression, claiming instead that it is the act of publication that constitutes the original aggression, or ‘challenge’ (in another text he talks in the same sense about “the arrogance of writing” (1753: 268)21). [H]e that writes may be considered as a kind of general challenger, whom every one has a right to attack; since he quits the common rank of life, steps forward beyond the lists, and offers his merit to the publick judgment. To commence author is to claim praise, and no man can justly aspire to honour but at the hazard of disgrace. (1751f: no page)

This inversion of attack and defence that casts authors in the role of aggressor is a result of the changing perception on book production in an ever-growing literary market. It is the overabundance of books that is conceived as an attack on the readers’ time, money, and attention. It is therefore not surprising to find such a use of military imagery in the Reviews, which were most immediately affected by overproduction. John Langhorne, for example, writes in a review of Hannah More’s The Search for Happiness: There is no inferior degree of valour requisite in criticism. It is necessary that the Critic should be an approved knight. Perils more than apostolical have we encountered, as liege knights of the Muses, in the discharge of our duty, and the pursuit of our proper glory. We have let the living light of reason into the black holes of bigotry, and stormed the giant-forts of episcopal arrogance. We have scaled the star-crowned dwellings of bards of desperate brains and desperate fortunes. We have fought in single combat with the dreadful monsters that preside over the gally-pot and the clyster-pipe. (1773: 202)

The reviewer as knight errant who valiantly combats the monsters of ignorance – it is almost as if the overly large number of romances Langhorne and his colleagues had to read influenced his imagination in a way similar to Charlotte Lennox’s female Quixote.

Absolute Authority: Criticism as Politics Authority strives to be absolute. It is the inherent intention of a judgment to be accepted, of a law to be obeyed, of an attack to vanquish. Ultimately, literary evaluation is all about power, and therefore, analogies to political systems (as

21 It is interesting in this context to note that Johnson, in his life of Pope, pointed out as one of the major advantages that the poet gained through his financial independence his right not to write anything if he did not want to, cf. Johnson 1779–1781 (7): 262–263.

Imagining Criticism


power’s most pure manifestation) are frequently evoked to describe the mechanisms and the participants of criticism, especially when the legitimacy of its authority is being questioned. The use of this analogy might also have been strengthened by the generally assumed connection between critical and political opinion (cf. Fisher 1972: 833), as all throughout the century, critics and critical publications like the Reviews were not only grouped according to their critical, but also according to their political positions. More generally, it reflects the age’s short-circuiting of politics and poetics that finds its clearest expression in the way that the institution of literature is routinely described as a “republic,” a “province,” or a “commonwealth” (cf. Gorak 1997: 564).22 But where criticism always works as an exercise of power – with more or less willingness on the part of those to be ‘governed’ by its decisions – the general rationalistic and enlightenment trend of the age is bent towards independent thinking and therefore strongly opposed to ideas of absolute authority, or ‘tyranny,’ as it was often termed. Thus, the evolution of criticism during the period contains the attempt to ‘democratize’ criticism, because “no man has a title to be a Dictator in Knowledge” (Broome 1739: xix). “It is the just lot of tyrants to be detested;” writes William Hayley in 1782, “and of all usurpers, the literary despot is the least excusable, as he has not the common tyrannical plea of necessity or interest to alledge in his behalf; for the prevalence of his edicts will be found to sink in proportion to the arbitrary tone with which they are pronounced.” (1782: 131) By trying to reduce the vast number of aesthetic judgments to rational and thereby universally applicable rules, enlightenment criticism on the one hand tries to evenly distribute critical authority among everybody. The turn towards affective aesthetics on the other hand is meant to strengthen the authority of the single, uninformed but feeling reader (cf. Runge 1997: 173). Constant is therefore the rhetoric against critics who are perceived to have assumed too much power, or have assumed it by illegitimate means, and who are usually described in negative political terminology, as “despotic” or “ministerial” (Anonym 1779: v). John Dennis is a prime example, with Isaac Disraeli claiming “that Dennis could not sit at a table, or walk down a street, without exerting the despotic rudeness of a literary dictator.” (1796: 124) For the characters of Charles Johnson’s play The Generous Husband, Dennis “thinks he is the Chancellor of Parnassus, and believes [his] Decrees are irreversible” (1711: 18).23

22 A full-text search in the Eighteenth Century Collections Online produces 55 titles for the expression “province of letters,” 413 for “commonwealth of letters,” and 2701 for “republic of letters.” 23 In the same spirit, David Rivers called William Warburton an “intellectual despot” (1798 (1): 2098).


Contemporary Discussions of Criticism and the Critic

Most depictions of criticism in political terms are used to question the origin of its authority, with the implication that it did not arise from any convincing arguments, i.e. it is not authority in Weber’s sense, but the exertion of force, founded on nothing but the general public’s docile acceptance of it. This acceptance in turn derives out of insufficient understanding of criticism and lack of knowledge on the part of the non-critics, or rather the assumption of knowledge in the critic that is not necessarily there. For Henry Fielding, because the world have paid too great a compliment to critics, and have imagined them men of much, greater profundity than they really are […], the critics have been emboldened to assume a dictatorial power, and have so far succeeded, that they are now become the masters, and have the assurance to give laws to those authors from whose predecessors they originally received them. (1749 (1): 227–228, cf. also Kenrick 1774b: 32)

In Fielding’s account, critics become powerful by claiming some knowledge that the other readers do not possess, ending up by reversing the hierarchy between themselves and the poets they are supposed to serve. Similarly, Goldsmith sees the non-resistance of the audience as the main factor that makes the creation of illegitimate critical authority possible (cf. 1762 (1): 246). Joseph Addison’s Spectator essays are an early example for the influence of liberal enlightenment rhetoric on criticism. In line with the general trend of his moral essays, in his writings on literature he expresses “his conviction that the reader is more important than the prosecutor or judge, and should not let himself be bullied by authority” (Damrosch 1979: 423). As we will see soon, though, Addison was at the same time, by drawing his ideal picture of the critic as that of a gentleman, relying on a tradition that equalled aristocratic with critical merits. Furthermore, he himself occupied a position of such eminence in the world of letters that comparisons to monarchical power were frequent, especially when contemporaries discussed him in connection with his most important rival, Alexander Pope, about whom James Boswell wrote that at a certain time he “filled the poetical throne without a rival” (1791 (1): 65). Johnson puts the rivalry between Pope and Addison in unmistakeable terms as a quest for politically imagined supremacy: “Addison and [Pope] were now at the head of poetry and criticism; and both in such a state of elevation, that, like the two rivals in the Roman state, one could no longer bear an equal, nor the other a superior” (1779–1781 (7): 96–97). Political imagery was often used in the description of Addison’s literary career and the standing that he achieved in the republic of letters, as is evidenced by Robert Bisset’s description of Addison’s stylistic domination in Steele’s Tatler: “Such was the superiority of Addison’s writing, that Sir Richard said, that he himself fared like a distressed prince, who called a powerful neighbour to his aid, and was undone by his auxiliary.” (1799: 18) Johnson in the Lives comments on the connection and

Imagining Criticism


interdependence between critical and political authority in the case of Addison, showing how one could derive from the other: Addison, in his life, and for some time afterwards, was considered by the greater part of readers as supremely excelling both in poetry and criticism. Part of his reputation may be probably ascribed to the advancement of his fortune; when, as Swift observes, he became a statesman, and saw poets waiting at his levee, it is no wonder that praise was accumulated upon him. Much likewise may be more honourably ascribed to his personal character; he who, if he had claimed it, might have obtained the diadem, was not likely to be denied the laurel. (1779–1781 (5): 91–92)

Both Pope and Addison commented, directly or indirectly, on the other’s dictatorial tendencies. In Spectator No. 253, Addison complains that “[i]n our own Country a Man seldom sets up for a Poet, without attacking the Reputation of all his Brothers in the Art”, then goes on to quote lines from Denham on Fletcher, who does not need “the foul Guilt/ Of Eastern Kings, who, to secure their Reign,/ Must have their Brothers, Sons, and Kindred slain”, and concludes by stating that this is in a sense what Pope does in the Essay on Criticism (1711: no page). In response, the ambivalent portrait of Addison under the name of “Atticus” in Pope’s “Epistle to Arbuthnot” shows the author, in unfavourable terms, as a social and literary institution, exerting power, with lines reminiscent of those that Addison had quoted: Peace to all such! but were there One whose fires True Genius kindles, and fair Fame inspires; Blest with each talent, and each art to please, And born to write, converse, and live with ease: Shou’d such a man, too fond to rule alone, Bear, like the Turk, no brother near the throne, View him with scornful, yet with jealous eyes, And hate for arts that caus’d himself to rise; (Pope 1751 (4): 17)24

William Kenrick provides the after-thought to the attempts of drawing an analogy between criticism and political power by reminding us that it is merely an analogy and not an identity, and indeed it was easier during the period to contradict critical authority than political, turning criticism into a testing-ground for independent thinking: It is well, however, for the progress of Science, and the independency of Wit, that the Session of the Literary Junto is not so firmly established as that of the political. They are both

24 On this exchange, cf. also Horne 1976: 311-312.


Contemporary Discussions of Criticism and the Critic

provided, indeed, with their ushers and serjeants respectively; but, however tremendous may be the magisterial authority of the one, nothing can be more ridiculous than the critical mock-majesty of the other. (1766: 2)

When, in Archibald Campbell’s Sale of Authors, it is time to sell the writers for the literary Reviews, they are announced to the prospective buyers as “the Kings, the Princes, the Dictators, the Legislators of the common-wealth of Letters.” (1767b: 192) Political imagery is the most persistently used to depict the Reviews in their claims to authority. Though authors had to acknowledge the factual existence of the Reviews’ critical authority on a pragmatic level, they nevertheless fiercely tried to contest it on the theoretical, challenging the analogies of the Review’s selfrepresentation and providing numerous counter-analogies or allegories. Against their ideal of a court of criticism they set images of robbery and corruption, against the state-like function claimed by the Reviews they setimages of tyranny and dictatorship, always trying to contrast the ideal with what they perceived as the reality of the Reviews’ workings. Time and again, authors stress what they perceived as the original sin of the Reviews, that they were “self-constituted critics” (Elphinston 1763: 1–2) who derived their authority not from something outside of themselves, but from a mere Setzung, sitting “self-important” as “[t]he sov’reign arbiters of monthly wit” (Shaw 1766: 1–2).25 This is Charles Churchill’s account of the absolutist tendencies of review criticism: Our great Dictators take a shorter way––– Who shall dispute what the Reviewers say? Their word’s sufficient; and to ask a reason, In such a state as theirs, is downright treason. True judgment now with them alone can dwell; Like Church of Rome, they’re grown infallible. Dull, superstitious readers they deceive, Who pin their easy faith on critic’s sleeve, And, knowing nothing, every thing believe. (1761: 5–6)

25 If it is not described as a self-referential Setzung by the critics themselves, the conferring of authority is pictured in terms that make its illegitimacy and ridiculousness obvious, as in HallStevenson’s fable about the ass who “was so intoxicated,/ shallow-pated,/ That, ever since,/ He has got a fancy in his skull/ That he has a commission from his prince,/ when the moon’s at full,/ To summon every soul,/ Every Ass and Ass’s foal,/ To try the quick and dull,/ Trumpeting through the fields and streets,/ Stopping and/ all he meets.” The continuation of the story intensifies this burlesquing strategy, as it is revealed that the ass judges by smelling the other asses’ behinds, cf. Hall-Stevenson 1760: 11–12.

Imagining Criticism


It is important to note how Churchill emphasizes that the (political) power that the Reviews have gained is not to be understood as derived from a natural or prior political system, but from one that they have created themselves (“such a state as theirs”). Only within this self-created system is their infallibility and absolutist reign not only factual, but legitimate. William Hawkins was as well very persistent in his use of the political imagery, calling the Reviews “juntos”, and warning them that their illegitimacy will soon be uncovered: “You will be found to be usurpers of the title and office of Critics, and must be deemed, if not unfit wholly for this province through insufficiency, at least absolutely unqualified by prejudice, partiality, or ill-nature.” (1760: 67, 2–3) Thomas Underwood’s poem A Word to the Wise (1770) is an attempt to breach the institutional closed nature of the Reviews that they managed to build through their anonymity and their collectivity. He does this by imagining them as real and concrete individuals – and laughable ones at that. The scene that Underwood paints is that of an editorial meeting of the Critical, with Archibald Hamilton designated as general (“Vulgò a Publisher”), William Guthrie as captain, William Robertson as lieutenant, and Edward Thompson as ensign. This mock-heroic concretization of the usually disembodied voice of a Review tries to demystify it by showing its protagonists in their all-too-human nature, as egotistical, quarrelsome (“Harpies prey on one another” (8)), and much less self-assured than they would like to appear. Indeed, the main point of discussion among the staff is the Critical’s loss of power. Hamilton calls them all together because Our kingly State, Though late so noble, firm, and great, Shakes from its Basis––and I dread Th’impending Ruin––on my Head.––– (3)

The description of this loss contains the original claim to absolute governance: How must it then distract my Soul, To think–to feel–our vast Controul, Our Pow’r, so absolute of late, Despotic–in the lettr’d State, How must it grieve–afflict–dismay, To see our Kingdom pass–away, Its Influence fade, from Day to Day– (16)

Again, terms like “absolute” or “despotic” power would inevitably be understood as implying illegitimacy. And since this power is depicted as having no foundation at all, it can crumble within days. In a blatant disregard of the reality of the reviewer’s skill in using the system of criticism to their advantage, Underwood


Contemporary Discussions of Criticism and the Critic

shows their attempts to cope with this danger as helplessly inept. Guthrie, the first to speak (“With self-important Look,/ Each Muscle – titl’d as a Book” (21)), proposes not only to attack the booksellers in a published edict, but also to raise the pay of the contributors, incurring Hamilton’s wrath, but dying immediately afterwards. A fight amongst the remaining editors ensues, which ends with Hamilton being forced to agree to the pay-rise and then returning to business as usual, sending out his underlings with the words “Away! – away! – most worthy Two! – / The World’s a-thirst for our REVIEW .” (38) The Critical Review, unsurprisingly, was not amused, but made a point of emphasizing their general impartiality (“no invectives shall ever prevent us from giving to merit its proper tribute of applause”) before condemning the piece, claiming that “in the present case, it is not in our power to say any thing in favour of the author of this Poetical Farce.” (Anonym 1770: 316) Cuthbert Shaw’s The Race is modelled on the games in the third book of the Dunciad, more specifically on the race of the booksellers. In Shaw’s version it is mostly authors who contend for the prize, among them Tobias Smollett. Already at his entrance, he is described as someone who might prove a dangerous enemy. Shaw sneers at the versatility of Smollett’s career, implying that all of these activities were unsuccessful attempts to gain a literary reputation. The difference between Smollett and other writers is, though, that, as editor of the Critical Review, he can not only praise his own merits and claim the prize for himself, but also threaten all those who would oppose or rival him. In contrast to the others, the Review gives him real power in the world of literature. Through the exaggeration of satire’s magnifying glass, he out of envy becomes an absolute tyrant who can refuse to every other writer what he is not able to get himself: ‘But if, to crown the labors of my muse ‘Thou, inauspicious, should’st the wreath refuse, ‘Whoe’er attempts it in this scribbling Age, ‘Shall feel the Scottish pow’rs of Critic rage; ‘Thus spurn’d, thus disappointed of my aim, ‘I‘ll stand a bugbear in the road to Fame; ‘Each future minion’s infant hopes undo, ‘And blast the budding honors of his brow.’ He said–––and grown with future vengeance big, Grimly he shook his scientific wig. (1766: 13–14)

In this plan, he is immediately seconded by Hamilton, “his trusty squire”, who swears that “whoe’er shall dare/ With him this day for glorious fame to vie/ Sous’d in the bottom of the ditch shall lie”, a resolution that he will cling to “Whilst I have crabtree, life, or letter-press.” (14–15) Smollett’s and Hamilton’s function as editors and critics brings them closer to the monopolistic powerposition of the bookseller, as is indicated by the letter-press. It is the ownership of

Imagining Criticism


his own press and the resulting command over a journal that makes Smollett and Hamilton so singularly powerful. As a counter-move, both Shaw and Underwood keep opposing their influence with images of insignificance. Shaw calls him “the Thersites of the critic Race,/ Tremendous Hamilton! Of giant-strength,/ With Crabtree-staff full twice two yards in length.” (8) And Underwood announces that “A pigmy Mouse–no more–no more/ Pomposo Hamilton’s at Door” (1770: 12–13), using the mock-title usually associated with Johnson. Since the Reviews were not individual but social undertakings of criticism, to depict them in terms of political power must have seemed the most natural way for their attackers to point the finger at the alleged illegitimacy of their authority. And just like the analogies to bad business or to corrupt courts, these figurative representations of the Reviews were important to provide the context and justification for the numerous attacks on them.

Quacks and Physicians A last analogy that is made but rarely, though it seems very obvious, is that to the system of medicine, in the sense of John Eusebius Smyth’s statement that “good Criticks may be consider’d in the Character of excellent Physicians, who take Care of the Health of the World; as bad ones are the Quacks that destroy it.” (1730: 1) The opposing sides of that image are found in Shebbeare’s attack on Tobias Smollett, where he compares him and his review writers to ineffectual quacks (1757b: 14), and in John Dennis’ calling his Remarks on a Book Entituled, Prince Arthur the “antidote” to this poem (1696b: no page).26 In Dennis’ sense, the analogy usually implies that the activity of (bad) writing is perceived as a disease, an excess production of harmful substances of which the author needed to be purged by criticism. This is the idea conveyed by James Ralph in The Taste of the Town, again with an unfavourable comparison between good (ancient) critics and bad (modern) ones: [T]he Criticism of the Antients was an agreeable Dose of Physick, given by a skilful regular Physician, which carry’d off insensibly all noxious Humours, without any Injury to the Constitution: But modern Criticism is a rank Poison, administer’d by an illiterate Quack, which indeed gets the better of the Distemper; but the Operation destroys Life. (1731: 164)

26 The use of metaphor in this case was surely influenced by the fact that Blackmore, whom Dennis criticised here, was a physician.


Contemporary Discussions of Criticism and the Critic

Critics as doctors who are not intent to cure their patients, but rather to kill them, also feature in Charles Churchill’s poem The Candidate: “They, like Doctors, to approve their skill,/ Consult not how to cure, but how to kill” (1764: 4). In the review of a poem with the same name, but this time from the pen of George Crabbe, the reviewer takes up the idea of the critic as doctor, faced with a stubborn patient resolved to ignore his advice, as well as consulting the wrong doctor: The anonymous author of this Poetical Epistle is, it seems, an unfortunate gentleman, who having long laboured under a cacoethes scribendi, humbly requests the advice and assistance of Dr. G––, and his brethren of the faculty, concerned in the Monthly Review. The patient, it is observable, takes no notice of us Critical Reviewers, though we have been pretty famous for eradicating disorders of this kind. When the disease, however, increases, as it probably will, there is no doubt but we shall be called in. In the mean time, though we have received no fee, we shall (like the noble-minded physician to a certain news-paper) give our advice gratis. (Anonym 1780: 233)

Of course, the image could also be turned against critics, who were, after all, writers like all the others, with no less of a “cacoethes scribendi.” Alexander Pope had framed his 1713 satire on John Dennis as the narrative of a doctor who tries to cure the critic of his madness by applying cups, and had described in two separate pamphlets and in gleeful detail the effects of the emetic that he administered to the bookseller Edmund Curll. Half a century later, Archibald Campbell borrowed Pope’s strategy for his full-scale pseudo-medical attack on Samuel Johnson. Campbell’s attack centres on what he sees as Johnson’s verbal pomposity and his excess of language: “Here’s my friend J–––n, our English Lexiphanes; he is very ill indeed, he is terribly afflicted with the disease of hard long-tailed words, drawn from the Greek and Latin languages” (1767: 87). Consequently, he has to be purged from this disorder by two physicians and a critic through vomiting. Though he resists at first, he finally gives in and drinks a medicine that makes him throw up all the hard words he has used in his writing life: I declare myself obsequious to your councils, and behold I bibulate.–––– Good god, what’s this? What a fortuitous collision, what an inverted retrogradation, what an enormous combustion, what an erratick grumbling pervades the total involuted series of my intestinal canal! I have assuredly swallowed a speaking devil, or got a ventriloquist in my abdominal regions. Boax, Boax, Boax. (125)27

27 For another comparison of critics and physicians, cf. Lloyd 1774 (1): 94–95: “Critics, like surgeons, blest with curious art,/ Should mark each passage to the human heart,/ But not, unskilful, yet with lordly air,/ Read surgeon’s lectures while they scalp and tear.”

B The Authority of Criticism

1 Critical Authority “The authority claimed by criticks may be more justly opposed,” writes Samuel Johnson in The Rambler, “as it is apparently derived from them whom they endeavour to controul” (1751c: 189). Criticism is not possible without some form of what will be called from here on critical authority. Critical statements can be reduced to value-judgments, and in order for these statements to be effective (i.e. convincing), the addressee of the statement – an author, another critic, or a “common” non-professional reader – must invest the speaker with authority. Through this authority the critic is differentiated from other readers, becomes a critic. Every reading is interpretation and evaluation, and therefore a critical activity, but a critic proper is a person who communicates this activity. Therefore, the investment with authority through other readers is the differentia specifica between critic and reader. In his satirical portrait of Minim, the archetypal false critic, Johnson succinctly delineates a central aspect of criticism that is both its strength and weakness: that it is something that everyone can do, and that consequently everyone does: Criticism is a study by which men grow important and formidable at very small expence. The power of invention has been conferred by Nature upon few, and the labour of learning those sciences which may, by mere labour, be obtained, is too great to be willingly endured; but every man can exert such judgment as he has upon the works of others; and he whom Nature has made weak, and Idleness keeps ignorant, may yet support his vanity by the name of a Critick. (1759c: 39)

Though Johnson puts his account of this aspect of criticism in purely negative terms, the claim that criticism is an activity which every human being can partake of is one of the central tenets of the enlightenment. Active and independent criticism is the mode of thinking that takes responsibility for its own decisions, especially if they are value judgments. To criticise is to form an opinion out of differentiations: good or bad, funny or sad, elevated or low. To reformulate Johnson’s complaint in a more positive (albeit utopian) way: In an ideal republic of letters, there would be no difference between the author, the reader, and the critic. In such a literary utopia, every person would be a writer and would read all the other texts as a critic, i.e. with the ability as well as the willingness to engage it actively, and authority would be distributed equally among them. One precondition for this would be the possibility for direct communication between all members of the community. They would need to know each other and be able to communicate with each other in all directions. Throughout the history of literature, some socially and artistically coherent literary circles have managed to create such situations temporarily, like the Restoration wits or some of the


Critical Authority

Romantic poets.1 Their modes of critical communication usually range from direct dialogue to personal letters and circulated manuscripts as well as allusions in dedications, prefaces, or literary works. The coffee house, with its associated medium, the essay-journal, can be understood as a transitional space, partly retaining the communicative situation of direct interaction, partly simulating such a situation through the fictitious repetition of coffeehouse talk and the inclusion of letters to the editors that were sometimes genuine, and sometimes written by the editors themselves. With the review journals, critical communication is introduced to a much wider audience, but it also loses much of its bidirectionality. Increasingly, criticism becomes less something that is actively performed, or at least engaged conversationally, and more something that is passively received. With the differentiating, widening, and commercializing public and literary sphere, for more and more people, criticism is not something that they do but something they consume. Like everything else, critical opinion becomes a commodity that is not shared among equals, but is offered by some to many. But while the “mere consumer” loses (or simply never acquires) the power to arrive at his own critical opinion, he retains the power to accept one that is on offer. Joseph Addison’s importance as a critic lies only partly in the ever-lasting truth value of his critical opinions. Not less important is the fact that so many people chose to accept his opinions, strengthening the concept of the critic as exemplary judge, a repository for and safeguard of good taste. Though John Dennis had written appreciatively about John Milton years before Addison did, it was the latter’s opinion on the poet that came to establish and influence his reputation for the rest of the century. Addison simply commanded much more critical authority than Dennis. Critical authority is the currency driving the economy of opinion in the literary world. As such, it is also a measure of power. The main difference between mere power and authority is that with authority, part of the power derives from the one who is subject to it. Whereas power can be gained by sheer force, authority has to be conferred, at least to some degree. Addison did not gain his authority at gunpoint – and yet, his eminence as a critic was surely not just the work of chance. This is the ambivalent nature of authority – like the economic or critical success of a novel or a play, there are strategies to achieve it, but no guarantees. Authority is a social positioning, less a single person’s attribute than a relationship. While power is a capacity that is inherent to someone who has it, 1 One might see a possible return to such a state of balance in the hope, born out of poststructuralist thinking and formulated at the early spread of computer-generated text, that with hyperlinked texts, the boundaries between writer and reader would ultimately blur, creating what has sometimes been called a “wreader”.

Critical Authority


authority is a form of power that is granted to a person by another who (more or less) wilfully submits. Critical authority is therefore a phenomenon that involves power, though it cannot be reduced to power. It is a special kind of power relationship, maybe best described through Max Weber’s concept of Herrschaft: Herrschaft soll heißen die Chance, für einen Befehl bestimmten Inhalts bei angebbaren Personen Gehorsam zu finden […] Nicht also jede Art von Chance, “Macht” und “Einfluß” auf andere Menschen auszuüben. Herrschaft (“Autorität”) in diesem Sinn kann im Einzelfall auf den verschiedensten Motiven der Fügsamkeit: von dumpfer Gewöhnung angefangen bis zu rein zweckrationalen Erwägungen, beruhen. Ein bestimmtes Minimum an Gehorchenwollen, also: Interesse (äußerem oder innerem) am Gehorchen, gehört zu jedem echten Herrschaftsverhältnis. (2005: 28)

Weber differentiates between the more general concepts of power or influence and his concept of Herrschaft, for him synonymous with authority, which presupposes a minimum of willingness on the part of those who are to be governed to submit to another’s power. Power can be exerted over other persons completely against their will; authority needs to be given voluntarily. According to Weber, there are different degrees of voluntariness in this relation. To force someone at gunpoint to do something is merely an exertion of power. Though the forced person might comply, one can hardly say that he grants authority to the other. The command of a parent to a child might equally carry the implication of some sort of punishment for the case of non-compliance, but the choice to obey or not will most likely not be as existential as that of “your money or your life,” and in many cases the child will simply obey because it has already granted a general kind of authority to his parents and their opinions. Similarly, the choice to accept or refuse critical evaluations will be made with different degrees of voluntariness. The critical decision of a state censor to refuse the publication of a book cannot but be accepted by those who are unable to read it as a consequence of this decision. Still, the general validity of the censor’s decision can be questioned, as becomes apparent in the Collier-controversy at the end of the 17th century (cf. Kinservik 1999). The prosecution of a book for obscenity or libel, on the other hand, makes it possible for the observer to agree either with the publisher and author, or with the prosecution. In the same sense, any reader can disagree with a critical evaluation that is being voiced in a pamphlet, a book, or in one of the Reviews, while it is much harder to disagree with the exclusion of a certain book from even being mentioned in the Review. Since authority in our sense is a power that is always conferred by someone, creating and maintaining authority is always inevitably connected with the question of that power’s legitimacy. As a mere application of force, however ruthlessly exercised, government cannot continue to function. That is why Weber claims


Critical Authority

that all governments will seek to justify their legitimacy: “Jede [Herrschaft] sucht vielmehr den Glauben an ihre ‘Legitimität’ zu erwecken und zu pflegen.” (2005: 122) Again, there are different degrees and strategies of justification. According to Weber, there are three basic types of government, based on their strategy for the foundation of authority: Es gibt drei reine Typen legitimer Herrschaft. Ihre Legitimitätsgeltung kann nämlich primär sein: 1. rationalen Charakters: auf dem Glauben an die Legalität gesatzter Ordnungen und des Anweisungsrechts der durch sie zur Ausübung der Herrschaft Berufenen ruhen (legale Herrschaft), – oder 2. traditionalen Charakters: – auf dem Alltagsglauben an die Heiligkeit von jeher geltender Traditionen und die Legitimität der durch sie zur Autorität Berufenen ruhen (traditionale Herrschaft), – oder endlich 3. charismatischen Charakters: auf der außeralltäglichen Hingabe an die Heiligkeit oder die Heldenkraft oder die Vorbildlichkeit einer Person und der durch sie offenbarten oder geschaffenen Ordnungen (charismatische Herrschaft). (124)

These three basic strategies create authority according to three different mechanisms: Im Fall der satzungsmäßigen Herrschaft wird der legal gesatzten sachlichen unpersönlichen Ordnung und dem durch sie bestimmten Vorgesetzten kraft formaler Legalität seiner Anordnungen und in deren Umkreis gehorcht. Im Fall der traditionalen Herrschaft wird der Person des durch Tradition berufenen und an die Tradition (in deren Bereich) gebundenen Herrn kraft Pietät im Umkreis des Gewohnten gehorcht. Im Fall der charismatischen Herrschaft wird dem charismatisch qualifizierten Führer als solchem kraft persönlichen Vertrauens in Offenbarung, Heldentum oder Vorbildlichkeit im Umkreis der Geltung des Glaubens an dieses sein Charisma gehorcht. (124)

All of Weber’s strategies for the creation of authority in government can be transferred to the field of critical authority. Critics can base their authority on a belief in laws of literature that are dictated by reason and therefore universally applicable. They can relate critical authority to social status, claiming the identity of superior taste and superior breeding. They can refer to traditionally accepted concepts of criticism, citing the opinions of ancient critics. Or they can emphasize the charismatic nature of the critic by expecting poetical abilities as a necessary prerequisite of critical abilities. All of these arguments and others have been used and debated by authors and critics throughout the period to construct and maintain critical authority. The history of literary criticism in the 18th century, and especially of its institutionalization and professionalization, is mainly a history of these competing strategies around critical authority. So far, surprisingly little research has been done on the authority of criticism, especially in its historic development. Though critics have described the shifting

Critical Authority


power relations in their single manifestations, as rules-criticism or affective aesthetics, there is little systematic analysis on the development that would go deeper than Elioseff’s sweeping survey that “European criticism was passing from an authoritarian criticism through its rationalistic phase to one dominated by the concept of taste.” (1963: 28) This work will undertake to investigate different strategies for the construction, establishment, abolishment and defence of critical authority in the 18th century. In discussing these strategies, developments will become apparent that will allow the construction of an integrated history of criticism, rather than a series of competing or succeeding concepts. Elioseff’s account of criticism doesn’t mean that the concept of authority simply vanished from literary criticism, but that it was continually re-conceptualised.


Aristocratic Authority

2 Aristocratic Authority As a power relation, authority creates hierarchy. It is a measurement of differences in power in social interactions, between those who acquire or have authority and those who grant it or are willing to submit to it. These differences are often related to social positions. Political authority usually confers social elevation to its bearer, but critical authority is able to achieve this as well, at least to a degree. The son of a humble bookseller can become worthy of a private discussion with the king himself, simply by the force of his accumulated critical authority.1 But the connection between authority and (social) hierarchy works in two directions. At least until the middle of the 18th century, differences in taste are firmly aligned to social class, so that an elevated social status is often understood as a provider and guarantee of cultural and thereby critical authority. “The Court,” writes Dryden in the dedication to his Of Dramatic Poesie, “is the best and surest judge of writing” (1668a: no page). The aristocrat, especially as a refined courtier, is seen by Dryden and many of his contemporaries as the prime bearer and arbiter of fine taste. His main contribution to the arts, and his most important critical act, is usually the act of patronage. Generally speaking, the course of the 18th century sees the gradual emancipation of criticism from such (external) questions of social status. It spans the development from the automatic deference of critical authority to the aristocratic patron in 17th-century dedications to Isaac Disraeli’s sneering compassion with “those unfortunate mortals, who are necessitated to undergo the criticisms of Lords” from the end of the century (1794 (1): 134), a development that included highly ambiguous positions like Charles Gildon’s book-length panegyrics on Roscommon and Sheffield as the prime critics of their time in his 1721 The Laws of Poetry and Pope’s complicated playing within as well as against the rules of the patronage system. But as with all historical developments, this has its anachronisms, too. Christopher Smart’s complaints from the 1753 preface of his attack on John Hill on behalf of Henry Fielding can be seen as a rather late example of a class-conscious disgust at the present critics’ lack of social distinction: I have been now for about three weeks in this scene of smoke and dust, and I think the republic of letters seems to be lamentably upon the decline in this metropolis. Attorneys clerks, and raw unexperienced boys, are the chief critics we have at present. With a super-

1 Cf. on this also: “For in a free Country, such as ours, there is not any Order or Rank of Men, more free than that of Writers: who if they have real Ability and Merit, can fully right themselves when injur’d; and are ready furnish’d with Means, sufficient to make themselves consider’d by the Men in highest Power.” Cooper 1711 (3): 230

Court-Wits and Gentleman Critics


cilious look and peremptory voice, which they have caught from a few of their oracies, as dark and ignorant as themselves, these striplings take upon them to decide upon fable, character, language and sentiment. (1753: iii)

The attitude, though, is far from being convincing. Having only the most modest of gentlemanly backgrounds, Smart had tried to cast himself in the role of gentleman author, running up debts and neglecting his promising university career for poetry. He had left Cambridge finally with the, in hindsight rather symbolic, act of marrying the stepdaughter of publisher John Newbery, which effectively ended his fellowship. For the next years, Smart lived and worked the life of a hack writer, provided with work by Newbery. Thus, Smart’s position is readable as an indication of transition. He acknowledges the existence of the ideal of socially derived critical authority by looking down on the undistinguished persons who assume critical authority, while implicitly admitting the real existence of a growing challenge to this ideal. An important driving force behind the change in the practice and conception of patronage is the evolution of an independent economic subsystem within the system of literature, that of the modern literary market with powerful booksellers and a large book-buying public. An indication of the awareness of such a change is the tentative – and ultimately rejected – discussion about the bookseller’s taking over the role and function of patrons. The – explicit or implicit – debate about the connection of social status and critical authority marks most clearly the transition from a system of literature structured according to social stratification to one dominated by functional differentiation. To argue for the supreme critical abilities of an aristocratic patron usually meant to depreciate – at least on the surface – any claims to professionalism from the part of the receiver, since it was almost always done according to the modesty topos that forced the author to depict himself as an inadequate amateur dabbler. Even more devaluated is the opinion of the general public that plays the role of the lower class to the poet’s middle and the aristocratic critic’s upper class. John Dennis reasons in this sense that to “conclude that a Play is good because Mr Granville is pleased by it, is but a reasonable way of arguing. But to say, that it is good because it pleases the generality of an Audience is a very absurd one.” (1702: no page)

2.1 Court-Wits and Gentleman Critics Aristocratic critics – those whose critical authority derived to a substantial degree from their social status – almost never criticised by writing books. Indeed, they were most active and influential at a time when independently published books


Aristocratic Authority

of criticism were still a rarity, and often frowned upon. The economic structure of the system of literature at the turn of the 17th century, before the independence of market structures, secured the aristocrat a very influential critical position through his role as patron. To provide patronage was seen by many aristocrats, if they wanted to be considered men of taste, as a necessary part of their social obligations. Especially in the second half of the 17th and at the beginning of the 18th century, patronage was a well established practice, both for political reasons, and as more purely “artistic” patronage. Ideally, works of intrinsic artistic value were rewarded financially – and critically – by aristocratic patrons. The author obtained some money and could boast the approbation (and protection) of the titled patron. With his selection of authors for patronage (or the decision to exclude others from it), the patron did effectively perform the gate-keeper function that was also performed by the bookseller and that would evolve later as the main function of the review critic. The danger was that his criteria for selection might be or might become unrelated to the true intrinsic value of a piece of art. The ubiquitous damnation of flatterers in Scriblerian and other similar contemporary satire says a lot about the anxiety of such a dissociation of critical judgment from literary or artistic criteria, as does the constant evocation of “merit” in discussions of patronage. The critical activity of patrons can in most cases only be inferred from the works of art that they supported and sometimes made possible, and from the dedications and prefaces of these works. But such prefaces are written according to formulae and usually need to be decoded, and the critical authority of social class is almost never discussed outside of this context. Statements about the extent and longevity of the patron’s critical activity must therefore necessarily be even more tentative than those about patronage generally. What can be noticed, though, is that the most common relationships assumed by writers of prefaces addressed to aristocratic patrons is that of poet and critic. Usually, poets followed the modesty topos and assumed a very humble position, emphasizing that they would never have dared to publish their works without the encouragement of the patron, whom they accept as the higher critical authority. Dryden in his dedication of The Assignation to Sir Charles Sedley in 1673 depreciates his own “credit” (that is, his critical authority with the “after-ages”) in favour of his dedicatee’s: I am well assured that besides the present satisfaction I have, it will gain me the greatest part of my reputation with after-ages, when they shall find me valuing myself on your kindness to me: I may have reason to suspect my own credit with them, but I have none to doubt of yours. And they who perhaps would forget me in my poems, would remember me in this epistle. (1673b: no page)

Court-Wits and Gentleman Critics


The “credit” of the patron is incontestable; it is the ultimate authority that the humble poet can appeal to. That Dryden pays reverence to the authority of the wealthy aristocratic patron by using the idea of credit highlights the conception of critical authority in terms of an economic system (cf. p. 28), hardly surprising given the close connection of critical and financial reward that the patron provided.2 The need to distract from the financial dependence that arose out of the class difference of writer and patron was an important factor for implementing the idea of the (aristocratic) patron’s superior and impartial critical authority. A key objective of the art and rhetoric of dedicatory flattery was to distract from its effectiveness. The flatterer had to dispel the suspicion that it was nothing but his own flattery that initially led to the patron’s favouring of him and that it was only the patron’s money he was after. Instead, critical authority was ceded to the patron’s superior judgment in a gesture of high modesty. The more convincing the impartiality of the patron as critic was stressed (as when Nathaniel Lee ascribes to Dorset in the dedication of Mithridates “the truest and most impartial [Wit and Judgment] I ever knew” (1678: no page)), the more did his critical act of patronage reflect positively on the author’s merit. The relinquishment of judgment went so far that some authors even yielded true authorship of their works to their patrons. Such yieldings also paid at least lip-service to the upper class’ general dismissal of professionalism. Restoration literary society had brought from its exile the influence of French criticism,3 and introduced the character of the “critic” (cf. Ortmeier 1982: 113). According to its court-centred perspective, this character was conceived, as the true critic, in terms of the ideal of the gentleman, while definitions of the false critic concurred mostly with the idea of the pedant, the latter being not least someone for whom criticism meant “work.” Thus, the gentleman would see himself as having critical abilities, but would not call himself “critic,” since that would imply, if not yet a profession, at least an unnecessary narrowing of his own social identity. In how far professionalism was seen as rather hindering the cause of learning than helping it becomes obvious from Thomas Sprat’s account of the members of the Royal Society from 1674.

2 In the more commercially independent book-market of the middle and later 18th century, the two rewards would be divided between the bookseller (who paid the author but could not provide critical recognition) and the critic, whose potential praise would not directly translate to financial gain. 3 “It is far from surprising, therefore, that the English critics of that day should have numbered among them many of the nobility, such as Roscommon, Mulgrave, and Lansdowne.” Paul 1966: 118.


Aristocratic Authority

But, though the Society entertains very many men of particular Professions; yet the farr greater Number are Gentlemen, free, and unconfin’d. By the help of this, there was hopefull Provision made against two corruptions of Learning, which have been long complain’d of, but never remov’d: The one, that Knowledge still degenerates to consult present profit too soon; the other, that Philosophers have bin always Masters, & Scholars; some imposing, & all the other submitting; and not as equal observers without dependence. (1667: 67)

For Sprat and many of his contemporaries, the professional’s need to combine his research with “present profit” tended to corrupt learning. Those who stand to gain anything from literature or scholarship will end up concentrating on gain alone, whereas the gentlemanly amateur stands above such considerations. The aristocrat’s independence that is derived from his social status was one of the main arguments for his critical authority, especially against all those who were part of – and therefore dependent on – the economy-driven system of the book market. In the eyes of the gentleman, someone who, at the turn of the century, professed to be a critic, or who was designated as being mainly a critic and nothing else, had almost inevitably to be a mere pretender to polite learning, the incarnation of incompetence, because specialization meant reduction. The ideal of criticism was instead the identity of poetical abilities, critical abilities, and a gentility that manifested itself in polite education and superior virtue. Dryden especially propagated the idea of the poet-critic, postulating that only those who were able to perform poetically could be deemed qualified to judge critically. At the same time, poetical abilities, or “wit,” were closely connected to social status, ideally represented in the court wits. Criticism is in this view as far as possible removed from being an independent and isolated activity that could be performed as a profession (as in writing a book solely dedicated to criticism) and becomes rather indistinguishable from (socially elevated) life. Instead of stating them explicitly in the form of prescriptive (and written) rules, the aristocrat implies the ideals of correctness and wit through his conversation, providing the poet with a perfect example that he can then follow. ‘Conversation’ can indeed be seen as Dryden’s ideal form of criticism. Dryden understood it as the expression of the aristocrat/critic’s personality, a direct interaction between gentlemanly poet-critics who derive their authority from their participation in the social context that ultimately guarantees fine taste: the court. In the “Essay on the Dramatique Poetry of the last Age” attached to his Conquest of Granada (1672), he gives a full account of the connection between the authority of the court, the practice of conversation, and its influence on literature, understood as an imitation of conversation:

Court-Wits and Gentleman Critics


Now, if they ask me whence it is that our conversation is so much refined? I must freely, and without flattery, ascribe it to the court; and, in it, particularly to the King, whose example gives a law to it. […] The desire of imitating so great a pattern first awakened the dull and heavy spirits of the English from their natural reservedness; loosened them from their stiff forms of conversation, and made them easy and pliant to each other in discourse, Thus, insensibly, our way of living became more free; and the fire of English wit, which was before stifled under a constrained, melancholy way of breeding, began first to display its force, by mixing the solidity of our nation with the air and gaity of our neighbors. This being granted to be true, it would be a wonder if the poets, whose work is imitation, should be the only persons in three kingdoms who should not receive the advantage of it; or, if they should not more easily imitate the wit and conversation of the present age than of the past. (1672: 173–174)4

The change from the earlier “stiff forms of conversation” to a style that is “easy and pliant to each other” shows that Dryden comprehends conversation as critical discourse. Conversation is the dialogical, direct and well-meaning interchange of opinions that must be contrasted to the necessarily one-sided attack on a text that a critic might make in an independently published text of criticism, closed off from possibilities of direct response. While the latter form is seen as reductive, with the critic excluded from the process of creation and mainly interested in detracting from the value of a piece of art, criticism as conversation is productive, with the critical act interconnected with, and ideally indistinguishable from, the creative act. The false critic’s negativity is a result of his dispossession, whereas the good conversation-critic gains a partial ownership over the text he is criticizing. In this sense, in his dedication of The Rival Ladies in 1664 to the Earl of Orrery, Dryden almost disclaims authorship of his play by elevating his patron’s creative influence on it in its earliest stages: “It was yours, my Lord, before I could call it mine.” (1664: no page) In his dedication of Marriage A-la-Mode to Rochester (1673), Dryden repeats his association of conversation and true criticism, when he not only insists that “you are as great a Judge, as you are a Patron”, but also writes that “the best Comick Writers of our Age, will joyn with me to acknowledge, that they have copy’d the Gallantries of Court, the Delicacy of Expression, and the Decencies of Behaviour, from your Lordship, with more success, then if they had taken their Models from the Court of France.” (1673a: no page) Rochester is here presented as the ideal embodiment of courtier, patron-critic, and poet, since Dryden also hints that as soon as his dedicatee would sit down to write a drama himself, he would surpass all the feeble efforts of the “meaner” (and professional) playwrights:

4 For a more extended discussion of Dryden’s evaluation of the poet’s function in recording reallife events, cf. Reverand 1982.


Aristocratic Authority

“Your Lordship has but another step to make, and from the Patron of Wit, you may become its Tyrant, and Oppress our little Reputations with more ease then you now protect them.” The reputation of the poets is being given to them and secured so far by the critical approval of the patron as critic, but the patron as poet could, in Dryden’s argument, as easily take it away again by (implicitly, that is: in the eyes of the polite world) returning it back to himself. It is a sign of the intricate connectedness of poetical, critical, and social merit that Dryden so often formulates his praises of his patron’s poetical abilities in terms of possession and power. In the dedication to Buckhurst he writes: “It was an honour which seem’d to wait for you, to lead out a new Colony of Writers from the Mother Nation: and upon the first spreading of your Ensignes there had been many in a readiness to have follow’d so fortunate a Leader; if not all, yet the better part of Writers.” (1668a: no page) Here, the aristocratic poet is not just a good poet, but a leader of other writers, just as he is a leader in society. Another peer that was courted as a superior critic was Sir Fleetwood Sheppard, a courtier and literary wit at the courts of Charles II and William of Orange. His critical authority is testified not least by the fact that three professional critics (or authors who would eventually become professional critics) dedicated works to him: Thomas Rymer his Tragedies of the Last Age Consider’d and Examin’d (1678), John Dennis his Poems in Burlesque (1692), and Charles Gildon the Chorus Poetarum (1694), an anthology of verses by the court wits that he edited. Rymer grants Sheppard the highest possible critical authority when he identifies his judgment with truth. He describes in his dedication how he repeatedly tried to meet Sheppard in town, but missed him so often that he resolved to stay in the country, taking a number of plays with him: “These I perus’d with some attention, and some reflections I made; in which, how far I mistake your sense, that is, how far I am mistaken, I desire to be inform’d.” (1678: 1–2) And Dennis, still hoping to make his name as a poet, dedicates his collection with a burlesque address to Sheppard and his close friend Dorset, where he reserves these two the highest authority in judging literature, since it is the muse’s main wish to please them, who are again contrasted positively to the multitude of “fools”: Nay, to take his, and Dorset’s Heart The Nine their utmost Charms exert […] What they aspire to by their Charms Is to be bless’d in Dorset’s Arms: Pleas’d, ravish’d with his Approbation, Tho Damn’d by all the Fools i’ th’ Nation. (1692: no page )

Court-Wits and Gentleman Critics


Patronage generates critical authority out of financial and political power, and uses the one to uphold the other, with authors giving up both their artistic creations (as they are a “gift” to the patron) and the right to judge over these creations (as they submit their works to the evaluation through the higher authority of the patron, who makes it “his” by bringing it to perfection, or by having provided the example that the poet has only imitated). Still, by creating a system that addressed questions of authority, submission, and the relation between original work and critical commentary, patronage also opened a discursive space for authors (who were, after all, the ones given a published voice) to openly think about these questions. Griffin describes patronage as “a site of contestation, as authors and patrons, later joined by booksellers and critical reviewers, jockeyed for position and for authority” (1996: 11). Dryden’s ideal of criticism might be the realm of conversation in which the aristocratic critic reigned supreme, but this realm is necessarily withdrawn from the public sphere by preceding publication, and as the growing public sphere became more and more interested in criticism and consequently started to dominate how it was conceptualized, the representation of that realm came to dominate its original. As much as dedicators and poet-critics might preach identity – in the very act of doing so they already practiced separation. By addressing their patrons in print, they could not but distance themselves from them, however close they tried to picture the relationship. As the century progressed, this distancing became more pronounced, culminating for example in Johnson’s famous rejection of Chesterfield, but the seeds were sown much earlier. Rymer’s fiction about the generation of his Tragedies of the Last Age is of some significance in this respect. Just like the ideal of courtly poetry manifested itself in the circulation of manuscripts within a tightly connected social group – with publication often stigmatized as an uncourtly fall from grace – the ideal of courtly criticism takes place in (unrecorded and unpublished) conversation.5 Though this is surely not representative of most cases where texts are dedicated to patrons, this ideal is understood as a direct interaction between the author/ artisan and the patron/critic about the text in question, with no temporal or spatial distance between either of the three. Now, Rymer makes it clear that the instigation for his written and published work is the absence of the patron, or rather the inability to meet him in person and to engage in oral conversation.6 But

5 Neither Sheffield, nor Roscommon or Mulgrave had their Boswell yet, whose genius it was to adapt criticism as conversation to an age dominated by publication. 6 A similar argument is made by Thomas Otway in the dedication of his play The Orphan to the Duchess of York: “I lost a greater Honour, by your Royal Highnesses Absence, than all the Applause of the World besides can make me Reparation for.” Otway 1680: no page. And another


Aristocratic Authority

instead of persevering at his door or in his antechamber, to participate in the utopia of critical aristocratic conversation, Rymer resolves to completely stay away from town, and to write a book of criticism instead. Of course, he hastens to add that he has dedicated this work to Sheppard in order to be corrected by him, but since his critical statements are published now, this can only be a correction after the fact. Rymer has crossed the threshold between private and public critical discourse, a necessary transgression to make the formation of criticism as a discipline and a profession possible, and his dedication, when considering the ensuing history of criticism, is not much more than a polite wave goodbye.7 Some forty years later, Thomas Gordon in A Dedication to a Great Man, Concerning Dedications, would make extended fun of the prevailing custom to address patrons that one is not at all acquainted with (cf. 1718: 3ff.). In the case of most prefatory submissions to aristocratic judgment, these critical judgments were unspoken, merely implied. Aristocratic patrons first of all judged by choosing an author among the many that flattered them for their favour. The reasons for this choice were not necessarily restricted to aesthetic evaluation. Patrons who were actually interested in the quality of the work they supported could become more critically active by encouraging a poet in conversation, maybe giving hints for topics, as in Pope’s early career. Finally, they could actively discuss the poet’s work before publications, correcting or improving the actual text. All of these forms of criticism have in common that they are usually not recognizable in the text itself, but only in the grateful acknowledgments of prefaces and dedications. Much less often, aristocratic patrons offered their own opinions in print, as Roscommon and Sheffield did. John Sheffield, first Duke of Buckingham and Normanby, was one of the high-ranking aristocrats at the court of James II who combined their political activities with literary interests. Both a patron of and a collaborator with Dryden, he wrote verses and translations, and in 1682 published the first edition of his Essay upon Poetry, an imitation of Horace’s Ars Poetica without much claim to originality. Still, it was usually referred to in a highly complimentary manner by contemporaries and immediate posterity. Joseph Addison, for example, after his attack on the false critics of his time in the Spectator,

similar story of genesis through absence is provided by Dryden in the dedication to Of Dramatick Poesie, allegedly composed while the author had left the town because of the plague: “Seeing then our Theaters shut up, I was engag’d in these kind of thoughts with the same delight with which men think upon their absent Mistresses”, Dryden 1668a: no page. 7 It is a testimony to the changing perspective that Samuel Johnson, so famous for his conversation, is recorded by Boswell to note: “In conversation you never get a system.” Boswell 1791 (1): 485.

Court-Wits and Gentleman Critics


ends his essay by saying: “I cannot conclude this Paper without taking notice that we have three Poems in our Tongue, which are of the same Nature, and each of them a Master-Piece in its Kind; the Essay on Translated Verse, the Essay on the Art of Poetry, and the Essay upon Criticism.” (1711: no page) In 1701, John Dennis dedicated The Advancement and Reformation of Modern Poetry to Sheffield, celebrating the aristocrat’s critical abilities in the highest notes of admiration. Dennis starts out by attacking “half Criticks” in the commonly used terms of the times, but stressing especially their partiality, deriving from their insecure position within the republic of letters: “Imperfect, partial, prejudic’d Criticks have Judgment enough to Discover Faults, but want Discernment to find out Beauties; or if at any time by chance they Discover them, they are perhaps too interested, or too envious, or too fearful to own them.” Against this negative stereotype he explains Sheffield’s superior quality as a critic through his independence from all faction, and his freedom from envy, both resulting from his elevated social position:8 But as Nature, that has given you so many extraordinary qualities, has conspir’d with Fortune, in setting your Lordship infinitely above so mean a Passion as Envy; so she has plac’d you as far above the Imperious sway of opinion, that madly tyrannizes over the multitude. Your Lordship never approves of our actions because they have met with success, but because they deserve to succeed.

Free from any secondary considerations, like for example a general approval that is expressed in terms of sales, Sheffield, according to Dennis, is able to judge solely by literary criteria, making him a perfect critic. A little bit later it becomes obvious that Dennis sees himself in an ambiguous position in dedicating his own work of criticism to another critic, when he ponders the question whether he should not rather have addressed the general reader instead of an exemplary critic. But he comes to the conclusion that I should be thought by all discerning persons to proceed as absurdly, as would a Lawyer, who upon a solemn pleading, should apply himself to the Multitude, who have little knowledge of his affair, and no Authority to determine it; instead of speaking to his Awful Judge, who has a perfect knowledge of his Cause, and a Soveraign Authority to decide it. (1701: no page)

8 For a similar argument cf. Nathaniel Lee’s dedication of The Rival Queens to Mulgrave: “You gaze at Beauties, and wink at Blemishes; and do both so gracefully, that the first discovers your Judgment, the other the excellency of your Nature.” Lee 1677: no page.


Aristocratic Authority

Dennis – one of the first professional critics – in his dedication chooses to pay homage to social status as a measurement of critical authority. Sheffield’s authority is “Soveraign”, because it is legitimized by his position. In order to uphold Sheffield in his elevated place as the sovereign judge, Dennis has to downgrade his own function to that of the lawyer, who only pleads a cause, but does not decide it. But at the same time, Dennis is aware that it should have been the reader that he dedicates his work to. Only three years later, he would make a decisive step towards the reader as legitimizing factor for criticism, though not yet stepping completely out of the system of patronage, in his attempt to publish his Grounds of Criticism by subscription. An even more humble position of a professional critic towards his socially superior ‘betters’ is assumed by Charles Gildon, at least by outward appearances. Instead of the lawyer that Dennis depicted himself to be, Gildon seems content to reduce himself further to the function of a clerk who writes a learned commentary on established laws. The result is Gildon’s The Laws of Poetry, as laid down by the Duke of Buckinghamshire in his Essay on Poetry, by the Earl of Roscommon in his Essay on Translated Verse, and by the Lord Lansdowne on unnatural flights in Poetry, explain’d and illustrated (1721), the rather rare example of a critic directly and extensively engaging the work of three aristocratic critics. It is also the first ‘critical edition’ of a work of English criticism. Charles Gildon is a fascinating figure in the history of professional literary criticism, even though, judged by the quality of his numerous contributions, he “does not loom large” (Jones 1940: 394).9 But the range and quantity of his writings, and his ability to be one-sided and stubborn consecutively on both sides of a literary dispute, make him not just “an accurate mirror of the intellectual fashions of the moment” (Maxwell 1950: 57), but an exemplary figure to study the development of criticism as a profession. Gildon was a professional writer all his life, dependent on the productions of his pen, one of those writers paid by quantity, which led to an increasingly repetitious style that swelled his books enormously, without giving them too much substance (cf. Anderson 1955: 247f.). He also never hesitated to engage in a publishing project that seemed lucrative, changing his own opinions drastically along the way. While in 1694, for example, he defended Dryden against the attacks of Thomas Rymer from a modernist perspective in Miscellaneous Letters and Essays, his 1718 Complete Art of Poetry is “a rehash of old neo-classical writings” (Sambrook 2004) that heavily borrowed 9 Jones adds, though: “[B]ut in his defense of Shakespeare, attack on authority, hostility to imitation, idea of a relative aesthetic, insistence on the aesthetic purpose of poetry, and belief in the possibility of the advancement of literature, what influence he exerted made for the liberalizing of the neo-classical spirit.”

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from other critics (for a list of the borrowings, cf. Litz 1942: 135). But in spite of his unscrupulousness, or maybe because of it, he never really succeeded financially. “By the beginning of 1719 Gildon was poverty-stricken, living in a garret in Chichester Rents, Chancery Lane; he was blind (owing to syphilis according to Pope), and dependent for reading and writing upon an amanuensis named Lloyd.” (Sambrook 2004) This was his situation when writing The Laws of Poetry. He dedicated the book to the Duchess of Buckingham, who in response sent some financial relief to the suffering author. The dedication follows the expected course to grant the highest possible taste to the Duchess, but this is directly connected to the fact that she has the same social status as the book’s main subject: “[T]here was none that had so near and dear a relation to the most excellent Duke as your Grace; and next, because there was no body in the world that I know of that had so fine and exquisite a taste in the politer arts as your Grace has frequently discover’d” (1721: no page). In his main text, Gildon strongly capitalizes on the aristocratic provenance of the writers he “illustrates.” The social status of them provides “protection”: “The reader is here taught the necessary rules of poetry by persons of the highest dignity, breeding and fine sense, so that art never can have a more glorious triumph over pretenders that it doth here obtain, under the protection of these three illustrious names.” Gildon is in no way sparing with his praise, for example about Sheffield: [I]n his fine taste and judgement of the politer arts, […] he had no rival: The glory is entirely his own and peculiar to himself, and will be as lasting as the English language, nay, in probability much more lasting. It contains precepts as new as delicate, which extend to the whole system of poetry, and which therefore alone, without the help of Aristotle, Horace, or any other critic, ancient or modern, are sufficient to form a fine taste and a solid judgement, both which are extremely wanted in this nation among the authors and readers of poetry.

Later, he gives his writing the highest possible praise that a neoclassicist can bestow, by writing that it “may be justly look’d on as a necessary supplement to the Stagyrite”, and even granting him something like infallibility by claiming that “he could not be contradictory to himself.” (148, 106) Posterity will likely detect more than a slight disproportion between the praise heaped upon the three authors and their real significance for the history of English criticism. Roscommon’s Essay on Translated Verse, for example, is interesting primarily as a document of the planned establishment of an English Academy that would have a special emphasis on translation. Regarded as a work of literary criticism in itself, it is rather derivative and unoriginal. Hooker talks in respect to the works of


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Roscommon and Sheffield of “vague and conventional generalizations” (Dennis 1939 (2): cxxii). The thinness of the critical originality of Roscommon’s essay is revealed rather unintentionally by Gildon’s summary of his discussion of it: Thus I have gone through my Lord Roscommon’s essay on translated verse, which, to recapitulate, affords us these useful lessons,–––that we ought to have, and by consequence observe, rules in composition, as well as in translating verse; that we ought to purge off all manner of pedantry, if we hope the favour of the muses; that we ought carefully to study our own genius and inclination, to what sort of poetry that carries us to make any just progress in the art, and arrive at fame and reputation, and then to chuse a poet of the same genius to translate, and then we may find applause, and be no longer his interpreter, but he: that we ought to regard neither the frowns, nor flatteries of any in this undertaking, nor use our infant-muse to any thing that is immodest, since immodest words always want decency, and often sense. (1721: 338)

These rather common-sense findings hardly seem to merit the lengthy disquisitions that Gildon had bestowed on them. Indeed, this very disproportion merits some analysis. Because, ultimately, The Laws of Poetry is a rather ambiguous production in relation to the assumed critical authority of the nobility. On the surface, it is a complete subordination under the authority of three aristocratic critics, who are praised in exaggerated and extravagant terms, as “so plain, so evident, that they have not the least need of any comment” (82). But Gildon is not providing a lavishly executed edition of the original texts, in fine paper, print, and without alterations. Even though he writes about the Essay on Poetry that it is “of such general use, and so establish’d a reputation, that it stands in need of no recommendation of mine to the public” (no page), what he provides is an explanatory, and therefore ultimately also evaluative commentary, and a commentary so voluminous that the excerpts of the original poems almost vanish among the hundreds of pages of Gildon’s tireless prose. After the dedication and preface, Gildon starts by printing fourteen lines from Sheffield’s essay on poetry and immediately follows these by eighteen pages of commentary. Together, he spends 280 pages on the first essay (that has a total number of 350 lines); 58 pages on Roscommon’s essay on translated verse, and another ten on Lansdowne’s essay. What is announced as a humble tribute to superior aristocratic amateurs effectively turns into an appropriation through exegesis by a professional critic. Gildon’s rhetoric for defending his commentary is revealing: “But lest the reader should mistake the meaning of the noble author’s words, I shall presume to give my sense of them.” (209) By innocently posing as a mediator between the lofty critics and a general audience, Gildon follows his own ideal of criticism as comprehensible and populist (cf. Cannan 2006: 110), and implicitly claims the importance of his own function as a critic. Buried within his commentary of Sheffield is a discussion about the general degeneracy of taste that comes

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from an insufficient acquaintance with the old masters. Gildon explains why even a university education is no satisfactory remedy for this problem and concludes: The only remedy that I know of, (for to reform our education seems an impossible undertaking) is the publication of books of criticism, which may, at least in time, touch the minds of men of the finer sense and reason, and bring them over to the side of art and science, whose influence by degrees would bring in all the young wou’d-be-wits, and so the general readers and hearers of poetry. (1721: 61)

There is a certain irony in the fact that Gildon takes a work of criticism that is today recognized as little more than a repetition of commonplaces and recommends it for its non-pedantic manner “not to burthen you with old rules, and tell you over and over again what has been said a thousand times before” (145) – and then repeats his own recommendation (cf. 166) in a gargantuan commentary that is anything if not repetitive. In The Laws of Poetry, the professional critic gets the last word – or rather, a whole lot of them. *** Alexander Pope is widely acknowledged, and in more recent times also hailed10 as one of the first poets to attain true financial independence through their publications, and is therefore seen as a decisive figure in the shift from the age of patrons to the age of booksellers, or even “an apostle of the new order which was inevitably dawning” (Collins 1927: 128).11 But he was far from going all the way and remained a transitory figure, not least because the literary market had not yet fully developed by the time of his death (cf. Winn 1981: 94). While starting to free himself from the socially stratificatory system of literary judgment, Pope at the same time held fast to a strongly socially connoted idea of the poet as gentleman. Being himself a professional poet, he sneered at poets who were

10 For a long time, Pope’s economic cleverness had been held against him. As late as 1995, Pat Rogers “urge[d] that we not only acknowledge but also appreciate Pope’s cleverness in adopting the technology and legal rights available to him, rather than scorn him for his financial savvy. Though his contemporaries often berated him for his economic success, their objections hardly prove that Pope was either malicious or wrong, since had he been less crafty in his negotiations we would probably fault him for failing to recognize his own worth or participate in the new literary markets to his advantage.” Rogers 1995: 290. 11 It has to be noted, though, that the literary enterprise that secured his financial independence, the translation of Homer, was done by subscription, a method that is an intermediate between patronage and a capitalist market venture.


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encouraged to write by the possibilities for financial gain, and who consequently had to write for a living, as that “conflicted with the tradition ideal of writing as a gentlemanly pursuit undertaken in leisure” (Rogers 1995: 287–288, cf. also Winn 1981: 98). Pope presented himself as just such a gentleman by means of a thorough public relations strategy that ranged from carefully choosing the dates and format of his publications, through the successful intrigue to get his letters published, to his cultivation of friendships to high-ranking persons (cf. Rose 1994: 202).12 But other than Dryden, Pope sought to represent these friendships as based on equality. For David Morris, Pope’s whole literary life can be seen as “a long protest against the aristocratic tradition of gentleman-poets who dally with verse in their spare time. And An Essay on Criticism protests vigorously against their doubles in criticism: mere critical triflers, who ignore the primacy of Conception and cavil at minor infelicities of Execution.” (1979: 27) Though there is some truth in this, it is also a simplification. One of the arguments for the superiority of an aristocrat’s critical opinion was his freedom from faction that was supposed to be the result of his independent social status. Thus, while Pope would surely have deplored the lack of seriousness and systematic approach in many gentleman poets and critics, to at least some of them he did grant superior authority. Pope’s position on the relationship between social status and critical authority is, like most of his positions concerning the changing conceptions of criticism and authorship, ambiguous. It needs hardly to be pointed out that he took pride in his own influence not only financially and poetically, but also critically. Pope spent a lot of energy on his elaborate and concerted efforts to create a public author-persona for himself, stressing that he was never dependent on aristocratic patronage, a fact that was repeatedly noted throughout the century.13 At the same time, he did not mind drawing on the authority of aristocratic poets and critics like William Wycherley, William Walsh, or William Temple,14 through an association with them, as long as this association was perceived to be one among equals. Still, he was clearly contemptuous of those who automatically elevated the poetical abilities of aristocratic poets to their social status, as the following lines from the Essay on Criticism show:

12 On Pope’s publishing strategies cf. also McLaverty 1979: 101 and Weber 1999: 1–2. Thomas even sees Pope and his self-promotion of “the ideal professional writer as a conservative gentleman” as “at least partly responsible for retarding his occupation’s rise to full professional status”, Thomas 1995: 277, 276. 13 For an important example cf. Johnson 1779–1781 (7): 262–263. 14 Cf. Thomas, who calls Temple an “icon[…] of gentlemanly learning”, Thomas 1995: 290.

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Of all this Servile Herd, the worst is He That in proud Dulness joins with Quality, A constant Critick at the Great-man’s Board, To fetch and carry Nonsense for my Lord. What woful stuff this Madrigal wou’d be, In some starv’d Hackney Sonneteer, or me? But let a Lord once own the happy Lines, How the Wit brightens! How the Style refines! Before his sacred Name flies ev’ry Fault, And each exalted Stanza teems with Thought! (1711: 25)

But in the same poem, when celebrating the achievements of the few critics of the recent past who are praiseworthy, they all turn out to be socially elevated. He calls William Walsh in the Essay on Criticism “the Muse’s Judge and Friend”, and about Roscommon he writes that he was “not more learn’d than good,/ With manners gen’rous as his noble blood;/ To him the wit of Greece and Rome was known,/ And ev’ry Author’s Merit, but his own.” (42) This evokes, within the discourse of the critic’s necessity for modesty, the standard ideal of the aristocrat’s impartiality and modesty as derived from his superior status. Living in a world in which gentlemen automatically were critics, Pope, not least through his own persona, created the impression of a world in which critics should necessarily be gentlemen (cf. Thomas 1995: 277). The difference to Joseph Addison’s identification of critic and gentleman lies in Pope’s continued adherence to the hierarchical ideal of a stratificatory society (expressed most forcefully ex-negativo in the Court of Dullness), where Addison suggested his ideal to a broad social class eager for political and cultural emancipation. Addison idealized the union of gentleman and critic and described this ideal in a way that made it desirable for his audience. Starting from the self-characterization of Mr. Spectator in the first issue of his periodical, Addison uses the idea of the gentleman as the blueprint for the construction of his ideal of education. His didactic project of educating his middle-class readers by acquainting them with the type of knowledge and an approach to art that they formerly had no access to is one that strives to provide inclusion into the still socially connoted “polite world.” An important part of that education included the capacity for independent critical judgment. But though for Addison critical judgments are embedded in social status, that status is determined no longer by heritage, but by performance. Addison’s ideal gentleman is as much a true critic as his ideal critic is a gentleman.15 The gentleman proves himself worthy by having a critical mind and a fine

15 Cf. Elioseff 1963: 21–22 and especially Ortmeier 1982: 14–22.


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taste, and the critic proves the validity of his judgment by offering it in the style of a gentleman and in accordance with polite society. This included generosity and the willingness for tolerance on the part of the critic, most clearly expressed in Addison’s frequent reminders that a critic should rather concentrate on the beauties of an author than on his faults. It also means that criticism should never be directed ad hominem, but should only impartially deal with artworks and authors. In this he was of a mind with Sir Richard Steele, who defended the inclusion of literary criticism in their periodical in Spectator no. 262.16 Addison’s conception of the critic uses the figure of the court gentleman, modified through his enlightenment project of educating and refining a wider audience that included the rising middle class. The result is highly transitional: Addison’s critic is a gentleman and derives a lot of his critical authority through his alignment with the “polite world,” but his gentility is much further removed from hereditary concerns than had been the case with truly aristocratic critics like Sheffield. Rather, it is attained through refinement and learning, but again, the meaning of this learning is highly qualified in its clear distinction from pedantry. Like Pope and Swift in their satires, Addison tries to construct his ideal critic equally removed from pedantry and ignorance. By picturing true criticism more as a way of being and thinking than as a concrete activity (such as writing criticism), Addison attempts to close the ever-widening gap between (mere) readers and (professional) critics like Charles Gildon, John Oldmixon or Daniel Defoe. This is done by refusing to admit any hint of “work” into criticism. According to Hooker, “[w]ork which savored of earnestness or toil was looked upon with suspicion, and the elegant or witty or lively trifle was exalted.” (Dennis 1939 (2): xxiii) Work in criticism was the field of the pedant, who is clearly marked by Addison as the gentleman critic’s other. Instead, Addison’s construction of the gentleman critic is firmly based on his conception of “taste,” as expressed in Spectator no. 409. There, it becomes obvious that taste is not only elevated to being a prime requisite for an accomplished man, but that it is also aligned to the specific taste of a socially defined class. Taste, for Addison, is deeply social; it is still much more the taste of society than of the individual. Consider, for example, his suggestion how one should test whether one had taste or not:

16 “The Criticisms which I have hitherto published, have been made with an Intention rather to discover Beauties and Excellencies in the Writers of my own Time, than to publish any of their Faults and Imperfections […]. Nor shall I look upon it as any Breach of Charity to criticise the Author, so long as I keep clear of the Person.” (1711: no page)

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If a Man would know whether he is possessed of this Faculty, I would have him read over the celebrated Works of Antiquity, which have stood the Test of so many different Ages and Countries, or those Works among the Moderns which have the Sanction of the Politer Part of our Contemporaries. If upon the Perusal of such Writings he does not find himself delighted in an extraordinary Manner, or if, upon reading the admired Passages in such Authors, he finds a Coldness and Indifference in his Thoughts, he ought to conclude, not (as is too usual among tasteless Readers) that the Author wants those Perfections which have been admired in him, but that he himself wants the Faculty of discovering them. (1712a: no page)

Instead of making the result of individual taste (personal like or dislike) the test for the quality of a work of art, he takes “the Sanction of the Politer Part of our Contemporaries” as a test of personal taste. This is not the same as suggesting that everyone should merely echo indiscriminately the verdicts of the coffeehouse critics, or, as James Ralph calls them, the “fashionable Head-pieces, who may chance to be the most ignorant of Men.” (1731: 152) He who only repeats fashionable opinion in fashionable terms may look like a critic to others, but must still know inside that he is only a cheat. In an almost puritanical spirit, Addison demands that every reader use his own taste as an instrument of self-inquiry, deciding before his own aesthetic conscience whether he belongs to polite (and tasteful) society or not. But in a rather catholic gesture, he offers those who have failed the test the perusal of his own periodical as indulgence, issued from the papal chair of taste that he has erected by publishing it.

2.2 Changes in the System of Patronage Patronage could take on many different forms, some of them more, some less visible or tangible, from a real friendship between patron and artist to a small financial gift given for a flattering preface, a lucrative government post, a position in the church, or pay for an article in a political journal. It could mean an invitation to a dinner or the introduction to an even more influential person, food and lodging in a country house or protection from the libel of rival poets. But the act within the mechanics of patronage that potentially links it most closely to criticism is an act that is never recorded but in its effects: the act of either selecting a poet for patronage, or choosing not to support him. In its ideal form, patronage is a system based on critical evaluation, whereas in its corrupted form it is based on utility. The “good” patron rewards the merit of an artist, whether it has already manifested itself in superior artworks or is still nascent in his potential, a potential that the patron as critic and talent-scout has to recognize. The “bad” patron instead selects artists for his own support, strictly according to their usefulness for him and regardless of their inherent artistic or


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literary quality. These models of patronage are, of course, stereotypes that correspond, if at all, only partially to historical cases, but they do figure in discussions of patronage. The corrupted form is usually associated throughout the 18th century with paid support for political reasons, what Korshin called “job-oriented literary patronage” (1974: 461), epitomized in Walpole’s vast number of hired government propagandists. Griffin has convincingly shown that a clear differentiation between this practice and an earlier, purer form of patronage is merely a fiction and that “[t]he system of patronage was always political. Walpole, usually branded as the villain who politicized literature and patronage, was simply making effective use of well-established principles, and his practice does not significantly differ from that of the ministries that preceded or followed him” (1996: 10). But more important to this analysis than the historical or sociological truth-value of contemporary statements about the golden age and subsequent corruption of patronage is the argument that they imply about the dissociation of (true) criticism from the activity of patronage. Because conceived as a mere political instrument, the selection process of patronage ceases to be a critical evaluation. The incentive for “good” patronage derives from the patron’s persuasion that it was part of the obligations of his social status to encourage the arts, an act that, of course, always reflected back on his own status as a man of taste. Thus, “[t]he system of patronage was never simply a form of noblesse oblige or disinterested generosity. It was in effect an ‘economic’ arrangement that provided benefits to both parties” (10). Both gain cultural recognition in this exchange. The values exchanged in this ‘economy’ of patronage are ‘reward’ and ‘merit,’ the poetic or artistic capability of the person receiving patronage. The decision whether someone has ‘merit’ in this sense or not, is a critical one. This is different when the criteria for selection are the usefulness of the author for the patron, especially when this usefulness concerns a field alien to art. In the worst case, ‘merit’ is then replaced by something like mere ‘compliance,’ and reward is given for a commodified service, instead of a quality. This difference and its perception by 18th-century writers is expressed for example in the terms under which Samuel Johnson was willing to accept his pension from Bute: he would accept the pension only after he had been persuaded that it was given to him not for something that he would have to do – or would be expected to do, i.e. his expected compliance – but for something that he had already done, i.e. purely for his merit. This is hardly surprising, given his definition of “pension” in the Dictionary.17 But to lament the decline of ‘merit’ as prime factor

17 “An allowance made to any one without an equivalent. In England it is generally understood to mean pay given to a state hireling for treason to his country.” Johnson 1755: no page.

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in the distribution of patronage was not identical to complete condemnation of the system. Oliver Goldsmith and Charles Churchill are among the authors in the second half of the century who deplore the corruption of the present system, but idealize the ‘good’ patronage of the past. In The Author, his damning account of the state of letters in his time, Churchill rhetorically asks: “Is this–––O death to think! is this the land/ Where merit and reward went hand in hand?” (1763: 3–4) And Goldsmith in his Enquiry is convinced that the system of patronage, when executed with “learning,” is working and desirable: “When the link between patronage and learning was entire, than all who deserved fame were in a capacity of attaining it.” (1774: 93) In this imagined state of patronage, merit or ‘deserve’ is reliably rewarded. For Goldsmith, the problem therefore does not lie in the institution, but in the execution, as “[e]very encouragement given to stupidity, when known to be such, is also a negative insult upon genius” (91, cf. also 66 and 87). In how far Goldsmith’s attitude was taken as overly nostalgic even at the time of writing is illustrated by William Kenrick’s review of the Enquiry for the Monthly. Surely a writer who had no connections into the higher circles of society and who would not have been considered worthy of patronage but instead relied on his mercenary pen, Kenrick has no patience for Goldsmith’s “Gentleman Writers” and their contempt for criticism.18 But in contrast to such opposition against writers of illustrious name from “a man whom nobody knew” (Barclay 1766: no page) stood the general contempt of writers who helped to replace merit with compliance as main criterion for patronage, by ‘prostituting’ their talents. Samuel Johnson’s opinion that “a Scribbler for a Party” ranges amongst “the lowest of all human beings” (1759b: no page) is representative of the general opinion. James Ralph, who was later to write one of the first accounts of authorship under capitalist conditions, serves as an extreme example of how political patronage, whether on the side of the government or of the opposition, could be devoid of all qualitative considerations.19 Ralph was a writer by trade, with a biography mirroring those of other miscellaneous authors of the period, if maybe a little bit more colourful.20

18 “May we ask farther, why contempt of Criticism is particularly recommended to Gentlemen Writers? Those rules which are founded in Nature, and on examples from the best Writers, ought surely to be submitted to by the worst. But, perhaps, our Author thought, if such Gentlemen were confined to rules, they would not be able to write at all. Perhaps so; and perhaps, so much the better.” 1759a: 387. 19 Collins speaks in this respect about “the evil of reliance on political patrons by men of weak principle.” Collins 1927: 169. 20 “The great variety shown in this brief summary of Ralph’s works should not, however, suggest that his career was disjointed. For there is an important underlying continuity which exactly parallels the progression of literary-journalistic main currents of the period.” McKinsey 1973: 63.


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He had come to London from Philadelphia in 1724 in the company of Benjamin Franklin, trying to find work there as editor, copyist or actor, all without success. He borrowed money from Franklin, but fell out with him over a quarrel about his mistress. Franklin went back to America in 1726, leaving Ralph (and the borrowed money) in London. Ralph then tried to make a name for himself in poetry on admittedly slender poetical talents (cf. McKinsey 1973: 63), but after two attempts he chose, as a road to literary fame, the rather unfortunate method of attacking Alexander Pope in his Sawney, an Heroic Poem Occasion’d by the Dunciad, published in 1728. This publication is only remarkable in that it showed, early in Ralph’s career, his sympathy for and identification with the minor authors that Pope had so savagely satirized, and because it made Ralph believe that it led to his being from this moment on shunned by all London publishers.21 From the early 1730s on, Ralph had concentrated on political journalism, mostly attacking Walpole and his government in numerous journals and newspapers, some of which he edited himself, or together with Henry Fielding (The Champion) and William Guthrie (Old England, or, The Constitutional Journal). All of these had been paid for by politicians, with Ralph as their willing mouthpiece. He was, in the words of Johnson’s biographer John Hawkins, “the tool of […] party” (1787: 161). Then, in 1753, according to John Nichols’ account from 1812, he made it abundantly clear that “he was ready to be hired to any cause; […] he actually put himself to auction to the two contending Parties [and], after several biddings, the honest Mr. Ralph was bought by the Pelhams.” (1812 (9): 591) A pension of £300 secured that he would forthwith be silent, providing an exemplary case of the perversion of patronage as a critical activity.22 By offering himself to whatever cause, Ralph epitomizes the commodification of writing and its dissociation from any considerations of inherent literary qualities. It seems only too fitting that the result of this form of patronage should be the silence of the author. The decline of the system of patronage throughout the first half of the 18th century was closely connected to the development of the literary market, the concept of authorship, but also of the function of literary criticism. This period

21 McKinsey seconds Ralph’s claim, pointing out that “Pope’s cronies who published the Grub St. Journal starting in 1730, did answer by attacking everything Ralph wrote”, McKinsey 1973: 60. “For the unfortunate truth is that the personal enmity of Pope, for whatever reason, was sufficient to ruin any poet’s embryonic reputation. Sawney proved the tragic flaw in Ralph’s poetic career.” McKinsey 1973: 65. One could take as proof of this Hawkins’ dismissal of Ralph in his biography of Samuel Johnson: “Mr. James Ralph was another of [Mr. Dodington’s] dependents, of whom, as a pretender to genius, much may be learned from the Dunciad.” Hawkins 1787: 330. 22 His colleague Guthrie had already been bought off in 1746, cf. Collins 1927: 170 and Korshin 1975: 462.

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saw, with the usual anachronisms and exceptions, the end of aristocratic and the failing of political patronage as the most decisive economic factor in the production of literary texts and, consequently, the transposition of the critical function of gate-keeper from the patron to the bookseller and, though to a lesser degree, to the critic and the reader. Paul Korshin describes the system of patronage in the 18th century as being in a “limbo between old fashioned Renaissance munificence and the age of modern foundation and government grants, […] a unique blending of free enterprise, commercial venture, private beneficence, and public or audience support” (1974: 473). The first two decades of the 18th century are usually seen as the last time of substantial patronage outside of party interest, with prominent figures like Somers and Montagu, Harley and St. John (cf. Collins 1927: 118). With the Hanoverian king, who was largely uninterested in matters of art, the aristocratic system of patronage lost official support to such a degree that Collins claimed that “the outstanding effect of the Hanoverian succession on authors was the disappearance of political patronage of them.” (1927: 121) Graham therefore calls the reign of the Georges the “Age of Neglect” (1930: 14). But to say that patronage declined during the 18th century is not to claim that it ceased to exist. In his seminal analysis of the history of literary patronage in the 18th century, Dustin Griffin has questioned the narratives of earlier scholarship from Forster to Collins as biased and incomplete: The “golden age” of literary patronage, in which all the best English poets enjoyed handsome pensions from the court or from aristocrats with literary tastes, is a myth fostered by disappointed writers in later years who assumed that things must have been better in the past, and that England must have once been as enlightened in this respect as Louis XIV’s France. (1996: 10)

One of Griffin’s main points is that “there was no rapid or complete changeover during the century from an aristocratic culture to a commercial culture, no sudden change from a patronage economy to a literary marketplace.” Also, there is a considerable disproportion in the development of literary patronage and patronage of other arts like architecture, landscape gardening, or the opera, since all of these heavily depended on large-scale donors. But even without making bold claims of a sudden or complete shift, it is obvious that the system was changing, and also that more and more people were aware of the changes. For a limited number of writers, the system continued to work, but this number became less and less representative of the literary market as a whole. From the 1720s on, there were just too many authors to all find patrons, “and, as the number of aspiring authors grew, they besieged the doors of the rich with epistles and dedications, until patronage became a scandal.” (Collins 1927: 122) An intermediate method, that became especially popular while patronage was on the decline


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and the market not yet fully established, though it had been in existence since the early 17th century, was publication by subscription. Though, in total numbers, the percentage of subscriptions in all books published was always relatively low,23 as a different model for publication, it helped further change the conceptions of authorship and the literary market. In the case of publication by subscription, the author described the subject matter, the length and the format of the book he wanted to undertake – often large-scale enterprises like a multi-volume history or a collection of engravings that had high production costs – and then tried to find as many buyers willing to subscribe to his projected book, thus reducing the financial risk of publication. Subscribers usually paid half the price at the time of subscribing, and the rest when the book was actually delivered. Their “reward” besides obtaining the book was the inclusion of their names in a list of subscribers printed at the front of the volume. It was hardly possible to become a patron at a cheaper rate. The practice to publish by subscription can be therefore seen as an intermediate stage between the system of (aristocratic) patronage and the economic system based on the literary market. It takes elements from both of these systems, thereby reducing the impact on patrons as well as the risks of committing to the market.24 Lockwood describes the practice of subscription as “an intensely nostalgic replication of personal patronage within a publishing system long since operating on market motives – a commercialization of patronage, or even a democratization of it” (2001: 132). Though the number of successful subscription ventures might have been low, the practice of soliciting subscriptions became common enough, especially during the 1720s, that it “produced a reflex of mistrust and cynicism”.25 The changes in the system of patronage were not just experienced by the writers of the time, but also hotly debated. Korshin claims that the intellectual community in 18th-century England was “tantalized” by the subject (1974: 453). One of the writers and critics who, for many of his contemporaries, came to exemplify the antagonism against patronage was Samuel Johnson. But even

23 Lockwood estimates them at around five per cent at most, and the total number of subscribers at 100.000, or ten per cent of the reading public, cf. Lockwood 2001: 122. Korshin has counted more than 1000 books that were published by subscription before 1801 (cf. Korshin 1974: 459), as opposed to the 1705 to 3472 books that were published annually between 1710 and 1795, cf. Munck 2000: 92. 24 Korshin points to the fact that in the case of very expensive editions published by subscription, there often still was an “old-fashioned” patron involved, cf. Korshin 1974: 465. 25 Lockwood 2001: 124. For contemporary comments on the practice of subscription, both from an outside and an inside perspective, cf. Savage 1725: 9 and Morgan 1728–1729 (1): xxiv ff. Morgan must have had a really bad time collecting and convincing his subscribers, since he spends numerous pages recounting his sad story and reviling his potential subscribers.

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Johnson’s general position on patronage is not as straightforward as his posthumous reputation as the harbinger of a new era of professional authorship might induce one to think. Though he never entered into any sustained discussion of the topic, there are, especially in the Lives of the Poets, numerous remarks regarding patrons and patronage that, taken together, give a rather favourable impression. Still, the most famous illustration for the decline of the system of patronage, both for his contemporaries26 and for the after-world, was surely Johnson’s interchange with Philip Stanhope, Fourth Earl of Chesterfield over the patronage of the Dictionary, which is not least symbolic for its discussion of power relations. The whole affair is steeped in the terminology of power, both concerning the relationship between patron and author and that between critic and reader. Even more than other writers who might ask for critical patronage, the critic (and especially the critic of a national language) submits under authority only in order to exert authority, securing or strengthening his own through the socially derived one of his patron. Johnson highlights this when, already in his 1747 Plan of a Dictionary, addressed to Chesterfield, he compares his own undertaking to the Roman conquest of Britain, thus likening himself to someone who exerts power on the English language, a task in which he hopes the ‘authority’ of Chesterfield will help him: “And I may hope, my Lord, that since you, whose authority in our language is so generally acknowledged, have commissioned me to declare my own opinion, I shall be considered as exercising a kind of vicarious jurisdiction, and that the power which might have been denied to my own claim, will be readily allowed me as the delegate of your Lordship.” (1747: 30) Ian Lancashire has shown, though, that Johnson’s approach in selecting his lexicon reveals that he never intended to cater to aristocratic tastes in dictionary-making, rejecting almost all of the French-derived words that the fashionable beau monde so delighted in. Johnson’s submission under Chesterfield’s socially derived critical authority is therefore from the start little more than a rhetorical gesture. It is interesting to note that the real reason behind this gesture had been Johnson’s bookseller, who had asked him to write the dedication. Thus, it was less the aristocrat’s wishes that Johnson wanted to comply with in the first place, but the businessman’s. When Chesterfield finally wrote his belated critical response27 in the form of two complimentary articles for The World, he took up Johnson’s imagery of power, though he turns the image of conquest on its head and describes the 26 Negative appraisals of Johnson’s refusal of Chesterfield, like that of James Callender, were scarce, and in this case rather badly argued, too, cf. Callender 1782: 42. 27 Before that, he had given Johnson £ 10, a sum that the lexicographer could only interpret as an insult, given the scope of his undertaking.


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corrupting influences on the English language as an invasion that Johnson is asked to repel. His use of power to describe both Johnson’s task and his relation to the patron and (implicitly) the general audience is equally unmistakeable and ambiguous: Toleration, adoption and naturalization have run their lengths. Good order and authority are now necessary. But where shall we find them, and at the same time, the obedience due to them? We must have recourse to the old Roman expedient in times of confusion, and chuse a dictator. Upon this principle I give my vote for Mr. Johnson to fill that great and ardous post. And I hereby declare that I make a total surrender of all my rights and privileges in the English language, as a free-born British subject, to the said Mr. Johnson, during the term of his dictatorship. Nay more; I will not only obey him, like an old Roman, as my dictator, but, like a modern Roman, I will implicitly believe in him as my pope, and hold him to be infallible while in the chair; but no longer. (Stanhope 1754: 601–602)

Chesterfield’s surrender of all his “rights and privileges” is a highly ironic gesture, the jest of a born sovereign who is pleased to appoint – temporarily – a dictator in a specified and limited field. But where the analogy to the Roman dictator might still be valid – the language is in tumult, and until it is ordered again, Johnson is to rule absolute, surrendering this power once order has been reestablished – the comparison to the Catholic pope is inconsistent, to say the least. The infallibility of the Roman Catholic pope is an absolute attribute, not a granted power, and it cannot be temporarily limited. An opinion cannot be infallible today and erroneous the next, at least not if one takes these terms literal. Nor does the pope ever leave his chair. A pope that is infallible for a short time is an almost ridiculous figure, especially when compared to the “free-born British subject” who can reclaim his inalienable rights whenever it wants to. Johnson was surely aware of these ambiguities, and it will have made it even more impossible for him to accept this kind of patronage. That power is his prime concern is apparent from the way that Johnson mentions the beginning of his relations to Chesterfield in the famous letter of refusal that he sent in 1755: When, upon some slight encouragement, I first visited your Lordship, I was overpowered, like the rest of mankind, by the enchantment of your address; and could not forbear to wish that I might boast myself Le vainqueur du vainqueur de la terre; – that I might obtain that regard for which I saw the world contending (Boswell 1791 (1): 141).

