Academic journal article Essays in Literature

"Impartial Critick" or "Muse's Handmaid": The Politics of Critical Practice in the Early Eighteenth Century

Academic journal article Essays in Literature

"Impartial Critick" or "Muse's Handmaid": The Politics of Critical Practice in the Early Eighteenth Century

Article excerpt

Great Wits as well as little have their Passions, their Piques and Prejudices, when the least Blemish is discovered in their Glory....

John Oldmixon (15)

In Soliloquy, or Advice to an Author, first published in 1710, Lord Shaftesbury (Anthony Ashley Cooper) wondered why the English had become such "Critick-Haters" (1:235). Indeed, the early eighteenth century could easily be a significant candidate as the period in which critics and criticism were attacked most heartily and viciously. Regardless of their status in the literary field, many writers attacked criticism and critics even when they practiced the art themselves. Ned Ward, a Grub Street hack who was mentioned in the Dunciad, satirized critics. Joseph Addison, even as he wrote criticism, positioned himself in the camp of writers and against critics in numerous essays written for the Tatler, Spectator, and Guardian. Lewis Theobald, who is now remembered as the hero of the Dunciad and an editor of Shakespeare, attacked John Dennis as an impertinent critic of Pope. We tend to associate attacks upon critics primarily with Swift and Pope, but the very writers and critics they satirized just as frequently denigrated critics and criticism.

Despite the great number of attacks on critics, the actual targets were few. Commenting in 1728 on the critical wars two decades past, John Oldmixon called attention to this irony when he insisted that "there are but three Authors in our Time who were Criticks by Profession, Rymer, Dennis, and Gildon" (8).(1) Moreover, the language used in the attacks, often borrowed from Dryden's similar assaults in the 1670s, was repetitive and prosaic, the terms and jargon commonplace by the beginning of the second decade of the eighteenth century? Critics were routinely referred to as ill-natured venomous creatures, parasites, and slanderers. And it was commonly claimed that contemporary critics were more contentious and malevolent than their predecessors, as in Defoe's comment that "the Criticks in this Age are arriv'd to that consummate Pitch of ill-nature" (15). Even those who did not agree with this view, like Shaftesbury and Charles Gildon, acknowledged that their contemporaries looked upon criticism with a jaundiced eye. Shaftesbury stated that writers considered

critics "dreadful Specters, the Giants, the Enchanters, who traverse and disturb'em in their Works" (1:231), and one of Gildon's speakers in The Complete Art of Poetry intoned that criticism "lies under the forbidding and odious Imputation of Ill-Nature" (1:94).

Although it is commonly believed that the critical climate of the period was, as Maynard Mack put it in his recent biography of Pope, "confused, contentious, anarchic, bedeviled by dogma and narrow views" (168), to our knowledge the factors determining the cantankerous tone of these debates have not been examined. Literary biographers of the period have provided detailed accounts of these attacks where they have intersected with the lives and careers of the writers studied, but understandably such studies have emphasized personal psychology and motive at the expense of the larger cultural patterns that help to determine personal choices.(3)

Modern histories of criticism also give such debates only passing notice, if they notice them at all.(4) Yet, an examination of these quarrels as a distinct phenomenon of the period allows us to see that the issues at stake were not solely or even substantially "personal." Rather, the central question that concerned participants in these quarrels was whether the critic should set up a separate trade with interests, aims, and methods distinct from the poet's and what role criticism would be allowed to play in the literary marketplace. Their timing, too, has some importance, since the literary market was nascent and the relations between critic, writer, bookseller, and public were inchoate and in flux.(5) At a time when professional criticism was new in England, quarrels about the critic's character and the nature of critical efforts put criticism on an intellectual and professional trajectory (largely defensive in tone) maintained throughout the eighteenth century. …

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