Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets



Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


Futile Criticism*


I suppose really futile criticism is of two kinds, the over-zealous and the over-polite. Criticism that is strained and angry, like a voice raised beyond its normal pitch, will fail of its results; it is too palpably exaggerated to be convincing; the animus of the critic is only too evident. On the other hand, just as worthless and unilluminating is that sort of criticism which is hopelessly smug and non-committal, afraid of the sound of its own yea and nay, and too timorous to be truthful.

Of the first sort, the slashing criticism, tradition keeps us in mind. There were the spacious days of The Quarterly and The Edinburgh, when our friends Lord Byron and Mr. Keats were handled without hesitation and criticism was held in repute and fear. And down in our own time the prophetic voices have been heard, unimpaired in Carlyle and Ruskin, revilers of the times, mentors and chastisers of their age. Since their splendid hour, unflinching criticism (or perhaps one ought to say ruthless criticism) has lached for a distinguished exponent, unless Mr. Henley can be called ruthless. Mr. Robert Buchanan, while sufficiently ruthless, has hardly the prominence that one speaks of as distinguished. Mr. Swinburne's essays, so full of distinction and so courageous, one hardly classes as ruthless criticism either. His ire is so godlike, his invective so voluble, his denunciations so unmeasured, that one (I for one) must read him rather for diversion than for instruction. When the great poet of "Atalanta in Calydon" takes up his war-quill there is a delicious exhibition in store for the appreciative reader whose humor is unjaded. As criticism, however, I doubt if anyone would call his work conclusive.

After all, it as a thankless task to tell even an artist his faults, unless you can manage somehow to reŽstablish his own good opinion of himself at the same time-very much in the way that one says, "So-and-So is a blank poor actor, but he is good to his mother." And perhaps our current criticism is not so very dissimilar to that; except that we omit to tell the man that he's a poor actor.

There is no doubt that we are more humane than our fathers in the matter of criticism; whether or not we are more effective or useful may be an open question. Many persons will hold that the happy medium was struck by the author of Culture and Anarchy, in his trenchant style, at once fearless and urbane, cutting and kindly. If the medicine of sharp criticism can ever can be made palatable to the patient, it would seem that Arnold's prescription must be used-one ounce of irony to two ounces of logic, applied hypodermically. And if the patient gets up a temperature, repeat the application.

In our own immediate time this thorough method has largely been superseded by salve and lotion treatment, very pleasant to take. No radical cure can be effected, and an eruption is liable to reappear at any time. Moreover, the salve remedy has one great drawback, it renders the skin hypersensitive, so that the least harsh criticism causes intense irritation. This is particularly true of actors, in whom the malady is almost always of a virulent order. For the moment, however, this massaging of the soul with unguents of praise is most agreeable. It has a sedative, megalocephic effect, entirely delightful. And it is not until frequent repetition has dulled its potency that we perceive the degree of lassitude and debility to which it has reduced us.

If I could have only one gift from Heaven I would say: "Give me an honest friend-one who will tell me my faults without asperity and without fear."

It is the business of every critic (may we not say?) to put himself in a position of just such a chosen friend toward the man whose work comes within his study. True, the artist cannot choose his critic. If he could he would probably choose a sycophant every time, and that would be unfortunate. So the rough-and-ready way of things as they are, where the critic picks out his artist, is better for us all. But the critic should have in mind his self-appointed office, surely.

This much being premised, I cannot find any other obligation binding on criticism but to find out the truth and tell it. This in itself will be a task of sufficient magnitude and courage to enlist our best powers. If you are fondly cherishing the idea that the world is only waiting to be instructed in its errors you have not grasped the first rudiments of the situation. And you may remember, if you have the notion of making criticism your calling, that a pinch of ridicule is worth a pound of railing. It lasts longer and cures more thoroughly. And this saving salt of humor, which will enable you to excoriate others with precision, to their lasting benefit, will also help you to bear their discomfiture with a feeling akin to equanimity.

There will be no shadow of levity, however, in your devotion to the cause of truth. You may use ridicule, irony, humor, invective or any other weapon with which you are endowed as a means to compass your aim. But that aim itself will always be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. If facts are unpleasant, that is not your business; it is only your business to see that they are true, and to drive them home. If your hearer hasn't an open mind, open it. If he hasn't any mind at all, but only a ganglion of prejudices, it is the will of God; you cannot alter it.

But for ever and ever say the simple truth as you believe it to be. Then, however you may be in error, you will at least be establishing honesty and making a way for the truth when it shall arrive.

"Futile Criticism," Commercial Advertiser, Nov. 24, 1900 [back]