And the power struggle continues, notably in the account of Chesterfield’s reaction to the letter. Boswell in his Life relates the report of Robert Dodsley, who happened to see the letter prominently on display at Chesterfield’s apartment. Asked whether he did not think it unwise by Chesterfield to showcase his defeat in such a way, Dodsley answers: “Poh! […] do you think a letter from Johnson

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could hurt Lord Chesterfield? Not at all, Sir. It lay upon his table; where any body might see it. He read it to me; said, ‘this man has great powers’” (Boswell 1791 (1): 143). Chesterfield referred to the power of Johnson’s eloquence, implying the superiority of his own real, social power. But generations of professional writers ever since have decided that the letter is a major document announcing the independence of the writer from this form of power, or, as Alvin Kernan describes it, “the Magna Charta of the modern author” (1987: 105). The consequence of the impression that patronage has ceased to be a system based on criticism is the advice to poets to extricate themselves out of this system, an act that is usually depicted in terms of liberation and independence. Aaron Hill for example unmistakably voices this position in his Fanciad of 1743: Poets whome Truth inspires, and Genius draws, Court not a Patron, but assert a Cause: Heedless of Censure, thoughtless of Reward, They shun Dependence, to demand Regard. Proud is the Muse they serve; unbred to wait: And willing Stranger, to the Great Man’s Gate. (1743: 1)

Strong as Hill’s rhetoric is, one should not forget, though, that it is made in the context of a dedication to the Duke of Marlborough. But even if one takes Hill seriously, the question remains which system could be used to supplant that of patronage. Since it is obvious from the way that Hill contrasts “reward” (as something to be dismissed) and “regard” (as something to be demanded) that he is not interested in the way that writing might be financed, it follows that he must be looking for a critical system, one that substitutes the function of critical evaluation that the patronage system ideally held. Hill in these lines merely advises the poet to rely on “truth” and “genius,” surely absolute values in any system of criticism, but the question remained which mechanisms could make good of these values and translate them into a cultural value, either of regard or reward, as patronage had done? The most likely, though not the most unproblematic, candidate that suggested itself was the bookseller. One can say without exaggeration that in the literary market of the 18th century, an overwhelming amount of executive power was concentrated in the hands of the booksellers. They were the ones who gained power from the decline of political and social patronage at the beginning of the century, they were the first to profit from the gradual development of copyright laws, long before authors themselves stood to gain anything from these. In the absence of state-organized pre-publication censorship, they had, within limits, the freedom to publish what they wanted – or to choose not to publish something –, and in the absence of competitive markets outside of London before the last third of the century, they


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were secure to dictate the supply and the prices both for readers and for authors (cf. Collins 1927: 15). The book-buying audience, though it made its influence increasingly felt, was not believed to have the standing yet to effectively control or even influence what they wanted to read. There was a widespread impression amongst readers, critics, and authors that it was mostly the booksellers who chose what was available on the market, since they were almost guaranteed to sell whatever they were publishing, as expressed in the words that Archibald Campbell put into the mouth of a caricatured bookseller: [W]hat with taking Title-pages, of which we are generally the Authors ourselves, what with perpetually puffing and advertising in our own news-papers and periodical publications, and above all, by dispersing our copies among one another over all the town and country, we never fail to dispose of any impression, how numerous soever. (1767: 187)

Throughout the century, booksellers took good care to guard their monopoly (cf. Collins 1927: 18), the only official challenges to which were the two university presses and some rather insignificant private presses – and the potential claim of authors to their copyrights. Still, as Collins notes, [t]he intimate personal relations between authors and booksellers were, on the whole, friendly, sympathetic and helpful. One might perhaps have expected to find more friction between two sets of men so much contrasted, but their close and constant connexion with each other seems to have given a mutual insight into and appreciation of the best qualities on both sides. (1927: 45)

The frequent attempts to discursively assign booksellers the function of the patron can at least be seen as indications of how they were perceived as potentially beneficial to authors. As authors multiplied and the number of patrons dwindled, the booksellers were “becoming the only resource of a writer” (13). Collins characterizes the middle of the century as a period of transition, with a book market on the rise, but completely controlled by the booksellers. To address booksellers as potentially fulfilling the function of the patron was to express the hope that they would make their decisions according to critical standards rather than economic considerations and continue the (idealized) tradition of the patron as rewarding merit. The shifting perspectives on the functions that the aristocratic patron and the commercial bookseller could have for an author can be shown in two quotes, thirty-seven years apart. The first is from the Helter Skelter Way of Writing, published in 1730. In the preface of the pamphlet, the author writes: “[F]or a Dedication I omit it for two Reasons; First, to accomplish my Design of ruining the Bookseller, (a common Practice among our Modern Authors,) who will find some Difficulty in disposing of this Pamphlet without having its beginning grac’d with the numerous Titles of some great Don.” (Anonym 1730: 1) There is

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clearly, albeit in the satirical mode, a connection made between the patron and the bookseller as two institutions that are involved with the distribution and marketing of books, and this connection is depicted as one of mutual dependency. The patron needs the bookseller, as he cannot be concerned with the printing and selling of the text, but even more so the bookseller needs the patron to invest the book he publishes with some kind of public authority. Far from constituting a completely detached system, the anonymous author claims that the support of an aristocratic patron is the decisive promotional factor for any text. It is beside the question whether this satirical picture is historically accurate, what is important is the perception expressed in it, especially when compared with a statement like this one, made by Archibald Campbell in his 1767 satire on Samuel Johnson, Lexiphanes: “I was informed by an intimate acquaintance, one thoroughly versed in these matters, that we could expect nothing for such Authors, from Patrons, Ministers of State, Noblemen, Gentlemen or Ladies of Quality; and that all our market for them must lie among the Booksellers.” (1767: 14, cf. also Ralph 1758: 24–25) Though, again, this is satire, it highlights the patron’s fading relevancy and the substitution of the bookseller for him.28 Even if the illustrious name of a titled dedicatee might still increase the sale of a book, it was hardly necessary any more, and authors relied more and more on good relations to their booksellers for financial security and success. And though such dependence still smacked for many of Grubstreet and hack writing, this was not inevitably the case. The most famous contemporary success story of the booksellers as patrons was again Samuel Johnson, who from the beginning of his career had relied more on booksellers than on other patrons, who had notoriously declined Chesterfield’s patronage, and who himself held a very positive opinion of the booksellers, as can be seen from this dialogue in Boswell’s Life: I once said to him, ‘I am sorry, Sir, you did not get more for your Dictionary.’ His answer was, ‘I am sorry, too. But it was very well. The booksellers are generous, liberal-minded men.’ He, upon all occasions, did ample justice to their character in this respect. He considered them as the patrons of literature; and, indeed, although they have eventually been considerable gainers by his Dictionary, it is to them that we owe its having been undertaken and carried through at the risk of great expence, for they were not absolutely sure of being indemnified. (1791 (1): 168)

28 Of course, the waning relevancy of the patron was by no means a straight development. Cf. e.g. Thomas Cogan’s John Buncle, junior, where a bookseller advises the narrator about the advantages of dedicating his work to an aristocratic patron: “[E]xclusive of the genteel present, you may reasonably expect in payment for your incense, the honour of their illustrious Names may double the sale of your work and be of similar advantage upon any future occasion.” Cogan 1776: 35.


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To invest the booksellers with the function of patrons one had to believe in their willingness to employ criteria of merit over those of financial gain. The booksellers, in Boswell’s account, can be seen as patrons because, even though they gained money from the dictionary, they could not have been sure about it when they commissioned the work. Without a guarantee that they would gain financially, their decision to publish the work must be understood as a critical decision. They asked Johnson to write his dictionary because they expected it to be a good book. Though this might not be a historically accurate picture of how the dictionary came to be written and published, it was an impression shared by many contemporaries. A similar account of an author’s fortunate relationship to his booksellers can be found in Robert Anderson 1796 biography of Tobias Smollett: The booksellers, for many years, were his principal resource for employment and subsistence. For them he held the pen of a ready writer, in compilations, translations, &c.; and towards him they were always as liberal as the public enabled them to be. They were almost his only Mecaenases, and indeed a more generous set of men can hardly be pointed out in the trading world. By their munificence, wit and learning have perhaps received more ample, more substantial encouragement, than from all their princely or noble patrons, from Augustus down to Lewis XIV. The astonishing sums which have been paid for manuscripts by our Tonsons, our Lintots, our Millars, our Strahans, and our Cadells, are sufficient to rescue the venders of literature from the reproach of suffering the dispensers of knowledge to consume themselves in the operation. (11–12)

But, of course, the patronage of the bookseller came at a price, or, more precisely, the identification of bookseller and patron was based on false premises. Collins highlights the difference between the two systems by saying that “where the dependence on a bookseller’s wishes was absolute, that on a patron’s was conditional.” (1927: 162) Charles Churchill in 1763 simply calls authors “[t]he slaves of booksellers” (though he adds that dependence on the state constitutes even “baser chains”.) (1763: 12) And the author of the article “The Distresses of an Hired Writer” for the British Magazine in 1761 rhetorically asks: “[C]an any thing more cramp and depress true genius, than to write under the direction of one whose learning does not extend beyond the multiplication-table and the London Evening-post?” (Anonym 1761b: 199) According to Collins, [t]he time was not come of which it could be said that writers were able to turn from patrons to the public; they might only turn from patrons to booksellers, from men whose support often was helpful and disinterested to men whose support could only be oppressive and uncertain, varying with the fluctuations in the market of literary commerce. (1927: 187)

And the financial gain that the booksellers produced was hardly passed down to the authors who only as a rare exception profited from good sales of their books. But more importantly, while ideal aristocratic patronage mainly worked within a

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system of literary worth, the bookseller’s patronage worked mainly within a system of financial success. Both systems can be seen to assign completely contrary value to the two currencies of “reward” and “regard.” Patrons expected to lose money in order to gain reputation, whereas at least some booksellers, epitomized for the century in the figure of Edmund Curll,29 never minded losing their reputation, as long as they could make money. This leads them to equate financial and critical worth, or rather, to substitute one for the other. In Robert Lloyd’s dialogue poem “The Puff,” a bookseller is unsuccessfully trying to convince the author to employ some methods of “puffing” for the promotion of his book, and then shows how the necessity of financial reward (“success”) has made the acquisition of critical reward (“praise”) almost superfluous: You must enrich your book, indeed! Bare Merit never will succeed; Which readers are not now a-days, By half so apt to buy, as praise; And praise is hardly worth pursuing, Which tickles authors to their ruin. (1774 (1): 179)

While aristocratic patronage, when independent of political associations, is primarily a system of criticism (one that bases selection first on critical evaluation), the bookseller’s decisions are often critical only in a secondary step, insofar as they are first of all guided by market research. When, in Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews, Parson Adams unsuccessfully tries to get his sermons published, a bookseller tells him unashamedly that “for my part, the copy that sells best, will be always the best copy in my opinion” (1742: 78). In how far, and in what way, the bookseller’s decision to publish a book was itself a critical act always depends on how one draws the connection between the quality of a literary work and its economic success, and that again depends on how one judges of the general taste of the audience. The common sense notion that commercial success and literary quality are more often antagonistic than interdependent existed right from the beginning of the book market. The anonymous author of the poem The Booksellers (1766) writes that “Booksellers seldom have good authors made,/ Too much engag’d in business and in trade.” (1766g: 14) The same opinion is expressed in more cautious terms in the anonymous 1738 Letter to the Society of Booksellers.30 Boswell’s own opinion on the bookseller’s

29 On Curll cf. especially Baines 2007. 30 “[T]he good success of a book does not so much depend on the excellency of the performance, as on the necessity, novelty, or the interest it has in our passions which excite us to demand it (tho’


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willingness or ability to act as patrons is, compared to that of his idol, one of doubtful scepticism: “I suppose with all our scholastick ignorance of mankind, we are still too knowing to expect that the booksellers will erect themselves into patrons, and buy and sell under the influence of a disinterested zeal for the promotion of learning.” (1791 (2): 13) Richard Parrott, in Reflections on Various Subjects Relating to Arts and Commerce (1752), comes to the same conclusion by clearly distinguishing the production of cultural goods from that of other manufacture: Manufactures of moderate expense and quick growth may safely be left to private adventurers, and run the common chance for success; the finer arts will never flourish but under public protection and noble patronage; no encouragement in the hands of private persons are adequate rewards to the man of genius. (1752: 15–16)

Oliver Goldsmith’s position in 1774 is even stricter and much more negative, since for him the economic system necessarily works against literary worth: The author, when unpatronized by the Great, has naturally recourse to the book-seller. There cannot be, perhaps, imagined a combination more prejudicial to taste than this. It is the interest of the one to allow as little for writing, and of the other to write as much as possible; accordingly, tedious compilations, and periodical magazines, are the result of their joint endeavours. […] Thus the man, who under the protection of the Great, might have done honour to humanity, when only patronized by the book-seller, becomes a thing little superior to the fellow who works at the press (108–109).

This shows Goldsmith’s deep-seated anxieties about the influence of commercial considerations on questions of literary evaluation, or the shift of socially derived critical authority from pure class to economic power. Goldsmith carefully distinguishes between an elevated social status (“the great”), with its associated qualities of fine taste, noble education, and independence from faction, and those who merely possess financial power, whose interest is consequently confined to securing and increasing that power. In the Citizen of the World, he similarly dreads the equation of financial and critical power. Paradoxically, it is the very absence of a hierarchical system of criticism based on either knowledge or social status that enables this equation. The narrator starts by describing how in China, in an institution that seems to combine ideas of the academy and state censorship, “the learned are assembled in a body to judge of every new publication”. This is contrasted to England, where “there are no such tribunals erected”.

it must be confessed, that its excellency or exceeding accuracy enhances its real value)”, Anonym 1738: 25–26.

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Instead, criticism seems to be completely democratized, in that every person can claim the title – and the authority – of critic: “If any chuse to be critics, it is but saying they are critics; and from that time forward they become invested with full power and authority over every caitiff who aims at their instruction or entertainment.” That he indeed understands this situation in political terms as a form of democracy becomes clear when he writes that “every member of society has by this means a vote in literary transactions”. But, the argument continues, where votes are evenly distributed, they can succumb to a different form of hierarchical power: they can be bought. Therefore, it is no way surprising to find the rich leading the way here as in other common concerns of life, to see them either bribing the numerous herd of voters by their interest, or brow-beating them by their authority. A great man says, at his table, that such a book is no bad thing. Immediately the praise is carried off by five flatterers to be dispersed at twelve different coffeehouses, from whence it circulates, still improving as it proceeds, through forty-five houses […]. Thus when we have traced a wide extended literary reputation up to its original source, we shall find it derived from some great man, who has, perhaps, received all his education and English from a tutor of Berne, or a dancing-master of Picardie. (1762 (1): 246–247)

An inconsistency in Goldsmith’s condemnation of capitalist interest in matters of literary evaluation is his positive opinion about the taste of the general public, an opinion he shared with Smollett.31 Repeatedly, he introduces the public as a last recourse for writers of merit. In the first edition of the Enquiry from 1759, he claims that “the public in general set the whole piece in the proper point of view” (149), while pedantic critics loose themselves in pondering trifles. This, according to Goldsmith, is the reason why “so many writers at present, are apt to appeal from the tribunal of criticism to that of the people.” (150) And three years later, he compares the public favourably to the “great” who have failed to continue the old system of patronage: “At present the few poets of England no longer depend on the Great for subsistence, they have now no other patrons but the public, and the public collectively considered, is a good and generous master.” (1762 (2): 84)32 What he omits to elaborate on is how either the public can voice their approval

31 Smollett wrote in 1760 that genius, “though neglected by the great, flourished under the culture of a public which had pretensions to taste, and piqued itself on encouraging literary merit”, qtd. in Griffin 1996: 250. The reason for this is not hard to find, though, since Smollett identifies the “pretensions to taste” of the public with the influence and success of his Critical Review. 32 Cf. also Mrs. Dangle’s sarcastic comment on her husband’s pretension to criticize the theatrical authors and managers in Richard Brinsley Sheridan‘s The Critic: “The Public is their Critic”, Sheridan 1781: 6.


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against the pernicious influence of the booksellers who control what they get to read, or, even more to the point, why the benevolence of the general taste of the audience should not automatically induce the booksellers to print such books as the public demands, and consequently reward merit after all. The anonymous author of the Letter to the Society of Booksellers, on the Method of Forming a True Judgment of the Manuscripts of Authors, who repeatedly stresses the bookseller’s right to insist on his financial gain instead of “intrinsic value,” tries to bridge this inconsistency and makes the step from Goldsmith’s transitory position (nostalgia for aristocratic critical authority mixed with dread of money’s authority and a dawning hope in the democratization of opinion) to the capitalist’s belief in the regulatory powers of the market. He finds his compromise in the optimistic conviction that, given time, financial success and intrinsic quality must ultimately go hand in hand. Instead of looking to make quick money from ephemera, booksellers should be interested in building a respected business. This plea for sustainability in commerce is essentially an adaptation of the “test of time”argument that also had to negotiate between the degeneracy of the spontaneous public taste and its infallibility in the long run: I doubt not you will be apt to tell me, that the Books which sell best are most for your Purpose, and that you need not be solicitous about the intrinsic Value of a Book, if it does not sell, that being its principal Goodness in your Estimation […]. I am very sensible, Gentlemen, that your Business, like all other Trades, is to get Money; yet give me Leave at the same Time to remark, that this immediate or present Gain (so commonly snatch’d at by the Unthinking) perhaps, very seldom proves to be their real Interest; so that, in my Opinion, as Honesty is the best Policy, and good Wine needs no Blush, the Tradesmen, who take the contrary Course, are generally found to thrive most; and, perhaps, it is not once in ten Times that it happens otherwise. Accordingly, a Bookseller, who takes due care to examine his Copies, and prints none but such as truly deserve the Notice and Esteem of the Publick, even tho’ they should not run off so fast as others, on more trifling, indifferent, or obscene Subjects, finds at last that they turn to the best Account; for Men, in general, entertaining a better opinion of such a Bookseller, and consequently of the Books he prints; his Customers will venture to take ‘em on his own Word, and even Strangers be no way fearful of dealing with him, since they know he has an established Character, for being concerned in no Copies that are not really good (1738: 28–29).

Both the aristocratic system of patronage and the commercial system of the bookseller can be handled according to the principles of criticism, but are liable to be usurped by considerations extrinsic to these principles. With patronage, extraneous considerations were especially political in nature, while for the bookseller they were financial. Few contemporary (and not many more modern) commentators believed with the author of the Letter in the beneficent regulatory power of the market, or the bookseller’s willingness to refuse short-term success for the

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benefit of a long-term secure business, but where the market’s power grew, that of the aristocrat dwindled in comparison. Social power continued to be an effective generating factor for critical authority, but the sources of this power gradually shifted from rank and breeding (with financial power always implied) to pure financial power and interest, with an elevated social position (as someone, for example, who was influential at court and could distribute posts) supplemented and finally substituted by a strategic position on the literary market. Such a position was held, of course, by the booksellers, but also by those who controlled the most important media for criticism. In 1759, the lustre, glory, and financial gain that the praise of an aristocratic bestows on the poet has dwindled to “a little flattery” in David Hume’s account of William Wilkie’s poem The Epigoniad in a letter to William Robertson. The Epigoniad I cannot so much promise for, tho I have done all in my power to forward it, particularly by writing a letter to the Critical Review, which you may peruse. I find, however, some good judges profess a great esteem for it, but habent et sua fata libelli: however, if you want a little flattery to the author, (which I own is very refreshing to an author) you may tell him that Lord Chesterfield said to me he was a great poet. I imagine that Wilkie will be very much elevated by praise from an English earl, and a Knight of the Garter, and an Ambassador, and a Secretary of State, and a man of so great reputation. For I observe that the greatest rustics are commonly most affected with such circumstances. (Burton 1846 (2): 54–55)

It is a telling sign for the shifts in critical authority that Hume gives Chesterfield’s praise as a rather amusing afterthought for “refreshment,” while the opinion of “some good judges” is taken seriously and the opinion of the Review is even worth the act of writing a letter. Here, the reviewer has displaced the patron as an authority that distributes “regard.” In the context of a discussion of the changing literary market and its influence on criticism, to view critical reviewers as modern patrons might seem rather a curiosity, but it is merely an extension of the equation of booksellers and patrons. In 1725, the poet, playwright, patron, and entrepreneur Aaron Hill had already done something that was highly uncommon in the world of dedications, to say the least: he dedicated his tragedy The Fatal Vision to two professional and non-aristocratic critics, Charles Gildon and John Dennis. Dorothy Brewster comments on the novelty of Hill’s act: “Dedications to men of letters were almost unknown at the time; this of Hill’s was not epochmaking, as was Pope’s to Congreve a little later, simply because the Fatal Vision was not epoch-making. But it was an interesting departure from prevailing custom.” (1913: 164) Hill, who at that time was “perhaps the most important, certainly the most ubiquitous, man of letters in London literary life” (Gerrard 2004, no page), defends his decision by pointing out that impartial and honest critics are the muses’ “genuine Offspring”:


Aristocratic Authority

I chuse out you, among the Kindred of the Muses, as you are their genuine Offspring: Men, who wou’d teach the World the Force of Reason; and give Pleasure, only to insinuate Instruction: Who wou’d support the Antient Dignity of your Profession, and behold, with Scorn, the Prostitution of an Art, design’d for Great, and Godlike Uses. (1716: v)

What is so uncommon about Hill’s gesture is that it was neither meant ironical nor did it contain a hidden attack, since these are the modes in which dedications to critics are usually written.33 It is pure ridicule of critics that lies behind Swift’s digression in the Tale of a Tub, where he addresses the “true modern critics” as “my patrons” (1704: 91) and confesses that “it was an unpardonable omission to proceed so far as I have already done before I had performed the due discourses, expostulatory, supplicatory, or deprecatory, with my good lords the critics.” (74) Dedicating instead a serious work to a critic reflects on the seriousness of the critic, just as dedicating a farce to a critic (and usually for the wrong reasons) shows him to be ridiculous, as can be seen by way of contrast from Gay’s dedication of The Mohocks to John Dennis: “There are several Reasons which induce me to lay this Work at your Feet: The Subject of it is Horrid and Tremendous, and the whole Piece written according to the exactest Rules of Dramatick Poetry, as I have with great care collected them from several of your elaborate Dissertations.” (1712: no page) Though Hill’s dedication is not tongue-in-cheek as are so many later versions, like David Mallet’s preface to his Tyburn to the Marine Society (1759: vii), a strategy that most of them have in common is at least already detectable, a strategy that shows first that the critic’s adoption of the function of patron – other than the aristocrat’s and the bookseller’s – is always a critical decision, and second that as an expressed and not just implied act of criticism, both the decision to patronize (positive review) and not to patronize (negative review) will be publicly visible. Especially throughout the second half of the century, a dedication to the critics is therefore the literary world’s version of a pre-emptive strike. Knowing that the publication of a work opens it for possible attacks as well as support, the author tries to defuse such attacks before they can even begin. There were different approaches to follow in such pre-emptive dedications, in varying degrees of originality. When the anonymous author of The Ants in his preface makes one Aristarchus, later called Scriblerus junior, announce to the critics that, since he will write a criticism on the following work, there is no need for the reviewers to

33 A much later example of a serious dedication to a critic is Benjamin Heath’s A Revisal of Shakespear’s Text from 1765 which is dedicated to Lord Kames, “the truest judge and most intelligent admirer of Shakespear”, Heath 1765: no page.

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do it (cf. 1767f: xxii–xxiii), the Critical Review comment’s on this device little more than to hint that it is rather “stale”.34 A somewhat more successful strategy was to anticipate the objections of the critics and to half admit them, as Laurence Sterne and Thomas Mariott did in 1759 with varying degrees of artfulness. Mariott was of the opinion that “[e]very new Poem is a new Bait to the Critics, who, at its first Appearance in Public, attack, and surround it in Shoals; especially the small Critic Fry, who, frequently nibling it, endeavour to pull it to Pieces, by gradual Diminuations.” Therefore, he immediately admitted some faults in the preface, to prevent the general tearing apart: The Author expects, that such will be the Fate of the following Poem. Therefore he prefixes this Preface, that he may obviate some of their Criticisms, and by anticipating them, deprive these minor Critics of the Pleasure of first finding Fault, which is the greatest Pleasure they enjoy in Reading. (1759a: viii-ix)35

Sterne’s use is much more playful and heightened by the metafictional spirit of the whole work, but it resembles Mariott’s in claiming to have left “half a dozen places open for [the critics]” (1761 (1): 9). A variation of Sterne’s and Mariott’s strategy was used one year later by William Kenrick, always resourceful in his dealings with the trade he himself was a part of, for his comedy Falstaff’s Wedding.36 Even more ingenious in his dealings with possible critics was Oliver Goldsmith. In his Citizen of the World, he has a bookseller visit the narrator and talk about business. The bookseller reveals that he has for a long time been in the habit of publishing criticism right along his literary texts, to create controversy, and because every text can be criticised. He then directly addresses the narrator:

34 “We are not wrapped up in great admiration of the author’s invention in ushering this rhapsody into the world, nor of the stale advertisment prefixed to it, by which he endeavours to secure it from the censures of critics and reviewers.” Anonym 1767a: 32. NOBL E FRIE NDS THE CRITICS , 35 This strategy is also used by Thomas Dermody in his poem “TTOO MY NOBLE Greeting”, cf. Dermody 1792: 41–42. It turned out that Mariott’s strategy was not really successful in stifling the quarrel before it could start, for a short time later he felt obliged to publish a 35-page pamphlet under the full title of The twentieth epistle of Horaceto his book, modernized by the author of Female conduct, and applied to his own book. And intended as an answer to the remarks on his book, made by the writer of the Critical Review, and by the writer of the Monthly Review. There he vents his considerable indignation at having been negatively reviewed, cf. Mariott 1759b: iii. 36 Like Mariott, Kenrick admits to imperfections in his works, but he doesn’t point them out and claims to leave them instead hidden in the text as a sort of decoy for the critic (who is also described as “nibbling”): “To close with a word or two to the critics. The author foresaw that these mice would necessarily be nibbling; he hath therefore, purposely left some rotten holes in the cheese, that the poor little animals may be kept doing; for, considering them as real objects of pity, he would by no means have them starve for want of employment.” Kenrick 1760: vi–vii.


Aristocratic Authority

“Suppose you should take it into your head to publish a book, let it be a volume of Chinese letters for instance; write how you will, he shall shew the world you could have written better.” He goes on to show some possible objections to the scheme of the Chinese letters. When the narrator grants that he would have to heed these objections, the bookseller triumphantly exclaims, that in this case the objections would be only easier to make, and concludes by saying: “Be what you will, we shall criticise you […] and prove you a dunce in spite of your teeth.” (1762 (1): 222) Another extended dedication to the critics is found in John Amory’s novel The Life of John Buncle. This book with its extravagant form, style, and narrator, has had a mixed reception history, with the immediate reviews showing indifference or contempt,37 Clara Reeve (“a whimsical and outré story, intermixed with sprinklings of wit and Learning, and a Genius truly original” (1785 (2): 39)) grouping it with Swift’s Tale of a Tub and Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, the Romantic critics Hazlitt, Hunt and Lamb hailing it as the work of an “English Rabelais” and the 20th century forgetting about him completely. Amory surely had intimated that his work would prove quite a bone for the critics to chew, and he dedicates it to them, choosing as his own pre-emptive strategy an appeal to good intentions over good performance: This book is not addressed to you, in order to ask your protection for its faults; or in hopes, that such valuable names at the head of it, may preserve it. Things in print must stand by their own worth. But it is offered to you, to let the world see I had that confidence in the goodness of my design in writing it, as to submit it to such great and impartial judges; and that I believe you will report your opinion in such a manner, as to procure me the esteem of the virtuous; when you find that my principal intention in this piece, is to serve the interests of truth, liberty, and religion, and to advance useful learning, to the best of my abilities (1756: iv).

This is a clever strategy based on a conflation of moral/ethical and aesthetic values very common at the time. Critics often equated moral with artistic worth, and usually regarded moral excellence as the most important characteristic even of a literary text, though the best of them, like Johnson, knew better than to simply confound the two categories (cf. Hagstrum 1967: 40). But Amory, baring himself in a typical gesture of humility of any artistic pretence, refers the critics’

37 “This is an irreviewable performance, because the nonsense we encounter in perusing it, is insufferable.” Anonym 1766c: 470 The London Review, on the other hand, was much more positive, even though they had similar problems in defining the text’s genre: “The lucubrations, if we may so call them, of the laconic Mr. John Buncle, Junior, lay claim, therefore, to the warmest recommendation we can give them, to our readers.” Anonym 1778a: 259.

Changes in the System of Patronage


judgement to his intentions, a category that is strictly speaking not criticisable, since it rests solely on the author’s testimony: I hope, from your rectitude and judgment, that you will get me a fair hearing; and I call upon you as my patrons, and the friends to learning and truth, for your approbation of my good and pious intentions, tho’ you should not be able to say one word of any excellencies in my writings. This is all I ask. (1756: vi)38

Frances Burney goes even more into detail in the preface to her 1778 novel Evelina, where she addresses her potential reviewers, investing them with the power and, consequently, the duties and obligations of the patrons of old: Without name, without recommendation, and unknown alike to success and disgrace, to whom can I so properly apply for patronage, as to those who publicly profess themselves Inspectors of all literary performances? The extensive plan of your critical observations,––– which, not confined to works of utility or ingenuity, is equally open to those of frivolous amusement, and yet worse than frivolous dullness,––– encourages me to seek for your protection, since,–––perhaps for my sins!–––it entitles me to your annotations. To resent, therefore, this offering, however insignificant, would ill become the universality of your undertaking, tho’ not to despise it may, alas! be out of your power. (1778: vi)

What is interesting here is that though Burney, with the usual self-deprecating rhetoric of humbleness, leaves the literary evaluation entirely in the hands of the critics, she clearly takes into consideration criticism’s claims to fulfil a certain function, especially in the recent form of review criticism, and derives her demands from that function. By willingly submitting to their judgment (and forcefully rejecting the appeal to “mercy” that so often marked contemporary assessments of women writers), she pledges them to the ideal of justice: As Magistrates of the press, and Censors for the Public,–––to which you are bound by the sacred ties of integrity to exert the most spirited impartiality, and to which your suffrages should carry the marks of pure, dauntless, irrefragable truth,–––to appeal for your MERCY , were to solicit your dishonour; and therefore,–––though ‘tis sweeter than frankincense,––– more grateful to the senses than all the odorous perfumes of Arabia,–––and though “It

38 That his dedication, though given mainly in sober and serious terms, is not free of mockery, would have been obvious at the latest when he closes his remarks: “Thus much, gentlemen, I thought proper to say to you, that by being acquainted with the particulars relative to the complexion, and design of the author, you might the easier and the better comprehend the various things you will find in the work he dedicates to you. I have only to add, that I wish you all happiness; that your heads may lack no ointment, and your garments be always white and odoriferous: but especially, may you press on, like true critics, towards perfection; and may bliss, glory, and honour, be your reward and your Portion.” Amory 1756: ix.


Aristocratic Authority

droppeth like the gentle rain from heaven/ Upon the place beneath,–––” I court it not! to your Justice alone I am entitled, and by that I must abide. (vii)

There is no way to tell whether it was Burney’s strategy that was successful, or simply the quality of her novel that persuaded the reviewers – both the Monthly and the Critical printed short but favourable reviews without mentioning the preface (cf. Anonym 1778d: 316 and Anonym 1778c: 202–203). The ambiguous reactions to a direct address of the critics that is not simply an attack can be studied better in the example of George Crabbe’s poem The Candidate. A Poetical Epistle to the Authors of the Monthly Review. After Crabbe’s failed attempt to establish himself as an apothecary, he came to London in 1780 and tried to get his poetry published. One text was rejected by the bookseller James Dodsley on 28 April 1780, another was rejected by Thomas Beckett. Finally, in July 1780 Crabbe paid John Nichols to print 250 copies of The Candidate. As the title indicates, the epistle is dedicated to the Monthly Review, a move that Crabbe explains in an address “To the Reader”: “It is addressed to the Authors of the Monthly Review, as to critics of acknowledged merit; an acquaintance with whose labours has afforded the writer of this Epistle a reason for directing it to them in particular, and, he presumes, will yield to others a just and sufficient plea for the preference.” (1789: 7–8) In the main text of the epistle, Crabbe repeats and even intensifies his submission to criticism: “[S]uppliant, to the critic’s throne I bow,/ Here burn my incense, and here pay my vow” (10). Both Reviews printed short notices in their “Monthly Catalogue” sections. The Critical Review was perceivably snubbed by the author’s preferment of the Monthly, insisting ironically on their right to evaluate those works as well that had not been directed at them: “The patient, it is observable, takes no notice of us Critical Reviewers, though we have been pretty famous for eradicating disorders of this kind.” (Anonym 1780: 233) The review that follows, short as it is, is decidedly hostile, since “faults may possibly be found by others in this poem”, concluding that if the author “sets up for the borough of Parnassus, he will most probably lose his election, as he does not seem to be possessed of a foot of land in that county.” (234) That this estimate was rather the result of hurt pride than in accord with the general taste might be inferred from the fact that Crabbe soon not only gained the friendship and esteem of Edmund Burke, but three years later published his poem The Village that became very popular and was later praised by Byron.39 More delicate was the Monthly Review’s situation. Though they could feel flattered by Crabbe, the

39 By that time, the Critical had overcome its indignation, acknowledging that “[t]his poem deserves much approbation, both for language and sentiment.” Anonym 1783b: 61.

Changes in the System of Patronage


authors clearly saw their independence at risk. Their reaction shows this, as well as the complete surprise of the critics to meet with an address that was not one of the accustomed attacks: So usual is it for a disappointed Writer to vent his spleen upon the Reviewers, that we fully expected the poem before us, judging from its address, had been an effusion of that angry passion. It seems, however, we were mistaken. […] The situation which we are drawn into by this address, is such as might bring upon us, on the one hand, the imputation of moroseness, should we not be softened by a compliment which few patrons can withstand; and on the other, should we treat this epistle with a lenity which the strictest impartiality would not justify, it might reasonably be suspected, that we had suffered our judgment to be duped by flattery. To avoid, therefore, every imputation or suspicion of either kind, let the Poem speak for itself. (Cartwright 1780: 226)

The reviewer, intimating that his general opinion of the poem is favourable, continues by offering some criticisms on formalities to retain the impression of impartiality (cf. 227). Though both were perceived to take over at least partially the function of the patron, neither the bookseller nor the critic could be won by the same methods as the aristocrat. Different criteria applied. Whereas an aristocratic patron gave out money and assistance almost in opposition to the financial success and marketability of a text – ideally promoting a text for its quality, to secure it the success that it deserved but could not gain through the market – the bookseller functioned as a patron only to those texts he expected to sell. To address the reviewers as patrons, finally, was a much too insecure method to be adapted on a large scale, and was applied mainly in an ambiguously ironic way that tried to negotiate between the older contempt of the author for the critic and the newer acceptance of the critic’s real power. But that they were contemplated in that function at all, ironic or not, is an indication of the eroding association of social status and critical authority. While the bookseller definitely took over the distribution of “reward,” that of “regard” came to be expected more and more from professional critics. Though they professed to be written by “A Society of Gentlemen,” with their anonymous publication the Reviews could not rely on the social status of their writers at all. To address them as patrons meant an acknowledgment that criticism had become a self-contained system independent of social stratification.

3 The Authority of Seniority: Ancient and Modern Criticism When the term authority surfaces in 18th-century reflections of criticism, it usually denotes legitimization through a referral to the opinion of a critic from Greek or Roman antiquity like Aristotle, Horace or Longinus. Very often in these cases, no further explanation is given why such an opinion is to be revered, or why it has authority. Frequently, it is the very seniority of the ancient critics that constitutes their authority. Joseph Priestley, in a sub-chapter to his Lectures on Oratory and Criticism entitled “Of Authority”, elaborates on this sense of authority and its inner dynamics: It is a great confirmation of our belief of even universal propositions, which have no connexion with particular persons, places, or times, to have a testimony in favour of them from persons whose opinions are generally allowed to be just. A considerable part of that strong assent which we give to truths of an abstract nature, as to mathematical theorems, and philosophical discoveries, which may be even our own investigating, and much more if they be not, is derived from the authority of others, who concur with us in professing an assent to them; which may help us to account for a seeming paradox, viz. why the disciples of some Greek masters of philosophy usually, in a course of time, grew more zealously attached to the tenets of their respective schools, than the founders themselves originally were. (1777: 17)

This type of authority will in the following be called name-authority, since it is less intended by the original author than conferred by succeeding generations of readers, a process in which the reasons for conferring this authority in the first place are always in danger of being lost, of being substituted by a mere name. This name then comes to signify authority itself, instead of the reasons for its justification. In the extreme case, what is left is the pure name of the critic as a carrier of critical authority, devoid of any argumentative claim to it. Most critics of the time were aware of the problematic nature of name-authority. Thus, one important aspect of the quarrel over the ancients and the moderns that so dominated literary criticism at the turn of the century was less whether what ancient critics said was true, but rather the extent to which ancient criticism was to be read as exemplary, binding, and law-giving by default. As with the general evaluation of poetry ancient and modern, opinion on the value of ancient criticism was divided. Charles Gildon, in the words G. L. Anderson, “settled down to a lifelong battle to rear Athens itself in Albion” (1955: 250), and a 1753 essay in the Adventurer, arguing against the bad influence of French moralists and critics, blandly stated that “the Grecian writers alone, both critics and poets, are the best masters to teach” (Anonym 1753a: no page). On the other

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hand, Samuel Cobb, in the “Discourse on Criticism and the Liberty of Writing” prefacing his Poems on Several Occasions (1709), declared in equally bold tones that “to judge well and candidly, we must wean our selves from a slavish Bigotry to the Ancients.” (1709: no page) Others, like Richard Hurd, condescendingly smiled at, but still catered to, those “who like a principle the better for seeing it in Greek” (1766: 4). Those who valued ancient criticism above its modern practitioners often held – parallel to similar claims for literature – that succeeding times had accomplished little more than variations on the original insights, a view expressed for example in George Campbell’s Philosophy of Rhetoric: Considerable progress had been made by the ancient Greeks and Romans, in devising the proper rules of composition […]. And I must acknowledge, that, as far as I have been able to discover, there has been little or no improvement in this respect made by the moderns. The observations and rules transmitted to us from these distinguished names in the learned world, Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian, have been for the most part only translated by later critics, or put into a modish dress and new arrangement. (1776 (1): 19)

Against this viewpoint stood numerous authors who believed in a progress of criticism parallel to that of science. Late in the century, William Taylor declares in his review of Henry James Pye’s commentary of Aristotle that “Criticism, like every other species of philosophy, may naturally be expected to improve in proportion to the variety of experience from which its theory comes to be deduced.” (1795: 121) An earlier example for this view comes from the controversy around William Warburton’s The Divine Legation of Moses demonstrated. Warburton had been attacked in 1748 through John Jackson’s pamphlet A Treatise on the Improvements made in the Art of Criticism. Collected out of the Writings of a Celebrated Hypercritic. Jackson’s satirical strategy, as is already apparent from his title, was to comment ironically on “the vast Improvements made in the Art of Criticism in these latter Ages, which commenc’d at the Publication of Mr. Warburton’s Writings.” (1748: 1) Though this was simply a way of ridiculing Warburton, it implied that to assume a progress in criticism was in itself ridiculous. When Jackson was answered, the pamphleteer took the charge rather seriously, and engaged it beyond the question of Warburton’s individual accomplishments or capabilities: It was said that Improvements had been made in the Art of Criticism in these latter Ages. And why will not Mr. J. allow that Improvements have been made in this Branch of Knowledge, as well as others? If not, whence comes it that so many Errors of the best ancient Critics have been corrected by our modern Writers? (Anonym 1748: 15–16)

Two pages later, the author gives some reasons why it is reasonable to assume a progression of criticism:


The Authority of Seniority: Ancient and Modern Criticism

It may be asked by what Means, or in Consequence of what Advantages, the Moderns have been enabled to make these Discoveries? […] Now they had great Advantages, as they understood the Philosophy of Language, a Thing little studied, or attended to by the Ancients. They were too, far abler Chronologists, and had a better and more correct Logic, to aid and assist them in the Art of Reasoning. And are not these Advantages more particularly requisite, in order to qualify Men to shine and excel in this Branch of Criticism? (17–18)

It is interesting to see that the pamphleteer explains the progress of criticism by mentioning the recent differentiation of disciplines, as for example the study of language that had developed into an independent field of research. In this account, differentiation and specialization lead to a progress in knowledge. The pre-eminence of the ancients, on the other hand, rested on the assumption of an ultimate unification of knowledge. But only very few critics of the time were willing to take such assumptions to the limit. One of the main stereotypes about neoclassical criticism, as well as one of the main reasons to find fault with it, is its alleged extreme form of adherence to ancient authority, as the only provider of unified and universally applicable truth. This reliance on ancient authority is seen as detrimental mainly because it is so clearly an obstacle to literary or aesthetic innovation. Richard F. Jones, for example, voices this contempt in 1940, when he pits a type of criticism that firmly believes in the unalterable authority of ancient models and critics against the scientific movement that developed at the same time: Here, then, was a critical philosophy which upheld the principle of authority (though many critics tried to equate it with reason or common sense), limited the freedom of the poetic imagination, and rendered impossible any progress beyond the achievements of the past. It also lent its support to the theory of nature’s decay, which indeed became one of its major theses. It would be difficult to find a more exact antithesis to the views characteristic of the scientific movement than is found in this criticism. (383)

When looking more closely at the different positions that authors had on the authority of ancient critics one can see that unanimous dogmatic opinions as Jones described them are rather hard to be found, though. In a much more differentiated account, Elioseff sees the first phase of neoclassical criticism as characterized by “[r]espect for the authority of the classical critics and poets,” but this “was by no means servile in the sense of being an unquestioned acceptance of ancient rules and models.” (1963: 28) Surely, ancient criticism had its authority. Pope’s demand that the critic should “Know well each Ancient’s proper Character;/ His Fable, Subject, Scope in ev’ry Page;/ Religion, Country, Genius of his Age” (1711: 9) is mirrored more than sixty years later by William Jackson: “It is necessary to know how the most distinguished persons have thought on these subjects, before we can be sure of the truth of our own principles.” (1783a: 167) Consulting ‘authority’ is

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indeed seen as necessary by most authors, though when one looks closely, it becomes clear that this consulting is usually done as a safety check on the critic’s own opinion, not as a substitute for it. Most writers of the 18th century agreed that the authority of ancient critics should never be followed blindly, an error comparable to dogmatism in religion. In this sense, Richard Steele comments negatively in an essay in The Tatler on the false (“thorough”) critic’s almost instinctive use of quotes from ancient texts to add weight to an opinion and to place it in a context of authority: A thorough Critick is a sort of Puritan in the polite World: as an Enthusiast in Religion stumbles at the ordinary Occurences of Life, if he cannot quote Scripture Examples on the Occasion; so the Critick is never safe in his Speech or Writing, without he has among the celebrated Writers an Authority for the Truth of his Sentence. (1709a: no page)

Steele’s comparison to a dogmatically scriptural mode of making sense of the world shows both how pervasive the use of ancient authority to strengthen critical judgments was perceived to be, and the general objections to it. The danger that Steele sees in this mode of thinking is that criticism becomes a self-sufficient system, the rules of criticism deriving from preceding rules, texts relying merely on other texts: “But then there are many, who, by false Applications of some Rules ill understood, or out of Deference to Men whose Opinions they value, have formed to themselves certain Schemes and Systems of Satisfaction, and will not be pleased out of their own way. These are not Criticks themselves, but Readers of Criticks”. In religious terms, this is liturgy instead of exegesis. Against this textual regress, Steele sets every man’s natural capacity for aesthetic pleasure: “I think it certain, that most Men are naturally not only capable of being pleased with that which raises agreeable Pictures in the Fancy, but willing also to own it.”1 The authority of preceding texts stands in the way of individual perception and judgments that want to follow individual and natural taste. The superficiality resulting from such adherence to name-authority is deplored in this character sketch from The Adventurer: Captain Gairish, a wit and a critic, who pretends he is perfectly acquainted with the best writers of the age, and whose opinion on every work is deemed decisive in the Pump-room. The prefaces of Dryden, and the French critics, are the sources from which his immense literature is derived. Dacier’s Plutarch has enabled him to talk familiarly of the most celebrated Greeks and Romans, and Bayle’s Dictionary finished him for a scholar. (Anonym 1753a: no page)

1 For a similar argument, cf. Blackmore 1716: 13.


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Gairish is nothing but a patchwork of other texts that have been chosen not for their intrinsic values, but for their prior acceptance. He is merely a mouthpiece for other voices, his own voice or opinion is never even heard. He is not even able to quote directly from the ancient sources, but acquires them only in a mediated form, becoming a reader of critics’ commentators. He follows authority blindly, as do the critics that Robert Lloyd satirically describes: Bring me eleven Critics grown, Ten have no judgment of their own: But, like the Cyclops watch the nod Of some informing master god. (1774 (2): 19–20)

And out of Lloyd’s ten fictitious critics, nine would have, when asked for their “informing master god”, given the name of Aristotle. He is, for better or worse, the prime example for name-authority in the 18th century. But the stereotype of neoclassicism’s unadorned Aristotle-worship is an anachronism at any given time one cares to look at, if only one looks close enough. Most writers agree that Aristotle’s authority steadily decreased during the century (cf. Malek 1971: 260 and Hume 1970: 179); unchallenged it never was, just as it was never completely abolished. Even though, as Elioseff writes, “the authority of Aristotle is invoked whenever it lends support to the critic’s argument” (1963: 85), this use by no means implied a general and unquestioned belief. The age’s conflicting position on the ancient critic might be glimpsed from Henry Fielding’s seemingly offhand remark in 1751: “I do not take [him] for so great a blockhead as some who have never read him” (1751 (1): 256). This quote contains the automatic nature of the routine referrals to Aristotle that are clearly unrelated to actual knowledge of the text, as well as Fielding’s resistance either to simply dismiss whatever could be found of value in his writings, or to blindly submit to the authority that had been attached to his name. In the Covent-Garden Journal, he writes: “No Author is to be admitted into the Order of Critics, until he hath read over, and understood, Aristotle, Horace, and Longinus, in their original Language” (1752b: no page). But for Fielding, the obligation to read the classic critics, far from equalling automatic consent, was the prerequisite to a well-founded rejection of the rules. The important hint here is not only the insistence on the understanding of the texts (exegesis instead of liturgy), but on their being read in the original: reading, like Captain Gairish, the translations and commentaries already meant a distancing from the original content, substituting a predecessor’s claim about the original’s authority for a knowledge of that original’s potential foundation for such authority: the first step towards name-authority. Only if one understood where the rules came from and how they were argued for, could one effectively oppose them and thereby

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challenge ancient authority, as Fielding himself did numerous times, for example in Book 8 of Tom Jones. Thomas Rymer surely is a critic whom nobody would suspect of a romantic revolt against Aristotle’s authority. On the contrary, the 19th century has turned him into the stereotypically blind admirer and propagator of Aristotelian rules, a caricature of neoclassical rigidity. This continues well into the 20th century, where Bosker calls him a “rigid Aristotelian formalist” (1954: 28), and Richard Jones “a critic who represents the extremes to which the dogmatic rules of neoclassicism and the worship of ancient models went in England.” (1940: 390) Bosker continues: “According to him Aristotle had reduced the practice of the Greek poets to principles, and the modern poet had to adopt them unconditionally” (1954: 4).2 But one close look will show that this reading is one-sided. True, in the preface to his translation of Rapin’s commentary on Aristotle from 1674, Rymer celebrates the ancient philosopher, emphasizing his importance for the field of literature, for “him Antiquity first honoured with the name of Critick”, and declares that “he is prefer’d in the Politest Courts of Europe, and by the Poets held in great veneration.” But the continuation of that quote is of major importance: Not that these can servilely yield to his Authority, who, of all men living, affect liberty. The truth is, what Aristotle writes on this Subject, are not the dictates of his own magisterial will, or dry deductions of his Metaphysicks: But the Poets were his Masters, and what was their practice, he reduced to principles. Nor would the modern Poets blindly resign to this practice of the Ancients, were not the Reasons convincing and clear as any demonstration in Mathematicks. ‘Tis only needful that we understand them, for our consent to the truth of them. (1764: no page)

Already here, in 1674 and from the mouth of as strict a neoclassicist as can be, Aristotle’s authority is not seen in absolute, but in relative terms, denying pure name-authority. A very similar position can be found in John Oldmixon’s 1728 Essay on Criticism: “The Rules laid down by those great Criticks are not to be valu’d because they are given by Aristoteles, Horace, &c. but because they are in Nature and in Truth.” (3)3 There is a vast difference between saying that something Aristotle said is right, and saying that something is right because Aristotle said it. The first assertion needs further argumentative proof, either through

2 Cf. also: “Although Rymer demonstrates an extensive knowledge of the entire history of criticism, he seems satisfied to restrict his highest praise almost exclusively to Aristotle.” Shanahan 1966: 25. 3 Cf. also: “The Stagyrite, who rules from Nature drew,/ Opinions gave, but gave his reasons too.” Churchill 1761: 5.


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reason, or taste, or other strategies, and it presupposes an understanding of the source. The second assertion is an end in itself; this is meant with the accusation of neoclassical Autoritätshörigkeit. But this attitude is only extremely scarcely to be found in critical texts, whereas the attitude of Richard Blackmore in his essay on epic poetry is much more common: I would not be so understood, as if I condemn’d in general Aristotle’s Rules of Poetry, and was about to set up another System of Opinions and Precepts in their room; my Purpose is, to give them a fair Hearing, and if upon an impartial Tryal they appear to be built upon good Foundations, to confirm the Authority of the Greek Critick by the Force of Reason. But, on the other hand, I shall freely reject any Maxims, whether his, or those of his Commentators, which cannot be supported by any Arguments of Weight and solidity; and I shall use the same Liberty in adding any new Opinions on this Subject, which in my Judgment will improve the Art of Poetry. I have not, from a superstitious Veneration of Antiquity, that excessive regard for the Precepts of Aristotle and the Practice of Homer, as to receive them without Examination (1716: 14–15).

But though most critics, like Blackmore, rejected the accusation of adhering to name-authority, they as clearly passed it on to their contemporaries. One of the reasons for the persistence of the stereotype of neoclassical dogmatism might be that it is as old as neoclassicism itself. After noting that Aristotle’s philosophy has already come under close critical scrutiny, Blackmore deplores the fact that this has not yet happened to his poetics: The modern Criticks, contemning the Examples of the Philosophers, have still proceeded in the old beaten Track, of believing and admiring whatever Aristotle advances on the Subjects, where the Muses are concern’d. They are all like their submissive Predecessors, mere Expositors, scarce excepting Bossu himself, of the Writings of that great Man, and have made no Improvements, nor asserted the Liberty of Poetry, as the other freer Spirits have vindicated that of Philosophy. (11)

But just as the authority of Aristotle was never as unflinching as the neoclassical stereotype would have it, it did not lose all of its currency throughout the century. Thus, for example, Joseph Warton complains in 1764 about “the fashionable and nauseous petulance of several impertinent moderns, who have attempted to discredit this great and useful writer.” (132) Similar positive epithets abound in contemporary texts about the “great Philosopher, and Prince of Critics” (Trapp 1742: 14), the “acute Philosopher as well as judicious Critic” (Duff 1767: 203), “this great critic, whose knowledge of human nature was consummate” (Warton 1753e: no page), or “the first and the best of critics” (Warton 1764: 132). Even his fiercest 18th-century opponent, the playwright George Farquhar, singled him out for attack because he is “the first and great Law-giver […] upon whom all that follow’d him are only Commentators.” (1702: 126)

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Just as Homer was granted a special position in literature through his being (to contemporary knowledge) the first poet, Aristotle was seen as the first critic, gaining him the appellation of ‘father of criticism.’ Charles Gildon talks about “that sovereign reputation which his criticisms have justly acquir’d among the knowing and judicious of all nations and ages.” (1721: 147) Thomas Rymer explains the faults of English writers by “their ignorance or negligence of these fundamental Rules and Laws of Aristotle” (1674: no page). James Harris, sorting Aristotle’s criticism among the highest class, that of philosophical criticism, in his Upon the Rise and Progress of Criticism (1752), defends that appellation: Aristotle […] has in his two Treatises on Poetry and Rhetoric, with such wonderful conciseness, penetration, and order, exhausted the subject, of which we are speaking, that he may be justly called The Father of Criticism, as well from the age when he lived, as from his truly great and transcendent genius. The Criticism, which this divine man taught, has so intimate a correspondence and alliance with Philosophy, that it may be truly called, Philosophical Criticism. (1752b: 6)4

Edward Gibbon, some twelve years later, echoes the title, but at the same time qualifies Aristotle’s eminence by differentiating, as Blackmore had done, between the critic and the philosopher, claiming that the latter has been “demolished” by time. Aristotle, who introduced light amidst the obscurity that clouded the works both of nature and art, was the father of criticism. Time, whose justice, slow yet sure, distinguished at length truth from errour, hath demolished the statues of the philosopher, but hath confirmed the decisions of the critic. Destitute of observations, he hath advanced chimeras instead of facts. (1764: 45)

The discussion of Aristotle thus parallels the general querelle in that it differentiates between the arts and the sciences.5 But even his eminence in questions of criticism did not stand undisputed. Already Dryden had advised the poets to counterbalance their knowledge of Aristotle and Horace with a close study of human nature, and the “Heads of an Answer to Rymer” are even seen by Watson as “the one critical document in English between the Restoration and Johnson’s Shakespeare in which the Poetics of Aristotle are attacked frontally and without

4 This is echoed in Arthur Murphy’s review of Pye’ translation of the Poetics, cf. Murphy 1789: 150. 5 A number of authors point to the fact that, nowadays, “Aristotle’s critical works are more generally valued than his logic” (Gerard 1759: 194) and Warton admits that “of all his compositions, his Rhetoric and Poetics are most complete.” (1764: 133) Cf. also Knox 1778 (2): 10. For an opposing view cf. Watkinson 1763: 166.


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qualification.” (1963: 20) Still, one has to note that in the preface to All for Love (1678), Dryden had granted Aristotle to be the main exception to his claim that a true critic also needed to be a good poet. With this position, he was directly opposed to one of the earlier and surely one of the most thorough attackers of Aristotle’s authority in criticism, the playwright George Farquhar (cf. Durham 1961: xxix–xxxi), who included in his Love and Business (1702) “A Discourse Upon Comedy, In Reference to the English Stage”, a combative text in which he defended playwrights against too strict applications of the rules, claiming the authority of creators as superior to that of commentators. In accordance with this argument, his “main Objection […] against Aristotle’s Criticisms, is drawn from his Non-performance in Poetry.” (131)6 For Farquhar, therefore, Shakespeare’s critical authority ranks higher than Aristotle’s, even though the poet never wrote a line of criticism: “[B]ut it must be so, because Aristotle said it; now I say it must be otherwise because Shakespear said it, and I’m sure that Shakespear was the greater Poet of the two. But you’ll say that Aristotle was the greater Critick–––That’s a mistake, Sir” (156). The second main argument that Farquhar brings forth against Aristotle’s authority is historical relativity, the fact that the world changes, and along with it the rules that govern its representation. What is interesting is not only the way he turns around the argument of the test of time by implicating an awareness of historical change, but the clearness with which he attacks name-authority, as the kind of critical authority that unquestionably sticks to the name of a critic like fashion appeal does to the brand name of some clothing companies: Then above all Men living, why shou’d the Poets be hoodwink’d at this rate; and by what Authority shou’d Aristotle’s Rules of Poetry stand so fixt and immutable? Why, by the Authority of two Thousand Years standing, because thro’ this long Revolution of time the World has still continu’d the same–––By the Authority of their being receiv’d at Athens, a City, the very same with London in every particular; their Habits the same, their Humours alike, their publick Transactions and private Societies Alamode France; in short, so very much the same in every Circumstance, that Aristotle’s Criticisms may give Rules to Drury Lane; the Areopagus give Judgment upon a Case in the Kings Bench, and old Solon shall give Laws to the House of Commons. (123–124)

Elioseff, after calling Farquhar’s anti-Aristotelianism “extreme”, indicates that it is at the core “representative of the growing antispeculative strain which is

6 A similar objection, but formulated in much more cautious terms, comes from Oldmixon: “If a Man must not only have Politeness, but a Genius, what will become of Aristottle and Longinus, Bossu and Dacier?” Oldmixon 1728: 12.

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characteristic of many of the rationalistic critics. It grew from the belief that the critic should serve some social and artistic purpose, and, among more speculative critics, from the critic’s awareness of the limits of reason in criticism.” (1963: 37) This antagonism towards reason would come to the forefront of the discussion especially with the rise of taste as a major category in the construction of critical authority. With the appreciation of affective aesthetics, the concept of feeling rose as a major qualification to the supremacy of reason. Alexander Gerard, for example, argued from feelings, or the lack of them that he perceived in Aristotle: Aristotle on the contrary appears to examine his subject, perfectly cool and unaffected; he discovers no warmth of imagination, no such admiration or extacy, as can, without reflection, transport his readers into his opinion. He derives his decisions, not from the liveliness of feeling, but from the depth of penetration (1759: 97–98).

For his attacks on Aristotle, Farquhar is being satirized in A Comparison between the two Stages, sometimes attributed to Charles Gildon. The writer of the Comparison calls Farquhar “an indefatigable Drudge at the Stage” and comments on the inadequacy of his taking on Aristotle: “A very curious Confection! That a Schoolboy of his Years and Capacity shou’d enter into the Lists with Aristotle?” But, ridiculous as this seems to the author, he has to admit that Aristotle’s authority is diminished enough for moderns to venture an attack: “Poor Aristotle! Thou art become an old Fellow; thy Gray Hairs discover thy age and impotence; here’s a young raw bon’s Stripling with Gooses Quill has disarm’d thee, and thrown thee on thy Back.” (Gildon 1702: 173, 174, 176) If the text really is by Gildon, it would be a testimony to his turn-coat mentality that even earlier than Farquhar (before his “conversion”), he himself had argued against Aristotle by opposing his nameauthority to reason: “I must think it but just to withdraw my self from the subjection of the Stagyrite, who has had a Reign long enough o’er the Minds of Mankind ” (1694: 146). Another argument against Aristotle’s authority was precedence. When seniority is a measurement for critical authority, questions of origin and chronology become vitally important. Aristotle first gave rules to literature, thus becoming the father of all criticism, but where did he get his rules from? If he did not simply invent them, he must have based them on the example of literary texts that preceded his analysis. This answer shifted the chronology, and therefore the hierarchy, of rule and example without having to directly challenge Aristotle. The standard example of 18th-century critics for the precedence of poetic text was Homer, who served the argument well because his critical appreciation was so secure. As Gildon wrote in 1721: “Homer’s glory is not only immoveably fixt and establish’d by the universal applause of all the Greek nations, but confirm’d by the learned of all other countries for above two thousand years.” (8, cf. also Hume


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1757: 213 and Blair 1783: 37) Homer’s position as the original writer made him, in the eyes of many 18th-century critics almost infallible, an absolute standard against which one could measure all other works: In these, as in every other species of poetry and composition, the divine Homer has excelled all other writers, he reigns unrivalled in them all, and will for ever be without a competitor; insomuch, that one certain way of judging the merit or demerit of all other authors, is, to enquire how near they have approached, or how far they have fallen short of this standard of perfection in writing. (Anonym 1754b: 12)7

The precedence of Homer’s example over Aristotle’s rules is echoed throughout the century. In 1709 Samuel Cobb declared about Homer that “as he wrote without a Rule, was himself a Rule to succeeding Ages.” (no page) Gildon uses a very similar line of argument in his attack on Blackmore’s discussion of the epic, stating that “the foundation and excellence of every province of poetry is deriv’d from Homer” (1721: 257–258).8 It should not be surprising, therefore, that writers also pondered the relation between the original poet and the original critic. In Henry Brooke’s 1765 novel The Fool of Quality, one of the characters merely repeats the accepted chronology, showing how much it had, by that time, turned into common knowledge: “Aristotle and the Critics derived their Rules, for Epic Poetry and the Sublime, from a Poem which Homer had written long before any Rules were formed, or Laws established for the Purpose.” (204) William Duff, in his Essay on Original Genius, while acknowledging the chronology, yet emphasizes the “methodizing” quality of Aristotle’s deductions: “The truth is, Criticism was never formed into a system, till Aristotle, that penetrating, and […] ‘methodical Genius’ arose, who deduced his Poetics, not from his own imagination, but from his accurate observations on the Works of Homer, Sophocles, Æschylus, and Euripides.” (1767: 283) Compared to this, there is a slight shift of emphasis in Percival Stockdale’s account, a stress on the merely secondary nature of Aristotle’s achievement: Nay we know that the epic rules in this poetical Code, without which, it seems, we cannot be qualified either to write, or to read Poetry, were fabricated from the plan, from the beautiful,

7 Of course, this assent was not unanimous. Thus, Henry Fielding writes in his review of Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote about the advantage of originality: “An Advantage which Homer will always claim, and which is perhaps the only one that he can claim, over Virgil and Milton.” Fielding 1752a: no page. 8 Blackmore had challenged Homer’s infallibility by writing: “If Homer, after he had finish’d his Iliad, could have acquir’d the Erudition and Skill of Virgil, his Genius would have been still the same, tho more refin’d, better govern’d, and more adorn’d by adventitious Embellishments”, Blackmore 1716: 39–40.

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and from the sublime of Homer. Thus an ardent, a comprehensive, a self-taught genius, dictated, and circumscribed the laws of the Stagyrite: the poet was not modelled by the critick, but the critick by the poet. (1778: 165, for a similar argument cf. Hayley 1782: 132)

The anonymous reviewer for The Universal Museum in 1763 goes still further with this line of argument. Not only does he claim precedence for the example before the rule, he also questions the immutable nature of the original example. As long as Homer is regarded as infallible – the perfect poet – the rules derived from him must of necessity be immutable and indispensable, too. If Nature and Homer are the same, as Pope claims, then Nature methodized from Homer into the Poetics must be unchangeable and universally applicable. But the reviewer not only conjectures that a different example would have led to different rules, but that later examples can and should lead to a reconsideration of what Aristotle has set down as binding. The context for this argument is the recent “discovery” of an alternative myth of literary origin, this time national, in the poetry of Ossian: The Stagyrite himself drew all his rules from the poems of Homer; therefore the Iliad may as well be reckoned the model, as to have any recourse to Aristotle. Had a poet of equal genius with Homer, arose before the time of that critic, his rules would have been very different, if he had differed in the conduct of his poem from Homer. This point shows, therefore, how extremely absurd it is to reject a poem from the class of the epic, because it is not composed by the rules of Aristotle. Ossian has entirely the same right to be ranked among the epic poets, as Homer or Virgil; and had his composition been more different than it is from these poets, his title still would have been indisputable. (Anonym 1763a: 98)

The tendency to depreciate Aristotle’s achievement through the precedence of Homer as original example finds its most extreme form in the opinion of John Pinkerton. This “learned and energetic” (Craigie 1927: 433) Scotsman, who published widely from poetry (at the age of eighteen) to history and geography, and who “is now chiefly known in connection with Ballad Literature, especially for his forgery of the second part of Hardy Kanute” (Bosker 1954: 295), was a very independent thinker with strong opinions of his own.9 In 1785, Pinkerton published Letters of Literature under the pseudonym Robert Heron, a work that earned him a reputation for eccentricity and arrogance among his contempor-

9 Boswell describes him in the Life as “authour of various literary performances” Boswell 1791 (2): 522. David Rivers describes him thus in 1798: “Upon the whole, our opinion of Mr. Pinkerton as a writer is, that, notwithstanding an occasional unpleasant appearance of vanity, pedantry, causticity, and want of taste, he is possessed of real and extensive knowledge, much good sense, and sufficient originality. We think he is somewhat amenable on the score of Book-making”, Rivers 1798 (2): 134–135.


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aries10 and some censure from modern scholars (cf. Craigie 1927: 433 and Bosker 1954: 295), with its scurrilous attacks on such household favourites of the 18th century as Virgil,11 Thomson’s The Seasons (Pinkerton 1785: 64), or, though in somewhat more subdued terms, Pope. Part of the extremity of his statements can surely be ascribed to a personal inclination, or bad temper, and Pinkerton himself later came to regret some of his views in a letter to David Laing, and to explain them “from a constitutional irritability of nerve”.12 But they were also illustrative of a changed critical climate, or, as Bosker writes, “an interesting illustration of the general tendency of the time to get rid of the dead weight of neo-classicism” (1954: 295). Pinkerton does grant Aristotle primacy in the history of criticism, but his tone is unmistakeably slighting: “Criticism, if I mistake not, originated with Aristotle” (1785: 508). But already in an earlier essay, Pinkerton had made clear that Aristotle might have been the first critic chronologically, but was far from being the first in merit as well. Drawing on the work of the Italian critic Giovanni Vincenzo Gravina, he declared the Poetics to be “a crude and indigested performance, written by the author in his silly vanity of dictating in every science then known to man.” (230) And in his main attack he divides his indignation equally between the ancient critic himself and all those who gave him any authority in criticism: [T]o an impartial reader, who is able to judge for himself, it must be matter of infinite surprize how the authority of Aristotle should ever be any thing in poetry. All he hath done is to give a parcel of metaphysical names, his common trick, to different points of poetry; which points he draws without any invention or addition from Homer and Sophocles. (509)

Like other detractors of Aristotle before him, Pinkerton emphasizes the precedence of the example before the rule, but does not even grant the critic the achievement to have abstracted or, as Pope calls it, “methodized” these examples into general maxims, but pictures him as Adam-as-pedant, who stands amazed before creation and can only add some proper names to it, some of them “almost as unentelligible as that entelecheia which hath cracked the brains of all his

10 Cf. the review in the Gentleman’s Magazine, Anonym 1785a: 546 and Anonym 1786. This publication, though, is mainly concerned with Pinkerton’s alleged atheism and libertinism. David Rivers sums up the contemporary reactions by writing that the Letters “experienced the merited severities of the critics of that day.” Rivers 1798 (1): 251–252. 11 Virgil “has not the most distant pretence to any other attribute of a poet” except style, Pinkerton 1785: 59. The reviewer for the Gentleman’s Magazine calls Pinkerton’s opinions on Virgil “blasphemies”, Anonym 1785a: 544. 12 “[W]ere I revising my books, I should dash out all such passages, which I never see without disgust. I can only say they are the products of infirmity, and not of malice”, qtd. in Couper 2004.

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commentators” (510). After dismissing Longinus’ treatise of the sublime as well, he sums up his attitude towards the authority of seniority by concluding that “little can be said of the perfection of ancient criticism.” (231)13 Thus, critics throughout the whole century discussed Aristotle, while only a minority met Fielding’s requirements. It took until the end of the century for the discussion of Aristotle to be grounded in reliable editions, translations, and sound scholarship. As late as 1792, poet laureate Henry James Pye could lament, in his extensive commentary on the Poetics, “the rules of the Stagirite, which have been so often quoted and so much misrepresented” (Aristotle 1792: vii). Some pages later, he explains that opinion: “Strange prejudices have been entertained with regard to this celebrated treatise of Aristotle, especially in this country, where for want of any tolerable translation of it into English, it has either been confined to the cabinet of the learned, or seen through the medium of French criticism.” (x) Indeed, a lot of the knowledge about classical criticism had been mediated through French criticism, especially through René Rapin’s commentary on Aristotle that had been translated into English by Thomas Rymer in 1674 (cf. Grace 1975: 27 and Malek 1971: 261). Thus, in many instances the perception of the ancient critic was much more strongly coloured by the preferences of French criticism than by an impartial and informed interpretation of the original text. This was especially true for the discussion of the unities. When Pye published his translation with the express wish to free Aristotle from French influence, he deplored that a person unacquainted with the [Poetics] itself would be led to imagine, that the three celebrated dramatic unities, as explained by Dacier and his countrymen, and the bloodless action, and unempassioned declamation of the French theatre, were explicitly enjoined and enforced by the rules of the Stagirite. But of all these there is not the least trace (Aristotle 1792: xi).

Against the prevalence of the “French” Aristotle, at the end of the century Pye and Thomas Twining competed for the right mediation of Aristotle to the English reading public, both through translation and through commentary. Judging from

13 Besides Aristotle and Longinus, but in keeping with his anti-authoritarian stance, one of Pinkerton’s many other targets was the criticism of Joseph Addison. On the same page where he calls Addison “one of my most favorite writers”, he also enumerates “the critical errors of Addison. Volumes might have been written to refuse several of them”, Pinkerton 1785: 427. He quotes Addison’s sentence that “every thing that is majestic imprints an awfulness and reverence on the mind of the beholder, and strikes in with the natural greatness of the soul”, his comment on which is a good illumination of his style: “Bravissimo! Cheese is cheese. This is a lively instance of what they call criticism.” Pinkerton 1785: 426.


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the – for the period – surprisingly moderate tone of their mutual statements on each other, this competition developed by chance, not in the spirit of contradiction, indicating that at the end of the century the time was ripe for a new perspective on the Greek critic, one that was much less influenced by the debate about his authority and the critical power-play that was fought in his name, and that was much more scholarly.14 Pye was a minor poet that nevertheless succeeded Thomas Warton as poet laureate in 1790 as a reward for his support of Pitt’s government. There is some disagreement as to the scholarly value of Pye’s commentary, though all agree that it is his most important contribution to criticism, and that it can be favourably compared with his original poetry (cf. Rivers 1798 (2): 179). But where Bosker calls him a “poet, playwright, and critic whose name is now deservedly forgotten” (1954: 152) James Sambrook concedes that “his illustration of Aristotle by examples from modern literature is often original, shrewd, and learned.” (2004: no page) In any case, his careful and close reading of the actual text of Aristotle necessarily brings with it a scholarly refutation of name-authority and a relativizing of the rules. By inviting their readers to go back to the source instead of the mediated versions, both he and Thomas Twining enabled them to make their own critical re-evaluation, proving them the heirs to Steele’s protest against dogmatic ‘enthusiasts’ in criticism. In a protestant spirit, they made the bible of criticism accessible to the laity through their vulgate versions. Pye also strengthened the historical perspective in the discussion of Aristotelian rules that had been so forcefully argued by George Farquhar at the beginning of the century, distinguishing between those rules that are “consonant with truth and nature” (Aristotle 1792: vii) and those that are derived specifically from Greek customs, laws, or superstitions. Arthur Murphy, in his review of the translation for the Monthly Review, as well as William Taylor in his review of the later Commentary, applaud him for this differentiation (cf. Murphy 1789: 148 and Taylor 1795: 121), one of the main points in discussions of the rules. Pye also points to the changes in manners, customs and opinions that have occurred since Aristotle and that could not have been foreseen by him. He insists that Aristotle did not use pre-formed laws to judge works of art with, but derived everything from his observations of them.15

14 James Malek has noted it as a special irony that this scholarly advance was coming only at a time when the general interest in Aristotle was decreasing, cf. Malek 1971: 261. 15 “Aristotle has drawn his sources both of praise and censure from the best models; the latter not as breaches of any positive law, established by the capricious will of arbitrary criticism, but as occasional deviations from their own general practice, on which alone the true principles of just criticism must be founded, the rules of which, like the fundamental laws of this country, are not

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According to Pye, Aristotle, having only the historically limited models of Grecian art, only the chorus-drama to work with, could not attain so fair and full a view of theatrical poetry as if he had also been enabled to contemplate the more convenient, and more enlarged and comprehensive, form of tragedy exhibited in the modern drama. Consequently, new works of art that have been produced after Aristotle’s lifetime would have induced him to a modification of his rules. The Shakespearean scholar Maurice Morgann had turned this conviction some years earlier into a dramatic scene, distinguishing between a critic “like” Thomas Rymer, who blindly and dogmatically follows Aristotle’s rules, relying on nameauthority, and Aristotle himself, who has developed these rules from reason and Nature, and is capable and willing to adjust them: On such an occasion, a fellow, like Rymer, waking from his trance, shall lift up his Constable’s staff, and charge this great Magician, this daring practicer of arts inhibited, in the name of Aristotle, to surrender; whilst Aristotle himself, disowning his wretched Officer, would fall prostrate at his feet and acknowledge his supremacy.–––O supreme of Dramatic excellence! (might he say,) not to me be imputed the insolence of fools. (1777: 69–70)

Of the two late-18th-century commentators of Aristotle, Thomas Twining was generally more highly esteemed by his contemporaries16 as well as by recent scholarship. His interests lay both in music and classical literature,17 and he started his translation of Aristotle in 1782, publishing it one year after Pye’s version, in 1789. It generally received high praise, both in England and on the continent, where it was translated into German by J.G. Buhle.18 Like Pye, Twining wanted to end the mediation of Aristotle through indirect and tendentious translations. His providing of the original text had the same “protestant” intentions that Pye had, discovering what Bosker calls his “romantic leanings” (1954:

founded on the authority of imperial rescripts, but on reason and justice, enforced by universal consent, and sanctioned by the wisdom of ages.” (Aristotle 1792: xiv) 16 The Critical Review, comparing both translations in one article, congratulates both writers that they “have engaged in the task with all the advantages of great learning and a correct taste”, but then continues: “Mr. Pye preceded Mr. Twining in this attempt; but we mean not to slight him by considering the latter in the first rank.” Anonym 1789b: 359. 17 He revised and contributed to Charles Burney’s General History of Music (1776) and he had himself “good qualities as a performer on the violin, organ, harpsichord, and the new pianoforte” Lane-Poole 2004. 18 In David Rivers’ dictionary he is introduced thus: “A very distinguished Classical Scholar. He published, in 1789, in a quarto volume, a Translation of Aristotle’s Treatise on Poetry, with Notes and two Dissertations, a work which has gained him no small share of credit among the Learned. Considered in every point of view, it is one of the most masterly performances which our language has ever produced.” Rivers 1798 (2): 334.


The Authority of Seniority: Ancient and Modern Criticism

276).19 Twining sees himself as free from any residue of name-authority, as becomes clear in many of his notes, in his two accompanying dissertations, and when he boldly declares in his preface: “[T]he time is come, when we no longer read the antients with our judgments shackled by determined admiration; when even from the editor and the commentator, it is no longer required as an indispensable duty, that he should see nothing in his author but perfection” (1789: xii). But he is of course also far from condemning Aristotle. Instead, he claims that language can be a barrier to a proper understanding of what Aristotle really wants to say. In Twining’s opinion, the critic’s refusal to mix “the language of admiration” with that of philosophy makes him unpalatable to an age that so highly values taste as (unmistakably expressed) sensibility in the critic.20 Ultimately, though, even Twining with his attempt at an unbiased and impartial scientific examination of Aristotle’s theory is still bound within the confines of his time, as modern scholars like James Malek have pointed out. Though he grants Twining to have interpreted Aristotle more “accurately than most eighteenth century critics, it must be acknowledged that his dissertations manifest a certain misunderstanding of Aristotle’s intentions. He does not altogether succeed in freeing himself from mistaken attitudes resulting from earlier commentators on Aristotle.” (1971: 261) Twining still sees Aristotle as prescribing rules for poets, thereby failing to see “that in Aristotle’s conception of art, what is proper or improper is so only in each individual case, even though universal terminology may be applied. The Poetics does not properly admit of rules.” (262) Up until the very end of the century, therefore, an ambiguous relation to Aristotle and his authority can be observed, one that, whether it tried to reconcile Aristotle’s opinions to more modern critical notions or not, time and again refused to submit to name-authority, while claiming that all the other critics did. Whereas the resistance against Aristotle (or rather the misuse of his name) can be seen as the attempt to liberate criticism from a blind and slavish belief in name-authority, the rise in appreciation that the author of the treatise On the Sublime, conventionally called Longinus, enjoyed through the course of the century marked the same objective. As a harbinger of aesthetic appreciation, Longinus and his 18th-century followers were instrumental in the historical shift

19 Bosker also collects evidence from his correspondence of his admiration of Percy’s Reliques and the poems of Rowley. 20 “[H]is philosophy, austere and cold as it appears, has not encroached upon his taste. He has not indeed expressed that taste by mixing the language of admiration with that of philosophy in his investigation of principles, but he has discovered it in those principles themselves; which, in many respects at least, are truly poetical principles, and such as afford no countenance to that sort of criticism, which requires the Poet to be ‘of reason all compact.’”Twining 1789: xv.

The Authority of Seniority: Ancient and Modern Criticism


of critical authority that happened during the period, transferring the power to judge from extraneous considerations back to the individual spectator of the artwork. Where Aristotle, according to the standard interpretation of the times, gave out rules to the artist to obey, Longinus asked for the feelings of the recipient. And that recipient need not necessarily be a professional critic – on the contrary, if the sublime effect of a piece of art is not felt by the common reader, then it is the artwork that is deficient, not the reader. No specialized knowledge either of exemplary rules or of exemplary texts is needed to feel. Following Longinus meant thus, to a certain degree, deserting Aristotle. This is acknowledged by George Watson’s observation that the influence of Longinus on Augustan criticism was delayed by “an Aristotelian counter-attack in the autumn of 1677” from Thomas Rymer as well as Dryden’s surrender to it (1963: 2). Still, Longinus’ work steadily grew in reputation and “became perhaps the most popular critical work of the early eighteenth century” (Pittock 1973: 16). Indeed, it is not difficult to find praise bestowed on Longinus, especially from the middle of the century on. William Duff calls him an “admirable Critic” (1767: 150), Joseph Warton “excellent critic” (1753e: no page), and John Shebbeare “the most sublime Critic of Antiquity” (1757b: 8). For James Beattie, Longinus’ work is “one of the best specimens that remain of antient criticism, and well deserves the attention of every scholar.” (1783: 605) While he is generally respectful to ancient writers, only Longinus is singled out by Sterne for praise, when he calls him in his fortysecond sermon “the best critic the eastern world ever produced” (1769 (2): 247). And not only is Longinus highly regarded, he is also frequently constructed in 18th-century criticism with its love of antitheses, comparisons, and dichotomies as Aristotle’s ‘other.’ Blair writes that “Longinus possessed most Delicacy; Aristotle, most Correctness” (1783: 25), and in his 1778 defence of Pope against Joseph Warton, Percival Stockdale constructs an opposition with Aristotle (and Warton) on one side, and Longinus (and James Harris) on the other, with the first side standing for a cold and formal type of criticism, the second for a more feeling and poetic approach.21 A similar opposition is sketched by Richard Hurd in the dedication of his edition of Horace’s Epistola ad Augustum to William Warburton. Hurd here outlines a history of the beginning of literary criticism along two main requirements of true criticism: Criticism considered in its ancient and noblest office of doing justice to the merits of great writers, more especially in works of poetry and invention, demands, to its perfect execution,

21 “An Aristotle, and a Warton may retort a supercilious, magisterial smile; but a Longinus, and a Harris may honour me with a look of animated approbation, when I assert that the geometrician and the poet form two different species in the human genus.” (1778: 159)


The Authority of Seniority: Ancient and Modern Criticism

these two qualities: a philosophic spirit, capable of penetrating the fundamental reasons of excellence in every different species of composition; and a strong imagination, the parent of what we call true taste, enabling the critic to feel the full force of his author’s excellence himself, and to impress a lively sense of it upon others. Each of these abilities is necessary. (1811 (1): 281–282)

The first of these requirements, philosophic spirit, he identifies with Aristotle, who brings to criticism “severity of reason and accuracy of method” and develops it in the direction of an exact science. But this tendency, taken to its extremes, would become too cold, lacking in the appreciative quality of criticism: “[T]he critical plan, which the Stagirite had formed with such rigour of science, however it might satisfy the curious speculatist, wanted to be relieved and set off to the common eye by the heightenings of eloquence.” (284) This relief comes with the work of Longinus, who “had softened indeed the severity of Aristotle’s plan”. But Longinus himself, and especially his followers, again tended to favour one of Hurd’s requirements too extremely over the other, so that “he now wanted, in a good degree, that precision, and depth of thought, which had so eminently distinguished his predecessor.” (285–286)22 Hurd was not the only one to detect shortcomings in the celebrated critic. As those who looked closely enough into the text of Aristotle invariably found out that most claims made in his name could not be supported by his writings, those who analysed Longinus’ treatise on the sublime often had to admit inaccuracies and inconsistencies. Lord Kames, though generally praising Longinus’ description of the sublime, goes on to complain that “he adheres not to this description” (1762: 212), citing numerous instances where the examples do not match the definition. Others even find fault with his very definition, like James Beattie, Hugh Blair, or Edmund Burke.23 Burke has to admit at the outset of his Enquiry that was to become the standard treatise on the sublime: “Even Longinus, in his incomparable discourse upon a part of this subject, has comprehended things extremely repugnant to each other, under one common name of the Sublime.” (1757: vi)

22 In Hurd’s further account, it is of course none other than Warburton himself who finally brings criticism to its perfection by combining the positive attributes of Aristotle and Longinus: “By joining to these powers a perfect insight into human nature, and so ennobling the exercise of literary, by the addition of the justest moral, censure, you have now, at length, advanced Criticism to its full glory.” Hurd 1811 (1): 287. 23 Beattie writes in his Dissertations Moral and Critical that “he has used the word Hupsos in a more general sense, than is commonly annexed to the term Sublimity; not always distinguishing what is sublime from what is elegant or beautiful. The distinction, however, ought to be made.” Beattie 1783: 605. Blair is “sorry to be obliged to observe, that the Sublime is too often used in this last and improper sense, by the celebrated critic Longinus, in his treatise on this subject”, and that “clear and precise ideas on this head are not to be expected from that writer.” Blair 1783: 58–59.

The Authority of Seniority: Ancient and Modern Criticism


Some decades later, John Pinkerton therefore questions the common identification of the concept of sublimity with the ancient critic. He complains that in Longinus’ work “the Sublime is confounded with the Beautiful and the Tender, qualities of writing directly opposite” (1785: 231). Later on, he repeats that Longinus’ “work is in fact more applicable to the beautiful, than to the sublime; a sure proof that he knew not what he was writing about.” (511) Still – and Burke’s work is the best example for this –, despite the fact that Longinus’ text could not substantiate the claims made in his name, the ideas he was taken to stand for continued to prosper. Just like Aristotle, the importance of Longinus for the 18th century lies far less in what he actually wrote – let alone what he meant by it – than in what he stood for in the view of 18th-century critics. Where Aristotle is praised – or disparaged – for the precision of his thinking, Longinus is praised for his fine taste and the elegance or “energy” (Beattie 1783: 605) of his style, which means his capacity of appreciation and the affective quality of his writing. Gerard writes that “[i]n him the internal senses were exquisitely delicate” (1759: 97), and John Ogilvie repeats the dichotomy of reason and feeling, noting that the critic’s “vivid imagination and exquisite taste were not always regulated by the dictates of an unbiassed understanding” (1774 (1): 358). John Dennis, who was one of the earliest careful readers of the treatise on the sublime, is a good example of how the reading of Longinus inevitably carried within itself the transition from rationalistic analysis to an appeal to affective aesthetics. Like Beattie and Blair after him, Dennis had to grant that Longinus did not provide a proper and satisfactory definition of the sublime: “Longinus, I must confess, has not told us what the sublime is” (1701: 46). Still, this is not a refutation of his value to students of the sublime, a paradox that Dennis explains by differentiating between knowing and explaining what it is: “[T]ho’ Longinus did by long Study, and habitude know the Sublime when he saw it, as well as any Man, yet he had not so clear a knowledge of the Nature of it as to explain it clearly to others.” (1704: 77–79) So that, even if Longinus could not provide a definition that could explain how the sublime worked, he could prove that it worked, by showing its effects. In his own essay, Dennis repeats this appeal to the affective part of aesthetics: But tho Longinus does not directly tell us, what the Sublime is, yet in the first six or seven Chapters of his Book, he takes a great deal of pains to set before us, the effects which it produces in the minds of Men; […] Now I have endeavour’d to shew what it is in Poetry that works these effects. So that take the Cause and the Effects together, and you have the Sublime. (1701: 46–47)

The main difference is that a definition of the sublime that can be rationally proven and understood would provide the critic with an inter-subjective argu-


The Authority of Seniority: Ancient and Modern Criticism

ment to base his critical authority on, whereas the referral to the effects of the sublime must ultimately rest its persuasiveness on the individually subjective feelings of the reader. The consequences of this will be discussed in more detail later. But the insistence on Longinus’ instinctive knowledge of the sublime and his ability to performatively enable his readers to feel its effect already leads first into the discussion of the relation of critical and poetical practice.

4 The Authority of Poetic Genius Sir Fop. […] You understand an Equipage the best of Any Man in Town I hear. Med. By my own you would not guess it. Sir Fop. There are Criticks who do not write Sir. Med. Our peevish Poets will scarce allow it. (Etherege 1676: 42) [H]e who excels has a right to teach, and he whose judgement is incontestable may, without usurpation, examine and decide. (Johnson 1779–1781 (3): 139) Some have at first for Wits, then Poets past, Turn’d Criticks next, and prov’d plain Fools at last. (Pope 1711: 5)

The relationship between artistic creation and critical evaluation – especially concerning its power structure – has been endlessly disputed during the history of criticism, very often to the detriment of the latter. “[T]here is indeed a very wide interval between the power of creating, and that of merely discerning beauties; and the former is, no doubt, a much more striking and decisive evidence of Genius than the latter” (Belsham 1799 (2): 391), writes William Belsham at the end of the 18th century. By then, the first age of the great poet-critics had long gone by,1 and a new one was just about to dawn. Thus, the major examples for Belsham’s claim are drawn from the past, but the inherent significance of the argument for the justification of critical authority was still relevant, and continues to be so until today. Shouldn’t critical authority be only legitimately derived from successful poetic performance? In how far does a critic need to be a poet in order to be able to criticize poets? This is the argument that, instead of functionally differentiating critic and poet, idealizes the unifying figure of the poet-critic. Looking back at the history of criticism, the call for the necessity of an identity between poet and critic – voiced most forcibly (and embodied most convincingly) at the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th century – is one of the clearest and strongest signs of resistance against functional differentiation within the literary world, and consequently the professionalization of the critic. The ideal of the poet-critic is one of comprehensiveness; it speaks of the unification of different capabilities and tasks in one person, rather than of distributing those tasks among a group of specialists. In this sense, maintaining that only poetic genius enabled true criticism is also at least implicitly directed

1 The most famous published sign that Pope’s poetic authority was waning was certainly Joseph Wartons 1756 Essay on the Genius and Writings of Pope, according to Bosker “the first open declaration of war against the rational creed of the Augustan Age.” Bosker 1954: 207–208.


