March 27, 1920. The last number of the Chapbook, containing "Three Critical Essays on Modern English Poetry," by three well-known critics of literature, I read with suspiciously eager attention, for I will confess that I have no handy rule, not one that I can describe, which can be run over new work in poetry or prose with unfailing confidence. My credentials as a literary critic would not, I fear, bear five minutes' scrutiny; but I never cease to look for that defined and adequate equipment, such as even a carpenter calls his tool-chest, full of cryptic instruments, each designed for some particular task, and every implement named. It is sad to have to admit it, but I know I possess only a home-made gimlet to test for dry-rot, and another implement, a very ancient heirloom, snatched at only on blind instinct, a stone axe. But these are poor tools, and sooner or later I shall be found out.
There was a time when I was very hopeful about discovering a book on literary criticism which would make the rough places plain for me, and encourage me to feel less embarrassed when present where literary folk were estimating poetry and prose. I am such a simple on these occasions. If one could only discover the means to attain to that rather easy assurance and emphasis when making literary comparisons! Yet though this interesting number of the Chapbook said much that I could agree with at once, it left me as isolated and as helpless as before. One writer said: "There is but one art of writing, and that is the art of poetry. The test of poetry is sincerity. The test of sincerity is style; and the test of style is personality." Excellent, I exclaimed immediately; and then slowly I began to suspect a trap somewhere in it.
Of course, does not the test for sunlight distinguish it at once from insincere limelight? But what is the test, and would it be of any use to those likely to mistake limelight for daylight?
I cannot say I have ever been greatly helped by what I have read concerning the standards for literary criticism. Of the many wise and learned critics to whose works I have gone for light, I can remember only Aristotle, Longinus, Tolstoy, and Anatole France--probably because it is easy for the innocent to agree with dominating men. Of the moderns I enjoy reading anything "Q" has to say about books; useless pleasure again, for what does one get but "Q's" full, friendly, ironic, and humorous mind? Lately, too, the critics have been unanimously recommending to us--and that shows the genuine value to the community of mere book reviewers--the Letters of Tchehov, as noble a document as we have had for a very long time. But I thought they did not praise Tchehov enough as a critic, for that wise and lovable author, among his letters, made many casual asides about art that were pleasing and therefore right to me. I begin to fear that most of the good things said about literature are said in casual asides.
If I were asked to say why I preferred Christabel or Keats's odes to Tennyson's Revenge or the Barrack-Room Ballads, I should find it hard to explain satisfactorily to anyone who preferred to read Tennyson or Kipling. Where are the criteria? Can a Chinaman talk to an Arab? The difference, we see at once, is even deeper than that of language. It is a difference in nature and we may set up any criterion of literature we like, but it will never carry across such a chasm. Our only consolation is that we may tell the other man he is on the wrong side of it, but he will not care, because he will not see it. The means by which we are able to separate what is precious in books from the matrix is not a process, and is nothing measurable. It is instinctive, and not only differs from age to age, but changes in the life of each of us. It is as indefinable as beauty itself. An artist may know how to create a beautiful thing, but he cannot communicate his knowledge except by that creation. That is all he can tell us of beauty, and, indeed, he may be innocent of the measure of his effort; and the next generation may ridicule the very thing which gave us so much pleasure, pleasure we proved to our own satisfaction to be legitimate and well-founded by many sound generalizations about art. The canons of criticism are no more than the apology for our personal preferences, no matter how gravely we back them. Sometimes it has happened that a book or a poem has succeeded in winning the approval of many generations, and so we may call it a classic. But what is the virtue of a classic, or of the deliberate and stately billows going with the wind when the world has scope and is fair, or of a child with a flower, or of the faint smile on the face of the dead boy in the muck when the guns were filling us with fear and horror of mankind? I don't know; but something in us appears to save us from the punishing comet of Zeus.