The Art of Criticism: 7 Timing Praise : Books

By Paulin, Tom | The Independent (London, England), February 19, 1995 | Go to article overview
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The Art of Criticism: 7 Timing Praise : Books

Paulin, Tom, The Independent (London, England)

The freedom of Chaucer is heightened, in Burns, by a fiery, reckless energy; the benignity of Chaucer deepens, in Burns, into an overwhelming sense of the pathos of things; - of the pathos of human nature, the pathos, also, of non-human nature. Instead of the fluidity of Chaucer's manner, the manner of Burns has spring, bounding swiftness. Burns is by far the greater force, though he has perhaps less charm. The world of Chaucer is fairer, richer, more significant than that of Burns; but when the largeness and freedom of Burns get full sweep, as in Tam o'Shanter, or still more in that puissant and splendid production, The Jolly Beggars, his world may be what it will, his poetic genius triumphs over it. In the world of The Jolly Beggars there is more than hideousness and squalor, there is bestiality; yet the piece is a superb poetic success. It has a breadth, truth and power which make the famous scene in Auerbach's Cellar, of Goethe's Faust, seem artificial and tame beside it, and which are only matched by Shakespeare and Aristophanes.

Here, where his largeness and freedom serve him so admirably . . . here we have the genuine Burns, of whom the real estimate must be high indeed. . . . {He is} a poet with thorough truth of substance and an answering truth of style, giving us a poetry sound to the core.

Matthew Arnold:

`The Study of Poetry' (1880)

NEVER begin with immediate undiluted praise of a subject. All you can do, when the first rapture ends, is hesitate, qualify, and inevitably go down from the high note you struck at the start.

Matthew Arnold knew this because he realised that the critic is out there in front of an audience and has to hold its attention. His audience is confident, patriotic, almost entirely English, and so he begins the section on Burns with a passage which appears to dismiss him as a poet who deals "perpetually with Scotch drink, Scotch religion, and Scotch manners".

In the course of a few sentences he uses the word "Scotch" 14 times - his audience relaxes, takes his side, even titters a bit in conscious superiority. It enjoys the knockabout critical comedy in which Arnold says that Burns appeals to his "partial" fellow Scots. But those readers who aren't Scottish, how can they like a poet who portrays not a beautiful, but "a harsh, a sordid, a repulsive world"?

Next, Arnold finds that Burns "comes short of the high seriousness of the great classics". He is not Dante, and neither is Chaucer. Arnold's audience, though it would prefer Chaucer to equal Dante, is comfortable with this judgement, because Arnold has just praised his poetry in terms which sound rather like the march of the British Empire:

"His poetry transcends and effaces, easily and without effort, all the romance-poetry of Catholic Christendom; it transcends and effaces all the English poetry contemporary with it, it transcends and effaces all the English poetry subsequent to it down to the age of Elizabeth.

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