The Authority of Poetic Genius

against the rising influence of knowledge (or “learning”) as a prerequisite of the critic.2 Poets like John Dryden and Alexander Pope continuously fought for authority over their own texts, resisting the attempts by other readers unconnected to the creative process – like professional critics – to evaluate and interpret their texts. They did that by claiming the function of the critic for themselves together with that of the poet, incorporating critical discourse into their own writings, using a critical authority that is justified directly through their poetical performance. The idea of the poet-critic has its roots in the emancipation of the author, who, at the same time that he gradually gains recognition as artistic creator (and, somewhat later, as a creator and possessor of ‘intellectual property’), also claims control over the meaning of his text. Authors like Ben Jonson and John Dryden began to routinely incorporate critical statements on their own text within or around it in order to gain more control over how they were read by the (amateur) audience. It is obvious that the development of criticism, at the turn of the 18th century, into an independent genre and of the critic towards a professional reader could not but be perceived as a major threat to this control. Cohen writes that Dryden’s age “did not subscribe to a literary hierarchy in which poets were the leaders. Rather the critics were engaged in competition with them, and for this reason Dryden argued for the authority of poets as critics.” (1983: 82) He did that very successfully, since, according to Cannan, “[t]he argument that a poet was the best critic, and even that only a poet could be a critic, became a commonplace among writers in the seventeenth century.” (2006: 36) But the poet-critic’s predominance did not last very long. After Dryden, it was mainly up to Alexander Pope, in his exemplary quarrel with John Dennis, to fight for authorial control against the rising profession of criticism, and though he clearly won this battle, it was ultimately a war that the poets could not win. Around mid-century, several years after the death of the last great poet-critic, it is obvious by the way that Alexander Gerard introduces the topic, that it has changed from a burning question into a seemingly common sense notion3 that now needs to be reinvestigated: “[I]t has almost past into a maxim, that the ablest performers are also the best judges in every art. How far the maxim is just will best appear, by briefly determining the nature and principles of genius.” (1759: 173)

2 Cf. also the contemporary discussion about the extent to which a literary author needed to be learned, e.g. in the comparison between Homer and Virgil (cf. Jackson 1783a: 169), or the question of Shakespeare’s learning (cf. Farmer 1767), or Young’s question: “Who knows whether Shakespeare might not have thought less, if he had read more?” Young 1759: 81. 3 Cf. e.g.: “Every Writer […] if he excels, […] necessarily will be, a good Critic”, Kenrick 1759a: 386.

The Poet as Critic


4.1 The Poet as Critic Those who claimed, like Pope, that the critic should possess poetical abilities could, as has been seen, mention Longinus as an exemplary case. Ever since Pope’s lines on Longinus in the Essay on Criticism, it was a commonplace to note that the critic wrote both about the sublime and in a sublime way: The Muses sure Longinus did inspire, And blest their Critick with a Poet’s Fire. An ardent Judge, that Zealous in his Trust, With Warmth gives Sentence, yet is always Just; Whose own Example strengthens all his Laws, And Is Himself that great Sublime he draws. (1711: 39)4

In 1730, Bezaleel Morrice, in a satire on the current state of criticism, echoes Pope’s words when he rhetorically asks: “How few possess, of those we most admire,/ The Critic’s Judgment, with the Poet’s Fire?” (3) To demand ‘poetic fire’ from the critic indeed strongly limited the number of those who could be considered as true critics. It is hardly surprising, then, that the turn of the century and the early decades of the 18th century, dominated by the figure of the poet-critic, brought a high concentration on only a few main poet-critics: John Dryden ranks first among this species, and also the poet whom Morrice had not only imitated, but had also spent considerable energy attacking and belittling, Alexander Pope.5 These authors were poets first, they were all highly acclaimed poets, and they all derived a considerable part of their critical authority from their successful performance in poetry. But they were also unique in claiming critical authority to the extent that they did. Their critical pronunciations, though mainly scattered among prefaces and prologues as in the case of Dryden, or implicit in the structure and satire of his works as in the case of Pope, added up to a general claim that exceeded the topical occasions for it.

4 Cf. e.g. “Longinus […] seems principally to have had in view the Passions, and the Imagination, in which he has acquitted himself with a just applause, and written with a dignity suitable to the subject.” Harris 1752b: 7. “I know no critic, antient or modern, that discovers a more lively relish of the beauties of fine writing, than Longinus; and he has also the merit of being himself an excellent, and, in several passages, a truly Sublime, writer.” Blair 1783: 59. 5 Engell enlarges this list with many more names to include Johnson, Joseph Warton, Henry Fielding, Edward Young, James Beattie, Oliver Goldsmith as well as Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley and Keats (cf. Engell 1989: 6), but most of these, though they are all poets and critics, differ in the relation between these two functions.


The Authority of Poetic Genius

Both to legitimize their own presumption to talk about texts, and to restrict the possibilities of competing critical voices, these poet-critics would necessarily put a lot of stress on the importance of poetical achievements for any kind of authority in criticism, or, as Pope had said in the Essay on Criticism: “Let such teach others who themselves excel,/ And censure freely who have written well.” (1711: 4) Dryden was an even more outspoken defender of poetic skill as a necessary requirement for criticism. In the preface to Secret Love he goes so far as to claim infallibility for the author in judging his own works: ‘Tis a question variously disputed, whether an Author may be allowed as a competent judg of his own works. As to the Fabrick and contrivance of them certainly he may, for that is properly the employment of the judgment; which, as a Master-builder he may determine, and that without deception, whether the work be according to the exactness of the model; still granting him to have a perfect Idea of that pattern by which he works: and that he keeps himself always constant to the discourse of his judgment, without admitting self-love, which is the false surveigher of his Fancy, to intermeddle in it. These Qualifications granted (being such as all sound Poets are presupposed to have within them) I think all Writers, of what kind soever, may infallibly judg of the frame and contexture of their Works. (1668b: no page)

The only provision that Dryden makes is that the poet has to be impartial and objective on his own works, surely a weighty argument, used later by Gildon against Richard Blackmore, whom Gildon accuses of “too overweening a partiality to himself and some of his own performances”, thereby marring his critical abilities (1721: 13). The problem is dismissed by Dryden deceptively easily, by reducing the problem to “self-love,” a quality one might easily disclaim. Pope, though he propagated the identity of critic and poet as well, was still somewhat more suspicious of the poet’s ability to objectively judge his own work. He concludes his derisory essay on dedications for the Guardian with a mock-dedication of “The AUTHOR to HIMSELF ”, where the irony is clearly detectable as the author concedes to himself that “ther’s none can so soon discover the Beauties [of this work]; and there are some Parts, which ‘tis possible few besides your self are capable of understanding.” (1713a: 53) Dryden returned to the question of authorial bias in the dedication to Aureng-Zebe, where he declares that “it may be, I am partial to my own Writings: yet I have labour’d as much as any man, to divest my self of the self-opinion of an Author; and am too well satisfi’d of my own weakness, to be pleas’d with any thing I have written” (1676: no page). This upholds the claim for the poet’s authority over his own text, while still complying with the modesty topos that prohibited poets from praising their own works. Somewhat earlier, in the 1664 dedication of The Rival Ladies, he had used the modesty topos to present himself in even stronger terms as his own strictest critic: “[W]hen I had Moulded [the play] to that Shape it now bears, I look’ d with such

The Poet as Critic


Disgust upon it, that the Censures of our severest Critiques are Charitable to what I thought (and still think) of it my Self” (no page).6 Dryden kept repeating his position that judging of poetical works was best left to poets, though in the preface to All for Love in 1692 he had to at least admit the possibility of a “universal genius” – the existence of which had been proven by the example of Aristotle – who could be exclusively a critic and still practice true criticism: Poets themselves are the most proper, though I conclude not the only critics. But till some genius as universal as Aristotle shall arise, one who can penetrate into all arts and sciences without the practice of them, I shall think it reasonable that the judgment of an artificer in his own art should be preferable to the opinion of another man; at least where he is not bribed by interest, or prejudiced by malice: and this, I suppose, is manifest by plain induction. (no page)

In an essay for the Guardian, Addison supported the position that only performance could generate true critical authority. This was true for the ancients: “The greatest Criticks among the Ancients are those who have the most excelled in all other kinds of Composition, and have shown the height of good Writing even in the Precepts which they have given for it.” Addison here echoes the Longinuscliché that he had earlier applied as a compliment to Pope, in Spectator no. 253. As a test of the legitimacy of a critic, Addison therefore proposes a critical reading of that critic’s own style of writing: “If I find by his own manner of Writing that he is heavy and tasteless, I throw aside his Criticisms with a secret Indignation, to see a Man without Genius or Politeness dictating to the World on Subjects which I find are above his reach.” (1713: no page) It is obvious that underlying Addison’s argument is the presupposition that “genius” in the sense of a creative faculty is superior to the activity of critical evaluation. Addison’s diction shows that for him the false critic presumptuously tries to reverse the hierarchy between him and the poet. From here it is only a small step towards assuming that it is the very recognition of his inferiority that drives the critic towards malignity. The interdependence between poetical performance and critical ability is thus also implied, albeit in a negative way, in the very common accusation of envy as a characteristic of the false critic. That Aristotle never wrote a play or an epic was reason enough for his detractors to deny his authority in these genres. But not few contemporary critics had indeed tried to perform in poetry, and in 6 It has to be noted, though, that the success of this argumentative strategy was only possible in the absence of a large-scale discourse of overproduction on the book-market that would start to develop more than fifty years later, creating along with it the idea that any publication whatsoever might be seen as first of all an act of transgression or even aggression.


The Authority of Poetic Genius

some cases, critical and poetical performances were played against each other by enemies – and sometimes even by professed friends. Such a connection is made, for example, by Christopher Smart in an essay for his journal The Midwife: “The Critics […] are for the most Part destitute of Genius, unable to write any Thing themselves, and are therefore wholly intent on decrying the Performances of others.” (1751: 167) John Savage in his 1725 satire The Authors of the Town describes “One Poet, damn’d, turns Critick, storms in Prose;/ His railing Pamphlet his wrong’d Merit shows.” (1725: 9) And Bezaleel Morrice writes that “Gildon, since Nature had his Pow’r withstood/ To write, resolv’d to censure those who cou’d!” (1730: 6) John Eusebius Smyth and Cuthbert Shaw put the envious nature of the critic into more elaborate pictures, both using birds for their imagery.7 With his critical nemesis Thomas Rymer in mind, Dryden notes that “the corruption of a poet is the generation of a critic” (1693: 4). Lamentations about the envious critic are numerous, from Oldmixon’s statement that “Criticism […] is generally mistaken to be an Effect of Envy, Jealousy, and Spleen” (1728: 3–4) through Broome’s assertion that “[i]t is usual with envious Critics to attack the Writings of others, because they are good” (1739: xviii) to the claim that “no undertaking, however laudable in the intent, and happy in the execution, can escape from being levelled at by the gall-freighted shafts of Envy” (Anonym 1769b: 3).8 The difference between this argument and the notion of the poet-critic lies in the underlying conception of criticism. Those who regard criticism highly, as a fundamentally respectable and useful activity, might expect poetical skills in the critic, while those who see criticism negatively as an activity of defamation and malice might easily see the reason for this malignity in the lack of poetical genius and the resulting envy. The universality of envy is argued by both Pope and John Oldmixon, the latter writing that “[h]e who writes well is jealous of him who judges well, and he who judges well envies him who writes well.” (1728: 76) In a characteristic turn, Pope

7 Cf. Smyth 1730: 2 and Shaw 1766: 25. Cf. also Addison: “I do not indeed wonder that the Actors should be such professed Enemies to those among our Nation who are commonly known by the Name of Criticks, since it is a Rule among these Gentlemen to fall upon a Play, not because it is ill written, but because it takes. Several of them lay it down as a Maxim, That whatever Dramatick Performance has a long Run, must of Necessity be good for nothing; as though the first Precept in Poetry were not to please. Whether this Rule holds good or not, I shall leave to the Determination of those who are better Judges than my self: If it does, I am sure it tends very much to the Honour of those Gentlemen who have established it; few of their Pieces having been disgraced by a Run of three Days, and most of them being so exquisitely written, that the Town would never give them more than one Night’s Hearing.” Addison 1714: no page. 8 On the envious critic, cf. also Shaw 1766: 21; Downman 1775: 1; Lloyd 1774 (2): 20; Parnell 1717; Johnson 1750: 20; and Anonym 1720b: 3–4.

The Poet as Critic


associates artistic with sexual creation, which turns the critic’s envy into that of the eunuch: In search of Wit these lose their common Sense, And then turn Criticks in their own Defence. Those hate as Rivals all that write; and others But envy Wits, as Eunuchs envy Lovers. (1711: 5)

The anonymous author of Reviewers Reviewed repeats this accusation in 1779, writing about the “croaking Natives of Baeotian Air;/ Such as, too impotent to win the Muse,/ Like Eunuchs toil in vain, or write Reviews.” (1779: 23) This insult, possibly the highest that the author could give to the critic, pointed at the heart of the power struggle between literature and criticism. The sexual metaphor implies that only the artist is creative, giving birth to something new (though Pope also had numerous images for the unnatural births of scribblers and dunces9), whereas the critic as eunuch is the impotent hanger-on to this procreation, who might only talk about what he can never perform. Authors like Dryden or Pope, who were still in the process of emancipating themselves as authors, were loath to give up authority over their text, and to accept the existence of rival critical voices that were raised in separate, detached, and independent texts devoted exclusively to criticism, and written by professional critics. Professionalization entails specialization, with the guiding principle of identity (someone is a poet, only a poet is a critic) being gradually replaced by professional activity (someone does criticism, philology, editing), a profession that could be learned. In the case of literature and criticism, this meant a differentiation of the functions of creation on the one hand, and evaluation and interpretation on the other, and consequently a distribution of these functions among different persons. In this sense the importance that poets of the late 17th and early 18th century put on the necessary connection between performance in poetry and performance in criticism, understood as an insistence on identity as opposed to profession, can be seen as an opposition against the functional differentiation of literature and criticism. And since an outward sign for the emergence of criticism as a profession is the formation of criticism as an independent genre of writing, the poet-critics’ (ambiguous) opposition against this development is mirrored in their own preferred form of publication for criticism. Rather than in independent books or

9 Marilyn Francus reads these images, together with Swift’s depiction of Criticism and Pope’s general conception of Dulness, as part of a demonization of the fertile female, “which looks to justify female containment as a social and moral imperative.” Francus 1994: 829.


The Authority of Poetic Genius

pamphlets published by professional critics, let alone journals devoted exclusively to criticism, most criticism at the end of the 17th century was not only written by poets, but it was published in prologues, epilogues, dedications, and prefaces to poetical works. This form allowed the critical text to be as close to the poetical as possible, both conceptually and physically, stressing the intricate connection of theoretical reflection and poetical performance. Though Ben Jonson was among the first writers who started to differentiate poetical and critical text by moving critical discourse from the play script into the paratext (cf. Cannan 2006: 21ff.), the most notable example of a critical work expressed mainly in prefaces is, of course, John Dryden. In Dryden’s work poetical and critical texts are always intimately coupled. Almost all of his poetical publications are embedded in critical texts, and all of his critical texts directly bear on his own poetical production, often in reaction to or differentiation from his fellow poets and their critical views. Using the prefaces of literary works to state one’s literary positions is an almost universally applied critical method during the period. Countless other authors have used this method similarly, though Dryden was the first to use in such a persistent (if not consistent) and strategic way. Dryden accumulated in the course of his poetic career a substantial corpus of critical texts, but his criticism is always strongly shaped by the form of its publication. The occasional nature of his reflections is both tied to his own poetical practice10 and to ongoing critical debates to which it reacts (cf. Hume 1970: 42). This accounts for a lot of the inconsistencies that have been identified in his critical positions, and also for the lack of contemporary appreciation of his prose (cf. Dennis 1939 (1): 447).11 What is important to note is the connection implied by the physical proximity between theoretical utterance and literary performance that was meant to strengthen the poet’s claim to be his own best – and only – critic. As Cannan writes about Jonson and Dryden: “Both authors early in their careers utilized criticism as a way of creating a dictatorial authorial persona and controlling audience response.” (2006: 20) By framing their poetical text in a critical discourse of their own making, poets like Dryden and Jonson, and many of their successors, tried to save it from alternate readings, and consequently from the expression of such alternate readings in separate texts of criticism. Claiming the function of critic for himself, defining it as inextricably connected to poetical

10 “Dryden’s essays are not only directed, as Johnson says, to aspiring writers who want to learn the technique of their art, but are also designed as propaganda to recommend the poems or translations to which they are attached.” Damrosch 1979: 422. 11 On the problem of Dryden’s inconsistency cf. Bosker 1954: 26; Björk 1973; and Engell 1989: 17ff.

The Poet as Critic


performance and ability, and aligning it physically close to the original poetical text, Dryden seeks to negate the necessity, utility, and almost the existence of what could be called, for lack of a better term, texts of pure criticism. But, of course, just as in William Blake’s mythology the contemplation of separation is identical with separation and is already the beginning of the fall, the poet-critic’s strategy carries within itself the seeds of its own defeat. However closely poetical and critical text are aligned in Dryden’s works, their separation is already discernible, and consequently their independence imaginable. While still claiming the identity of poet and critic through an appropriation of critical discourse, the poet-critic creates the possibility of the critic and provides his function.12 Modern day collections of Dryden’s critical prose, omitting the plays and poems to which it was attached, are a late indication of this tendency, but it started much earlier. The age of Dryden also saw the publication of the first books devoted solely to literary criticism, by authors who understood themselves, or were regarded by their contemporaries, mainly as critics. And already in 1668 Dryden himself had, with his Of Dramatic Poesie, published a piece of criticism unattached to a poetical text. Of course, the dialogue structure of the text and the possible identification of the speakers with famous wits of the age brought it as close as possible to Dryden’s ideal of criticism as conversation.13 But, as he himself had illustrated in his account of the importance and influence of conversation, it was the author’s task to imitate conversation. And the medium he does this in is writing, with the inevitable loss of immediacy. As a social person, Dryden might have been actively and directly involved in the conversations that served as the model for his Essay, shaping the discourse with his interactions. As a writer, though he has the power to form his representation of conversations in whatever way he wants to, this representation, in the form of a published text, loses immediacy, a process that is even recognizable in the history of Dryden’s own text, as the revisions he made to the essay in 1684 stylistically distance it further from spoken conversation and bring it closer to written prose (cf. Simon 1963: 141). What it retains from the structure of an ongoing dialogue, though, is the discursive openness, a swaying performative development of opinion that lacks a

12 According to an anecdote that Johnson quotes from Swift, Dryden was aware that he helped create what he tried to suppress: the audience’s ability to judge of a work they could not have written: “By these dissertations the publick judgement must have been much improved; and Swift, who conversed with Dryden, relates that he regretted the success of his own instructions, and found his readers made suddenly too skilful to be easily satisfied.” Johnson 1779–1781 (3): 78–79. 13 On the attributions of speakers and living persons, cf. Archer 1966.


The Authority of Poetic Genius

definite vantage point. The main criterion for conversation is the interaction of different opinions (Mukařovský’s “contexts” (cf. Mukařovský 1976: 116)) with the aim of changing or at least modifying these positions. Through its developments or modifications of positions, conversation is much more performative than systematic. Just as Dryden derived the authority for criticism from (poetical) performance, his criticism is performance. It is itself a performative act, the significance of which happens while it is being performed, and not a posterior comment on a performance that is both finished and distinct from the comment. It is therefore hardly surprising that Dryden should prove to be “not a systematic critic” (Runge 1997: 60). The critical positions that he develops as a poet are valid for every moment and context in which they are pronounced, and it is only from the perspective of someone detached from the creative critical process – the ‘pure’ critic – that they lack coherence and can therefore not be trusted as criticism. The opposition of the early professional critics against this type of poet-criticism for that reason took the form of an attack on its inconsistencies that derived out of a too close proximity of critic and poet. For Oldmixon, Dryden’s Deficiency proceeded [not] from Want of Judgement so much as from Inconsistency and Vanity, and an Opinion that he was Tyrant of Parnassus, and might govern by Will and Pleasure instead of Law and Reason. I have observed elsewhere that he adapts his Prefaces to the Circumstances of every Play and Poem, and very often contradicts in one what he had said in another (1728: 71).

Charles Gildon, whom Oldmixon had numbered in the same work under the three professional critics of his time (cf. 8), spends considerable space in his “Remarks on the Plays of Shakespear” to a confutation of Dryden’s criticism on the drama in his Essay. As a reason for this persistence he gives the dangers that derive for all those interested in just criticism from Dryden’s inconsistencies, dangers that are heightened by the authority that his critical pronouncements gain through his eminence as a poet: I shou’d not have taken so much pains with this Essay of Mr. Dryden, had it not been printed in his Works, without any Mark of the Alteration of his Opinion; because the ignorant Reader, that depends on his Judgment in print, will be misled by his Authority, and the Speciousness of his Reasons. And this, I hope, will be my Excuse for opposing a Man, who must by all be acknowledg’d to have much improv’d our Versification, and to have discover’d a Genius in his other Writings, which justly claims our Admiration. But that thing is what must justify my Undertaking; since the very Authority, which his Merits give him, will be the more prejudicial in establishing his Errors. (Shakespeare 1714: 384)

Quite subtly, Gildon – himself a critical turn-coat par excellence – accuses Dryden of misapplying his talents by writing criticism that does not follow the rules of

The Poet as Critic


“pure” criticism, such as consistency and systematic structure. Dryden is a great poet, Gildon freely agrees, but his refusal to play criticism by the book makes him a dangerous critic ‘in print’. Gildon’s engagement with Dryden shows how the poet-critic has helped to create the field of critical discourse on which he could consequently be proven to be inadequate by the professional critic. Interestingly, resistance also came from the opposite direction, the realm of aristocratic poet-critics that Dryden had theorized as his ideal of criticism. In 1671, the satirical play The Rehearsal was staged at the Theatre Royal on Bridges Street; the subsequent year it was published anonymously, though it has generally been accepted as the work of George Villiers, Second Duke of Buckingham, and some of his friends among the court wits. The play famously represents the rehearsal of an absurdly bombastic heroic drama patchworked mostly from Dryden’s plays, together with the comments of two more or less objective observers and the selfadmiring poet Bayes, whose attempts at maintaining control over the interpretation and evaluation of his play render him utterly ridiculous. This play, often believed to have effectively ended Dryden’s career as a writer of heroic drama, is described by Cannan as highly hostile to Dryden’s critical practice, “the most scathing and influential attack on Dryden’s authorial presence in his prefatory matter” (2006: 42). Though he celebrated the identity of the poet and the critic and kept critical and poetic discourse closely tied, Dryden had begun to differentiate between them, starting to turn himself from poet-critic to poet and critic, fathering literary criticism and along with that the claim of critical authority over other poetic texts as well. Especially in the preface to The Conquest of Granada – the main satirical target of The Rehearsal – he had made sweeping attacks on his fellow playwrights. Buckingham’s play and the genre that it created14 is one of the milestones of the poet-critic’s work (another being Pope’s Dunciad), a text in which criticism is conversation and the distinction of poetical and critical discourse is impossible, and it is only seemingly a paradox that its main focus of attack is the poet-critic’s most prominent defender. What Buckingham and his collaborators attacked is the seed of separation, of differentiation, that is always already contained in Dryden’s distinction between poetical main text and critical paratext. Splitting their satire on Dryden into the text of the play rehearsed and the vain character of the dramatist authoritatively defending his practice, the satirists pointed at what happened when poet and critic started to be differentiated.

14 Other notable or notorious examples from the 18th century are Gildon 1714; Sheridan 1781; and Pottinger 1780.


The Authority of Poetic Genius

But compared to review criticism or even systematic treatises like those that started to appear around the same time, Dryden’s type of criticism is still firmly rooted in and closely connected to conversation. It is a testimony to the genesis of this critical practice in direct conversation that so many of the critical remarks that Dryden and his fellow writers made were also answered in prefaces, as whole critical debates can be traced from preface to preface. But by being part of published texts, they had already started to address a double audience: one audience was still dominated by identity, namely that of poet and critic; it contained the other writers whose poetic practice was attacked or supported with the help of critical discourse and poetic example, and who answered in kind through their own works and prefaces. The other audience was the (already then) majority of readers who were not poets, but nevertheless interested in forming an opinion about the texts they were reading. These common readers might have at times granted the poet special capacity to judge of poetical works, and therefore superior critical authority. But since for them the reception of a literary text was always already devoid of considerations of creation, they showed much less fundamental resistance when it came to accepting critical discourse that was not tied to poetical texts. The general audience could never answer the poet-critic as equals, since he categorically excluded them from participation in critical discourse – but the ‘pure’ critic could claim kinship with the reader, especially if he did not insist too much on specialized knowledge. This is the direction that Addison took in his periodical criticism, it is contained in Johnson’s rhetoric about the common reader as ultimate arbiter and it is being debated over and over again in the discussions about the Reviews’ relationship to their readers. The poet-critic distances the ‘pure’ critic together with the general non-professional readership from himself, whereas the critic (ideally) raises the audience to a level from which they are able to evaluate the productions of a poet. Under these conditions, it is little wonder that only so few poet-critics could fulfil their double-role successfully. *** As has already been seen in the relationship between Homer’s example and Aristotle’s rules, a very important question concerning the hierarchy of poetry and criticism was one of precedence. Homer arguably had the advantage of chronological anteriority, but ever since, a debate has been raging about what was to be considered primary and what secondary. Does literature start from general and pre-existing rules, according to which poets create their works, or are there foundational works of literature that create their own set of rules, or extend existing ones? Other than one would expect from the stereotype of neoclassical criticism, most critics would claim the latter, like James Harris does:

The Poet as Critic


Those, who can imagine that the Rules of Writing were first established, and that then men wrote in conformity to them, as they make conserves and comfits by referring to receiptbooks, know nothing of Criticism, either as to its origin or progress. The truth is, they were Authors, who made the first good Critics, and not Critics, who made the first good Authors, however writers of later date may have profited by the precepts of critical disquisitions. (1752b: 3)

The same opinion is brought forth by Vicesimus Knox: “Most of the books which the world has agreed to admire, were composed previously to the appearance of systematic and abstruse theories of criticism, or by authors who, it is well known, paid them no attention.” (1778 (2): 11) In this sense one can understand Oliver Goldsmith’s compressed history of “ancient learning”: “From hence ancient learning may be distinguished into three periods. Its commencement, or the age of poets; its maturity, or the age of philosophers; and its decline, or the age of critics.” (1774: 23) Goldsmith’s chronology is, of course, at the same time a hierarchy. From the dictatorship of anterior rule-giving, criticism becomes, in the term of Alexander Pope, “the Muse’s Handmaid” (Pope 1711: 8) (a term that is echoed among others by John Pinkerton, Goldsmith himself, and George Colman15), something that is secondary in both the temporal and the functional sense, “illustrating the beauties of authors, who need not the illustration.” (Knox 1778 (1): 256) A thorough discussion of this question is found in George Campbell’s Philosophy of Rhetoric. Campbell starts out by drawing a similar and unmistakable chronology: “As speakers existed before grammarians, and reasoners before logicians; so doubtless there were orators before there were rhetoricians, and poets before critics” (1776 (1): 16–17). But he refuses to equate chronology with hierarchy and reaches a less biased conclusion through his introduction of the category of “knowledge” to surpass the dichotomy of criticism and art. I am aware, that, from the deduction given above, it may be urged, […] that as practice in the art has given the first scope for criticism, the former cannot justly be considered as deriving light and direction from the latter; that, on the contrary, the latter ought to be regarded as merely affording a sort of intellectual entertainment to speculative men. It may be said, that this science, however entertaining, as it must derive all its light and information from the actual examples in the art, can never in return be subservient to the art, from which alone it has received whatever it has to bestow. This objection, however specious, will not bear a near

15 Cf. also: “Criticism, which is indeed only the lady’s maid of ability, like all those of that description, is fond of aping her mistress; dresses herself in her cast cloths, and looks upon herself as being as good as her lady. Criticism is, at best, only the pilot of Genius; only knows shores already explored, with the face of the coast, and soundings”, Pinkerton 1785: 506. Cf. also Goldsmith 1762 (1): 75 and Colman 1775.


The Authority of Poetic Genius

examination. For let it be observed, that though in all the arts the first rough draughts, or imperfect attempts, that are made, precede every thing that can be termed criticism, they do not precede every thing that can be termed knowledge, which every human creature that is not an idiot, is every day, from his birth, acquiring, by experience and observation. This knowledge must of necessity precede even those rudest and earliest essays; and if in the imperfect and indigested state in which knowledge must always be found in the mind that is rather selftaught than totally untaught, it deserves not to be dignified with the title of science, neither does the first awkward attempt in practice merit to be honoured with the name of Art. As is the one, such is the other. It is enough for my purpose, that something must be known, before any thing in this way, with a view to an end, can be undertaken to be done. (21–22)

By claiming that “knowledge” is a necessary prerequisite not only for criticism, but also for art, Campbell circumvents the question whether art or criticism were primary. Since both are based on the same source, the concept of hierarchy can be replaced by one of mutual subservience: “It is evident, therefore, that the artist and the critic are reciprocally subservient, and the particular province of each is greatly improved by the assistance of the other.” (23–24) Of course, Campbell’s ultimate reduction of art to knowledge was not shared by all of his contemporaries, who consequently came to less balanced results when considering the relation of art, criticism, and science, as can be seen in the essays of John Pinkerton, who reduces only criticism to knowledge: “Criticism is merely a science, and rests solely upon knowlege in the points of which it treats; and that knowlege, if you will, […] arises from the mental exertion of others” (1785: 507–508).16 The emphasis on the secondary nature of criticism, on the fact that it always “arises from the mental exertion of others” also brings forth another negative image for criticism, that of the critic as parasitical or scavenging. Underlying this is the negation of the argument of the necessary gate-keeper function as a consequence of overproduction that will be discussed later. Critics as scavengers feature for example in John Wolcot’s attack on the reviewers, who feed “[l]ike carrion crows upon a poor dead horse.” (1787: 5) In a similar manner, and with an allusion to Swift’s fable of the bee and the spider, Henry Brooke writes in his novel The Fool of Quality that critics “snuff Faults from afar, as Crows scent Carrion, and delight to pick, and to prey, and to dwell upon them. They enter, like Wasps, upon the Gardens of Literature, not to relish any Fragrance or select any Sweets, but to pamper their Malevolence with every Thing that savours of Rankness or Offence.” (1765: 218–220)17

16 Cf. on this point also Bosker 1954: 296. 17 Cf. also: “The Taste and Appetite of these straw Criticks, may justly be compar’d to Ravens and Crows, who neglecting clean Food, are always searching after Carrion.” Oldmixon 1728: 4.

The Poet as Critic


A rather uncommon opinion is expressed by John Pinkerton (always reliable for uncommon opinions), who states that not only are the poet and the critic equal in accomplishments, but that the critic must be superior to the poet, to be able to improve his works: For, if they are only equal, the mind of the critic will be homogenous with that of the poet: he will consequently be capable of conceiving nothing beyond the work; and his performance will consist only of slight efforts of admiration, and of blame; not of such superior critical disquisition as may improve the art of which he treats; and which alone forms the essence of just criticism. (1785: 513)

In any case, the critic himself is not immune to criticism, and will most likely be judged by the highest standards possible, as William Hawkins describes in his refutation of a review of his works, since “ten faults in a writer are more pardonable than one in profest public judges; – […] from them every literary accomplishment will be expected; – and […] every thing unbecoming the character of a critic that is discoverable in them, may triumphantly be objected to them even by the most contemptible author” (1760: 3). Critics, Hawkins argues, when they turn authors, must be better than other authors, because they cannot be measured by anything lower than their highest standards. This might be true or not – John Dennis and Thomas Rymer had to endure considerable ridicule for their poetical productions18 – the important point is the automatic distinction that Hawkins makes between the critic and the poet. There are critics, and there are poets, and special considerations might apply once they change into the opposite field, but by default they are not the same. Indeed, by the middle of the century, the argument for the poet-critic had lost its chief protagonists as well as its publication context, and consequently much of its argumentative power. There was no Dryden or Pope at hand as exemplary case, and though critical discourse continued to happen in prefaces of poetical works, independent publications of critical texts had long been established and accepted as a more or less honourable activity, and the review journals (against which Hawkins directed his opposition) took the specialization and professionalization of criticism one step further. Their method of anonymous publication makes it all too obvious that instead of identifying the poet and the critic, they

18 Cf. e.g. Anonym 1720a: no page; Cobb 1700: 7–8; and Addison 1714: no page: “Mr. Rimer’s Edgar is to fall in Snow at the next acting of King Lear, in order to heighten, or rather to alleviate, the Distress of that unfortunate Prince; and to serve by way of Decoration to a Piece which that great Critick has written against.” For a newer evaluation of Rymer’s poetry, cf. Osborne 1975.


The Authority of Poetic Genius

relied on building up a reputation for expertise.19 Besides these structural changes, there was also opposition to the very concept. The simplest counterargument is a change of discipline, as is shown by John Oldmixon: I am apt to believe that as a Man may be a very good Judge of Painting without being himself a Painter, so he may make very good Criticisms in Poetry and Eloquence, without being a Poet or an Orator. What would have become of our famous Critick Rymer, whom Mr. Dryden has so much commended, or so much abused, if his Criticisms must not pass, on Account of his not being Master of the Elegance and Delicacy of our Language (1728: 7–8).

Some would think Oldmixon’s choice of Rymer as an example for a true critic less than happy, but he states his point with unmistakable clarity, adding an even more general statement: “I was always convinced by Example, that a Critick may have a just Taste, without being a Poet” (13). The argument from example is the most common one, ranging from Oldmixon’s Rymer and William Walsh (“one of our best Judges of Regularity and Wit, yet hardly any Body will say he was one of our best Performers” (62)) to Vicesimus Knox’s Lord Kames.20 The argument from change of discipline is made even clearer by Henry Fielding and Samuel Johnson, as they use the analogy to cooking and carpentry respectively instead of painting: It is, I think, the Sentiment of Quinctilian, that no Man is capable of becoming a good Critic or a great Poet, but he who is himself a great Poet. This would, indeed, confine the Critics on Poetry, at least, to a very small Number; and would, indeed, strike all the Antients, except only Horace and Longinus off the Roll […]. But with Respect to so great a Name as that of Quinctilian, this Rule appears to me much too rigid. It seems, indeed, to be little less severe than an Injunction that no Man should criticize on Cookery but he who was himself a Cook. (Fielding 1752b: no page) You may abuse a tragedy, though you cannot write one. You may scold a carpenter who has made you a bad table, though you cannot make a table. It is not your trade to make tables. (Boswell 1791 (1): 221)

Underlying Fielding’s and Johnson’s argument is a fundamental differentiation of the activities of creating and criticising, with both being seen as independent of each other, and also an implied emphasis on the affective qualities of an object. This differentiation must therefore be understood in the context of the gradual

19 It is one of the ironies of the history of criticism, though, that the Critical Review is today mostly analyzed because of its being edited by the novel writer Tobias Smollett. 20 “Nor is it said, that [Kames], with all his theoretical knowledge of poetry, is himself a poet or an orator. This is not advanced to detract from his merit; for it is true of Aristotle, and of all those writers who, with a genius for logic and metaphysics, have entered on the provinces of taste and criticism.” Knox 1778 (2): 11.

The Poet as Critic


substitution of rational rules by taste and genius as main criteria for critical evaluation.21 The ever-rising esteem of originality and creative genius can lead to two different developments in respect to the functional differentiation of the critic: either it leads back to an identification of poet and critic by subsuming the critical function under that of poetic genius, or it leads to a much more radical differentiation between poet and critic, though to the detriment of the latter. It might seem paradoxical at first that it is the increasing appreciation of the affective nature and originality of poetry that leads to more sophisticated arguments against the necessity of the critic’s being a poet. As long as the emphasis in poetry is put on the artfulness of the accomplishment, on order, symmetry, proportion or decorum, there is much less difference between knowing the skills involved, and actively using them. But the ascendancy of taste also leads to a much wider differentiation between merely appreciative or receptive taste, and the creative taste of the genius artist. This differentiation is clearly addressed by Alexander Gerard in his Essay on Taste: [T]aste often prevails where genius is wanting; they may judge, who cannot themselves perform. The operations, that depend on the imagination, may be vigorous enough to form a high relish, though it be destitute of that brightness and extension, which is necessary for a comprehensive genius. The associating principles may be strong and active within their bounds, though these bounds be narrow. And soundness and strength of judgment may be possessed without considerable genius; but must always, if joined with any degree of the internal senses, produce acuteness and justness of taste. This rendered Aristotle the greatest of critics, tho’ he was not, like Longinus, blest with a poet’s fire. (1759: 179)

The same distinction is made by Hugh Blair in his Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres: Taste consists in the power of judging: Genius, in the power of executing. One may have a considerable degree of Taste in Poetry, Eloquence, or any of the fine arts, who has little or hardly any Genius for composition or execution in any of these arts: But Genius cannot be found without including Taste also. Genius, therefore, deserves to be considered as a higher power of the mind than Taste. Genius always imports something inventive or creative; which does not rest in mere sensibility to beauty where it is perceived, but which can, moreover, produce new beauties, and exhibit them in such a manner as strongly to impress the minds

21 “Theoretical criticism constitutes indeed a very ingenious species of writing; but, before I can be really pleased with a poem or a piece of oratory, I must feel its excellence. I may be convinced of the merit of a work by a series of abstruse and metaphysical argumentation, and yet, on reading it, find myself greatly disappointed. There is indeed, in all works of true taste and genius, something of that elevated nature, which cannot be pointed out by verbal description, and which can only be perceived by the vibrations it produces on the nervous system.” Knox 1778: 128.


The Authority of Poetic Genius

of others. Refined Taste forms a good critic; but Genius is farther necessary to form the poet, or the orator. (1783: 41)

This shows that the lowered demand in the critic’s ability to perform poetically goes hand in hand with a general depreciation of criticism, reminiscent of the argument of precedence, but reformulated in the terminology of taste. In this sense, a critic can be a good critic without having poetical abilities (or “genius”) himself, but that is because he is so much inferior to the poet to begin with. In Thomas Warton’s account of Elizabethan literature, it is the absence of critics and criticism that foster literature’s growth. For Warton, critical and poetical abilities are distinguished and independent of each other, but only the latter are really necessary.22 It was, of course, also possible to see the differentiation of the critic and the poet as wholly distinct in terms of gain, at least for criticism. John Ogilvie, while claiming that “a great and sublime imagination is by no means necessary to form a masterly critic”, expresses the view that such a kind of imagination will most likely influence the performance of criticism negatively: A man possessed of this talent in a very high degree, will not only be apt, without constant circumspection, to permit its dictates too frequently to influence decisions with which it is no way connected, but (as a late ingenious critic observes very justly of Longinus) he will be always aspiring rather to imitate the beauties of his original, than to point these out with that appropriated character which taste united with judgment will seldom err in conferring. The two last qualities ought therefore to be considered as peculiarly and essentially requisite to critical excellence. (1774 (1): 349)

A similar view is held by Samuel Johnson, whose intention according to Jean Hagstrum it is as well “to separate literature and criticism to the benefit of each.” (1967: 26) In Rambler no. 92, Johnson holds that “Criticism reduces those regions of literature under the dominion of science, which have hitherto known only the anarchy of ignorance, the caprices of fancy, and the tyranny of prescription.” (1751: no page) And in Rambler no. 156, he castigates criticism for “extending her conquests over distant regions”, that is, for trying to incorporate modes of expression that are reserved for art: Criticism has sometimes permitted fancy to dictate the laws by which fancy ought to be restrained, and fallacy to perplex the principles by which fallacy is to be detected, her

22 Cf. Warton 1774 (3): 499. Sir Joshua Reynolds, in one of his Discourses, opposes this view by citing numerous authors as “instances of genius not being destroyed by attention or subjection to rules and science.” Reynolds 1777: 44.

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superintendance of others has betrayed her to negligence of herself; and like the antient Scythians, by extending her conquests over distant regions, she has left her throne vacant to her slaves. (1751e: no page)

Without reversing the hierarchy – quite to the contrary, in his recapitulation of The Rambler he demands for criticism “only to be ranked among the subordinate and instrumental arts” (1752: no page) – Johnson claims the importance of a clear distinction. But where Johnson saw the dissociation of critic and poet – or rather: critical and poetical abilities – as necessary for keeping criticism neutral and precise, others suspected it to encourage the critic’s unreceptiveness to poetic or aesthetic beauties. Because he is no creator himself, the argument goes, the critic will value correctness above beauty and will fail to read the author sympathetically and according to his intentions. More and more during the course of the century, authors (and critics) fear that relying solely on reason can only be an inadequate response to poetry. In short, judges (as they may affect to be styled) of Composition who are directed wholly by the understanding, will form an estimate in many instances equally inadequate as that of the mathematician I have somewhere read of, who perused the Aeneid with maps of the countries mentioned in that work, and admired the author only as an excellent geographer. (Ogilvie 1774 (1): 353)

Such a “mechanical” (Stockdale 1778: 2) critic is often compared to Procrustes, in that he is unreceptive to the real nature of a literary text and perceives and explains it only according to his own predetermined understanding of it.23 One famous case in which a critic was being accused of being simply unable to relish true poetry was the debate around Samuel Johnson’s strictures on Thomas Gray in his Prefaces, Biographical and Critical, to the Works of the English Poets. Johnson himself commented earlier in The Rambler on the unreceptiveness of some critics, who only see in a work of art what they want to see, and who “have no perception of the cogency of arguments, the contexture of narrations, the various colours of diction, or the flowery embellishments of fancy; of all that engages the attention of others, they are totally insensible, while they pry into worlds of conjecture, and amuse themselves with phantoms in the clouds.” (1751a: 31) But Johnson himself, in his discussion of Gray, applied standards and methods of criticism on these poems that his contemporaries did not consider as adequate anymore, and according to these standards he declared Gray to be

23 “He, like Procrustes, to attain his Aim,/ Will lop, or stretch you, to his Critic Frame” Mariott 1759b: 6. For other uses of the name “Procrustes” cf. Stockdale 1778: 30 and Mallet 1733: 10–11.


The Authority of Poetic Genius

deficient (cf. 1779–1781 (10): 21, 25–26, 30).24 Overlooking most that could be actually deemed innovative and new in the poems, he did not take too much time and space to deal with them. If anything, the culpability of Johnson regarding Gray only increased with the publication of Boswell’s biography. Now the general public was able to get Johnson’s view in his own and, as it was deemed at that time, authentic voice, unchecked by publication considerations or any other moderation that the form of the Lives could have commanded. What they read did not make the friends of Gray happy. Boswell was well aware that the Gray debate was cause for a lot of animosity. His discussion of his own position on the subject is characteristic: while distancing himself from Johnson’s critical opinion per se, he emphatically defends his integrity as a person, replying only to the ad hominem argument of his adversaries.25 The defences of Gray came almost instantaneously after publication of the final volume of the Prefaces in 1781. As the Critical Review remarked, “our biographical legislator […] has again boldly steered against the tide of popular opinion, by calling in question the transcendent excellence of our modern Pindar, Mr. Gray, whom he has dethroned and degraded” (Anonym: 86). Johnson had challenged the literary world, and the challenge was being answered (cf. Jones 243–250). One of the earliest defenders was William Fitzthomas with his 1781 Cursory Examination of Dr. Johnson’s Strictures on the Lyric Performances of Gray. For him, the life of Gray was characterized by an “unfair, and unusual mode of criticism, as well as by his total deviation from the common track of popular opinion.” Furthermore, Fitzthomas criticizes Johnson’s method as inadequate when dealing with Gray: “He is with Gray more verbal, logical, and minute, where these critical niceties ought, in reason, least of all to be practiced. He is less observant of the versification and imagery; and for the most part declines giving us either a general, or comparative character of the pieces under inspection.”26 This charge is already indicative of how the workings of Johnson’s mind as a critic

24 Cf. also Misenheimer 1987: 27. 25 “Here let it be observed, that although his opinion of Gray’s poetry was widely different from mine, and I believe from that of most men of taste, by whom it is with justice highly admired, there is certainly much absurdity in the clamour which has been raised, as if he had been culpably injurious to the merit of that bard, and had been actuated by envy. Alas! ye little short-sighted criticks, could Johnson be envious of the talents of any of his contemporaries? That his opinion on this subject was what in private and in publick he uniformly expressed, regardless of what others might think, we may wonder, and perhaps regret; but it is shallow and unjust to charge him with expressing what he did not think.” Boswell 1791 (1): 218. Cf. also Lustig 1966: 539. 26 Qtd. in Jones 1959: 246.

The Poet as Critic


was understood as necessarily deficient in view of a new type of poetry that does not value simplicity and clarity as its prime aims. Johnson’s criticism of Gray gave his enemies a breach through which to drive their attacks, and the battering ram was taste (cf. Bosker 1954: 114–115). One of the more thoughtful and balanced of the attacks was Robert Potter’s An Inquiry into Some Passages in Dr. Johnson’s Lives of the Poets. Particularly His Observations on Lyric Poetry, and the Odes of Gray.27 On the question of Johnson’s lack of taste, though, he is anything but undecided. Talking about Gray is for Potter not a purely intellectual matter, but one that involves emotionality, as can be seen in his general assessment of Johnson’s criticism: “Criticism of this nature breathes a frigid air, which chills all the faculties of genius.” (1783: 19) Later he talks about “Dr. Johnson’s cold and tasteless Criticism” (1783: 30), bringing together both the accusations of unemotional coldness and lack of taste, where taste is understood as a disposition for the appreciation of beauty. “The misfortune is, this Critic is for regulating poetic imagination by the standard of methodical argumentation and philosophical truth; as if the excursions of Shakespeare’s fancy were to be measured by the theorems of Euclid.” (31) But the misunderstanding of Gray’s poems was, in Potter’s eyes, more than a mere refusal, it was an outright inability: Now it is certain that the Critic has nothing of this sympathy, no portion nor sense of that vivida vis animi, that etherial flame which animates the poet; he is therefore as little qualified to judge of these works of imagination, as the shivering inhabitant of the caverns of the North to form an idea of the glowing sun that flames over the plains of Chili. (38)

William Hayley some years later not only laments Johnson’s “extreme iniquity towards this enchanting bard” (1787: 134), but also declares that “the author was utterly destitute of that sensibility, which alone can enable a writer to awaken interest and pathos.” (1787: 104) Denying Johnson real taste in poetry used two different resources. Besides declaring him unable to relish the poetry of others, for some critics a closer look at his own poems would also find him deficient in producing anything moving in that field.28 Anna Seward remarked in a letter that

27 The translator and Church of England clergyman Potter originally started to write an essay on contemporary lyric poetry, but eventually changed that to a discussion of Johnson’s treatment of Gray. Since Elizabeth Montague had her share in the redirection of Potter’s interest, he has been attacked as a hired writer of the enemies of Johnson, but this accusation does not seem to do him justice, cf. Wright 1936: 307. 28 His 1785 biographer William Shaw wrote: “We are now and then struck with a fine thought, a fine line, or a fine passage, but little interested by the whole. [A]fter reading his best pieces once, few are desirous of reading them again.” Shaw 1785: 71–72. On Shaw’s criticism, cf. Kelley 1971: 47 and Boulton 1971: 20.


The Authority of Poetic Genius

“the want of tender sensibilities might have closed all the pathetic avenues against his muse.”29 And within the two contrary positions of the speakers of his Two Dialogues, Hayley could make the boldest claim against Johnson’s ability as a poet and implicitly against his legitimacy for judging other poets: “I think unquestionable, that he was inferior to the whole body of English poets whom he has so ferociously anatomized.” (1787: 98) The argument of the poet-critic, though it had lost most of its capability as exclusive generator of critical authority, thus retains some validity as opposition against critical authority, especially against those critics that were conceived to inadequately react to a new form of highly affective poetry.

4.2 Poets and Editors Authors who wanted to retain authority over the evaluation and interpretation of their texts argued for the necessity of poetical abilities in criticism. In order to delegitimize forms of “pure” literary criticism in independently published texts, and to exclude the “pure” critic from participation in the evaluative and interpretive process, authors added critical discourse to their own poetical text, combining both closely in the form of preface and main text. By being their own critics, authors created a monological structure for the reception of their works. As has been shown, though, this strategy was insufficient to stop the emergence of alternative critical voices raised in independent publications. The establishment of criticism as a major genre of writing effectively separated critical and poetical texts. But poets not only lost their claim to monologize poetry and criticism, the 18th century with its rising number of critical editions of modern authors also saw a dialogical critical structure forced on the poetical texts themselves, as the editor-critic inserted his alien voice into the original poetic text in the form of annotations or even alterations. Many authors were highly wary of editors. When Isaac Disraeli writes about the danger to an author’s posthumous reputation that comes from “undiscerning friends”, he may well have had editors in mind: “Several men of letters have been known to have risen from their death-bed, to destroy their manuscripts. So

29 Seward 1811 (1): 305. Cf. also William Kenrick, who used the image of coldness that had already been applied to his criticism to describe his poetry: “His greatest merit appeared to consist in the labour thrown away on the tawdry glare of description, and the glossy, but fading, polish of stile. Instead of producing great and noble images, he seldom reached farther than high-sounding words. […] His verse seemed heavy, cold, and spiritless; and his prose alternately pompous and puerile.” Kenrick 1766: 8.

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solicitous have they been not to venture their posthumous reputation in the hands of undiscerning friends and malignant critics.” (1794 (1): 66–67) Editing a poet, after his death, gives the critic an authority over that poet that extends much further than any comment on a published work in a Review, pamphlet or book. Different from all other forms of criticism, his authority extends not only to the legislative and the judicative, but also to the executive level, in that he is able to directly attach commentaries to the text, thus making them part of that text, and allowing him to actually alter the text, as the reviewer of Christian Church’s edition of the works of Spenser is uncomfortably aware of: It is the remark of Boccalini, that a writer, whose works have passed through a number of editions after his decease, would hardly know his own performances again if he were to rise from the dead. Critics mistake his meaning, or are desirous of giving a new one of their own. Dunces interpolate the text, and printers too add their faults to swell the account: so that the poet at last, like a river which receives a new tincture from every soil through which it flows, makes a very different appearance from that with which he sat out. (Anonym 1759a: 103)

As (dead) authors to be edited, writers lose control over their text, and in the absence of a thorough copyright law there was little they could do about this. In an interesting text from the debate about copyright, or literary property, that has been wrongly attributed to William Warburton (cf. Nichol 1996), the point is being made that modifications and alterations of a text should not be conceived in the political terms of usurpation, but rather in the economic terms of property. The author makes a differentiation between property in real objects and in “intellectual Labours.” Whereas real property gives its owner the right of exclusive usage, intellectual labour produces a community property that can be used and added to by everyone. The obvious reason for this is the progression of science. If any one without my Permission builds on my Soil or cultivates my Land, he can neither claim the House or gather the Fruits of his Industry. It is otherwise with respect to intellectual Labours, we may improve the Discoveries of others without invading their Property. The Interest of Literature demands it. The Learning of the present Age may be considered a vast Superstructure, to the rearing of which the Geniusses of past Times have contributed their Proportion of Wit and Industry; to what Purpose would they have contributed if each of them could insist that none should build on their Foundations? We may derive a Property from the Ideas of others, not only by improving and adding to them, but meerly by employing more Labour on them. (Warburton 1762: 4–5)

But this copyleft viewpoint is clearly a minority opinion at the time. Most observers were highly suspicious of those who “employed more labour” on other people’s texts. The drowning of the text in annotations and comments had been a


The Authority of Poetic Genius

common complaint against the ‘pedant.’30 It was especially the Scriblerian type of satire that in the middle of the century led to an automatic association of annotated editions with pedantry and boring dullness, though this notion was never wholly uncontested.31 But in the case of editions of poets, this swelling of the secondary text is not just a greedy market strategy; it also shifts the balance of authority from author to editor, when “every work of taste [is] buried in long comments” (1774: 18), as Goldsmith complained. Tobias Smollett, in the review of James Grainger’s translations of Tibullus that stirred up another heated controversy about review criticism, complains that “indeed the sluices of annotation have been opened so successfully in the Batavian taste, that Tibullus is floated round with criticism” (1758: 477). Henry Felton decries “those Heaps of Comments, which are piled so high upon Authors, that it is difficult sometimes to clear the Text from the Rubbish, and draw it out of the Ruins” (1713: 58). Thomas Edwards even turns the writing of superfluous notes into one of his ironic “Canons of Criticism”, pointing to the self-serving nature of the invasion of the critic’s voice. According to the 20th canon, “the design of writing notes is not so much to explain the author’s meaning, as to display the critic’s knowledge” (1750: 119). Redressing the balance of power by increasing the sheer amount of critical discourse as compared to the original poetic text of an edition was already seen as the critic’s clandestine attempt to subdue. But the alteration of the text through the editors was a much more obvious and offensive breach of the boundary between primary and secondary text. With alterations, the relation between poet and critic is directly opposed to that propagated by Dryden and the other poetcritics. Not only has the critic entered the territory of the poetical text by mingling his critical commentary in close physical proximity to it, he also implicitly claims superior poetical performance for himself, since he assumes the right to ‘improve’ his author. Reasons for alterations are numerous. The classical scholar had to deal with corrupt, fragmentary, and partially unreadable texts, as well as those that had

30 Thus, Nathaniel Weekes writes that “PEDANTUS PEDANT US with Quotations fills his Page, – / Provoking justly an indignant Rage./ No Language spoke in Europe but he quotes,/ And all the Work is cramm’d with idle Notes” (1754: 17) and John Earle describes the pedant as “one that makes all Books sell dearer, whilst he swells them into folio’s with his comments.” (1732: 142–143) 31 In a review of Thomas Twining’s annotated edition of Aristotle’s poetics, Thomas Burgess writes: “The dulness and inutility of commentaries is a common subject of contemptuous triumph of the unlearned over the learned, and sometimes of the learned over each other. It is a prejudice, which, with us, originated in a great measure in the conceited school of Mr. Pope: but which, it must be confessed, has been encouraged by the literary indolence of the times.” Burgess 1792: 121. Burgess then goes on to commend Twining’s work as an antidote to all such notions.

Poets and Editors


been transcribed repeatedly, and who were as a result far removed from the purity of the assumed, but often lost, original. Emendation and conjecture was therefore the early critics’ daily bread, and the example of Richard Bentley will show the anxieties that grew around this method of criticism, especially as its objects gradually became less removed in time. A 1732 “defence” of Milton from Bentley’s corrections shows the contempt directed against scholars who corrected texts they did not fully understand: I own I pity Milton, and every other Author who runs the same Fate; and by falling into the Hands of a Critick, loses his own Beauties thro’ the Corrector’s want of Taste: who, because at first Sight, his purblind Genius finds not out his Author’s Meaning, substitutes a new Reading, and by an extempore Rectification, blots out Beauties which have cost so much Pain and Time. (Anonym: vii)

James Harris equally condemns the “spirit of Conjecture” as damaging in his history of criticism: ‘Tis enough to observe […] that this spirit of Conjecture has proved a kind of critical Quackery, which like Quackery of other kinds, whatever it may have boasted, has done more mischief by far than good. Authors have been taken in hand, like anatomical subjects, only to display the skill and abilities of the Artist; so that the end of many an edition seems often to have been no more, than to exhibit the great sagacity and polymathy of an editor. The Joy of the talk was the Honour of mending, while Corruptions were fought with a more than common attention, as each of them afforded a testimony to the Editor and his Art. (1752b: 16)

In an ironic twist, the editors themselves, whose historical job it was to restore a text to its original integrity, become the means of textual corruption as the comment on Ralph Church’s edition of Spenser in the Critical Review (surely provoked in part by the fact that in the year 1758, three editions of Spenser appeared, two of them within less than ten days), had shown (cf. Wurtsbaugh 1933). Besides the example of Bentley’s edition of Milton, an exemplary case of anxieties generated around an editor’s critical power over the poet he edits as well as the critical authority he derives from that poet, is that of William Warburton and his editions of Shakespeare and Pope. Both editions produced a high amount of resistance that was voiced in numerous articles, pamphlets, letters, poems, and sometimes furious hand-written marginalia (cf. Smith 1978: 220, 234). The most important document against Warburton’s 1747 edition of Shakespeare was Thomas Edwards’ popular The Canons of Criticism, first published as “A Supplement” in 1748 and running to a seventh edition in 1765. Edwards was an independent gentleman who had started studying law in 1720, but spent most of his life cultivating his literary tastes as well as his garden. He received some distinction through the publication of sonnets in the Miltonic style, before he became famous


The Authority of Poetic Genius

by his attacks on the controversial bishop, religious writer and literary critic. William Warburton was indeed a formidable enemy to take on. Edwards’ own characterization of him as “the worst of critics” (1750: 173) had to compete against Pope’s opinion of him as “the greatest general critic I ever knew.”32 The neglect of Warburton in 20th-century scholarship stands in stark contrast to high contemporary appreciation. Warburton was extremely good at gathering a group of unfaltering admirers, from whom he expected unadulterated agreement, to such an extent that David Rivers in 1798 called him an “intellectual despot” (1798 (2): 298). More recent criticism is hardly less decisive in its strictures, and Robert M. Ryley sums up perfectly the contradictory nature of the quarrelsome bishop: “Generous, devout, full of good humor, and, with friends, tolerant and deferential, he is in print among the most arrogant and brutal controversialists that eighteenth-century England produced” (1984: 1). Edwards was soon to get a taste of that. Warburton’s own most significant contributions to literary criticism were his editions of the works of William Shakespeare and of Alexander Pope. That Warburton had a penchant for controversy, and that he introduced this into his editorship as well, can already be seen by the full title of his Shakespeare: The Works of Shakespear: The Genuine Text (Collated with all the former Editions, and then corrected and emended) is here settled: Being restored from the Blunders of the first Editors, and the Interpolations of the two Last: With a Comment and Notes, Critical and Explanatory. In the preface, Warburton continued his strategy of securing his own critical authority through vicious attacks on his competition. He is unsparing in his comments on his recently deceased predecessors, especially Hanmer and Theobald, who “left their Author in ten times a worse Condition than they found him” (Shakespeare 1747 (1): x), but he is equally hard-hitting against his colleagues still living.33 Edwards’ method in satirizing Warburton is simple but effective, and the starting point for his satire is especially interesting, since he takes his cue from Warburton’s own rather vain solution to the question of a universal standard of

32 Qtd. in Baines 2000: 41. 33 Some years earlier, he had given some explanatory notes on Samuel Butler’s Hudibras to Zachary Grey through a common friend, James Tunstall. Grey used the notes in his edition of Butler, apparently against Warburton’s will, though he acknowledged their source. Warburton’s response was to write that “there never appeared […] so execrable a heap of nonsense” as Grey’s work. Grey answered this attack with An answer to certain passages in Mr. W––’s preface to his edition of Shakespear, together with some remarks on the many errors … in the work itself (1750), and followed four years later with his own Critical, historical, and explanatory notes on Shakespeare, in which he defended Hanmer and Theobald against Pope and Warburton.

Poets and Editors


criticism. In the preface to his Shakespeare, Warburton had made it clear that it was indeed possible to arrive at a true standard of criticism, simply by looking at the work of an exemplary and true critic – meaning, of course, himself. He writes: “I once intended to have given the Reader a body of Canons, for literal Criticism, drawn out in form” (Shakespeare 1747 (1): xiv). But, continues Warburton, he abandoned his initial project, since the “canons” can be easily found out by observing his own practice as an editor. All Edwards had to do, therefore, was to take Warburton by his word, by extracting said canons and offering them as mock advice to aspiring critics. This, for example, is the first canon: “A Professed Critic has a right to declare, that his Author wrote whatever He thinks he ought to have written, with as much positiveness as if He had been at his Elbow” (Edwards 1750: 1). Directed against Warburton’s emendations and free corrections of Shakespeare, the form of self-praising mock-advice that Edwards used was also especially suited to satirize Warburton’s apodictic and supercilious style of criticism, and to point to his illegitimate arrogation of authority over the poet. Canon after canon, the rules and advices that Edwards derives in this way from Warburton’s edition scrutinize his editorial blunders, and all of them are showing him to be insensitive to the text and imposing his own opinions on it with singular self-righteousness, an estimation that is generally shared by modern scholars (cf. Ryley 1984: 72, 88). As the mock-rules unfold one by one, they in fact turn out to form something like a standard of editorial criticism, albeit a negative one. They are of such comprehensiveness that, by implication, to steer clear of all the faults thus pilloried, must bring one very close to true criticism. Edwards’ twenty-four canons apparently leave not a single error of Warburton undetected. Even worse for the bishop’s reputation, Edwards proves to be a very careful reader and a diligent collector of the editor’s faults. For every single canon that he develops, Edwards provides countless examples as illustration, running to some two hundred pages in the last edition. Warburton’s critical monopoly lasted only a short time (not that it ever went completely undisputed), and Thomas Edwards’ Canons of Criticism with their mock praise which, in the words of the Critical Review, “undoubtedly shewed Warburton’s nakedness” (Anonym 1765a: 332), had a fair share in bringing down the bishop’s reputation as a critic. In his own edition of Pope, Joseph Warton mentioned Edwards’ attack and declared that “all impartial critics allow the remarks to have been decisive and judicious; and his Canons of Criticism remain unrefuted and unanswerable.” (Pope 1797 (1): 234) And even Warburton’s friend Thomas Birch admitted to Lord Orrery in a letter from September 30, 1748 that it was “one of the most ingenious pieces of Satire” he had ever read, and that it had “extremely humbled Mr. Warburton’s pretensions to Criticism in the opinion of the public” (qtd. in The Countess of Cork and Orrery 1903 (2): 44).


The Authority of Poetic Genius

But Warburton of course would not let go without a fight, and the medium he chose for his response is decisive, as he hid his own full-scale counter-attack in the maze-like variorum notes to the Dunciad in his 1751 edition of the complete works of Alexander Pope, and thereby made it almost indistinguishable from Pope’s own opinion, slyly appropriating and profiting from the poet’s own critical authority: Ill would that scholiast discharge his duty, who should neglect to honour those whom Dulness has distinguish’d; or suffer them to lie forgotten when their rare modesty would have left them nameless. Let us not therefore overlook the services which have been done her cause, by one Mr Thomas Edwards, […] who […] very early retained himself in the cause of Dulness against Shakespear, and hath now happily finished the Dunce’s progress in personal abuse. For a Libeller is nothing but a Grubstreet critic run to Seed. (Pope 1750: 66–67)

Warburton’s strategy highlights why his edition of Pope is perhaps the 18th century’s most important case of a widely debated power struggle between poet and editor. While the race and fight for the hegemonic edition of Shakespeare concerned the question of who delineated and controlled the cultural past, editing the works of the most influential contemporary poet, Alexander Pope, equalled the assumption of cultural sovereignty in the present. Ever since An Essay on Criticism, publications of Pope had been cultural political events that stirred the republic of letters, most notably in the pamphlet wars around the various editions of the Dunciad, and this did not quite change right after his death. It is important to note the importance generally attached to an edition of Pope in the 1740s. The question of editorial authority over the (still) leading author of the times was a matter that went far beyond mere philological pedantry. When Warburton’s edition of the works appeared in 1751, Ralph Griffiths started his review for the Monthly by stating: “At length the impatience of the public is gratified, by the publication of this long-expected edition of the works of the great prince of English poets.” (1751: 97) And as late as 1797, Thomas James Mathias writes that “[a]n edition of Pope is a fair and a very proper subject of criticism.” (1798: 330) Warburton had started his career as a defender – and by consequence an interpreter – of Pope, against the theologically based accusations of Jean-Pierre de Crousaz in 1737. He collaborated with Pope on the fourth book of the Dunciad, suggesting themes and adding notes and prefatory text, and he continued his struggle for interpretive supremacy through his edition in 1751 up until influencing the biography of the poet written 1769 by Owen Ruffhead and containing a defence against Joseph Warton’s attack.34

34 Ryley even goes so far as to call him “Warburton’s surrogate”, Ryley 1984: 7. It certainly was at Warburton’s instigation that Ruffhead started to work on his biography of Pope, and Warburton

Poets and Editors


The nature of the personal acquaintance of the poet and his editor was and still is subject for speculation and suspicion.35 Their friendship started very late in Pope’s life, at a time when he was a universally celebrated poet, whereas Warburton was still only a cleric best known for his involvement in theological controversies. But at his death in 1744, Pope symbolically handed over the sceptre as leading man of letters to Warburton, now a bishop, in a kind of critical translatio imperii, by making him his future editor as well as literary executor. This fact was well known throughout the literary world of England, since Pope’s last will and testament was a widely published and debated document.36 The relevant passage from it was included in Warburton’s strategy to emphasize the legitimacy of his editorial work in the preface to his 1751 edition: “I also give and bequeath to the said Mr. Warburton the property of all such of my Works already printed, as he hath written, or shall write Commentaries or notes upon, and which I have not otherwise disposed of, or alienated; and as he shall publish without future alterations.” (Pope 1751 (1): iii) Pope, one of the great poet-critics, clearly distinguished here between the editorial acts of commentary and alteration. While the performance of the first is the very reason for Warburton’s inheritance, performance of the latter would automatically deprive the editor of it. Pope, who more than any other satirist had used editorial devices in his satirical strategies, knew about the power of an editor. In the debate about their relationship, the public impression of usurpation is pitted against the private reality of friendly collaboration. Though the incongruence in the relationship between Warburton and Pope is all too apparent, it was after all Pope’s own choice to select the quarrelsome scholar as his editor, as Pope’s letters undeniably show.37 He probably expected that the theologian’s combative temperament would be needed to secure his reputation after he could

also provided him with material – some of which Ruffhead copied word by word – and made corrections to the proofs. Ruffhead also incorporated much material from the commentary of the 1751 edition. Already his contemporaries were highly aware of his strong dependence on Warburton. Disraeli writes contemptuously in 1814 about “Ruffhead, who wrote Pope’s Life under the eye of Warburton, who revised every sheet of the volume, and suffered this mere Lawyer and singularly wretched Critic to write on, with far inferiour taste to his own”, Disraeli 1814 (1): 80. The section in the Life that deals with Warton is the one in which Warburton made most of his corrections, indicating how interested he was in that aspect. 35 Jennifer Snead in 2007 notes that “the Warburton-Pope relationship still awaits full examination in the larger context of eighteenth-century print culture and conceptions of authorship.” Snead 2007: 179. For a detailed account of their relationship, cf. Evans 1932: 71–94. 36 Cf. e.g. the anonymous “Sonnet On Mr. Pope’s Legacy to Mr. Warburton”, Anonym 1751c: 373. 37 Warburton also included part of a letter from Pope to himself in the preface to his edition: “I would commit [my works] to the candour of a sensible and reflecting judge, rather than to the


The Authority of Poetic Genius

no longer defend himself, as is the opinion of one of Pope’s recent biographers (cf. Goldsmith 2002: 288). For Elise Knapp, “the 1751 edition discloses Pope’s persistent concern regarding the qualifications and background of his reading audience. Aware of the rapid growth of the new reading public, yet uncertain of the level of their education, Pope regarded Warburton’s notes as a bridge between his compressed, allusive poetry and the new readers.” (1986: 456) It seems that Pope was not as blind to his new friend’s tendency to assume absolute authority, whether as critic, theologian, or editor, as his contemporaries feared him to be. The way he constructed his last will can be understood as a clever safeguard against the danger of Warburton’s taking too many freedoms with Pope’s text. Warburton had only been granted the right to publish texts that had been previously published, while the manuscripts and the unpublished papers were left to Bolingbroke, who had absolutely no sympathies left for Warburton. Pope must have been aware that Bolingbroke would pay the greatest attention to Warburton’s editorial actions, looking for a chance to show that he had acted against Pope’s will and consequently should be denied the £ 4000 legacy. Consequently, Warburton had to restrict his editorial fury, though he did make alterations. McLaverty sums up the ambiguous achievements of the edition by saying that it “was generally faithful to Pope’s plans for a complete edition of his works but made a number of questionable changes to his text.” (2002: 379) But however faithful Warburton really was in his editing, contemporary reactions were mainly hostile.38 Hardly anyone was inclined to believe in the shared interest of Pope and Warburton. Instead, Warburton’s edition was widely perceived as being an imposition on Pope’s works, falsifying and even disgracing the text, especially through the notes. Probably the most moderate position was taken by Ralph Griffiths in his review of the edition. Griffiths starts his evaluation by stating that it would be unnecessary to provide the public with examples of Warburton’s annotations on Pope, since it “is already sufficiently acquainted with

malice of every short-sighted and malevolent critic, or inadvertent and censorious Reader. And no hand can set them in so good a light, &c.” Pope 1751 (1): iii. 38 A rare acknowledgment of the possibility for friendly collaboration between poet and editor can be found in the unpublished record of a conversation between Edmond Malone and Samuel Johnson, both no mean editors themselves: “I mentioned to him a scheme I had for a new edn of Pope’s Works–He said he thought whatever Warburton had done ought to be retained. Add as much as you will to his notes– but suppress nothing. He supposed that the new arrangement that W. had made of P’s works was concerted between them before the death of Pope–& that therefore I had no right to alter it– […] An author’s disposition of his own works is sacred, & an edr has no right to vary it–”, qtd. in Osborn 1935: 929.

Poets and Editors


this gentleman’s talents as a critic, as well as a philosopher and divine.” As can be expected, Griffiths continues, the annotations to the edition contain “a great variety of useful and learned remarks and entertaining anecdotes”, but neither do all of them seem necessary to him, nor are they all justifiable: [S]ome readers may think many of the observations and explanations unnecessary to readers of any tolerable capacity; and that the sarcasms and lashes which our annotator has so freely interspersed and bestowed upon some living writers of no mean rank, might as well have been spared; or have been rather introduced elsewere, and not forced into the works of an author, who, at least that we have heard of, had no quarrel with Mr. Edward, Mr. Upton, or Mr. Hume. (1751: 101–102)

Griffiths’ criticism of Warburton is twofold: the first echoes the general reserve against pedantic editors that create work for themselves by explaining what needs no explanation, an accusation frequently made against Warburton, for example by Horace Walpole.39 Griffith’s second objection has to do with appropriation of authority. The question at stake is less whether Warburton should engage in aggressive disputes with other writers at all, but whether doing that in the context of his edition of Pope is legitimate, which Griffiths clearly thinks it is not. William Hayley is still more outspoken on the topic in 1782, writing that Warburton “has sullied the page of every Poet whom he pretended to illustrate; and […] he frequently degraded the useful and generous profession of Criticism into a mean instrument of personal malignity” (1782: 131). Three decades after the event, Hayley could voice his hope for a definite end of Warburton’s reign: “Many of his notes on Shakespeare have already resigned their place to the superior comments of more accomplished Critics; and perhaps the day is not far distant, when the volumes of Pope himself will cease to be a repository for the lumber of his friend.” (131) But at the time of its publication, anxieties as well as imagery ran much higher, since Warburton, through his control of Pope’s works, wielded a powerful discursive weapon, buttressing his own critical authority with that of Pope. One author compares Warburton’s notes to outhouses stationed among the Thames: As on the margin of Thames’ silver flood Stand little, necessary piles of wood,

39 In a letter, Walpole criticised Warburton’s explication of Pope “by metaphysical notes, ten times more obscure than the text” and then adds: “As if writing were come to perfection, Warburton and Hurd are going back again; and since commentators, obscurity, paradoxes, systems and visions have been so long exploded, ay, and pedantry too, they seem to think that they shall have merit by reviving what was happily forgotten”, qtd. in New 1982: 255.


The Authority of Poetic Genius

So Pope’s fair page appears with notes disgrac’d; Pull down the nuisances, ye Men of Taste. (Anonym 1751b: 13)

An image of irrevocable contamination is prevalent in these lines, illuminating the anxiety that the boundaries between poetic and editorial text might become, or might already be, too permeable. The quote is taken from the Verses occasioned by Mr. Warburton’s late Edition of Mr. Pope’s Works (1751), a general call to arms against Warburton, demanding all of his enemies to unite against him, and “tease him to death” like a bear at the fair. The author also satirically comments line by line on Warburton’s aggressive note on Edwards, as did others.40 The text focuses especially on the question of Warburton’s authority and starts with a general attack on the editor’s self-legitimization: Whereas too all the world has known That one call’d William Warburton Set himself up with tongue and pen To give the law to learned men, And proud of his false depth in letters Dealt insolently with his betters (Anonym 1751b: 3-4)

Pope’s “worth” is used “T’uphold a brawling Pedant”, repeating the dwarf-ona-giant’s-shoulders image used earlier in the century in the querelle. Later in the same work, it is said that “To Dulness sacred Pope a Temple rear’d,/ And Warburton with notes the work besmear’d” (9, 13). According to this poet, Warburton “Creeps sneakingly about Pope’s muse,/ Regards not what the Poet sings,/ But scribbles merely to abuse.” (14) The final example is as well one of contamination, this time olfactory, through the proximity of a tanner’s yard to Pope’s grotto at Twickenham: Close to the Grotto of the Twickenham Bard Too close– adjoins a Tanner’s yard; So Verse and Prose are to each other tied, So Warburton and Pope allied. (14)

40 William Dodd, in his A new book of the Dunciad. Occasioned by Mr. Warburton’s new edition of The Dunciad complete, had come to Edwards’ aid first. After mockingly praising the “celebrated Divine” for “his happy Edition of Shakespear”, Dodd 1750: iv, he addresses Warburton’s reaction to Edwards in the following terms: “What though thy varied ridicule he flies,/ While at each dart his reputation dies?” Dodd 1750: 9–10. An even more respectable if somewhat belated aid, and one that was seen by most contemporary commentators as settling the affair, was Mark Akenside’s 1766 “An ode to the late Thomas Edwards” that strikes a similar tone to Dodd, cf. Akenside 1766: 3.

Poets and Editors


In 1749, John Gilbert Cooper published a historical work called The Life of Socrates, in which he attacked the scholarship of his time in general, and William Warburton in particular. Warburton replied through an added note to Pope’s Essay on Criticism in the Works of 1751. The same year, Cooper published Cursory remarks on Mr. Warburton’s new Edition of Mr. Pope’s Works. Though complaining that Warburton’s comment on him had been personal, Cooper is himself not sparing in heaping personal abuse on the editor: “I found […] such miserable Spawn of a wretched Malice, as nothing but the inflamed Brain of a rank Monk could conceive, or the Oyster-selling Maids near London-Bridge could utter” (1751: 5). While serving the thirst for vengeance for the hurt of personal pride, belittling Warburton is used especially to widen the distance between poet and commentator, and thereby to stress the importunity of the commentary act, when Cooper complains about that indigested Heap of learned and unlearned Lumber, which Mr. Warburton has huddled together from the motley Dregs of desultory Reading, strained through the muddy Head and bitter Heart of an inveterate Controversialist, in his Notes and Commentaries, on the Works of that great poetical Ornament to our Nation Mr. Pope (3).

Cooper’s attack on Warburton’s editorial work contains the familiar accusation that pedantic editors self-servingly drown out the original text in their notes, but his criticism is more specifically directed against Warburton’s tendency to fight his own personal quarrels within the text of Pope. Quoting some lines of Pope that Warburton had commented upon, he claims them to have been “sufficiently understood before this modern Aristoxenus smother’d the Sense, in the unintelligible Jargon of modern Criticism, and the more offensive Rankness of personal Abuse.” (8) It is this misuse of the poet that constitutes “that most conspicuious want of Charity, and Unfaithfulness to the Trust Mr. Pope repos’d in him” (23). The unequal power struggle between poet and editor is inextricably linked to the physical body of the text. This body comprised the format of the text, its setting, and most importantly, the structure of text and footnote on the page and the maze of prefaces and appendices in the variorum works, but it also included pictorial representations. Warburton developed these tools further, often for his own ends. A fascinating and striking example for this is the frontispiece of the first volume of his edition. This picture captures many of the ambiguities between Pope and Warburton and the latter’s enterprise of editing the former. In the Life of Edmond Malone, a book rich in anecdotes about 18th century literary life, James Prior gives an interesting inside view into its origin:


The Authority of Poetic Genius

Mr. Burke, who avowed he knew little of art, though he admired it and knew many of its professors, was acquainted with Blakey the artist, who made the drawing for the frontispiece to Warburton’e edition of Pope’s works. He told him it was by Warburton’s particular desire that he made him the principal figure, and Pope only secondary; and that the light, contrary to the rules of art, goes upward from Warburton to Pope. A gentleman who was present when Mr. B. mentioned this circumstance, remarked that it was observable the poet and his commentator were looking different ways. (1860: 370–371)

Already Cooper had remarked on the frontispiece in an ironical way that leaves no doubt about the picture’s significance as a symbol for attempted cultural domination: To compleat the Whole, a Pyramid in the Middle is surcharged, as the Heralds call it, with a very small medallic Bust of Mr. Pope in Profile; to which is linked below a very fat Head,

Poets and Editors


hung there, I suppose, (as the Middlesex Justices do other Heads in Cases of Murder) to find an Owner […]. But to what Body it belonged, I leave Time to discover. (1751: 26)

Cooper’s account, by opposing Pope’s “bust” to the mere “fat Head” of Warburton, and by denying to admit his knowledge about the second person’s name and instead associating it with the exhibited heads of criminals, tries to redress the imbalance that he perceives inscribed into the design of the picture. And the quarrel about the proper edition of Pope’s work was not over with that of Warburton. In 1797 Joseph Warton published his nine-volume edition, in what Morley describes as an attempt at creating a “pot-boiler” and “as a means of attacking Warburton, rather than because the worthy doctor had anything of importance to add” (1921: 281).41 The scheme worked well financially, and failed critically.42 Warton was attacked, mostly for the inclusion of texts that offended contemporary decency, and that Warburton had chosen not to publish. Thus, he now ironically becomes an example of good editorship as opposed to that of Warton, as “o’er the ground that W ARBURTON once trod,/ The Winton pedant shakes his little rod.” (Mathias 1798: 328–329) In a very long note to his satirical poem The Pursuits of Literature, Thomas James Mathias takes Warton to task for his edition, wishing that Warburton’s edition had simply been reprinted: When the illustrious friend of Pope, William Warburton, (sublime even in his exorbitances, and dignified in sagacity and erudition,) condescended to become an Editor, I should have preferred reprinting his edition as it stood. […] I am indeed ashamed of [Warton’s] edition upon the whole. If Dr. W. had neither time, nor spirits, nor industry, nor leisure, nor inclination, he should not have undertaken a work so important to the world. But as there is no other new edition to be had of an elegant form, type and paper, (and this is very pretty) many persons will desire to have it, and I am sure I will not refuse it a place in my library. (1798: 329)

Notable here is the intermingling of critical with economic considerations. By 1798, Pope had already lost much of the immediate critical authority that had threatened to turn his literary inheritor into his virtual successor as prime wit of the age in 1751. Though Mathias takes such pains to critically condemn Warton’s edition, the necessity of the market with its system of demand and supply requires an economic decision that is not in accordance with the critical: he will buy the books.

41 “Everything points to the fact that it was Warburton’s editions of Pope that set Warton to work on his Essay.” MacClintock 1933: 4. 42 George Steevens wrote to Bishop Percy on September 9, 1797: “I wish our venerable friend had not undertaken this work at so late a period of his life. But though it will add little to his reputation, for his trouble he received no less a sum than five hundred pounds.” Qtd. in MacClintock 1933: 15.

5 Learning: Knowledge between Authority and Pedantry ‘But,’ it may be said, ‘if custom, which is so capricious and unaccountable, is every thing in language, of what significance is either the grammarian or the critic?’ Of considerable significance notwithstanding; and of most then when they confine themselves to their legal departments, and do not usurp an authority that doth not belong to them. (Campbell 1776 (1): 368) Genius is a master-workman, learning is but an instrument; and an instrument, tho’ most valuable, yet not always indispensable. (Young 1759: 26) Were angels to write books, they never would write folios. (Goldsmith 1774: 43)

One of the most basic ways for a person to acquire critical authority over another is by simply knowing something the other does not know. The reason for readers to grant critics authority often lies in the acceptance or assumption that the critic is differentiated from the reader through his more extensive knowledge. In this sense, an anonymous author asks his reviewers in 1791: “What knowledge fits you for this mighty task?” (1) Under these preconditions, a critic could be described as someone who possesses knowledge; his task would be to provide that knowledge and to base his critical judgments on it, making them sounder than without it, and his authority would rest on others’ belief in his possession of that knowledge. In his Lectures, Joseph Priestley writes that “[w]e more easily give our assent to any proposition when the person who contends for it appears, by his manner of delivering himself, to have a perfect knowledge of the subject of it” (1777: 116). Simple as this might seem, the question of how much knowledge, or ‘learning’ in contemporary usage, a critic should have, is heavily contested, especially throughout the beginning of the 18th century. ‘More’ in this case was not always simply seen as ‘better.’ Even though learning in the 18th century connotes power as it does today, there was disagreement whether it functioned more like a currency or more like a medicine, where dosage became important. While for those who tended towards the more philological aspects of criticism, the antiquarians, grammarians, lexicographers, or editors, an increase in learning equalled a proportional increase in critical authority, no matter from which part of human knowledge the information is derived, the propagators of what maybe could be called a more holistic approach to learning had a completely different view. For them, not only is “[a] little Learning […] a dang’rous Thing” (Pope 1711: 14), a view to which Bentley or Hearne would heartily subscribe, but also too much of learning might be dangerous. Especially the accumulation of information that is considered not useful or important enough will limit the critic’s ability to

The Pedant as Exemplary


see things as a whole and appreciate them as a unified structure. False learning was possible at both ends of the scale, which is why in the Dunciad Pope attacks both Bentley and Defoe, “the one for his pedantry, the other for his ignorance.” (Pittock 1973: 11) Thus, even though the concept of knowledge or learning plays an important role in contemporary discussions about criticism and delineations of the critic, the term is far from having unqualified approval. Especially in the first half of the century, clear lines were being drawn between what was perceived as true and false learning, with some reverence paid to true learning, and a lot of scorn reserved for false learning, as the latter was seen inevitably to lead to pedantry.

5.1 The Pedant as Exemplary The “pedant” is the most prominent negative figure in 18th-century discussions of the relationship between learning and criticism (cf. Damrosch 1976: 12). The accusation of pedantry looms large, not only in Scriblerian satire, though it has an especially solid base there. Already the character-books of the late 17th century had known the pedant and differentiated him into the antiquary, the scholar, and the critic (meaning chiefly the ‘verbal’ critic, or grammarian), with the common characteristic that “all were completely detached from life as it was being lived about them. The antiquary is lost in his old and rotten trinkets, the scholar in his college, and the critic in his syntax.” (Elioseff 1963: 25) In this view, the idea of a polite or gentleman critic did not yet exist; all professional critical activities could be subsumed under the accusation of pedantry. A distinction became only possible at the turn of the century with the parallel development of elegant writers like Addison (who himself disdained and ridiculed pedantry continuously throughout his work) and a progressively specialized philological scholarship based on scientific principles. According to Elioseff, “[t]he rise of science and pedantic scholarship prompted the lovers of humane learning to defend themselves against their worst enemies, not the ignorant, but the possessors of useless and unassimilated knowledge.” (22) The result was the creation of the gentleman critic as antagonist to the pedant (cf. Ortmeier 1982: 113). Pedantic critics seemed harmful to men like Pope and Addison because they voluntarily excluded aesthetic pleasure from their consideration of literary texts. As soon as someone lost sight of the beauty of a text and concentrated exclusively on its verbal form, that man turned into a pedant. This is what John Gilbert Cooper means when he admonishes prospective critics that “[i]t is highly necessary therefore, in [criticism], to sacrifice liberally to the Graces, without whose Inspiration Learning will there degenerate into Pedantry” (1771: 118–119).


Learning: Knowledge between Authority and Pedantry

The main criteria for distinguishing false learning (or pedantry) from true learning were usefulness and ostentation (cf. Elioseff 1963: 45). For anyone considering himself to be a gentleman, learning was perceived as pedantry as soon as it either served no pragmatic or aesthetic purpose, or if it was actively put on display. John Hughes writes in his essay “Of Style”, marked 1698: “When, by the Help of Study, a sufficient Stock of solid Learning is acquired, the next Business is to consider how to make use of it to the best Advantage.” (1735: 247) And George Berkeley distinguishes in a 1713 essay for the Guardian “two sorts of Goods, the one is in it self desirable, the other is to be desired, not on Account of its own Excellency, but for the sake of some other thing which it is Instrumental to obtain”. The first he calls Ends, and the second Means. “But,” Berkeley continues, “as wise Men engage in the Pursuit of Means, from a farther View of some natural Good with which they are connected; Fools, who are acted by Imitation and not by Reason, blindly pursue the Means, without any Design or Prospect of applying them.” (1713: 284) This is exactly the case with pedantic scholarship, because “the meer Exercise of the Memory as such, instead of bringing Pleasure or immediate Benefit, is a thing of vain Irksomness and Fatigue, especially when employ’d in the Acquisition of Languages” (285). One of the paradoxes of the fight against “pedantry” is that it very often went hand in hand with a defence of the ancients, so that as a result “[f]or the literary men and men of the world, scholarship appeared useless at best, perhaps even dangerous, even to those very classical authors it was meant to serve.” (Levine 1989: 551) For many satirists, philologically minded critics were not only unaesthetic bores; they were also spoil-sports. Besides being unable to enjoy beauty, the antiquarian scholars of Pope’s time were, as Peterson has argued, proving the accepted picture of antiquity, established by Renaissance classicism, as false, and exchanged it with one that was much more accurate, but in Pope’s eyes also much less spirited, or ideal (cf. Peterson 1975: 436, and also Levine 2002: 87). With a lot of nostalgia, the Renaissance valued antiquity as an ideal representation of the achievements of the human mind, and scholars did not hesitate to fill in gaps according to their idea of how the whole should look like. In Peri Bathous, Pope makes fun of busts of Homer or Cato, complete with inscription but missing the head. Long before any positive aesthetics of the fragment, to insist on the factual (and therefore necessarily incomplete) nature of the ancient heritage was seen as hopeless pedantry. For the poets of Pope’s time, consideration of ancient arts and literature was an obligation, but it was performed as active and creative appropriation, not scholarly reconstruction. The many translations and imitations of ancient texts are a case in point. In The Dunciad, Pope declared: “Still green with Bays each ancient Altar stands,/ Above the reach of Sacrilegious Hands” (1711: 13), and it is not only the ignorant who

The Pedant as Exemplary


commit sacrilege on the ancient altar, but those as well who question the altar’s historical accuracy. Thomas Hearne is one of the classical scholars who for many of his contemporaries personified useless learning, and who suggested himself for attacks through his combined devotion to antiquarianism and religio-political controversy.1 As librarian in Oxford, he was one of the “pioneers of bibliographical methodology” (Birrell 1988: 37) until he was forced from this job and from the university because of his decision to remain a non-juror. As an editor of countless texts, he worked to preserve the literary documents of English antiquity, laying foundations for historical scholarship up to this day, and he regarded manuscripts of England’s medieval past with an almost religious adoration, considering every discovery of another fragment as an act of divine providence.2 In many other regards he was less inclined to be grateful, embroiling himself in a number of controversies, giving himself “the reputation of an incorrigible, over-confident, naïve, and even cold-hearted person, someone who invited condescension, satire, and ridicule” (Harmsen 2004, no page), and finally earning himself a place in the Dunciad. In 1736 was published a short book with the title Impartial Memorials of the Life and Writings of Thomas Hearne, M.A. By Several Hands.3 The text is itself rather pedantic in its satire of the old scholar and his work, ironically praising Hearne’s “Fidelity as an Editor” (Anonym 1736: 25) and then “making exact transcripts of obvious errors” (Green 1973: 36). The inscription on the title-page, arranged around an illustration of Hearne, sets the tone of the satire right from the start, by (mis)quoting from the lines of the Dunciad that attacked Hearne: “Heurnills behold! in Closet close y-pent,/ Of sober Fam, with learned Dust besprent: To future Ages will his Dulness last,/ Who hath preserv’d the Dulness of the past.” (Anonym 1736: no page) The most poignant attacks in the book were directed against Hearne’s lack of discrimination about what it was he was spending his time with, a fault in the scholar that also modern commentators admit (cf. Green 1973: 39–40): “He […] has raked the Repositaries of Antiquity, and been indefatigable in fetching Learning from Places where many would not have

1 “Hearne, like Bentley, was never one to eschew controversy, either personal or professional; in fact, he almost seemed to revel in it.” Green 1973: 40. 2 “I continually meet with the most signal instances of this Thy Providence, and one act yesterday when I unexpectedly met with three old MSS for which in a particular manner I return my thanks.” Qtd. in Green 1973: 39. 3 The editor’s introduction was signed Philalethes, i.e. Edmund Curll. The same text was also issued as part of the third volume of the octavo edition of Mr. Pope’s Literary Correspondence, published by Curll in 1735.


