Critics on Criticism: Dryden and Pope on the Evils of Hating, Loving Parts

Posted by @ 4:39 pm on April 6th, 2010

Apparently something about the Restoration, after all the Charleses and Jameses and Cromwells and who is Catholic and who is Anglican or Puritan, got poets to thinking about the whole versus the part, w/r/t criticism. Thus John Dryden, who was politically moderate but eventually found he had some inclinations toward Rome, on critics who “think this or that expression in Homer, Virgil, Tasso, or Milton’s Paradise to be far too strained”:

Tis true there are limits to be set betwixt the boldness and rashness of a poet; but he must understand those limits who pretends to judge as well as he who undertakes to write: and he who has no liking to the whole ought, in reason, to be excluded from censuring of the parts. (from “The Author’s Apology for Heroic Poetry and Heroic License,” 1677)

This seems a good rule. I perhaps unfashionably quite enjoy reading good criticism for its own sake, and I believe a person can display a purely critical genius, though their work ought to follow Wilde’s dictum of being a creative act in its own right. I think, here, that Dryden makes a key distinction. He is taking to task critics who profess no taste for any muscular poetry, for the “the hardest metaphors and the strongest hyperboles,” and who then critique individual works of heroic verse that by definition display that muscularity, hardness, and strength.

I remember feeling similarly when I read Anthony Lane’s review of Star Wars: Episode I in the New Yorker. He kept comparing what he saw as the staleness of Star Wars as a whole to the inventiveness of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. In short, he hated the Star Wars franchise and always had. I think Dryden would say he had no business reviewing the part if he was already set against the whole. Maybe Lane could have used the release of the one movie to air his grievances about all of it. Actually, that’s what he did. But it’s dishonest to call that a review of one movie.

Alexander Pope took a similar, if kind of inverse, umbrage, with critics who are seduced by some kind of ornamental quality of the work–a pointed but empty wit or what Pope terms “false eloquence,” and are blinded to the deeper problems of the whole:

Thus critics of less judgement than caprice,
Curious, not knowing, not exact, but nice,
Form short ideas, and offend in arts
(As most in manners) by a love to parts. (From “An Essay on Criticism, Part 2,” 1711)

And who wants to be loved just for their prettiest parts?

I use the word “seduce” very intentionally. I borrow it from my first workshop teacher, David Foster Wallace, who cautioned us to recognize when we found ourselves being seduced by one aspect of a peer’s work and glossing over what could be stronger. Otherwise, you certainly aren’t helping the author. I think the same goes for critics and their readership, and here the sexual sense of seduction is especially apt. I don’t want to hear at length about someone else’s fetishes, whether erotic or literary.

Tags: , , ,