May 13, 1922
“THE BEGGAR’S OPERA,” said Mr. Maurice Hewlett in the Times the other day, “is a decadent night’s entertainment, spiced for jaded appetites, like devilled bones after a revel.” It is strange how deeply one resents such a criticism. It is a criticism it might have amused one to make oneself if Mr. Hewlett had not made it first. There are few more innocent games than analysing some popular and respectable taste and showing how decadent it is. It is much the same as the pleasure a footballer finds in stopping a rush. There are two sides to everything, and it is against the human nature of anybody but a partisan to wish one of the sides to win too easily. That explains why there are always a few critics to fling themselves across the victorious advance even of a Shakespeare. They are simply tired of a game that has grown one-sided. And so, to save themselves from yawning, they take the field with the assertion that Hamlet is a bad play or that Shakespeare had a sense of humour that would have disgraced Mark Twain. Most of us have indulged in contradictions of this kind in our teens. Have we not contended that Milton was a minor poet, that Sheridan had no wit, that Dickens did not know how to write? In the face of a reputation that has become simply a universal formula, there is some instinct in us that tempts us to play the part of the devil’s advocate. We feel that even the wildest contradiction is better than a lifeless formality of assent. Even so, we are not willing to concede to everybody else the liberty of contradiction.
Dr. Johnson in this matter, as in most others, was human. He enjoyed abusing those whom others praised, but he enjoyed equally defending those whom others abused. This kind of contradictory disposition puzzles some people. They accuse Dr. Johnson of arguing for victory rather than to establish the truth. This is, surely, to take too solemn a view of the nature of conversation. Conversation is a game in which the players change sides as easily as in tennis, and Dr. Johnson was a man who played his hardest for whatever side he happened to be on. It would, no doubt, be disturbing if men always talked as though they were playing a game. Sincerity would disappear, and nothing but persiflage would be left. In Dr. Johnson’s circle, however, the presence of an element of sport in the talk was generally recognised, and conversation was carried on according to sporting rues. Hence we do not read Dr. Johnson’s remarks about Scotsmen in the same serious mood in which we read—or refuse to read—Herbert Spencer’s remarks on ethics. These were Dr. Johnson’s strokes of play, not the confessions of his soul.
A good deal of the heretical sort of literary criticism is in the same tradition. Samuel Butler’s derision of many of the old masters amuses us because it is essentially playful; the manner is the manner of a player even when Butler is saying what he believes. It is a relief once in a lustre to hear Dante ill spoken of; it is a relief once in a lifetime to hear Lamb himself ill spoken of when anyone speaks ill so well as Butler. There are few reputations that it is not delightful at some time or other to see challenged. Borrow’s abuse of Scott is good reading, and every schoolboy was grateful for Tennyson’s dislike of Horace. All the great writers, all the great composers, all the great painters, have been challenged in this way. Some are challenged from impatience, others for fun. The impatient sort of critic is like the man in Plutarch who voted for the banishment of Aristides merely because he was tired of hearing him called “the Just.” It is a regrettable fact of human nature that most of us have moments when we could have given that vote. We need a rest, a change, a holiday, and there is no more bracing holiday for critics than voting against Aristides. See how they make a great writer one day and banish him from the company of great writers the next! See how Synge, having been crowned of the company of Homer, Shakespeare and Molière, no longer gets more than a beggar’s portion of praise! See how Stevenson, having been acclaimed the master of all the graces of style, is now put down on a level with dead conjurers! Men of genius need not fear. The ultimate values in literature, if there are such things, are not decided by devil’s advocates. As a matter of fact, the devil’s advocate is a necessary ﬁgure in the process of their canonisation. There are few men of genius who have been left lying in obscurity for generations, as Ronsard lay, as a result of too much devil’s advocacy. Byron could not destroy the fame of Wordsworth, nor Wordsworth the fame of Gray. The desire for novelty compels men not only to smash the idols of yesterday but to resurrect the idols of the day before yesterday. Thus we ﬁnd the Victorian idols rising just now into an erect position with something of the pleasant effect of a paradox. Trollope has been dead long enough to come delightfully to life again. We turn for relief from the detective stories of our own time to the spacious sensationalism of Wilkie Collins. Thackeray’s reputation has, perhaps, not been long enough under the ground to call for a resurrection. But he, too, will come back. Even Martin Tupper may come back. There is nothing impossible in artistic fashions if it appeals to our passion for novelty. The greatest men of genius—the Homers and the Shakespeares—are simply those whose inﬁnite variety cannot be staled by custom, who remain novel as the day’s news even after they have been idols for centuries. As for others—Euripides, for instance, and Pope—their novelty appears to be intermittent. They are the enchanters of one generation, the bores of the next. There is a common theory that when once a man of genius has passed through the fire of belittlement that succeeds the first period of his fame, he wins a fixed place among the immortals for ever. But this is hardly the case. The tide of fame rises and falls for most authors, so that in one generation Gray seems a more important writer than Donne, and, in another, Donne more important than Gray. Fashions come and go in books as in clothes, and we never know whether the next revival will be Elizabethan or Queen Anne or Victorian. The exhumation of Campion delights us one year; a few years later we are delighted by the exhumation of John Clare. But there is no guarantee that both Campion and Clare will not in the future have their periods of decline as neglected poets. At the present moment, we fancy, Oliver Goldsmith is entering such a period. He is no longer the star that he seemed to the last generation. His works are on our shelves, but we seldom read him. The younger critics would scarcely think of mentioning The Vicar of Wakefield in a discussion of the masterpieces of fiction. There are even, we understand, members of the new generation who have never read the book.