Learning: Knowledge between Authority and Pedantry

sought after it” (Anonym 1736: 1). The function of learning was preservation of knowledge, and even though every pedant’s critic would agree that some things were worth being preserved, the non-distinguishing importance that is put on the preservation of every textual relic is being called into question. While the pedant thinks everything worth remembering, the polite critic thinks a lot of things worth forgetting, thereby proving himself to be a critic proper in the sense of a gatekeeper, though in this case not just of the present, but also of the past. Hearne’s scholarship is in the eyes of the satirist one that merely inflates books without giving them real content, his Collectanea, for example, are said to have, through “The Preservation of these Things […] now swelled to a prodigious Size.” (Anonym 1736: 3) Scholarship of Hearne’s kind is turning, in the eyes of many contemporaries, into a self-sufficient and self-producing system that loses its reference to anything outside of its own horizon. In one of the rather rare gestures of really spirited satire, the author for once refuses to fall into the trap of becoming even more pedantic than his target by enumerating all of Hearne’s works, and refers the reader to the list of his books that are published at the end of each of the scholar’s new works, highlighting how the type of exhaustive pedantry that Hearne practices serves to reinforce itself by swelling through a form of iterative publication: It would be almost endless to expatiate particularly on his Labours, or to give an Account of the Product of every Year; for which Reason we must refer the Reader to his own printed Catalogue of them, inserted at the End of every Book, he published, since they became numerous. (7)

Critics in the Scriblerian spirit refused to regard learning and knowledge as an absolute value and demanded that it be always tied to a certain style of presentation and evaluated within a framework where artistic expression is primary, and knowledge subservient. In this view, “learning” needed to be “clear from learn’d Impertinence” (Mallet 1733: 14). The most famous contemporary attack on the lack of use in pedantic learning comes from the fourth book of the Dunciad, where Dulness is approached by numerous scholars who present her with examples of their work, and are encouraged by the goddess to continue, as the argument states it, “in the study of Butterflies, Shells, Birds-nests, Moss, &c. but with particular caution, not to proceed beyond Trifles, to any useful or extensive views of Nature, or of the Author of Nature.” (Pope 1750: 180) Pope’s plea here is directed against specialization of knowledge, and the professionalization of science that makes it possible. In his opinion, the numerous “trifles” that the specialized scholar finds and records do not add up to a bigger and more complete general picture of Nature and its cosmic order, but are on the contrary rather blocking the view. This, according to Pope, holds true for biology as well as

The Pedant as Exemplary


for criticism. For Pope, a capital error in composing or judging a piece of art was a loss of balance between part and whole, especially when too much emphasis was put on parts. In the middle section of his Essay on Criticism he took great pains to illustrate the consequences of such folly as he describes here: Most Criticks, fond of some subservient Art, Still make the Whole depend upon a Part: They talk of Principles, but Parts they prize, And All to one lov’d Folly sacrifice. (Pope 1711: 17)

And a little later: Thus Criticks, of less Judgment than Caprice, Curious, not Knowing, not exact, but nice, Form short Ideas; and offend in Arts (As most in Manners) by a Love to Parts. (18)

To endlessly ponder over trifles while having long lost an idea of or even interest in the whole is the most prominent characteristic attributed to the pedant. Pope, with his advice to “Neglect the Rules each Verbal Critick lays,/ For not to know some Trifles, is a Praise” (17, cf. also Cobb 1709: no page) is only the most wellknown example.4 At mid-century, Samuel Johnson repeats the oft-made charge in one of his Rambler papers, where he uses the image of the “microscope of criticism”: Some seem always to read with the microscope of criticism, and employ their whole attention upon minute elegance, or faults scarcely visible to common observation. […] As they discern with great exactness, they comprehend but a narrow compass, and know nothing of the justness of the design, the general spirit of the performance, the artifice of connection, or the harmony of the parts; they never conceive how small a proportion that which they are busy in contemplating bears to the whole, or how the trivial inaccuracies with which they are offended, are absorbed and lost in general excellence. (1751a: 30–31)

4 In 1698, Thomas Rymer declares: “I am so far from admiring those great Men, that have taken wonderful Pains about little insignificant things, as in traceing the rise and progress of Words; and have written Volumes concerning particular Letters; that I think they miserably lost their time; and so will any one that reads their Works upon these Subjects: Whatever can be said upon them is not worth knowing.” (8) Berkeley, in hisGuardian essay, writes about “certain Criticks, who […] look on the ancient Authors, but it is with an Eye to Phraseology, or certain minute Particulars, which are valuable for no other Reason but because they are despised and forgotten by the rest of Mankind. The divine Maxims of Morality, the exact Pictures of Human Life, the profound Discoveries of Arts and Sciences, just Thoughts, bright images, sublime Sentiments, are overlooked, while the mind is learnedly taken up in verbal Remarks.” (1713: 285)


Learning: Knowledge between Authority and Pedantry

Besides a lack of applicability or utility, the second fault of pedantic learning was its possessors’ self-interested display of it. To show off one’s learning for its own sake was a sign of vanity and stood against the ideal of the gentleman-critic, because “all ostentation of learning in terms of art, and words unusual in common life and polite authors, is pedantry and contrary to good breeding”, as Charles Gildon writes in 1721 (294–295). To parade one’s learning would inevitably distract from the sense of what learning was about: “These lost the Sense, their Learning to display” (Pope 1711: 11). By contrast, in his commendatory verses on Addison’s Dialogues on Medals, Pope had favourably compared Addison’s (true) “learning” with the mere “vanity” of antiquarians (cf. Pope 1736 (2): 66) The resistance against ostentation and ‘profession’ of knowledge closely connects the debate about true and false learning to socially stratificatory conceptions of criticism. While pedantic learning was associated with those who acquired and produced it as a means of living – the university-based scholars and the emerging professional critics – true learning was conceived as ‘polite learning,’ something the gentleman had, but did not depend on. And just as ostentation of wealth is often considered a vulgar characteristic of the newly rich when compared to ‘old money,’ the gentlemanly author or critic disdained the obvious display of his learning, because he considered it as a matter of course. A regular feature of a completely self-serving display of learning were for example the ‘digressions’ that the Scriblerians were making fun of, most notably Jonathan Swift in his “Digression in Praise of Digressions” in the Tale of a Tub (cf. Lockwood 1979: 12). John Hughes writes in 1735 “that if there was nothing else to recommend Polite Learning, yet methinks this were enough, that it files off the Rust of the Academy […]. In a Word, it adds the Gentleman to the Scholar” (248). Polite learning was largely a matter of style, and sometimes even revered ancient critics had to be dressed according to the latest fashion. Concerning his translation of the works of Longinus, Leonard Welsted writes: “For my own part, I have endeavour’d to make Longinus speak in the free familiar Style of a Gentleman, and to take from him, as far as I was able, the Stiffness of a Critick.” He even freely admits that “[i]n order to give him an English Dress, and that a fashionable one, I have been obliged to indulge my self in some Latitude” (Longinus 1712: no page). The contrast to the philologist’s attempts to stay as true to the ‘original’ text as possible, down to the last letter, especially in the case of texts from antiquity, is notable. This hints at some of the ambiguities in the relations between knowledge, criticism, and ancient and modern literature that constitute the so-called “Battle of the Books.”

Polite Learning against Erudition


5.2 Polite Learning against Erudition This larger controversy between the ‘ancients’ and the ‘moderns’ constitutes the main context for the debate about learning in criticism. Joseph M. Levine has argued that an essential ingredient in the English Battle of the Books was “the bitter contest that resulted between the ‘wits’ and the scholars, rhetoric and philology, ‘polite’ learning and erudition. […] It was, therefore, the argument between literature and learning that alone could be said to be new.” (1981: 83, 88). Levine’s work completely reorients the terms of the English Battle and locates it in a potentially more revealing and significant humanist controversy (cf. Tinkler 1988: 453). This is a considerable advance over slightly older views that see the controversy, in an allusion to Swift’s allusion to Hobbes in his famous mock-heroic account, as “a mean and trivial contest over literary tastes or fashions, an intellectual dog-fight” (White 1968: 105). As is well known, the battle had its origins in France at the end of the 17th century in a dispute between the anciens, led by Boileau, and the modernes, led by Perrault, about the comparative merits of ancient and modern writing and thinking, but with much wider implications as a general conflict between ideas of progress and authority. When the querelle reached England in the 1690s, though the structure of the dispute remained the same, the specific style in which the battle was fought changed, and thus provided, at least for a while, a different focus – one that brought with it the differentiation between ‘true’ and ‘false’ learning, or ‘polite learning’ and ‘erudition.’ One of the reasons for this shift of emphasis was the simple fact that at one point in the debate, the party of the Ancients was proven wrong on a factual basis. The mistake did not concern their main argument; it was simply an unfortunate choice of example. A trifle that would have been long forgotten, did it not have such momentous consequences through the defence strategies of the mistaken party. In 1690, Sir William Temple had published his essay Of Ancient and Modern Learning, in which he preferred ancient learning over modern. As a case in point, he highly praised the Epistles of Phalaris and Aesop’s fables, assuming that they were among the oldest of ancient texts, and consequently the best. Temple’s essay was a general attack on the new sciences, and especially on the Royal Society, whose members soon commissioned a defence. Temple was therefore answered in 1694 by the linguist and theologian William Wotton, with his Reflections upon Ancient and Modern Learning. One year later, the Epistles of Phalaris were published in a new edition by the young Charles Boyle, later earl of Orrery, doubtless to strengthen Temple’s side of the argument. Wotton, while preparing a second edition of his book, asked the classical scholar Richard Bentley, newly installed as Keeper of the King’s Libraries (who had already been drawn into the controversy through Boyle’s accusation that Bentley had hindered his access to the original texts of Phalaris) to


Learning: Knowledge between Authority and Pedantry

write about the spuriousness of the Epistles. This resulted in the Dissertation on the Epistles of Phalaris, an early masterpiece of philology, proving the epistles to be a forgery much younger than Temple had assumed. Richard Bentley surely combined astounding scholarly gifts with some serious personal shortcomings, such as a “harsh and overbearing character” (Horne 1946: 302). Later ages might have more easily forgotten about these and concentrated on the scholarly achievements, but for his own age this very distinction between the person of the scholar and his works was anxiously debated. Thus, his historical position in a transitory period for the concept of criticism and scholarship accounts for the duality of his posterior fame: as both a founder of modern philology and a major dunce and exemplary pedant. Indeed, late posterity has taken quite an effort to do justice to Bentley’s critical achievements as editor of classical texts. G. P. Goold, for example, in a paper read in honour of Bentley’s 300th birthday states that “whether we look before or after, we shall find none who for intellectual brilliance is to be compared with Richard Bentley” and that he “is in the general esteem held to be the greatest of classical scholars” (1963: 285). This fits in with Mary Green’s view that “his name is justly ranked as first among the classical scholars in Europe in the 1st half of the eighteenth century” (1973: 41). Bosker, also calling him a “great classical scholar”, stresses as well that “Bentley was the first great philologist in the modern sense of the word” and that textual criticism “received a great impetus from his publications” (1954: 88). Still, he was of a difficult temper and committed at least one critical blunder that was used to stigmatize him in his own time, and that he is still associated with in our own. Bentley’s specialty – and special ability – was the restoration of classical texts, to which he brought an immense learning, an indefatigable scrupulousness, and a set of scholarly methods that would eventually develop into modern philology. He insisted on collating all manuscript copies that were available to him, and he pondered textual problems with “a divinatory genius that struck awe into his learned contemporaries and nearly everyone since.” (Levine 1989: 549) And indeed, one has to admit to Bentley’s credit and the Scriblerians’ discredit that the scholar’s original sin was actually to be right. Long before his unpleasant quarrels with his own university or the unfortunate edition of Milton, his contribution to the Phalaris controversy, according to Levine “one of the most remarkable exercises in historical criticism that the world had ever seen” (1989: 550), was not only Bentley at his best (“the prototype of modern classical scholarship” (Green 1973: 37)), but also a shattering blow to the cause of the “Ancients” Wotton and Temple, and consequently for Swift and his friends, by proving conclusively that the epistles of Phalaris were a forgery from late antiquity, consequently crushing Temple’s identification of their seniority with their quality.

Polite Learning against Erudition


The Phalaris controversy therefore shows in an exemplary way some of the paradoxes of the Battle of the Books, since it was one of the most eminent classical scholars, a man who had devoted his life to a reading of ancient authors, who was to be turned by satire into an arch-figure of the moderns (cf. Kramnick 2002: 358), and it was the scientific success of his treatise5 in proving its point that led to the construction of his public image as an exemplary fool. It is interesting to note that, 300 years after Bentley’s birth, there is still puzzlement about the incongruousness of Bentley’s actual achievements and the way they were perceived by his contemporaries. Thus, Goold wonders about the Epistles on Phalaris: The work, which is written in Bentley’s bold and pugnacious English, is such a sustained and crushing refutation of his adversaries’ position that it is astonishing that, even after Bentley’s enlarged version of 1699, in fact even after Bentley’s death, the issue could ever have been in doubt. (1963: 291)

But the problem that Goold overlooks here (probably in a conscious refusal to let himself be influenced by the ‘polite’ side of the quarrel) is that the important point was not whether the issue was in doubt or not, but rather whether it was presented in style or not. And according to most observers and participants of the debate, Bentley especially failed miserably in that respect. The general war over the realm of literature – and the sovereignty within that realm, criticism – was hardly ever fought along the lines of irrefutable and cold reason, though ever so often in its name. Bentley himself more than once strayed from these lines, and his detractors always had the question of style on their side. As Susan Spencer put it: “The question came down to one of who was more qualified to judge texts: a statesman and gentleman-scholar who had experienced events of the sort described in epic and tragedy, or a ‘Modern’ pedant who had known nothing but the academic cloister.” (1991: no page) One of the numerous reactions to Wotton’s and Bentley’s initial attack on Temple came from Thomas Rymer. In An Essay, concerning Critical and Curious Learning, published 1698, the critic, though principally siding with Wotton, chastises him for his lack of grace and his indulgence in pedantry, especially when compared to Temple, who is allowed to have “the most easie unaffected Style imaginable” (50). Wotton, on the other hand, “[i]n order to subdue this popular Adversary, […] nicely examines every Word that seems disagreeable to his own Notions; and, least any thing should be wanting to compleat his

5 Goold describes how “compliments from Graevius and Spanheim, the two most outstanding scholars of the day, flowed in”, Goold 1963: 289.


Learning: Knowledge between Authority and Pedantry

Victory, quarrels with him about insignificant Trifles wholly foreign to his Point.” (48) This, according to the gentleman critic that Rymer tries to picture himself as, was an unmistakeable sign of pedantry. Rymer’s discussion of Bentley is even more critical. Again, he does not question the veracity of Bentley’s argument, but rather its significance and style. How, Rymer asks, could Bentley engage a whole society of gentlemen on one minor point? Bentley, as Green has shown, “epitomized the application of the scientific spirit to humane studies” (1973: 43–44) in his attention to detail and scrupulousness and especially his insistence on the significance of his own type of inquiry. In the 1699 edition of his dissertation that includes a very long preface refuting Boyle’s and King’s accusations, he also answers to the charge that he had spend three years for the composition of the first edition. After first proving this to be impossible, his conclusion nicely illustrates his unfaltering loyalty to scientific truth: “But suppose this Accusation true; I had rather have spent all that time in discovering Truth, than have spent three days in maintaining an Error.” (Bentley 1699: cvi) Rymer in his critique shows the characteristic resistance of the age against what they felt as an impertinence. And not only did Bentley waste away his time with insignificant trifles, he did so exhaustingly and impolitely: “The Dr. all along entertains his Reader with Insolence and Pedantry” (Rymer 1698: 62). Rymer quotes a few sentences of Bentley to illustrate the “roughness” of his style, and adds: “While I write this, I cannot but fancy it is dictated to me by some Haughty School-master, with his Rod in his Hand.” (60) This kind of opinion was echoed through the controversy, with William King, for example, confirming that “indeed Bentivoglio is a Heavy Writer; […] he is too Tedious, […] he argues upon Trifles only with great Gravity, and manages Serious Things with as much Lightness.” (1699: 2) The preface to Dr. Bentley’s Dissertations on the Epistles of Phalaris, and the Fables of Aesop, examined, published under the name of Charles Boyle but most likely written by his tutor Henry Aldrich, expressed the polite attitude to the debate with a nonchalance that would always elude the rather stubborn classical scholar: “I had rather be so Handsomly mistaken as [Sir William Temple] is, if he be mistaken, then be so Rudely and Dully in the right, as some of his Opposers, allowing ‘em to be right, are.” (Boyle 1745: no page) The battle over the utility of philology, or ‘verbal criticism,’ fuelled in its fury by the battle of the books, found in Richard Bentley an eminent figure on which to concentrate hostility (cf. Kramnick 2002: 350 and Goldgar 1977: 373). As a well-known scholar who had won the “admiration of all of Europe” (Levine 1989: 549), he was a worthy object for satire. Few were willing, like Gibbon, to acknowledge “the daring penetration of Bentley” (1764: 16), instead, similar to John Dennis, Bentley was turned into a trademark for false criticism. Thus, critics could act “Bentley-like” or be “Bentley’s in [their] own

Polite Learning against Erudition


Conceit”.6 But he would have most likely been spared much ridicule if it hadn’t been for a very bad decision. With his work on Phalaris, Bentley had aroused the anger of Swift and his friends and allies by proving them factually wrong. Still, he had held his ground convincingly because he had relied on the specialized knowledge that he as a professional scholar had accumulated and that far exceeded that of his gentleman antagonists. All the more astonishing then is the nature of the other book that secured his lasting reputation for posterity: his edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost in 1732. With this work, in which Bentley applied his philological method of emendation to Milton in order to ‘correct’ the poet and his text, he not only ridiculed himself and his most important scholarly method, he did so while clearly transgressing the boundaries of his specialized profession that had secured his victory in the earlier controversy. There has been considerable puzzlement as to why Bentley should step outside of his field of eminence and edit Milton, a modern author (cf. Levine 1989: 549 and Ryley 1984: 67). Goold tries to justify his decision by hinting at the possibility that it was Queen Caroline herself who commissioned the work, thus relieving him at least of the burden of having chosen his own doom, and he introduces the topic in rather euphemistic terms, calling the edition an “excellent example of the strength and the weakness of the classical scholar in the realms of literary criticism” (Goold 1963: 298), but even he cannot deny the facts: “Of his eight hundred or so conjectures, two are certain, and some half-dozen probable: the rest range from the plausible but improbable to the downright inconceivable. It is astounding, but it is a fact, that Bentley’s understanding of his native tongue and his acquaintance with native letters were inferior to his command of the classical languages and literatures” (Goold 1963: 297). In any case, Bentley was neither prepared for working on an author of the 17th century, nor did he trouble himself with acquiring the same kind of knowledge that he used when dealing with classical texts. His knowledge of Milton’s time and language was simply insufficient for his favourite method of analogy (cf. Levine 1989: 561). An unresolved question concerns the central idea of Bentley’s edition: that of assuming the existence of an unscrupulous scribe and editor who falsified in so

6 “The Gift of Censure, Bentley-like, to prize/ Beyond just Bounds, is not to criticize”, Anonym 1779: 31. “Grant, that (all Bentley’s in your own Conceit,)/ From some few Husks you sift a Sack of Wheat;/ At whose Expence do Critics toil and laugh,/ When they’re rewarded only with the Chaff?” Anonym 1779: 35. Cf. also: “Not on CAMS sedgey banks (where, as writer’s recount,/ In his kingdom despotic he reign’d Paramount)/ Proud BENTLEY more wrinkles his brow ever put on,/ When he hash’d culprit authors, as cooks hash your mutton,/ Yet pleas’d, as a surgeon a body dissecting,/ In the thoughts, or of making of faults, or detecting.” Anonym 1775: 8.


Learning: Knowledge between Authority and Pedantry

many ways what the blind poet was dictating, thus necessitating the emendations of the scholar. The idea is pure conjecture, and right from the start there was disagreement whether Bentley believed in it himself or not. In one of the more temperate reactions to the edition, Zachary Pearce’s A Review of the Text of Milton’s Paradise Lost. In which the chief of Dr. Bentley’s Emendations are consider’d (1732), the author states that he “cannot agree with the Doctor that there was any such Person of an Editor, as made Alterations and added Verses at his Pleasure in the first Edition of this Poem.” (v)7 Samuel Johnson, after making it clear that he did not have the space or energy to waste on Bentley’s type of verbal criticism, comments on it in his Life of Milton: “A supposition rash and groundless, if he thought it true; and vile and pernicious, if, as is said, he in private allowed it to be false.” (1779–1781 (2): 196–197) Joseph Levine comes to the following conclusion: When all is said and done, then, it seems unlikely that Bentley believed in his nefarious editor, though as he warmed to his task and piled on alterations and emendations through all the twelve books, he might well have convinced himself of his fiction. On the other hand, it is just possible that he intended his preface and device satirically, tongue in cheek, like a very Scriblerian. Bentley had a sense of humor and he might well have learned something from his critics. (1989: 567)

Bentley’s edition of Milton was greeted with considerable antagonism and attacks, to an extent that surprised the editor, who “had underestimated the opposition, even while he anticipated their objections.” (565) One surely cannot say that Bentley hadn’t been warned. For two years while preparing his edition, Bentley was attacked as Zoilus in The Grub Street Journal by John Martyn (cf. Goldgar 1977: 373). One of the immediate attacks came in the form of the anon-

7 Pearce had reason to be gentle to Bentley, since the latter, as master of Trinity College, had agreed in 1717 to award Pearce a fellowship, and his tone is remarkable in its lack of combativeness: “Dr. Bentley is deservedly distinguish’d for his superior Talents in Critical Knowledge; they are own’d by the unanimous Consent of the Learned World, and have gain’d him a Reputation which is real and substantial: but this will be understood with exception to what he has done on Milton’s Poem: In which tho’ he has given us some useful and judicious Remarks, yet at the same time he has made many Emendations, which may justly be call’d in question. The Remarker has given his Reasons why he cannot subscribe to several of them; but in such a respectful manner as he hopes will not, he is sure ought not, to give Dr. B. any Offence. It is a difference only of Opinion and Judgment; and in this way no Man is too Great to have his Sentiments examin’d.” Pearce 1732: iv. A comparably cautious reaction is found in Harris: “It would have become Dr. Bentley, though in literature and natural abilities among the first of his age, had he been more temperate in his Criticism upon the Paradise lost; had he not so repeatedly and injuriously offered violence to his author, from an affected superiority, to which he had no pretence.” Harris 1752b: 18.

Polite Learning against Erudition


ymous Milton restor’d, and Bentley depos’d, where the author questions Bentley’s qualification to deal with a poet of Milton’s stature and his method of emendations in general. It is obvious from the wording that Bentley’s book is seen as the epitome of editorial encroachment on a poet’s text: “[T]his way of restoring, i.e. interpolating by Guess, is so sacralegious an Intrusion, that, as it had its Rise, so it is hoped it will have its Fall with you.” (Anonym 1732: viii) In the main part of the text, the author singles out many of Bentley’s emendations for ridicule, proving him to be profoundly a-poetical, such as his insistence that Milton’s “darkness visible” was a physical impossibility. Consequently, David Mallet‘s verse satire Of Verbal Criticism. An epistle to Mr. Pope. Occasioned by Theobald’s Shakespear, and Bentley’s Milton, published 1733, turns Bentley in unmistakable terms into the arch-pedant, an enemy to poets and poetry, arrogant and stupid: While Bentley, long to wrangling schools confin’d, And but by books acquainted with mankind, Dares, in the fulness of the Pedant’s pride, Rhime tho’ no genius, tho’ no judge decide. Yet he, prime pattern of the captious art, Out-ribbalding poor Tibbald, tops his part; Holds high the scourge o’er each fam’d Author’s head, Nor are their graves a refuge for the Dead. To Milton lending sense, to Horace wit, He makes ‘em write what never Poet writ: The Roman Muse arraigns his mangling pen, And Paradise, by him, is lost agen. Such was his doom impos’d by Heaven’s decree, With ears that hear not, eyes that shall not see, The Low to raise, to level the Sublime, To blast all Beauty, and beprose all Rhyme. Great eldest born of Dulness, blind and bold! Tyrant! more cruel than Procrustes old; Who to his iron bed, by torture fits Their nobler part, the souls of suffering Wits. Such is the Man, who heaps his head with bays, And calls on human kind to sound his praise, For points transplac’d with curious want of skill, For alter’d sounds, and sense amended ill. (10-11)

Bentley’s career and his dual legacy as eminent founder of a scholarly discipline and exemplary pedant for a whole century illustrate the ups and downs of the specialization and professionalization of knowledge in the first half of the 18th century. As a professional classical philologist he stood for the necessity and the success of specialization, proving the inadequacy of the gentleman scholar with his dissertation on Phalaris. As the unfortunate editor of Milton, by disre-


Learning: Knowledge between Authority and Pedantry

garding the limits of his specialization, he could not but prove his enemies right in their claim that specialized knowledge resulted in a distorted view of reality, and that critics would always try to dominate and encroach on poetic texts. Milton, seen through Bentley’s lens, was nothing but a caricature of the original, and this was exemplary for how Bentley’s enemies like Swift or Pope believed that the pedant disfigured the world by seeing it only through the narrow chinks of his learned cavern.

5.3 Specialized Knowledge Richard Bentley serves as an example of how the necessity for specialized knowledge or expertise in the rapidly diversifying realm of science was widely regarded with anxiety, especially when it was conceived as a loss of power for those who had no willingness or time to acquire it. Jonathan Kramnick sees this as one of the reasons for the resistance against professional critics like John Dennis, or more specifically against the authority claimed by professional readers over amateur readers (cf. 2002: 349). Many of the writers of the 18th century still held on to the ideal of general and complete learning and competence, but to excel as a true uomo universale was becoming harder and harder as knowledge accumulated through scientific inquiry. There was simply too much to be known to know everything exhaustively, as Joseph Warton had to concede in 1753: The character of the scholars of the present age will not be much injured or misrepresented by saying, that they seem to be superficially acquainted with a multitude of subjects, but to go to the bottom of very few. This appears in criticism and polite learning, as well as in the abstruser sciences: by the diffusion of knowledge its depth is abated. (1753a: 289)

This was true for all those who still tried to follow the Renaissance ideal of education, and who felt increasingly incapable of doing so. But for those who refused to sacrifice ‘depth,’ the obvious way to handle the exponential growth in the amount of accessible knowledge was specialization. As the conception of criticism changed and developed over time, so did the ideas about the critic’s functions. The increasingly different tasks that individual critics could face, especially as they were influenced by the changing situation and demands of the literary market, reflect changes in the theoretical conception of criticism. The task of a gentleman-critic at the Restoration court, commenting orally on a recently staged play, is already different from that of a poet-critic, defending his dramatic practice in a preface, and widely different from that of the literary reviewer of the late 18th century, or again the editor of Shakespeare’s plays, or Pope’s collected works, or their biographer. Not to speak of grammar-

Specialized Knowledge


ians, classical philologists, philosophers on aesthetics, or the Oxford Professor of Poetry, a new university chair founded in 1708. Accordingly, the requirements for these different tasks would differ. The ideal grammarian is not necessarily a good commentator on newly published poems, and an editor of Shakespeare will not be expected to produce treatises on aesthetics. With the evolution of publishing, the establishment of literary canons, the increasing differentiation of the sciences, pressure was growing on critics to specialise in certain tasks. Editing Shakespeare, for example, was taken out of the hands of amateurs during the course of the century, as the number of sources to be consulted and the percentage of commentary to be included grew. Only exceptional persons like Samuel Johnson could continue to excel in multiple fields of criticism. The critical project of the early coffeehouse-based periodicals had been to distribute knowledge in order to make critical conversation among equals possible (though the authors took care to veil the fact that they were still privileged in their own possession of knowledge). But with the professionalization and specialization of the critic that went hand in hand with the functional differentiation of his tasks, an imbalance was introduced into this ideally equal distribution of knowledge. The specialist is defined and differentiated from others by his exclusive knowledge. To oppose the ‘pedant’ was an attempt to resist the importance of exclusionary knowledge. For Kramnick, the very definition of professional scholarship – and any critical authority based on knowledge – is turned into a means of attack by the opponents of ‘pedantry,’ because “[t]he crime of the pedant is that he claims that he knows more than the rest of us. In a community defined by the modest deferral of one’s merely personal opinion, the pedant warns readers of the temptation of expertise” (2002: 350).8 As a means to define a certain social group, the knowledge of the ancient languages, especially of Latin, is nothing but that: a means to an end.

8 As an aside, one should note that knowledge is also power insofar as it connotes inclusion into a specific social group. Knowledge of the ancient languages was for example commonly used as a means of social exclusion or inclusion, as is shown in the many hostile commentaries on Pope’s translation of Homer that doubt Pope’s knowledge of Greek, however founded these doubts were (cf. Levine 1989: 551). The opposition towards his venture, orchestrated by Addison and manifested in numerous pamphlets, poems and even a play, concentrated on this issue. Most of the attacks made the point that Pope’s knowledge of Greek was insufficient for his task. In Gildon’s playA New Rehearsal, for example, Pope is made to say: “[I]f I did not understand Greek, what of that; I hope a Man may Translate a Greek Author without understanding Greek”, Gildon 1714: 41. That this is also a strategy of social exclusion is clear when one considers that the justification for these doubts lay in the fact that Pope had not attended a university, because as a Catholic he was denied access to them. For a contemporary view on the case, cf. Bisset 1799: 67ff. Similar rhetoric is still used almost a hundred years later in the sneering remarks of Croker and Lockhart about ‘Cockney’ Keats’s lack of classical education, also connected to his social status.


Learning: Knowledge between Authority and Pedantry

The gentleman acquires Latin because it is part of a gentleman’s education, not because of the language per se. But the scholar and antiquarian professionalizes this knowledge by seeing it not just as a means, but also as an end in itself. It is his job to know Latin, and in order to legitimate his claim of professionalism, he has to know more about it than the amateur gentleman. One indication of a growing awareness of – and anxiety about – the functional differentiation of criticism, with the accompanying specialized knowledge, was the attempt to define – and to devalue – one type of criticism under the term ‘verbal criticism.’ The few contemporary attempts at sketching a history of criticism are all aware of changing functions for criticism through different periods. This conception of succeeding tasks for criticism is usually employed to explain the spread – and subsequent loss of value – of what is called by contemporaries “the pomps and vanities of verbal criticism” (Kenrick 1765b: ix).9 In 1752, James Harris published Upon the Rise and Progress of Criticism, supposedly a history of criticism, though Patey correctly remarks that “Harris’s history is not really a history. All three of his species of criticism, he admits, emerged in antiquity; all criticism’s history occurred then, and events since have been simply the national migrations of these timeless categories.” (1997: 25) Still, Harris sketched a historical development based on functional differentiation. He differentiates three species of criticism: the philosophical kind, that explains the causes and principles of good writing, the historical kind, or commentary and explanation, and corrective criticism that is concerned with the collation of texts. Harris’ second and third species, where the focus is shifted from aesthetic appreciation to historical and formal correctness, depend for their validity on the perception of a degenerational movement in human culture and especially language, as well as in the media that transport both. When languages and cultural practices change, historical names, places, and events become forgotten and meaning becomes obscure – a process that is increased by the instability of the physical carriers of this meaning, books or scrolls. “Hence therefore of things obsolete the names became obsolete also; and authors, who in their own age were intelligible and easy, in future days grew difficult and obscure. Here then we may behold the rise of a second race of Critics, the tribe of Scholiasts, Commentators, and Explainers.” (Harris 1752b: 10)10 But though the corruption of cultural tradition provides the philological part of criticism with a reason to be, this, if granted

9 Cf. also Mallet 1733: 4–5 and Oldmixon 1728: 90, who speaks of “a lower Order of Criticks, which are rarely heard of within the Sound of Bow-Bell”. 10 Kramnick has commented on the paradox that “the most traditional bodies of knowledge – scripture and classics – were made to serve the most secular and modern ends.” Kramnick 2002: 352.

Specialized Knowledge


at all,11 is only granted grudgingly and as an intermediate stage.12 For many contemporary authors, the dangers of overshooting the goal, of overcorrection, seemed to outweigh the uses of this practice of criticism by far. Oliver Goldsmith, in his historical account of criticism, hastens from acknowledging its being “not entirely useless” to a full-fledged account of its abuses.13 But even if they do not wilfully pervert their own practices, their work is seen not as a necessarily ongoing activity, but an intermediate stage that eventually needs to be surpassed.14 Once the tasks of the verbal critic have been fulfilled, that is, correct editions of classical authors have been provided, he is no longer needed. But as he is still there, he starts to generate his own tasks in order to ensure his continuing necessity: “[A]t last, when destitute of other employment,” writes Goldsmith in 1774, “like the supernumerary domestics of the great, [they] made work for each 11 “A Skill in verbal Criticism is in reality but a Skill in guessing, and consequently he is the best Critic who guesses best: A mighty attainment!” Broome 1739: xiv. 12 A notable exception is Thomas Rymer, who uses the beginning of his investigation into the Temple-Wotton controversy to strengthen the cause of the editorial critics of the Renaissance, fellow professionals in the history of criticism: “[A]nd had not the Criticks of latter Ages […] been very industrious in Publishing correct Editions of antient Books, and putting Modern Authors upon great Care and exactness in their Writings, that they might at last restore Letters to the World, we had not at this day seen Learning in so flourishing a Condition”, Rymer 1698: 4–5. 13 “Critics, sophists, grammarians, rhetoricians, and commentators, now began to figure in the literary commonwealth. In the dawn of science, such are generally modest, and not entirely useless; their performances serve to mark the progress to its improvement. But as nothing but speculation was required in making proficients, in their respective departments; so neither the satyr, nor the contempt of the wise […] could prevent their approaches. Possessed of all the advantages of unfeeling dullness, laborious, insensible, and persevering, they still proceeded mending, and mending every work of genius, or to speak without irony, undermining all that was polite and useful. Libraries were loaded, but not enriched with their labours, while the fatigues of reading their explanatory comments was tenfold that which might suffice for understanding the original, and their works effectually encreased our application, by professing to remove it.” Goldsmith 1774: 14. 14 “[S]ince most Books worth reading have now good Impressions, it is a folly to devote too much time to this branch of Criticism; it is ridiculous to make it the supreme business of Life to repair the ruins of a decay’d Word, to trouble the World with vain Niceties about a Letter, or a Syllable, or the Transposition of a Phrase, when the present reading is sufficiently intelligible. These learned Triflers are mere Weeders of an Author, they collect the Weeds for their own use, and permit others to gather the Herbs and Flowers” (Broome 1739: xiii). Cf. also: “[O]f what use is verbal Criticism when once we have a faithful Edition?” Broome 1739: xv. The same image of verbal critics as “weeders” is used by Disraeli: “Now that the best authors are no more scarce, but multiplied without end by the invention of printing, verbal criticism, the chief merit of which is to catch syllables, deserves no longer our esteem. Critics of this kind may, not unaptly, be compared to weeders; they eradicate the worthless plants, and leave to more skilful cultivators the art of gathering and distinguishing the more valuable ones.” Disraeli 1794 (1): 70.


Learning: Knowledge between Authority and Pedantry

other.” (16) This, then, is the original sin of the pedant, with Goldsmith’s wording and example bearing a striking proximity to Adam Smith’s concept of “unproductive labour”, published two years later in his Wealth of Nations.15 The self-generation of modern criticism, its evolution into a self-referential system, especially in the context of an exploding book market, is attacked again and again by writers of the period, and is being given its most nightmarish images in the works of Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift. Swift provides a striking analogy for the problem of the pedantic learning’s increasing self-sufficiency. In his “Digression concerning Criticks” in the Tale of a Tub, he ironically compares the achievements of the editorial critics to the heroic deeds of ancient times, only to comment that it hath been objected that those ancient heroes, famous for their combating so many giants, and dragons, and robbers, were in their own persons a greater nuisance to mankind than any of those monsters they subdued; and therefore, to render their obligations more complete, when all other vermin were destroyed, should in conscience have concluded with the same justice upon themselves, as Hercules most generously did, and hath upon that score procured for himself more temples and votaries than the best of his fellows. For these reasons I suppose it is why some have conceived it would be very expedient for the public good of learning that every true critic, as soon as he had finished his task assigned, should immediately deliver himself up to ratsbane or hemp, or from some convenient altitude, and that no man’s pretensions to so illustrious a character should by any means be received before that operation was performed. (1704: 77–78)

Though the awareness of a continuing development in human cultures and languages that would keep progressing into the future should secure the verbal critic’s continuing utility,16 more and more anxiety is created as the objects of the verbal critic’s attention come closer to contemporaneity. Expansion of verbal criticism into the realm of modern texts is often seen as an invasion, especially if done in such a clumsy and arrogant manner as with Bentley’s edition of Milton. While granting them theoretical utility, George Campbell castigates the actual performance of those verbal critics that have dealt with more recent texts and authors: [M]any of the verbal criticisms which have been made on English authors, since the beginning of the present century (for in this island we had little or nothing of the kind before),

15 “The labour of a menial servant […] adds to the value of nothing.” Smith 1776 (1): 400. Smith goes on to include the work of “men of letters of all kinds” into his category of unproductive labour. 16 George Campbell for example sees the verbal critic not just as someone who corrects and explains corrupt texts from antiquity, but who helps to provide a firm base in language and culture that are ever changing, cf. Campbell 1776 (1): 369.

Specialized Knowledge


seem to have preceded either from no settled principles at all, or from such as will not bear a near examination. (1776 (1): 367)

This view is directly opposed to Vicesimus Knox’s from two years later, who claims that “[t]he English language […] may with truth be said, to have been refined and embellished by the grammarians and the great lexicographer of the present age. It is from verbal critics, that our language will receive the only excellences it wanted, purity and correctness.” (1778 (1): 150) But even Knox thought it necessary to qualify his statement. “I must indeed allow, that Verbal Criticism, like many other laudable pursuits, is apt to deviate into absurdity, when not under the regulation of reason and good sense.” (148) The end of the 17th and beginning of the 18th century saw the birth of modern philological scholarship through the indefatigable work of numerous antiquarians and editors. Ironically, it was the very faction who accused the ‘pedants’ of loosing themselves into trifling details, thereby losing sight of the artwork as a whole, who were really unable to see the big picture of the grand project undertaken by the combined effort of textual criticism, one that was considerably larger than any single edited work: the preservation of a whole cultural heritage.17 But, as Green has argued, the achievements of classical scholars and their efforts were, for their contemporaries, overshadowed by “the less engaging personal qualities of the men who pursued them, the microscopic intensity of their vision and the polemical zeal with which they presented their findings. Their lives and writings seemed marked with a singular lack of urbanity and grace.” (1973: 43) Similar to the differentiation of critic and poet-critic, that between the ‘polite’ critic and the pedant is marked by the opposition between criticism as profession and criticism as identity. The profession of a science is theoretically independent from the person occupying that profession, especially in collective enterprises. Ideally, it should not matter who is editing a given text from antiquity, for example, as long as he works according to the guidelines of his profession. In practice, and especially in matters of criticism, the individual critic’s personality of course does play a major part, and those who opposed professionalization of criticism saw it as inextricably connected to the personality of its professor. To be a critic was for someone like Pope or Addison – for better or worse – a question of identity. And just as a false critic was also morally a bad man, a true critic was expected to be a virtuous man, as was expressed through his identification with the gentleman. “Learn then what Morals Criticks ought to show,” Pope writes in the Essay on Criticism, “For ‘tis but half a Judge’s Task, to Know.” (1711: 32)

17 For a general survey of classical scholarship in the 18th century, cf. Most 1997.


Learning: Knowledge between Authority and Pedantry

*** The outward sign of the exclusionary tendency of the professional’s specialized knowledge was his specific use of language. Such specialized vocabulary was often ridiculed by contemporaries as ‘cant.’ The continuation of humanist scholarship into neoclassical criticism was perceived by many as a tainting of the vernacular language, especially with Latinisms. This became more and more problematical with the expansion of philological criticism’s subject into the field of contemporary – and therefore national – literature. At a time when a range of authors like Shakespeare and Milton were increasingly perceived to be part of a national canon, and therefore communal property of every reader, specialized discourses about these texts that excluded readers became ever more suspicious. Resistance to ‘cant’ in criticism was therefore high, especially when it served as a trick for legitimizing critical authority by using terms that are unknown or whose specialized meaning is unknown to the general reader. For Jonathan Swift, “Cant Words” are “the most ruinous Corruption in any Language” (1712: 14–15), and for Thomas Rymer, “it is […] a sign of Pedantry […] to affect the Use of hard Words, and to lard English Writings with Greek and Latin.” (1698: 68) In the same sense, Goldsmith talks about “a desire in the critic of grafting the spirit of ancient languages upon the English”, from which “has proceeded of late several disagreeable instances of pedantry.” (1774: 117) And Thomas Gordon in The Humorist elaborates on the use of foreign languages for the establishment of critical authority in his receipt to make a perfect modern critic: Take a good Quantity of Stage-terms from any old or modern Critic: Aristotle is the best for those who can read Greek; A smaller Genius may be well furnish’d from the Retail Shops of Horace, Rapin, Dacier, &c. An unmix’d English Critic must deal only in the Essay on Poetry, and the Rehearsal. […] When you have got your Terms together, you must be very careful in the sorting of them. The Greek and English will by no means mix, without the cementing Quality of the soft French Language: The Latin look best alone, but ought ever to be stinted to a Line and a half, or, at most, two Lines: The oftener the French appears, the better it discovers a bon goút (1730: 124–126).

An important part of Addison’s campaign to democratize criticism was his opposition to the use of such exclusionary language, or ‘cant.’ In the Tatler, he writes about the pedantic critic: “He is master of a certain set of words, as Unity, Style, Fire, Phlegm, Easy, Natural, Turn, Sentiment, and the like; which he varies, compounds, divides, and throws together, in every part of his discourse, without any thought or meaning.” (1710: no page) And in the Spectator he writes: “A few general Rules extracted out of the French Authors, with a certain Cant of Words,

Specialized Knowledge


has sometimes set up an Illiterate heavy Writer for a most judicious and formidable Critick.” (1712b: no page) The success of Addison’s campaign against the use of cant in criticism can be gathered from this comment by John Oldmixon: I dare not say Diction and Sentiments, because the Spectator has disgraced the Use of technical Terms, by calling it Cant; and supposing, that those who use them, do it to disguise their Ignorance, and shew their Vanity in critical Phrase. (1728: 66)

Johnson in the Rambler repeats the accusation that the ‘cant of criticism’ is easily learned to provide instantly an aura of critical authority through the story of his fictitious correspondent Misocapelus.18 Finally, an apex of resistance to ‘cant’ is reached with the rise of sensibility that opposes the language of the heart to the dead idiom of the pedant. In Sterne’s Tristram Shandy we find the exclamation that “Of all the cants which are canted in this canting world – though the cant of hypocrites may be the worst – the cant of criticism is the most tormenting!” (1761 (3): 60) The opposition to cant was so loud because it combined the ‘dangers’ of specialization with the vice of affectation and pretence. By using hard words that will not be understood by the multitude of readers, the pedant is able to feign specialized knowledge that he does not really possess. A specialized term is substituted for an understanding of the term, usually without having been necessary in the first place. Thus, a reviewer of Lawson’s Lectures concerning Oratory in the Critical Review complains of “those pedantic terms, which no ordinary memory can retain, and which are no more essential to oratory, than it is for a man to know that his windpipe is furnished with a muscle called Cricoarytaenoideus posticus.” (Anonym 1756b: 388) And Thomas Gordon not only writes that a number of terms, “artfully or unartfully ranged, are sufficient to make a tolerable Critic”, but also stresses the importance of “mak[ing those terms] as obscure you can for your Heart, Blood, and Life: Spare no Ink on this Occasion; it will cast such a Cloud about the Reader’s Understanding, that he will take all the rest upon your Word” (1730: 125, cf. also Edwards 1750: 112). This pedantic substitution of sign for signification is seen by James Ralph to be a product of university education:

18 “I betook myself to a coffee-house frequented by wits, among whom I learned in a short time the cant of criticism, and talked so loudly and volubly of nature, and manners, and sentiment, and diction, and similies, and contrasts, and action, and pronunciation, that I was often desired to lead the hiss and clap, and was feared and hated by the players and the poets.” Johnson 1751h: no page.


Learning: Knowledge between Authority and Pedantry

These Gentlemen [criticasters], at the Expense of much Labour and Birch, are whipp’d at School into bad Translations, false Latin and dull Themes; from thence they run the Gantlope through all the pedantick Forms of an University-Education; There they grow familiar with the Title-Pages of Antient and modern Authors, and will talk of Aristotle, Longinus, Horace, Scaliger, Rapin, Bossu, Dacier, as freely, as if bosom Acquaintance. Their Mouths are fill’d with the Fable, the Moral, Catastrophe, Unity, Probability, Poetick Justice, true Sublime, Bombast, Simplicity, Magnificance, and all the critical Jargon, which is learn’d in a quarter of an Hour, and serves to talk of one’s whole Life after. (1728: 161)

The main point in the attack on pedantic jargon is the disproportion between outward appearance and real content, or the lack of a true semantic substance, a disproportion expressed by Gordon through the time that it takes to learn these terms and their infinite applicability. Jargon is empty, it is signs that have lost their original signification and that have turned, like fashion trademarks, into indicators of social inclusion or exclusion. A scene from Sarah Fielding’s novel The Adventures of David Simple (1744) takes the dissociation of sign and significance to an extreme in a gathering of critics: Addison, Prior, Otway, Congreve, Dryden, Pope, Shakespeare, Tom Durfey, &c. &c. &c. were Names all heard between whiles, tho’ no one could tell who spoke them, or whether they were mention’d with Approbation or Dislike. The words Genius,–––and no Genius; – Invention,––Poetry,–––fine Things,–– bad Language,–––no Style,–––charming Writing, – Imagery,–––and Diction, with many more Expressions which swim on the Surface of Criticism, seem’d to have been caught by those Fishers for the Reputation of Wit, tho’ they were intirely ignorant what Use to make of them, or how to apply them properly (154–155).

Specialized and stereotypized terms, and in a nice twist even the proper names of authors, become detached from their meaning and even from an individual subject that voices them. In Fielding’s account, these de-signified and disembodied words merely float around without being ascribable to any individual person. The jargon becomes self-sufficient, and the critic using it becomes interchangeable. *** One development that stressed the importance of specialized knowledge for proper criticism is the advent of what could be called the historical method of criticism. The beginnings of these notions can be identified as early as the turn of the century. Watson, for example, argues that “an untutored but certain conviction that the poetry of different ages calls for different standards of interpretation” is already apparent in the last critical work of John Dryden, the preface to Fables

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from 1700 (1964: 63),19 but historical criticism really blossomed in the middle of the century, with works like Thomas Warton’s Observations on the Faerie Queene (1754), according to Audley Smith “the first genuine attempt to apply the principles of historical criticism” (Smith 1939: 73) but also Richard Hurd’s Letters on Chivalry and Romance (1762), “an important contribution to the growth of the historical method in criticism.” (1939: 68) Other critics who were accepting the importance of historical criticism were John Pinkerton (cf. Bosker 1954: 298), John Upton, Percival Stockdale (cf. Bosker 1954: 151), or William Warburton, who developed and defended his conviction that an ignorance of the past must necessarily stand in the way of the full appreciation of an ancient poem, with the result that the critic must become something of a historical scholar as well (cf. Ryley 1984: 45 and Curry 1967). Surely, ‘historical criticism’ in the 18th century was far from being a unified school (cf. Fairer 2000: 61), but more and more authors shared a belief in the importance of historical knowledge for the understanding of literary texts. Consequently, a lot of specialized knowledge became highly valuable to criticism. If an author cannot be adequately understood and evaluated without a thorough knowledge about his historical context, the critic who possesses that knowledge can thereby legitimize the superiority of his own judgements. As the most important counter-argument to the insistence on the supremacy of individual emotional response to an artwork (demanding that it should be solely judged according to how it affects emotionally), the historical method maintains the necessity of knowledge for a distinction between different levels of critical authority. Against strategies to use specialized knowledge, or knowledge whose access was limited as a means of social exclusion, authors like Pope and Addison had set their denigration of the ‘pedant.’ But Addison went one step further than Pope by making the dissemination of that knowledge that was deemed instrumental to true criticism an integral part of his didactic project of periodical journalism. In his discussion of Addison’s criticism, Samuel Johnson remarked on Addison’s own expertise: “Of very extensive learning he has indeed given no proofs.” (Johnson 1779–1781 (5): 81) But then Addison’s role was exactly not to be learned as a means to itself, but to be someone who made learning available, approachable, non-specialized. Addison was far from denying the need for knowledge as a necessary precondition for becoming a good critic:

19 Cf. e.g. Johnson 1745: 1. Another early ‘historical critic’ was Thomas Blackwell, who in his Life and Writings of Homer (1735) insisted that to understand Homer, one had to imagine oneself in his audience, cf. Prickett 1984: 89.


Learning: Knowledge between Authority and Pedantry

The Truth of it is, there is nothing more absurd, than for a Man to set up for a Critick, without a good Insight into all the Parts of Learning; whereas many of those who have endeavoured to signalize themselves by Works of this Nature among our English Writers, are not only defective in the above-mentioned Particulars, but plainly discover, by the Phrases which they make use of, and by their confused way of thinking, that they are not acquainted with the most common and ordinary Systems of Arts and Sciences. (1712b: no page)

But the insistence on an insight into “all the Parts of Learning” shows that he was not encouraging specialization and differentiation through knowledge. Rather, one of the core tasks of his enlightenment project was to considerably widen the circle of those who were provided with learning, by first divesting necessary from unnecessary (‘pedantic’) knowledge and then teaching the former in a generally comprehensible way. He understood himself as a mediator, not a guardian of knowledge, and his successors gave him credit for that. Thus, Johnson writes later on in his Life: “His purpose was to infuse literary curiosity, by gentle and unsuspected conveyance, into the gay, the idle, and the wealthy; he therefore presented knowledge in the most alluring form, not lofty and austere, but accessible and familiar.” (1779–1781 (5): 150–151) In that view he is ironically seconded, among others, by that severe critic of the Lives, Robert Potter: “[Addison’s] page was, like the vernal sun, bright and gentle; it gradually and imperceptibly dispelled the mists of barbarism which hung over learning, and spread an intellectual light, the influence of which was universal and permanent.” (1783: 1) But Addison’s project did not only meet with approval. Joseph Warton in one of his Adventurer essays laments that Addison’s democratization of learning has led to its abandoning all positive characteristics of professionalization and specialization: But [Addison’s] purpose has in some measure been defeated by its success; and we have been driven from one extream with such precipitation, that we have not stopped in the medium, but gone on to the other. Learning has been divested of the peculiarities of a college dress, that she might mix in public assemblies; but by this means she has been confounded with ignorance and levity. (Warton 1753d: 412)

When Warton wrote these lines, a new form of criticism was being established with the Reviews that further varied criticism’s relation to knowledge and the authority it derived from knowledge. One characteristic of all journalistic writing (and frequent occasion for criticism of it) was the miscellaneousness of its subject matter. At least since the time of the Tatler and the Spectator, journals and magazines had been vessels containing the variety of daily life as well as the arts and sciences, and those writing for them were expected to be familiar with life’s every aspect. This was of course also very true for all critics writing in a journalistic medium. Having to deal with what contemporary production presented them

Specialized Knowledge


with, they could not specialize in only one literary period, as did the classical scholar or the Shakespearean editor, or even one field of science. Isaac Disraeli draws a catalogue of knowledge in his considerations about what a journalist or critic needs to know. Besides the learned languages, and a perfect knowledge of his own; and besides a tincture which he should have of the living languages, if he is desirous of giving an account of those works which are printed throughout Europe, he must also be at least, tolerably acquainted whith the subjects of which they treat; and according as the occasion requires, he must shew himself a mathematician, astronomer, physician, lawyer, and divine. He must not be ignorant of what has passed in the most distant periods of antiquity; and he must be familiar with whatever has occured in less remote times. Yet these are but a few of those qualities which are necessary to form a journalist. (1794 (1): 8)

While review criticism itself is the product of a differentiation in literary criticism, with the review critic fulfilling a specific function distinct from the writer of treatises, and in a specific and new genre, the anonymous form of publication and the attempt at exhaustive coverage at least for a while created the impression of the unification of all knowledge in a single – albeit fictional – voice. Though it became very quickly apparent that the demands of the expanding book-market exceeded the range of knowledge of any single reviewer, so that Ralph Griffiths established specialized competence as a principle for the distribution of books to reviewers (cf. Nangle 1934: viii), the practice of anonymity of contributions and the centralization of editorship created the impression, more or less successfully,20 of a monolithic and universally competent opinion. And especially in the earlier years, some individual review critics covered an impressive number of topics, using their contextualization within the Reviews to back up their claim to universal competence. One can only marvel at the intellectual range of Tobias Smollett’s writings, for example, which Basker has compared to Samuel Johnson’s work while writing for the Gentleman’s Magazine and the Literary Magazine (cf. Basker 1988: 9). But Smollett himself was highly aware that to uphold this claim of general competence was precarious and prone to attacks from many quarters. In one of the prefaces to the Critical Review, he explains the dilemma the reviewer is in:

20 In 1772, the Critical defends its authority in all fields of specialized knowledge by stating: “In every distinct department of literature, we can boast of the assistance of various gentlemen, whose names, (did our plan admit of their publication) must reflect credit on any society established for the encouragement of real knowledge.” Anonym 1772: no page.


Learning: Knowledge between Authority and Pedantry

The character they asume lays them under another great disadvantage; because the mistake that would be overlooked as venial in another writer, is considered as unpardonable in a Critical Reviewer. […] The divine, the physician, the philologist, the mathematician, and, in short, every profession expects to be gratified in its own particular department of study, while the multifarious productions of the month deny the Reviewers the pleasure of answering their expectations. (1765c: no page)

Implicit in the claim of critical authority over books from any discipline whatsoever is the assumption of knowledge in all these disciplines on the side of the reviewer. In this claim, the reviewer as probably the last critical uomo universale was confronted with the knowledge of specialized professionals in the different fields and sciences, against whom he had to compete with his evaluations. This could, and would, backfire. The claim to universality in reviewing almost necessitated derision from authors like the playwright Samuel Foote, who has the hero of his most successful comedy The Lyar talk about his past as a review critic for the Monthly: Our method was very concise: We copy the title-page of a new book; we never go any farther: if we are order’d to praise it, we have at hand about ten words, which scattered through as many periods, effectually does the business, as, “laudable design, happy arrangement, spirited language, nervous sentiment, elevation of thought, conclusive argument;” if we are to decry, then we have, “unconnected, flat, false, illiberal stricture, reprehensible, unnatural:” […] These are the arms with which we engage authors of every kind. To us all subjects are equal; plays or sermons, poetry or politics, music or midwifery, it is the same thing. (Foote 1764: 8–9)

This is, once more, the argument against the use of meaningless ‘cant’ in criticism, here exacerbated by the range of topics that the reviewer had to claim authority over. But this example, instead of being a general attack on ‘pedantic’ knowledge, laments the lack of specialization in the review critic. In the second half of the century, specialized and professional knowledge keep on losing their social stigma, though the resistance against knowledge as a means of exclusion also continues along with the suspicion that specialized knowledge, and especially specialized jargon, might veil an absence of significant substance. Alan Sokal’s 1996 hoax was perpetrated very much in the spirit of Joseph Addison’s fight against ‘cant.’

6 Rules and the Critic Some drily plain, without Invention’s Aid, Write dull Receits how Poems may be made (Pope 1711: 9) [C]riticism, by which I understand that species of didactic writing, which refers to general rules the virtues and faults of composition. And the perfection of this art would consist in an ability to refer every beauty and blemish to a separate class; and every class, by a gradual progression, to some one single principle. (Hurd 1751: 98)

Among the more obvious foundations for a critic’ authority is a reliance on ‘rules’ according to which literature should be constructed, and according to which it could therefore be evaluated. Rules are an obvious means to authority, their very name and nature implies a power structure – rules are power. But their use is also highly problematic, as no unquestioned acceptance of them or even a unified position on them can be found during the period, quite contrary to the most common stereotype against neoclassical criticism. Though they were often referred to as ‘laws,’ rules lacked a generally accepted jurisdiction and were always open to debate. Like other terms, that of the ‘rules’ was never conclusively defined by contemporaries – or any definition accepted. “Perhaps no two men in Augustan England,” claims Hooker, “when they used the term Rules, had precisely the same meaning in mind.” (Dennis 1939 (2): lxxxv) Disagreements arose not least because the discussion of rules in English criticism was ubiquitous – there is hardly a critic who does not invoke the rules or have something to add to the subject. Rules are being utilized everywhere, and to a multitude of purposes. Still, hardly any critic of the period would simply propagate unqualified approval of the rules; quite the opposite. As Goldgar comments, “to voice reservations about strict applicability of the rules was, in Pope’s day, a little like declaring oneself against sin.” (1965: xxii) Neoclassical poetics had a strong tendency to be normative and prescriptive, and the discussion of rules in them was universal, but much about the stereotype of strict rule-adherence is simply wrong: It is partly the existence of such rules that has produced a good bit of misunderstanding about neoclassicism. It used to be fashionable to cite the rules as evidence of the extraordinary rigidity and authoritarianism of neoclassical criticism. But all students of the eighteenth century now recognize that such a characterization of the movement is inaccurate, to say the least. Neoclassicism, at least in England, was neither so inflexible nor so simple a tradition. There were rules, certainly, but no critic of any significance regarded them as unbreakable laws, or, indeed, as anything other than an attempt to make the successful practice of the Ancients easily available to modern writers. (xxi)


Rules and the Critic

The balanced position that most critics held is maybe best expressed by Joseph Warton’s comment from his essay on Pope: “A petulant rejection, and an implicit veneration, of the rules of the ancient critics, are equally destructive of true taste.” (1764: 97) But though no critic was willing to take an absolute position on the validity of rules – either for or against them – they were still yielded as instruments of power in different circumstances and for different purposes throughout the century, and they often served to underline the critic’s claim for authority. Not many authors were willing to make such sweeping claims as Nathaniel Weekes to “Mark well the Precepts that the Wise impart,/ And get each Rule of Poetry by Heart” (1754: 8). But besides the almost instinctive rejection of unqualified adherence to rules in general, critics did time and again demand that some of the rules should be followed, or that they at least should not be condemned a priori. As the century progresses, the tone becomes ever more cautious, for example in Joseph Trapp’s assurance that “it is no Absurdity to have Rules prescribed to […] Art.” (1742: 3) And when George Campbell states that “in almost every art, even as used by mere practitioners, there are certain rules, as hath been already hinted, which must carefully be followed, and which serve the artist instead of principles”, he hastens to add: “An acquaintance with these is one step, and but one step towards science.” (1776 (1): 4) And John Aikin lamented at the end of the century: “[F]ew as our rules are, many among us seem to take a pride in disregarding even them”(1793: 259). In addition, rules are by no means a guarantee to perfection. According to Johnson, they “are the instruments of mental vision, which may indeed assist our faculties when properly used but produce confusion and obscurity by unskilful application.” (1751a: 30) Almost exactly one hundred years after he wrote this, Frances Burney recorded a conversation with Johnson from 1779 that turns him almost into a Romantic for his resistance to rules: There are three distinct kind of judges upon all new authors or productions; the first are those who know no rules, but pronounce entirely from their natural taste and feelings; the second are those who know and judge by rules; and the third are those who know, but are above the rules. These last are those you should wish to satisfy. Next to them rate the natural judges; but ever despise those opinions that are formed by the rules. (Burney 1854 (1): 151)

It is important to notice here that Johnson does not question the existence of rules, or even their possible utility. What he resists is the attempt to reduce literature to rules, to take them as absolute for evaluating literature. Such resistance can even be found in writers who commercially depended on a belief in rules. One minor genre that necessarily upheld their importance in poetical composition and that did give them out ‘for use’ was the instructional manual that intended to teach poetry to all of its readers. In 1702, Edward Bysshe’s The Art

Rules and the Critic


of English Poetry was published, containing not only “A collection of the most natural, agreeable, and sublime thoughts” and “A dictionary of rhymes”, but also “Rules for making verses”, that were stated in rather absolute terms.1 But Bysshe hastens in his preface to caution his readers that to follow his rules will help them to write more correct, but will not make them poets: So many are the Qualifications, as well natural as acquir’d that are essentially requisite to the making of a good Poet that ‘tis in vain for any Man to aim at a great Reputation on account of his Poetical Performances, by barely following the Rules of others, and reducing their Speculations into Practice. It may not be impossible indeed for Men, even of indifferent Parts, by making Examples to the Rules hereafter given, to compose Verses smooth and wellsounding to the Ear; yet if such Verses want strong Sense, Propriety, and Elevation of Thought, or Purity of Diction, they will be at best but what Horace calls them, Versus inopes rerum, nugaeque canorae; and the Writers of them not Poets, but versifying Scribblers. I pretend not therefore by the following Sheets to teach a Man to be a Poet in spite of Fate and Nature, but only to be of help to the few who are born to be so, and whom audit vocatus Apollo. (1762: iii)

English criticism’s rejection of an absolute application of poetical rules is often developed in accordance with its national self-fashioning, as the strict adherence to the rules that today is often used to describe English neoclassical theory was seen by contemporaries to be mainly a characteristic of French criticism, and therefore incompatible with the more liberal English spirit2 and with the ideals of criticism as polite conversation (cf. Patey 1997: 13). And indeed, the critics that held most steadfastly to the rules, like Thomas Rymer, were also those most strongly influenced by French criticism, a dependence that was made fun of by Joseph Addison.3 Alexander Pope even compares the English critic’s resistance against the type of unquestioning rule-adherence to be found in absolutist France to the barbarian’s fight of resistance against the Roman conquerors: But Critic Learning flourish’d most in France: The Rules, a Nation born to serve, obeys; And Boileau still in Right of Horace sways. But we, brave Britons, Foreign Laws despis’d, And kept unconquer’d, and unciviliz’d, Fierce for the Liberties of Wit, and bold, We still defy’d the Romans, as of old. (1711: 41)

1 Another example would be John Newbery’s Art of Poetry from 1762. Cf. Beatty 1934: 1099 and Engell 1989: 181. 2 Cf. Bosker 1954: 6 and Steele’s discussion of “regular pieces” in The Guardian, Steele 1713: no page. 3 “[The pedant] knows his own strength so well, that he never dares praise any thing in which he has not a French author for his voucher”, Addison 1710: no page.


Rules and the Critic

Another example that subtly aligns rule-adherence to national characteristics and fashions is a satirical etching published by Mary and Matthew Darly in 1772. The Title of the sketch is “An Old Macaroni Critic at a New Play”. The ridiculous critic is depicted seated, looking through a glass held to his left eye. At his feet lies an open book, on the pages of which can be read: “The Critical Quadrant or Rules for Judging of the Sublime in Tragedy by Benj. Bombast”. The title alludes to the fashion of the ‘Macaroni,’ an extravagant style influenced by Continental affectations that derived its satirical name from the Italian word maccherone, meaning a boorish fool. The “Critical Quadrant”, ridiculously reducing the sublime to the mechanical rules of geometry, is therefore a fitting handbook for this false critic, and it seems only appropriate that he is dissatisfied with what he gets to see on the English stage.

6.1 Power Structures The use of rules in criticism is always an exertion of power, and the changing perspectives on rules and their validity are expressed in the way that their power relation is depicted by critics or authors. The position that pictures rules as a

Power Structures


restrictive and even punitive power opposed to the creative power of authors is maybe best expressed in Charles Gildon’s condescending description of criticism as a judicial court where the rules are being elevated to the status of laws, with the purpose of keeping order by restraining and providing legitimacy for punishment: The end of all rules or laws is to instruct the ignorant, or to restrain the licentious; but when such rules or laws are sufficiently promulgated, and so universally known, that no one can plead ignorance of them, nothing but contumacy continues their breach; which contumacy is not to be remov’d by a repetition of the precept, but by a punishment proportioned to the offence. (1721: 166)

It is obvious that such a position implicitly derives critical authority from knowledge of the rules – they are the standard for judging as well as a guide for creating. It should be noted, though, that Gildon does not conceive this knowledge as an exclusionary one. Though it serves as a means to authorize the critic, it does not serve to restrain this authorization to a few specialized critics. On the contrary, the aim of Gildon’s insistence on the rules is to make them “universally known.” Like Addison, Gildon wants to disseminate critical knowledge to as many people as possible, even though he structures it much more through prescription and restriction. Gildon conceptualizes literary creation as a form of raw or pure power that needs to be contained to be beneficial. In Gildon’s view, he provides the critical reader with a book of laws that helpfully reduces the overwhelming complexity of artistic creation, protecting him from artistic “licentiousness” just like the civil code protects citizens from the arbitrariness of power.4 He applies the word “poetaster” to all those who write “without the foundation of art; that is, without knowing those duties which nature enjoins in any particular sort of poetry” (167). Like Gildon, who claims that “there is in poetry a certain perfection which is not subject to the caprice of unguided fancy, but decided by judgment, that is, by the rules of art” (275), Thomas Rymer also assigns the rules as a check against uncontrolled flights of fancy that would lead to poetical anarchy (cf. Shanahan 1966: 27). To illuminate his point, he draws on the fear of religious fanaticism: But Fancy, I think, in Poetry, is like Faith in Religion; it makes far discoveries, and soars above reason, but never clashes, or runs against it. Fancy leaps, and frisks, and away she’s gone; whilst reason rattles the chains, and follows after. Reason must consent and ratify what-ever by fancy is attempted in its absence; or else ‘tis all null and void in law. (Rymer 1678: 8)

4 A possible contradiction to this position can be found in the earlier Essay on the Art, Rise, and Progress of the Stage, In Greece, Rome, and England, where he writes that “without [genius] it is impossible to observe, or indeed perfectly to understand [the rules]”, Shakespeare 1714: ix.


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This idea of the rules as a (benevolent) restraint on the growth of creation is persistent through the first half of the century. In his 1712 prologue to Ambrose Philips’ tragedy The Distrest Mother, Richard Steele writes that “Since Fancy of itself is loose and vain,/ The Wise by Rules that airy Power restrain” (Philips 1712: no page). In 1730, Bezaleel Morrice compares critics to gardeners, whose task it is “skillfully t’erace/ Injurious Stains, and heighten ev’ry Grace,/ With Judgment and industrious Care” (1730: 2). And in 1751, Richard Hurd writes that the use of criticism is “to direct the caprices of taste by the authority of rules” (1751: 99). Like his neoclassical-minded colleagues Rymer and Gildon, John Dennis, in his Grounds of Criticism, sees the rules, “which are both few and short, but eternal and unalterable” as an ordering device against the irregularity of fancy, “that both Readers and Writers may be at some certainty” (1704: no page), and he even echoes the religious metaphor, but he bases this perception more firmly on his conviction that poetry as an art form has a specific telos that needs as specific means to achieve it, and furthermore that the telos itself is to create order out of chaos: [It i]s for want of knowing by what Rules they ought to proceed, that Poetry is fall’n so low, it follows then that it is the laying down of those Rules alone, that can re-establish it. In short, Poetry is either an Art, or Whimsie and Fanaticism. If it is an Art, it follows that it must propose an end to it self, and afterwards lay down proper Means for the attaining that end: For this is undeniable, that there are proper Means for the attaining of every end, and those proper Means in Poetry, we call the Rules. Again, if the end of Poetry be to instruct and reform the World, that is, to bring Mankind from Irregularity, Extravagance and Confusion, to Rule and Order, how this should be done by a thing that is in it self irregular and extravagant, is difficult to be conceived. Besides, the work of every reasonable Creature must derive its Beauty from Regularity, for Reason is Rule and Order, and nothing can be irregular either in our Conceptions or our Actions, any further than it swerves from Rule, that is, from Reason. (5–6)

Dennis’ conception of the rules is firmly rooted in his didactic conception of literature, his insistence on the instruction derived from literature. With the ascendancy of taste, the power relation between rules and art (in the sense of a product of genius) shifted decisively. Especially the second half of the 18th century stressed the incommensurability of creative genius and limiting rules. William Jackson declares, “[a]s a barbarous age is not the period for taste, so a refined state of society is not the aera of genius.” (1783a: 168) Genius had always been the rule-defying part of poetical creation, described as the free roaming winged Pegasus whose flight can take the poet anywhere, even across established boundaries. But the aesthetic revolutions of the midcentury questioned the power relation between horse and rider. Is criticism a necessary restraint “[w]hose friendly, exquisite, judicious touch/ Softens the

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blaze of genius”? (Hurdis 1808: 198)5 Or is it genius, “that celestial faculty, to the powers of which no limits can be assigned” (Aikin 1793: 61), that, in a positive sense, “delights to range at liberty, and especially original Poetic Genius, which abhors the fetters of Criticism” (Duff 1767: 283)? Opinions are wide-ranging, from the deification of original genius through Edward Young to the almost puritanical position of John Oldmixon, who defends criticism by opposing it to genius: [J]ust Criticisms are not the Productions of Ignorance and Envy, as the Spectator intimates; but […] they are, on the contrary, useful and necessary to be a Check on the greatest Genius’s, who want the Rein much more than the Spur; and what, in a few Years, would become of all good Writing, if those great Genius’s could impose their very Blemishes on the World for the most shining Beauties? (1728: 16)

Clearly, Gildon saw rules as a check on genius as well, since “in a good poem there must always shine a great genius, which, tho’ it must be born with the poet, and is not to be obtain’d by study and art, yet study and art are absolutely necessary to give this true genius of poetry its full and admirable lustre” (1721: 22). And even very late in the century, in Isaac Disraeli’s comment that “[o]ur Poets who possess the greatest Genius, with, perhaps, the least Industry, have at the same time the most splendid and the worst passages in poetry” (1794 (1): 116), the view is implicit that a closer adherence to restricting rules would have improved the worst passages – but then it would probably also have lessened the best. Sometimes the change is merely one of emphasis. There is a difference between stating that genius might be allowed to breach correctness (still leaving the idea of correctness valid) and claiming that correctness alone will never form a work of genius. Both views are seemingly compatible, but their implications point in different directions. The second view is expressed in this passage from Mark Akenside’s poem The Pleasures of the Imagination: fruitless is the attempt, By dull obedience and by creeping toil Obscure to conquer the severe ascent Of high Parnassus. Nature’s kindling breath Must fire the chosen genius; nature’s hand Must string his nerves, and imp his eagle-wings (1772: 12)

5 Cf. also Dryden’s praise of rhyme in the dedication to the Rival Ladies, because “it Bounds and Circumscribes the Fancy. For Imagination in a Poet is a faculty so Wild and Lawless, that like a High-ranging Spaniel, it must have Cloggs tied to it, lest it out-run the Judgment”, Dryden 1664: no page.


Rules and the Critic

In Edward Young’s account, the power relation between genius and rules has switched completely. The Conjectures are usually regarded as “a monument in the history of criticism” (Woodmansee 1984: 431), and as “one of several critical works that definitely mark the turning of the literary tide from neo-classicism to romanticism.” (Jones 1940: 402) Ironically, it is their very originality that has been questioned repeatedly, from Samuel Johnson’s early comments to modern scholars (cf. e.g. Bosker 1954: 245 and O’Flaherty 1979: 292). Much of what Young put together in an energetic form had been virulent in critical discourse for some time. This might explain the comparative lack of response among the English critics, especially when compared to the enthusiastic reception in Germany, where theorists from Herder and Goethe to Kant and Fichte were influenced by the work that is therefore also seen as a prime document in the “Sturm und Drang” movement (cf. Woodmansee 1984: 430 and Suhnel 1981: 164). In the Conjectures, Young expresses forcefully the view that James Harris would judge as mistaken: “For rules, like crutches, are a needful aid to the lame, tho’ an impediment to the strong.” (Young 1759: 28) Where Gildon imagined literature as a secular political system in which rules restrain the tyranny of those who have executive (creative) power, Young invokes a transcendental system. Genius is assigned by Young a realm in which it reigns with absolute power – the conventional rules do not apply, because a true genius, for Young, is its own rule. In order to completely get rid of the rules, Young has to deify genius (“genius has ever been supposed to partake of something divine”) (26–27) a position he can only hold by introducing a strongly hierarchical class-like taxonomy (genius/non-genius, the strong/the lame). A similar opinion is expressed by Thomas Warton in the third volume of his History of English Poetry, published 1774. In discussing the accomplishments of Elizabethan poetry, he explains to his readers: It may here be added, that only a few critical treatises, and but one Art of Poetry, were now written. Sentiments and images were not absolutely determined by the canons of composition: nor was genius awed by the consciousness of a future and final arraignment at the tribunal of taste. A certain dignity of inattention to niceties is now visible in our writers. Without too closely consulting a criterion of correctness, every man indulged his own capriciousness of invention. The poet’s appeal was chiefly to his own voluntary feelings, his own immediate and peculiar mode of conception. (1174 (3): 499)

But these extreme positions were far from being shared by all contemporaries. In the Philological Inquiries, James Harris answers what he calls “a common opinion, which seems to have arisen either from Prejudice, or Mistake”, and shows that he does not think that genius ranges outside of the jurisdiction of the rules, provided they be ‘good’:

Power Structures


“Do not Rules, say they, cramp Genius? Do they not abridge it of certain Privileges?” […] ‘Tis answered, if the obeying of Rules were to induce a Tyranny like this; to defend them would be absurd, and against the liberty of Genius. But the truth is, Rules, supposing them good, like good Government, take away no Privileges. They do no more, than save Genius from Error, by shewing it, that a Right to err is no Privilege at all. (1781 (1): 216–217)

Similarly, Sir Joshua Reynolds tries to correct a “general objection” to applying principles of criticism to the “regions of taste.” What in Young had been the unconditional claim for the transcendental nature of genius, here becomes the mistaken notion of a dream: The general objection which is made to philosophy’s introduction into the regions of taste, is, that it checks and restrains the flights of the imagination, and gives that timidity which an over carefulness not to err or act contrary to reason is likely to produce. It is not so. Fear is neither reason nor philosophy. The true spirit of philosophy, by giving knowledge, gives a manly confidence, and substitutes rational firmness in the place of vain presumption. A man of real taste is always a man of judgment in other respects; and those inventions which either disdain or shrink from reason, are generally, I fear, more like the dreams of a distempered brain than the exalted enthusiasm of a sound and true genius. In the midst of the highest flights of fancy or imagination, reason ought to preside from first to last, though I admit her more powerful operation is upon reflexion. (1777: 43–44)6

Still, most commentators were agreed that true genius, whether transcendental or secular, was licensed to sacrifice correctness on a small scale in order to gain poetical strength on a large scale – Harris’ “Right to err”. This was repeated often enough by critics to become a stereotype in contemporary criticism. In Spectator no 592, for example, where Addison elaborates on false critics, he writes that “there is sometimes a greater Judgment shewn in deviating from the Rules of Art, than in adhering to them”, and he strongly differentiates between mere correctness in poetry and the self-licensing accomplishments of genius: “In the next Place, our Criticks do not seem sensible that there is more Beauty in the Works of a great Genius who is ignorant of the Rules of Art, than in those of a little Genius who knows and observes them.” (1714: no page)

6 Cf. also: “Critics have been represented as the great abridgers of the native liberty of genius; as the imposers of unnatural shackles and bonds upon writers, from whose cruel persecution they must fly to the Public, and implore its protection. Such supplicatory prefaces are not calculated to give very favourable ideas of the genius of the author. For every good writer will be pleased to have his work examined by the principles of sound understanding, and true Taste.” Blair 1783: 38–39.


Rules and the Critic

But while the idea that small sacrifices in correctness were acceptable for large gains in art was a widely subscribed commonplace, this idea contained the seed of a major challenge to the authority of the critic. The decisive difference is the evaluation of the relation between incorrectness and accomplishment. While the ‘orthodox’ neoclassical view saw the faults and irregularities as a maybe necessary but still unwanted by-product of genius that had to be accepted once beauties outweighed faults, with the rising appreciation of original genius others claimed its absolute priority. This meant that, in the context of the general struggle for predominance between original and critical text, an original genius had legislative power – he could change faults into new rules. This is exactly what Oldmixon had been afraid of in 1728. If the example precedes the rule according to which it is judged, it can be understood to shape that rule. David Hume in his essay on taste takes a middling position in this struggle. He starts out by emphasizing the precedence of example over rule: It is evident, that none of the rules of composition are fixed by reasonings a priori, or can be esteemed abstract conclusions of the understanding, from comparing those habitudes and relations of ideas, which are eternal and immutable. Their foundation is the same with that of all the practical sciences, experience; nor are they any thing but general observations, concerning what has been universally found to please in all countries and in all ages. (1757: 210)

But though he founds the rules solely on experience, he does not conclude from this that rules are created after experience. But though poetry can never submit to exact truth, it must be confined by rules of art, discovered to the author either by genius or observation. If some negligent or irregular writers have pleased, they have not pleased by their transgressions of rule or order, but in spite of these transgressions: They have possessed other beauties, which were conformable to just criticism; and the force of these beauties has been able to overpower censure, and give the mind a satisfaction superior to the disgust arising from the blemishes. (211)7

Weighing beauties against faults is regarded throughout the period as one of the most important activities of the critic (cf. for example Grainger 1756: 528; Pinkerton 1785: 507; and Kirby 1758: 1), and the application of rules is often regarded as a sure instrument to give authority to the classification of something as a ‘fault.’ The claim that genius creates its own rules, and that rules only follow after 7 The idea that true criticism itself needs genius is also found in Dennis, cf. Grace 1975: 73–74. A wholly different attitude is taken by Harris, who writes: “Those on the contrary, who, tho’ they want Genius, think Rules worthy their attention, if they cannot become good Authors, may still make tolerable Critics”, Harris 1781 (1): 223.

Power Structures


examples, is therefore a direct encroachment on the authority of the critic. As soon as rules are not universally applicable as well as immutable, his task has become infinitely harder, and a too close adherence to the rules will only worsen his judgment, as Samuel Cobb notes: A slavish Fear of committing an Oversight, betrays a Man to more inextricable Errours, than the Boldness of an enterprizing Author, whose artful Carelesness is more instructive and delightful than all the Pains and Sweat of the Poring and Bookish Critick. (1709: no page)

Taken as an (absolutely) positive faculty, the law-breaking and boundary-crossing activity of genius becomes in itself law-giving. In this view, it is the rules that are relative and therefore changeable, according to the examples that they are derived from. Alexander Pope, after observing that “Great Wits sometimes may gloriously offend,/ And rise to Faults true Criticks dare not mend”, formulates this view: If, where the Rules not far enough extend, (Since Rules were made but to promote their End) Some Lucky Licence answers to the full Th’ Intent propos’d, that Licence is a Rule. (1711: 11)8

Pope’s idea is repeated at mid-century by Samuel Johnson, who writes that “every new genius produces some innovation, which, when invented and approved, subverts the rules which the practice of foregoing authors had established.” (1751d: no page) In a similar sense, Tobias Smollett, in his review of Ossian for The Critical Review, reflects on a poet’s right to invent a genre and give it new rules, whose only measurement is that they should please: Some critics, more attached to the form than to the spirit of poetry, have condemned Ariosto because he deviated from the established rules of the Stagyrite; and others have as strenuously asserted, that he had a right to invent a new species of composition. […] Without all doubt, if the poetry is agreeable, the poet has a natural right to choose the manner in which it shall be presented. (1761c: 410)

Ossian was a prime example of an author who did not fit into the established categories of criticism, and for whom these categories had to be modified and enlarged. But the single most important author to substantiate the claim that true genius could successfully transgress the rules of criticism was William Shakespeare. His position as the exemplary rule-breaker was very important for this discussion. The idea of Shakespeare the pre-eminent national poet might have

8 Cf. on this quote also Park 1975: 867-868.


Rules and the Critic

been formed largely through criticism, but at the same time his work also strongly formed criticism. While his rising appreciation during the 18th century profited immensely from the general disparagement of the rules, as an exemplary case for successful transgression of rules he was also instrumental in bolstering this disparagement. James Engell describes the “unique situation” that English criticism was in with regards to Shakespeare: “[T]he poet most loved in the language stood ‘above’ the headaches of criticism and advantages of refinement. No one needed to postulate or to forge what the greatest natural poetry in English would be like. It already existed.” (1989: 49) The lawlessness of Shakespeare, who, in Walter Harte’s Popean paraphrase from 1730 “soar’d beyond the reach of Art” (12–13), and whose “boundless mind” according to Judith Cowper “captive led the heart, Without the critick’s rules, or aid of art” (1731: 134), posed a challenge to criticism.9 Here was a poet whose works, in the words of Hugh Blair, “contain gross transgressions of the laws of Criticism, acquiring, nevertheless, a general, and even a lasting admiration.” The easiest way out of this dilemma, and the one that Blair took, was to simply say that in Shakespeare the beauties outweighed the faults: [T]hey have gained the public admiration, not by their being irregular, not by their transgressions of the rules of art, but in spite of such transgressions. They possess other beauties which are conformable to just rules; and the force of these beauties has been so great as to overpower all censure, and to give the Public a degree of satisfaction superior to the disgust arising from their blemishes. (1783: 39–40)

This was an accepted strategy that had already been used by Sheffield in 1682 (cf. 14) And in 1693, John Dennis had defended the playwright against Thomas Rymer’s infamous attacks by saying that “it does not follow, because Shakespear has Faults, that therefore he has no Beauties” (52). But, as Dennis’ example makes clear, balancing Shakespeare’s ‘beauties’ favourably against his ‘faults’ does not necessarily mean that the critic sacrifices his right to call them faults, or to admonish against them. In the Essay on the Genius and Writings of Shakespeare, Dennis claims that it is his aim “to teach some People to distinguish between his Beauties and his Defects, that while they imitate the one, they may with Caution avoid the other (there being nothing of more dangerous Contagion to Writers, and especially to young ones, than the Faults of great Masters)” (1712: 36).

9 According to Steele, challengers to the rules could always cry out: “But Shakespear’s self transgress’d”, Philips 1712: no page. Steele immediately qualifies the legitimacy of appeals to Shakespeare, though, by pointing to his extraordinariness: “[A]nd shall each Elf,/ Each Pigmy Genius, quote Great Shakespear’s self!”

