To Criticize the Critic: George Saintsbury on Goethe

By Maertz, Gregory | Papers on Language & Literature, Spring 1994 | Go to article overview

To Criticize the Critic: George Saintsbury on Goethe


Maertz, Gregory, Papers on Language & Literature


The appearance of Dorothy Richardson Jones's King of Critics signals renewed interest in the career of George Saintsbury, the Victorian critic whose domination of the literary world extended into the first quarter of the twentieth century.(1) While replete with revealing anecdotes of literary politics and intimate glimpses of Saintsbury's busy career, Jones's book is strictly a biography and does not address the question of the lasting value of his achievement. The successful journalist made an unorthodox transition to academia with his 1895 appointment to the Regius Chair of Rhetoric and English Literature at the University of Edinburgh. Whatever disadvantages he faced as an English, non-academic darkhorse in an illustrious field of Scottish applicants were overcome by the reputation he had made in nearly two decades of writing for the Manchester Guardian, the Daily News, the Pall Mall Gazette, and the St. James Gazette. In addition to this large body of work, he had spent twelve years (1883-1895) as Assistant Editor of the Saturday Review, charting an independent course for the newspaper that often led to conflict with the Gladstone government. At the same time he continued to produce a steady stream of articles and reviews that if collected would fill many volumes.(2)

Admittedly, Saintsbury's highly subjective, impressionistic technique is not likely to find much sympathy with readers in the late twentieth-century. Nonetheless, during his twenty-year tenure in the Regius Chair, he published several influential critical studies, literary histories, and editions that signal a shift in emphasis from the Romantic and Victorian periods to the Renaissance and Restoration.(3) His most ambitious project, A History of Criticism and Literary Taste in Europe from the Earliest Texts to the Present Day (1900-1904), was intended as the first "survey of critical theory and practice from ancient Greek to modern times" and in the third volume Saintsbury examines the legacy of nineteenth-century criticism (Smith 776). Despite the impressive bulk and range of his output, the importance of Saintsbury's critical judgments is not generally appreciated at the present time, even though his reconfiguring of the canon anticipates, in broad strokes, the revolution in taste popularly associated with T. S. Eliot in the decade following World War I.(4) The following discussion is intended to fill one lacuna in this rich field of inquiry: to examine Saintsbury's reappraisal of Goethe, the German polymath whom Matthew Arnold considered "the greatest critic, perhaps, that has ever lived" (9: 5). Saintsbury begins his critique by attacking what is arguably the most remarkable concentration of literary activity during the transition from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century; he insists that the achievements of the Goethezeit are vitiated by didacticism: "The whole of German literature from 1750-1830 is a sort of Seminar - a kind of enormous and multifarious Higher Education movement, with much more than half-consciousness, by persons often of great talent and sometimes of great genius" (3: 352). Goethe, the dominant poet, novelist, and critic of the period, becomes symbolic of its perceived pedagogical zeal, and Saintsbury takes issue with Carlyle, Arnold, Lewes, and George Eliot, who strongly identify with Goethe's emphasis on personality, conduct, and character. But the intended rebuke to Victorian critics is delivered indirectly, since the focus of Saintsbury's critique is on Goethe and his status as a cultural icon in Victorian Britain.(5) The verdict offered on Goethe's reputation - that "he has too much the character of a superstition, now rather stale" - signals not simply the cyclical pattern of assimilation and rejection that characterizes Anglo-German literary relations from the French Revolution to World War II (3: 352). Rather, situated on the threshold of Modernism, Saintsbury's critique of Goethe anticipates a radical transition in critical norms; in distancing himself from the "didactic" concerns of German critics and their British admirers, he rejects "the gradual ascendency obtained by Anthropology [his term for an absorption with character] over . …

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