However much we may enjoy the ruin of reputations, like Mr. Tattle in the play, it is only in one part of our nature that we enjoy it. Even while it amuses us as a game, it offends our sense of justice—offends, to a still greater degree, our sense of reverence. Or it may be simply that one dislikes “stunts”—most of all, the “stunt” of disparagement. An overestimate of a man of genius is provoking; an underestimate of a man of genius is doubly so. There are underestimates that appeal to our comic sense and so incite us, not to contradiction, but to laughter. The underestimate from the lips of a man, however, who is always pulling down the old gods and setting up new ones, and who is merely a purveyor of æsthetic fashions, calls, we feel, for the intervention of the literary police. It is a pleasure to rescue the most diminutive poet from the hands of so egotistic a disturber of the peace. One would passionately defend even a Lovelace or a Waller against violence and slander. Strongly as we may be tempted to contradict the orthodox, we are tempted more strongly to contradict the heretical. Their contradiction begets contradiction on our part. In this way, probably, men of genius are the gainers by excessive disparagement. The current disparagement of Turgenev in comparison with Dostoevsky has stung Mr. Conrad into noble and vehement contradiction. Stevenson, for the moment, has more inﬂuential disparagers than defenders, but the defenders are sure to arise again in such numbers as to bring down a new spate of disparagers on his head. Such a dingdong war of praise and blame makes us long at times for the establishment of settled values in literature—settled values are the perfect circle that critics are always trying to draw. They know it is an illusion, but they are compelled by the constitution of their mind to go on trying to draw it. They feel that now at last they have discovered the exact and final place of Dryden in literature, but as soon as they begin to reflect they remember that critics as able as themselves in other generations have given Dryden an amazingly different place in literature. Who can be sure that the last word has been said even on James Thomson or Young? Each generation seeks in the arts something different from its predecessor, and it may be that the twenty-ﬁrst century will ﬁnd what it wants in the literature of the eighteenth rather than of the nineteenth century. Some critics of the arts begin to despair of the existence of such a thing as standards in criticism when they see what a quick-change artist’s aesthetic taste is when they see even their own tastes changing from year to year. As a matter of fact, criticism is a voyage of discovery into truth, not a discovery of the whole truth. Truth is an inﬁnite territory, and the eye can take in only a narrow stretch, a dell or a valley, at a time. Hence we shall always have discoverers who, coming on a happy valley that has been hidden from other men, will be ﬁlled with such enthusiasm that they will think it more beautiful than the bays of the sea and the hills that are already famous. The ultra-fastidious love these happy valleys beyond anything else. They dislike the world-famed beauty spots in literature as in landscape. We who are less fastidious know that the common instinct of our race is a better judge of beauty in landscape than the personal predilections of reﬁned persons, and we defend the Lake of Geneva and Florence seen from Fiesole against the anti-popular heretics. We defend Hampstead Heath itself if anyone speaks ill of it. And so, the public—not a contemporary public, but a posterity public, which is usually a good judge of the arts—having settled down to enjoy The Beggar’s Opera, most of us will be inclined to take up the defence of this “Newgate pastoral” against Mr. Hewlett’s over-severe strictures. Even when we hear a curate in a drawing-room bawling out “Women and wine should life employ,” we shall not be tempted to ask him to consider realistically the terrible import of the words he is singing. As for the heartlessness of the piece, that is not what we enjoy in it most today. Had it not been for Mr. Hewlett, there are several severe things we might have said about The Beggar’s Opera. But Mr. Hewlett has said them, and said them too extravagantly. He has forced us to remember in what an innocent paradise of thieves and their ladies John Gay has enabled us to wander, and, in the light of that memory, we cannot endure to hear a word against John Gay.