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Yet, for many others, Shakespeare was not only seen as extraordinary, a class of his own in many respects, but as exemplary in his function of a transgressor, or rule-breaker. His perceived licence to oppose rules, or even to form new ones, rose parallel to his identification with Nature. George Farquhar preferred his word above that of Aristotle (cf. 1702: 156) because he was “Great above rule, and imitating none;/ Rich without borrowing, nature was his own” (Mallet 1733: 5), as David Mallet wrote in 1733, but already in a Spectator essay of 1714, Addison had used the poet as a “Stumbling-Block” against all false critics: “Our inimitable Shakespear is a Stumbling-Block to the whole Tribe of these rigid Criticks. Who would not rather read one of his Plays, where there is not a single Rule of the Stage observed, than any Production of a modern Critick, where there is not one of them violated?” (no page) Even someone like Charles Gildon had to make an exception for Shakespeare in his defence of the rules, though he explains the poet’s faults primarily through the historical argument (cf. Hume 1970: 139 and Cannan 2004: 41). Besides associating him with Nature, or explaining his faults as concessions to a bygone barbaric age, part of the licensing of his ‘faults’ came from the alignment of his type of writing with a national ideal of northern, ‘gothic’ British writing in opposition to a classical Latin south (cf. Henson 1992: 84). In the words of the Literary Magazine: “He disdained the fribbleism of the French” (Anonym 1756e: 8). In his commentary on Aristotle’s poetics, Henry James Pye sketches a short reception history of Shakespeare among the English audience and critics, and he draws a clear connection between the influence of French criticism and the fall and rise of Shakespeare’s reputation. Only after “English criticism grew too strong for French support, and ventured to walk alone” (Aristotle 1792: 211) could Shakespeare be appreciated fully and without prejudice. The discussion about the relation between rule and example (that can already be found in Dryden’s claim that great poets are actually critics by example (cf. Cohen 1983: 71)) is a variation of the discussion about the precedence of art over criticism. Both have at their core the question whether criticism is primarily descriptive or prescriptive, passively reacting to the original texts in a subservient manner by explaining them and pointing out their beauties, or actively engaging with the texts, prescribing how they should be written, and punishing if they dare to stray from the prescription. Henry Fielding takes the first position, when he sketches in Tom Jones an unmistakeable genealogy of rules that relegates the critic to the function of a mere “clerk,” with the artists being the true and only “legislators”: The critic, rightly considered, is no more than the clerk, whose office it is to transcribe the rules and laws laid down by those great judges whose vast strength of genius hath placed them in the light of legislators, in the several sciences over which they presided. This office


Rules and the Critic

was all which the critics of old aspired to; nor did they ever dare to advance a sentence, without supporting it by the authority of the judge from whence it was borrowed. But in process of time, and in ages of ignorance, the clerk began to invade the power and assume the dignity of his master. The laws of writing were no longer founded on the practice of the author, but on the dictates of the critic. The clerk became the legislator, and those very peremptorily gave laws whose business it was, at first, only to transcribe them. (1749 (1): 228)

Fielding’s account is obviously that of a power struggle, with a clear – and approved – hierarchy at the beginning (the critic as subservient clerk) and an assumed and tyrannical dominance of criticism at the end. The precondition for Fielding’s account is the assumption that every critical observation should be exclusively based on pre-existing examples. “The rules of Criticism”, writes Hugh Blair, “are not formed by any induction, à priori, as it is called; that is, they are not formed by a train of abstract reasoning, independent of facts and observations. Criticism is an art founded wholly on experience”. This, indeed, would leave not much more than Fielding’s function of the ‘clerk’ for criticism. But the argument hardly ever stops at this point. Blair follows his claim that criticism is “founded wholly on experience” by specifying: “on the observation of such beauties as have come nearest to the standard which I before established” (1783: 36–37). That is, not all examples are exemplary. In the opening chapter to the first book of Tom Jones, Fielding had expressed his contempt for the absurdity of many of the rules of dramatic composition that restrict the freedom of the writer. For Fielding, the ridiculousness of so many of the prevalent rules comes from the inability of the critics to distinguish between accidental and essential elements in the examples before them, deriving rules rather from the first than from the second, acting as a bad judge, “who should adhere to the lifeless letter of law, and reject the spirit. […T]hus many rules for good writing have been established, which have not the least foundation in truth or nature” (1749 (1): 228–229). If poets were infallible, they would, as originators of new texts and new genres, create the rules for these genres along with the texts, and these works as well as rules would be beyond the reach of criticism, in the sense of Hugh Brackenridge’s tongue-in-cheek claim (made in reference to his own novel Modern Chivalry) that “in a model there can be no defect” (1793: 8–9). But – if originality is not to be turned into an absolute value in the sense of a creatio ex nihilo – this claim begs the question where the original poets got their ideas and forms from. Even if critics only come after the example, does that mean that the examples come out of nothing or, even worse, chaos? This is where reason and Nature is re-introduced, the argument comes full circle, and criticism is saved at least temporarily. It might be relegated to ‘wearily’ write down what had been in glorious existence all along, as in Knox’s account: “Nature, glowing nature, suggested the exquisitely fine ideas as they showed, and left laborious

Power Structures


criticism to weary herself in forming rules and systems from the unstudied efforts of her happier temerity.” (1778 (2): 11) But short-circuiting rules and Nature gave criticism a decisive leverage, since it made possible a distinction between two classes of examples: those who were formed according to Nature, and those who were not. A major qualification to an easy identification of exemplary texts and the rules derived from them with Nature developed with the rising importance of the historical perspective in literary criticism. Edward Niles Hooker draws an unmistakable connection between the establishment of historical criticism and the devaluation of the rules: “The historical viewpoint was one of the strongest forces leading to the downfall of the rules since it undermined the assumption of Aristotelian critics that all men were essentially the same; an assumption which made universal rules possible.” (1936: 211) But Hooker’s account is a simplification. Surely, the historical argument worked against the conviction of the absolute universality of rules. Richard Hurd, for example, was one of the first critics to use his belief in the importance of historical knowledge for criticism to systematically demonstrate that rules are inevitably in need of constant modification (cf. Curry 1965: 83). Especially in his Letters on Chivalry and Romance, he stressed the importance to recognize the influence of historical events and perspectives in the evaluation of poets, and used his insights in his readings of Spenser. But this does not mean that he – or other critics of the time – develops relativism into an absolute value. Beyond all historical circumstance there was still human nature. “Nothing in human nature,” writes Hurd, “is without its reasons. The modes and fashions of different times may appear, at first sight, fantastic and unaccountable. But they, who look nearly into them, discover some latent cause of their production” (1762: 1–2). Many critics adhered to this differentiation, where those rules that are absolute and immutable (and often inaccessible) are closely connected with the idea of ‘Nature,’ while those that were individually written down by critics were increasingly seen as subject to specific historical circumstance and unstable fashions. In Rambler no. 156, Samuel Johnson advises: “It ought to be the first endeavour of a writer to distinguish nature from custom, or that which is established because it is right, from that which is right only because it is established” (1751e: no page). A similar opinion is found in Rambler no. 158: “When rules are thus drawn, rather from precedents than reason, there is danger not only from the faults of an author but from the errors of those who criticise his works; since they may often mislead their pupils by false representations” (1751c: 192). John Pinkerton, following his refutation of Gravina, makes a similar differentiation between what he calls “rules of poetry” and “rules of criticism”: “I beg pardon for the expression, rules of poetry. Poetry knows no rules. The code of laws which Genius


Rules and the Critic

prescribes to his subjects, will ever rest in their bosoms. Rules of criticism was the expression I meaned to use; and these have no ragion, or first foundation, at all.” (1785: 207) For Bosker, it is “[t]his open rejection of all external rules, the emphatic statement that a work of art is subject only to laws imposed by creative genius itself, [that] makes up for the pages of trivial matter in which Pinkerton’s essay abounds.” (1954: 297) But even Pinkerton does not live up to the boldness of his own claim that there is no ragion, no reason, at work in the rules of criticism, since on the very same page he as well introduces the notion of ‘Nature’ as the superior arbiter and implicit (though unknowable) rule-giver. After stating that the rules of criticism are all blindly drawn from Homer, Sophocles, and Pindar, he exclaims: “Poor judges! Ye slaves who judge of your masters! Is not NATURE greater than Homer, Sophocles, or Pindar?” (Pinkerton 1785: 207) Johnson in Rambler no. 158 argues specifically against a simple deduction of rules from examples because of the historical peculiarities and individual faults of the foundational texts and authors. He starts his essay by stating that “[c] riticism […] has not yet attained the certainty and stability of science”, and gives as a reason that the rules so far have never been drawn according to reason, but were arbitrarily selected from examples by critics who authorized themselves: The rules hitherto received, are seldom drawn from any settled principle or self-evident postulate, or adapted to the natural and invariable constitution of things; but will be found upon examination the arbitrary edicts of legislators authorised only by themselves, who out of various means by which the same end may be attained, selected such as happened to occur to their own reflection, and then by a law which idleness and timidity were too willing to obey, prohibited new experiments of wit, restrained fancy from the indulgence of her innate inclination to hazard and adventure, and condemned all future flights of genius to pursue the path of the Meonian eagle. (1751c: 188)

Even though critics have followed the examples set by authors, Johnson argues, they have done so indiscriminately. This makes him oppose the belief in the infallibility of originators like Homer: For this reason the laws of every species of writing have been settled by the ideas of him who first raised it to reputation, without enquiry whether his performances were not yet susceptible of improvement. The excellencies and faults of celebrated writers have been equally recommended to posterity; and so far has blind reverence prevailed, that even the number of their books has been thought worthy of imitation. (189)

When Johnson complains that, in consequence, too many “rules are thus drawn, rather from precedents than reason” (192), he has effectively reinstated the critic while paying his tribute to the precedence of original work over critical text. He can do that because reason existed before both, and both can appeal to it. In

Rules and Reason


Johnson’s view, it is not the seniority that makes a specific example true – it just makes this example more appealing to those looking for clear-cut rules. In Rambler no. 93, he writes: The faults of a writer of acknowledged excellence are more dangerous, because the influence of his example is more extensive; and the interest of learning requires that they should be discovered and stigmatized, before they have the sanction of antiquity conferred upon them, and become precedents of indisputable authority. (1751f: no page)

6.2 Rules and Reason Only when they are aligned with reason or Nature can the rules give an authority to the critic that cannot be easily refused. In a perfect neoclassical world, the question of the critic’s authority would need no discussions at all, since it would be unmistakeably expressed in the rules that this critic gave out as prescription for future works, or as measurements for the evaluation of existing works, and these rules would be undisputable results of rational argumentation. According to William Shanahan, “[t]he classicist does not create rules in a vacuum, but is confident that his rules – whatever a later age may think of them – are at bottom reasonable and natural.” (1966: 26) Such irrefutable rules would indeed constitute an absolute critical authority, albeit one that is totally external to the critic, since he can no more or less choose to refute or modify them than a poet or a reader. The faculty that invests any critical pronouncement according to these rules with authority would be pure reason itself. This ideal of a perfectly rational base for all literary evaluation, often described as analogous to that of mathematics, can be found repeatedly in the criticism of the time. When looking at the analogy between criticism and mathematics, one can trace the development of the trust in rationality as a basis for literary criticism. On the one hand, one could think back to Thomas Rymer’s 1674 identification of Aristotle and reasonable principles, or rules that are, as he wrote, “clear as any demonstration in Mathematicks.” (1674: no page) Bosker has described Rymer as recognizing “reason as his only guide; the rules are to him nothing but mechanical beauties” (1954: 8).10 George Campbell has compared criticism to mathematics as well, “but confesses that critical principles never attain the clarity and perfection of mathematical axioms” (Engell 1989: 199, cf. also Campbell 1776 (1): vii-x, 155–159, 367–370). The comparison to mathematics

10 Cf. also: “Rymer accepts the rules and insists upon their use because they are for him the same thing as reason.” Shanahan 1966: 26.


Rules and the Critic

also features in an exchange between Joseph Warton and Percival Stockdale, where it highlights the way that reason in criticism is used to align critics with certain schools. In his defence of Aristotle, and the necessity of reading his poetics, Warton had written that “[t]o attempt to understand poetry without having diligently digested this treatise, would be as absurd and impossible, as to pretend to a skill in geometry, without having studied Euclid.” (1764: 133) Reading this passage much more narrow-minded than it was intended, Stockdale, in his defence of Pope’s work, retorts: It seems to me as ridiculous to recommend any poetical object by a reference to Euclid, as it would be to demonstrate the properties of scarlet, by an appeal to those of the sound of a cannon. The nature, and effects of geometry and poetry are totally heterogenous, and incompatible; they are produced by applications essentially different, of the senses, and of thought. (1778: 158–159)11

By 1778, already the mentioning of criticism and mathematics too close to each other can be read as a sign of one’s pedantic and narrow-minded nature. Quite unfairly,12 Stockdale therefore groups Warton with the schoolmasterly and mechanical critics, and not with the spirited ones. In a similar sense, in his discussion of the critical works of Gravina, John Pinkerton refutes Gravina’s claim of an analogy between poetry and architecture, which is based on the principles of geometry. Nothing indeed can well be more futile, nor of falser criticism, than to infer an analogy between geometry, the coldest operation of the judgment, and poetry, the warmest exertion of the imagination. The fact is, that the rules of poetry have no ragion, as [Gravina] quaintly and abstractedly calls it, but the example of former poets. (1785: 207)

Even writers like Leonard Welsted, who believes that “there is in good poetry as rigid truth, and as essential to the nature of it, as there is in a question of Algebra”, has to admit that “that truth is not to be prov’d by the same process or way of working” (1724: xviii). Thus, though he claims reason as the ultimate basis of poetry, there is no simple way to comprehend this reason other than through the (ultimately irrational) faculty of taste:

11 The review of Stockdale’s defence in The London Review comments on Stockdale’s narrow reading of this passage, cf. Anonym 1778e: 441f. 12 Stockdale was unfair because Warton himself was opposed to an uncritical acceptance of the rules, attacking “the scrupulous nicety of those, who bind themselves to obey frivolous and unimportant laws”, Warton 1764: 100.

Rules and Reason


Thus poetry is not an irrational art, but as closely link’d with reason, exerted in a right way, as any other knowledge; what it differs in, as a science of reason, from other sciences, is, that it does not, equally with them, lie level to all capacities, that a man, rightly to perceive the reason and the truth of it, must be born with taste or a faculty of judging, and that it cannot be reduc’d to a formal science, or taught by any set precepts. (xviii-xix)

Finally, Robert Potter’s comment in his 1783 Inquiry on Johnson’s apparently unimaginative and over-rigid criticism shows how obviously ridiculous the analogy had become by that time: “The misfortune is, this Critic is for regulating poetic imagination by the standard of methodical argumentation and philosophical truth; as if the excursions of Shakespeare’s fancy were to be measured by the theorems of Euclid.” (31) Potter’s spiteful “as if” leaves no doubt that for him the analogy is utterly ridiculous. This is the span of the evaluation of reason in criticism throughout the century. While insisting too strongly on the necessity of grounding the rules in pure reason led to the simplifying – und ultimately ridiculous – analogy with mathematics, to identify rules with ‘Nature’ was a much more successful strategy, at least rhetorically. Whereas the system of mathematics was so obviously alien to that of art or literature, with all the resulting incongruities, both original artistic creation and critical comment could easily be subsumed under the all-encompassing idea of Nature, understood as cosmic order pervading the universe. In this sense, Nature and rules were already almost synonymous, and the authority of the rules could profit from that of the most revered philosophical term of the time. “Nature is Order and Rule, and Harmony in the visible World”, writes Dennis in 1701 (202), and the entry to “Nature” in Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britannicum reads: The System of the World, the Machine of the Universe, or the Assemblance of all created Being; the universal Disposition of all Bodies; also the Government of divine Providence, directing all Things by certain Rules and Laws. (1730: 500)

At the core of the early 18th-century conception of Nature lies the conviction that all external reality is ordered by certain unalterable laws or rules. Given that, the critic has to assume the existence of rules that can be generally referred to by identifying them with Nature, though they might not be easily specified. In consequence this means that though perfect rules might exist in theory, they are not accessible to the practising critic, so that, in Leonard Welsted’s terms, “general maxims and rules in poetry, at least as they are ordinarily propounded, are rather for form and ostentation than for use” (1724: xix). The identification of rules and Nature makes them unquestionable, but also ultimately unattainable. Thus,


Rules and the Critic

while many critics could give their nod of approval towards the existence of rules, they could still castigate false critics for confusing accidentals with necessities. Goldsmith agreed with Johnson’s reservations against drawing rules not from ‘Nature’ but from example (“a copy of Nature”), since this practice “would consequently give us still fainter resemblances of original beauty.” (Goldsmith 1774: 17) Burke is even more outspoken on this topic: [A]s for those called critics, they have generally sought the rule of the arts in the wrong place; they sought it among poems, pictures, engravings, statues and buildings. But art can never give the rules that make an art. This is, I believe, the reason why artists in general, and poets principally, have been confined in so narrow a circle; they have been rather imitators of one another than of nature; and this with so faithful an uniformity, and to so remote an antiquity, that it is hard to say who gave the first model. Critics follow them, and therefore can do little as guides. (1757: 37–38)

But where critics of the second half of the century used the differentiation between Nature and its representation through art to argue for the ridiculousness of deriving rules from the latter, Charles Gildon had already, with some neoclassical stubbornness but not less logical penetration, exposed this argument as impractical and self-serving. In his “Essay on the Art, Rise, and Progress of the Stage,” originally published in 1710, he turns the argument around by stating that, while Nature might be an absolute ideal, as soon as it is represented in art, special rules will apply, since art as representation is always a selection, and not all of Nature is representable. Gildon is obviously still far away from an “Ästhetik des Häßlichen” as Karl Rosenkranz would formulate in 1853, but his objection points out that to set up Nature as an ideal still begs the question what this ideal really is. Nature, Nature is the great Cry against the Rules. We must be judg’d by Nature, say they; not at all considering, that Nature is an equivocal Word, whose Sense is too various and extensive ever to be able to appeal to; since it leaves it to the Fancy and Capacity of every one, to decide what is according to Nature, and what not. Besides, there may be a great many things natural, which Dramatick Poetry has nothing to do with. […] It is therefore necessary, there shou’d be Rules to let the Poet know not only what is natural, but when it is proper to be introduc’d, and when not. (Shakespeare 1714: vi)13

The ancients were regarded, as has been shown, to be rule-giving because of their closeness to ‘Nature’, which meant an unspoiled adherence to right reason and

13 One year earlier, he had similarly criticised the use of Nature against the rules: “For let the ignorant Million exclaim as they please against the Rules, and Art, and make a senseless Clamour about Nature, without giving us any Account what they mean by the Word.” Gildon 1713: no page.

Rules and Reason


the lack of a large corpus of predecessors that could entice them to become copyists of one another. The second aspect is regularly invoked in contemporary discussions of Homer,14 the first can be found most famously in Pope’s identification in the Essay on Criticism of Homer, the rules, and Nature. Pope constantly uses Nature to resolve any tension that might arise between the poet and the critic with his rules. The mighty Stagyrite first left the Shore, Spread all his Sails, and durst the Deeps explore; He steer’d securely, and discover’d far, Led by the light of the Mæonian Star. […] Poets, a Race long unconfin’d, and free, Still fond and proud of Savage Liberty, Receiv’d his Rules, and stood convinc’d ‘twas fit Who conquer’d Nature, should preside o’er Wit. (1711: 37–38)15 Those Rules of old discover’d, not devis’d, Are Nature still, but Nature Methodiz’d; Nature, like Monarchy, is but restrain’d By the same Laws which first herself ordain’d. (8)

Without getting too far into the discussion of Pope’s complex use of the concept of Nature, it can be noted here that this use was far from unambiguous. Nature could mean a lot of things in the context of Pope’s work, as in that of his contemporaries, from a divinely inspired universal and permanent order, to “naturalness” as opposed to art, and empirical reality, or actuality (cf. Goldgar 1965: xxiv–xxvi). It is not unlikely that Pope had found the idea that he expressed in the Essay in his life-long enemy John Dennis’ Impartial Critick from 1693, where the critic writes: “The Rules of Aristotle are nothing but Nature and Good Sence reduc’d to a Method.” (Dennis 1693: no page) Five years later, the same position is voiced by Thomas Rymer (cf. 1698: 26–27), and in 1719, though most likely written earlier, by Charles Gildon (cf. 321). Dennis maintained that position throughout his career, writing almost thirty years later, in 1721: Nothing can please in a Play but Nature, no not in a Play which is written against the Rules; and the more there is of Nature in a Play, the more that Play must Delight. Now the Rules are nothing but an observation of Nature. For Nature is Rule and Order it self. ((1): 126)

14 Cf. e.g. Fielding 1752a: 24; Bayly 1789: 132; and Blair 1783: 37. 15 Later versions of the poem have “laws” instead of “rules.”


Rules and the Critic

Later in the century, the rhetoric might seem to change, when Charles Churchill directly opposes the “servile rules” as the critic’s impediments to “Nature” as giving him security: “No servile rules drew sickly taste aside;/ Secure he walk’d, for Nature was his guide.” (1761: 3–4) But in effect this is nothing but a repetition of the differentiation between ‘true’ rules (drawn according to Nature) and accidental ones derived merely from fashion. In the same sense Oldmixon holds the authority of reason for the rules against pure name-authority as discussed earlier: “The Rules laid down by those great Criticks are not to be valu’d because they are given by Aristoteles, Horace, &c. but because they are in Nature and in Truth.” (1728: 3) And Richard Hurd exchanges Oldmixon’s ‘truth’ with the more general ‘reason,’ when he writes that the use of criticism is “to direct the caprices of taste by the authority of rules, which we call reason.” (1751: 99) Alexander Gerard in his Essay on Taste states this implicit differentiation between the ideal rules that are concordant with Nature and those that are ephemeral in unmistakable terms: It has been often observed that nature is the standard and archetype of all true rules of criticism. Indeed the fate of criticism has been similar to that of every species of philosophy. It has fallen into the hands of incapable professors, who, without any regard to the reality of nature, have attempted to prescribe rules, formed by their own imaginations. The accidental usage of an eminent author on a particular emergency, has been converted into a standing law, and applied to cases no ways similar: arbitrary restraints have been imposed without necessity, and even shining faults have been recommended as beauties. But these false systems of criticism, like their kindred ones in philosophy, have obtained only a local and temporary reception. Genuine criticism is evidently very different; and is justly esteemed a faithful transcript of nature. For it investigates those qualities in it’s objects, which, from the invariable principles of human nature, must always please or displease; describes and distinguishes the sentiments, which they in fact produce; and impartially regulates it’s most general conclusions according to real phænomena. (Gerard 1759: 185–186)16

Of major importance here is Gerard’s strategy of reconciling the diversity of accidental examples that are a result of individual actions, and therefore should not be used as a basis for general rules, and the condition that all true rules have to be based on Nature. The methodological developments in literary criticism especially among the Scottish Enlightenment that are sometimes subsumed un-

16 For Henry Felton it is this tendency to formulate (and thereby water down) the rules that are Nature that is responsible for the multiplication of bad writers: “And perhaps, […] if the Rules had not been given, we had been troubled with many fewer Writers; for then those who had not Nature for their Rule, could have had no Rule at all. But now how many Scriblers are there who observe the Rule, and neglect the Meaning, and what Number of Pedants do we meet with, that keep to the Letter, and lose the Spirit?” Felton 1713: xiii–xiv.

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der the ‘anthropological approach’ (cf. e.g. Horn 1965) to criticism necessitated a change in the evaluation of the function and especially the universal applicability of rules. As man became the prime focus of criticism, his individual differences inevitably come into view, challenging rationalist ideals of universal applicability. But though humans differ, according to Gerard and his colleagues, they are tied to the ordered and rational concept of Nature by something that is inherent to them, identical and unalterable: human nature. One can compare this approach to Kames’ refutation of Bossu’s reliance on preconceived rules and the nameauthority of Aristotle that follows the well-established argument from Nature, but adds a new emphasis to this argument by turning from general Nature to ‘human’ nature: Bossu, a celebrated French critic, gives many rules; but can discover no better foundation for any of them, than the practice merely of Homer and Virgil, supported by the authority of Aristotle: strange, that in so long a work, the concordance or discordance of these rules with human nature, should never once have entered his thoughts! (Kames 1762: 11–12)

Already John Dennis had claimed that the rules only have their validity because they are based on unchanging human nature (cf. Murphy 1984: 11). But Kames’ insistence on this human nature is much more absolute, since for him “human nature [is] the true source of criticism” (1762: 12). Exchanging general Nature with human nature as the source for criticism means that Kames has to start anew the search underlying fundamental principles. In a sense it complicates the quest for universality, as it starts by taking into account that humans are individually different. But he can support this new search with the scientific confidence of the emerging anthropological sciences, the hope of arriving at a standard of taste through an understanding of man, an abstraction from individual differences towards ‘the’ human nature. Alexander Gerard voices in a similar way the insistence on human nature as a source for true criticism: Taste perceives the particular beauties and faults, and thus supplies the facts, for which we are to account; and the experiments, from which our conclusions are to be deduced. But these conclusions cannot be formed without a vigorous abstracting faculty, the greatest force of reason, a capacity for the most careful and correct induction, and a deep knowledge of the principles of human nature. One does not merit the name of a critic, merely by being able to make a collection of beauties and faults from performances in the fine arts; to tell in general that those please, these displease; some more, some less. (1759: 181–182)

Thus, both the appeals to general and to human nature strive towards unification and universality; the major change is the shift of focus from the aesthetic object to the perceiving agent. As Horn has argued, “the relevant question when analysing his work is not ‘What should, according to Kames, literature be like?’ but rather


Rules and the Critic

‘What are we like?’ or more precisely: ‘What is it in man that makes a given phenomenon aesthetically pleasing?’” (1965: 211) In this sense, Richard Hurd writes that “Rules themselves are indeed nothing else but an appeal to experience” (1751: 98), a belief that he shared among others with Edward Gibbon (cf. Trowbridge 1971: 409) and William Belsham (1799 (2): 218). And experience, especially around mid-century, in the form of individual human experience came to be identified more and more with feeling. For Goldsmith in 1774, “[o]f all misfortunes, therefore, in the commonwealth of letters, this of judging from rule, and not from feeling, is the most severe.” (111) Laurence Sterne in Tristram Shandy pokes fun at false critics – he calls them connoisseurs – whose admiration of the rules makes them incapable of appreciating true art: [T]he whole set of ‘em are so hung round and befetish’d with the bobs and trinkets of criticism, – or to drop my metaphor, […] their heads, Sir, are stuck so full of rules and compasses, and have that eternal propensity to apply them upon all occasions, that a work of genius had better go to the devil at once, than stand to be prick’d and tortured to death by ‘em. (1761 (3): 57)

Sterne goes on to satirize a man who would measure the pauses in Garrick’s recitation with a watch, with the result that he sees and hears nothing but the watch itself. This shift from an appeal to general Nature to an appeal to human nature, from the aesthetic object itself to the (aesthetic) feelings of the perceiver already indicates the major theoretical development in the course of the century that fundamentally re-drew the power structures in the construction of critical authority.

7 Taste and the Critic [A]ll the rules of genuine Criticism I have shewn to be ultimately founded on feeling; and Taste and Feeling are necessary to guide us in the application of these rules to every particular instance. […] The declamations against Criticism commonly proceed upon this supposition, that Critics are such as judge by rule, not by feeling; which is so far from being true, that they who judge after this manner are pedants, not Critics. (Blair 1783: 38–39)

One of the major developments in literary theory and criticism of the early 18th century and a turning-point for the discussion of the authority of the critic is what Joan Pittock has called in her book of the same title “The Ascendancy of Taste.” The category of taste, though already known and used in critical texts in the 17th century, only became decisive in the early 18th century, when it traversed from the courtesy books of the gentleman into aesthetic discussions (cf. Elioseff 1963: 38), a development that also included questions of morality.1 From a category of social distinction, it became a key term of philosophy, initiating a major revolution in the way that works of art were perceived, appreciated, and evaluated. In most simplified terms, this revolution is a shift from an evaluation of qualities inherent in a text or an object of art by the standards of reason – usually conceived as abstract and absolute – to one that is based on the affective qualities of a work of art, its effect on the reader and his emotions. From the viewpoint of literary history, the surge of writings on matters of taste between 1750 and 1770 laid the groundwork for the aesthetics of Romanticism some decades later. Writers like the Wartons, Young, or Kames put forth ideas that can be recognized as “pre-romantic” in hindsight. But the triumph of affective aesthetics around the middle of the century was not only preparatory for a literary revolution at the turn of the next century, it also had wide-ranging consequences for the conception of criticism, and therefore for the debate about the authority of criticism. Hooker puts these consequences in rather too absolute terms, when he writes that “in aesthetics, as it bore upon the problems of criticism, authority and certainty were destroyed.” (1934: 584, cf. also Elioseff 1963: 28) But the change definitively was crucial, since taste is the major theoretical development to counter the authority of rules and (absolute) reason. To oversimplify matters: whereas the earlier critic had to have class or rules, the new critic only needed to have taste, a development that had one of its

1 “Ideas of the social importance of good taste were given a basis in philosophical speculation which strengthened their role and extended it to the moral realm.” Pittock 1973: 12. For a view claiming the identity of aesthetic and moral taste cf. Cooper 1771: 13–19.


Taste and the Critic

starting points in Addison’s insistence on the critic’s obligation to find ‘beauties’ rather than faults, or in other words to appreciate according to one’s own taste rather than to condemn according to other people’s rules. Numerous are the voices that claim an indispensible connection (“Criticism should be grounded on the unerring principles of Taste.” (Macaulay 1780: v-vi)2), or even an identity of taste and criticism: “[I]t will yet be ever generally allowed, that true Taste is inseparable from just Criticism” (Kenrick 1759a: 387), and for Edward Watkinson, “Taste is certainly an indispensable qualification in a critic” (1761: 2). Hugh Blair declares at the beginning of his Lectures that “True criticism […] is the offspring of good sense and refined taste.” (1783: 8–9) One way that taste subverts the self-sufficient authority of rules is by reconceptualising the nature of literature and art, away from the utilitarian concept of didactic art that had made Dennis insist so strongly on rules in 1704 and towards an understanding of disinterested pleasure (cf. Runge 1997: 173). In his Dissertation on the Idea of Universal Poetry (1766), Richard Hurd boldly claims this freedom of art from utilitarian demands: “When we speak of poetry, as an art, we mean such a way or method of treating a subject, as is found most pleasing and delightful to us. In all other kinds of literary composition, pleasure is subordinate to use: in poetry only, pleasure is the end, to which use itself […] must submit.” (1766: 3) Basing art firmly in aesthetic pleasure is for Hurd coupled with a strongly relativistic understanding of the rules: “The art of poetry will be, universally, the art of pleasing; and all its rules, but so many means, which experience finds most conducive to that end” (4). Surely, both the didactic and the aesthetic view of the use of art can formulate an understanding of the rules as relative means to an absolute end, as the example of John Dennis has shown. But whereas the end for didacticism typically claims universality (“the end of Poetry be to instruct and reform the World” (Dennis 1704: 5–6)), that of aesthetic pleasure is much more subjective and individual, lending its relative rules even less general validity, while at the same time lowering the preconditions for those who want to analyse and establish rules. Though stating that Aristotle has given the rules as means in respect to tragedy, and expressing his conviction that only a writer like him could, by turning to the other genres, form a complete art of poetry, Hurd nevertheless derives his own right to formulate rules from his own premises: “I have not the presumption to think myself, in any degree, equal to this arduous task: But from the idea of this art, as given above,

2 Cf. also: “[W]hatever the Science of Criticism can afford for the improvement or correction of Taste, must altogether depend upon the previous knowledge of the Nature and Laws of [taste].” Alison 1790: no page.

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an ordinary writer may undertake to deduce some general conclusions, concerning Universal Poetry” (1766: 5). But if taste is grounded in individuality, the question arises: Whose taste are we talking about, when we talk about taste? In realizing that there is a different taste for the author, the audience, or the critic, the concept of taste not only generally challenges what Laura Runge has called “the patrician model of classical authority [through] the modern, subjective orientation of criticism” (1997: 168), it also dynamizes the possession of critical authority. As soon as one understands taste as something individual, it becomes much easier to question the superiority of the critic’s taste over that of the general audience. Though all theoretical writers on taste hastened to find groundings for taste that transcended the individual, it did help accelerate the shift of authority from the author to the critic (as a representative reader) and ultimately to the audience.

7.1 Debating Taste Taste belonged to the growing number of aesthetic terms in the 18th century that escaped clear definition, the countless attempts notwithstanding – or maybe as a result of them. Its very success and its applicability to so many situations and experiences brought with it a loss of clear delineation (cf. Pittock 1973: 45). The result is the paradoxical situation of everyone talking with some assurance about a term that no one can precisely define (cf. Aronson 1946: 228). Contemporary commentators were quite aware of that fact. William Jackson writes that “Taste, like wit, was never satisfactorily defined, although every one knows, or fancies he knows, what it is” (1783a: 166), showing that no progress had been made since the lament of a reviewer some twenty-five years earlier: “The world knows perfectly well what is meant by wit and taste; yet all who have attempted to define these qualities, fail in their endeavours.” (Anonym 1756b: 389) Even systematic treatises could not remedy that fact, as William Rose’s assessment of Alexander Gerard’s 1759 Essay on Taste from the Monthly Review shows: Yet, notwithstanding this general pursuit, and the various attempts that have been made by modern writers to trace the sources, and fix a standard of taste, there are very few persons who have their ideas adjusted, with any degree of precision, upon this subject; and the word taste, though in almost every body’s mouth, is used in a very loose and indeterminate sense. (Rose 1759: 533)

What was tantalizing about taste to 18th-century thinkers was that it seemed to work so well, but that its workings could not be explained, as can be seen from the review of the same book in the Critical:


Taste and the Critic

The feelings and workings of taste are obvious; but in what manner those sensations are excited; how they come to be so various in some points, and uniform in others; how judgment differs from genius, and both from taste, will, in spite of all the labours of the learned, remain an insuperable paradox. (Anonym 1759b: 441)

This paradox between the multitude of differing tastes and the concurrence on some objects is to be found at the core of the many attempts of the time to restrain the potentially unlimited subjectivity of taste by fixing a “standard” for it. Still, numerous authors pondered over the definition, delineation, and exploration of taste, and developed theories about how it worked. Most authors agreed insofar as to understand taste as an additional, internal sense, the function of which was to decide what was agreeable and disagreeable, good and bad in aesthetic objects. In 1725 Francis Hutcheson had established the ‘internality’ of the sense of taste, mainly in order to better distinguish it from the other five senses: It is of no consequence whether we call these Ideas of Beauty and Harmony, Perceptions of the External Senses of Seeing and Hearing, or not. I should rather chuse to call our Power of perceiving these Ideas, an Internal Sense, were it only for the Convenience of distinguishing them from other Sensations of Seeing and Hearing, which men may have without Perception of Beauty and Harmony. (7)

Most of the later writers accepted this idea of “that internal Sense we call Taste” (Cooper 1771: 6–7). “Taste, is that Faculty of the human Mind, by which we perceive and enjoy, whatever is Beautiful, or Sublime in the works of Nature or Art” (Alison 1790: no page), writes Archibald Alison in the Essays on the Nature and Principles of Taste, William Duff explains taste as a figurative transposition from palatal taste to an internal sense,3 similar to Thomas Reid.4 Disagreement started on the question about the extent to which this sense of taste was a natural disposition (and if so, in how far it was evenly distributed amongst mankind), or

3 “Taste is used in a figurative sense to denote that faculty of the mind by which we enjoy whatever is beautiful. Like the taste of the palate this faculty relishes some things, is disgusted with others, and to many is indifferent; and from these obvious analogies between it and the external sense, it has obtained its name.” Duff 1767: 35. 4 “[O]ur internal sense ought to be accounted most just and perfect, when we are pleased with things that are most excellent in their kind, and displeased with the contrary. The intention of Nature is no less evident in this internal taste than in the external. Every excellence has a real beauty and charm that makes it an agreeable object to those who have the faculty of discerning its beauty; and this faculty is what we call a good taste.” Reid 1785: 717. Cf. also “The term taste, no doubt, was originally taken from the sensation of the palate; it is now equally applied to that faculty of the mind which distinguishes what is elegant. Its progress is the same in both”, Jackson 1783a: 166.

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whether it was partially or even completely acquired. Reid, for example, talks about “those who have the faculty”, implying that there might be those who have not. This debate between disposition and acquisition has consequences for the conception of criticism, as both can lend itself to a broader or a more narrow understanding of who was fit to be or to become a critic, but with rather different arguments. Claims for a completely and exclusively natural foundation of taste were rare and rather unsystematic. One can see in Hutcheson’s description of “a fine Genius or Taste” as a “greater Capacity of receiving such pleasant Ideas” (1725: 8) the idea that this capacity was naturally (though unevenly) distributed among mankind. William Belsham calls taste “our capacity for discerning beauty” (1799 (2): 204), implying natural disposition as well. Sir Joshua Reynold’s sister Frances writes in her Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Taste that “Taste seems to be an inherent impulsive tendency of the soul towards true good, given by nature to all alike” (1785: 35). Later attempts at identifying good taste and sensibility point in the same direction, as in John Donaldson’s claim that “[a]n original delicacy of taste is also the inseparable effect and symptom of the true sensibility” (1786: 82–83). The opposing insistence on acquisition is, in some respect, the heritage of taste’s historical origin in ideas of courteous behaviour with its close connection to the right kind of education, as when James Usher writes in his Clio. Or, a Discourse on Taste, addressed “to a young lady”: You very gracefully but imperceptibly led me to that taste and elegance, which distinguishes persons who have received polite educations, and particularly directed my attention to the graces peculiar to your own sex; the transition indeed from the beauties of writing to the elegance and propriety displayed in polished life was natural and easy; for similar simple original principles of taste are common to both, and are varied merely by character and situation. (1767: 2)

Some authors, like William Jackson, even went so far as to declare categorically: “Taste then is not a gift from nature, but an acquirement of art – nor is it easily acquired.” (1783a: 167) While Jackson’s treatment of taste is far from systematic, the same opinion is voiced by Joseph Priestley in his Lectures on Oratory and Criticism. Like Jackson, Priestley sees taste as highly acquired: Judgment is universally acknowledged to be altogether acquired, and that taste, too, or the capacity of perceiving the pleasures of imagination, may also be acquired, to a very great degree, is evident from the actual acquirement of a variety of similar tastes, even late in life. […] In fact, since all emotions excited by works of genius consist of such ideas and sensations as are capable of being associated with the perception of such works, nothing can be requisite to the acquisition of taste, but exposing the mind to a situation in which those associated ideas will be frequently presented to it. (Priestley 1777: 75)


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Priestley’s opinion heavily relies on Hartley’s theory of association (cf. Townsend 1993 and Priestley 1777: 72ff.). Taste is derived from experience, constructed out of encounters with situations and objects that are likely to inspire it. A very similar conception is to be found in the works of Dugald Stewart and Robert Anthony Bromley: Taste is not a simple and original faculty, but a power gradually formed by experience and observation. It implies, indeed, as its ground-work, a certain degree of natural sensibility; but it implies also the exercise of the judgment; and is the slow result of an attentive examination and comparison of the agreeable or disagreeable effects produced on the mind by external objects. (Stewart 1782: 369) Genius is wholly bestowed by Nature: taste, with something of Nature, is principally acquired. The one is an untutored ebullition of the imagination; the other is a rectified judgment. The one is chiefly found in the mind, or in the country, where Nature is seen most predominant; the other, where she is chastened and refined by the improvements of society and art. (Bromley 1793–1795 (1): 43)

Most views paralleled Bromley’s countervailing expression “with something of Nature” in attempts to reconcile disposition and acquisition. Addison writes in the Spectator that “[t]he Faculty must in some degree be born with us” (1712a: no page), though of course part of his didactic project presupposed that taste could also be taught. Others tended even stronger towards stressing that, though taste indeed was something natural and inborn, it must be improved to become excellent. The difference is usually one in degree and emphasis. When Campbell writes that “all have in them some rudiments of taste, though in some they are improved by a good, in others corrupted by a bad education, and in others almost suppressed by a total want of education” (1776 (1): 11), the bias is clearly more towards acquisition that disposition. By contrast, Gerard’s comment seems to put the emphasis more strongly on disposition: “Refinement of taste exists only, where, to an original delicacy of imagination, and natural acuteness of judgment, is superadded a long and intimate acquaintance with the best performances of every kind.” (1759: 126) But both views acknowledged the possibility for improvement of taste, a view that was shared by most. “A taste for these arts is a plant that grows naturally in many soils;” writes Kames, “but, without culture, scarce to perfection in any soil: it is susceptible of much refinement; and is, by proper care, greatly improved.” (1762: 5) That such improvement cannot be equated with a striving for correctness according to rules or established authority can be seen for example in John Armstrong’s poem Taste: ‘Tis easy learnt the art to talk by rote: At Nando’s ‘twill but cost you half a groat;

Debating Taste


The Bedford school at three-pence is not dear, Sir; At White’s–––the stars instruct you for a tester. But he, whom nature never meant to share One spark of taste, will never catch it there:––– Nor no where else; howe’er the booby beau Grows great with Pope, and Horace, and Boileau. Good native Taste, tho’ rude, is seldom wrong, Be it in music, painting, or in song. But this, as well as other faculties, Improves with age and ripens by degrees. (1753: no page)

In a later essay, Armstrong explains how such improvement works. After stating that “mere good taste is nothing else but genius without the power of execution”, he writes that it “is to be improved chiefly by being accustomed, and the earlier the better, to the most exquisite objects of taste in its various kinds.” (1758: 7) This is identical to Alexander Gerard’s opinion cited above, as well as Hugh Blair’s. While stressing the balance between disposition (nature) and acquisition (art) in matters of taste, Blair cites the perception of beautiful objects as the main strategy of improvement: “In its perfect state, it is undoubtedly the result both of nature and of art. It supposes our natural sense of beauty to be refined by frequent attention to the most beautiful objects, and at the same time to be guided and improved by the light of the understanding.” (1783: 23) The question whether taste was a naturally bestowed gift or an acquired art, and how it could be improved, had implications for criticism, since both criticism’s claim to inter-subjectivity and its didactic project depended on the persuasion that taste could be acquired or at least refined. If taste were a natural disposition evenly distributed amongst everyone, it would make criticism completely unnecessary, because all aesthetic judgments would inevitably be concordant. Priestley writes: “Had all minds the very same degree of sensibility, that is, were they equally affected by the same impressions, and were we all exposed to the same influences, through the whole course of our lives, there would be no room for the least diversity of taste among mankind.” (1777: 133) Consequently, there would be no necessity to voice any critical opinion, it being self-evident anyway. Perfect and universal taste is the end of all criticism, as it would not only mean preaching to the converted, but would simply be identical to the act of reading. And if taste – again understood as an absolute natural disposition – were completely different in every human, it would make criticism impossible, according to the de gustibus non est disputandum motto of absolute subjectivity. The most radical assumption of the subjectivity of taste completely negates the idea of critical authority, in the sense of its being the potential of one individual’s critical


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value judgment to be accepted as true by another individual. If taste were completely subjective, the reach of critical authority would never exceed the single individual. David Hume addresses this problem in his differentiation of sentiment and judgment, the one being always right individually, and the other not: “All sentiment is right; because sentiment has a reference to nothing beyond itself” (1757: 208). But then, luckily for criticism, the naturalization of taste never went as far as that of genius. On the other hand, the belief in taste’s capability of refinement both encouraged the didactic mission of criticism and confirmed the critic’s elevated status. Lord Kames shows how the insistence on refinement of taste immediately reduces within a narrow compass those who are qualified to be judges in the fine arts. Many circumstances are necessary to form a judge of this sort: there must be a good natural taste; that is, a taste approaching, at least in some degree, to the delicacy of taste above described: this taste must be improved by education, reflection, and experience (1762: 496).

The concept of taste can thus combine, for the construction of critical authority, the stratificatory class-structure inherited from aristocratic patronage, albeit rendered in purely aesthetic terms (“a good natural taste”, i.e. someone born with the right taste) with the science-based ideal of improvement through accumulation as expressed in the concept of ‘learning’ (“this taste must be improved”). To a degree, one has to be born a critic, while upward mobility through improvement is possible, or even necessary. Though radical in its potential implications of total subjectivity and freedom from any prescriptive authority, the way that taste was actually conceptualized by 18th-century thinkers most often turned out to be a mediation of the extreme positions. The general consensus on the question of disposition versus acquisition was one of those compromises that show the age’s striving for balanced views as well as the general limits of a scientific analysis of aesthetic questions. Thus, taste was seen as a natural disposition, retaining the je-ne-sais-quoi that accounted for the unexplainable and helped stay clear of the criticism-as-mathematics impasse, but one that was “a most improveable faculty” (Blair 1783: 19), thus saving criticism’s claim to utility. *** A similar revolutionary potential is contained in the question of the exact relation of the internal sense of taste to reason. In the course of the century, this question was answered in quite different ways that make a clear opposition of taste and reason (as implied in that frequently invoked antagonism of rule and feeling) seem rather simplistic. In addition, the differentiation of taste and reason is not an obvious or linear development. It is before the rise of affective aesthetics and

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empiric philosophy from mid-century on that taste is most clearly distinguished from reason as falling outside of its scope, the unexplainable surplus of true art (in its modern sense), something that is ‘beyond the reach of art’ in its contemporary sense as artisanship. In contrast, one of the main objectives in the treatises on taste from the 1750s on is the attempt to find, through empiric psychological analysis, a rational basis for the effects of beauty, “to disprove the popular notion that taste was something essentially individual, based on personal sensibility, which could not be defined, analysed and subjected to rules.” (Bosker 1954: 161) Thus, especially in the second half of the 18th century, two uses of the term of taste ran parallel, and were frequently opposed to each other. As a sense, taste was conceived as essentially a comparative activity (cf. Parrinder 1991: 13), since it works by distinguishing, just like sight, which distinguishes different colours, forms, or movements. But in the case of taste, what is distinguished is always identical with an aesthetic judgment, the separation of the ‘beauties’ and the ‘faults’ of a work of art, or distinguishing between aesthetically good and bad, agreeable and disagreeable. According to James Beattie, “in the works of human art, it is the office of Taste, to discern, not only what is excellent, but also what is faulty” (1783: 166), and for James Usher, taste “distinguishes and selects with unerring judgment, the fine and graceful, from the mean and disgusting” (1767: 2). For Gerard, “[a]s a correct taste distinguishes the kinds, it also measures the degrees of excellence and faultiness.” (1759: 140) There was general agreement as to this basic function of taste, but the role of reason in its inner workings is controversially debated. This debate is highlighted by the different views on the relation of taste and ‘judgment,’ ranging from an identification of taste with judgment on the one hand, and a conception of judgment as the workings of pure reason on the other. Since both taste and judgment operate by distinguishing,5 it was easy to simply identify them, as in the definition from the New Royal and Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences (“Taste, is also used in a figurative sense, for the judgment and discernment of the mind.” (Cooke 1772 (2): 555)) or the anonymous Reviewer’s Reviewed: “The Man of Letters, when his Palate’s chaste,/ Discovers his sound Judgement by his Taste.” (Anonym 1779: 34) On a more theoretical level, the identification of taste and judgment, especially before the rise of anthropological criticism around mid-century, implied a subordination of taste to reason, as in one of Richard Blackmore’s 1716 essays: Taste is a clear solid and distinguishing Judgment, by which a Man is enabled to discover the Beauties and Perfections, and to point out the Errors and Blemishes of an Author, not in

5 Cf. e.g.: “[J]udgment, the faculty which distinguishes things different, separates truth from falsehood, and compares together objects and their qualities.” Gerard 1759: 90.


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respect to their Congruity or Repugnance to the Dictates and Rules of Aristotle, or the Authority of any other celebrated ancient or modern Critick, but to the Decrees and Determinations of right Reason (260).

Later theorists put less ostensible emphasis on reason, but their abstraction also leads some to conclude the identity of taste and judgment, or rather the common element in both functions. For Gerard, both judgment and taste, in the way they are used by his contemporaries, are really judgments, one of truth, and the other of beauty (cf. Gerard 1774: 299). Daniel Webb argues in a similar way, writing that [m]any writers have opposed judgment to taste, as if they were distinct faculties of the mind; but this must be a mistake: The source of taste is feeling, so is it of judgment, which is nothing more than this same sensibility, improved by the study of its proper objects, and brought to a just point of certainty and correctness. Thus it is clear, that these are but different degrees of the same faculty, and that they are exercised wholly on our own ideas. (1760: 8)

The alliance of taste and judgment evokes the question of dominance and subordination that lies at the core of the many discussions of genius and rule, the flights of fancy and the restraints of criticism. Webb argues for a common foundation of taste and judgment in feeling, seeing their difference as one of degrees, while William Belsham’s critique of Lord Kames shows how different conceptions of power relations could be opposed. Though Belsham is willing to grant Kames that the “uniformity in our mental feelings” makes the search for the foundations of this uniformity worthwhile, he sees in his rigorous application of scientific principles an inexcusable return to ‘rules’: As there is a certain degree of uniformity in our mental feelings and perceptions, there certainly is a foundation for that uniformity; and it is both entertaining and instructive, by any fair process of induction, to point out the immediate, though we cannot trace the ultimate, causes of those uniform emotions of disgust or admiration, which is in effect to point out the means of avoiding or exciting them; or, in other words, it is to establish certain fixed rules of composition upon the authority of experience: but what I dislike is, the pedantry of appealing to speculative principles in opposition to the decisions of taste […]. In a word, of all kinds of literary affectation, that which is most disgusting is, the affectation of judging in matters of taste by rule, and not by feeling; and this appears to me the fundamental defect of the work to which I have before alluded; I mean the Elements of Criticism. (Belsham 1799 (2): 218)

What Belsham does in aligning taste solely with ‘feeling’ is to dissociate its workings from the way that the age conceived the structure of the activity of judgment. If taste works like judgment, its ultimate causes can never be detected, because as feeling it can never be reduced to judgment’s digital structure of

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binary oppositions. John Donaldson, while starting from the same preconditions as Belsham in grounding taste on ‘sentiment’ as opposed to reason, still does not see the different elements in conflict: Concerning matters of taste, we appeal to the feelings of the heart, rather than to the abilities of the head. Taste prevents judgment, and is more beholden to sentiment than to experience. There is, however perfect agreement between right reason and true taste: they are reciprocal tests of each other’s validity; since we are not satisfied that such things please, but are apt to inquire into the causes and effects of this pleasure before we allow its authenticity. (Donaldson 1786: 6)

Those on the other hand who uphold the dominance of reason regard taste as incomplete when devoid of judgment based on reason, as in Ogilvie’s statement that “Taste in criticism (as far as the arts are concerned) is discernment corrected by judgment” (1774 (1): 351). The correctional function of judgment is stressed, working as a necessary constraint, as in Gerard: The compleatest union of the internal senses, is not of itself sufficient to form good taste, even though they be attended with the greatest delicacy of passion. They must be aided with judgment, the faculty which distinguishes things different, separates truth from falsehood, and compares together objects and their qualities. (1759: 90)

But not all authors agreed on the dependence of taste on a correctional faculty based on reason and usually called judgment. Some, like James Usher, held on to the identification of taste and judgment, but saw it as a special kind of judgment that “is not the issue of reason and comparison, like a mathematical inference, but is perceived instantaneously, and obtruded upon the mind, like sweet and bitter upon the sense, from which analogy it has borrowed the name of taste.” (1767: 34–35)6 Blair, who claimed the independence of taste from the operations of reason, saw reason as subordinate, assisting taste and enlarging its power (cf. Blair 1783: 16–17). Others simply turned the power relation on its head. Oliver Goldsmith reversed the order of consideration and therefore the emphasis. Starting out from reason, he sees it as incomplete without the guidance of taste (cf. Bosker 1954: 163, 174). William Duff comes to a similar conclusion by distinguishing between matters of ‘philosophy’, where taste “must not pretend to take the lead of reason, but humbly follow the path marked out by it”, and works of art. Here, “[i]nstead of being directed by judgment, it claims 6 Cf. also: “We may define Taste to be that internal sense, which, by its own exquisitely nice sensibility, without the assistance of the reasoning faculty, distinguishes and determines the various qualities of the objects submitted to its cognisance; pronouncing, by its own arbitrary verdict, that they are grand or mean, beautiful or ugly, decent or ridiculous.” Duff 1767: 11.


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the direction in its turn; its authority is uncontrolable, and there lies no appeal from its decisions.” (1767: 12) The more one dissociates taste, in the sense of correct judgment, from reason, the more one paradoxically distinguishes literary evaluation (the prime activity of the critic) from criticism, then understood as a much more theoretical or schematic activity. John Gilbert Cooper shows this tendency, when he denies Addison any status as a ‘critic’ while at the same time praising him for his unfailing judgments: Mr. Addison, was no great Scholar; he was a very indifferent Critic, and a worse Poet; yet from the happy Mixture, just mentioned, he was blessed with a Taste truly delicate and refined. This rendered him capable of distinguishing what were Beauties in the Works of others, tho’ he could not account so well why they were so, for want of that deep Philosophical Spirit which is requisite in Works of Criticism. (1771: 28)7

Earlier in his text, Cooper had made a clear distinction between taste and reason that he explained, like Usher had done, in terms of relative speed. Taste works independent from reason because it is so much faster, “that instantaneous Glow of Pleasure which thrills thro’ our whole Frame, and seizes upon the Applause of the Heart, before the intellectual Power, Reason, can descend from the Throne of the Mind to ratify its Approbation” (Cooper 1771: 2–3). A similar idea can be found in Vicesimus Knox’s essays. Knox does grant those persons that follow their internal sense in pronouncing judgments the name of critics, while relegating the rationalistic explanations of such judgments to an unnamed, but clearly subordinated sphere: [T]hey who have enjoyed the benefits of a good education, and improved their parts which were naturally good, may deserve the praise of good critics, when they pronounce on a work, that it is good or bad, or make any particular remarks on its beauties and deformities, according to their feelings, even though they should not be able or inclined to give such subtle reasons for their judgment as have lately appeared in some very ingenious writings of this age. (1778 (1): 128–129)

Discussing the taste of the critic is thus always at least an implicit discussion of his requirements, his function, his ability, and his authority. This will become most obvious in the period’s quest for a standard of taste. But the discussion of

7 Later in his text, Cooper attacks the classicist Anthony Blackwall for being a scholar, but lacking taste: “This man was what is generally called a good Scholar […] but not having by Nature or Acquisition that happy Taste of distinguishing Beauties, nor a Digestion (if I may so say) to assimilate the Sense of others into his own Understanding, his Conceptions were as crude as his Address and Stile were unpleasing.” Cooper 1771: 119–120.

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taste cannot be reduced to the taste of the critic alone; it has to be seen in relation to the taste of the (general) audience. The distancing of amateur reader and professional critic not only meant that their respective tastes were discussed separately, but that their interaction was brought to bear on general considerations of criticism’s possibilities and shortcomings.

7.2 The Taste of the Audience By the time that affective aesthetics were on the rise in England, the growing and increasingly differentiating literary market had already started to change the nature of the reading audience. Instead of a relatively socially coherent group that interacted in a physical meeting-place (the polite society of like-minded gentlemen in the coffeehouse), the audience started to become a much broader (because more socially inclusive) and much more anonymous market force, the control of which was unstable at best. The beginning of the century had already shown a growing awareness of – and anxiety about – the fact that there were readers outside of the in-group of men of letters, and that these readers pretended to an opinion of their own. Before the professionalization of the critic had come the anarchy of criticism, in which everyone became their own critic. The potential result was, as in the following statement by George Farquhar, a conflicting multitude of egotistical demands on literature that lack any common ground or general principle: The Scholar calls upon us for Decorums and Oeconnomy; the Courtier crys out for Wit and Purity of Stile; the Citizen for Humour and Ridicule; the Divines threaten us for Immodesty; and the Ladies will have an Intreague. Now here are a multitude of Criticks, whereof the twentieth Person only has read Quæ Genus, and yet every one is a Critick after his own way; that is, Such a Play is best, because I like it. A very familiar Argument, methinks, to prove the Excellence of a Play, and to which an Author wou’d be very unwilling to appeal for his Success (1702: 115).

That these changes in who was able to read a text or see a play, and who could consequently judge upon these performances and claim the role of critic, were perceived within the categories of social distinction is clearly visible from this exclamation of Thomas Gordon in his The Humorist (1730): “Bless me! That the learned Art of Criticism should grow so cheap and common! Now-a days Porters and ‘Prentices examine Wit, and hold Sessions upon the Stage.” (17) And even half a century later, the author of Reviewers Reviewed sneers that “Pens are not Weapons fit for Hands to wield,/ Which shou’d have labour’d in the Barn or Field” (Anonym 1779: 30). But as on the increasingly commercialized literary market the


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power to judge gradually shifted from the stratificatory system of a few socially distinguished persons to the more democratically distributed judgment by individual purchase, porters did start to gain the same critical vote as peers. As soon as success is measured in sales figures, every bought copy counts the same.8 In this sense, Charles Gildon laments how, as soon as the literary text becomes an object of commerce, the reader expects to acquire critical authority over it through the act of purchase: “[I[t is the mode in our times, that every one that can buy a book, and read it, assumes the authority of passing his sentence upon the performance” (1721: 2). It is at least ambivalent in Gildon’s statement, whether the reading or the buying of the book entitles the reader/owner more to having a critical opinion on it. Investigations into the taste of the audience thus became of increasing importance. The general impression prevalent in contemporary discussions of it held on to a concept of class-distinction, with its conviction that there were far too few people of real taste, as opposed to a mass of people with ‘low’ taste. This is, of course, a rather stereotypical assessment that until today hasn’t lost its appeal for all those who see culture (from a personal vantage point of elevation) in a perpetual state of decline, like John Dennis, who asks in 1702: “They who understand? Alas, they are but few” (no page), and who writes in 1711 “that Taste and Genius daily more and more decline” (20). George Colman in 1775 makes fun of the unoriginality of this viewpoint: “The first canon of Modern Criticism (and indeed it has been a favourite topick ever since the Flood) is the degeneracy of the present age.” (No page) And indeed, many writers held on to it. The Universal Spectator, in a 1736 essay “Of Modern Taste and Novelty” contrasts the age’s claim to taste with its actual lack of it: As the word Taste is lately grown into universal use, and the sense of it as universally laid claim to; the frequency of the expression flung me into some reflections on the real Taste and Judgment of our nation. As much as the present age lays claim to Taste, upon examination I am afraid they have no title to it. (Anonym 1736: no page)

Other typical statements are ones like Charles Gildon’s, that “the present low state of Poetry is owing to the want of taste and judgment of the general readers and hearers of poetic performances, more than to the real want of genius” (1721: 39), or Vicesimus Knox’s that “[t]he depraved taste of readers is another cause of the degeneracy of writers. They who write for the public, must gratify the taste of the

8 The practice of publishing by subscription shows itself as a transitional phenomenon also by the fact that some of its ‘democratized’ patrons tried to oppose the restriction of their authority to a single vote in a general election, by subscribing for multiple copies.

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public. […] In an age when the taste for reading is universal, many works, contemptible both in design and execution, will be received by some readers, with distinguished applause.” (1778 (2): 110). John Armstrong in 1753 is surprisingly specific in his estimation of the people of taste, insofar as he clearly marks the topographical boundaries within which he deems a search for people of taste to be successful, and then gives out a concrete number: Range from Tower-hill all London to the Fleet, Thence round the Temple, t’utmost Grosvenor-street: Take in your route both Gray’s and Lincoln’s Inn; Miss not, be sure, my Lords and Gentlemen; You’ll hardly raise, as I with Petty guess, Above twelve thousand men of taste; unless In desperate times a Connoisseur may pass. (No page)

The low state of public taste is frequently invoked to explain the lack of appreciation for highly valued literary works, or, in the words of George Campbell, “when the Authors of real merit are dismissed without being offered to sale at all, it is levelled against the low and trifling taste of the age in general” (1767: iv). Theatrical entertainment was another area in which “the depravity of public taste” was well visible, insofar as it “had well nigh converted the theatre into a puppet show” (Rivers 1798 (1): 136).9 The reasons for the audience’s bad taste were manifold, some saw them, like Gildon, in “our very faulty education, which, I believe I may venture to assert, is the most defective of any in this part of Europe” (1721: 55–56), others in the bad influence of “this long run of insipid Romances”,10 in the predominant interest in politics,11 or in the social and economic conditions of the different classes (cf. Reynolds 1785: 46). The counter-image to the fear that everyone would become their own judge, and that the standard of criticism would drown in a cacophony of unrelated, purely subjective voices, was the impression that the audience was unable to judge for their own, and would inevitably rather follow a received opinion than think for itself. While the first image expressed the fear that the critics could not be heard anymore in an all-levelling, market-oriented literary world that dissolved the old hierarchical social structures of criticism, the second expresses the opposite: that the voice of the critic becomes too loud, that (certain) critics become too powerful as opinion-leaders, influencing a multitude of headless

9 Cf. also Rymer 1692: 2; Anonym 1724; and Campbell 1767: 102. 10 Richard Hurd in a letter to William Mason from June 16, 1756, Hurd 1995: 287. 11 “Such now the taste of this dull town,/ Nothing but politics go down.” Derrick 1755: 207.


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followers. Both fears are propelled by media developments, the difference lies in the perception of these developments. While the beginning of the century had been marked by the gradual overcoming of social rank as a decisive factor in critical authority, with the aristocrat increasingly perceived to unjustly influence public opinion (“the Multitude has sometimes been led astray by the Favour and Applause which Persons of Rank and popular Characters have shewed to undeserving Authors” (Cooke 1749: 4)), fears about the audience’s tendency to blindly follow established authorities grew with the rise of opinion-leading periodicals like The Spectator or The Rambler,12 and they rose especially high with the establishment of the Reviews around midcentury, as is exemplified among others in the attacks by Charles Churchill (cf. Churchill 1761: 6 and Donoghue 1996: 50). The notion that many readers “ne’er advance a Judgment of their own,/ But catch the spreading Notion of the Town” (Pope 1711: 24, cf. also Cogan 1776: 14 and Pinkerton 1785: 16, 477) is therefore constant, especially from mid-century on, as is the appeal to readers to “Judge for yourself; nor wait with timid phlegm/ ‘Till some illustrious pedant hum or hem.” (Armstrong 1753: no page) This leads to a further distinction between criticism and the critic. While the categorization of someone as a critic implies ontological distinction (critic – noncritic) and consequently hierarchy, the activity of criticism as a way of thinking can be seen as potentially democratizing, empowering someone to think independently. In the latter sense, one does not have to ‘be’ a critic in order to think or act critically. “True criticism”, writes Hugh Blair, “teaches us, in a word, to admire and to blame with judgment, and not to follow the crowd blindly.” (Blair 1783: 8–9) Nb. that Blair obviously does not expect that true criticism will eventually liberate every reader, since apparently there will always be a ‘crowd’ one should not follow blindly. Again, the radical utopian potential of taste is not realized.

7.3 The Standard of Taste The greatest danger for the critic’s authority that the introduction of taste as prime category for aesthetic judgment posed lay in its subjectivity, recognizable in the diversity of individual tastes. “The great variety of Tastes,” writes David Hume, “as well as of opinions, which prevail in the world, is too obvious not to have fallen under every one’s observation.” (1757: 203) While ‘taste’ freed the apprecia-

12 “The Rambler cannot always suppress his thorough contempt for the taste of the public. He no doubt laughs internally at their folly in admiring him.” Callender 1782: 47.

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tion and evaluation of art from the rigidity that came with demands for universality, it also opened it to the danger of losing any common ground. As Hooker writes, the writers on taste “were struggling against a complete breakdown of faith in universals, against the suspicion that beauty was arbitrary and therefore lawless, against the idea that one man’s taste was as good as any other’s” (1934: 581). Rendered in political terms, the subjectivity of taste threatened to turn the republic of letters into anarchy. Lord Kames spells out the consequence of the proverb that there is no disputing about taste: “[W]ith respect to the perceptions of sense, by which some objects appear agreeable some disagreeable, there is not such a thing as a good or a bad, a right or a wrong; […] every man’s taste is to himself an ultimate standard without appeal”. Given the accuracy of the proverb, there is, according to Kames, “no ground of censure”, and that means no basis for criticism. Of course, Kames as well as the other writers on aesthetics, though they could never ultimately disprove it,13 did not believe in the accuracy of the proverb. The problem was that though “every one of taste will reject it as false”, they would do this rejection while being “unqualified to detect the fallacy” (Kames 1762: 483). Thus, Kames could and had to base his whole treatise on the assumption that a standard existed (cf. Einhorn 1987: 284), while still struggling to define how it worked or what it was. The following question, put by Vicesimus Knox in 1778, is representative for an anxiety that is inextricably connected to the ascendancy of taste, especially when seen under the perspective of criticism: “What then, it will be asked, is criticism to be left for ever vague and indeterminate, and is there no standard of taste?” (1778 (1): 130). This ‘standard of taste’ became something like the holy grail of aesthetics around mid-century, an eternally thought-for but never quite achieved goal (cf. Aikin 1793: 51). To David Hume it seemed “very natural for us to seek a Standard of Taste; a rule, by which the various sentiments of men may be reconciled; or at least, a decision afforded, confirming one sentiment, and condemning another.” (1757: 207–208) Though all writers on taste tried to find a solution, and though, as the quote from Hume shows, there was considerable willingness to restrict the scope and applicability of that standard, no general agreement could be found. Hooker sees a number of reasons for this failure: In the first place, [writers on taste] disagreed among themselves on every point, and each man tore down part of the structure erected by his predecessors; in the second place, the arguments advanced were so incomplete and the propositions so vague that reviewers were quick to point out that they failed in their endeavor to supply a standard; in the third place, the emphasis

13 For an analysis of David Hume’s failed “attempt to show that the de gustibus sceptic holds a provably false view”, cf. Ribeiro 2007.


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upon sensibility as possessing a kind of instinctive infallibility tended to make rules superfluous; and finally, the division of aesthetic objects into disparate classes, the sublime and the beautiful, which were conceived of as subject to entirely different principles but which were never clearly defined or clearly distinguished, made for hopeless confusion. (1934: 591)

The answer that Knox provided is, as will be seen, the most common compromise, derived mainly from David Hume’s discussion of the subject: “I answer, that the feelings of the majority of men coinciding for a number of years in the same object, constitutes a standard sufficiently certain and uniform.” (Knox 1778 (1): 130) One foundation for this solution was the general agreement among writers on aesthetics on a minimum of disposition in taste, that all men shared at least the core of an original taste that was uniform. “There are qualities in things, determinate and stable, independent of humour or caprice, that are fit to operate on mental principles, common to all men,” writes Alexander Gerard, “and, by operating on them, are naturally productive of the sentiments of taste in all its forms.” (1759: 72) If taste is indeed something that is at least to a degree originally inherent in all men, and, as Burke has it, “the true standard of the arts is in every man’s power” (1757: 38), then the establishment of such a standard is merely a question of education, and time. The diversity of taste is then chiefly an effect of differing cultural contexts, as well as differing education, or simply differing life experiences. Aikin makes these latter responsible for the impossibility of uniformity in judgments, since “the diversities either in original conformation, or in early associations, must ever prevent mankind from feeling exactly alike with respect to the objects presented to them” (1793: 51). For Joseph Priestley, it is the incongruity of different cultures that makes a standard of taste for the moment unattainable. But the globalization of knowledge through the technique of printing and easier travel is already eroding the differences: “This diversity of taste would certainly be much more considerable at present, were it not for the easy intercourse there is between different nations, and different universities, particularly by means of the art of printing.” (1777: 134) The consequence is a natural evolution of a standard of taste in a global aesthetic utopia: “[W]e may expect that, in consequence of the growing intercourse between all the nations of earth, and all the literati of them, an uniform and perfect standard of taste will at length be established over the whole world” (135). Priestley’s vision points towards the concept of the test of time that in its extreme form could be understood as a complete democratization of criticism under the influence of time, and would effectively constitute criticism’s abolishment. Given the global establishment of a perfect standard of taste, criticism would dissolve by becoming identical with the act of reading. In the same radical

The Standard of Taste


sense, Fielding declares in Book 8 of Tom Jones, that by the word critic, he means “every reader in the world” (1749 (2): 171). This is criticism without any class distinction, neither between different audiences (the happy few versus the rabble) nor between (amateur) audience and (professional) critic. But no critic was willing to simply give up all of his authority and be content with being just one reader among equals, patiently waiting for time to solve the problem of literary evaluation. Instead, the critic’s main precondition is his impatience, and he understands his function as an acceleration of the process that leads to the general critical consensus about a text. Thus, Priestley immediately follows his statement of belief in an ultimate aesthetic utopia that has no fixed time (“at length”) with a return to the concrete time of experience (“In the mean time”) that retains the necessity for the critic, understood as someone who has refined his taste more than others: In the mean time, justness of taste will be determined by appealing to the general sense of those who have been the most conversant with the subjects of it. A deviation from this general taste will be reckoned a fault, and a coincidence with it an excellence; and the difficulty there is in ascertaining what is this medium of opinion in connoisseurs makes the business of criticism, or the standard of judging in works of genius, so vague and undetermined as it is. Persons who have not been conversant with the subjects of taste are excluded from having any vote in this case, because their minds have not been in a proper situation for receiving the ideas and sensations which are requisite to form a just taste. (1777: 135)

Though a class-free communism of criticism might allegedly be the ultimate goal of the proponents of the test of time, this goal is set in an indeterminate future, while the intermediate stage is in need of a representational democracy at best, and one with rather limited suffrage, as Priestley makes clear. His system bears striking resemblances to the political system of the time, combining as it does the democratic principle of election with clear class distinctions that gave the vote only to few. With the re-introduction of class distinction into the egalitarian concept of the test of time, the principle of a standard achieved through social inclusiveness could be substituted by the principle of a standard achieved by individual perfection. Viewed optimistically, the judgments of all men (and all times) must necessarily contain the right judgment, but if some men are better capable of judging than others, the argument continues, this holds equally true for the judgment of one perfect man. On the condition of his perfection, he could claim to be representative of all men, a dictator without any associations of tyranny: “[H]e whose judgement is incontestable may, without usurpation, examine and decide” (1779–1781 (3): 139), writes Samuel Johnson. The problem with this perfect critic, as imagined here by Hugh Blair, was that he was merely an ideal:


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Now, were there any one person who possessed in full perfection all the powers of human nature, whose internal senses were in every instance exquisite and just, and whose reason was unerring and sure, the determinations of such a person concerning beauty, would, beyond doubt, be a perfect standard for the Taste of all others. (1783: 30)

Right away, Blair has to concede, “as there is no such living standard, no one person to whom all mankind will allow such submission to be due, what is there of sufficient authority to be the standard of the various and opposite Tastes of men?” Like the others, Blair has to effectively beg the question by returning to the test-of-time concept in a circular argument: “That which men concur the most in admiring, must be held to be beautiful. His Taste must be esteemed just and true, which coincides with the general sentiments of men. In this standard we must rest. To the sense of mankind the ultimate appeal must ever lie, in all works of Taste.” (30) The main problem with Blair’s argument again is timing. The question of time is conspicuously absent from his quote, though it must be implied. Not only what “men concur the most in admiring” must be held to be beautiful, but what they admire for some time, otherwise they might just follow temporary fashion. Public taste is first of all a phenomenon of the moment, and as such it is subject to change and to ‘fashion,’ a commonly used derogatory term in 18th-century criticism. For John Pinkerton, “Fashion, after exerting her power upon most other subjects, has at last chosen literary reputation to display the utmost caprices of her sway. Sometimes it happens wonderfully that she blunders right; but most commonly her favours are unworthily bestowed.”14 And James Barry writes in An Inquiry into the Real and Imaginary Obstructions to the Acquisition of the Arts in England (1775): What we call the taste of the age, is the peculiar style and complexion of this national mass, for the time being: it fluctuates and generates with more or less facility and success; and is good or bad, rude or polished, limited or extended, according to the different states of this mass in its different modes of combination. (164)15

The changing nature of temporary taste or fashion means that the fame of writers who only pander after immediate acclaim will not last, “like Flies, they make a

14 “These fashionable scriblers, who are now so common, are however by no means to be envied, for, in the course of a year, of a month, of a day, the public may see the deception”, Pinkerton 1785: 15. “[T]ho fashionable writers are most justly set in opposition to good, the very epithet implying that their works will not last; yet fashion is now and then in the right, as well as other fools.” Pinkerton 1785: 103. 15 Cf. also Stockdale 1773: 36.

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buzzing for a Day or two, and are forgotten for ever.” (Oldmixon 1728: 61) Novels especially were seen as a genre that concentrated on satisfying only the demands of the day.16 Consequently, some critics even advise authors to avoid public acclaim, like John Pinkerton, when he declares that “common and universal applause is in the eyes of a man of wisdom, or even of true taste, a matter not the be wished”, and a little further on: “An author in particular, who has any regard for his fame, should beware of building it upon such a sandy foundation as the applause of the mob.” (1785: 11, 14) In the present, the applause of the majority is anything but a guarantee of right judgment but rather indicative of the lowest common denominator. The most important solution to the lowering of critical standards that comes from the democratization of critical judgments is therefore the addition of the element of time. Pinkerton writes that “works of uncommon excellence require to be viewed at a certain distance, and in a certain light, to have their due effect.” (104) Time, many critics agreed, brings with it detachment and independence from topical considerations like fashion or political faction. “Authority or prejudice may give a temporary vogue to a bad poet or orator;” according to Hume, “but his reputation will never be durable or general. When his compositions are examined by posterity or by foreigners, the enchantment is dissipated, and his faults appear in their true colours. On the contrary, a real genius, the longer his works endure, and the more wide they are spread, the more sincere is the admiration which he meets with.” (1757: 213–214) With enough time, the public appreciation that always seems to follow the lowest common aesthetic denominator apparently turns into an irrefutable sign of literary greatness. Oliver Goldsmith, after commending the public as the new patrons that have succeeded the aristocracy in that function, writes: [The public] is indeed, too frequently mistaken as to the merits of every candidate for favour; but to make amends, it is never mistaken long. A performance indeed may be forced for a time into reputation, but destitute of real merit it soon sinks; time, the touchstone of what is truly valuable, will soon discover the fraud, and an author should never arrogate to himself any share of success, till his works have been read at least ten years with satisfaction. (1762 (2): 84)

This is why one should assume that Priestley implicitly adds the element of time to the establishment of “the general sentiments of men”. Thus, to know whether our perfect judge is in accordance with these general sentiments is only possible 16 “Ninety-nine out of a Hundred of the Works of our British Novel-writers and others, will not outlive themselves; and their Fate, unless I am a false Prophet, will be to moulder on a neglected Shelf among Spider-webs and devouring Moths; or if they fall into some avaricious Hands will be hawked about at so much per Pound among Cheesemongers and Grocers.” Anonym 1760b: 38.


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long after he has given his judgment. For if he just repeats the received common sense (like saying that Shakespeare was a great writer) he cannot be regarded as a real critic, adding nothing to criticism. The solution of the test of time is a simplified and almost universally accepted17 version of David Hume’s conclusion to a standard of taste. Two factors combine to make this argumentative strategy so successful in the period: the ascendancy of affective aesthetics with its resulting shift from the prodesse to the delectare and its subjectification of taste, and the growth of literary publication beyond the attention-capacity of any single critic or reader, heightening the awareness of the ephemerality of so much of the cultural production of the day. As long as the predominant factor for the evaluation of a work of art is its didactic quality, the standards by which this work is to be judged can be perceived as timeless and objective. If only truth is beauty, and not the other way round (when something does not become ‘true’ simply by being beautiful as in aestheticist theory), universal standards and laws apply according to everlasting ratio. But when the affective qualities of a work of art are stressed, an analysis or evaluation of these qualities will need an empirical basis: the sentiment of an individual reader – or of a statistically relevant average of many readers. The shift from considering the sentiments of one reader to that of many, on the other hand, is not least of all a result of the fact that by the second half of the century no single reader was capable of reading every available text, or even keep up with the ongoing production of new texts. On the surface level, the belief in the test of time is a counter discourse to that of cultural degeneration. Given this latter conviction, one would have to agree with Fielding that “time and ignorance [are] the two great supporters of imposture” (1749 (1): 228), and are consequently responsible for the cementation of error and prejudice, rather than their ultimate abolishment. Alexander Pope’s cultural apocalypse in the fourth book of the Dunciad is surely the period’s most powerful expressed conviction of a degenerational movement in which dullness ultimately consumes reason, chaos swallows the cosmos and the word is finally ‘uncreated’ in a complete perversion of Genesis. But against this admittedly highly influential poetic image one has to consider Pope’s confidence that on the pages of his poem he provided a monument for all those writers who would soon be forgotten by time, implying that general taste would improve beyond them: Pope clearly expected to stand the test of time with his Dunciad. 17 Voices of doubt, like that of John Armstrong in his poem Taste, are rare: “‘But to the ancients.’–––Faith! I am not clear,/ For all the smooth round type of Elzevir,/ That every work which lasts in prose or song,/ Two thousand years, deserves to last so long.” Armstrong 1753: no page.

The Standard of Taste


The most famous expression of the opposed belief in the validity of the general audience’s taste is Samuel Johnson’s concept of the ‘common reader.’ Though the ascendancy of individual taste had started much earlier and was discussed more systematically in other works, it was Johnson who gave the phenomenon a label that connects it to the further development of the literary market in the 18th century and all the way until today. “Before the eighteenth century there was no common reader” (Engell 1989: 160), writes James Engell, and before Johnson the common reader might have had a name, but was no brand. Johnson repeatedly refers to this common reader, especially throughout the Lives, making him “his ally” (Hagstrum 1967: 174), and generally trusting in “the uniformity, the impersonality, and hence the reliability of the public opinion.” (Piper 1978: 467)18 As Engell puts it, “Johnson’s judgment is always aware of another, more powerful and lasting force – that of the public, the common reader” (1989: 184). But it is certainly erroneous to expect consistency from Johnson’s idea of the ‘common reader,’ since it is, as Damrosch argues, much less a systematic concept than “a fuzzy and sometimes inconsistent notion” (1976: 38). Damrosch further divides this notion into two aspects, namely the concept of the ‘test of time’ proper and the conviction that only an unprejudiced and unspecialized mind can rightfully judge the merit of a literary work. Especially the second aspect was based on the more general notion of common sense and Johnson’s conviction that common sense should be the critic’s guiding principle more than specialized knowledge, or even a more than average sensibility. This explains the value of the common reader in the present. An overrefined sensibility, and knowledge that regards itself as absolute and self-sufficient, are even detrimental to right judgment: “[B]y the common sense of readers uncorrupted with literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtilty and the dogmatism of learning, must be finally decided all claim to poetical honours.” (Johnson 1779–1781 (10): 35) When Johnson differentiates between a learned critic as reader and a common man as reader, as he does for example in his comparison of the translations of Virgil by Dryden and Pitt, his sympathies are usually with the common man (cf. Wheeler 1987: 34 and Damrosch 1976: 41). One might be tempted to pit the apocalyptic Scriblerian vision of the inevitable rise of dullness with its desperate efforts to cling to a stratificatory concept of authors and readers against Johnson’s optimistic referral to the “common reader” as ultimate arbiter.19 But the paradoxical truth is that both positions are not

18 Ross notes that “[i]t is one of the ironies of literary history that Johnson, champion of the common reader, wrote his Lives as prefaces to an edition that was deliberately designed to divert attention from the one reprint series, Bell’s, which the common reader could afford.” 1992: 20. 19 This is done, though cautiously, by McDermott, cf. 1998: 52.


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mutually exclusive, but function alongside each other. Pope’s narrative of a degenerational cultural apocalypse is written with the conviction that in future times it will serve as a monument to all the Dunces who would have long been forgotten if not for their being mentioned in the Dunciad. And Johnson derives from his very reliance on common opinion the legitimacy for correcting this opinion. Johnson is far from simply surrendering all critical authority to the reading public. While the common reader is constantly on his mind throughout the composition of the Lives, he as constantly corrects public misconceptions about authors.20 During his discussion of the poet George Stepney, he comments on Stepney’s short period of literary fame by saying: “One cannot always easily find the reason for which the world has sometimes conspired to squander praise.” (Johnson 1779–1781 (4): 5) Especially without the addition of time, even for Johnson the common reader is far from faultless. Where Johnson starts from the assumption that the totality of readers hold the true standard of criticism only to begin influencing the opinion of that totality from an authoritarian vantage point that he always had trouble justifying, David Hume, in his seminal essay “Of the Standard of Taste”,21 first of all denies any radical democracy of criticism: “Thus, though the principles of taste be universal, and nearly, if not entirely the same in all men; yet few are qualified to give judgment on any work of art, or establish their own sentiment as the standard of beauty. The organs of internal sensation are seldom so perfect as to allow the general principles their full play, and produce a feeling correspondent to those principles.” (1757: 228) He therefore sketches the picture of a ‘perfect’ critic, but then strengthens this ideal figure by multiplying it to a representative number: “Strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice, can alone entitle critics to this valuable character; and the joint verdict of such, whereever they are to be found, is the true standard of taste and beauty.” (22) Hume’s solution might be an uneasy and ambiguous compromise, but is one that is contained in all the others as well. Johnson’s trust in his ideal of ‘common sense’ as a completely unbiased and unprejudiced frame of mind perhaps most clearly discovers the necessary blind spot that all 18th-century solutions involving the test of time had. In most cases, this blind spot is only detectable through the absence of any explanation about its inner mechanisms. Johnson himself was one of the few to try and explain the

20 Cf. for example Johnson 1779–1781 (2): 213; Johnson 1779–1781 (6): 30; and Johnson 1779–1781 (1): 104. 21 On the importance of the essay cf. Carroll 1984: 181 and Mason 2001: 59.

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efficacy of this process, and he does so through the quantity of comparison that it makes possible: What mankind have long possessed they have often examined and compared, and if they persist to value the possession, it is because frequent comparisons have confirmed opinion in its favour. As among the works of nature no man can properly call a river deep or a mountain high, without the knowledge of many mountains and many rivers; so in the productions of genius, nothing can be stiled excellent till it has been compared with other works of the same kind. (Shakespeare 1765 (1): no page)

Again, Johnson’s account implicitly relies on the objectivity of the observations that form the basis for comparison, the absence of prejudice or, in other words: the absence of criticism. The ideal of the ‘common reader’ as well as that of the ‘test of time’ is nothing but an absence of criticism, of preconceived critical positions influenced by individual critics or factions (i.e. ‘fashions’). The blind spot is the recognition that such an absence of criticism is impossible, and it is a necessary blind spot because the very criticism that posits its absence throughout the process is also filling the absence. Instead of being free from criticism, the common reader, the guarantee for the efficacy of the test of time, is constructed by criticism. And it is the very nature of that construction that enables critics to maintain control. Because Johnson says what the common reader is, he can correct him if he does not follow the description. Hugh Blair in his Lectures takes a position that is very similar to the one voiced by Johnson: the public is the “last appeal” in matters of taste, yet it can be misguided, for example by “superficial beauties”, and therefore there is still a need for the critic to disabuse it: Now, according to the principles laid down in the last Lecture, the Public is the supreme judge to whom the last appeal must be made in every work of Taste; as the standard of Taste is founded on the sentiments that are natural and common to all men. But with respect to this we are to observe, that the sense of the Public is often too hastily judged of. The genuine public Taste does not always appear in the first applause given upon the publication of any new work. There are both a great vulgar and a small, apt to be catched and dazzled by very superficial beauties, the admiration of which in a little time passes away: and sometimes a writer may acquire great temporary reputation merely by his compliance with the passions or prejudices, with the party-spirit or superstitious notions, that may chance to rule for a time almost a whole nation. In such cases, though the Public may seem to praise, true Criticism may with reason condemn; and it will in progress of time gain the ascendant: for the judgment of true Criticism, and the voice of the Public, when once become unprejudiced and dispassionate, will ever coincide at last. (1783: 39)

This coincidence of ‘true’ critical judgment and dispassionate public opinion is the ideal of 18th-century literary merit, and the best solution on offer for the problem of the subjectivity of taste. “Let men declaim as much as they please,


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concerning the caprice and the uncertainty of Taste,” Blair continues, “it is found, by experience, that there are beauties, which, if they be displayed in a proper light, have power to command lasting and general admiration.” After the neoclassical reign of the rules has been shattered by the emphasis on individual aesthetic appreciation, with the consequent result of incommensurably different tastes, the idea of immutability in literary evaluation returns with the help of a fiction of “unprejudiced and dispassionate” readers that is then enhanced through the use of statistics – something that is expressed throughout the century more and more by means of the literary market. In how far this ideal ‘solution’ to the main problem of criticism is at the same time an abandonment or dissolution of criticism is shown implicitly in Blair’s further account of the test of time, when he pits the (legitimate) authority that long-approved works like those of Homer and Virgil have acquired against (assumed) authority – in this sense for Blair almost synonymous with prejudice –, meaning specific and historically bound critical judgments. The ‘true criticism’ that ideally coincided with the general opinion through time is suddenly left out of the picture: There is a certain string, which, being properly struck, the human heart is so made as to answer to it. Hence the universal testimony which the most improved nations of the earth have conspired, throughout a long tract of ages, to give to some few works of genius; such as the Iliad of Homer, and the Æneid of Virgil. Hence the authority which such works have acquired, as standards in some degree of poetical composition; since from them we are enabled to collect what the sense of mankind is, concerning those beauties which give them the highest pleasure, and which therefore poetry ought to exhibit. Authority or prejudice may, in one age or country, give a temporary reputation to an indifferent poet, or a bad artist; but when foreigners, or when posterity examine his works, his faults are discerned, and the genuine Taste of human nature appears. […] Time overthrows the illusions of opinion, but establishes the decisions of nature. (1783: 34–35)22

Analysis cannot explain the “certain string” that resonates with the human heart, nor can criticism claim to detect it reliably in literary works. Any single judgment

22 Cf. also this remark from Clara Reeve’s Progress of Romance, with its natural progression from the critics to the audience: “It would be an invidious task to speak of the writers of the present day; let us leave them to the Reviewers, it is their province.–––If they do not all justice the Authors may think they deserve, let them appeal to the public, and to time, and trust to their impartiality, for their sentence will be just, and irreversible.” Reeve 1785 (2): 52. The same progression is apparent in Goldsmith: “[T]he public in general set the whole piece in the proper point of view; the critic lays his eye close to all its minuteness, and condemns or approves in detail. And this may be the reason why so many writers at present, are apt to appeal from the tribunal of criticism to that of the people.” 1774: 117.

The Standard of Taste


about a piece of art – by whatever methods – is simply ‘opinion.’ Only the workings of time can reveal ‘Nature’ behind the different opinions. Blair here echoes almost verbatim a passage from David Hume’s essay: Authority or prejudice may give a temporary vogue to a bad poet or orator; but his reputation will never be durable or general. When his compositions are examined by posterity or by foreigners, the enchantment is dissipated, and his faults appear in their true colours. On the contrary, a real genius, the longer his works endure, and the more wide they are spread, the more sincere is the admiration which he meets with. (Hume 1757: 213–214)

Again we have the ideal of an absence of individual or concrete (and therefore fallible) criticism – authority or prejudice –, projected into an indefinite future. Samuel Johnson transposes this line of argument into his allegory of criticism written for The Rambler. Implicitly, his story marks the transition from an ideal of criticism (the same that Blair had referred to with his ‘true criticism’) that is instantly and individually able to judge truthfully according to Nature – as ideal as it is unattainable – and the practical appeal to a statistics-based type of criticism, utilizing the factor of time. In the beginning of the allegory, Criticism, pictured as a deity, is seen to judge rightly after being educated by justice, seeing through fashion into the true nature of the artwork. But then she discovers the nightmare of every review writer – pieces that are of a middling quality, not good enough to be praised, and too good to be damned: There were frequently some compositions brought to the test, in which, when the strongest light was thrown upon them, their beauties and faults appeared so equally mingled, that Criticism stood with her scepter poised in her hand, in doubt whether to shed the drops of oblivion, or ambrosia, upon them. These, at last, increased to so great a number, that she was weary of attending such doubtful claims, and, for fear of using improperly the scepter of Justice, referred the cause to be considered by Time. The proceedings of Time, though very dilatory, were, some few caprices excepted, conformable to Justice: and many, who thought themselves secure by a short forbearance, have sunk under his scythe, as they were posting down with their volumes in triumph to futurity. (Johnson 1750: 24–25)

In the allegory, Criticism simply stands back and lets Time do his work, though Johnson omits to say by what means. But once the true value of a work of art has been established through the test of time, there is no return to criticism and questioning it by its means either. Aesthetic judgments, though individually indefensible and potentially highly contingent, collectively become truly final. Since taste, according to Blair, is based on feeling and not on knowledge, [i]t is in vain to think of undeceiving mankind, with respect to errors committed here, as in Philosophy. For the universal feeling of mankind is the natural feeling; and because it is the


Taste and the Critic

natural, it is, for that reason, the right feeling. The reputation of the Iliad and the Æneid must therefore stand upon sure ground, because it has stood so long; though that of the Aristotelian or Platonic philosophy, every one is at liberty to call in question. (1783: 251)23

According to Vicesimus Knox, “to call in question the merits of those books which have long survived their authors, contributes more to disgrace the critic, than to diminish the author’s reputation.” (1778 (2): 125) And Samuel Johnson writes about Pope’s The Rape of the Lock at the time when it was attacked by Dennis that “the opinion of the publick was already settled, and it was no longer at the mercy of criticism.” (Johnson 1779–1781 (7): 42) Thus, the use of the test of time as a solution to the problem of the standard of criticism, a standard that was also meant to provide it with an unquestionable authority, paradoxically proves to be, at least in theory, the abolishment of criticism. Criticism works best, the paradox seems to say, when it does nothing at all. But of course criticism never ceased to exist, nor did it simply rely on an increasingly broad social base for its decisions. On the contrary, critical authority often accumulated around single individuals, critics who became so well-known and revered (or despised) that they turned into one-man institutions of criticism.

