Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

John Addington Symonds and the Science of Criticism

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

John Addington Symonds and the Science of Criticism

Article excerpt

Among late-nineteenth-century critics, John Addington Symonds was both one of the most outspoken and most unlikely advocates of a scientific approach to literary criticism. This article examines the ambiguities in Symonds' advocacy of scientific literary criticism, starting from the question of how far he appears to have held a genuine belief in science as a way to solve certain problems criticism was struggling with at the time. One such widely debated problem was the question whether literary judgment could and should--be based on objective criteria or whether it should be left to individual aesthetic preference. Symonds' fascination for and unbounded faith in evolutionary thought ostensibly led him to propound a scientific approach along evolutionary lines that tended toward the exclusion of subjective judgment. However, as this article demonstrates, while on the one hand embracing objective science, Symonds on the other sought ways to reconcile science with individual human experience. This ultimately led him to the paradoxical conclusion that criticism could only ever hope to be placed on a scientific footing through an awareness of the imperfections of science as a critical instrument.

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In an essay on "The Decay of Literature" for the Cornhill Magazine in 1882, Leslie Stephen surveyed the criticism of his day and noted that it "has arrayed itself in some of the dignity of science" (602). To Stephen, the influence of the natural sciences had opened up many possibilities for criticism: "It can discourse of phases of development, of the social organism, of differentiation and evolution, and the spirit of the age as learnedly as 'sociology' itself' (602). Criticism, Stephen argued, was no longer a hapless victim to the caprices of the individual critical mind, with judgments now resting "upon a much wider induction and more minute examination of the facts" (603). However, while criticism may have benefited from an infusion of the scientific spirit, it had also, as a result, become "less delicate and less really sympathetic" (602). Nearly fifteen years later, George Saintsbury, in his own stocktaking of contemporary criticism, reached much the same conclusion, although he did not hesitate to voice it in much stronger terms. In the "Introduction" to his Essays in English Literature 1780-1860 of 1896, Saintsbury found at one extreme end of the critical spectrum a tendency for criticism to limit itself "to the saying of fine things," while at the other he identified "the notion, now warmly championed by some younger critics both at home and abroad, that criticism must be of all things 'scientific'" (xi). It was this latter notion in particular that Saintsbury took issue with, arguing that there was, first, no consensus as to what "scientific" might mean in this context, and, second, that "scientific criticism of literature must always be a contradiction in terms" (xiii). Showing himself an unashamed aesthete, Saintsbury argued that art and literature and the criticism thereof were primarily concerned with beauty, and that beauty and science were mutually exclusive: "With beauty science has absolutely nothing to do" (xiv).

One of the critics Saintsbury--who does not mention any specific names--may well have had in mind was John Addington Symonds, one of the most scientifically minded authors of the late nineteenth century. Much of Symonds' work was inspired by a profound, but never unequivocal, belief in the promise science held to criticism. His biographer Phyllis Grosskurth, in fact, has called his monumental Renaissance in Italy a "testament to Symonds's faith in science" (Biography 249). To a reader who makes his first acquaintance with Symonds through his Memoirs, this might come as somewhat of a surprise. In the chapter on his "Intellectual and Literary Evolution," Symonds is quite explicit about his inability to come to terms with the exact sciences:

I cannot learn anything systematically. …

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