23 Cf. also “The fame of a good writer resembles the descent of a pyramid, most minute at first, but swelling to an enormouse base, which stands firm as the earth, and defies every tempest, and even the silent waste of time.” Pinkerton 1785: 475.

8 Name-Authority: The Critic as Institution [N]o single man is born with a right of controuling the opinions of all the rest (Pope 1717: no page). [N]othing sells so well as a made Author, whether he deal in verse or prose. (Campbell 1767: 54)

In the defence of his attack on Samuel Johnson’s edition of Shakespeare, William Kenrick describes what happens once a critic has managed to acquire critical authority: [T]he sanction of a literary reputation, however obtained, is similar to a certain political privilege, however acquired; though it be notorious that ignorance and partiality operate as powerfully in the one case, as bribery and corruption are sometimes supposed to do in the other. But when the candidates are once chaired, and their opponents have not influence enough to get them expelled, it is theirs to sit in judgment on their fellow subjects, and give laws to the world of letters. (1766: 2)

The mechanisms of criticism and the literary market, especially with the rise of professionalization and institutionalization, can sometimes turn critics themselves into institutions. The more a particular critic becomes established in the public’s consciousness, the more they will invest his name with critical authority a priori. Such name-authority has already been discussed in the context of the exemplary nature of ancient criticism, but living authors can turn – or be turned – into a brand name no less. These are the ones whose names are passed down to posterity. But while, from the viewpoint of today, their singularity turns them into more or less the only proponents of literary criticism of their time, their contemporaries’ recognition of their quasi-institutional status was usually far from unqualified. Not only John Dennis suffered constant satire – the number of attacks on Samuel Johnson during his lifetime is legion. When name-authority is being discussed in the 18th century, it is almost always in negative terms. James Ralph, for example, writes that he “cannot approve of this slavish Complaisance, to resign the noblest Faculty of the Mind, to a mean Dependence upon a few fashionable Head-pieces, who may chance to be the most ignorant of Men.” (1731: 152) The inability or unwillingness of the majority of the audience to form their own judgments leads to a situation in which a few men are able to dictate general opinion: “Thus a few eminent Ninnies may lead by the Nose the Judgment of half the Town; and when once they have fix’d the Stamp of Merit upon any dull Work, every fashionable Body must come into it, or bravely dare to stem the Current of popular Opinion.” (153) James Elphin-


Name-Authority: The Critic as Institution

ston, who took it upon him to undermine the critical authority of one specific critic in his Animadversions upon Elements of Criticism (1771), explains the driving force behind the establishment of name-authority: “The generality of observers can more easily judge of men, than of books. Attentive common-sense suffices for the one, refined science is indispensable to the other.” (1783: 1) The reviewer of Elphinston’s book for the Critical, though lukewarm on its merits, nevertheless agrees on the evils of name-authority: When a writer has raised himself to some eminence in the republic of letters, and his character for taste and learning is fully established, the lustre of his reputation is apt to dazzle the understanding, and, where he goes wrong, to mislead the judgment of his readers into every mistake he has committed. Even those whom nature and education have endued with faculties for judging in works of taste, too frequently suspend the exercise of them while they peruse the writing of a celebrated critic; and pay a kind of idolatrous worship to his opinion, by an implicit admiration or dislike, according as he approves or condemns. (Anonym 1771b: 467)

Name-authority is bestowed on the critic by his readers, who uncritically grant all of his assertions authority, simply because they are voiced by him, “pronounced with an Air of Authority”, as Addison writes, which gives them “a Figure among unlearned Readers, who are apt to believe they are very deep, because they are unintelligible.” (1714: no page) But there is a corresponding attitude of superiority in some critics at least, who develop such a high regard of their own judgment (and the general acceptance of it) that they deem it unnecessary to further explain it, instead providing no more than an ipse dixit. Such a state of mind was obviously highly anathema to the more liberal-minded observers of criticism. Noah Webster, for example, wonders in his Dissertations on the English Language (1789) that “even well bred people and scholars, often surrender their right of private judgement to these literary governors. The ipse dixit of a Johnson, a Garrick or a Sheridan has the force of law; and to contradict it, is rebellion.” (168)1 And another writer in 1751 states that a “true Critic then is, not a meer blustering Fellow, that knocks you down with an ipse dixit” (Anonym 1751a: 4–5). The activity of criticism, of judging upon a work of art or an artist, can always easily seduce the critic to feel superior to the object of judgment. In the short (and very abusive) character of Samuel Johnson that Robert Alves added to his Sketches of a History of Literature he mentions as a reigning element in Johnson’s personality “a certain air of arrogance and surly disdain, as if the author was

1 This did not keep him, though, from borrowing freely from Johnson many years later for his monumental An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), cf. Reed 1962.

Name-Authority: The Critic as Institution


infinitely above those of whom he writes.” (1794: 286) On the same subject, Thomas Tyers writes in his biographical sketch of Johnson: “It was a fault in our critic too often to take occasion to shew himself superior to his subject, and also to trample upon it.” (1785: 20) The prime quality of a true critic, as seen by contemporary commentators, is therefore his modesty. Modesty in the critic serves a number of functions. It is the antipode of the critic’s feeling of superiority as well as the antidote to his perceived main fault, his negativity and malignity, and is therefore also seen as both the most desirable and the hardest to attain: “The task of a Reviewer”, writes Percival Stockdale, “demands a competent share of learning; a good understanding, and taste; – but, alas! it demands what, I am afraid, is far more rare; a heart superiour to malignity, and to sinister influence.” (1792: 4) In the preface to his Poems on Several Occasions (1739), William Broome shows how the quality of modesty is expected to counteract the malignity that is inherent in the very act of criticism: “Modesty is essential to true Criticism: no man has a title to be a Dictator in Knowledge, and the sense of our own Infirmities ought to teach us to treat others with humanity.” (1739: xix–xx)2 The critic’s modesty is given such importance because it is the only real defence against all potential abuses of the authority he has assumed. Where critical authority is the voluntary surrender of power from the ‘normal’ reader to the critic, the critic’s modesty is the safeguard that he will not abuse this power and become “a Dictator in Knowledge”. This is why modesty is so constantly demanded of the true critic in contemporary texts, and why critics seldom fail to protest their own modesty.3 The absence of malignity in pronouncing judgments is often called ‘candour.’ Thus, William Broome, for example, while not rejecting criticism, wants to “have it circumscrib’d within the Rules of Candour and Humanity: Writers may be told of their Errors, provided it be with the Decency and Tenderness of a Friend ” (1739: xx). Similarly, another author states that “[t]he real Critic proceeds with

2 A similar connection is made by Isaac Disraeli: “Criticism is certainly a great evil in the republic of letters, when a writer will not restrain the wantonness of wit, and the acrimony of malice. The decrees of criticism receive force from mildness, and grace from modesty. A just opinion of a work may be conveyed to the public, without being accompanied by a bitter invective. When we perceive a critic censuring while he appears loth to censure, the poison he distils on the heart of the author is softened by the balm with which it is mingled.” Disraeli 1794 (1): 184. 3 “I have not mingled the least Spice of Malice in the Composition, as it relates to Criticism, and am so far from being vain and arrogant, that I frequently and sincerely declare, my chief Design was to excite some more capable Writer to do what I knew my self uncapable of”, Oldmixon 1728: 86. Cf. also Hume 1759: 323.


Name-Authority: The Critic as Institution

Candour as well as Judgement: And tho’, ‘tis true indeed, he discovers the Blemishes as well as Beauties, yet he always takes more Pleasure in displaying the Excellences, than raking into the Rubbish, of an Author.” (Anonym 1751a: 4– 5)4 Finally, the terms ‘modesty’ and ‘candour’, when applied to a critic, express the conviction that criticism is, and should always be, dialogical and self-reflexive. While the act of judgment necessarily has to suppose the position from which the judgment is being made as absolute, this should, in contemporary opinion, be balanced by a constant re-questioning of such a position, by a self-reflexive turn, that makes the critic himself susceptible to criticism, or, as Alexander Pope demands: “But you, with Pleasure own your Errors past,/ And make each Day a Critick on the last.” (1711: 33) This is the difference between a judge pronouncing sentence and the process of arriving at the verdict. Those who evaluated criticism negatively often questioned the critics’ willingness or even ability for self-reflexivity. Rather, they saw as the result of the critic taking his own authority for granted that he no longer deemed it necessary to give reasons for his judgments. The most extreme form of this is probably the critic who criticises a text without having read it, a practice already lamented about by Steele in The Tatler (cf. Steele 1713: no page), and becoming more virulent with review criticism. The ‘apodictic’ critic that takes his own judgment as absolute and sufficient is a common villain in contemporary discussions of false criticism.5 As often, William Kenrick is a lonely opposing voice, this time to the general choir disapproving of the critic’s superiority. After noting that to claim real accomplishments cannot be said to infringe modesty, he points to the ridiculousness of exaggerated modesty:

4 Cf. also: “Want of due Candour is a crying Sin,/ And speaks in Critics somewhat base within.” Anonym 1779: 30. “A critic was of old a glorious name,/ Whose sanction handed merit up to fame;/ Beauties as well as faults he brought to view,/ His judgment great, and great his candour too”, Churchill 1761: 3–4. Robert Potter speaks about “the want of good manners” in the professed critic as “an offence against those laws of decorum which, by guarding the charities of society, render our intercourse with each other agreeable”, Potter 1783: 15. Cf. also: “True criticism, when under the direction of taste, tempered with candour, supported with spirit, and pursued with impartiality, must, on all hands, be allowed to encourage and promote, rather than tend to the decline of literature.” Anonym 1761: 2. On the other hand, Richard Hurd writes that “in sound criticism, candour should give place to justice”, Hurd 1751: 100. 5 An anonymous author commenting on criticism writes that he is “not blessed with the worthy Qualifications of a modern Critic, viz. Self-conceit, Ill-nature and Prejudice”, Anonym 1751a: 1. And Henry Felton laments: “Critics are apt to talk in a supercilious, magisterial way, to obtrude their sentiments on the world, and maintain every singular opinion with stiffness and ill manners”, Felton 1713: xiv.

The Anachronistic Critic: John Dennis


As to authors by profession, they must necessarily either display their assurance by insisting on their own merit, or, in fact, confess themselves bunglers, or impostors. And indeed why should they not? Why then should a critick […] be thought too assuming in laying publick a claim to that merit, which they actually possess? What should we think of an artizan or manufacturer, who should, in his advertisements and shop-bills, modestly affect a diffidence of being able to give his customers satisfaction […]? (1766: 50–51)

Kenrick can maintain this position because he has no objections to comparing authors or critics with artisans. Considered as manufacturers, authors and critics would be free of the modesty topos. But even though the professionalization of critics aligns them more and more with market mechanisms, the real power that is generated by their authority – however the latter is created – prevents their assumption of superiority from ever becoming, or being perceived as, harmless by readers and authors.

8.1 The Anachronistic Critic: John Dennis Adieu, unsocial Excellence! ––– At last, Thy Foes are vanquish’d, and thy Fears are past! Want, the grim Recompence of Truth, like Thine, Shall, now, no longer dim thy destin’d Shine: Th’ impatient Envy, The Disdainful Air, The Front, malignant, and, The captious Stare! The Furious Petulance, The jealous Start; The Mist of Frailties, that obscur’d thy Heart! Veil’d, in thy Grave, shall, unremember’d, lie, For, These were Parts, of Dennis, Born, to Die! But, there’s a Nobler Seity, behind; His Reason dies not: and has Friends, to find. (Anonym 1734b: 58)

Reputation in the 18th century was not only made from admiration, but from controversy. The eminence of a literary figure automatically drew flatterers as well as detractors. It was James Grainger who wrote in a review of Joseph Warton’s attack on Alexander Pope: “What man of eminence has not had his indiscriminating Censurer, as well as his indiscriminating Panegyrist?” (Grainger 1756: 528)6 And both censurer and panegyrist could be helpful to an author for establishing his reputation. Alexander Pope, for example, had a very com-

6 The historical irony of this statement must have escaped him, since it was only three years later that he became such an “indiscriminating Censurer” of a great author in his virulent attacks on Tobias Smollett.


Name-Authority: The Critic as Institution

plicated relation to his arch-enemy, the bookseller Edmund Curll, one that at times seems perversely symbiotic. And Jonathan Swift, in a 1716 letter to Pope, calls Curll, Gildon, Blackmore and other literary enemies “Tools in my opinion as necessary for a good writer, as pen, ink, and paper.” (Pope 1956 (1): 359) Samuel Johnson repeatedly expressed his conviction that there was no bad publicity, only publicity. Still, John Dennis gained a type of eminence through his continuous quarrels that he most likely could have done better without. In 1728, John Oldmixon wrote that “[t]here were but three Authors in our Time who were Criticks by Profession, Rymer, Dennis and Gildon.” (8) Indeed, John Dennis was among the first generation of professional critics in England (cf. Cannan 2006: 124), and compared to figures like Thomas Rymer or Charles Gildon, he was by far the most weighty and serious.7 It was his great misfortune, though, that he was a professional critic before a profession of criticism existed, or a professional context. Dennis can with some justice be called the most anachronistic of all critics, because in many respects his own positions and authorial strategies came either too early or too late to fit nicely into the development of literary criticism and the market mechanisms of his time.8 The different fates of the subscription projects of Dennis and Alexander Pope, for example, show that this practice was only suited for a certain type of literary project, and that it was yet too early to be a means for sustaining the kind of professional literary criticism that Dennis was aiming for. Dennis had never profited from any substantial financial support from his patrons,9 and in The Grounds of Criticism he offered the first work of criticism in England to be published by subscription, an ambitious project under the title A Criticism upon our most Celebrated English Poets Deceas’d. But while Pope’s publication by subscription of his translation of Homer was so successful that it secured him financial independence and made him imagine himself as a potential patron in 1719, providing support for “old Dennis”,10 the enterprise of Dennis failed when

7 Hooker goes so far to say that, as has been long customary, “to group him with Rymer and Gildon, shows that the significance of his contribution to literary theory is still open to misconception.” Dennis 1939 (1): vii. Cf. also Grace 1975: 73: “Although Dennis, as we shall see, is in many ways a neoclassical critic, the concept of genius makes his critical theory freer and more viable than Rymer’s.” 8 George Saintsbury, still very much in the spirit of dismissing Dennis, has called him “an unhappily belated person”, Saintsbury 1928 (2): 426. 9 Paul estimates that “Dennis’s rewards from his patrons were probably even smaller than his returns from his publishers.” Paul 1966: 57. 10 This is from a letter to William Broome, 27 February 1719: “I shall retire a miles emeritus, and pity the poets militant who are to succeed me. I really wish them so well, that if my gains by Homer were sufficient, I would gladly found an hospital, like that of Chelsea, for such of my tribe as are

The Anachronistic Critic: John Dennis


only seventy-seven subscribers could be found. Apart from any considerations about the value of his undertaking, he simply lacked the social support that would have been necessary to turn such a venture into a success, just as the genre he proposed lacked the recognition that could turn it into a prestigious enough project. In some of his Plain Dealer essays, Aaron Hill lamented the fact that Dennis’ Criticism never acquired enough subscribers for the project to happen (cf. Hill 1725: 211–212), concluding that only an illustrious list of subscribers to Dennis’ proposed Miscellaneous Tracts would convince him “that They can read, as well as purchase.” (Hill 1724b: 452) The failed subscription can be seen as a sign of Dennis’ anachronistic position. He was both too late and too early, relying on a social structure of patronage that functioned less and less well and on a literary market that could not yet support him – or any work of pure literary criticism – through its economic power. As Hooker has stressed, the subscription’s failure was less indicative of Dennis’ standing at the time, but rather “an indication that criticism was not highly regarded by gentlemen who could afford to pay a guinea for a volume.” (Dennis 1939 (1): 507)11 Dennis was not the wrong man, but he came at the wrong time. It was Dennis’ destiny not to be recognized for his achievements. He was widely ignored as one of the earliest champions of Milton, and he was treading dangerous political waters with the incorporation of enthusiasm into his literary theory (cf. Morillo 2000: 22). His book of remarks on Blackmore’s epic can be called the first modern review in English criticism (cf. Solomon 1980: 46), starting a trend that would lead to the establishment of the review journals half a century later. Dennis opened himself up to easy ridicule with a theory of the sublime predating Addison’s ‘Pleasure’-essays and decades before the flood of aesthetic treatises around mid-century. He voiced intimations of the sublime on the occasion of a crossing of the Alps that would be echoed a century later to much more acclaim by the Romantic writers (cf. Thorpe 1935). On the other hand, he was still relying on the old Restoration model of the court of wits as a means to get social acceptance for his role as critic, and consequently, when his ‘court’ fell apart, he was pretty much left alone. Without his circle of wit-friends, and through the formation of new kinds of intellectual groupings, he stood apart and became ‘the

disabled in the muses’ service, or whose years require a dismissal from the unnatural task of rhyming themselves, and others, to death. Poor Gildon should have his itch and – cured together, and old Dennis not want good looking after, and better accommodation than poets usually meet with in Moorfields.” Pope 1956: 3. For a detailed analysis of Pope’s relation to his subscribers, both for his Homeric translations and his edition of Shakespeare, cf. Rogers 1978, a discussion of some of the subscribers from 1715 can be found in Hodgart 1978. 11 Cf. also Dennis 1939 (2): li.


Name-Authority: The Critic as Institution

Critic.’ By force of his writings and provocative opinions, he became a one-man institution of criticism, but without the professional machinery of a journal (as had Addison, or, later, Smollett) or the social club-skills of Addison, Steele, or Johnson, it was all too easy to single his towering and isolated figure out for attack. It is significant that Johnson in his later age, secured by his pension, wrote less and less and socialized more and more, while Dennis in 1721, at a time when he was still somewhat more than the butt of Pope’s jokes, writes that he “retires from the world” (Dennis 1721 (1): 46) – though obviously not from pamphlet warfare. The second half of the 20th century has seen increasing efforts to rehabilitate Dennis and correct the impression that resulted from seeing the critic solely through the eyes of his satirists. The most important milestone in this development was surely the monumental edition of Dennis’ critical works by Edward Niles Hooker in 1939,12 in the preface of which Hooker still thought it necessary to declare that “it is no longer necessary to apologize for studying the criticism of John Dennis.” (Dennis 1939 (1): vii) Back in 1911, H.G. Paul, who wrote the first modern book-length appreciation of Dennis, complained that “practically the only study of Dennis’ career is the useful but necessarily brief article in the Dictionary of National Biography.” (1966: vii)13 While Paul laid some groundwork in providing a more detailed biographical overview than a dictionary article could, and in outlining the main tenets of Dennis’ criticism, Hooker’s edition, by providing access to all of the critical texts, showed Dennis’ writings in all its versatility, its mistakes, and achievements. Through the copious notes and the substantial prefatory material, Hooker also placed Dennis systematically into his historical context, showing how his theoretical and critical positions were embedded in the writings of his contemporaries, and how these contemporaries reacted to Dennis. Another proof of Dennis’ re-arrival amongst authors worthy to be considered on their own terms was Avon Jack Murphy’s monograph in 1984. Murphy’s assessment is free from the defensive tone of earlier works on Dennis,

12 Dennis’ other, non-critical, works like his plays still remain largely unedited, as Murphy complained, cf. Murphy 1984: 130. 13 In his preface, Paul sums up the recent changes in the scholarly attitude towards Dennis: “For nearly two centuries he has been remembered chiefly as the severe judge and foe of some of the great writers of the first quarter of the eighteenth century and has been cited as a horrible example of the race of critics by a host of biographers and admirers of Addison and Steele, of Swift and Pope. In the last twenty years, however, something of a reaction has begun in Dennis’ favor; and while no one finds in his dramas or poems much that deserves immortality, many students of his period are coming to recognize in him ‘a serious and well equipped critic’ and one whose beliefs are of especial interest as belonging to the period when English criticism was young.” Paul 1966: vii.

The Anachronistic Critic: John Dennis


but he still sees much to be desired in Dennis criticism (cf. Murphy 1984: 131). Murphy could already rely on previous work by “scholars [who] have evaluated what Dennis actually did, not what Pope and other old sources said he was.” (Murphy 1984: 6) Among these were works on Dennis’ idea of the sublime (cf. Albrecht 1972 and Barnouw 1983), on his theory of tragedy (cf. Grace 1975), and on his relation to neoclassical criticism (cf. Simon 1978). After Murphy, one notes again a scarcity of works concentrated on Dennis14 so that, still in 2000, Morillo can repeat Hooker’s and Murphy’s claim that “Dennis’ own varied and thoughtful career in literary criticism […] still deserves more careful attention in its own right”, and acknowledges the pervasiveness of Pope’s influence on Dennis’ reputation (Morillo 2000: 21).15 That Dennis is better known through the writings of Pope than through his own is as true in the 21st century as it was at the end of the 18th.16 But as soon as one manages to look away for a moment from contemporary representations of Dennis, and towards his own texts, one can detect a rich fund of critical opinions and theories that cannot be cast aside easily as merely the products of rigid neoclassical dogmatism, let alone personal malice. “Dennis succeeded most conspicuously as a critic” (Murphy 1984: no page), writes Murphy, and he is a foundational figure in the history of English criticism, according to Damrosch “a much more powerful critic than Rymer, more powerful in some respects than Addison” (1979: 423), who has contributed considerably to its development, a fact that is too often overlooked.17 Hooker notes that “he was the first English critic to apply comprehensively the results of psychological speculation during the seventeenth century to an understanding of the poetic mind and its creations” (Dennis 1939 (2): xciv), and Murphy claims that he “contributed greatly to such future critical trends as associationism and relativism.” (1984: 130) Grace speaks of his various insights that “remain unfortunately buried in the library stacks.” (1975: 10) His theory of passion as the essence of poetry, according to Murphy “his greatest contribution to literary theory” (Murphy 1984: 12), though often ridiculed

14 The few main exceptions are Cannan 2006; Delehanty 2007; and Donnelly 2005. 15 “The Augustan dramatist and critic has only occasionally succeeded since then in transcending the pages of Hooker’s excellent edition, and studies of his work still remain limited by Pope’s having so effectively reduced him to a minor blotch on the little Queen Anne Man’s far more brilliant career.” 16 “Dennis [is] now known from the animadversions and ridicule of Pope, more than from his own multifarious writings.” Bisset 1799: 38. 17 “[T]he importance of his contributions to English literary criticism […] has been underestimated often enough in the three hundred years since his birth.” Wilkins 1957: 424. Cf. also Durham 1961: xiv.


Name-Authority: The Critic as Institution

by more rationally oriented poets and critics of his age, would live on and find new expressions in the succeeding age of Romanticism (cf. Donnelly 2005: 235 and Bosker 1954: 34). For a critic decried as a neoclassical rule-dogmatist, his view on Shakespeare is, if not a major contribution to Shakespeare scholarship, at least surprisingly balanced. Interested more in the psychology of audience and artist than purely formal matters, he surely was no Rymer, and he balanced his discussion of Shakespeare’s ‘faults’ with a general acknowledgment of his genius.18 Most scholars agree that amongst his major critical achievements is his early appreciation and championing of Milton. Not only did he write “the first significant extended criticism of Milton” (Murphy 1984: 16). predating Addison’s Spectator papers on Paradise Lost by some twenty years, his remarks are, according to Hooker, “of considerable historical importance.” (Dennis 1939 (1): 511)19 Elioseff even sees Dennis’ theory of the sublime as “more advanced than Addison”. But he also points out that “Addison, not Dennis, follows this trend in contemporary sensibility to its logical conclusion in his praise of the ballads.” (Elioseff 1963: 63) Still, for Paul it was “quite probable” that Addison was “consciously or unconsciously indebted to Dennis” (Paul 1966: 207). And not only was Dennis actively involved in changing conceptions of literature and individual authors, he was also a transitional figure in the understanding of a critic’s task. His career can be seen as the attempt to raise criticism above the amateur wit’s half-informed judgmental effusions on recent plays and poems, and turn it into a respectful branch of thinking as well as an independent genre of writing. The early phase of his writing is marked by strong efforts at systematization, a clear preference of theory over individual evaluations, clearly marking his distance to the ‘inconsistent’ poet-critic Dryden. In print, though he did write the first substantial literary review in English criticism, Dennis never wanted to be a review critic (a function of the critic that did not even exist in this form then), someone who concentrated his energies on judging the merits of a single composition. Concerning Dennis’ methods and style, Murphy sums up the two dominating prejudices among modern readers: “First, he embodies the stereotypical Neoclas-

18 Hooker even goes so far as to state that “it would be difficult to find any writer before 1750 whose praise of Shakespeare was more glowing, honest, and discriminating than that of Dennis.” Dennis 1939 (2): cxxxii. On Dennis’ writings about Shakespeare cf. Murphy 1984: 28; Elioseff 1963: 82; Grace 1975: 61; Dennis 1939 (2): cxxxi-cxxxii; and Paul 1966: 186. 19 Cf. also Paul 1966: 189: “More notable than Dennis’ praise of either Jonson or Shakespeare is his admiration for Milton; for he stood among his contemporaries as the great champion of the Puritan poet, anticipating by a dozen years much of the appreciation which has frequently been credited to the ‘Spectator.’”

The Anachronistic Critic: John Dennis


sical literary critic. […] Second, he often wrote stodgily, vainly or even viciously, fully deserving the ridicule heaped upon him in Pope’s The Dunciad.” (1984: no page) Both accounts prove to be false as soon as one takes an impartial look at his writings,20 but impartiality is difficult because of the question of Dennis’ character. Since it played such a dominant role in almost all of the attacks on him (cf. 129), as well as his replies to them, and since the individual character of critics is repeatedly seen as a symbol for a certain characteristic of criticism in general,21 scholars routinely feel compelled to describe and judge his personality, which, in the absence of a Boswell and the overwhelming number of satirical portraits, is a dangerous activity at best. Hardly anyone would as easily dismiss the problem as did Isaac Disraeli, when he simply writes that “Pope’s celebrated description of the personal manners of our critic, is an exact representation.” (1796: 124–125) But unbiased biographical information about Dennis is scarce. One of the earliest biographical entries on him, that in Giles Jacob’s dictionary, was written by Dennis himself (a fact that earned him further scorn in The Dunciad), and the anonymously published biography of 1734 (with the subtitle “Not written by Mr. Curll”) is a rather insignificant publication that consists mostly of quotations from his works and his letters. Whatever it has to say on the critic’s character seems more like an echo of Pope’s version than an independent opinion (cf. Murphy 1984: 6), a tradition that continued all the way into the 20th century. The least a modern scholar can therefore do is to embed all that was written by and about Dennis in the specific context of his time. Modern scholarship has shown without a doubt that Dennis was a much abler critic than he was given credit for by his time, implying that ‘John Dennis’ was as much, and maybe even more, a construction of others than a real person. The following will take a look at the way that ‘John Dennis’ or rather ‘the Critic’ was being constructed. The purely negative contemporary stereotype of Dennis can be seen in the description of a fictional character called Dypthong in the 1711 play The Generous Husband by Charles Johnson. Dypthong was clearly identifiable by the audience

20 On his style, cf. Paul 1966: 199; Cannan 2006: 117; Dennis 1939 (2): xlv; and Morris 1979: 35. 21 “Unfortunately, the value of Dennis’ work has too frequently been judged on the basis of a false notion concerning his character. He was vain, irritable, suspicious, and envious; therefore (so the usual argument would run if it were made explicit) his judgments were interested, distorted by passion, and unsound. He is pictured as a poverty-stricken hack, a social outcast, at war with all that was refined and beautiful.” Dennis 1939 (2): xi. “Dennis’ nature contained something of the born dissenter, and he was fearless in expressing his opinions. Doubtless, too, he was somewhat soured by his failure to obtain recognition from the public and from the government. But it may be questioned whether these conditions ever consciously influenced him in his assaults upon more successful writers.” Paul 1966: 197.


Name-Authority: The Critic as Institution

as Dennis, among other things through his exaggerated aversion to puns and his swearing (cf. Dias 1943: 213–214), and he is introduced thus: So, here comes that Paper-worm Dypthong; an Insect that was born only to suck the Poison of Books: He is intrepid and invincible in his own good Opinion, which he owes to a certain indolent Confidence, that enables him to be heartily contented with himself and his own Judgment. […] He thinks he is the Chancellor of Parnassus, and believes Decrees are irreversible (Johnson 1711: 17–18)

The number of attacks on Dennis that were published throughout his lifetime in pamphlets, plays, poems and journal articles is surely legion. Johnson is the only critic that matches him in the sheer number of antagonism that he produced through his function as a critic. In his later life, railing at Dennis seemed to become almost a reflex for younger writers (cf. Murphy 1984: 5), and he continually “felt the lash of public scorn” (Kramnick 2002: 349). The clash with Pope is only the most well-known in his many quarrels. He also battled early with Swift and extensively with Sir Richard Steele and his supporters, crossed discursive swords with Addison, and was attacked by all sorts of authors, from Richard Blackmore’s Satyr against Wit (1700) and Daniel Defoe’s The Pacificator (1700) through John Gay’s Three Hours after Marriage (1717) (cf. on this Cannan 2006: 121) to journal articles written by Lewis Theobald and John Martyn. (Theobald 1717 and Martyn 1730 (1)) He was accused on the charge of malice (“good Mr. Dennis, wise Mr. Critick! you that all your Life have show’d your Teeth” (Anonym 1720a: 16–17)) and envy (“the Vice most predominant in Mr. D––––s” (Victor 1722: 23)), pedantry and unpoeticalness; he was ridiculed for his discussion of the sublime,22 and even for his poverty (cf. Anonym 1714). Just as Bentley had become the exemplary pedant, Dennis became the exemplary critic. But though Durham claims that the title of ‘the critic’ was “a mark of distinction, not from other Dennises, but from other critics” (1961: xxii), it was an ambiguous honour at best. In an age when criticism and critics were under great general suspicion, to be the exemplary critic meant primarily to be seen to incorporate every negative attribute of a critic. To be ‘the critic’ very soon in his career became synonymous with being the ‘false critic.’ Hooker has rightfully pointed out that “[t]here was no charge made against Dennis as a critic which had not been made against critics in general. A recognition of this historical fact would have prevented a great deal of nonsense about Dennis from being written.” (Dennis 1939 (2): liv) One should therefore be careful to make a simple equation between the attacks and Dennis himself. By becoming the exemplary false critic,

22 For example in Anonym 1711. Cf. on this Dennis 1939 (2): lvii.

The Anachronistic Critic: John Dennis


the rightful heir of the exemplary ancient false critic Zoilus (cf. Anonym 1751a: 2 and Parnell 1717),23 there was not a fault or weakness that could not be projected onto him. Aaron Hill’s comment from 1724 shows how the identification of Dennis and the negative idea of the critic had become almost a reflex, as had the need to abuse him: “I was surpriz’d to observe, that at my Mention of Mr. Dennis, almost every Person present, join’d in a Clamour against Criticks.” (1724b: 452) Note that nobody is attacking Dennis directly in Hill’s account – that seems to be not even necessary anymore, as he had become the scapegoat for a profession that he helped create. Dennis’ own conviction of his eminence as a critic that had led him to regard all general attacks on critics in the Tatler and Spectator as specific insults directed at himself24 had become true, as his name became a pejorative trademark, one that could even be turned into an adjective: John Green writes in the preface to his poem Beauty (1756) that the frail ship of his work is not made to withstand the least “Denisian Shock” (5). In the second half of the century and long after his death, Dennis is routinely accepted as a founding father of false criticism, spawning horrible heirs just as Flecknoe, Theobald, and Cibber had in Dryden’s and Pope’s visions of hereditary stupidity, quite an ‘advancement’ from one of the earliest attacks, by Jonathan Swift, where Dennis himself was still the second last in a long family line of false critics.25 In 1766, Cuthbert Shaw lets his satirical version of William Kenrick compete for a price with the words: “The chaplet’s mine–––I claim it, who inherit/ Dennis’ rage, and Milbourne’s glorious spirit.” (Shaw 1766: 21) And in 1772, Mrs. Freeman, also known as Mrs. Samuel Ireland, started her satire on Kenrick, The Kenrickad, with the lines Oh! may no baneful influence shed, Rays unpropitious o’er my head! No second Dennis–––critic dire! My spirit rouse to vengeful ire (Freeman 1772: 1)

23 Cf. also Smollett, who uses the comparison to Zoilus somewhat more differentiated, when he calls John Shebbeare “this modern Zoilus, who has all the presumption of John Dennis without his learning, all his rage without his integrity.” Smollett 1757b: 337. 24 Cf. his letter “To the Spectator, on Criticism and Plagiarism” from 1711. Cf. on this Zach 1985: 58–59. 25 “The third and noblest sort is that of the true critic, whose original is the most ancient of all. Every true critic is a hero born, descending in a direct line from a celestial stem, by Momus and Hybris, who begat Zoilus, who begat Tigellius, who begat Etcætera the elder, who begat Bentley, and Rymer, and Wotton, and Perrault, and Dennis, who begat Etcætera the younger.” Swift 1704: 76.


Name-Authority: The Critic as Institution

Two years later Robert Lloyd (in a collection edited by none other than William Kenrick himself) warns a friend about the attacks from “Some Monthly Grub, some Dennis of the age” (Lloyd 1774 (1): 26–27). It seems, no matter who attacked whom as a false critic, they were all agreed on Dennis as its prototype. But the posthumous impression of Dennis as merely a dunce to be ridiculed and laughed at is wrong not only in the sense that it does not do justice to his real achievements as a critic, but also because all the depictions of Dennis as laughable evidently only work when held as a contrast against an opposing picture: Without a prior acceptance among the general public, there would have been no basis and no reason for Pope and others to attack and satirize him. It was his acceded or assumed singular position in the London world of letters that marked him out for a target. And indeed, for some years around the turn of the century, Dennis was regarded among his contemporaries as the most important critic of his time, as ‘the critic,’ but still in a positive sense.26 The anonymous first biography of Dennis extensively quotes from letters to Dennis and explains these inclusions by stating that “[h]ow freely soever the Character of this Gentleman has been treated of late, we believe the following Letters will sufficiently prove, that he was much esteemed by some of the greatest Genius’s of the last Age.” (Anonym 1734b: 8) It is important to notice that Dennis did not just have enemies.27 It was simply his misfortune that, especially after the death of Dryden, who had called him a better critic than Perrault (cf. Paul 1966: 8), his enemies proved to be more influential and witty compared to his friends and defenders, among them Charles Gildon, John Oldmixon (who in 1697 called him “one of our best Judges” (1697: v)), Aaron Hill and Lewis Theobald.28 Already in 1694 William Wycherley wrote in a letter to Dennis: “Your Friends of the Coffee-House and the Rose, whether Drunk or Sober, Good Fellows or Good Wits, show at least their Sense, by valuing you and yours, and send you all their Service.” (Dennis 1696a: 27) Charles Gildon, himself eternally branded as a ‘hack,’ admired, emulated and defended Dennis (cf. Anderson 1955: 249 and Dennis 1939 (2): lxi)29 Especially in his Laws of Poetry, he paid his respect,

26 Cf. Paul 1966: vii, 32; Murphy 1984: 3; and Dennis 1939 (2): lvi, xlvii: “Among the wits and men of letters his repute was high, both as poet and critic.” 27 Cf. Dennis 1939 (2): xlv: “In view of his long friendship of twenty or thirty years with Congreve, Blackmore, Sergeant, Mein, Cromwell, Booth, William Welby, Sir George Markham, Gildon, Atterbury, and other contemporaries, we can be sure that there was something in his character which appealed to good men.” 28 In his Shakespeare Restored, that earned him the place of king of dunces in the Dunciad, Theobald writes about Dennis: “[I]n my Opinion, no Man in England better understands Shakespeare”, Theobald 1726: 181. 29 Gildon, taking Dennis’ side in the quarrel with Steele, calls him one of the “heroick Champions for Art” and gives him the name of “Horatius Truewit”, Gildon 1720: 7.

The Anachronistic Critic: John Dennis


calling the Grounds of Criticism “admirable” (Gildon 1721: 65), and claiming that the critic belongs to a distinguished group of writers (among whom he also counts Rymer, though), who “have laid down principles enough to reform the taste of every considering man, that will read them with any application.” (61) One year earlier, in his Battle of the Authors, he had explained the general contempt of Dennis with the hate of bad authors who had been rightfully criticised: Dr. Spratt […], Mr. Rimer, Mr. Dennis, and some others who have made it their generous Endeavour to defend Art and Sciences, and discover the false pretences to Reputation of Poetasters, built on the worthless Applause of the Ignorant, which has rais’d the united Clamour of Scribblers against them, as ill-natur’d Persons who envied that Success in others, that they could not obtain themselves, grosly mistaking Indignation for Envy (Gildon 1720: 6).30

In 1725, the young poet Thomas Cooke published his poem The Battle of the Poets, where he attacked Pope, Swift and their group and praised the writers of his own group, among whom were Thomas Tickell, Ambrose Philips, Leonard Welsted, Sir Richard Steele, and John Dennis. In Cooke’s account, Dennis’ willingness to censure authors and their works is not presented as exemplifying the maliciousness of all critics, but in a foreshadowing of his gate-keeper function: But Dennis, lo! the modern Author’s Dread, Who captive Wit has oft in Triumph led, The Scourge of Fools, who gives to Worth its due, And always to the Cause of Vertue true, Odious of late to each Pretender grown, But to the Wise his hoary Judgment’s known (Cooke 1725: 13).

Other than the ever escalating conflict with Pope might suggest, Dennis was even able to turn an enemy into a friend, as he did with the physician and rather mediocre epic poet Richard Blackmore.31 Though he had, probably at the instigation of Dryden, published his Remarks on Prince Arthur in 1696 as the main strike in a concerted campaign against Blackmore’s epic debut, after he later distanced himself from the “Petty Merchants of Small Conceit” who populated the coffeehouses, he gained the friendship and the admiration of Blackmore, who became one of the few subscribers to Dennis’ proposed critical work in 1704. Later, in 1716, “[Blackmore] paid tribute to Dennis’ eminence as a critic, and his discussion of the Sublime exhibited traces of Dennis’ influence.” (Dennis 1939 (2): lxii)

30 On Gildon’s relationship to Dennis cf. also Paul 1966: 13. 31 For the best study on Blackmore, cf. Solomon 1980.


Name-Authority: The Critic as Institution

Another avid defender of Dennis was Aaron Hill, himself no stranger to controversies. As has been seen, Hill had already in 1716 dedicated a tragedy to Gildon and Dennis. And, though not a personal friend of Dennis,32 in 1724 he calls him “an excellent, and learned, Critick, […] whose Encouragement, I am afraid, is (to the future Reproach of our Age) most shamefully disproportioned to his Merit” (Hill 1724a: 21), and a year later he wholeheartedly speaks on his behalf in an article for his journal The Plain Dealer: The Stupidity wich follows Prejudice, has made Thousands of his Cotemporaries [sic] insensible of his Great Merit, which, if they allow’d their Reason to examine it, they wou’d be charm’d by, and take a Pride to encourage. – The Terror with which young Writers have accustom’d themselves to hear, and to talk of, his Austerity, and of his Aversion against Scribblers, has spread abroad a false Opinion, that he is Ill-natur’d, where he is only impartial: And, that he is an Enemy to Wit and Learning, while he is only such to the Prophaners of them. (1725: 209–210)

Like Gildon and Cooke, Hill qualifies the stereotype of Dennis’ negativity, of his unwillingness to praise any author, by distinguishing between those who deserve praise, and those who do not, the scribblers and prophaners of learning. By stressing Dennis’ impartiality, he shifts the viewpoint from that of the authors to that of criticism itself. It is the author who is partial, in refusing to accept the possibility that what he has produced might be bad. The false image of Dennis’ negative attitude stems from the fact that as a professional critic he stands outside of the community of writers. The impartiality that Hill mentions is the neutral ground of the detached professional critic who has, ideally, no obligations, prejudices, or favourites. Authors fear Dennis, one might read out of Hill’s account, because he is not one of them. The independence of the critic as a professional is bought with an alienation from the authors that is expressed in the constant stream of anti-critical satire against Dennis and his successors. While Dennis’ attempts at establishing criticism as a respectable and major genre in its own rights eventually failed because of his inability to fit into the social and economic mechanisms that could make such an establishment possible, Johnson’s skill at employing these very mechanisms made him successfully turn criticism into one of the major modes of his century, while regarding it repeatedly as a merely subservient drudgery.33 Johnson’s suggestion how Dennis’ posthumous reputation could be improved illustrates this. According to Boswell,

32 Cf. Brewster 1913: 167 and Dennis 1939 (2): xlii: “There is no way of telling how Dennis was affected by this outburst, but he probably made the acquaintance of Hill shortly afterwards.” 33 On Johnson’s low opinion of criticism cf. Parrinder 1991: 19.

The Anachronistic Critic: John Dennis


“[h]e said he wished to see ‘John Dennis’ Critical Works’ collected. Davies said, they would not sell. Dr. Johnson seemed to think otherwise.” (1791 (2): 64)34 Ever ready at understanding the literary world through its economic foundations and mechanisms, Johnson asks for the only thing that could have brought back some impartiality into the discussion of Dennis: access to his actual texts, and not just those about him, and the sanction conferred by appearing in a ‘collected’ edition. One can only speculate what would have happened to the critic’s reputation in the later 18th and 19th century if such a collection would have been published under Johnson’s editorship.35 Of course, acceptance of Dennis’ prominence during his lifetime was not identical to acceptance of his eminence. It did not necessarily include an approval of the means by which he attained his prominent position,36 and the world that he was granted to rule was regularly depicted, according to the popular method of the mock panegyric, as one of dullness and insignificance. It is in this sense that the anonymous author of a defence of Steele in the controversy around The Conscious Lovers calls Dennis “Thou Generalissimo of Bear-garden Criticks” (Anonym 1723: 75), and that Abel Boyer in the preface to Achilles. Or, Iphigenia in Aulis speaks of Dennis as “a Giant-Wit, and a Giant-Critick.”37 Dennis at the head

34 On Johnson’s opinion of Dennis, cf. also Johnson 1779–1781 (5): 107–108. “He found and shewed many faults: he shewed them indeed with anger, but he found them with acuteness, such as ought to rescue his criticism from oblivion; though, at last, it will have no other life than it derives from the work which it endeavours to oppress.” Similarly, he declared Dennis’ strictures against Addison as “often irrefragable”, Johnson 1779–1781 (5): 48. On Johnson’s opinion of Dennis cf. also Dennis 1939 (2): lxvii. A very late author of the century who seems to have really read Dennis, and not just about him (albeit by “accident”), was Isaac Disraeli: “Of Dennis little appears to be known; this essay may, perhaps, add something to that little; for accident led me to an examination of his writings; writings, which, though now rarely known, once made a considerable figure in English literature, and which lately have been recommended by Johnson, with more good-nature than good-taste.” Disraeli 1796: 113 But in the later Calamities and Quarrels of Authors, Disraeli’s attitude is purely negative, claiming, as Murphy puts it “that the innately evil Dennis made criticism an act of insanity.” Murphy 1984: 129. Cf. Disraeli 1814 (1): 91. 35 Johnson’s view of Dennis is echoed in a manuscript note by Johnson’s friend and collaborator Edward Malone that Ellmann has brought to our attention. On the verso of a half-title leaf of his copy of Dennis’ The Characters and Conduct of Sir John Edgar, Malone had written: “We are used to form our opinion of Dennis from Pope’s satirical representation of him. But this and many other of his tracts, written with sprightliness and acuteness, show that he possessed no mean understanding, however disfigured by envy and ill nature.” Qtd. in Ellmann 1977: 310–311. 36 Paul speaks of “a certain mock respect”, Paul 1966: 202. For Cannan, the label derives from “the thoroughness and ambitiousness of Dennis’ criticism before 1710”, Cannan 2006: 123. 37 Qtd. in Dennis 1939 (2): xlix.


Name-Authority: The Critic as Institution

of a group of incompetent fools, such is also the impression that Daniel Defoe wants to evoke in his satirical poem The Pacificator (1700): D–––s Commanded the Forlorn of Wit, A stiff Politish Critick, very fit The open Country to over-run, And find out all Mens Errors but his own; (5)

And when John Gay in the dedication to The Mohocks writes that “we look upon you to have the Monopoly of English Criticism in your Head” (1712: no page), this expresses a complicated mixture of actual acceptance of Dennis’ standing, Gay’s impression of Dennis’ own conceits about his eminence, and a complete refusal of all basis for this eminence. Still more outspoken on the latter points was Benjamin Victor in his 1722 defence of Steele, where Dennis is attacked for his illnature, his impudence and his use of ridicule in criticism: This, Sir, is in some Measure the Character of Mr. D–––s, he very strenuously professes correct Writing, and confines himself to a few general Rules extracted out of the French Authors, which, with a certain Cant of Words, has set up this heavy Writer (in his own Opinion) for a most judicious and formidable Critic. (22–23)

It is indeed very likely that Dennis always had a high opinion of his own achievements and capabilities. In any case, he must have had a very independent mind. According to Hooker, he “prided himself upon not being a party-writer, though he was fully convinced that to provide sufficiently for his future he had merely to espouse a party interest.” (Dennis 1939 (2): xxiii) Such independence could easily develop into isolation; especially in a time when literature, and criticism even more so, was primarily a social activity and political commitment. Dennis’ refusal to integrate himself into a community of writers influenced his reputation negatively, as Hooker has argued: Partly because, in his fierce independence, he kept aloof from such mutual-admiration societies as the Kit Cat Club and the Little Senate at Button’s, he lacked a body of organized supporters to maintain his reputation – and this was a serious handicap at a time when literature was the plaything of clubs, factions, and cliques. (lxi)

By becoming a professional critic, Dennis had to rely, as Kramnick explains, on the emerging culture of print, but “this same culture assembles his audience into a public of hostile strangers – hostile because they, too, feel estrangement but as a kind of censorious distance.” (2002: 349) His impartiality was re-interpreted as malignity and ill-humour, since he gave his judgments independently and in a medium that was a clear step away from criticism as social interaction, Dryden’s ideal of criticism as “conversation.” Because of his social isolation, the image of

The Anachronistic Critic: John Dennis


Dennis as ring-leader of stupidity is balanced by that of Dennis-against-the-restof-the-world. Both images have their foundation in Dennis’ life, and both are equally exaggerated. The same pamphlet attack that had made Dennis a ‘Generalissimo’ also imagined his complete (and self-induced) isolation from the world, by making him declare: The loud Abuses which some Blockheads have thrown on me, and the Silence of others who had not Courage to appear in my Vindication, has made me think alike of all Mankind; so that I renounce Society altogether, and in my present State of Nature and Solitude, am resolv’d to buffet the Universe. (Anonym 1723: 75)

Here Dennis stands exemplary for criticism’s tendency to produce antagonism. The kernel of truth was that Dennis had indeed, from about 1700 onwards, started to withdraw from clubs and factions, cliques and coteries, “without whose support he was a single, lonely man carrying on a hopeless struggle.” (Dennis 1939 (2): xlvi)38 Still, apart from his losing an appreciative social circle and failing to acquire a new one, there was no shift in Dennis’ writing from theoretical and positive criticism to malicious censuring as one could surmise from a brief look at his career. As is true for the criticism of John Dryden, almost all of his works were parts of larger debates, answers to other texts and refutations of them. His first important work of criticism, The Impartial Critick, was a reply to Thomas Rymer, a defence of the moderns in general, and Shakespeare in particular, and The Usefulness of the Stage is today regarded as “the ablest reply” (Murphy 1984: 2)39 to the anti-theatrical attacks of Jeremy Collier. None of these earlier works shy away from controversy. But they were, on the one hand, voiced from within a social group that gave the critic a backing, and on the other hand were brought forth in a style that was accepted and applauded at that time, that of elegant raillery. In this mode, Dennis could even risk to “step[…] on the toes of Dryden and Waller,” because he “trod gaily and lightly” (Dennis 1939 (2): lii). But the turn of the century marked the transition from this generation of writers to a new one, with which Dennis failed to keep up. An indication of this is his lament on the degeneracy of general taste in his essay “A Large Account of Taste”, prefixed to his Shakespearean adaptation The Comical Gallant in 1702. By that time, Otway and Lee were long dead, Dryden had died recently, Congreve had retired from the stage, and Wycherley was far past his prime, so Dennis had some justification in 38 Cf. also: “That Dennis had so little impact on his contemporaries is largely due to the literary quarrels he engaged in after 1710. Because Dennis had few influential supporters, he could not compete with Pope, Addison, and Steele and their cabals.” Cannan 2006: 124. 39 For similar opinions, cf. also Dennis 1939 (1): 467; Cannan 2006: 113; and Paul 1966: 30.


Name-Authority: The Critic as Institution

deploring the state of literature. Also, he only spoke out loud a belief that many of his contemporaries silently shared. But, as Hooker has argued, “[b]y virtue of the attitude adopted in the Large Account of Taste Dennis aligned himself with the critics and against the wits, and excluded himself from the genial society of such groups as the Kit Cat Club and Addison’s Little Senate, which thrived on mutual admiration.” (Dennis 1939 (2): liii) It is important to note that the reasons why Dennis, so shortly after his most successful period, started to appear to his younger contemporaries as old-fashioned by 1710 were not fundamental disagreements concerning the critical positions that he maintained in his works. It was much more a question of style: Dennis now appeared impolite. Though he had rejected method, a new generation found him too methodic; though like Pope, Addison, and Steele, he had sought to rescue the name of “critic” from its reputation of captious censoriousness, he now appeared just such a carping censor. Dennis had failed to keep pace with the progress of politeness, and in the new context his smallest critical gestures took on new social and political meaning. Beneath the gestures, there were his old-fashioned views of commerce and of the state. (Patey 1997: 18)

In this sense, Benjamin Victor wonders in 1722 “at the Behaviour of this Critic, to treat so many Gentlemen with such ill Manners.” (26) It is a testimony to Dennis’ fundamentally anachronistic position that this evaluation of him as impolite was partly derived from his stubborn refusal to partake in the last blooming of a socially stratificatory system of criticism that now seems heavily old-fashioned to modern scholars: Convention demanded that a critic must not find fault with the literary productions of men whose rank in society was superior to his own (hence the absurd deference paid to the work of Roscommon, Buckinghamshire, Dorset, Halifax, and other noble lords); it frowned upon his attacking the works of famous English wits recently deceased (hence the respectful manner in which the names of Cowley and Waller were mentioned); it discouraged him from making adverse criticism of respected members of his own literary circles; it disapproved of his treating harshly any literary work that appeared sound in its attitude toward church and state; and it looked askance at criticism that was too earnest, too learned, or lacking in urbanity and good nature. (Dennis 1939 (2): li)

By elevating criticism above questions of social status, Dennis fitted it with a democratic spirit that it would only gradually regain in the course of the century. But what distinguishes Dennis from the later ‘democratic’ practice of criticism, firmly rooted in the economic mechanisms of the book market, is the total lack of appeal to his audience. Dennis was content to ignore the taste of the audience just as much as the social status of an author, even taking popular success as a sign of literary worthlessness (cf. Cannan 2006: 121 and Grace 1975: 10). Dennis somehow

The Anachronistic Critic: John Dennis


did not seem to understand that he could not succeed as a critic while disregarding everyone. An indication of how Dennis failed to capture the interest or even sympathy of those who were to usher in the new, polite, form of criticism, is Addison’s complete neglect of everything the older critic had written about Milton and the sublime40 – and also the failure of his contemporaries to notice the borrowings, or of much later scholarship to recognize Dennis as a forerunner on these topics. But compared to Addison’s snubbing, another quarrel became much more decisive in shaping Dennis’ reputation, both in his lifetime and for posterity. Surveying the deluge of angry, sneering and insulting printed attacks on Dennis throughout his lifetime, the following three lines from the first publication of a young and almost unknown author in 1711 might appear ridiculously insignificant among the general antagonism, and yet they were in a sense the beginning of the ultimate downfall of that great critic: But Appius reddens at each Word you speak, And stares, Tremendous, with a threatning Eye, Like some fierce Tyrant in Old Tapestry. (Pope 1711: 3)

The quarrel with Alexander Pope was the most important, most extended, and, for Dennis, most devastating one of his life. Whoever it was that historically speaking threw the first stone, to react to the three lines in the Essay on Criticism in the way that he did was certainly Dennis’ most fatal misjudgement of the way that the literary world worked. It is not so much that he was wrong in the judgments he made about Pope and his first independently published work – many of them were quite correct –, or that Pope’s satire was justified – it often was not –,41 but that he tried to establish the independence or even primacy of criticism during the beginning of the last truly great poet-critic’s reign. This is Dennis’ final and most tragic anachronism: the harbinger of a new era of professionalism in criticism was perennially turned, in the mind of the audience, into an exemplar of an outdated literary world by a poet who was himself the epitome and the end of an era in English poetry. It seems likely that the differences between Pope and Dennis in the end were less devastating to their potential relationship than their similarities. Already in

40 “Addison, a generation later, was contemptuous rather than impressed when John Dennis claimed to be a rigorous theorist basing his theories on French neoclassicism.” Damrosch 1979: 422. 41 Hooker writes that “in his relations with Pope he was more sinned against than sinning.” Hooker 1940: 197.


Name-Authority: The Critic as Institution

1799, when Robert Bisset reviewed the quarrel in his biographical sketch of Addison, he noted about Pope that “different as he was from Dennis in intellectual qualifications, yet [he] resembled him in irritability and resentment.” (44) And Netta Murray Goldsmith notes in her biography of Pope: “As it happened the two of them shared some fundamental critical principles and both of them were passionate about poetry. Perhaps this was part of the trouble” (2002: 68). Who threw the first stone? When simply looking at the print history, it was surely Pope who started the affair with his satirical lines in the Essay on Criticism. There is nothing in Dennis’ writing prior to the publication of the Essay that could be read as a provocation, and the anecdotes about unfavourable verbal comments from Dennis on Pope’s Pastorals cannot be proven (cf. Sherburn 1934: 88–89). Scholars have puzzled over the motives for Pope’s action without coming to a clear solution (cf. Murphy 1984: 48). Pope’s contemporaries were surprised by the attack, Addison and others “raised their eyebrows when they came upon this squib” (Goldsmith 2002: 68), and surely Dennis himself seemed to be surprised, at least that is the impression he wants to convey in his angry answer, the Reflections Critical and Satyrical, upon a Late Rhapsody, Call’d, An Essay upon Criticism. In the preface to the Reflections, in order to defend his own reaction, Dennis stresses the unprovoked nature of Pope’s attack: However, I had not publish’d the following Letter, but had suffer’d his Readers to have hugg’d themselves in the Approbation of a Pamphlet so very undeserving, if I had not found things in it that have provok’d my Scorn, tho’ not my Indignation. For I not only found my self attack’d without any manner of Provocation on my side, and attack’d in my Person, instead of my Writings, by one who is wholly a Stranger to me, and at a time when all the World knew that I was persecuted by Fortune; I not only saw that this was attempted in a clandestine manner with the utmost Falshood and Calumny, but found that all this was done by a little affected Hypocrite, who had nothing in his mouth at the same time but Truth, Candor, Friendship, good Nature, Humanity, and Magnanimity. (1711: no page)

But while the question of the first stone might be ambiguous and its answer lie in biographical anecdotes never to be recovered, it is safe to say that Dennis’ first public reaction, contrary to his behaviour in other cases (cf. Paul 1966: 100), overshot its goal by far. Lacking the satirical skill of the young upstart poet, the old critic was soon getting carried away by the very anger and furiousness that Pope had used to satirize him, “as if he had become what Pope said he was.” (Murphy 1984: 5) It is unclear what kind of reaction Pope expected from his satirical lines, and it is quite possible, as Fisher conjectures, “their author thought of himself as laughing their subject into sense.” (1972: 843) What he got was, in Samuel Johnson’s words, a “pamphlet […] such as rage might be expected to dictate.” (Johnson 1779–1781 (7): 24)

The Anachronistic Critic: John Dennis


It is not entirely wrong to see Pope’s initial attack as an opening move in the battle for supremacy in criticism and for the right mode in which criticism was to be practised. While fashioning himself as gentlemanly man of letters, Pope naturally had to show contempt for the professional critic (cf. Goldgar 1965: ix). Before Pope and Dennis, Dryden had been sitting firmly on the throne both of poetry and of criticism. Dennis, being considerably older than Pope, had beaten him in the contest to fill the gap left by Dryden’s death in 1700. In The Advancement and Reformation of Modern Poetry (1701) and The Grounds of Criticism in Poetry (1704) he had already started to establish some foundations of criticism, giving it consistency and the systematic approach that Dryden had lacked. But Pope, regarding himself as the legitimate heir to the poet-critic, had to disparage any type of criticism that was not based on successful poetic practice, as was Dryden’s and – with the Essay on Criticism as impressive proof – his. On the other hand, Dennis was unwilling to give style in criticism any due and stubbornly insisted on content. Thus, while unwittingly discovering his deficient ear for poetry, Dennis’ main objection against Pope in his first reaction to the Essay on Criticism, which he characteristically calls “wrong”, “low”, and “incorrect” (1711: 2), is lack of judgment, and therefore lack of what he saw as the most important condition for being a good critic: The Thoughts, Expressions, and Numbers of this Essay are for the most part but very indifferent, and indifferent and execrable in Poetry are all one. But what is worse than all the rest, we find throughout the whole a deplorable want of that very Quality, which ought principally to appear in it, which is Judgment; and I have no Notion that where there is so great a want of Judgment, there can be any Genius. (No page)

Dennis treats Pope’s Essay as a work of criticism in the sense that he understands it, not as a poetical exercise in polite wit, but a rational and systematic investigation into literature. Regarded as an analysis of concepts like Nature or Wit, Dennis could not but find fault with the lack of precision in Pope, marking aspects that have irritated critics of the Essay ever since. Just as many of the faults that Thomas Rymer had so aggressively attacked in Othello in his infamous Short View of Tragedy,42 Dennis was justified in many of his remarks against Pope. But both critics completely missed the point of the literary text under their scrutiny. Pope wanted to acquire critical authority with the Essay, though not the way that Dennis had, solely by the force of his arguments as critic, but not least by the beauty of how he put his thoughts on literature as a poet. Dennis faulted Pope for lack of precision and therefore wilfully overlooked the poet’s style. And poetical

42 Cf. Cannan 2006: 130; Grace 1975: 60; and Hume 1970: 129.


Name-Authority: The Critic as Institution

style was something that Pope had abundantly, whereas Dennis lacked it almost completely. Indeed, questions of style are most commonly suggested as motives for Pope’s initial attack. While Paul notes that “in his physical and temperamental peculiarities Dennis offered a chance for satire” (1966: 86), Hooker clarifies that “Dennis was eccentric, poor, and somewhat slovenly of dress; and Pope was unlikely to take kindly to writers conspicuously lacking in the social graces.” (Dennis 1939 (1): 526)43 This was a point that Pope drove home mercilessly in The Narrative of Dr. Norris, and that Dennis himself proved inadvertently through the personal abuse he heaped on Pope in A True Character of Mr. Pope. One of Dennis’ earlier reactions to another literary controversy, his refutation of Jeremy Collier, had been the rare exception in the flood of replies to restrict itself to didactic criticism instead of engaging the priest with the method of burlesque criticism that Collier had borrowed from Rymer, and it was this restriction that ensured his argumentative success. This time, though, Dennis reacted to Pope’s (seemingly insubstantial) mocking jest with the full arsenal of the burlesque or satirical criticism that he had eschewed for so long. It might have seemed an all too natural strategy, since Dennis took the challenge as one against his critical authority or even supremacy, as well as against the self-esteem of criticism. But where Pope’s genius allowed him to incorporate the claim for critical authority into satirical poetry to the point where he even derived one from the other, Dennis’ mingling of genres was much less successful. Instead of clearly distinguishing criticism from poetry, claiming the first for himself and bidding Pope to restrict himself to the latter, the inclusion of satire in his criticism on Pope destabilized the generic boundaries of his text, and opened the breach that his adversary was looking for. Because Dennis had tried to criticise Pope in a satirical fashion, Pope could retaliate with satire, and there was no one in his age able to match him on that field. In 1713, Pope published a short satire, the Narrative of Dr. Norris, a full-scale personal attack on Dennis, making fun of his graceless appearance, his championing of ancient critics, and his fierceness. The text represents him as a critical tyrant, unable to accept any opinion but his own, driven to madness, especially by the success of Addison’s Cato. This time, Dennis did not take the bait immediately. He remained silent during this and numerous further attacks by Pope and other writers clearly associated with Pope (Gay, Swift, Parnell) that amounted

43 Hooker later adds: “In all probability Pope looked upon Dennis as a ponderous and inelegant fellow, who made himself ridiculous by his dogmatic air, his show of learning, and his careless dress combined with his lack of the social graces. Other gentlemen had laughed condescendingly at the modern Longinus; why shouldn’t he? Moreover, Dennis was known as The Critic.” Dennis 1939 (2): xxvi. Cf. also Murphy 1984: 48.

The Anachronistic Critic: John Dennis


very much to a concerted campaign, “an attack so persistent that it seemed planned, an attack from writers bound together so closely by ties of friendship that their efforts seemed conspiratorial” (Hooker 1940: 196). Hooker tries to explain the reasons for Popes persistence in drawing the old critic out: Knowing his sensitivity one would surmise that he was impelled partly by sheer bravado, partly by an eager desire to convince his friends and the public that he was a man of the world, unconcerned with such a trifle as literary reputation, and capable of viewing the zeal of his enemies as a huge and grotesque joke. (1940: 197–198)

Put more abstractly, one can say that Pope was trying to prove Dennis’ type of criticism wrong, countering the shift in the balance of power between poet and critic that Dennis had begun to tip over to the advantage of the latter. Pope’s victory was made final by Dennis’ True Character of Mr. Pope. With this text, Pope had managed to draw the old critic completely from criticism into satire, and it became painfully apparent that Dennis here had no substance to put up against Pope. By trying to repay the malignity of the Dr. Norris pamphlet in kind, he only succeeded in proving that he lacked “the creativity that can render malignity enjoyable” (Murphy 1984: 54), producing instead some of the meanest lines that he ever wrote, when, for example, he berated Pope for his physical deformities. Nowhere is Dennis less of a critic than in this pamphlet. Despite the fact that he could not win this battle, like the Don Quixote of criticism that he more and more resembled – not least through Pope’s mediation – Dennis continued to engage Pope, though he was less eager to make this strife public than he had used to be, and than later commentators would suggest. Hooker has shown, for example, that Dennis had intended his commentary on Pope’s translation of Homer only for private discussion with his friends and correspondents, and that it took two more published attacks on him to provoke him to publish them. (Hooker 1940: 195) Still, he could achieve nothing anymore against the financially most successful private publication venture of its time, and his commentary only helped to brandish him as critic out of envy.44 Reacting, in 1728, to the publication of Pope’s Peri Bathos and the first edition of the Dunciad with his Remarks on the Rape of the Lock, his criticisms missed the mark completely (cf. Murphy 1984: 61 and Dennis 1939 (2): 513), and his critical opinions on Pope’s Windsor Forest and The Temple of Fame were equally inept and awkward (cf. Murphy 1984: 55–57). When he regained some of his critical capacities in his last critical pamphlet, Remarks upon Several Passages in the Preliminaries to the Dunciad, it was far too late to counter the negative image that Pope had managed

44 Cf. e.g. Mallet 1733: 7–8 and Anonym 1714: 4.


Name-Authority: The Critic as Institution

to associate him with in the mind of the general public (cf. Murphy 1984: 63f.). Dennis was a decisive figure in the professionalization of literary criticism, winning acceptance for the fact that criticism was a profession while at the same time inadvertently providing those who resisted this professionalization with a face and a name, to be used as a satirical stock-figure and a scapegoat for everything that was wrong with critics.

8.2 The Institutional Critic: Samuel Johnson [T]he name of Dr. Johnson is much better known than the merit of his writings (Kenrick 1765b: vi).

In his Memoirs, Percival Stockdale gives his account of the origin of what was later to be known as Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets. In his version, the booksellers, in the persons of Mr. Conant and Mr. Evans, had initially decided to choose Stockdale to write the prefaces for their planned edition of major English poets. Mainly through the work of Strahan, according to Stockdale, this decision was suddenly changed in favour of Johnson. Conant then visited Stockdale, to explain matters. “He seemed to endeavour to soften my fall, by paying some empty compliments to my well-known abilities; and by ascribing the new resolution of the booksellers, merely to the preponderating, and imperious weight of Johnson’s name.” (Stockdale 1809 (2): 195) Though Stockdale’s insisting on the importance of Johnson’s name as alone relevant for the booksellers’ decision (a little bit earlier he writes about “the great importance which the name of Dr. Johnson would certainly have given to any publication” (195)) is an understandable manoeuvre to safeguard his own pride in his critical abilities,45 it is also a telling example of the position that Johnson had gained by that time in the republic of letters, and how contemporaries were aware (and critical) of the fact to what extent such a name could produce critical authority. Samuel Johnson – this has always, even in his own lifetime, signified more than just a simple author’s name; it soon became a trademark in the world of literature. “Johnson is the professional writer par excellence” (Schwartz 1987: 4),46 as Schwartz writes, an impression that was already shared by the critic’s contemporaries. Though the term is not altogether fashionable anymore, he has 45 Stockdale’s pride was further hurt by Conant’s proposal that he compile the index to the edition. 46 Cf. also: “Johnson is, in fact, the first professional author of importance in English.” Hanley 2001: 9.

The Institutional Critic: Samuel Johnson


once given his name to a whole era in literary history, the ‘Age of Johnson,’ and quite a number of people were actually aware of living in that age while it lasted. Johnson was widely felt to monopolize public opinion in all questions literary. He is the first true example of a living critic who generated name-authority, an achievement for which he was loved, revered, feared, and hated. In his satirical portrait of Dick Minim the critic for The Idler, Johnson had already illustrated how much of a critic’s importance depended on what others thought of him. Minim is an empty critic without any substance who nevertheless manages to gain considerable eminence in the world of letters; but the reverse conclusion seems not far that even a good critic will be only as eminent, and therefore influential and useful, as his contemporaries make him. Though Johnson himself is the prime example of a critic that gained enough critical authority to virtually become an institution of criticism, he himself was highly suspicious of authority.47 The motto he chose for the Rambler, nullius in verbis magistri (“nothing is to be judged by dicta”) is telling, and his growing weariness of power and its misuse shows that, as Shirley Johnston puts it, “he did not hanker to be the Great Cham.” (1979: 24) But to the eyes of his contemporaries, Johnson’s critical authority reached almost absolute status, as “[t]he ipse dixit of a Johnson […] has the force of law; and to contradict it, is rebellion.” (Webster 1789: 168) Still, it is highly reductive when Bosker simply states that “[f]or a long time [Johnson’s] authority as a writer and critic was undisputed.” (Bosker 1954: 114) For disputed it certainly was, constantly and abundantly. What is important for this argument, besides the fact that for posterity Johnson escaped from all these attacks victoriously, is that they were almost all made from the precondition of Johnson’s existing high public esteem, contestable or not. Though there is considerable disagreement among his contemporaries as to how Johnson obtained this kind of authority, whether it is justified, or whether it is a good thing or not, everyone was agreed that there were many people around who granted Johnson – or even just his name – absolute critical authority. In his obituary of Johnson for the Gentleman’s Magazine, Thomas Tyers explains Johnson’s reticence in giving out judgments on contemporary authors by the public’s tendency to follow his words blindly: “[T]here was a great eagerness, especially in those who had not the pole-star of judgment to direct them, to be taught what to think or say on literary performances. ‘What does Johnson say of such a book?’ was the question of every day.” (1784: 901) But the simple acknowledgement of this fact could just as well be the preamble to panegyric as to attack. Webster’s quote stands next to bitter invectives against

47 Cf. Parrinder 1991: 21; Engell 1989: 188–189; Gray 1986: 276; and Klinkenborg 1987: 48.


Name-Authority: The Critic as Institution

Johnson’s style and his dictionary, and Robert Potter begins his highly negative analysis of Johnson’s criticism by stating that “the present age owes much to the vigorous and manly understanding of Dr. Johnson: this truly respectable writer was early and deservedly distinguished by his great abilities, and the public has so long been habituated to receive and submit to his decisions, that they are now by many considered as infallible.” (1783: 1) However one positioned oneself towards the great critic, there simply was no getting past him, or even ignoring him. “To aspire to literary eminence in the 1750s was almost inevitably to come into contact with Johnson” (Basker 1988: 29), writes Basker, because Johnson was everywhere, both through his own multifarious activities and through the attention the literary world paid to him. This chapter, far from being a complete account of Johnson’s reception in the 18th century, will focus mainly on the way that his contemporaries discussed his singular position in the world of letters and the authority that was attached to his name. In his extremely hostile review of Johnson’s edition of Shakespeare, William Kenrick for example throws some light on Johnson’s name-authority: The Reviewer is well aware that Dr. Johnson’s self-sufficiency may suggest a more sinister view. For, he doubts not, that gentleman thinks of himself, what he has said of Dr. Warburton, that he has ‘a name sufficient to confer celebrity on those who can exalt themselves into antagonists;’ and hence he may possibly impute the present work to the motive which he insinuates to have actuated the opponents of that writer. (1765b: v)

Kenrick seemingly only conjectures on what Johnson might think, implying the vanity and groundlessness of these pretensions, but by doing that he reveals how strongly the connection between Johnson’s name and critical authority had already become by that time. Kenrick’s enraged description of the authority that Johnson had acquired by 1765 gives a good idea of the anxieties around the criticturned-institution: Is it, by the way, then, to be wondered at, that a private individual, like Samuel Johnson, should be even preposterously elated at finding that homage paid to him, which has been in vain solicited by sovereigns, and is refused even to the King on his throne? Graduated by universities, pensioned by his prince, and surrounded by pedagogues and poetasters, he finds a grateful odour in the incense of adulation; while admiring booksellers stand at a distance, and look up to him with awful reverence, bowing the knee to Baal, and holding in fearful remembrance the exemplary fate of Tom Osborne; presumptuous Tom Osborne! who, braving the vengeance of this paper-crowned idol, was, for his temerity, transfixed to his mother-earth by a thundering folio! (1765b: xi)

Johnson as Baal, Caliban, or Colossus, as a whale, an idol, or a rock, all these images, though derived partly from his physical appearance, show an awareness

The Institutional Critic: Samuel Johnson


that he had accumulated an amount of authority – and the power that went along with it – to be self-sufficient and potentially dangerous. The anxieties around Johnson’s institution-like influence on the world of letters can be followed down to contemporary discussions of his writing style. Negative appraisals often used images of contagion to explain their attacks on it. Because of his influence, and because of the peculiarities of his style, it was seen as infectious, and therefore criticism of this one individual writer was justifiable as a beneficent act for the general taste. That his style was an appropriate object of examination was explained by Robert Burrowes (who devoted a whole essay on this topic, and whom Damrosch calls “the first (and one the best) of careful students of his style” (1976: 64)) by referring to Johnson’s position as a literary critic. “As there are no modern writings higher in public estimation than Doctor Johnson’s, and as there are none which abound more in appropriate marks of stile, there are none which can with more advantage be made the subject of critical enquiry.” (Burrowes 1787: 42) Generally, public opinion was strongly divided concerning the virtues of Johnson’s style. There are numerous positive mentions of “the manly, forcible, and energetic pen of Dr. Johnson” (Anderson 1796: 35), as Anderson calls it in his biography of Smollett.48 Boswell, after noting “the fashion to compare the style of Addison and Johnson”, does so himself, and progresses from a characterization of his style to the recognition of its influence: “Johnson writes like a teacher. He dictates to his readers as if from an academical chair. They attend with awe and admiration; and his precepts are impressed upon them by his commanding eloquence.” (Boswell 1791 (1): 122–123) But even more numerous are negative mentions of Johnson’s style and his use of language. Few of these would go as far as James Thomson Callender, who in Deformities of Dr. Samuel Johnson writes that “Dr Johnson is the last man alive, who should blame an author for driving our language to its utmost limits: For a very great part of his life has been spent in corrupting and confounding it.” (1782: 27) But still, many saw reasons to find fault with “the verbosity, the pomposity, the scrupulosity, and the tortuousity of that admired and admirable writer” (1768: 40), as Kenrick puts it. Johnson is regularly attacked for his use of and alleged preference for hard, Latin-derived words, bringing him in dangerous proximity to the pedant (cf. Burrowes 1787: 29):49 In solemn pomp, with pedantry combin’d, He vents the morbid sadness of his mind

48 For other examples cf. Thomson 1793: v; Hayley 1787: 226; and Burrowes 1787: 38–40, 48, 51. 49 Cf. also: “The merit of the Doctor’s style is known to consist in his long words, hard words, and stiffly-constructed sentences.” Mason 1782: 6.


Name-Authority: The Critic as Institution

In scientifick phrase affects to smile, Form’d on Brown’s turgid Latin-English style (Courtenay 1786: 2)50

Burrowes, who claims that Johnson “has preferred, on all occasions where a choice was to be made, the remote word of Latin derivation to the received English one”, makes clear that this is not an exception but a common feature of his style that is highly threatening: I do not speak of a few words scattered rarely through his works, but of the general character of his stile appearing in every page, not of single acts, but of confirmed and prevailing habits; of new-raised colonies disdaining an association with the natives, and threatening the final destruction of our language. (1787: 30)51

Along with the use of Latin goes the “ambition of denoting every thing by substantives”, a predilection that “has done considerable violence to Johnson’s constructions” (46). The result of this fondness for “hard compounds, which it is”, according to Owen Ruffhead, “difficult to pronounce with composed features” is usually seen as obscurity (Ruffhead 1759: 42)52 and ungracefulness,53 an impression that, especially in Johnson’s later years, is surely tainted by his general depiction as massive, ungainly and uncouth. William Hayley, in his extended comparison of Chesterfield and Johnson, is especially rich in images, when it comes to representing Johnson’s ungraceful style, comparing it to “a matron who has arrayed herself for some grand ceremonial, and heightened the austere dignity of her form, by all the rich stiffness of a flowery brocade.” (1787: 229)54 By

50 Cf. also: “For in each page we find a massy store/ Of English bullion mix’d with Latian ore”, Courtenay 1786: 20. “His immoderate use of words of Latin derivation is affected; they are often far-fetched, and give an air of pedantry rather than of elegance to his style.” Alves 1794: 288. Cf. also Kenrick 1766: 7-8 and Webster 1789: 32. 51 Boswell answers this charge rather weakly by saying that “although he was fond of introducing [hard words] occasionally, there is not a single sentence in all his writings where they are crowded together”, Boswell 1791 (2): 562. 52 “That Johnson’s stile is obscure, the testimony of all unlearned readers abundantly confirms; and from the same authority the cause may be stated to be his perpetual affection of expressing his thoughts by the use of polysyllables of Latin derivation”, Burrowes 1787: 28. 53 Cf. on this also Callender 1782: 18 and Burrowes 1787: 54. 54 Cf. also: “To read the Rambler is, to my feelings, to walk through a stupendous Egyptian temple of black marble, furnished with some Colossal statues of ebony, and with here and there a little grotesque image, very lamely copied from ordinary life. I perceive, at every step, a strength and grandeur, at every step, a strength and grandeur of conception in the dark fancy of the melancholy architect. I perceive, also, that in the course of his gloomy labour he had short fits of merriment, and that in those sportive moments, he was singularly awkward and ungraceful. In the whole structure, there is an air of awful majesty, that always fixes my attention, and frequently

The Institutional Critic: Samuel Johnson


trying to become magnificent, Burrowes concludes, Johnson has become awkward and pompous (cf. Burrowes 1787: 44).55 What makes Johnson’s style seem dangerous is that, because of his influence as a writer and critic, it can easily become contagious. This is what Noah Webster means when he writes: “The benefits derived from his morality and his erudition, will hardly counterbalance the mischief done by his writing.” (1789: 32) William Hayley had written that “nothing is more easy than to execute a caricatura of his style” (1787: 228), and Boswell comments extensively on the influence of Johnson’s style both through imitators and through caricatures. He directly comments on Burrowes’ hostile analysis, in which Johnson’s style had been characterized as contagious:56 Mr. Burrowes has analysed the composition of Johnson, and pointed out its peculiarities with much acuteness; and I would recommend a careful perusal of his Essay to those, who being captivated by the union of perspicuity and splendour which the writings of Johnson contain, without having a sufficient portion of his vigour of mind, may be in danger of becoming bad copyists of his manner. (Boswell 1791 (2): 561)

Both Boswell and Burrowes believe that Johnson’s style is influential, but the biographer sees the danger only in bad imitations, not in all of them, even though he has to admit that “[t]he ludicrous imitators of Johnson’s style are innumerable.” (Boswell 1791 (2): 562) He goes on to elaborate on some of these imitations, ascribing the success of the writings of Vicesimus Knox to a close adherence to Johnson’s style and praising John Young’s parodist Criticism on the Elegy written in a Country Church Yard (1783) as “the most perfect imitation of Johnson”, and concludes with emphasising once more the fundamental differences between original and imitation. (Boswell 1791 (2): 565) The anxieties around Johnson’s style show how closely he was associated in his contemporaries’ minds with language, and how that language was understood in terms of power and authority. What is forceful, persuasive, or ‘manly’ in positive accounts, turns into pompous, arrogant, contagious, and corrupting in negative ones. All of these terms have in common that they ascribe power to Johnson’s language, just like Chesterfield had done with respect to Johnson’s famous letter. But the question of linguistic style was only one of many fronts on which Johnson was attacked. Since Johnson loomed larger than any other literary

enchants me; yet, at the end of my circuit through its various apartments, I feel rather depressed and amazed, than animated and improved.” Hayley 1787: 85–86. 55 Cf. also Kenrick 1765a: 287. 56 “[A]ll the correspondents of the Rambler seem infected with the same literary contagion, and the Johnsonian distemper to have been equally communicated to all.” Burrowes 1787: 32.


Name-Authority: The Critic as Institution

figure in the second half of the 18th century, it seems only natural for this quarrelsome age that so many writers who wanted to gain some public notice would choose to pick a fight with him. In 1730, John Smyth had written about a quality inherent in criticism that would make the later attacks on Johnson almost inevitable: A true Critick may expose his best Friends (I mean, in his Discourse, or Writings) abuse his best Benefactor, revile the best Men in the World, and be as insolent as he pleases to the best Men in Power; and yet be at the same time the most innocent, inoffensive Man alive: Because all this, in him, can be nothing but Candour and Love of Truth – Truth is his Goddess: and nothing sure can be too sacred to bleed at her Shrine: on the contrary, the nobler the Victim, the higher the Devotion. (7)

And victims did not come much nobler than Johnson. Not only did he present a formidable and big target, there were enough controversial aspects about his writings, his critical positions, and his person to be used as weak spots in the many sieges of this literary fortress. Archibald Campbell, himself one of the attackers, satirically describes the situation thus: “He is that mighty genius, against whom ever since his first appearance, all the dunces of the world have been in combination.” (1767: 40) Johnson produced antagonism, and Klinkenborg is surely right in taking “the loudness of the outcry raised against some of his critical pronouncements” as a measurement for his critical authority (cf. Klinkenborg 1987: 54). Johnson could not be ignored, and apparently, there was no indifferent position one could take towards him. “Johnson’s critical writings, it seems safe to say, were not things about which it was possible to be coolly neutral” (Mason 2001: 13), as Tom Mason writes. One reason for this was his – real or perceived – ubiquitous influence in the world of letters and the lurking suspicion that everything he said or wrote was taken as absolute truth by an uncritical audience, who therefore stood in need of being disabused (cf. Mason 2001: 136). Routinely, critics of Johnson derived the justification of their attacks from his popularity. Johnson’s own idea that publication necessarily opened an author to criticism (cf. Johnson 1751f: no page) is repeatedly turned against him. If publishing a text justifies its being criticised, how much more justified is criticism, be it ever so meticulous and painstakingly pedantic, in the case of an author whose every word was read as scripture by the multitude? And indeed, only Pope as a poet and Dennis as a critic drew a number of attacks that is comparable to Johnson. But if there is one major difference between the three, it is that Johnson kept his cool. While Pope turned his wit’s life into a warfare on earth,57 initiating complicated

57 Cf. the preface to his 1717 works, Pope 1717: no page.

The Institutional Critic: Samuel Johnson


intrigues and writing brilliantly devastating satires, and Dennis desperately tried to regain supremacy through ever more scurrilous pamphlets, Johnson the publicity genius took most of the attacks for what they were: a gain in publicity that emphasized his standing in the republic of letters and was best greeted by dignified silence. If the enemy was a notorious trouble-maker like William Kenrick, he even regretted if others came to his defence. William Hayley, in his curious dialogues comparing the moral and literary merits of Johnson and Chesterfield, touches on Johnson’s lack of counterattack. The Archdeacon, as the champion of Johnson, defends the critic’s character by noting that “insulted and reviled as he was perpetually, when did he write a vindication of himself, or a satire upon his enemies?” (Hayley 1787: 23) His opponent, the Colonel, though, is not convinced and refers to the records of Johnson’s conversations with their many biting remarks: [W]e learn from the diligent retailers of his conversation, that his common discourse was a continued stream of sarcasms against all who did not blindly acquiesce in his dogmatical decisions; so that the commendation due to his pacific conduct, if rigidly examined, amounts only to this – he never drew out his heavy artillery against his enemies, because he thought that he could demolish them with less trouble, and more security to himself, by the snap of a pocket pistol. (26)58

But Johnson was in no need to demolish. The paradoxical situation of so many of the attacks was that, as legitimization for their attack, they had to acknowledge at least the general belief in Johnson’s eminence, quite contrary to the usual rhetorical strategy of denying the opponent any stature or public acclaim. Where Smollett had called James Grainger an “owl” and advised him to “[e]ndeavour to acquire a more perfect knowledge of your own importance” (1757a: 152), whilst Grainger had addressed Smollett as “good D R . T OBY ” (Grainger 1759: 10) (a diminutive that he knew his antagonist hated) – all attempts at belittling – the terms under which Johnson was attacked more often than not implied greatness. Or at least largeness. Stockdale calls him in his memoirs “the Aristotle of the times” although only “in the province of the dogmatical, and despotick” (1809 (2): 119), and for Archibald Campbell he is “the great Colossus, who bestrides the narrow world of literature and has cast his shoe over all the regions of science.” (Campbell 1767: 40) John Wolcot is especially rich in ‘collossal’ imagery, describing “like an elephant along the ground,/ Great Caliban, the giant Johnson stretch’d!” (Wolcot 1787: 9) To set about demolishing this critical colossus, one

58 For more contemporary accounts of Johnson’s jealousy of other writers cf. Callender 1782: 86 and Campbell 1767: 41.


Name-Authority: The Critic as Institution

had to admit its existence – if only in the minds of misled readers – making it even easier for Johnson to maintain the high ground of condescending nonretaliation. Wolcot shows that even those attacking him knew that: In vain, the critics aim their toothless rage! Mere sprats, that venture war with whales to wage: Unmov’d he stands, and feels their force no more Than some huge rock amidst the wat’ry roar, That calmly bears the tumults of the deep, And howling tempests, that as well may sleep. (1786: 6)

James Thomson Callender’s Deformities of Dr Samuel Johnson. Selected from his works, published in 1782, is a good example of how Johnson always managed to understand the attacks against him within the larger system of the literary market, ignoring their personal injury and concentrating on their systemic futility. Callender’s work is exactly what its title promises: an indefatigable but tiring critique of countless passages from Johnsons works, with a particular focus on the Dictionary. What is interesting about the work is the way that Callender deals – explicitly and implicitly – with Johnson’s already established stature. Callender explicitly gives as reason for his attacks on Johnson and on his Dictionary his endeavour to oppose Johnson’s name-authority. He therefore has to admit the fact of a general admiration for Johnson’s Dictionary before being able to try and explain that this admiration is not based on a true estimation of the work, but on a lack of actual perusal: The public have long heard that a late English Dictionary is a most masterly performance; but is there a single man in England who ever read it half through? No. The school-boy imagines that it is above his capacity: The man of letters feels it to be below his; but being considered as a fashionable decoration in a closet of books, it is bought without the least chance of being perused, and WE (for the first time to be sure) have been admiring we know not what. (Callender 1782: iii)

This – if Callender’s claim is right – is name-authority in its worst form. The joke that he seems to have missed is the context in which he placed his own work through its title. The Deformities are designed as the malicious opposite to the popular genre of The Beauties of…-anthologies. Of course, such anthologies are always undeniable proofs of the success of a writer, an important step in his recognition as a classic, especially when printed during his lifetime. The first Beauties of Johnson appeared in 1781, and they were a vast commercial success, having reached a seventh edition in 1787 and a ninth in 1797. James Gillray included them in his satirical depiction of Johnson in his 1782 “Old Wisdom. Blinking at the Stars”, to the left of his feet:

The Institutional Critic: Samuel Johnson


Boswell comments on the connection between the two antagonistic publications, as does Johnson himself, who declares with the calm self-assurance that is always prominent in Boswell’s accounts of these occasions: “‘The Beauties of Johnson’ are said to have got money to the collector; if the ‘Deformities’ have the same success, I shall be still a more extensive benefactor.” (Boswell 1791 (2): 422)59 That 59 Callender repeated his attacks one year later with A critical review of the works of Dr Samuel Johnson, containing a particular vindication of several eminent characters, where he does little else than repeating all the arguments from the previous pamphlet. According to Durey, this work was consequently “less well received”, Durey 2004. Again, Callender refers to the general high esteem


Name-Authority: The Critic as Institution

is, Johnson completely detaches himself personally from the fame and success of his name that is exemplified in the publications of the Beauties, and that can only be increased by the Deformities. Both will make him better known. Another attacker who failed to unsettle Johnson was Archibald Campbell. Campbell had worked as a purser in the navy, and probably as a translator for the booksellers before that, until, as he writes himself, the gift of a friend enabled him to resume his studies and to write at leisure. The results were two satires, one called The Sale of Authors, and the other with the title Lexiphanes, a dialogue. […] Being an attempt to restore the English tongue to its ancient purity. Both were published in 1767, with further editions appearing in the same year, as well as in 1774 and 1783. Both texts, but especially Lexiphanes, are outright attacks on Johnson, especially for his language. In the story, Lexiphanes is a Johnson caricature satirically characterised as “a most celebrious Logician, a most profound syllogistical and argumentifying Reasoner” (Campbell 1767: 42). There is no information extant as to any previous quarrels between Campbell and Johnson, or any motivation for the attack other than Johnson’s singularity. Campbell himself makes clear that he goes after Johnson because of his position and influence, hitting several targets with one shot: The truth is, my intention was not to ridicule Dr. J–––n, whom I have only once seen, Virgilium tantum vidi, nor Dr. A–––e, nor any other particular Doctor or Writer, but their manner of writing, and expressing themselves on all subjects, and the pompous affected style used by them, and many other Doctors and Writers. […] My intention was, that the shots fired at the celebrated Doctor, should rebound from him, and fall among his imitators and followers. (iv)

Again, it is Johnson’s very authority, expressed in the number of his “imitators and followers,” that legitimizes all attacks. But Johnson remained silent and the contemporary biographers were largely dismissive of Campbell. Hawkins merely notes that “horrible” Campbell did not manage to draw Johnson out (cf. Hawkins 1787: 347), and Boswell writes that “[t]his malicious drollery, […] it may easily be supposed, could do no harm to its illustrious object.” (1791 (1): 297) An even more persistent effort to draw out Johnson by continuous provocations was made by William Kenrick. Kenrick opened his campaign against Johnson’s edition of Shakespeare with a review in the Monthly in 1765 that started by lamenting the inadequacy of all former Shakespearean editors,60 attacking John-

of Johnson in the world of letters and contrasts this with the faults of the critic’s works that he claims to have detected, cf. Callender 1783: v. 60 “We cannot help thinking it, therefore, a misfortune almost as singular as his merit, that, among so many ingenious scholists that have employed themselves in elucidating his writings, hardly one of them hath been found in any degree worthy of him.” Kenrick 1765a: 286.

The Institutional Critic: Samuel Johnson


son for his long delay in publishing his edition, and finding “little in the first five pages of our Editor’s preface, but trite and common-place reflections” (1765a: 287). In the same year, Kenrick expanded his criticism to a full-fledged, meticulous attack on 133 pages that ends with the promise of further provocations, announcing a forthcoming review of Johnson’s dictionary, “in which are picked up several thousand Etymological, Orthographical, and Lexicographical Blunders” (1765b: no page). This review never saw the light of day, but when in 1773 Kenrick published his own dictionary, he as shamelessly as heavily relied on the very work he had boasted to chastise. Kenrick’s Review is quite remarkable in its aggressiveness. Tomarken calls it a “heated attack” (1994: 93) and Mason “perhaps the most virulent of all attacks on Johnson’s criticism” (2001: 135). Less interesting with respect to this analysis, but surely still worth mentioning, is that what Kenrick had to say about Johnson’s shortcomings as an editor of Shakespeare was not totally groundless.61 But Kenrick himself deflects the focus from the scholarly truth of his suggestions through his style and especially through his preface, where it becomes obvious that he was after more than just correcting editorial decisions. First of all, he recasts himself from an attacker to a defender, declaring: “Such being the motives of action, the intent and design of the act is plainly what is set forth in the title, viz. to defend the text of Shakespeare from the persecution of his commentators.” (1765b: iv) And at the end of his text he explains that he did not pit the different commentators against each other to confuse the reader: “Not at all. – The commentators were at odds before I meddled with them; and I have only brought them together, to shew my own critical dexterity in reconciling them to each other, and extricating Shakespeare out of the hands of both.” (132) But the defence of Shakespeare is only one motive, the other lies in the very success of Johnson. As has already been shown, in the preface Kenrick justifies his actions, just like many other detractors of Johnson did, with the (unmerited) eminence of the critic among his contemporaries, and the dangers of letting this eminence stand uncontested. “Dr. Johnson[…] thinks of himself, what he has said of Dr. Warburton, that he has ‘a name sufficient to confer celebrity on those who can exalt themselves into antagonists;’ and hence he may possibly impute the present work to the motive which he insinuates to have actuated the opponents of that writer.” (Kenrick 1765b: v) It is therefore Kenrick’s expressed aim to diminish Johnson’s reputation as well as the success of his edition, and it is characteristic

61 Indeed, as Fussell has shown, most of his corrections are sound and justified, and his defence of author against editor might have contributed considerably to the conception of the 18th century of Shakespeare as “fancy’s child.” Cf. Fussell 1957: 49.


Name-Authority: The Critic as Institution

of Kenrick that he sees both as intricately connected and that he expresses this in economic terms: In the first place, it is presumed the injuries done to the name of Shakespeare will be in a great measure repaired, and the lustre of his tarnished honour restored. In the second, it is feared Dr. Johnson will suffer not a little in his literary reputation; and in the last, it may be suspected, that the proprietors will be injured in the sale of the work. (xii)

One can only marvel at the shamelessness and ease with which Kenrick turns from this to self-promotion: If unluckily it should turn out, however, that the sale of Dr. Johnson’s edition of Shakespeare should be hence obstructed, and that it should only hobble, instead of taking a run; the proprietors have nothing to do, but to engage the Reviewer, if they can, or some body else, to furnish them with a better edition. (xv)

Kenrick then mixes criticism of purely scholarly matters with much more personal attacks on Johnson’s morality, especially in relation to his pension. By suggesting that no Shakespearean editor so far would have had a problem of substituting the word ‘place’ for the word ‘pension,’ for example, Kenrick manages to criticise the carelessness of the editors and Johnson’s state-funding at the same time (cf. 1765b: v). If Kenrick’s goal was the production of publicity through antagonism and hostility, he did succeed, though not as much as he would have liked. Ralph Griffiths, in whose journal Kenrick’s original review had been published, though he grants him a good understanding of many Shakespearean passages, calls him a “very Orlando Furioso of Criticism” after noting that “[t]his Reviewer seems to be one of those violent assailants whose aim is not merely to vanquish but even to exterminate his antagonist.” (Griffiths 1765: 467, 457) Still harsher is the Critical Review, styling Kenrick a “Drawcansir of a Reviewer”, and his observations as “paultry”, claiming that “a man of honour, spirit, or virtue, would be chronicled to all eternity for a dunce, rather than be guilty of the illiberal personal abuse of Mr. Johnson” (Anonym 1765a: 333, 334, 336).62 But they also directly address Kenrick’s main motivation for his attack: “Mr. Kenrick seems to have adopted the more than barbarous notion of the Tartars, that by killing a man of eminence he becomes possessed of all his good qualities.” (Anonym 1765a: 332) That is, it was obvious to all involved that the attack was nothing but a bid for publicity, with 62 The reviewer makes sure, though, that his disgust at Kenrick’s personal attacks on Johnson does not imply a praise of the editor’s work: “The groping about for the sense in a few particular passages, as the Reviser of Shakespeare’s text and the Reviewer of Johnson have done, is playing at blind-man’s-buff with that great author.” Anonym 1765a: 336.

The Institutional Critic: Samuel Johnson


Kenrick almost like a Herostratus of criticism trying to profit from Johnson’s name-authority merely by opposing it. When 19 year-old James Barclay published An Examination of Mr. Kenrick’s Review of Mr. Johnson’s Edition of Shakespeare in 1766, he consequently commented on the incongruity of status between attacker and attacked. Though Barclay grants that the public, after building up considerable expectations, had been disappointed by Johnson’s Shakespeare, he especially stresses the inappropriateness of the relatively unknown Kenrick’s attack on a man “who has been selected from the collective learned as peculiarly deserving their favours.” It was a natural question in every reader of such prefatory abuse, Who is this W. Kenrick? What works have proceeded from his pen sufficient to countenance this unaccountable charge? To these interrogatories, few, very few, could make a satisfactory answer, and the ATT ACKED D A MAN WHOM EVE EVERY RY world was apt to conclude, THAT A MAN WHOM NO BODY KNEW , HAD ATTACKE BODY KNEW . (Barclay 1766: v)

Thus, even though Johnson stayed silent, the controversy was on, but the reviewers showed early signs of tiring. The reviewer of Barclay’s defence for the Monthly, for example, simply expresses his disgust at the virulence with which both Kenrick and Barclay engaged their targets, without going into the details of the defence at all (cf. Anonym 1766f: 316). And the Critical writes: “It is with no small regret we find ourselves once more subjected to the disagreeable task of mentioning Mr. K’s criticisms.” (Anonym 1766e: 301) But Kenrick would not let it go,63 following in the same year with A Defence of Mr. Kenrick’s Review of Dr. Johnson’s Shakespeare: containing a Number of Curious and Ludicrous Anecdotes of Literary Biography. While repeating all of the old accusations (Johnson has “obtruded on the world the worst Commentary of Shakespeare that ever appeared” (Kenrick 1766: 56)) he also broadens his scope, taking on Johnson’s dictionary as well as his poetry, and accusing him of corruption. When the Defence was being reviewed in the Critical, the prevailing attitude is an unwillingness to further engage in this debate.64 And indeed, the only one who apparently kept his cool was the very target of all the attacks, Samuel Johnson. Johnson was

63 Not satisfied with attacking Johnson directly, Kenrick also hit at his closest friends and composed An Epistle to James Boswell, Esq. (1768), where he again questioned Johnson’s morality and character and offered Rousseau as a better moral guide than Pasquale Paoli, whom Boswell had glorified, cf. Kenrick 1768: 7. 64 Though there is a rather faint praise of Kenrick’s work as a translator, the reviewer dryly notes that “his case requires the aid of a profession very different from that of criticism […]. We therefore leave our cause with the public, and recommend the same moderation to the other gentlemen whom Mr. K. has attacked in his rage.” Anonym 1766a: 79.


Name-Authority: The Critic as Institution

not only aware that he easily outdid Kenrick in all scholarly and critical matters, but that he also matched him on the field where Kenrick’s true genius lay: both had a highly perceptive view of the momentous changes that the mechanisms of the literary market were undergoing, especially the rising importance of media power, and how to play along with these changes. This is Boswell’s account of Johnson’s reaction to, and opinion of, Kenrick: His Shakespeare was virulently attacked by Mr. William Kenrick, who obtained the degree of LL.D . from a Scotch University, and wrote for the booksellers in a great variety of branches. Though he certainly was not without considerable merit, he wrote with so little regard to decency, and principles, and decorum, and in so hasty a manner, that his reputation was neither extensive nor lasting. I remember one evening, when some of his works were mentioned, Dr. Goldsmith said, he had never heard of them; upon which Dr. Johnson observed, “Sir, he is one of the many who have made themselves publick, without making themselves known.” A young student of Oxford, of the name of Barclay, wrote an answer to Kenrick’s review of Johnson’s Shakespeare. Johnson was at first angry that Kenrick’s attack should have the credit of an answer. (1791 (1): 271)

Johnson understood better than most of his contemporaries that Kenrick was playing for publicity and he knew that his best means of defence were to deny him that by not defending himself. What Barclay did not understand but Johnson did, the structure of communication had radically shifted since the predominance of polite conversation or the coffeehouse debate, where ideally each opinion and counter-opinion carried the same weight, or at least the same volume. In the publishing context of the second half of the 18th century, different books were far from having equal share in public attention. Everybody read what Johnson wrote, because of the authority that had been attached to his name, and the media power that this garnered. It was this authority that Kenrick attacked and tried to exploit at the same time by naming Johnson in the title of his own text. And it was part of Johnson’s genius that he denied Kenrick and his other attackers their share in the brand of his name. Pope’s dunces are much better known than Johnson’s.

9 Authority and the Marketplace During the 18th century, the literary market was transformed dramatically, and not only literature, but also literary criticism was affected. With changes in the structure of the literary market like the rise of periodical publications and the middle-class reading public’s growth into a decisive economic factor, long-held beliefs about literary value were modified, as perspectives shifted. One such change in awareness can for example be illustrated by an idea offered in a review on Isaac Disraeli’s Miscellanies, written jointly by William Taylor and Ralph Griffiths in The Monthly Review for 1797, where the reviewers only halfjokingly challenge the concept of the test of time: It has hitherto been customary to value an author, in proportion to the duration of time through which the interest of his compositions is to extend; and those are called the great writers who are read in every age by a dozen persons, and are unknown in every age to the multitude. Surely, however, it would not be less just to adopt, as the standard of mensuration, the extent of space through which the interest of a composition is to prevail,––to weigh off the mass of contemporary against the mass of successive readers […]. On this plain of appreciation, the dispersers of knowledge may challenge competition with the discoverers of truth (Taylor 1797: 374–375).

Taylor’s and Griffiths’ concept, like the original test of time, is still a quantitative analysis, but with a different unit of measurement, reflecting the growing importance of economic considerations for literary evaluation. One reason for the increasing persuasiveness of the test of time had been the increase in production, measured as the number of titles produced in a given period of time. The rise of the concept parallel to the growth of the literary market is striking. A full-text search for the expression ‘test of time’ in the database Eighteenth Century Collections Online, though prone to imprecision, nevertheless delivers unambiguous results: while for the period from 1700 to 1749, the database lists 53 titles containing the expression, for the period from 1750 to 1799 it is 218. Literary production increased especially during the latter period far beyond the reading capacities of any individual reader, it even surpassed the reading capacity of a whole journal devoted exclusively to reading books. The more it became impossible for the single critic to read or evaluate the current literary production in its entirety, the more he was forced to postpone his decisions in time and wait to see which texts would be ‘naturally’ forgotten and which would remain. The oversight in this concept, the one that Taylor and Griffiths point out, is to neglect that literary production can not only be measured by titles, but also by copies. Not only are there more books, but there are more copies of some books than of others – and some books achieved sales figures that were unprecedented in earlier times.


Authority and the Marketplace

Such a shift in emphasis entails a further distancing of evaluations from purely literary criteria to economic ones, as has been already discussed in the tentative and troubled association of bookseller and patron. Faced with the reality of an increasingly capitalist book market, authors and critics had to re-think the connection between financial success and critical approbation. Against the reflex of damning everything that was successful with the ‘rabble’ arose, albeit only cautiously, the awareness that public acclaim – measured in financial gain – could be an indication of worth. James Ralph was only half joking, when he writes that “if there is no such Worth, indeed, as Moneys Worth, we should be consistent in our Decisions at least; in which Case it would follow; That, instead of censuring an Author for taking Money for his Works, we ought to esteme Those most who get most Money by them” (Ralph 1758: 6). In 1760 an anonymous author published a pamphlet called The Battle of the Reviews, a satirical and belligerent attack on the two leading review journals, meant to attack “the many Abuses, which for some Time past have been industriously adopted into the Province of modern Criticism.” (Anonym 1760b: i) In a gesture that is highly symbolic in its irony, the author dedicates his work “To the Authors and Booksellers of Great Britain and Ireland”, into whose mouth he then puts the following words, directed at himself: In what, hitherto, have a Multiplicity of serious Expostulations with our pretended Critics availed? They derided such Efforts as impotent to decry their Petulancy, and even traduce them more flat and insipid than their own uncritical and dull Animadversions: But as you, Sir, have traced out a Path, untrodden yet by any but yourself, there is some Glimmering of Hopes, that your History will be a Means to convince the Literary World, and those connected with it, that Criticism is a Matter of too great Importance to be made a Trade of, or to serve Views purely lucrative, in either Author or Bookseller. (v)

The attempt, though, came too late, because criticism was already well into the process of becoming a trade. Together with the professionalization and diversification of the literary market came the professionalization of criticism and with it the introduction of new non-literary criteria into the workings of criticism. In the course of the century criticism, or more precisely critical authority, acquired a new function: that of a considerable factor in the economic success of a published work. Influential critics like Samuel Johnson and influential publications like the Reviews were increasingly seen as able to destroy the reputation of a book or an author. By the middle of the century, the connection between critical judgment and economic success or failure had been irretrievably made. While it gave additional weight and consequence to the critic’s pronouncements, it also offered a fairly new alternative to critical esteem. Just as Taylor and Griffiths would propose, high sales of a book could be seen to effectively annul negative reviews. Significantly, it was the

Authority and the Marketplace


increase in female readers – widely disenfranchised in the realm of critical discourse and therefore unable to provide critical esteem – that many authors relied on. In 1759, Thomas Mariott writes in the preface to his Female Conduct: “As this Poem is published for the Use and Amusement, of the Female Sex only, the Author is totally regardless of what the Critics will say; if the Fair approve of it, he will bid Defiance to the Latter” (1759a: xvi). By shifting his goal from (universal) poetic fame to catering as best as possible to a specific target group, Mariott can dismiss criticism as not competent. And Robert Bage declares in his novel Man as He Is: “My first ambition however, is to make a selection agreeable to my fair readers, of whom I promise myself just twenty thousand. If I am happy enough to succeed in this laudable expectation, I shall think little of men, and less of critics.” (1792: 67–68) It is not hard to believe that the combined ‘critical vote’ of twenty thousand female book-buyers would console Bage for any negative review, and reviewers were aware that financial success (especially through winning a female readership) might free authors from anxieties over criticism.1 But to state this as an author in such blunt and self-confident terms was a novelty for the time. As the production and reception of literature is increasingly perceived to be embedded in a complicated system of economic as well as political structures, anxiety rises over the independence of critical judgements. The potential for gain breeds corruption of standards. As long as an author does not stand to gain anything financially from critical praise, this praise, unless sincere, was theoretically useless for him. Unmerited praise is useless to all but the most self-deceivingly vain authors, but unmerited financial gain is still gain. While praise has to be seen relative to the taste of the one bestowing it, financial gain is always gain in absolute terms. Thus, as soon as praise equals income, the author will be eager to solicit it, or to provide it himself. John Pinkerton describes how this strategy, called puffing, might work: His first step is to form an intimacy with the printers of newspapers, of magazines, of reviews, and other periodical works. Thro these channels he gravely communicates to the public what are emphatically denominated puffs, or praises of himself and his writings, the more bombastic the better. (1785: 16)

An even more elegant way to perform ‘puffing’ was to form a small group of authors that could, without harm to their reputation, secretly agree to praise each other. The successfulness of that strategy, at least in the perception of some 1 Cf. e.g. “Whatever defects […] may be found in the characters, incidents or style of a novel, if the story be tender, and tenderly told, it is sufficient to secure the Author’s reputation: while he has such a powerful advocate in the hearts of his fair Readers, he may bid defiance to the critic’s frown.” Enfield 1775: 360.


Authority and the Marketplace

critics, can be seen from a complaint of 1783 about “that vile stratagem of mutual puffing, which is grown so common among literary juntos” (Anonym 1783a: 459). The accusation behind the concept of ‘puffing’ is that instead of the intrinsic artistic or aesthetic value of a text, partial or factional interests that are not directly connected to the text gain a decisive influence over the evaluation of this text. To puff a text meant to praise it not because it was good, but because it was written according to party lines, or by a person the critic sympathized with personally. This was an accusation made often and easily against critics, but it was one that was ultimately hard to prove. Partiality as a vice attributed to the critic is repeatedly discussed in all its facets, and impartiality is an often-evoked ideal for the critic, though one that is rarely attained.2 In his essay called “An Inquiry into the Nature of Criticism”, prefixed to the 11th volume of The Critical Review, Edward Watkinson, after enumerating taste, candor and spirit as necessary requirements for true criticism, comes to the conclusion that “[t]o complete [the critic’s] character, we must add (without which all his other qualifications are insufficient to procure esteem) Impartiality” (1761: 3).3 The reasons for partiality on the side of the critic were very numerous, from personal like or dislike4 to political party affiliation (cf. e.g. Anonym 1779: v-vi, 16). What all of these reasons share is that they allow considerations unconnected with the literary performance per se to influence critical evaluation. And with the institutionalized form of criticism as practised by the Reviews, any suspicion of partiality easily turned into an allegation of organized corruption. In the defence of his edition of Shakespeare’s King Lear, Charles Jennens for example voiced his suspicion that both George Steevens and Samuel Johnson, his main rivals as editors of Shakespeare, were both involved in the Critical Review, and that it was Steevens who had negatively reviewed Jennens’ work. (Jennens 1772: 2.)5 Accusations of corruption accompanied quite persistently the rise of the Reviews, both

2 As Thomas Kirby writes in his Essay on Criticism: “I cannot help saying that magistrates and critics are a very partial set of people.” Kirby 1758: 2. 3 For an early example, cf. Rymer 1698: 41f. 4 For examples of this accusation, cf. Cobb 1709: no page; Blackmore 1716: 244; Broome 1739: xvi; and Hawkins 1760: 5. 5 Jennens closes his pamphlet with a general damnation of the Critical Review: “Farewel, ye Critical Reviewers, children of those illustrious philosphers of Balnibarbi […]; farewel, ye wrongheaded race, who would have sermons written for amusement rather than for edification; who reject rhetoric in poetry, common sense and common honesty in criticism; mathematicians without the knowledge of vulgar arithmetic, and philosophers without brains; linguists who mis-spell, and grammarians who misconstrue, English; farewel, ye learned college, who received the first rudiments of your educations at Hockley-in-the-hole, and completed your studies at Billingsgate: farewel; once more we bid you all, farewel!” Jennens 1772: 41–42.

Authority and the Marketplace


because corruption in their cases was so easy and ultimately not confirmable. John Wolcot’s accusations against the Reviews are plain enough: “[P]edlar like, you sold,/ Praise by the ounce, or pound, like snuff or cheese; […] with half a crown/ Books have been sent you by the scribbling tribe;/ Which fee hath purchas’d pages of renown […]. [Y]ou critics to a man,/ For pence, would swear an owl excell’d the lark” (1787: 5). What caused even most unease, especially in the case of the Monthly Review, was the fact that the editor of the journal was himself a bookseller, who might be tempted to employ mere ‘hacks’ to praise his own books or denigrate those of his rivals. Smollett had from the start differentiated his own journal from Griffiths’ by constantly accusing the other of corruption, and he indeed managed to keep his own journal “free from any detectable commercial interests” (Basker 1988: 158), though his own reviewers were less impartial than his general editorship (cf. Basker 1988: 100), and he himself did not escape similar allegations.6 This charge, that can still be found in modern scholarship (Boening 1982: 68), was frequently levelled against the Reviews by contemporaries. The anonymous author of The Battle of the Reviews cites the opinion of “the booksellers”, that he then ingeniously refuses to discuss: “[T]hey have often spoiled the Sale of not a few ingenious Works, that one of the Editors in particular of these Reviews obliges his Understrappers to be lavish in commending the Pieces he procures the Publication of for himself” (Anonym 1760b: 43). And not only was the editor under suspicion, but the reviewers as well. Considered as a ‘mercenary’ writer, the reviewer’s employment was seen to determine his critical position: “So pliable your conscience, that with ease,/ A guinea twists it howsoe’er we please.” (Anonym 1791: 9) “Or for to speak more plainly, shall I say,/ [you assume the right] To save or damn just as the authors pay” (1). Thomas Underwood has his satirically depicted reviewers unashamedly declare: Then be it known – we damn – or spare, Can paint each Author, black or fair, Just as retaining Fees shoal in – Pray how – is this a mortal Sin? (1770: 34)

6 Robert Anderson, in his The life of Tobias Smollett, echoes some of the complaints against the criticisms published in the Reviews and lays them at Smollett’s feet when he writes that “his decisions, as a critic, on the literary productions of some of his contemporaries, were sometimes unwarrantably warped by narrow prejudice, and expressed in the harsh terms of coarse contempt. […] He was more frequently influenced by personal attachments and hurried on by present impulse, than guided by comparative views of real advantage, examined by impartial reason.”Anderson 1796: 39.


Authority and the Marketplace

And since anonymity made it easy to review one’s own works, that was widely supposed to be common practice among the reviewers. The (anonymous) poem Retaliation describes the workings of such self-promotions: Should it be ask’d, how can y––r needy tribe, Subsist by now and then, a paltry b–––be; Be mine the task, this secret to disclose, Which very few suspects, but fewer knows. Ye club y––r clumsey wits, ye cunning elves, Trump up some nonsense, then re–v–w y–rselves. In panygyric dress y––r flimsey stuff, And cram it down the vulgar by a puff; (Anonym 1791: 7)

Positive assessments like those made by Clara Reeve (cf. Reeve 1785 (2): 5), or Johnson’s claim (“I think them very impartial: I do not know an instance of partiality.” (Boswell 1791 (2): 60)) are quite rare, while accusations of corruptions were much more frequent. But repeated and persistent as such accusations were, were they also true? So far, scholars who have not simply relied on contemporary attacks but looked into the matter seriously have rather produced evidence to the contrary. Griffiths for example tightly controlled who was assigned to review which text, and he always wanted to be informed if someone reviewed the work of a friend, though he apparently had no general objections to this. The partiality of his individual reviewers was of course beyond his capacity to control effectively, but there are no indications of systematic corruption (cf. Lonsdale 1963: 350–353). In the words of Roper, “abuses did occur” but they “do not come near to justifying the traditional view that abuse was universal” (1978: 31). One should therefore agree with his conclusion that “[t]he notion that these Reviews were simply puffing-machines must therefore be discarded, and unsupported charges of commercial bias should be treated with great caution, even when found in the gossip of the period” (32). Antonia Forster supports this view in her conclusion of the subject: “the majority of reviews appear to have been written conscientiously and with no more than the usual kinds of prejudices and quirks possessed by reviewers in all periods.” (1990: 11) But true or not, accusations of corruption very effectively diminished the reviewers’ critical authority. At the same time that it contributed to the developing literary marketplace, criticism was subject to that very marketplace’s rules. In the case of the Reviews, critical authority manifested itself palpably through the continued readership that made these ventures financially successful and that kept them in existence from month to month. Just as the financial success of the Reviews (interpreted as a reward for previous critical accomplishments) enhanced their authority, the (alleged) acceptance of financial bribes for critical praise, crucially reversing the order of reward and performance,



destroyed their credibility. Thus, the market could be understood either as a beneficial self-organizing system in which ‘merit’ would always manifest itself in economic value, or as one in which ‘merit’ became substituted by a different quality ultimately unrelated to the intrinsic value of a piece of art. One could either expect that every good book would necessarily sell well, or fear that the predominance of monetary considerations would make the success of bad books possible.

9.1 Overproduction The cause, therefore, of this epidemical conspiracy for the destruction of paper, must remain a secret (Johnson 1753: 267).

One of the most decisive factors in the changing conception of literary criticism is the increase in book production throughout the period. This increase was so explosive that “in the early years it would almost seem as though [authors] had threatened to outnumber their readers” (Collins 1927: 13), as Collins writes. This, of course, was a popular misconception, since the audience grew as well, through increased literacy, the circulating libraries, and the rise of the middle class. But it was a prevalent and influential misconception. Much about criticism hinges on questions of order. Generally speaking, the act of criticizing a text follows the act of reading that text, both for the critic and the reader of criticism. But the changes in the structure of the book market also effect shifts in this order. In the preface to one of his earliest critical publications, the Remarks on a Book Entituled, Prince Arthur from 1694, John Dennis wrote a defence of criticism, countering among others the accusation of criticism’s uselessness. Criticism is useless, according to the argument that Dennis wants to oppose, because the chances of changing people’s taste are so little. This argument clearly assumes that someone has already developed a liking to a text he has read, and will afterwards not be easily convinced of the badness of his taste, or the faultiness of his decision. But, writes Dennis, “there are, or at least there may be Readers, who may know as soon of the following Criticisms, as they may hear of Prince Arthur, and who consequently may take in the Antidote before or immediately after the Poem.” (1696b: no page) What Dennis argues here as a possible defence of criticism’s effectiveness in 1694 has become very much the norm by the 1760s. With the establishments of the Reviews, critics became institutionalized as pre-readers, with reviews being increasingly consulted before the reading of the reviewed text – or even instead of it. In its first number, the Monthly Review announced itself to be “a periodical whose sole object should be


Authority and the Marketplace

to give a compendious account of those productions of the press, as they come out, that are worth notice; an account, in short, which should […] be serviceable to such as would choose to have some idea of a book before they set out their money or time on it.” (Anonym 1749: 1) This shift in order, noted as a possibility by Dennis and firmly installed by the Monthly, makes possible a new ‘method’ of criticism, that of exclusion. As long as criticism is delivered as an afterthought, a comment on a preceding act of reading, all it can offer are value judgments on the scale of good and bad. But when criticism becomes a substitute for reading, something that precedes (and often determines) reading, then the strongest critical statement, it turns out, is no statement at all. And not just published criticism started to employ the method of exclusion when faced with the products of overproduction. Other forms of criticism that had always been implicitly structured on the principles of inclusion and exclusion felt the need to stress these principles, like libraries, or rather their collections. As long as book production was slow and kept books precious and rare, exclusion played but a little part in the discourse of libraries. Instead, their predominantly inclusive collecting activities symbolised the preservation of human knowledge and wisdom, and any act to reduce their collection was associated with barbarism. But one can detect a new tone of weariness in Joseph Warton’s essay for number 89 of The Adventurer, as he muses on burning libraries and the subsequent loss of texts, a tone that suggests that he had spent too many hours with rather insubstantial books of ‘reasoning’: It is usual for scholars to lament with indiscriminating regret, the devastations committed on ancient libraries, by accidents and time, by superstition, ignorance, and gothicism: but the loss is very far from being in all cases equally irreparable, as the want of some kinds of books may be much more easily supplied than that of others. […] To be deprived of the last books of Livy, of the satires of Archilochus, and the comedies of Menander, is a greater misfortune to the republic of literature, than if the logic and the physics of Aristotle had never descended to posterity. (1753c: 110)

A similarly pessimistic account of libraries can be found in Johnson’s Rambler: “No place affords a more striking conviction of the vanity of human hopes, than a publick library […]. Of the innumerable authors whose performances are thus treasured up in magnificent obscurity, most are forgotten, because they never deserved to be remembered” (1751g: no page). Probably the most extreme case of this view can be found in a French text, Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s best-seller L’an deux mille quatre cent quarante published in 1771 and translated into English only one year later. In this work he described how mankind had managed to condense all useful information into a small library, making obvious the disproportion between necessary and superfluous books, and dealing with them accordingly:



By an unanimous consent, we brought together, on a vast plain, all those books which we judged either frivolous, useless, or dangerous; of these we formed a pyramid, that resembled, in height and bulk, an enormous tower; it was certainly another Babel. Journals crowned this strange edifice; and it was covered, on all sides, with ordinances of bishops, remonstrances of parliaments, petitions, and funeral orations; it was composed of five or six hundred thousand commentators, of eight hundred thousand volumes of law, of fifty thousand dictionaries, of a hundred thousand poems, of sixteen hundred thousand voyages and travels, and of a milliard of romances. This tremendous mass we set on fire, and offered it as an expiatory sacrifice to veracity, to good sense, and true taste. (1772 (2): 5)

Especially from mid-century onwards, there was not only a general awareness of disorder and change in the literary market (cf. Hanley 2001: 19), but also of the fact that the production of new books was continuously increasing, with authors and books being frequently compared to mushrooms.7 Though this awareness was not necessarily based on factual truth,8 it was persistent. “One of the peculiarities which distinguish the present age”, writes Samuel Johnson 1759 in The Idler, “is the multiplication of books.” (1759a: no page) And Vicesimus Knox writes in 1778 that “[l]iterary productions continue, therefore, to multiply, and every writer finds some plausible apology for presenting to the public an additional volume,” (1778 (1): 228) showing that in the context of overproduction, the act of publication became a sort of violation necessitating apologies. For many contemporary commentators, the magazines had multiplied at an unhealthy rate,9 there was far too much poetry,10 and way too many novels11 to read, together with numerous “remarkers on human nature” (Anonym 1762b: 397). Technical advances in the production and distribution of media that had been or would come to be regarded as blessings to the development of civilization were

7 “The season is now advancing when that dunghill the town never fails to produce an innumerable quantity of literary mushrooms”, Anonym 1756b: 275–276. “[N]othing in Nature resembles so much an Author, or at least some Authors, as a Mushroom.” Anonym 1760b: 3. “[T]he press groaned under the weight of Novels, which sprung up like Mushrooms every year.” Reeve 1785 (2): 6. 8 “Despite the writers’ surprise over the growing mass of texts, the book trade at the time was actually in an economic slump.” Zionkowski 1990: 3. 9 “But when thro’ the arts and avarice of Booksellers they were multiplied to an enormous number, no less than a dozen coming out at one time in this town alone, and at the same time pretended to entertain the world with original productions, it is no wonder that they degenerated, and became, if I may use the expression, literary nuisances.” Campbell 1767: 196. 10 “There is indeed almost every Day something substituted for Poetry of one Sort or other that is as unlike it as Vice is to Virtue, or Deformity of any Kind to Beauty”, Cooke 1749: 3. 11 “Of Lives and Adventures the public have had enough and, perhaps, more than enough, long ago.” Kenrick 1759b: 561. “[T]he present age is overrun with romances”, Whitehead 1752: 85.


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being questioned, from the art of printing to the establishment of the circulating libraries.12 The number of those who unambiguously welcomed the multiplication of books was small. While the progress of learning was routinely praised, only few considered the by-product of this progress as unconditionally positive. Or, even if they did, the expression of such a view was not fashionable, and regarded as detrimental to the critical profession. Among the defenders of a growing literary market were the Church of Ireland clergyman and religious controversialist Philip Skelton and Vicesimus Knox.13 Skelton’s positive assessment of the growing book market is directly derived from his conviction in a parallel growth of the number of readers and the assumption that these readers’ tastes will be vastly different, and will consequently need a multitude of texts.14 In 1778, Vicesimus Knox anonymously sent his Essays, Moral and Literary to the publisher Charles Dilly, who printed them after a recommendation from Samuel Johnson. In this work, Knox came to the conclusion “that, for the sake of the learned as well as the common reader, the multiplication of books, though it has sometimes been lamented, ought, upon the whole, to be encouraged.” (Knox 1778 (1): 227) Though

12 The reviewer of The Annual Register in The Critical Review of 1761, surveying the trend for endless recycling of materials in the magazines and similar publications, sighs that “indeed the number of stupid useless rheams of blotted paper every day issued from the press […] renders it almost problematical, whether the art of printing hath, upon the whole, brought any real advantage to science.” Anonym 1761a: 143. And Clara Reeve sees the facilitation of distribution realized by the circulating libraries in a critical light, since it encourages the “swarm of imitators” of every good book, making them “one source of the vices and follies of our present times.” Reeve 1785 (2): 7. For recent scholarship on circulating libraries, cf. Kaufman 1967; Fergus 1984; Jacobs 1995; and Jacobs 2003. 13 Regarding Knox, Uphaus laments that “[t]he very author who did so much in the late eighteenth century to help shape the canon of English literature has himself been excluded from the present-day canon.” Uphaus 1991: 346. 14 “I consider the whole body of writings, that have hitherto appeared in the world, of whatsoever kind, whether philosophical or poetical, historical or political, moral, theological, or critical; whether they be the performances of great wits or dunces, of the learned or the illiterate, as one great community or republic of books, in which every individual performance hath its own place and use. As in a well regulated commonwealth, consisting of men, there must be persons for all purposes, some to be treasurers, and others to be scavengers, some to be judges, and others to be hangmen; so in one of books, there ought to be some sublime and learned, others low and illiterate, some, full of sense and life, others, dull and insipid, some, of a senatorian order, and some other of a plebeian; because, all books being wrote, if I mistake not, in order for perusal, and all mankind being either obliged by duty, or moved by inclination, to peruse some kind of books or other, and there being such an infinite variety of tastes and capacities among men, prodigious numbers would be excluded from the great and delectable exercise of reading, were it not for the plentiful provision made, and laid in, by the writers of past and present times.” Skelton 1744: 9–10.



at times highly critical of overproduction,15 Knox saw the increase of human knowledge inextricably connected to the distribution of that knowledge, the means to acquire it – the book: “In these late ages, there is scarcely a subject, which can reasonably excite human curiosity, on which satisfactory information may not be acquired by the perusal of books, which, from their multitude, are obvious to all who are disposed to give them their attention.” (226) This could be called an idealized enlightenment perspective on book production, envisioning the formation of an almost complete encyclopaedia of human knowledge from the sum of all different books. But there are two necessary preconditions for this view that seemed less and less given to contemporaries. The first is that there are no books that are so bad that they are actually detrimental to learning, and the second is that the information contained in these books is not drowned within an endless amount of useless and superfluous material that is just produced to fulfil the need of ever-expanding production. This was the age that invented the encyclopaedia, not least because of the fear that too much information could still be lost among the noise of unordered (and unselected) overproduction. Because books did not just multiply in numbers, they also grew in size, or, as more than one contemporary commentator felt, were unnaturally swollen up by authors and booksellers trying to maximise their profits. In an interesting twist of the argument about the necessary connection between poetical and critical skills, Nathaniel Weekes explains the authors’ inability to restrict their own writing through the hint that not all of them are good critics: “No Man can be a good Poet unless he is a good Critic. To know when we have said enough, is the most material Point of Knowledge requir’d in every Writer; and without that great Art, and nice Judgement of knowing when to leave off, Authors may please indeed, but never can excel.” (1754: vi)16 Weekes also commented on the swelling of books, a constant issue in the discussion of pedantry, where texts were seen to be drowned in useless and self-serving commentaries (cf. Weekes 1754: 17).17 Even more self-generating than superfluous commentaries was the increasingly popu-

15 In a different essay, he juxtaposes the scarcity of books as “the principal obstacle to the advancement of learning” in former tomes to the “multitude of them” in his own times, concluding that the latter is “scarcely less injurious to its interests, by distracting the student in his choice, and by diffusing an incorrect and indistinguishing taste.” Knox 1778 (2): 366. 16 A similar view is expressed in Disraeli 1794 (1): 178: “It is an excellent observation, that the talent of judging may exist separately from the power of execution. An amateur may not be an artist, though an artist must be an amateur.” NOT ES 17 Cf. also: “The Profess’d Critic, in order to furnish his quota to the bookseller, may write NOTES OF NOTHING NOT HING , that is notes which either explane things which do not want explanation, or such as do not explane matters at all, but merely fill up so much paper.” Edwards 1750: 134. Cf. also Goldsmith 1774: 18 and Earle 1732: 142–143.


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lar method of compilation that Johnson attacked in the Idler.18 In the course of his attack on the Critical Review in general and Tobias Smollett in particular, John Shebbeare sketches the development of the author from inspired artist to a manufacturer obedient to the laws of capitalism: “Is not a Person, who agrees with a Bookseller to fit up a Book by the Sheet or by the Yard, since the Value of his Work is measured by the Length of it only, as Upholsterers do Rooms by sticking Pieces of other Men’s Labours together with Paste, a Hackney-Writer?” (1757b: 4)19 Part of the resistance that many reviewers had against novels came from their impression that novels were produced less artistically than mechanically. One reviewer talks about how “[t]he manufacturers of novels, in one respect, resemble the bakers of gingerbread; for their ingredients are the same, and the chief difference lies in the manner of disposing the decorations. Whether they are in the shape of a king, a queen, or a cuckold, they still consist of flour, water, brown sugar or treacle.” (Anonym 1767b: 350)20 And just like gingerbread could be manufactured indefinitely, so, it seemed to many reviewers, could novels. A reviewer for the Critical swears in 1777 that the novel he had to read must have been created on the famous machine for the mechanical creation of books that Lemuel Gulliver had described in his travels (cf. Anonym 1777b), whereas in 1791, John Noorthouck in the Monthly finds this same machine insufficient, and instead provides a “Recipe for Dressing up Novels ad libitum”.21

18 Johnson complained that “few of those who fill the world with books have any pretensions to the hope either of pleasing or instructing. They have often no other task than to lay two books before them, out of which they compile a third, without any new materials of their own, and with very little application of judgment to those which former Authors have supplied.” Johnson 1759a: no page. 19 He continues by accusing Smollett of having accepted this very type of thinking about the work of the author: “Is not the Champion of your Cause at this very Minute with a Pair of Scissars in his Hand cutting Paragraphs from the different Histories of England, and with Paste sticking them to brown Paper, to make a New History which is to pass for his own Writing?” These accusation are later repeated in the Appendix, cf. Shebbeare 1757a: 25. 20 Cf. also Anonym 1767c: 296. 21 “Go to Middle Row, Holborn; where, since mankind have discovered that their own hair is sufficiently capable of distortion, the sellers of old cast-off wigs have given place to the dealers in cast-off books; there on the bulks, from among the classes of a groat or sixpence per volume, buy any old forgotten novel, the older the better; give new names to the personages and places, reform the dates, modernize such circumstances as may happen to be antiquated, and, if necessary, touch up the style a little with a few of those polite cant words and phrases that may be in fashion at the time. All this may be done with a pen, in the margin of the printed book, without the trouble of transcribing the whole, unless it is to be carried to a bookseller for sale; for then you must shew



The shift of emphasis from the spiritual to the physical, from the contents or inherent value of a book to its sheer corporeality is an interesting indication of anxieties created among authors and critics about the growing influence of the market. In the eyes of Shebbeare and many others, the economic sphere with its association of manufacture22 and the equation of value and measurable quantity is tainting the literary sphere. The possibility of fitting up a book “by the sheet or by the Yard”, of the mechanical production and increase of books, may be called “entertaining”, as in James Callender’s comment, but it is also ultimately frightening: “It is entertaining to observe what difficulties some writers are put to in mustering a decent number of words to make up a five shillings volume. By large types, broad margins, and superfine paper, many a costive student literally swells into a great author.” (1783: 24)23 In the same spirit, Thomas Cogan makes a character lecture “much about the beauty of Elziver editions, large types, neat picas, royal paper, the peculiar grace of broad margins, and distant lines.” To which the narrator can only answer in disbelief: “But, sir, this manner of printing will infallibly drive out a few familiar epistles, to several volumes quarto.” (1776: 18–19)24 The disproportion between content and (physical) form threatened the usefulness of books for the sake of better sales. The blame for increasing book production was sometimes put on the greed of the booksellers, but not less frequently on the willingness of just about everyone to write and to publish. According to Goldsmith, “[i]n England, every man may be an author that can write” (Goldsmith 1762 (1): 116). There were too many books because there were too many authors, or, more precisely, too many people who erroneously thought of themselves as authors. Pope had set the tone in Martinus Scriblerus’ mock introduction to the 1729 Dunciad: “He [the author] lived in those days, when (after providence had permitted the Invention of Printing as a scourge for the sins of the learned) Paper also became so cheap, and printers so numerous, that a deluge of authors cover’d the land” (xxxiv). In an echo of another of Pope’s poems, Nathaniel Weekes writes that “[w]here One can please, a Hundred give Offence” (1754: 16), echoing most critics’ impression of the relation between

a manuscript. In either case, it may be boldly sent to the printer; for printers, like surgeons and lawyers, are bound to keep the secrets of their employers.” Noorthouck 1791: 338. 22 Samuel Johnson talks about “drudges of the pen, the manufacturers of literature, who have set up for authors […] like other artificers, [and] have no other care than to deliver their tale of wares at the stated time.” Johnson 1751b: no page. 23 Thomas Pearne, who reviewed Robert Potter’s The Art of Criticism for the Monthly, described the work as rather an achievement in book-making than in criticism; cf. Pearne 1790: 94. 24 It is worth noting, though, that Cogan’s text itself is printed rather similar to the method described in the quote.


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good and bad authors (cf. also Trapp 1742: 7 and Cooke 1749: 3). In an essay for The Adventurer, Samuel Johnson paints a vivid picture of the “universal itch for writing”, claiming that the present situation is indeed entirely unprecedented: The present age, if we consider chiefly the state of our own country, may be stiled with great propriety The Age of Authors; for, perhaps, there never was a time, in which men of all degrees of ability, of every kind of education, of every profession and employment, were posting with ardour so general to the press. The province of writing was formerly left to those, who by study, or appearance of study, were supposed to have gained knowledge unattainable by the busy part of mankind; but in these enlightened days, every man is qualified to instruct every other man, and he that beats the anvil, or guides the plough, not contented with supplying corporal [sic] necessities, amuses himself in the hours of leisure with providing intellectual pleasures for his countrymen. It may be observed, that of this, as of other evils, complaints have been made by every generation: but though it may, perhaps, be true, that at all times more have been willing than have been able to write, yet there is no reason for believing, that the dogmatical legions of the present race, were ever equalled in number by any former period; for so widely is spread the itch of literary praise, that almost every man is an author, either in act or in purpose; has either bestowed his favours on the public, or with-holds them, that they may be more seasonably offered, or made worthy of acceptance. (1753: 266)

Johnson’s opinion that authors overran the country more than ever before in the history of the book was shared by most of his contemporaries.25 “With regard to writers,” writes Christopher Smart, “the town swarms with them” (1753: iv), and Joseph Trapp complains about poetry that “I know not how it is, there’s no sort of Learning to which more apply themselves, or fewer attain. Innumerable Pretenders there are, who, in spite of Genius and Nature, are daily troubling the World with their wretched Performances” (1742: 7). The multiplication of authors was usually seen as a result of lowered standards. In the context of an attack on the Dunciad, but actually in its very spirit, George Duckett ironically declares about his work: “It may furthermore be a Work conducive toward the Strength and Glory of this my native Island, by multiplying the Number of Poets therein. These have hitherto been but few, from a mistaken Opinion, that a Genius, Learning, and a good Ear, were requisite to constitute a Poet” (1729: 1). It was very common to complain that the increase in writing had not gone along with an increase in learning or even sheer entertainment: “The 25 Almost thirty years later, Johnson’s epithet is echoed by Vicesimus Knox: “[T]he present, were it to be distinguished by a name from its most prevalent humour, might be called, the age of authors. Of late years, almost every man has felt an ambition of appearing in print, from the voluminous lexicographer, down to the scribbler in a pamphlet or a newspaper.” Knox 1778 (2): 109.



multiplicity of compositions is an argument of their hasty production; and hastiness is, at least, a presumptive proof of their want of merit.” (Knox 1778 (2): 109)26 The mechanical process of book-production as well as the growth of journalism turned the writer into a mere manufacturer following simple rules that made real learning or genius unnecessary. Some of those who provided such rules even felt the need to apologize and protest their innocence of a further multiplication of authors, as did Edward Bysshe in the preface to his manual for poets The Art of English Poetry.27 But the multiplication of authors and books was not just understood as a sign of the superficiality and vanity of the times that can be lamented and then forgotten, instead, many believed it to be actively damaging. The first who might be thought to suffer were the booksellers, fighting against each other over a limited resource: Bookbuilders form a very singular species of beings. Perhaps, of all men living, they have the least respect or attachment to the rest of their profession. Like the gladiators of antient Rome, the most of them subsist only by destroying each other. Yet, in the midst of this mutual and infinite havock, their generation continues to multiply. The deepest wound is never deadly. The vanquished combatant may rise again, when he pleases, and renew the battle. (Callender 1783: iii)

Callender’s astonishment over the booksellers’ resilience points to the blind spot that many commentators of overproduction had: they underestimated the parallel growth of the reading public and its constant appetite for new reading material.28 Only ignoring this could the rate of increase in production seem almost suicidal. In an essay for The Adventurer, Samuel Johnson even mockingly paints an

26 Cf. also Johnson 1756: 302 or Goldsmith 1774: 33. 27 “But besides, to confess a Secret, I am very unwilling it should be laid to my Charge, that I have furnish’d Tools and given a Temptation of Versifying, to such as in spite of Art and Nature undertake to be Poets; and who mistake their Fondness to Rhyme, or Necessity of Writing, for a true Genius of Poetry, and lawful Call from Apollo. Such Debasers of Rhyme and Dablers in Poetry would do well to consider, that a Man would justly deserve a higher Esteem in the World, by being a good Mason or Shoe-maker, or by excelling in any other Art that his Talent inclines him to, and that is useful to Mankind, than by being an indifferent or second-Rate Poet.” Bysshe 1762: v. Cf. also: “And perhaps, […] if the Rules had not been given, we had been troubled with many fewer Writers; for then those who had not Nature for their Rule, could have had no Rule at all. But now how many Scriblers are there who observe the Rule, and neglect the Meaning, and what Number of Pedants do we meet with, that keep to the Letter, and lose the Spirit?” Felton 1713: xiii–xiv. 28 At least, such awareness is extremely rarely expressed. One of those rare cases is Oliver Goldsmith’s thought that “writers become more necessary, as readers are supposed to increase”, Goldsmith 1762 (1): 249.


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apocalyptic picture where “writers will, perhaps, be multiplied, till no readers will be found, and then the ambition of writing must necessarily cease.” (1753: 268) Using a similarly negative image, an essayist in The World from 1755 calls the multitude of books “the great charnel-house of human reason” (Anonym 1755a: no page). And already in 1729, Pope had mockingly pointed out the consequences of the “deluge” of writers: “[N]ot only the Peace of the honest unwriting Subject was daily molested, but unmerciful Demands were made of his Applause, yea, of his Money, by such as would neither earn the one, or deserve the other.” (xxxiv) A pressing concern for observers of the book market was therefore how this development could be countered, and in the absence of a satirical genius of Pope’s capacity, who tried with one single work of literature to stem the deluge and “dissuade the dull” (xxxiv), one of the solutions came to be a form of criticism equally organized by commercial structures. For even if the attention capacity of all readers taken together increased as well, that of the individual reader could not. Books had more and more readers they could potentially find, but every single reader had more and more books to read. Oliver Goldsmith analysed attention as an individual’s limited resource, when he has his Chinese narrator complain about English booksellers’ tendency to follow every successful book with a stream of imitations: “This manner, however, of drawing off a subject, or a peculiar mode of writing to the dregs, effectually precludes a revival of that subject or manner for some time for the future; the sated reader turns from it with a kind of literary nausea” (1762 (2): 131).29 He also ironically calculated that, with the amount of newly published books being as high as it is, “[i]f then we suppose the learned of England to read but an eighth part of the works which daily come from the press (and sure none can pretend to learning upon less-easy terms) at this rate every scholar will read a thousand books in one year.” (1762 (1): 116)30 The very fact that one has to acknowledge all of these books even before one can dismiss them makes them harmful. In this sense, James Thomson Callender offers a very interesting comparison: “Every superfluous book is an imposition on the publick. Every bad authour is, on that account, a publick robber.” (1783: v) Joseph Trapp talks about the “[i] nnumerable Pretenders […], who, in spite of Genius and Nature, are daily troubling the World with their wretched Performances” (1742: 7). A reviewer for the Critical, faced with an especially trite pamphlet, exclaims: “Callous as we are in the practice of reviewing dulness, the exquisite nonsense of this performance has 29 In his own writing, Goldsmith took care not to tire the reader too much: “We must, on the other hand, study conciseness, because we write in order to be read.” Goldsmith 1760: 215. 30 The necessary precondition for this calculation is of course the denial of any specialization among scholars.

“This process of chymical criticism”: The Critic as Gate-Keeper


given us a feeling––––we mean for the readers, if any such there are, and for the buyers of it at the price of two shillings.” (Anonym 1768: 227)31 And a reviewer of a work called Cuckoldom Triumphant writes that “[b]y these volumes […] the public is more than imposed upon – it is insulted.” (Anonym 1771a: 154) It is only logical that in a world where authors are perceived as robbers, people will ask for a police force to restrict them. And critics – after having nourished the fear of overproduction in the first place – were happy to provide that service. Tobias Smollett writes in defence of the type of criticism that is practised in his Critical Review: “Every author who writes without talents is a grievance, if not an impostor, who defrauds the public; and every critic has a right to detect the imposition” (1756b: 287).

9.2 “This process of chymical criticism”: The Critic as Gate-Keeper Since books were published notwithstanding all laments, and more than any person could ever hope to read, the question no longer was: how good or bad is this book I have just read or will read, but rather: is it worthy of notice at all? With attention being a limited resource – and one that could not grow along with production – at least from the perspective of the individual reader, the critical fate of books gained a new alternative besides praise and censure: neglect. In an attack on review criticism at the end of the century, the author takes it for granted that what he is denying the critics is not so much the right to say whether a book is good or bad, but “the right of dictating to the public what literary productions are worth their notice, and what are not.” (Anonym 1791: i) Instead of only fulfilling the function of a judge, who gives a verdict on the cases brought before him, but does not choose which cases to put on trial in the first place, the critic, faced with overproduction, took on the role of gate-keeper, or, as James Harris puts it in 1752, “a sort of masters of the ceremony in the court of letters, thro’ whose assistance we are introduced into some of the best company” (1752b: 21–2), implying that all those who are not part of the “best company” will not even be permitted to participate in the social gathering.32

31 N.b. the difference made between compassion for the buyers and the readers of the text. 32 Samuel Johnson, when planning his dictionary, had faced a similar problem when he yielded his decisions on the signification of words to his “authorities”, that is the quotes from “writers of the first reputation.” While this freed him from assuming a critical position on language himself that he did not feel authorized to occupy, it left open the question of selection: “It has been asked,” he writes in his Plan of A Dictionary in 1747, “who shall judge the judges? [A] question may


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The gate-keeping function of the critic, and the question of the chronology of literary production, critical, and amateur reading, highlights criticism’s potential affinity to censorship.33 Though many modern histories of criticism, following Habermas, insist on the ‘consensual’ and ‘appreciative’ function of criticism, some more recent studies have observed the structural analogies between the critic and the censor (cf. Cannan 2006: 7ff.). Burt sees both “complicit rather than opposed”,34 and Kinservik describes censorship as “a multifarious regulatory practice that permeated literary criticism and became synonymous with ‘satire.’” (1999: 277) Terry Eagleton, though he sees criticism as inherently liberatory, “born of a struggle against the absolutist state”, still concedes that it is also “a reformative apparatus, scourging deviation and repressing the transgressive” (1987: 9, 12). The relative absence (compared to other countries at that time) of stateorganized censorship had been an important factor in the rapid and thorough development of the literary market in England from 1695 on. When Parliament failed to renew the Licensing Act in that year, the system of pre-publication control over literary production ceased to exist. Though there were still possibilities for the government to prosecute publications it deemed libellous, seditious, or irreligious, by taking the author, printer, or bookseller to court, the chronology had shifted decisively: publication now preceded the (critical) act of censorship. An early case of criticism being rooted in the issue of censorship was the Collier-controversy at the turn of the 18th century, as Kinservik has shown. He explains the prominence and the temporary power that Collier, a nonjuring clergyman, gained through the publication of his anti-theatrical book A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage in 1698 as “partly the result of the ineffectiveness of the state censor.” (Kinservik 1999: 261–262) In the late 17th century, in the absence of clear regulations, censorship of the stage relied heavily on the person of the censor, Thomas Killigrew, and since much of his authority had been undermined (cf. Cannan 2006: 9), Collier could fill that void with his objections against contemporary theatrical practice. Though Collier’s attack is based on moral outrage, it is presented in a form that closely resembles

arise by what authority the authorities are selected”, Johnson 1747: 31. His solution is a rather weak one, claiming that many of the writers had already been selected by Alexander Pope. While deferring authority even further, it dodges the problem that selection is always already a critical decision. 33 Frances Burney had called the reviewers “Censors for the Public”, Burney 1778: vii. 34 “[C]ensors operated as critics, and critics legitimated particular kinds of censorship, demanding that authors submit to critical pressure.” Burt 1993: 30.

“This process of chymical criticism”: The Critic as Gate-Keeper


the critical treatises that were just starting to get published.35 Together with that form, Collier had taken the idea of criticism as a form of benevolent and moralistic censorship, and the wish for a state-regulated form of such censorial criticism, from Thomas Rymer, who had developed it in his own treatises on the theatre some years earlier (cf. Cannan 2006: 56). Though there is an English tradition of writing about freedom of the press that goes back at least to Milton, and most writers regarded the relative freedom of the English literary market as a national accomplishment, censorship at that time was seen in much less negative terms than it usually is today. While freedom of speech was valued, it was not perceived as an absolute right. It was not understood as the right to say whatever one wanted, but rather as the right to say whatever was true and good. Where most 18th-century writers would agree in regarding the institution of state-censorship as pernicious because it was expected to be based on personal prejudices or political faction (that is, factors unrelated to the intrinsic artistic value of the text under consideration), they would also agree on the necessity of a critical act of self-censorship that preceded publication. Therefore, authors had no problems wishing some kinds of writing suppressed, usually for moral reasons. Vicesimus Knox writes that “[t]he liberty of the press is pregnant with advantages; but the licentiousness of it teems with evils which almost counterbalance them” (1778 (1): 24), blaming these ‘evils’ on the ineffectuality of the a posteriori system of laws against libels.36 William Blackstone, in his monumental Commentaries on the Laws of England, first published between 1765 and 1769, embeds this discussion in the legal context of his time. His analysis shows that the opposition against censorship as well as against completely unrestrained freedom of the press is inextricably connected to a differentiation between censorship and criticism, a differentiation that is based on chronology. Blackstone starts out by claiming that in the prosecution of

35 One can see the difference by comparing Collier’s attack to that made by William Law’s 1726 The Absolute Unlawfulness of the Stage-Entertainment Fully Demonstrated. Already the title of Law’s book indicates that he does not discriminate in a critical way between morally good or bad plays, but completely condemns them from a purely theological point of view: “Let it therefore be observ’d, that the Stage is not here condemn’d, as some other Diversions, because they are dangerous, and likely to be Occasions of Sin; but that it is condemn’d, as Drunkenness and Lewdness, as Lying and Prophaneness are to be condemnd not as Things that may only be the Occasions of Sin, but as such are in their own Nature grossly sinful. You go to hear a Play:I tell you that you go to hear Ribaldry and Prophaneness; that you entertain your Mind with extravagent Thoughts, wild Rants, blasphemous Speeches, wanton Armours, prophane Jests, and impure Passions.” Law 1726: 3–4. Cf. also Rudolph 1980: 38ff. 36 “It is true, that, in this free country, we have laws for the punishment of defamation; but nothing is more easy than to evade them.” Knox 1778 (1): 25.


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authors for libel or obscenity, “the liberty of the press, properly understood, is by no means infringed or violated.” He then continues to define what he understands by liberty of the press, using the moment of publication as decisive marker: “The liberty of the press is indeed essential to the nature of a free state: but this consists in laying no previous restraints upon publications, and not in freedom from censure for criminal matter when published.” To restrain before publication would constitute illegitimate censorship, whereas a critical evaluation (with possible legally binding consequences) is a fully legitimate act that does not restrain anybody’s freedom. “Every freeman has an undoubted right to lay what sentiments he pleases before the public: to forbid this, is to destroy the freedom of the press: but if he publishes what is improper, mischievous, or illegal, he must take the consequence of his own temerity.” Blackstone’s further depiction of prepublication censorship as an instance of tyranny closely parallels the rhetoric used against the false critic, who assumes dictatorial powers he has no right to claim: “To subject the press to the restrictive power of a licenser, […] is to subject all freedom of sentiment to the prejudices of one man, and make him the arbitrary and infallible judge of all controverted points in learning, religion, and government.” Against this exertion of arbitrary power that is not derived from a process of criticism, Blackstone holds the “fair and impartial trial” that is so often evoked as an ideal in defensive imaginings of criticism: “But to punish (as the law does at present) any dangerous or offensive writings, which, when published, shall on a fair and impartial trial be adjudged of a pernicious tendency, is necessary for the preservation of peace and good order, of government and religion, the only solid foundations of civil liberty.” (1765–1769 (4): 151–152) Samuel Johnson likewise, in his discussion of Milton’s Areopagitica, pointed towards the problems that freedom of the press could bring, though he is clearly dissatisfied with Blackstone’s solution of post-publication trials, because, child of the dawning age a massmedia that he was, he distinguished between the punishment for the author (who could be put to prison and thereby silenced), and the publicity for the text that, once published, could not be suppressed effectively: The danger of such unbounded liberty, and the danger of bounding it, have produced a problem in the science of Government, which human understanding seems hitherto unable to solve. If nothing may be published but what civil authority shall have previously approved, power must always be the standard of truth; if every dreamer of innovations may propagate his projects, there can be no settlement; if every murmurer at government may diffuse discontent, there can be no peace; and if every sceptick in theology may teach his follies, there can be no religion. The remedy against these evils is to punish the authors; for it is yet allowed that every society may punish, though not prevent, the publication of opinions, which that society shall think pernicious: but this punishment, though it may crush the author, promotes the book; and it seems not more reasonable to leave the right of

“This process of chymical criticism”: The Critic as Gate-Keeper


printing unrestrained, because writers may be afterwards censured, than it would be to sleep with doors unbolted, because by our laws we can hang a thief. (Johnson 1779–1781 (2): 45–46)

Johnson’s ideas about freedom of the press and censorship are interesting in many ways and show how closely related the issues of censorship and of criticism are. Like Knox, Johnson is convinced that the publication of some texts is bad, and he doesn’t understand controversy as justified for its own sake, since it can be an obstacle to the truth (political or religious) that Johnson firmly believes in. In the absence of pre-publication censorship, the only remedy is the punishment of the author, by which is meant most obviously a charge of libellous sedition, but that is also achieved through negative criticism. In accordance with his view on criticism, Johnson sees its ‘punitive’ function – analogous to the a posteriori persecution of libellous authors – as ultimately useless, and therefore the strongest act of criticism is one of ignoring, of silence: the gate-keeper critic becomes a censor, not of books about to be published, but of these books’ existence in the minds of the audience, who never even hear about them.37 Of course, there was one player on the literary market that still retained a large influence on the question which books would be published and which not: the booksellers. Indeed, most of the decisions whether a book was going to be published or not were being made by booksellers. Vicesimus Knox, who was very alert to the mutual influence of literature and the market of his own time, talks about “those decisive critics, the booksellers”, thus delegating, though ironically, the gate-keeping function of criticism to the booksellers. The problem with this was that their standards of judgment were suspected to be purely pecuniary, because they “judge of the merit of a book by the criterion of its sale” (1778 (1): 113). There was a widespread conviction throughout the 18th century (and one that is still shared by most commentators today) that the regulatory function of the market necessarily works contrary to qualitative evaluation. This conviction finds expression for example in the connection that so many contemporary commentators drew between professional writing (i.e.: according to the rules of the market) and a lowering or even abandonment of qualitative standards.38 The laws of

37 For a more detailed discussion of Johnson’s opinion on a free press cf. Bloom 1957a: 233–248. 38 The 18th century was the first period to see professional writing develop into a general trade that could support writers financially. It was this economic possibility of professional authorship that helped create the modern notion of the “author.” On this aspect, cf. Feather 1988: 102; Collins 1927: 230–231; McKinsey 1973: 59; Woodmansee 1984: 426. The main difference between modern evaluations of the author and those of the 18th century was that these new possibilities were perceived rather as a loss, since writing for financial gain was still largely frowned upon. For


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capitalism change the goals of literature in an important respect, since they induce a change from absolute considerations (Knox’s “eternal laws of truth and propriety”39) to relative considerations: what will those people like who are potentially going to buy the text? The 18th century is indeed the first period when authors routinely had to measure their performance by its commercial success and by its ability to work within the mechanism of a market that was completely detached from them and personified in the bookseller.40 And as long as they could sell, the booksellers, “those pimps of literature” (Anonym 1763b: 449), would certainly publish, making their censuring function at least as arbitrary, and ultimately as ineffectual as had been Killigrew’s at the turn of the century. Though in theory they executed the gate-keeping function of the censor, in practice (as perceived by their contemporaries) booksellers turned that function on its head and instead flooded the market with an indiscriminate stream of texts. “The sagacious Bookseller feels the Pulse of the Times,” writes James Ralph in his assessment of the literary market in 1758, “not to cure but to flatter the Disease: As long as the Patient continues to swallow, he continues to administer: and on the first Symptom of a Nausea, he changes the Dose.” (21) Only rarely was the censuring function of the booksellers perceived as a reductive development, in which booksellers would actually restrict publication. Initiating from a lack of understanding that someone could refuse to publish his writings,41 William Kenrick paints a picture of a near-future state of the book market in which the booksellers themselves have completely taken over the function of censorship: Yet to so great a height is this spirit of caballing carried; that, if a speedy check be not put to it, the public must soon be content with such entertainment as is catered for them by a junto of opulent printers and booksellers. […] Such is the present state of literature! in which, it is

contemporary positions on professional authorship, cf. Knox 1778 (2): 109; Pinkerton 1785: 16; and Colman 14.2.1754: no page. Oliver Goldsmith goes so far as to compare an author who writes for financial gain with a robber: “The author who draws his quill merely to take a purse, no more deserves success than he who presents a pistol.” Goldsmith 1774: 93. 39 “[I]t is very clear, that the end of the greater part of writings and writers is the copy-money. What will sell, is often the first object; not what is conformable to the eternal laws of truth and propriety, nor what will serve the essential interests of society.” Knox 1778 (1): 114. This observation is repeated in the second volume, cf. Knox 1778 (2): 109–110. 40 Samuel Derrick describes the resulting necessity for authors to re-think their own self-conception in a system that can imagine gain only in economic terms, cf. Derrick 1755: 208–209. Cf. also Gildon 1721: 350 and Rivers 1798 (1): 302. 41 “The reader will hardly believe it possible, yet so it is, that I applied myself, with regard to the present performance, to near half a dozen different publishers, before I could find one who would venture to sell a pamphlet, reflecting, as they said, on the respectable and tremendous compilers and printers of the Reviews, Magazines, and Evening Chronicles.” Kenrick 1766: 68.

“This process of chymical criticism”: The Critic as Gate-Keeper


in vain that the liberty of the press is secured by law, when the publication of what is printed (and even the printing what is written, unless a man hath a press of his own) may be prevented by the combinations of printers and booksellers. (1766: 68)

But since hardly anyone else seemed to have expected the booksellers to act as the market’s critical conscience, it was left to criticism to execute censorship’s function of gate-keeping, and the means of execution was criticism’s position in the chronology of literary production and reception, as well as its institutionalization through periodical publication. It is in this sense that William Whitehead in an essay for The World calls on its editor to use his position “as a Censor” to hinder the reading of bad novels, and not just to criticise them: “[Y]ou should interpose your authority, and forbid your readers (whom I will suppose to be all persons who can read) even to attempt to open any novel or romance, unlicensed by you; unless it should happen to be stamped Richardson or Fielding, &c.” (10.5.1753: 115) In the Monthly Review of 1795, Charles Burney mockingly recommends Robert Alves’ highly compressed literary history by claiming that “the work will point out to young students what books to read, and will tell ladies what those books contain, without reading them.” (Burney 1795: 372) This is criticism as a substitute for reading, but of course, it wasn’t Alves’ or others’ attempts at literary history that served this function most importantly in the period, but the very Reviews that Burney was writing for. With production far outrunning any individual’s reading capacity, the shift in criticism’s position in the chronology of reading came to its logical conclusion. In the second half of the century, it was, from the perspective of the recipient of criticism, firmly established before his own reading of the original text under review, and thus increasingly served instead of his reading of it. Samuel Johnson, as recounted by Boswell, was one of the earliest writers to repeatedly acknowledge the fact that even bad publicity is better than no publicity at all. While this might have been partially a strategy of self-defence for an author that had to cope with a singular mass of commentators and attackers, it also shows his awareness of a shift in the function of (institutionalized) criticism: “He said he expected to be attacked on account of his Lives of the Poets. ‘However (said he,) I would rather be attacked than unnoticed. For the worst thing you can do to an authour is to be silent as to his works.” (Boswell 1791 (2): 283)42 As has been seen, this position was shared by his enemy William Kenrick. Referring to himself, Kenrick states: “He hath indeed known books sometimes sell the better for being publicly censured” (1765b: xiv). And in Kenrick’s own review journal,

42 This is echoed in Tobias Smollett’s reaction to William Kenrick’s attack on The Critical Review, cf. Smollett 1759b: 167.


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the London Review, there is a further discussion of this question through a letter that was allegedly sent to the Review in 1775. The author of the letter questions the reviewers’ arguments for complete coverage: You intimate that the worst authors would rather be formally damned to fame, than saved by being consigned to oblivion. I am by no means satisfied that this is a general case; and am not a little apprehensive, from the severity of your damnatory stile, that, if you speak of every bad writer as he deserves, you will raise such a nest of hornets about your ears that you may repent of your resolution. You have not, at present, the best character for goodnature; what then will be said of you, if you put this design into execution? And, indeed, to what purpose should you expressly stigmatize the demerit of such works as you have hitherto thought barely worth mentioning? Is not your neglect of them a sufficient condemnation? (Sowden 1776: 41)

He continues by asking for more abstracts and extracts on fewer works. The editor answers with a short note, declaring: “We flatter ourselves, indeed, that, by due attention to the labours of the press and the literary merit of its productions, we may, on our present plan, take some notice of them all, without contracting our extracts from the most deserving.” (416) But this was an overly ambitious task, faced with the ever increasing number of books published every month, and it easily turned into an arduous one for the critic. When Percival Stockdale in his Memoirs (1809) relates how he came to be engaged as editor for the literary department of The Critical Review in 1770, he not only stresses that he merely accepted the offer out of financial necessity, but also only under certain conditions, the first of them being that he could choose for himself which texts he wanted to review, and, even more importantly, which not (cf. Stockdale 1809 (2): 57–58). Indeed, if one looks into the Reviews, one can frequently hear the reviewers sigh about their lot of being forced to read, or, in the words of David Hume, being “obliged to peruse a small library every month”.43 Even though it was part of the job-description, reviewers regarded “[t]he reading of such trash” as “mispending [sic] that time which should be better employed.” (Anonym 1758d: 31)44 Here are three examples from The Critical Review and one from the Monthly that illustrate the tone of exasperation:

43 Hume sees the consequence of this in the fact that “as it is impossible for him to bestow equal attention on every piece which he criticizes, he may readily be surprised into mistakes, and give to a book such a character as, on a more careful perusal, he would willingly retract.” Hume 1759: 323. 44 Still, the same reviewer is hurt in his professional honour by the suspicion that he or his colleagues might not read the novels under review through.

“This process of chymical criticism”: The Critic as Gate-Keeper


The whole of the story might have been comprised in two volumes. Were novelists a little more merciful to their readers, perhaps we Reviewers, who are obliged to read all they write, would be more patient.––But when we find the most ordinary and trivial occurrences in life drawn out to whole chapters, and the eternal theme of love and sentiment spun out to thirteen hundred pages, can it be wondered at if we sometimes yawn, and exclaim in the words of Hotspur, ‘Oh! it is as tedious as a tired horse or a scolding wife?’ (Anonym 1793: 54) The circulating librarians, therefore, whose very beings depend on amusements of this kind, set their authors to work regularly every season, and, without the least grain of compassion for us poor Reviewers, who are obliged to read their performances, pester the public with their periodical nonsense. (Anonym 1763b: 449) For our part, we can seldom get through a score pages of performances of this sort, without being heartily tired, and we generally drudge through the remainder with aching heads. Habit inures us to this in some degree, and our patience lasts tolerably well through the first volume; a second we are apt to look on with an evil eye; but a third and a fourth are almost enough to make us forswear our employment. (Anonym 1776: 241) The public are, really, more obliged to us Reviewers than they imagine. We are necessitated to read every thing that comes out, and must, consequently, submit to the vile drudgery of going through those loads of trash, which are thrown in upon us under the denomination of Lives, Adventures, Memoirs, Histories, &c. (Anonym 1754a: 470)

Though all sorts of texts could produce the reviewers’ unease, even works of criticism (cf. Anonym 1766e: 301), novels were the genre that most commonly provoked such gestures of repulsion, as Clara Reeve notes in her survey of the most recent development of novel-writing: “[T]hey seem to have over-run the press, till they became a drug in the terms of trade.–––The Reviewers complain bitterly of the fatigue of reading them” (1785 (2): 38).45 Superfluous books, and especially novels, were increasingly seen by critics as an imposition. Samuel Johnson refused to review novels when he wrote for the Literary Magazine,46 while William Enfield at least tried to limit the amount of novels he was assigned, as can be gathered from a letter that he wrote to Ralph Griffiths in October

45 When reviewing Reeve’s book, Samuel Badcock confirmed her claim by writing that “the task that we are compelled to undertake reminds us of Druso’s debtors, who were driven to the sad alternative, of hearing him read his wretched histories, or paying him what they owed him.” Badcock 1785: 418. Cf. also Ruffhead 1761a; Anonym 1755b: 399; or this assessment of Frances Burney’s Evelina: “[W]e should set a higher value upon this performance had the writer made it shorter”, Anonym 1778c: 202–203. 46 A decision that Hanley sees rooted in his conviction that contemporary novelists had failed to live up to the genre’s standards and possibilities as Johnson himself had delineated them in Rambler no. 4, cf. Hanley 2001: 23.


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1795.47 A similar view, albeit from the outside perspective of the writer, is expressed in Christopher Anstey’s poem The Priest Dissected, where a character thinks it strange that learned men should choose To work so much in critical reviews; Unwholesome trade! what poison can be worse Than vile effluvia of unmeaning verse? But when in flat insipid strains you find An acid quality with dulness join’d, They’re worse than cyder-lees with lead refind; Which many a blundering and malicious elf, Prepares for others, but must drink himself: (1774: 33-34)

The imposition of having to read bad books turns into a quite physical torture for the critic, strengthening the ever-present suspicion that he might shun this torture by criticising without actually reading.48 Faced with the facts, or at least the growing impression, of an overproduction of books, readers and critics had to ask themselves how to deal with that overabundance, especially since the expectations on all those endless books were so low. More books hardly meant more good books.49 And not only were these products of overproduction not praiseworthy, they were also highly ephemeral, sometimes measuring their life-span in days (cf. Johnson 1751b: no page). Far from bringing their authors eternal fame, more and

47 “[F]rom the great number of novels sent me in the two last parcels, I conclude that a hint I dropt some time ago has escaped your attention. I have no objection to be lounging now and then an hour in Lane’s shop: but to be shut up for several days together in his warehouse is to an old man an irksome confinement.” Qtd. in Roper 1978: 38. 48 The accusation of judging without reading is as old as criticism itself. In 1710, Addison writes in the Tatler that one can recognize a false critic by “a contempt for every thing that comes out, whether he has read it or not.” Addison 1710: no page. And Henry Fielding ironically writes in the Covent-Garden Journal of 1752, that for a critic, he requires not only the “Capacity of Reading, but the actual Exercise of that Capacity; I do here strictly forbid any Persons whatever to pass a THEY Y HAVE READ RE AD AT LE L EAST AST TE T EN N PAGES IN IT , under the Penalty of definitive Sentence on a Book BEFORE THE being for ever rendered incapable of Admission to the Order of Critics.” Fielding 1752b: no page. Cf. also Ritson 1782: 3, who charges Thomas Warton with not having read his sources. But the suspicion that critics judged without reading, or, in the words of Charles Churchill, that they “damn those authors whom they never read” (Churchill 1764: 4) grew with the rise of the professional reviewer, as one of them admits ironically, when he writes: “We have been charged with reviewing books which we never read. We are certainly ashamed to say that we have read the volumes before us.” Anonym 1771a: 154. Cf. also Ritson 1788: iv–v. 49 As Nathaniel Weekes put it: “Tho’ Presses groan, and Stalls abound with Lays,/ There’s scarce a Poem we can truly praise”, Weekes 1754: 3.

“This process of chymical criticism”: The Critic as Gate-Keeper


more readers recognized, certain genres were turning into mere consumer products, to be perused and thrown away.50 Again, it was especially the genre of the novel that was perceived as fast-living and fast-dying.51 The author of the Battle of the Reviews states that Ninety-nine out of a Hundred of the Works of our British Novel-writers and others, will not outlive themselves; and their Fate, unless I am a false Prophet, will be to moulder on a neglected Shelf among Spider-webs and devouring Moths; or if they fall into some avaricious Hands will be hawked about at so much per Pound among Cheesemongers and Grocers. (Anonym 1760b: 38)52

But how should the critic react to such a situation? Or rather, should he probably not react at all? Was criticism the right measure to counter overproduction? In 1731, John Constable writes in his Reflections upon Accuracy of Style that “[t]he humour of printing has now gone so far, that criticizing seems only, by scratching, to make it itch the more. I wish a more efficacious remedy cou’d be found to the disease.” (36) Especially around the middle of the century, with the establishment of the Reviews and the continuing expansion of the book market, criticism had to re-think the dynamics of original text and critical comment. So far, the publication of a text inevitably produced critical reactions almost like a reflex, at least that was the impression shared by many, among them Thomas Kirby, who complains in 1758 that “if a young fellow, who is troubled with an itching in his brain, scratches his head till he forces out two or three penny-worth of wit, or what he would have thought to be such, his pamphlet no sooner appears that it suffers a critical persecution.” (2) Kirby’s point is that such authors as he here describes “are beneath criticism, and […] a critic must have very little knowledge of mankind who thinks to deter them from writing by any thing he can say or do” (3–4), showing that his argument is still based on the old chronology of production-reading-criticism, where negative criticism can only be said to be successful if it changes – or even hinders – the production of the next text. But as soon as the

50 Not to speak of those texts that hadn’t even passed the minimal gate of publication. The editors of the Monthly Review made it clear that “[t]he Reviewers have no leisure for the inspection of manuscripts: nor would it be consistent with the plan of their publication.” Anonym 1785c: 480. 51 For Richard Hurd, novels “vanish as fast as they are produced, and are produced as soon as they are conceived”, Hurd 1766: 22. Andrew Becket, in his review of Charlotte Smith’s Emmeline, pleads against the misconception of the novel as being quickly producible, claiming that they, too “must be the result of attention, of a long and laborious study.” Becket 1788: 241. 52 The image of the recycling of the paper of bad books for non-literary purposes is far from new, but it gets new actuality through the real growth of the publishing industry.


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reading of the critique happens before the reading of the original text, one of the main results of a critical view is the answer to the question whether the text is worth reading or not.53 With the institutionalization of criticism there is a growing awareness that some texts might be considered as ranging below all criticism, unworthy of even the attempt of judgment. Sometimes, the impression that many texts should not even receive critical commentary was directly expressed. The reviewers for The Critical Review called Thomas Amory’s novel John Buncle an “irreviewable performance” (Anonym 1766c: 470), and judged another as “too insignificant to draw on it the vengeance of criticism for its faults, and too trifling to demand praise when no faults can be discovered.” (Anonym 1789a: 237) The reviewer of The History of Miss Sally Sable expresses the ambivalence between the perception that reading ephemeral novels is misspending his time and the professional honour that makes the task of reading inevitable: As Mess. Noble have frequently taken the liberty to call in question both our abilities and integrity in the task which we have undertaken, and most impudently asserted that we give our judgments of things which we have never read, we have here taken the pains to analyse this flimsy and miserable performance, a trouble which they must not expect we shall take for the future. (Anonym 1756d: 31)

Obviously, the reason why the reviewer will not go to the trouble of reading such a work again is not because he intends to review them unread, but because he will chose not to review them at all. The Reviews, who from their beginning could not quite fulfil their claim of exhaustive coverage,54 nevertheless for a long time held on to this coverage as a main feature. But a look at the length of some ‘reviews’ from their “Monthly Catalogue” section clearly shows the differentiation of attention that is sometimes even directly defended by the editors, as in the preface to the thirty-fourth volume of the Critical Review: “It is our duty then to treat each performance with no more than that proportion of regard to which it is justly entitled” (Anonym 1772: no page). This is the complete review of a publication entitled A panegyrical Criticism, on an Ode, by Mr. Oxoniensis, the full title of which, running to four lines, covers the same space as the review proper: “There is humour in this piece of criticism; but the author might have employed his time to a better purpose; for if the ode is, in reality, not worth a farthing, few people

53 In the sense of Alexander Thomas’ comment from his Essay on Novels (1793): “I know that far the greater number of the productions which go under that name, and which load the shelves of our circulating libraries, are unworthy the perusal of any person of sense”, Thomson 1793: vii. 54 Cf. Basker 1988: 60, 90 who also notes that the Monthly from the beginning generally did not review second or third editions.

“This process of chymical criticism”: The Critic as Gate-Keeper


will think it worth their while to give a shilling for the comment.” (Anonym 1766b: 149) It is worth noting, though, that the authors of both the poem and the criticism thought otherwise, since the initial publications were followed by The critic proved no critic. Or a new year’s gift to the anonymous Author of the panegyrical Criticism on an Ode that was published in the Chelmsford Chronicle, An Apologetic Defence of the Panegyrical Criticism and another pamphlet with the same title, but this time written by “Oxoniensis” in an attempt to ridicule the critic by impersonating him. At that stage, The Critical Review, having noted all these pamphlets side by side, could only sigh: “But, as the public in general will never enter into the spirit of this trivial contest, it is better, Gentlemen, to put an end to your repartees, or confine them to the Chelmsford Chronicle.” (Anonym 1766d: 236) What can be detected in this quote is the awareness of a new hierarchy of criticism that relates the significance of the text under review to the significance of the medium in which the criticism is voiced. What might be amusing to the readers of a provincial paper can easily seem too trivial for the reader of the Reviews to consider. But while the reviewer of the Oxoniensis debate clearly regarded his own journal as one of the higher-ranking institutes of criticism, and therefore above such trivial disputes, from an outside perspective such a hierarchy was constructed with the Reviews rather at the lower end of the spectrum. In her Progress of Romance, Clara Reeve connects the concept of a hierarchy of institutions of criticism to the aspect of chronology and therefore also to the concept of the test of time. As the title of the work announces, the discussion of novels progresses historically, until it reaches the year 1770, only 15 years before the composition of the work. Here Euphrasia declares that she will not get any closer to the present time with her investigation: It would be an invidious task to speak of the writers of the present day; let us leave them to the Reviewers, it is their province.55–––If they do not all the justice the Authors may think they deserve, let them appeal to the public, and to time, and trust to their impartiality, for their sentence will be just, and irreversible.

To the question “You will not then suffer your late publications to be mentioned, though they belong to your proper subject?” she answers by referring again to the test of time: “No certainly.–––If they deserve to be remembered, I have no doubt they will survive me: and if not, let them be forgotten.” (Reeve 1785 (2): 52–53) Reeve obviously makes a clear distinction between criticism in the form of a coherent and elaborate treatise and review criticism, a distinction that allots

55 After quoting these lines in his review, Samuel Badcock exclaims: “It is indeed our province; and it is the worst part of it!” Badcock 1785: 418.


Authority and the Marketplace

different functions to both, with the reviewer’s function being evidently that of gate-keeper. That this functional differentiation does not imply a devaluation of review criticism is clear from an earlier comment, where one of the participants declares that “we will (én dernier resort) consult those infallible judges the Reviewers, as good Catholics do the Pope, and let them decide, where we desire to be excused.” (5)56 Overproduction has simply made a new form of criticism necessary, the function of which is to reduce as gate-keeper the overwhelming amount of new books to be considered, and the Reviews fulfil that function in an exemplary way, though they might be complaining about the effort. One can see this as a completely new form of legitimization of criticism, justifying its authority by sheer necessity. Readers invest the professional review critic with authority because his gate-keeping function is needed in an overwhelmingly complex book-market. By 1788, when Thomas Christie announced the publication of the Analytical Review, it had become obvious that comprehensiveness in a Review was impossible, and probably not even desirable: “The press groans with trifling and temporary publications, while the number of truly Standard works, which add to the stock of human knowledge, and will live beyond a day, is very small indeed. Of these only, a large account ought to be given” (1788a: ii). But already Tobias Smollett had proclaimed in 1755 as one of the goals of his Review to sort out the confusion of good and bad books amidst what he called “the Chaos of Publication” (no page). Given the changing order of production and reception of texts, there is a natural line of argument that leads from the recognition of overproduction to its use as a major source of legitimacy for the necessity of criticism. As production grew, critics became increasingly aware that it was their task not only to comment, weigh, and explain – in other words: to add to the original texts – but also to reduce. Thus, the reviewer for the Monthly wonders in 1773 that so many novels are still being produced, “even under the scythe of criticism!” (Anonym 1773: 417) It is up to criticism to distinguish, and most importantly to select. From being merely appreciative, criticism has to become, in Joseph Warton’s term, “chymical criticism”:

56 Isaac Disraeli ten years later opposed Reeve’s view of the Reviews as chronologically intermediate and relatively ephemeral: “I would hope, in spite of the daily cries we hear from disappointed writers, that those journalists, whose style and sentiments render them respectable in the eyes of every man of letters, maintain with rigid integrity the fountains of criticism pure and incorrupt. They cannot be insensible that their volumes are not merely read, and then forgotten, but that they will remain as surviving witnesses, for or against them, from century to century.” Disraeli 1794 (1): 22–23.

“This process of chymical criticism”: The Critic as Gate-Keeper


The number of original writers, of writers who discover any traces of native thought, or veins of new expression, is found to be extremely small, in every branch of literature. […] The quintessence of the largest libraries might be reduced to the compass of a few volumes, if all useless repetitions, and acknowledged truths, were to be omitted in this process of chymical criticism. (Warton 1753b: 373)

Especially the Reviews in their self-representations repeatedly used the argument from overproduction and included selection and reduction among the functions of criticism. Edward Watkinson, in a programmatic essay that spanned several issues of the Critical Review, depicts the function of criticism as “nothing else but the diminishing the number of useless volumes; first, written by conceit, and afterwards purchased by ignorance.” (1761: 2)57 Nor was the Critical the only Review to argue along these lines. In the editorial of the first issue of The Literary Magazine it becomes abundantly clear that selection will be one of the more important services offered by the journal: It is not to be expected, that we can insert extensive extracts or critical examinations of all the writings which this age of writers may offer to our notice. A few only will deserve the distinction of criticism, and a few only will obtain it. We shall try to select the best and most important pieces, and are not without hope that we may sometimes influence the public voice, and hasten the popularity of a valuable work. (Anonym 1756a: 1)58

The growth of the literary market necessitated a new form of criticism, one that was better equipped to cope with an amount of texts that no single critic could handle. Looking back at the middle of the century, the institutionalization and further professionalization of criticism through the establishment of the Reviews seems like an almost necessary development, a fact that was already noticed by contemporary commentators like Isaac Disraeli.59

57 Two years earlier, he had voiced this claim almost verbatim in a review of Goldsmith’s Enquiry, cf. Watkinson 1759: 370. 58 Even when, in his A Scrutiny, he was most strongly forced to take an oppositional position towards the Reviews, William Kenrick had to concede not only that overproduction will continue to keep readers interested in what the Reviews had to offer, but that this service might even prove to be “of considerable Use.” Kenrick 1759c: 1. 59 “In the last century, it was a consolation, at least, for the unsuccessful writer, that he fell insensibly into oblivion. If he committed the private folly of printing what no one would purchase, he had only to settle the matter with his publisher: he was not arraigned at the public tribunal, as if he had committed a crime of magnitude. But, in those times, the nation was little addicted to the cultivation of letters: writers were then few, and readers were not many. When, at length, a taste for literature spread itself through the body of the people, Vanity induced the inexperienced and the ignorant to aspire to literary honours. To oppose these inroads into the haunts of the Muses,


Authority and the Marketplace

Different conditions of literary production demand different kinds of criticism. It is the proliferation of publishing that enables and supports institutionalized forms of professional criticism as the Reviews undertook them. The increase of production beyond the reading capacity of the individual reader generates the need for a type of criticism that is multi-authored and is itself organized like a business venture, and it accelerates the shift in criticism’s function from evaluation to selection. With too much to read, criticism more and more derives its legitimacy not as a supplement to reading, but as its substitution. Only as a reading substitute could the Reviews still uphold the claim of inclusiveness, in a sense still clinging to the Renaissance ideal of uomo universale. They promised to read everything and to ultimately empower the reader of the Review how to make his own selection. For almost half a century, they dominated British criticism through this method with its merging of an old ideal and a new reality.60

Periodical Criticism brandished it’s formidable weapon; and it was by the fall of others that our greatest geniuses have been taught to rise. Multifarious writings produced multifarious strictures; and if the rays of criticism were not always of the strongest kind, yet so many continually issuing, formed a focus, which has enlightened those whose occupations had otherwise never permitted them to judge of literary compositions.” Disraeli 1794 (1): 2. 60 The next generation of critical journals would free itself even further from the demand for inclusiveness, completing the shift from the older systems of criticism to the newer one determined by market mechanisms. As Roper indicates, at the end of the century, when the number of new titles had increased fourfold since their original establishment, it is the clinging to the idea of inclusiveness that leads to the demise of the old review journals in the face of the newer ones with their policy of a much stricter and smaller selection, cf. Roper 1978: 36.

10 Institutionalizing Authority: Academies and Reviews Almost exactly at mid-century, the institution of literary criticism in England was changed forever through an innovation in publishing: the establishment of the first review journals, The Monthly Review in 1749 and The Critical Review in 1756. For a long time, these publications did not receive the scholarly attention they deserve,1 since scholars’ interest in literary criticism lay primarily in the contents of critical texts, not their contexts. And since the format of the Reviews did not immediately suggest the broad scope of essays that they would acquire at the turn of the next century with journals like the Edinburgh and Blackwood’s, instead limiting most of their critical pronouncements to specific judgments on single texts (many of them highly ephemeral), the Reviews, especially when read singly, might easily seem negligible. What they did, though, and what the following chapter wants to concentrate on, was to change the way that criticism was perceived by writers, critics, and the audience.

10.1 Courts of Criticism I: The Academy One way to understand the Reviews’ function and significance for the development of literary criticism and critical authority is to analyse their establishment in the context of earlier debates about the necessity of a British Academy modelled on the example of the Académie Française. The British Academy never came into existence, but the review journals did. James Basker argues in his account of the foundation of the Critical Review that it was conceived – and then actually served that function – as an alternative to the academy of belles lettres that England never had (cf. Basker 1988: 19), though authors dreamed about it ever since the Restoration. Throughout the later 17th and the whole 18th century, English critics were tantalized by this idea. The repeated calls for such an academy can be seen as the desire and attempt to give critical authority institutional status, with an organized, state-based structure, clear standards, and legislative as well as executive power. Such an academy, especially in the form that Charles Gildon proposed it, would conclusively solve the problem of critical authority by short-circuiting it to political power, basing it on an act of parliament, or a decree of the king.

1 Cf. Lonsdale 1963: 346; Roper 1978: 27ff.; and Donoghue 1996: 19.


Institutionalizing Authority: Academies and Reviews

In 1794, Isaac Disraeli looked back on opportunities lost and makes clear that for him such an academy would have secured “the perfection of criticism”: The Perfection of Criticism is owing to the establishment of ACADEMIES , particularly those of the French and the Belles Lettres. In their labours may be found those numerous and judicious remarks, which had escaped the penetration of the first scholars in Europe. [I]t is much to the dishonour of the national character, no Academy, dedicated to the BELLE S 2 LE TTRES LET TRES , has ever been established. (1794 (1): 139)

The debate had started in the context of the foundation of the Royal Society in 1660. Already three years after its founding, the society was attacked for its lack of productivity and came under the suspicion that “experimental science would challenge the belief structures of Restoration society” (Morgan 2004). In order to give the public an account of its aims and purposes, the members of the society commissioned Thomas Sprat, later Bishop of Rochester, to write its ‘history,’ published 1667. Sprat also included in his account a proposal for the establishment of an academy of the arts. The next important proposals can be found at the turn of the century, in a chapter from Daniel Defoe’s An Essay upon Projects (1697) and in Matthew Prior’s poem Carmen Sæculare for the Year 1700. But the question only turned into a real debate with the publication of Jonathan Swift’s A Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue in 1712, that was answered in the same year by John Oldmixon and Arthur Maynwaring in Reflections on Dr. Swift’s Letter to Harley and The British Academy. The final phase to be considered here, as the one that leads into the establishment of the Reviews, is marked by the proposal of Tobias Smollett, and the derogatory comments of Samuel Johnson. The two main questions that projectors of a British Academy had to answer concerned the range of responsibilities of such an Academy, and the foundation of its authority. What were to be its tasks, and how could it gain the executive power that was part of its appeal? Also, all of the proposals beginning from Sprat had to relate themselves to the Académie Française, whose task was seen to be confined chiefly to questions of language. Swift followed them in that restriction, the focus of his proposal is exclusively on language, suggesting to his noble addressee at the beginning that “nothing would be of greater Use towards the Improvement of Knowledge and Politeness, than some effectual Method for Correcting, Enlarging and Ascertaining our Language” (1712: 6). There were two 2 Some ten years earlier, John Pinkerton had shown a completely opposed view: “I cannot help adding a remark on the complete folly of instituting Academies of Painting, or any other art, or science; that is Schools of Imitation. Did ever any one good painter arise from an academy? Never”, Pinkerton 1785: 360.

Courts of Criticism I: The Academy


linguistic reasons that compelled Swift to call for state regulation: the imperfect status of the English language at the time of his writing, and the threat of further degeneration through lack of linguistic standards. His solution was to select – impartially – the most qualified men in the country who were first of all to purge English from everything that could be deemed a corruption or impolite, and who would then secure the continuance of this status quo for all future times: But what I have most at Heart is, that some Method should be thought on for ascertaining and fixing our Language for ever, after such Alterations are made in it as shall be thought requisite. For I am of Opinion, that is better a Language should not be wholly perfect, than that it should be perpetually changing (31).

Most other projectors wanted to extend the responsibilities from purely linguistic matters to further areas of criticism: arts, literature, sometimes morality, and especially the theatre. Sprat writes that he would not “have this new English Academy, confin’d only to the weighing Words, and Letters” (1667: 42). Of course, as soon as the responsibilities of an Academy go beyond mere regulation of language, it starts to combine the institutions of criticism and censorship. This can be seen in the wording of Sprat’s proposal “to settle a fixt, and Imperial Court of Eloquence; according to whose Censure, all Books, or Authors should stand or fall.” (43) The identification of the two functions is realized by combining in such an Academy, as Defoe has it, “none but Persons of the first Figure in Learning” (1697: 232), or, in the words of Swift, “such Persons, as are generally allowed to be best qualified for such a Work, without any regard to Quality, Party, or Profession” (1712: 29), and providing them with the executive power of a state-censor. Whereas censorship, because of the imperfect selection of an individual censor, was expected to be ruled by considerations unrelated to critical inquiries, such as political faction, the Academy, by being constituted of a number of men selected for their ‘merit,’ would base its decisions on a “true Standard of Criticism”, as Charles Gildon claims: That here the whole Art of Poetry be discuss’d, and a true Standard of Criticism in the several kinds of Poetry fixt, which must be drawn from the Design of the Art, the Nature and Reason of the Thing, the Genius of the People, that is, from Aristotle, Horace, and the Essay on Poetry (1719: 321).

Gildon’s proposal, published in 1719, but written most likely some years earlier (cf. Anderson 1955: 248), far outdid Swift and Sprat in the range of subjects he allowed his academy to have influence on, to such an extent that G. L. Anderson has called it “total” (247). Again, it was Gildon’s declared aim to outdo the French, creating an institution that was “more reasonable in its Means, more extensive in its Aim, and more reputable by Consequence in its Establishment, than that


Institutionalizing Authority: Academies and Reviews

propos’d to Cardinal Richelieu” (1719: 305). He also included a derogatory comment about the failure of the Royal Society, “which proceeds from the want of a Fund to support Industry, and maintain Emulation” (306). His own academy, by contrast, was to have a fund of no less than £ 10000 per annum, money that Gildon hastens to add should not come from additional taxes or the Queen’s pocket, though he fails to list any alternatives. The totality of his academy can be gathered from the list of its members: To establish an Academy of sixty Honorary Fellowships, consisting of Nobility, Commons, and Univesity-Men of the most Interest, Judgment and Learning. And forty Beneficiary, ten of which to be Dramatic Poets, and ten Historians; the rest Mathematicians, Lyric, Heroic and Satyric Poets, Philosophers, Physicians, Lawyers, Musicians, &c. and that these Members be all Natives of England (310).

This is not a mere committee deciding on the inclusion or exclusion of certain words into the English lexicon, this is a major institution for the improvement of every aspect of arts, sciences, and morality. Still, Gildon’s proposed academy is not quite as ‘total’ as Anderson characterizes it, when he writes that it “approaches that of the most absolute modern state”, because it “is to license and censor all literary works, including orations.” (1955: 249) In Gildon’s text, there is considerable ambiguity – intentionally or not – as to whether the proposed Orwellian regulations and restrictions for the publication of scientific or artistic works are to apply only to works by members of the academy, or are to be applied by those members to all other publications. Though, on the literal level, one has to accept the first reading, the ambitious tone of the essay points towards the second. Anderson commented on Gildon’s plan that it “would command more respect were it more realistic.” (250) For all those who pondered the usefulness and the feasibility of a British Academy, one central question concerned the provenance of its authority, and the answer was almost invariably identical with its proposed patron. Hardly anybody shared the optimism of Robert Baker, who suggested the establishment of an Academy in 1770, and who believed the critical mass of eminent scholars that such a learned society would constitute to be sufficient to give it a general authority, as opposed to the single critic: One Man alone, who opposes a whole Nation, by persisting in what is in itself ever so right, for the most part makes himself ridiculous. But such a respectable Body as this would have a great Weight. The Members would keep one another in Countenance; and the World, conscious of their having Reason on their Side, and being at the same Time awed by their Authority, would not fail to concur with them and to follow their Example. (xiii)

While describing the same mechanism of authority through numbers, John Pinkerton’s account in 1785 is much less idealized than Baker’s, when he insists that

Courts of Criticism I: The Academy


“under the name of The Academy for Improving the Language […] all the members, and indeed all the literati in the kingdom, should unite to assert their power over the mob.” (247–248) All those who doubted Baker’s enthusiasm, or were weary to fight with Pinkerton against the dullness of the ‘mob,’ saw the concept of a British Academy rather as a means to institutionalize criticism and to incorporate it within the framework of political power. This is expressed in the mixed membership most often proposed, consisting of a balance between highranking members of the aristocracy and those elected purely for ‘merit,’ the ones to secure power, and the others to secure that power’s rightful application. The highest guarantee of power would therefore be the patronage of the king, as sketched by Matthew Prior: Let Him unite His Subjects Hearts, To plant Societies for peaceful Arts; Increase our Learning and unite our Hearts […] That distant Realms may from our Authors know, The Thanks We to our Monarch owe; And Schools profess our Tongue through ev’ry Land, That has invok’d His Aid, or blest His Hand. (1701: 53-55)

Defoe makes the same unmistakeable connection between the nobility of an Academy’s patron and its authority: “The French, who justly value themselves upon erecting the most Celebrated Academy of Europe, owe the Lustre of it very much to the great Encouragement the Kings of France have given to it.” (1697: 228) And while he has to admit that so far the English “want indeed a Richelieu to commence such a Work” (229), he suggests his Academy to the king, just like Prior had done: “That a Soceiety be erected by the King himself, if his Majesty thought fit” (232).3 Swift neglects to explain explicitly how he expects to invest his academy with any executive power, besides noting that it should follow the model of the Académie Française, “to imitate where these have proceeded right,

3 One hundred years later, the appeal to royal authority is still being used, but the curious way in which the author of an article in the Gentleman’s Magazine proposes to make use of it might be seen as an indicator that direct royal patronage was hardly to be expected anymore: “We have a Monarch on the throne whose superior enunciation, and elegant pronunciation of his native tongue, have long been the pride of British ears. To ask Majesty to descend to point out the preferable mode of pronouncing would be too much; but if those, who are in the daily habit of hearing him speak, would collect his manner of sounding these dubious words, and communicate them to the publick, who but Jacobins would not submit to the royal standard? Every true-born Briton would pride himself thereon.” Anonym 1799: 1125.


Institutionalizing Authority: Academies and Reviews

and to avoid their Mistakes,” (1712: 30) but one can imply from this hint, together with the name of the dedicatee, Robert Harley, First Earl of Oxford and Mortimer, who was the chief minister and Lord Treasurer of Queen Anne at that time and a personal friend, that Swift as well has in mind a close connection of his suggested academy with the centre of political power. By asking the Earl of Oxford to install a British Academy, just like Louis XIII had asked his chief minister, Cardinal Richelieu in 1635 to establish the French original, Swift attempts to align critical with political authority (with himself, implicitly, in the double role of Louis XIII and humble officer of the executive). This was, in any case, the reading made in a pamphlet by John Oldmixon and Arthur Maynwaring, called The British Academy. The pamphlet is directed both against Oxford, upon whom Swift had heaped lavish praise in his proposal, and against Swift’s alleged attempt to secure himself and his friends an executive authority within the republic of letters that was backed by law and political power. Adapting the French academy’s rule against the member’s writing in their own defence, Oldmixon writes: If therefore they should happen to be daily pelted at, the shortest way will be to despise their Opponents, and to consider themselves as Persons above the Reach of Malice; incorporated under a glorious Protector for some good End or other; and in daily Expectation of having a Character and an Act of Parliament to back them; and of being made Wits by the Laws of the Land. (1712b: 12)

Another pamphlet answer to Swift, this time written by Oldmixon alone, also attacks the identification of critical and political law, claiming that Swift “meant to Bully us into his Methods for pinning down our Language and making it as Criminal to admit Foreign Words as Foreign Trades” (Oldmixon 1712a: 2). After rather tediously elaborating through an examination of Swift’s other works, especially the Tale of a Tub, that he is not qualified or authorized for his own project, Oldmixon directly questions the authority of any academy: “What Law of ours impowers any body to order our Language to be Inspected, and who is there that wou’d think himself oblig’d to obey him in it?” (30) Charles Gildon had apparently pondered the uses of a British Academy for some time. Already in 1698, he had expressed his hopes that the dedicatee of his tragedy Phaeton, Charles Montague, would one day found an academy to match and surpass that of the French (cf. Gildon 1698: no page). His full-scale proposal is printed in a collection of miscellanies called The Post-Man robb’d of his Mail. Similar to Swift and his own earlier text, the proposal is suggested in a letter to a noble lord and submitted to his patronage, but in this case, the dedicatee’s name is blanked out. Gildon at this stage had no powerful patron he could name publicly, a fact that might account for the extremity of his project. Estimating the probability that his suggestion would be taken up much higher, Swift was careful

Courts of Criticism I: The Academy


to restrict it to sensible and realistic terms, and to stay clear of too much concrete detail that would only provide food for his detractors. One might just compare the unspecific nature of his suggestions here with the ‘modest’ proposal’s wealth of detailed calculation and particulars. An even stronger restriction of responsibility combined with an even closer connection of critical and political authority was made by the lawyer George Harris. In his 1752 Observations upon the English Language, he propagates an institution able to enforce a spelling reform by an act of parliament, and discusses the implications of such a venture: Some certain Mode of Spelling ought to be fixed upon, and that speedily. Sometimes I imagine that a Grammar and Dictionary, published under the Inspection of an Academy, would not sufficiently ascertain our Language without the Assistence of the Legislature: but lest you should think that I would indeavor to force Men by Law to write with Propriety and Correctness of Style, I must declare, that I mean only to force them to spell with Uniformity according to certain given Patterns, and without Elisions […]. You may probably now ask, by what Means an Act of Parliament could possibly be serviceable in this Case? To this I answer; that when some select Persons, call them a Committee, an Academy, or what else you please, have once, by order of our Senate, fixed among themselves any certain Manner of Spelling, and made it known by the Publication of a short English Dictionary, that then it should be inacted by the Authority of Parliament, that the new Regulations in Spelling should from thenceforth be strictly adhered to in printing all English Bibles, Common Prayer Books, Books, Pamphlets, News Papers, &c. under a most severe Penalty to be levied upon every Printer and Publisher, who shall purposely offend. (1752a: 13–15)

These were dreams of censorship based on ‘true criticism,’ though hardly realistic ones, in a country that had effectively abolished censorship half a century ago. Nor was royal support probable. Swift at 1712 came probably the closest to realizing his proposal, given the proximity he enjoyed to his powerful suggested patron. The immediate opposition to his plan might indicate how likely his contemporaries expected it to succeed. But at mid-century, when Tobias Smollett published his now lost proposal, there was no one with Pope’s standing or Swift’s connections to make the success of such a scheme likely. Samuel Johnson might have achieved a sufficient standing to successfully initiate a British Academy, but he preferred to build his own reputation on accomplishments that fulfilled functions expected from an academy, and he was always contemptuous of the idea. Of special interest is Johnson’s refutation in the “Life of Roscommon”,4 first published in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1748, since here he argues mainly in terms of authority.

4 On Roscommon’s project for an academy cf. Niemeyer 1934 and Clingham 2002.


Institutionalizing Authority: Academies and Reviews

In this country an academy could be expected to do but little. If an academician’s place were profitable, it would be given by interest; if attendance were gratuitous, it would be rarely paid, and no man would endure the least disgust. Unanimity is impossible, and debate would separate the assembly. But suppose the philological decree made and promulgated, what would be its authority? In absolute governments, there is sometimes a general reverence paid to all that has the sanction of power, and the countenance of greatness. How little this is the state of our country needs not to be told. We live in an age in which it is a kind of publick sport to refuse all respect that cannot be enforced. The edicts of an English academy would probably be read by many, only that they might be sure to disobey them. (Johnson 1781: 11–12)

This doubt about the possibility to institute criticism not as dialogical but authoritative, a doubt that is explained by the political character of the British in opposition to the supposedly more servile nature of the French under absolutism (in an interesting echo of the identification of French servility with rule-criticism) is supported by Joseph Priestley in the third edition of The Rudiments of English Grammar from 1772: “As to a public Academy, invested with authority to ascertain the use of words, which is a project that some persons are very sanguine in their expectations from, I think it […] unsuitable to the genius of a free nation” (xix). Johnson repeatedly returned to the question of a British Academy. In the preface to his dictionary, Johnson comments on one of the main supposed functions of an academy, that of fixing and maintaining a standard of language. By looking at the example of France, he can only conclude that their academy had failed – and inevitably so – at this task: With this hope, however, academies have been instituted, to guard the avenues of their languages, to retain fugitives, and repulse intruders; but their vigilance and activity have hitherto been vain; sounds are too volatile and subtile for legal restraints; to enchain syllables, and to lash the wind, are equally the undertakings of pride, unwilling to measure its desires by its strength. The French language has visibly changed under the inspection of the academy; the stile of Amelot’s translation of Father Paul is observed by Le Courayer to be un peu passe; and no Italian will maintain that the diction of any modern writer is not perceptibly different from that of Boccace, Machiavel, or Caro. (1755: no page)

Of course, Johnson’s denial of this function of the academy – an observation he repeated in his short comment on Swift’s Proposal (cf. Johnson 1779–1781 (8): 27–28) – has to be seen in the context of his own claim of fixing language by means of his dictionary. In 1759, Johnson repeated his expression of contempt for a British Academy when he ascribed to his satirical caricature of a false critic a proposal that closely matched Gildon’s and Smollett’s. Minim professes great admiration of the wisdom and munificence by which the Academies of the Continent were raised, and often wishes for some standard of taste, for some tribunal, to

Courts of Criticism I: The Academy


which merit may appeal from caprice, prejudice, and malignity. He has formed a plan for an Academy of Criticism, where every work of Imagination may be read before it is printed, and which shall authoritatively direct the Theatres what pieces to receive or reject, to exclude or to revive. Such an institution would, in Dick’s opinion, spread the fame of English Literature over Europe, and make London the metropolis of elegance and politeness, the place to which the learned and ingenious of all countries would repair for instruction and improvement, and where nothing would any longer be applauded or endured that was not conformed to the nicest rules, and finished with the highest elegance. Till some happy conjunction of the planets shall dispose our Princes or Ministers to make themselves immortal by such an Academy, Minim contents himself to preside four nights in a week in a Critical Society selected by himself, where he is heard without contradiction, and whence his judgment is disseminated through the great vulgar and the small. (Johnson 1759d: 47–48)

Smollett’s own plan is not extant anymore, but James Basker has used contemporary reactions to it in an attempt to re-create its content. Johnson’s portrait contains recognizable elements from Smollett, “the patronizing of neglected merit, the regulation of the theaters, the reformation of public taste, and the elevation of English letters to European standards.” (Basker 1988: 30) Basker sees one reason for Johnson’s satirical attack in his perception that it was presumptuous of Smollett to propose a British Academy at the very time that he, Johnson, had just published his dictionary (cf. Basker 1988: 29).5 The French academy had started by publishing a dictionary, and it gave Johnson frequent reason for pride to have accomplished such a task all by himself.6 That both the academy and a standard dictionary shared the function of linguistic regulation had also been discussed by the earlier projectors. Swift had seen the English versions of the Bible and the Common Prayer Book as instrumental in slowing down the degeneration of language that he so much feared (cf. Swift 1712: 32), and Gildon wrote that “the first general Work of the Academy be the forming an exact English Grammar, and Dictionary” (1719: 318). Smollett would hardly have wanted to compete with Johnson by a rival dictionary, not least since his plan was more comprehensive. Whereas language (if one followed, for example, the opinion of Swift) could be thought of as finite in respect to langue, that is grammar or vocabulary, and especially pronunciation and spelling, it could certainly only be perceived as an infinite process in respect to parole, as manifested in the ongoing production of text, the stream of monthly publications. While one might hope to ‘fix’ grammar and regulate spelling, or to purge the vocabulary, the incessant and 5 Cf. also McDermott 1998: 65; DeMaria 1986: 159ff.; and Read 1938: 145. 6 In the preface he stressed that “the English Dictionary was written with little assistance of the learned, and without any patronage of the great; not in the soft obscurities of retirement, or under the shelter of academick bowers, but amidst inconvenience and distraction, in sickness and sorrow. Johnson 1755: no page.


Institutionalizing Authority: Academies and Reviews

ever-increasing production of text could never be fixed – only discussed. ‘Regulating’ parole could never be a matter of a single work, however authoritative, but only of continuous discussion, with the hope of forming a broad consensus according to some sort of standard. And thus, while one finite product could suffice to be consulted on all questions of langue, like a definitive grammar or an authoritative dictionary, the discussion of parole had to find a new form, one that was appropriately continuous. Smollett’s initial solution had been an academy, as a social discursive space with institutional status to circulate critical opinion. Like all his predecessors, he did not manage to get his ideal of institutionalized critical discourse supported by political power. But unlike his predecessors, he chose instead to rely on a different system to derive critical authority from, the economic system of the literary market. By converting his academy into a review journal published and sold on a monthly basis, he circumvented the appeal to the authoritative figures at the head of the political power by appealing directly to the broad mass of the (reading) population, represented by the buyers of books – and of his journal.7 Another satirical hit at his initial proposal shows a contemporary reaction to this change of plan. After his play Madrigal and Trulletta failed at Covent Garden in 1759, Joseph Reed picked out Smollett as the culprit, who had reviewed the play harshly, and published A Sop in the Pan for a Physical Critick in A Letter to Dr. Sm*ll*t, where he not only makes fun of Smollett’s plans for setting up an academy, but recognizes the continuation of these efforts in the Critical Review: In the close of the Year 1755, a certain Caledonian Quack, by the Curtesy of England, call’d a Doctor of Physick, whose real, or assum’d Name was Ferdinando Mac Fathomless, form’d a Project for initiating and perfecting the Male-Inhabitants of this Island, in the Use and Management of the linguary Weapon, by the Erection of a Scolding Amphitheatre. For this Purpose, he selected, and engag’d, on weekly Salary, about a Dozen of the most eminent Professors of Vociferation in this Academy: but, after he had been at a considerable Expence, the unfortunate Emperic could not get his Project licenc’d. The Doctor was greatly mortified at his unexpected Disappointment, but being resolved that his own, and the Sisterhood’s Talents should not be lost to the World, he set about publishing a periodical Work, called the Hyper-Critical Review (Reed 1759: 5).

Indeed, “[i]n the end, the only concrete result of Smollett’s academy proposal was the Critical Review.” (Basker 1988: 31) As late as 1772, the preface to the thirtyfourth volume hints at this origin, when it states that “[i]n every distinct depart7 Six years later, a review of Thomas Sheridan’s Course of Lectures on Elocution briefly praises the author for his scheme of improving the English language, ambiguously hoping that “his arguments will have due weight with those who alone can enable him to prosecute it in its full extent and efficacy.” Anonym 1763d: 170.

Courts of Criticism I: The Academy


ment of literature, we can boast of the assistance of various gentlemen, whose names […] must reflect credit on any society established for the encouragement of real knowledge.” (Anonym 1772: no page) Thus, the review journal, originally planned only as the journal of the academy, according to the model of the Transactions of the Royal Society, becomes an alternative – and much more successful – attempt at giving criticism institutional status and authority. Both are organizations comprised of ‘societies of gentlemen’, but where the academy would have gained its critical authority from the social and intellectual standing of its founders and members, the review journal gained it through the much more ‘modern’ fact of its commercial success and its resultant media presence.


Institutionalizing Authority: Academies and Reviews

10.2 Courts of Criticism II: The Reviews What boundless erudition! how immense The field of learning, science, wit and sense! What learned strifes! what wordy wars abound! What authors murder’d” and what authors crown’d! (Anonym 1774: 87) Dr. MORAL . You say you have been making trials of worth–––/ may I be so bold, to ask you, what profession you/ are of?–––/ CANKERWORTH .

A Critic, Sir–––I am one of the persons concerned/ in writing the Critical

Review.–––/ Dr. MORAL . Hah!–––now–––I understand what sort of trials you/ have been making–––but, I am sorry to say it, the/ world universally condemn’d them as shewing too great/ cruelty and too little judgment.–––You know, you/ made but a blundering piece of work of it––– (Bacon 1757: 17–18)

With the foundation of the two review journals at mid-century, The Monthly Review in 1749 and The Critical Review in 1756, the development towards the institutionalization and professionalization of criticism made a giant and decisive step.8 It is with review writing that criticism for the first time is routinely embedded in a commercially oriented institutional context. Whereas before the Reviews, only very few critics gained the (ambiguous) public estimate of being professional critics, review criticism was a professional activity by definition. The Reviews were the first literary journals that presented a true innovation over The Gentleman’s Magazine that had been a model for countless other journalistic ventures ever since its foundation in January 1732. With their concentration on reviewing recent works and their claim of exhaustive coverage, they established a completely new type of journal. For the rest of the century, the two Reviews not only became “the most widely influential organ of criticism in the history of periodical literature” (Basker 1997: 327), they also established themselves in the minds of readers and authors as institutions themselves, becoming prime authorities in criticism that easily surpassed the authority of single critics. For many readers, they indeed did become criticism’s Church of Rome, as Charles Churchill had put it ironically and Clara Reeve seriously (cf. Churchill 1761: 5–6 and Reeve 1785 (2): 5).

8 Bartolomeo calls them “the two leading organs of institutionalized criticism”, 1994: 11.

Courts of Criticism II: The Reviews


The Monthly Review was founded in 1749 by Ralph Griffiths, and for the rest of the century its circulation was the largest of any literary journal in England (cf. Boening 1982: 66). Lehmann describes it as “the ablest and most respected, no doubt, of the London reviews of that day” (Lehmann 1971: 229), and Fieser sees it as “a milestone […] in the history of British review journals” (1996: 647). The format of the journal, adapted from earlier review journals like The History of the Works of the Learned, was simple and efficient: its purpose was to give reviews of every book published each month in England, and of some selected foreign productions. These reviews were differentiated into two categories: the main articles at the beginning of each issue, usually around ten and often running to between ten and twenty pages, and the “Monthly Catalogue,” filled with short notices of books and pamphlets that were thought to be of minor importance. More often than not, the notices would be limited to a few lines, the review sometimes being shorter than the full title of the text reviewed. One thing that distinguished the Monthly from its predecessors was the inclusion of ‘imaginative’ literature. The full reviews contained a mix of original criticism, abstract, and long passages of quotes, sometimes for pages. Though they ultimately fulfilled a similar function, and in the case of the Critical were even born out of the same idea, unlike a potential British Academy, the Reviews were not planned as philanthropic ventures for the cultural good of mankind, but as business ventures. What the lack of an academy (as national institution of criticism), the breaking apart of the neoclassical ideal of an inherent unity of criticism, and the growing inability to survey the whole of the everincreasing book-production created, was a marketplace demand for a certain type of literary criticism (cf. Hanley 2001: 20). In retrospect, the foundation of a review journal like the Monthly at this point in time seems logical and almost inevitable, and it is surely not surprising that its founder was, first of all, a businessman. Ralph Griffiths had been a watchmaker first and then a bookseller. For the initial staff of the Monthly, he recruited many personal acquaintances, running the whole business very much like a shop, keeping a tight control on every editorial decision as well as on the reviews themselves. Nangle describes his policies: In the first place, he centralized control in himself. There were no associate editors, and hence no divided counsels. He selected the members of the staff, assigned the books for review, read all the copy, and accepted full responsibility for what was finally printed. Above all, he devoted his entire time to this one enterprise, dropping his other activities as publisher and bookseller as soon as the early success of the Review enabled him to do so. (1934: viii)

This was apparently too much supervision for some reviewers, among them Oliver Goldsmith, who “cited Griffiths’s continual interference with his copy as a princi-


Institutionalizing Authority: Academies and Reviews

pal reason” (Basker 1988: 59)9 for leaving the Review. But, as Nangle has pointed out, Griffiths must have done his job well, the very partial accounts of him from Forster’s 1848 biography of Goldsmith notwithstanding that for almost a century dominated the evaluation of Griffiths: “That a literary review should retain for over half a century its position as a respected, widely read, and financially profitable venture argues the existence of wise editorial guidance, and of principles deliberately established and consistently maintained.” (Nangle 1934: v)10 He also cites an episode where Griffiths reacted to the resignation of a reviewer because of fundamental disagreement with the journal’s politics and theology by proposing to print that reviewer’s last text as the leading article of the next issue. “Such courteous and gracious treatment would scarcely be expected from the Griffiths of Forster and Smollett.” (viii) It has also long since been established that the individual reviewers of the Monthly Review, contrary to what its enemies claimed, were no mere ‘hacks,’ but eminent and respected writers from all fields of knowledge. Nangle, who has done the most thorough research into this topic, even goes so far as to say: “It would have been difficult to assemble for a single periodical a staff boasting of higher academic degrees and memberships of learned societies, or better qualified to speak with authority on the subjects which they discussed.” (ix)11 Among the contributors between 1749 and 1789 were John Aikin, Frances Burney’s father Charles, novelist John Cleland and playwright George Colman, David Garrick, Oliver Goldsmith, Arthur Murphy, Owen Ruffhead and Thomas Twining. In 1756, only seven years after the founding of The Monthly Review, there appeared a competitor modelled on the same structure, a Tory rival to the Whig forerunner, The Critical Review, “one of the most interesting of Eighteenth Century literary periodicals” (Jones 1946: 433). For James Basker, “the appearance of the Critical’s first issue marked the beginning of a new era in the history of criticism and journalism” (1988: 38), a fact that he attributes mainly to Tobias Smollett’s involvement in it. Though it was founded by the printer and publisher Archibald Hamilton, it was Smollett as editor and reviewer from 1756 to 1763 who

9 Cf. also Donoghue 1996: 23. 10 Cf. also Boening 1982: 69. “While there was probably culpability on both sides in the quarrel with Goldsmith, Griffiths’s attitude seems in the main reasonable. No one with any knowledge of Goldsmith’s character can doubt that he must have been an exasperating and irresponsible subordinate. I am inclined to doubt the statement that he was underpaid”, Nangle 1934: vi. Long before this taint, Rivers wrote in his biographical dictionary about “the Monthly Magazine, a publication whose superior merits certainly bespeak an able pilot.” Rivers 1798 (1): 9. 11 Cf. also Hawkins 1931: 173 and Boening 1982: 70.

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brought the journal to instant prominence. Because he is himself now mainly remembered as one of the most important novel-writers of his period, his work as a literary critic is often overlooked (cf. Basker 1988: 218 and Donoghue 1996: 125). Unlike Joseph Warton or Richard Hurd, with whom he liked to identify himself (cf. Basker 1988: 68), Smollett never produced any systematic work of criticism, but through his position as editor he became one of mid-century’s most influential, and therefore most feared and hated, figures in the republic of letters (cf. Basker 1988: 9). Not only did he regularly write reviews himself, he also made all the important editorial decisions about what books to review and which reviewer to assign it to, and about the contents of his journal. He invented and defined the role of a Review’s editor with his decisions and set the course for all generations of editors to come after him (cf. also Donoghue 1996 and Basker 1988: 219). Basker even sees “genius in Smollett’s achievement as a literary editor, as he became the first genuine man of letters to edit a review journal of the recognizably modern kind – under pressure to be literate, comprehensive, prompt, and profitable all at once.” (1988: 10) And just like Nangle had done with Griffiths, he defends Smollett against accusations of partiality and querulousness (cf. Basker 1988: 156). And not only was the Critical accepted as the major rival to the Monthly in a very short time, it also enjoyed a surprising longevity, surviving well into the 19th century, albeit almost three decades shorter than the Monthly, that ran until 1845. Comparing the Critical to the Monthly, one can say that the earlier journal reviewed a much higher total amount of books per year, but that the later was generally much quicker to review books after they came out (cf. Basker 1988: 60f). Together, the Critical and the Monthly reigned almost supreme throughout the first decades after their establishment, but there were other rivals as well, most of them in the last quarter of the century. One early and today almost completely ignored rival was The London Review, founded in 1775 by William Kenrick, who had worked as a reviewer for the Monthly from 1759 to 1765. According to Fussel it had been Kenrick’s “lifelong ambition to edit his own critical monthly”, and “he had been planning this review since his days of servitude under Griffiths” (1957: 54). Before founding the London Review, Kenrick had already undertaken one foray into literary editorship with the journal Critical Memoirs of the Times: Containing a Summary View of the Popular Pursuits, Political Debates and Literary Productions of the Present Age, founded in 1769. The journal was short-lived, though, and its attempt to refrain from critical commentary and concentrate on paraphrase and quotation did not work out. He did intend the London Review to be a major rival to the two established Reviews, and he worked as its editor until his death, leaving it to his son William Shakespeare Kenrick. In the preface to the first issue he announced the methods of the new journal in terms that closely echo


Institutionalizing Authority: Academies and Reviews

those of the other reviews.12 Time became an increasingly important factor in the evaluation of the Reviews, one of whose main justifications, as has been seen, was their function as a substitute for reading. When Kenrick looked back at the first year of his newly established Review, he singled out the shortness of the time-span between publication of a work and the review on it as its most important distinguishing feature.13 Already at its beginning, Kenrick had put an emphasis on speed. This is where he saw a potential for improving on his rivals, and consequently he proposed to at least announce all books directly after their publication, thereby providing a unique service for all readers, who “will thus be often apprized of the publication of such books, before it is possible for them to be properly read and criticised.” (Kenrick 1775c: iv) The final indication of the Reviews’ success is the rising number of imitations in the last quarter of the century. As Antonia Forster has shown, there were at least nine review journals that started between 1749 and 1760, but most of them were extremely short-lived, like the Impartial Review, that seems to have lasted for no more than one issue (cf. Forster 1990: 8). But the later decades saw the establishment of more serious competition. The English Review, for example, was founded in the beginning of 1783 by John Murray. Its first editor was Gilbert Stuart, who had been a reviewer for the Monthly. In the preface to the first edition the editor marvels at the fact that the last decades should have developed no serious competition to the two Reviews, declaring that “[t]o exhibit a faithful report of every new Publication, is an undertaking of very extensive utility. […] It is therefore, a matter of surprize, that two publications only of the critical kind should have been able to establish themselves in England.” (Anonym 1783c: 3) The time was certainly ripe for competition and though the English Review did not have a long run and was absorbed into the Analytical Review14 some years after the death of Murray in 1793, the last decade of the century saw a flourishing of Reviews that would eventually lead to the new style of review writing associated

12 “The Reviewers propose to give a fair account and faithful abstract of all new productions in the English language; whose matter may be worthy of attention, and whose manner will admit of abridgement; accompanied with candid remarks and critical illustrations. […] A like account, with instructive or entertaining, extracts, by way of specimen, of such literary productions as cannot be well epitomized, attended with similar elucidations. These accounts to be given as early after publication as the nature and extent of a literary journal will admit.” Kenrick 1775c: iv. 13 “[A] comparison of the different Reviews for the past year will not only shew how much earlier all the principal publications have been noticed in theLondon Review than in the Monthly or Critical for the same period, but will sufficiently prove the present work to be conducted on a more liberal and independent plan than has been before adopted.” Kenrick 1775d: vi–vii. 14 The Analytical itself started its publication with a sort of apology for publishing a new review journal “[a]t a time when Literary Journals are more numerous than useful”, Christie 1788b: i.

Courts of Criticism II: The Reviews


with critics like Francis Jeffrey, John Gibson Lockhart, or John Wilson Croker, and journals like the Edinburgh or the Quarterly Review.

The Rivalry of the Reviews The rise to institutional status of the two leading Reviews of mid-century is closely connected with their rivalry for pre-eminence in the market of opinions. Though the Monthly had a head start of seven years, the Critical from its beginning established itself as an important challenger, and, in discussions of reviewing, not only were both publications routinely grouped together, there was also a considerable amount of attention spent on their rivalry, the most virulent period of which were certainly the first years after the foundation of the Critical, with a constant stream of attacks going to and fro especially between 1756 and 1759. In addition to this main rivalry, both Reviews also had to contend against journals like the Gentleman’s Magazine (that only at that time decided to cut down its review sections), the Universal Visitor, and the Literary Magazine. The latter was commenced in the same year as the Critical, and for a while it printed almost monthly attacks on its rival (cf. Basker 1988: 35, 157). It might even be attested to the aggressiveness with which the two Reviews fought for supremacy that other journals were unsuccessful in establishing themselves (cf. Bloom 1957b: 551). Basker has pointed to the fact that Smollett’s animosity might have had more reasons than pure commercial interest, as he saw in Griffiths an unprincipled and notorious publisher not only of obscene books like the unexpurgated Fanny Hill but also of personal attacks on Smollett (cf. 1988: 36). This may account for Smollett’s readiness to react to the slightest provocation and the quickness with which he did react, but such personal motives are hard to confirm, and what is more important in any case is the impression that the rivalry made on the literary world and the way that it helped shape the conception of the Reviews. One of the rivalry’s starting points was the review of John Shebbeare’s The Occasional Critic, written in 1757 for the Monthly by Owen Ruffhead, who one year earlier had also written the short and negative assessment of the Critical’s first issue in the Gentleman’s Magazine. There, he had mocked the self-representation of the Critical through advertisements, and concluded that “[t]he manner in which their work is executed shews that they either did not know what should be done, or were not able to do it.” (1756: 142) Smollett retorted in a short article “To the Public” by calling Ruffhead’s article “the very cream and scum of modern criticism” (1756b: 288). Though Ruffhead is from the beginning to the end of his review extremely hostile with Shebbeare, who had attacked the Critical, he does concede that “it must, however, be allowed, that he has, in many instances,


Institutionalizing Authority: Academies and Reviews

stumbled upon truth, and proved them to have been erroneous in their judgment, incorrect in their language, and indecent in their animadversions.” He cannot help but noticing similarities between Shebbeare and his antagonist, i.e. the Critical Review. This comparison and his use of the plural form in his final lament “that Literature should be debated by such indecent contests” (Ruffhead 1757: 368, 373) makes it impossible to distinguish clearly whether he refers to Shebbeare as an exemplary case of a bad writer, or indeed to the Critical Review: But these Pretenders to Literature, these invective Altercators, who presume to enter into literary disputes, with the genius and phraseology of Rag-Fair, ought to be whipt through the Republic of Letters, and driven among the herd whose manners they assimilate: for if their ideas are low, their reflections mean, and their language indecent, where is the difference between them and the mob? (Ruffhead 1757: 373–374)

Ruffhead’s review was published in October, and the next month, Smollett retaliated with his article “To the Old Gentlewoman who directs the Monthly Review”, an attack that easily outdoes Ruffhead’s in invective and abuse. Smollett begins innocently enough by stating that he and his authors “little dreamed that ever we should have occasion to address you in public.” But this declaration of non-aggression already contained an insult, since it was presumably made in the expectation of the Monthly’s imminent demise: “We had no intention to disturb you in your last moments; but desired you should have the privilege of dying in peace, and being decently buried in oblivion.” But, writes Smollett, referring to Ruffhead’s article, the Monthly has misconstrued this leniency, “and grown insolent under the wings of toleration” by daring to criticize the Critical. Smollett therefore warns that his rival might come under a similar scrutiny, and rhetorically asks “what sort of figure you would make, should any competent critic take the trouble to turn over your sheets, and expose the nakedness of your lucubrations?” (1757c: 469, 470) Charges like this were repeated time and again in the pages of both Reviews.15 Having such similar formats, strategies of differentiation became extremely important to both editors in the establishment of their own authority. One way of differentiation common to earlier journals was political affiliation, and the existence of two rival publications naturally led to their being associated with the

15 Cf. e.g. this review of an attack on the Monthly in the Critical: “This little piece of hypercriticism is addressed to Mrs. G–––s, the supposed parent and protectress of the Monthly Review. Dr. Garner taxes this learned lady with dullness, misrepresentation, ignorance, grammatical impurity, and the most abominable pollution; and endeavours to support his charge by a variety of instances. Heartily do we wish, that this medical wag had levelled his wit against an object more deserving of his manly talents.” Anonym 1763c: 398.

Courts of Criticism II: The Reviews


political parties, with the Monthly being perceived as Whiggish and the Critical as Tory. But the most consistent line of attack employed by Smollett against the Monthly was the identity of editor, bookseller, and reviewer in the person of Griffiths, a circumstance that in Smollett’s representation could not but lead to incompetence and corruption. How could a bookseller be impartial when it came to the reviewing of books he published himself? Or even those published by his rivals? To differentiate himself and his critical enterprise from this image of corruption and dependence was a main concern of Smollett’s, since he used this difference to construct his own self-representation: The Critical Review is not written by a parcel of obscure hirelings, under the restraint of a bookseller and his wife, who presume to revise, alter, and amend the articles occasionally. The principal writers in the Critical Review are unconnected with booksellers, unawed by old women, and independent of each other. (Smollett 1759a: 151)

In the same year, the Critical laments that Oliver Goldsmith, in his Enquiry, “has indiscriminately censured the two Reviews, confounding a work undertaken from public spirit, with one supported for the sordid purposes of a bookseller.” (Anonym 1759: 372) Benjamin Nangle’s groundbreaking indices to the real authors of the Monthly have exposed Smollett’s accusation as a fiction, but it is one that has remained accepted for a very long time. By 1760, the loudly publicized rivalry of the two Reviews had become so virulent that it was satirized by the anonymous Battle of the Reviews. This pamphlet is highly critical of Reviews in general. Using the booksellers as his spokespersons, the author declares that the Reviews are nothing better than a Catchpenny Pamphlets, or rather Libels, written without a proper Fund of Judgement, and sometimes even common Sense, fraught with an unaccountable Sort of Malice, and devoid of all the Candour they promise in the Title-page, but seldom or ever perform in the Sequel. (Anonym 1760b: 42)

Later he rages against “the superannuated Asses and Dogs, who arrogate to themselves the Title and Character of Critics in the Monthly Review.” (53) But it is the existence of two and not one Review, two institutes of criticism with an identical task, that poses a major problem for his neoclassical conception of criticism. One result of the rivalry had been that it accelerated the development from extracts to criticism in the reviews. While the extracts, and, to a lesser degree, even the summaries of books where necessarily similar and potentially identical, only critical and analytical commentary could provide a proper differentiation in the long run. It is telling that Griffiths published his announcement to offer more criticism and fewer summaries in 1757. But if criticism is founded on ultimate truth based on reason, if there is one ideal, ‘true’ criticism, the existence of a second journal devoted to criticise the same books as the first


Institutionalizing Authority: Academies and Reviews

must necessarily not only be superfluous, but must actually endanger the integrity of criticism. A Piece makes its Appearance; the Monthly Review says positively that it is white; the Critical that it is black, and vice versa. How shall we reconcile the Contradiction? If Criticism is grounded on unerring Rules, […] how comes it, in the Sentiments of two or more Persons concerning one and the same Thing, to be so widely different? (Anonym 1760b: 46)

The perfectly parallel structure of the Reviews made the fact that critical opinions on the same text could be quite different, even contrary, all too apparent. To accept both opinions as true was impossible as long as one held on to the belief in a completely rational and therefore unalterable basis for criticism. This was apparently also the problem that the anonymous author of the pamphlet An Address to those Formidable Societies of Gentlemen, the Authors of the two Reviews and Court Magazine confronted. The pamphlet itself seems to be lost, but the reaction to it in the Critical is very telling: The aukward situation of the author of this address, reminds us of the perplexity of his braying kinsmen, placed between equal parcels of inviting hay. Unable to determine to which of the discordant opinions of the two Reviews he should give the preference, he starves for want of mental refection […]. Like an able logician he concludes, that because the authors of the Critical and Monthly sometimes disagree in their decisions, both must be wrong in their judgment. [L]et us for once join issue with the Monthly Reviewers, and agree with them and all mankind, in declaring this paultry production the most impotent attack ever made by dulness, united with malice, against their periodical productions. (Anonym 1762a: 399)

Thus, the rivalry between the Reviews exceeds in its significance petty personal quarrels and simple marketing strategies. Though Basker warns that “[t]he actual scale and significance of these hostilities […] may easily be exaggerated”, noting that “[b]y about 1760, the quarreling between the Monthly and the Critical had begun to give way to a sense of shared enterprise and collegiality” (1988: 156), it is crucial to note with Donoghue that the rivalry with its rhetoric of distinction and differentiation, exclusion and inclusion, played an important role in the (self) conceptualization of the Reviews: [T]he anxious rivalry between the two […] initiated a struggle that was conducted in a rhetoric of professionalism even as both parties sought to define the profession of reviewing. The rapid development of the Reviews to a position of prominence on the literary scene resulted chiefly from a dialectic made possible by the establishment of the Critical Review in 1756, after which the professional qualifications of popular critics became the subject of open debate. The contest between the two journals raised the issue of critical authority in an emerging professional context. (1996: 32)

Courts of Criticism II: The Reviews


The Authority of No Name: Anonymity The serial form of publication that the Reviews used brought with it a changed conception and perception of the activity of criticism. A Review’s critical appraisal of a text was embedded in a different context than one in a single pamphlet or as part of a larger critical treatise. It was read by a different audience in a different way, with different expectations. One difference to critical texts by individual critics was that it at the same time had a name and no name attached to it. Other than texts like Blair’s lectures or Beattie’s essays, all of the reviews were published anonymously, but unlike other anonymous publications such as pamphlets, they were associated with a surrogate name – the brand name of the journal itself. Anonymity was, of course, widespread in the 18th century, and especially in periodical writing. According to Cannan “readers often expressed great interest in determining the identity and credentials of a periodical’s editor or writers.” (2006: 147) He quotes from the very first issue of the Gentleman’s Journal, where its editor Motteux tells about the reaction of a book buyer to the journal’s anonymity: “Who is the Author? [I]t must then be some foolish thing; had he been one of your noted Wits, your high Soarers, your Toppers, I would have had it”.16 It is obvious that the fictive book-buyer clings to name-authority, and is consequently uninterested in anonymous publications. But Cannan’s conclusion that this leads to a general decrease in authority for anonymous journalism needs to be qualified, at least when coming to the two main review journals of the century. Though anonymity was a very common feature of 18th-century publishing, it seemed especially vexing in the case of the Reviews. It is “a prominent complaint in many attacks on the journals” (Donoghue 1996: 19), and it is another important factor in the development of the Reviews as institutions of criticism. Authors were angered that the reviewers would not oblige the World with the Knowledge of their Persons, yet in the midst of the greatest Assemblies, with an amazing and undaunted Assurance, they’ll make nothing to set the whole Audience in an Uproar, and under the Shelter of their Obscurity, being muffl’d, and a Pull-Pot to the Centinel, will bid Defiance to the most noble Circle to call them to any Account. (Anonym 1730: 40)

To expose the name of an anonymous author was often seen as impolite, and that extended to reviewers as well.17 When James Grainger reacted to a negative 16 Qtd. in Cannan 2006: 148. 17 When Joseph Priestley, in a reply to Samuel Badcock’s review of his Letters to Dr. Horsley, lifted the reviewer’s anonymity, he defends this by pointing to the ad hominem nature of the review, cf. 1784: 7.


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review of his translations of Tibullus in The Critical Review with a pamphlet that not only named Tobias Smollett as the author of the review, but went on to attack Smollett in a highly abusive manner, Smollett reacted (still retaining his anonymity) in his own journal: What right Dr. James Grainger has to address himself in this manner to Dr. Tobias Smollett, on account of an article in the Critical Review, we shall not pretend to enquire: yet, as Dr. Smollett has never owned himself author of this review, the public will at once determine how far Dr. James Grainger has, on this occasion, acted with decency and candour. (Smollett 1759a: 141–142)

The editors’ argument was that anonymity ensured impartiality (cf. Fieser 1996: 648). For sure, it secured many of its authors from the antagonism that their criticisms routinely provoked, concentrating them all on the review journal itself. That way, the Reviews were not dependent on ‘professional hacks’ alone, but could employ many authors who were active in social, political or literary matters and would have hesitated to risk their reputation by putting their names to their reviews (cf. Nangle 1934: x). Of course, authors and critics had two entirely different perspectives on anonymity in the Reviews. The poet Charles Churchill, in attacking the practice of anonymous reviewing, shows how this practice turns the Reviews into an impenetrable fortress of critical opinion: Founded on arts which shun the face of day, By the same arts they still maintain their sway. Wrapp’d in mysterious secrecy they rise, And, as they are unknown, are safe and wise. At whomsoever aim’d, howe’er severe, The envenom’d slander flies, no names appear: Prudence forbids that step;–––then all might know, And on more equal terms engage the foe. […] All men and things they know, themselves unknown, And publish every name–––except their own. Nor think this strange–––secure from vulgar eyes, The nameless author passes in disguise (1761: 7)

Robert Lloyd seconded Churchill’s accusation in his “Epistle to C. Churchill”: Critics of old, a manly liberal race, Approv’d or censur’d with an open face: Boldly pursu’d the free decisive task, Nor stabb’d, conceal’d beneath a ruffian’s mask. (Lloyd 1774 (1): 84-85)

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For the author (in accordance with his perception of criticism as an act of military aggression), anonymity is a sign of cowardice, an arrow shot from the crenel of a fortress. For the critic, who perceives the original act of publication as an act of aggression, or at least as a potential transgression, and sees himself consequently as beleaguered defender, anonymity is a sensible safety measure. Smollett, in answering Churchill’s accusation in the review of The Apology, therefore defends the practice of anonymous reviewing as a pre-emptive precaution against the anger of authors: Common sense would have told him, that no man, supposing himself qualified for the office of a reviewer, would chuse to lay himself personally open to the illiberal revenge of every vulgar dunce, or low bred railer, who must naturally be supposed to smart from the critick’s correction (1761b: 410).

Smollett’s view is backed by Isaac Disraeli, who emphasizes the idea of authors as unruly and aggressive elements that need to be kept in check: “If this secresy were unregarded, it would be often fatal to the critic. Motley, indeed, is that vast collection of men, who enlist under the banners of literature, and our Republic of Letters is disgraced with numerous Sans-culottes.” (1796: xi-xii) The anonymity of the reviews implied an impersonal nature in their praises and censures, free from personal prejudices or animosities. But while this implication might have worked in the case of the general audience and can be seen as a factor in the Review’s success, it surely failed in the case of the authors under review, who were only too eager to take any critical judgment personally, and who consequently were indignant that they were not provided with a personal enemy for counterattack.18

18 As an insider, William Kenrick knew that the claim to impersonality could also be reversed, proving that it was the answer to a review that was strictly provoked by a love of truth, since it did not attack any individual critic: “The reader, however, will do well to take notice that, no reflection, cast on these criticks, is levell’d at any particular person or persons: for we do not know an individual concern’d in their review.” Kenrick 1759c: 67. But as the editor of his own review journal that bore his name, he constantly replied to letters that authored specific reviews on him by declining any responsibility for the writing, claiming “that it is unfair to address him as the author of any particular article in the Review, on the mere presumtion of his writing it”, Kenrick 1775a: 176. Cf. also: “Dr. Kenrick begs leave to repeat that he does not mean, by acknowledging him self the Editor of the London Review, to answer for the propriety of every article contained in it. To be able to do this, he ought to read every book, in which case, if he were presumptuous enough, and the thing were practicable, he might as well also write every article. All, the Editor thinks himself responsible for, is the literary conduct of the work; in which alone, it will appear from the many unavoidable errors that attend on periodical publications, he has enough to answer for.” Kenrick 1775b: 256.


Institutionalizing Authority: Academies and Reviews

There is strength in numbers – a fact that might be especially true for criticism. Appealing to others who are of the same opinion is a strategic move that is always hard to counter and could lead to paranoid anxieties in the author. Exasperated that both The Critical Review and The Monthly Review had written negative reviews of a book of his, Thomas Mariott writes that “Critics, like Robbers, in a Gang combine” (1759b: 6), and the charge was echoed by many other writers, chief among them the ever-paranoid Kenrick himself, who writes that “we see the petty pretenders to wit and learning industriously forming themselves into parties for the support of each other, because they find themselves unable to stand alone” (1766: 4).19 The satirical poet John Wolcot, better known as Peter Pindar, in his highly ironical A Poetical, Supplicating, Modest, and Affecting Epistle to those Literary Colossuses, the Reviewers (1787), gathers together a considerable amount of unflattering images for the reviewer’s alleged inclination to form groups: I never said, like murderers in their dens, You secret met in cloud-capp’d garret high, With hatchets, scalping knives in shape of pens, To bid, like Mohocks, hapless authors die: Nor said (in your Reviews, together strung) The limbs of butcher’d writers, cheek by jowl, Look’d like the legs of flies on cobwebs hung Before the hungry spider’s dreary hole. I ne’er declar’d, that, frightful as the Blacks, In greasy flannel caps you met together, With scarce a rag of shirt about your backs, Or coat or breeches to keep out the weather. (Wolcot 1787: 4)20

The combination of the stereotypical false critic’s malevolence and the ganging up of anonymous critics, “those literary hangmen” (Ritson 1788: vii), under the

19 One specific instance of such a ganging up on one side Kenrick sees in the mutual agreement of Samuel Johnson and John Hawkesworth, about whom he asks: “Whether the Drs. J. and H. have not been long in a secret and partial combination to applaud the writings, and enhance the literary reputation of each other? […] Whether the Gentleman’s Magazine hath not, for many years past, been notoriously prostituted to this purpose?” Kenrick 1766: 15. 20 The London Review, with a nice irony directed both at Wolcot and its rivals, restricted its review to one sentence: “As we know of no Reviewers, who are Colossuses, except the hodmandod of Faulcon court and ‘the land-tortoise earth’d at Turnham Green,’ we suppose this ludicrous epistle, of course, addressed to them; to whose learned and scientific animadversion, therefore, we leave it.” Anonym 1778b: 63.

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umbrella of the Reviews gave rise to hyperbolic images of persecution, for example by Cuthbert Shaw: Close by the margin of the sable flood Reviewers Critical and Monthly stood In terrible array, who dreadful frown, And arm’d with clubs, here knock poor authors down. (1766: 8)

Some attackers tried to use the anonymity of reviewers as a means for de-stabilizing the legitimacy of the Reviews’ authority. When the satirical pamphlet The Battle of the Reviews sneers at “those, who by [the Reviews], erect themselves into Critics”, that is, those who derive their authority simply by being part of the larger structure of the Review and not through their own critical accomplishments, it can go on to note that they “never exhibited to the Learned satisfactory Specimens of any extraordinary Abilities in Matters of Erudition, whereby this discerning Faculty might deservedly be attributed to them.” (Anonym 1760b: 42) The same argument is brought forth against the reviewers in a later pamphlet entitled Retaliation. Or, the Reviewers Review’d (1791), again with an emphasis on their self-constitution. In the preface, the author describes it as “a matter truly farcical, to see a knot of half learned Scotchmen set up for critics”, and claims that they are “[w]ithout a single requisite to qualify them for such an undertaking, or affording us one indisputable proof of their judgment and candour” (Anonym 1791: i). Though the strategy of denying a critic any claim to that title for lack of abilities is not new, it does seem at first to work best when directed against anonymous authors. The necessary (and, given the Reviews’ success and their dominance of critical opinion, ultimately mistaken) precondition for such attacks, though, was the assumption that when dealing with the Reviews there is no previously established name-authority against which to contend, as in the case of Samuel Johnson. But while it might seem a paradoxical reversal of the principle of name-authority, anonymous publication is indeed but a logical transferral of it: Since no individual authors could be identified by its readers, the Review assumed one voice that was hard to attack by the old ad hominem strategies, and that gained through its continued success with the public a collective authority of no-name, or rather: of a corporate brand-name.

The Unknown Third: The Audience The power struggle between the author and the (review) critic was strongly influenced – sometimes directly, sometimes only by implication – by a third force, without which the mechanism of critical authority would be incomplete:


Institutionalizing Authority: Academies and Reviews

the audience, or the public, conceived as all those that read – and bought – the Reviews. It is of course impossible to assess precisely the influence that the Reviews had on their audience, though it is safe to say that they monopolized public attention to a large extent.21 But Donoghue rightfully points out that “in 1760 (as well as today), reading a Review and abiding by its recommendations were two very different and not necessarily related activities, even though the two usually go hand in hand.” (1996: 47) Since the influence of the Reviews cannot be measured in hard figures, one has to rely on indirect indicators. Antonia Forster, for example, looks at book advertisements that used quotes from the Reviews (cf. Forster 1990: 9). By taking a close look at all of Samuel Johnson’s reviews and comparing his earlier ones to the four that he wrote for the Critical at the end of the 1750s, Hanley has shown that Johnson had come to regard the Reviews as decisive factors for the reputation of an author or his work. Where almost all his earlier reviews had been generally favourable, albeit in rather vague ways, the later reviews, all for people Johnson had a personal interest in, are boldly assertive: “Johnson had convinced himself that the prospects of worthy but unknown authors pivoted on an ardent and perhaps even an exaggerated endorsement from the Monthly Review or the Critical Review.” (Hanley 2001: 212–213) Another way would be to take into account reactions and comments from contemporaries. Goldsmith, in his Enquiry, shows himself highly aware of the Reviews’ real power in the world of letters at the same time that he ruthlessly attacks them for their pedantry and misjudgements (cf. Donoghue 1996: 86). From the establishment of the Reviews on, writers have paid them a very close attention. Checking for reviews became a routine task of newly published authors. In a letter to Thomas Warton from 7 September 1757, Thomas Gray writes “the Critical Review you have seen, or may see” (1816 (2): 289–291), showing how naturally he expected the other to check on the latest issue, as does David Hume when he writes to Adam Smith on 12 April 1759: “I doubt not but you consult the Reviews sometimes at present” (Burton 1846 (2): 55). A rare positive admittance of the importance of the Reviews, and of how authors started to recognize the possibilities to use this importance, can be found in a letter from Jeremy Bentham to his father Jeremiah on 6 March 1789:

21 “For the majority of authors and booksellers they were simply ‘the two Reviews’ and the judgments delivered elsewhere, although they became a necessary part of most general publications and might stir up an occasional fuss, were not important. Indeed, one could read thirty attacks on reviewers from this period and not even discover the existence of reviewing in any other journals than the two leading ones.” Forster 1990: 3.

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The best way of advertising a book is to send a copy to each of the Reviewers: this species of bribery, which must be a dead secret between you and me, I also beg leave to charge you with: begging that no third person whatsoever may either hear of it or see the part you take in it. (1981 (4): 34)

Thomas Cowper humorously expresses his own anxiety about an upcoming review from the Monthly in a letter to William Unwin in 1782: “[Watchmakers, carpenters, bakers] read the Monthly Review, and all these will set me down for a dunce, if those terrible critics show them the example. But oh! wherever else I am accounted dull, dear Mr. Griffiths, let me pass for a genius at Olney!”22 And William Hayley, later patron of Blake, humorously shows the author’s anxiety about the most recent reviews in his poem The Triumphs of Temper (1781): Near to the nymph, in a more moody fit, See the pale phantom of a peevish wit! Mark with what frowns his eager eyes peruse, Wet from the press, three Critical Reviews With wounded vanity’s distracting rage How rapidly he runs thro’ every page! He finds some honours lavish’d on his verse, And joy’s faint gleams his gloomy spirit pierce. But oh! too soon these feeble sparks decay: And keen vexation reassumes her prey. Hating reproof, in every fibre sore, One censur’d particle torments him more, More than a hundred happier lines delight, Which liberal favour condescends to cite. (71–72)23

Everyone was reading the Reviews, and even their most embittered opponents had to grudgingly accept the fact of their presence and their extended readership. In his sarcastic attack on the Monthly, James Elphinston distinguishes between “readers in general, or to their own only,” adding “if at this day there can be any difference” (1763: 32). But apart from these often indirect indications of the Reviews’ influence, there is another way to measure it more directly. The nature of the Reviews as commercial ventures and their serial form of publication worked together to make audience acceptance – usually a rather elusive quantity – much more palpable. In a time of very short runs for so many journals, every further issue was a testimony to

22 Qtd. in Fieser 1996: 648. 23 Cf. also Sheridan 1781: 21.


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the Reviews’ authority. With the Reviews, the investment with and measurement of critical authority is firmly expressed in economic terms, which means that the reader, through his spending power, is in a sense empowered as consumer. The reviewers therefore had to be careful to argumentatively construct an impression of complicity with their audience, while opponents often focused on the Reviews’ relation to their audience to depict it in terms of usurpation.24 It is therefore necessary to take a close look at the way that both the Reviews themselves, and their detractors in print, debate the Reviews’ relationship to their readers. Strategies to create complicity are always important for the construction of critical authority. Where no real supporters are to be found, critics had often resorted to agreeing with an unnamed but approving audience, the more general the better. Claims to be in agreement with a group that is not defined had the advantage that they could hardly be questioned. This is very succinctly expressed by John Eusebius Smyth in one of his satirical rules for criticism: “If your own Authority is not sufficient to quell Opposition, and carry your Point; why then, two or three of you join Forces–––and call your selves the WORLD –––and the Work’s done.” (1730: 9) One might compare this to a remark from a review on a pamphlet called A Letter to the Authors of the Monthly Review, which is absolutely necessary to be read by every one who would understand their Work. In his review, Jabez Hirons, who had written countless reviews for the Monthly, especially on theological works, starts thus: When a poor lunatic in Bedlam was once asked how he came to be there, he said, By a dispute: What dispute? Why, replied the lunatic, the world said that I was mad, I said the world was mad, and they out voted me. Something like this, is our dispute with the Author of the letter before us; we say that he is a fool, he says that we are fools: and the world must now take part with him or with us. (1789: 445)

The analogy that Hirons draws is also illustrative of the self-assurance with which authors of the Monthly and the Critical regarded their position and their critical authority in the late 18th century. Instead of Smyth’s three critics that joined forces, here was a formidable band of authors writing in a flourishing serial publication that had already run for several decades, and that indeed had become to signify to many observers – for better or worse – the critical ‘world.’ From the beginning, the Reviews were aware of how intricately connected their authority was to their audience. In the editorial to the very first edition of the Monthly Review, the journal is announced to be

24 Cf. on this also Donoghue 1996: 29ff.

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a periodical whose sole object should be to give a compendious account of those productions of the press, as they come out, that are worth notice; an account, in short, which should, in virtue of its candour, and justness of distinction, obtain authority enough for its representations, to be serviceable to such as would choose to have some idea of a book before they set out their money or time on it. (Anonym 1749: 1)

The usefulness of the Review and its investment with critical authority by its readers go inextricably hand in hand. Only by gaining authority from the reader can the Review be useful for him. And even though the claim that authority should derive from an impartial position is a fairly standard one, it acquires quite a different meaning when related to the Review’s added claim of exhaustive coverage. The fact that not only judging a book is a critical act, and one that needs authority, but also the very decision to talk about that book at all, is here being institutionalized. There were three main ways to understand the relationship between the Reviews and their audience. One could picture it as prescriptive, with reviewers making their judgment for the reader. In this sense, they gave their judgments as a substitute for that of the reader, this being hitherto the most common way the relationship between a critic and his audience had been understood. Or one could understand reviewers as a mouthpiece of public opinion, following rather than shaping the general consensus, or, in other words, judging as the reader would. This takes into account the commercial and distributive nature of review criticism, their need to cater to their audience and the implied fear of a resulting lowering of critical standards. And lastly, one could depict them as merely descriptive, withholding judgment but providing enough information and arguments to empower their readers to pronounce their final judgment on their own. The Reviews themselves were often ambiguous in assessing their own influence. Some of this ambiguity can be seen in a passage from the preface to the 23rd volume of The Critical Review, where the argument of the test of time is related to the validity of the judgments put forth in the Review: [The editors] humbly beg leave to put the following question to every disinterested reader of sense, candour, and learning: Whether he knows any work subsist, in a tolerable degree of reputation with the public, after having been condemned by the authors of this Review? If any such work can be produced, the authors are willing to make a public retraction. If no such instance can be brought, they hope the inference is fair, when they say, that it amounts to an acknowledgment of their never having condemned any work of real, permanent, merit (Anonym 1767e: iii–iv).25

25 Philip Thicknesse, in Useful Hints to those who make the Tour of France, comments this very paragraph in a highly critical way, cf. Thicknesse 1768: no page.


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This seems to state that the reviewers are merely echoing or voicing public and general approval of certain works of art. The assumed identity of their judgments with the outcome of the test of time is meant to imply that they are speaking on behalf of the public. But anyone (and especially any author) anxious about the influence of the Reviews could easily read this passage (with special attention on the chronology expressed: “after having been condemned”) as saying that no book that is not approved by the Critical Review will stand a chance with the general public. The potential claim of judging for the reader was a rather touchy one and always an argumentative shortcut to the charge of self-constitution of authority, possibly illegitimate. It was surely common for an individual critic to reject the democratic spirit of criticism with its classless ideal of every reader as critic and to claim with Nathaniel Weekes that “[n]o Work of real Merit can ever be sufficiently esteem’d unless its Excellencies and Beauties are properly pointed out by a judicious Critic” because “‘[t]is in the Power of most Men to read, but Few to Distinguish.” (1754: iii) But for a continuously published journal that was studied with great attention by readers and authors, and that relied on its existence on being bought, such a position was hard to maintain, or at least had to be formulated in cautious terms. When Edward Watkinson, in a programmatic essay for the Critical, describes the function of the reviewers as reading prescriptively, he takes great pains to embed this claim in images of utility: “[C]ertainly it is highly expedient, that a set of men of approved parts and talents, should undertake the charitable employment of reading for the public; and thus exert the abilities with which nature has endowed them, in the service of their country, and in the cause of literature.” (1761: 4) Against the image of usurpation, Watkinson stressed the reviewers’ function as servants to the public: “As the public is his patron, so to obtain the favour of the public must be his sole aim” (3).26 One has to agree with Basker’s that “[t]he most difficult and perhaps ultimately the most significant question about editorial policy during Smollett’s tenure is whether the reviewers saw themselves shaping or following public opinion.” (1988: 159) Whereas an insistence on their own opinion could easily make the critics appear as dictators, lack of critical independence had as well

26 One field in which it was possible to differentiate between supposedly bad amateur and supposedly good professional reading was the genre of the novel, as there was a wide consensus about its general inferiority. “The good-natured and benevolent Reader will receive more pleasure from the perusal of this work, than the critic. The former, whose heart must be rent by the cruel fate of the first Clarissa, will be delighted with the better fortune of her amiable name-sake; while the latter will be less benignly employed in marking the inferiority of the new production.” Anonym 1771c: 74. Cf. also Anonym 1776.

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always been a common accusation against critics, especially of the coffeehouse type epitomized by Johnson’s Dick Minim. Such critics never ventured an original judgment, but waited first for common approval to adjust their own opinion to. Sarah Fielding describes this sort of critic in her novel The Adventures of David Simple.27 But though this accusation was sometimes made against the Reviews (cf. Wolcot 1787: 8–9), it was much less convincing, since original opinions were given in them, often enough long before public consensus could have been reached, leading in the eyes of posterity both to spectacular misjudgements (Sterne28) and honourable early appreciations (Cleland’s review of Peregrine Pickle). Given the serial form of monthly publication, and the number of titles reviewed in each issue, a consistent strategy of echoing public consensus would have been hard to maintain for practical reasons alone. The Reviews were simply too fast and too comprehensive to make such strategies realistic. With about 30 to 60 books being reviewed in every issue, the chances of finding enough people who had read all of these books before the deadlines of the articles to form some sort of consensus opinion would have been very slim. Much more likely it was the other way around, and it were the readers who perused the Reviews before venturing an opinion of their own, as David Mallet observes, when he writes to the Reviews that “your great pupil, the public, has, on many occasions, a most resigned deference for your judgment; applauding or blaming implicitly, as you lead the cry.” (1759: ix)29 An exaggerated image of the normative nature of the Reviews’ criticism was often used in attacks against them, with prescriptive criticism turning easily into demagogy and then tyranny. In this demagogic sense, Thomas Mariott claims that “the principal Aim of [the] Critical Review is, to mislead and deceive the Judgment

27 “[T]hey find out that they have no Opinions of their own, and therefore make it their whole Study to get into Company with People of real Understanding, and to pick up every thing that is said.” Fielding 1744: 158–159. For other examples, cf. Pope 1711: 24–25 and Lloyd 1774 (2): 19–20. 28 “To speak without a figure, we never perused a more stupid, unmeaning, and senseless performance than the third volume of Tristram Shandy, which the author would impudently pass for the supplement to a production, as celebrated for its wit as this certainly will be for its dulness.” Anonym 1760c: 238. “We must tax you with what you will dread above the most terrible of all imputations––nothing less than DULLNE SS . Yes, indeed, Mr. Tristram, you are dull, very dull. Your jaded Fancy seems to have been exhausted by two pigmy octavos, which scarce contained the substance of a twelve-penny pamphlet; and we now find nothing new to entertain us.” Ruffhead 1761c: 103. 29 That is why he asks the Reviews to say nothing at all about his own poem, hoping that the public will thus form a judgment of their own, without being too specific about how such a judgment would manifest itself, and without considering that a book that was ignored by the Reviews might not even be noticed by the public.


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of his Readers” (1759b: v),30 and according to a character in a short farce by Phanuel Bacon, the reviewers “aim at taking away from the public THEIR Right OF JUDGING FOR THEMSELVES .–––” (1757: 52) Such negative accounts of the Reviews as judging for their readers always entails as well, explicitly or implicitly, a criticism of the audience for being unable to judge for their own. This general accusation becomes especially virulent in the case of the Reviews, because their authority is so closely tied to the extent of their readership, measured not hierarchically by the eminence of their readers, but in purely quantitative terms by their sales figures. Also, other than previous forms of criticism that had claimed, besides giving judgments on books, to offer theoretical considerations, set up general laws, or enlighten and interpret difficult passages in texts, the Reviews’ main function was the service they provided in judging the merits of books – every book – in a way that was conveniently accessible to every reader. James Elphinston sarcastically points to that function, when he praises “those self-constituted critics, who by judging for the public were kindly to save it the trouble of judging; and to point the objects of esteem or neglect, the pieces to be read and those to be reprobated” (1763: 1–2). In Percival Stockdale’s account, the natural intellectual laziness of the audience combines with the Review’s ease of use as a substitute for individual judgment to construct an authority that is highly effective and very hard to diminish: [T]he great majority of mankind (and consequently, of readers) are too indolent for inquiry: and what they find asserted in print (especially pompous edicts, formally issued from a chair of criticism) imposes on them, with a kind of specious authority. Hence, the characters which are given of books by the Reviewers, determine the reading, and the taste of a great number of persons; not only in our remoter countries, but in the metropolis itself; – not a little to the prejudice of authors of merit (1792: 3).

By contrast, resistance to the authority of the Reviews as prescriptive, as judging for the reader, is often formulated in democratic rhetoric reminiscent of the Kantian formulation of enlightenment self-emancipation. As it is exactly the institutional status of the Reviews that has given them such unprecedented sovereignty in a literary market increasingly driven by the forces and mechanisms of commerce, this singular position could also lead to their immediate downfall in a non-violent revolution of reader-emancipation and civil disobedience. In this view, the Reviews get their absolute power from the audience’s absolute resigna30 Cf. also: “[T]his Critic assumed such a Motto, only to blind and disguise his sinister Intentions, of biassing, and prejudicing the Judgment of those Readers, who form an Opinion of every new Book, from his Misrepresentations, and false Comments, that he may, by such Artifices, blast the Sale of them.” Mariott 1759b: xiv.

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tion of it – and consequently they must lose it all as soon as the audience decides to judge for itself again. Contrary to what Donoghue asserts,31 Charles Churchill, though he does paint the present situation as one of absolute authority for the Reviews, expresses this idea of possible liberation, using the additional analogy to the myth of the golden calf: But why repine we that these puny elves Shoot into giants? –––we may thank ourselves: Fools that we are, like Israel’s fools of yore, The calf ourselves have fashion’d we adore. But let true reason once resume her reign, This god shall dwindle to a calf again. (1761: 6)

Thomas Underwood goes one step further and imagines that this self-emancipation of the reader has already happened. At the fictional staff meeting of the Critical Review that he satirically narrates, there is a sense of failure and impending doom, voiced by Hamilton as editor: For know, my Caledonian Band, Our Dissolution’s near at hand; A Spirit, obstinate in Ill Which dares oppose your utmost Skill, Has spread Contagion far and wide– Nor will it suffer, to preside, Your polish’d Labours – or admit Yourselves – sole arbiters of Wit––

This spirit that effectively ends the absolute critical authority of the Reviews (as “sole arbiters of Wit”) is the common sense that starts to teach the audience to think for itself: The Public – or a factious Crew, Who late implicit bow’d to You, Confess’d no Judgment of their own, But all Submission to your Crown, Now, (by that Demon, Common Sense, To which they madly feign Pretence) Declare–resolve–by Reason’s Aid, They’ll quite extirpate this sweet Trade; Judge for ‘emselves–no longer wear Those Chains–which Nature cannot bear– (Underwood 1770: 16-18)

31 Donoghue writes that in The Apology, “[r]eaders are presented as numerous but powerless, subject to the tyranny of the Reviews.” Donoghue 1996: 50.


Institutionalizing Authority: Academies and Reviews

By depicting the relation between Reviews and audience as one of tyrannical usurpation, its enemies showed their inability to accept that, on the contrary, the success of the Reviews would have more appropriately been imagined as a democratic empowerment by financial vote. After their establishment, it was the buying audience’s monthly decision to invest the Reviews with authority, and the editors and reviewers took pains to emphasize that this spirit of consensus still reigned after they had secured their high standing. In the preface celebrating the tenth anniversary of his Review, the editor of the Critical in an ingenious way aligns it with its audience. By flattering the readers that their (positive) judgment must contain some truth, he can read the commercial success of his journal as a sign of its quality, saying that the authors of the Critical Review “are conscious that if the most sincere intentions for the benefit of literature can entitle them to success, they deserve it; but to imagine that it can be attained without some merit in the execution, would be offering an insult to the judgment of their readers.” (Anonym 1765c: no page) And in 1772, the preface to the thirty-fourth volume boldly declares that there was hardly any need to illustrate either the plan or the “various merits” of the journal, since “[the readers’] suffrage has done repeated honour to the latter.” (Anonym 1772: no page) The use of ‘suffrage’ to explain the legitimization of the Review’s critical authority through the reader’s acceptance shows that the relation between reader and reviewer is conceptualized as one of democratic representation. The reviewer represents the reader who gives him his vote; thus, the reviewer can claim to read as the reader, as his vocal advocate in the republic of letters. But judging as the reader did not necessarily mean judging as every reader would. The claim to speak for a reading public almost always already entails a differentiation between types of audience. According to Donoghue, “Monthly articles after 1756 began to discriminate among reading practices, creating hierarchies among its audience by assessing the habits and tastes of different kinds of readers” (1996: 28), a development that is true for the other Reviews as well. In a review of posthumous works of Thomas Parnell, for example, the reviewer questions the authenticity of these works, and distinguishes between those who will be deceived by the forgery, “the hasty Reader”, and “those who are curious and critical” (Kirkpatrick 1758: 380), who will see through the pretence. Smollett in a review from 1759 stresses the Critical’s obligation to counter the “capricious” nature of the “public esteem” (cf. Smollett 1759c: 271), while Owen Ruffhead puts the differentiation between audiences in more general terms. While pledging his allegiance to the ultimate authority of the audience, Ruffhead immediately points to the fact that the audience should not be seen as unanimous:

Courts of Criticism II: The Reviews


When Pliny was dissatisfied with the Judgment of his Critical Friends, to whom he submitted his compositions, he used to say, Ad Populum provoco. In all cases, whatever, the last resort is undoubtedly to the people, from whose decree no appeal can be made to any superior tribunal. Nevertheless, there are instances in which we may venture to appeal from the people to themselves (1761b: 180–181).

The nature of the difference between the types of audience he explains with another story, that of Philip of Macedon, who had slept through the presentation of a cause and had consequently given an unjust judgment, “upon which the party aggrieved cried out, ‘I appeal. I appeal.’ To whom, said Philip; ‘To Philip when he is awake,’ replied the Appelant.” (Ruffhead 1761b: 181)32 The differentiation of audiences is thus ultimately an argumentative trick to be able to express the claim of reading for the public in terms of reading as the public. In this sense, the reviewers indeed read as the audience did, but it was up to them to decide which part of the audience they meant – in the most extreme case only themselves. For the Reviews to truly forfeit critical power and authority they had to revert instead to pure description, providing just enough information for the reader to judge for himself. Here, the two different, even incompatible, accounts of ‘the’ reader discussed earlier are at strife: the pessimistic account of ongoing cultural degeneracy resulting from the low taste and intellectual laziness of the reader, and the optimistic one of each reader’s potential for individual, independent, i.e.: critical thought, as expressed early in Addison’s didactic project of critical emancipation, and idealized in Johnson’s ‘common reader.’ The first makes prescriptive Reviews inevitable, the second ultimately superfluous. The extreme form of the second view is argued by James Rymer in 1775: “All Men who read, are reviewers: every individual having the freedom of thought – who can hinder him from it – thinks for himself, and often rejects the opinion of others. In this place it may be asked, why is a particular set of men pointed out for universal criticism?” (39) As long as one believes in the degeneracy of general taste, the prescriptive function of criticism is important and justified, but from the audience’s perspective and their claim to independent thought it could always be held against the Reviews. But the Reviews in their self-representation where far from accepting the categorisation of their work as prescriptive. Instead, they frequently provided the counter-image of review criticism as empowering the reader to judge for himself.

32 Cf. also: “Readers of delicate feelings, and exquisite sensibility, will find great pleasure in our author’s disquisition. Those, (and they are the bulk of mankind) whose conceptions are more gross, will disregard it”, Anonym 1769a: 107.


Institutionalizing Authority: Academies and Reviews

When its editor Thomas Christie wrote a Prospectus of the Analytical Review in 1788, he claimed that “[t]he true design of a Literary Journal is, in my opinion, to give such an account of new publications, as may enable the reader to judge of them for himself” (Christie 1788a: i), a position that he repeats in the preface to his first volume (cf. Christie 1788b). Christie then goes on to accuse the older Reviews of having neglected this true design, judging instead for the reader. What he neglects to consider, though, is that his other expressed aim, that of being much more selective than the earlier Reviews (cf. Christie 1788a: ii), implies a prejudgment on the part of the journal even more prescriptive than the most apodictic critical statement could be. It is much easier to disagree with a stated opinion than with the exclusion of a book one doesn’t even know. But, contrary to Christie’s accusation, the other Reviews were trying to create the same impression. William Taylor and Ralph Griffiths, in their review of Disraeli’s Miscellanies for the Monthly, claim that the Reviews are simply part of an impartial courtroom, where all parties involved can utter their statements, leaving (and empowering) the reader to judge for himself: “As our business, indeed, is to criticise writers, we cannot be angry if writers criticise us […]; and our opinions, together with the hypercriticisms of any who may chuse to attack us, are alike at the bar of the public.” (Taylor 1797: 379) Five of countless examples, two from the Critical and three from the Monthly Review show how its reviewers employed the rhetorical strategy of leaving the ultimate judgment to the reader: The design of this remarker is to prove, that Fingal was a native of Ireland, in contradiction to the assertions of the gentleman who lately translated and published an Epic Poem, so called; which translator affirms him to have been a prince of Scotland. How far the remarker has succeeded, we shall leave to the reader’s own judgment and determination. Indeed, we have particular reasons for witholding our own opinion on this subject. (Anonym 1762d: 164) We therefore leave our cause with the public, and recommend the same moderation to the other gentlemen whom Mr. K. has attacked in his rage. (Anonym 1766a: 79) [H]ow much [the translator of Ovid’s Heroids] improved his taste by the study of so elegant a model [as the writings of Pope], we leave the Reader to judge, by the following extract (Anonym 1788: 245). The author appears to have an excellent genius for compositions of this sort; but we leave the reader to form his own judgment from the following specimen. (Griffiths 1750: 331) On the production before us we shall leave the reader to form his own opinion, in some measure, by a brief outline of the general story. (Aikin 1795: 345)

Persistent as they were, such protestations of objectivity or neutrality always have to be taken with a grain of salt. Neutral description or paraphrase is hardly

Courts of Criticism II: The Reviews


possible. The least doubtful, but also the most problematical strategy for the transferral of judgment from critic to reader was therefore to print uncommented extracts from the original texts. The debate about the validity, usefulness or even legitimacy of publishing extracts in the Reviews therefore connects questions of critical authority, the function of criticism, and literary property in the context of an increasingly confusing literary market. In terms of copyright, extracts of previously published texts were the file sharing of the 18th century. Before copyright’s institutionalization as a law, extracts constituted a huge grey area, localized somewhere between a useful and rightful (even scientific) practice, and clandestine piracy. This became especially virulent with the rise of the magazines, which Collins calls “miscellanies of accumulated thieving […]. They claimed the right to abridge and to précis without infringing copyright, and it was often difficult to draw the line between so-called abridgment and downright piracy.” (1927: 59) In its early days, the Gentleman’s Magazine consisted almost exclusively of articles gathered from other journals, and there were even journals like the Magazine of Magazines, the subtitle of which ran Compiled from Original Pieces, with Extracts from the most celebrated Books, and Periodical Compositions, […] The Whole forming A compleat Literary and Historical Account of that Period. But what was potentially worse than the practice of republishing articles or parts of articles in journals and magazines was the elaborate inclusion of abstracts and extracts in book reviews.33 Most journals containing essays were transitory publications; their potential span of being bought and read was relatively short, and usually ended at the latest with the publication of the next issue. But books needed much more time to financially break even than the month between publication and the review. Contemporary opinion was divided but aware that abstracts and extracts were important factors in the mechanisms of the literary market, and the practice was consequently defended, sometimes even by authors. A reviewer from the London Review, for example, defends the fact that only the title-page of a book is protected by law by saying that “from the very nature of the property, it must ever be so, unless we would put a stop to all improvements in literature and science.” (Anonym 1777a: 455) Rowland Jones complained that the Monthly had criticised him with no more than a single quotation from a marginal note in the preface (cf. Jones 1769: 45). Similarly, John Free was infuriated by the Reviews’ failure to publish any quotations from his book (cf. Free 1755: 17). William Kenrick had

33 Basker notes an ironical twist that the Reviews themselves were also frequently subject to being extracted, as “comparative excerpts from the reviews were to remain a staple of magazine contents for much of the rest of the century.” 1988: 174.


Institutionalizing Authority: Academies and Reviews

started his first review journal by attacking the Monthly and the Critical for their presumption to value criticism over quotation (cf. Basker 1988: 70), and he continued his policy of copious extracts in his second journal, the London Review, defending this practice in the preface to the second volume by referring to criticism’s reductive function as a necessary gate-keeper in a world of book overproduction and books swollen with superfluous material: A clamour, indeed, has been raised against the London Reviewers by the interested and mercenary, for having frequently given, in a few pages, the whole sum and substance of voluminous publications. But against this clamour they rely on the justice of the public; on which popular writers and artful editors are too apt to impose their scanty volumes and loosely-printed pages, at a price too exorbitant for so much waste paper. (Kenrick 1775d: vi)

One year earlier, Kenrick had also defended the legality of extracts in his consideration of the newly established copyright law, declaring categorically that “it does by no means appear that abstracts, abridgements and compilations […] are at all contrary to law.” (1774a: 45) William Enfield, in his review of Kenrick’s treatise, agreed and claimed that extracts were actually beneficent to sales: “It is certainly not favourably to the interest of literature that all abstracts, compilations, &c. should be prohibited: and we apprehend such a prohibition would seldom be of advantage to an author: for extracts make the original work better known, and generally promote its sale.” (1774: 280)34 This was directly opposed to the opinion of David Mallet, who is very unambiguous in his position that extracts in the Reviews directly hurt the sale of a book: [W]hen a new book appears, you never fail to transplant from it into yours the choicest and most beautiful flowers […]. These being now most judciously culled, and ready-made up into six or twelve-penny nosegays, the reader, for whose sake, only, you take all this periodical trouble, will neither be inclined to purchase, nor even to look into the rifled nursery where they originally grew. (1759: xi, cf. also 38)

Clara Reeve included an extensive discussion of extracts in literary reviews in her Progress of Romance. She takes a middle position; first she completely condemns the practice of compilations, but differentiates this from the case of the Reviews. “As the Censors of literature they ought to have an exclusive right to give extracts of every publication that deserves their recommendation”. Still, she asks for moderation, inveighing against the Reviews’ practice of drawing out important reviews over a number of issues, in order to give them enough space

34 The bookseller and author John Newbery took the same position when he defended the copious use of quotation in his The art of poetry, cf. Newbery 1762 (1): vii.

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to include everything of importance in their extracts: “[I]t is not fair to skim off the cream of an Author’s dairy, and leave only the dregs behind: or in other words, to gratify the reader’s curiosity, and prevent his purchasing the book” (Reeve 1785 (2): 50–51). But besides the ambiguous aspect of reader-oriented service or convenience and copyright infringement, the inclusion of extracts was the most important exit strategy of 18th century review criticism. By quoting extensively, critics repeated in miniature the general transferral of critical authority from the critic to the reading public that has been discussed earlier. As Robert Spector has remarked, extracts were “not conducive to establishing authority” (1997: 303) for the critic. Reviewers routinely explain their inclusion of long abstracts by the humble gesture of transferring the judgment to the reader, indicating that the text will speak for itself. The diversified entertainment, which this valuable publication has enabled us to lay before our readers,